Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Seven Minutes in Heaven

Suicide-homicide bombings might be a fact of life in Israel, but that makes them no less devastating for those who lose loved ones in such attacks. As a survivor of a bus bombing, Galia sustained severe burns to her arms and back, but the emotional wounds from the loss of her boyfriend Oren run far deeper in Omri Givon’s powerful drama Seven Minutes in Heaven (trailer here), one of the highlights of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Galia was clinically dead for seven minutes, yet she returned to the land of the living. Oren however, fell into an irreversible coma and slowly slips away before her eyes. Haunted by “what if’s” and suffering from acute survivor guilt exacerbated by painful memories of their final lovers’ quarrel, Galia could use some closure. Those brief seconds seem to hold the key as she tries to reconstruct what happened to her during the immediate aftermath of the senseless attack.

Though still in mourning, Galia finds solace in the attentions of the easy-going Boaz, who always seems to be around when she needs him. As she pursues her investigation, Galia discovers she is linked to Boaz in unexpected ways. Seeking cathartic answers, Galia visits the bombed-out husk of the fateful bus, at which point Seven delivers the audience a metaphysical curve ball. Cinematically, it is a dazzling scene, jumping between clearly differentiated timeframes and perspectives, perfectly handled by Givon and editor Nitay Netzer.

Given the overall volume of flashbacks and hallucinations, Seven can still be a bit tricky to follow at times, but it is worth the effort. Givon has crafted a cerebral but emotionally engrossing film, nicely laying the groundwork for his third act revelation so it feels organic rather than gimmicky. Reymond Amsalem captures Galia’s guilt and regret with a direct immediacy that is hard to shake. She is perfectly balanced by the likable Eldad Fribas who invests Boaz with a wistful humanity that takes on greater dimensions in retrospect.

The circumstances of Seven are particularly tragic because they happen all too often in Israel, a point the film subtly makes. While at times demanding, Seven is an intelligently composed, legitimately moving film. It screens again at Tribeca on May 1st and 2nd.

Belgian Road Movie: Eldorado

Belgium might be a small country, but it is big enough for a road trip. Evidently, it can also get a little weird out there on those Belgian highways. Such is the experience of Yvan and Elie when they set off in Bouli Lanners’s Eldorado (trailer here), Belgium’s official submission for the 2008 Best Foreign Language Academy Award, which opens tomorrow in New York.

The two road buddies do not exactly meet cute. When Yvan, a John Goodman-looking vintage car dealer returns home one night, he finds Elie the junkie in the middle of an incompetent burglary attempt. For personal reasons, he takes mercy on the gaunt and greasy Elie, even taking it upon himself to drive him to his estranged parents’ home.

Of course, out on the open road, anything can happen, as Eldorado’s two mismatched sad sacks encounter all kinds of inclimate weather and eccentric characters. The film effectively evokes many uncomfortable memories of cross-country road trips. It seems like poor Yvan and Elie are always lost and shivering in the cold, dark rain.

Director Lanners also costars as Yvan, and he fills out the role quite effectively. He is definitely a crying-on-the-inside kind of clown, who has some particularly touching moments with Elie’s mother, played with heartbreaking honesty by Françoise Chichéry. Unfortunately, as Elie, the rather wooden Fabrice Adde makes a particularly weak foil for Lanners, the far more interesting screen presence of the duo.

Though Eldorado follows most of the quirky, bittersweet conventions of the road movie, when it ultimately arrives at its destination, it turns out to be a very dark place indeed. In fact, some viewers might be disturbed by a plot point involving a dying dog, mortality injured in an apparently senseless act of cruelty.

While Eldorado offers some lovely scenery, it is hardly a commercial for Belgian tourism. It is a naturalistic portrayal of increasingly rootless and disconnected people. Its humor is fleeting, but its pessimism lingers. At least it makes an impression, though. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Angelika.

Tribeca ’09: The Girlfriend Experience

Steven Soderbergh is a good interview subject, so it makes perfect sense his latest film was selected for a Tribeca Talks screening and panel discussion. As it happens, some of his comments did lead to a greater appreciation of The Girlfriend Experience (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, ahead of its May 22nd theatrical opening.

Soderbergh is known for making two distinctly different kinds of films: big Hollywood pictures with the word “Ocean’s” in the title, and small, largely unscripted digital video independents. GFE is the latter. In addition to facilitating improvisation, Soderbergh added further wildcards into the mix by casting a number of actors in their first mainstream roles, including adult film star Sasha Grey, as Chelsea, a high-class Manhattan escort. In addition to standard “services,” Chelsea also offers her clients more intimate options which replicate the interaction of an actual relationship. Of course, you still have to pay to play.

Surprisingly, Chelsea has legitimate girlfriend experience herself. In fact, she is in a relatively committed relationship with Chris, a personal trainer well-aware of her line of work. Chris is a relentless self-improver, the kind of guy who probably has a drawer full of self-help tapes. He definitely has a Willie Loman streak, constantly selling himself and his line of sports wear to prospective clients, competing health clubs, and sporting good stores. It would be an oversimplification to suggest he sells himself as much as Chelsea, but there is no question she makes sales, whereas he does not.

As Chris, neophyte actor and real-life trainer Chris Santos makes an impressive debut. It is a brave performance, exposing the insecurities and frustrations of a character that audiences will assume to be autobiographical, given the similarities of their background. Grey by contrast, plays a character who by necessity maintains a nearly impassable emotional barrier between herself and the rest of the world. Her Chelsea is essentially a blank slate on which Chris and her clients project their desires.

GFE is a flawed but interesting film. Soderbergh and cinematographer Peter Andrews’s High Def give the film a rich, sophisticated look, but aside from Santos’s performance, it is a rather cold-blooded, passionless affair. While some scenes ring uncomfortably true, others seem to meander, which is completely understandable given its improvisational nature. Despite the absence of sex scenes, it remains a voyeuristic film, preoccupied with the material trappings of luxury, ultimately undercut by a rather abrupt ending. Though post-screening Soderbergh made a convincing case for it in terms of character development, it still remains a somewhat anti-climatic conclusion.

Soderbergh explained he avoided traditional sex scenes in GFE to emphasize the ways in which Chelsea’s career is altogether separate and apart from her less rarified competitors, and he certainly succeeds in that respect. While talky and uneven, at least GFE’s provocative dramatic situations are never dull to watch (and it even has a cool drum solo). It screens again at Tribeca on May 2nd.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tribeca ’09: TiMER

For those pining for a good science fiction chick flick, your wait is over. In the very near future (which basically looks like right now) technology has radically altered the dating process, yet some issues between men and women remain constant. This is the brave new world posited in Jac Schaeffer’s TiMER (trailer here), now screening during the Tribeca Film Festival.

More revolutionary than speed-dating, TiMERs irrevocably changed courtship as humanity once knew it. Now a biometric implant shows a digital read out counting down to when the bearer will meet their true love. When the clock runs down, they will meet their perfect match within the next twenty-four hours, and when that happens, both TiMERs start beeping simultaneously—no more guess work. However, if your true love has not implanted a TiMER, your clock will be blank. Such is the predicament Oona O’Leary finds herself in.

