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Good fun in the sun with Shirley 

Residing in a city with a film festival that has trouble getting its big name honorees to show up (failure might be impossible, but so is luring Pam Grier and Lainie Kazan to Upstate after Columbus Day), it practically made me giggle to hear that the 6th annual Sarasota Film Festival, which wrapped this past Sunday, didn't even have an honoree for their Regal Career Achievement Award until four days before the presentation ceremony (it was The Human Stain's Robert Benton).

            That didn't stop them from selling out the event and an impressive number of their screenings. Here's the dish on the notable entries, not counting films that have played in Rochester at our various festivals (Tupperware!, Gypsy 83), regular theatrical engagements (Monster) or simply sound like they were shot at Hegedorn's (Meet Market).

The good

The title of Campbell Scott's Off the Map, which won the festival's Audience Award for Best Drama, refers to the homestead of the Groden family of Taos, New Mexico, which is so far from civilization, the ideas of running water, telephone service, and electricity aren't even an afterthought. Newcomer Valentina de Angelis plays 11-year-old Bo, a precocious home-schooled tomboy who, over the course of one summer, watches her father's (Sam Elliott) crippling depression smashed to bits by, among other things, both a surprise IRS audit and credit card purchase to end all credit card purchases. Joan Allen is mesmerizingly un-Joan Allen-y as Bo's trippy mom, but de Angelis holds it all together with a performance just as strong, coltish, and out of left field as Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider. Look for it in late spring.

The fun

There's something timeless about stories involving nice, normal people who end up in some dusty hick town and become embroiled in a whole lot of craziness. You get just that in The Mummy an' the Armadillo, which made its world premiere in Sarasota. J.S. Cardone, who adapted the film from his own play, uses a great cast to show us what happens when a preacher's wife (Clare Kramer) stops into a ramshackle Route 66 bar run by a family (Betty Buckley, Brad Renfro, Johnathon Schaech) who turns out to be just as psychotic --- but slightly less violent --- than the Sawyers from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

            The Big Empty, written and directed by Rochester native Steve Anderson, comes off as a U-Turn-ish tale of a struggling actor named John (Jon Favreau) who can wipe out his debt by delivering a mysterious suitcase to Baker, California. Once there, predictably, he runs into an assortment of colorful characters including, but not limited to, the crazy motel clerk (Jon Gries), the helpful barmaid (Daryl Hannah), the friendly hooker (Melora Walters), and the local whackjob (Adam Beach) who thinks John is making eyes at his girl (Rachael Leigh Cook). But it's still a lot of fun, and it has the common courtesy to take a pretty surprising turn in the last act.

The Shirley Henderson

She of tiny stature and bushy eyebrows starred in two of the festival's better offerings. Lone Scherfig's Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, co-written by Dogme mastermind Anders Thomas Jensen, is a very effective romantic comedy of sorts. Wilbur (Jamie Sives) is perhaps the world's worst nursery school employee and --- yes --- has a penchant for attempting suicide at every given opportunity. But Wilbur has undergone a number of recent changes in his life, including the death of his father, the inheritance of a used bookshop, and the beginnings of a crush on his devoted brother's new wife (Henderson). Due in Rochester this spring.

            Henderson also appears in the creepy Hypnotic as a plucky, overachieving cop who enlists the services of a down-and-out shrink (Goran Visnjic) to help her catch a kiddie killer lovingly dubbed "The Tattoo Murderer." Miranda Otto, Paddy Considine, and Fiona Shaw costar, as does Colin Farrell (though if you blink, you'll miss him). Could be shown locally this summer.

Year of the doc, redux

Continuing their impressive 2003 run for the record books, Sarasota's documentary films covered a wide variety of subjects in stellar detail. There was The Sweatbox (about Sting creating the music for Disney's The Emperor's New Groove), recent Oscar snubbee The Story of the Weeping Camel (about trying to get a camel to accept its ugly calf), Paper Clips (about a Tennessee high school's sobering attempt to create a Holocaust memorial within throwing distance of both the Scopes Monkey Trial and the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan), and Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine (about the controversial defeat of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov at the maniacal hands of Deep Blue).

            Something you might see turn up at our High Falls fest is Year of the Woman, a documentary about the role of women at the 1972 Democratic Convention that hadn't been publicly screened in 32 years before playing Sarasota. Director Sandra Hochman's intentions are noble, and Year is at its best when she corners celebrities and political bigwigs like Michael Moore's mother (in one scene, you can practically hear Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, and Pierre Salinger load their pants), but the ham-fisted inclusion of Hochman's poetry just doesn't fit in the mix. And sometimes her point is taken a step too far, like when she accuses a delegate from the Virgin Islands of promoting a vacation spot with a sexist name. Art Buchwald steals the show with a bit in which he imagines what it would be like if women took over the world.

Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

A farewell

This week's will be the last film reviews in City by Jon Popick, who has resigned after three years of writing for us. In addition to his weekly reviews and film clips, his contributions to City include extensive coverage of Rochester's two important film festivals, ImageOut, the annual lesbian and gay film and video festival, and the High Falls Film Festival, which features the work of women in filmmaking. To both, he devoted an enormous amount of time and effort, reviewing every film of every event. The newspaper and its readers have benefited from his knowledge and love of filmmaking, and we'll miss him.

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