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.

Had the plot revolved around the aging beauty queen and the unhappy policeman, briefly energized when the idol of their younger days passes through on his way somewhere (it doesn't matter where), Dogtown might have pulled itself out of the dust. But instead the focus is on Philip and his depression, which is never fully explored or developed. Why was he a failure? Like a film noir hero, was he disillusioned by Tinseltown? Or was it a lack of acting talent? (Trevor St. John's performance gives some evidence that this may be the case.)

Hickenlooper cannot come close to re-creating the arid black-and-white landscape amid which Bogdanovich's characters, young and old, struggle to breathe. While The Last Picture Show captures the full spectrum of small-town life, Dogtown stays much too intensely with its young hero, using the older generation either as quaint local color in the case of Philip's mother or as one-dimensional villainy in the case of Dorothy's abusive, alcoholic father -- both of whom are nonetheless more interesting than Philip. Though the film's title suggests that the town itself is the main character, as indeed it is in The Last Picture Show, that promise is not kept.

Hickenlooper, to give him his due, has some gift for quick characterizations -- a gift that's necessary, ironically, so he can keep the focus on brooding and slow-moving Philip. There's enough in Dogtown to suggest that future growth is possible, but not unless, among other things, he rids himself of cinema cliches, such as the slow-motion sexual encounter between Philip and Dorothy, set to inevitably lyrical music. In fact, most of the cinematography is of a studied sententious quality that reminds one of student work. But any good film student ought to know that you don't put the word "dog" in your title unless you're pretty confident of the product.

Also suffering from an inept title is A Further Gesture, a multinational entrant from Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom, directed by Romanian Robert Dornhelm, who was trained in Vienna. Dornhelm is perhaps best-known for the Oscar-winning 1977 documentary The Children of Theatre Street, narrated by the late Grace Kelly. One assumes he's more seasoned than Hickenlooper, and despite its unpromising title, his film shows it. What I liked best about this film is its pace. Without sacrificing rhythm, Dornhelm unfolds his story slowly enough and in such minute detail that we cannot help becoming involved in it -- a pleasant change from the often bewildering freneticism of some recent American films.

Sean Dowd (Stephen Rea), an IRA soldier torn between loyalty to the cause and a distaste for violence, reluctantly takes part in a daring escape from a Belfast prison. The scene is rivetingly filmed, low-key compared to similar scenes in other prison movies. Dornhelm's pacing lends credibility to even a spectacular crash survived by all of the escapees. The power of the scene is enhanced by a contrasting use of quiet music rather than the ear-splitting soundtracks to which we've grown accustomed.

Outfitted with a bogus passport, Sean travels to New York in search of a new life. In a cheap hotel he comes to the aid of a woman who is being brutalized by her boyfriend, only to be stabbed by her for interfering. Since he's a fugitive, he cannot seek medical treatment; he's nursed back to health by a friend (Alfred Molina) and his sister (Rosana Pastor). Unknown to Sean, they have come from Guatemala seeking to avenge the murder of their father at the hands of an underworld czar who's now hiding out in the Big Apple. The unspoken sexual chemistry between Sean and the sister is a strong indication that the nonviolent hero will be forced once again to abandon his desire for peace and engage in a dangerous coup.

At this point the plot picks up momentum, with more twists and turns than a bobsled chute, but despite Rea's understated Irish tones, it is never confusing. Rea is one of the best actors working in films today, a master of the meaningful stare; and despite his penchant for mumbling softly, we always know what's going on inside him. What a contrast from the vacuous expressions of Philip in Dogtown.

Dogtown is ineffectively imitative of an earlier, better film. A Further Gesture, though thematically related to Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, stands quite on its own. Ronan Bennett's taut screenplay does not borrow from so much as avail itself of a universal theme: There comes a time when one must surrender personal needs and desires in the larger interest of the human family. I won't give away the ending, but if you know your Hemingway, you won't be surprised. Sean Dowd is hardly a Robert Jordan, and his destiny is less inevitable than superimposed by the author, but between Rea and Dornhelm the climactic moment is reasonably believable. A Further Gesture won't be a classic, but it is a well-intentioned, nicely told, and nicely paced melodrama. These days that's a lot.

