The 18th annual Florida Film Festival ended a week ago last night, and do you want to know why our coverage of the fest is going up just now? Because I'm selfish and wanted to catch up with as many of the forty or so features as possible, even after the awards had been announced and everyone had gone home (for the record, I managed to miss each and every winning film -- Prince of Broadway, The Garden, Prodigal Sons, Neil Young: Don't Be Denied, and the exceedingly popular Poundcake -- and am kicking myself still).
However, between the appearances by Ken Russell, Glenn Close, and Jon Voight (oh, my!), I did manage to catch my fair share of world, regional, and local premieres at this celebration of Original Cinema, and you can see what we saw after the jump.
Alien Trespass -- The balance between parody and homage is a very fine line, and while it's clear that the makers of this faux-fifties monster movie are affectionate to the films of the era, what some might call playing it straight is what I found to be somewhat dry going. That said, Eric McCormack is adequately dapper as the scientist possessed by an alien visitor, Jenni Baird is quite winning as the waitress-turned-heroine, a meta-nod to The Blob seems long overdue from any film, and I'm always a sucker for the occasional rear-projection antics.
American Swing -- I don't know if that was always the title of this documentary about Plato's Retreat, the once-infamous swinger's club in NYC, but it only reinforces the narrow scope of the piece as it shifts focus on the rise of the club to the fall of its owner. It's admittedly fascinating and informative, but to a fault, always offering more illumination about a certain crowd and their sexual identity than that of the generation they were a part of.
The Answer Man -- 'Quirky' has become somewhat of a four-letter word on the film festival circuit in recent years, and while this dramedy does have a considerable amount of only-in-indies dysfunction, the cast here -- reclusive author Jeff Daniels, scrappy chiropractor Lauren Graham, and recovering alcoholic Lou Taylor Pucci -- does their damnedest to bring out something real amidst the backdrop of a predictable plot and a sheen of, yes, good ol' quirk.
Art & Copy -- Documentarian Doug Pray (Surfwise) looks at the pervasive role that advertising has come to play in modern society -- the cost behind launching a major ad campaign today, the mentality behind creating the almost artistic efforts of yesteryear, the way in which commercials have come to shape our cultural identity -- and even if it's sometimes hard to hear the talking heads above the sound of back-patting, it's still a thorough look at an industry that, by its very nature, never goes out of style.
Battle for Terra -- For about a year now, this animated fantasy adventure -- described aptly enough by the fest program as a cross between Star Wars and Wall-E -- has been making the rounds, and having seen it in 2-D, I can understand why Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions picked it up for a 3-D release in early May. The visuals are impressively cinematic in nature, the eco-friendly message isn't laid on too thick, and the voice cast is a considerable one (Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson, Dennis Quaid, Brian Cox, and Danny Glover, to name a few).
The Burning Plain -- Guillermo Arriaga has a habit for churning out non-linear, multi-cultural tales of woe, and after 21 Grams and Babel, the gimmick is wearing thin. Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger are both quite good as they face down secrets past and present, and cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) works as many wonders with shadows as he does light, but Arriaga seems so fixated on fragmenting the heartache that he forgets to leave in any real heart.
Chronic Town -- Throw a dart at any film festival line-up, and you're bound to hit a low-key dramedy about a small-town curmudgeon who thinks himself alone but not lonely, only to have his mind changed by a couple of unexpected new friends (see: The Answer Man). However, JR Bourne proves to be a winningly dry curmudgeon in Tom Hines' directorial debut, which takes a turn or two towards the end that would've had any lesser film skidding right off the road.
Deadgirl -- Oh, boundaries. You're just sitting there, waiting to be pushed, aren'tcha? While this horror title -- in which two teens (Shiloh Fernandez and Noah Segan) find a writhing zombie and have pretty opposing notions of what to do with her -- certainly merits some squirming, there's little beyond the gallows humor and relentless name-calling* to raise it above the level of conversation starter for the willing audience and calling card for the directors, who admittedly make the most of whatever budget they had.
(*By name-calling, I mean that these two apparent best friends insist on calling each other by name in every single scene. "Rickie!" "JT!" "Rickie!" "JT!" So on, so forth, rinse, lather, repeat.)
Food Fight -- Just as Art & Copy made the all-American argument for advertising, this doc concerns itself with the nation's agricultural industry and how it's changed across the decades. For a film filled with the requisite talking heads and no shortage of statistics, director Christopher Taylor weaves a surprisingly sprightly portait of what we eat, how we eat, and why we eat as we do (believe it or not, the government merits a bit of blame for a change).
