DID YOU READ

A film festival judge takes us behind the scenes of how awards are dolled out

The Sarasota Film Festival

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By Jordan Hoffman

At some point in mid-February one of the many publicists I deal with on a regular basis in New York asked if I was planning on going to the Sarasota Film Festival in April. If I had my druthers, I’d go, I said. I love film festivals. You watch movies all day and eat prosciutto-wrapped asparagus all night. But it didn’t look like it was in the cards.

My superpower, however, is getting publicists to think I am far more important than I actually am. Seriously, if it were an Olympic event I’d be a five-time medalist. I was soon offered a position on one of the three juries at this prestigious fest, which meant a couple of days down in Florida on someone else’s dime. Who was I to say no?

I’ve been on a festival jury before (2011 Fantastic Fest) and I have been a working critic for five years, but what the folks making the offer may not have known was that, in a previous life, I was (and hope to one day be again) an independent filmmaker. Two of my films have gone off to various corners of the Earth and each came back with their fair share of laurel wreaths for the poster. Did it make me rich and famous? No. But it kept me from hitting rock bottom a few times, as family members and girlfriends could remind me that, hey, at least we won that audience award up in Rhode Island.

Considering that I’d been “on the other side,” I was going to take my job as a juror very seriously. There were nine films in my section, a division dedicated to low budget and, in some cases, first time films. Five of the films were being sent to me on DVD, the remainder I’d see down during fest.

When the package came I popped ’em without doing any research. The first film I watched was called “In Our Nature,” and when the opening credits ran I was surprised to see some known Hollywood actors. Jena Malone (whom I’ve been fond of since “Contact”) and Gabrielle Union play opposite Zach Gilford and John Slattery.

The movie is awful. It’s everything you worry an independent movie is going to be. A bunch of whiners go up to a cabin in the woods to sit around and talk their feelings to one another. The camera doesn’t move, the scenes are endless and I immediately regretted saying yes to being on the jury. What if the other 8 movies were this bad?

The next movie I put it was called “Richard’s Wedding.” It starts with two people walking down a street in Brooklyn just yapping. The scene doesn’t end, but they’re being a little funny. It has a neo-Seinfeld vibe. Then I notice that some of zings get really good. Still there’s hardly anything resembling a plot and the camera and sound work make it seem like this flick cost 89 cents to make, but I find myself laughing out loud quite a bit, then really starting to like the characters.

“Richard’s Wedding” soon presents itself as something of a three-act play. In the first act, a man and a women walk to an apartment to meet up with others before going to a wedding. In the second act they hang out at the apartment and rib one another and drink. In the third act they all go to the park where the wedding is, of course, a disaster.

Something odd happened when they got to that apartment, however. When the actor opened the door my skin got cold. I KNOW that guy! The actor playing the douchey rich guy was actually someone I worked with for two years back in the early aughts. We both worked part time at a horrible place and made fun of our dipshit boss. In fact, he even showed up for one quick line of dialogue in my first film.

I was devastated. Clearly this was a conflict of interest, no? I mean, I would be rooting for my friend, right? But the thing is, I was really digging “Richard’s Wedding” on its own merits – and I haven’t seen this actor in at least five years. I pressed on.

The third film was called “Welcome to Pine Hill” and it grabbed me from the first scene. It is a moody and evocative film about an African-American from Brooklyn trying to sever the ties to his criminal past by working a boring job in Manhattan. He discovers he has inoperable cancer and decides he must settle his old debts before he can find peace.

Wow, I just made the movie sound really maudlin, and I swear it is anything but. It is artfully shot and understated – and loaded with natural performances and finely observed set pieces. I’m instantly smitten with this film and don’t see how anything else could top it.

Then I see the next film and think, hey, this one is pretty good, too. It is called “The Unspeakable Act,” and my mind is somewhat blown. The titular act is incest, but this is no exploitation film. It’s like Eric Rohmer’s “The Green Ray” meets Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress.” It has mannered, almost surreal dialogue and is shot with bright colors in one of those gorgeous Victorian Brooklyn homes like in “Sophie’s Choice.” It is one of the most steadfastly true to its own peculiar vision things I’ve seen in quite a long time.

