Limelight: No Place Like Home

Despite its cozily domestic theme, this year’s Florida Film Festival had edge and eccentricity.

I have to admit I was puzzled by the announcement:

The Florida Film Festival devotes its 19th edition to a celebration of the spirit, passion, and warmth of Home Sweet Home.
I was confused because I’ve always thought of the movies as a place you go when you need a break from whatever is going on at home—an escape from all that infernal domesticity.

Fortunately, the homey little theme didn’t drastically affect the lineup of often-edgy films at Enzian Theater’s annual event in April. And it didn’t seem to hurt attendance, which, at 26,000, was up 9 percent over last year, according to the official tally.

As usual, the festival was well run: The films mostly started on time, the parties were imaginative, and the audience seemed to enjoy the many opportunities (often at forums and Q&A sessions) to interact with filmmakers and actors.

The best feature film I saw definitely was not a Home Sweet Home kind of production. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—based on the Swedish bestseller—may be back in town when you read this, and it is well worth watching for.

In format, it’s the sort of murder mystery that teams a “normal” detective with a “quirky” one. But the closest thing to a normal one, in this case, is a disgraced journalist who has been sentenced to prison. Ordinarily, he’d be the quirky one. But the quirky one here is a hardboiled bisexual computer expert with numerous piercings, that dragon tattoo and a history of violence.

Yes, it’s extreme—and extremely gripping.

My other festival favorites include Winter’s Bone, a grim Ozarks tale that won the festival’s grand jury award for narrative feature; Homewrecker, an oddball comedy about an inmate on work release that took the special jury award for narrative filmmaking; Dumbstruck, a fascinating documentary about ventriloquists; and Punching the Clown, a funny slice of life about a satirical singer-songwriter.

Near the other end of the spectrum are New Low and The Young Composers Challenge. I can’t really fault the festival’s organizers for having shown them; both are Florida features, and I suppose that something called the Florida Film Festival ought to have at least a couple of those.

Too bad the former is a limp, Woody Allen-wannabe comedy and the latter, a documentary, is a bland P.R. job about five adolescents who participate in an Orlando-based competition for junior composers of classical music.

“All five of them are just…super, super nice, sweet, sweet teenagers,” said the documentary’s director, local filmmaker Lisa Mills, after the festival screening. Which, I’m sorry to say, is exactly the problem.

Of more local interest was another documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty, which follows the fortunes of the Disney company from the early 1980s through the opening of The Lion King in 1994. A chronicle of how the Mouse revived its moribund animation operation, the film is full of inside-Disney dish (including some about Walt Disney World).

Look for this one to return to a local theater, too.

After last year’s featured appearances by such household names as Glenn Close and Jon Voight, this year’s VIP list struck me as a tad thin. The biggest “gets” were Gena Rowlands (best known these days for The Notebook) and Seymour Cassel (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), both stars of 1968’s Faces, a classic about a marriage in chaos, directed by the indie pioneer John Cassavetes.

Faces was shown at a festival event honoring Cassavetes (who died in 1989) that also featured reminiscences by Rowlands (his widow) and Cassel.

The event qualified as a festival highlight, if a rather kooky one, mostly thanks to the irrepressible Cassel, who started telling stories about Cassavetes while Faces’ end credits were rolling and the theater was still in darkness. He barely paused except to request an alcoholic beverage, to exclaim “Oh, thank God!” when it arrived and to flee the stage when nature called.

“I’m only going No. 1,” he cried, as he beat a hasty retreat. TMI perhaps, but in a refreshingly non-domestic way.

Beach Boy

During Lang Lang’s recent performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 at Bob Carr, I noticed a palpable ease as he played, almost as if he were lolling on the beach.

The music may explain much of that, but the Sunshine State might also have been partly responsible.

“Today I went to the beach in Sarasota and I got a little sunburned,” Lang Lang told me with a laugh, just before the concert. He added that he hoped “to take that inspiration from going to the beach” onto the stage with him.

After his much-praised performance at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese musician, who turns 28 this month, made Time magazine’s 2009 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

“I wish I could stay here [in Florida] all the time,” he said. “Europe is so cold, and most classical concerts are in the north.”

Lang Lang, you’re welcome back any time.

Golden Ager

When I want to see a Marvel superhero, I can usually find one (or a reasonable facsimile) at Universal Orlando. But to meet an artist who drew some of those iconic characters in their formative years, I went to the Orange County Regional History Center, where, wearing Betty Boop suspenders, Allen Bellman recently spoke about his career. Bellman, who turns 86 this month, drew the Human Torch, Sub Mariner and Captain America in the 1940s and ’50s—the Golden Age of Comics. He eventually migrated to South Florida, where he now lives and where he worked as an artist for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel for a decade. I asked Bellman: Of all the comic-book heroes you’ve drawn, which is your favorite? “Captain America,” he said without a moment’s hesitation. Why? “Because that’s what the fans bought.” And, hey, isn’t that the American way?

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