Near Misses and Gems: 2009 Tribeca Film Festival

The Tribeca Film Festival still seems unformed. And for the most part, that’s good. Founded in 2002, it’s not old enough yet to take on the identifying quirks of its bigger and older competitors, like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto or even Sundance. The Festival has been refining its lineup, paring it down from year to year until it stands at a manageable 85 features from 36 countries, almost half what it was a couple of years back. At that size, this year’s Tribeca — which ran 22 April to 3 May — increased the quality quotient, cutting the number of embarrassing failures that once studded the schedule like a minefield. The venues now are also pared down: if most are still not in Tribeca per se, they’re at least clustered closer to downtown than other installments, which had ticketholders running all the way to the Upper West Side. Some things never change, of course, such as the beside-the-point opening and closing night films — Woody Allen’s Whatever Works and Donald Petrie’s My Life in Ruins — and a predilection for sports films (which cynics could be tempted to regard as a naked ploy for ESPN sponsorship) and issue documentaries. The result is a solidly enjoyable and well-run experience, offering a few near misses and at least a couple outright gems.

Fixer

One of the most memorable films was Ian Olds’ Fixer, focused on the dilemma of reporters filing dispatches from overseas trouble zones, as they increasingly depend on the native-speaking “fixer” (who arranges everything from transportation to interviews). The movie provides a spare, horrifying account of the death of fixer Ajmal Naqshbandi in Afghanistan in 2007. Olds — who won the Festival’s award for Best New Documentary Filmmaker — feeds evocative footage of the Afghan countryside into two parallel storylines about Ajmal, each churning with an inescapable momentum. In one, Ajmal is leading The Nation‘s Christian Parenti into Taliban country, while the other shows how, six months later, Ajmal was kidnapped with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo. The Afghan government released prisoners to free Mastrogiacomo, but did nothing to help Ajmal; he was ultimately beheaded. Coproduced by Parenti and scheduled to premiere on HBO in August, Olds’ film portrays a smart and charming but fundamentally naòve young striver lost in a corrupt, battle-scarred land. Much like his country, he became a political football, kicked about and discarded at whim. The Polish brothers’ Stay Cool is about as different as could be. Shot in slaphappy dayglo colors in some anonymous Western McMansion burbland, the movie is a tedious amalgam of writer-goes-home clichés and preening would-be edginess. Michael Polish stays behind the camera while writer Mark stars as novelist Henry McCarthy, who returns to his high school after 15 years to deliver a commencement address. He meets up with the obligatory goofy buddies (Sean Astin and Josh Holloway in high camp mode) and falls in love with his teen crush all over again (Winona Ryder), while a frisky tween (Hilary Duff) tries to seduce him and the principal (a twitchy Chevy Chase) busts his chops. The film’s few germs of good ideas are lost amid synthetic writing and saggy direction, as is some halfway decent comic acting. Zombie-like Mark Polish, however, is so devoid of emotion that one wonders if he even realizes he is being filmed.

The Eclipse

And yet — even as the Polish brothers’ misfire shows why one should avoid Tribeca narrative features with name stars, The Eclipse disproves that rule. An Irish haunter in the classic vein, playwright Conor McPherson’s film is a taut and sublimely handled piece of work. This even though the story contains few real surprises — with the exception of one nerve-shredding scare that sent half of one audience’s popcorn frighting into the air. Ciarçn Hinds (winner of this year’s Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film award) plays Michael, a recently widowed schoolteacher in the seaside town of Cobh, where he helps out with the local literary festival. Things appear to be looking up for him with the arrival of a London author of spooky stories (Iben Hjejle, radiantly intelligent). But their romance is complicated by her former lover (a preening ass played to smarmy perfection by Aidan Quinn), as well as the possibility that Michael is being haunted by his father-in-law, who’s still alive. McPherson (who also co-wrote) plays to his strengths, conversations casting a spell of brief warmth against a deathly gothic gloom. Quinn, Hinds, and Hjejle are all casually excellent, and the western Irish coast resplendently beautiful, in a grey-green, rain-soaked, and eerie sort of way. In the Danish psychological spook story, Fear Me Not, onetime Dogma 95 barnstormer Kristian Levering keeps a cool distance from Mikael (the excellent Ulrich Thomsen), a workaholic white-collar something who has abruptly taken a leave-of-absence to get his head screwed back on straight. Drifting and glum, he volunteers to take part in a trial for a new depression drug. The results are quick and astonishing, though the side effects have something of a kick. The film traces his shifting highs and lows, as he meanders foggily, trying to reconnect with his family, happy only that the drug seems to be helping. But it soon seems obvious that the opposite is true. With a bleakly blue, wintry palette that helps to convey a brisk tension, Fear Me Not furnishes psychodrama aplenty in its spacious-feeling 95-minute running time. Levering’s memorable stranded-in-the-desert film, The King is Alive (2000), seemed a black comedy that didn’t know it was supposed to be funny. Fear Me Not is more like a domestic horror film that fails to realize at some point the knives are supposed to come slashing out. Nevertheless, it leaves you with numerous wounds that may take some time to heal.

