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FESTIVAL : Santa Barbara Series Offers an Impressive Roster of Films : A tribute to actor Michael Douglas kicked off the 10th annual extravaganza, which continues through Sunday.


They came in well-dressed droves, filling Santa Barbara's Arlington Theatre withwarm bodies and high hopes. Would this be another year when the Santa Barbara Film Festival kicked off with a whimper instead of a bang?

Rest assured, for its 10th anniversary, the festival's opening night was a suitably wowing experience. Australian director P.J. Hogan's "Muriel's Wedding," is a fine dark comedy with a tender underbelly.

After the rounds of kind words from higher-ups and official proclamations, Hogan took the microphone and deadpanned, "This is a breakthrough film for me. It's a breakthrough because I actually got to make a film."

Apart from its troubles with opening-night fare and the perhaps inevitable organizational and financial woes, the festival has enjoyed a solid history, with a reputation that is all the more cemented now, having achieved 10 years in the trenches.

In the first weekend of the festival, which continues through Sunday, the extravaganza served up a generally potent roster of films, including the bold yet harrowing war films "Vukovar Poste Restante" and "Leni," and the charming independent films "Ignaz and Lotte" and "Denise Calls Up," as well as the vivacious valentine to jazz, "A Great Day in Harlem."

On Saturday night, the Arlington Theatre was given over to a combination fireside chat and "This Is Your Life" tribute to Michael Douglas. In an evening moderated by Stanley Glenn, his drama professor 28 years ago, Douglas was on hand to recount his life and accept the festival's first annual Modern Master award.

The selection of Douglas as a Modern Master may have been as much a gesture of gratitude and local sentiment as anything else. Douglas went to UC Santa Barbara and has lived in Santa Barbara for many years. He has contributed time, money and his good name to many a local cause, including this film festival.

Glenn opened up the evening by recalling that, when he first came to UCSB, Douglas had "a thin, weak voice. Our faculty was reluctant to encourage him to pursue acting." But, reportedly, all that changed after Douglas's freshman year.

As seen in a sprawling talk and film-clip survey, Douglas' career on and behind the screen has been as vertiginous as any, from his role on TV's "The Streets of San Francisco" to his first major coup, winning an Oscar as producer of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" at age 31. He learned about boffo box office with "Romancing the Stone" and "Jewel of the Nile," and won praises and an Oscar as the slimy Gordon Gecko in "Wall Street."

Later came a series of controversial, sexually charged roles in "Fatal Attraction" and the recent "Disclosure." In between, there was the wonderfully offbeat, blackly humorous "War of the Roses."

"That was a very risky picture," Douglas commented from the Arlington stage. "But I thought it was funnier than hell."

Of "Basic Instinct," in which he played a detective lured by the dizzy and lethal wiles of Sharon Stone, Douglas said, "I just wanted to do a real down and dirty film. I saw the character struggling with moral redemption. Stone personifies evil."

Douglas also spoke about the critical differences between producing and acting. "Producing is all about having a 360-degree vision. Acting is about having blinders on." Following Douglas' interview was a sneak preview of "Losing Isaiah."

From the black-comedy corner of the festival, late on Saturday night, came the world premiere of "Dr. Boris and Mrs. Duluth," written and directed by Paul Leder and starring black-comedy maestro Paul Bartel as the doctor. Karen Black, as the doctor's wife, puts in a scrumptiously kitschy performance as a sloppy drunk with a wild mane. The plot concerns the selling of freshly killed beauty queens to the Richest Man in the World, a cartoonish necrophile.

After the screening, Leder remarked that "despite everything, the racism and the craziness of it all, I do think it's a meaningful film," drawing snickers from the crowd. He added: "The doctor delivers the message of the film in the line, 'The lust for riches--it's the worst tyranny in the world.' "

One dark horse treasure in the festival lineup was Austrian director Michael Haneke's chilling and hypnotic "7 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance." Using a 1993 multiple murder in a Viennese bank as its departure point, the film cunningly retraces the fabric of the victims' lives, revealed in fragmentary fashion. TV newscasts punctuate these real-life fragments with field reports from an absurd world going sour.

At once probing and almost fetishistic in its detailing of reality, Haneke's film entrances with its unique sense of filmic rhythm and structure.

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