Friday, April 30, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Last Play at Shea

Shea Stadium was old and creaky, but according to former Mets, they used to feel a mystique playing there that gave them a legitimate home field advantage. So, how’s that new Citi Field working out so far? To be fair, the team’s early years at Shea were an exercise in abject futility, but then in 1969 everything suddenly changed. In addition to sports history, a fair amount of music history happened there too, like a 1965 concert featuring young band from Liverpool. Fittingly though, it was Long Island’s native son Billy Joel who closed the stadium with a post-game concert that is lovingly documented in Paul Crowder’s Last Play at Shea, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Partly a Behind the Music-like profile of Joel, partly a chronicle of the Mets and the stadium in which they played, with a dash of borough history thrown in for context, Shea is a paean to all things Queens. Built by Robert Moses to be a modern day equivalent of the Roman Coliseum, aesthetically Shea fell fall short. The team William Shea found to inhabit it was also an initial disaster, but fans came anyway.

As a Mets fan, the Levittown raised Joel clearly understood the significance of playing Shea’s final gig. The film revisits the ups and downs of his long career, interviewing many of his close associates. Based on her segments, Joel clearly still seems to be on good terms with his ex-wife, Christy Brinkley which speaks well of both. However, wife #1 and her brother, the ex-manager who allegedly robbed him blind, are conspicuously absent. Overall, one definitely gets an appreciation of his longevity and resiliency in Shea. His instincts for structuring the set also seem right-on-target, starting with a respectful, on key rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Shea is hardly innovative filmmaking, but as nostalgia it is totally effective and surprisingly entertaining. A flood of memories will come back to Mets fans watching Crowder’s film, including the black cat incident, the infamous Buckner error, and their recent painful late season collapses. However, the one glaring omission are the J-E-T-S, who played their most celebrated seasons at Shea before leaving for the Meadowlands.

As a concert film, Shea is also pretty solid, especially for Billy Joel fans. There are also several very cool musical guest artists, including Tony Bennett, joining him for a duet performance of “New York State of Mind.” Frankly, you have to give Joel credit for still bringing the energy, obviously connecting with the enormous audience on a personal level.

A thoroughly entertaining concert documentary, sports history, and an elegy to glory days gone by, Shea should be a real sleeper hit at Tribeca. Even Yankee fans from Manhattan have been charmed by it. A great New York doc, it screens during the festival today (4/30) and tomorrow (5/1).

Grumpy Old School New York: The Good Heart

Jacques owns one of those seedy old man bars that you have probably been too intimidated to enter. Those instincts were not wrong. Jacques chases out “walk-in’s” with ill-concealed contempt. As a mean old curmudgeon, he does not have anyone to inherit his dive. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking for the irascible tavern-keeper in Icelandic director Dagur Kári’s English language indie drama, The Good Heart (trailer here), which opens in New York today.

On heart attack number five and counting, Jacques’s ticker is basically held together by duct tape and spite. While he is a misogynistic misanthrope, he takes an odd liking to the suicidal homeless man sharing his room. Before the gentle Lucas realizes it, he finds himself in Jacques’s eccentric management trainee program, learning how to be surly barkeep from the master. Then he breaks Jacques’s one cardinal rule, sheltering the deeply distressed April, a beautiful woman of vaguely European origins.

Despite the formulaic fusion of comedy and drama, Heart is one of the better indie films of recent vintage. Its dark, grimy atmosphere is quite evocative, perhaps reflecting the severe Nordic sensibilities of the director. In a way, it is a valentine to old school Old New York. Unfortunately the third act culminates in a bit of a groaner, but up until that point, Heart is a sharply drawn drama with some memorably pointed dialogue (the film’s best bit though is given away in the trailer).

Funny and infuriating in equal measure, Brian Cox always hits the perfect pitch as Jacques. Frankly, he is the movie. Watching him snarl and putter around the bar might not sound like ambitious filmmaking, but it is entertaining. While Paul Dano is a bit wooden as the meek Lucas, the luminous Isild Le Besco is quite haunting as the waifish April, adding an interesting dimension to the film.

Unlike so many indie films, Heart has a bit of an edge and a fresh protagonist. Ultimately, when
Kári finally lets it slide into sentimentality, it loses its way. Until that point, it has real merit as a tart-tongued character-driven comedy-drama. Modest but engaging, Heart opens today (4/30) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Tribeca ’10: Dream Home

Maybe slasher pictures are not the best source for economic stats, but according to a Cinemania selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Hong Kong’s cost of living has gone up fifteen percent since the Chinese handover, but income has only increased by a miserly one percent. That makes Hong Kong’s housing market even more prohibitively expensive than that of rent-control distorted Manhattan. It also leads to a series of spectacularly grisly murders in Pang Ho-Cheung’s Dream Home (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Cheng Lai-sheung would kill for an apartment with a waterfront view—seriously. She makes decent money as a telemarketer for a “predatory lender,” but not enough for the flat of her dreams. In a series of flashbacks, we come to understand how the traumatic events of her childhood created this obsessive need for her just-so home. After a great deal of heartache and a bit of cold-blooded sacrifice, Cheng finally has her dream apartment within her reach, only to have the sellers back out at the last minute, intending to hold out for a better office. Of course, there is nothing like a rash of killings in the building to drive down the asking price of units.

Dream’s frequent flashbacks and time-shifts can be quite confusing. However, the centerpiece of the film is a big, gory, extraordinarily messy sequence of killings that should have something to offend everyone. There is voluminous blood, nudity, and people slip-sliding through entrails. However, by genre standards, it is all quite impressively choreographed.

A more ambitious production than its splatter patterns would suggest, Dream is visually striking thanks to the stylish work of cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, a frequent collaborator with Chinese art-house auteur Jia Zhangke. A popular Hong Kong actress, Josie Ho’s portrayal of Cheng’s descent into madness is also chillingly impressive. Indeed, Pang’s patience establishing character and the setting the scene for the inevitable horror show also sets it apart from inferior genre hack-work. Yet, there is no getting around its blood and guts. Dream most definitely is what it is.

As a high-end gore-fest, Dream will definitely appeal to a particular die-hard audience. You know who you are. It screens again tonight (4/30) during the Tribeca Film festival.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tribeca ’10: The Killer Inside Me

Born in Oklahoma when it was still a territory, Jim Thompson perfected the hardboiled, hardscrabble small town crime novel, but would only be recognized as a master after his death. His critical renaissance was accelerated by a series of French and Hollywood film adaptations of his dark stories, the most notable being Stephen Frears’s The Grifters. Already generating plenty of controversy following its reception at Sundance and the Berlinale, the latest Thompson movie treatment, Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me is currently screening as a selection of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford is supposedly from a good family, but his upbringing has mentally twisted him, particularly with respects to his relationships with women. When sent to mildly roust Joyce Lakeland, a working girl plying her trade just outside city limits, his dark inner urges are suddenly uncorked. Although it seems creepy, Lakeland falls for Ford, despite his rough treatment. Though his attraction borders on obsession, Ford seems to know their relationship is unsustainable, so when he has the opportunity, he plots to kill her and the son of the town’s wealthy developer, with whom he holds a grudge.

