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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.

Large cast projects like The Air I Breathe primarily suffer from too much ambition. Human suffering tends to find a better vessel in intimate settings, with a smaller scope and balanced attention to the characters who deserve our sympathy. You’ll find that in The Cake Eaters, accomplished actress Mary Stuart Masterson’s affecting debut. Shot in the quiet beauty of the Catskills, the movie centers on the subtle conflicts of two families whose fates become intertwined by the nature of their affectionate country bumpkin perspective. Aging butcher Easy (Bruce Dern) loses his wife to illness before the story begins. His youngest son, Beagle (Aaron Stanford of Pyro fame), serves food in the school cafeteria, and his estranged hipster brother Guy (Jayce Bartok, also the screenwriter) shows up from a lengthy exile in the city when his hopes of becoming a rock star get shot to sunshine.

Using an appreciably minimal pace, Masterson unites the characters under the shared experiences of relationships, the most ambitious being Beagle’s burgeoning attraction to sprightly neighborhood high schooler Georgia (Kristen Stewart), whose debilitating muscular illness doesn’t hinder her irresistible grin and sexual prowess. Masterson has a real knack for framing two characters within a particular situation in order to reflect their psychological connection. That’s the assistance needed to understand genuine conflict; unlike the approach in The Air I Breathe, we’re not getting the message stuffed down our throats.

That being said, Cake Eaters delivers its message in waves of blatant overstatements compared to the absurdist French romp Avida. Wielding a loony approach that suggests Fargo through the lens of David Lynch by way of Edgar Allen Poe, this fish-out-of-water entry amid Tribeca’s primarily mainstream selections offers an eccentric’s delight. A couple of shoddy and deformed kidnappers snatch the porky wife of a billionaire in the hopes of attaining some quick cash. Through several inexplicable circumstances, she turns them into her slaves; the plot churns along in virtual nonsense for the duration of the running time. But I’m a sucker for surrealism, so I can attest: It’s good nonsense. Directors Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern (whose similarly stylized Aaltra played at Tribeca two years ago) shoot in grainy black and white reminiscent of Eraserhead, and the final image recreates a Dali painting without delving too deeply into the meaning of the work. Sitting through the incessant abnormalities of Avida reminded me of watching the classic Dali/Bunuel team-up Un Chien Andalou. The joys of getting lost in dreamy subconscious expression never loses its base appeal.

Another enduring entertainment that I can attach to experiences of my youth: Video games. Although I’m not old enough to remember the saga of Donkey Kong champs chronicled in the amusing documentary The King of Kong, anyone who grew up in the Nintendo generation owes to debt to these obsessive pioneers. Seth Gordon’s lighthearted feature was the big purchase this past year at Slamdance. These thumb-twiddling veterans made big waves in the early 1980s following a profile in Life magazine, and while several of them have moved on to more lucrative pursuits, none seems to have lost their love of the game. Intriguingly enough, the complicated Sundance entry Chasing Ghosts deals with the same group of characters and offers a superior glimpse into their private lives, but Kong nails the idiosyncrasies of their hobby. Hardly the humble sorts, they’re not out to change the whole world -- only their own. (Here in New York, you’d be apt to follow up a screening with a visit to Williamsburg’s Barcade to see what the fuss is about.)

For true sense for how activism can define a career, check out the nifty biographical documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, a detailed exploration of the motives and achievements of folk music’s raison d’etre. Seeger’s ability to inspire generations of banjo players -- and embolden the concept of artistic means of provoking social change -- carries a constantly touching hook. Director Jim Brown gives us equal parts of history, particularly Seeger’s perserverance in the face of censorship for his communist affiliations, and the singer’s personal philosophies, which he expounds upon from his woodsy home in upstate New York. The honesty of Seeger’s vision makes the MTV years affect on popular music look crass and hopeless, of course, but that’s no major eye-opener.

On the topic of crass and hopeless, I’ll say only this about the mercilessly stupid horror romp Rise: Blood Hunter: It stars Lucy Liu as a vengeful killer of the undead, and she miraculously retains all the sexy energy and femme fatality of her magnificent turn in Kill Bill. The movie, however, suffers from excruciating dialogue and numbingly predictable scare tactics. What the hell is this doing at a film festival? Some air isn’t worth a single breath.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

The Air I Breathe
The Cake Eaters
The King of Kong
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
Rise: Blood Hunter

Posted at May 1, 2007 7:16 AM

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