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Tribeca Film Festival, Week 1: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Michael Buening

In four short years, the Tribeca Film Festival has elbowed its way into an already overcrowded festival marketplace to become a beloved New York. This is largely due to a diverse line-up that's sure to please most everybody and a relaxed, community-centered vibe that includes concerts and family-oriented events.

In four short years, the Tribeca Film Festival has elbowed its way into an already overcrowded festival marketplace to become a beloved New York tradition (along with the Parade of Drunks at San Genaro, Spring into Gentrification Week, and What Line Is My Subway Train On? Day). This is largely due to a diverse line-up that's sure to please most everybody and a relaxed, community-centered vibe that includes concerts and family-oriented events.

However, the Festival's ambitions may be outstripping its appeal to the New York and film communities, growing into an unwieldy, unfocused behemoth. The screening rooms now include multiplexes up and down Manhattan, far from the most liberal boundaries of Tribeca, and the slate has ballooned to 274 film premieres. Perhaps the expansion is a good thing, providing more opportunities for more people to see more films. But it also makes it difficult for attendees to separate the wheat from the chafe, and for filmmakers to get the much-needed publicity a festival can provide. There are multiple press screenings, press conferences, red carpet arrivals, and interview junkets happening simultaneously; those I attended were nearly empty.

Tribeca does not yet have the clout of the New York Film Festival, and coming as it does right before Cannes, the schedule includes some mediocre entries. The unnecessary "NY, NY Narrative Competition" highlights films set in New York, but the Festival is weak on international films. Asian cinema is shockingly underrepresented, with one only prominent entry, Chen Kaige's The Promise.

I pretty much threw up my hands at trying to organize my movie-going. (Although I'm definitely scheduling some comedies for next week.) My random walk-ins produced welcome surprises, as when I discovered Entourage star Adrian Grenier's feisty first short, Euthanasia. Another surprise was with Choking Man (U.S. 2006), directed by '80s music video maestro Steve Barron ("Billie Jean," "Take On Me"). A portrait of pathologically shy Salvadorian immigrant Jorge (Octavio Gomez Berrios), it's set mostly in the Jamaica, Queens diner where he works, staffed by multiculti types, including Mandy Patinkin's Russian owner. As the plot shifts around Jorge's paranoid point of view and his crush on a cheery childlike Chinese waitress (Eugenia Yuan), the film features more than a few indie clichés, from magical realism and maudlin heart-to-hearts to loveable losers. But Jorge is fascinating, a lonely young man trying to resist his inner Travis Bickle, and Berrios' weird, dark portrayal elevates the film above most quirky indie fare.

Land of the Blind (Robert Edwards 2006) focuses on another odd character. "Junior" (Thomas Anderson) is a dimwitted dictator outfitted in oversized military outfits with a monkey on his shoulder, extolling the virtues of freedom and democracy while killing all dissenting "terrorists" in the name of winning the "hearts and minds" of his constituents. Condemning corrupt government with smug satire and hysterical apocalyptic fantasies, the film is like 1984 directed by Janeane Garofalo. With Ralph Fiennes as a prison guard manipulated by the unnamed country's extremist factions, the plot offers a couple of unexpected twists, but for the most part, it's too ridiculous to take seriously. Junior directs grade-Z action movies in his spare time, an excuse for a pretentious film to make fun of pretentious directors. He screams at his editor, "All great films have subtext!" Exactly.

The Mist in the Palm Trees

Deborah Scranton's The War Tapes (U.S. 2006) offers a more cogent critique of government exploits. A documentary largely shot by three soldiers in Iraq -- SGT Zack Bazzi, SGT Steve Pink, SPC Mike Moriarty -- with mini-DV camcorders, it shows their daily mission, escorting KBR/Halliburton supply trucks around the "Sunni Triangle." Flushed into a moral morass, the soldiers become convinced that the war's priority is Dick Cheney's ex-employer's profit margins, what they call "the war for cheese." (KBR charges the military $28 for a Styrofoam plate, and the company's employees are paid many times more than U.S. troops.) The film is constructed around a series of traumatic incidents, which limits its consideration of the war per se. But the combat visuals, from Fallujah to random IED and RPG attacks, are horrifyingly engaging, yet another potent reminder of how little of the fighting has been shown in U.S. media.

