Schizoid Celluloid

As it enters its 13th season, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival continues to evolve far beyond its humble origins in the mid-'80s. Is that good or bad? A little of both, perhaps.

The Greater Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, as it was called once upon a time, was primarily a showcase for English-language independent films, and, although British and Australian movies turned up in the mix, the emphasis was heavily American. Then over the years more foreign-language films crept into the lineup as the festival grew to include both more titles and more diverse titles. In its earliest incarnations, the festival was sort of like a brunch buffet; these days, it more resembles an international food court.

This year's festival is a cinematic orgy of more than 100 movies from more than 30 countries, presented at venues from Boca Raton to Coral Gables. (See "Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival" listings.) If you're a film company in search of product to distribute or a producer or director hoping to have your work picked up for distribution, a festival as movie marketplace or central clearinghouse is a seductive prospect indeed, a commercial crossroads where deals can be struck and careers launched.

But if you're simply a moviegoer looking for exciting, risk-taking films of the sort you're not likely to find at the neighborhood multiplex, your expectations of a festival are probably quite different. As such a moviegoer, I like the notion of a festival with a fairly well defined focus, a theme that applies rhyme and reason to the pictures it pulls together. Variety, yes, but also unity of vision.

Can a festival fulfill both functions, staking out a common ground for moviemakers and distributors while simultaneously providing quality fare for serious film enthusiasts? Obviously, yes. Many of the world's biggest and best-known festivals -- Cannes, New York, Toronto, Montreal, Venice, Berlin -- have done just that for years. And if the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival wants to play with the big kids, then maybe it's on the right track.

Me, I'm nostalgic for the days when the festival's devotion to English-language independents often turned up some defiantly quirky, original movies. I miss the groundbreaking documentaries, the critics'-choice screenings that unearthed overlooked cinematic gems.

I don't mean to imply that the festival has turned into some monstrous vulgar spectacle, although the proliferation of corporate sponsorships and festival-related parties and receptions could easily convey that impression. (And for some people, a festival as social event --a chance to rub elbows with visiting celebrities -- is a real draw, but that's another story.) I do worry, however, that in its attempts to be all things to all people, the festival risks becoming watered down or even irrelevant. Just sample the press releases to get a sense of the schizophrenia: The festival "salutes women in film." It "targets Hispanic audiences." It "gives back to the community with a benefit series." It teams up with the Hollywood Asian Film Festival and cosponsors a Hollywood Goes to the Opera retrospective. Does it slice and dice, too?

When a festival grows this big, the sheer logistics threaten to become overwhelming -- so many movies from which to choose, so little time. This year's schedule includes more than 230 screenings, not to mention the related seminars, parties, and other activities. During the daunting process of trying to screen a cross section of the festival's major selections, I discovered some welcome reminders of what a film festival is (or should be) all about. What follows is the first installment (look for part two in next week's issue) of a sampling of what this year's Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival has to offer.

There's no chance of writer-director Paul Schrader's stark adaptation of the novel by Russell Banks being mistaken for the feel-good movie of this or any season. It's a caustic but ultimately heart-rending portrait of a basically decent man struggling to overcome, or even simply cope with, his baser instincts -- the "affliction" of the title.

As seen here, that ailment is a peculiarly male syndrome that prompts its sufferers to treat others -- women and children in particular, but also other men -- in violent and odiously demeaning ways. The problem is not a defect of character as such but a pattern of violence, a legacy of physical and emotional abuse that can be passed from generation to generation as surely as a family heirloom.

We see it first in the bewildering behavior of a small-town New Hampshire cop/ divorce/dad/snowplow driver, played by Nick Nolte, toward his unhappy young daughter. It's also there, just below the surface, in Nolte's interactions with his boss (Homes Osborne), his best friend (Jim True), his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt), and, eventually, his lover and confidante (Sissy Spacek).  

