Posted: 05/12/2007


Tribeca Film Festival – 2007

by Aaron Riccio

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Day 1

Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into, dear reader. Over 150 films and only eight days to see them all in. Using my careful “index” methodology (turn program guide, place finger down, see film), I’ve come up with a refreshing mix of not just the artsy Narrative films in this year’s competition, but a nice blend of nonsensical Midnight films and hopefully some great new Discoveries as well. Today, I kicked off the grand tour with the artless Black Sheep and then overdosed on Turkish culture with the heavy-handed Times and Winds. How fitting that the day’s final screening, The Last Man, was then a bland blend of both sense and nonsense.

Let’s begin at the beginning, though.

Black Sheep
You can’t possibly expect me to give a film with the tagline “Get ready for the violence of the lambs” a positive review, so I won’t insult your intelligence. But guess what? Neither will the director/writer, Jonathan King. For the first half of the film, King works off the natural terror of sheep, a passive, but certainly zombie-like species. Watching a cab get boxed in by a flurry of sheep is a peculiar sort of horror, but it works…up to a point. When the first sheep bursts through a wood door, a furrier but somehow less animal version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, we’re okay. When Tucker drives him off with a shotgun, uttering the catchphrase “You’re one dead muttonchop” (which is less funny in context), we’re much less okay. Even less when the response to the leading question, “Who’s driving the car?” is the money shot of a sheep behind the wheel. (To be fair, it promptly drives off a cliff.)

In Michael Crichton’s hands, the genetic modification of livestock for food purposes could make even sheep seem frightening. In the hands of a man who’d rather crack jokes about bestiality (“I understand you’ve got a pretty fucked up idea of animal husbandry”) to cover up the awful special effects of his monsters (paging Sam Raimi), there’s just a baaaad joke that won’t end.

Times and Winds (Bes Vakit)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; that’s why directors need to bring more to the table than rustic tableaux. Reha Erdem has the panoramic shot mastered, and he’s handy with the long shot, the tracking shot, and the awkward rhythm of stillness. He’s even got some truly beautiful scenes that express the way children forge ties with one another and rebel against their parents, no matter what the culture. Unfortunately, while the shots are anchored to the five phases of the film (broken up by the five daily prayers) and involve a lot of similarly executed shots, the majority of the film is as restless as the wind. The mundane moments and the passivity of the camera don’t instill any tension in this supposedly tragic world, and the one event that catches us off guard is as quickly forgotten as it occurs. Perhaps the strong, classical score was meant to be enough of an emotional prompt, but it’s not, and because of the distanced and piecemeal narrative, the actions of these characters are often inexplicable and careless. Children will be children, I guess, but I weep more for those eroding cliffs and wasting forests than for the characters themselves.

The Last Man
I kept hoping that Ghassan Salhab’s surreal opening—three interwoven scenes involving a scuba diver’s POV, a flamenco dancer in the black darkness, and grainy footage of a sleeping man—would somehow develop into a coherent plot. Once it did—a doctor, who happens to be a scuba diver in his spare time and who dates a flamenco dancer—I longed for it not to be so obvious. For you see, this doctor is on the trail of a serial killer who keeps leaving dead bodies behind that have only a single bite mark on their neck. And it turns out this doctor had an encounter of his own not so long ago. And leaves blood bags emptied in bathroom stalls. This is the world’s most pretentious vampire film, filled with a bevy of incongruous scenes that are frequently superimposed over one another for some dubious artistic effect.

The film is also remarkably silent, though it could stand to be more Kubrick-like in the actual cinematography. There are far too many shots of our hero, Carlos Chahine, and his blank face: here he is popping into focus from a camera effect…then there he is again, moments later as the window-wipers suddenly reveal his stoic gaze…and there again, making oblique small talk with a painter as the film slowly turns a reddish hue (the worst sort of foreshadowing). At its core, The Last Man might work as a post-neo-Gothic story of horrific self-discovery, that’s just overdressed in the baroque, but sluggishly presented here by Salhab, it’s just got no bite.

