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With more than 230 films (including shorts) being shown during this year’s 14th annual Sarasota Film Festival, and with lots of filmmakers and stars in attendance, it’s impossible to even begin to cover it all. But let’s talk about a few of the opening weekend activities before we move on to the busy week to come.
The festival opened Friday evening with a showing of the film Robot and Frank at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Starring Frank Langella and helmed by first-time feature film director Jake Schreier, this movie about an aging former cat burglar (Langella) who’s facing signs of Alzheimer’s was a wise choice for the opening night film, not only because of the demographic of many in Sarasota and in the audience, but because it offered that welcome (but not easy) mix of comedy and drama that elicits a wide range of emotions from the viewer. Langella anchors the film with his performance as a man who’s initially reluctant to accept the help his son (James Marsden) offers him in the form of a robot home health aide (voiced convincingly by Peter Sarsgaard). Then he sees the potential for performing a few last burglary jobs with the help of the efficient robot, especially one involving an unlikable Yuppie type who’s moved to the upstate New York town where he lives.
Although shot on a low budget, Robot and Frank has a script with enough twists and turns to keep you involved throughout. Langella, Schreier and producer Sam Bisbee took questions after the screening, which was followed by an opening night party in the Van Wezel’s Grand Foyer and outside on the bayfront.
Langella answered more questions at Saturday’s “Conversations” event with New York magazine film critic David Edelstein at the Sarasota High School auditorium, about his working-class New Jersey upbringing, his career onstage and screen, and his new book, Dropped Names, which presents his personal take on famous people he’s known and worked with over the years. For Langella, his urge to escape New Jersey was given impetus when as a kid of 15 he took the bus to Manhattan and, in a moment no fiction writer would ever get away with, saw film icon Marilyn Monroe step out of a limousine. (She even breathed a quick “hi” to the thunderstruck teen.) No wonder Langella decided to pursue his theatrical ambitions with that sort of life-changing experience. But his film career didn’t really take off as quickly as his stage work did; in fact, Langella admits, it’s only been in the past dozen or so years that the 70-something actor has had as much success before the camera, with roles in Starting Out in the Evening and Frost/Nixon cementing his powerful image in the public eye.
Langella was candid in his disdain for Method acting (“I believe you act in spite of your neuroses, not because of them”) and about his own emotional insecurities as a young actor, saying that for him sex, not drugs or alcohol was the addiction he had to kick. He refused to answer only one question from Edelstein, who asked him if he’d been intimate with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (whom he wrote about in Dropped Names). “That’s an inappropriate question,” Langella responded flatly before moving on to other questions.
More dropped names—or at least lots of moments of filmed versions of them—cropped up in Sunday evening’s showing of the documentary Ethel, made by Rory Kennedy and starring her mother Ethel as the center of this look back over more than 60 years of American history. Filmmaker Kennedy never knew her father, Robert, who was assassinated before she was born, but his presence (and that of his brother, Jack) looms large over this film, even though Ethel (and Rory’s surviving siblings) are the interviewees here.
The tone of Ethel is, of course, affectionate and admiring, but the movie also reveals enough of the matriarch’s strong character to occasionally pull us up sharp. The archival footage, both public and private, provides for many viewers a chance to learn about Ethel’s own role, not only in supporting her husband’s career, but in carrying on some of his causes after his death. The film’s subject freely admits that she hates all this introspection, and there are occasional questions she brushes aside. But the surprising thing, as Rory said in a Q&A session after the screening, was that Ethel agreed to this film at all.
“When HBO asked me to do it,” said Kennedy, “I was reluctant, but I thought, ‘Well, I don’t have to say no, because my mother will.’ But when I called her, she said, ‘Since you’re asking me, I will do it.’” The result is bound to stir up memories for those old enough to recall, especially, the turbulent 1960s, but should give younger viewers some interesting insight into the Kennedy clan Ethel married into as well.
More film festival blogs to come later this week….