Yikes! Another Film Festival

Far be it from me to whine about how tough my job is. I learned long ago that there aren't many folks sympathetic to complaints from a guy who sits around all day watching movies and getting paid for it. Suffice it to say if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.

But the job does have its perks, chief among them the satisfaction of viewing a great film and having a platform to let people know about it. The inaugural South Beach Film Festival, which kicks off at Miami Beach's Colony Theater on April 14, has a couple of jewels sprinkled among its many baubles, and while I haven't screened all 43 of the festival's films (culled from more than 140 entries), I have had the opportunity to preview the eight films judged best in their respective categories as well as a few selected others. The overall quality of the festival's offerings is, as that of any collection of low-budget independent cinema should be, mixed, with a decided leaning toward the quirky and the avant-garde. There are the usual assortment of howlers and head-scratchers, but there are some pleasant surprises as well. And there are two flat-out winners: Spare Me (which copped a Golden Coconut at the Fort Lauderdale Film Fest) and the amazing The Making of "...And God Spoke."

Now, I've taken some crazy financial risks in my day A heating-oil futures, stock index options, foreclosure real estate, rare coins. I'm no stranger to gambling, either. I've played blackjack in Curaaao, craps in Vegas, poker in Reno, and the dogs at Flagler, Biscayne, and Hollywood. Hell, I've even bet on jai alai. But my experience as film reviewer here at New Times has convinced me that there is one gamble I would never take: putting on a film festival. You pour hours and hours into screening hundreds of films, you negotiate with mom-and-pop filmmakers and distributors (most of whom can barely afford the postage it costs to send you their work), you hustle sponsors and coordinate parties, press releases, and previews, you spend thousands of dollars on advertising, and then you sit back and pray that somebody shows up to bear witness to the fruits of your labor. Nat Chediak, whose eleven-year-old Miami Film Festival is the area's biggest and longest-running, confided to me prior to the opening of this year's event that he suffers through the same nightmare on the eve of every premiere A a great opening film playing to an empty house. The fact that nearly every Miami Film Festival opening-night offering has sold out has done nothing to allay his anxiety.

Who needs the stress? And then there's the specter of market saturation. In recent months, South Floridians have already been treated to the Miami, Jewish, and Fort Lauderdale film festivals. It would not be a stretch to wonder if area filmgoers might not be festivaled out.

The organizers of the Black Film Festival (now in its sixth year) and the South Beach Film Festival (making its debut) certainly hope not. The former's emphasis is self-explanatory A highlighting work by black filmmakers. This year's celebrity guests include actor-director Blair Underwood (L.A. Law's Jonathan Rollins), Robert Townsend, and Malcolm Jamal Warner. Townsend and Warner will be lecturing, but only Underwood will be premiering new work A his narrative short The Second Coming, which ponders the effect that a black Christ would have had on racism.

The South Beach Film Festival's mandate is a little more nebulous. "Our intention is to provide a forum for small, independent works that would otherwise never make it to South Florida," states Rob Mills, the festival's organizer. That definition allows for a pretty broad range of entries, from experimental shorts to full-length narrative features. More than 140 films were submitted in four categories A fiction, nonfiction, animation, and experimental. Of those, 43 were selected for exhibition. (All films will be screened at Miami Beach's Colony Theater. For a complete listing of offerings and screening times, see "Film Capsules.")

The eight award winners run the gamut in terms of subject matter, filmmaking style, production values, and market potential. John Schnall's Frankenstein combines cartoon animation with stop-motion and frame-by-frame pixilation to present the Mary Shelley classic as an allegory for the stifling of creativity inherent in child-rearing. Schnall's vision is not exactly faithful to the original (although I read Shelley many years ago, I don't remember anything about a giant house-broken beetle). Ted Pratt's Strangeness in the Night is a video cartoon that involves scheming aliens, a Laundromat, and stolen socks. The premise is imaginative but the execution relies on those stock cartoon conventions of pratfalls and slapstick. And Gary Fleder's short documentary Animal Instinct covers three years in the life of a wanna-be Rocky named Phil Paolina. With the boxer's soulful, Andy Garcia-like eyes, his passion for animal rights, his fondness for women, and friends like Mickey Rourke, it comes as little surprise when Paolina's pugilistic career detours into acting, comedy, retail store management, and personal training. The 30-minute film pokes gentle fun at its often confused, always engaging subject, a guy who maybe coulda been a contenda if he'd a just got his head screwed on straight. Animal Instinct is an ironic title; Paolina's love of little critters and his lack of killer instinct doom him in the ring but endear him to viewers of the film. Smart career move, kid.

Book of Shadows describes itself thusly: "Traditionally, a book of shadows was the secret record of rituals, healings, and special knowledge handed down by a wise woman/shaman/witch to her apprentices. It represented the source and transmission of feminine power. Book of Shadows is an experience free of time, place, and gravity, where sensuous music and radiant images mate in a ritual of mystery and metamorphosis." As those of you who have spent too many hours in seedy video stores probably guessed, that means 25 minutes of female nudity. But the woman is bathed in a variety of wild colors and dramatic lighting, and there's no dialogue, so that must make it art.

