Reels like the first time

When the ninth annual Florida Film Festival commenced last Friday night at Maitland's Enzian Theater, the writing was on the wall that this year's 10-day event would evoke strong emotions.

"Pete's Brewing Co. supports Love and Sex," read a banner that hung in the outdoor courtyard. Passersby chuckled at the understatement: Beer "supports" love and sex? How about "makes possible"?

It wasn't chemically enhanced affection that was being lauded, but the selection of Love and Sex -- the movie -- as the festival's lead-off entry. Star Famke Janssen was on hand to blow kisses in the picture's direction, making the latest wise move in a career that's seen her balance arty prestige projects against big-budget blockbusters. But the leggy ex-model quelled my concern that her dual professional agendas might leave her with occasional feelings of schizophrenia.

"It's more like, 'How big is my trailer today?'" Janssen said. "Or, 'Do I get one?'"

Her newest small-trailer outing proved a big hit with the 2000 festival's first audience. An agreeable romantic comedy that pairs Janssen with "Swingers'" Jon Favreau, the film kept the room in stitches, even when its mostly clever script dallied with the cutesy and the coarse.

Skewing noticeably younger than the usual cadre of opening-night patrons, the audience lapped up every word of Janssen's performance. In a postscreening Q&A, one supporter praised her unexpected knack for delivering laugh lines.

"When we did 'GoldenEye,' I thought it was a comedy," the actress shrugged.

The festivities soon moved back outside, where partiers danced the night away to beats supplied by Q-Burns Abstract Message. Festival staffers, however, spirited Janssen off to a real mainstay of Orlando nightlife: Terror on Church Street. By all reports, the star of 1999's "House on Haunted Hill" had a grand time there.

Watch that Hand

In another deviation from tradition, attendance remained remarkably strong throughout the weekend. Saturday's early birds were treated to a noon showing of "The Hand Behind the Mouse," a documentary about legendary Disney animator Ub Iwerks. Its wealth of vintage footage revealed that Mickey and company weren't always such an innocent crew; a reference to a female character's "tits" was visible in a quickly scrolling page of film script. (And the Southern Baptists are worried about "The Lion King"?)

Shorts, features and documentaries were granted equal time as the afternoon wore on into evening. Director Robert Siegel accepted plaudits for Swimming, a naturalistic teen drama set in a lovingly rendered seaside community. One impressed viewer asked how Siegel had elicited such professional performances from his young cast, a mildly ageist query that fell just short of equating child thespians with circus monkeys.

"Find good actors," Siegel responded. Haley Joel Osment would have approved.

By the time the Midnight Shorts session was on deck, the ticket line ran all the way down the Enzian's front walk and into its parking lot. Barely an extra seat was available at the newly instituted program, whose appeal had been an open question. Now we knew the limits of its potential audience: everyone in town and everyone they've ever met.

Developing stories

The sleep had barely left our eyes when Jack Mitchell presented a Sunday-morning slide show of his show-business photographs. Now a resident of New Smyrna Beach, Mitchell has been in close contact with more movie stars than Heidi Fleiss, so the anecdotes he related were almost as illuminating as his masterful lens work.

Gloria Swanson, he said, was among his favorite subjects, and he had watched with interest as the Sunset Boulevard diva bought up a portfolio's worth of Orlando shopping-center property in the years before Disney came to town. There's an urban legend waiting to be born: "Gloria Swanson is cryogenically frozen underneath the Florida Mall!"

A more common myth was spoofed in "The Chromium Hook," a 37-minute short that drew appreciative laughs from another big crowd later in the afternoon. Fleshing out the campfire tale about the metal-handed felon who's said to haunt lovers' lanes, Hook was a victory for producer Ace Allgood and director James Stanger -- committed film freaks who had arrived two days earlier to take in as many screenings as possible.

Newer to the environment were the creative talents behind the noir satire The Woman Chaser, who walked into a Sundance-style mob scene of milling spectators and video cameras at Sunday's end. Star Patrick Warburton was in demand by fans who remembered him as "Puddy" from TV's "Seinfeld," but his new vehicle proved just as howlingly popular.

"I feel like I have a lot invested in this film," Warburton said after the movie was over. A few feet behind us, another throng of paying customers made their own investments in the night's next feature. It was tempting to envision the brisk business persisting for seven more days, and "The Woman Chaser" earning an "audience favorite" award at next Saturday's gala. Rash hopes perhaps, but right in line with a weekend whose limits had already gone straight out the window.

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