Coming of Age in Festival-Land

The Sarasota Film Festival kicks off Friday with movies, parties and star-studded events.

It's no easy thing claiming turf in a world where it seems like everybody has aspirations of either making a film or putting on a film festival. In Tampa Bay alone there are currently no less than a half-dozen film festivals — about five more, some would argue, than necessary. While each of these annual events has its unique charms, even those of us who follow these things closely find it increasingly difficult to tell one fest from the next.

The truth of the matter is that the most memorable and consistently high-quality film festivals in this part of the country are found just a stone's throw from the Bay area, in Sarasota. And the best one of them all is the Sarasota Film Festival.

If you were making a movie about the Sarasota Film Festival, it would surely have to be a coming-of-age flick. Rarely has a festival matured so visibly and so rapidly, growing in only a few years from a scraggly assortment of not-ready-for-prime-time movies to a major showcase for contemporary and classic cinema. Factor in the glitziest parties this side of Hollywood and a truly bizarre assortment of celebrities (Leslie Caron, Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey and a dominatrixy-looking Katherine Harris all gathered under one roof last year), and you've got a festival to remember.

In its eighth season, the Sarasota Film Festival has achieved a fine balance between its urge to socialize in style (with lavish soirees recalling the glory days of the late, lamented Sarasota French Film Festival) and its avocation of the art of cinema. There's a little something for everybody here, with a diverse selection of movies, free morning roundtables with the filmmakers, lots of special programs (including kid-friendly events), and Q&A sessions following almost every screening.

And then there are the parties. Some of the best bets this year certainly include the opening night bash with Chevy Chase (March 31); the Fool Moon Rising party with Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan) and Sally Kellerman (April 1); the World Cinema Celebration with his magical-mystical eminence Werner Herzog (April 5); and the Filmmakers Tribute with Robert Altman, Robert Towne, perennial Sarasota guest William H. Macy and spouse Felicity Huffman (April 8).

You could spend this entire festival doing nothing but hopping from party to party, from luncheons with Allison Janney to queer cinema soirees to blow-outs with ex-Kiss-ster Gene Simmons — but then you'd miss out on an awful lot of good movies.

This year's 10-day event kicks off on Fri., March 31 with an atypically mainstream offering, Funny Money, featuring festival honoree Chevy Chase running from the Russian mob in what's being billed as a return to comedic form. I haven't seen this one yet, but one can only hope it'll help ease the pain of what Chase has been doing on screen over the past few decades.

Where SFF 2006 really shines is with its international productions, many of which have been racking up awards and praise on the global festival circuit. Two of the best films at this year's event are also two of its most brutal, but don't let that dissuade you from checking them out.

The Romanian import The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (April 7, 2:15 p.m.; April 8, 8:15 p.m.) is part excruciating social critique, part absurdist farce as it follows an ailing pensioner from hospital to hospital while he fades away in real time. The South Korean slugfest Lady Vengeance (April 7 and April 8, 9:45 p.m.) is a psychedelicized bloodbath that one-ups Kill Bill by eventually asking us to examine the politics of revenge in which it revels.

Other highlights from the world of international cinema include Claude Chabrol's deliciously creepy psycho-thriller The Bridesmaid (April 1, 7 pm; April 2, 2:45 p.m.) and the fiercely political Kurdish-Iraqi drama Kilometre Zero (April 5, 5 p.m.; April 6, 9:30 p.m.). In a more quietly contemplative vein, there's Bernard Emond's elegant meditation on modern day faith, Le Neuvaine (April 5, 8:30 p.m.; April 6, 1 p.m.); the charming children's fable Mongolian Ping Pong (April 2, 12:45 p.m., April 4, 3:45 p.m.); and Yamada Yoji's The Hidden Blade (April 3, 2:30 p.m.; April 5, 8 p.m.), which carefully lays bare the repressed lives of feudal Japan last glimpsed in the director's Twilight Samurai.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Luc Besson's fast-paced, futuristic shoot-em-up District B13 (April 5, 5 p.m.; April 6, 10 p.m.), an Escape from New York set in Paris circa 2010, but eerily paralleling the recent riots in France's disenfranchised zones.

For the truly adventurous, there's the Quay Brothers' ravishingly beautiful and maddeningly enigmatic Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (April 1 and April 5, 10:15 p.m.), the latest live-action feature from those mad geniuses of the moving image. A densely cerebral fusion of The Phantom of the Opera and The Island of Lost Souls (kidnapped female singers, mad doctors — you get the drift), Piano Tuner's obscurist tendencies and glacial pacing will undoubtedly keep mainstream audiences far away — but for those with patience, the film is a compelling, hypnotic experience.

