Adaptations

When the principals behind the new British film “Notes from a Scandal” got together on stage at the Riviera Theatre late last year to discuss the movie after a Cinema Society screening, it was quite easy to see just how the deliciously over-baked psychological drama about obsession and loneliness works its magic. The film is one of the most successful of 2006 due not just to the astonishing Oscar-worthy performances by both a strikingly vulnerable Cate Blanchett in her best role yet and especially by Dame Judy Dench, who liberated from her mostly monarch-related parts uses an acid tongue and raised eyebrows to convey so much more than contained in the already pregnant-with-meaning words on the page. The two waver between warm friendship and determined dogfights with a relish and real-ness rarely seen on the screen these days.

At the screening, novelist Zoë Heller, who found the details of sexual deviance for the schoolteacher Sheeba played by Blanchett in the simultaneous Mary Kay LeTourneau case and turned it into fodder for brilliant British black humor, wove cleverly terse laughs through all of her responses. Meanwhile, Patrick Marber – the brilliant playwright who turned his own stage work “Closer” into 2004’s best film – elegantly explained the difficulty and pleasures of adapting such a rich and complex novel for the screen. His masterstroke, as he related, was replacing Sheeba’s “nightmare family” with her own sense of a “deep existential loneliness and an emptiness that has never been fulfilled,” despite receiving love from her perfectly fine home life. The dialogue is as sharply observed and fraught with innuendo as the endless banter in “Closer,” more indication that Marber might just be the best male writer of the female voice working today. “I attribute that to having a nice wife who gives me tips,” he told me afterwards.

Director Richard Eyre (“Iris”) took us on a tour of how it all came together on film, including the numerous script changes and a re-shot ending, and the brilliant stroke of finding hiring Philip Glass to compose the evocative score. The film comes off as a thinking man’s “Fatal Attraction” without the gore, a study of obsession that anyone – although we’d be loathed to admit it – can readily relate to. “I like that the film doesn’t provide you with easy answers, no glib equation of why Sheeba has this affair with a fifteen-year-old boy, nor why Barbara sets out to destroy Sheeba,” Eyre explained. “They’re both driven by urges they can’t control.”

Iraq and B-roll

Despite a plethora of worthy entries, there hasn’t been a lot of buzz around movies about the Iraq war to date, particularly less so among the numerous documentaries. And who can blame anyone?

With an endless news cycle bearing bad tidings from the war as the year drew to a close, who in their right mind would want to spend two hours going deeper into the devastation?

You should.

On Wednesday, January 10, UCSB kicks off the film series for the new term with “Iraq in Fragments,” perhaps the most incisive, quietly disturbing film to come out of this or any war. While filmmaker James Longley himself probably isn’t thrilled about just how prophetic his documentary turned out, he has assembled a remarkably non-judgmental, non-political, unbiased portrait of a small slice of the country since the invasion began. The three stories – one each from the Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite sectors – discuss their country from their own point of view, making quite clear how divided and intractable a situation they face, and how being invaded by the U.S. has only heightened their frustrations. With a lyrical eye, Longley has captured – through filming and conducting interviews over a three-year period – what all the news footage cannot: a country torn apart at its deepest foundations, a partial portrait of a nation unraveling before its own eyes and seemingly powerless to do anything about it.

Coming Attractions

Not only is “Notes on a Scandal” opening locally this weekend, but we’re told 14 more new movies are coming our way by January 12, including several that have scored highly on critics’ lists for the best of 2006. “Children of Men,” due tomorrow, is set merely 20 years in the future but at a time when humans can no longer procreate, so it sounds like scientific fiction hokum. But the sensitive and sure hands of esteemed Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (“Y Tu Mamá También”) and the skills of his lead actors Clive Owen and Julianne Moore have turned in a film that has garnered top billing from a smattering of film writers across the nation. Also of note this weekend: “Perfume – the Story of a Murder” and “Freedom Writers,” which is only the second film, after “Black Dahlia” (itself just out on video) to star double-Oscar winner Hilary Swank since “Million Dollar Baby.” It’s directed by Richard LaGravenese, screenwriter for “Bridges of Madison County,” “The Horse Whisperer” and “Beloved.”

The following Friday brings “Letters from Iwo Jima,” Clint Eastwood’s companion piece to his acclaimed “Flags of Our Fathers. Also coming next weekend: “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Guillermo del Toro’s gothic fairy tale set in Franco’s post-WWII Spain, which garnered top nods from its fair share of critics; “The Painted Veil,” with Naomi Watts in her first post-“King Kong” role; “The Good German,” another collaboration between George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven,” “Out of Sight”); “Miss Potter,” directed by Chris Noonan and starring Renée Zellweger as “Peter Rabbit” author Beatrix Potter; and “Curse of the Golden Flower,” the latest from Chinese director Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”) and a film touted as likely to earn a Best Foreign Language film nod from the Academy. Finally, January 12 also brings the long-awaited “Alpha Dog,” Nick Cassavetes’s fictionalized version of the Jesse James Hollywood-Nick Markowitz murder case that took place here in Santa Barbara and has generated lots of litigation even before its release, including still-pending decisions to remove a local prosecutor from the case and an attempt at restraining the film’s release alleging negative pretrial publicity. The film also played at Sundance nearly a full year ago, and is finally getting its theatrical release, just prior to this year’s fest.

SBIFF Notes

Meanwhile, our own festival just held its press conference to announce the full slate of films screening during the January 25-February 4 event, plus the name of one final honoree, the guests for the “Conversations With…” series, and the seminar panelists. Details came too late for inclusion here, but you can get all the info online at sbfilmfestival.org. We can tell you that opening night is another impressive entry for the third consecutive year, following Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda” in 2004 and Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust” last year. And like “Alpha Dog,” “Factory Girl” has a local connection, in that its subject matter, Edie Sedgwick – portrayed by Sienna Miller – was born in Cottage Hospital and died here 28 years later after a short-lived career in the limelight as a model and Andy Warhol’s girlfriend. Miller will be in attendance for the January 25 opening night screening and party.