I get a return of the queasy feeling again when I realize that the director, Dan Sallit, is someone else I know. He, at least, I haven’t seen since around 1997, but way back when I met him when I was working for an independent producer in New York.

The last film I watch on DVD called “See Girl Run” also has some known stars, Robin Tunney and Adam Scott, and it might even be worse than “In Our Nature.” And I really like Adam Scott, so this was particularly annoying.

A few days later I fly down to Sarasota and immediately proceed to get my ass kissed by volunteers and filmmakers who see the word “jury” on my badge. I’m a married man and don’t get out that much, so this was a very gratifying experience.

I quickly confess to the fest director that I kinda-sorta know some of the people involved in some of the films. I expect to be sent back to New York on a bus. I’m told, however, to just be fair, and be a professional, and let everyone else on the jury know.

I meet my two fellow jurors. One is an old friend, Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York, whose tastes often align with mine, and a fella I don’t know named Michael Dunaway from Paste Magazine. (After fifteen minutes, however, I feel like I’ve known him for years. He may be the most gregarious person I’ve met.) We were three not at all angry men.

On my own I see Kris wife-of-Joe Swanberg’s “Empire Builder.” Another story about people going up to a cabin in the woods, but this one stars the current low budget it-girl Kate Lyn Sheil, and that alone makes it stand out. It is a really emotionally reserved and subtle film about marital infidelity, but it doesn’t get too hysterical. How could it have time, it is only 72 minutes? I like the movie a great deal, but I’m not bananas for it.

After this came a real joy, Jonathan Lisecki’s “Gayby.” The premise may not jump out as the most original idea in the world – gay man and straight woman decide to have a kid, shenanigans ensue – but the writing is really hilarious and the extended supporting cast is simply fantastic. We jurors watch this as a group and everyone has a good time.

After this came another Kate Lyn Sheil vehicle, “Sun Don’t Shine.” This time she’s on the lam with her boyfriend after stabbing her husband. Even though there’s a lot more stuff going on in it, I find myself more intrigued by “Empire Buildier.” But, really, it shouldn’t be a contest. Oh, wait! Actually, it IS a contest! And I’m the judge! Pressure!

The last film we saw was called. . . um. . .oh, crap I can’t remember the name. And I can barely remember the movie. Hold on, let me look it up again. Ah, it was called “Leave Me Like You Found Me.” It’s about people walking around the woods being mad at each other.

So we’d seen our nine films. (And I snuck in two other ones not in our category, too.) Then we had to hammer it out. Where best to decide? Brunch!

The nine jurors (three panels each with three people) gathered and the head of the festival (the esteemed Tom Hall) quietly observed the discussion, fingers poised over an iPad ready to take the names of the winner.

The only rule was that we pick at least one winner. We could give jury prizes, too, but we should restrict it to only two. So this meant we could honor three films.

From my point of view, I wanted to give the awards to the movies I liked best, but also the ones that could really benefit from an additional laurel leaf on the poster.

I really loved “Welcome to Pine Hill,” and it won the best film at Slamdance. An additional award would make it seem like a mandate, and, hopefully, help the film get distribution. “The Unspeakable Act,” however, is a really challenging film, and this was its debut. An award first out of the gate could help this uncompromising film get programmed elsewhere. Then there was “Gayby” and “Richard’s Wedding,” both very funny and crowdpleasing.

Of the three groups there, we were the first to reach a decision that everyone could sign-off on. I’d like to believe that it is because we picked the right winners.

It would be unfair to my fellow jurors to lift the veil back too far, but we came up with a compromise we could live with. “The Unspeakable Act” is a movie that is intense and unique and wholly original. It would win best film. We all loved “Welcome to Pine Hill” (though, I may have been its strongest booster) and felt a special jury prize was in order. Much of what makes that film so memorable is its lead role, so we gave a prize for performance to its lead actor Shannon Harper. Next we wanted to award something for writing, and, at the end of the day, we felt we had to salute the zing-tastic “Richard’s Wedding.” We felt a little guilty about leaving “Gayby” out to dry, but just a few days later it landed a distribution deal, so I think it may have all worked out in the end.

