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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...

The Gates is the sixth and possibly final Albert Maysles film documenting the projects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. (They’re all getting old, after all, and Maysles is now 80.) I've seen all but one of the others and can attest that The Gates rests comfortably near the top of the heap, just below Christo's Valley Curtain. The project itself should be familiar to anyone who was in New York in 2005 or paid any attention to the news for the two weeks that 7,500 frames with orange hanging drapes dominated the walkways of Central Park. As with pretty much all of the duo's projects, permission was long and truculent in coming. Maysles opens with a Bloomberg press conference announcing the project's go-ahead, then flashes back to 1979, as the Christo team gathers to try and convince parks commissioner Gordon Davis to approve the project. The hostile reactions at the meetings are some of the most severe in the documentaries: At one end of the spectrum, people protest the defamation of nature, despite Christo's reminders that the entire park is an artificial creation. On the other side are people like the memorably misguided woman who protests that layering one work of landscape art on top of another would be like "Picasso painting Guernica on top of The Last Supper."

As with most of the documentaries (aside from the catastrophic Umbrellas, where a few accidental deaths halted the project before completion), the first half is devoted to wrangling for approval and the second to contemplating the finished object. The Gates raises the bar from the previous films with a closing half-hour-plus montage in which Christo and Jeanne-Claude almost completely disappear from the screen. It's a remarkable sequence which leaps from perfectly designed shot to shot, stringing together quiet contemplations of the many visual angles of the project with viewer reactions and quick snatches of park life. Personally I'm more interested in the process, but there's no denying the skill at work here. And major props for the gently self-deflating ending, which finds a park vendor nothing that this piece is "OK, but I liked their umbrellas thing more." It's always something.

A less-hyped but equally worthy discovery, Asghar Farhadi's Fireworks Wednesday is a perfectly calibrated chamber drama. In what may be a first for Iranian films screened on this side of the pond, women are treated not as unfortunate victims of society but as full-blooded people with careers, satisfying relationships and generally well-rounded lives. Rouhi (Tareneh Alidoosti) is saving up money from her cleaning job to pay for her upcoming wedding. Unnervingly, she finds herself in an apartment whose couple seems on the verge of collapse, if not utter insanity. The wife (Hedye Tehrani) is convinced that her husband's (Hamid Farokhnezad) having an affair, seemingly without any justification, and Rouhi becomes a pawn for spying and communication between the two over a workday that goes way past normal hours.

Drama awaits in the classical mode: Slow-burning discontents blossom into ever more violent confrontations. It's the hardest kind of drama to pull off -- virtually humorless and with frequent shouting -- but Farhadi avoids rote histrionics. The characters seem to move naturally to their frequently irrational actions, and the results are engrossing rather than shrill and overplayed. Seamlessly constructed and dependent on the excellent cast to keep going, it's still no filmed play: Farhadi uses the apartment's dividing lines and walls for all they're worth while editing for maximum tension and uptempo pacing. It may be the most conventional Iranian movie I've ever seen -- the coverage is fully up to Hollywood snuff -- but that hardly makes it a less rewarding film.

Things you will see lots of in Taxidermia: blood, internal organs, semen, masturbation, penetration, decapitations, guttings, vomiting. Gyorgi Palfi’s film arrives pre-sold by virtue of being quite possibly the most disgusting movie ever. It’s also a completely original film visually, and perhaps a completely empty one at bottom. Ostensibly the saga of three generations of men in the same saga, it plays instead like three related shorts strung together, each segment neatly running in at just under half an hour. A plot summary would be more confusing than helpful, and I’m bewildered as to what it might actually mean. The middle segment is the stand-out, a grotesque satire of status quo mediocrity in the Soviet Union that takes speed-eating to the next level. Huge men shovel disgusting food into their faces, vomit and purge between courses, and meanwhile a typically severe Soviet coach is yelling about how once the Olympics recognizes speed-eating as an official sport, the world will finally understand the greatness of the Soviet champions.

The humor here is obvious, a parody of the USSR’s many claimed achievements (as opposed to the unhappy reality), but don’t ask me to explain the first or third segments: I don’t know why a man’s penis is shooting fire, and I’m not terribly sure I care. Taxidermia is riveting throughout: Palfi has the rare gift of shooting incredibly opaque material in a way that makes it look like a blockbuster, with plenty of slick “impossible” shots and more than enough weirdness to keep you entertained. It should be seen at least once by anyone who values sheer originality above all else.

Towards Darkness plays like an extended Columbian episode of 24: hostages are taken, men bark out orders tersely, jittery cameras zoom in relentlessly on sweaty faces and abused bodies. In other words, despite the pretensions of the film to verisimilitude -- someone is kidnapped every three hours in Colombia, and the film claims to be inspired by a true story -- it's basically a B-budget action movie with generic manly men standing in for the missing action stars that would lend the project some real personality. Two things make Towards Darkness more than a competent if overly self-regarding thriller. One is the chronology, which approaches the torturous fragmentation of an Inarritu film, albeit with the different function of filling in dead periods in the ostensibly real-time narrative with flashbacks and contextual information; the other change-up would be unfair to reveal. It's enough to say that the ending of Towards Darkness undercuts the entire ostensible point of the conventional action film, using recognizable cinematic syntax to end up in a totally different place. As laudable as that goal may be, Towards Darkness remains what it is: a slick, forgettable thriller that never attains the seriousness it aspires to, and whose genre scrabbling doesn't seem to have been entirely thought out.

Jerry Lamothe’s Blackout wants to be to this decade what Do The Right Thing seemed like in 1989; it settles for not being utterly unwatchable. LaMothe takes as his dubious premise the idea that the remarkably orderly Northeast Blackout of 2003 was only peaceful in white areas; in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, it was a whole other story. Huh? Unless Wikipedia’s lying to me, there were five fatalities in New York as a result of the blackout, all of them accidental. In Blackout (inexplicably capitalized “BlacKout” in the opening credits), though, the neighborhood becomes a seething hotbed of violence in record time, an opportunity for Black America to run riot and explicate all of its ailings in tidy monologues.

No surprises here (spoilers though, should you actually still be contemplating seeing this): Yes, the promising young kid who’s gotten a full academic scholarship, thereby getting him out of the neighborhood, will die tragically and senselessly. Yes, there will be a big aggressive guy with a gun who almost kills someone for no reason. Yes, there will be sassy barbershop talk. And why? Because that’s what it’s like in the ghetto. Haven’t you seen Boyz N The Hood? Blackout gets good mileage out of its neighborhood setting and overqualified cast (Jeffrey Wright and Saul Rubinek works wonders with their lousy lines), but a dozen dramatic monologues strung together to make sure no subtext isn’t dragged into the light does not a movie make. It’s an elementary stab at trying to issue a state of the nation address for Black America -- and way too schematic to succeed.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

This Is England
The Gates
Fireworks Wednesday
Taxidermia
Towards Darkness
Blackout

Posted at May 2, 2007 8:03 AM

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