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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.

Another festival entry that captures its setting through the nature of its material—in this case, with an eye toward realism -- Amexicano dissects the ubiquitous immigration problem with the unlikely assistance of good-natured humor. Directed by Matthew Bonifacio from star performer Carmine Farmigelietti’s script, the story follows a portly Queens native (Farmigelietti) named Bruno who spends his days in California lazily avoiding finding a job to pay rent. When circumstances force him to do so, he taps into the resources of a nearby corner, where several Mexicans wait out the day in hopes of receiving work. After a rough start, he hires a competent assistant to help him with construction work on his landlord’s back yard. While the young Mexican doesn’t speak English, he offers Bruno immediate friendship. For a while, Amexicano carries the light air of a buddy comedy, and a good one to boot. Farmigelietti creates very believable characters and builds a situation that unquestionably takes place on a regular situation. But the filmmakers don’t trust the solid conventions of comedy to carry the plot all the way through. Without revealing too much, let me just say that the there’s a strange tonal shift around the the third act that doesn’t quite fit everything else (as one viewer remarked, “It’s like two movies!”) Nevertheless, Bruno’s growing awareness of the difficulties plaguing California’s immigrant population, and his eventual desire to take action, offer a much more insightful angle on the issue than most recent documentaries.

The tropes of contemporary documentaries are so familiar now that pretty much anybody with a DV camera can make parody them; Zak Penn’s The Grand does exactly that, and brings a little Hollywood glitz along with it. Penn wrote a slew of commercial blockbusters, including the X-Men movies, but he’s increasingly playful as a director. His first movie, Incident at Loch Ness, purported to be a behind-the-scenes look at the production of a nonfiction narrative about the Loch Ness monster directed by Werner Herzog, starring the obsessive German director himself. Herzog also surfaces in The Grand, as do enough famous names to make even the strongest marquee come crashing down. Here’s a taste: Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Richard Kind, Hank Azaria, Ray Romano, Jason Alexander and a few other surprises. Penn uses the tried-and-true mockumentary technique recognizable from Christopher Guest’s career, aiming for consistent and immediate hilarity. Following a large crowd of characters in the moments leading up to a massive poker tournament, Penn turns the game on its ear, milking the eccentric personalities it attracts for its worth. Overall, it’s a hit-or-miss affair, but when it’s on, it’s really on: Harrelson could portray a druggy casino owner in his sleep, and Cross never played a loser you couldn’t like.

Familiar faces also make the rounds in Nobel Son, a mercilessly entertaining satire of literary snobbism that manages a few good jabs at academic elitism before losing its way. Director Randall Miller (who brought us the Arnold Schwarzenegger absurdity The Sixth Man) spins a tale of deceit and betrayal with a healthy dose of dark comedy. Eli (the always amazing Alan Rickman) wins the Nobel Prize for Chemistry just as his disgruntled son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) gets close to finishing his PhD. Crushed by the shadow of his father’s success, he turns his back on the man—until he gets kidnapped by brilliantly insane Thadeus James (Shawn Hatosy), who claims to be his half-brother, the product of Eli’s affair. These events set in motion an unpredictable, if occasionally crass, affair: Thadeus and Barkley ultimately team up to con their father, while a police investigator (a slightly campy Bill Pullman) starts to uncover the scheme. Also, Danny DeVito shows up as the oddball gardener, and Ernie Hudson heads the misguided attempt to save the day. The movie simultaneously feels woefully postmodern and refreshingly new; its obscenely dense plot taps into the same sense of glee that got revitalized with Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.

On the other end of the spectrum from such unhindered popcorn fare, Tribeca offers a hefty amount of historical documentaries, both personal and political. Invisibles follows documentarian David Blaustein’s attempts to uncover his family’s progress from Eastern Europe to their final home in Argentina. While far too long once it reaches the two-hour mark, Blaustein does a fine job of showing how the whims of life in the face of international catastrophe (in this case, the Holocaust) can define a person’s existence. The credits roll as the Jewish mourner’s prayer blares on the soundtrack, drawing out the themes of memory and anguish to their greatest potential.

A much more ambitious undertaking, Forging a Nation is a series of documentary and fictional shorts produced by Javier Barden and Doctors Without Borders, tackling a broad variety of problems centering on global suffering. The most recognizable filmmaker is Wim Wenders, but his efforts and those of the other directors involved suffer from rampant didacticism. Each short ends with a title card explaining the background that gives the drama its consequence (in Wenders’ piece, for example, women in the Democratic Republic of Congo discuss the national rape problem). But I prefer my lessons delivered through nuanced storytelling, rather than stuffed down my throat. But that’s just me -- I like mining for metaphor in zombie movies, after all.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Mulberry Street
Amexicano
The Grand
Nobel Son
Invisibles
Forging a Nation

Posted at April 30, 2007 6:16 AM

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