The 16th Annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival swings into full gear this weekend, beginning with the official opening-night film Friday at the Parker Playhouse and continuing with an average of more than a dozen screenings a day. Without further ado here's a selection of what you can expect from the main body of the festival. Look for a final set of reviews and wrap-up commentary in next week's issue.
The press notes characterize this as an "Action/Drama/Road Movie," although it's one with a distinctly European sensibility. The action and violence, for instance, are less showy and superficial than they might be in a typical American action movie and more carefully integrated into a story with some substance.
That's not to say this Spanish production isn't exciting. It starts off with a bang, cutting back and forth from a prostitute and her seven-year-old daughter to a quartet of bank robbers pulling off a dizzying heist in Madrid. These seemingly disparate elements quickly come together.
Two of the robbers -- one male, one female -- panic and race off in the getaway car, leaving behind two very angry partners. The tangled complications that ensue result in the female robber's being stuck on the road with her partner's young niece, who's supposed to be delivered to her father in Andalusia, in southern Spain.
Inevitably, a bond develops between the two reluctant travel partners, although the story handily avoids any cheap sentimentality by keeping the two constantly on the run and in peril. A sort of existential dread hangs over their odyssey; the picture has something of the feel of a hyperactive Antonioni, coupling ennui with relentless movement. (Thursday, November 1, 7:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Friday, November 2, 3 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; Saturday, November 3, 9:45 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 98 minutes; in Spanish with English subtitles)
Whatever Happened to Harold Smith?
Two weeks into the festival, we get... the "opening-night film." Go figure. But don't hold such illogic against this amiable British comedy, which has some of the cracked charm of the festival's Little Voice three years ago.
The setting is Sheffield, England, in 1977, the year John Travolta became an international icon in Saturday Night Fever. And an early sequence is a takeoff of the one in that movie in which Travolta struts down the street to the sound of the Bee Gees' "Night Fever" -- except that here the strutter is 18-year-old Vince Smith (nicely played by Michael Legge), junior legal clerk by day, aspiring disco dude by night.
The story is told from the point of view of Vince, whose comic misadventures include an unsuccessful stint as a punk rocker. He's surrounded by a group of characters as colorful as he is: his mother, played by singer-actress Lulu as an overgrown party girl; his overbearing boss, played by David Thewlis with a Sonny Bono-esque haircut; and an eccentric college professor, played by Stephen Fry, who in one sequence gives his nine-year-old daughter a hilarious sex-education lesson.
As you can see, this film boasts quite a cast, and we haven't even gotten to the title character, who is portrayed with whimsy and understatement by veteran actor Tom Courtenay. Harold is Vince's seemingly harmless father, content to sit in front of the television with his pipe. But as we eventually learn, Harold has an array of startling mental powers.
This is over-the-top material to begin with, and the movie gets almost completely out of hand before it's over. But by then it has stirred up some irresistibly outrageous fun. (Friday, November 2, 7:30 p.m., Parker Playhouse, Fort Lauderdale; 96 minutes)
The Devil's Backbone
This unforgivingly harsh drama, set in a parched, remote outpost during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, opens with a ten-year-old boy being dropped off at an orphanage. A huge defused bomb lies lodged in the earth in the courtyard, a perpetual reminder of the unseen struggle raging in the distance.
The orphanage is similarly haunted with another ghostly presence, that of a boy who died under mysterious circumstances the day the bomb fell. The other children, who have grown uneasily accustomed to the ghost, call him "the one who sighs." Soon the new boy finds himself unwittingly unraveling the mystery of what happened to the dead child.
From this simple if strange setup emerges a story that draws in a number of compelling characters: the school's stern, war-widowed principal (played with icy resolve by Marisa Paredes, familiar from Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother); an elderly professor who provides the key to the movie's enigmatic title; and, most notably, a bitter young man who has spent the better part of his life at the orphanage (fiercely played by Iñigo Garcés, who is, to crib from an old Eagles song, "brutally handsome").
The level of violence scales almost sadistic heights before this grim, slow-moving tale reaches its bloody finale. Director Guillermo del Toro has an assured touch that blends the material's realistic and supernatural elements seamlessly, as well as a knack for using sound effects to great advantage. (Friday, November 2, 8:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Saturday, November 3, 9:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 106 minutes; in Spanish with English subtitles)
Taxi, un Encuentro
"You want me to tell you what happened that night?" asks the melancholy protagonist of this Argentinean drama, thus prompting the long flashback that makes up the bulk of this slow, bewildering story.
The vehicle of the title is a cab inexplicably commandeered at gunpoint by our unnamed character, played by Diego Peretti, a shaggy-haired, hook-nosed fellow who from certain angles resembles Al Pacino circa Dog Day Afternoon. He's an appealing-enough presence, although the character's personality and behavior remain largely inscrutable.