Days 2 and 3

The Grand
Zak Penn beats Christopher Guest to the World Poker Tour (and even brings Michael McKean along for the ride). Though there are more than just interviews building up this improvised mockumentary, The Grand still feels a little slapdash and thrown together, but it is funny. At the end of the day, when you put Richard Kind, Chris Parnell, David Cross, Cheryl Hines, and Woody Harrelson together, you’re going to get some funny scenes. Throw in some subplots about a self-obsessed and ignorant announcer (Michael Karnow), an odd duck who likes to take it up the beanstalk (Ray Romano, who’s really just trying to say that he wants a large coffee), and a crazy German (Werner Herzog), and you’ve damn near got the equivalent of reality film.

Sometimes the cameos don’t go anywhere (like Hank Azaria), are funny but out of place (Jason Alexander), or just plain take up space (Dennis Farina), but on the whole, the film’s got at least a straight set of laughs. The one downfall is that it lacks the sense of authenticity of other mockumentaries: the big hands aren’t planned very well, and aside from Harrelson’s nickname of “One Eyed” Jack Faro or Parnell’s “brain juice” recitations, there isn’t much action at the table. There are already enough personalities on the WPT; it hardly seems necessary to make fun of them. The Grand coasts through on star power, but it’s at the same time lackluster, and doesn’t quite do for poker what Kingpin accomplished for bowling.

A schlocky combination of both Alien and Predator, it’s somewhat fitting that the ill-directed action scenes are harder to make out in the endless darkness than Aliens vs. Predator. Fun as those coincidences may be, Matthew Leutwyler’s direction is outdone only by his even less revealing script, the kind of plodding monstrosities that allows for animal scientists in the middle of nowhere to proudly proclaim that they have equipment, on-hand, that will let them extract uranium. It’s a shame: Anasazi myths are creepy, and the monster cooked up by TyRuben Ellingson is pretty gruesome (for the few frames we can make it out). But the film’s relies far too much on gory flashcuts and dead bodies to scare us, and not enough on atmosphere or actual horror.

The only person who makes sense in Unearthed is Charlie Murphy, who takes on the much-needed role of Mr. Obvious, stating what everyone in the audience already thinks about the stupidity witnessed on screen. Unfortunately, as the token black guy, we know he won’t be around long enough to keep us entertained; the problem is that there are enough people left alive to keep the filmmakers entertained as they play with the “splatter” button. There’s just no need to unearth this film from anywhere but the cutting-room floor: having a cool monster doesn’t make you any cooler.

Gardener of Eden
As with most superhero origin stories, it takes a long series of coincidences to bring Adam to the turning point. But Gardener of Eden has no hero, just an anger-management-needing man-child who gets lucky that the person he self-destructs on is a wanted serial rapist. Director Kevin Connolly tries to make Adam likable, but the plot is harder to get past than Lukas Haas’s whining, nasal voice.

The film struggling to break free of the erstwhile violence is a variant on Garden State, as Adam falls for the girl he saved (after the fact) and tries to remain in “The Loop,” a barter system he and his three best friends have worked out. Though these characters are formulaic, there’s always room in a film for sweetness, and all the comic-book nonsense that Connolly and writer Adam Tex Davis have thrown in seems forced, and far too dark for the cinematography. The one saving grace of this film is Vic (Giovanni Ribisi), a charismatically nasty drug dealer who, despite his criminal connections, actually serves more of a purpose than Adam, or this film. When you factor in the anachronistic shots of Manhattan (hookers in Times Square in 1999?), ill-defined characters (like Adam’s over-the-top military father), and all the loose plot sequences, it becomes clear that Gardener of Eden still has one too many weeds to make it worth caring for.

Two Embraces (Dos Abrazos)
Enrique Begne’s beautiful double-feature doesn’t have a plot, but it has a wonderful mood. His two short films are tied together by a single baton-passing shot, and linked by a haunting and paralleled image of a vital, necessary embrace. Between doling out odd aphorisms (“If anyone had never been born, nobody would ever know”) and making much of long camera shots that refocus rather than cut the action of two characters on screen at the same time, Begne finds a way of catching quiet little smiles in the midst of the dark and solid reality of Mexico City.

Both high-school student Paco and checkout girl Silvina have anger issues (she’s bipolar, and his mood is entirely dependent on hers), but they each find a quiet peace in each other. The stronger of the two segments follows an angry taxi driver who makes the most unlikely of connections when a fare of his has a stroke, leaving him to find the man’s estranged daughter. The stories are simple, but the emotions Begne captures with his artistic choice of lighting and effect (his happier shots have been solarized) are complex and very relatable. Whether it’s endorphins or just physical contact in a lonely city, sometimes we all need a hug: Begne has two.

