February 6, 2016

The Virtuosos Award ~ February 6, 2016 @ The Arlington Theater

 Hello, Nice To Know You

The red carpet is a strange place. Normally experienced from the perspective of the observer as a glamorous affair, the actual process is quite tedious. Actors, directors, and writers are herded down an assembly line of photographers and writers to pose for a million bright flashes of lights and stop for some idle chit-chat. For the first-timers it may appear thrilling, like they have finally ‘made it.’ Yet for veteran actors, it seems like just another part of the job.

That is what makes the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s Virtuosos Award so appealing. This award is given for break through performances of lesser known actors. These actors are either being recognized for an outstanding first performance, or are finally being recognized after years of work. “A break through moment can happen at any point of your life or career,” proclaimed the night’s moderator, entertainment writer Dave Carter.

The night acknowledged seven such outstanding actors, no small feat to fit into a two hour ceremony. According to Leonard Maltin, it is the equivalent to speed dating. To fit it all in while being diplomatic, Carter brought each award recipient on stage by alphabetical order of last names for a solo interviews. 

Elizabeth Banks, with over 15 years in the biz, was first to be interviewed. Acknowledged for her role in Love & Mercy, the
true-life story about Beach Boy Brian Wilson, Banks admitted she loved the love story. “I loved falling in love. I’ve only done it one other time in a film – in Zach & Miri Make a Porno.”  This was said with great comedic effect, a trait Banks is so well known for. Banks was quickly followed by Paul Dano, who also starred in Love & Mercy as the young Brian Wilson. Per instructions of the film’s director Bill Pohlad, Dano did not confer with John Cusack whom played the older Brian, nor did he meet Brian Wilson until he had sufficiently researched the character and his illness. “I learned so much,” recognized Dano, “I really wanted to protect the character.” 

Tribute Joel Edgerton’s interview was prerecorded due to his receiving another award that night in Los Angeles. Being acknowledge for his role in Black Mass, the Australian born actor admitted that perfecting a Boston accent was difficult, and contributed his success as much to his dialect coach as to his make-up crew.

First time actor O’Shea Jackson Jr. confidently followed. Not only was Jackson given the task of playing his father in a film
written about his father, but the film was also produced by his father – legendary Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton. “[My father] said he needed me,” Jackson disclosed, “and that’s all I needed to know.”  Although Jackson confessed he had some doubt, “After two years of auditioning to play your own father – you get some doubt.” When asked about the lack of diversity in the nominations of best actor at the Oscars, Jackson said it was nothing to dwell on, “It was more about best picture for my father – for the family legacy.”

Following the alphabet, Hungarian actor Geza Rohrig was next, honored for his role in Son of Saul, a Hungarian film set in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. The film follows Rohrig’s character for two weeks in the camp, focusing on his face with most of the background blurred out, which was a challenge for the actor.

The youngest of the tributes was 9 year old actor Jacob
Tremblay from the film Room. A drama with a heavy plot line, the actor said it was easy for a kid to watch, “It is worse for a mom than a kid. A kid is like – oh whatever.” Easily charming the audience, Tremblay was endearingly honest and thoughtful in his responses to Carter’s careful directed questions.

Alicia Vikander was the last actor honor at the tribute, but only because of the alphabetical order. Honored for two films, the Swedish dancer demonstrated a range in her acting ability, playing a sly robot in Ex Machina, and the wife to a transgender husband in the true story The Danish Girl. Vikander relied on her dance training in her portrayal of both characters, believing that movement gives them life. 

After the solo interviews, Carter brought all tributes onto the stage for a round of questions. There were no egos involved as each actor showed respect and fondness for each other – especially the young Jacob. Leonard Maltin emerged on stage as the time came to hand out the awards. Each accepted graciously, without speeches or shout-outs. “It is a privilege to introduce someone we didn’t know a year or two ago,” proclaimed Maltin. But we know them now. 

Photos by Art Fisher. 

February 4, 2016

The Modern Master Award Honoring Johnny Depp ~ February 4, 2016 @ The Arlington Theater

There’s No One Like Johnny

The word on State Street is that Johnny Depp was spotted disguised as a street person sitting on a bench across from the SBIFF Hub the first day of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, taking it all in incognito. After seeing the shy actor accept the Maltin Modern Master Award on Thursday night, I believe that this was probably a true sighting.

Arriving late to venue, Johnny Depp graciously attended to his fans and accepted gifts on the red carpet, then quickly disappeared into the Arlington. Usually the recipients of the tribute awards sit amongst the general public in reserved seating; however this was not the case for Depp. Swept away to a back room he was guided to an area to watch as Leonard Maltin, for whom the award is named, introduced a montage of Depp’s “enduringly popular movies.”

