300: Rise of an Empire
In comparison with "300", this insane film is more engaging by dint of being absolutely impossible to take even a little bit seriously.
It's a sunny, unseasonable 80 degrees as the 2012 Santa Barbara International Film Festival kicks in, but all I want is to be indoors. When you peer at a schedule listing nearly 200 films jammed into 10 days, and you just can't wait, you know you're an addict. This is my third SBIFF so I recognize the signs.
Suddenly each January, there's an extra bustle in this appealing, laid-back town. Downtown on lower State Street, trucks appear bearing vivid banners, soon to be festooned overhead. Special lights and rigging go up at 2 central venues - the precisely restored, historic Lobero and Arlington Theatres. Locals watch to see whether Festival Director Roger Durling changes his hair: one year it was spikey, another year purple. This time it's rather like Heathcliff - longer, romantic.
Film lovers arrive from everywhere, filling downtown streets with crowds so thick it can be difficult to pass, while also contributing about 10 million annual dollars to the economy in an otherwise slowish season. Not all Santa Barbarans love the event. Local columnist Barney Brantingham quoted one long-time resident: "We don't go...We don't want to sit around watching movies.
Opening Night. Searchlights above the Arlington trace the sky, adding excitement as a capacity 2000 filmgoers show up dressed for a party. I'm there myself in sparkly eyeshadow, accompanied by my friend Lisa Knox Burns, an L.A. native transplanted after college to Santa Barbara. Premiering is veteran director Lawrence Kasdan's newest, "Darling Companion," the story of a woman who loves her rescued dog more than her husband. Its stars, Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline, are in attendance, along with Kasdan, his wife and co-writer Meg, the dog and its handler. Sad to say, this proves one of my few disappointments: a film which appears to have all the elements (great actors, an appealing Colorado mountain setting, a concept with potential) but simply doesn't gel. ("Six characters in search of a story," I think as I watch it struggle along.)
The audience seems to like it. We depart quickly for the after-party, thrown each year in the Spanish Revival-style courtyards of Paseo Nuevo. It's loud and lively and fun but we don't stay too long; I for one want sleep, a buttress for the long days of screenings ahead.
Next morning, off and running, I'm intent on seeing as many films and special events as humanly possible. There's a Q & A with Kevin Kline and Lawrence Kasdan, whose iconic "The Big Chill" screens first. Even though I've probably watched it half a dozen times, it's wonderful all over again. Not a moment, not a note, out of place---something which, as the latest film just indicated, is very hard to do.
Kasdan and Kline, obviously bonded (they've done six films together), have a pleasing give and take, with Kasdan proving more loquacious. But the best moment comes when an audience member sets up the effortlessly elegant Kline. "Meryl Streep has been nominated for Oscars 17 times but the only time she won Best Actress was for "Sophie's Choice." Since you were in that film, did you have something to do with her winning?" Kline looks startled for half a beat, then replies gamely, "Yes, Meryl Streep won because of me. I fixed that Oscar up for her. And I would do it again."
Next I'm on line with Lisa and Fredda Spirka, a Santa Barbara yoga teacher. All of us are jazzed to see "Pina," Wim Wenders' doc on the German avant-garde dancer andchoreographer, Pina Bausch. It's an absolute stunner, whose use of 3D gives one a sense of being right there, sitting just below Bausch's proscenium stage. For me, it's wow, wow, wow: a film which joins Wenders' classic, "Wings of Desire," as one of the great films. I'm walking on air for hours after seeing it. (It's nominated this year for best documentary Oscar; if it wins, as I hope, it may get wider distribution. If possible, don't miss it in 3D!)
I make the Filmmakers' Breakfast at the Canary Hotel Saturday morning. Smiling people of several generations engage and gladhand over plates of scrambled eggs, exchanging contact info and DVDs, some of which I stick in my bag for home watching.
Two are Santa Barbara documentarians. Louise Palanker directed "Family Band: The Cowsills Story," about the '60s musical family, the inspiration for television's "The Partridge Family," and what happened after their moment passed. Another, by UCSB film prof Kum-Kum Bhavnani, is "Nothing Like Chocolate," narrated by Susan Sarandon, its focus is on Mott Green, an eccentric anarchist chocolate maker, producing this coveted substance organically on the island of Grenada without exploiting his workers.
