And ... action! The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival is back.

A scene from Deadheads

There's something oddly tropical about the crop of roughly 150 American independent, world and documentary films screening at the 26th annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, opening this Friday and running through Nov. 22. Perhaps it's because, beyond FLIFF's monthlong shindig spread this year across three Broward County theaters, including its flagship art-house screen at Fort Lauderdale's Cinema Paradiso, the quarter-century-old festival is cracking out the piña coladas and cameras on location at sunny Grand Bahama Island. Amid the swaying palms and oceanfront, flickering screens, the fest is planning to reel out a Youth Film Competition; an underwater cinematography workshop; and a tribute to actor Dennis Haysbert, Allstate's current deep-voiced spokesman, who's best remembered as 24's no-nonsense president. Dennis Farina, Sen. George McGovern, Penelope Ann Miller, Piper Laurie, Beau Bridges and U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr., round out the red carpet arrivals this year. Below, Phillip Valys and David A. Schwartz review six FLIFF films making their debuts at Sunrise Civic Center and Muvico Pompano 18.

Bulging with more wordplay and cult horror references than Zombieland, this zombie comedy from the Pierce Brothers is a pleasing gore fest but a middling approach to the flesh-eating subgenre. We follow 20-something zombies Mike (Michael McKiddy) and Brent (Ross Kidder), who, amid an apocalypse of grunting undead, inexplicably become self-aware, snarky and pop culture-literate. The hoodie-wearing zombies are traveling cross-country to reunite with Mike's ex-girlfriend Ellie, battling along the way boredom and decomposition. Meanwhile, a fleet of trigger-happy government operatives are in hot pursuit, led by a musclebound convict-turned-mercenary and a beardy thug whose crusty voice channels the late Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Amid the severed limbs, Deadheads delivers gobs of gruesomeness, but the zombie flick lingers too often on heavy-handed homages. A first-act scene lifted straight from George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead shows sweaty survivors defending against an overnight zombie siege. Not overt enough? Try the zombie pair stopping long enough to catch a drive-in screening of Evil Dead. Too often, the film exploits these horror tropes at the expense of buddy chemistry and wooden acting. 11 p.m. Oct. 31 at Cinema Paradiso. (PV)

The Last Rites of Joe May
The titular character in director Joe Maggio's drama is a 60-something short-money hustler in a gentrified West Chicago neighborhood, but he might as well double as a redemptive gunslinger. Sporting a fake Rolex and garish snakeskin jacket too thin to protect against the harsh winter, Joe May (Dennis Farina, to whom FLIFF is presenting a lifetime achievement award next month) dresses like his personality: an aging, dying small-timer whose lifetime of showboating fails to conceal his shortcomings. “I just always thought there was something out there for me,” declares Joe, who, after failing to re-establish himself with a low-level mobster (Gary Cole), decides as a last hurrah to save a nurse (Jamie Anne Allman) and her precocious daughter from an abusive boyfriend. Sans Farina (pictured above) — who channels Joe's world-weary cynicism, bankrupt morals and unwieldy sense of self-entitlement with steely charisma — Maggio's gangster-seeking-salvation film might have slipped into mediocrity. But there's a subtle grittiness to this movie — be it Joe's listening to soothing opera strains in bed or shivering along the desolate, snow-capped Chicago streets that offered him nothing but failure — that solidly resembles a Clint Eastwood Western. 9 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Muvico Pompano and 7:45 p.m. Nov. 5 at Cinema Paradiso (PV)

The Legend of Ivan Tors
It's easy to stumble across the canon of globetrotting filmmaker Ivan Tors, a little-remembered, Hungarian-born animal activist noteworthy for producing such legendary TV shows as Flipper and Sea Hunt. He's the subject of director Scott Cardinal's 45-minute documentary, a curious length to summarize a guy who, in no particular order, singlehandedly forged South Florida's film industry with the aforementioned nautical shows; produced a Twilight Zone precursor called Science Fiction Theater; and shot a triptych of early-‘50s science fiction films about robots and space exploration before abandoning the genre completely for didactic, pro-animal shows in the ‘60s. Cardinal's camera whisks through a dozen interviewees, including Clint Howard (then a child actor who befriends a bear cub on Gentle Ben) and David Tors (the filmmaker's youngest son, who through squinted eyes stammers to vaguely recall a father who passed in 1983). The Legend of Ivan Tors inexplicably devotes its running time not to examining Tors — whose bizarre, often capricious career pioneered some of the first 3-D images, color TV formatting and underwater filmmaking — but showing entire opening and closing credits for several TV programs. It's a tedious waste that doesn't quite capture a man whose tremendous mark on Hollywood is too easily forgotten. 8 p.m. Monday at Sunrise Civic Center and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at Cinema Paradiso. (PV)

