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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Religuous Bill Maher

Politics Now!

10 Hilarious Political Documentaries You Need to See

Documentary Now! gets political with "The Bunker" premiering September 14th at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: ©Lionsgate/Courtesy Everett Collection

Who says political documentaries can’t be hilarious? The best political docs — like The War Room, the 1993 depiction of the Clinton presidential campaign that Documentary Now! pays homage to with “The Bunker” — have plenty in them to make you laugh. Here are 10 political documentaries that will elicit more than just bitter laughter.

1. The Yes Men

Activist duo Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos are responsible for not just one, but three funny and scathing political documentaries: The Yes Men (2003), The Yes Men Fix the World (2009) and The Yes Men are Revolting (2014). The pair impersonate bad guys from the worlds of business and government, and often end up fooling the media. They also stage elaborate pranks like having dozens of people don inflatable ball outfits called SurvivaBalls to help survive catastrophes resulting from climate change. Along the way they’ve racked up numerous awards and almost as many arrests.


2. Weiner

“Hilarious…like a Spinal Tap of politics,” said the New York Post about the doc Weiner, of course adding, “…it’s the full package.” This doc follows the disgraced Congressman, who had to resign due to a sexting scandal, in his quest for a comeback, running for Mayor of New York City. Incredibly, yet another sexting scandal explodes during the course of filming. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, as the whole sordid story unfolds before the cameras, featuring Weiner and his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. It’s the film that puts the (Carlos) “danger” back in politics.


3. Please Vote for Me

Politics on a scale much smaller but just as riveting are on display in this 2007 documentary. A third grade class in China is given the task of holding an election for class monitor. The resulting web of intrigue, dirty tricks and bare-knuckle politics among this group of 8-year-olds are reminiscent of something Karl Rove or Lee Atwater would come up with. And the parents are worse. A fascinating look at the roots of democracy, with a touch of Lord of the Flies.


4. Roger & Me

Filmmaker Michael Moore could have any one of a number of his movies in this list (his is the first name most people think of when the subject of funny political docs comes up). But his first doc, Roger & Me, remains one of his funniest and — with its focus on the economic impact of globalization on American workers — still remains one of his timeliest. The film centers around Moore’s attempts to confront then CEO of General Motors Roger B. Smith. Moments from the film including scenes with former game show host Bob Eubanks and another with a luckless rabbit have become iconic.


5. Bronx Obama

The first feature-length documentary from filmmaker Ryan Murdock, Bronx Obama follows the story of Louis Ortiz, a lifelong resident of the South Bronx. Unemployed and with a young daughter, Ortiz is told by a friend in 2007 that he looks like a rising young politician. Before long, he’s making a living as a Barack Obama impersonator. The award-winning doc shows many hilarious moments intentional and otherwise as Ortiz comes to grips with his new life over the course of three years during Obama’s first term and deals with an unscrupulous manager.


6. Religulous

Bill Maher brings his scathing satire of organized religion to his 2008 documentary Religulous. In the course of the film he travels to The Wailing Wall, The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City and The Vatican, among other places. But some of the best scenes are in cheesy locales like The Creation Museum and a Christian theme park in Orlando called Holy Land Experience. He even finds a Muslim gay bar in Amsterdam. Maher is merciless in his mockery of the main Western religions, but even if you disagree with his viewpoints, his comedy is always spot on.


7. Al Franken: God Spoke

From the makers of The War Room, this doc shows the evolution of Al Franken from comedian to political pundit during the first term of George W. Bush. We see Franken touring in promotion of his book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, broadcasting at Air America Radio and touring with the USO in Iraq. The most memorable encounters in the film are clashes with right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. It’s a funny look at a man on a journey from SNL to the US Senate.


8. Journeys with George

In the year 2000, Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi) was covering the presidential campaign of then-Texas Governor George W. Bush for NBC. For 18 months, she also used a handheld camcorder to record Journeys with George. The result is a remarkably warm and funny portrait of a somewhat goofball politician. Pelosi went on to become a filmmaker. Bush went on to bigger things as well. From the vantage point of 16 years later, the big takeaway from Journeys with George is that George W. Bush seemed a lot funnier before we had eight years of him as president.


