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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Ghost World Thora Birch Scarlett Johansson

Graphic Fiction

10 Offbeat Comic Book Movies You Need To See

Catch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

When we think of movies based on comic books, our minds tend to drift towards tights, spectacular powers and origin stories about how those extraordinary powers come with great responsibilities. But not all comic books star superheroes, and not all movies adapted from them do either. In fact, there are a diverse array of films based on graphic novels and comic book titles, telling stories about everything from sexual awakening to cold blooded revenge. Here are a few comic book flix that are worth checking out while you wait for Captain America and Spider-Man to return to the big screen.

10. Persepolis

Persepolis
Sony Pictures Classic

Marjane Satrapi codirected and cowrote the screenplay for this acclaimed animated film, based on her autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. Through vivid animation and moving voiceover, the film tells the tale of Satrapi coming of age as a punk rock-loving kid during the Iranian revolution. A revolution itself, Persepolis scored the 2007 Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and further pushed the boundaries of what a comic book movie can accomplish.


9. Mystery Men

Mystery Men
Universal Pictures

Despite a fun script and an amazing cast (everyone from Ben Stiller to Eddie Izzard to Dane Cook is in this thing), Mystery Men never got much credit for spoofing the superhero genre way before the comic book movie glut. Based on Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot comics, Mystery Men came and went when it was released back in 1999. It’s worth a second look, if for no other reason than to see Paul Reubens as a superhero with the power of explosive flatulence.


8. The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer
Disney

Released in 1991 on the heels of Batman and Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer was poised to be the next big comic book blockbuster. But the movie fizzled at the box office, eventually finding a much-deserved cult following on home video. Directed by Joe Johnston with the same mix of heart, humor and action-packed thrills that he brought to Captain America: The First Avenger, The Rocketeer is a throwback to classic pulp adventures presented with zero camp. A faithful adaptation of the late Dave Stevens’ graphic novel, it’s a franchise that Disney should consider rebooting. Maybe a Rocketeer/Captain America crossover?


7. Snowpiercer

Weinstein Company
Weinstein Company

Yes, that insanely awesome movie where Chris Evans fights his way through a futuristic train is based on a series of French graphic novels. Directed with visceral style by Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer developed buzz when it was released in 2014 thanks to its twisty plot and intense action sequences. The graphic novels are worth checking out, though you’ll have to supply your own bizarre Tilda Swinton accent.


6. Ghost World

United Artists
United Artist

Indie filmmaker Terry Zwigoff adapted this film with the help of Daniel Clowes, the writer and artist of the anthology comic Eightball, where the “Ghost World” story first appeared. The film, like the comic, tells the story of two oddball teenage girls making their way towards adulthood. For the film, Zwigoff and Clowes expanded the role of the middle-aged loner (Steve Buscemi) that Enid (Thora Birch) pranks before eventually befriending. The graphic novel helped put Clowes on the map, and the film went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2002.


5. A History of Violence

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

This paired down thriller was a perfect example of respecting the form and brevity of the source material and translating it to the screen. Genre icon David Cronenberg helped steer this adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel to an Oscar win for William Hurt, and a triumphant screening at the Cannes Film Festival.


4. Road to Perdition

Dreamworks
Dreamworks

Sam Mendes followed up his Oscar-adored film debut, American Beauty, by helming this adaptation of the 2002 comic by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. The story of a mob enforcer who seeks revenge on the men who killed his family, it was notable for casting Tom Hanks, aka America’s nicest movie star, as the heavy for once.


3. Art School Confidential

Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes reunited for this largely autobiographical story of Clowes’ early days in art school. The original comic was just four pages long, meaning much of the material covered in the movie was original. Still, you should watch it for John Malkovich’s trademark bizzaro performance as a pompous professor, and then stick around for the serial killer subplot that feels like it’s from a different movie. This isn’t a classic like Ghost World, but it’s worth seeing just for the singular talents behind it.