TiMERs have not been kind to the O’Leary step-sisters. Oona is constantly on the lookout for eligible TiMER-less men, usually from flyover country, like Oklahoma. After a few dates, she convinces them to get implanted, hoping to hear that beeping noise. Alas, it has yet to happen. By contrast, Steph’s TiMER works just fine, but it has about twenty-some years to count down. Until she is forty-three, Steph only has one use for the men she meets, and it is not settling down.

While there is a perfunctory explanation of how TiMERS works—something vaguely related to body heat—there is absolutely no believable scientific foundation for such a device. However, once accepted, TiMER scrupulously observes its own rules, which facilitates some intriguing dramatic situations.

To its credit, TiMER offers some sharp speculations on the social implications of such a device. Unfortunately it is weighted down by several annoying major characters. Emma Caulfield’s Oona is such a type-A pill, it is difficult to root for her happiness. Frankly, one could understand her perfect match disabling his TiMER. Likewise, her possible love-interest Mikey, a frail slacker played by John Patrick Amedori, has no romantic credibility whatsoever in any of his scenes. However, Michelle Borth is fantastic as Steph, displaying excellent comic timing as well as delivering the most touching dramatic scenes of the film.

In TiMER, Schaeffer has created a seamless new set of social morays that raise intriguing questions about other potential problems arising from TiMERs. What about the criminal tampering of TiMERs, targeting heirs or heiresses for pecuniary purposes? How do people react when a TiMER suddenly goes blank because of the untimely death of their unmet mate? Such questions evidently will have to wait for a sequel, but it is a good sign when a film generates such musing with its premise.

Schaeffer proves to be both an inventive writer and a sensitive director in TiMER. Despite the unappealing leads, it is a very thought-provoking film, featuring an outstanding supporting turn by Borth. It screens again as part of the Tribeca Film Festival on April 30th and May 3rd.

Tribeca ’09: 3 Wheels (Short)

Think driving a New York pedicab is hard? Try peddling a rickshaw around the tropical Chinese island of Hainan. Evidently, the weather gets a bit hot there. However, Huang, a modest rickshaw driver, has more pressing concerns in Tony Wei’s 3 Wheels (trailer here), which is included in the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Means to an End” shorts program.

This is the longest day of Huang’s life. After reporting for work, the boss he secretly loves informs him she will be transferred off the island that evening, leaving forever on the 7:00 boat. All day, Huang struggles to build up the courage to express his true feelings. Simultaneously, he must ferry a young American tourist about the island, hitting all the unsavory attractions along the way.

As Huang explains local culture and customs to the American, the two opposing themes of Wheels emerge: the value of “perseverance,” as exemplified by Huang’s favorite legend, and the desire for a “happy ending,” which happens to be the name of Huang’s tour company as well as a code word at one of the red light establishments the American patronizes.

Chung Lee’s screenplay uses such motifs quite effectively, while also giving the audience a strong sense of the island setting. What really distinguishes Wheels though, is Chung-Heng Chu’s touching performance as the painfully shy Huang. He is a tragic but hopeful figure, nicely counterbalanced by Cary Woodworth, as the brash but perhaps not irredeemable American.

Wheels features an outstanding lead performance and takes full advantage of its exotic locale. At seventeen minutes, it is a very satisfying short film. It screens again this afternoon, and on May 2nd and 3rd, as part of Tribeca’s short film programming.

Tribeca ’09: Con Artist

Mark Kostabi is an artist you can make money selling. That is high praise indeed coming from a particularly commercial gallery owner. However, he never calls Kostabi a great artist—quite the contrary. Such is the career of self-styled “celebrity artist” Mark Kostabi, which director Michael Sládek shrewdly documents in Con Artist (trailer here), now screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Opinions of Kostabi’s art vary widely. He does have his brave defenders, including the California gallery owner who mounted his first unheralded show. However, they are usually referring to his early work. Kostabi now operates more as a factory manager than an artist. While he approves conceptual designs, the actual art is carried out by his staff of artists. Typically, Kostabi’s only hands-on work comes when he signs his name.

Andy Warhol was undeniably a formative influence on Kostabi, certainly through his work, but particularly for the way the celebrated pop artist cultivated his celebrity status. However, the student has arguably surpassed the teacher in elevating the pursuit of fame to an art form in itself. Essentially, Kostabi argues his entire public persona and artistic business constitute an ongoing performance art piece, much in the spirit of Andy Kaufman. Of course, he is still making sales and maximizing profits, while utilizing the labor of others. Individually, his pieces are not outrageously expensive, but you know what they say about volume. Ka-ching.

As the title indicates, Sládek maintains a healthy skepticism regarding Kostabi’s artistic legitimacy. His approach is subversive rather than reverential, often undercutting Kostabi’s credibility with unflattering footage of the unrestrained egomaniac. Though evidence of Kostabi’s preoccupation with his image might seem embarrassing, it seems as long as you are pointing a camera at him, Kostabi will happily be your best friend.

Obviously, access to Kostabi was not a problem for Sládek. However, he gets credit for presenting an unusually balanced portrait of his subject. In fact, his talking head segments are often absolutely withering in their appraisal of Kostabi, both as an artist and a person, at times Con seems more like a satire than a documentary.

Con is a highly watchable, level-headed accomplishment in documentary filmmaking. Since Sládek never buys into Kostabi completely, he is never compelled to minimize or defend the artist’s excesses. As a result, the audience can watch his frequently crazy antics and come to their own conclusions. Con is a surprisingly funny film with a rebel spirit and a hardcore punk soundtrack to match. It screens again at Tribeca on May 2nd.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Hysterical Psycho

There is nothing worse than a bad genre send-up. For instance, there is manga spoof out there so unwatchable, its makers should be deported to an arctic prison-camp. Fortunately, Dan Fogler’s Hysterical Psycho (trailer here) is nothing like that. While not exactly Noel Coward, Psycho has enough splattering blood and affectionate giggles to amuse slasher fans during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival’s Midnight programming.

Clearly intended in part as an idiosyncratic tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, Hysterical begins with a very cool animated framing device, featuring a Hitch-like Man in the Moon. Then a deliberately grainy color prologue follows, suggesting the garish looking 1970’s monstrosities Mystery Science Theater used to skewer with regularity, before settling into the primary storyline, shot in glorious black and white.

The premise is simple—it is a slasher film, after all. A theater group packs up an RV and heads to the Moonlake Inn resort for some sort of team-building retreat. Needless to say, it does not happen. There is an evil influence in those woods, and before you know it, the bodies start piling up. Ironically, the ostensive psycho killer plot in Hysterical might actually be bettter developed than most of the films it satirizes. Audiences might also recognize Gilbert Gottfried in a mercifully brief cameo and Nicholas DeCegli, a mainstay of Abel Ferrara’s films during the 1990’s, appropriately cast as mob hitman who dumps his victims in the evil Moonlake.

