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Golden Rules

goldendoor_250.jpgCharlotte Gainsbourg in the poignant Golden Door

By Michelle Orange

And so it begins. I can’t think of a better kick-off for both the festival and my review coverage than the Golden Door, Emanuele Crialese’s heartfelt and affecting look at the emigration process (the title refers to Emma’s Lazarus’ famous reference to the golden door at Ellis Island) over 20 million people went through between 1890 and 1930. Before making the short trip across the river (and almost directly into what is now the Tribeca neighborhood) new citizens went through an (often absurdly) rigorous protocol of exams, paperwork and acclimation while in limbo at Ellis Island. My great-grandfather (and very probably yours, as 40 percent of Americans can draw their ancestry directly through Ellis Island), a southern Italian, made the trip at around the same time as the Sicilian family in The Golden Door, and Crialese’s attention to both recreating the boat passage and Ellis Island itself is wondrous in its detail.

Poor as dirt, widower Salvatore has had it with his peasant existence in Italy, and decides to take his two sons and his reluctant, witchy mother with him to the New World. On the passage he meets Lucy (Charlotte Gainsborough, perfectly cast), a mysterious redheaded Englishwoman with whom the whole ship is captivated; the two share a flirtation that results in a bargain once they reach the shore. Though Crialese, a Sicilian himself, exploits the stereotype that southerners are little more than the band of illiterate crazies you would expect from the ass-end of Italy, ultimately there is warmth and dignity in the dreams of Salvatore and his family, and some wonderfully poignant, surreal imagery to match.

Emigration of a different sort is the subject of Blue State, Marshall Lewy’s surprisingly sharp-elbowed road trip flick about a Kerry campaigner who makes good on his vow (Unlike the rest of you! Chickens!!) to move to Canada should George W. Bush win in ’04. John Logue (Breckin Meyer) meets Chloe (Anna Paquin) in his search for a traveling companion; the blue-haired Chloe seems a little off, but she’s cute enough to get away with it. Paquin and Meyer develop an interesting, organic chemistry as they try to figure out just where they might be going. Chloe is the wild card, and it turns out that she is hiding something, a secret that emerges along with the appearance of the Canadian border.

I can’t help but nitpick on the local details (especially since several of the people involved in the film, including Paquin, have Canadian ties) such as the border guard in what would logically be British Columbia being French Canadian, the mention of passports being checked (in 2004 Americans did not need passports to enter Canada), or the duo arriving in Winnipeg -- three provinces and maybe four days drive away -- shortly after crossing; I won’t even go into the accents and cult member demeanor of the Canadians. And now that I have done my own patriotic duty I can say that Blue State is an extremely likable film, with subtle and engrossing turns by its leads, along with a healthy dose of political currency.

Both The Killing of John Lennon and Gardener of Eden owe a dubious debt to Taxi Driver, one (take a guess) more dubiously than the other. Writer/director Andrew Piddington’s first feature film chronicles the three months in the life of Mark David Chapman leading up to his murder of John Lennon in New York City. Newcomer Jonas Ball is uneasily magnetic in taking on the thankless role of Chapman, and provides the heavy voice over narration, which, along with most of the dialogue, is taken from actual Chapman writings or records. Piddington also shot on actual locations, including Hawaii, the Dakota, and through the smeared city lights as seen from the backseat of a yellow cab, which is where the Bickle-ness comes in. In case you didn’t catch on, Chapman goes ahead and quotes Bickle at one point, aligning his mission to eradicate the “phony” Lennon with the mohawked one’s invocation of the hard rain that’s gonna fall. It is extremely discomfiting being as close to Chapman’s experience of this period of near complete psychosis as Piddington seems to want us to be, and the graphic murder scene (with shadowy John and Yoko stand-ins) is heartbreaking. I don’t happen to believe that -- outside of the medical profession -- the sane have much to learn from the insane, and yet the case of Chapman is Exhibit A in what must be a new axis of insanity: that informed by and seeking a place in the popular culture.

Riding the last (or, more probably, the latest) train to Bickleton is Gardener of Eden, Entourage star Kevin Connolly’s second film. That would be Bickleton (you thought I was kidding), New Jersey, where Adam Harris (Lukas Haas, glowering with all his might) attempts to escape his dead end life and that of his friends (including Jerry Ferrara and a repugnantly excellent Giovanni Ribisi) when he apprehends a rapist during an asinine incident of random violence. Adam also randomly meets one of the rapist’s victims (Erika Christensen, finding some unlikely grace) and the two begin dating. Thinking he has found his calling as a self-styled avenger, greasy hothead Adam goes into training, though his brain -- along with the trumped up, superhero ethos of this movie -- remains as flabby as a South Jersey soccer mom.

When Susan and Patti, two Boston women, both having lost husbands on September 11, and both pregnant at the time, met in 2002 and decided to form a coalition to help aid the widows of Afghanistan, director Beth Murphy began documenting their plight. In Beyond Belief, Murphy finds some striking narrative traction in the domestic lives of her subjects, but sometimes loses footing ( and direction) with long passages of charity bike rides, or talks given to cadets. The film finds it heart particularly in a blissfully mundane scene of some late night envelope stuffing, as the two friends speak frankly about their roles and their lives. “I hate Saturday mornings!” Patti exclaims, almost despite herself, and the anguish of loss and loneliness in that one sentence speaks multitudes. Murphy follows the women to Afghanistan as they seek to meet the women they are trying to help, and even while risking the triteness of such a scenario, the interplay between the cultures is striking and overwhelming. Murphy is careful not to overexpose many of the delicate angles in play, and her subjects are rendered as deeply human, and deeply sincere.

While, as The Golden Door illustrates, Italy is well-versed in the art of emigration, it is a country notoriously inhospitable to its own immigrants. Agostino Ferrente had a vision for the Piazza Vittorio, the run down area around Rome’s train station that those in the know will tell visitors to avoid. It also happens to have a large (and hotly contested) immigrant population. When a local “sexy movie” theatre was slated to be turned into a bingo hall, Ferrente and Mario Tronco attempted to assemble an international orchestra of local, immigrant musicians, and petitioned the city to make the theatre their home. L' Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio takes an ultra lo-fi, loose and good-natured documentary approach to the backstage musical, though it slackens occasionally and the political undercurrents of Italy’s election and immigration protests in Rome are given uneven and unsatisfying attention.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Golden Door
Blue State
The Killing of John Lennon
Gardener of Eden
Beyond Belief
L' Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio

Posted at April 26, 2007 7:24 AM

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