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This year's Fort Lauderdale Film Festival kicks off with a week on South Beach

The past month or so hasn't been good for the local film scene. The death of the venerable Alliance Cinema in South Beach was a decided blow to independent film programming in South Florida. Combined with a few months without much film festival activity or many special screenings, the area's indie scene looked downright barren.

But now cinephiles may brighten with the return of the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival and a full slate of premieres, part of an onslaught of indie features scheduled to hit the screens of more and more festivals that seem to stretch out across most months. Just what is going on here? Why so many independent feature films? And why so many festivals blooming across the nation while independent-minded cinemas such as the Alliance are fading faster than a French Canadian's Florida tan?

The questions may be many but the answers are few. Certainly more films are being made because more films can be made. Costs are going down while somebody somewhere is ponying up enough to get low-budget indie films produced. So there's more product available for film festivals to show. But then why are the independent cinemas dying off? Basically because the corporate entertainment industry (a.k.a. Hollywood) has a death grip on motion-picture distribution and exhibition. Frankly, my dear, Hollywood suits don't give a damn who finances or produces a picture, as long as they control what gets released and how. And they are very good at what they do. Given enough cash and a big enough star, a studio can market a limp-noodle loser like Erin Brockovitch and bring in $100 million without much trouble. And if one film doesn't work, they'll yank it off the big screens and on to video, while yet another media-basted turkey takes its place. Indies, true indies, those not backed and hyped by studio/media conglomerate distribution, don't have a chance in such a universe.

Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Ben Gazzara and Rita Moreno remember life and love many moons ago
Ben Gazzara and Rita Moreno remember life and love many moons ago

Details

Herman, U.S.A. screens at 3:00 p.m. Sunday, October 22; Bro screens 9:00 p.m. Wednesday, October 18, and Friday, October 20, at Regal South Beach Cinema, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-373-1562. The films also will be shown numerous times, along with Blue Moon, at the main venue, Galleria Cinema, 2630 E Sunrise Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, between November 1 and 12; call 800-745-4621.

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So if independent cinemas are dying off, where do indie films find an audience? Obvious answer: the film festivals. That may seem a good thing from an audience point of view -- lots of interesting new films available at the same event, albeit for a short time. But many, if not most, indie filmmakers look at film festivals with apprehension. The great hope is that a film fest opens the doors for critical appreciation, public response, and a distribution deal. The great fear and increasingly the great truth is that film festivals are the bone yards of the film business, where independent films stagger out to die, undistributed and ignored.

Still the indie films keep coming. And many offer quality casts and creative staffs, helmed by competent filmmakers. Take the first two of the following three independents, which will be playing as part of the Fort Lauderdale event.

Herman, U.S.A.
Think back, way back, to the ancient days of five years ago, when the wire services hyped the story of some bachelor farmers, 78 in number, who ran an ad in several newspapers hoping to lure eligible women to their one-horse town, name of Herman, Minnesota. The response, duly noted by the sneering media, was a tidal wave of femininity as more than 1000 hopeful women descended on Herman from 34 states and 4 foreign nations, all in search of a few good men. That's the stranger-than-fiction-based-on-fact premise of Herman, U.S.A., a good-natured comedy featuring some of the same qualities that made its Midwestern setting famous: likable characters, an upbeat charm, and not many surprises.

The action begins where much small-town life does: at the local diner. That's where the middle-age bachelor pals huddle over coffee and complain about the dearth of eligible women in their town. Sad-sack Sigurd (Wally Dunn), with a droopy mustache and a bad comb-over, certainly is no catch. Neither is the snarky druggist, Vern (Richard Wharton), nor their big-bellied farmer pals. But their cheerful buddy Dennis (Michael O'Keefe) comes up with the scheme to lure women to Herman via the ads and a big community bash. The result is pandemonium when word gets out, and marriage-minded maids hit the town in force.

Writer/director Bill Semans, a long-time theater producer in the Twin Cities, takes a multistory narrative approach to his film, tracking the triumphs and foibles (mostly the latter) of all his hapless Romeos during their weekend fest. Much of these goings-on are rather predictable or altogether too easy or both. Though Sigurd and Vern meet with disappointment during the wild singles bash, Dennis finds instant bliss in the person of a sexy blond newscaster, unaware that local gal Dorrie (Enid Graham) pines away for him. Other story lines include a sexy senior who meets his matronly match, and a shy farmer who meets an even shyer middle-age virgin who's ready to take the plunge. Another farmer falls for -- whaddya know -- a sardonic black woman from Chicago. All these subplots offer considerable charm but not much conflict or dimension. Like many a Midwesterner, Semans seems genuinely afraid of causing a fuss. Other than the comedic bachelor dilemma, there are no problems in Disneyesque Herman: no poverty, no alcoholism, no drugs, no depression, nothing that gets in the way of feel-good Americana. Even the interracial romance is portrayed as odd-couple charm, as locals gawk and cluck a bit. There never is heard a discouraging word among the Herman yeomanry. Too bad though. This story could use more shadings and complexities. You've got your good guys and a couple of bad guys (played mostly for laughs), and the good guys win, to the surprise of no one.

