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3/30/2006

Film > Feature

CLOSING FRAMES
What to watch for in the final weekend of the Florida Film Festival

 

American Stag
Directed by Ben Meade

Midnight Saturday, April 1, at Enzian Theater

Return with us now to yesteryear, when viewing smut meant gathering with 20 or so of your (male) buddies in a dark, smoky room in the back of the Moose Lodge to watch grainy, silent, black-and-white footage of average-looking people pawing at each other's groins. What a golden era it was, and thank God for the advent of VHS.

Stag films, also known as "blue" movies or early porn, were crude, anonymous, racist, misogynistic and frankly kind of hot. You had to know somebody who knew somebody who trucked the films around in the back of a Buick, because this stuff was way underground. That sense of law-breaking naughtiness was, and is, a big part of the appeal.

Filmmaker Ben Meade has assembled an impressive collection of clips from classic stag films made between 1915 and the 1960s. Nobody knows who directed or starred in them, because anonymity was a defining characteristic of the genre. What can be discerned is that people in early sex films were, for the most part, not pretty. In one interview, Meade described the coupling as "like watching your grandparents have sex."

He is clearly more interested in the social commentary these films made than the screwing, and on that score American Stag has quite a bit to say. I'm not sure I'd have chosen Tommy Chong or Adam Carolla as a means to say it, but the film isn't ruined by their less-than-illuminating commentary. It's still a fascinating look at pre-'70s underground sex culture.

— Bob Whitby

Feed
Directed By Brett Leonard

Midnight Friday, March 31, at Regal Winter Park Village Stadium 20
9:30 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at Regal

If you believe a leather bustier and spikes are kinky, this film will open your eyes. Aussie cop Philip Jackson (Jack Thompson) stalks the truly bizarre fetishes on the web – a journey that takes him to humdrum Toledo, Ohio, where Michael Carter (Alex O'Loughlin) runs a "feeder" site; it's devoted to women so overweight that they can't move. Carter also takes side bets on their vital statistics, and he has a penchant for murder. Somehow the Australian police have jurisdiction over this, and can pay cops to cruise porn sites that normal perverts would avoid. Jackson soon gets the brush-off from his supervisor – "Take the month off! You're too involved in the case!" – so he pops off to Toledo for some kidnapping, breaking and entering, computer hacking and double parking.

There are some truly disturbing scenes here, but the fast-paced action and nonstop weird sex makes this a film you're unlikely to see outside the art-house circuit. There's a nice contrast between pretty boy O'Loughlin and rough bloke Thompson, even if the accents make some of the dialog hard to decode. The effects are stupendous: I'm assuming Deidre (Gabby Millgate) doesn't weigh 602 pounds but wears some sort of oversize Jabba the Hut appliance. On one level, Feed is a classic renegade-cop movie, but deep down, writer Kieran Galvin tackles some fundamental questions about human sexuality and where its source fountains lie, while director Leonard seems to have way too much fun bringing those ideas to life. I recommend not ordering food while watching this one.

— Al Pergande

Fierce PeopleFierce People
Directed by Griffin Dunne

7 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at Enzian

The latest directorial outing for actor Dunne has a lot in common with 2002 Florida Film Festival highlight The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys: It's a well-observed coming-of-age story that turns on a bold, brutal plot development some viewers will accept and others will consider an insurmountable speed bump.

Heed the seriousness of the film's central metaphor, which posits a vicious South American tribe as the mirror image of a flock of rich New Jerseyans. Studying the tribe is where young Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin) would like to be, spending a summer in the longed-for company of his anthropologist dad; instead, his mother's (Diane Lane) latest drug hassle gets the two of them shunted off to the Garden State, where she's to perform masseuse duties on the estate of a protective client (Donald Sutherland). Finn is hardly a member of this eccentric patriarch's family, but he's something more than the offspring of the help, which ensures plenty of trust issues and class-conscious faux pas as he pursues the agendas paramount in every teenager's mind: fitting in and getting girls.

