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Shotgun Blast of Talent

Tribeca's trenchant trio: The men of Shotgun Stories

By Vadim Rizov

Shotgun Stories is a genuinely exciting debut from an unknown quantity -- a rarity at Tribeca, even if the film itself is too weird and unbalanced to be an unqualified success. Jeff Nichols' debut plays like hicksploitation run through a David Gordon Green filter -- not terribly surprising, since the man himself is one of the producers. The mixture is as unstable as it sounds: The pitch-perfect framing and performances are all in service of a tone that's impossible to pin down. Is Shotgun Stories a mocking vision of the Deep South with actors straining to keep straight faces? Probably not -- the film's too steeped in its location shooting to be a giant put-on, and Nichols is an Arkansas native -- but this is a story about taciturn men whose most-used word is "Shee-it" and who don't seem to think any time is a bad time to crack open a Miller High Life.

Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (first-timer Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) are brothers in an unidentified Arkansas. Son has a low-skill, low-paying job, which makes him the stand-out of the clan. "I used to be able to divide up to four decimal points in my head," he says, lamenting his place in life and inability to move above a yearly income of $20,000. Boy coaches the lackluster local high school basketball team and lives in his van; Kid works alongside Son but still lives in a tent on Son's lawn. Son and Kid are taciturn types, while Boy is the Paul Schneider of this film, an awkward fat goofball. The film's opening stasis is broken by news of their dad's death. Dad -- formerly a mean drunk -- got religion and ditched the family to remarry when they were kids, leaving them, as Son says, "in the hands of a hateful woman." The trio of brothers show up at dad's funeral, leaving his new family - which has four brothers -- with a few choice words and spit on dad's coffin. The Southern blood feud is on.

It's hard to judge Nichols' intentions completely: do people in Arkansas really take any excuse for senseless revenge killings and general ass-kicking? In any case, a film of 90 minutes devotes maybe all of three to actual incidents of violence, keeping the tone oddly but pleasingly becalmed. (Even Green’s Undertow made more overt concessions to conventional drama.) Less difficult to swallow is the brothers' complicated relationship to their town, equal parts disdain for its shiftless inactivity and a willingness to take advantage of its inconsequentiality to be slobs. Kid announces at one point that he's taking his girlfriend to a buffet. "Special," replies Son, and the sarcasm is perfectly leavened with the acknowledgment that there's nothing else to do. The rest is all hanging out, camaraderie, the occasional burst of tension and rapturous fields and sun flares. Regardless of intention, this is Tribeca's most exciting debut. The film was inexplicably rejected by Sundance, and their loss was Berlin’s gain and now ours.

Another startlingly good out-of-nowhere film – albeit not of quite the same caliber – is Mascha Novikova and Frank van den Engel’s Between Heaven and Earth, easily the best documentary I’ve seen in competition so far. It begins with a long, long tracking shot of a man in a Puma track suit riding his motorcycle and carrying a monkey. It’s initially a startling image, but the duration of the shot precludes any accusations of exploitative quirkiness and makes the film’s art fag credentials clear. Eventually, things become clearer: The man is carrying a monkey because he’s a circus performer, one of Uzbekistan’s traveling troupers. He and his family travel from city to city, performing various, mildly death-defying feats of weight-lifting, tightrope walking, and the like. The framing of his daughter’s high-wire act is mesmerizing, the ropes forming crisp diagonals while a perfect sun flare blocks off part of the frame.

You might be forgiven for slowly coming to realize that this is a political documentary, considering the film doesn’t unveil its true nature for 20 minutes. The man isn’t just a performer, he’s a member of the dissident political party ERK, and he spent six-and-a-half years in jail for it at one point. Novikova conducts interviews with the family in Russian, interpolating the performance footage with slow revelations about Uzbekistan’s appallingly oppressive political climate and how it’s taken its toll on the family. By the time performance footage is shown for the last time (one too many times, really), the expressions on the family’s faces have changed meaning, making clear an emotional dynamic that was unseeable at the start. Formally crisp if overlong, the film is constantly gorgeous in its HD photography and reasonably entrancing throughout. The result would still probably work better as a medium-length film; that Novikova and den Engel chose (perhaps for market reasons) to go for a short feature is understandable and, given the results, an overall good thing.

In Variety parlance, A Dirty Carnival is "slickly lensed," and thinking of A Dirty Carnival in Hollywood terms makes sense. A Korean gangster movie with few plot surprises and regular bits of violence, Yoo Ha's film is a generic but smoothly assembled entertainment. Byong-Doo (Jo In-Seong) is a small-time gangster who collects debts for his various bosses while struggling to keep his family afloat. The clan's hierarchy is impossibly complicated, with seemingly everyone bowed to as boss bowing to an even higher boss. Byong-Doo can't move up; his duplicitous boss Sang-Cheol (Yun Je-Mun) keeps promising him promotions and rescinding them. A desperate Byong-Doo does as all film gangsters must, killing, stabbing and betraying as necessary to work up the ladder. Crime, of course, does not pay, and the film builds to the inevitable tragic if unaffecting conclusion.