So that’s how the sausage gets made. I left out all the stuff about the parties that included Mexican wrestlers, the Flying Wallendas and David Carr, but to experience an extended weekend at a place as welcoming and enriching as the Sarasota Film Festival is really something you need to do on your own. I also recommend wearing the coveted purple lanyard because it can get you in ANYWHERE.

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Janet Varney -Photo Credit: Kim Simms/IFC

Jan Against Evil

10 Things You Need to Know About Janet Varney

Catch Janet Varney on Stan Against Evil premiering November 2nd at 10P with back-to-back episodes.

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Janet Varney is about to go big time. She’s been on our radar for years, always popping up on that show, Web series or podcast we couldn’t get enough of. Now, Janet’s about to star on Stan Against Evil, the new IFC horror comedy series from the folks behind The Simpsons and The Walking Dead. As a little homework, we thought we’d dig into this talented performer’s past, and see what’s helped make her such a star on the rise.

Bone up on all things Janet Varney below, and be sure to stay tuned to IFC.com for more Stan Against Evil news before the big premiere on November 2nd at 10P.

10. She’s an Animation Voice Acting Superstar.

Korra
Nickelodeon Animation Studio

While Janet might be a new face to some folks, animation fans know she’s been the voice behind some beloved animated characters. Probably best known for bringing the heroic Korra to life on The Legend of Korra, she’s also provided her talents to shows and movies like Norm of the North, Sanjay and Craig and Dante’s Inferno.


9. The San Francisco Sketchfest? She co-founded it.

SF Sketchfest
SF Sketchfest

Now entering its 15th year, the SF Sketchfest started as an excuse by Varney, and friends David Owen and Cole Stratton, to give Bay Area comedians a place to perform. Over the years it has transformed into a comedy hotbed, with everyone from Zach Galifianakis to the original cast members of SNL taking part.


8. She’s Been Known to Perform Old Time Radio Plays.

Shawn Robinson / The Daily Quirk

Shawn Robinson / The Daily Quirk

The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a stage show and podcast that performs in the style of the radio plays of yore. Varney began as a guest, popping up in numerous productions, until she finally just went ahead and joined the troupe. Some of the show’s more notable regulars include Nathan Fillion, Comedy Bang! Bang! favorite Paul F. Tompkins and Linda Cardellini.


7. She Nailed a Classic Key & Peele Sketch.

Key & Peele was always at its best when deconstructing race in America. In this classic sketch, Janet Varney and comedian Natasha Leggero starred as two women who vacillated between the good and the bad of having preconceived notions about black people. Are stereotypes always racist? Can you use people’s ignorance to your own advantage? Is it wrong to have sex with a racist girl? No, seriously, is it? Because Key and Peele would like to know.


6. She’s Riffed Movies with the MST3K gang.

Footloose Rifftrax
ColeStratton.com/Rifftrax

From the warped minds behind Mystery Science Theater 3000RiffTrax Presents is a series where comedians are set loose on lousy movies, taking them down one sarcastic comment at a time. Varney, along with longtime collaborator Cole Stratton, are frequent guests on the show.


5. She claims June Diane Raphael is an Amazing Kisser.

Burning Love
Yahoo! Studios

While doing an AMA on Reddit, Janet coughed up some juicy gossip. Varney was one of the stars of the Yahoo! series Burning Love, making it all the way to the end of the parody dating series. At one point, she was fortunate to lock lips with Mrs. Raphael, and gives the experience a big thumbs up.


4. Her Podcast The JV Club Perfectly Captures Our Awkward Years.

The JV Club
Nerdist

A renaissance woman if there ever was one, Varney curates her own art exhibition called Fleeting Immersion, writes music, and hosts her own podcast, The JV Club, on the Nerdist Network. A weekly look back at all of our awkward years, the show is consistently featured in The Onion’s AV Club “Best Podcasts” lists. Guests from all areas of entertainment have stopped by to dish about their formative years, including Portlandia‘s own Carrie Brownstein.


