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Sarasota festival tweaks program

There's no shame in belt tightening these days. Even the 11th annual Sarasota Film Festival — in a community with more money and movie savvy than Tampa Bay — is trimming down.

Wednesday evening, the Sarasota fest announced its new format at the newly minted Longboat Key tennis complex, a place so chichi that it made me want to grab a racquet. The festival runs March 27 to April 5, the same 10-day span as before but with a few logistical changes.

Opening night is still at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, where Oren Moverman's debut film The Messenger will be showcased. Moverman co-wrote that terrific Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, so I'm interested to see what he does with the story of two Iraq War veterans (Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster) assigned to inform families that loved ones were killed in action.

Harrelson, Foster and Moverman are scheduled to attend opening night.

But they won't be the stars. New festival president Mark Famiglio announced that 400 troops from MacDill Air Force Base will be guests for the screening. Should be an emotional evening.

The opening night party will stay at Van Wezel this year, rather than moving a few miles away to the Ringling Museum grounds. That's obviously more convenient for patrons and should save bucks, too.

The traditional first-weekend Saturday night party has been canned, and the closing night gala won't be an awards dinner at ritzy Longboat Key but instead will laud honorees and award-winning films at the historic Asolo Theater. Plans for the lavish Night of a Thousand Stars party on April 3 remain unchanged.

Director of programming Tom Hall announced the festival lineup includes 162 films from 25 countries (104 features and 62 shorts). Aside from The Messenger, Hall also singled out the closing night film, Every Little Step, a documentary history of the Broadway smash A Chorus Line.

For the first time, the festival filmmaker tribute will be posthumous (now there's a budget-trimming idea) but richly deserved. The late Hal Ashby, whose memorable resume includes Harold & Maude, Being There, Shampoo, Coming Home, Bound for Glory and The Last Detail, will have many of his films revived for the festival, including the world premiere of the recently discovered director's cut of 1982's Looking to Get Out, a gambling comedy starring Jon Voight and Ann-Margret.

Joining the Ashby tribute in Sarasota will be Voight, David Carradine (who played Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory), Illeana Douglas (granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas, who won an Oscar for Being There) and Oscar winning director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Moonstruck). Author Nick Dawson (Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel) will lend his perspective to the retrospective.

Bill Paxton (Titanic, Apollo 13, HBO's Big Love) will be part of the festival's "In Conversation with …" series, discussing his work. He'll also receive the festival's career achievement award.

The festival also includes screenings of films focused on the works of avant-garde artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, with both artists attending.

And, of course, it wouldn't be a Sarasota Film Festival without Joe Pantoliano — Joey Pants! — and his wiseguy charm. Steve Buscemi must have enjoyed his first visit last year; he's coming back.

Sarasota festival tweaks program 03/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2009 10:35pm]

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