After stealing the taxi, the man starts picking up fares as if he's the cab's rightful driver. One of his passengers turns out to be a teenage girl who has been shot during a domestic incident. A strange symbiosis develops between the two.
End of story? Not quite, although it might as well be. The movie meanders on, reaching for profundity and coming up short. (Saturday, November 3, 5:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Sunday, November 4, 1:45 and 7:45 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; Monday, November 5, 5:15 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 93 minutes; in Spanish with English subtitles)
Some Like It Hot
This 1959 Billy Wilder classic is one of a few oldies the festival has resurrected (among the others is the dreary Exodus), and it's a welcome addition to the lineup. If you haven't seen this gender-bending comedy, well, shame on you. And if you have, you can rediscover how timeless it is.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are musicians on the run, disguised as the newest additions to an all-female band that includes Marilyn Monroe at her slinkiest and most vulnerable. The barrage of double entendres and the snappy editing are just as bracing as ever, making this a case for inclusion in future festival revivals. (Saturday, November 3, 7:30 p.m., DDA Plaza, Fort Lauderdale; 119 minutes)
The festival traditionally includes at least one strong gay-themed feature, and this year it's a slick comedy-drama set in L.A.'s adult film industry. It opens with a telling quote from Ovid's "The Metamorphoses": "Both boys and girls looked to him to make love, and yet that handsome figure of proud Narcissus had little feeling for either boys or girls."
The figure in question is Johnny Rebel, a porn star who becomes the object of obsession for 22-year-old Sean. This aspiring filmmaker gets his first glimpse of Johnny by renting a video labeled Citizen Kane that actually contains Citizen Cum (a film full of the puns that run rampant in porn), and he's so smitten that he manages to get a job in the biz.
While working behind the camera, Sean is pressed into service as Johnny's "fluffer" -- i.e., someone who works on the star off-camera until he's sufficiently aroused to perform. The catch is that Johnny claims to be "gay for pay": a straight man who performs in gay videos because the pay is better than in straight porn.
Johnny, of course, is really Ovid's Narcissus, in love with nothing so much as his own beauty. His stripper girlfriend ultimately comes to realize this and ditches him. Sean, too, is eventually forced to accept this reality.
Until a botched murder sends the story wildly off-course near the end, The Fluffer is highly entertaining and dead-on in its take on the world of porn. It's also packed with inside jokes and cameos by a variety of porn stars and directors, as well as performances by such "legit" players as Robert Wald, Taylor Negron, and Deborah Harry (as the tough-but-tender lesbian proprietress of a strip club). (Saturday, November 3, 7:45 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; 94 minutes)
A 65-year-old Senegalese man travels to America in search of his roots in this well-intentioned drama, which has its moments but never fully clicks. The man, portrayed with great dignity by Sotigui Kouyate, is a veteran tour guide at a slave museum in his homeland, and his journey is an effort to understand the story of his ancestors, who were sold into slavery two centuries ago.
The trip takes him to Charleston, South Carolina, where he painstakingly tries to reassemble his family tree, and to the Little Senegal neighborhood of New York City. There, he becomes involved in the lives of his Americanized nephew and the nephew's girlfriend, and with a woman trying to save her pregnant young granddaughter. (Sunday, November 4, 5:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Monday, November 5, 3 and 7:45 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; Wednesday, November 7, 5:45 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 120 minutes; in English and French with English subtitles)
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It takes a while for the components of this black-and-white Spanish drama, set in the late 1940s, to fall into place. But when they do, the film gracefully builds into one of the festival's most emotionally powerful pictures.
Early on we determine that Julia, an elegant blond who could have come straight out of a Hitchcock fantasy, has suffered a great loss. Is it the death of a loved one, the end of a romance? We're not sure, and the movie is comfortable with a degree of ambiguity.
"It's called depression," the woman tries to explain to her bewildered parents. "Whatever," her mother responds. "I don't like that word." Still the wealthy couple agree to send their daughter away to their country estate to recover. There, she is reunited with a friend from her childhood and the friend's precocious young son as well as an elderly aunt who has a sort of Zen mistress's take on life.
The emotional crescendo reaches its peak in a scene near the end in which Julia receives a letter that clarifies the nature of her loss, and the movie comes sharply into focus as an amazingly empathetic exploration of loss, grief, and recovery. The title, by the way, comes from the Cole Porter song "Night and Day," which comes into play on a number of levels. (Tuesday, November 6, 7:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Wednesday, November 7, 5:30 and 9 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 103 minutes; in Spanish with English subtitles)