Of course, killing just begets more killing, but Ford doesn’t seem to mind much. He is a classic snake-charming sociopath, but as the film’s narrator and POV character, his omnipresence is a double-edged sword throughout Killer. It is compelling to get inside his head, but the cumulative effect of his violent nihilism eventually becomes tiring.

Evidently quite faithful to the source novel, Killer nicely evokes the harsh desolation of the West Texas setting to heighten the noir atmosphere. Winterbottom shows a strong affinity for the one-terrible-thing-after-another pacing of Thompson’s hard-edged noir. However, his lurid fascination with Ford’s violent hang-ups is more than a bit excessive.

Casey Affleck is perfectly cast, outwardly looking the picture of “aw-shucks” rectitude, but convincingly reveling in Ford’s narcissism and thuggery. Somewhat playing against type as well, Jessica Alba does her best with Lakeland’s almost indefensible choices, while Kate Hudson is surprisingly credible as Amy Stanton, Ford’s respectable long-term girlfriend. Elias Koteas and Bill Pullman also supply some genre appropriate color to the proceedings in small but memorable supporting turns.

There is just a bit too much in Killer. As a general rule, suggestion is always more effective than illustration on the big screen, but Winterbottom leaves little to the imagination. A well crafted but grueling film noir, Killer screens again today (4/29) and Friday (4/30).

Michael Caine is Harry Brown

There is no genre more misunderstood than the vigilante movie. While the more exploitative can be pretty sadistic, the best are truly characters studies of average people overwhelmed by grief and injustice. They are not cartoonish figures, but people you might know. Their actions stand as an indictment of a society and a criminal justice system that failed to live up to its half of the social contract. The eponymous widower Harry Brown is such a character, poignantly brought to life by Sir Michael Caine in Daniel Barber’s film (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

A former Royal Marine stationed in Northern Ireland, Harry Brown made a conscious decision to renounce violence when he married his wife. Living in a crime-ridden “estate” (housing project) and stoically facing his wife’s agonizingly slow but imminent demise, Brown has already buried his only child (for reasons never disclosed). He will soon become the most dangerous kind of person: a man with nothing left to lose. Yet he has no murder in his heart.

Brown’s first brush with vigilantism is an undeniably clear cut case of self-defense. While it does start him thinking, he tries to give his targets an “out,” but rather than taking it, they force his hand through their own recklessness and moral bankruptcy. Indeed, as exemplified by Brown, movie vigilantes are the peculiar right-wing variant of literary naturalism, wherein common men are forced by circumstances outside their control to take justice into their own hands.

As Brown, Caine gives a performance that would be a fitting summation of his prolific film career. Not simply a world-weary prophet bemoaning the precipitous decline of civilized society or an old school Eastwoodesque action hero of advanced years, his Harry Brown is a fully-dimensional, fragile human being. Indeed, it is probably one of the most moving screen performances of the year, but many critics simply will not be able to get past the occasional bit of gun play.

Stripping away extraneous detail, Barber focuses like a laser on Brown’s fears and anguish. It is a moody, gritty film more closely akin to the brooding original Death Wish film than its far bloodier and inferior successors. Capturing the oppressive seediness of the estate, Brown has a visceral sense of place. However, for all the social pathologies it catalogues, the film depicts a cruel nihilism that is impossible to explain away or ignore.

Eventually, Harry Brown should be recognized as a minor classic in the much-maligned vigilante genre and might also come to be considered Caine’s definitive film role. It is a film of surprising sensitivity and undeniable immediacy. Highly recommended, it opens tomorrow at the Angelika Film Center and the AMC Empire 25.

Tribeca ’10: Earth Made of Glass

Only the second country to join the Commonwealth that was not a former British territory, Rwanda has also changed its official language from French to English. This de-Francophonization of the former Belgian colony was not an accident. Information has recently come to light suggesting France’s partial culpability in the 1994 genocide, causing a major rift between the nations. In lieu of justice, the search for truth takes on paramount importance for two very different Rwandans in Deborah Scranton’s documentary Earth Made of Glass (trailer here), which premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Glass’s title is both obscure and inapt. It refers to the Emerson quote: “Commit a crime and the Earth is made of glass.” However, under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has foregone formal criminal prosecutions of the Hutu genocide of the minority Tutsis. Instead, survivors like Jean Pierre Sagahutu must console themselves with the truth, as determined by informal community-based courts. Hardly a fugitive scrambling to hide on an Earth of glass, the man who murdered Sagahutu’s father lives openly without fear of legal repercussions.

Perhaps as a result of international guilt, Kigali is Africa’s reining boom town, swelling with foreign investment. It has also been extraordinarily stable, considering its recent history. In large measure, this is due to Kagame’s policies, which have discouraged retribution and banned ethnic identification on government documents. Tellingly, both Kagame and Sagahutu call themselves Rwandan instead of Tutsi, proclaiming their national identity rather than asserting a sense of ethnic aggreivement.

The one area of turbulence for the Kagame government has been its foreign relations with France. Shortly after Kagame released documents outlining the collusion of Mitterand’s Socialist government with the former ruling Hutus leading up to and during the genocide, France arrested top Kagame aide Rose Kabuye on dubious terrorism charges, while on a formal state visit.

Glass is practically two movies shoehorned into one, but they are both very compelling, so it works out quite well regardless. The segments with Kagame are truly eye-opening, but the exact nature of the French involvement should have been more clearly detailed. However, he comes across as a genuinely humane and forward-thinking leader. It is Sagahutu’s story though, that packs the emotional punch, as he seeks closure when finally confronting his father’s killer face-to-face.

Scranton captures every intimate detail of Sagahutu’s difficult homecoming, including the evil banality of the likely murderer. She also relies on many interview sequences with him and Kagame, filmed with vivid clarity by cinematographer P.H. O’Brien against vibrant white backgrounds. As a result, what could have been rather straightforward talking-head segments lend the film a surprisingly interesting visual aesthetic.

Earth Made of Glass is a terrible title, but it is a great film. While there have been several well received documentaries on the 1994 genocide, Scranton finds fresh material to mine. Heartfelt and informative, it is one of the best documentaries at Tribeca this year. It screens again Friday (4/30) and Saturday (5/1).

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tribeca ’10: My Brothers

With three films in the festival, Don Wycherley must be Mr. Tribeca 2010. Evidently, he appeared as a henchman in Neil Jordan’s Ondine and took a more memorable comedic turn as a slightly demented policeman in John and Kieran Carney’s Zonad. Yet, it is his relatively small but pivotal role as the dying father in Paul Fraser’s My Brothers that will leave the strongest impression of the actor during the Tribeca Film Festival.

