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Reel winner: Sarasota Film Festival opens

By Steve Persall
Published April 12, 2007


Sarasota Film Festival - This annual cinema showcase is gradually earning a reputation as Telluride East, where selling movies isn't as important as celebrating them, and bona fide celebrities don't act as if they are.

All those pretenders who think slapping together a few movies and parties constitutes a film festival should pay attention to the way it should be done.

The 10-day festival begins Friday at Van Wezel Performing Arts Center with a 7 p.m. screening of In the Shadow of the Moon. (Most films are shown at Regal Hollywood 20 in downtown Sarasota.)

Directors David Sington and Christopher Riley fashioned an engrossing documentary on NASA's Apollo space missions, with rare footage and interviews with all surviving astronauts except reclusive Neil Armstrong. Sington and former astronaut Edgar Mitchell will attend.

Tickets are $15 and reservations are recommended for all shows through the festival's Web site ( You can also take your chances at the festival box office in Main Plaza adjacent to Hollywood 20, 1991 Main St.

Tickets for screenings at Hollywood 20 beginning Saturday are $8.

Saturday's lineup includes a half-dozen short film collections, classics such as Jacques Tati's Play Time (noon) and 1968's The Thomas Crown Affair (1:45 p.m.), beginning a retrospective of this year's special guest, director Norman Jewison.

Saturday's foreign highlights include Lars von Triers' comedy The Boss of It All (8 p.m.), the Oscar nominated After the Wedding (6 p.m.) and Alien Autopsy (5:15 p.m.).

American cinema is well-represented by the Florida-based The Hawk Is Dying (4:30 p.m.), starring Paul Giamatti; David Wain's Sundance sensation The Ten (7:15 p.m.), a modern comedy inspired by the Ten Commandments; and Heavens Fall (7 p.m.), starring Timothy Hutton as defense attorney for nine African-Americans wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Scottsboro, Ala., in 1933.

Many films have two screenings on consecutive days, in case shows are sold out or don't match your schedule. Sunday may be a good time to catch up with encores of the documentaries Words and Music by Jerry Herman (1 p.m.), profiling the Broadway composer, or The Hip Hop Project (2:15 p.m.), if your musical tastes run in that direction. Or simply catch the next wave of interesting cinema.

Check the festival Web site for complete film schedules, synopses and special event information. Over the next week Sarasota will welcome Jewison and actors Steve Buscemi, Edward Norton, Joe Pantoliano and Marcia Gay Harden, among others.

See Friday's Floridian for suggested festival events beyond movie screenings, ranging from expensive galas to free and inexpensive events - including celebrity appearances - for visitors on tight budgets.

Steve Persall, Times film critic


'Miss Potter' gives Beatrix the business

Miss Potter (PG) (92 min.) This is a curious creation, both a biography without bite and a children's fantasy without magic. The lingering notion is that Victorian era author Beatrix Potter was less than the sum of her imagination, which is far less than what passes for imagination today.

Children who adore her tales of Peter Rabbit and assorted, well-mannered cats, squirrels and ducks will be disappointed. Director Chris Noonan spends less time animating Potter's fantasy characters than fretting about her struggles to have them published. This isn't a Charlotte's Web style of family film, although the watercolor critters occasionally wink and wiggle their noses from Potter's easel.

The magic comes from nowhere, which is briefly enchanting, and goes nowhere in particular, which is frustrating.

Academy Award winner Renee Zellweger plays Beatrix Potter, talking to the animals in a stuffier version of her Bridget Jones accent. She never completely shucks her thoroughly modern vibe, coming across as a liberated woman admiring a pioneer rather than explaining her. A large part of the problem is Richard Maltby Jr.'s screenplay, which relies upon abrupt situations and solutions instead of character definition.

Maltby describes Potter as an extension of every Jane Austen heroine we've seen on screen before, only less artfully. Zellweger tries mightily to explore someone who isn't there on the script pages. This is kid's stuff compared to Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, which would be fine if Noonan used more of Potter's childlike vision as his own.

Noonan did such a marvelous job in making barnyard animals come to life in Babe. You would think an 11-year layoff since then would result in something approaching its charm.

Miss Potter is all about Miss Potter and, aside from prim eccentricity in a patriarchal society, there isn't much the movie explores. It should decide whether Potter's conversations with her artwork are insanity or genius at work. Her creative process is all but ignored.

Instead we see Zellweger squinting displeasure at publishers who cut corners and parents who wish she would trade her imaginary friends for a real man. We get lots of demure flirting with publisher Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor, also too contemporary) until offscreen tragedy - another missed dramatic opportunity - sends Potter into a funk. She buys a piece of heavenly British countryside as a preservation move, but we don't get a feel for how unusual that was at the turn of the 20th century.

Miss Potter briefly glows with the appearances of Emily Watson as Warne's sister and Potter's equally rebellious confidante. Watson's old-world face and native connection to her character (as opposed to Zellweger's Yank mimicry) suit the period much better. C+


A treasury of images adorns 'Inland Empire'

Inland Empire (R) (172 min.) - David Lynch's Inland Empire opens in a kind of erotic dream. There's a Polish girl who seems very upset, a family of rabbits in what looks like a sitcom written by Samuel Beckett, a lot of set pieces in Polish and meticulously staged non sequiturs.

God help us, there's even a monkey.

Most of all, there's a Los Angeles actor named Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), who is working on a movie that turns out to be haunted. Of all the weird goings-on, Nikki's adventures during the filming bear the closest thing to recognizable reality.

What's it all about? Who knows? Clearly for Lynch the point is to explore the subconscious - in all its violence, depravity and lust - and to create a movie like a dream. It's worth watching as yet another example of Lynch's extraordinary collaboration with Dern. She dares to embody Lynch's most brutal impressions of Hollywood - not as a dream factory, but as the place where dreams come to die.

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

Screening at Eckerd

Inland Empire is showing at 7 p.m. Friday only, in Miller Auditorium at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. Free.

[Last modified April 12, 2007, 07:10:04]

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