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Film Reviews

Don't Just Animate Me

These reviews are part of our continuing coverage of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

Hair High — Bill Plympton has been making animated movies — shorts and features — for more than 20 years. But Hair High, with its all-too-conventional storyline, showcases his limitations more than his abilities. The story is a high school love triangle that begins with the hulking quarterback Rod and vapid cheerleader Cherri (together they are the school's ordained royal couple) tormenting the skinny new kid, Spud. Rod sentences Spud to be Cherri's slave and, understandably, Spud complies, carrying her books and spit-polishing her shoes. But Spud and Cherri fall in love, and Rod seeks revenge. The problem is that, after 78 minutes, there isn't much more to it than that. We don't learn a thing about high school, and Rod, Spud, and Cherri never veer from the archetypes seen in most high school movies. Some of the trite ideas: high school football is violent, the science teacher seems to enjoy his job a little too much, the faculty accepts Spud's bullied position in life. We do get to watch Plympton's trademark animation, which can be humorous simply in its bizarre perspectives and irreverence for the human form. He's a master at turning people inside out and capturing bodily fluids and pimples. And some will argue that his grotesque style itself is a satire of high school life. But the reality is that filmmakers working in animation or live-action need more than style to satirize something as silly as high school. What you need is a screenplay as clever as Plympton's images (see, for example, Heathers, Election, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Fortunately, also being screened with Hair High are two inspired examples of Plympton's work, including the five-minute short Guard Dog, which takes us inside the brain of an incessantly barking pooch, and The Fan and the Flower, a seven-minute story of an ill-fated affair between the mechanical and the botanical. This is where Plympton is at his best, exploiting the boundlessness of animation — not confining it to a retread high school drama. (9 p.m. Tuesday, November 8, at AMC Coral Ridge; 90 minutes, including shorts.) — Jason Cottrell

Aurora Borealis — Like a diamond in a field of coal, Aurora Borealis is a small, unassuming film without any grand ambitions but hitting its mark in satisfying ways. The film unfolds over a few snowy months in Minneapolis, as the film's protagonist Duncan Shorter (Joshua Jackson) bounces from one slacker job to another — finally landing as a handyman at his grandparents' retirement building. The idea is to keep an eye on his grandfather Ronald (Donald Sutherland), whose declining health and depression is more than his grandmother Ruth (Louise Fletcher) can handle. There he meets home health-care worker and chronic transient Kate (Juliette Lewis), and the two fall into a romance as she tries to convince Duncan to get serious about his life. It's a thoughtful script full of intelligent dialogue (even in the incidental scenes between Duncan and his friends) with well-developed characters. The latter owes much to solid acting, especially the remarkable portrayal of the ailing Ronald by Donald Sutherland, culminating in one of the most extraordinary and emotionally charged scenes in recent memory. Lewis is perfectly cast as the brassy girlfriend, playing to her acting strengths as the story's main catalyst. Jackson is a bit vanilla as the lead, and there's an ending that's much too tidy. But the film is so full of heart and easy charm, it's one trip to the Twin Cities you'll be glad to take, even in winter. (5 p.m. Saturday, November 5, at Broward Center for the Performing Arts; and 5 p.m. Friday, November 11, at AMC Coral Ridge 10; 109 minutes.) — John Anderson

Keep Your Distance — Whatever happened to Gil Bellows, the suave, charming lawyer who was Ally McBeal's love interest in the television series? He's shown up as radio DJ David Dailey, the lead character in Keep Your Distance, a mystery thriller set in Louisville, Kentucky. It seems David has an ideal life, and a great job with adoring fans; he's a prominent figure in the community and has a wonderful marriage with a beautiful wife. But when anonymous cryptic notes start appearing on his car, his desk, and in his mailbox, his perfect life starts to fray at the edges. The notes lead him to the discovery of his wife's affair and other stuff we're never quite sure what to make of. Around the same time, he meets Melody (Jennifer Westfeldt), who is having her own relationship troubles with a manipulative rich-boy, and the two strike up a friendship as they try to solve the mystery of the notes. It all leads to a dramatic final scene and the identity of the bad guy. This is a long way from those heady Ally McBeal days for Bellows, who does as good a job as could be expected from such limited material. Westfeldt also provides an assist in keeping the film from complete disaster. But the story has little focus, and the script is just plain bad. "I'm thinking of taking a vacation to Europe," says Melody. "Wow, so much history, so many cultures," says Bellows, who does a masterful job of not laughing, or crying, at such bad dialogue. You might want to keep your distance from this one. (8 p.m. Saturday, November 5, at Cinema Paradiso, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale, and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, November 20, at DeSantis Center, 777 Glades Rd., at the FAU Campus in Boca Raton; 95 minutes.) — Anderson

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