2. American Splendor

HBO Films
HBO Films

American Splendor is an autobiographical film, based on an autobiographical series of comics about the life of cartoonist Harvey Pekar, who also appears in the film as himself, talking to his fictional counterpart, played by Paul Giamatti in a career defining performance. It is idiosyncratic, bizarre and something that has to be seen to truly grasp, but with a Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival under its belt, it certainly did its source material proud.


1. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Sony Pictures Classic
Sony Pictures Classic

Based on the semi-autobiographical graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, this recent indie favorite is about one teenage girl’s sexual awakening by way of an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. The movie, like the comics before it, mixes the moody angst of teendom with a certain magical realism to create an immersive world of sexual delights and snarky comebacks. Frank and funny, the film was an awards season favorite, and took home Best First Feature at the 2016 Spirit Awards.

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Kylo Ren

Use the Farce

Kylo Ren Outtakes, Maron’s Advice for Millennials And More of This Week’s Funniest Videos

This week we're laughing at Beyonce covers, Ab Fab: The Movie trailer and more.

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As another week ends, it’s important to blow off some steam with some hilarious videos. An entertainment appetizer, if you will, that’ll make the transition from work to play a little easier.

From a bumbling Kylo Ren to a perfect take on every white guy who covers Beyonce, here are five funny things from this week you need to watch.

1. Kylo Ren Outtakes


Exceeding fans’ expectations and being better than it had any right to be, Star Wars: The Force Awakens revitalized an ailing franchise from its abominable sequels. And a large part of the recent film’s appeal is its captivating villain, Kylo Ren. But as Auralnauts present in their YouTube video, the antagonist had a little trouble with negotiating his mask. Check out Kylo’s “outtakes” from the film and hope that director J.J. Abrams de-tints the visor for the next installment.


2. Marc Maron’s Advice for Millennials

The prospect of entering a tough job market with a soaring cost of living and a college degree of diminishing quality is enough to discourage any young millennial. Thankfully, IFC’s designated curmudgeon Marc Maron has some helpful advice for the young men and women to find some solace in an increasingly unfeeling word. Sure, it mostly involves swallowing your pride and accepting misery, but the intention is pure. (Find out how Marc digs himself out of his own personal hole when Maron returns on May 4th at 9P.)


3. Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” Covered By Animals


If you got somebody’s answering machine in the early-to-mid ’80s, you might’ve been greeted by a chorus of pups barking “Jingle Bells”, “Grand Old Flag”, or another royalty-free tune. In that vein, YouTuber Insane Cherry assembled the bleats, grunts, and meows from a veritable barnyard of animals into a rendition of “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies. Yes, the cats sound like they’re stressed, but to their credit, they’re really nailing Frank Black’s voice.


4. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie trailer

If you’re like us, you probably have fond memories of watching Patsy and Edina’s drunken adventures back when Comedy Central aired AB Fab reruns in the ’90s. Thankfully the gals are back in a new movie, still sloshed and living a fabulous life. (And this time out, they might have killed Kate Moss.) Considering all the hard living they’ve done, we have to echo Jon Hamm (playing himself in the film) and say we’re surprised they’re still alive and kicking. (For more on the film, visit our pals over on BBC America.)


5. White Guy Covers Beyonce’s Lemonade

Beyonce broke the Internet with her Lemonade album and companion music videos, inspiring a slew of covers and tributes from fans. Funny or Die offered up a perfect spoof of earnest white guy YouTubers who cover Beyonce’s #relatable songs.

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TREMORS [US 1990]  FRED WARD, FINN CARTER     Date: 1990

Better Off Fred

5 Roles That Prove Fred Ward Should Be In Every Movie

Catch a Tremors movie marathon Saturday, April 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Fred Ward has always exuded a tough but likeable on-screen “bad-assitude” that has enabled him to enjoy a career spanning five decades. Before he had a recognizable “that guy” face to movie fans, he was cast alongside Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. Not many actors can play both Henry Miller and David Spade’s dad in Joe Dirt with equal aplomb. Before you catch IFC’s Tremors marathon, check out some roles that prove Fred Ward can hold his own with the Van Dammes and Stallones of the world.

