28 October, 2009

European Cinema Shines At FLIFF

Penelope Cruz in Pedro Almodovar's BROKEN EMBRACES (Spain)

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

European cinema has always had a strong presence at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. This year is no exception as FLIFF showcases a strong collection of films from a mix of emerging and established European film talents.

Most of the European films are situated in the World Cinema section, which is not exclusively but overwhelmingly dominated by European titles. AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK, UK director Richard Laxton’s biopic on gay icon and wit Quentin Crisp, focuses on the raconteur’s final 20 years in the Big Apple. John Hurt reprises his celebrated turn in a role he was clearly born to play. He originally appeared in the 1975 telefilm THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT, based on the memoir of the gay pioneer.

Also from England comes BEYOND THE POLE, an adventure mockumentary of two friends who attempt the first organic expedition to the North Pole. Director David Williams, a founding partner of Shooting Pictures, brings an interesting spin to the wacky tale, focusing on the ecological point of the trip and the camaraderie between the two jokey adventurers.

Italian cinema is represented by COLPO D’OCCHIO (AT A GLANCE), a Hitchcockian thriller directed by Sergio Rubini. In a love triangle between a beautiful young woman and her two loves (one a prominent art critic, the other a struggling artist waiting for his big break), Rubini has created a potent story of fiery romance, competition and the dark heart of suspense that brings the audience to the edge of its seat with the film’s unexpected twists and turns. The film has been a box office hit in its native Italy.

Also from Italy is the comedic road movie ITALIANS, written and directed by Giovanni Veronesi. The director of the popular comedy MANUAL OF LOVE returns with a film that is divided into tangy vignettes, each revealing a different side of the Italian culture, obsessions and neurotic attachments. Sex, food, romance and the eternal war between men and women are at the heart of this delightful film that was nominated for several David Di Donatello awards (the Italian Oscar) this past year.

From Turkey comes the vibrant drama THE MARKET: A TALE OF TRADE, written and directed by American filmmaker Ben Hopkins. Set in Turkey, the film focuses on a market trader (played by Turkish superstar Tayanc Ayaydin) who is given the chance of a lifetime to invest in an exciting business deal. Not having the necessary cash, he turns to the outlawed black market and risks both his livelihood and life in that morally complex underworld. The film won several Golden Oranges (the Turkish Oscar) for Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Actor.

Also representing the revitalized Turkish cinema is PANDORA’S BOX, a family drama by Yesim Ustaoglu. The film tells the tale of an elderly mother who disappears in her small village on the Black Sea coast and the coming together of her three 40-something children who set aside their problems to come together. Like the film’s title, a sea of tension is released as the children are forced to work together and accept each other’s limitations. The film won awards for Best Director and Best Actress at the 2008 San Sebastian Film Festival.

In a film that combines eros and haute cuisine, the Spanish comedy MEDITERRANEAN FOOD is a sumptuous tale of yet another love triangle. At the center of the love match is Sofia, who was raised amidst the stovetops and tables of her parents’ restaurant. Into her life come two men: one a respectable professional, the other an artistic chef with a flair for offbeat cuisine. Together, the threesome come to a professional and love arrangement that will revolutionize her culinary and personal universe. The film, written and directed by Joaquin Oristrell, was a sleeper hit at last year’s Berlin Film Festival.

One of the more anticipated films of the season also hails from Spain. The newest work from Pedro Almodovar is always a treat for his many international fans. In his latest masterworks, he again teams with Penelope Cruz in BROKEN EMBRACES, a film that combines film noir aesthetic with a nice dash of mystery, romance and sexual tension. Again bringing a heightened melodrama to the proceedings, Almodovar tells the tale of a blind screenwriter and his amour fou relationship with the mistress of a ruthless business mogul. In a screenplay that is at turns witty and winsome, Almodovar creates another intriguing portrait of the power, responsibility and ultimate dissolution of passion.

French cinema, always a favorite at FLIFF, is represented this year by two very different films. QUEEN TO PLAY, written and directed by Caroline Bottaro, stars Sandrine Bonnaire as a maid who learns about life through mastering the game of chess. Her teacher and employer, an expatriate American played by Kevin Kline, opens up a whole world for her beyond cooking meals and washing clothes. The film had its US Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and is making its Southeast Premiere in Fort Lauderdale.

