Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2012

My former hometown of seven years, Santa Barbara welcomed me back with open arms — and by open arms I mean aggressive festival volunteers, and a short but unpleasant bout of food poisoning. I still love you regardless, State Street.

Between bouts of trying not to hork in public, I managed to swing some wildly different screenings that left me more fulfilled than not with my time at this year’s festival to this point. I squeaked into the Metro Theater II just in time to catch one of the more mystifying but engaging films at the festival, Victor Ginzburg’s Generation P, an adaptation of Russian novelist Victor Pelevin’s book of the same name.  I was born in 1980 — so while I do have some reference points for that decade, I’m considered a child of the 90s. I have vague recollections of the waning years of the Cold War, never knowing the fear of the powerful Soviet Union of my parent’s generation. By the time 1994 rolled around, Gorbachev had already paved the way for a series of revolutions that ensured the death knell of the Russian socialist state.

Generation P drops us into the life of Babylen Tatarsky, a copywriter in the advertising industry in a newly independent but struggling Russia. Much of the film focuses on the conflict of Russian citizen’s desires for Westernization while still retaining a national identity. Tatarsky is a man that has no horse in either race — he’s a “creative”, his job to appeal to the political and social whims of the ad-space buyer. All of this is deftly laced into a narrative of social corruption, psychedelic drug use (Che Guevara cameos during a rough Tatarsky acid trip to rail against the evils of television), and a strange but deeply interesting focus on Mesopotamian mythology.

It’s intense, and much of the film is still beyond me, a result of a lack of reference points. It is a very Russian film. Keep an eye out for my interview with director Victor Ginzburg, as I will be picking his brain for even more details on my favorite film of the festival thus far.

My second film of day two was director Mischa Webley’s first feature effort, The Kill Hole. I make an effort not to review films I didn’t enjoy from filmmakers that are not in a position to prospectively bounce back from a poor review. There are deep, deep flaws in Webley’s story of a rogue war veteran, and the former Marine and private military contractor sent to track him down, Samuel Drake (Chadwick Boseman). There are exhausting strings of overly-flowery monologuing, inexplicable plot points that are wholly unrealistic, and a lack of service-related knowledge to provide a level of reality to the military talk. Jargon is important — I would have called up a soldier and taken notes.

While this sounds like a wash, I did find a valuable thread of story and moments that shined that helped me appreciate what I felt like Webley was attempting to accomplish. Once upon a time I was a Marine — not even a particularly good one so far as I’m concerned, and certainly not one of the folks that saw and participated in the very worst of what war had to offer. Regardless, there is almost a universal difficulty in transitioning to civilian life, no matter how many classes you attend before leaving the Corps, Army, Navy, etc…

The Kill Hole, when not busily shifting between trying to be The Hunted and a pure drama, has a noteworthy number of scenes that I feel touch well on that sense of confusion and inability to assimilate that many servicemen and women feel when they take off the uniform and attempt a transition to day-to-day life. Billy Zane does an admirable job as an ex-military counselor bringing together his former brothers-in-arms, his best scenes taking place early in the film. Additionally, Chadwick Boseman is a lead with a lot of promise, elevating scenes that may have otherwise fallen flat. I’d like to see him in more big-screen offerings.

In the end, Mischa Webley shows promise. As is generally the case for most first-time full length feature writers, the initial attempt has a tendency to try to do too much over too many landscapes in an hour and a half of film. That said, he has a great eye behind the camera, and when his dialogue is on point it sings. My suggestion is to keep an eye out for Mischa Webley.

My first weekend film was Zam Salim’s Up There, an off-kilter, pure candy UK offering based on Salim’s YouTube short, Laid Off. Martin (Burn Gorman) is recently deceased, and having a difficult time coming to terms. The afterlife is much like a really lame office job/probation; you’re entered into the pecking order, required to work, and must meet particular milestones with a guidance counselor — namely, developing a positive outlook on your untimely passing.

Meet said milestones, and a promotion to heaven is forthcoming. Don’t, and your options are grim.

When Martin is assigned as the welcome wagon for the freshly dead with manically upbeat partner Rash (Aymen Hamdouchi), things go comically wrong with their first customer. Martin is left with precious little time to save his job, come to terms with his lot in life (death, as it is), and meet his scheduled evaluation for promotion to *insert film title*.

Gorman is dry, endearingly overwhelmed, and the moments when he cracks Martin open for a bit of levity are done deftly  and to great effect. He is an excellent sad-sack. Hamdouchi is a human Super Ball — he’s course, vulgar, unintentionally offensive, and finds a way to make what could have been a tired odd-couple pairing unfailingly fun.

That’ll do ‘er for this update — keep an eye out for further coverage of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival as we move into next week’s programming.

Dustin Hucks writes for Film School Rejects, has written for Ain’t it Cool News, Hit Fix, and can additionally be found at the Metacafe Entertainment Network.

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