Sarasota Film Festival: Closing Weekend

By Megan McDonald April 23, 2012

As the Sarasota Film Festival wrapped up its closing weekend, here’s a quick look back at some of the events of the past couple of days.

First up: a screening of the latest film by director Todd Solondz, Dark Horse. Solondz has certainly been controversial with his work and its themes in the past (Happiness dealt with pedophilia, Welcome to the Dollhouse with the bullying of a not altogether likable victim), but this film, while still carrying his unique voice, may be more accessible to most viewers.

It centers on a 30-something loser (Jordan Gelber), who lives in New Jersey with his parents (Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken) and also has a job at his father’s place of business, one he cares little about. In fact Abe doesn’t seem to care about much of anything except for the collection of boxed toys and memorabilia that fills his room; he’s a regular visitor to a store very much like Toys 'R Us (the company logo is deliberately blurred whenever he enters its parking lot). For him, the words “No credit, no exchange, no refund” coming from the store clerk may be among the saddest in the English language.

At a wedding, Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a woman so filled with despair that she soon agrees to marry him despite hardly knowing him and being far from in love. In the meantime, though, Abe (believe it or not) has his own admirer, a secretary (Donna Murphy) at his office who sometimes morphs into a cougar (of the Mrs. Robinson variety) in his imagination.

In fact, not all we see in Dark Horse is reality. Without spoiling the plot, it’s easy to see that for someone like Abe (the film’s titular dark horse, who wants to see himself as a front-runner), a false reality might well be better than the “real” one. Gelber is spot on as this character, willing to demonstrate Abe’s unlikability as well as his pathos.

Next up came Saturday’s Conversation with Penelope Ann Miller at Sarasota High School. The actress was interviewed by film critic Peter Rainer about her start in theater (her big break came in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues) and her eventual transfer to film, where she has managed to work with some of the biggest names in show business (“all the names ending in o,” as she joked, in reference to her appearances onscreen with Brando, DeNiro and Pacino).

She told interesting stories about each of them: Brando, appearing in The Freshman, was unpredictable but funny, tossing bits of bread at her and her costars during a restaurant meal, and once hugging her so hard “I think he refractured my ribs” (injured earlier in a stage production); DeNiro, she says, was “painfully shy,” never looking at her during her first reading with him for a role; Pacino, she says, is much more gregarious than the other two. She found Sean Penn, with whom she worked in Carlito’s Way, to be “the most Method of any actor,” disappearing into his character in part by shaving his hairline back and perming his hair into the look he needed. And Gregory Peck, with whom she worked on Other People’s Money, “was the epitome of a gentleman,” exuding “dignity, integrity and warmth” and easing her humiliation when another actor with whom she had worked (Louis Jourdan) didn’t remember her when she came to say hello to them both.

Finally, Saturday evening at the Opera House was awards night, for young filmmakers, documentarians and narrative film directors and stars. (For a complete list of winners, go to In something of a departure from the past, the awards were quickly presented in order to move on to a screening of the film Under African Skies, directed by Joe Berlinger and tracing the reunion of songwriter Paul Simon with the South African musicians with whom he worked on the famous album Graceland. It’s impossible to resist the rhythms of those songs as you hear them once more in the film, or the engaging personalities of the musicians interviewed.

But the film also delves into the controversy that followed the making of Graceland, because in his original trip to South Africa in the 1980s Simon had broken a longstanding cultural boycott initiated by the African National Congress and Artists Against Apartheid. All these years later, it’s fascinating to hear the opinions and feelings of South African politicians and artists and African-Americans such as Harry Belafonte, Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, along with Simon himself. And I’d be surprised if people viewing this movie later (it’s bound to pop up on cable very soon) don’t immediately rush to replay the album if they haven’t listed to it in a while. The whole film is a testament to the power of music in the hands of artists from any background.

And that’s it for me for SFF 2012.

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