A moviegoer's guide to the galaxy

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"More stars than there are in the heavens" used to be the slogan of MGM Studios, and for an awfully long time, Louis B. Mayer's stable of screen idols came close to justifying that P.R. party line. The second and final weekend of the Florida Film Festival (which ended its 10-day run last Sunday) likewise put its faith in heavenly numbers, cramming appearances by four celebrated actors into a fatiguing 54 hours. It wasn't MGM, but it was close enough. Better than Troma, certainly.

The preceding week had been no snoozer, either, its lineup of films and special events among the best (and best presented) in the festival's history. Still it's the celebrity chat-ins that are relied upon to put butts in the seats. The settling-in of posteriors began with the Thursday visit of director Allison Anders to Maitland's Enzian Theater. (For a recap, go to The Rushes.) And the gluteus maximi stayed in place for Friday's tete-a-tete with Campbell Scott, Saturday's interview with Leelee Sobieski and Sunday's talk-backs with Gabriel Byrne and Jason Lee.

Scott's question-and-answer session -- which followed three hours of watching him chew the scenery in a self-directed, made-for-cable "Hamlet" -- was the least consequential of the bunch. In keeping with his overheated portrayal of the Bard's mad lad, the actor/director met the crowd's queries with precious, born-to-the-stage homilies that flirted with self-parody. It was like watching Martin Short do Shatner.

"Shakespeare is huge," Scott explained for our benefit, his voice rising grandly on the adjective. Then, in case we missed the meaning: "He's big."

You bet. Bigger than Jesus, even.

Sobieski was slightly less inflated, coming off as a nice, well-educated kid trying (and occasionally failing) not to seem precocious. But it's hard to play the populist when the first question that's thrown at you is delivered in French.

"I'm just saying some nice things," her croissant-addicted suitor translated.

Asked to discuss Eyes Wide Shut, in which she had a small role, the 18-year-old Sobieski sagely suggested that viewers revisit the film at various stages of their lives in order to judge it properly. (You're on, Leelee! See you when I'm 110.)

As festival guests go, Byrne was simply in a class of his own. He was smart, funny and poised to a degree that his guest shots on late-night TV don't properly convey. Subjects ranged from the words he'd like to expunge from the English language -- including "awesome," "cool" and "whatever" -- to his admiration for past co-star Benicio del Toro, who he said "made an incredibly brave decision in 'The Usual Suspects' not to be understood."

Lee's festival-closing interview at the Annie Russell Theatre occupied the opposite end of the linguistic spectrum, with the skateboarder-turned-actor getting big laughs by emphasizing one-word answers that played up the Bill-and-Ted attributes of his personality.

His favorite expletive? "Assface." Then there was this memory of his 'boarding career: "Yeah, I've rocked Tampa a couple times." You won't hear that out of Zhang Ziyi.


Say it again, Sam


Pardon me if I sound oh-so-exclusive, but the award-acceptance speeches heard during Saturday night's festival gala at Universal Studios were generally more impressive than the public Q&As (excluding Byrne's, of course). Scott in particular did a total 180, becoming the model of grace and decorum as he thanked the unsung heroes of the festival -- the viewers -- for their intelligence and nobility. That was awesome of him.

Someone later asked me what I thought of the awards juries' choices, and frankly, I seldom understand the results of any awards contest. On the one hand, I was thrilled that the brilliant but audience-polarizing space comedy The American Astronaut received a Special Jury Award for Original Vision; on the other, I joined a lot of folks in gasping when the teen drama Falling Like This, one of the weakest full-length films I saw during the festival, took the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. (Rumor had it that the verdict was a contentious one among the jurors as well.)

I'll stop short of calling the decision a mistake, given that genuine gaffes were tossed around like party favors by Orange County Commissioner Homer Hartage, who introduced Sobieski. Appearing to have his own eyes wide shut as he read his prepared remarks, Hartage lauded the actress' work with the late, great director "Stanley Koufax." (Swing and a miss!) A few seconds later, he presented Sobieski with a prize for "academic achievement." I believe he meant "artistic," but then again, what 18-year-old isn't thrilled to make the honor roll?


Permanent record


The success of this year's festival was anything but academic. Yes, the blemishes were apparent: Despite repeated readjustments, the sound system at Annie Russell was never quite whipped into shape. And a few projection-booth goof-ups earned occasional unintended chuckles. But most of the events ran smoothly, and the friendly interaction between guests and locals -- always a Florida Film Festival hallmark -- was at its highest level.

The trip must have been worth it for director Lianne Klapper McNally, who had been in Orlando for most of the festival, beating the drum for her documentary short, "Artists and Orphans." Her efforts were rewarded with the Audience Award for Best Short Film. The trip up to the podium to accept her trophy left her a little flustered.

"This is called ‘tongue-tied,'" McNally apologized.

No, this is called a great time.


Held over


If you missed some of the key festival programs, stay tuned for the second act. Opening-night film The Anniversary Party begins a regular run at Enzian this Friday, June 22. The romantic comedy Jump Tomorrow, which won the Perrier Bubbling Under Award for first-time feature director Joel Hopkins, will play Orlando beginning Aug. 10 (though not at Enzian). Further on the horizon, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature and the Florida Forever Filmmaker Award, found a distributor last Friday; "The American Astronaut" is almost certain for a national release come fall; and the gay romantic fable Big Eden, which snapped up the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, is already traveling the country, with an Orlando encore a possibility. As those renowned film theorists Journey once said, "the movie never ends; it goes on and on and on and on."

Sorry. It's funnier when you can hear me sing it.

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