Day 4

Nobel Son
Randall Miller’s Nobel Son pairs its genius autodidact characters with the rush of Paul Oakenfold’s techno beats to make an swift but smart thriller. Whereas The Crystal Method were stuck in a slow drama (London), Nobel Son doesn’t slow down for a minute, which works well in conjunction with over-the-top acting (courtesy of youngbloods like Bryan Greenberg and Shawn Hatosy).

The plot switches from kidnapping to revenge to double-cross to turnaround so fast that it’ll make your head spin: will the recent Nobel laureate pay his son’s ransom? Is his son in on it? Is the kidnapper more than just a villain? Is the mother? The genre switches as often as the plot, from dark romance (Eliza Dushku) to a rather one-sided car chase, and all the way to comedy (a droll Alan Rickman). If this is the result of pop-culture oversaturation and ADHD, then bring it on: it doesn’t take a genius to recognize Nobel Son as an exhilarating rush of a film.

Mulberry Street
Always be nice to your friends: if you do, they might someday help you make a low-budget horror film. Mulberry Street doesn’t have much of a plot and no more than the usual flings of character development, but Jim Mickle’s back-against-the-wall passion has been the mother of invention for him and his film is a beautiful monstrosity. The camerawork, always tight when it’s not canvassing the grimy wonders of Manhattan, finds a wide variety of angles to shoot from (or through), and the rat-zombies, gently brushed in the dark of night, fit right in. The on-site apartment where this was filmed is given a real presence in the film, and all of the chase scenes are tightly shot moments of chaos. Classic shots, too: monsters pounding at the doors to get in, bodies being devoured on lonely streets, young women running with a desperate gait from packs of flesh-eating zombies…not to mention the ever-lasting appeal of a main character who, as a boxer, has to punch each and every beast in his path.

The film is so impressively executed that I’m willing to forgive the fact that it doesn’t really end, so much as get interrupted, and that there are plot holes bigger than the ones ripped into the corpses strewn across the set. We don’t need explanations so long as we’re being properly entertained…and besides, horror and thinking don’t exactly go hand in hand. The claustrophobic and decomposing tenements of lower Manhattan make for a fittingly frightful place to make a last stand against the gnashing horde of “rat people, fucking rat people” and the studios would be foolish not to give Mickle an opportunity…at least for a second film.

West 32nd
Kal Penn may have made good on his Harold and Kumar fame, but if this is all John Cho has to give us… Michael Kang’s film is a straight-up mundane amalgam of Korean gang culture and traditional corruption films. The street toughs are bombastic and overplayed, the heroes are staid and boring, and the women are nothing more than epaulets that sparkle and shift in the wind. Why the idea of “room salons”—private parlors amongst the karaoke rooms of Manhattan’s 32nd Street—is so fascinating or mysterious is a fascinating mystery to me, but the film itself is far from compelling, especially given the hasty and hackneyed script.

At best, we can understand why John Kim (Cho) needs to get inside a syndicate: he needs evidence that will clear his client and secure his partnership. But why the middle-man, Mike Juhn (Jun Sung Kim), would deal with John—especially as portrayed by Cho—is beyond me. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, but the film’s ill-conceived conclusion makes little sense, too: if all it takes is a lying witness to get Kim’s client off the hook, and if Juhn’s just looking for a dirty defender, why not just do that to begin with, and skip all the exposition? Hey, industry: if you can’t figure out a reason to tell a story, don’t. Especially when you don’t have stars or directors able to sell it for you.

Days 5 and 6

Watching the Detectives
Comedy is a very fine art: there’s highbrow, lowbrow, and then genre-specific—we’re talking the sort of niche humor that entertains a smallest common denominator. Writer/director Paul Soter has taken a little bit of the low and the genre work that he mastered working with Broken Lizard, and he’s made a fitting salute to the old noir detectives with his fantastic film Watching the Detectives.

