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2006 Floating Film Festival – “Shek It Out!”

FFFgoer Andra Takacs files her account of the 2006 Floating Film Festival:

For a film nut, it doesn’t get any better than this: 23 feature & 8 short films, a frame by frame analysis of "In Cold Blood" and a tribute to one of its stars, actor Scott Wilson, all conducted on a luxury cruise ship. Known as the “most exclusive film festival in the world," this 11-day cinematic voyage on the 6-Star Crystal Symphony featured a diverse and compelling program, celebrity guests and first-class accommodations, entertainment & service. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the film festival circuit, mostly because the cruise ship setting restricts the attendance capacity to only 200 people.

The Floating Film Festival (FFF) or “Floater” as it is affectionately known, was the brainchild of Dusty Cohl, co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival. Dusty says the concept for the Floater was based on combining the best elements of his favourite festivals: “the smallness of Telluride, the warmth of Toronto and the glamour of Cannes." The festival set sail for the first time in 1991 with Dusty at the helm. However, after the last cruise in 2004, Dusty recruited Barry Avrich, to serve as “Captain.” While Barry is very modest about his new role, he demonstrated enviable navigation skills during “Take 9” of the FFF. The tone was set by the festival t-shirt, which include an art deco style cruise ship flying a flag with a Dusty Cohl-inspired cowboy hat.

Our cinematic adventure on the high seas began on February 7th when we set sail from Caldera, Costa Rica, steamed through the Panama Canal and made stops in St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten and Grand Turk. Screenings were thoughtfully scheduled so as not to interfere with shore excursions, sun tanning or meals. (A good thing, too, since the food was excellent in both the regular dining room and in the specialty restaurants).

Yet the pleasure of great destinations and plush accommodation would be dampened if the festival programming was not seaworthy. Past Floaters have premiered festival gems and subsequent marquee movies and this year was no exception. FFF films were selected and presented by an esteemed crew of guest directors, film critics and scholars including: CBC Arts guru George Anthony; Mary Corliss, writer for Film Comment and Time.com and former head of the MOMA’s Film Stills Archive; Richard Corliss, Time magazine critic; famed film critic Roger Ebert of Ebert & Roeper at the Movies; Jim Emerson, Editor of RogerEbert.com; veteran programmer for the Dubai & Bangkok film festivals, Hannah Fisher; Ross Johnson, arts writer for the L.A. Times and Esquire magazine; and Bruce Kirkland, Toronto Sun film critic. Each one put their personal stamp on the programming, which covered features, documentaries and a number of shorts.

The Brian Lineham Award for best documentary was accorded to "The Last Mogul" (dir. Barry Avrich), about former MCA Universal Chairman Lew Wasserman, whose reign as Hollywood’s most powerful mogul lasted 50 years. The film was called “Oscar-worthy” by The Hollywood Reporter and FFF festival-goers agreed.

Mogul had lots of competition from other documentary gems such as the "Latin Legends of Comedy" by director and stand up comedian Ray Ellin. The concert-style film takes three popular Latin comics back to the club that launched their careers. Ray Ellin was on hand for a dialogue with FFF audience members, who were indeed glad that they took Ray’s advice to “shek it out.”

Audience members sang along and swayed to the songs of Pete Seeger in Jim Brown’s work-in-progress called "Pete Seeger: the Power of Song." We were moved by the powerful examination of the redemptive powers of acting as therapy for inmates in "Shakespeare Behind Bars" (dir. Hank Rogerson). Jim Emerson struck a chord with "51 Birch Street" (dir. Doug Block), about the director’s search to solve the mystery of his father’s remarriage soon after his mother’s death and the questions it raised about the nature of his parents’ relationship. Conversations about marriage, love and fidelity continued throughout lunch and into dinner that day.

