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Florida: It's not just for voter fraud anymore

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It's not difficult to pinpoint the exact instant I stopped enjoying the fifth annual Sarasota Film Festival. The moment occurred when, kicking and screaming, I was forced onto the flight that returned me to Rochester and its subzero temperatures. Piles of sand turned to mounds of snow. Palm trees became ice-encrusted bushes. Scores and scores of brightly colored octogenarians looking for something to do in between the Early Bird Special and Matlock reruns were transformed into... well, more mounds of snow.

            The festival, which started January 25 and wrapped up this past Sunday, was a hodgepodge of films in various cinematic states. A handful of entries have already enjoyed screen time here in Rochester, whether in a regular theatrical engagement (Far From Heaven and Together), one-shots at the Dryden (Hell House), or during one of our own festivals (Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns and Karmen Geï). With the majority of the as-yet unreleased, high-profile films I wanted to see scheduled for the days following my tear-stained departure (like Dracula: A Virgin's Tale, the Upright Citizens Brigade's Martin & Orloff,and Sonny, the directorial debut from Nic Cage), I was left to choose from the (mostly) unfamiliar batch of leftovers, yet still managed to unearth a few clear winners.

            The best-attended film I saw was Danish filmmaker Kristian Levring's The Intended, which, if you're familiar with his Dogme film The King Is Alive, probably seems like a strange offering to pack the house at a festival where the age of the average audience member was well over Sarasota's daily high temperature. The reason is simple: Costar Olympia Dukakis attended and conducted a Q&A session after the screening.

            The film, a Joseph Conrad-tinted anti-Colonialism number, is set in a 1924 trading outpost on the Menkuang River, where a pair of eager young Brits (J.J. Field and co-writer Janet McTeer) arrive, only to have their hopes and dreams quickly crushed by both the jungle and a no-nonsense boss (Brenda Fricker). Levring clearly liked certain aspects of the Dogme restrictions and jettisoned what he didn't, creating a fully realized, rich, atmospheric drama that may be the most textured film I've ever seen shot on DV.

            As an added bonus, I got to giggle through a couple of fairly gritty sex scenes, which no doubt shocked the audience, who largely seemed to be there just to ask Dukakis questions about Moonstruck and Steel Magnolias.

            Also entertaining was the surprising He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, which stars Amélie's Audrey Tautou, in a very Amélie-esque role, in what looks, early on, like a run-of-the-mill French romantic comedy. About halfway into the film, writer-director Laetitia Colombani literally rewinds her story and tells it from a different perspective (but not like Sliding Doors), showing us all that there's a very fine line between being impossibly cute and a stone-cold nutter. Who knew Tautou had it in her? And, for crying out loud, who can concentrate on the subtitles when she's on the screen? Make sure you stick around for the ending, which I heard was a killer. I had to scoot early to catch...

            ...Spellbound, an intensely fascinating documentary about eight middle-school students competing in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. (it won the Audience Award for Best Doc). This baby was firing on all of its cylinders, leaving the audience in tears and cheers throughout the 97 minutes it unspooled on the screen.

            It wasn't just the Norman Rockwell, slice-of-Americana simplicity of a spelling bee. It wasn't just the collection of kids from every imaginable background: from rural Missouri to the D.C. projects; from a New Haven girl with an au pair and equestrian lessons, to one from Texas, whose parents can't even speak English.

            And it's not just the edge-of-your-seat drama (you aren't likely to find a more suspenseful documentary, ever), or the cutting from close-up of speller to close-up of parent, as they wait for judges to ring their kids out for misspelling polysyllabic words. It was the moment when one speller shocked herself by guessing her way into the next round, and the Bee's official reader started applauding, then quickly stopped once he realized what he was doing. I'm pretty sure everyone in the audience felt the same way. Keep an eye out for the shot of a Hooters sign in Tampa offering their "congradulations" to a local finalist.

            Also worth mentioning here is Manic, which bowed ages (read: two years) ago at Sundance. I don't know if he was perfectly cast, or if he's a much better actor than anyone has given him credit for, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific as the lead in this raw, indie, Gen X version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He plays a recently institutionalized kid with anger management issues opposite the very underrated Don Cheadle as the group's headshrinker. It's heavy stuff --- much more so than Girl, Interrupted --- with fresh, believable dialogue (including playful arguments over superheroes and Van Gogh), and it's all capably executed by a largely underage supporting staff, highlighted by scene-stealing chameleon Zooey Deschanel. Even better, there's music from Thurston Moore and Aphex Twin, and the score sounds like something hijacked from Eno's Music For Films.

            There were a couple of pretty serious clunkers, too --- ones during which I purposely settled down into the seat and fell asleep. But I don't want to give them any space. Instead, I'll use it for a somewhat local connection.

            In the controversial documentary The Backyard, which depicts various Backyard Wrestling Associations and their penchant for using barbed wire, mousetraps, broken glass, and thumbtacks, a woman from Kendall makes a decent case for a Mother of the Year nomination. In one scene, her son asks if he needs stitches to close the recently created gash in his scalp, to which she replies, "It's Saturday --- they're probably busy!"

I've never seen a tribute band before, but I got more than my share in Tribute: A Rockumentary (screens February 8 at the Dryden Theatre). Viewers are treated to tales of cover bands like Larger Than Life (Queen) and The Missing Links (The Monkeys) in a style that can't help but make you think of This is Spinal Tap! But that was a "mockumentary." Tribute is, tragically, all for real, making it much more like Trekkies than Tap!

            Think people who are obsessive fans of Queen are a little nutty? Check out the creepy guy who's an obsessive fan of Sheer Heart Attack, a Queen cover band.

Interested in raw, unedited movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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