But it's not until a series of grainy, home movie-style flashbacks to the man's childhood reveal the grim relationship he had with his bullying, berating father (James Coburn) that we realize the full implications of the affliction Nolte endures. His unfocused rage and will to dominate are a horrifying inheritance he doesn't even comprehend. (I kept thinking of a couple of quotes that sum up the predicament. Euripides: "The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children." And Lamentations: "The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children's teeth are set on edge.")

Schrader elicits uniformly fine work from his dream of a cast. Nolte first implodes, then explodes, in a performance that again reminds us of what a resourceful actor he is. And Willem Dafoe, in the much smaller, less showy role of Nolte's brother (and the story's ruminative narrator), provides an excellent contrast, a voice of reason trying to make sense of the affliction he so narrowly escaped. As for Coburn, he's probably the best he's ever been.

Not many moviemakers, and certainly no major studio, would have the nerve to take on such volatile, edgy material. But Schrader has hit on the perfect approach. Like Canada's Atom Egoyan with last year's lacerating screen version of Banks' The Sweet Hereafter, he adopts a slightly aloof tone, a distance from the material as chilly as its setting, that enables him to lay bare the most devastating extremes of human behavior. This is certainly a high point in this filmmaker's fascinatingly diverse career as well as the festival. (Saturday, October 31, 8 p.m., Mizner Park 12; Saturday, November 7, 7:30 p.m., Bill Cosford Cinema; Saturday, November 14, 9:15 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 115 minutes)

El Faro (The Lighthouse)
The relationship between two sisters of dramatically different temperaments is at the heart of this often moving drama, which follows them for a tumultuous decade after they're orphaned, at ages 8 and 17, in an automobile accident. Both girls are scarred by their loss but respond in contrasting ways. The younger sister (portrayed first by Jimena Barón, then by Florencia Bertotti, both excellent) becomes melancholic, reserved, cautious. Her older sibling (the luminous Ingrid Rubio), left physically crippled by the wreck, becomes emotionally vulnerable, drifting from one doomed romance to another and eventually embarking on an odyssey of self-destruction. The story shifts physically, too, taking the sisters from their native Spain to Uruguay and finally to Argentina, where their inextricably linked destinies play out. Rubio's performance is a marvel of emotional expressiveness, and the great Argentine actress Norma Aleandro (The Official Story) makes the most of her limited screen time as an old friend of the girls' mother. The film's most vexing flaw is its choppy editing, which sometimes sends the story lurching so abruptly that it's difficult to keep your bearings. (Opening Night -- Friday, November 6, 7:30 p.m., Parker Playhouse; 120 minutes; in Spanish with English subtitles)

The Alarmist
There's a fine line between black comedy that succeeds and wannabe black comedy that's just plain silly, and this slick but uneven debut from writer-director Evan Dunsky weaves between the two. David Arquette, who's amazingly inventive when it comes to fidgeting and scrunching up his boyish face, plays an engagingly out-of-it twentysomething newly hired to sell alarm systems door to door in Los Angeles. He becomes an alarmist of an altogether different sort when he begins to suspect his slippery boss (Stanley Tucci, wonderfully droll) of killing his older-woman lover and her teenage son. The film flirts with being a satire on the American obsession with safety and security, but it's really more interested in the faintly kinky affair between Arquette and his paramour, played to silky perfection by the underappreciated Kate Capshaw. The hunky Ryan Reynolds, as her son, has a show-stopping monologue in which he describes, in squirmingly graphic detail, a sexual encounter. There's also a surreally funny sequence in which the lovers visit Arquette's family, with disastrous results. (Saturday, October 31, 8 p.m., Sheridan Plaza 12; Wednesday, November 4, 9 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 92 minutes)

