Film Reviews

FLIFF: Kids in Foreign Lands

Editor's note: The three-county, monthlong Florida International Film Festival continues this week with an array of foreign films and an American potboiler.

Beat the Drum

Earnest and obvious in the manner of a made-for-TV movie, this first feature from South African director David Hickson at least means well. It's about a 9-year-old boy who journeys from his rural agricultural community into teeming Johannesburg after losing both parents to AIDS, which inspires such fear and awe that it's referred to as a curse and makes the boy an outcast among the other children. The boy's humble goals are to earn enough money to buy another cow for what remains of his family and to find his missing uncle, the father of a girl cousin who's his closest friend in the village (and, in an underdeveloped subplot, is the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher). "You are going to see many things in the city," he's told before his departure, and there's a nice throwaway visual gag as he nonchalantly passes rhinos and giraffes on his way out of the countryside -- exotica for us, perhaps, but the stuff of everyday life for him. Among the "types" he encounters along the way are a gruff but kindly truck driver he travels with for a time (and returns to later in the story), a no-nonsense businessman and his soft-hearted son, and a young girl who befriends him. The drum of the title is a gift bestowed on the boy by his dying father that becomes a sort of good-luck charm. The film fares better when it shows rather than tells us the dangers of the big city. Too often, however, it resorts to such heavy-handed dialogue as "Our children are our treasure" and "All this talk about condoms -- it's unnatural!" Worse, it invites comparisons to such similar and vastly superior stories as Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! and Satyajit Ray's great "Apu" trilogy, Indian dramas that, unlike this one, offer no easy outs for their beleaguered characters. (Saturday, November 6, 7:10 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; Saturday, November 13, 3 p.m., AMC Coral Ridge 10; 114 minutes; in English and Zulu, with English subtitles) -- Michael Mills

Caterina va in Città (Caterina Goes to the City)

This comedy from up-and-coming young Italian filmmaker Paolo Virz is meandering, talky, and often unfocused, although it's amiable enough to squeak by on the strength of its characters and a directorial touch that's mostly light. Virz is foremost among a new generation of proponents of commedia all'italiana ("comedy Italian-style"), and he's especially deft at folding social and political commentary into a frothy confection such as this. The title character, matter-of-factly played by Alice Teghil, is a fairly typical 13-year-old whose family relocates from a small town on the outskirts of Rome to live in the home of her late grandparents in the city. The story focuses on her efforts to fit in -- she's immediately dismissed as a hick by her peers -- and, in a clever twist, she manages to work her way into both of her new school's dominant cliques, ultimately to no avail. (There's a Mediterranean variant of Clueless-ness at work here.) She also catches the eye, so to speak, of the Australian boy next door, who's oddly appealing despite a voyeuristic streak. But scene after scene is stolen by Caterina's cranky father, a high-strung and overly class-conscious schoolteacher played to acerbic perfection by Sergio Castellito. He has a great bit at the movie's beginning in which he delivers a bitter, demoralizing farewell speech to a classroom full of inattentive, been-there, done-that students -- the scene is staged with such casual, disarming ease that it's almost over before you pick up on what the filmmaker is up to. (Friday, November 5, 7 p.m., Parker Playhouse; 116 minutes; in Italian, with English subtitles) -- Michael Mills

Slim Susie

This latest comedy from Sweden to lampoon small-town life there bills itself as a sort of Nordic Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction, or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Yes, it's a cool and stylized "gangster" piece like Pulp Fiction and deals with drugs and quirky characters like Trainspotting, but it takes itself much less seriously than either of those films. And its drug use is more a loopy plot device, another quirk to add to a character.

The film follows young Erik, who returns to his hometown from the big city (Stockholm) in search of his sister, Slim Susie, who has suddenly gone missing. He meets up with his childhood buddy Morka, an unemployed, pill-popping video junkie, to get answers to Susie's disappearance. Everyone seems evasive (and eccentric), and Erik is easily distracted, but he manages to come across clues that he eventually fits together into the truth. The story unfolds with flashbacks, forwards, side jumps, and bizarre dream sequences that end in a wild and somewhat unexpected ending.

The closest relative to Slim Susie might be Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, with its winding, unpredictable plots and characters suddenly thrust over their heads into nefarious situations. But Slim Susie is less violent, quirkier, and funnier, with deadpan lines sprinkled in like "We got a tape of A Clockwork Orange backward; at one point, it sounds like he's speaking Swedish" as Morka talks about Kubrick night at his house. Or the guy who tries to kill himself with a staple gun but misses, stapling his cheek to the floor. It's hard to flesh out characters when the action is this jumpy and the story so convoluted, when they end up being no more than a composite of idiosyncrasies. But the actors manage to give their characters enough heart that you care what happens to them, just like people you remember from your own hometown. (Tuesday, November 9, 9:15 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; 101 minutes; Swedish, with English subtitles) -- John Anderson

The Story of an African Farm

The fine British actor Richard E. Grant chomps his way through vast swaths of the landscape in this leaden drama set in the 1870s in the Karoo, a desert-like plateau region in southwestern South Africa. Although Grant has fared well in his share of period pieces, he's at his acid-tongued best as a borderline nutcase in such dark contemporary comedies as The Player, Withnail & I, and especially the cult classic How to Get Ahead in Advertising, in which he's nothing short of brilliant as an unhinged ad exec whose neuroses manifest themselves as a talking boil on his neck. Here, his bravura threatens to overwhelm the simple story of an archetypal, mysterious stranger who arrives -- clad all in black and with a top hat, no less -- and changes the lives of everyone he touches. It's clear from the start that this ratty-looking schemer is bad news for the isolated clan that takes him in, and so there are no surprises when his actions start revealing his agenda. The tale is told from the point of view of one of two adolescent girls who live with their stepmother, a coarse, heavyset Boer woman to whom the stranger ingratiates himself by cooing, "Big women have always been so good to me." There are some nicely observed bits involving the girls and a young black boy who works on the farm (he's an aspiring inventor), and the photography gives a good sense of what it might be like to live in such an isolated, harshly beautiful place. But the movie collapses in a heap of sitcom corniness at the end. Reliable character actor Armin Mueller-Stahl has a thankless role as the ineffectual man of the household. (Wednesday, November 10, 5:30 p.m., AMC Coral Ridge 10; 94 minutes) -- Michael Mills

Heart of the Storm

There's not a shred of originality in this sodden would-be thriller, in which a recently separated woman (Melissa Gilbert) and her two teenaged daughters ride out a hurricane in their home near New Orleans, where they become the captives of a trio of escaped convicts. Call it Big House on the Bayou by way of the 1955 Humphrey Bogart classic The Desperate Hours, another family-held-hostage saga. The howling of the storm is easily outdone by the howlingly bad acting, particularly that of Ritchie Montgomery, whose hammy portrayal of one of the cons redefines such terms as bumpkin and yahoo. The deck seems hopelessly stacked against the hapless females: Their phone service has been discontinued because of an impending move, one of the girls is mentally disabled as the result of an accident, and the unannounced arrival of the family's estranged husband and father (Brian Wimmer) further complicates the scenario (he promptly gets himself shot). The laughably bad storm effects conveniently come and go, then abruptly disappear, leaving the survivors to stagger outside and find a few pieces of debris. The movie's sole saving grace is a menacing performance by Tom Cavanaugh as the ruthless, sadistic leader of the escapees, a man who grasps the true meaning of desperation, and even his work is something we're familiar with from countless other movies. (Friday, November 5, 9 p.m., Parker Playhouse; 91 minutes) -- Michael Mills

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