There, too, are two nice guys, writer-director Mischa Webley and producer Zachariah Hagen, bringing Webley's first feature, "The Kill Hole," a timely drama of an Iraq War vet, played by Chadwick Boseman, trying to readjust back home. Alongside Billy Zane and Peter Greene, they've cast actual vets in some supporting roles. SBIFF is their first festival experience with the film. With that fire true filmmakers exhibit, they can't wait to see the audience's reactions.
Chagrined by the realization I'll have to miss some good films, and trying not to promise anything I can't deliver, I make what feel like lame excuses and hurry off for the annual Screenwriters' Panel: "It Starts with the Script."
Veteran journalist Anne Thompson often drives the 75 miles north from L.A. to chair this presentation --- "my favorite panel," she says as it starts. This year it boasts a group glowing with Oscar and Independent Spirit Award nominations: J.C. Chandor ("Margin Call"), Tate Taylor ("The Help"), Will Reiser ("50/50"), Jim Rash ("The Descendants") and Mike Mills ("Beginners"). Spirited ("we have some alpha males up here," jokes Thompson) and unusually informative, its two hours can be viewed online.
I'd seen and dug all of these films with, admittedly, some reservations about "The Help." But I'll add a local note here: "Beginners," starring Christopher Plummer in a role likely to bring him that late career Oscar, is actually a Santa Barbara story. Mike Mills came of age here, as his father Paul, a closeted gay man who deeply loved his wife Jan, served as director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from 1970-1982. Upon Jan's death, Paul, at 75, "came out" and this film lovingly tells that story.
"Horses" ("Cavalli") takes us somewhere little seen in movies: agrarian northern Italy in the late 1800s. When their young mother dies of a ravaging illness, two small brothers inherit two untrained horses which will transport them on their very different journeys, weaving their destinies apart and back together several times as they live out their lives. Directed by Michele Rho, this film had its American premiere at SBIFF. It's visual storytelling of the first rank but, with very little dialogue and the subtitles so many Americans abhor, it may have little chance of a theatrical release here. (Thank goodness for Netflix, Fandor, et. al.)
Frédéric Jardin's "Sleepless Night" is a Belgian/French thriller set almost entirely in a crowded Parisian nightclub over one night, as the protagonist, a French undercover cop, tries to rescue his son, age 10, just kidnapped by a drug boss following a botched deal. The film is a ride -- and consummate filmmaking. Photographed by the great Tom Stern (Clint Eastwood's frequent DP), it's mostly handheld or Steadicam, shot very close in and edited at a relentless pace. (Warner Brothers evidently plans an English language remake, for which Stern should get first right of refusal.)
German, Italian, Belgian, French. My European bias shows, doesn't it?
Up next is indeed an American film, albeit set in Paris, shot in London: Martin Scorsese's "Hugo." I catch it Sunday morning at the Arlington, unaware this is one of SBIFF's free community screenings --- first come, first served, with free popcorn and soda. One young mom with two little ones exclaims to another, "We hardly ever go to movies. It's just too expensive for us." As excited families slip into seats ahead of me, I spy a small girl toting her Barbie, and a boy not much more than three. (Yikes, I think: it'll be a cacophony of crying and fussing. No fun at all.)
But, as 3D snowflakes fill the screen amid a spontaneous chorus of youthful "oohs" and "ahhs," the three-year-old in 3D glasses settles in without a peep for the full 126 minutes. 2000 people of all ages, utterly rapt. An absolutely perfect way to watch one unique and magical film about both childhood and early moviemaking.
Segue to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum where a complementary exhibition offers "The Flying A: Silent Film In Santa Barbara (1912-1921)." I tour a small, enjoyable gallery show, and learn that, years before Hollywood, the first real movie studio operated here. It belonged to Chicago's American Film Company, whose pioneers created "one-reelers" (films of 30 minutes or less) and eventually features. Cranking out as many as 3 a week, they produced nearly 900 films - westerns, comedies and dramas alike.
Mary Miles Minter, who rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity, was The Flying A's biggest star, appearing in 26 films. Something like a Dickens' serial, these were released as ongoing stories, to be picked up where the last left off. I covet a huge, gorgeous one sheet poster for "At the Potter's Wheel" ("a tense drama depicting the sting of poverty - embellished by the highly educational process of making pottery"), leaving with new appreciation for this corner of film history.