Working from a short story by her father, novelist William Styron, first-time feature filmmaker Susanna Styron has fashioned a slight but engaging comedy-drama that touches on the themes of loyalty, personal integrity, and family ties. The setting is rural Virginia in 1935, and the story is filtered through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy (Scott Terra, in a completely natural performance), the only son of a prosperous middle-class couple, who joins the impoverished Dabney family on their quest to return the title character (John Franklin Sawyer), an ailing 99-year-old black man, to the home of his youth, where he wants to be buried on the land he worked as a slave. At its best this nostalgic, gently amusing tale recalls stories by such Southern writers as Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and even Flannery O'Connor. The fine ensemble of players who breathe life into the eccentric Dabney clan is headed by Harvey Keitel, whose favorite all-purpose expression is "Well, kiss my ass," and Andie MacDowell, who nurses a cold beer so tenderly it seems like a sacrament. The narration by the grown-up Terra character is provided by Martin Sheen. (Thursday, October 29, 8 p.m., Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art; Thursday, November 5, 7:30 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; Sunday, November 15, 1:30 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 89 minutes)  

Tre Uomini e una Gamba (Three Men and a Leg)
After the first scene in this Italian comedy -- a chaotic bit of bad slapstick involving a trio of inept hit men -- the camera pulls back to reveal another man watching the aforementioned mess on TV. This might be considered a relief, except that what follows is just as unfunny and obnoxious. The protagonists, played by a trio of performers that is allegedly one of Italy's top comedy teams, work in a hardware store owned by an overbearing godfather type; two of the men are married to a couple of the old man's daughters, and the third is engaged to the remaining one. In a tired retread of the road-movie formula, these three stooges set out to deliver a valuable sculpture of a leg to their employer. Much yelling, bickering, and talking at the same time ensue, along with various predictable plot complications. The stars -- Aldo Baglio, Giovanni Storti, and Giacomo Poretti, who vaguely resembles Terry Kiser of the Weekend at Bernie's movies -- also cowrote and codirected. (Sunday, November 8, 7:30 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; Tuesday, November 10, 10:15 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; Friday, November 13, 9:15 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; Sunday, November 15, 7 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 107 minutes; in Italian with English subtitles)

Das Trio (The Trio)
What's most refreshing about this moody drama from Germany are the things it doesn't do with its characters, three smalltime grifters working the fringes of contemporary German society. It doesn't romanticize them, nor does it apologize for their criminal behavior or judge them for it. Best of all, it doesn't try to psychoanalyze them, which is all the more amazing given the peculiar dynamics of this trio. The two men, nicely played by Gstz George and Christian Redl, are a gay couple who have been together for an unspecified but clearly substantial period of time, and their partner in petty crime is George's grown daughter (Jeanette Hain). When Redl is hospitalized after an accident, the other two take on a new partner, an amiable young man (Felix Eitner) who, before long, is sexually involved with both father and daughter. It's not as sordid as it sounds, mainly because the performers play off one another so beautifully, making the characters and their motivations credibly complex. (Thursday, October 29, 6 p.m., Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art; Sunday, November 1, 8 p.m., Mizner Park 12; Wednesday, November 11, 10:30 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 97 minutes; in German with English subtitles)

The General
Some people are already touting this true-story crime drama as an Irish GoodFellas, but the Martin Scorsese film it more closely resembles, in both look and feel, is Raging Bull. Like that solid but wildly overpraised 1980 picture, it's a beautifully made, emotionally detached portrait of a charismatic but repellent man. (It's also gloriously filmed in black and white.) That man is Martin Cahill, leader of a small Dublin gang that pulled off heists totaling more than $60 million in the '80s (including the theft of one of the most famous paintings in the world, Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid). Brendan Gleeson gives a powerhouse performance as the beefy redhead Cahill, also notorious for his menage a trois-style relationship with his wife and her sister. But as the details of Cahill's life accumulate, he grows more and more inscrutable, and his celebrity status is baffling. He's lionized by friends and family, but an anonymous woman sums him up succinctly: "What do you stand for? Killing and thieving and scaring people to death?" Much more comprehensible is the behavior of the cop determined to nail Cahill, played, in one of his best performances, by Jon Voight. In a directorial career that ranges from the sublime (Hope and Glory) to the dismal (Exorcist II: The Heretic), this John Boorman movie falls, like its predecessor, Beyond Rangoon, somewhere in the middle. (Sunday, November 1, 6 p.m., Mizner Park 12; Wednesday, November 11, 8:45 p.m., Coral Ridge 10; 129 minutes)

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