Noel’s father is dying. There is nothing to be done, except keeping him comfortable during his agonizing decline. However, when the beloved watch his father won in an arcade game is destroyed through his actions in a humiliating chain of events, Noel sets off to the resort village to replace it. Hoping to sneak out with his employers decrepit van, Noel has to take along his two younger brothers, in order to ensure their silence.

What follows must be the most tragic, mournful road movie you would ever hope to see. As played by Timmy Creed, Noel is a genuinely earnest and responsible a young man. In contrast, his younger brothers, Paudie and Scwally, are not simply immature. They are aggressively irritating throughout the film. However, Wycherley is quite touching as his Da, seen either in impressionistic flashbacks, or ravaged by feverish pain as the inevitable approaches.

Despite the occasional slapstick element, Brothers is as far from a quirky feel-good comedy as a film can get. It evens throws in an encounter with a sexual predator late in the film, just to make sure the audience is suitably depressed for the expected heartbreak to come. Good times all around.

Creed’s likable screen presence has an unassuming power that mercifully gives the audience something to grab onto. Paul Courtney and TJ Griffin are at least convincingly bratty as his brothers, but a little of them goes an awful long way. Regardless, Fraser’s unremittingly dour mood gets to be a bit much.

Achingly well intentioned, Brothers features a star making turn from newcomer Creed and impressively evocative work from Wycherley (the new Colm Meaney, appearing in nearly every prospective Irish cinematic import) in a role almost with dialogue per se. Yet the dreariness and predictability of its story are serious drawbacks. It screens again this Friday (4/30) during the Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca ’10: Record (Short)

Consider this review a 45 among LPs. While only five minutes, Dylan Reibling’s short short Record deserves a formal recommendation, but a detailed discussion of its merits would inevitably give the game away for those who screen it during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Three late middle-aged Russian émigrés happen by an outdoor record mart. The proprietor decides to spin an old Russian LP for their benefit. However, Reibling cleverly plays with the audience’s expectations from a hipster short film presumably set in Brooklyn or the lower Eastside.

Record is a cool little film made possible by the perfectly calibrated performances of the Russian gentlemen. It is definitely nice to see a representation of vinyl culture tempered with a realistic perspective on life. It screens as part of the Identity Theft block of shorts today (4/28), Saturday (5/1), and Sunday (5/2).

Chekhov’s The Duel

Russians have always had issues with the Caucuses. During Anton Chekhov’s day, they were the sleepy backwater provinces of the Russian Empire, where careers went to die. Despite the beautiful natural scenery, a group of Russians are rather embarrassed to find themselves on the Black Sea. Yet they mostly try to keep up appearances in Georgian-born Israeli director Dover Kosashvili’s English language adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, which opens today in New York.

Nadyezhda Fyodorovna is a scandalous woman. She left her husband to live in sin with her lover, Ivan Andreitch Laevsky, a petty government official and general lay-about. Unfortunately, having grown bored with the romantically inclined Nadya, Laevsky hopes to drop her, despite the ruinous position that would leave her in.

The rakish Laevsky has lured most of the men in town into his hard-drinking, card playing circle, but the zoologist Von Koren is an exception. He has nothing but contempt for Laevsky and is not shy is saying so. As the title clearly foreshadows, things will definitely come to a head between the two men.

Frequently described as the Chekhov story most like his plays, “The Duel” was also his longest. It features large cast of characters trying to maintain their social status in what was essentially the lint-collecting navel of late Czarist Russia. Despite its relative length, its constitution is still very much the stuff of short fiction, relying more on setting and character than one-thing-after-another plotting. Though not exactly O. Henry, Chekhov also pulls an ironic switch on how his characters ultimately conduct themselves that Kosashvili deftly handles in turn.

Fiona Glascott is quietly compelling and ultimately quite fearless in a surprisingly frank performance. Andrew Scott nails indolence and also suggests deeper human frailty as Laevsky. However, perhaps the greatest standout is Tobias Menzies as the severe Von Koren, convincingly steadfast, yet so wrong in his rightness.

Duel follows squarely in the Merchant-Ivory tradition of elegant literary adaptation, but with a fair bit of female nudity thrown in for added appeal. Paul Sarossy’s radiant cinematography makes the Croatian stand-in for the Caucasian coastline gleam with beauty. The costumes and sets are equally elegant, evoking the graceful idleness of a pre-Revolutionary, pre-industrial time gone by.

An undeniably handsome production, Duel is in fact much like James Ivory’s City of Your Final Destination, in that both are mature films that lull viewers with their seductive rhythms rather than dazzling them with dramatic pyrotechnics. A small but memorable film, it opens today (4/28) at the Film Forum.

Tribeca ’10: Please Give

More gentrified than edgy, affluent Manhattan neighborhoods like the Upper Westside and the Village proper remain bastions of kneejerk liberalism. Reflecting the insular world view of its subjects, Nicole Holofcener’s mild satire, Please Give (trailer here), screens today as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, just ahead of its imminent Friday opening in New York.

Kate and Alex have purchased the apartment of their elderly neighbor, the thoroughly unpleasant Andra. As soon as she dies, they can start remodeling and expanding into her space. If truth be told, they can hardly wait for the mean old lady to go, but they pretend otherwise to keep up appearances.

To assuage their guilt, they try to befriend Andra and her two granddaughters, the mousy Rebecca and the superficial Mary. The results are definitely mixed. Andra is as caustic as ever, but for truly inexplicable reasons, Alex starts cheating on Kate with the much younger Mary, who would be attractive if it were not for her jaundiced looking fake tan.

Give is supposed to be a cutting statement on guilt. As vintage furniture dealers, Kate and Alex make their livings scoring bargains from the recently bereaved. To compensate, she ostentatiously gives to the panhandlers in her neighborhood. Yet, whenever she tries her hand at legitimate volunteer work, she chickens out, because old people are creepy and the intellectually disabled make her uncomfortable. Give presents this as one of life’s ironies, whereas most Americans, who are natural volunteers by inclination, will find her hang-ups rather nauseating.

Indeed, one of the greatest problems of Give is its lack of ironic distance. The comedic potential of its rich underlying premise, the Manhattan apartment Death Watch, should be nearly foolproof, yet Holofcener lets it die on the vine. Instead of mercilessly skewering the hypocrisies of well-heeled Manhattan liberals, she presents a bland comedy of manners that is only occasionally amusing. It is also wildly inconsistent in tone veering between neurotic comedy in the Woody Allen tradition and peculiarly upper-class melodrama, with a random dash of fantastical expressionism thrown in to further muddy the waters.

While Give features an intriguing cast, they are largely squandered in shallow and annoying characters. Rebecca Hall probably fares the best as the essentially decent granddaughter, since she is somehow able to scratch out an arc of character development. In contrast, it is sad to watch Catherine Keener saddled with Kate’s woefully overblown angst and insecurities.

Despite a few memorably pointed lines, Give is an overall mish-mash. Holofcener might indeed accurately hold up a mirror to a small segment of the City’s population, but its focus is too narrow to hold much cultural currency with audiences living west of the Hudson River or east of Fifth Avenue. It screens again today (4/28) during the Tribeca Film Festival and opens theatrically in New York this Friday (4/30) at the Loews Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Gainsbourg, Je t’Aime . . .