I have a personal stake in Andrew Wagner's The Last Days of Hope and Time, a well-made but predictable movie about a man who risks losing his family to pursue his dream of becoming a professional basketball player. The film boasts some decent acting, but Louis Price, who plays the lead, is too old, too slow, and too out of shape for the part. His hoops prowess (or lack thereof) is prominently displayed in several shots, and even with the camera tricks, he looks a lot more like a weekend playground duffer than an NBA prospect. Casting him in the lead was a strange choice in light of the fact that Cylk Cozart (White Men Can't Jump, Blue Chips) has a major supporting role. Cylk's acting is okay (on a par with Price's), but he's a for-real ballplayer. I know. I used to play against him in pickup games around town before he moved out to L.A. and became a movie star. Cylk was one of the best I've ever seen, and I've seen some great ones. Plus the cat owes me sixteen dollars from a time when a bunch of us ate lunch at Marshall Majors after a couple of games at UM, and Cylk and one of his homeboys sneaked out when the check arrived, leaving yours truly to foot the bill. So next time, cast Cylk in the lead. He's a serious player and he owes me money.

Matthew Harrison's work is not new to these parts. His award-winning student film, Two Boneheads, was the featured offering of last year's student film festival at FIU, and his first full-length feature, 1993's Spare Me, was one of the hits of the most recent Fort Lauderdale Film Fest. From the bowling noir genre, Spare Me follows the travails of Theo, the bad boy of professional bowling, who has been exiled from his sport for bashing an opponent in the head on national TV. Theo is on a spiritual quest to find his long-lost father Buzz, a bowling legend. Along the way he falls in love with a pyromaniac named Sheila, whose father is the evil dwarf bowling kingpin Miles Kastle. Needless to say, an appreciation of dark comedy and twisted storytelling are prerequisites for full enjoyment of Harrison's work, but if you're that type of viewer, this is a film you don't want to miss.

Finally, the big find of the South Beach fest is a sort of Spinal Tap meets The Player on an El Mariachi budget. The Making of "...And God Spoke" is an uproarious take on Hollywood stocked with great lines, fresh faces, keen acting, and an abundance of dry, sardonic humor revealed through a combination of sight gags and deadpan dialogue. The faux documentary follows fictional director Clive Walton and producer Marvin Handleman as they attempt to mount their first big-budget studio film A an epic adaption of the Bible A after a string of low-budget successes such as Dial S for Sex, Nude Ninjas, and She Beast. To quote Handleman, "If you're going to do a movie based on a book, that's the book to do. You can't lose. It's an all-time bestseller [with] a four-billion-person target audience. Times seven dollars a ticket. That's quite a market."

Unfortunately for Walton and Handleman, their production is immediately set upon by a series of woes that suggest intervention from a less-than-thrilled Supreme Being. The first draft of the script comes in at 2000 pages. ("I didn't write the script. God wrote it through me," intones the screenwriter solemnly. "We had to do some cutting," the director admits. "Mostly we just lost the depressing parts A Job, Deuteronomy, Revelations," pooh-poohs the producer.) The actress hired to play Eve reveals a shoulder-to-knee tattoo on the first day of principal photography. An unknown actor is cast as God after Brando declines the part (Walters: "I think thematically it's right casting an unknown as God because God is the unknown personified, right?" Handleman: "Why should you be able to recognize God? You wouldn't recognize him." Walton: "Not only is it a chance to mold a newcomer A you know, the whole kind of clay aspect A but also, think about it, 'newcomer,' one who comes anew...." Handleman: "It's very exciting!"). No one can remember how many disciples Christ had (it isn't in the script). Costs soar. Pressure from the studio brass mounts. More cuts are necessitated A Sodom and Gomorrah, the last supper, everything involving Jesus. (Walton: "Jesus? But we've shot some of that already!" Handleman: "We've still got Moses. Hopefully he can save us like he did the Jews.")

You get the picture, even if the producer and director are clueless. Stephen Rappaport, who plays Handleman, and Michael Riley, who does a better Rick Moranis than Rick Moranis as the woebegone Walton, are perfect for their roles. Acting hasn't been this tongue-in-cheek since fictional rock documentarian Marty DiBergi took his cameras on tour with Nigel Tufnel and company. And how can you argue with cutting-edge casting as exhilarating as Lou Ferrigno as Cain, Soupy Sales as Moses (coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments and a six-pack of Coke as a commercial tie-in), and Eve Plumb (Jan Brady!) as Mrs. Noah? "...And God Spoke" may be a loser of Biblical proportions, but writer-director Arthur Borman's mockumentary is the stuff of divine inspiration.


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