There is plenty of blood spilled with joyful abandon and Fogler’s screenplay has a foul-mouthed Evil Dead attitude that is pretty funny at times. While Hysterical is most definitely hipper than the cookie-cutter “Blank Movie” spoofs Hollywood insists on churning out, viewers should be warned most of its humor derives from how outrageously over-the-top it is willing to go. Audiences who do not object to a little dismemberment and a groaner sight gag or two, should be perfectly comfortable in Hysterical. Just be warned.

Hysterical is the considered product of a Tony Award winner. In 2005 Fogler carried home the honor as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Frankly, he proves to be a better director than Hysterical requires, perfectly capturing the right crudely stylish Night of the Living Dead vibe. If not truly hysterical, it is at least chuckle worthy, in a darkly comic way. It screens again at Tribeca tonight, and May 1st and 2nd.

Tribeca ‘09: City Island

City Island might be part of the borough of the Bronx, but the small fishing community is a world removed from Fort Apache. It is a tightly-knit deeply-rooted community of working-class “clam diggers,” like Vince Rizzo, the protagonist of Raymond de Felitta’s City Island now screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Rizzo is a prison guard—sorry, that’s corrections officer—but acting is his secret ambition. He furtively takes drama lessons in the City, telling his judgmental wife Joyce he is playing poker instead. Of course, she incorrectly assumes the faithful Rizzo is having an affair. He does have secrets though, like the son he abandoned in his immature youth before meeting Joyce. Suddenly, Rizzo is forced to confront his past, when Tony Nardella, his long lost son, is transferred to his prison.

Nardella never had much family, but he could certainly use some now. He would qualify for parole if only he had someone to take him into their custody. Panged by conscience but reluctant to reveal the truth, Rizzo takes Nardella home with him, ostensibly to help him with home repair projects. Of course, the Rizzo home is not a particularly stable environment either, with Rizzo sneaking off to auditions, his wife manically suspicious, teen-aged son Vince, Jr. obsessed with his particular internet porn fetish, and daughter Vivian secretly working as a stripper after getting expelled from college.

Island might sound like a quirky indie family drama rife with cutesy pitfalls. However, the film nimbly tap-dances through that minefield. A jazz pianist as well as a director, de Felitta has a great sense of timing, maintaining a crisp pace throughout. In an appropriately representative scene, Rizzo’s drama teacher (in a memorable cameo performance by Alan Arkin) instructs his would-be method actors to avoid pauses in their delivery. Keeping it breezy seems to be de Felitta’s strategy here and by-and-large it works, abetted by a buoyantly diverse soundtrack, including some of the director’s own trio recordings.

Much of the complicated Rizzo family drama works quite well, never getting too adorable or saccharine. While somewhat uneven, Island never tarries too long with a misfiring subplot (like the pursuits of smarmy Vince, Jr.). Andy Garcia ably leads the cast, bringing both a blue-collar credibility and an engaging vulnerability to the confused Rizzo. Though her character is a bit exaggerated, Julianna Margulies is almost unrecognizable, submerging into Joyce’s Bronx-Westchester persona. However, Emily Mortimer packs the film’s greatest emotional punch as Rizzo’s drama class partner, wrestling with her own guilty secrets.

With Island, De Felitta charts a middle course between earnest indie family drama and screwball comedy that is surprisingly effective. It is a pleasingly light, but satisfying film. It screens again on April 29th and May 1st.

Tribeca ’09: Tell Tale

As the director of Alien and the author of “The Tell Tale Heart,” Ridley Scott and Edgar Allan Poe have scared a whole lot of people over the years. Now their talents finally come together, sort of. Produced by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, indie director Michael Cuesta’s thriller Tell Tale, which premiered Friday night at the Tribeca Film Festival, takes its inspiration from the classic Poe short story, giving it a modern medical twist.

In the original Poe, the sound of a murdered man’s beating heart drives his killer mad with guilt. Now Cuesta updates and tweaks the story, adding elements of Michael Apted’s Blink and Oliver Stone’s The Hand. The murdered man’s heart still beats wildly when in the vicinity of his murderers, but it has been successfully transplanted into a worthy recipient.

Terry Bernard spends a lot of time at the hospital. He recently had heart-transplant surgery and his little girl suffers from a rare degenerative genetic disorder. Fortunately, she has a caring doctor, who also happens to be quite attractive and interested in Dad. The only downside is the criminal ring which killed Bernard’s donor and his wife, seems to be operating out of the same hospital, so whenever he visits, Bernard finds himself compelled to take bloody revenge against yet another killer.

Cuesta and cinematographer Terry Stacey film Bernard’s revenge scenes in an intense, visually disorienting style. In terms of look and mood, Tell is high class genre filmmaking. However, the script is fairly standard thriller fare, with distracting logical contradictions which stretch the suspension of disbelief beyond the initial premise.

Refreshingly, Tell is distinguished by what might sneeringly be called the film’s “family values.” Bernard is not a single father by choice, yet he chooses to uphold his parental obligations as well as those of the mother who abandoned the ailing father and daughter. It is also his commitment that attracts the lovely doctor. Josh Lucas is exudes a nice everyman likability as Bernard, the well meaning Dr. Jekyll, wrestling with his physical and mental well-being. Lena Headey also elevates the throwaway role of the noble Dr. Elizabeth Clemson, exuding genuine warmth and an earthy beauty.

With a talented cast and an entertaining premise, Tell has a lot of commercial potential. Unfortunately, the Friday night screening was interrupted by a sick audience member needing assistance. However, William Castle, the king of horror movie showmanship, was surely smiling down from Heaven. “Heart-Stopping” he would probably proclaim. Its next and hopefully less eventful screening will be on May 1st.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Tribeca ’09: The Eclipse

Thanks to great Irish supernatural writers like J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, we like to think of Ireland as a land of banshees and haunted castles. The BBC recently bolstered that popular image with a report of a ghostly apparition sighted along a country road in County Tyrone, so perhaps widower Michael Farr should not be so alarmed by his ghostly visions. Except the protagonist of Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse is seeing the spirit of someone who has not died yet. Despite such supernatural elements, it would be a mistake to dismiss McPherson’s film as a mere ghost story. It is an emotionally complex work that has generated the most buzz (in my subjective judgment) among films currently screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

Cobh in County Cork certainly looks like a picturesque seaport conducive to haunting. It also hosts an annual literary festival, which Farr always volunteers at, even though he has long forsaken his literary ambitions. At the current festival, he has been assigned to schlep two famous authors: the arrogant popular novelist Nicholas Holden and Lena Morelle, a sensitive writer of literary supernatural fiction. Much to Morelle’s regret, she shared an ill-advised night of passion with Holden at previous conference and would now prefer to forget the entire matter. Unfortunately, the married Holden has become obsessed with her.

