Fifth Time’s A Charm For Sarasota Film Fest
by Jason Guerrasio
What a difference five years makes. Originally only known for its black-tie affairs, the Sarasota Film Festival has gone through many facelifts to get where it is today. Expanding to 10 days this year, the event was filled with 150 films, numerous seminars, and of course celebrity appearances at luxurious parties.
Criticized in the past for sometimes focusing too much on their glamorous events and not the caliber of films they choose, this year festival programmers showed they could attract quality work. Opening night at the beautiful Van Wezel Performing Arts Center featured the cute comedy “Kiss the Bride” (starring Sean Patrick Flanery, Amanda Detmer, Burt Young, Talia Shire, Alyssa Milano, and Johnathon Schaech) playing to a packed house of 1700 film fans. Director Vanessa Parise successfully pokes fun at the stress and pressure a family goes through to pull off a wedding, while dealing with the drama of everyday life. But unfortunately most will describe it as the Italian version of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Following the film, everyone scurried to the grand foyer to enjoy food, drinks, and music. Most partygoers were dressed to the nines, but it was very easy to strike a conversation with just about anyone. For part of the evening I was getting a crash course about celebrity memorabilia from the local autograph hound, Dennis. A jolly man with a white beard, he gave me the 411 on what celebs were rumored to show up. So far the only celebrity I had run into was Sarasota resident Dick Vitale, which for this sport fan was more than enough to leave the party satisfied.
Day two focused on Todd Haynes’ homage to ’50s melodrama, “Far From Heaven,” as the film screened in the afternoon after which Haynes and legendary composer Elmer Bernstein (who did the score for “Far From Heaven”) sat for a Q&A. The real treat, though, was in the evening with the event CineSymphony! back at the Van Wezel. There Bernstein conducted the Florida West Coast Symphony for a concert of his greatest scores which included songs from “The Ten Commandments,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and “The Man With The Golden Arm” to name a few. Having images in my head of Steve McQueen getting sent to the cooler while listing to the symphony play “The Great Escape,” and Yul Brynner riding high in the saddle during “The Magnificent Seven” gave me goose bumps. “We used ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ while cutting ‘Far From Heaven,'” Todd Haynes told the crowd after intermission. “But I never imagined to get the real guy to compose the film.”
The festival continued in the middle of the week at a luncheon honoring Rita Moreno, who later attended a screening of “West Side Story.” A few nights later the World Cinema Celebration street party electrified Sarasota. Deepa Mehta was in attendance, as her film “Bollywood/Hollywood” was one of the favorites in the festival, capturing the audience award for best comedy. Also David Johansen a.k.a. Buster Poindexter (who was at the festival to give Richard Dreyfuss the Regal Entertainment Career Achievement Award) could be found stuffing his face on dinner rolls while standing next to a group of belly dancers.
Though the community in Sarasota is very artsy, most are old upper-class socialites who couldn’t relate to some of the “hipper” films that were at the festival. “Hell House,” a documentary on one fundamentalist church’s way of scaring its community into joining God, has been a favorite at many festivals but didn’t get much of an audience at this one (it’s a shame as it was one of the best docs shown). The audience award for best documentary went to Jeff Blitz’s “Spellbound,” which gave a hilarious look at the 1999 National Spelling Bee competition.
As for the features, “Manic,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deshanel, and Don Cheadle, which tells the story of a group of troubled teens living in a mental institution, was a hit at Sundance a few years ago but didn’t get much buzz at Sarasota. “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not,” starring Audrey Tautou, was a big favorite as all its screenings were sold out. Mirra Bank’s “Last Dance,” which received the programmer’s choice award, got big crowds, along with a little unknown film called “G-Sale.” Directed by Randy Nargi, it’s a mockumentary about the high number of garage sales in a fictional town called Bogwood, Washington. The film follows a group of garage sale junkies trying to find little nick-knacks that satisfy them in their own strange ways. Sarasota was the first time “G-Sale” had been shown to the public and for Nargi the need to personally come to the festival with his film was more than just to do Q&As. “We don’t know much about marketing a film, so coming here and talking to other filmmakers who know about it is good for us,” Nargi told me.
The short film packages also showed off some great talents. The deserving winner of the Kodak Emerging Filmmaker’s Short Award went to Canadian filmmaker Paul Quarrington’s film “A Man’s Life.” This dark comedy about a family’s decision to watch the Super Bowl during their father’s wake was a crowd favorite. “The UK of A” by Alan Dorfman made fun of the differences between American and British families by cleverly highlighting their stereotypes. William Doble and Toby Miller’s documentary “Zog’s Place” showed off how small some of the living spaces in New York City really are (especially when they are filled with clutter).
One of the least publicized parts of the festival was its Kidfest Shorts, which highlighted the young filmmakers of the world. Shown every morning, the screenings were catered to students who came on field trips to see the films. My favorite was “Little Monk” by 14-year-old Chaille Stovall. Stovall follows a young child who leaves his family and all his possessions behind to become a monk. A veteran of the Sarasota Film Festival, Stovall has shown two films in the past and has a deal with HBO. “We bring him to the local schools and he’s so sophisticated that the kids are just blown away by him,” says Hans Wohlgefahrt, outreach coordinator at the festival. It would be nice to see the festival expand Kidfest out of the unpopular morning hours in the future so more people could check them out.
The last two nights were hyped all week to be the festival’s hallmark. Starting out with Night of a Thousand Stars on Friday at the lush Michael’s On East in southern Sarasota, the only stars to come out were William H. Macy (there for his film “Stealing Sinatra”), Richard Dreyfuss, and Andrew McCarthy. The festival concluded the next night with a black-tie tribute dinner for Dreyfuss at the Ritz Carlton, highlighted by a short presentation commemorating Dreyfuss’ work, which included a taped message by Steven Spielberg (a shining moment for the publicists of the festival).
The A-List appearances continued at the wrap party that followed when record producer Jack Douglas (who was at the festival for the screening of his short, “A Mob Story”) was given an award for achievements in music and film. There to honor Douglas were two bands that he has worked with, Aerosmith and Cheap Trick. Aerosmith gave the crowd what they wanted and performed a couple of songs before they were rushed away by security, but not before Steven Tyler picked up a pair of panties a women in the crowd had thrown on stage.
Jody Kielbasa, executive director of the festival, spoke about making Sarasota’s festival “one of the best in the world” at the tribute dinner. That goal that may not be too realistic at this point in the festival’s short history, but since its inception ticket sales have increased every year (this year close to 30,000), it’s expanded from three to five to 10 days, and it’s been consistent in getting celebrities to show up each year. It’s more than obvious this film festival has found its niche and it can only get better.