Red Carpet at the 2020 American Riviera Award Ceremony honoring Renee Zellweger. (January 16, 2020) | Credit: Paul Wellman

For the first full day of SBIFF — the weather gods and the film festival muse made a pact and, lo, the rains did fall upon our town. We do tend to pray for rain come film festival time as it makes movie-going and theater life all the sweeter and warmer.

For instance, the delightfully frightful weather outside seem to make Renee Zellweger all the more endearing and down-to-earth at her American Riviera Award tribute night at the Arlington. Anyone who caught her bedazzling turn as Judy Garland in Judy understands why the Texan actress is award-worthy this season.

Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg sat for a chat with her, after a quick montage of career highlights, fittingly set to her performance of a sassily-arranged “Come Rain or Come Shine” from Judy. “I forgot about all of that,” she grinned after the several-minute, this-has-been-your-life compendium, including snippets of Bridget Jones’ Diary, Jerry Maguire, Chicago, and Cold Mountain.

Zellweger went on to describe her checkered, reluctant pathway to acting and Hollywood starting tentatively as a teenager, following the lead of her brother. “I thought that was just part of my adolescent experience, like twirling and track and field,” she said.

Her thespian life continued while at the University of Texas in Austin, where she was studying journalism. There, on the stomping grounds of innovative director Richard Linklater’s indie classic Slacker, she met stars-to-be Linklater and Matthew McConaughey. Linklater’s first “Hollywood” movie, Dazed and Confused, was an important seminal gig for her. By then, she admitted, acting had defined her fate: “I was hooked.” Come rain, career rollercoaster, and shine. She’s in the latter mode presently.

Zellweger was an engaging presence at the Arlington, but for this journalist, film beckoned, in the form of a late-night screening of Catherine O’Brien’s Lost Transmissions. O’Brien, a singer, actress and, with this debut film, director, grew up in Montecito the step-daughter of the late and powerful art dealer Stephen Hahn (whose cultural altruism resulted in Hahn Hall, Music Academy of the West’s intimate but acoustically and atmospherically mighty concert hall).

‘Lost Transmissions’

In an appealingly anti-slick style, O’Brien’s film deals with the frustrating complexities of mental illness, and the dangers/benefits of meds. Simon Pegg gives a potent and vulnerable performance as a once-famous and personally charismatic musician, now struggling with schizophrenia. Coming to his would-be rescue is a singer he is nurturing, played by Juno Temple. Hopes and emotions rise and fall in the film, shot around parts of Los Angeles where the glitterati fear to tread.

O’Brien and Temple appeared for a post-screening Q&A and explained that both had links to the subject and material, having family members suffering with mental illness. O’Brien commented that, with her new film, “the most rewarding thing has been talking to people who have experienced this, with spouses or friends. We wanted to reach out to people.”

BREAKFAST CLUBBING: For several years now, SBIFF-ers have known that the early-to-rise plan is a wise one, given the festival’s programming of 8 a.m.-ish “breakfast club” screenings, which often feature some of the better films on the roster.

Large and eager crowds were at the ready for the first film slot of the festival on Thursday morning and were slapped awake by the comedy Greed. With this film, director/co-writer Michael Winterbottom sharpens his teeth (as does the in-house lion) with this satire, nicely skewering the rich, famous, and fatuous. At its center is a bitterly delicious acting turn by Steve Coogan as a heartless, ruthless fashion mogul in Britain —it’s too early to say, but Coogan may win the Villain of the Festival Award. Weaving the tale, as told through a biographer’s investigations into the life and dubious times of this “cocky bugger” of a mogul, on the brink of a decadent 60th birthday blowout, the film triggers echoes of Wolf of Wall Street and This is Spinal Tap, but ultimately takes a decided, redemptive turn toward social commentary and indignation. Winterbottom’s fun and shameless satire moves, including subplots with Syrian refugees, shallow reality television antics, and uber-wealth pretensions, becomes a shrewd tool to highlight the inequities of wealth and have-nots, not to mention the specter of sweatshop conditions underscoring the fashion worldly glitz.

BEST OF FEST SO FAR: Of the dozen-ish films I’ve caught so far in this year’s SBIFF, the most memorable was the German film System Crasher, about a troubled, rage-fueled nine-year-old Benni, and Germany’s bid for this year’s Foreign Film Oscar. Director Nora Fingscheidt masterfully creates an ambience of alternating sweetness and volatility, a suitably dichotomy for our young protagonist (played with a stunning intensity by Helena Zengel — one of the best performances of the festival no doubt). As she shifts from situation to situation, group home to foster care setting, Benni keeps those around her, and the audience, constantly on edge, never knowing when her outbursts will turn her into a flailing, cussing demon. Conversely, her driving desire for her mother’s embrace and her clinging to a stuffed animal reminds us of her tender side. 

System Crasher is a rare film dealing frankly with the emotional trauma of childhood in a war zone, from the inside. It tells an important story, and with artful strokes.  

What to See: Looking over the SBIFF slate for Friday, the night Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver hit the Arlington for their tribute spotlight, here are titles that I can safely vouch for: System Crasher; The Restoration, a Peruvian dark comedy with heart; Black Conflux, a Canadian coming-of-age film with a twist or three; Blow the Man Down, a good, nasty fun criminality-next-door romp in Maine, with Fargo-esque spice. 


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