That night there's a small pre-screening cocktail party given by IFC Films, distributor of Samuel L. Jackson's latest, "The Samaritan," premiering at SBIFF. Among the guests is Welsh director Sara Sugarman, whose feature "Vinyl" is being touted by those who saw the first screening. ("One of my favorites," Rob Mankin tells me.) I haven't caught it yet, but meeting her (and her quiet, almost unnoticed Chihuahua, Bling Bling, stashed in a side sling) convinces me I must.
Jackson, ever dapper, arrives with his wife, actress LaTanya Richardson, who lately has had a recurring role on TNT's "The Closer." We'd met before and have the happy experience of sharing news about our close friend, actress Grace Zabriskie (most recently Lois in HBO's "Big Love"). I've known Grace 20 years but the Richardson-Jacksons can top that, going back to their early days doing Atlanta theatre together in the 1970s.
"The Samaritan," which Jackson executive produced, is a knockout for its acting. Irish actress Ruth Negga goes toe-to-toe with Jackson and gives as good as she gets. She's a revelation, luminous, sure to be seen again soon. The Canadian-made film looks terrific, too, but I was less taken with a somewhat predictable storyline.
Whew - my first weekend down. It's Monday now, 4 days in and I'm flagging, weakened by a nagging head cold whose recurrence I'm holding off with cough suppressant and so many throat lozenges I should buy stock in the company. Seems wise to finally take a daytime break, as tonight is the gala, the American Riviera Award, I've anticipated.
Santa Barbara is often called "the American Riviera." Thus, logically, SBIFF bestows an annual award by that name. This year's honoree is director Martin Scorsese, surely as big a star as has ever received it. Expecting a jam, I arrive early, bypassing the red carpet crowd for a seat in the press section, otherwise empty until those camera people and reporters finish their work outside.
A volunteer named Felipe Miranda surprises me by sitting down. "You're a writer, right?" he asks politely. "Would you have any advice for me inHollywood?" (Wow - that's a lot of responsibility. Bette Davis' fabled quip to a beginning actor, "Take Fountain...," will make no sense to him. What to say?) He elaborates that he's been studying at Santa Barbara City College, and had shot and directed a film at last year's Burning Man, even helping build the set. Passionate about working with kids, he wants to tell positive stories. He's had a job offer in L.A. and rephrases his question: "How do I go there and not get all messed up?"
I like this guy and take a stab at the impossible. I'm surely no expert, I tell him, and there is no one way. But I have observed that possessing that oft-described "genuine passion" for an idea or story, then finding good partners whom you can collaborate with and trust, is a solid start. And that making actual films (much easier and cheaper now with digital tools), and learning how by doing (as he is now), is surely the best kind of training. Whether in film school or out on your own, that's how to learn.
Martin Scorsese and Sir Ben Kingsley, a star of "Hugo," make it thru the line. The lights go down and the press area fills. After introductions, an exceptional montage of film clips is shown. Scorsese, after all, at 67, has directed at least 25 feature films of all descriptions. ("Auteur," I think, knowing the term is out of favor. "Scorsese really is an auteur.")
Film historian Leonard Maltin starts the Q and A with "This is a director at the peak of his powers, with no sign of wanting to stop." For two hours plus, going later than planned, Scorsese and Maltin intersperse clips with engaging conversation. And somehow a packed house of 2000 people - a more general audience (movie lovers, yes, but fewer fanatics like me) - are quietly respectful, listening to the end. To see some of the presentation, go here:
The after-party is appropriately Tony. I'm pleased to be invited but know few folks and suddenly feel tongue-tied. A quick glass of wine, a bit of conversation and I'm gone. Not far beyond the bar, I pass a darkened mass I realize is a homeless person, sleeping in the concrete shadows, stark contrast to tonight's glitz and pleasure. My warm bed will feel welcoming tonight.
SBIFF does a nice job mixing genres: features and documentaries, American and international, shorts and long form, animation - sometimes creating special categories known as sidebars. One new sidebar, "Cinesonic," organized by SBIFF programming manager Michael Albright, features a crowd-pleasing series of concert films and films about music.
My long-time pal Sam Epstein, driving up from L.A., is the definition of eclectic: a filmmaker who early on A.D.'d for Robert Altman, he's also worked many years in music. Today we'll pack in a bunch of screenings, including a film he produced and "co-shot" with its director, Keith Shapiro. "Rhino Resurrected" documents the iconic 1970s-80s Los Angeles record shop, distributor and label, and its brief reemergence as a pop-up store, while also capturing some of the energy and history of indie music in that era. For those who love music and the culture, it's essential viewing.