3. She Had Puppet Dreams with Neil Patrick Harris.

Neil's Puppet Dreams
Nerdist

Varney helped bring Neil and his partner David Burtka’s puppet fantasies to life with the Web series Neil’s Puppet Dreams. She raved about working on the Jim Henson Company series, telling Nerdist that “[Neil’s Puppet Dreams is] my baby. I had a baby with two gay men and that’s what came out.”


2. Remember Dinner and a Movie? She Cohosted it!

Dinner and a Movie
TBS

What better way to enjoy a movie than with a delicious dinner inspired by a pun? From “Snow Coens” to “The Hippocratic Loaf” to “The Beets Go On,” if there was an adorably corny food-related joke to mine, the good people behind Dinner and a Movie found it. Thankfully, that was far from the only reason to tune in. From 2005 to 2011, Janet got to stuff her face and flaunt her film knowledge as the host of the late night dinner party. Unfortunately, the show was canceled, but Varney says she’s still extremely close with cohosts Paul Gilmartin and Claud Mann.


1. She Plays Becca on You’re The Worst.

Janet Varney You're the Worst
FX

Prior to signing on to fight demons in Stan Against Evil, Janet was channeling inner demons on the FX dysfunction-com You’re the Worst. Her role as Becca, sister to Lindsay and Jimmy’s ex, is both integral to the show (her wedding is where Jimmy meets Gretchen) and earned Varney rave reviews.

Check out Janet in a clip from Stan Against Evil below.

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The Wicker Man Nic Cage Bees

Great Moments in Rotten History

10 Classic Rotten Movie Moments

Catch "Too Rotten to Miss" movies Fridays at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

Sometimes you don’t need to watch an entire movie to know how bad it is. Sometimes, just knowing about infamous scenes is enough to know why some movies have entered the cultural lexicon of badness. As we kick off a new month of “Too Rotten to Miss” movies on IFC, here are ten of the most infamous rotten movie moments — notorious even if you haven’t seen the movie from which they spawned.

1. “Not the bees!,” The Wicker Man

Nic Cage bees
Warner Bros.

There could be an entire list of these moments starring just Nicolas Cage. But despite a wealth of moments to choose from, the actor’s most infamous rotten moment comes from The Wicker Man, in which a fragile masculine fever dream in the form of a neo-pagan cult dumps a bucket of bees on Nic’s head.

This one is particularly beloved in bad movie circles — it was even made into a techno remix.


2. “I was being trained…to conquer GALAXIES!,” Battlefield Earth

Though I’m partial to all of the scenes on this list, this one has a special place in my heart. Battlefield Earth‘s badness is mostly stylistic, a film that positions itself as epic and badass but is really just…well, it’s something.

In this scene, John Travolta’s alien character Terl is getting drunk to drown his woes, so his line read is exceptionally ridiculous in a film full of already ridiculous line reads. And while you can’t say the failure of Battlefield Earth is entirely Travolta’s fault, he’s not blameless, either.


3. “Man, everybody got AIDS and shit!,” Showgirls

Showgirls hand wave
United Artists

Picking only one scene from this fruit salad of wonderful, terrible ideas was a challenge — what could possibly outdo “Different PLACES!“? Or Nomi’s empowering beating of her friend’s rapist while topless with lipstick on her nipples? Or any scene between Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon?

Showgirls whorey
United Artists

But really, one must go with that exercise in David Lynchian surrealism where Nomi is warned off by her friend/mentor(?) James against…unsafe sex? Metaphorical promiscuity? Actual promiscuity? Because everybody got AIDS. AND shit. #90s.


4. “Daddy would you like some sausage?,” Freddy got Fingered

Like with Showgirls, Freddy Got Fingered is also a stacked deck — do I choose, for instance, the scene in which Gord (Tom Green) manually stimulates a horse while merrily shrieking, “Look at me, daddy! I’m a farmer!”? Or, perhaps I could go with the one where he shoots elephant semen at Rip Torn out of an ejaculating elephant like an anti-aircraft missile? But no, perhaps because it’s more absurd than disgusting, Gord trying to tap into his creativity by chanting a monotone “Daddy, would you like some sausage?” has probably become the most infamous scene from an already infamously terrible movie.


