For its 28th edition, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, running Friday through Nov. 11, has rounded up more than 175 feature-length and shorts from 35 countries. There are big Oscar hopefuls such as the star-studded August: Osage County, the biopic Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom and Nebraska, the latest bittersweet comedy from Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants). There are small movies such as The Trouble with the Truth, a feature-length conversation between two people, and A Fragile Trust, a documentary about the Jayson Blair scandal.
There will also be red-carpet galas, parties, tributes and celebrity appearances (including Ann-Margret, Tab Hunter, Ed Asner, Michael Bolton, Lea Thompson and John Shea). Below you’ll find reviews of some of this year’s festival entries. For a complete schedule of events, visit fliff.com or call 954-525-3456.
A FRAGILE TRUST (unrated) ***
“Why did you do it?” an off-camera interviewer asks Jayson Blair in the opening shot of A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair at the New York Times. But all these years later, the disgraced reporter still can’t give a honest answer. Instead, he squirrels out of the question.
But if director Samantha Grant can’t answer the “why,” her lean, compelling documentary answers the “how” in scrupulous detail. Blair famously quit his job at the Times after the discovery of plagiarism and fabrication rampant in his work. He stole quotes and details from other newspapers, claimed to have reported stories from other cities without leaving his Brooklyn apartment and eventually resorted to simply making things up. The scandal, which the Times later described as “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper,” erupted at a time when old media — newspapers, magazines — was beginning to be besieged by new media, in which information traveled instantly and accuracy in reporting could be checked instantly.
A Fragile Trust uses interviews with Blair and his former bosses, including Howell Raines, the deposed executive editor under whose watch the reporter broke all known standards of journalism. Blair is seen reading from his memoir Burning Down My Master’s House, which was his attempt to capitalize on his unethical behavior. Like The Fabulist, the novel Stephen Glass wrote about his fall from grace at The New Republic, Blair’s memoir was a flop. Who would want to read a nonfiction tell-all by a writer made famous for lying?
The documentary also includes comments from Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who was one of the first to notice problems in Blair’s stories, and Macarena Hernandez, the former San Antonio Express-News reporter whose work was one of the first Blair plagiarized. Now working as a “life coach” with more than 200 clients, Blair seems strangely unrepentant for his journalistic sins. He apologizes halfheartedly and claims he suffered from bipolar disorder, but he also takes a passing dig at his editors for not noticing the drug and alcohol abuse that led to the derailing of a seemingly formidable career. At a time when newspapers are struggling and resources are stretched, A Fragile Trust is a compelling reminder of the importance of paying attention to the details, no matter how small or trivial.
— RENE RODRIGUEZ
With: Jayson Blair, Howell Raines, Seth Mnookin, Howard Kurtz, Macarena Hernandez. Producer-director: Samantha Grant. Screenwriters: Samantha Grant, Richard Levien. Running time: 73 minutes. Vulgar language. Plays at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood, 6 p.m. Oct. 25 at Muvico Pompano, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 27 at Sunrise Civic Center and 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale.
THE TROUBLE WITH THE TRUTH (R) ***
The bulk of writer-director Jim Hemphill’s funny, convivial The Trouble with the Truth is a long conversation over drinks, dinner and dessert between Robert (John Shea), a hotel lounge piano player, and Emily (Lea Thompson), a bestselling novelist. Robert and Emily used to be married — 14 years! — but they haven’t spoken to or seen each other in ages, and they probably wouldn’t be talking now if their daughter Jenny (Danielle Harris) hadn’t gotten engaged.
Robert disapproves of Jenny’s decision because he’s opposed to the entire concept (“The only purpose of marriage is to make it harder to break up,” he tells her). But the young woman won’t be deterred, and she’s used to her dad’s gloomy outlook on life. That point of view continues to assert itself when the two former spouses agree to share a meal and catch up. Robert admits he sleeps around every chance he gets but never at his place, so he can make his exit before the sun comes up. Jenny admits life with her new rich husband isn’t great — she banks ideas for conversations with him to fill awkward silences, and felt relief the day a plane crashed and she thought he had died. They talk about books and music and movies, reference Warren Zevon and Larry McMurtry, John Updike and Fast Food Nation. The dialogue is precise, but the talk never feels “written,” and Hemphill makes sure to keep the movie visually interesting via editing and locations, so the energy never sags.