9. Mitt

You may have suspected that George W. Bush could make a goofily entertaining subject for a documentary. What you never suspected was that Mitt Romney could ever be anything other than stiff and robotic. For the film Mitt, documentarian Greg Whiteley was given unprecedented access to Romney in his runs for president in both 2008 and 2012. What emerges is a surprisingly human portrait of Romney and his family. There’s an amazing scene in the hotel on the night Mitt lost to Barack Obama revealing that he never even contemplated the possible need for a concession speech.


10. Sarah Palin: You Betcha!

No list of things both political and funny can avoid having at least one entry about Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin: You Betcha! is from noted British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) and should not be confused with the fawning Palin doc The Undefeated. In 2011, after she had become a conservative icon, Broomfield went to Alaska and documented his attempts at getting an interview with Palin in a Roger & Me-esque pursuit. In interviews with Palin family, friends, fans and foes, Broomfield manages to make the self-described “mama grizzly” seem both dangerous and ridiculous, both of which are undoubtedly true.

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Bill and Teds Bogus Journey Everett

Die Laughing

5 Depictions of “Death” in Comedy

Catch Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey this week on IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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With Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey airing as part of IFC’s Rotten Fridays, we got to thinking about how exactly the character of Death made his way onto the screen – and onto the poster – of a 1991 comedy sequel.

Ingmar Bergman’s depiction of Death in his 1957 classic The Seventh Seal set the tone for how most people think of The Grim Reaper. Portrayed by Bengt Ekerot, Death was a chess-playing philosopher, answering deep existential questions while capturing your rook with his knight. In Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Death is partial to board games.

Here then is the journey of Death in movie comedies, from Bill & Ted to Whoopi.

1. The Dove / De Duva (1968)

Three years after The Seventh Seal hit theaters, this short film parodied as much Ingmar Bergman as could fit into 14 minutes. The centerpiece is of course the pale-faced and shrouded Death, challenged this time in a game of badminton. It’s also the film debut of Madeline Kahn, who would go on to become the queen of parody with Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety and Blazing Saddles.


2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail trailer (1975)

One of the greatest comedies of all times parodies one of the greatest movies of all times –- but only in the trailer. Referring to the director and title by name, this preview promises something “all rather silly” when compared to The Seventh Seal. To wit: Death takes a pie to the face.


3. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Bill and Ted
Orion Pictures

If Death can play chess, then why not Twister, Clue and Battleship? Of all the comic portrayals of Death in movies, this is the one that holds up best. William Sadler brings a vulnerability to the role while never losing Death’s sense of menace. Like the Bill & Ted movies, it’s brilliantly smart and stupid all at the same time.


4. The Last Action Hero (1993)

"Ian
Columbia Pictures

This action-comedy-trainwreck acknowledges The Seventh Seal as a movie and then takes a big leap as the character of Death leaves the land of Ingmar Bergman and jumps into the world of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ian McKellen (the Bengt Ekerot of our day) takes over the role and wreaks havoc in 1990s America.


5. Monkeybone (2001)

Monkeybone
20th Century Fox

Whoopi Goldberg plays Death in this bizarre 2001 comedy, where Brendan Fraser’s comatose cartoonist must get an “exit pass” from Death in order to return to the land of the living. Also, Death has a giant robot. It’s a weird movie, folks.

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Rick Moranis Honey I shrunk the kids

Rick of Time

10 Best Rick Moranis Roles

Catch Rick Moranis in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Buena Vista Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection

Everyone loves Rick Moranis. It’s just the truth. This month on IFC, you get a chance to rediscover his awesomeness in Honey, I Shrunk the KidsAs you enjoy that family comedy gem, here are a few other roles that showcase Rick Moranis’ greatness.

1. Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour Krelborn

Only Rick Moranis could play a character that you still root for even though he’s murdering people and feeding them to an alien plant. Audiences loved Seymour so much, the studio had to reshoot the ending of the film. Originally, the film ended like the original Off-Broadway play, with Seymour and Audrey being eaten and Audrey II taking over the world. Test audiences couldn’t stand the fact that they were killed, so a new ending was shot with our leads victorious and the film became one of the best movie musicals of all time.


2. Ghostbusters, Louis Tully

In a film with so many comedy legends, it would have been easy for Rick Moranis to fade into the background as the hapless Louis Tully. But he more than holds his own up against the rest, making Tully just as funny as he is pathetic. And when he goes bug-eyed as Vinz Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer, that’s when the fun really starts.