The Festival was founded as a response to the World Trade Center attacks, and features several Middle Eastern films as part of its mandate. The Yacoubian Building (Omaret Yacoubian, Egypt 2006), directed by Marwan Hamed, is set in and around a crumbling Art Deco Cairo hotel. This epic soap opera features a large cast and D.W. Griffith-style morality tales, concerning relationships based on money, sex, and Islamic extremism. Though the film tackles taboo subjects (homosexuality, feminism, institutional corruption, and patriarchal chauvinism), dramatic inconsistencies dilute the humanistic goodwill of its multi-character approach. The aging, Westernized Zaki Pasha (Adel Imam) believes Egypt has lost its dignity and is disintegrating. He carries himself with a stolid pride of a sentimental Frenchman and the film, with its violin-drenched Michel LeGrand-like score and swooning crane shots, evokes the high drama of Francophilic weepers like Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In truth, Zaki is a letch and many of his actions despicable. For a soap opera to work, you've got be so invested in the characters that you'll buy any cornball travesty that befalls them. With Zaki, I wasn't feelin' it.

Also exploring the complications of self-deception, Carlos Molinero and Lola Salvador's The Mist in the Palm Trees (La Niebla en las Palmeras, Spain 2006) is a "found" footage-based film. Revolving around memory and the deceptive power of imagery, it recalls the time-jumbled nostalgia of La Jetée or the tongue-in-cheek, retro-film-dreams of Guy Maddin. The story is surely original: a Spanish writer who helped construct the A-Bomb, worked on Orson Welles' The War of the Worlds broadcast, and created pornographic postcards in Cuba, attempts to reconstruct an ancient love affair. At the same time, he's trying to balance dark and light in the merry-go-round of stock images stuck in his mind. His navel-gazing is annoying, but film wins you over with the strength of its convictions.


Less convincing is Wah-Wah, directed by Richard E. Grant (England 2005). When Ralph (Nicholas Hoult) asks his mother (Miranda Richardson) why she ran off with "Uncle John," she replies, "He says what he means." But in fact, most of the characters say what they mean all the time, so that the film lurches from one balls-out confrontation to the next. At the start, young Ralph (Zachary Fox) endures a backseat view of his mother fooling around with John (Ian Roberts), whereupon his father Harry (Gabriel Byrne) is awarded a meaningless medal in service of the British Empire. Set in Swaziland in the late '60s, the film is buoyed by Pierre Aïm's airy cinematography, which captures the deceptive beauty of a tropical colonial outpost on the wane. Based on Grant's own childhood, the film is occasionally overambitious and muddled, cramming too much into the plot: first love, artistic awakening, alcoholism, familial breakdown, colonial criticism, and redemption. Almost out of nowhere, it's revealed late in the film that the family saga is supposed to mirror the Brits' downfall and the formation of an independent state, and we're asked to feel triumph for a native population who has barely appeared. The score, awfully close to the Days of Our Lives theme, doesn't help.

Stylistically and thematically, Matthias Glasner's The Free Will (Der Freie Wille, Germany 2006) combines the poetic realistic redemption films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne with the more cynical sensibility of Lars Von Trier. It opens like a horror film, with the brutal assault and capture of serial rapist Theo (Jürgen Vogel). Released after nine years in a rehabilitation program, he becomes involved with another troubled soul, Netti (Sabine Timoteo), and briefly appears reformed. Despite the painstakingly slow developments, Vogel's nuanced performance infuses Theo's every action with terrific suspense. With handheld camera and documentary styling, the movie traces the psychological limits of self-transformation. It's easily the best film I saw in the first week.

Before seeing Brasília 18% (Brazil 2006), it's helpful to know two things: 1) Brasília, the capital of Brazil, is like a combination of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, a slick, materialistic city in the middle of nowhere, and 2) director Nelson Pereira dos Santos made a name for himself documenting poverty and political corruption in his native country. Otherwise, it's easy to misinterpret this ironic indictment of weak-willed authority figures wedged into an inept political thriller as a justification for the protagonist's passivity.

It opens with "star" coroner Olavo Biliac (Carlos Alberto Riccelli) arriving in the title city from Los Angeles to file a report on the body of a missing woman, Eugenia (Karine Carvalho). He doesn't think the body is hers; it's apparent that local politicians are covering up a scandal. Biliac tries to figure out the truth, but not very hard and it doesn't matter, because everyone already knows about the scandal. Biliac is also busy having hallucinatory sex with his dead wife and Eugenia who, while lying in bed, sweetly whispers Biliac's motto (or excuse) for delusional apathy, "If you desire, then it is not a dream."

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