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May 4, 2007

A Walker Wonk's Wet Dream

The namesake of Stephen Kijak's documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

By Vadim Rizov

If you're not a music geek and the thought of watching Jarvis Cocker issue a string of bons mots doesn't get you all hot and bothered -– especially if you don’t know or care who Jarvis Cocker actually is -- you might as well skip down to the rest of the reviews. Like most music docs, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man preaches to the converted, rolling out a seemingly incongruous coalition of musicians and music geeks united only to praise its subject as one of the most influential. Musicians. Ever. Other highlights of the film include: listening to excerpts from Walker's songs; watching goofy screen-saver-ish illustrations accompany Walker’s songs; and listening to Walker talk about his songs. In other words, pure cinematic value disassociated from the subject is at a low premium, although the doc is as well-assembled as these things get.

Director Stephen Kijak's main task is to locate the roots of Walker's formerly deep-buried sadness and weirdness in his pop-star days with the Walker Brothers, and he succeeds admirably. There's no messing about in the interviews with said admiring subjects (who include Cocker, Damon Albarn, David Bowie, and, uh, Sting), just quotable bits, and the archival footage is all on point. Kijak moves swiftly from Walker's early days with the Walker Brothers to his first interpretations of Jacques Brel, making him look positively foolish by intercutting between footage of a sweaty, consumptive-looking Brel contrasted with Walker at his '60s sex idol prime singing the same songs. But the heart of the documentary –- the entire latter half -- is about the last 12 years and the ultra-controversial Tilt and The Drift (the latter of which my sophomore year roommate claimed to dislike because it was just too frightening). To ease the transition, Kijak offers generous strong excerpts with goofy CGI that seems like a third-grader's attempt to imitate 2001. This actually turns out to be a good idea, forcing viewers to actually focus on the songs rather than try to process visuals at the same time. I can’t recommend the film to all but the most hardened music geeks, but I had more fun watching it than the vast majority of the slate.

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With a Friend Like This...

Friends forever: Daniel Auteuil and Julie Gayet in My Best Friend

By Eric Kohn

So much of the festival environment relies on finding new talent that the presence of established artists practically seems like an afterthought. The tenuous relationship between career success and festival recognition doesn’t apply to filmmakers whose name alone attracts a crowd. This year, Tribeca held a spot for Patrice Leconte, one of the finest contemporary French filmmakers, for his sizably budgeted comedy My Best Friend. The movie arrived at the festival with a distribution deal through IFC Films in place (it hits theaters July 13), meaning that its inclusion in the festival primarily serves to guarantee that some quality offerings that only a veteran can provide.

But what’s in a name? Not everything, unfortunately. I’ve admired Leconte’s inquisitive character studies for years; his magnificent reworking of The Prince and the Pauper in 2002’s The Man on the Train transcended the simple concept of a switcheroo to arrive at a simultaneously touching and engaging thriller; Intimate Strangers magnificently interrogated the relationship between a therapist and his patient without laying down too much psychobabble. My Best Friend shows Leconte’s fondness for personalities wrapped up in quixotic conflicts, but the premise is too incredulous even by his own standards: A heartless art dealer (Daniel Auteuil) learns from his colleagues that he has no friends (business partners don’t count). Fiercely intent on proving them wrong, he sets out to find a perfect candidate to fill in the blank. He eventually settles on an affable taxi driver (Dany Boon), whom he attempts to cajole into friendship. Naturally, the poor guy finds out, they have a few arguments, and a major reconciliation scene takes place on a French version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Really.

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May 3, 2007

Black White + Gray Area

(L-R) Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, the subjects of Black White + Gray

By Michelle Orange

That fact that Tribeca is filled with what are essentially competent television biographies of figures who would never make it past a preliminary production meeting at A&E has both good points and bad. The good, of course, is that we get to learn of people other than those who sell advertising; Anita O’Day and Scott Walker are two on offer at Tribeca this year. But the bad is that the format is so tried and true that many filmmakers see no reason to deviate from it.

