Film festivals are tricky. Moviegoers around the world know how hard it is to fill a night with interesting cinema, never mind 37 days. If you're foolhardy enough to try, you've got to be resourceful, cunning, inventive. How else would the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival come up with the idea of fetishizing... Gary Sinise? When in the history of Western civilization did it become desirable to apply the title "Gary Sinise Tribute Film" to any event?
Even now, in its 22nd year, FLIFF is shrouded in mystery. The moving finger writes and moves on. What we're left with are 185 movies from 26 countries — 70 features, 23 documentaries, 45 shorts, and 47 student films. These are all selected by Gregory Van Hausch and Bonnie Leigh Adams, who've been cherry-picking films for the festival for more than two decades and who have gotten to be pretty freaking good at it.
The festival gets about a thousand film submissions from filmmakers and producers, says Hal Axler, director of operations for the festival. That's half of the festival right there. And then there's Cannes.
"At the Cannes Film Festival, we have one of the longest-standing American events," Axler says. "That's our party and open house. And it exposes a lot of filmmakers to the festival."
So that explains it. Spend a few weeks wading through mailboxes full of unsolicited indie flicks, then go to a bunch of glamorous parties on the French Riviera and see what pops out. Often as not, the mailboxes are full of treasure. Some of the best films you'll ever see are submissions that don't stand a chance of ever being viewed beyond the festival circuit. Last year's And the Sea Took Us, a doc about the rebuilding of a small Sri Lankan village in the wake of the 2004 tsunami that's one of the most beautiful things this writer has ever seen, was all filmed by a relief worker from California who just happened to have his camera with him. He didn't even realize he'd made a movie till he got back to the States.
Similar wonders abound this year, with DIY productions (like From the Streets to the Stage, a doc in which a Miami teenager travels to India to immerse himself in the milieu of Indian street musicians) rubbing elbows with films destined to find huge audiences all over the world (like The Grand, reviewed below).
"One of the films this year is called Sexina: Pop Star PI, and it's about a pop singer who's also a private investigator," Axler says. "And you know, Adam West plays the villain in the film. So you can tell how campy that's going to be. It's great. Davy Jones wrote the title track for the film, and he's going to be there."
There's also The Creature From Outer Space, an Indian film about an Iraqi dissident on psychedelics; L'Ennemi Intime, a drama set in the French Algerian war; Lucifer, a five-minute short about Lucifer, before his fall, going hunting with archangel Michael, to name just a few. Surrounding the films, large and small, will be the endless parties and filmmaker appearances.
"We bring in filmmakers from all over the world," Axler says. "We have some familiar faces, like Mary Stuart Masterson, who's coming in as a director for this festival. Her film The Cake Eaters is our centerpiece film. That's always real exciting, seeing somebody who's a real familiar actress now coming in as a director."
Add Richard Kind, Stephen Baldwin, Frank Whaley, Dennis Farina, Eric Roberts, David Mitchell, Robert Webb, D.B. Sweeney, and who-knows-who-else and you have a cinematic orgy going down in SoFla. Why not participate? Who knows what piece of charismatic cinema's going to reach through the celluloid, grab you by the shorthairs, and upend your existence? It happens all the time, and FLIFF tix come cheap. Gary Sinise? His movies are free.
New Times reviewers will keep track of the FLIFF highlights week by week. For a full list of FLIFF films and showtimes visit www.fliff.com.
"Poker is a cosmic metaphor," Woody Harrelson explains early in The Grand. "No matter how the cards fall, you think you can still beat them." It's as good a way of looking at life as any, and apparently, it's also The Grand's guiding philosophy — for if the advance press is telling the truth, The Grand was largely improvised. As Harrelson (playing the narrator and "One Eyed" Jack Faro, who has nothing to do with Pirates of the Caribbean) dukes it out with cats like Richard Kind ("Andy") and Werner Herzog ("The German") in a high-stakes poker tournament to save his grandfather's casino from a hostile takeover by a flaky billionaire (Michael McKean), he is actually playing poker, riffing with the wins and losses as they happen. Is it true? To what degree? Does it matter?
It probably matters about as much as whether On the Road was really a first draft (it doesn't, and it wasn't). I didn't even know about the improv gimmick till I got home and checked out IMDB, and it did nothing to change the fact that The Grand is maybe the most rewarding comedy I've seen all year. One can't help but feel that signing on McKean was a major coup for filmmaker Zak Penn, who seems to be having the time of his life channeling McKean's constant foil, Christopher Guest. Say what you will about Penn's career as a horseshit slinger for hire (X-Men 3, The Fantastic Four, and, dear God, Elektra): The man has found his muse, and she's a superfreak.
In The Grand, we are watching the slow dovetailing of many disparate narratives. Jack Faro wants to keep his casino and ingest lots of drugs. The German wants to play poker and murder animals. ("To strangle a goat!" he exclaims, "that makes you feel really alive!") Lainie Schwartzman (Cheryl Hines) wants to use the prize money for her family's future, and her brother Seth (David Cross) wants to prove himself to his dad. There are many more. In the Christopher Guest mode, the jokes get their punch from the juxtaposition of everyday inanity and crushing human frailty. Laughs die in throats as we witness Seth Schwartzman's attempts to interact with his father and Andy's brave smile as he promises to buy his wife a house "someplace warm." This is a movie about failure and the absurdity of the tiny defenses humans muster to ward it off.
Which doesn't mean you'll leave feeling anything less than delighted. Again, as it goes in Guest flicks, there is a prosaic redemption at work in the characters' doings. Lainie's husband, Fred Marsh (played by a Ray Romano so neurotic you can barely recognize him), is a tool: A cataclysmically inner-directed, stay-at-home dad whose Fantasy Football games are more important to him than his wife's biggest-ever tournament. If this were any other movie, Lainie would leave him. In this one, she doesn't. She gives him a hug instead. She knows he's damaged, but who isn't? It's nice to see a movie that celebrates the humor — not the bravery, but the humor — in playing the hand you're dealt. — Brandon K. Thorp