But The Trouble with the Truth wouldn’t have worked at all if Thomson (Back to the Future) and Shea (TV’s Gossip Girl) weren’t so convincing as two people who used to know each other intimately, hurt each other terribly and are now realizing they have grown and changed with time — not necessarily for the better. Shea is particularly good as an irreparably wounded man who has settled and stopped dreaming — something that Emily simply cannot comprehend. As alcohol is consumed, and the conversation keeps getting more intimate, you start to think you know where the movie is heading. But nothing in The Trouble with the Truth plays out like you might expect. Who knew My Dinner with Andre could be reworked into such an engaging romantic comedy?
— RENE RODRIGUEZ
Cast: Lea Thomson, John Shea, Danielle Harris. Writer-director: Jim Hemphill. Producers: Daniel Ferrands, Thommy Hutson, Lea Thompson. Running time: 96 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. Plays at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Muvico Pompano.
ONE CHANCE (PG-13) **1/2
Like a Christmas morning puppy, One Chance is an adorable crowdpleaser guaranteed to elicit smiles and happy thoughts. Only the crankiest curmudgeon would point out that the movie is also shamelessly manipulative, overly cutesy and filled with convenient coincidences.
What matters is that director David Frankel (Marley & Me, The Devil Wears Prada) and screenwriter Justin Zackham (The Big Wedding, The Bucket List) have made it next to impossible not to surrender to the true story of Paul Potts (James Corden), the cellphone salesman from South Wales who fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming an opera singer by winning the 2007 edition of Simon Cowell’s Britain’s Got Talent. Played as a likable schlub by Corden, Potts comes off as a sweet-natured young man who grew up being bullied in school (and continued to deal with the problem as an adult). He has a girlfriend, Julie-Ann (Alexandra Roach), whom he knows only by text messages and has never met (he told her he looks like Brad Pitt).
At home, his endearingly ditzy mother (Julie Walters) supports her son’s musical aspirations, while his blue-collar father (Colm Meany) is waiting for Paul to give up those silly dreams and get a real job, like his. In a terrific early scene set over breakfast, the family’s complex dynamic is played out without a single line of dialogue — one of the few moments in One Chance in which Frankel takes a creative risk.
When Paul wins a local talent competition and enrolls in a prestigious opera school in Venice, the movie becomes a relentless travelogue (as well as an unmissable ad for Burger King). But when Paul is chosen by his teacher to sing for Luciano Pavarotti — a make-or-break career opportunity — his nerves get the best of him and he chokes.
Pavarotti tells Paul he doesn’t have the confidence to be an opera singer, which breaks his spirit. That’s only the first of an astounding number of hurdles One Chance throws at its likable protagonist, which also include appendicitis, a throat polyp and a car accident that nearly kills him. But the chemistry between Corden and Roach, who really do make a lovely couple, carries you past the plot contrivances. And by the time Paul takes the stage to perform before Cowell and his cabal of mean judges on national TV, your palms will be just as sweaty as his were, even though you know the story has a happy ending.
-- RENE RODRIGUEZ
Cast: James Corden, Alexandra Roach, Julie Walters, Colm Meany, Mackenzie Crook. Director: David Frankel. Screenwriter: Justin Zackham. Producers: Simon Cowell, Michael Menchel, Kris Thykier, Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 103 minutes. Vulgar language. Plays at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and 7 p.m. Nov. 2 at Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (R) ***
Tracy Letts’ searing drama about an estranged family returning home during a crisis was always destined for the screen. With a Pulitzer Prize and enough meaty roles to land a bushel of award nominations, August: Osage County can barely be mentioned without the word “Oscar” in the same sentence.
Letts has adapted his play into a film, maintaining most of its dark comedy. But the transformation is not without a few bumps. The misleading trailers would have you believe this story is an upbeat reminder of the unbreakable bonds of family. The play is something else altogether, so why Letts tacked on a semi-hopeful ending is a mystery. You’re not supposed to feel good about life’s possibilities after seeing August: Osage County. You’re supposed to be devastated.