A Dirty Carnival is vastly entertaining for a while before running out of steam during its overblown 140 minutes, but it's still a good time for people who know exactly what they like. There's a convincing case to be made that Korea is the new Hollywood, putting out competent assembly-line entertainment with greater flair than the real article can manage these days. The one genuinely original element here is a sub-plot that cleverly morphs into the main plot about Byong-Doo's childhood friend Min-Ho (Nam-Gung Min), now an aspiring filmmaker. Min-Ho finds Byong-Doo again because he wants real stories and research for his gangster script. As the film moves on, he gets his movie and success, but at an unprecedented cost. In the background of all this seriousness you can almost hear Yoo Ha snickering to himself: All this trouble to make a lousy movie? Couldn't be worth it.

This may be the only time I ever bash a film for not being crowd-pleasing enough, but here goes: Pablo Trapero's Born and Bred is a perfectly fun in occasional-to-minute patches but inexplicably feels the needs to throw in intimations of tragedy relentlessly, leading to heavy-handedness and tonal schizophrenia. Santiago (Guillermo Pfening) runs an interior decorating business with his wife Milli (Martina Gusman) while maintaining a bickering marriage that alternates between great sex and passive-aggressive arguments with Milli about everything under the sun. On the way to a weekend retreat at Milli's mom's country house, there's a horrific car crash, and an abrupt cut finds Santiago in the wilds of Argentina's Patagonia region, trying on his best mountain-man look while hanging out with a bunch of other machos and trying to forget the past.

Until the crash, sad to say, there's little to recommend here. Trapero has an excellent eye for widescreen compositions, but the opening scenes of domestic life are neither entrancingly beatific nor weighed down with weird overtones of what's to come; they're simply filler to set up what's to come. Life with the machos is considerably more fun, encompassing such slacker jobs as shooting animals for furs and working at an airport where the harsh weather conditions allow for take-off seemingly only ever other day. But Santiago is Tortured, and his endless crying jags and psychotic freak-outs don't let the comic scenes build any momentum. Life at the airport in particular is a blast -- they spend most of their time waking up sleeping passengers just to inform them that their flight is cancelled and abusing the emergency alarm to invite each other to tea. All redeeming elements are quashed when Santiago finally spills his guts therapeutically and returns home to the dumbest non-genre twist ending ever. Trapero, along with Lucrecia Martel (La Cienaga, The Holy Girl) is considered one of Argentina's most promising new auteurs, but, visual flair aside, he has a long way to go.

It's pretty hard to fuck up inherently fascinating home movies, and Péter Forgács mostly does justice to his material. Miss Universe 1929 is assembled from footage of Lisl Goldarbeiter, mostly taken by her lovestruck admirer (and cousin) Marci Tenczer. Both born in 1909, Lisl and Marti maintained a friendship even though she moved to Austria and he to Hungary. Lisl grew up to be Miss Austria, which led in turn to her appearing at and winning Miss Universe in Galveston, Texas. Legendary director King Vidor was among the panel of judges, and offered her a two-year contract if she would consent to learn stage English, but a homesick Lisl returned to Austria and got married, albeit not to Marti. As the title date indicates, and constant interpolations of archival footage of marching right-wingers remind us, this turned out to be a bad move.

Miss Universe 1929 is most interesting in its opening, with plenty of footage of turn-of-the-century Viennese cafes and early talking footage of Lisl enunciating her happiness in heavily-accented English. Forgács understands how to freeze-frame crucial moments of the rough surviving footage, pausing at key moments when the subject unwittingly looks directly into the lens and creates an inadvertent portrait. Understandably, the film eventually turns to the rise of the Nazis and the inevitable calamities that befell the families, a sad but also familiar and unsurprising story that at least has the perk of a happy ending. As engaging as it is for its first half, Miss Universe 1929 is a TV documentary and it shows: nothing here demands big-screen viewing, let alone the $18 cost of admission. This is what PBS was made for, and the film's appearance here is frankly a slot-filler.

To be as quick-pitch reductive as possible, Diego Luna's Chávez aspires to be a Mexican When We Were Kings with greater formal daring. Vigorous and entertaining if not entirely convincing, the documentary posits Julio Cesar Chávez not just as a great boxer but as a key to understanding Mexico during the '90s. Instead of dragging us through a talking-heads-with-clips recap of Chávez's career, Luna jazzes it up, speeding through the first decade of fights before stopping for 10 minutes for a discussion of political corruption under the Carlos Salinas regime, with only the tenuous thread of Salinas' and Chávez's friendship to draw it in. His daring is admirable, but while most of the segments are interesting and keep things from getting too same-y, Luna never gets under Chávez's skin. At 78 minutes, the man himself is surprisingly absent from the screen, as relatives, promoters and reporters fill in. The result is a portrait of someone who's not there. While Muhammad Ali is invoked a few times (and, God bless him, Don King does show up to preach some typically insane gibberish), Chavez never acquires a personality or importance any greater than that of a superbly gifted boxer. Still, Chávez is an entertaining enough dossier that has the advantages of 35mm lensing (a luscious rarity in most documentaries) and playful form. Most actors' vanity projects aren't nearly this entertaining.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Shotgun Stories
Between Heaven and Earth
A Dirty Carnival
Born and Bred
Miss Universe 1929

Posted at April 28, 2007 6:54 AM

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