Serge Gainsbourg did it all: jazz, pop, rock, and a reggae version of “La Marseillaise” that was not nearly as well received as Jimmy Hendricks’s “Star Spangled Banner.” For the singer-songwriter, it was just one more controversy in an eventful career dramatized with idiosyncratic flair in Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg, Je t’Aime . . . Moi Non Plus (trailer here), which screens during the Tribeca Film Festival.

The feature directorial debut from one of France’s leading graphic novelists, Je t’Aime not surprisingly begins with a cool animated title sequence. However, Sfar has far bolder imagery in store for viewers. As the film opens, Gainsbourg (then Lucien Ginsburg) arrives early to pick-up his yellow star from the collaborationist authorities. His Jewish heritage would continue to haunt Gainsbourg in the form of a giant anti-Semitic propaganda cartoon come to life, as if it were a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon, dogging the boy throughout his formative years. Yet, Sfar is only getting started with his fanciful twists on the old bio-pic formula.

Throughout Je t’Aime, Gainsbourg interacts with what he calls his “mug,” his Tyler Durdenesque id, who inspires all his bad boy excesses. One could argue though, Gainsbourg does alright following his lead. After all, he would become one of the most influential figures in French music.

Despite Sfar’s stylistic eccentricities, he still shoehorns in most of Gainsbourg’s musical highlights and notable personal scandals. We see Gainsbourg as a young man dabble in jazz piano, make his mark as a pop songwriter, and recklessly carry on with the married Brigitte Bardot. The heart of the film though, involves his stormy marriage to British actress-singer Jane Birkin, with whom he recorded the suggestive duet “Je t’Aime moi non plus.”

Tragically, British actress Lucy Gordon committed suicide shortly after Je t’Aime wrapped. Though she will probably be remembered by more film goers for her work as reporter Jennifer Dugan in Spiderman 3, she was truly beautiful and compelling as Birkin, unquestionably delivering the film’s standout performance.

In contrast, Je t’Aime’s weakest link is a rather bland Gainsbourg. Eric Elmosnino simply does not convey the strange charisma of the musical legend. Fortunately, there are many strong supporting performances that largely compensate, most notably Razvan Vasilescu as Gainsbourg’s traditional but nonetheless proud father.

Sfar’s surreal devices might sound distracting, but they actual give Je t’Aime a sense of energy that helps the film avoid the lulls which typically plague cinematic biographies. Fresh and entertaining, Je t’Aime is a real highlight of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It screens again today (4/27) and Friday (4/30).

Tribeca ’10: Doctor Zhivago

In 1958, Boris Pasternak was forced to renounce his Nobel Prize for Literature, when the Soviets made it clear he would not be allowed back in to the country if he traveled to Stockholm to accept. However, seven years later, they were only too happy to allow Central Committee member Mikhail Sholokhov to receive the honor they had denied Pasternak. Yet today, hardly anyone reads And Quiet Flows the Don aside from a handful of Russian majors, but Doctor Zhivago remains widely read throughout the world.

Of course a considerable measure of that enduring popularity stems from David Lean’s truly classic cinematic adaptation of Pasternak’s novel. Considered the last great MGM epic, Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (trailer here) will screen Wednesday at the Tribeca Film Festival in a newly restored high-definition print, in advance of the release of its 45th Anniversary Blue-Ray edition next week.

Zhivago is a poet, a healer, and a lover. He is not a fighter or an ideologue. Unfortunately, that puts him at odds with the tenor of his time and place—Revolutionary Russia. Initially, Zhivago is sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. Unfortunately, when he returns from World War I, he quickly discovers the difference between Bolshevik rhetoric and reality.

The biographical parallels between Pasternak and his Nobel Prize winning character have been often noted. Both were poets whose work ran afoul of Communist ideology, yet they loved Mother Russia too much to leave her, even when offered the opportunity. They also loved two women simultaneously, their faithful wives, and in Zhivago’s case, Lara, the women who inspired the character’s most famous poem and composer Maurice Jarre’s lushly romantic theme.

It is hard to imagine a film like Zhivago coming out of Hollywood today. While it is truly a sweeping wide-screen epic, it is character-driven. Certainly, it would be impossible to assemble a comparable cast of legitimate movie stars who offered intriguing screen presences as well as their marquee names. Omar Sharif conveys the soul of a poet as Zhivago, while Julie Christie is quite haunting as the beautiful and fragile Lara. Yet, perhaps the greatest performance comes from Sir Alec Guinness in the trickiest part, Zhivago’s half-brother Yevgraf, a hard but strangely sympathetic Bolshevik enforcer. Throw in Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Sir Ralph Richardson, Geraldine Chaplin, Rita Tushingham, and Klaus Kinski in a bit part, and you have a cast for the ages.

Though justly renowned for its spectacle, Zhivago is also the work of a genuine auteur. Lean’s perspectives and transitions have a visual excitement that still seems surprisingly bold. While Robert Bolt’s script avoids wallowing in the terrors of Revolutionary Russia, he never whitewashes the constant purges and executions. Indeed, it is a fitting reflection of its author and protagonist, rebels by virtue of being apolitical in a time of ideological madness.

Zhivago is a great film, worth seeing at any time, under any circumstances. Without screening the new high def print, one can only assume it was well done, because messing up this film would be one big, conspicuous scandal. It screens tomorrow (4/28) as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca ’10: Billy and Aaron (Short)

As an audition, a young Billy Strayhorn wrote “Take the A Train,” which quickly became Duke Ellington’s beloved theme song. Yet until only recently, many jazz fans were unaware of the nature and extent of his contributions to the Ellington band’s book. The trade-offs Strayhorn made in his career are the subject of Rodney Evans’s short film, Billy and Aaron, which screens as part of the “Hard Core” programming block at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Duke Ellington took the bows and most likely a disproportionate share of the credit for his “collaborations” with Strayhorn. In return, he offered the musician-composer financial security and protection to live relatively open, despite the homophobic prejudices then not uncommon on the jazz scene. It was a bargain Strayhorn evidently made an uneasy peace with, as he explains to his friend-colleague-lover Aaron Bridgers on the eve of the latter man’s departure for Paris.

Evans uses Strayhorn’s standard “Lush Life,” a lyrical expression of worldly disillusionment, as the fitting touchstone for B&A. Performed by Aaron Diehl, a talented young jazz pianist with a strong affinity for Ellingtonia, it sets the perfect tone of elegant regret. However, the film’s somewhat coarse look is a bit at odds with the sophistication of its subjects. Still, it is a well conceived portrait of the musicians, featuring strong performances by Brandon Delagraentiss and Ignaro Petronilloia as Strayhorn and Bridgers, respectively.

