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January 31, 2002 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: Raising the Standard; Sarasota Fest Steps Up

FESTIVALS: Raising the Standard; Sarasota Fest Steps Up


by Dave Ratzlow



(indieWIRE/ 01.31.02) -- This year the Sarasota Film Festival finally deserves to get put on the map. Its precise location may still lie somewhere between high-brow and low-brow, but in its fourth year the event has moved one notch closer to being considered a world-class film festival.


In previous years, it was unclear which held more importance at Sarasota, the nightly parties or the films themselves. But since the parties lacked the usual celebrity luster (Seinfeld's Wayne Knight being one of the "big" stars this year), the films were able to take center stage.


In this pleasant town on Florida's Gulf coast, going to the movies is a communal event. People are genuinely friendly, and if you look good in a tux (as I do), you may also find yourself fighting off buxom twice-divorced rich old ladies. This year, the festival (which ran Jan. 19-26) expanded from five days to eight, but didn't catch a groove until mid-week, during the popular International Night. Audiences could choose from one foreign film, like Takashi Miike's "Audition" or Moshen Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar," then slip into the courtyard to sample cuisine from the area's best ethnic restaurants.


Documentaries also drew a lot of attention. "La Tropical," the first film directed by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Turnley, features a working-class dancehall at the edge of Havana. With precise camerawork and heartbreaking portraits of dancehall regulars, it's the first film that captures the beauty and complexity of Cuba without excessively glamorizing it.


This year's festival darling was certainly Lucy Walker, who sold out five screenings of her debut feature documentary, "Devil's Playground." Coming directly from a successful run at Sundance, the film focuses on an Amish tradition called "rumspringa," in which 16-year-olds are allowed to experience life beyond the community as they decide whether to join the church or continue living in the general population. Partially filmed in Sarasota, the film follows several of these kids through their adventures in the secular world, through wild parties, drugs and fast cars. It's a fascinating topic and Walker achieves an impressive amount of access. Brimming with drama and pathos, the film (which handily picked up the audience award for best documentary) certainly deserves a theatrical run before airing on HBO/Cinemax later this year.


Of the comedies, one of the best came from Mike Binder, directing himself and Janeane Garofalo in "The Search for John Gissing." Garofalo is always great, even with the phone-in performance that she gives here. The film lags in the middle, maneuvering around a convoluted plot of corporate politics, but crisp dialogue and great chemistry keep it afloat.


Dan Kay's "Way Off Broadway" charmed me too, mostly due to its perky cast, including bright-as-sunshine Morena Baccarin. I guess I related to the story too, but gosh, can't New York wannabes write anything else besides struggling artist stories?


Many films in fact tackled more interesting topics but weren't as well executed. Wendell Morris' "Medicine Show," based on his life story, presents a unique and realistic look at how cancer can strike young people in the prime of their lives. But poor Natasha Gregson Wagner tries too hard to be cute, and Jonathan Silverman's character stays cynical for too long. You end up not caring about either of them.


With "Merger's and Acquisitions," director Mitchell Bard tackles the topic of corporate takeovers. Bard manages to personalize his story without being didactic or dogmatic, and could've been a pretty good first try if it weren't for some expository dialogue and one actor in particular who seemed like he just walked in from a Pauly Shore movie.


Actor Anthony Provenzano, charged in New York with racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder only days before his screening, packed the house for his debut film "This Thing of Ours," apparently the first gangster flick to feature internet crime. Provenzano's probably the only filmmaker ever to get any mileage out of the old, "if I tell you the budget, I'll have to kill you," joke during his Q&A. And for a low-budget movie, it's better than any of the genre pics seen from would-be Tarantinos over the years. I guess Provenzano knows what he's talking about.


One of the best films this year came from Eric Schaeffer ("My Life's In Turnaround") with his new film "Never Again," featuring Jill Clayburgh and Jeffrey Tambor as single fifty-somethings looking for love in New York City. Clayburgh gives a virtuoso performance as a foul-mouthed single gal who doesn't take any BS from lame men. She also gets to have a hilarious scene with a strap-on dildo.


Another good love story came from Northern Exposure's Rob Morrow. In "Maze," Morrow plays a famous artist, plagued with Tourette's Syndrome, who falls in love with his best friend's girlfriend (played by Laura Linney) while the friend is off saving children in Africa. The film reveals its budget limitations, but it's tender and smart. Without resorting to cliché falling-in-love montages, both Morrow and Schaeffer recognize that for adults, falling-in-love is work, and that's the fun part.


Despite an increasing population of young people, the festival still caters to the older wealthy socialites who define much of Sarasota. Shirley Jones was honored at a luncheon in the lush Selby Botanical Gardens, and on closing night, honors went to Sydney Pollack at a black-tie dinner held in the Ritz-Carlton. A mixed-age crowd attended the after-party at Ovo where Fred Schneider of the B-52s performed an impromptu riff over "Love Shack," while REM's Michael Stipe watched the shirtless boys and sequined socialites wiggle on the mist-filled dance floor.


As much as it may sound cheesy, the festival has something for everyone. As programmer Mark Marvell claims, "People in Sarasota have learned that we have a lot more to offer than black-tie galas. We've worked hard to make clear that this festival is about independent filmmakers first." With 20,300 tickets sold this year, it seems like they've done a good job.


Catering to diverse audiences on separate nights helped contribute to that success. A screening of a new "Queer As Folk" episode kick-started one evening and drew members of Sarasota's large gay population. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, also had a night devoted to her. Even though it's hard to respect a film festival that screens an Avid transfer of her latest film, it did bring out yet another community. And at least they didn't give her an award like they gave Sean Young last year.


It's populist programming like this which, has in fact, helped the festival grow as it primes its audience to the joys of foreign films, documentaries and flawed yet interesting independents.


But as well as everything went this year, the festival does deserve to be lambasted for one egregious technical glitch. In at least one theater, video projections had to be squashed or extended above and below the screen. In their defense, the organizers planned to hold video screenings at a dedicated sight nearby, but scrapped the idea after 9/11. They'll go ahead with the idea for next year, and hopefully videos won't become ghetto-ized by the second venue.


The festival still has some work to do in demanding a little more respect from the industry. ThinkFilm inexplicably pulled two highly anticipated films from the festival at the last minute, Peter Care's "The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys" and Bart Freundlich's "World Traveler."


I hope the festival organizers have learned that part of gaining that respect and becoming successful is programming good material despite their celebrity quotient. It's films like the celeb-free "Devil's Playground" that will keep the audiences coming and help transform it into the world-class festival it deserves to be.


[Dave Ratzlow is a freelance writer based in New York City.]

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