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Highlights! Camera! Action!



Your subscription to Premiere magazine will not prepare you for the Florida Film Festival. Neither will regular viewing of "Entertainment Tonight" or E!, whose star-studded, high-gloss coverage of the Cannes and Sundance conclaves has been largely responsible for introducing the concept of the cinematic convergence to the general public. With the majority of their attention lavished on who sold what to who (and who wore what to whose bash), it would be easy to assume that every film festival is a marathon of cutthroat deal-making and studied, publicity-minded fabulousness.

Celebrity star power is hardly turned away from Maitland's Enzian Theater when the FFF arrives each spring -- this year's distinguished guests include veteran character actors Paul Winfield, Illeana Douglas, Gena Rowlands and Christopher Walken. And fashion-plate patrons are free to dress up (or down) as they please. But as it enters its eighth season, the staple of the Orlando film buff's calendar appears resolute in its intention to keep the emphasis on the screen. From educational seminars and roundtables to screenings of the latest in groundbreaking features, documentaries, short subjects and experimental works, this is a 10-day blowout presented by and for people who love movies. It's a marketplace of ideas, not a shopping mall for self-styled power brokers.

A schedule that's stuffed with some 115 films is bound to have its ups and downs, especially one that depends on the increasingly glutted indie market for its livelihood. Still, it's not that difficult to uncover the gems among the coal -- the entries that deserve the full measure of credit for their visual beauty, their superior scripted content or even their simple ability to take a sophisticated audience by total surprise. Here's a rundown of some of the more noteworthy head-turners.

Taking a 180-degree spin from his portrayal of the kind-hearted general in "Good Morning, Vietnam," Noble Willingham assumes the role of a boorish South Carolina boat salesman in the taut psychological thriller "The Corndog Man". A series of prank phone calls force Willingham's Ace Barker to confront his shadowy past, a personal history awash in sin and secrets. The unfolding mystery makes for gripping viewing, all the more remarkable given that 95 percent of its action takes place on the telephone (and is driven by an antagonist who we never see in full-face). Sweating his way through close-up after anguished close-up, "Corndog" is Willingham's show -- and he runs away with it.

The British import Following benefits from an enigmatic structure that's looser, but just as watchable. Painting in broad, nonlinear strokes, the noir whodunit records the stages of an unemployed writer's fascination with voyeurism and burglary. One minute, our misguided hero is a scraggly haired novice fumbling his way through his first heist; the next, he's a smoothly tailored thief who's already speeding toward an imminent downfall. Neither an attempt to ape foreign-film obscurities nor to hop on the post-"Pulp Fiction" bandwagon of narrative disjointedness, Following instead uses its splice-and-dice approach as a novel method of keeping all of its cards hidden until the final hand is dealt.

Despite its brevity, the Oscar-nominated short "More" (included in "Shorts Program 5: Animated Shorts") packs an emotional punch that puts it on a plane with the best features. Its Kafkaesque world is populated by gray claymation characters, who toil humorlessly on a backbreaking assembly line. One eventually rises above the pack with his invention of a new product, a miracle commodity that's literally happiness in a box. Or is it? A plaintive soundtrack by New Order is the perfect complement to images of longing that linger in your mind's eye long after the film's six minutes have come and gone.

On the home front, the Florida State University film department advances its reputation for telling rich small-town stories with the premiere of its black comedy "Rose's". FSU stalwart Wayne DeHart is consistently entertaining as a drifter whose parole is jeopardized when he befriends a shrinking violet of a flower-shop owner (Leslie France). Keep your eyes peeled for the sporadic appearances of a skittish delivery boy -- that's Mark Lainer, the talented Orlando actor who's made something of a cottage industry out of playing lovable milquetoasts in Florida State dramadies.

Lainer also shows up in "The Meeting" (included in Shorts Program 4: Monsters and Angels, directed by former Enzian staffer Ben Rock. Shot on the stage of Theatre Downtown, the satire of corporate excess uses a single set and some suitably skewed camera angles to poke fun at boardroom protocol. Here's a hint: When it comes to top-level decision-making, the difference between the men and the boys can't always be determined by the size of their toys.