Lymelife -- Others have said it, and it's true: this is basically The Ice Storm Light (with a dash of Snow Angels thrown in to the mix). However, there's something about this tale of a young lad (Rory Culkin) coming of age amidst family dysfunction and an outbreak of Lyme disease on Long Island in the seventies that works despite its familiarity, and I'm willing to chalk this one up to the cast. Rory and older brother Kieran have rarely had the chance to be this grounded (Igby Goes Down was a bit flightier in comparison), Emma Roberts has likewise matured into exactly the kind of teen that one would be smitten with at Rory's any age, Alec Baldwin and Timothy Hutton each make for convincing patriarchs despite differing considerably in financial and mental stability, and Jill Hennessy gets her most substantial role on screen in ages and quietly makes the most of it. The least said about Cynthia Nixon's regional accent, though, the better...
Management -- Steve Zahn has yet to prove himself a creep, and his streak is put the test in this tonally spastic romantic dramedy. After having a one-night stand with a guest at his motel (Jennifer Aniston), the love-happy fool travels across the country to find her and convince her that they're meant to be. If things weren't creepy enough to begin with, the second act lays on the silliness fast before things take a hard turn to Sentimental Town, and every indication seems to suggest that Emmy-winning playwright Stephen Belber, making his directorial debut, might be better off working on the small screen or stage instead.
The Merry Gentleman -- Speaking of directorial debuts, Michael Keaton makes his with this subdued drama in which his suicidal hitman finds unexpected companionship with abuse-fleeing secretary Kelly Macdonald. Again, we're back to the theme of troubled people bound by fate to help one another, but Keaton and Macdonald anchor the film with their natural gravity and charm, respectively... even if the proceedings come to a somewhat anti-climactic close* (and if anyone knows what the title means, please feel free to share with the rest of the class).
(*Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- will make you sick and tired of ambiguous endings more than a film festival. They're like a shortcut to supposed significance...)
The Rock-afire Explosion -- I'd argue that the least a documentary should do is inform, while the ideal doc would entertain and enlighten in equal measure. By that criteria, I certainly know more about the Showbiz Pizza franchise and their animatronic band of critters than I had going in, but when Brett Whitcomb directs his attention to those few full-grown fans of the once legendary attraction, it speaks less for the nostalgia of an entire generation and more to the obsessive nature of their interests. As was the case with last year's I Think We're Alone Now, the subjects of Rock-afire are never treated with condescension, but one can't help but think that the filmmakers happened to stumble on a gold mine of peculiarity and were content with merely making sure that the camera was running.
School Play -- Speaking of comparisons to FFF '08 and some of its similarly shallow doc offerings (not to mention downright flimsy segues on my part), this chronicle of New York elementary schoolers putting on a production of "The Wizard of Oz" takes the inherent drama and whimsy of its central scenario for granted, not unlike last year's Girls Rock. It's engaging in all the easiest ways -- "oh, kids!" -- but sometimes, the grown-ups could use a little more than tantrums and dimples to get by.
Seventh Moon -- A young couple (Amy Smart and Tim Chiou) are on their honeymoon in rural China, and they happen to have the unfortunate timing of showing up about when hellish ghouls tend to run loose on the countryside. Director Eduardo Sánchez (co-brainchild of Blair Witch) favors quick cuts and frantic close-ups a bit too much for the attack sequences to truly frighten, but when all is still, some top-notch sound mixing and an eerie score tend to bring the chills, and Smart proves quite the trooper when the extent of Sánchez's story becomes apparent, with circumstances ranging from mere xenophobia to sheer claustrophobia and even that old chestnut, sacrifice rituals. Hey, 'til death do them part, right?
We Are the Mods -- If Lymelife came off as an Ice Storm/Snow Angels hybrid, then Mods strikes us more like a blend of Ghost World and The Dreamers, not to mention any other indie flick in which a lonely teen falls in with any crowd that'll have him/her. And like Lymelife, the familiar arc is bested by the cast of fresh faces (Melia Renee as the introvert protagonist, Mary Elise Hayden as the stylish bad influence) and director/co-writer E.E. Cassidy's easy-going tone and a knack for sparing us hysterics when inevitable conflicts arise. After all, what's less hip than overblown melodrama?
The Wrecking Crew -- You may not have heard of Tommy Tedesco or Carol Kaye, but you've certainly heard their work as they and other companions served as studio musicians time and time again on the hit songs and albums of The Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher, The Monkees, Glen Campbell, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, The Carpenters, and countless other musical acts. There's no lack of names to drop or songs to hear, and to see the remaining members of the Crew share stories of their good fortune is a unique treat in and of itself, made all the more impressive when considering that Tedesco's son, Denny, is serving as director and striking a fair balance between his father's importance in the gang and that of his colleagues.