But despite its tendency toward blandness, Herman, U.S.A. offers a number of virtues. The acting is solid and honest, led by O'Keefe and Graham as the small-town pals that should be lovers. Their scenes together are little gems of buried longings and miscommunications. Dunn and the other lovelorn lads also shine. To their and Semans's credit, these characters really do seem to have lived their lives together, sharing high school football triumphs and midlife despair. As an added treat, this ensemble actually includes what looks like real people, a welcome relief from the usual pouty-lipped starlets and chiseled hunks we seem to get nowadays at every other turn. Semans's direction is assured and understated, backed by some golden-tone camera work from Ross Berryman and a bittersweet Copeland-like score from Stephen Graziano. This is a family film that could find a solid audience, if only there were ways to reach that audience in today's overhyped marketplace.

Blue Moon
Magical realism has long been a staple of Latin-American fiction. Maybe that's why the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival decided to screen John Gallagher's Blue Moon. Like the current comedy Woman On Top, Gallagher's tale of love lost and regained is balanced on a fantastic premise, in this case that wishes can come true if spoken during that rare occurrence, a blue moon. But fairy tales are never without dark shadows, and Blue Moon's tale is no exception.

The film begins at a christening that feels like a wake. World-weary Frank, an Italian-American granddad facing a bleak retirement, seems uninterested in anything but drinking with his old neighborhood pals while his proper wife, Maggie, fumes. Their conflict continues at home until Maggie decides they should head for their old place in the Catskills to try to rekindle their love. But Frank is still Frank, mountains or no mountains, and her attempts to romance him fail. As a rare blue moon rises over the mountaintops, Maggie wishes something would remind them of the love they once shared.

Enter comic complications when a retro-clad young couple, Mac and Peggy, head for the hills with problems of their own. Working-class Mac is reluctant to pop the question to high-born Peggy, who can't understand why he delays. With ring in pocket, Mac figures he'll be able to woo Peggy properly in a romantic setting, so off they go to the same rustic retreat, unaware Frank and Maggie are sleeping in the bedroom upstairs. In the resulting brouhaha, both couples believe they have a right to be there: Frank and Maggie claim they own the place; Mac and Peggy say they've rented it and produce a receipt from the very same owner who rented the house to Frank and Maggie years before. The dilemma become even more complex as Frank and Maggie remember they used to be called Mac and Peggy when they were young.

Well, you can guess the rest. Because of Maggie's blue-moon wish, she has managed to conjure Frank and Maggie when they were young lovers. Suddenly the older couple has the chance to explain themselves to their younger mates, while the young pair can catch a glimpse of what will happen in their lives. The foursome gleefully recalls their courtship before getting down to some painful revelations about Frank/Mac's abuse by his alcoholic, violent father, the source of all his suffering.

Blue Moon clearly is meant to be a character-driven tale, and director Gallagher gets a lot of help from his solid cast of veterans and newcomers. Show-biz legends Ben Gazzara, a multiple Tony Award winner, and Rita Moreno, the only actor to have won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy, shine as Frank and Maggie with support coming from Brian Vincent and Alanna Ubach as Mac and Peggy. Film buffs also will pick out a number of notables in the supporting cast: Burt Young, Heather Matarazzo, and The Sopranos' Vincent Pastore make brief but notable appearances in the early scenes, before the story settles into its four-way moonlit conversation.

Gallagher has put together a film with a lot of old-fashioned charm and pacing, relying on his actors to tell the story without much directorial intrusion. There isn't any fancy editing or jazzy camera work here, just a steady confidence and some unobtrusive staging that works quite well for this kind of gauzy, dreamy material. Gallagher is ably abetted by cinematographer Craig DiBona's shadowy lighting and Stephen Endleman's plaintive, evocative music, a welcome respite from the by-the-throat “you will feel this now” style of movie music.

I wish I could be as complimentary about the script. While Gallagher brings considerable skill as a director, his writing talents are less successful. Blue Moontakes its characters seriously, but it never manages to create unique individuals, just types with problems that seem exceptionally generic: abusive father, working stiff/society babe class conflict. Frank's retirement angst is never explored, and Maggie's personal conflicts are ignored entirely, except for her frustrations with Frank. These characters feel wooden, and even the considerable gifts of Gazzara, Moreno, and company can't make them as soulful and dimensioned as they need to be.

Worse, Gallagher use some of the most obvious stereotypes in a desperate ploy for comic relief. When Mac recalls meeting Peggy's haughty Spanish family, the resultant flashback manages to be not only lame but absurd, another crude depiction of Latins as brutes, albeit wealthy ones. Gallagher then opts to balance this scene with another flashback of Peggy's visit to Mac's raucous family meal, in which every conceivable Italian cliché is tossed about, as in an Olive Garden commercial.