Thanks to David Hajdu’s biography, a PBS documentary, and a host of tribute CDs, Strayhorn’s contributions to American music are generally well known by most jazz listeners today. Strayhorn, who would eventually join Bridgers in Paris, died tragically early. One of the best tributes to “Strays” was indeed the first, And His Mother Called Him Bill, recorded by the still grieving Ellington and his Orchestra. Everyone should become acquainted with the music of Strayhorn (and Ellington). Hopefully, B&A will intrigue Tribeca patrons to seek out further listening. It plays again as part of the “Hard Core” program on Thursday (4/29) and Sunday (5/2).

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tribeca ’10: The Two Escobars

In the wake of the scandals that rocked the game of baseball, it is impossible to pretend the illicit drug trade never intersects the world of sports. After all, if you believe Jose Canseco’s memoir, his blood must have serious street value. However, the extent to which drugs have corrupted American athletics pales in comparison to recent Colombian sporting history. In chronicling the violent destinies of two very different Columbians who happened to have the same surnames, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist expose the corrupting influence of drug money on the Colombian national football (soccer) team in their documentary The Two Escobars, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Though unrelated, Andrés and Pablo Escobar both were born in Medellín, the city which the latter man would make infamous as the seat of his cocaine empire. By contrast, Andrés Escobar gained notoriety for his brilliant defense and genuine sportsmanship on the football field. However, he could not avoid the world other the other Escobar, who secretly funded the national team with his blood money.

While Pablo basically got what was coming to him, Andrés Escobar’s death was senselessly tragic. Unfortunately, he was the player who scored the own goal during the Colombian team’s ill-fated 1994 World Cup tournament. Soon thereafter, he was gunned down outside a Medellín nightclub by underworld figures probably associated with a faction aligned against Escobar’s cartel.

Although the scrappy American team was the beneficiary of Escobar’s mistake, watching his own goal in Escobars will make audiences cringe several times over. Yet, the film is more a tribute to the footballer Escobar rather than a true crime examination of the drug lord’s rise and fall. Indeed, the film is strongest when depicting the athlete’s life and legacy. Whereas, the Pablo Escobar material is somewhat undercut by thin, unconvincing conspiracy musings that detract from the overall film. In fact, its biases against the Colombian government seem rather off-base, considering what they sacrificed to join the international battle against narco-terrorism, not the least being a competitive national football team.

Still, when Escobars sticks to straight reportage it is informative and its interviews with Andrés Escobar’s family are frankly quite moving. Andrés Escobar set a graceful civic-minded example for Colombia, both on the field and in the difficult days leading up to his murder (the circumstances of which remain murky). Fortunately, his country has come a long way since that fateful night. Escobars is worth seeing to get a sense of Andrés as an athlete and as a national symbol of something greater. It screens again as part of the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday (5/1).

Cinematic Sleepwalking: In My Sleep

According to the evidence of psychological thriller movies, the Physician’s Desk Reference ought to list waking up next to dead bodies as an official symptom of parasomnia. Such is the case for one sleepwalking male masseuse in Allen Wolf’s In My Sleep (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

Marcus has always been a sleepwalker and a player. However, when he hooks up with his best friend Justin’s wife Ann in his sleep, it understandably freaks him out. Resorting to a battery of sleeping pills and old school restraints, he still finds himself waking up in suspicious positions, like covered in blood, lying next to the knife that presumably killed Ann.

Already half suspecting himself, Marcus’s paranoia kicks it up a notch when a mysterious woman starts leaving him cryptic, vaguely hostile messages. Concerned Justin suspects his unlikely tryst with his late wife, or something far worse, Marcus finds only one person he can turn to for help: Becky, a genuinely caring Evangelical who recently moved into his Melrose Place like complex.

Obviously, Wolf has a deep affection for the classic psychological thrillers exemplified by Hitchcock’s masterworks. To his credit, he captures the right look and feel of the genre. Unfortunately, he is undermined by a cast that is often amateurish. The one shining exception is Party of Five’s Lacey Chabert as Becky. Refreshingly, her character’s Christian faith is presented respectfully, while Chabert brings an honest likability to the role.

Considering Philip Winchester and Tim Draxl spend most of the film shirtless as Marcus and Justin respectively, at least it possibly has something to offer women viewers. (However, guys will be disappointed to see Alexandra Paul squandered in a blink-and-you-missed-it cameo.) Genre enthusiasts might also find Michael Hardwick’s cinematography interesting to watch, effectively conveying the dark undercurrents beneath his sun-drenched City of Angeles palette.

In Sleep, Wolf shows potential as a filmmaker. He needs to make new actor friends, but should keep Chabert in his rolodex. Competently produced but fatally undone by its principal cast, Sleep opens Friday (4/30) in New York at the Quad.

Tribeca ‘10: Metropia

Even in the future, it is depressing in the subways. At least one could expect increased efficiency in an authoritarian speculative dystopia. However, the Trexx Group, the company that operates Europe’s continent-wide metro system, is up to something decidedly nefarious down there in Metropia (trailer here), Tarik Saleh’s animated science fiction feature for adults now screening during the Tribeca Film Festival.

Roger is an unremarkable Winston Smith, living a mostly anonymous existence in a world not unlike the 1984 Macintosh commercial. Some of his coworkers think he is crazy though, because he often illegally bikes to work, rather than taking the Metro. He also thinks he might be crazy because of the voice in his head. However, a chance encounter with his dream woman, Nina, the model on the label of his dandruff shampoo, leads to some revelations about its parent company, the all-powerful Trexx. Initially intimated when confronted by the woman of his fantasies, he is even more taken aback when she bluntly asks about Roger’s “inner voice.”

Metropia is definitely animation for adults, with advanced themes, terrorist attacks, and a fair amount of cartoon nudity. Yet despite its reliance on the standard evil corporation cliché, it still manages to put a fresh spin on traditional dystopian science fiction. Indeed, it is refreshing to see a film extend its paranoia to sacred cows like the European Union and public transportation.

However, it is the darkly compelling signature look of Metropia’s animation, perfectly suited to the grim bleakness of the scarred urban future world, which truly distinguishes the picture. While eschewing strict realism, its figures, based on original photos heavily distorted through the computer animation process, are oddly expressive. To complete his strange characterizations, Saleh called on some unconventional voice talent, including the surprisingly effective Vincent Gallo as Roger.

Though the general trajectory of Saleh’s story is relatively predictable, there are some clever bits along the way. Visually dazzling, Saleh, animation director Christian Ryltenius, and art director Marti Hultman produced an intriguing vision of the Fabian EU utopia gone to seed. Wisely, it also resists the urge to explain every last detail, leaving future avenues to explore should they return to Metropia’s world for future installments. Smart, mature science fiction, Metropia is worth checking out during the Tribeca Film Festival. It screens again on Wednesday (4/28), Thursday (4/29), and Saturday (5/1), as the festival continues, mostly at the Village East and Clearview Chelsea Cinemas.

