Time to focus

Thursday night's Florida Film Festival program at the Enzian imparted a clear vision of where the medium has been and where it's going -- and the picture wasn't always pretty.

The evening began pleasantly enough, as I was able to collar Michael McNamara, director of Festival spotlight film "The Cockroach that Ate Cincinnati," for an impromptu chat. McNamara, it turned out, is as free with words as his film's star, motormouth U.K. monologist, Alan Williams. And putting him in the company of an equally verbose reporter ensured that we spent a full hour rambling on about "Cockroach," Canadian television programming, forgotten New Wave pop stars and anything else that floated across our transoms. His love for his work was readily apparent. (Witness the fruits of his labor 2:45 p.m. Sunday at Colonial Promenade.)

Built to last

From the hubbub heard on previous nights, it had seemed as if the evening's screening of "To Kill A Mockingbird" was the one event everyone and his brother planned to attend. So it was something of a mystery when the turnout was instead one of the lowest I've seen thus far. For those who passed it up, it was their loss: They missed out on a restored print of the dramatic classic that was 99 percent pristine (and if that doesn't seem such a big deal, check out Sunday's "The Race to Save 100 Years," an eye-opening documentary about the frailty of vintage film).

What's more, they blew their chance to experience a feature with true moral weight, something sadly lacking in too many of the newer Festival offerings. When the spunky Scout Finch had her historic rendezvous with Boo Radley, meeting the unknown not with fear and prejudice but with a welcoming, neighborly smile, I felt sure my tears would wash my contact lenses straight into my Enzian chicken sandwich.

Separating men from the boys

The Beastie Boys hits playing on the theater's sound system before the showing of "Frat House" were the first sign that the night was about to take a marked turn. This feature, too, had generated strong advance word; it was said to be a harrowing portrait of the brutality of fraternity "hazing" rituals. The activities on view were indeed frightening, but the picture's tone seemed too light and playful for the gravity of its subject matter.

When co-director Todd Phillips took the stage for the Q&A, I understood why. Phillips and his partner, Andrew Gurland, had been the subjects of industry gossip about their allegedly obnoxious behavior at Sundance, and for the swelled heads they had generally been displaying in the wake of their instant success. Sure enough, Phillips seemed to have a great time playing the "gone Hollywood" role, wearing sunglasses through the entire session and speaking in a voice that was pure Los Angeles golden smog.

When asked what the budget had been for "Frat House," Phillips responded, "Around three-fifty," adopting the vernacular of the hotshot who counts in sums not below the thousands. And he took great satisfaction in noting that he's already developing a screenplay for notorious schlock-peddler Ivan Reitman. He seemed unaware that independent cinema could be anything but a springboard to a huge payday.

No wonder his film was so passionless.

Phillips didn't appear to believe in anything but his own ascent, and it was reflected in his comments about the film, which he stressed shouldn't be taken as an excoriation of the Greek system. This despite the fact that its highlights included a speech by a woman whose son had died during a vicious hazing, and interviews with frat brothers whose unthinking, violent intensity recalled the hooligans of "Romper Stomper." Seldom have I seen such potentially damning material treated with such kid gloves. The audience, which included several admitted veterans of the hell-week process, ate it up as a nostalgic, comedic romp.

Filing out, I walked right by Phillips, not bothering to solicit even the briefest of interviews. There was nothing to ask, and nothing to say. I would, however, have welcomed the chance to tie him to a chair, "Clockwork Orange"-style, and force him to watch "To Kill A Mockingbird" over and over, until he understood what a film with an actual point of view looked like. For once, I would have been more than willing to join in the stodgy chorus "they don't make 'em like that anymore."

Stand up, Todd. Your forefather's passing.

Tips for Friday: Be at Enzian at 7 p.m. Friday for "An Evening with Scott Wilson," including a screening of "Our God's Brother," his filmic take on the literary career one Karol Wojtyla cultivated before donning the pointy hat of the Pope. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the midnight showing of S&M documentary "Whipped" will finally give you a reason to wear the leather pants Mom bought you for Christmas.

If you're in more of a party mood, join the Festival revelers at an unofficial fete at the Langford Resort Hotel, where Le Chanteuse and the Band Ass Belting Babes will serenade an anticipated throng of directors and indie geeks with a set of swingin' melodies.

For a complete listing of Florida Film Festival events, search the Calendar.

There's even more at the official website.

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