Of Monsters & Movies

The Sarasota Film Festival 2004

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click to enlarge MONSTER MASH: Charlize Theron, right, and - Christine Ricci in Monster, one of the Sarasota - Film Festival's most anticipated films. - Newmarket Films
Newmarket Films
MONSTER MASH: Charlize Theron, right, and Christine Ricci in Monster, one of the Sarasota Film Festival's most anticipated films.

The Sarasota Film Festival has come a long way since its first couple of years. Back then the event was tiny but with a disproportionately large glitz factor, basically amounting to a weekend of lively parties and a handful of screenings of so-so movies that had been made (or felt like they'd been made) for cable TV. As with many fledgling festivals, the young SFF was as short on actual content as it was on funds, but it was full of determination — a classic case of Build It And They Will Come.

That determination began paying off, and now, in its sixth season, The Sarasota Film Festival has clearly arrived. You'll still find a few too many of those forgettable, cable-ish films in the schedule, but there are lots of wonderful ones as well. (This year's event features some 160 movies, 84 of them feature-length.) The parties are still lavish and abundant, of course, but the focus is squarely where it should be — on the films.

This year's festival takes place from Jan. 23 to Feb. 1, a 10-day sampling of everything from American independent productions, to world cinema, to women's films, to documentaries, with even some good ol' mainstream stuff thrown in for good measure. There are free roundtable chats with the filmmakers every morning, tons of intriguing, special programs (including many events designed specifically for kids), and almost every screening is followed by a Q&A session with someone directly associated with the film.

There's a little something for everybody here, and most of it's both interesting and accessible. Women Make Movies' Debra Zimmerman will be the featured speaker at a free brown bag lunch on Sunday, Jan. 25. Florida filmmakers will have their moment to shine at a special showcase on Friday, Jan. 30. Aspiring screenwriters can attend a networking workshop on Thursday, Jan. 29. And B-movie fans can bask in the sublime schlockiness of celebrity critic Joe Bob Briggs, who'll be around on Friday, Jan. 23, to lead a seminar on cult films, sign copies of his new book, Profoundly Disturbing, and introduce Hershell Gordon Lewis' infamous Blood Feast.

And the parties. As always, there are too many to mention, but some of the better ones are bound to be the opening night bash on Friday, an evening with the B-52's (Saturday, Jan. 24), the World Cinema Celebration (Wednesday, Jan. 28), and the Night of 1000 Stars at Michael's on East (Friday, Jan. 30). The hottest ticket of all is bound to be the festival's late night wrap party (Saturday, Jan. 31), which in the past has attracted such notorious revelers as Christian Slater, Michael Stipe, and Steven Tyler and the Aerosmith crew.

As for the films, probably the most eagerly anticipated of the lot is Monster, Charlize Theron's astonishing turn as female serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The movie is harrowing stuff, topped by a spine-tingling performance by Theron that will make it difficult to ever look at this actress in the same way again. It's the sort of performance that starts in a very physical place and then extends outward in all directions, devastating everything in its path with its sheer intensity.

Monster is one long howl of pain, focusing on the relatively brief period when hate-wracked Wuornos made the leap from highway prostitute to insatiable serial killer. The movie manages to paint Wuornos as a victimizer and as a victim, eliciting both our horror and empathy (sometimes in the same breath), and the frame of mind we're put in is anything but a simple one. In addition to Monster's screening at the Sarasota Film Festival, the movie also will open in Tampa at Channelside Cinemas on Jan. 23.

Some of the better films playing at the Sarasota Film Festival are international productions. A somewhat more serious affair than your typical Bollywood spectacle, director Mani Ratnam's A Peck on the Cheek is the account of a young Indian girl who discovers she's been adopted and then travels to war-torn Sri Lanka in search of her birth mother. There are plenty of songs, too, and they sometimes seem to be coming out of nowhere, but the total effect of the film is as charming as it is poignant.

The Projectionist also features a young protagonist, a 7-year-old boy living with his eccentric family and neighbors in a crumbling house in the Arabian desert. The film is a memory piece made up of loosely strung together and sometimes striking images, but it's all a bit too transparent in its often awkward straining toward something poetic.

Bedwin Hacker is another film from the Arab world, with strong female characters that actively resist the stereotype of Muslim women as submissives who find fulfillment only in motherhood. The main character here is a savvy Tunisian woman who gives the cops a run for their money when she puts her computer expertise to work subverting the airwaves. Some nice twists and a rare glimpse behind the veil.

Other highlights from the international category include Stealing Rembrandt, an engaging and delicately nuanced heist film from Denmark, and Shaolin Soccer, a gleefully over-the-top, modern kung-fu comedy from Hong Kong. Two very different sorts of movies, but both strongly recommended.

Not all of the imports are winners. Franco Piavoli's At First Breath of Wind is a distillation of pure cinema, for better and for worse, in which the director evokes a summer day in the Italian countryside. Barely a word is spoken as characters eat, read books, sit at the piano playing endless cycles of Erik Satie, and drift in and out of sleep. You may too.

There are some worthwhile indie efforts here as well. The Big Empty is an engaging mix of Twin Peaks, The X-Files and the Coen Brothers, featuring Jon Favreau as a guy stuck out in the middle of nowhere, dealing with inscrutable oddballs, ennui and aliens. Wilber Wants to Kill Himself is a sweet if ultimately disposable tale of two very different brothers in love with the same woman, while Monika Mitchell's Break a Leg shows us an aspiring actor who would kill — literally — to get a break. Mitchell's movie features several wonderful performances and a healthy appreciation of the absurd, before a miscalculated third act upsets the delicate balance of comedy and pathos.

Unfortunately, those so-so movies that feel like they were made for cable still occasionally show up at this festival, and Meet Market and Artworks are two prime examples. The former is an unoriginal and relentlessly unfunny comedy about the L.A. dating scene. The latter fares a bit better with its faux-noir tale of a couple attempting to pull off an art heist, but the production is bloodless, brought down by an uninspired script and routine direction.

On the brighter side — and the darker side too, come to think of it — there is Zero Day, one of the very best films featured at SFF this year. Director Ben Coccio fashions a revisionist take on the Columbine shootings that's every bit as profoundly disturbing as Gus Van Sant's similarly themed Elephant, but causally quirky and energetic where Van Sant's film was elegant and meditative. A discussion on teen violence and its link to abuse follows the Saturday, Jan. 24 screening.

There's much, much more going on, of course, but hopefully these highlights and caveats will provide some sort of starting point in mapping out a route through the festival's sprawl. All this and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory too, which is probably as good a place to start as any.

The Sixth Annual Sarasota Film Festival takes place from Friday, Jan. 23 through Sunday, Feb. 1 at Regal Hollywood 20 in Sarasota. For tickets or information call 941-364-9514 or visit the website at www.sarasotafilmfestival.com.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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