Perhaps a sale to a television network is the goal for many festival directors, and who could blame them? Not one hour ago, after limping away from a six-hour movie marathon in a theater complex, I found myself contemplating a wall of boxed cinnamon buns beside an elderly lady at my local grocery store. She turned to me and said, “I remember when four of these were 99 cents -- we’d each buy a box and take them to the movies. When we’d leave the theater: Whoops! No more cinnamon buns!” I laughed and said it’s a good thing what you eat at the movies doesn’t count, and she said, “That was a long time ago, I don’t go to the movies anymore. Now everything is on TV anyway, why would I go to the movies?”

Well, I don’t know that James Crump’s Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe is going to convince my C-Town crony to break her embargo; perhaps -- and perhaps ideally -- she’s right and it will end up on TV anyway. Crump has the format down, and Wagstaff, whose relationship with Mapplethorpe came in some way to define the lives and careers of both men, proves an apt and ample subject. The marquee handsome Wagstaff, a privileged, pedigreed WASP and “deb’s delight” in the 1950s, was secretly gay and not-so-secretly loathing his life in advertising. He returned to school to study fine art at NYU and got into curation during a time -- very different from today, it is observed -- when a museum curator or collector could function almost like an artist him or herself.

Taking an interest in photography when others in the art community turned up their noses, Wagstaff quickly gained the reputation as a tastemaker and began amassing a collection of late 19th-century photography, a lot of it anonymous, with a special eye on the poignant and perverse (decapitations especially seemed to do it for him). When Wagstaff met Mapplethorpe in the early '70s, bells were said to ring and a match was made, though some commenters acidly note that the 26-year-old from Queens saw nothing but a cash cow. Patti Smith and Dominick Dunne make appearances, but even better is the peek into Wagstaff’s collection (ultimately he sold it to the Getty Museum), which brings to bear the film’s most interesting idea: that a collector can use his carefully selected pieces to construct something of a self-portrait. The sad coda is that both men died of AIDS, during the first and hopefully the worst assault of the “gay cancer” against New York’s art community.

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Devil Thrives in the Details

One of the many Darfur atrocities haunting the documentary The Devil Came on Horseback

By Eric Kohn

Activist causes take kindly to the documentary format because it provides an immediate venue for expression. Sign all the petitions you want, but at the end of the day, the power of image wins out. So it goes with The Devil Came on Horseback, which explores the horrific genocide of Darfur by letting the visuals tell the story. In fact, gut-wrenching stills and video of natives who suffered at the hands of the government-armed milita group Janjaweed don’t only lead the narrative -- they dictate its existence. Consistent in its method and indisputably well-made, The Devil Came on Horseback could do for Darfur awareness what An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming.

Directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern keenly follow the experiences of US Marine Capt. Brian Steidle, a hardened fighter whose position in the area as the village massacres began to increase in frequency gave him a unique angle on the unfolding disaster. Steidle was sent by the United States to keep watch over the region’s ceasefire between opposing communities (“How do you monitor a ceasefire?” he asks), but they equipped him not with a gun but a camera. Unable to help prevent the Janjaweed attacks in Darfur (his reports on the events were repeatedly ignored), Steidle headed back to the country and shared his exclusive photographs with The New York Times, instantly raising national awareness of the events abroad. He became a momentary hero, appearing on talk shows and giving speeches, driving home the message that the country has a duty to get on the ground and restore order to the fragile African region.

No sooner did the flurry of attention climax, however, than the backlash came hard and fast, replete with government cover-ups and denials from all concerned parties. Steidle remains on message, but the responsible parties have kept him marginalized. Sundberg and Stern use Steidle as their anchor, combining his narration with footage shot in Darfur and in the United States to craft a timeless narrative: Mr. Smith goes to Washington, but he can’t make it to the Senate floor. One of the most receptive audiences to Steidle’s speeches, interestingly enough, comes from Jewish communities. It takes an experienced eye to recognize a Holocaust in action, apparently.

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May 2, 2007

Meadows' England Worth Visit

Thomas Turgoose as the young anti-hero of Shane Meadows' This is England (Photo: IFC First Take)

By Vadim Rizov

Roughly 60 percent of the way through, Tribeca is offering roughly a 1 in 3 chance that what you're seeing will actually be good. The trouble for the average viewer is that there's not too many hyped movies coming in from other festivals guaranteed to be noteworthy, and it's virtually impossible to sift through the smaller films and get a good feel for any of them. Anything, it seems, can get a positive review from Variety. It's a pleasure, then, to find that two of the festival's sure things -- This Is England and The Gates -- actually deliver on their promise.