We have definite literary influence at work behind Bad Manners, the work of independent American filmmaker Jonathan Kaufer, with an equally taut screenplay by David Gilman (from his own play), in which viewers will catch unmistakable echoes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The setting: a house near a college campus, in this case Harvard. The main characters: a cynical middle-aged professor with a scorn for declining educational standards and for American society in general, denied tenure because he cannot relate to students; his still-attractive wife, who has not known sexual intimacy with him for quite some time; a houseguest, a fellow academic the professor secretly fears is on the brink of achieving distinction in his field; and the guest's sexy girlfriend. As in Edward Albee's play, the quartet starts off civilized, if not warmly connected, but as time wears on, the veneer of academic propriety deteriorates into the "bad manners" of the title.

Wes (David Strathairn), a professor of religious philosophy at a school that isn't Harvard and who is bitter because of it, is none too happy when his wife Nancy (the always wonderful Bonnie Bedelia) invites her old college boyfriend Matt (Saul Rubinek) to stay with them while he delivers a series of musicology lectures at Harvard. Wes finds himself physically attracted to Matt's much younger and extremely erotic companion Kim (a newcomer named Caroleen Feeney, whose career bears watching). Kim slowly awakens his long-dormant sex drive, much to the chagrin of Matt, who hears the two making love. As if that weren't enough of a complication, Wes reports to his wife that a $50 bill is missing from his wallet. Nancy, who doesn't much like Kim, looks through her luggage and finds what she believes to be the stolen money. Both plot strands develop in parallel fashion, coming together as unspoken suspicions, mistrust, jealousy, frustration, and academic egos make a four-way confrontation inevitable.

What could have been a farce, complete with cross-purposes and gross misunderstandings, becomes an intense tale about the desolation of the intellectual lifestyle and the human need for true contact. After the hot-and-heavy confrontation, when everybody tells off everybody else in uncharacteristically explicit language, the exhausted foursome re-establishes order by reverting to "good manners," which, if insincere, render life tolerable.

Unfortunately, the screenplay is not content to leave the matter there, instead imposing a silly deus ex machina intended to tie it all together and add an ironic flourish. The story needs no denouement. The unraveling of people's facades and the surfacing of awful truths do not require a ribbons-and-bow finish. I suggest you duck out five minutes before the credits start to roll.

In truth, the deus ex machina has become an indispensable writer's aid ever since Euripides invented it so he could impose either a happy or a tragic ending on his plays, depending, I guess, on his mood. Since Hollywood wouldn't be Hollywood without it, I'm not surprised to find it in a film about how Hollywood writers operate. But in the case of the aptly titled (thank heaven!) Just Write, the phony ending is deliberately tacked on; the entire film pokes fun at the Hollywood scene and its Dick-and-Jane mentality. We can't expect a logical denouement in a story about a town in which nothing is logical, a town in which the driving force is to have one's name on a sidewalk where it can be stepped on for eternity.

Just Write is so slick and so charming that one almost feels guilty surrendering to its total inanity, but what captivates is its off-center style. You can tell from the first shot (the hero, who looks like a young Chevy Chase and is delightfully played by someone with the improbable name of Jeremy Pivens, drives a "Trolleywood Tours" vehicle through the streets of Beverly Hills, droning an unfunny spiel while his passengers snooze) that both writer (Stan Williamson) and director (Andrew Gallerani, in his feature-length debut) know exactly what they're doing. Henry McMurphy is a big-time loser (his opening narration proudly announces, "I wanted to be a tour bus driver, and I'm good at it"), but working in Hollywood, he naturally dreams of one day achieving recognition -- for what, he hasn't a clue. Because this is a takeoff on the great tradition of romantic fluff, destiny steers him into a chance meeting with a beautiful young star (Sherilyn Fenn) who mistakes him for a screenwriter. Realizing this is his chance to hobnob with celebrities, he takes on the classic role of grand impostor and soon finds himself saddled with the awesome task of rewriting a screenplay the star simply hates.

