I gotta admit, I’ve been rather disappointed with this year’s crop heading to the Santa Barbara Film Festival this weekend. After an incredibly strong batch of amazing narratives and documentaries last year, the sneak peeks I have gotten at entrants have so far mostly failed to move me.
However, there are some outstanding films that stand out — as they inevitably do — and I was especially captivated by a trio of fascinating documentaries and one narrative from Europe that should be put at the very top of your festival program.
“Lives Well Lived” from director Sky Bergman shows older Americans sharing what wisdom they have gained from their decades — and, sometimes, over a century — on this planet. Some have simply had the good fortune of longevity, and all are asked their “secret” for having lived so long. Unsurprisingly, their answers are frequently that they live for joy, family and purpose, which keeps both spirit and mind young even as bodies age.
Many of those interviewed came from Europe during its horrible turmoil that led up to and included the Second World War, and their stories of pain no doubt made them appreciate fortune later in life. All of them are asked about their fears of dying, and what comes out to the viewer is the equanimity that seems to bless each of them: There is no fear, only an acceptance of life’s final act to come.
In a culture that fears mortality and the elderly, “Lives Well Lived” is a fine way to both celebrate the seasoned among us as well as the human spirit that continues to goad us on even in the darkest of times.
A fine debut from Ms. Bergman, heretofore a professional photographer and professor at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
“Lives Well Lived” with play at Fiesta 5 at 7:20 p.m. on Tuesday.
“Where Have You Gone, Lou DiMaggio?” from director Brad Kuhlman finds former stand-up comedy mainstay Mr. DiMaggio, who simply walked away from the mic one day in favor of being a TV writer, tentatively dipping his toe back into the L.A. comedy club circuit after decades away. Precious archive footage shows Mr. DiMaggio at New York’s iconic Catch a Rising Star, a proving ground for other talking heads seen in the doc like Larry David, Richard Belzer and Joy Behar, all of whom wax nostalgic about the glorious, cocaine-fueled ‘80s days before the business became saturated.
Mr. DiMaggio, who also serves as a producer beside Mr. Kuhlman, is seen at home in California with his wife, admitting to friends like Mr. David — on whose “Curb Your Enthusiasm” Mr. DiMaggio has often appeared as an actor — that his nerves may in fact disallow him from going “back up.” But it’s those same jitters that are as crucial to authenticity as poise, as comedians must “bomb” far more often than “kill” on the road of success — in any field.
“Where Have You Gone, Lou DiMaggio?” premieres Friday at 4:20 p.m., followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers and Mr. DiMaggio, and also plays Saturday at 1:20 p.m.
The filmmakers interview people on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is a natural location to inquire if they know the name of the director of “Rocky.” Clearly not many film nerds among them as they all fail to name John G. Avildsen, who won an Oscar for helming the classic boxing flick that propelled both a franchise and the star of Sylvester Stallone.
But such relative anonymity is precisely the launching pad for documentarian Derek Wayne Johnson’s “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs,” a finely made examination of the filmmaker known for “Rocky,” “The Karate Kid” trilogy as well as “Lean on Me” and “The Power of One.” Unlike more media-friendly auteurs like Spielberg and Scorsese — the latter of whom shows up in this doc — Mr. Avildsen, while not precisely camera-shy, comes across in Mr. Johnson’s film as a bit of quirky character himself, perhaps as much as some of his cinematic heroes.
Mr. Johnson and his interviewees clearly treat their subject with love, with Mr. Stallone, Ralph Macchio and most of the rest of “The Karate Kid” cast offering compliments of Mr. Avildsen’s collaborative on-set process. It’s the little nuggets especially that make the doc shine, such as “Karate Kid” bully Tommy (Rob Garrison) offering insight into his line, “Get him a bodybag!” which, like it or not — though he appears to like it just fine — has followed him around ever since.
“King of the Underdogs” proceeds much as many other cinematic docs do, with former collaborators checking off the compliments on Mr. Avildsen’s film hagiography. However, Mr. Johnson doesn’t precisely proceed from a chronological structure, at one point jumping right from the classic “Rocky” to the disastrous “Rocky V” — Mr. Stallone himself directed the intermediate three films — before going back in time to focus on “The Karate Kid” and its first sequel. (The third entry, for whatever reason, is given no mention.)
Mr. Avildsen, unquestionably competent at his craft, expounds on some of his mistakes and being fired from various film projects, at one point saying that to not have any regrets about one’s life is a sad state of affairs indeed. He has never quite ranked as high as many of his contemporaries — perhaps because he hasn’t been especially prolific — but Mr. Johnson’s doc turns his subject into a curious personality who gave us some of the ‘70s and ‘80s most famous cinematic heroes.
Like his subject, Mr. Johnson’s film is far from perfect, and may likely appeal solely to those nostalgic for the optimistic films from Mr. Avildsen’s glory period, but for those who wish it so, this trip down Hollywood’s memory line is a decent way to spend a few hours in a darkened theater.
Premieres Saturday at 7 p.m. at Lobero Theatre, with Mr. Avildsen and Mr. Macchio in attendance, and again Sunday at 8:10 a.m. at Metro 4 Theatre (Metro 2).
Sweden’s own Wiktor Ericsson (“A Life in Dirty Movies”) directs a modern “Romeo and Juliet” called “Strawberry Days” (“Jordgubbslandet”) about teenage Polish field worker Wojtek (Staszek Cywka) employed in Sweden with his family by a wealthy farmer. Wojtek has the misfortune to fall for Ammelie (Nelly Axelsson), the daughter of the owner of the strawberry farm where Wojtek and his family are employed for a relative pittance.
Because they are not Swedish, Wojtek and the other Polish immigrants are seen as outsiders or worse, and the romance is doubly star-crossed given the class chasm between the two young lovers.
Magnificently photographed by Nadim Carlsen, “Strawberry Days” recalls to mind not only Ingmar Bergman (with a title like that, how could it not?) but also early Terrence Malick works like “Days of Heaven.”
“Strawberry Days” plays Friday at Metro 1 at 5 p.m., Saturday at 8:30 a.m. at Metro 4 and Sunday at 11 a.m. at Metro 4.