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.

Jose Novoa's Sicario takes place in a much warmer climate, but Cold Fever's frostbitten hero wouldn't find it any more hospitable. The former film details the tragically short life of a motorbike-riding teenage assassin who briefly escapes the squalor and poverty of Colombian slum life by becoming a hit man (hit boy?). Novoa's lurid film wears its heart on its sleeve and offers more melodrama than insight into the sicarios' world. The movie does have topicality going for it, as well as a decent performance by its teen lead Laureano Olivarez. But writer-director Novoa substitutes Venezuelan locations for Colombia, and that lack of authenticity creeps into the pint-size Scarface tale as well.

Raoul Ruiz's Three Lives and Only One Death stars Marcello Mastroianni in a surrealistic fable about a man with multiple personality disorder; the stooped but otherwise gracefully aging Italian leading man still commands your interest whenever he's on-screen, and Ruiz's dark humor lends a wicked, anarchic edge to his nonlinear narrative.

The humorless British drama Hollow Reed examines the case of a boy whose mysterious injuries lead to a custody battle between his divorced parents. (The marriage ended when dad fessed up to his long-repressed homosexuality; now gay pop is convinced his son's bruises are the result of beatings administered by mommy's new boyfriend.) Can dad convince a court of law to overlook his "deviant" sexuality in time to save the kid? The slow-paced, well-acted film resolves the issue with a detached reserve that combines with its torn-from-the-headlines subject matter to make ideal TV movie-of-the-week fodder.

The same could be said of earnest Aussie production Brilliant Lies, which pits Anthony LaPaglia's boss against Gia Carides's seductive secretary in a sexual harassment lawsuit that dredges up buried memories of the woman's childhood sexual molestation at the hands of her father. The plot takes a few unexpected turns, but the film never transcends that topical made-for-the-small-screen feel. Australia proves more fertile ground for black comedy with Mushrooms, a twisted merger of Arsenic and Old Lace with Eating Raoul. Two eccentric widows -- sisters -- must find a way to dispose of a corpse without arousing the suspicions of their new boarder, a dashing cop whose arrival rekindles long-dormant stirrings in the senior siblings.

Crimetime, directed by The Vanishing's George Sluizer, combines Body Double with Network in a surprisingly good B-movie serial killer thriller. The film takes awhile to get rolling and to establish its peculiar rhythms and smarmy tone, but Pete (In the Name of the Father) Postlethwaite's knife-wielding sicko spectacularly transcends the norm for the genre and sustains your interest until the cleverer kinks in screenwriter Brendan Somers's sly plot exert themselves. Stephen Baldwin is well-cast as the moody hunk who fancies himself a serious actor and eventually becomes obsessed with his role as the killer's double on an exploitative tabloid TV show. The actor takes his method a tad too seriously; Baldwin engagingly plays him as a self-absorbed lunk obsessed with penetrating Postlethwaite's killer psyche. Crimetime knows better than Baldwin's character; the movie just wants to have fun. It does so with style. Besides, you have to like any slasher film self-aware and secure enough in the conventions of the genre to cast Seventies B-movie queen Karen Black in a lusty supporting role. Crimetime doesn't shoot for prime time, but it deserves decent ratings nonetheless.