We follow with "Live at Presentation Hall: Louisiana Fairytale," a concert collaboration by the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band and rock's My Morning Jacket, then slip over to a club called Soho for a live show by songwriter/producer Van Dyke Parks. He's in town because his son Richard has just screened "Music Man Murray," his own music short.
Afterwards Sam returns home to his wife Laurie and Lola (their black lab) while, bleary-eyed, I yellow highlight several films I want to see tomorrow, then crash. I awaken truly ill but force myself to the Metro 4 theatre for a concert and biographical film. "Andrew Bird: Fever Year" is about the gifted Chicago multi-instrumentalist, which I'm enjoying until my hacking cough threatens to ruin it for others. So, very sad to miss the mini-concert Bird is giving afterwards (and feeling sorry for myself), I escape to spend the next three festival days in bed. Happily, between long naps, I have those screeners!
"Picture Paris" is a short from Brad Hall and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who met at Northwestern University, married and together did some classic "Saturday Night Live." Louis-Dreyfus, of course, became hugely successful as Elaine on "Seinfeld," going on to star several years in "The New Adventures of Old Christine," winning Golden Globes and Emmys along the way. Now, with ample resources and professional standing, not to mention talent, they've made a first foray into independent filmmaking. Hall wrote the script, and directed his wife in this film shot in Los Angeles and Paris. It looks beautiful, with some lovely, believable moments by Louis-Dreyfus, a terrific soundtrack and strong supporting performances, including Rachael Harris of "Natural Selection" (shown last year at Ebertfest). A twist toward the end will surely get people talking. I definitely look forward to what Hall and Louis-Dreyfus create in the future.
"Sassy Pants," a first feature, was developed from a short film well-received at Sundance in 2009. About an 18-year-old girl taking her first shaky steps toward adulthood - and away from her controlling mother, it's a comment on the practice of home schooling and explores some of the dysfunctional aspects of contemporary America. It manages to be sharply satirical without meanness toward its characters, and features a fine central performance by Ashley Rickards, supported by Anna Gunn, and Haley Joel Osment as he's never been seen before. This film, which surely announces a significant new writer-director in Coley Sohn, makes me think of "American Beauty" - and that's a compliment.
"Vinyl," I must admit, immediately became a favorite. Co-written and directed by Sara Sugarman (mentioned above with Bling Bling), this is her fourth film and a comic charmer. Based on actual events, it depicts "an '80s rock band's media frenzy in 2004 when it attempts a comeback under the guise of an up-and-coming punk band." There's such sure-handed direction here. Its bitter-sweetness, fine ensemble acting and its sense of time and place are exceptional, somehow creating characters from British (actually, Welsh) punk music, bringing them forward two decades and throwing them together with a terrific younger generation in this pretend band. "Vinyl" has Spirit Award nominations written all over it. (Yo, Hollywood producers - start calling her about another project now!)
A feature-length documentary by Bryan D. Hopkins, "Dirty Energy" examines the human and environmental costs of continuing to rely on fossil fuels, recounting the heartrending story of people whose lives were upended by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. When the rig blew, Hopkins jumped into his car and drove south to New Orleans with $200 in his pocket. The resulting film, winner of the 2012 Santa Barbara Social Justice Award, deserves a wide audience.
By Saturday, with a doctor's prescription beginning to do its work, the morning's Directors' Panel draws me. I park to walk toward the Lobero Theatre, passing two men evidently waking from sleep in a corner of the lot. As my previous encounter attests, Santa Barbara does have what people call a "homeless problem" (lots of sad, sometimes mad folks with few choices but the street), with which it has struggled for years. As I brace a little in self-consciousness, one grizzled face looks up at me and asks very pleasantly, "Have you seen any good films?" "Yes," I reply, "I have." The contrast in our lives hits me full on once again. When I walk by a second time, I hand them a bill, saying, "This might buy a bit of breakfast." (Not much, maybe a basic fast food breakfast, but my mother's lesson endures: "There but by fortune go you or I...")
On stage, the always entertaining Peter Bart, once head of production at Paramount Studios, long editor of "Variety," welcomes a full house with "the madding crowd of Santa Barbara is far more congenial than Hollywood at awards time. Trust me." Bart, who Roger Durling notes "owns this panel," gets the party started. The assembled directors are Gore Verbinski ("Rango"), Chris Miller ("Puss 'n Boots"), Jennifer Yuh Nelson ("Kung Fu Panda 2"), Terry George ("The Shore"), Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids') and Michel Hazanavicius ("The Artist").