Gross-Out: The Human Centipede

If this film is really “100% medically accurate,” than I’m Doctor Kildare. For the edification of those not eating, the procedure in question involves grafting human intestinal tracks together into a centipede-like monstrosity. Yes, it is a sensitive coming of age story and a sophisticated comedy of manners, just with people connected throat to butt. Destined to become a gross-out cult favorite, Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) opens Friday in New York.

Two American tourists find themselves stranded in nowhere, Germany when their rental breaks down. Leaving the car in a rain storm, they set off looking for the creepiest house they can find. One look at Dr. Heiter’s pad, with the weird Siamese twin décor, should have been enough to send them screaming into the woods. However, they stay long enough for him to slip them a couple ruffies and the next things they know, they are handcuffed to hospital gurneys, about to be connected to a very angry Japanese expat.

The details of life as a human centipede are not pleasant. The lead pede eats for all three, “feeding” them with his waste. The middle position is the most painful, being conjoined on both ends. Of course, such an operation is an abomination against nature, leading to severe health problems for Heiter’s victims and even more on-screen grossness.

As Heiter, German actor Dieter Laser makes a good twitchy, scenery chewing horror movie villain. While Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie are just distractingly dumb as the female pedes, but Akihiro Kitamura actually acquits himself with some dignity as their Japanese lead segment.

Centipede is the sort of film that inspires audiences to yell “foul” at the screen. However, this is not Birdemic. Six sets the unsettling mood quite effectively and Goof de Koning’s cinematography has a professional sheen. Not that it really matters in a film like this, but Six’s story is a bit thin. He has his bizarre concept, but the plot points surrounding it are fairly standard mad doctor material. Still, when he unveils his handiwork, it is cinema history of a kind.

Look, you should know by now if Centipede is the film for you. Disgusting in a darkly comic way but professionally produced, it is likely destined to become a midnight movie favorite. For the adventurous types, it opens in New York at the IFC Center this Friday (4/30).

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Heartbreaker

Even in France, any man who tells a woman he also loves George Michael’s Wham! and the movie Dirty Dancing is lying. At least Alex is not doing it for lecherous reasons. It is strictly business for him. Hired by clients to break-up the dysfunctional relationships of their loved ones, Alex’s business is seduction. Yet, he will face his greatest professional and personal challenge in Pascal Chaumeil’s Heartbreaker, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Alex has one hard-and-fast rule: he never breaks up happy couples. However, his impatient loan shark provides sufficient incentive to break that rule in the case of Juliette and her apparently perfect fiancé. Working undercover as her bodyguard, he gains access to the betrothed wine expert, but even with the inside information assembled by his sister Mélanie and her loving doofus husband Marc, the break-up specialist has trouble closing the sale. Instead, it is Juliette who inspires Alex to break his other unstated but clearly implied rule when he starts to fall for her himself. Obviously, complications ensue.

There is a fair amount of broad farcical humor in Heartbreaker, much of it supplied by his sister and brother-in-law. However, Heartbreaker is an unapologetically sentimental rom-com at heart. Fortunately, it all more or less works thanks to the strong chemistry between the two leads. Romain Duris (Juliette Binoche’s brother in Paris) is a thoroughly likable cad, while Vanessa Paradis is not just a striking beauty, but also charismatic in a mature and sophisticated way. They look good and dance well together, when they recreate the climatic Dirty Dancing number during one of Alex’s seduction attempts.

Chaumeil cut his teeth with AD and unit work on Luc Besson films like The Fifth Element and The Professional. Despite radical differences in genre and subject matter, he seems to have picked up a good sense of pacing through those gigs, because Heartbreaker never loses momentum. Its light and frothy atmosphere is further heightened by the beautiful Monte Carlo settings, which glisten through the lens of cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Indeed, the film makes the most of its exclusive locale, even throwing in a cameo by model Victoria Silvstedt for added glamour.

Heartbreaker is like a French film trying to be a Hollywood movie, but doing a better job of it. It has an engaging charm that might not offer many surprises, but delivers plenty of satisfaction. A pleasing little film to spend time with, Heartbreaker is well worth seeing when it screens again today (4/25) and tomorrow (4/26), as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca ’10: The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Two average blokes at a big box hardware store might not appear sinister, but their shopping list is a bit suspicious. How much soundproofing material do they really need? So begins J Blakeson’s dark little kidnapping thriller, The Disappearance of Alice Creed (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Alice Creed is estranged from her wealthy father, but as his only child, Vic and Danny are sure he will pay up. Vic is definitely the senior partner, calling the shots and dominating the younger man. It was Danny though, who suggested Creed as their potential victim. Naturally, everyone in this taut three-hander has their secrets. Just who exactly is playing who, will be revealed in a series of revelations and betrayals that are surprisingly engaging.

Indeed, the twists and turns of the set-up are quite well executed and though the final act proceeds as it logically must, Blakeson effectively maintains the intensity as the film plays out the string. Fortunately, he is aided tremendously by the small but talented cast. Though she has been relatively good in awful movies, former Bond girl Gemma Arterton is surprisingly compelling as Creed. Despite her convoluted circumstances, her reactions are always utterly convincing and logical, which is paramount to the film’s success.

Perhaps even more unexpectedly, Eddie Marsan (recognizable from Sherlock Holmes, Red Riding, and a host of other films) turns out to be a great big-screen heavy as Vic. Indeed, he has that menacing charisma all memorable movie villains must have. The weak link would therefore be Martin Compston as Danny, but that is largely a function of his character’s submissive nature.

Though it only features three characters largely confined to a handful of claustrophobic sets, Disappearance never feels stagey. Rather, its economy concentrates the dramatic tension. Cinematographer Philipp Blaumbach gives it all a slick, cinematic look that really distinguishes the film from workaday indie thrillers.

Nicely twisted, Blakeson’s story definitely gets nasty, but never to the extent that it ruins the fun. Nodding to other classic thrillers in ways that would be spoilers to reveal, Disappearance is a solidly entertaining British noir. It screens again at Tribeca tonight (4/25) and Monday (4/26).

Tribeca ’10: Just Like Us

Western stand-ups regularly mine their Christian and Jewish faith for comedic material without the fear of violent reprisals. Jokes inspired by Islam have been an entirely different proposition altogether, considered “Haraam” or “forbidden” as the Danish cartoon fatwas all too clearly demonstrate. However, a group of multi-faith comics were able to gingerly address such subjects in a first of its kind comedy tour of the Middle East, documented in tour headliner-director Ahmed Ahmed’s Just Like Us (trailer here), which screens during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Ahmed and the tour impresario frequently assure viewers the mere possibility of such an endeavor proves how much the Islamic world is loosening up. Perhaps, but until a Jewish Israeli comic can safely join the tour, their effusions seem a bit premature. Still, unlike the slavishly politically correct (and decidedly unfunny) material heard in from the stand-ups featured in the Allah Made Me Funny tour-documentary, many of the JLU performers are actually funny.

