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Gentlemen, Start Your Projectors

Bening and Evans: It's not nice to toy with Julia.

For 19 years now, the "Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival" has been giving South Florida movie enthusiasts such a cornucopia of choices, it's downright daunting. With upward of 150 films spread over five weeks and three counties, there's more sprawl to the event than a west Broward suburb.

You can choose the type of film you want from ten categories, be it world cinema, gay/lesbian-themed films or documentaries, or others. You can watch those films in six different theaters and three outdoor venues; from Miami one weekend, Weston the following, and Delray Beach the next. You can meet who you want among the 50 or so directors and actors traveling to the festival. And with the longest film festival on record (they have the certificate from Guinness to prove it) at just over five weeks, from October 14 to November 21, you can catch a week of films, go on a four-week cruise, and still be back in time for the finale.

"We put so much effort into bringing these films in here, from around 39 countries this year," says festival founder and director Gregory Von Hausch, on the rationale for the long format. "Having done that, we want the broadest audience possible to see them. That's why we keep them as long as we can."

The trouble with such a format is that any festival would be hard-pressed to find 150 quality films in any given year, which accounts for some of the bombs that inevitably find their way in. But that's also the good news -- with so many films, there's bound to be some real gems. And whenever you feature a film from the likes of Pedro Almodóvar, this year's closing-night film, Bad Education, you instantly earn a healthy portion of credibility.

The brightest part of the festival may well be its dedication to foreign films. With the emergence of film industries in so many countries around the world, from Iran to Mongolia, there's a raft of good films being made outside the Hollywood cabal that never see the inside of a cineplex. "Our goal has been -- since 1991, when we shifted to an international focus -- to educate and enlighten the South Florida audience as to film around the world," Von Hausch says. Indeed, it's festivals like FLIFF that give local audiences a rare chance to see works from such auteurs as Hungary's István Szabó or the U.K.'s Ken Loach. Pack a lunch -- you're in for a long festival.

Being Julia

Imagine All About Eve freely reinterpreted by Evelyn Waugh and you'll have a rough approximation of Being Julia, the juicy screen adaptation of Waugh's 1937 novel Theatre that opens this year's festival. The project certainly has pedigree: Playwright/screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Dresser) did the adaptation for Hungarian filmmaker István Szabó, probably best known in this country for directing Klaus Maria Brandauer in such high-profile 1980s works as Mephisto, Colonel Redl, and Hanussen; and the cast is headed by Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons, supplemented by Michael Gambon, Bruce Greenwood, Juliet Stevenson, Miriam Margoyles, Rosemary Harris, Rita Tushingham, and, in only his second feature, a commanding young Brit named Shaun Evans.

Given such a heady mix, you might reasonably expect on-screen pyrotechnics, in which case you won't be disappointed. As the jaded title character, the 1930s stage equivalent of a superstar, Bening seems to be channeling the ghost of Tallulah Bankhead, with dashes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford thrown in for good measure. It's a highly combustible mix, and Bening, her trademark giggle intact, rightly realizes that the only way to play it is so over-the-top that most other actresses would recoil in horror. She pulls it off, for the most part. Irons, by contrast, is solid and understated as Julia's husband/business manager/sometime director, and Greenwood, standing in for Waugh, has a few choice bits as her self-effacing platonic friend. But it's the charismatic Evans who propels the plot as an avid fan who seduces Julia, then betrays her with an ambitious starlet. The sequence in which the younger actress gets her comeuppance is brutal and exhilarating, and it marks the only time Waugh's venomous wit gets its full due. The movie could use more of his acid tongue. (7 and 9 p.m. Thursday, October 14, Cinema Paradiso, 105 minutes.) -- Michael Mills

Ganges: River to Heaven

Of all the curious customs of India's Hindu religion -- the dots on the forehead, the pantheon of unusual gods (Hanuman the flying monkey, the elephant-headed Ganesh) -- one of the most exotic is its fascination with the Ganges River and the burial rituals that take place there. Everyday in the holy city of Varanasi, some 60,000 people descend the ghats (steps) that stretch for seven kilometers along the river's edge and bathe, splash, or dunk themselves into the dirty waters for spiritual cleansing. Dirty not just for the city's sewage that flows into it but for the decomposing bodies seen floating on top.

Ganges: River to Heaven looks at the customs, both living and in death, that surround the river by following and interviewing several families who have just arrived in the city with an elderly relative on the brink of dying. Such is the case for the 90-year-old matron of the Pandey family, with a retinue of attendant female relatives and a son who explains that dying here is better for Mukti, or the soul's liberation.

Director Gayle Ferraro eschews voice-overs for interviews with locals who explain the religious customs and devotion, as well as the pollution problems facing the river. We also get a rare and fascinating glimpse inside the burial process and the industry that surrounds it.

Best of all, the director lets the camera rest languidly for slow, extended shots of her subjects -- a dying woman's labored breath, the carrying of a corpse through crowded streets. Which is really the magic of the film, letting the alien and exotic world of India speak for itself. The film was also shot in 35mm instead of video, giving a true sense of the lustrous colors of the place -- the vibrant reds and yellows of clothing set against the rich earth tones of the city. Which makes it a documentary both informative and pleasing to the eye. (3 p.m. Saturday, October 16, Cinema Paradiso, 79 minutes.) -- John Anderson

Imagining Ulysses

James Joyce and his writings have been studied, dissected, deconstructed, reworked, celebrated, and written about more than any other writer in the past 100 years. Of course, all this attention is for good reason, seeing that Joyce is arguably the greatest modern writer in the English language, or any tongue, for that matter. Not only that, but with writings as arcane and multilayered as Joyce's, there's plenty of fodder for the academic fires.

And now you can add Imagining Ulysses to the list of Joycean studies, an Irish documentary about the life of Joyce and his masterwork, Ulysses, considered the greatest novel of the 20th Century. Directed by David Blake Knox and Hilary Fennell, the film was produced as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of June 16, 1904, or Bloomsday, the day on which Ulysses unfolds.

Presented in 18 episodes to mirror the chapters of Ulysses, the film is keenly insightful without being dry or academic, with interviews from some of Ireland's greatest contemporary writers, like Frank McCourt, Edna O'Brien, and Irvine Welsh and filmmaker Neil Jordan. There are even several staged parodies, one of MTV's The Osbournes called The Joyces, that highlights their wacky home life, and a Jerry Springer-like talk show complete with hooting crowd and guests Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence defending their harsh critiques of Joyce. One of the more touching episodes is on the life of Chinese translators Jieruo and Hsaio Ch'ien, who suffered through decades of hardship and oppression for their Western sympathies before they were finally able to translate Ulysses into Mandarin.

Of all the dusty tomes generated in the past 100 years on Joyce and his works, Imagining Ulysses has to be one of the more original and accessible. And as it playfully alights on the various subjects Joyce addresses in his book, it may well be the most Joycean. (3 p.m. Sunday, October 17, Cinema Paradiso, 89 minutes.) -- John Anderson


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