This Is England is arguably the higher-profile of the two: Shane Meadows' drama about skinhead life in the Thatcher era was controversial before it even premiered, and ratings battles are still going on. The opening credits are the best of the fest so far, a montage of '80s images that actually feels fresh. Maybe there's a British equivalent of lazy '60s montages splicing together the moon landing, Woodstock and Vietnam to Jefferson Airplane, but here instead it's Thatcher, the Falklands and the first CDs being pressed with a reggae backbeat. Initially the film makes like a shaven-headed Dazed and Confused, throwing in young, bullied and recently fatherless Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) with an adoptive pack of friendly youths. The kids shave Shaun's head, get him into some Doc Martens and introduce him to the pleasures of smashing up abandoned houses. As the screenplay reminds us, skinheads weren't initially racist; the original generation actually arose from an infatuation with black culture, reggae in particular. So far, so innocent.

The fun can't last, of course, but Meadows perfectly negotiates the shift from comedy to tragedy, never lapsing into rote didacticism. Correction: While there's no verbal preaching, there is a plaintive piano score. It almost ruins the movie, signaling clearly (and unnecessarily) whenever something bad has happened. Hard as it is to believe, it's quite literally the only element keeping this film from genuine greatness. Whatever he thinks, Meadows probably doesn't need to give us any overt cues that, say, beating a Jamaican nearly to death is a Bad Thing. And the music works against the film's complex characterization, which refuses to demonize the newly aggressive skinheads as somehow inhuman or inherently evil. The skinheads may be racists, but they're also out-of-time nationalists, as dumb and easily misled as they are dangerous - and, crucially, right about the appalling nature of the Falkland Islands War. Though This Is England is hardly fun after its first half-hour, it's riveting pretty much straight through, and a major example of political filmmaking done right (even if Meadows stresses the Falkland angle about five too many times). Now if we could just get rid of that damn piano...

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Matt Perry, Uncomfortably Numb

Matthew Perry, smoked out in Harris Goldberg's Numb

By Michelle Orange

From this afternoon’s random sampling one might deduce that, like slime mold, all the sad young men have picked up and headed for the water. California, to be exact. Numb, Good Time Max, and In Search of a Midnight Kiss all seemed to have a bizarre number of things in common: dysfunctional men who move to Los Angeles; mothers who are either cold bitches or fare-thee-well featherweight and fathers who are absent or oblivious; a woman who’s going to fix everything (OK, only two of them have that); and a key character reference made via masturbation (one wants to jerk off on a bunny rabbit, another to his roommate’s girlfriend and the third to a three-second snippet of porn on a loop). I’m not even sure what all of this means, but it was too obvious not to note. Especially that last one. I only know one guy in LA, and I feel like I should give him a call. Maybe I can tell him about slime mold, it’s about the grossest thing I’ve ever heard.

I have to admit I have always had a soft spot for Matthew Perry, and though I mourn the loss of his chin, I still find him a very appealing comic presence, one fizzing with the uncomfortable zetz of darker terrain. In Numb, a Canadian film directed and written by Harris Goldberg, Perry jumps at the chance to go deep, though the film keeps some softball humor at the ready. Perry plays Hudson, a moderately depressed screenwriter who (over)smokes a joint and is sent over the edge into what is diagnosed as “depersonalization disorder.” Desperate not just to feel like himself again but to feel anything at all, Hudson seeks out a variety of treatments, and a host of drugs, running the shrink circuit like the unholy gauntlet the filmmaker apparently believes it to be.