In addition, Ahmed and his tour-mate Omid Djalili (also represented at Tribeca in the surprisingly brave The Infidel) actually satirically address Islamic topics directly, offering some understandably cautious but still pointed commentary on the state of their faith. For instance, in a neat pivot, Ahmed subverts the clichéd “flying while Islamic” joke by turning the focus of his bit on the wanted terrorist who unfortunately happens to be his namesake, thereby putting his name on every “no fly” list.

Ahmed and Djalili are indeed quite funny and frank on-stage, leading them to half-jokingly fear their routines will get them banned in Dubai. Overall though, the line-up is a decidedly mixed bag. Probably the best known participant, In Living Color’s Tommy Davison, is easily the least funny (though he seems to kill with some highly partisan material). Still, that is pretty much par for the course for such large ensemble tours.

There are a fair number of legitimate laughs in JLU, primarily from Ahmed and Djalili, but there is far too much extraneous travelogue sequences. The audience really does not hear the beautiful virtues of each city on the tour extolled over and over again. It starts to sound a bit forced, particularly in Riyadh, where the comics must perform in an underground club. As a result, at 72 minutes, JLU is relatively brief by feature standards, yet it still feels padded. Certainly, it is encouraging to see the reception granted to the haraam comedy tour, but it ultimately seems like more of a halting test of prevailing limits, than a watershed cultural event. Reasonably amusing, it screens during Tribeca on Monday (4/26), Tuesday (4/27), and Friday (4/30).

Recycling Blues: Garbage Dreams

In the west, organized crime handles waste disposal. In Cairo, it was the untouchable Coptic Christian “Zaballeen” who carted away the city’s trash, but their traditional employment has recently been threatened with the arrival of foreign sanitation companies. Their hard way of life is rhapsodized in Mai Iskander’s Garbage Dreams (trailer here), which airs this Tuesday on PBS’s Independent Lens.

It boggles the mind that a city of eighteen million people could exist without a formal sanitation plan, but such was the case in Cairo. The Zaballeen (Arabic for “garbage people”) collected residents’ trash for a nominal fee, but they really wanted the garbage itself. The hardscrabble Christian community lived by recycling what others discarded. Iskander repeatedly emphasizes the Zaballeen recycle eighty percent of the trash they process, whereas most foreign sanitation services only recycle twenty percent. However, it is painfully obvious this constitutes making a virtue of the Zaballeen’s harsh necessities. They must recycle as much as they do, because they are desperately poor and trapped in a pernicious caste system. They could well be only too happy to purchase more consumer goods, should their fortunes improve.

With their livelihoods, such as they were, in danger, Iskander documents the Zaballeen’s efforts to emphasize their green merits. We follow two young Coptic boys learning the trade at the newly established Recycling School. Though Adham seems to have a natural cockiness, he has accepted his responsibility as his family’s primary breadwinner while father serves a short prison term. In contrast, the easily distracted Osama has trouble holding down a job. Clearly, he is the exception in the community.

Dreams certainly captures the great faith and tremendous work ethic of the Zaballeen. Watching the film, one wishes them greater opportunities in vocations with fewer heath risks and greater social standing. Yet, Iskander essentially fetishizes their difficult work to serve an environmental agenda.

Though problematic, Dreams shines a spotlight on a community forced to the extreme margins of Egyptian society. It airs this Tuesday (4/27) on most PBS outlets as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Buried Land

It might be bad archaeology, but it is good for tourism. Evidently, the established scientific community is mostly skeptical of the notion an ancient civilization built three perfect pyramids in mountains surrounding the Bosnian town of Visoko, but you would not know it from the intentionally slippery exercise in cinematic gamesmanship that recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Incorporating elements of fictionalized documentary, mockumentary, and performance art, Geoffrey Alan Rhodes and Steven Eastwood’s Buried Land should most definitely not be taken at face value during its Tribeca run.

They are generally pyramid shaped and there does seem to be a fair amount of hollow space within the Bosnian landmarks, but concluding they must be man-made is probably something of a leap. Of course, the local residents are happy to take it for several reasons. Beyond the increased tourist trade, many are simply pleased their country is associated with something positive, after enduring years of suffering. However, they are justifiably concerned an international film crew will give them the “Borat” treatment in their prospective pyramid documentary.

Buried deliberately blurs distinctions between reality and hyper-reality. The two leads are in indeed “ficitional” characters, Emir a Bosnian Emir making his first returning visit to his homeland, and Adam, the American film director, fittingly played by co-director Rhodes. While most of the Visoko villagers “play” themselves, they are often put in surreal situations. Yet, Rhodes and Eastwood seem aware of the troublingly condescending aspects of their program, letting one Visoko deliver a monster of verbal beat-down on Emir to that effect.

In truth, Buried is willfully maddening. At times, it does mock the locals, but it also seems to buy into their vision of ancient Bosnian glory. It could well be an ironic statement on either provincial gullibility or media cynicism (or perhaps both). Regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, the people Visoko actually come out of the film with their dignity intact. In fact, Visoko looks like a fantastic place to visit. Whether they are pyramids or hills, the scenery is gorgeous. There also seem to be a number of attractive women and some good sevdah brass bands in town.

Neither fish nor documentary, Buried is an odd little film whose bizarre tone defies easy description. It might introduce some viewers the controversy surrounding the Bosnian pyramids, but it is hardly intended as conventional reportage. At times interesting, Buried is for those who appreciate cleverness more than emotional engagement in their films. It screens again during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival Tuesday (4/27), and Saturday (5/1).

Tribeca ’10: Thieves By Law

The toughness of the Ganavim ba Hok or “Thieves By Law” is beyond question. Their international crime syndicate initially formed as a self-preservation society in Stalin’s gulags. If they could survive there, they are not likely to be intimidated by threats of mere imprisonment today. Indeed, the Thieves were the original Russian gangsters and their power has only grown in recent years. Three particularly colorful mobsters in good standing break the group’s code of silence in Alexander Gentelev’s documentary, Thieves By Law, which had its world premiere Thursday night at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Back in the day, the Thieves By Law lived by a truly hardcore code. Completely avoiding anything that might tie them down, members never married, had children, or even maintained a permanent home. However, in recent years, they have let those prohibitions slide. In fact, the featured Thieves live very well in luxurious villas, raise families, and enjoy their eccentric entanglements.

One Thief is a product of the bad old KGB’s special school system, but has adopted the airs of an aristocrat to the manor born. Another Thief who gained unwanted notoriety when accused of fixing the Olympics, clearly shares his colleague’s taste for the finer things in life. Looking like the lovechild of Vladimir Putin and Skeletor, the youngest of the film’s three primary Thieves funds his own hyper-violent action movies, which naturally feature himself as the protagonist. Still, they all have the distinctive prison tattoos branding them as part of the organization.

Though the Thieves are understandably guarded at times, it seems that once Gentelev got them talking, they revealed more than they probably intended. Of course, he also talked to law enforcement officials, both in Russia and Israel. How each country responded to the law and order challenges they represent is also quite telling. Russian authorities still seem to be flailing about ineffectually, but when Israel discovered the Thieves were frequently marrying citizens simply to obtain Israeli passports, they cracked down hard.