If Gallagher were deliberately trying to skewer stereotypes and force his audience to think, he'd have to be given credit. But Blue Moon isn't Bamboozled and Gallagher is not Spike Lee, nor is he trying to be. He is aiming to deliver a heartfelt comedy/drama. The comedy feels strained, with some arch one-liners and typical set pieces. The drama relies on painful revelations, though they seem pretty routine. But there are certain moments when Gallagher achieves the lyricism for which he's clearly aiming. In the still of the night, Frank looks at Peggy, the young woman he married, and asks her to dance as Maggie dances with Mac, the boy of her dreams. It's a memorable scene, one that could and should have been paired with many others.

There's another problem, which is simple plot logic. When Frank and Maggie wake up the morning after their fateful encounter, there's no explanation of what happened or even if they both recall what happened. And what about Mac and Peggy? Will they wake up and recall encountering their older selves? Or are they merely figments of Frank and Maggie's dreams? The sudden, jarring jump bears the signs of radical editing, the need for which one can only guess at. Nevermind that the film flies off to Paris for a love scene, complete with poses in front of that city's landmarks. The scenery is lovely, the music swells, but by the strained look on Gazzara's face, there's a sense, most likely unintentional, that something is missing. - Ronald Mangravite

Bro
Jerry Seinfeld had a huge hit with a television show about nothing. Success, though, didn't blind him to the limitations of that concept. Jerry figured out that what works small doesn't always work big, and what'll fly for half an hour won't necessarily carry an audience for 90 minutes (anyone see the series finale?). The comedian just didn't have the cojones to make Seinfeld: The Movie. Enter Joe Cardona and Mario de Varona; collectively, Kids in Exile Films.

Their latest release, Bro, concerns three thirtysomething friends living in Miami. The characters should be eerily familiar to anyone who's owned a TV set in the past ten years. Dom (Bill Teck), the tall, crazy one, is a n'er-do-well schemer with no visible means of support (and, like Kramer, probably smokes illegally imported Cuban cigars, but I'm only speculating). Max (David Fisher) is short, fat, wears glasses, and lives with his mother. He works as a projectionist at a mall movie theater, but claims to be (no, not an architect) an aspiring filmmaker. Not that this helps him with the ladies. No, his one shot at romance in the film is foiled when he finds out the object of his affection, Julie (Carmen Nicole) is -- of all things -- a lesbian from New York City. ¡Ay, Costanza!Finally there's Santi (Luis Garcia), the model and aspiring actor who, though not as funny as Jerry, would look really great in a puffy pirate shirt. He lives with a high-maintenance Cuban-American princess named, not Elaine, but Lilly (Ivette Sotomayor).

For reasons never fully explained, Max and Santi entrust their savings to Dom, who claims he has an angle that's finally going to pay off. While the three wait for their ship to come in, they begin to take stock of their lives and their relationships to one another. Dom is hurt because Santi and he just “don't connect” anymore. They don't talk. Not like they used to. Santi advises Max to stop letting women walk all over him. Dom and Max both tell Santi that he's just not ready to move out to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career. Oh, and Dom is secretly sleeping with Lilly, but of course he's not going to tell Santi. They don't talk anymore. But he'll tell him before the movie ends.

The climax of the film (and one of its few actual plot points) occurs when the three friends discover that Dom's hunch was right: They're rich. Or, they would have been, if Dom had invested their money in the scheme instead of using it to pay back a loan from a tough-talking sports-memorabilia collector who employs a heavily tattooed, knife-wielding enforcer. Damn, bro.

No matter. They've discovered what really counts: their friendship and their dreams. Max will make a movie anyway. And give Dom a part in it, to boot. Santi moves out to California to become an actor. The three will someday make movies together.

This is Cardona and de Varona's second feature film. Their first, Mud, Water, and Factories (1999) was a Cuban-American coming-of-age story set in Hialeah, steeped in the same culture of nostalgia that fueled the pair's PBS documentaries (including Adios Patria, Café con Leche, and Havana: Portrait of Yesteryear). At the time Miami Heraldcritic Rene Rodriguez wrote that Mud, Water, and Factoriessuffered from “stock characters who were given nothing interesting to display except their Cubanness.” He was not alone in his criticism. The film was rejected for the Miami Film Festival last spring.

Now Cardona and de Varona appear to be expanding their cultural reference points, with mixed results. If the characters in Bro are less overtly Cuban than those in Mud, Water, and Factories, they are no better developed or any more original. Okay, so Dom is Cuban Italian, “ a pineapple pizza,” but the type -- wisecracking, would-be hustler of vague origin -- is instantly recognizable from countless films (not coincidentally, Andy Garcia played him in Just the Ticket). And, of course, from television.

But perhaps there's a better point of comparison for Bro than Seinfeld. And, maybe, just maybe, there's a future marketing deal in the works for Dom, Max, and Santi:

“Whaaaaaazzzzzuuuuuup, bro? Whatcha doin'?”

“Nothing. Watching Odalys on Lente Loco. Havin' an Iron Beer. Chillin'.” - Gaspar González

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