Certain films at the festival have gained the natural momentum of word-of-mouth buzz, in keeping with the natural selection philosophy of film festival traffic. It’s a popularity contest in which the most attended and coveted titles win the TBA slots: Jackie and Sex After Kids have been filling rooms, and a thousand folks showed up on Friday night at the Arlington Theatre for A Royal Affair (is that some kind of attendance record for a Danish film, produced by Lars von Trier, in Santa Barbara?).
And there is the savory delight that is Spinning Plates, Joseph Levy’s ode to the restaurant business — and community connector and art form — which packed the Lobero Theatre on Friday afternoon. Of course, we all eat, making a good food flick potentially more universally appealing than other film genres. But good food flicks are few and far between (or I haven’t been privy to many), and what gives this film an edge is its democratic perspective at different points on the restaurant culture food chain: It tells the intertwined stories of Chicago’s “Modernist Cuisine” landmark Alinea, considered the finest restaurant in America, Breitbach’s Country Dining restaurant — the oldest restaurant in Iowa and a thriving down-home eatery hub in its community and region — and a struggling Mexican restaurant in Arizona.
After relishing the joys of the restaurant business and telling the backstories leading up to each operation, the film works the darker and ultimately more humanizing aspects of the stories into the picture, through personal struggles with cancer, acts of God, and lagging business threatening a family’s livelihood. In the end, if the film whets our appetite (this is one film best not to attend while hungry), it also satisfies in larger, more human ways, beyond the palate and the belly.
From a different corner of the documentary selection entirely, Kirby Dick’s sobering and maddening film The Invisible War is a necessarily unpleasant film. It’s also an innately necessary film, bravely delving into another “don’t ask, don’t tell” facet of military life, alarming high rates of sexual abuse, and the immoral lengths to which the situation is ignored or swept under rugs of military culture officialdom. Systems of unaccountability and internalized power plays, comparable to the Catholic Church’s pedophilia, have kept the legacy of abuse out of public light, by and large.
Director Dick weaves the story through historical reality checking and present-day statistics, but the film is at its empathetic best when dealing with the shattered lives and articulate testimonies of victims struggling to get past their tragic encounters in the line of duty. As a slightly inspiring postscript, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta screened the film and promptly changed rules regarding the catch-22 policy of internal investigations in sexual-abuse cases.
War machinery gets another view, freeze-framed for posterity, in the fascinating documentary McCullin, about British war photographer Don McCullin. The photographer did landmark work for the Sunday Times in London from the late 1960s through the early ’80s (when new owner Rupert Murdoch opted to fluff over humanistic global stories). He expresses his internal mental and moral battles linked to his life as a “war junkie,” but he has been an unusually empathetic and artful photographer in landscapes of suffering, from the battle of Hue to the Biafran tragedy and the Congo to Beirut, capturing the essence of human conflict and suffering in moving black-and-white still images for the ages.
Old folks do it, apparently. They fall in and stay in love, and things that go with the process. Or at least so we learn from two charming depictions of love in the later chapter of life, a realm of human experience rarely acknowledged in Hollywood film. The beautiful Austrian us-against-them-to-the-end love story Coming of Age, directed by Sabine Hiebler and vaguely reminiscent of Paul Cox’s touching and sensuous 1991 film A Woman’s Tale, drops us inside of a late-breaking love affair between rebellious characters who, like teenagers, are outside the boundaries of caring about societal norms.
Straighter in style and milder in emotional power, Canadian director Michael McGowan’s pleasant film Still Mine is emboldened by cool, strong performances by James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold. Bujold’s character is slipping into fogginess and forgetfulness, in a way reminiscent of Julie Christie’s role in another fine Canadian film, Away from Her, as Cromwell holds down the fort and builds a new house in St. Martins, New Brunswick, in defiance of bureaucratic hurdles.
For sheer visceral escapism, it would be hard to beat the fasten-your-seatbelts energy and car choreography of Motorway, a thrilling example of the kinetic firepower of Hong Kong cinema. Plot points involving a jewel heist, a car-hopped young cop and his mentor, and bad guys who shoot and drive with the best of ‘em are niceties along the way, but the point is what happens on the pavement at high speeds. As the mentor tells the pupil, “If you lose your drive, you’re worse off than a broken car.” It’s got drive, as in the film Drive, but with even more elaborate and prolonged chase scenes.
After Saturday’s screening, screenwriter Joey O’Brien, a reformed Texan film critic turned screenwriter and Hong Kong cinema buff who has been working with his heroes in recent years, told the crowd that he intended the script to revolve around the integral chase factor. He explained that “character development would be buried within the car chases, and the characters would express who they are by the way they drive.” He also made the point that “genre is an international language,” a point nicely validated by the excitement factor in this Santa Barbara theater.