In addition to the above films, UM's Cosford Cinema will host the regional premieres of four films that will probably enjoy return engagements at area cineplexes later in the year. The Italian sexual identity farce Belle Al Bar mixes The Crying Game with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in a romance between an unhappily married man and a seductive transvestite. Of course, comedies rooted in mistaken sexual identity are nothing new, as the latest adaption of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night proves. Trevor Nunn's celluloid version features Imogen Stubbs as Viola, the young woman who, following a shipwreck, impersonates a boy. Nunn's cast includes period queen Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley, Richard E. Grant, Nigel Hawthorne, and Toby Stephens. While Nick Nolte's gender is never questioned (thank heavens -- can you imagine any actor who might look more frightening in drag?) in the screen treatment of Kurt Vonnegut's black comedy/thriller Mother Night, his character does have a secret identity. Nolte plays an American writer living in Germany who is pressed into service as a spy by the U.S. government. The secret agent succeeds so splendidly in establishing his cover that he accidentally becomes a high-profile spokesman for the Nazis' sinister agenda, earning him celebrity among the warmongers he despises and infamy back in the States. Tierra marks the Miami debut of the latest film from acclaimed Spanish auteur Julio Medem (Vacas). The densely atmospheric film drifts between fantasy and reality to portray the complex inner conflict of a man with a split personality. (Maybe he should look up Mastroianni's character from Three Lives.) The confused protagonist with the vivid imagination arrives at a rural region with a mission: to fumigate and eradicate a bizarre plague of lice responsible for a strange earthy taste in the local wine. But two radically different women appear in his life to complicate matters and pit one side of his personality against the other.

For those who live in Broward or don't mind venturing across the county line, official festival opener Shine and closer Breaking the Waves have garnered critical raves at other festivals and should prove well worth the trip. The former film uses the life of Australian pianist David Helgoff as a vehicle for exploring the mystery of musical inspiration and the psychological burden of genius. Breaking the Waves affords local audiences a chance to view the heartbreaking romance (from Zentropa director Lars Von Trier) that took this year's Cannes Film Festival by storm. The buzz on both films is that they're outstanding.

Finally, a couple of loose ends: FIU theater professor Philip Church put his students to work in the production of a feature-length video drama Conditions of Secrecy. Church used an all-FIU cast and crew to film a cautionary AIDS awareness tale about a college baseball player who contracts the virus. The work screens at 7:30 p.m. on November 7 at AMC's Fashion Island as part of the film festival, and will later be released on video throughout South Florida. NIMCO, a national education video distributor, has picked the work up for promotion to schools and colleges around the U.S., and Spanish and Creole versions have been created for distribution throughout South and Central America and the Caribbean.

Last but not least, no film festival is complete without feting a popular movie star from a bygone era. But Tony Curtis, the object of this year's FLIFF Lifetime Achievement tribute, has no intention of resting on past laurels. Curtis conquered Cannes this year; autograph seekers and paparazzi hounded the 71-year-old leading man who had traveled there to promote his latest film, Reptile Man, which will also screen in Fort Lauderdale. Curtis plays a fading TV star who refuses to give up the show-biz dream, squeezing into his superhero costume to promote an ever-dwindling number of car shows and furniture sales. To quote the Hollywood Reporter, "Curtis, allowed to be as nasty as he wants to be, clearly revels in the performance. The fun thing about this work-of-love enterprise is figuring just how much of the outrageous character is invention and how much is Tony." Indeed. For those who could use a refresher course in Tony's prime cuts, the festival will screen Curtis classics Some Like It Hot, Operation Petticoat, Trapeze, The Sweet Smell of Success, and The Boston Strangler.

But let's face it: Tony Curtis, he's just your typical glamorous movie star. You want to capture people's imaginations with your film festival, you have to come up with a unique promotion, something with far more impact than just another actor who probably slept with Marilyn Monroe. To take it to the next level, you need a once-in-a-lifetime event, and this year's Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival has come up with a show stopper. On Saturday, November 16, at 10:00 a.m. the AMC Coral Ridge Theater will host a special screening of The Wizard of Oz with -- are you sitting down? -- FOUR OF THE ORIGINAL MUNCHKINS in attendance.

Acclaimed foreign films. Hot domestic projects from American indie film superstars. Screenings spread over four cities. Karen Black. Nude male backsides. Colombian hitkids. Serial killers. Mushrooms. An Icelandic road movie starring a Japanese actor. Tony Curtis. Films that celebrate sex and others that caution against AIDS. And four living, breathing Munchkins. What more could you ask for from a film festival?

The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival will screen twelve films at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the campus of the University of Miami in Coral Gables. Call 284-4861 for showtimes, prices, and directions to the theater. For a complete FLIFF schedule, call 954-563-0500.

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