Neal (Cillian Murphy) is a staid, movie-obsessed video-store owner (fitting, if you think about it), who gads about on a plush sofa like some upper-class version of Randall (from Clerks), imitating films and mocking customers with his two friends, Lucien (Michael Panes) and Jonathan (Jason Sudeikis). As romance has it, the girl of his dreams is his total opposite, a foxy wildfire of a dame (Lucy Liu, all foxfire, is luminescent in her reacquired giddiness). This girl, Violet, is a practical joker who suffers from boraphobia (yes, the fear of boredom), and who invents all her own fun in the absence of TV. She’s “pretty consistently out there,” and she allows the film to range from awkward to terrifying to sweet, all while staying absolutely endearing. Whether Soter is doing a straight-spoof of old detective shots (birds-eye through the ceiling fan, golden light spilling through slits in the shade) or the glitzy mockery of digital graininess in his flashbacks, Watching the Detectives is great fun. As Violet says about Neil, I say about this film: “I’m crazy about [it].” Both parts of that sentence are true.

Born and Bred
Pablo Trapero’s Born and Bred is another one of those Spanish films that mixes an exotic location with a savage truth: in this case, the wastes of Patagonia mixed with the almost inevitable (these days) car crash that causes Santiago to try losing himself, as he has lost his wife and daughter. It’s an adequate film, but it’s lacking the extra edge of crispness found in directors like Alfonso Cuaron, the jagged beauty of a fabulist like Guillermo del Toro, or the epic scope of a panoramic artist like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (to go for the obvious names).

The acting is what woos the audience: there’s a heartfelt camaraderie between Santiago and his new best friends, the Santa-like Cacique, and the rough-cut ladies man, Robert. Their friendship is well documented in all walks of life, from the drunken lows of an attempted three-way to the beautiful highs of clear hunting in a snowy forest, all the way to their mundane work on an eroding airstrip in the middle of nowhere. Trapero does well to show us a man drowning in his own sorrow, and the musical selections only serve to pull him further underwater, and there’s nothing about Born and Bred that doesn’t work (except, perhaps, the extreme cut between the accident and the present day); it’s just an unfortunate reality that this sort of narrow-minded tragedy is, for the moment, tapped.

The Optimists
Let the critics waste their breath finding the good films among the new premieres: the best bang for your buck is letting the best come directly to you, courtesy of Tribeca’s Spotlight series. The Optimists, a Serbian film by Goran Paskaljevic, is a fantastically dry and witty meditation on the nature of optimism, by means of Voltaire: “Optimism is insisting everything is good, when everything is bad.” Five short films, which share only the actor Lazar Ristovski (from the excellent film Underground), take up this saying as we leap from a miraculous master of hypnosis, come to save a town (that he’s an escaped mental patient shouldn’t matter, should it?), to a young son, come to make good on his father’s (and grandfather’s, and great-grandfather’s) gambling debts by…gambling it all away himself.

What Paskaljevic does so poetically is to capture the grim determination of suckers after the fact, that is, to show the actors at the moment of realizing that they’ve been had, but that since there’s nothing they can do about it, that they should put on a happy face anyway. And so, in the second film, we are immersed in the smoldering rage of an impotent father who cannot avenge his daughter’s rape because the rapist is his boss, and the owner of the foundry. In the final film, a bus full of terminally ill or permanently crippled victims are conned into seeking out a spring of youth, only to settle (with a forcefully giddy enthusiasm) for an oily pond that they discover in its place. Here, the shot that lingers is that of the father, clutching his blind daughter in a tight embrace as she continues to say, “I think I can see, Papa, I think I can see something,” even though it’s painfully obvious to both of them that there is no light at the end of her tunnel. But who am I to say what hope is and isn’t? All I can say is that The Optimists has the savage wit of satire down cold: I hope more American directors take note (Thank You for Smoking was the closest we’ve had, and that was tamed by its political nature).

Day 7

And…cut! I think that’s about twenty films in seven days… Not bad, eh?