3. Spaceballs, Dark Helmet

You don’t often think of James Earl Jones and Rick Moranis being typecast together. But in Mel Brooks’ goofy send-up of Star Wars, Moranis takes on his version of Darth Vader. As Dark Helmet, Moranis is a perfect mixture of occasionally threatening and mostly inept. If Brooks ever decides to revisit the Spaceballs franchise on the big screen, hopefully he’ll find a way to bring Dark Helmet into the new Star Wars universe.


4. Parenthood, Nathan Huffner

Directed by Ron Howard, Parenthood is a wonderfully truthful movie about marriage, having children and the dangers of oral sex while driving. Moranis plays Nathan Huffner, an intellectual who’s more interested in raising his daughter as a science experiment than being a loving father. Though there are many comedic moments, this is a much more understated performance for Moranis. And he gets easily the sweetest moment in the film when he serenades his estranged wife in front of her students.


5. Strange Brew, Bob McKenzie

Bob and Doug McKenzie were breakout characters from SCTV that were originally created by government demand — the CBC mandates that a certain percentage of all shows in Canada have specifically Canadian content. So, Moranis and Dave Thomas thought of the most stereotypical Canadians possible and the McKenzie brothers were born. The duo appeared on SCTV, in Pizza Hut and Molson commercials, on a platinum-selling comedy album and their big screen debut, Strange Brew. It’s a tale of poisoned beer, mind control plots and an escape from an insane asylum. Plus, it’s a loose take on Hamlet. Probably not what you’d expect from characters made as a joke, but that’s what makes Bob McKenzie a great and surprising “hoser.”


6. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Wayne Szalinski

In this 1989 classic, Rick Moranis plays a bumbling inventor who accidentally shrinks his kids and neighbors to the size of ants. Though that may sound horrifying, Moranis is great as a man who’s thrilled that something of his finally worked and just as comically terrified by what he’s done. With impressive special effects for the time, the film still holds up as a fun family comedy.


7. My Blue Heaven, Barney Coopersmith

Did you know that Rick Moranis was in a comedic version of Goodfellas? My Blue Heaven, starring Steve Martin and Moranis, came out one month before Scorsese’s legendary Mob film. Though the silly comedy and gritty gangster drama may seem completely different, both are based on the life of Henry Hill, known as Vinnie Antonelli in Heaven. Moranis plays the average neighbor who tries to keep former mobster Vinnie (Martin) in line so he can remain in witness protection. Though Goodfellas was based on a novel about Hill’s life by Nicholas Pileggi, My Blue Heaven was written Nora Ephron, who happened to be married to Pileggi at the time. It’s a small mob world.


8. The Wild Life, Harry

This ’80s teen comedy has been mostly forgotten, but it’s notable not only for a performance by Moranis as a trendy manager with very big hair but it’s top level cast. Eric Stoltz, Randy Quaid, Lea Thompson and a bleached blonde Chris Penn all star, with a soundtrack by Eddie Van Halen. It’s all the more surprising that this film isn’t better remembered, since it was writer Cameron Crowe’s follow up to Fast Times at Ridgemont High.


9. Head Office, Howard Gross

This 1985 satire of the corporate world stars Judge Reinhold as a new employee who gets mysteriously promoted within a huge company and learns of the seedy underbelly of business. The film features a few subplots, one starring Danny DeVito and one with Moranis as a failing executive whose screaming idiocy is a great parody of the executive top brass. Though it may not be much of a parody, since we’ve all probably experienced our fair share of screaming, asinine bosses.


10. Brewster’s Millions, Morty King

In Brewster’s Millions, Richard Pryor finds out he’ll get a $300 million inheritance only if he can spend $30 million in one month. (If only we all had such troubles.) As Pryor’s character gets more attention for his big spending and eventual mayoral campaign, he attracts a bunch of odd characters. One of which is Moranis as Morty King, King of the Mimics. It’s a small role where he plays a guy that always repeats everything that’s said, but Morty has got a great costume and Moranis plays this confident weirdo with delightful skill. Also, the idea of anyone crowning himself “King of the Mimics” for doing a trick that little brothers use to annoy everyone is a pretty insane thought.

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