When not shuttling his literary guests back and forth, Farr must tend to his two children and Malachy McNeill, the dying father of his late wife. Late one night, Farr wakens to spy a figure that might be his father-in-law stalking through the house. Although he is still quite lucid and can be accounted for during the times in question, Farr continues to be haunted by something that suggests the irascible old man, in visitations of increasing intensity. Farr experiences further angst as he comes to share Holden’s hopeless attraction to Morelle.

Eclipse gives the audience some legitimate chills thanks to McPherson’s deft direction and the eerie sound effects (edited by Jon Stevenson) that really create the desired state of apprehension. However, it is a much richer film than a simple chiller. On a deeper level, Eclipse is a meditation on how closely grief and love intertwine and reinforce each other.

Ciarán Hinds gives a tour-de-force performance as Farr, a man of many fears, regrets, and insecurities. Screaming in terror one minute and then playing a scene of touching beauty the next, Hinds is called upon to just about everything in this film, but he never takes a false step. Dutch actress Iben Hjejle also gives a wonderfully understated performance as the warm but sophisticated Morelle. Only Aidan Quinn’s performance as Holden comes across a bit one-dimensional, seeming to existence just to create problems for other people (of course, people like this unfortunately tend to pop up in real life).

While McPherson is one of those Irish supernatural writers himself, using ghostly motifs in plays like Shining City and The Weir, Eclipse is based on a short story by Billy Roche, who co-wrote the screenplay with the playwright-director. The result is extremely cinematic and not at all stagey. It does supply some good spine tingles, but it also a deeply satisfying, exquisitely crafted human drama. A definite festival highlight, it screens again on Tuesday (4/28) and Thursday (4/30).

Tribeca ’09: Yodok Stories

For many South Koreans, it is difficult to believe the reports of horrific human rights abuses committed in the North. That is probably why Polish director Andrzej Fidyk became the prime mover behind Yodok Stories, a stage musical about the inhuman atrocities regularly happening in North Korean concentration camps. Fidyk also documented the controversial theatrical production, undertaken at great risk by defectors who survived the Yodok camp, in his eye-opening Norwegian-produced film, likewise titled Yodok Stories (trailer here), now playing as part of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

One thing the North Koreans certainly know is how to do is staging huge spectacles of tens of thousands of tightly choreographed participants, like the grand pageant celebrating the fortieth anniversary of DPRK Fidyk recorded in his 1988 documentary Parade. Impressed by the technical skill required to mount such a production, Fidyk wanted to collaborate with a former North Korean director to document the rest of the North Korean experiment in Communist collectivism. After many inquiries, he eventually found Jung Sung San.

While resistant at first, the defector ultimately agreed to work on Fidyk’s proposed theater piece. Obviously, Yodok Stories could not match the scope of North Korean presentations, which have the full compulsory force of the police state at their disposal. As a result, Yodok evolved into a production much akin to western book musicals, based on the harrowing experiences of camp survivors.

Evidently, most South Koreans are in a state of denial regarding the scope and conditions of the DPRK’s Kyo-hwa-so concentration camps. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 North Koreans are condemned to such camps, which is essentially tantamount to a death sentence. Yodok is unique among such death camps, being the only facility which allows for the remote possibility of prisoners leaving alive—that is if they survive the torture, starvation, rape, forced abortions, and random executions.

Fidyk and Jung Sung San chillingly dramatize these outrages in the stage version of Yodok. However, Yodok’s biggest surprise is that the show sounds pretty good as a musical. Granted, the film never shows a complete, unedited number from start to finish (which is probably Fidyk’s only misstep). However, from the extensive clips we do see and hear, Yodok frankly seems just as good, if not better than most melodramatic Andrew Lloyd Weber extravaganzas.

At the heart of Yodok though, are the survivor stories on which it is based. Fidyk records some critically important testimony regarding the true nature of the Communist regime. As the director explains, even suicide is not an option for escape, because surviving family members are culpable for the alleged crimes of the so-called “traitors,” down to the third generation.

Clearly, it took a lot of courage for the defectors involved in the Yodok production to speak out. In addition to concern for their families’ safety, they also had to worry about their own physical well-being. In fact, Jung Sung San regularly received death threats via text messages during the production. Yet, despite his initial reluctance, the director was so committed to the production he reportedly even offered one of his kidneys as collateral when funding sources started drying up.

Yodok is an incredibly valuable documentary. It is a well constructed, thoroughly shocking film that forces audiences to confront the nature of the North Korean Communist regime. It is impossible to minimize the absolutely Hellish nature of the DPRK after viewing it—it simply brooks no denial. As the best documentary screening this year at Tribeca, Yodok should not be missed. It plays again tonight (4/27) and Thursday (4/30).

(Note: Jung Sung San's Yodok: the Musical, his cinematic record of the actual show, also debuts at Tribeca on Thursday.)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Here and There

Its love, Serbian style. But not for Robert, a New York jazz musician, who has hit rock-bottom. He is just the groom. Love, music, and furniture moving all collide for the distinctively coiffed tenor-playing protagonist in Darko Lungulov’s Here and There (trailer here), which screens during the Tribeca Film Festival.

Robert is not making it in New York. He has only cut one poor selling record in his career and he has not even touched his horn in months. When evicted from his apartment, he calls Branko, a cut-rate Serbian mover. When Robert explains his situation, Branko offers him the strangest wedding gig of his career: fly to Belgrade, marry his girlfriend, and legally bring her back to Branko in America. Having burned all his other bridges, Robert reluctantly agrees.

In Serbia, Robert stays with Branko’s divorced mother, the still attractive Olga, who only knows he is a friend of her son. While waiting for Branko to come through with his money, Robert discovers Belgrade is a much nicer city to be down and out in, despite many of the locals’ defensiveness regarding recent Serbia history. There is also no denying the charm of Branko’s mother, who even convinces Robert to start playing his tenor again. However, the nature of Robert’s arrangement with Branko looms over his tentative new romance.

As Robert, David Thornton gives a well-modulated performance, expressing the world-weariness and desperation of a flawed, but not utterly unlikable character. Thornton will be instantly recognizable to audiences for his many supporting performances in both film and television, including the recurring role of slimy defense attorney Lionel Granger on Law & Order: SVU. He is perfectly balanced by veteran Serbian actress Mirjana Karanovic, who brings a memorable warmth and dignity to the role of Olga.

Thornton’s real-life wife Cyndi Lauper also appears in a cameo role, as a friend fast loosing patience with the self-destructive Robert. She also contributes an original, but forgettable, song to the film. However, the rest of Dejan Pejovic’s soundtrack is quite effective, incorporating jazz, traditional Serbian Guča-style brass band music (featuring those sideways Balkan trumpets), and some lush romantic mood music.

Lungulov conveys a strong sense of both cities in Here and There. It is a truly rare romantic comedy that almost completely avoids any form of sentimentality. Yet, it still has a romantic heart buried in there somewhere. While nimbly avoiding the clichés of the genre, Here and There is still a very satisfying film. It screens again today (4/26), May 1st and May 2nd.