Broadway insider director Dori Berinstein was present for the screening of her highly-praised documentary "Show Business." The documentary covers the 2003-04 Broadway season and focuses on four Broadway shows ("Avenue Q," "Caroline or Change," "Taboo" and "Wicked"), from inception through the Tony Awards. Interviews with Rosie O’Donnell, Idna Menzel, Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth transported the audience behind the scenes to experience the magic, and understand some of the politics, of Broadway theatre.

Direct from Sundance, "This Film is Not Yet Rated" (dir. Kirby Dick) provided a scathing expose about the MPAA rating system. The tagline “censorship, uncensored” accurately describes the film, which shows scenes from several NC-17 films, including Atom Egoyan’s "Where the Truth Lies." FFF audience members participated in a spirited discussion about censorship, which was enhanced by the participation of a FFF film-goer who happened to be a former Canadian censor board member. (The Canadian system is a legislated one, which allows for court review of decisions, in contrast to the MPAA system, which is “voluntary” and not under federal or state jurisdiction.)

Foreign films were numerous, including the Oscar-nominated films "Fateless" (dir. Lajos Koltai - Hungary) and "Sophie Scholl – the Final Days" (dir. Marc Rothemund - Germany). Russian blockbuster "Night Watch" (dir. Timur Bekmambet) proved a daring programming selection by Ross Johnson for an audience that would not normally watch a sci-fi horror film.

Hannah Fisher charmed the FFF audience with "Istanbul Tales," an unusual Turkish film which told a story in five chapters by five directors (Umit Unai, Kudret Sabanci, Selim Demirdelen, Yucel Yolcu and Omur Atay). The main character in one chapter becomes an extra in another, all with interconnected stories based on contemporary updates to classic fairy tales.

Richard Corliss described "Citizen Dog" (dir. Wisit Sasanatieng) as reminiscent of the French film "Amelie," “but after a dozen beers and couple of conks on the head.” The initial brisk narration slowed somewhat in the second half of the film, but that impression might be attributed to the late screening time (10:30 p.m. on the 6th day of the cruise) or too much sun while touring the port at St. Lucia.

George Anthony’s selection, "Iron Island" (dir. Mohammed Rasoulof), was a hit with most film-goers. The premise for the Iranian drama is an abandoned oil tanker moored in the Persian Gulf that becomes a hostel for homeless families. The engrossing tale hinges on the dictatorial powers of the Captain Nemat, who acts as salesman, matchmaker and power of attorney for the trusting residents of the slowly-sinking ship. A terrific selection for the Floater!

The Jay Scott Award for best feature film (honour named after the late Toronto Globe and Mail film critic) went to "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" by first-time director, Tommy Lee Jones. Programmer Jim Emerson introduced the film, calling it the best film of 2005 and possibly one of best films in the past decade, and FFF participants (myself excluded) agreed with Jim.

My personal favourite was the Australian film "Look Both Ways" by director Sarah Watt. The film, which chronicles the lives of a collection of characters who confront various crises in the wake of a train accident, won the Discovery Award at the Toronto festival last September.

In light of the media and political controversy of the publication of the Mohammed cartoons, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" (dir. Albert Brooks), about a comedian assigned by the US government to find out what makes Muslims laugh, was quite topical. The U.K. film "On a Clear Day" (dir. Gaby Dellel), about a man who attempts to tackle his personal demons by swimming the English Channel, was a general crowd-pleaser. Starring Peter Mullan and Brenda Blethyn, it is bound to encounter smooth seas in the North American market.

Probably not to be as successful is Nicole Holofcener’s latest film, "Friends with Money," a drama about four long-time friends (Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand and Jennifer Aniston) that opened at Sundance in January. Not as well-written as her previous film, "Lovely and Amazing," the modern comedy about adults in search of love, friendship and money was worth viewing if only for the performances of the four actresses.

The congenial "Art School Confidential" by Terry Zwigoff (of "Ghost World" fame) stars Max Minghella (son of director Anthony Minghella) as a precocious art student who dreams of becoming the greatest artist in the world. John Malkovich gives an inspired performance as a pretentious & frustrated art professor.