That said, the cast could not be more irresistible as members of the Weston family, who gather to support matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) in the dark dusty old house on the Oklahoma plains. First on the scene is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the daughter who has stayed close to home to keep an eye on her father (Sam Shepard) and Violet and their bad habits (he drinks; she takes pills by the fistful). Others show up warily: good-natured Uncle Charlie (Chris Cooper) and Aunt Mattie Rae (Margo Martindale), Violet’s sister; oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) and her husband and teenage daughter (Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin); daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her flashy fiance (Dermot Mulroney); and finally the peculiar, shy cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Then Letts unleashes the sly, aggressive, embittered, drugged-out Violet on them. There is vitriol to spare for almost everyone, but Violet hones in on Barbara. Watching Streep and Roberts go at each other is a great and terrible pleasure. Streep is marvelous and terrifying, eyeballing everyone, calculating their secrets and then jabbing them with poisonous verbal darts at just the right moment; you can see her making mental notes on every hidden weakness. Roberts, grim and stripped of her trademark killer smile, is even more compelling as the angry Barbara, who by necessity has evolved into a worthy opponent for her selfish, strong-willed mother — possibly to the detriment of her own happiness.
The play raised claustrophobic tension through its setting; everything happens in that awful house, and by the final act the audience can barely breathe as the walls close in. By contrast, director John Wells (The Company Men) spreads the film’s emotion outdoors, to the yard and the roads and fields of the town, dappling the bitterness and blame with sunshine and color and thus robbing the movie of a crucial (if sickening) element. Some of his revelations play better on stage, too. August: Osage County is easier to watch on screen, and maybe for that we should be grateful. But there’s something to be said for sitting shaken afterward, relieved to be free from witnessing more of this family’s downfall.
-- CONNIE OGLE
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard. Director: John Wells. Screenwriter: Tracy Letts. Based on his play. Producers: George Clooney, Jean Doumanian, Grant Heslov, Steve Traxler, Harvey Weinstein. A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 130 minutes. Language including sexual references, drug use. Plays at 8 p.m. Oct. 22 at Muvico Pompano and 7 p.m. Oct. 24 at Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale.
NEBRASKA (R) ***1/2
In Nebraska, writer-director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways) returns to his home turf for his smallest, most intimate film yet. It is also one of his most moving. Shot in stark black and white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and filled with wide vistas of Midwestern flatlands and desolated farms, the movie has a longing, melancholy undertone that leavens the humor — it’s a surprisingly sad, gentle comedy.
Beginning with the vintage Paramount logo that opens the picture, Nebraska evokes 1970s-era character studies (Hal Ashby is a particularly strong influence here). Bruce Dern stars as Woody, an aging alcoholic who is hellbent on walking from Billings, Mo., to Lincoln, Neb., to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize he received in the mail. Everyone tells him the letter is junk, simply a scam to trick people into subscribing to magazines. But Woody is nearing the end of his life with little to show for it other than two estranged sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and a furious wife (June Squibb) who resents having put up with his drunken ways their entire marriage. Woody’s mind is also starting to fade: He says he wants to buy a truck with his winnings, and an air compressor. But despite moments of haziness, he will not be deterred from his quest.
So David, newly dumped by his girlfriend of two years, agrees to drive his dad to collect his prize, on the condition that they stop at a small town along the way for a family reunion. Nebraska, which was written by first-timer Bob Nelson, is yet another variation on the kind of road movie that Payne excels at making. We know father and son will get to know each other better during their journey, but how and why that connection happens is surprising. Dern, a veteran actor too often taken for granted, is so good at portraying this shambling, regretful, cantankerous man that his performance is a revelation — you feel like you’re seeing him for the first time. Nebraska, like many of Payne’s previous films, will be accused of being condescending and misanthropic in spots, getting cheap laughs at the expense of cartoonish characters. But Payne remains a deeply humanist filmmaker: He loves people no matter their flaws, and he once again conveys that sympathy through a beautiful, haunting movie that initially feels slight but grows large in your memory.
-- RENE RODRIGUEZ
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach. Director: Alexander Payne. Screenwriter: Bob Nelson. Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa. A Paramount Vantage release. Running time: 115 minutes. Vulgar language. Plays at 7 p.m. Nov. 8 at Cinema Paradiso.