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Day Two: Santa Barbara Film Festival – From ’80s Nostalgia to Tuna Fishing, and a Powerful Speech by Casey Affleck

The Vanguard Award and more screenings, against the relaxing backdrop of Santa Barbara.

With an early wake up call, I headed to Metro Four for the 8am screening of Derek Wayne Johnson’s documentary John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, examining the director’s body of work. Avildsen gave us films such ’70s and ’80s classics as Save the Tiger, The Karate Kid, and Lean on Me and of course won a Best Director Oscar for Rocky. If you ever wondered whatever happened to Ralph Macchio, he appears in the documentary along with Sylvester Stallone, along with archival footage of Morgan Freeman and Luke Perry to name a few. The structure of documentary itself is non-linear, skipping around with little explanation, but it’s worth watching the energetic King of the Underdogs to reignite warm, fuzzy memories of watching Mr. Miyagi’s drunken moments in The Karate Kid and learning more about other favorite scenes in these classics. It’s a fascinating time-machine trip that will spark many emotions if you were a kid of the ’80s and renew your fond feelings of nostalgia for the films Avildsen made.

After a quick dash to Handlebar Coffee for a cappuccino and a pastry, it was over to the next screening, The Oath, directed by Baltasar Kormákur. The film propels us into an immersive visual journey. Its stark Icelandic cinematography shivers with wintery gloom as a doctor attempts to save his teenage daughter from spiraling into a dark world of drug addiction. Finnur (Baltasar Kormákur) believes his daughter’s boyfriend Ottar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson) is responsible for his daughter’s drug habit, and if he can only get Ottar out of her life, he’ll have his daughter back. The Oath begins as a tense thriller and continues on course as a very fine thriller while Finnur does everything in his power to save his daughter. Sound familiar? Think Taken, and you’ll get the idea how things unfold. The performances are strong and convincing, and the narrative will keep you invested to find out what happens.

The weekend was a tight squeeze, but packed with plenty of fun. Our hotel was right on the coast so the views of the wharf and ocean beyond were magnificent as I drove to and from the theaters along State Street. Since all the festival theaters are within walking distance of each other I did get to wander around between films and admire some of the historic Spanish architecture. There’s a powerful sense of momentous character and landmark presence everywhere I went. The recurring contrast of weathered red tiles and stately white columns are mesmerizing.  The De La Guerra Plaza is close to the Locaro Theater. I took this photo because I loved the Spanish influence in the arches. (This location was also featured in the Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep film It’s Complicated.)

Back to the theater to see Bluefin. The documentary from the National Film Board of Canada is set on Prince Edward Island, known as the tuna fishing capital of the world. John Hopkins directs with the beautiful cinematography of these creatures which according to scientists, data and the World Wildlife Fund are an endangered species. The dramatic footage of bluefin tuna swimming freely in the sea will take your breath away and make you never want to order another slice of tuna sashimi again, especially when you see the case the film presents. Hopkins talks to the local fisherman who disagree with the scientists, refusing to believe the bluefin is endangered despite undeniable evidence. You can draw your own conclusions when you watch Bluefin, but putting everything into perspective, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry says, “If this was a land animal it would be revered. Nobody would ever allow it to get close to extinction. But because it’s a fish, it’s sort of out of sight, out of mind, cold and scaly. People don’t seem to have the same reverence.”

The evening ended with Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg hosting the Vanguard Award which was presented to Manchester By The Sea stars Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck, both nominated for Academy Awards.

During her acceptance speech, Michelle Williams said, “Working on this film was very rewarding.” She praised director Kenneth Lonergan saying, “None of it would have been possible without the guidance from Kenneth.”

Affleck followed Williams saying it was the last film festival on the circuit  for him after having taken the film around the world. “I’ve learned a few things,” he said. “I hate the sound of my voice.” He added, “When I was very young my father was a terrible alcoholic, and my mother would take us to these Alateen meetings. She’d drive us across town to a church and we’d sit in this room with other kids we didn’t know, and the people who were running it would walk us through these exercises basically reenacting what was happening at home.” He was only 9 years old when he was attending these meetings and he says, for him, it was acting. “It was therapy but it was also drama. Acting for me has been that for me ever since, taking things from your life and putting them to use in some way.”

Watch Kenneth Lonergan present Affleck and Williams with the Vanguard Award:

The Director’s Panel took place later with Arrival’s Denis Villeneuve,  La La Land’s Damien Chazelle, 13th’s Ava DuVernay, Manchester by the Sea’s Kenneth Lonergan, and Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins.

The Santa Barbara Film Festival capped off by honoring Isabelle Huppert with the Montecito Award, but alas I was unable to stay to attend that event. It was back to LA, for the home stretch of this year’s Oscar race, in anticipation of the BAFTAs last night.