Each participant is Oscar-nominated with Hazanavicius, if predictions hold, likely to sweep those big awards. Unlike previous years when many of the narrative best picture nominees have come to joust, this is a bit of an odd group, representing 3 animated films, a short and two narrative features. I, for one, miss seeing Alexander Payne ("The Descendants"), said to be prepping his next film, but settle back and enjoy what unfolds.
An affable Hazanavicius proclaims in French-accented English that he "hopes never again to hear one question: 'Where did you get the idea (for "The Artist)?" He'd always wanted to make a silent film and now has. But the next will have dialogue. "In whatever I make, I try to respect the grammar of the period it is."
Despite feeling glad a comedy with women in it became a hit at the summer box office, I was no fan of "Bridesmaids." I just didn't find it very funny, but Paul Feig, once a stand-up comedian himself, certainly is. Here he contends in seriousness "the worst thing one can do with a comedy is to just shoot the script." Allowing for what occurs as filming happens, the spontaneity between actors, working in new stuff, or being brave enough to take another direction - those he says are key to making something work in comedy.
Gore Verbinski brings me up against an unacknowledged "bias." Unlike a bazillion moviegoers, I've avoided those 5 "PIrates of the Caribbean" movies (not to mention the theme park ride and spinoff novels) like bubonic plague. But Verbinski wins me over with his intellect and good humor, confessing nervousness at having to tell Johnny Depp his role in "Rango" would require him to be "part lizard." He even allows he's gotten a little weary doing the "Pirates" franchise, but this one has refreshed his interest in filmmaking. (That night I move "Rango" to the top of my queue.)
Belfast-born Terry George is known for writing extraordinary scripts like "In the Name of the Father" and "Hotel Rwanda," which he also directed. He draws laughs when he explains he "hates writing. I'll do anything to avoid doing it. But it's what I'm best at. It's what supports my family. So I do it."
George has just directed an episode of "Luck," the new David Milch/Michael Mann series for HBO. "Everybody," he says, "wants to do television now. Long-form. Cable. Because, more than in a movie, you can really develop characters and stories in that format." Others on the panel seem to agree. It's an interesting point, marking a real change from the past, when the struggle was to not "get stuck" simply doing television, and everyone wanted to work in film.
Chris Miller and Jennifer Yuh Nelson both love making animated films, even though, as Nelson says, they can take a long time - 3 years with her last one. "It's going to be alright," she'd periodically reassure the producers who had nothing but storyboards to look at for more than a year. It's interesting to have this much talk of animation, surely an indicator of the place they now occupy - no longer a niche genre.
The last two films I catch are documentaries. One is "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel." Made by Lisa Immordino Vreeland and distributed by Goldwyn, it's an intimate portrait of one improbable, irreplaceable woman who affected and impacted the worlds of fashion, art and design for 50 years. For anyone who, like me, adores those worlds, this film is like eating a rich dessert. (click image to enlarge.)
Finally: "West of Memphis," a documentary about 3 Arkansas teenagers, convicted in a whitewash of the heinous killings of 3 small boys in a small, economically depressed town in the early 1990s. Executive produced by director Peter Jackson ("Lord of the Rings," et. al.) and directed by Amy Berg, this film tells the appalling story of what happened, why these kids were fingered for the crimes, and who might have actually done it, while also exploring how creakily - and unjustly - the American legal system sometimes functions, and what it takes to finally free 3 now adult men.
I thought of "Winter's Bone" as I watched this powerful film. Both show us an America rarely seen (what author Michael Harrington called "The Other America" in his long ago book) --- the lives of struggling, often undereducated, working class whites who exist without much opportunity or future. With these films and even glimpsed on Santa Barbara's streets, the view is devastating and has stayed with me.
There's an unusual back story here: documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have produced a trilogy of films on this case, all for HBO. And there's understandable competition between the groups of filmmakers. But a movie lover doesn't need to know any of that in order to experience this film, which will be in American theatres this fall. West of Memphis (2012) official website.
So that's it. The 2012 Santa Barbara International Film Festival has played out until next year. I've missed a lot and yet seen and enjoyed so much. Roger asks if being sick has "ruined the festival" for me. Not at all, I say, but it's sure been frustrating, like getting half a loaf.
I wonder what fine film I can see tomorrow?
Photo credit: Paul Wellman/Santa Barbara Independent
Page design by Marie Haws
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