FESTIVALS: In Florida with Goodfellas, a Replicant and the Most Famous Woman in the World
by Dave Ratzlow
(indieWIRE/01.17.01) --One part cheese whiz and one part brie, Sarasota, Florida closed its 3rd annual film festival this past weekend after screening more than 50 features and 50 shorts from around the world. Dubbed "five days of film, five nights of glamour" the festival did show some impressive films this year, but it's certainly more in touch with it's cheesy glamour side: celebrity-driven movies followed by black-tie galas with the stars.
In a mere three years, the festival has become one of the most important events on the social calendar in this clean and bright boom town less than an hour from Tampa. With its gorgeous beaches and agreeable climate, Sarasota has always been a popular retirement destination, but as younger generations arrive, it's becoming culturally enriched.
In addition to being ardently environmentalist and excellent hosts, the people of Sarasota are enthusiastic audiences, coming out in droves for the festival buying about 13,000 tickets, nearly double last year's amount.
Bob Giraldi's "Dinner Rush" opened the festival last Thursday followed by a soiree at the swankest joint in town. It's a mostly engaging ensemble drama that follows several stories during an evening at an Italian restaurant owned by a former bookie (Danny Aiello). Unfortunately, the film includes a pair of Italian meatheads and an offensive scene of vigilante justice that is meant to be applauded. It's a shame for a film that otherwise avoids stereotypes through compassionate characters and good performances.
Before heading over to the $75-a-head after-party, Aiello spent nearly an hour accommodating the fans, many of which came prepared with the "Autograph Page," a headshot supplied in the festival program. Co-star Eduardo Ballerini was also on hand to profess that he "lobbied hard" to bring the film to Sarasota, having had such a great time last year when he came with Martin Davidson's "Looking for an Echo."
Michael Sergio brought his debut feature, "Under Hellgate Bridge," yet another violent cartoon that takes itself too seriously. Gold encrusted gangsters and whiny dope-fiends compete for the most stereotypical character award. But audiences seemed to like it and Regal Cinemas, one of the sponsors of the festival, will release the film throughout its chain of theaters this spring.
Former "Blade Runner" Replicant Sean Young accompanied Anne DeSalvo's family drama "Amati Girls" and stayed long enough to receive a Career Recognition Award, which literally fell apart in her hands when presented to her. Somewhat out of place in the film, she's a mannequin surrounded by real actresses, including Mercedes Ruehl and Cloris Leachman, as their mortality obsessed mother. Expository dialogue and clumsy blocking plague the first act, but it still has enough emotional resonance to wring a few tears from even this jaded journalist. Another party followed, featuring breaded oysters, stuffed potatoes and a twelve-foot table of assorted sushi. Socialites flirted with the filmmakers, as vibrant septuagenarians brought the young folks out on the dance floor.
Henry Bromell's "Panic" brought back the gangster element. But at least William H. Macy, who plays a professional killer beginning to have a conscience, came with the deal. Though there's some tonal confusion and some squirm-inducing kisses between Macy and Neve Campbell, it's still a compelling story highlighted by an absolutely adorable and amazing performance by four-year-old David Dorfman as Macy's harmonica playing son. The film comes to New York theaters this week with distribution from San Francisco-based Roxie Releasing.
Saul Rubinek brought his Showtime original movie "Club Land" to the festival on Saturday night. Unfortunately, despite a solid performance by Alan Alda as an aging talent agent in '50s New York, it never takes flight. Alda was later honored with Regal Cinema's Career Achievement Award at yet another black-tie affair held at an old palm tree-protected mansion on the bay. But the highlight of the evening for these blue blood Floridians was a speech by co-presenter Secretary of State Katherine Harris, cheekily introduced as "the most famous woman in the world." She was the only person besides Alda to receive a standing ovation that weekend.
But the best films had neither celebrities nor special events attached. "The Truth About Tully," a sweet farm melodrama, features naturalistic performances by stunning redhead Julianne Nicholson and brawny charmer Anson Mount. Old-timer Glenn Fitzgerald plays a farmer who is about to be foreclosed. It's bit too long for such a simple, subtle film, but it pulls at the heartstrings ever so slightly and director Hilary Birmingham is certainly one to watch.
Hans Petter Moland's "Aberdeen," also wowed audiences. A family melodrama/road movie starring Lina Headly as a cantankerous young executive charged with bringing her drunkard father (Stellan Skarsgard) to visit her estranged dying mother. It's an emotionally resonant story told with confidence and restraint, and thankfully, a good review in the local paper helped fill the audience for the second screening.
This is the second Skarsgard/Moland feature to appear at the festival (their collaboration "Zero Kelvin" came last year). Perhaps programming like this can help cultivate an audience for these types of films. To that end, Executive Director Jody Kielbasa has big plans for the future. He wants to build an art house cinema and expand the festival to span seven to ten days instead of the current five.
With this combination of star-studded events and subtle films like the latter, it's not hard to assume the festival is going through an identity crisis. Festival Coordinator and Programmer Mark Marvell concedes, "The festival grew out of an idea that was more black-tie event oriented and the films were more of a sidebar. But this year, we really turned a corner where it was truly a film festival with a bunch of parties attached to it. I think that's the way we're going to grow."
Executive Director Jody Kielbasa insists, "The festival is about the films first." But Sarasota doesn't yet have the budget to give the VIP treatment to filmmakers without the star power to attract audiences to the big events that make all the money. They'd like to build an appetite for indie fare, but, as Kielbasa says, "you could go under if you do only that."
Still, Kielbasa says confidently, "There's a lot of disposable income down here. I'm not talking a few thousand dollars. I'm talking big money." With so much support from sponsors and the community, the Sarasota Film Festival is not going away anytime soon.
[Dave Ratzlow is a freelance writer based in New Yorker.]