Mushrooms and Munchkins

I hate the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
I know, I know -- film festivals are good for us, they give us a chance to see movies that we wouldn't otherwise get to see, they bring area cinephiles together, et cetera. But after screening videos of FLIFF (not to be confused with fluff) offerings for 14 out of the past 24 hours, I've had my flill.

And here's the worst part: In that time span I watched seven features from more than a hundred that will unspool during FLIFF's nineteen-day (through November 17)run. I qualify for the Visine All-Stars, yet still managed to check out fewer than one-tenth of the festival's selections. It isn't fair. But do I receive any sympathy from festival director Gregory von Hausch and his staff? Of course not. They just pile on the guilt, inundating me with faxes announcing dozens more press screenings -- in Broward, no less. I guess von Hausch figures he had to watch all 100-plus of these films so everyone else should, too. Sorry, Greg, some of us have lives. (Well, okay, maybe not -- but theoretically, and for all von Hausch knows, I could have a life.)

In this, its eleventh annual installment, FLIFF has grown so huge that no single city can contain it. Unlike the smaller and more exclusive Miami Film Festival, which favors foreign cinema, Fort Lauderdale's celluloid orgy makes room for a heap of independent domestic product and has a huge corporate sponsor (that videotape-rental and music chain that recently demonstrated its commitment to Fort Lauderdale by announcing its decision to relocate its corporate headquarters to another part of the country). A twelve-movie Miami program and a fifteen-film Boca minifest began yesterday (October 30)and run through November 3. Ho'town residents can choose from a twelve-course sampler as well, with screenings at AMC's Sheridan 12 in Hollywood.

The University of Miami's Bill Cosford Cinema hosts the dozen offerings that compose FLIFF's southern satellite. All of the films I previewed will be playing at UM (and if you miss them there, you can catch them during the main festival at AMC's Coral Ridge 10 sometime between November 6 and November 16).

I wouldn't go so far as to label the baker's half-dozen of films that I screened a magnificent seven, but two were very good, one was exceptional, and none qualified as a total dog. I spotted only one obvious trend: male posterior nudity. Three flicks sported macho moon shots. Welcome to the politically correct Nineties.

The best film I screened didn't contain any nekkidness, however. Cold Fever takes place in the dead of winter along Iceland's windswept, ice-covered back-roads. As portrayed in this movie, that frigid territory could dissuade even Madonna from disrobing. Director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson casts the remote Scandinavian island's breathtaking natural beauty as a leading character; the craggy volcanic rock, glacial lagoons, rugged coastline battered by crashing seas, bubbling hot springs, and vast panoramas of unbroken white, contrast sharply with the film's frail, black-clad human protagonist Hirata (Masatoshi Nagase, who also played a Japanese stranger in a strange land in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train). Like Bill Forsyth did in his hauntingly lyrical Local Hero, Fridriksson launches an unsuspecting yuppie on a spiritual journey. Shivering Tokyo fishing company executive Hirata is about to depart for a well-deserved golf vacation in sunny Hawaii when his wise old grandfather reminds the young corporate hotshot of a nagging familial obligation -- to perform a memorial rite for Hirata's deceased parents, who several years earlier perished in an accident along a remote Icelandic river. Reluctantly, Hirata cedes his tee times to one of his coworkers and boards a flight for Reykjavik instead.

From the moment he deplanes in Iceland, Hirata gets swept up in a series of comic misadventures. (As he did in Mystery Train, Nagase brings grace and affecting deadpan humor to the part of the Japanese outsider; his subtle facial modulations wordlessly convey Hirata's bewildered reactions to the enigmatic eccentrics who cross his path.) The inscrutable tourist mistakenly boards a German tour bus headed in the wrong direction, catches a lift from a taxi driver who pulls over unexpectedly in midfare to rehearse a part in a musical nativity scene, buys a frozen Citrsen from a bizarre young woman who claims a psychic connection to Hirata, picks up a pair of American tourists (Fisher Stevens and Lili Taylor providing jarring but welcome comic relief) who turn out to be hitchhikers from hell and carjack the Citrsen (and you thought that only happened in Miami), and seeks refuge at an inn run by self-proclaimed Icelandic cowboys who introduce Hirata to the caraway-flavored national drink quaintly known as Black Death and feed him a tasty local dish that turns out to be ram testicles.

I have a weakness for offbeat films set in exotic locales; Cold Fever certainly meets both of those criteria. How many pictures -- let alone road movies with Japanese protagonists -- use Iceland as their setting? In the quirkiness of its characters, the poetic camerawork, the episodic fish-salesman-out-of-water story structure, and effortlessly hip aura, Cold Fever suggests prime Jim Jarmusch. (Long-time Jarmusch producer Jim Stark cowrote the film with director Fridriksson.) Shortly after Hirata takes the wheel of the Citrsen, he comes upon a road sign that asks, "Does anyone know you are going this way?" The answer, for both Hirata and the film's audience, is no. Cold Fever is a road movie that transports the viewer to a magical place as close to the heart as it is to the Arctic Circle.

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