Edward Scissorhands, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Black Mass, Dead Wood, Don Juan DeMarco, Blow, Chocolat, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sweeney Todd all merged together in one great accolade to the actor with over 40 movies to his credit.

Almost reluctantly, Depp made his way on stage from a side curtain, receiving a standing ovation. He stopped exclaiming “Now I stand for you,” before taking his seat next to Maltin. “This is not my favorite thing to do,” he admitted. “I have no idea what I am doing here; that [montage] was ludicrous.”

Maltin got right to business talking about Depp’s transition from TV star to Film star. “Playing the same character for 9 months out of the year can really make you insane – it didn’t affect me…” Depp said with at sly grin. “It was to pay rent… and I was never a good salesperson. I tried to get fired – a lot!” Depp considers himself a musician first and acting on a television show was not remotely close to what he strove toward. And why? “The best question in the world to anything is ‘why.’ Why – ha!” Depp’s exclamation was met with an awkward silence.

“Oh God, bemoaned Depp, "More clips?!” as Maltin went into the first clips of the night. He turned away and throughout the clips, obviously not comfortable watching himself on screen.

As more clips and discussion around the films emerged, funny stories were craftily pulled from Depp by Maltin, a great gift of the moderator. On the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Johnny admitted he had been going through a hard time. Depp pondered if it was necessary to play the part of Gilbert Grape, or just a coincidence. On co-star Leo DiCaprio, he joked, again giving the crowd a sly grin, “He’s grown! Have you seen him?”

Moving on to Don Juan DeMarco, Depp contemplated the perspective of reality. “Who’s to say… what’s real to one? Who’s to say?” It was here he fell in love with his idol Marlon Brando, forging a friendship that would last a lifetime. “I liked playing opposite Marlon Brando and I’m playing the crazy one. How often does that come around?” Depp’s voice softened when he spoke of Brando, telling us that he was not what people thought; he was all about justice and equality. “There’s a saying that you should never meet your heroes… I’ve met every one and I’ve never been let down.”

Names like Marlon Brando, Bill Murray, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Al Pacino. Working with Al Pacino, Depp realized that Pacino was “certifiably insane,” and made a point to tell the actor, to which Al responded, “Oh yeah! Oh Yeah! You didn’t know that? [Dramatic pause] You know you’re pretty f-ing* strange yourself.” Ha!
Depp’s choice to do a Disney film arose from the non-stop cartoon marathon he was subject to once he had a child. “How can I make a live action performance within the parameters of a cartoon?” In cartoons you accept the absurd as reality, you don’t question how Wyle Coyote only needs a band-aid after a 1200 pound bolder falls on his head, and this is what Ed Wood called ‘a suspension of disbelief.’  So he tried something different, and made Jack Sparrow a more comical character – and almost got fired! Again.

His first and only attempt at directing resulted in the film, The Brave, starring Marlon Brando. Depp was proud to watch what Brando gave to him, but found it difficult to be both star and director himself. Depp holds the right to the film domestically and claims politics, and then the passing of Brando, prevented him from releasing it in the US. However, after much prodding from Maltin, Depp promised to screen the film at next year’s SBIFF and sealed the agreement with a gentleman’s handshake.  

More clips emerged, and it was obvious Depp’s talents easily ranged from comedy, to drama, to mockery, and to musicals. Depp divulged he takes influence from everything, “Why be rigid with any education? Take it from everywhere!”

As the night came to an end, Scott Cooper, director of Black Mass, presented the Maltin Modern Master Award to Depp. “Besides his awe inducing performances and cinematic brilliance, it is his deep humanity that sets him apart,” Cooper acknowledge. “There is no one like Johnny.”

February 3, 2016

G. Love & Special Sauce ~ February 3, 2016 @ SoHO, Santa Barbara

Blues Music

G. Love & Special Sauce have always held a special place in my heart since their self-titled album debuted in 1994. Originating out of Philly, the East Coast vibe can definitely be felt in their music. Unapologetically both sentimental and rough, their music is a fusion of blues, soul, and hip-hop, and their live shows are always upbeat and funky.

Touring on their 10th studio album together, Love Saves the Day, G. Love & Special Sauce brought high energy electric blues to SOhO last Wednesday. Their sound has evolved to point where a new genre may need to be created to be able to label it. New soul blends with old rock, with heavy emphasis on dirty blues (I tried). Playing mostly new songs unfamiliar to many of us at the sold out show, they easily got us all grooving by the sheer energy of their performance.

Led by Garret Dutton, aka G. Love, special sauce is Jeff Clemens (drums) and Jimi Prescott (bass). G. Love started the show seated, with a harmonica strapped to his head and an electric guitar in his lap. Seated, although not sitting, the man went crazy dancing on his seat while Jimi went crazy slapping on the stand-up base. Unfamiliar songs became familiar as the band did their thang – rocked the house.

