Film Feeding Frenzy

The Florida Film Festival is back

The Florida Film Festival, now in its 12th year, takes place March 7-16 in Orlando. Produced by Enzian Theater, the festival showcases, American independent and foreign films and features a huge array of parties, forums, celebrities (including Ed Burns and James Caan), performances, and uh, oh yeah — film screenings. In 2001 the Florida Film Festival was named one of the top 10 festivals in the world by Chris Gore in The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide.The festival offers jury and audience awards and is now a qualifying festival for the Oscars in the category of Live Action Short Film. The following reviews represent a selection of the best competition films. The reviews, written by Steven Schneider, film critic for Orlando's alternative paper, Orlando Weekly, are reprinted by permission from that paper. For more complete critical alternative coverage, visit www.orlandoweekly.com.

For a complete schedule of festival events, visit www.floridafilmfestival.com or call 407-629-8587.

Lance Goldenberg returns next week after a much-needed and -deserved vacation.

Ball in the House

Directed by Tanya WexlerIn her 2003 Florida Film Festival entry, director Tanya Wexler — the niece of cinematographer and past Florida Film Festival guest Haskell Wexler — mines the black-comic potential of addiction and recovery in the American Midwest in this feature film. Seventeen years old and just home from rehab, J.J. White (Jonathan Tucker of The Deep End) finds his attempts to stay clean seriously compromised by the grotesque cast of characters he calls a family. Mom Phyllis (Deidre O'Connell) is an indulgent boob, and she's about the best of the lot: Stepdad Bull (Dan Moran) and aunt Dot (Jennifer Tilly) have a plan going to benefit financially should the kid not survive the transition to "straight" life.

J.J.'s peers aren't much better. Old dope buddy Bobby Raven (Ethan Embry) is shaking him down for a $3,500 debt, and girlfriend Lizzie's (Aleksa Palladino) allegiances run only as deep as where the action is. With friends like these, it's tough for J.J. to follow the platitudes of his rehab counselor, Dr. Charlie (David Strathairn), who deposits him back into open society with the proclamation, "It's time for the healing to begin."

Much of Ball in the House takes place under a blanket of snow, a wicked coke metaphor that helps Wexler establish her sardonic aims. In many ways, the movie comes on like a blue-collar cousin to one of last year's best pictures, the snarky coming-of-age piece Igby Goes Down. But scripter Matthew Swan (who studied under playwright Christopher Durang) tones down the glib verbal parrying that many viewers found a stumbling block to entering Igby's world. J.J.'s vulturous friends and relations are only as witty as reality supports; in the film's satisfying final half, the comedic angle is dispensed with entirely, giving way to solid drama that's all the more effective for how quietly it sneaks up on you. This is a serious work, and it'll be a shame if its depiction of familial back-stabbing is taken for burlesque. As the movie demonstrates, extreme self-abuse comes from extreme circumstances.

Long Gone

Directed by Jack Cahill and David EberhardtThis is what it looks like when a documentary crew fully commits itself to a topic. The product of seeming years of effort, Long Gone puts ordinary life on hold to travel the countryside with the train riders (better known as "tramps" or "hobos") who see the U.S. by boxcar — some due to extenuating personal circumstances, but many merely because they've been seduced by the wide-open grandeur of the lifestyle. The movie pursues multiple intersecting storylines in its quest to vindicate the nomadic men and women (and their dogs) who form a perennially misunderstood substrata of American society.

A black Vietnam vet named New York Slim serves as unofficial group spokesman, his eloquent monologues our map to an unfamiliar world. Having known from an early age that he wanted to be part of the train-riding culture, Slim has settled into a role he defines as "90 percent baby-sitter" to his hard-drinking, sometimes helpless brothers. The new generation of rider is embodied by three wayward teens making their way to New York City; the old guard by Josh and John, a pair of traveling buddies whose firm friendship is threatened by encroaching illness. If Long Gone treats any one of its subjects as a spiritual cause celebre, though, it's Dogman Tony, a troubled soul whose fragile integration into society turns on a make-or-break relationship with a girl far younger than he.

The earliest portions of the movie wisely play up the riders' camaraderie, decency and abiding love of nature, earning our sympathy and respect before delving into the more unsavory aspects of their lives — like drug addiction and violence. It's a great-looking film, too, offering plenty of stirring outdoor panoramas and switching picture formats just often enough to stave off visual monotony. Most important, every salient development is either captured or otherwise represented on camera, no matter how involved the prospect. Filmmakers Cahill and Eberhardt show an unquellable passion for the precepts of their art: to get that footage, tell that story, make that point. The result is a film that's as true to its audience as it is to its subject.

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