"Fierce People" (dir. Griffin Dunne) encountered very rough seas with the FFF audience. The film stars Diane Lane as the mother of a teenage son, played by Anton Yelchin, who dreams of reconnecting with his father, a famous anthropologist who studies a primitive South American tribe. The film was universally panned by the FFF audience, which found it contrived and predictable.

The Best Short Film Award went to "Big Girl," (dir. Renuke Jeyapalan) a bittersweet battle of wills between nine-year-old Josephine and her mother's new boyfriend in this poignant tale of modern family politics. Samantha Weinstein, who played the daughter, recently received ACTRA Toronto’s 2006 Award for Outstanding Performance – Female. The film also was awarded the Bravo/FACT Short Cuts Canada Award at the 30th Toronto festival in 2005.

In addition to selecting "Big Girl," Bruce Kirkland programmed the balance of the other short films, including "The Porcelain Pussy" (dir. Denise Blinn); "Pigeon" (dir. Anthony Green); "Cost of Living" (dir. Jonathan Joffe); "Pen Pals" (dir. Art Curry); "West Bank Story" (dir. Ari Sandel); and "Evelyn: The Cutest Evil Dead Girl" (dir. Brad Peyton). ('Evelyn' brought Peyton to the attention of Tom Hank’s company, Playtone, which hired him to write and direct a new animated featured called "The Spider and the Fly.") With the exception of "West Bank Story," (selected by Hannah Fisher) all the shorts were directed by alumni of the Canadian Film Centre.

For me, the highlight of the festival was the programming by Roger Ebert, which featured a special salute to legendary character actor Scott Wilson, presentation of an Exemplary Achievement Award and a retrospective of his work. Wilson made his feature film debut in Norman Jewison’s "In the Heat of the Night" and has never looked back. One of the world’s most recognizable and beloved character actors, he is featured in over 50 films, including "The Right Stuff," "The Aviator," "The Great Gatsby," "Monster" and last year’s critically-acclaimed "Junebug."

The retrospective included a screening of "A Year of the Quiet Sun," directed by Krzystof Zanussi. Ebert has named this film as one of his “Great Movies” and was eager to show the film in its original splendour with a re-mastered print. In the romantic drama, set in 1946, Wilson plays an American soldier who makes a profound personal connection with a Polish widow, despite language & cultural barriers.

Wilson made a significant contribution to the Ebert Frame x Frame discussion. Ebert’s famous in-depth screening technique has been dubbed “Democracy in the Dark” for way in which it breaks films down in front of an audience. Ebert has his finger on the pause button as he screens the film on a laserdisc system and a soon as there is something on the screen to talk about, someone says “Stop!” and the talk begins.

For “Take 9” of the FFF, Ebert chose the classic 1967 feature "In Cold Blood" (dir. Richard Brooks) adapted from the Truman Capote novel about the true story of two men who brutally murder a family in the quiet farming town of Halcomb, Kansas and are subsequently tried and execution. (This selection was particularly topical, due to the Oscar buzz around Capote.) Scott Wilson gives a riveting and nuanced performance as Dick Hickock, one of the killers.

With Ebert at the helm, answering technical questions about editing, lighting and other cinematic features, we spent more than seven hours over two days dissecting the film. Wilson provided the “behind the scenes” commentary, regaling the audience with anecdotes about his fights with the director, breaking props and the use of actual residents of Halcomb in the film. His thoughtful observations added immeasurable depth to the analysis and discussion of the film.

I am looking forward to seeing Scott Wilson in his upcoming films, "Saving Shiloh," due out this year, as well as "The Sensation of Sight" and "Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon," both of which are now in post-production.

The only regrettable thing about the Floating Film Festival is that it only takes place every two years. I’m counting down the days to 2008 so that I can climb aboard the next privileged vessel under Barry Avrich’s able seamanship to “shek it out” again!

Andra Takacs is a devoted film fanatic and the President of Film Festival Tours (www.filmfestivaltours.ca)

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