An almost unspeakable trauma looms, and it's up to the excellent cast to sell it. Lane is typically up for the job – few other actresses can make real-world imperfection look so glamorous. Yet the story still feels clunky, thanks in part to its origin in a different media: In adapting his own novel, screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn seems to have failed to compress events and characters in a way that would preserve their authenticity in the face of his more audacious moves. Some experiences just read better than they film; you leave Fierce People mildly entertained yet suspicious that you've just had one of them.

— Steve Schneider

Fuck
Directed by Steve Anderson

Midnight Friday, March 31, at Enzian
9 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at Regal

If you're determined to hear the word "fuck" a few hundred times in the course of 90 minutes, there are two things you can do: 1) ride a LYNX bus shortly after school gets out; or 2) see this documentary. A thesis-level course in the history, derivation and proper use of every sailor's favorite cuss, the movie has to wage a constant battle against potty-mouthed monotony. Fortunately, it emerges largely unscathed, and almost triumphant in its own single-minded way.

Yes, your ears show every sign of going numb about 20 minutes in, when the F-bomb count begins to climb as high as the national debt. And the focus wanders a bit as filmmaker Anderson tries to tackle the FCC's war on profanity and wanders into largely unrelated territory. (What's Janet Jackson's nipple doing in here?) But despite those failings, Anderson mostly succeeds in maintaining the infotainment potential of subject matter he represents as smut-saturated vaudeville. To represent the ongoing debate over the big word's viability and appropriateness, he draws humorous opinions from a legion of talking heads. Kevin Smith embodies the "pro" camp (naturally), while Miss Manners (!) stands up for the soap-brandishers. There's plenty of historical background, too: Particularly fun is a myth-busting segment in which we learn that fuck is not an acronym for "fornication under consent of the king," "for unlawful carnal knowledge" or anything else. At last, a movie that's unafraid to offend Renaissance aficionados and Sammy Hagar!

— Steve Schneider

Hard CandyHard Candy
Directed by David Slade

9:45 p.m. Saturday, April 1, at Regal

In the comforting environs of a well-lit coffee bar, a bespectacled photographer has his first encounter with a single girl he's met online. They laugh, flirt and flaunt their aesthetic tastes the way intellectuals do to indicate they're in heat. Everything seems to be going well, and the obviously interested Jeff ends up taking the equally game Hayley back to his apartment. It's a scenario that could be going on at any time of day in any city in the country, except for one pesky detail: Jeff is 32; Hayley is only 14.

This grabber of a sicko setup indicates that we viewers might finally have found a way to pass the time between Todd Solondz pictures. Not only do Jeff and his prey get to flash bedroom eyes at each other for a disturbingly prolonged period – keeping us in a state of perpetual squeamishness that they might actually, you know, do it – but actress Ellen Page sports a haircut that only underlines her character's jeopardized innocence.

It's a memorably tense pas de deux, and if the movie doesn't pay off on it properly, fault a script that ventures further and further into psychological-thriller claptrap, leaving the two stars to rely on their hefty talents to keep it at all believable. Hayley, we learn, is nowhere near the naive young flower to whom we've been introduced; unfortunately, much of what she knows seems to have been learned from Extremities. As she begins to assert herself, Hard Candy enters a miasma of revelation and revenge – one that might have worked better on the stage than the screen, where the story's claustrophobia and increasingly unwieldy plot twists take a major toll. Still, what an intro.

— Steve Schneider

Lady Vengeance
Directed by Park Chanwook

7 p.m. Saturday, April 1, at Regal
6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at Regal

Transfixing and transcendent, Lady Vengeance shows what might have happened had the Kill Bill movies been made by a thinking, feeling human being who was interested in using style to tell a story, not just remind us yet again that he used to work in a video store. Korean master magician Park Chanwook has wrapped up his "vengeance" trilogy with a macabre flourish that makes Tarantino redundant, and with an unexpectedly humane counterpoint that practically repurposes payback cinema in general.