Tribeca ’09: Deadline (Short)

Shorts are often pigeonholed by the uncharitable as starter films with poor production values—sometimes not without justification. However, Joseph Bakhash’s Deadline (pop-up trailer here) has the look and feel of a full Hollywood studio production with a relatively big name cast to match. It also happens to be the darkest short in the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Wake-Up Call” short film program.

Seth has been exonerated, but mentally he is still behind bars, enduring the unending abuse from Hollis, a particularly vicious prison guard. As he orders a late dinner-early breakfast from a pretty waitress, he repeatedly flashes back to his recent prison ordeal. Then Hollis walks in, clearly a regular customer at the late-night diner.

It seems Seth is out for some closure, but things are not what they appear. Deadline follows in the Serlingesque tradition ending with a surprising dark revelation. Frankly, the twist ending might be best suited to shorter formats, if for no other reason because audiences simply do not have as much time to guess the big twist.

Norman Reedus, the indie star of Boondock Saints, is hauntingly intense as the damaged Seth. Chris Mulkey, recognizable as Madchen Amick’s abusive husband in Twin Peaks and an uncharacteristically sympathetic recurring role on the current season of 24, is a menacingly effective presence as Hollis. (Unfortunately, the guard’s sinister version of Christianity is a bit of a tired cliché.)

Deadline has a great look thanks to the striking use of light and darkness by cinematographer Luke Geissbuhler (whose credits include Borat and Helvetica). Bakhash keeps it tightly focused, steadily building the tension and leading viewers exactly where he intends. Well acted and impressively produced, Deadline is a dark but memorable short film. It screens again at Tribeca on April 29th, May 1st, and May 3rd. (Bakhash will be at all upcoming dates for Q&A and Reedus will attend the screening of the 29th.)

On-Stage: A Streetcar Named Desire

Is there any role that causes more trepidation than Stanley Kowalski? Nobody ever gets compared to Karl Malden in the Elia Kazan film, but every Kowalski is compared to Brando. Though frequently revived, Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Streetcar Named Desire remains an intimidating play to tackle, so director Adriana Baer and her cast deserve credit for pulling it off quite well in the their production at Columbia’s Schapiro Theatre.

Fresh off the famous streetcar, aging Southern Belle Blanche DuBois arrives unannounced at the small two room apartment of her sister Stella and brother-in-law, the infamous Stanley Kowalski. Though desperately trying to keep up appearances, something is clearly not right with her. Though the DuBois family plantation has been lost, Blanche maintains her aristocratic airs, which rankles Kowalski. Tensions between the three threaten to boil over as dark family secrets are revealed in that cramped apartment during a hot New Orleans summer.

Kowalski is a devilishly tricky role to step into, but Woertnedyke is certainly game. His Stanley is less menacing and more human, in-touch with the character’s blue collar roots. However, Linnea Wilson is a surprising standout as Stella Kowalski (formerly DuBois). Though Stella is frequently the overlooked member of the dysfunctional triangle, she has the third best line of the play: “there are things that happen, between a man and a woman, in the dark, that sorta make everything else seem unimportant.” Wilson really brings her to the fore, capturing the pain of her divided loyalties and insecurity.

Everyone attending Streetcar is waiting for two famous lines: Kowalski’s anguished cry of “Stella” and Blanche’s celebrated exiting line, which guarantees nobody ever leaves the play early. It really is cool to hear them live on-stage. Though Streetcar is a relatively long play, Baer’s direction keeps it moving at a surprisingly brisk pace. The classic New Orleans jazz piped in between the acts is also a nice touch, effectively evoking the locale. Altogether, it is quite an entertaining production that concludes its weekend run with a matinee performance this afternoon.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Fish Eyes

In truth, there is not one single China, but many. It is a vast country, incorporating many diverse ethnicities. However, in an economic sense there are two distinct Chinas, the go-go economic powerhouse we constantly hear of in the media, and the majority of the country eking out a hardscrabble existence. It is the latter that director Zheng Wei turns his camera on in the vérité-style drama Fish Eyes, now playing during the Tribeca Film Festival.

The Beijing Olympics are underway, but such pageantry is a world removed from Deshui’s harsh desert life. Women are not just scarce here—they are commodities. So when a silent mystery woman appears in their home, it certainly raises the eye-brows of his father. However, her vulnerability brings out the old man’s paternal instinct, perhaps compensating for his rather affectionless relationship with the coolly detached Deshui.

Apparently, Deshui feels the lure of the “new” China, but remains tethered by economic realities to his provincial home. He is constantly looking for shortcuts, falling in with dangerous underworld associates and taking advantage of people, including the woman now sharing his home. Tradition and family ties fail to resonate with him. The personal distance between Deshui and his father even manifests itself physically, when the son is visibly reluctant to stand close to the father for a photo.

Zheng Wei takes us to a lonely, desolate land, which he often films through shimmering mirrors to further distort the viewer’s perspective. Periodically, the radio announces further glorious news from the Beijing games, heightening the sense of displacement. The Olympics might as well be happening on Mars as far as the denizens of the desert are concerned.

Fish’s three leads hold up exceptionally well under the harsh examination of Zheng Wei’s unforgiving lens. Gu Xing-Hong, Shi Pei-Liang, and Shen Meng-Yao are quite remarkable as the taciturn trio, suggesting the emotional ambiguity and complexity of their “family” situation. They truly do not seem like actors, but actual individuals captured on film leading painfully real lives.

Zheng Wei is a patient director, deliberately pacing Fish to evoke the mood and atmosphere of this remote corner of the Chinese desert. Yet, the film never seems to drag, even during a morning festival screening. It is an uncompromisingly naturalistic vision of contemporary China and the desperation of those struggling with the realities of everyday provincial Chinese life. It screens during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 29th, 30th, and May 1st.

Tribeca ’09: The House of the Devil

Those kids in the 80’s were a mess. They were always listening to their Walkmen and getting killed by Satanic cults. At least that is the cheesy world of 1980’s horror movies Ti West faithfully recreates in The House of the Devil (trailer here), a Midnight selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Samantha is a hardworking college student, but she can’t be too bright. To earn money for her first apartment, she agrees to spend the night in an old dark house under highly dubious conditions. Hired in an odd manner by the Ulmans, an obviously weird couple, to “baby-sit” for their unseen shut-in mother, Samantha should have bolted as soon as she saw their well-secluded, ultra-gothic house. The fact that her employers have such a hot date purposely scheduled on the evening of a full lunar eclipse might also raise some suspicions, but Mr. Ulman is offering several hundred dollars for a few hours work.

How creepy are the Ulmans? Well, they are played by Tom Noonan, the “Tooth Fairy” serial killer in the original Hannibal Lecter film, Manhunter, and Mary Woronov, the cult star associated with the films of Andy Warhol and Paul Bartel. Would you stay in their house during the darkest night of the year?

