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Sarasota comes into its own

The 8th Sarasota Film Festival concluded this past weekend, with a flurry of parties, special events and an impressive roster of Hollywood names receiving career tributes. The Festival, which has been growing in reputation in the past few years, has really come into its own this year as a major destination for filmmakers and film buffs.

Kudos to longtime Executive Director Jody Kielbasa, who has been able to attract high level sponsors, patrons and honorees to the event, and to Tom Hall, the Festival’s Program Director, who in only his second year at the helm, presented a world-class showcase of top flight independent and international films, that appealed to a wide audience base.

During the three day stint that I spent in “the cultural capital of Florida”, the mix of films I viewed was impressive and diverse. Susan Seidelman’s BOYNTON BEACH CLUB is a charming and tender comedy about the sexual shenanigans of the elder retiree set, with a terrific cast of comedy veterans, including Joseph Bologna, Sally Kellerman, Dyan Cannon, Brenda Vaccaro, Michael Nouri and Len Cariou. The film, which has been co—produced by Seidelman with her mother, is taking the bold move of booking into theaters without a major distribution deal in place. “Distributors love the film, but they kept questioning who the audience is…..well, we just decided to reach the audiences directly and the film will be screening in 10 Florida locations this month”, Seidelman declared. A canny distributor could do well with this film marketed to baby boomers and their elderly (and film going) parents.

A completely different mood is established early in NEO NED, a dramatic indie by Van Fischer. Rising star Jeremy Renner (who was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his electric performance in the docudrama DAHMER) brings a lot of talent and a quirky charm to his role of a young skinhead neo Nazi who, inexplicably, falls for an emotionally damaged black woman. The film premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and was also one of the highlights at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City in January. The film won the Festival’s Narrative Features Audience Award.

A LION IN THE HOUSE, co-directed by Stephen Bognar and Julia Reichert, is a 4-hour plus examination of how cancer affects the lives of children and their parents. The film follows four sets of young people battling the disease, and the ways that their families and the medical institutions both service and fail them. This is a riveting work of cinema veritée that is sure to be remembered at Oscar season next year.

Another dynamic and revealing documentary receiving its East Coast Premiere at the Festival was BEFORE THE MUSIC DIES by Andrew Shapter. This is a no-holds-barred look behind the scenes of the music industry….a dysfunctional universe that is obsessed with talent and imitation, where truly talented originals are ignored and devalued. The film features fantastic interviews with outspoken musicians Erykah Badu, Eric Clapton,
Elvis Costello, Branford Marsalis and Dave Matthews. After creating a case of neglect of truly original talents, the film becomes quite upbeat as it explores the opportunities provided by the Internet and new technologies to diminish the power of the record labels and bring music directly to the consumer.

Other highlights included the US Premiere of FABULOUS! THE STORY OF QUEER CINEMA, featuring great interviews with directors Todd Haynes, John Waters, Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell; THE AMATEURS, a hilarious comedy directed by Michael Traeger and featuring an impressive cast that includes Jeff Bridges, Time Blake Nelson, Ted Danson, Patrick Fugit and Joe Pantoliano; a re-issue of the 1959 film classic BLACK ORPHEUS, set during the Carnivale in Rio de Janeiro; OUR VERY OWN, a smart satire about the return of a washed up movie queen to her home town roots, starring Sondra Locke, Keith Carradine, Allison Janney and Jason Ritter; and the US Premiere of BRIDESMAID, veteran French director Claude Chabrol’s latest meditation on family secrets and lies.

The Festival honored a number of outstanding talents during its 10 day stint. Photographer Tina Barney presented a slideshow of her most famous work at the screening of TINA BARNEY: SOCIAL STUDIES, a documentary film about the art photographer who chronicles the social set of her Upper East Side roots. German director Werner Herzog was feted with the World Cinema Master Award, dedicated to the filmmaker’s commitment to portraying the diversity of cultural experience in our world. A dozen feature and short documentaries made by and about the director were presented, including such classics as FATA MORGANA (1970), LA SOUFRIERE (1977), MY BEST FIEND (1999), WHEEL OF TIME (2003) and last year’s celebrated GRIZZLY MAN.

At a black-tie dinner held last Saturday evening at the Longboat Key Club and Resort, the Festival presented tributes to five distinguished figures in American cinema: Oscar-winning director Robert Altman, Oscar-winning screenwriter/director Robert Towne, producer Paula Wagner and the husband-and-wife acting duo of William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman. The after-party featured music by art rockers The Brazilian Girls. The Festival closed on Sunday evening with A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, a tribute to the beloved National Public Radio comedy series, directed by Robert Altman and featuring an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Robin Williams, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, Lindsey Lohan and Lily Tomlin.

Sandy Mandelberger
Industry Editor


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