Let us count the ways we miss Santa Barbara’s cherished houses of culture — especially those among us who consider culture a lifeblood rather than a diversion. And one of those houses of great civic interest, pride, and film-geek creature comfort is the Riviera Theatre, which has announced its re-opening, on Friday, June 19, after a few months of COVID-commanded closure. Precautionary measures, including sparse seating, masks galore, sanitizing protocols, and an elaborate “hospital grade” air recirculation technology, make the re-opening possible in the current, still-wary pandemic era.
This state-of-the-art arthouse theater with its stunning view is now run by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, after being lavishly renovated in 2017. Officially dubbed “Lynda and Bruce’s Riviera Theatre,” in deference to the financial support of the Lynda.com founder and her husband, the Riviera has made do with an online programming recently. But (gently) flinging open its doors and its inviting cinephile-friendly space marks an important step of easing into some semblance of new normalcy.
The Riviera’s return to action opens with two new films well worth seeing on a big screen in the presence of a crowd (however diminished the capacity). On the breezier side of the emotional spectrum, viewers are invited to the finale of a quasi-travel series with The Trip to Greece, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring the wry, sharp-tongued tag team of Brit comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. (On an SBIFF-related note, the snarky-fun satire Greed also featured the Winterbottom-Coogan collaborative teaming).
Previous wit, food, and travel adventures took the pair to England, Spain, and Italy, and the Grecian formula finds them retracing the steps of Odysseus, from Troy to Ithaca, in a span of six days. Along the way, the bantering, gymnastic celebrity impersonations, and history buffing of our peripatetic heroes also includes critical subplots of food and dazzling scenery. They speak of Alexander the Great’s gangster tendencies, Brydon spins off into a detour of singing Brothers Gibb music, starting with, natch, “Grease.” The musical soundtrack also features snippets of Phillip Glass’s “Satyagraha.” But all is not fun and games, as a poignant element of mortality sneaks in a side door.
Mortality is also lurking amidst the coming-of-age fizziness, lust, and druggy dynamics of this weekend’s other Riviera re-opening this weekend, Australian director Shannon Murphy’s tough-but-tender Babyteeth. The teenaged protagonist Milla (Eliza Scanlen) falls in with a “bad seed,” cracked, charismatic drug dealer Moses, wreaking what could be (and sometimes is) havoc in her home — including a father whose life as a psychiatrist involves his own licit brand of dealing. But the ever-shifting dynamics between the characters keeps comic-dramatic balls in the air. Via director Murphy’s nimble and stylish tale-spinning, Babyteeth skillfully swerves transgressions and social norms and family values, dislodged and re-examined, to the bittersweet end.
With these inviting films, the Riviera revives itself. See you at the movies. BYOM(ask).
411: Riviera Theatre, 2044 Alameda Padre Serra, re-opening on Friday, June 19. See sbiffriviera.com.
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