Of course, Samantha starts poking into dark basements and the like, generating plenty of gotcha jolts, which is fine as far as it goes. Rather than tweak the conventions of the 80’s films that inspired it, House follows them slavishly, from the dubious “based on a true story” opening claim to the ambiguous ending. However, the retro looking titles really are perfect. Seeing them roll makes you expect to hear Crow and Tom Servo start to riff.

House benefits from the easy likability of its lead, Jocelin Donahue, who shows a young Karen Allen quality as Samantha, which is definitely a good thing. As expected, Noonan and Woronov are also appropriately sinister as the Ulmans. It is also cool to see Dee Wallace Stone (fondly remembered for E.T. and perhaps more applicably Critters, Cujo, and The Howling) essentially in a cameo role as the “Landlady.”

Ultimately, one wishes House had been more ambitious or satirical in its approach, but at least it has a distinct nostalgic appeal. It will bring back memories for many children of the 80’s of those cheap chills we watched on cable or at second-run theaters. It screens at Tribeca tonight, April 26th, 29th, and May 2nd.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart

It’s been a while since the banjo got some movie love, perhaps going back to Deliverance, which was probably a mixed blessing for the instrument’s image. Countering the banjo’s poor white Southern stereotype was one of the prime motivations of Béla Fleck’s musical expedition to Africa, that Sascha Paladino documents in Throw Down Your Heart (clip here), which opens today in New York.

Fleck, a fixture of No Depression magazine, is unquestionably the most important banjo artist on the scene today. The innovative bluegrass and sometime jazz musician has also inspired scores of innovative string bands through his example. So he has great credibility explaining the African roots of his instrument of choice and his mission to “bring the banjo back to Africa.” Actually, the instrument’s African origins may not be universally accepted, but why let a few stickler ethnomusicologists stand in the way of a good concept for a documentary?

The most important element of Throw is the music of course, and happily, it is often quite remarkable. In fact, it is downright shocking how good the sounds of the banjo and mbira blend together. Fleck also has some stirring collaborations with vocalists and we even hear him play an enormous marimba-like instrument.

In addition to being a very talented musician, Fleck seems like a reasonably nice guy in Throw. However, maybe he is the victim of editing, but his emotional responses sometimes seem out of proportion to his given situations, as when he is moved to tears when leaving on the second leg of his journey.

The music of Throw is indeed very cool, and it should introduce some amazing African musicians to American audiences, which is definitely a good thing. It will be a great DVD release, perfect for the Starbuck’s crowd. However, some audiences might find it insufficiently cinematic on the big screen. It opens today in New York at the IFC Film Center.

Tribeca ’09: Cropsey

Staten Island is the greenest, least urban borough of New York City. Residents tend to be more conservative and family-oriented than the rest of the City, which is why the borough was shocked by a rash of child abductions in the 1980’s. Staten Islanders had long told cautionary tales about Cropsey, an escaped mental patient at-large in the woods, but when confronted with the case of Andre Rand, the urban legend suddenly became all too real. Staten Islanders Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio examine the folklore and strange factual circumstances surrounding the Rand case in Cropsey (trailer here), screening as part of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival’s Midnight film series.

Many cases of missing children have been linked to Rand, but as the film opens, he had only been convicted of the abduction of Jennifer Schweiger. However, with the discovery of new evidence, the Staten Island D.A. filed charges against Rand for an earlier kidnapping. While the trial was surely dramatic, Zeman and Brancaccio’s cameras were barred by the court. Still, even without courtroom footage, the directors had a fair amount of intriguing source material, including: cooperation from the original investigating officers, eerie backdrops, unsettling rumors of cult activity, and a classic archetypal boogieman.

The shadow of the notorious Willowbrook Mental Institution, which had been shutdown after its abusive conditions were exposed by an ambitious local muckraker named Geraldo Rivera, looms over the Rand case. While the legendary Cropsey was often an escaped mental patient, Rand had worked as an orderly at Willowbrook in the late 1960’s. At the time of the abductions, he lived a bizarre existence, camping out in abandoned houses in the wooded Greenbelt near the decaying Willowbrook building. Known as the “Pied Piper,” he operated as a poor man’s Mansion Family cult leader.

Though the filmmakers expend a great deal of fruitless energy trying to get an interview with Rand, he is clearly just toying with them. Frankly, it is just as well. Serial killers are always boring personalities. It is the mysteries surrounding their cases that are interesting, and Zeman and Brancaccio certainly reveal a bizarre milieu in the “Forgotten Borough.” It seems odd that so much suspected cult activity was afoot in Staten Island, but the wild woods of the Greenbelt were clearly conducive to strange nocturnal activity.

While there are some entertaining chills in Cropsey, it is ultimately a tragic film. After all, many of Rand’s presumed victims have yet to be found, and the convicted predator still refuses to cooperate in their recovery. He is simply an evil man, whom the filmmaker wisely refrain from glamorizing. It screens at Tribeca on April 25th, 26th, 28th, and May 2nd.

Tribeca ’09: Lost Son of Havana

Luis Tiant can do the impossible—he can get fans of both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox to agree on something. While loved and respected by Yankee fans for his two years in pinstripes, Tiant’s glory years were undeniably spent pitching for the Bosox. During his Boston stint, Tiant did everything humanly possible to end their World Series frustrations. Yet, more painful for Tiant than the team’s championship draught was his forty-six year exile from his native Cuba. His storied career and dramatic homecoming are now documented in Jonathan Hock’s Lost Son of Havana (trailer here), which premiered last night at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Baseball is a national obsession in Cuba and it was the Tiant family business. At one time, Luis “Lefty” Tiant, Sr. had been a star pitcher for the Negro League’s New York Cubans as well as the Cuban professional league, but his eventual obscurity left him temporarily disillusioned with the game. Then he witnessed his son’s raw talent. Unfortunately, Tiant, Jr. got called to the Major Leagues just as Castro closed his iron fist around the island nation, resulting in the pitcher’s long separation from friends and family.

To Hock’s credit, he seems to harbor no illusions about the nature of Castro’s regime. After all, he and Tiant had a difficult time getting the authorities to authorize their entry permits. They were travelling under the auspices of an American amateur baseball team playing a “good will” game with their Cuban counterparts. As a condition of approval, the small crew of Lost was required to play in the match, essentially guaranteeing a lop-sided American loss, which they note, may well have been the point. Though the political situation is largely unaddressed, a corner of a Havana park dedicated to animated baseball discussions is tellingly described as the probably the only place where free speech exists in Cuba.

In between scenes of Tiant’s tearful reunions with loved ones, Hock details the highlights of his eventful years in the Majors. While showing early promise, an arm injury nearly ended his career. However, the dominating fastball thrower was able to reinvent himself as a crafty pitcher, much as his father has been. Time and again, Tiant was written off, but he kept clawing his way back into the league. His is a career with many highlights, but baseball analyst Peter Gammons convincingly argues Tiant’s game four victory in the 1975 World Series was his finest moment, won on pure guts alone. To use a sports cliché (and this is certainly the time for it), as a player, Tiant had heart.

