Reel awareness heads south 


Yes, there's a film festival going on this weekend in Kissimmee. And if the idea seems patently ludicrous to you, please conduct this experiment.

Hop the next plane from OIA to Los Angeles. Tell the first person you see when you arrive that you're from Orlando, "Hollywood East." Now whip out a pocket watch and time the guffaws.

Perspective, after all, is in one's own backyard. And if 25-year-old mastermind Rick Styczynski thinks his backyard is a fine spot for a cinematic gathering, let him run. Last April, Styczynski -- a native of upstate New York, but a Kissimmee resident for four years -- presented the first-ever Kissimmee Film Slam at the Osceola Center for the Arts. The event, he says, drew around 500 people. (I have no hard evidence that Duets did any better.)

Six months later, he's back at the center, his event rechristened the Kissimmee Film Festival, expanded to three days and now expecting 1,000 visitors. As much a fan fair as a Sundance wannabe, the KFF will include trivia contests, vendor booths and auctions of movie memorabilia. The films, however, remain the focus. More than 30 features and shorts will be screened between Friday and Sunday, from the ubiquitous George Lucas in Love to the obscure creations of Florida-based visionaries.

It's the latter in which I was most interested, and the six Florida films I was able to preview are ... well, Florida films. You'll have to do some looking to find the rough pearls amid a sea of poor acting, cheap-but-busy editing effects and awful songs performed by the director's friends in A Local Band. But the signs of promise are there.

"Curious" is the best term for "movievoyeur.com," a feature produced and directed by Orlandoan Bob Cook and co-produced by "Revenge of the Nerds" star Robert Carradine. A crime drama that teams a California cop with a Florida sheriff and his bumbling deputy, it's also a soft-core titillator whose copious nude scenes explain the onscreen credit to the Cypress Cove resort. The odd stylistic marriage ("In the Heat of the Night Caller," perhaps?) doesn't hide a few decent performances. And it's definitely the finest film ever to be set in Haines City.

There's less to recommend about "Chameleon," a sci-fi short by Tampa's Chris Woods that plays like a mediocre episode of "The X-Files." A shape-shifting monster assumes a variety of human forms while being pursued by a Mulder stand-in who has even less to do than David Duchovny will this season. Good intentions elevate "Introducing TJ," Sarasota director Mary Providence Magill's documentary short about Broward County's "therapeutic jurisprudence" program -- a court initiative that assigns mentally ill lawbreakers to health-care facilities instead of prison. Too bad the fascinating subject is undermined by persistent sound problems and abominable camerawork. Anyone for a close-up of an ear?

Brand new "Bags"

A pleasant surprise is "The Bags," the debut feature from Kissimmee's Queequeg Films, which wrings 90 mostly entertaining minutes from a one-joke premise (a town is attacked by vicious plastic grocery bags). The young cast's acting is spotty, but writer/star Jeremy Gardner's spoof of horror clichés made me laugh more than "Scream" ever did.

The wavering quality of the entries won't prevent Styczynski from handing out "tons of awards" for achievements in directing, acting, editing and related disciplines. The most promising young filmmaker will earn the second Stanley Kubrick Award. Its first recipient -- honored at the April slam -- was Jonathan Figg, whose short, "The Brothers," is now being fleshed out to feature status. It's good company to be in.

Styczynski isn't playing up the screening of his own short, "The Bartender" ("it's like "Clerks" in a bar"), which he shot four years ago in New York. He'd rather publicize the efforts of his fellows, and his drive to bring Florida film into the light -- or at least fill the shoes of the extinct Central Florida Film & Video Festival.

"I guess everybody and their mother is a filmmaker right now," he says. Almost: The end credits of "The Bags" include a name check for "Two Guys Who Came to the First Day of Shooting and Never Again." Welcome to the new Hollywood, where every little bit helps.

Break in the "Search"

For two weeks, rumors have been flying about the Haxan Films update of TV's "In Search Of" (The Green Room, Sept. 7). Their common thread: The project is in trouble.

But I didn't hop on the urban-legend bandwagon until executive producer Gregg Hale called last week to share the real scoop. I like nothing better than fresh dirt, especially from a guy who knows the Loch Ness Monster personally.

"We're kind of in flux right now," Hale acknowledged. "[We're] in a little period of figuring out exactly what Fox wants and what we're going to be delivering."

Some of the footage the network honchos have seen has struck their fancy; some hasn't. Though editing duties continue, shoots are "on hold" until the situation is worked out. The ongoing pursuit of a program host also must be resolved: Kyle MacLachlan was offered the gig, but turned it down.

"I don't think it's an issue of whether or not we're going to continue," Hale disavowed. "It's just how."

The most immediate impact is that some of the show's many local hires will find their employment in jeopardy -- but only in the short term, Hale believes.

"I'm told that it happens all the time," said Hale, a newcomer to the TV crapshoot. "I'm being told I'm not supposed to freak out."

Corpse on the side

At least Bently Tittle, the writer/producer of "In Search Of's" "Voodoo" episode, has been keeping busy. He's the co-creator and director of "Deadly Embrace," an interactive thriller that's available for perusal. Desk-bound sleuths can click through a series of movie files and stills, digging for clues that will help solve the bloody murder of an amorous couple.

If you're the sort who routinely turns to the back pages of a mystery novel to "see how it comes out," you'll be disappointed that no solution to the crime is to be found on the site. Instead, there's a fan forum in which folks much smarter than you or me -- and with far more time on their hands -- trade theories. (Best guess posted so far: O.J. did it.)

The mutual acquaintance who turned me on to Tittle's enigma warned that it would tempt me to spend untold hours online. Too right; expect the message board to soon swell with variations of the off-topic comment, "My boss just fired my ass for misuse of company materials."


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