Another Sandrine, this one named Sandrine Kiberlain, is the erstwhile star of ROMAINE 30 BELOW. She stars as Romaine, whose boyfriend decides to take her on a wilderness vacation in northern Canada at Christmas time. The fateful adventures that await her in snowy Quebec are rife with hilarity and unexpected twists. Kiberlain, a talented comedienne in the mold of classic Hollywood screwball actresses, is a delight as she becomes more and more outrageous, while winning hearts of all she encounters (of course).

European cinema shines in Fort Lauderdale this week.......

26 October, 2009

John Hurt Reprises His Iconic Gay Role

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

"I've played all kinds of roles, but the one that seems to have stayed in the imagination of the public was one I did way back in 1975", veteran British actor John Hurt shared with audiences at the Berlin Film Festival last winter following the premiere screening of AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK. "When I played real-life gay pioneer Quentin Crisp in the television film THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT, it made an immediate impact not only on my life but on that of Mr. Crisp himself."

The television film, based on Crisp's autobiography of his outre life as an "out" gay man in the repressive British society of the 1940s and 1950s, was a pioneering film in its native England and became a major cause celebre at the time. Crisp himself was 65 when the film came out and he suddenly was thrust into instant celebrity and gay icon status as a result.

Hurt reprises his celebrated role in AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK, which chronicles the later life of Crisp, who came to New York City on a speaking engagement in the early 1980s and stayed for the final 20 years of his life. Catching up with the out pioneer and wit during his autumnal New York years, Richard Laxton’s made-for-BBC film showcases Crisp's reconciliation of his icon status. The film makes its Florida premiere tonight at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

It was not a charmed period for Crisp, although he was widely embraced by the gay community as an original and early pioneer. However, his acerbic comments on the growing AIDS epidemic (dismissing it in a published interview as a "fad") created a wedge between him and his former supporters which never completely healed until his final days.

The new film does not quite live up to the status of the original, but is absolutely worth seeing as a showcase for a brilliant John Hurt performance. He brings to it the full skill of his decades as an actor; it’s a snappy, razor-sharp performance, full of bitchy charm and devilish grins.
The film ends Sting’s closing title song (it’s from his 1987 album …Nothing Like The Sun and is based on Crisp, who was casual friends with the singer), leaves the viewer with a warmth and good cheer.

Crisp remained a controversial figure to his last days, but at least he lived his life by his own moral compass and was a trendsetter and pioneer in ways that contemporary gay culture accepts as its right rather than as a privilege. Without defiant individuals like Crisp, the gay world might still be hiding in its closet.

24 October, 2009

Serbian Immigrant Drama Premieres At FLIFF

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

After winning the Best New York Narrative prize at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, the Serbian immigrant drama HERE AND THERE has become a hot hit on the international film festival circuit. It makes its Southeast Premiere at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival on Saturday night.

In his debut film, Serbian helmer Darko Lungulov tracks two strangers in two strange lands, contrasting the adventures of an enterprising young Belgrade native in New York with the discoveries of an aging down-and-out New Yorker in Belgrade. With its mordant Eastern European humor tempered by a gentler sense of absurdity, with veteran actress Mirjana Karanovic a serene presence, the film is another worthy addition to the recent space of immigrant movies, including THE VISITOR and GOODBYE SOLO.

A standout in the film is American actor David Thornton, whose singular brand of world-weary cynicism and depression defines his character, Robert, a 52-year old jazz musician. Unable to work (he hasn't touched his saxophone in months), newly evicted and rapidly becoming persona non grata with Rose (Cyndi Lauper, Thornton's real-life wife), whom he's staying with, Robert accepts an offer of $5,000 to travel to Serbia and marry his Serbian mover's girlfriend, in order to legally get her into the United States.

Once in Belgrade, Robert unexpectedly begins to thaw, under the influence of the Serbian mover's mother, which makes him realize his connection to people around him. Lungulov intercuts scenes of Robert in the busy streets, markets and cafes of Belgrade with the travails of his Serbian benefactor, the moving man Branko, who's thrust into the junkyards, back alleys and police stations of the Big Apple after the theft of his van.