The film plays like a brazen mash-up of the Bill flicks and Park's previous Oldboy (FFF 2005): An obsessed woman warrior (Lee Yeong-ae) is released from prison to get even with those who did her wrong. There's a hated male ex-accomplice and even a story thread about maternity denied, though anybody who'd like to see Quentin file copyright-infringement papers should consider how ill-equipped he is to cast that particular stone. What counts is that Park keeps the action feeling fresh with his own slyly sadistic plot maneuvers and tons of gallery-worthy visual motifs (i.e., the whole thing looks amazing).

And then he pulls the rug out in the last act. Suddenly, our antiheroine's bloody quest has genuine consequences, and we're watching a heartfelt treatise on the meaning of loss, from crippling grief to economic hardship. The movie slows considerably to accommodate these musings, but so what? It's worth it to see a frequently gratuitous genre get a new lease on relevance. What's on display here is the difference between a true artist and a pornographer. Accept no substitutes.

— Steve Schneider

Loverboy
Directed by Kevin Bacon

9:15 p.m. Saturday, April 1, at Regal
4:30 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at Regal

You've seen mothers like Emily Stoll (Kyra Sedgwick) before, hovering indulgently over their cherished little spawn to dispense dippily allegorical, overly enunciated life lessons and obviously getting far more satisfaction from the experience than the kid is. But even the worst Park Avenue SUV shrew can't compare to Sedgwick's Emily, who uses her son Paul (Dominic Scott Kay) as a walking replacement for the parental attention she never got and the male companionship she claims not to need. (To cook up the "perfect" offspring, she jumped a variety of biologically and intellectually superior males within a single fertility period, seeking lasting contact with none of them.)

Emily's over-protectiveness crosses the line into abuse: She shelters Paul from most substantive contact with the outside world, eliminating potential distractions from the all-important odyssey of palhood she means to share only with her "loverboy." Ugh. The Freudian undercurrents in this relationship are so thick a narwhal could swim through them; too bad, then, that director Bacon gilds the inherent domestic horror of the script (by Hannah Shakespeare, from Victoria Redel's novel) with farcically stylized flashbacks and fetishistic shots of his wife's (unquestionably impressive) bod. The vignettes in which a mustachioed Bacon plays the young Emily's goofily distracted dad – opposite an equally silly Marisa Tomei – are particularly taxing. The movie finds its feet in the downward spiral of the Emily/Paul dynamic, and whenever she remembers the neighbor who had to act as her own surrogate mom: a positively radiant Sandra Bullock, dispensing empathetic school-survival tips from her front lawn while listening to David Bowie's "Life on Mars." Oh, to have grown up in that burg.

—Steve Schneider

The Way Back HomeThe Way Back Home
Directed by Reza Badiyi

3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1, at Enzian
2:15 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at Regal

There's obvious dramatic potential in the story of two Sanford grandmothers (Julie Harris and Ruby Dee, respectively) who consider themselves fast friends – despite the fact that one was once a maid in the other's house. So why does the Valencia Community College production The Way Back Home push considerations of race and class virtually out of the frame to concentrate on a far less interesting story about the white woman's grandson, a dweeby New York lawyer who's ostensibly back in town to help the old bird recover from a stroke? Perhaps it's because the role is played by the movie's writer, Winter Park native Michael H. King, who hasn't yet learned the evils of baldly expository dialogue but knows how to lock in plenty of showcase time for his clean-cut performing persona. (Imagine a cross between Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Steve Guttenberg.)

Poor Harris and Dee; most of the movie shows King's Spencer Krane reacquainting himself with charming Central Florida pastimes like alligator tours while mourning the loss of his wife and catching up with a female friend who has suffered a similar tragedy. If you're guessing the moral here may be "There's no place like home," give yourself a Greenie. The beautifully shot scenes of local life make the flick a location scout's dream, though the pedigree of Florida filmmaking won't be enhanced by its infomercial-style acting, in which every line is treated as the most important thing its utterer has ever said.

Particularly annoying is the recurring motif of old-time religion – and not the nuanced, Robert Duvall kind, but the hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-cross-made-of-peppermint variety. Insipid and forgettable.

— Steve Schneider

(For tickets: www.floridafilmfestival.org)

film@orlandoweekly.com
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