The festival is underway in paradise.
The 31st annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival kicks off this weekend in the glorious American Riviera, with awards, special guests, celebrity tributes to the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Johnny Depp and, of course, films galore.
While it’s impossible to see absolutely everything on offer (trust me, I’ve tried), here are some films to keep an eye out for that I’ve had a chance to take a look at. I’ll be updating the coverage as the fest goes on.
See you at the movies.
“John” from Santa Barbara director Lara Firestone is a fascinating 30-minute documentary about visually impaired painter John Bamblitt, who refuses to let his handicap get in the way of his making extraordinary artwork. Inspiring and incredible, “John” give rise to the extraordinary premise that true insight in fact really does come from within.
Screens Wednesday at 5:40 at Metro 3 and again Saturday Feb. 13 at 5:40 at Metro 3.
“Lebanon Wins the World Cup” from Tony ElKhoury and Anthony Lappe shows soldiers from opposing sides of the ugly Lebanese civil war who bond over their mutual love of soccer in their adopted country of Brazil. With a haunting music score by producer Allen Seif.
Screens Saturday at 8:30 a.m. at Metro 4 and again Sunday at 7 p.m. at Fiesta 1.
“Bizarre—A Circus Story,” follows Master Yu Li, a Chinese acrobatics teacher now mentoring U.S. circus performers. The hour-long doc follows the master, who left China due to associations with elements Beijing deemed undesirable, as he gives American performers lessons in the strange art of the circus. Performers wax on the master’s tutelage, with the directors showing — in extreme slow motion — the amazing results.
Screens Saturday at 2 p.m. at Metro 1 and Monday at 4 p.m. at Fiesta 1.
For those who think that drag racing is only for redneck Americans, check out “Speed Sisters” from director Amber Fares, which profiles the incredible true story of the first-ever all-female car racing time. That in itself is an amazing feat — now consider the team is from Palestine.
In the doc, the amazing young women vacillate between discussing participating in a male-dominated activity with waxing on the reactions of their conservative Muslim families, who would rather see them get married and have children.
The racers proudly take the track not only against other women, but also against men — facing inevitable social media backlash declaring they are unfit for the sport merely due to their gender. But the women not only hold their own on the track, but also own their femininity while getting down and dirty on the track, frequently drawing extra media attention for their sexiness.
The most harrowing scenes counterpoint the women going out and about on daily activities, which are routinely interrupted by clashes between Israeli army forces and local protestors. One of the women is even seen, in harrowing footage, bearing the brunt of a stun grenade to her back.
(A newscaster wryly observes on a Palestinian TV show that military checkpoints make practice racing all but impossible in the Occupied Territories.)
Documentaries have an inherent ability to unearth microcultures, and “Speed Sisters” shines a light on a piece of culture unknown to almost everyone — and perhaps will put a more human face on a people largely unknown to the West but for stereotypes.
Screens Thursday at 10 p.m. and Friday Feb. 12 at 1 p.m. at Fiesta 1.
Director Rebecca Daly ventures where few dare to trod in the Oedipal nightmare “Mammal,” featuring an outstanding Rachel Griffiths (“Six Feet Under,” “Hillary and Jackie”) as Margaret, a divorced Dubliner who is rocked by the news that her long-missing teenage son has been found dead. In her subdued grief, Margaret develops an odd friendship of sorts with a homeless young gang member named Joe (Barry Keoghan). While at first her offer to allow Joe to use her son’s abandoned room seems borne from a need to turn tragedy into goodness, Margaret gradually veers into twisted “Vertigo” territory, dressing Joe in her son’s clothes as prelude to a twisted sexual draw and a means to assuage the torment of loss.
Ms. Daly and her co-writer, Glenn Montgomery, treat the subject as matter-of-fact, never condescending to their characters or treating the tender emotional landmines as fodder for laughter or obvious tragedy. Nor is Margaret’s ex-husband and her son’s father, Matt (Michael McElhatton) a figure of derision, even if he could in theory be called the “antagonist” when he gets wind of Margaret’s actions.
Melodrama like this hasn’t come along in quite some time. A better performance than Miss Griffiths’ might not be seen this year.
Screens Thursday at 11:20 a.m. at Metro 2 and Friday at 2:20 p.m., also at Metro 2.
The Golden State has long been a haven for wine thanks to its Mediterranean climate helpful for grape-growing, but the state is also home to one of America’s largest collection of craft breweries. “Craft: The California Beer Documentary” from documentarian Jeff Smith offers a travelogue of the beer culture of the promised land, with Mr. Smith interviewing microbrewers from San Diego to Eureka, from such big hitters as Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas and Stone to ever more upstarts new on the scene.
This is the kind of doc that will likely appeal to a specialized audience segment rather than general festivalgoers, but if you’re like myself, it’ll be up your alley indeed. However, while the doc overflows with passion, its methods are a tad one-note at times, with its nearly 90-minute running time devoted more or less to repeated platitudes from talking heads about how the promised land of California provides a wealth of brewing, the onerous business requirements coming out of Sacramento are necessary pains and how the industry may well be at a tipping point.
Much here is already long known — and could well have been elucidated in a more truncated running time. Mr. Smith has fostered more a celebration of the amazing craft beer sector than elucidating new truths, but for fans of quality brews that come from other than the Big Three, a tour of California’s brew halls — including in Santa Barbara’s environs — will be of interest indeed.
Screens Thursday at 4:20 p.m. (hey, what do you want?) at Fiesta 2 and Friday at 10:20 p.m. at Fiesta 2.
It’s long been the stuff of Hollywood legend. After completing what was then the most expensive film ever made, uberproducer Cecil B. DeMille simply abandoned his massive sets for 1923’s “The Ten Commandments” in the remote areas near Guadalupe, California, in northern Santa Barbara County for time and the elements to reclaim. In “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille,” filmmaker Peter Brosnan recalls his decadeslong quest to unearth the Egyptian sets left behind by DeMille in the dunes along the Central Coast while also elucidating the wherefores the Hollywood player just left it all there (one theory posited is that DeMille was so competitive with other filmmakers of the day that he would rather bury the sets than have his colleagues use them for their own projects).
The doc is part detective story and part history, with Mr. Brosnan illuminating for the viewer the trials and triumphs and clashes of DeMille both during after “The Ten Commandments” in counterpoint to his own crusade to unearth the relics, which include several bouts with Santa Barbara County bureaucrats who demand permits and hoop-jumping along the way.
Screens Thursday Feb. 11 at 7:20 p.m. at Fiesta 2 and Saturday Feb. 13 at 10:20 a.m. at Fiesta 2.