Getting it together 

Orlando Film Festival
Nov. 4-8
Plaza Cinema Café

We could talk all day about the problems that have plagued the Orlando Film Festival in its past three years: embarrassing media "events," tiny venues, a cattle mentality, publicity weight put behind a dumb comedy like Courting Condi while Dear Zachary quietly plays and later racks up major national awards and … oh, there we go again.

The point of bringing this up again is that, in its fourth year, the OFF seems to have gotten its act together with a new venue (the beautiful, if frustrating, Plaza Cinema Café, 155 S. Orange Ave.) and more than a few films that are actually seeping into the year's cinematic discussion. As always, all films are free and admission is first come, first served.

Bitter/Sweet (2 Stars) Following essentially the same plot outline as last year's Bottle Shock, only with coffee instead of wine, Bitter/Sweet concerns a Seattle coffee tastemaker, Brian (Kip Pardue), who's forced to travel to Thailand after word gets out about a good bean being grown there. Brian, despite his preconceptions about Thai beans, falls in love with the village and a farmer's daughter (Napakpapha Nakprasitte), even though he's engaged. The wooden acting (even from James Brolin) is exacerbated by Nakprasitte's dubbed English throughout, and although the story itself is harmless culture-clash fare, its predictability weighs it down from the start.

Love Hurts (1 Star) Richard E. Grant plays Brit dentist Ben Bingham, an uptight and insensitive father whose wife (Carrie-Anne Moss) leaves him, thus thrusting him into the world of his 20-something son and his privileged friends, who teach Ben how to cut loose. Not that he needs much teaching, apparently, as Ben's implausibly obnoxious demeanor attracts every woman he meets, including a slumming Jenna Elfman and Janeane Garofalo. That doesn't stop him from taking a jelly bean to one eye and a shot of bug spray in the other, the requisite blow to the gonads, and other disgraces that still don't feel as painful as the attempts at humor and romance in this godforsaken mess.

Love the Beast (4 Stars) Is it piling on to say that this love story between actor Eric Bana and his car works more effectively than the romance in his latest film, The Time Traveler's Wife? (Or even the one in Lucky You, the premiere of which Bana attends in this film while telling the camera, "I can't help but think of my car.") Regardless, Bana directed and produced this endearingly earnest tale of a boy who inherited his father's beloved muscle car and spent his formative years turning it into a racing machine. Now a movie star, Bana continues to gather his neighborhood mates, but this time they're intent on perfecting the car and racing it in a dangerous cross-country rally. It's oddly Bana's most emotional role; he's passionate yet grounded, a family man with an important obsession.

My Sweet Misery (1 Star) Coming on the heels of her work in one of the best movies of the year (In the Loop), Anna Chlumsky's appearance in this hack, student-film-level drama is as baffling as her role. As a hotel cleaning lady who, upon discovering a suicide note full of bad poetry and shallow musings, inexplicably falls for its writer, Chlumsky exhibits none of the sparkle and wit that made her shine in Loop. And it's no wonder, with a clunker of a story about a mopey depressive, his criminally disturbed brother (presented as if he's some troubled Bobby Dupea character), the woman who betrays them both and a dumb girl (Chlumsky) who seems to think suicide guy is deep. Yikes.

No Impact Man: The Documentary (3 Stars) When married couple Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin, two working writers in New York City, took on the task of living a full year doing nothing that negatively impacted the environment — no TV, no electricity, no unnecessary trash, no food produced outside New York, no toilet paper even — there was nothing in the game plan, apparently, to prevent them from trolling the Internet and marveling at the hate lobbed at them when word got out about their experiment. Nothing, it seems, can shield you from that agony. Such is the conflict at the heart of this bland portrait of a couple testing the boundaries of modern life and of their own marriage: The attention they get as a result happens in real time, as they make the attempt; thus, it's a kind of self-aware exhibition of activism. Some say that puts them at a level barely above reality stars. But those Socratic questions (Conlin writes for BusinessWeek, which uses tons of paper to push a capitalistic message, for example) are the only truly awakened moments within a lethargic film. Aside from some cute moments of bonding, these just aren't interesting people.

The Philosopher Kings (3 Stars) Director Patrick Shen follows the advice of Bill Clinton, who advised students at a commencement address, as seen in the film, to think about the janitors who clean up after them, what their lives are like, and acknowledge that they "see them," in this heartwarming if static documentary. Shen gives us the difficult and sometimes inspirational stories of custodians at elite schools like University of Florida, Cornell, Duke, Princeton and Cal Tech. At work, the cleaners are surrounded by art, nature, cathedrals and museum artifacts, beautiful backdrops that they're entrusted to make sparkle. At home, they practice woodwork, play in bands or work second jobs. They are, as Clinton suggested, very interesting people. Philosopher Kings knows there isn't much more to it than that, and the film is efficient in its telling.

Serious Moonlight (3 Stars) Coming off Adrienne Shelly's first breakaway hit, the delightful Waitress, this dramedy about a woman (Meg Ryan) who duct-tapes her philandering husband to a toilet until they can work out their issues should have been a victory lap for writer-director Shelly. Instead, her screenplay was picked up by Waitress co-star Cheryl Hines to direct in Shelly's place. (Shelly was murdered in 2006 by a construction worker she caught robbing her apartment.) It's hard not to think of Shelly when Moonlight's couple encounters a robber (Justin Long) who adds Ryan to the duct-taped club. The introduction of vague menace actually serves the film well; it starts out shrill and over-the-top, but manages to reach genuine emotional depths by its end.

Strawberry Fields: Keeping the Spirit of John Lennon Alive (1 Star) If there is one human being on Earth besides Jesus who needs no help keeping his memory alive, it's John Lennon. And testimonials from fans are rather pointless: Witness the person who, when asked whether there should be an International John Lennon Day, responds, "I don't know why there isn't one already. I think that's crazy. We celebrate Columbus, who, like, you know, killed people for not finding gold that wasn't even there and we don't celebrate John Lennon who was, you know, a good person." ("I already voted for it on the Internet," adds another Central Park visitor.) Throw in cursory bio info, embarrassingly bad original songs about Lennon as a soundtrack, and an interview with Phil Spector that covers no ground he hasn't trod many times over, and you get this delusional, laughable passion project from first-time director Mark R. Elsis.


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