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the celebrity beat goes on at halfway mark in santa barbara
Film festivals come in various shapes, sizes, formats and orientations. The currently ongoing 22nd installment of the Santa Barbara Film Festival is a bit off-beat in certain aspects. Lasting eleven days and presenting some 200 films it is certainly not small -- more like "medium to large."
In terms of importance, however, while it is not considered to be quite in the same class as the North-American majors, Sundance, Telluride, Chicago, New York, Toronto and Montreal, it can nevertheless certainly hold its own -- and then some -- against the nearly countless other city festivals which have sprung up all over the map, from Seattle to Miami, via Denver, Minneapolis, Austin, Cleveland, Houston, Philadelphia, Palm Springs, etc., etcetera, ad nauseum. Moreover, having now advanced its calendar slot to the January-February cusp so that it immediately follows Sundance, Santa Barbara has developed a special bonding with Robert Redford's Rocky Mountain extravaganza and is able to show films premiered there amidst ice and snow just a week later down here amongst the swaying palms and steaming burritos.
In the category TBA -- "To Be Announced" Santa Barbara will afford local fans an advance peek at some 22 Sundance titles, which is quite a scoop on festivals around the globe just drooling with envy and dying to get them. Moreover there is a people influx of chilblained refugees from the Utah Alps seeking some real sun after the deep-freeze of Sundance. (Please note that the name "Sundance" refers to an American Indian self-flagellation ceremony which traditionally takes place on the great plains in the heat of summer, as depicted in the ridiculous 197O Hollywood Redskin flick, "A Man Called Horse", in which alcoholic Irishman Richard Harris became an ordained Sioux Chieftain by subjecting his pectorals to bloody masochistic ritual shredding in the ceremony of that name).
Differing from most international festivals, Santa Barbara does not have any juries nor does it award any "best" prizes except for the most popular audience, film selected on the basis of ballots dropped into boxes at the various screenings. What Santa Barbara does celebrate is celebrity itself drawing on the nearby Hollywood community and all the award ceremonies that take place there at this time of year, to see that nearly every day is studded with high profile stars such as Tom Cruise, flash-in-the-pan celebrities such as the British Baron of bad taste, Sacha Borewort Cohen, or front runners in the upcoming Oscar race, such as Helen Mirren, Will Smith, and Forest Whitaker. The name of the game and the orientation here is "damn the torpedoes -- full speed ahead and bring on them Hollywood stars and other celebs!"
Though many festivals dish out "lifetime career awards" to attract big names (e.g., Max von Sydow recently at San Sebastian, or Jan Moreau, last year at Istanbul) Santa Barbara has a different strategy. Special entire evenings are reserved to honor big stars in categories dreamt up just for this event. The first of these special events came on the second night, at the magnificent Arlington theater, a national architectural monument, when Dame Helen Mirren was honored with a two hour long staged interview (conducted by spikey haired festival director Roger Durling in person) and clips from nearly all her films, plus a screening of her latest Oscar touted "The Queen", in the category "Outstanding Performance of the year" -- in this case quite well named.
Her prize was handed to her by extremely versatile character actor William C. Macy, who also delivered an extremely articulate speech extolling the professional virtues of the actress and making it quite clear why she is so highly admired by her working colleagues in the trade. I was personally impressed by Mr. Macy's surprisingly dapper appearance (in contrast to the shmos and losers he usually plays on screen), his dignified rhetorical aplomb, and it was gratifying to see him 'out of character' as a real person up there on stage with la Mirren -- an excellent choice to cap out a magical evening. Of course there was a big private reception afterwards at the lavish estate of the Brooks Photography Institute up in the hills -- open, incidentally, to anyone willing to shell out a mere $1,200 dollars for a special festival pass qualifying them as a "sponsor". Capitalism and Democracy at work.
The very next night, Sunday, during a driving rain, actor-rapper-snapper dapperdan producer, Will Smith (38) took the very same Arlington Theater stage (along with his charming wife, Jada Pinkett Smith) and the same format was followed -- a sort of "This is your Life" replay with clips and meaningless chatter moderated by Celebrity film historian Leonard Maltin at the conclusion of which Mr. Smith was handed his "Modern Master Award" by non other than Quintessential movie star Tom Cruise. Cruise it happens is a close personal friend of Will's so it was no big thing to hop on up to Santa Barbara for the evening for this equally quintessential master of TV couch jumpring. Willie Boy, besides charming the pants out of the crowd with his energetic demeanor and witty one liners also threw in a couple of heart warming profundities such as "Every day when I wake up I think, what can I do to make the world a better place today?" -- Yeah-yeah, me too.
Some heads are still shaking over what semantic connection there might possibly be between the designation "modern master" and the all-around pop showmanship of Will Smith, but there is no doubt that he is currently a big name in Hollywood, (and one of the highest paid bankable stars) especially since he is now a serious contender for the top Actor Oscar for his leading role in the film "Happyness." Rots of ruck ... Haven't seen the flick yet, but it looks like Forest Whittaker is going to be a hard act to beat this time around.