In a funny scene that encapsulates the tone of the entire film, Henry asks the top agent in town (a memorable cameo by Wallace Shawn) to represent him for just three weeks. "Can you write?" asks Shawn. "I took a class once, but I can't spell," Henry replies. Nonetheless, in the manner of the timeless Hollywood romantic comedies, the hero is a smashing success, winning both the girl and an Oscar.

The dialogue crackles with some of the best one-liners this side of Neil Simon: "Any other agent would think you were a crackpot, but crackpots sell million-dollar scripts"; "If I'd known you were coming to my party, I'd have sent you an invitation"; "Is he stupid? Married? Gay?" "He's a writer, so he could be all three."

The plotting sags a bit near the end and begins to take itself seriously, as though Williamson had forsaken his original intentions and became lost in the obligatory boy-loses-girl part of the story. He does recover nicely, however, and gives us that hilarious deus. You may forget all about this one as soon as you leave the theater, but for a couple of hours you'll have had a smashing time. Bring plenty of popcorn. It's all part of the shtick.

But if you want your film festivals to bring you into contact with the real cutting edge of filmmaking and you've had enough of Hollywood fluff no matter how clever, then you'll want to include the Dutch film The Dress, written by, directed by, and featuring Alex van Warmerdam, who founded and artistically steered two Netherlands theater companies before turning to the screen. The Dress, which has already won the Dutch Film Critics' Award for best picture, is having its American premiere at the Festival. Be forewarned, however. It represents a startling departure from the naturalism American film audiences have come to expect.

For the most part, The Dress looks and sounds realistic. It is filmed in real places, and many in the cast seem as though they were recruited right off the street. But the story (if it can be called that) has a dress for its main character; not people wearing it, but the dress itself. The garment in question, designed as a summer frock for a young girl, changes hands in a variety of bizarre ways, and the plot becomes a series of episodes in which odd characters are oddly affected either by wearing the dress or by seeing it on someone. Males tend to become sexually crazed at the sight of it, while the women who wear it, whether in sexually repressed middle age or virginal youth, are overcome by sensations they have forgotten or don't understand.

There is plot development, driven not by the characters but by the gradual downward spiral of the odyssey of the dress, which ends up trying to keep a homeless woman warm through a freezing night. An unsuccessful Hollywood venture of 50 years ago called Tales of Manhattan gave us the odyssey of an expensive man's suit, from the haute couture of Fifth Avenue to Skid Row; but the structure of that film was carefully designed to make us aware of the rigid social hierarchy in what was supposed to be a land of equality. Don't look for hidden meanings here.

Van Warmerdam's artistic baptism came from the theater, and European theatergoers are generally more tolerant of experiments than the tourists who stand in line for the half-price seats in Times Square. They're far more willing to accept what they see as long as it holds their attention, whether it is fully comprehensible or not. European film writers and directors make movies for people who have been to the theater the night before. The Dress offers shadowy vignettes of people we don't usually meet in conventional films, and, as an added bonus, a few moments that evoke erotic responses you may not have known you were capable of. It's something to let happen to you if you're willing to leave behind preconceived notions of what a movie should be.

I haven't yet seen what are hyped to be the Festival showpieces, and, because of deadlines, I probably will never see them all, but for the most part this initial group is more than casually interesting. A pity festivals must rely on hype. Saying that many of the films offer more rewards than those that sell out at the malls should be sufficient. Less glitz could mean less overhead, but not necessarily less screen art, and maybe even a few more screenings.

The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival continues through November 16. The Miami Mini-Fest commences tonight, October 30, and runs through Sunday, November 2, at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami campus (off Campo Sano Avenue in Coral Gables; 284-4861). Tickets for all regular showings are $7 (opening- and closing-night screenings, as well as IMAX films, cost a little more). For a complete schedule of festival events, please see the special "Calendar Listings" section beginning on page 42 or call 954-564-7373.

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