2018 Santa Barbara International Film Festival Virtuosos Award honoree Kumail Nanjiani at the Arlington Theatre (Feb. 3, 2018)
Paul Wellman

What does it mean to write, for a screenwriter, or any manner of digital era scribe? “I chase the cursor… and I’m going to catch it one day.” Thus saith Virgil Williams at Saturday afternoon’s ever-popular SBIFF writer’s panel at the Lobero, to laughter of recognition in the house.

Williams chased his personal cursor beautifully in his adapted screenplay for Mudbound. The stage was full of other writers who soared in the past year: Adrian Molina (Coco), Edgar Wright (Baby Driver), Michael H. Weber (The Disaster Artist), Emily V. Gordon (The Big Sick), Liz Hannah (The Post), and Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, with Guillermo del Toro). Anne Thompson, of Variety, was the afternoon’s moderator, before a full house (this is Southern California, after all, a landscape crawling with real, active, and aspiring and wannabe screenwriters — present company included).

That palpable scent of movie biz desire and ambition found a resonance in the case of the Golden Globe-anointed film The Disaster Artist, about the maker of the infamously inferior cult film The Room — “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” quipped screenwriter Weber. While clarifying that the film is less specifically focused on that underground classic than to create a “movie about dreamers,” he went on to describe the surreal circumstances of dealing with The Room’s self-styled auteur, Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau negotiated his own contract, demanding that he appear in The Disaster Artist and had the right to make notes on the screenplay, although Weber said he primarily “used the opportunity of script notes so he could air grievances” with producers, and Hollywood at large.

Fast forward to Saturday night. Whereas SBIFF’s annual tradition of star tributes, usually directly tied to Awards Season nominees on the promotional circuit, are epic, evening-long feasts with a singular focus, events such as the “Virtuosos Award” is more of a finger food smorgasbord. Fun, breezier patter and splashes of spontaneity can be expected here, on a stage populated by standout actors on the sidelines and on the upswing in a given season. I caught just the last part of Saturday night’s Virtuosos night at the Arlington, just as Timothee (Call Me By Your Name) Chalamet was imitating a trippy voice message he got from Texan tripster Matthew McConaughey. Kumail Nanjiani (Big Sick and TV’s Silicon Valley fame) began to egg him on to actually play the message on his smart phone. Seriously egg him on. His phone was fetched and he claimed to be stymied by a password issue, but we all suspected he was stalling. Still Nanjiani persisted. It was that kind of night.

Films to See: Cannibal twins, anyone? For a good fix of the old psycho-erotic thriller energy, head directly to The Double Lover, the latest from French director François Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Femmes). With echoes of David Cronenberg’s twin fetishistic classic Dead Ringers, this skillful, sleek and logic-testing tale — loosely based on edge-loving Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Lives of the Twins — places us in the POV of a disturbed young woman, which turns out to be a very slippery, sex-lined slope where imagination and reality easily blur and tease our sense of what’s what and who’s who. The film boasts an almost-literally femme fatale Marine Vacth (a former model), an alluring, alienated, and magnetic point of focus for Ozon’s camera and the audience. In the “twin” role of two very different psychologist brothers, Belgian actor Jérémie Renier also demands attention for his doppelgänger acting gymnastics.

In all, The Double Lover is a chilling erotic thill ride, but also with a dollops of genre-toying humor, and good fun. Also in the mix are shock tactics, winking cinematic mirror play, and hallucinatory — and frankly carnal — side trips, erring on the side of arty Chabrol/Hitchcock reference than the Shades of Grey kitschfest.

Euthanizer, from Finnish director Teemu Nikki, may be one of the darker and more intense films in the SBIFF program this year, but it is also a powerful film that bravely grapples with some serious themes in a raw, stylized, and visceral way. It should be noted the film is hard to watch for those of us who loves our dogs and other animal kingdom members. As moviegoers we are inured to the business of humans killing each other but animal cruelty on film is tougher stuff to endure on screen.

Our protagonist (the laconic sage Matti Onnismaa, in one of the fest’s finest performances) is the “euthanizer” who does the work of putting sick pets to sleep — via his gun or a hopped-up Volvo “gas chamber” while “For Sentimental Reasons” plays — who does so as an animal-lover and misanthrope to an extreme degree. He has harsh words for pet mis-treaters, but also a deep wisdom to impart, as when he tells one calloused dog owner “animals become aggressive when they don’t know their place, and they pass their pain on to others.” With that kernel of wisdom, he’s also referring to the film’s important subplot, about human mob tactics criminality and violent hate criminality based on racism or other scapegoating channeling of their unfocused rage. Trump should curl up with a cheeseburger and have a look at this important film.

With the harmlessly fun if shamelessly lightweight Threesome, “Breakfast Clubbers” on Sunday morning were asked to consider the number three, and the state of Quebecois thirtysomethings seeking experiential spice and yes, what the title alludes to. Nicolas Monette’s frolicsome yet controlled comedy hovers and shimmies around the scheme of a strait-laced but internally restless mother/wife/business woman’s project to experience a menage a trois, and the assorted follies, failures, and side trips along the way. The most laugh-out-loud moment: a late-breaking montage of the film’s characters lip-syncing to Bonnie Tyler’s “Turn Around,” a deliciously cheesy sensory snack compared to the surreal singalong late in Magnolia.

Final Thumbs Up: Sports-related films have been stepping up to a more artful playing field in the past year, given the psychologically driven while sports-fueled examples of Battle of the Sexes and the wondrous I, Tonya. Add to that list the fascinating and beautifully-made Swedish film Borg vs. McEnroe, director Janus Metz’s saga of the famed initial Wimbeldon show-down of the coolly Nordic Bjorn Borg — pursuing his fifth consecutive championship win — and hothead “superbrat” from America, John McEnroe (with Shia LaBeouf bringing the measure of his capacity of bratty-ness to the gig).

From a screenplay by Ronnie Sandahl, Metz uses the build to the climactic match (which is given ample, possibly overly ample, screen time) as a structure to explore the tennis hero’s troubled pasts and psychological issues. At root, the subject is the compelling and elusive mystery of athletic greatness.


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