The Wild, Wild Fest

Once more unto the breach: It's film festival time yet again! But this one promises to be a Biggie; in fact, it's being hyped as one of the world's Ten Best, and definitely the longest. What are we talking about? Our own Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, of course, scheduled to run through November 16 at no less than eight venues in four different cities. There will be 76 (count 'em) feature films, about 100 documentaries and shorts, more than 300 student films submitted from virtually every school of cinematics in the nation, a giant IMAX history of dangerous thrill rides that we experience vicariously down to the last scream, a tribute to Muppet movies, and an eagerly anticipated salute to the life achievement of Ben Gazzara, who will -- control yourselves, now! -- be in attendance.

But there are some more understandable perks as well: a newly restored print of The Philadelphia Story in honor of the late James Stewart, and in a belated retrospective that's a little like announcing that the wheel has been invented, four of the greatest works of Federico Fellini. I suggest you arrive for these early. The wheel is still pretty impressive.

Given the festival schedule and this paper's deadlines, reviewing every offering would be impossible. Therefore, over the next three weeks I plan to discuss thirteen of the films, chosen not because they are the best, but because each one will be screened at least once following publication of the review. Sadly, some entries that look very promising are being shown only once, period. And the two that might well be the best of the festival -- Ma Vie en Rose, which won high acclaim at Cannes, and The Wings of the Dove, the eagerly awaited adaption of the Henry James novel -- are showing only on November 15.

In order to save wear and tear on your automobile, in this week's installment I've reviewed only films that are showing this weekend at the Bill Cosford Theater, as part of the so-called Miami Mini-Fest.

Though I stepped up to the plate with the hope that every one of the 76 films would be first-rate, I struck out my first time at bat. Dogtown is the first major effort from the young director George Hickenlooper, who also wrote an original screenplay for the film. Hickenlooper graduated from Yale in 1986 with a B.A. in film studies and history. Somewhere along the way he must have picked up some actual training in filmmaking: In 1992 he won an Emmy for writing and directing a documentary about Apocalypse Now, and he also directed an earlier and shorter version of Sling Blade.

For writing an original screenplay for his first venture, Orson Welles won a niche in the film hall of fame. Dogtown will not assure George Hickenlooper such an honor. He has written and directed a dull story about a dull central character who mopes and droops throughout the film, attempting to be the quintessential alienated American hero. Whether he is alienated because of his own shortcomings or because his surroundings bore him is never made overly clear, nor does it ultimately matter.

Philip Van Horn (Trevor St. John) is a 30-year-old failed Hollywood actor visiting his hometown of Cuba, Missouri (population 1400), where his mother (an unexpectedly well-nourished Karen Black) and the locals greet him as a celebrity. Cuba is a distant relative of the desolate mid-Texas town Peter Bogdanovich created so memorably in The Last Picture Show, except that by now there are no movies at all in the middle of nowhere, and thus the town cannot know the truth about our boy.

There is a hint that he's there because he has no place else to go, and perhaps for that reason he engages in remembrance of things past and looks up his childhood sweetheart Dorothy (Mary Stuart Masterson in the film's only standout performance). Though still stunningly beautiful, she's meant to be a kind of latter-day Miss Firecracker, a high school beauty queen who's made to feel over the hill in her late twenties. Meeting up with her old beau gives her a fleeting hope that there is a way out of this miserable existence, but alas, in the grand tradition of the American alienation epic, he inevitably moves on, leaving Dorothy to grow old and bitter, like Philip's mother. Regrettably, the author/director does not take full advantage of either the character or the actress.

Some unnecessary subplots center on characters from Philip's past who measure their present vapid state against his imagined success. One such plot, though, does provide Dogtown with its best scene. Philip's high school buddy Ted (Jon Favreau) has become the town's one-man police force but secretly nurtures the desire to become a "great" actor. In the scene, he begs Philip to watch a videotape of him performing a soliloquy from Hamlet. While Philip, obviously bored to tears, sits and waits, Ted struggles with a broken VCR that gives him only static and snow. Favreau manages to convey in a flash the heartbreak that comes with the realization that great things are never going to happen to him.

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