After the cascade of stars over the first weekend (including "A conversation with Baron Cohen" -- which is to say a monologue of pure drive in a dyslectic pseudo Kazakhstanian accent) the centerpiece of the week turned out to be the appearance of the distinguished ex-patriate British Director Michael Apted (born England, 1941), currently president of the Director's Guild of america (DGA). Apted is best known for a documentary series called "7 UP" wherein he has followed the lives of a group of peope every seven years since they were seven years old. The latest installment of that, "49 Up", was screened here, but Mr. Apted himself was here to present the world's premiere of his new fiction film" Amazing Grace" which tells the story of 18th century British slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce and his fruitless efforts to have the English parliament abolish the then thriving African slave trade. (Around the time of the American Revolution)
Wilberforce's humanism compelled a former slave trading churchman, John Newton, to change his attitude toward slavery and ultimately inspired him to compose the spiritually moving hymn "Amazing Grace", which remains a church standard to this day. This is what might be called a serious film with a spiritual attitude and it is populated with some of the best actors in the UK, Albert Finney as Newton, Michael Gambon, and the mighty mite, Tobey Jones, who is still unknown here but is sure to become famous whenever "Infamous", the film in which he delivers an astounding rendition of Truman Capote, opens in the States (if it ever does). This is one little guy to watch. "Infamous" was premiered at Venice in September and revealed Toby as a much more convincing Truman Capote than the one for which Philip S. Hoffman got the Oscar last year, ("Capote"). I guess it must be a matter of timing, and that "Infamous" will be released here eventually in time to make it eligible for the next Oscars in 2008. Too bad. I would have liked to see little Toby take it away from the big boys this year. As for "Amazing Grace", I fear that such a really intelligent film may find deaf ears in the dumbed-down sound-bite America of today. A "succes d'estime" at least, it may well become.
The 'Amazing Grace' screening was followed by a pretty amazing party open to all in the theater for the price of admission. This event was catered by the "Fast Foods" TV network show and offered up some amazing food and drink. This jolly well-oiled event was probably the biggest open party of the week (meaning that a press card would get you in if you didn't have $1,200 dollars handy) and went on far into the night -- lots of pretty girls wearing Will Smith badges, and more than willing to sell you some Santa Barbara real estate right there on the spot -- along with a radiant smile and a handy drink. The thing I like about parties like this is that everybody's face lights up when they see you, as if they've known you for years -- or seen you on television or something -- for who knows, you might be somebody important down south, or a prospective buyer. At least nobody gives you a puzzled stare and a quizzical "Have we met...?"
While the festival offers a rich mix of indigenous (American mainstream and indies) product, there is also a fairly representative sampling of European prize winners such as "Taxidermia" from Hungary and last year's Berlin Golden Bear awardee, "Grbavica" (Bosnia). There are also, as is only to be expected, a goodly number of items (and personalities) with direct Santa Barbara connections, which gives one a sense of communion with the sandy turf of this sun blessed patch of California seacoast. The opening film of the festival, "Factory Girl" starring young British beauty Sienna Miller, tells the story of Santa Barbara debutante Edie Sedgwick who became a trophy center-piece doll in Andy Warhol's notorious New York Studio and freakout center known as "The Factory" in the sixties, then met an early tragic death. I got here too late to catch it but notice that it is getting "mixed reviews" (a euphemism for "not so hot"), however, there seems to be nothing but praise for Miller's portrayal of the Santa Barbarous Sedgwick, while there also seem to be widely divergent opinions regarding the portrayals of Warhol himself by Aussie actor Guy Pearce, and Hayden Christensen's interpretation of "Bob Dylan" --given a different name in the film, but obviously meant to be a clone of Robert Zimmerman. Passing note --Sienna was British pretty boy, Jude Law's main clutch for a while, and had an eye-wide-opening bit in Jude's obscure version of "Alfie" (see my review "Why a perfect classic should never be remade), which was a total waste of time except for her few minutes of see-it-all revelation. She has now, wisely I think, moved on to greener pastures.
Helen Mirren is herself shirt-tail connected to this fabulous city through marriage -- namely, her husband, producer-director Taylor Hackford (White Nights, An Officer and a gentleman) --lucky dog! And here's one out of the twilight zone -- Actor Don Murray who starred opposite M. Monroe in "Bus Stop" (1956) is now a Sta. Barbara resident and has made an underwater documentary which will be shown here.
Events still to come:
Saturday, February 3. Forest Whitaker to receive the "American Riviera Award" following the screening of "The Last King of Scotland", in which he plays the last dictator of Uganda. (Question: Is anybody getting a "French Riviera Award" anywhere this year? -- Maybe in Scotland...)
Sunday, Feb.4 -- The festival closes with a showing of "Gray Matters", in which Tom Cavanaugh ("How to Eat Fried Worms” ,2006) and Heather Graham (TV series, "Scrubs", as Dr. Molly Clock -- 9 episodes, 2004-2005) -- dance cheek to cheek in a new nod to the old romantic comedies of the forties. Written and directed by first timer Sue Kramer. "Astaire and Rogers it's not", says one local reviewer, but it sounds like a nice upbeat way to end a nifty film festival which is beginning to add up to more than the sum of it's parts thus far. "Gray Matters" preemed at the Hampton's Festival (on the outer tip of Long Island, NY) back in October where, according to one eyewitness account, an elderly lady (80) was heard to exclaim, "What a lovely film, I hope my granddaughters get a chance to see it". That's good enough for me -- I'm gonna see it even if I'm not her grand daughter!
Alex Castillo Deleon, poolside with my new underwater heat-resistant laptop in the Jacuzzi at the fantastic Fess Parker DoubleTree Resort Hotel on the beach in Santa Barbara -- and, as my Afro-American co-worker on the night shift at the Railway Mail in Pittsburgh (Pa.) used to say back in '51, "I's glad to be here!"
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The Santa Barbara International Film Festival has star wattage and a wealth of premieres in a Mediterrean-style city by the sea.
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