Black Butterfly
Francisco J. Lombardi’s Black Butterfly well befits its name. From the shrouding grime of Lima, Lombardi never wavers the delicate focus of his film, nor the deliberate struggle of his protagonist, Gabriela (Melania Urbina) a fragile and beautiful schoolteacher, to revenge herself on the corrupt dictator who had her fiancé brutally murdered. Along the way, she unites with Ángela (Magdyel Ugaz), a gum-chewing semi-gumshoe of a reporter who is trying to lose herself in men, only to get caught up in Gabriela’s innocent charms and desperate plot.This is not a tender story, nor (for all the beauty) is Lombardi a forgiving director. From staggering shots of casket-covered walls rising fifteen feet in the air (an aboveground catacomb) to the escort service of the elite, he finds beauty in death and darkness in life, a paradox that has delightfully befuddled audiences for years. Alonso Cuetos, the writer, dips deep into both before stirring the pot, and his elegant touch is to force Gabriela into a relationship with Dotty (Yvonne Frayssinet), a dotty but powerful matriarch of high society that plays against type with a grace and sincerity that makes Gabriela into a manipulator.

At one point, Ángela quips that as a reporter, she “can make up a whole life in a second.” But the careful camera work of Francisco J. Lombardi reminds us that it takes more than a second to make life linger on past the final frame.

Charlie Bartlett
An altogether upbeat, likable comedy, Charlie Bartlett never manages to escape from being overscripted, but succeeds on personality and charm. Anton Yelchin, who plays the title role, is a rare breed of multiple talents, which is why he’s perfect to play this rich and culturally astute boy who, in his attempts to become popular, winds up playing psychologist and pharmacist both. His rising star clashes with the principal, a stringent Robert Downey Jr., and it doesn’t help much that he’s dating the man’s daughter (Kat Dennings). The film adds as many eccentricities as it can, from cabaret numbers to Ritalin-induced rampages, and finds a lovely balance in Charlie’s manic mother, played by a very loose Hope Davis.

Though it’s no surprise that Charlie gets the girl, resolves his issues with his jailed (and therefore absent) father, and helps the principal realize the error of his ways, Gustin Nash’s script makes it jibe with high school rather nicely, and Jon Poll’s very professional filming manages to remove the director’s fingers from the frame, keeping the focus entirely on the kids. Say what you want about Charlie Bartlett: it’s got character(s).

King of Kong
While it’s no surprise that Taxi to the Darkside beat King of Kong for best documentary (which is no surprise, given the relevance of torture), this is my pick for the most enjoyable flick of the entire Tribeca festival. Seth Gordon’s material is so perfectly eccentric, and contains such a solid narrative in its coverage of the world records of classic video games, that it seems scripted. As is, Billy Mitchell is the charismatic, cocky, self-made Donkey Kong champion who has ruled the roost since 1985, and Steve Wiebe is the unemployed, doubting, family man who is trying to snatch away the title from a seemingly unbeatable 880,000+ score. Walter Day, now officially acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records as an official judge of these sorts of events, comments at one point that their rivalry is right up there with the Yankees/Sox…and after watching a compressed version of their passive history, there’s certainly an epic scope—something of the King Kong grandeur in the King of Kong gaming.

In any case, Steve Wiebe is the hero of the film, a nice guy who is repeatedly cheated of his victories after the arcade cabinet on which he breaks the record is discredited (by a sinisterly shot Mitchell), and then again after his live, in-tournament record is disrupted by a secret video distributed and set up to steal Wiebe’s thunder (and entry into the 2007 world records). Says Mitchell of his tape (of many quotable lines): “Not even Helen of Troy had that much attention.” From his unctuous “apprentice,” Brian Kuh (who is heartbroken to not be the first person to get a “kill screen” at Funspot), to solid associates like Steve Sanders, there’s a conspiracy channeling cabal of gaming elites that draw definitive lines of good and evil across the documentary. Billy is the golden boy of gaming, and therefore practically a Jedi by their standards — but he’s portrayed here as a Sith Lord, full of evil and an unwillingness to back up all his talk with a face-to-face playoff with Steve. “No matter what I say,” comes another golden Mitchell line, “it draws controversy—like the abortion issue.” Come on! That’s priceless.

Whether or not Billy is really an asshole who “chumpeized” Steve, or whether Wiebe has OCD or mild autism—these things aren’t the point. The point is that Seth Gordon has managed to glorify a new “sport,” and entertain us greatly in the process (cheesy 80s music like “You’re the Best” only makes it better). Thank god for Steve’s young daughter though, who keeps things in perspective: “Some people ruin their lives to be in [the Guinness Book of World Records].” Whether or not this is wasting your life or not, well…you’ll have to judge for yourself.

Aaron Riccio is a freelance writer and film and theatre critic in NYC. Check out more of his writing here.

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