Lost is a well-crafted documentary, featuring a peppy, Cuban-inspired soundtrack by Robert Miller. The talking head segments are a cut above average, featuring warm reminiscences by Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk that Boston fans should particularly enjoy. It also has some big names attached to it, including its producers, the Farrelly Brothers of Something About Mary fame, and narrator Chris Cooper. Tiant is star though, and he always seems quite likable and engaging throughout the film. It is a compelling story that should have broader appeal than most sports-related documentaries. It screens again during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27th, April 30th, and May 2nd.

Tribeca ’09: Only When I Dance

Brazil’s distinctive sounds, including sambas, choros, bossas, or MPB, have seduced scores of listeners. However, aside from a bit of licensed Jorge Ben, the music heard in a new Brazilian documentary is entirely European classical music. Screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, Beadie Finzi’s Only When I Dance (trailer here) chronicles the struggles of two young ballet dancers living in the favelas of Rio.

Their circumstances are too mean and their skin is too dark to be accepted by the snobbish Brazilian ballet companies. The only road to a successful dance career for Irlan and Isabela runs through the international dance competitions. If they place highly, they can win an opportunity tto study abroad, and even sign on with a foreign dance company. However, competition will be fierce.

Dance is defined by sacrifice—particularly that of Irlan and Isabela’s poor but loving parents. A ballet career looks like a ridiculous long-shot for their children, but there do not seem to be a lot of other prospects in Rio’s favelas. Fortunately, they also have a no-nonsense coach to keep them focused.

Finzi’s approach brings to mind Hoop Dreams, giving nearly as much time to the parents as she allots to the young dancers. Since it documents real life, it does not conclude with storybook endings for all involved. Refreshingly though, Finzi displays confidence in her subjects, showing their complete competitive performances (usually clocking in around two minutes) unedited. Indeed, these are some of the strongest scenes of the film. Especially memorable is Irlan’s decision to perform the avant-garde “Nijinsky” after making the first round of cuts in a Swiss competition. It is a bold choice, but his performance is remarkably powerful, yet we have to wonder if will prove too nontraditional for the judges’ tastes.

It is impossible not to root for these young people when watching Dance. They are extremely hard-working and absolutely committed. Without a doubt, they are good kids, but in terms of personality, they are kind of boring. Like Olympic gymnasts and figure-skaters, all they know is training.

Dance is completely earnest and achingly well-intentioned. To its credit, it lets the audience see first-hand the gifts of its young subjects, rather than simply relying on others to characterize their performances. Though admirable in their seriousness, the young protagonists unfortunately come across a bit one-dimensional. Still, those with a passion for dance, or an interest in Brazilian culture, will find it a fascinating documentary. It screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26th, 27th, 30th, and May 2nd.

Greek Cinema: A Touch of Spice

It is a cliché to say you can’t go home again, but for Greeks expelled from Turkey in 1964, it is undoubtedly a trickier proposition. Coming back to Istanbul proves particularly painful for Fanis Iakovides, the astronomer protagonist of Tassos Boulmetis’s sweeping culinary family drama A Touch of Spice (trailer here), which opens theatrically in New York today.

Iakovides knows about two things, cooking and astronomy, because of seeds sown by his grandfather Vassilis during his formative years. Yet he has not seen his grandfather, a respected Turkish citizen, since the rest of the family was forced to leave the country. Every time Vassilis plans to visit Greece, some pretext crops up to cancel his trip. Just when Iakovides expects his grandfather will finally arrive in Greece, word comes that the old man has been hospitalized. Now it is the astronomer who will make a trip he has long avoided, back to Istanbul.

Spice follows in the tradition of food-as-metaphor films, some of which have been very good (Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman) and some not so great (Chocolat). In this case, each segment of Boulmetis’s film corresponds to the course of a meal. During “appetizers” we see the family’s life in Turkey before the expulsion. “Main Course” corresponds to the tumultuous events of the mid-1960’s, both for the transplanted Iakovides and the country of Greece. During “Desert,” Fanis the astronomer finally makes his bittersweet homecoming.

In truth, the food motifs are sometimes a bit overdone, as when great meaning is invested in the fact that the word “astronomy” is contained in the term “gastronomy.” However, the story of Fanis Iakovides is compelling enough to work with a few overcooked side-dishes.

The heart of the film is the relationship between Iakovides and his lost childhood love Saime. Spice shows how outside events can disrupt the lives of average people, repeatedly sabotaging their hopes for romance. George Corraface, the French-born Greek actor perhaps best known to American audiences for the title role in 1992’s Christopher Columbus, is excellent as the adult Fanis. As Saime, Basak Köklükaya displays a genuine warmth and grace that makes his enduring love quite believable. They show legitimate screen chemistry in their brief scenes together and frustratingly look like a perfect couple, which is why their story works so well in Spice.

At its best, Spice is a moving portrait of regret, precipitated by events well beyond anyone’s control. The food looks great, but the central love story and the sensitive performances of Corraface and Köklükaya are the real meat and potatoes of the film. It opens today in New York at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Newsmakers

Russians are well accustomed to corrupt ineffectual public officials. It is after all, the home of Gogol’s Inspector General. So it is easy to see how Russian filmmakers could relate to Breaking News, Johnnie To’s Hong Kong action film about police bureaucrats more concerned with public relations than public safety. Although American filmmakers are also remaking To’s film, Swedish-born director Anders Banke has beaten them to the punch with the Russian-Swedish co-production Newsmakers (trailer here), which will screen during the Tribeca Film Festival as part of their Midnight film section.

Major Smirnov is very good at catching bad guys. Following orders and respecting authority? Not so much. As Newsmakers opens, his team has a dangerous gang of armed robbers staked-out. Unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly out-gunned by the heavily armed criminals, resulting in the death of several officers, including a close friend of Smirnov. The operation turns into a spectacular PR debacle for the department when a patrolman is caught on camera sniveling in fear.

Katya thinks she has the answer. While she carries herself more like a Hollywood power publicist, she is the PR director for the police force, holding the rank of captain, largely it is suspected, through nepotism. Her plan is to turn the capture of the gang into a reality show designed to rebuild confidence in the police. Given her careful stage-managing, she needs cops who take direction well, which obviously eliminates Smirnov from the picture.

Of course, the Russian cop-on-the-edge never follows orders. He and his surviving team-members track the gang to an apartment building and refuse to leave when the PR officer orders them to stand down. As her Special Forces sweep the building, they spook an entirely separate criminal team—a crafty assassin and his uptight apprentice. Suddenly, the live PR stunt turns into a hostage crisis, but at least it generates blockbuster ratings.

Newsmakers might have a veneer of topical satire, but it is really a vehicle for cops and robbers to shoot at each other. Happily, those high-octane scenes (particularly the opening shoot-out) offer plenty of meathead satisfaction. Banke choreographs action sequences quite well and keeps the tension surprisingly high, considering how unsympathetic most of the hostages and senior officers come across.