When Hudson meets Sara (Tori Amos look-alike Lynn Collins), the need to get better becomes imperative; they trade flaws (he compares her to a lion, she insists he looks like an owl), watch the golf channel and tiptoe around what is clearly Hudson’s crippling issue. The problem (other than the fact that if Perry resembles anything it is -– as I have maintained for over a decade –- Beaker from The Muppet Show) is not the warm zip of chemistry between the two leads, but the unsteady handling of what is being presented as a serious problem with serious ramifications on the one hand but possibly just a bad patch on the other. Goldberg works in some really funny moments with Kevin Pollak as Hudson’s writing partner, and a hilarious turn by Mary Steenburgen, and Hudson’s frustration, which leads him to extremes in behavior to feel normal, is credible, but the resolution seems to undercut Hudson’s struggle to have his suffering taken seriously. It felt too easy to me, possibly because I began to root for the film, which musters a fair share of charm nevertheless.

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May 1, 2007

Air I Breathe A Little Stale

Forest Whitaker and friend in Jieho Lee's The Air I Breathe

By Eric Kohn

A horrifying revelation about mediocrity hit me upon realizing the similarities between Tribeca’s obligatory star-studded faux indie The Air I Breathe and Paul Haggis’ detestable Crash: People actually like it. Stories that play loosely with human tragedy and toy with contrivances of fate and coincidence attract unwarranted praise like flypaper. It doesn’t hurt that both movies are populated with droves of pretty faces (all of them in anguish), and probably not a coincidence that they share Brendan Fraser (he seems to get increasingly goofy when he tries to play it straight). Among the other familiar names: Forest Whitaker, Kevin Bacon, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Andy Garcia.

All talented performers in their own right, they do their best with the lackluster material, and it’s not entirely bad, just awkwardly redundant until its final nosedive in the last five minutes. The basic premise finds several characters bereft of hope in a world of crime and desperation. Their individual experiences unfold as short acts categorized by their emotional wavelength (happiness, pleasure, sorrow and love), which intersect in various gasp-inducing ways, but the gimmick gets repeated so many times that audiences could probably use some extra oxygen. First-time director Jieho Lee doesn’t lack for postmodern influences, sporting the in-your-face ensemble storytelling reminiscent of Magnolia and every gangster cliché this side of Tony Soprano (Garcia does his best Al Pacino as the dangerous crime boss Fingers; Frasier’s his deadpan prophetic hit man). And the first segment, starring Whitaker as a lonely stock broker whose gambling indulgence destroys his life, playfully combines terse drama and humor in a nice blend of narrative finesse. Appropriately enough, Whitaker’s character lands the script’s finest line: “Sometimes, being totally fucked is a liberating experience.” True, but not in this case.

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Carolla Hammers it Home

Adam Carolla, bound for glory in The Hammer

By Vadim Rizov

Lord knows I never imagined Adam Carolla's first vehicle as a leading man would be one of Tribeca's highlights, but so it goes. The success of Adam Sandler and the subsequent Frat Pack has made film safe for unapologetically guy-oriented comedies again, and Carolla -- the affably loutish co-host of Loveline and The Man Show -- runs well with the trend he (kind of) kick-started. The Hammer is the story of an affable low-class failure ("middle-class is one of the nicest things I've ever been called," he notes) who gets an unlikely second chance through sports.

Nothing unusual (I swear I didn't intentionally try to make it sound like Rocky), but The Hammer is executed with slightly more savoir-faire than could've been guessed, and intellectually it's years ahead of The Man Show. Carolla apparently no longer takes self-conscious pride in being as stereotypically guy-ish as possible. Instead, he reconfigures his persona slightly to emphasize what it's like to not just be a guy, but a poor guy. There's much talk in the first half-hour of Carolla's frustration at his low-pay construction work, and he has a rule for himself that states no marriage can come before landing a job with health care. It's an angle that feels way less tacked-on than, say, HBO's overrated Lucky Louie.

The script is formatted to toggle back and forth between plot sequences and little breaks in which Carolla can riff at will. In between, the inevitable romantic subplot finds Carolla winning his lady over by building a deck for her backyard. Wooing through construction skills is a new one, but why not? Lowbrow laughs abound, even as the script slowly ditches the surprising verisimilitude of the opening and goes for a straight fantasy of redemption. The best lines are the ones that aim lowest, like the construction foreman who growls at a Nicaraguan worker "No habla retardo, Speedy Gonzales. You're lazy even for a Mexican." The worker replies: "I'm from Nicaragua." Foreman: "Same difference." Who would've ever guessed that Carolla and Larry Clark (who pulls the same shit in Wassup Rockers?) were so close at heart.