Playground

Libby Spears’ documentary Playground is also hard to get out of your system. Because it refuses to traffic in the exotic thrills of most nonfiction films about the child sex trade, this film will also have a hard time getting into theaters. The film underlines a crucial, often overlooked point concerning cases of older male offenders and young girl victims: for all the catharsis assumed by the criminals’ capture and incarceration, the victims must endure long, painful realities afterwards. Spears’ film pointedly ignores the expected locations like Thailand and the Philippines to focus on cities around America, where most of these predators live. It’s an effective tactic: Bangkok is neverland; Atlanta is just down the road. Tracking the story of one horribly abused girl, Playground also asks unsettling questions about the normalization of sexual violence and the internet’s apparently unstoppable flood of barbaric imagery. Though skillfully constructed and leavened with an unusually artful aesthetic (the moody, dream-like interstitial animations are by Yoshitomo Nara, and the A-list soundtrack includes tracks by Bjork, Radiohead, and Cat Power), Spears’ film might bite off more than it can chew, raising too many intriguing points of view. This is brave filmmaking, however, and shows how hysterical responses to the issue make it impossible to deal with it coherently. This is brave filmmaking, however, tackling the worst of subjects in a commendably forthright manner.

American Casino, Defamation, Rudo y Cursi and more

There is almost no issue more important to the American public right now than the subprime mortgage crisis and the attendant bank collapses. So it would be wonderful to report that Leslie Cockburn’s American Casino reveals just how it all happened. Somehow, that’s not the case, even though Cockburn has a crackerjack story to tell. Her convincing thesis is that the world of investment banking is essentially a casino. Although a veteran of 60 Minutes and Frontline, Cockburn follows some Baltimore mortgage owners who found out too late what their crazily complex loans would actually cost. American Casino is sadly just about as arcane as its subject matter, never breaking down the baffling wall of terminology that separates most viewers from the wizards of Wall Street who created the problem. The film is an educational opportunity sadly missed.Similarly, Yoav Shamir’s Defamation tackles a relevant subject, but comes up short when all is said and done (still, it won a Special Jury Mention). Shamir’s stated goal was to make a movie about anti-Semitism (as an Israeli citizen, he says he’s heard about this even if he hasn’t experienced it). He tags along with Anti-Defamation League leader Abraham Foxman, as well as a group of Israeli high school students visiting Auschwitz, and interviews random people on the street in Poland and Crown Heights, and a couple authors accused of anti-Semitism. His methodology is hardly the most rigorous, and his meaningful zooms and edits, not to mention goofy background music to indicate when we’re supposed to laugh, undermine the project’s seriousness.

Those looking for the lighter side of Tribeca probably tried to get a ticket to My Last Five Girlfriends, a mostly winning rom-com fillip that would have earned higher marks had it not taken several pages out of the Ally McBeal book of whimsy overkill. Julian Kemp’s film starts promisingly, as lovelorn Londoner Duncan (Brendan Patricks, auditioning to play a Nick Hornby hero) is frantically penning a bitter letter to his last five girlfriends, just before swallowing vodka and pills. One quick rewind later and we’re on a tour of those relationships and their painful implosions. It’s somewhat rough going at first, padded with cutesy animations and symbolic fantasy sequences that wouldn’t have made it onto an episode of Scrubs. The more serious second half does better, covering Duncan’s last relationship with the tempestuous Gemma (Naomie Harris). Mining the source novel by Alain de Botton for a few sly insights into love, as well as a smattering of laughs at Duncan’s expense, it is middling material shot too obviously on the cheap (much of it looks British cable-access quality) and not terribly deserving of its festival slot.

Serious Moonlight

It’s hard to imagine a nicer tribute to the late Adrienne Shelly than Serious Moonlight, a chirpily wicked little adaptation of one of her scripts by Cheryl Hines, who starred in Shelly’s Waitress. Serious Moonlight starts with the same kind of trucked-in homespun charm that energized Waitress, but quickly detours from such gooeyness without surrendering its wide-eyed innocence. Ian (Timothy Hutton) is on the verge of leaving his wife Louise (Meg Ryan) for a much younger woman (Kristen Bell), but when she hears the news, Louise refuses to accept it. She beans him with a flowerpot, and when he wakes up duct-taped to a chair, she’s cheerily trying to convince him that he actually does still love her. It’s like a perky Misery. Hines makes the most of Shelly’s taut and nervy scenario, cadging good work out of all her leads, particularly Ryan, who hasn’t shown this kind of wanton spark in a long time. The final twist may be too easy to spot about a half-hour before it’s revealed, but it’s a clever comedy whose bright, sparkly surface helps to highlight the roiling currents beneath.