Andrei Merzlikin brings an effective world-weariness to Smirnov, the loose canon. American art-house audiences might also recognize the flinty Sergey Garmash, recently seen as the anti-Semitic juror in 12, perfectly cast as the stone-cold unnamed veteran assassin. Indeed, the entire cast is reasonably solid, but Newsmakers is much more about shooting than emoting.

Newsmakers might not be high art, but it has entertaining attitude and style. Banke credibly combines the Hong Kong action aesthetic with Russian cynicism in a tough-minded, energetic shoot-out. It screens at Tribeca on April 24th, 26th, 30th, and May 1st.

Tribeca ’09: The Fish Child

A judge tells his young maid Ailin she is part of the family, but is it a blessing or a burden to be welcomed into his thoroughly dysfunctional family? What starts as a story of forbidden love becomes a tale of murder and corruption in Argentine director Lucia Puenzo’s The Fish Child (trailer here), a dark lesbian-themed film which screens during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

For years, his daughter Lala and Ailin have been in love, dreaming of running away together to the maid’s native Paraguay, but she has also attracted the attentions of the less than upstanding judge. Rumored to be involved with crooked politicians, the judge is writing his memoirs, to the alarm of many powerful people. Despite his more pressing concerns, he is still tempted by the presence of Ailin, much to Lala’s concern. However, just as the two young women are poised to make their getaway, a night of madness threatens to separate them forever.

A confused Lala eventually finds herself alone in Ailin’s Paraguayan village. There she learns Ailin had secrets she never revealed that gave special significance to the legend of the Fish Child, a mythical being said to live at the bottom of Lake Ypoá, which she often told her young lover.

Based on Puenzo’s own novel, Fish is a deliberately murky film noir that keeps the audience off-balance from start to finish. Its view of humanity is starkly jaundiced, allowing little sympathy even for the protagonist lovers. While their characters might lack in likability, the cast of Fish is quite strong. Inés Efron is very compelling as the desperately love-struck Lala, conveying both a child-like innocence and a disturbing propensity for destructive behavior. Pep Munné gives an equally unsettling performance as the judge, convincingly portraying his reassuring family man facade, while hinting at the less savory instincts which lurk beneath.

Fish is most definitely not for everyone. While never gratuitously explicit, it is most certainly adult in its sensibilities, painting an uncompromisingly naturalistic portrait of humanity. However, it is a surprisingly powerful drama that evolves into an effective film noir thriller. It screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27th, 28th, 29th and May 2nd.

Tribeca ’09: Fear Me Not

Kristian Levring was an early adopter of the Danish Dogme95 film movement, which established rigid guidelines for strict realism and aesthetic purity, such as mandating hand-held cameras, requiring natural unadulterated lighting, and expressly prohibiting genre films. Evidently, Levring has moved on. His latest film, Fear Me Not, screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a slickly produced psychological thriller that clearly violates many Dogme precepts.

Something is wrong with Mikael. He has taken a leave of absence for reasons undisclosed. His wife Sigrid is ready for him to get back out there, but he is in no hurry. Hearing his brother-in-law will be testing a new ant-depressant, Mikael volunteers for the study. Popping the new happy pills seems to work wonders for his self-esteem, according to the record he keeps in his diary (which the audience hears through voiceovers, in a smoking gun violation of the Dogme canon).

Unfortunately, the growth of Mikael’s sense of self comes at the expense of other parts of his psyche—notably conscience and empathy. When melee breaks out among the test subjects in the pharmaceutical company’s waiting room, the trial is called off and Mikael is instructed to destroy his remaining stock, which of course he does not do. Those pills are just too good.

Deciding his admittedly materialistic wife is an obstacle to his mental blossoming, Mikael viciously manipulates her into a state of collapse. Slowly but surely, Mikael has evolved into a sociopath. However, despite its initial premise, Fear should not be dismissed as a clichéd demonization of the pharmaceutical industry. The truth is actually far deeper and more unsettling than a standard Hollywood morality tale.

Ulrich Thomsen, familiar to art-house audiences as the emotionally frozen pianist in Christoffer Boe’s Allegro and the traumatized brother in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, plays Mikael, another disturbed Dane. Thomsen is astutely understated in Fear, making his transformation is a subtle process and giving his horrific acts a cool detachment that is creepily effective. Young actress Emma Sehsted Høeg is also quite impressive as Mikael’s pre-teen daughter Selma, in a smart, realistic performance that never seems precocious.

Despite its glossy look, Levring’s Dogme roots are still traceable in Fear. Rather than take viewers on a white-knuckle ride, he would rather transport them to a very dark place and leave them there. The result is an intelligent but very dark spin on the psycho-in-the-family thriller. It screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25th, 26th, and 28th.

Tribeca ’09: About Elly

It is not easy being an Iranian filmmaker. Burdened with onerous Islamist restrictions, like the prohibition against showing physical contact between couples and the requirement women always be garbed in traditional head scarves, many directors have concentrated on stories told from a child’s perspective. Given such regulations, Asghar Farhadi’s latest film is particularly notable, portraying the interactions of two married couples and their friends on a disastrous beach holiday. Screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Farhadi’s About Elly, gives audiences a peak at the kind of cinema Iran has largely forgone.

When her husband’s friend Ahmad returns to Iran for a visit, Sepideh is determined to fix him up with her children’s school teacher, Elly during a holiday weekend. Though the reluctant Elly only agrees to stay for a night, Sepideh plays hardball as a matchmaker, hiding her purse to keep her at the beach house the next day. While threatening to walk home anyway, Elly is left to watch the children playing in the surf. Suddenly, the sea turns stormy, nearly washing away one of the children. After rescuing him, the vacationers realize Elly is missing. Was she lost to the ocean’s undertow or did she negligently slip away, leaving the children unattended?

At this point, the holiday turns decidedly ugly, as each action the group takes seems to only make matters worse. Sepideh and her friends come to realize how little they really know about Elly when faced with the grim prospect of notifying her family. In fact, they do not even know her full name. What they start to discover radically alters their perception of the possibly late school teacher, and is quite revealing of Iranian attitudes towards women in general.

For the record, the head scarves stay on throughout the film, even when Sepideh dives into the water in search of Elly. However, there is some physical contact between the sexes, but it is hardly romantic. Blaming her manipulations for the tragic turn of events, Sepideh’s husband begins beating her until he is restrained by another woman.

Farhadi creates a tense, uncomfortable atmosphere that is completely believable, while his cast projects an unaffected naturalness that heightens the film’s realism. Despite some substantial cultural differences, Elly is a logically constructed cautionary tale of good intentions gone seriously wrong. A cold, compelling film, it hints at the kind of cinema we might see if Iranian filmmakers had greater freedom to depict more intimate drama. It screens at Tribeca on April 26th, 27th, 29th and May 2nd.