Lost Airmen of Buchenwald
The last thing Allied airmen expected if they were shot down over Europe was to be imprisoned at the Buchenwald concentration camp. But that's exactly what happened to 168 airmen from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, England, Canada and Jamaica after a Dutch double agent in the French Underground turned them over to the Gestapo. In this documentary from writer, producer and director Mike Dorsey, the grandson of B-26 airman E. C. “Easy” Freeman, seven airmen talk about their airplanes being shot down, how they made their way to Paris, their eventual capture and the brutal conditions endured at Buchenwald. After four months, the fliers were removed by German Luftwaffe and transported to a prisoner-of-war camp, but not before two of them died. They survived a forced march in the winter and were liberated by Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army. The film blends interviews, period photographs and archival footage with recent visits by several of the airmen to Buchenwald. Dorsey's taut documentary offers an accurate depiction of a little-chronicled piece of history that's certain to appeal to World War II buffs. Lost Airmen of Buchenwald will play 3 p.m. Oct. 31 at the Muvico Pompano, 3 p.m. Nov. 6 at Sunrise Civic Center and 3:45 p.m. Nov. 11 at Cinema Paradiso. (DAS)

Man on the Train
“I've always dreamt about being a bank robber,” Donald Sutherland's intellectual character says in Mary McGuckian's meditative film, a brilliant English-language remake of Patrice Leconte's 2002 French crime-drama. He's ribbing with his new friend, a mysterious, goateed stranger (U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr., pictured above left, with Sutherland), who, unbeknownst to him, is a world-weary career thief. Sutherland portrays a retired literature professor whose disappointingly restrained lifestyle has never yielded him a carpe-diem moment. Lost in the imagination of unfulfilled opportunities, he sips wine and lives vicariously through poetry. Tell him his life is unfulfilled, he'll quote Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Hand him a gun, he'll fire off e.e. cummings' “Buffalo Bill” instead. Mullen's itinerant, hardened criminal is the professor's opposite: a headstrong but uneducated man who, beyond dropping into town to rob the local bank, takes keen interest in the professor's posh, rich existence by probing him with blunt observations. This is a beautifully contemplative remake that craftily telegraphs the professor's and stranger's fate on bank-robbing day, artfully constructing the film's climax with a haunting score, lush dialogue and crystal performances from old pro Sutherland and Mullen, whose acting debut signals the promise of something more. 8 p.m. Oct. 25 at Sunrise Civic Center, 4 p.m. Oct. 27 at Sunrise and 7 p.m. Nov. 1 at Cinema Paradiso. (PV)

Silver Tongues
Two drifters, Gerry (Lee Tergensen, pictured above right, of the praiseworthy Oz series on HBO) and Joan (Enid Graham), venture from New England town to New England town on a spree of deceit and head games in writer-director Simon Arthur's twisted drama. “We like to play games, too,” Gerry says after coercing a pair of sexually insecure newlyweds into joining a foursome, in one of four cruel pranks over the course of the film. In their travels, they use whimsically improvised role-playing to deceive a devout Christian congregation at Sunday mass into thinking its African-born reverend is pinching cash from the collection plate. These random shenanigans go way past sinister, with Arthur treating each more like abrupt vignettes than a fluid narrative. The rare moments we observe Gerry and Joan not immersed in some manipulative mind-fuckery, the drama jump-cuts to tense, tension-thick moments revealing Gerry as a sadistic snake, dominating a relationship that, over time, became lost to a demented game of mind control. Why are they doing this? Arthur ventures a hint at the end, but it's not satisfying enough, leaving the viewer with nothing more than a well-acted parade of increasingly horrible acts. 9:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at Cinema Paradiso and 9 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Muvico Pompano. (PV)


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