From sitting, to standing, to commanding, G. Love led us through funky blues and raunchy love songs that showcased his vocal ability – when did his voice get so damn good? Closing out the night with few older favorites, G. Love and Special Sauce worked the crowd into a final frenzy with their good ol’ blues music.

November 6, 2015

Heathers: The Musical ~ November 6, 2015 @ Center Stage Theater

What’s Your Damage?

Oh how teenagers can be so cruel. And being popular in high school can be quite difficult. But can being both become a death sentence?  According to Out Of the Box Theatre Company’s presentation of Heathers: The Musical, the answer is… like, yes.

For those of us who grew up in the 90’s, Heathers was an iconic movie. Unlike the light hearted, almost poppy teenage angst films of John Hughes, Heathers was a dark, cynical look at all that is wrong with high school. Complete with dysfunctional teenage love, hierarchical positions on the popularity ladder, murderous plots to gain power, and an explosive, oddly heroic, sacrificial ending, it was quite the YA of Shakespeare.

A movie like Heathers could not be made now. In 2015, society is overly sensitive to many of its themes. But it could be made into a musical theater production. So that is what creators Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy did, and did splendidly.

Awkwardness meandered on stage, 90’s style, making the audience giggle uncomfortably. The pretty people weren’t showcased first. No, the awkward majority of high school population paraded forth, with character names listed in the brochure as “Stoner Chick,” “Bitter Geek,” “Young Republican,” and “Goth Girl.” It was heartfelt as they sung about how life could be beautiful… Until “The Heathers” burst out on stage, looking perfect and electric, and completely took over the auditorium.

The characters were well cast, and the performances were executed flawlessly. Supported by a live four-piece band, the songs were catchy and hilarious, if not a bit shocking. When the main character, Veronica, thinks her life in the popular crowd is over, she brazenly sneaks into the new guy in town’s room while singing “Dead Girl Walking,” which immediately transitions into a racy sex scene.

There were many racy themes, scenes, and songs
throughout the productions. This show is not for the easily offended. The cast really played into the uncomfortableness of the stories, seemingly unabashed for its hardheartedness. The theatre company reprised many songs throughout the production, using the same song in a different context, thus giving them completely different meaning. This demonstrated how meaning is an individual interpretation of an experience – seen, heard, and felt differently by each individual. Like, totally deep.

Out of the Box Theatre Company continues to bring unique, quality productions to Santa Barbara. I commend them for bravely taking on controversial topics. The uneasiness was a welcome reminder that life isn’t always perfect, we all have a little damage – and it probably stemmed from high school.

(Bonus – they sell all things “Heathers” at the concession stand during intermission – which included jello shots! Real jello shots.) 

September 12, 2015

Lewis Black ~ September 12, 2015 @ The Arlington Theater

Lewis Black Turns Up The Heat

For a city that normally does not have weather, it was a hot one in Santa Barbara on September 12th. A fact that did not escape comedian Lewis Black, stopping by the Arlington Theater on his “The Rant is Due, Part Duex” comedy tour.

Third day into the tour, one could already tell it’s been a rough one. Opening act John Bowman was all piss and vinegar with the Santa Barbara audience, who had been waiting patiently in an historical theater with no air conditioning for the duo to begin. As Bowman started into his material, the heat struck him and he started to strip off his jacket and roll up his sleeves. “It’s lovely you have this show in this quaint historical building… why don’t you get rid of the organ player and GET AN AC UNIT?” It was obvious the opener was as grumpy as the headliner. “I wish Lewis Black was really going to be here – he’s not, IT'S TOO HOT!”

The audience was obviously familiar with Lewis Black, and knew what to expect from one of his live shows – extreme grumpiness emphasized with a bit of screaming and profanity. Bowman’s detour from his pre-planned material to something more topical that was actually affecting the audience at the moment was welcome comic relief from the balmy heat.

As Lewis Black took the stage, it was apparent he too was feeling the heat. Usually a man to dress in a collared shirt and sports jacket, he slowly walked out on stage in a rumpled black t-shirt and jeans. “I had a terrific ensemble to wear… cuz I know how fucking fashion conscious your village is… But I saw John on stage and I said 'FUCK IT!'” 

Coming back from three weeks of vacation, Black pre-warned the audience that he might just “start staring off into space” at any given moment. However, this action never transpired.  Black spoke of his adventures abroad, stating that everyone in the U.S. needed to get the fuck out of here and go to another country, otherwise we all will continue to believe we know what we are doing. “They have solutions, better than ours… and they DON’T EVEN SPEAK ENGLISH,” Black exclaimed, wiggling his pointer finger at the crowd in his signature manner.

