Tribeca Film Festival – 2007
by Aaron Riccio
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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.
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)
The Last Man
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
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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).
And…cut! I think that’s about twenty films in seven days… Not bad, eh?
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.
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
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.
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