This weekend I was excited to return to my former hometown of Orlando for the Florida Film Festival which opened on Friday and continues through next weekend. This is its 16th year and I always feel a special kinship for this festival since it was the very first film fest I attended back when it began in 1992. And I even remember the very first movie I saw there: Spalding Gray’s “Monster in a Box.” I’ve been enjoying reminiscing, running into old friends and members of the local film community, and discussing movies.
Anyway, the opening weekend has been both exciting and disappointing. One of venues had some serious sound problems and eventually they had to cancel the programs there until they got the sound system fixed. That was quite irritating; but before that happened, I was able to see a number of really good shorts.
The best by far was called “Help Is Coming.” It was actually filmed in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in December 2005 (four months after Hurricane Katrina). Amazing, sweeping shots of just total devastation as three kids wander across this seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape. Everything is covered in mud—so much destruction. Not a soul except for these three kids. They find masks—one of Dick Chaney, one of W, and one of Ray Nagin—put them on and carry things to the top of a bridge and throw them off attached to parachutes. The things turn out to be mostly-empty cans and water bottles. The camera pans some more and the final image is a mud-covered VHS video tape on someone’s lawn. The title of the video is the movie “Armageddon.”
There were some other good shorts, too, including a very funny one called “The Caress of the Creature” which was made by FSU film school. It was done in the black-and-white style of a low-budget 50s horror movie like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” except in this version, the creature was gay and he wanted to tickle people. There was also an interesting little German movie which was mostly CGI about a World War I Flying Ace and his battle in the sky with an American fighter pilot and the respect and honor these sky warriors had for each other.
Another short, “Redemption Maddie,” was about a teenage girl who sleeps around trying to get pregnant—in the end we learn the surprising reason why, and it’s quite touching. There was a funny Argentinean short called “Bueno” about a father flipping out when his baby is being born in attempt to steal attention from the mother. And I saw an interesting documentary short called “I Just Wanted to Be Somebody” about 70’s singer Anita Bryant who was the spokesperson for Florida Orange Juice and then came out publicly against homosexuals. She led a campaign to repeal a Dade County (FL) statute protecting gays against discrimination in the late 1970s. She won the battle but lost the war.
There was also a very cute short called “Life Is Short” and was written by and starred Samm Levine (“Freaks and Geeks”). He played a short guy (he’s 5’4”) who was attracted to tall women but most tall women want nothing to do with a guy his height. The most humorous line was when he came on to a woman and she responded, “I wouldn’t sleep with you if I was poisoned and the antidote was in your sperm.” Levine and some of the other directors were there to answer questions from the audience, which is always interesting.
In addition to the shorts, I was able to see three feature-length films this weekend: a comedy, a drama, and a documentary. The comedy was called “Live Free or Die” and as I walked into the theatre, which in addition to the film festival screening was also showing regularly distributed non-festival movies, I saw this giant poster with a picture of Bruce Willis that said “Live Free or Die Hard.” For a moment I thought that was the movie I was going to, and I got a little upset because I didn’t really want to see a Bruce Willis action flick; but it turns out that it’s a completely unrelated film.
“Live Free or Die,” which is the state motto of New Hampshire, had gotten some good buzz. It was supposed to be very funny. It’s the story of two small-time crooks in a tiny New Hampshire town who take credit for some rather big crimes and get caught up in some serious stuff, partly due to some misunderstandings. Yea, it was funny, but not a laugh-a-minute riot. Although there were a few in the audience laughing their heads off at some things that I just didn’t think were at all funny. Either I didn’t get it because I have a poorly-developed sense of humor, or maybe you have to live in New Hampshire to get the jokes. So I felt, in the end, it was a bit overrated. It certainly wasn’t a bad film, but somehow I felt it was missing a certain je ne sais quoi that could have pushed it over the top to make it a really good film.
The drama I saw was “Swedish Auto” which was filmed in my new hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s the story of a soft-spoken auto mechanic and his love for two different women. Overall, it was good. It had a beautiful soundtrack and excellent acting, especially by Lukas Haas and Lee Weaver. Nice cinematography. And I liked that it was in no hurry. Certainly there was a plot, but I enjoyed the mood set in the first half-hour of the film before things really got rolling. Nice to just hang out with the characters. I was also excited to recognize several of the places where it was filmed: the downtown pedestrian mall where I frequently go, the Paramount Theatre, and Chaps Ice Cream. There were a number of scenes on the University of Virginia campus in the “academic village” section which had been designed by Jefferson. And there were some really good shots of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the foothills, near where I live. Unfortunately, I thought the ending a bit too pat, too easy, too Hollywoody. And I was also disappointed that the filmmaker himself was not in attendance.
However, the best part of the festival, so far, was this documentary I saw Saturday night. One of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It was the World Premier of “Born Again,” a very personal, reflective work by director Markie Hancock who was born into a very strict and conservative Evangelical Christian family (Born Again Christians); over a period of time she struggled with her faith and eventually came to reject it all. The fact that she turned out to be gay helped her see the problems with fundamentalist religion. She was very frank, and so were the members of her family whom she had interviewed. Quite open and direct, considering how much of a rift there was in her family—of the three children taught to open their heart to Christ, only one was still practicing the faith. Although the film was extremely personal, it was also quite universal: themes of family ties and struggles with religious belief are things I and most people can identify with.
I was quite impressed with this movie on so many levels. One which might be overlooked by some was the use of voice-overs. In several sections, such as reading from her old journals, she whispered loudly, and I thought that was a great effect, creating a mood as well as differentiating those sections from her normal narration.
Surely this movie was not easy to make. We learned from the Q&A afterwards that it took four years and I applaud Hancock for being so brave and vulnerable to make a film like this. Afterwards, I got to speak with her and her producer and I wished them the best of luck in getting a distributor.
So that’s the opening weekend. The festival continues for another seven days. Unfortunately I’ll be forced to miss the closing weekend as I must return to Virginia, but I’ll be able to hang around for a few more days. It should get even better.
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