While the Thieves’ history is clearly intertwined with that of Russia and the Soviet Union, TBL focuses almost exclusively on the present. Gentelev captures some frighteningly telling candid moments with the Russian mobsters. Deftly walking a fine line, he avoids glamorizing them, despite depicting their considerable wealth and bravado.

TBL is an eye-opening expose, produced with an entertainingly idiosyncratic attitude. Of interest to Russophiles, Russophobes, and true crime audiences, it is one of the strongest documentaries playing at this year’s festival. It screens again during Tribeca tonight (4/24), Monday (4/26), and Wednesday (4/28).

Tribeca ’10: Micmacs

The homeless are always so precious in the movies. The Mic Macs are a case in point. Banding together, they live communally in the share-and-share-alike spirit. They even pitch in to help a new arrival obtain his cartoonish revenge in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs (trailer here), which screens during the Tribeca Film Festival ahead of its late May theatrical opening.

Getting shot in the head was a tough break for Bazil. Miraculously, he survived, but the bullet remains lodged in his brain, a constant Damocles Sword that could end it all at any moment. Jobless after his long hospitalization, he soon winds up on the streets. Fortunately, a rag-tag group of misfits takes him into their makeshift junkyard home.

One fine day, Bazil discovers the factories of the rival armaments companies that manufactured the bullet in his head and the landmine that killed his father years ago happen to be right across the street from each other. At this point, you can practically see the light bulb go off over his head. With the help of Elastic Girl, Calculator, Buster the human cannonball, and Slammer, a kindly old ex-con whose life was spared when the guillotine jammed, Bazil manipulates the arms dealing moguls into declaring was on each other.

Sad-faced Dany Boon truly has a gift for physical comedy. While the film dangerously invokes the spirit of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Boon’s expressive pathos largely withstands such comparisons. Veteran French character actor Jean-Pierre Marielle also brings a welcome sense of dignity to the kindly old Slammer. However, the rest of the oh-so cute Mic Macs could not be sweeter if they were drowned in honey. Yet, it is the villains that are truly problematic in Micmacs. Great movie villains are charismatic in their own evil way, like Alan Rickman in Diehard. Unfortunately, the arms dealers are simple caricatures held in obvious loathing contempt by Jeunet and co-writer Guillaume Laurant.

Still, there are several inspired scenes of Rube Goldberg-like lunacy and some rather physically impressive performances from Boon and Julie Ferrier as Elastic Girl (with an assist from body double Julia Gunthel). Jeunet, director of Amelie and co-director of City of Lost Children, has a kinetic visual style well suited to the eccentric material. It all looks great too, thanks to the richly detailed set pieces created by Aline Bonetto.

While the marriage of whimsy and didacticism is ultimately an uneasy match in Micmacs, Boon is a compelling protagonist throughout. Visually rich, but a bit underwritten, Micmacs should nonetheless prove popular with New York festival and art-house audiences. It screens during Tribeca on Thursday (4/29), Friday (4/30), and Saturday (5/1).

Tribeca '10: Keep Surfing

Nestled in the heart of Munich you will find the oddest sub-sub-culture of the surf sub-culture. There urban surfers find their waves on the Eisbach (“Ice-Brook”) River rather than trekking to traditional ocean surf Meccas. Evidently, the German city is indeed the surfing capitol of the world for river rats, according to Björn Richie Lob’s documentary Keep Surfing (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

For years, a group of dedicated German and expatriate surfers have dazzled surprised onlookers by riding the waves of Munich’s rivers, especially when the spirit moves them to surf naked. When they do travel, it is not to pedestrian oceans, but to even more demanding rivers.

That is essentially the gist of Keep. We are repeatedly told in rather uninformative interview segments that rivers also have waves, which quickly gets repetitive. Fortunately, the film also profusely illustrates the point with some remarkably vivid video footage originally shot by Lob and co-cinematographer Lars Liebold, on a variety of formats. The visual clarity of these scenes is truly quite stunning. Every move the surfers make are clearly distinct, yet the sequences have an up-close immediacy that is thoroughly impressive. From a technical standpoint, Lob dramatically ups the ante for surfing films, far surpassing the cult classics of Bruce Brown (whose early films are still worth checking out for the Bud Shank jazz soundtracks).

Unfortunately, there is not much more to Keep than its admittedly striking river surfing scenes. We never really get much of a sense of the Eisbach surfers and there is no story arc to speak of. It is what it is: river surfing occasionally interrupted by rather forgettable talking head sequences.

If nothing else, Keep certainly has a lack of pretense. Those who are passionate about the sport will probably be enthralled by Lob's film. However, audiences hoping for greater context and insight might be somewhat disappointed by Keep. It screens during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival on Monday (4/26), Wednesday (3/28), Friday (4/30), and Saturday (5/1).

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Cairo Time

A mysterious city of great beauty and terrible ugliness, Cairo also has a rigid social system delineated by both gender and class. It is the sort of place where it helps to know someone with local knowledge. That is why a United Nations official asks his former colleague to look after his wife while he tends to a crisis. Both get more than they expected from their encounters in Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time (trailer here), which screens during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Juliette often intended to meet her husband Mark in Cairo, but life always intervened. Now that she finally made it, he is held up at his riot plagued refugee camp. Fortunately, his friend Tareq is willing to show her the sites, but not the pyramids. As a symbol of marital fidelity, Juliette scrupulously saves those for Mark. Not surprisingly, when the two mature but attractive adults meet, they quickly develop a flirtatious rapport. However, as Mark’s delays continue, their relationship deepens into something perilously close to romance.

Nadda’s story follows in the elegant tradition of David Lean’s Brief Encounter and other chaste cinematic affairs. These are characters that take commitment seriously and do not fall into other people’s arms lightly. Indeed, for Juliette, a trip to the pyramids with another man would constitute nearly as great a betrayal as an amorous assignation.

The city of Cairo sparkles through Luc Montpellier’s lens, but Nadda has not penned a starry-eyed love letter. As Juliette learns first-hand, it can be a frightening experience for a woman to walk its streets alone, even in broad daylight. There are also numerous places explicitly off limits to women, including Tareq’s coffee bar, but of course she knows the owner.

Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig (best known as Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) hit all the right notes as Juliette and Tareq. Their graceful chemistry makes viewers want them to be together, though we know they ultimately never can. In a way, Cairo bears certain similarities to Lost in Translation, bestowing unexpected depth on a chance meeting, while maintaining a wistful vibe throughout. Yet unlike the annoyingly self-indulgent characters of Sophia Coppola’s film, Juliette and Tareq are self-aware, self-denying grown-ups. As a result, spending time with them is a quiet pleasure.

Nadda’s gentle rhythms and striking visuals make for a seductive cinematic blend. Never loud or crass, Cairo is an adult film, in the classiest sense. A film of subtle charm, it screens during Tribeca on Sunday (4/25), Tuesday (4/27), and Thursday (4/29).