As is his practice, Black made the already heated atmosphere more heated by jumping into politics. “I am a Socialist… Don’t applaud – I WON’T have you applaud. I am DISGUSTED that I am.” But the crowd applauded anyway. “When I think of Socialism, the first place I think of is Santa Barbara,” Black teased the audience.  And Santa Barbara took it – it was hard not to, they were paralyzed by the heat.

But Lewis Black did come with a message. “If I have one message for you to take home tonight, it would be… go to Tahiti.” To that the crowd gave pause. “Oh, but why would you want to leave Xanadu?” Apparently, the Polynesians don’t give a fuck, and after 14 days, the amount of days required to stay in Tahiti to save your brain according to Black, you won’t either.  Of course, after this lovely message, Black jumped right back in to politics.

Black was intelligent and thought-provoking, as he continued to emphasize his messages by yelling, cursing, and wiggling his fingers as the crowd. No subject was off limits with Mr. Black, ending his night with gratitude and sarcasm, “Thank you for sharing this BRICK OVEN atmosphere.” 

September 2, 2015

Incubus ~ September 2, 2015 @ The Santa Barbara Bowl

Are You In?

With extra speakers and a professional laser light show, Incubus came to rock the Santa Barbara Bowl in expert style.

Numbers appeared on the stage backdrop amidst a constellation of lights as darkness finally fell on the Santa Barbara Bowl. A 5-minute countdown to the main event began. The final 10 seconds flashed. The anticipation mounted as the crowd shouted the last of the numbers…. three, two, one! Percussion instruments started, creating a tribal communion among the audience. Then with a blaze of lights and a powerful roar, Incubus broke into Wish You Were Here, causing the crowd to erupt with excitement.

One of Santa Barbara’s favorite bands, Incubus, proved to be as great a force today as they were in the ‘90’s when they played shows in Isla Vista. Lead singer Brandon Boyd owned the stage as his pitch-perfect voice rang over the crowd. Backed by the intense talent of the original members, guitarist Mike Einziger, bassist Ben Kenney, drummer Jose Pasillas, and DJ Chris Kilmore, Incubus proved that their music only gets better with age.

“What a beautiful night – thanks for arranging this!” A grateful
Brandon Boyd shouted before launching into their greatest hits. Twenty-five years as a successful rock band showed, as the band craftily blended their hits that spanned across seven albums, including their newest “If Not Now, When?”.  Incubus’ catalog of material included Anna Molly, Nice To Know You, Pardon Me, Drive, and Love Hurts.  A highlight of the show was Megalomaniac with a nice twist of Nirvana’s Come As You Are thrown in for those who were listening, which was just about 4,500 attendees.  

With no opener for the show, it was all Incubus, all night, and that was all right. Santa Barbara was in! 

August 14, 2015

Alabama Shakes ~ August 14, 2015 @ The Santa Barbara Bowl

Shaking It Down

photo by paul dunkley 
A long line formed in the hot afternoon sun, as people descended upon the Santa Barbara Bowl box office window in a desperate attempt to grab a coveted ticket to see The Alabama Shakes.

The long-sold-out show was highly anticipated as the Alabama Shakes toured on their sophomore album, Sound & Color. The band has shown artistic growth with their second album. It's slightly more eclectic and soulful than their debut album, Boys & Girls. Known for their ecstatic, blues-based rock, this more deliberate sound was mesmerizing.

Brittany Howard emerged on stage decked out in a full-length green gown and a new haircut. The band immediately jumped into “Future People,” a poignant, funky blues song with high-pitch vocals and a catchy hook that pulls you in and then stops abruptly. The Santa Barbara crowd immediately jumped to attention, leaving no space left in the pit. People packed against the stage to get a glimpse of Brittany as the crowd moved as one.

Graciously, Brittany thanked the crowd, then moved onto
photo by paul dunkley
“Always Alright,” an upbeat, honky-tonk, bluesy dance tune, that got the crowd shaking even more. Incorporating songs from their first album into the mix, The Alabama Shakes hit the mark by including “Hang Loose” and “Heartbreak” early in the set. However, it was Brittany’s improved stage presence that really entranced the crowd.

Pushing her guitar aside, Brittany used her body as well as her voice to bring the lively crowd to a church-like silence during “Joe,” a gospel-like blues song. The Alabama Shakes kept the crowd in the moment by following up with the equally deeply emotional “Miss You” and “This Feeling,” until finally breaking the spell with their radio hit “Don’t Wanna Fight,” an easy-flowing blues jam.

The Alabama Shakes were unrelenting as Brittany exclaimed, “I could do this all night!” And so could Santa Barbara, shaking it down until the very last song.