Fest at First Blush

By Josef Woodard
Ominous economic weather patterns have set many earthlings and institutions into a nervous-making panic, including you and I and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, although it has sailed into its inspirational business-as-usual in the first day-plus of the 2009 model. And as it happens, the weather has co-operated beautifully so far, delivering the desired and much-needed blast of winter weather and soggy rain. Just days before SBIFF launched, many worried that the weather would be just too damn, unseasonably nice to spend long hours indoors.
Another case of business-as-usual flowed into the Arlington on Thursday night, as the opening night film lived down to the low expectations we longtime festival-goers have of this occasion, klieg light hoopla notwithstanding. Writer-director Rod Lurie, a reformed film critic, is trying to find distribution for his new film Nothing but the Truth, a thriller and first amendment shtick not so loosely based on the CIA operative outing case of Valerie Plame. The film almost works, but for the shameless manipulations, narrative cheesiness and cardboard characters. Oddly, the proximity and the distance from the Plame story and its root source keeps making for disorienting disconnects as the film reels on. It feels like it wants to be veracious, but keeps falling into stereotypical political thriller pits of its own creation, until we start getting a headache from too much rolling of the eyes.
But this is not to damn the thing: the film, with a good performance from Kate Beckinsale and a side dish of Alan Alda-being-Alan Alda , could be a fine night out in the multiplex during a down time of the year, or good cable fare. Opening nights at SBIFF, more often than not over the past, oh, 24 years, have been poor indicators of the quality to come. Even when the festival landed a Woody Allen film a few years back, it was one of his misses, Melinda and Melinda, a great idea served up half-baked, and just before he hit his stride again with Match Point.
At the end of the day--Friday's first full festival day, to be exact--this film geek had basked in things cinematically Russian, and was impressed. Ocean, directed by Mikhail Kosvyrev Nesterov with a rough but sweet hand, is a Russian-made film based in Cuba, with a gutsy folk tale quality and naturalistic slice-of-life ease. By contrast, The Ghost is a skillful thriller directed by Karen Oganesyan, with the requisite twists to keep us sucked into its calibrated tension. In the first Oscar Foreign Film submission from Lithuania, Loss is an intriguing, if somewhat far-fetched maze of fate tale which builds its honeycomb narrative around the characters affected by a car accident. Despite its melodramatic aspects, the film manages to be moving and stylistically fresh, to western eyes and minds.
But by far the best film so far in the early stage of the festival was Swedish director Jan (The Emigrants) Troell's wowing Everlasting Moments, a glowing beautiful period piece tale from early in the 20th century. In this family saga, involving an abusive father and a mother of an expanding brood who becomes empowered by the discovery of photography, the Troell poetry is again intact and engaging. This is clearly one of the great films of the fest. Catch it if you can (or wait for its inevitable theatrical release-unless the economic weather conditions topple the arthouse circuit in the next year).
Rain, rain, keep on coming down, driving us into the Metro 4 and other fine venues around town, checking out what the film world (key word, world) has to offer.

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