Rudo y Cursi

Worlds apart in style and substance, Rudo y Cursi is nevertheless a similarly fizzy comedy that occasionally dips into darker regions. For his feature directing debut, Alfonso Cuarón’s brother Carlos reunites Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal in a rags-to-riches-to-ridiculousness romp. Luna and Bernal play a pair of squabbling brothers who are ecstatic when they get snatched up from picking bananas in a small Mexican town to play pro soccer. Of course, the glare of fame and pressure of performance quickly rub off their country-boy naïveté (Luna plays a hard-working family man with a small gambling problem and Bernal a goofy half-wit with delusions of musical stardom). They are transformed into callow jerks who quite probably deserve their comeuppance. With the exception of a burdensome narration, Cuarón’s limber direction mostly stays out of his stars’ way, letting their charmingly fractious electricity enliven his paint-by-the-numbers script.

Another kind of star is on display in Michael Sladek’s energetically querulous documentary, Con Artist. Mark Kostabi is a quintessential narcissist, who behaves badly to get attention, then complains in a mopey way that no one realized it was all just a joke. A ball of nerves with an endless appetite for fame, Kostabi was one of the East Village’s Young Turk artists of the 1980s, shut out of the Soho scene and anxious to make his name by any means necessary. He gained infamy for an assembly-line approach to art, taking Warhol’s humorous tweaking of art-world mores to a new height. Kostabi sold paintings and drawings by the thousands, raking in the commissions while paying his worker bees minimum wage and turning his every media appearance into an “I’m in it for the money” performance art piece (it’s an early version of the act that turned Jeff Koons into a megastar). When one critic describes him as a “black hole of irony,” it’s hard to argue, particularly after hearing him say, “Modern art is a con and I am the world’s greatest con artist.” Sladek’s comic documentary (or “docucomedy,” as Kostabi himself helpfully suggested at an after-screening Q&A) doesn’t dismiss its subject as some has-been hack, but refuses to become part of Kostabi’s never-ending wink-wink.

Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB

It’s usually worth sitting through the punk-New York historical documentaries that crop up each year at Tribeca just for newly discovered footage. Mandy Stein’s Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB is pretty much par for the course in this mini-genre, giving an insider’s peek at the rise and fall of the club more identified than any other with the birth of punk rock. Stein combines still ripping old video footage of the Dead Boys and Talking Heads (for instance) pounding it out in the tiny Bowery club back in the late 1970s with the story of the club’s hard-fought demise in 2006. A larger narrative about the gentrification of New York and punk’s place in it gets lost amidst all the nostalgic celebrity reveries. However, Stein does give respectful credence to the club’s gentle warhorse of a founder, Hilly Kristal, who served as a surrogate father to innumerable punks and other reprobates who slouched through his infamously scummy club (he succumbed to lung cancer not long after CBGB shuttered). High points include emotional footage from the last concert — Patti Smith’s final benediction has a particular resonance — and interludes following Jim Jarmusch and Luc Sante as they examine the sedimentary layers of graffiti and stickers on the CBGB walls and reminisce about the days when New York was dangerous and punks were poor.

Another blast from the past appears in Duncan Jones’ quietly gonzo debut feature Moon. Jones is a fan of 1970s’ dystopic flicks like Silent Running, and boy, does it show. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a decidedly unglamorous astronaut in the near future working on a lunar mining station with a rather obsequious artificial intelligence named Gerty (Kevin Spacey). It’s clear that Sam is fast approaching the end of his tether when we meet him, as he shuffles about the dingy station (no Kubrickian gleam here) and pines for his wife back on earth. Jones only has a few surprise cards to play in this sci-fi chamber piece, and he doles them out smartly. The best thing about Moon is Rockwell, whose unspooling sanity and devastating anguish are frightening to behold.

Still Walking

It’s difficult to talk about Kore-eda Hirokazu’s masterstroke Still Walking without lapsing into the kind of reverie that tends to afflict film lovers and annoy just about everyone else. But if you seek out this film (it should start a theatrical run this August), chances are you’ll absolutely understand. This understated film by the director of Nobody Knows tracks one Japanese family’s summer reunion in a seaside town on the anniversary of their son and sibling’s death 15 years earlier. They are comprised of recognizable types — the grumpy patriarch, chattery daughter, rambunctious grandchildren, and resentful son — but the notes Kore-eda has them perform are something else entirely. In between the epic meals and back-buzz of gossip, jokes, and argument, Kore-eda stitches small but striking moments, as when the mother, walking back after leaving flowers at her son’s grave, sees another looking empty and leaves flowers there too, just so some stranger’s resting place won’t be without. Easygoing but not lazy, Still Walking is a heat-buzzed pastoral that maintains a cool sense of dramatic precision. This is the kind of film that festivals were made to spotlight.

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