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April 30, 2007

Gellar and Baldwin's Girl Trouble

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin in Suburban Girl

By Michelle Orange

After five days of complete Tribeca submersion, I have now jeopardized several friendships and developed a twitch in my left eye, all, it seems, to be the bearer of bad news about Suburban Girl, the adaptation of Melissa Bank's huge-selling The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. If you weren’t already gagging (via a spoon, ideally) on that title (why would they change it?), the sight of Sarah Michelle Gellar in various stages of clinchdom with Alec Baldwin just might do it. New York’s publishing industry is certainly ripe for its own Network (or perhaps more likely, Broadcast News), and this is just as certainly not it, though one could argue that it doesn’t aspire to be. The problem is it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and writer/director Marc Klein’s adaptation has taken most of the spark out of Bank's book, resulting in a tepid-to-smarmy chick flick.

Baldwin (in the Mr. Big school of New York high lifers) as Archie does his best to charm as mentor and lover to Gellar’s 24-year-old fledgling book editor, but the couple can’t overcome their soggy chemistry. Unlike Claire Danes’ mopey Shopgirl, Gellar’s editor is supposed to have her mind on her career, yet she hates her job and moves in with her raspy benefactor at the plot’s earliest convenience. Baldwin suffered some unkind jeering from the press screening jackals, but it is, sadly, a little rich to hear him talking about being a shitty father to (and leaving messages for) the daughter that will no longer speak to him. Suburban Girl more than meets the requisite gimme gimme girl movie quotient; I don’t know many associate editors who wear Christian Louboutin’s, but I guess they’re nice to look at, and New York is roughly sketched out in a host of visually flat clichés. Gooey chapter headings divide the film into episodes that find our young heroine coming of age via the guidance and foibles of a 50-year-old man. “A girl can’t grow up until she loses a father, and leaves an Archie,” Gellar says, by way of the standard “Let the River Run” epiphany. I’m sorry, but what a load of horseshit. No wonder it was a best seller.

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Mean Street: Mickle's Nifty Urban Horror

Eeek! A... rat? One of the creatures in Jim Mickle's Mulberry Street

By Eric Kohn

Zombie movies have been rife with metaphor since George Romero made Night of the Living Dead, but the allegorical implications of walking corpses aren’t built into the package. Most of the Italian entries in the genre provide heaps of gore and traumatizing cannibalistic imagery, but they generally come up short on social implications. Which gives the entertainment value of those movies a freer hand -- without external meaning, a bunch of lumbering monsters just need to look scary. Contemporary angles of horror movies walk a much more trepidatious line between pretentious distraction (consider the shot of the World Trade Center towers in the recent remake of The Omen) and convenient add-on (taking potshots at globalization and tourism in Hostel, in between the money shots of amputation). Jim Mickle’s Mulberry Street, a low budget attempt to find the proper balance, more or less pulls it off, primarily because of the decision to set the movie in Manhattan.

The summary’s ludicrous angle belies its fairly serious edge: New York’s dreaded city rats start biting residents without mercy, turning victims into giant rodent things with a taste for human flesh. The special effects are occasionally obscured by rapid camera movement, but first-time director Mickle unfurls the disaster with remarkable finesse. It takes a long time before the outbreak reaches its nadir, allowing us to understand the plights of the main characters, most of whom live in the same cruddy downtown building. These include a hardened Vietnam vet, his Iraq vet daughter and the typical cranky old man who lives upstairs. You know the one.

If the neighborhood qualities of Mulberry Street carry some familiar elements, they’re admittedly fantastical. The area where most of the action takes place looks too pristine for Chinatown, where it’s unlikely that any of the protagonists could afford to live. But that’s the same illusion sustained by Seinfeld and pretty much any recent Woody Allen, and I think it works a lot better here. The final rushed moments of the movie carry a vaguely cynical “there goes the neighborhood” nudge that indubitably uses the rat zombie as a symbol of decimated urban life. To that end, the metaphor works remarkably well; it’s the best attempt to tackle a New York state of grime since Abel Ferrara turned NYU students into vampires in The Addiction.

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