5. Wilkes, Uncommon Valor

Due to his rugged, determined look, Ward was often cast as cops, crooks and military men. It’s no surprise that he appeared in Uncommon Valor, the 1983 film where Gene Hackman puts together a ragtag squad of ex-Vietnam vets to rescue his son who was left behind in Laos. Sure, the movie pretty much set out to make a Vietnam version of The Dirty Dozen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining in its own right. Ward fits right in with a cast of ’80s era tough guys, including Patrick Swayze, Randall “Tex” Cobb, and Tim Tomerson. Ward’s character Wilkes was a tough-as-nails Vietnam Vet who was a “tunnel rat” during the war. There’s a funny training session scene that provides a comic relief moment where Wilkes captures every one of the guys in the unit, including Gene Hackman’s Colonel Rhodes, by hiding under water. Eat your heart out, Rambo.


4. Earl Bass, Tremors

Not many actors can pull off lasso-tossing an explosive in order to lure a huge worm creature with snake tongues out of the desert sand, but Ward pulls off the moment with zero camp. His Earl Bass, the tough but average Joe ranch hand turned hero, didn’t need Kevin Bacon’s long hair and exaggerated Southern drawl either. Ward and Kevin Bacon made a great team trying to save their town from the Graboids, elevating the humor in this out-of-this-world (or under-this-world) horror comedy.


3. Sgt. Hoke Moseley, Miami Blues

In a movie where Alec Baldwin completely shines as a psychotic (and highly entertaining) criminal using Miami as his own personal joy ride, Fred Ward gives an equally great performance as the grizzled Miami cop who’s seen one too many cases. After being attacked by Baldwin’s character in his own home, Ward’s Sgt. Hank Moseley loses his badge, his gun and his dentures, which really pisses him off. (And nobody plays pissed off better than Ward.) Baldwin’s Junior goes on a crime spree while using Moseley’s identification. Moseley’s wily veteran slowly begins to figure out what Junior is up to through sly conversations with Baldwin and his overly trusting hooker girlfriend, memorably played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. An underrated action comedy that is all the better for giving us a pure shot of uncut Ward awesomeness.


4. Gus Grissom, The Right Stuff

“An astronaut named Gus?” That was the question asked of Virgil Grissom in The Right Stuff by the executive from Life magazine. Who better to play a fearless, rough-around-the-edges astronaut who refused to be called Virgil than Fred Ward? The Mercury Astronauts were the best of the best, and in the film they were played by a group of great actors who were all perfectly cast to portray the brash group of American heroes. In the film, Gus was blunt and to the point and far from loquacious (his character would never use that word) but when he did speak up, it had meaning. In another pivotal scene, in which Deke Slayton was relaying to the other astronauts what Gus was trying to say about beating a monkey into space, it’s Gus’ response that summed up his character perfectly: “F***in’ A, bubba.” Nobody could have delivered that bad-ass line better than Fred Ward. In fact, “F***in’ A bubba” should have been added into the dialogue of every character he played.


5. Remo Williams, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins might have gotten ahead of itself with that title as we never got to see the adventure continue, but it had everything you want in an action movie, starting with Fred Ward. Of course, it also had Joel Grey in heavy makeup portraying Korean martial arts master Chiun, but the less said about that unfortunate bit of dated cultural stereotyping the better. Based on a series of pulp novels, Remo Williams was supposed to be an American alternative to James Bond. In an alternate, much cooler universe, it would have propelled Ward to action movie superstardom. In the film, Ward starts out as a NYC street cop recruited to be a government assassin. His face was altered through plastic surgery (to look less like a generic actor and more like Fred Ward with a clean shave) and then he is given the name Remo Williams. There is a lot of humor in this film, which mostly comes through the interaction between Ward and Grey. Chiun teaches Remo the ways of Sinanju, the ancient Korean marital art which enables you to not only dodge punches but point blank range bullets as well. (Let’s see Mr. Miyagi do that.) Anyone who caught this movie during one of its many TV airings during the ’80s remembers the thrilling fight scenes that takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Only Ward could pull off a turtle neck sweater/leather jacket combo and still look badass.

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