Documentaries don't come any more eye-opening than Divorce Iranian Style, in which two emissaries of the Women Make Films project are granted incredibly unrestricted access to a Tehran courtroom. What they find there is shattering evidence of a culture that still conspires to keep its female members behind the eight ball in domestic matters, denying them the most basic of marital rights and hamstringing their efforts to eke out even marginal happiness. Resist the cynical impulse to dismiss this terrifically affecting film as a high-concept welding of "Judge Judy" with "Not Without My Daughter." The case studies it presents have far more to say about the destructive power of old-boy networks in foreign lands -- and, by implication, in our own.

With every fresh Divorce, however, the pool of suitable documentary subjects is drained a little further. Paraphrasing Warhol, it sometimes seems as if everyone in the world is destined to one day star in his or her own biopic. How else to explain the existence of I Created Lancelot Link (showing along with "In Bad Taste: The John Waters Story"), a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek tribute to the pair of gag writers who performed the questionable social service of bringing awkwardly choreographed monkeyshines to kids' TV? Pulled out of retirement to reflect on their "accomplishments," the aging Borscht Belt jokemeisters can't hide their elation at finally being recognized for shoehorning temperamental chimps into miniature spy suits. Their breathless tales of specially constructed sets and million-dollar merchandising deals don't need ironic commentary; they're ridiculous enough on their own.

However, the real I Can't Believe Someone Shot THIS Award must go to "The Item", a gleefully exploitative sci-fi/horror/shoot-em-'up that's guaranteed to shake blasé viewers out of their been-there, seen-that complacency. A quartet of guns-for-hire accept the assignment of guarding a scientific specimen for an unknown client, giving deranged director Dan Clark his cue to unleash an evening's worth of over-the-top ultraviolence, slimy sex and intellectual sadism. To reveal that the "item" in question is an oversized worm with dangerous mental powers in no way dulls the impact of this unfathomably bizarre feature. Nor is it unfair to note that the long-haired scientist who bestows the worm upon its unsuspecting baby-sitters bears a striking resemblance to onetime Warrant vocalist (and former Sunset Strip co-owner) Jani Lane. When you're dealing with material this bereft of context, no reaction is out of bounds.

The full-length cartoon A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation also tests the limits of our collective imagination, but evokes feelings of pure delight instead of fascinated revulsion. Every whimsical frame of the Hong Kong fable is a gift of fantasy, a sweet-spirited travelogue through a land of mischievous specters, saber-rattling warriors and loyal animal pals. At times, it seems as if every flower, broomstick and bar stool we see is likely to come to life. How appropriate that the Fantasia aesthetic be brought back home to the land of Disney, where its lessons have been all but forgotten.

Far East phantoms take on a more pensive form in After Life, a live-action Japanese feature that earns full marks for its tender, thoughtful depiction of souls in flux. Holed up in a misleadingly nondescript waystation between this world and the next, a group of the recently deceased are made to scour their memories for the moment that most defined their lives. Once selected, that recollection is to be immortalized on film by their hosts, whose job it is to provide a sole souvenir of their charges' earthly existence.

The choices prove to be all over the spiritual map, demonstrating that our notions of fulfillment are inherently subjective and intensely intimate. But there's an added kicker: The film team finds that it has an equally personal stake in the proceedings. Try as they might, the otherworldly directors can't separate their own needs from those of their clients.

To a dyed-in-the-wool festivalgoer, the message is no less salient for its obviousness. The packaging of memories for pleasure is the heart of the film business, but a genuine symbiosis between creator and audience is its ultimate achievement. The stars of "After Life" are given a week to find that synchronicity; the Florida Film Festival allows us three days more. Happy ghost hunting.

For running commentary on the festival, follow critic Steve Schneider's Afterwords.

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