Some remarkable American independent films show up this year as well. You probably already know about the virtues of Transamerica (April 7, 7 p.m.), but SFF offers a chance to see the film with its star, Felicity Huffman, in attendance. Then there's Fabulous! (April 6, 7 p.m.; April 8, 12:30 p.m.), a brisk crash course in queer cinema; and Wordplay (April 3, 7:15 p.m.; April 6, 7:30; April 8, 3) which does for the crossword puzzle what Spellbound did for spelling bees. (The film prominently features Planet puzzler Merl Reagle — see this week's cover story.) Another enormously appealing dark horse is The Notorious Bettie Page (April 7, 7:30 p.m.), starring Gretchen Mol as the perky '50s pin-up queen. This imaginatively executed, playfully subversive romp might give even the most hardcore biopic haters a reason to consider changing their ways.

Perhaps the most exciting feature of this year's festival is its ambitious tribute to German auteur Werner Herzog. He's one of the world's great narrative filmmakers (Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, Aguirre Wrath of God), but it is his less well-known documentary work that's the focus of the festival's comprehensive retrospective.

Featured selections include such unqualified, must-see masterpieces as Lessons of Darkness (April 5, 5:30 p.m.; April 6, 1 p.m.), Fata Morgana (April 2, 3:30 p.m.; April 5, 11:45 a.m.), and Land of Silence and Darkness (April 4, 1 p.m.; April 6, 10:15 p.m.). Also featured are fascinating curios such as Herzog's tribute to crazed collaborator Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend (April 4, 3:30 p.m.; April 7, 1:45 p.m.), and more recent works like the director's immersion in Buddhist ritual, Wheel of Time (April 1, 3 p.m.; April 3, 4 p.m.) and the acclaimed Grizzly Man (April 4, 6 p.m.). And as a very special treat, the festival will premiere Herzog's latest project, Wild Blue Yonder (April 2, 9:30 p.m.; April 3, 8:15; April 8, 12:15), reportedly a sort of underwater documentary recast as thinking person's sci-fi.

The bad news here, as if you didn't see this coming, is that not all of the films in this year's festival are winners. The Nordic epic Beowulf and Grendel (April 5, 5 p.m.; April 8, 2:45 p.m.) is beautifully shot but not nearly as interesting as its subject demands; Robert Towne's Ask the Dust (April 8, 2 p.m.) is a convoluted mess; and Mary (April 7, 4:45 p.m.; April 8, 8 p.m.), the new movie by habitual sensationalist Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York), is a shrill and shallow mishmash of half-formed thoughts trying way too hard to get under our skins. Matthew Modine stars as an obsessive hipster director making a movie about Jesus, while Ferrara provokes audiences by juxtaposing extreme amorality with extreme spirituality, throwing out lots of Big Ideas re-formatted as sound bites.

Looking for a few more tips on things to avoid? The lounge-act-in-drag mockumentary Kiki and Herb Reloaded (April 1, 10:30 p.m.; April 2, 10:15 p.m.) is just that — a drag. The movie offers a few appealingly kitschy-catty moments, but mostly just comes off as annoying and not particularly funny. More frantic but no less tiresome, the Spanish import Only Human (April 4, 7:15 p.m.; April 5, 8:15 p.m.) replays too many self-consciously quirky familial comedies we've seen over the years. This one tries way too hard to convince us of how zany its dysfunctional brood is, and winds up reducing them all to caricatures.

All in all, though, this is a remarkably strong festival. As usual, I've got to admit that the most exciting offerings are the ones not yet seen — most notably, Terry Zwigoff's Art School Confidential (April 1, 7:30 p.m.; April 2, 8:30 p.m.), Steve Buscemi's Lonesome Jim (April 6, 3 p.m.; April 8, 11:45 a.m.) and, of course, Robert Altman's Prairie Home Companion (April 9, 5 p.m.).

But I'm also thrilled by this festival's dedication to reviving classics I've seen many times and can't wait to see again. Victor Erice's masterful Spirit of the Beehive is here (April 2, 2 p.m.; April 4, 5:30 p.m.), as well as Marcel Camus'1959 orgy of sound and color, Black Orpheus (April 2, 4:15 p.m.; April 8, 3:45 p.m.), and Disney's immortal Lady and the Tramp (April 8, 11 a.m.). You haven't lived until you've seen these movies on the big screen.

Now, thanks to this festival, your chance is finally here.

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