5. “They’re eating her…,” Troll 2

Troll 2 is so terrible it even has a documentary (Best Worst Movie) chronicling its terrible-ness. But the truth about Troll 2 (which happens not to really be a sequel to Troll, or have much at all to do with it, really) is that, unlike Freddy Got Fingered and Showgirls, Troll 2 doesn’t have a litany of delightfully terrible sequences to choose from, and is comparatively forgettable. But the scene in which Arnold (Darren Ewing) witnesses a girl turn into plant matter, and reacts…accordingly(?) is definitely one for the books.

This one also has a dubstep remix!


6. Basketball scene, Catwoman

Catwoman is cited by many as the film that single-handedly killed superhero movies starring women, a genre which has been basically non-existent until next year’s Wonder Woman film (finger’s crossed, everyone). Here, a newly powered Catwoman (Halle Berry) goes one-on-one with her love interest, played by Eric Roberts. I think what they were going for is light-hearted and sexy, but the result defies not only logic, but spatial relativity, from a point-of-view shot where Berry is awkwardly shaking her booty to the confusing rapid fire cuts. Why, God why, are there so many cuts?


7. “Hi doggy!,” The Room

The Room is more a collection of surreal one-liners than scenes with intent or purpose. With that in mind, which do I go with as the most rotten moment? The “I definitely have breast cancer” scene? Or perhaps, even more memorable, “Everyone betray me!” (Watch it above.)

But I have to go with “Hi doggy!” for being the scene that wholly embodies the strangeness of The Room. Aside from the fact that the scene doesn’t really need to be in the movie, it looks like the crew only had this flower shop available to shoot in for ten minutes, and the rushed, surreal nature of the clipped dialogue just puts it over the edge.


8. “Turkey Time,” Gigli

And thank you, Jennifer Lopez, for basically ensuring that the boyfriends of an entire generation of women would never, ever go down on them. Alternately, if you’re not a fan of oral sex and want to make sure he never tries, this line is guaranteed to kill any mood, possibly forever.


9. Peter Parker dance, Spider-Man 3

When people want to explain why Spider-man 3 was the worst of the Spider-Man movies, perhaps the worst of any movie, this is the go-to example for why. People generally enjoyed Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man run for its ability to straddle a line between dramatic realism and comic book-y chicanery, but this scene alone brought the whole franchise dangerously close to Batman & Robin territory.


10. “Stop lubricating the man,” Transformers

Personally, I don’t think this one gets enough credit for the awful moment it is. Beloved character actor John Turturro gets pissed on by a precocious mute giant space robot named Bumblebee.

Oh, there are many terrible moments in later Transformers films, and yes, most of them do involve John Turturro…

But the first time I saw the Bumblebee golden shower scene, I legitimately thought I had dreamed it until a friend reminded me of its existence days later, including the little “byooiing!” as his…lubricant cap pops off? Truly, this was a landmark of badness.

Kick back with The Matrix Revolutions this Friday at 8P on IFC!

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John C. McGinley -Photo Credit Kim Simms/IFC

Necessary Evil

Get Freaky With New Stan Against Evil Photos

Stan Against Evil haunts IFC starting November 2nd at 10P with back-to-back episodes.

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From the warped minds behind The Simpsons and The Walking Dead comes your next horror comedy obsession.

Stan Against Evil employs ghoulish horror and pitch-black comedy that’ll both tingle the spine and tickle the ribs. And before the demon-possessed festivities kick off Wednesday, November 2nd at 10P ET with back-to-back episodes, we’ve got a glimpse at stars John C. McGinley and Janet Varney as mismatched small New England town sheriffs Stan Miller and Evie Barret who find themselves pitted against witches, demonic goats and other bizarre horrors.

Check out the Stan Against Evil stars — both living and undead — in the brand new photos below. Follow Stan on Facebook and Twitter for more updates as we approach the scarifiying November 2nd premiere.

Janet Varney Stan Against Evil

Witch Stan Against Evil

Book Stan Against Evil

Demon Stan Against Evil

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