Telling both stories with humor and humanity, HERE AND THERE makes for a fascinating tale of contrasts. However its insistence that we all inhabit a community of interest is an important lesson in itself. The film won Best Director and Best Actress honors at the Serbian National Film Festival, as well as scoring a Sony D-Cinema prize at the Skip International Film Festival in Japan. It screened over the summer at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival as part of the Variety Critics Choice: Europe Now program. For more information on the film, visit:

09 October, 2009

Checking The Pulse of European Cinema

Penelope Cruz in BROKEN EMBRACES (Spain)

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

The New York Film Festival, which enters its final weekend today, has presented a program with a large emphasis on European cinema. With a strong showing of films from Portugal ( and
France (, the Festival finds that contemporary European cinema from other nations not only has a strong pulse but is definitely on the rise.

Lars von Trier, the enfant terrible of Danish cinema, is back at the Festival with the highly controversial ANTICHRIST, a shocking psychological thriller about a couple (played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who attempt to find their love again after a tragic loss and play out a sado-masochistic cat-and-mouse game in the forests which unleash the hidden monsters lurking in their souls. Another meditation on contemporary couples is explored by German director Maren Ade, in the film EVERYONE ELSE. Winning both the Silver Bear for director Ade and the Best Actress prize for Birgit Minichmyr at the Berlin Film Festival, the story charts the ups and downs, joys and jealousies, frustrations and fulfillments of a young couple on a summer holiday. Inner truths are revealed which are both harrowing and heart-stopping.

Also director from the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Albert Bauer Prize, is the latest meditation on human relations by iconic Polish director Andrejz Wadja. The celebrated storyteller returns with SWEET RUSH, a bold, somewhat experimental work that juxtaposes a story about a terminally ill doctor’s wife who rediscovers romance and a deeply emotional monologue written and performed by the actress Krystyna Janda about the death of her husband. The film, which Wajda had once planned to make as a straightforward drama, was interrupted by the death of Janda's real-life husband (and Wajda's frequent cinematographer), Edward Klosinski, prompting the director to reconceive the project as a film about the filmmaking process.

Another European film playing with cinematic technique and form is ROOM AND A HALF, a film by the celebrated Russian animator/filmmaker Andrey Khrzhanovsky. Creating a kaleidoscope of scripted scenes, archival footage, various ty[es of animation and surrealist flights of fancy, the film ultimately is a stirring portrait of poet Josef Brodsky and the postwar literary scene that he inhabited. The film had its world premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival and has since become a favorite on the film festival circuit.

Looking back at recent history provides a deep well of contemplation of human behavior in any age for the celebrated directors Marco Bellocchio and Michael Haneke. In VINCERE, Bellochio harkens back to pre-Fascist Italy and a secret marriage that Mussolini had with Ida Daisler that produced a son born out of wedlock. When the future dictator categorically denies the marriage and the son born from it, it becomes a fascinating meditation on the manipulation of truth and history that is necessary for government to retain its legitimacy amidst human foibles and errors in judgment. The film was the big winner of the awards given by the Italian National Syndicate of Journalists, winning top honors for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design and Best Actress (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). The film is the current favorite for Italy’s submission to the Academy Awards.

Looking at an earlier formative period, the Austrian director Michael Haneke offers a stark yet beautiful portrait of small town life in northern Germany circa 1913 (just prior to the outbreak of World War I). In THE WHITE RIBBON, a series of violent behavior, including the physical and emotional torture of several children, exposes the treachery, small mindedness and innate cruelty of the residents. With the exploration of the cruely wrought on children by their parents and by authority figures in general, Haneke present a thought-provoking perspective on how this youthful generation would grow into the German citizens who either tacitly approved or actively engaged in the Nazi campaigns of dehumanization and murder. The film, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, and has since tantalized audiences at film events in Europe and North America, is a disturbing and numbing tale that rewards its audiences with the beauty of its imagery and the revelatory nature of its acting.

The Festival saves the best for last, with the Closing Night Gala of BROKEN EMBRACES, the latest melodrama from Spanish stylist Pedro Almodovar. Again starring his muse, the actress Penelope Cruz, the film marks the director’s eighth film at the New York Film Festival. Almodovar tells his story in shifting time periods, drawing lines of relationships between all the protagonists that fully reveal themselves by the picture’s end. A blind screenwriter, living and working under a pseudonym, learns of the death of a powerful industrialist who once served as his producer. The tale then spirals into a morality lesson of naked ambition, forbidden love and devastating loss. With his characteristic mix of melodrama, film noir, romance and candy-colored comedy, the director creates not only a hommage to film in general, but a look back at his own influences and stylistic exercises. BROKEN EMBRACES opens in November via US arthouse distributor Sony Pictures Classics and could figure strongly in the awards season later this year.