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Festival's New Director Had Something for Everybody

March 19, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Transition was the watchword at this year's Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which ended Sunday, as founding director Phyllis DePicciotto stepped down after a dozen years at the helm and passed the baton to movie producer Renee Missell, who ran the festival this year.

At the end of this year's 13th annual 11-day affair, consensus had it that Missell had succeeded in taking an already solid, diverse festival and bumping it up a few notches, in quality and vision.

During the festival, writer-director Robert Towne showed up at a tribute screening of "Chinatown," on a screenwriting panel, as well as for the world premiere of a film. "Without Limits," about long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine, was the festival's final film, at the Arlington Theater. It's an agreeably intelligent sports film for people who don't necessarily like sports films.

Sunday night's festivities at the Arlington also included awards for "Windhorse," Best U.S. Independent Film; the Dutch film "Character," Best Foreign Film; Japan's "The Key," Best Screenplay; China's "Journey to Xia Empire," Outstanding Filmmaking; and "The Farm," Best Documentary. The audience-juried "Best of the Fest" award went to "With Friends Like These," a comedy about character actors vying for a part in a Martin Scorcese film.

Filmmakers and actors attended the festival in relative droves, and the in-person contingent included a "Modern Master" evening for Jodie Foster last week. Bob Hoskins showed up for the coolly riveting "TwentyFourSeven," directed with raw flair by a first-time filmmaker, the 24-year-old Shane Meadows. Hoskins described his initial attraction to the script, asserting that "usually, you try to choose your roles, but along comes a role that chooses you, that asks for more than your best."

John Schlesinger was toasted at the Riviera Theatre on Friday, with a screening of "Midnight Cowboy." The British director's film was a refreshing blast of iconoclasm when it came out in 1969, and he commented that he was still "optimistic about things from left field making their mark, in the face of Hollywood garbage."

The next night, after a screening of "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," a sold-out crowd showed up for a tribute to Julie Christie.

At this year's festival, there was a focus on Spanish language films. In addition to the new John Sayles film, strong entries included the Argentine film "Sin Querer," the fascinating quasi-documentary "Where the Hell is Juliette?" and Arturo Ripstein's wickedly fine "Deep Crimson." Another foreign film highlight was the neo-realist Iranian film "Children of Heaven."

Missell also took care to program films by women directors, several of whom showed up on a panel discussion Saturday afternoon. Producer Margaret Yang, the moderator, noted, "the generic image of a director is still a man in a baseball cap."

Gender, not genre, brought these filmmakers together for the panel. At the same table were Lesli Linka Glatter--whose film "The Proposition," with Kenneth Branagh and Madeleine Stowe, is an elegant melodrama--and first-time Canadian director Kirsten Clarkson.

For her gritty film "horsey," Clarkson's experiences in the porn industry and in and around the culture of heroin addiction were source material. Also on the panel was Erin Dignam, whose film, "Loved," is an intriguing, ethereal showpiece for Robin Penn Wright.

Another woman in the spotlight was Hong Kong martial arts expert Michele Yeoh, recently seen in "Tomorrow Never Dies." Two of her fast-paced, gymnastically stunning martial arts films, "Once a Cop" and "Butterfly Sword," were given late-night screenings, and were in contrast to the lavish new historical drama "Soong Sisters."

Other notable U.S. films included the engagingly loose-lipped "Allie and Me," and the world premiere of "Zack and Reba," a brightly colored black comedy laced with cemetery humor, reminiscent of "Harold and Maude" and "The Loved One."

From a different corner, there was the West Coast premiere of the delightfully quirky and family suitable fable set in East L.A., "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit," based on the Ray Bradbury story and starring Edward James Olmos and Joe Montegna.

After the screening, Montegna commented that this was one of "very few films I've made that my children can watch."

Missell's agenda, at the outset, seemed to be to create a festival with something for everyone to watch. It worked.

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