Film festivals have proliferated in recent years, and it's not hard to figure out why. Where else can you find movies fresh from the camera, early clues to new cultural directions, and the fun of debating films that haven't yet made their way to the local multiplex?
An irony of the film-festival scene is that some of the most imaginatively programmed events take place in settings so rich in natural beauty that it's hard to tear yourself away from the outside world and burrow into the darkness of an auditorium.
The Bermuda International Film Festival, which just completed its fourth year, is a prime example. Every couple of hours brings the same hard decision: Do you really want to wrench yourself away from mild breezes, swaying palm trees, and the warm semitropical sun for a screening that might prove dim and dismal by comparison?
Such dilemmas don't deter true movie buffs, though, and Bermuda has plenty of that hardy breed among its 60,000 residents. Screening after screening brought out crowds eager to see promising new pictures before their freshness is diluted by ad campaigns, promotional blitzes, and the opinions of chattering critics.
Not every movie here was a masterpiece, and some may return to their producers' vaults instead of zipping into commercial venues. But the event accomplished what every worthwhile filmfest should: It introduced new contenders for box-office glory, and it sparked enthusiastic theater-lobby debates over which offerings have a shot at wider fame in coming months.
Opinions were mixed about the opening-night attraction, One Night at McCool's, a "Pulp-Fiction"-style comedy directed by Harald Zwart for a new production company headed by Michael Douglas, whose Bermuda roots are one reason why audiences here quickly lined up for it. Douglas also acts in the picture, playing a ne'er-do-well with the most amusingly awful hairdo sported by any Hollywood star in recent memory.
The story centers on a loose-living woman (Liv Tyler) whose beauty bedazzles every romance-starved man who takes a look at her. This might bode well for her future if the men weren't such a sorry lot: a lawyer (Paul Reiser) who lusts for her, a barfly (Matt Dillon) whose house she decides to rob, and a roly-poly policeman (John Goodman) trying to crack a murder she's bumbled her way into.
The movie is strong on sex and violence, but it's all so fast and frenetic that Bermuda spectators took more notice of its MTV-style energy than its moments of gross-out humor. Even dubious viewers seemed impressed by Tyler's ability to look tantalizing in every outfit the hyperactive costume designer could dream up.
Douglas's movie wasn't the only one to gain recognition for a well-known talent working on both sides of the camera. Ambitious actor Rob Morrow made his directorial debut with Maze, in which he also plays the title character, an artist with a physical condition that causes involuntary speech and movement. He becomes infatuated with a close friend's lover, played by Laura Linney, whose Oscar-nominated work in "You Can Count on Me" has made her an upwardly mobile actress.
Morrow is fine and Linney is lovable, but "Maze" suffers from conflict between its humanitarian interests - reminding us that people with disabilities are just like other folks - and its standard-issue romantic angle. Morrow has promise as a director, but he should consider leaving the scriptwriting to others.
Bermuda is proud of being an island, and the festival now devotes part of its program to movies from other islands. This year's slate included a sidebar of films from Ireland, and no subject could be more quintessentially Irish than novelist James Joyce, the hero of a literate entry in the Irish lineup. Nora, directed by Pat Murphy, focuses on him and Nora Barnacle, his sometimes rambunctious wife. It reveals little about Joyce's genius, but illuminates an interesting corner of his private life.
Another offbeat love story is Innocence, by Australian director Paul Cox, who takes a tasteful look at romance between an aging woman and a long-ago lover who comes back into her life. Billed as a tale of "first love" between senior citizens, it could find a wide audience if it reaches commercial theaters, something it certainly deserves. More frivolous is Dinner and a Movie, a comedy by newcomer Lisa Kors about a young woman (like Kors) making her first movie (like Kors) against high odds.
Also at the festival were various short pictures, including By Courier, adapted by Peter Riegert from an O. Henry story about a boy carrying messages between feuding lovers. Riegert's acting career has been flourishing with his recent appearances on "The Sopranos," but we might soon see more of his directorial work as well.
Actors directing, directors acting, and spirited audiences cheerfully assessing their accomplishments - it's a solid recipe for a young but promising festival.
"One Night at McCool's" opens nationwide in theaters today. The other movies will be released later this year.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor