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More New York Stories: The 2006 Tribeca Film Festival

Celebrities are rarely a bad thing when it comes to amping up film festival audience’s interest. That’s one enduring lesson of the fifth annual Tribeca Film Festival: Even an evening of less-than-stellar films can be compensated for somewhat by the appearance of name actors and filmmakers: Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Jeff Garlin wandering down the long line of people waiting for door tickets to his I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With and telling everybody, ‘Sorry, sold out.’ Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago sneaking into the back of the theater at the documentary of the band’s reunion tour, loudQUIETloud. Jimmy Smits and Jeffrey Wright coming up on stage to help introduce Rosie Perez’s activist pamphlet and family history Yo Soy Boricua. Sam Shepard, Drea de Matteo, Bruce Dern, and Jason Patric somewhat sheepishly standing up from their seats and acknowledging the audience at the Walker Payne world premiere. It’s an advantage that Tribeca has over almost any other festival with a less geographically advantageous location – though the celebrity angle also means there are plenty of high star-wattage events like the Mission: Impossible 3 and Poseidon premieres, which really have nothing to do with the festival itself and seem to exist for no other reason than to garner more press coverage.

The other lesson is: When in doubt, stick to the documentaries (which Tribeca makes a point of featuring) – chances are, even if they’re poorly made, you’ll still learn something, which is more than can be said for a lousy narrative feature, of which Tribeca (like any festival) has plenty. There’s little worse than rushing to get the ticket online before the screening sells out, waiting in that long ticketholders’ line, waiting yet again for the film to start 15 to 20 minutes late (to accommodate stragglers), and then seeing a film that most closely resembles the sort of straight-to-cable fodder that pads out premium movie channels’ schedules in the off-hours.

Things looked promising initially for Walker Payne (), even if it turned out to be ultimately no more than fodder. A shaggy dog story about an scruffy rogue (Jason Patric) who gets pushed up against the wall by forces (mostly) beyond his control, it had an earnest and well-scrubbed approach to its small-town subject matter that was initially engaging. Unfortunately, what seems like reliably old-fashioned storytelling at first quickly turns into stale cliché, which not even Patric and Sam Shepard – in a wonderfully pulp performance as the devilish gambler who tempts Walker into entering his beloved pet into illegal dog fights – can save. Drea de Matteo and Bruce Dern do decent work (in a Hallmark Channel kind of way) as well, but all to no avail.

A smarter and more ambitious – though also much messier – narrative is offered by Wah-Wah (). Set amidst the quite dotty British colonials of Swaziland in the late ’60s just before the country was given its independence, it’s a dysfunctional family drama with a fascinating though underused historical backdrop. Writer/director Richard E. Grant’s semiautobiographical film follows the tribulations of a boy (Nicholas Hoult) whose stiff, adulterous mother (Miranda Richardson) abandons him and his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne) who marries again, to a sparkly American stewardess (Emily Watson) who breathes life into the hidebound colony. Grant’s script is all over the place, and the mixture of light British comedy and full-tilt, glass-smashing familial rage is often quite untidy. However, Byrne and Watson are a winning pair, digging deep into roles that could have easily been reduced to stock types; they give masterful performances in a film that is unfortunately far from masterful.

Like something that would result if Michael Mann ever made a documentary, the audacious and likely completely fake Street Thief () follows Chicago burglar Kaspar Carr on his criminal rounds around the city, showing us the tricks of the trade and demanding that the filmmakers avoid asking him anything personal: ‘You’re not going to get a sob story out of me.’ Director Malik Bader (an obvious fan of Mann’s Chicago-set Thief) bring an impressively fluid technique to their tale, filming from a distance as Carr smashes into supermarkets, nightclubs, and in one shocking profitable take, a suburban multiplex. An intense, dark-eyed, monomaniacal sort who imagines himself a steel-hearted professional with no particular love of crime per se (‘If I wanted to be a plumber tomorrow, I’d be a plumber.’), Carr seems to love the set-up more than the actual job, casing places for months prior to a job. Unfortunately, just when you’re thinking it’s too good to be true (or that the film crew should be charged with felonies for taking part in these burglaries) come stories that Carr is actually being played by Bader and the whole thing is a Blair Witch-style put-on. In the end it doesn’t really matter, however, as the film is astoundingly entertaining as fact or faux.

From Africa to the Caribbean, the effects of colonialism reverberate through another, entirely different film. For the most part, Americans, especially those living outside New York, know next to nothing about the commonwealth Puerto Rico or Puerto Ricans, one of the country’s largest immigrant groups. Rosie Perez’s Yo Soy Boricua, Pa’Que Tu Lo Sepas () is a very personal and lively attempt to redress that problem. Blending the story of the Brooklyn-raised Perez’s own family with that of the island itself, the film is a sort of informal history lesson that blends personal reminiscence with pointed political commentary on Puerto Rico’s nebulous and oft-exploited status as the closest thing America has to a colony. The result is maybe a bit too off-the-cuff, but Perez is smart enough a filmmaker – she co-directed along with Academy Award-winner Liz Garbus – to foreground her family members, a warm and inviting group whom anybody would be happy to be related to.

Since apparently the world was crying out for a remake of American Pie – only with gay characters, and not funny at all – Todd Stephens follows up his turgid Gypsy 83 with the nearly unwatchable Another Gay Movie (). The story follows that of Pie almost scene for scene, taking a break from the canned camp dialogue every now and again for a cringe-inducing cameo (Richard Hatch… as himself) or a gross-out moment that attempts to rival the Scary Movie franchise. Scott Thompson and Lypsinka show up for some shtick but there’s little any
body can do. Somebody forgot to tell Stephens that comedies were supposed to be funny. Small detail, that.

Chen Kaige must have thought that the only way he could get a budget and distribution these days was to keep doing costume action epics – the problem being that in the years since Kaige’s 1999 The Emperor and the Assassin, Zhang Yimou has proved to have a far nimbler hand at this sort of material. The Promise () is the most expensive Chinese film in history but it hardly shows. Laughably cheap-looking special effects ruin what little drama there is to be had in this fanciful fairy tale about dynastic struggles and a love triangle between an arrogant general, his slave and a beautiful princess doomed by the gods to unhappiness. Kaige manages to whip up a froth of star-crossed love and betrayal near the end, but it never comes close to achieving the dizzy heights of his Farewell, My Concubine. Best watched as self-parody.

Of undeniable authenticity is Joe Halderman’s Three Days in September (), which chronicles the experiences of some of the 1,200-odd hostages taken captive in a Beslan schoolhouse by Chechen terrorists on the first day of school in September 2004. After a confused mob of Russian soldiers and armed civilians stormed the school three days later, over 330 hostages died, 176 of them children. Instead of recreating the incident through news footage clips, Halderman mixes survivor interviews with videotape footage taken by the terrorists inside the school to paint a harrowing picture of the terror undergone by these children, parents, and teachers, who had next to no food or water the entire time, suffering in 100-degree heat while the authorities dithered before making their final disastrous decision. Those looking for a wider scope may be disappointed, as Halderman deals only briefly with the Chechen conflict itself and the Russian government’s mishandling of the incident, zeroing in tightly on the people in the school and the townspeople who waited in agony outside. As a snapshot of hell, it’s without peer.

Freedom’s Fury () is another dire documentary from Eastern Europe, only substantially more uplifting. An athletics in the face of adversity story on overdrive, the film is a high-powered retelling of the 1956 Olympics water polo match between Russia and Hungary – only weeks after the Soviet army mercilessly crushed the 13-day-long Hungarian uprising. Given how much Hungary had suffered under the Soviets and how much national pride they took in their team (water polo being a Hungarian obsession), once face-to-face with Russians, some payback was involved, literally bloodying the water in the Olympic pool. Directors Colin K. Gray and Megan Raney – along with an incongruous pair of producers: Quentin Tarantino, Lucy Liu – take a muscular approach that doesn’t skimp on the historical element, even slighting the retelling of the climactic match in order to provide more context on how the doomed Hungarian revolt figured into the larger Cold War struggle. Energetic and tragic.

In 2004, a dozen years after one of indie rock’s most storied bands broke up amid a welter of bad blood and ego, the Pixies reunited for a tour received with the enthusiasm of desert wanderers being offered a splash of cold water. loudQUIETloud () is the lo-fi record of that tour – which starts out at a small Minneapolis club and ends in a raucous Manhattan ballroom – touching on a litter of animosities along the way. What the film brilliantly records is the genial tedium of touring and the importance of these lucrative gigs to the bandmates who have mostly struggled in the post-Pixies world. The foursome is fantastically hermetic, communicating best via their instruments. Best to watch is bassist Kim Deal, with her infectiously brassy laugh and ever-present cigarettes – a working-class muse if there ever was one, and the sole Pixie who truly seems to appreciate the second chance they’d all been given.

West Side Highway () is a collection of seven New York shorts that in some ways is closer to the true spirit of the film festival, with its air of constant surprise and vast variety. The range was impressive if uneven, from Mike Doyle’s beautifully-shot but hollow Shiner (old man fixates on memories from childhood) to the poignant loss of Diandrea Rees’ Orange Bow (typical day for a couple of teenaged friends goes horrifically awry) and Max Winkler’s funny but oh-so Wes Anderson-like King of Central Park. Best of the bunch is David Brind’s caustically honest Twenty Dollar Drinks, in which two old friends, one a movie star (Sandra Bernhard) and the other a mother and failed actress (Cady Huffman) meet to tear open old wounds and lacerate each other with guilt and jealousy.

Festival audiences are notorious for reacting overly well to comedies, which likely explained the rapturous response to Jeff Garlin’s I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With (), a genial piece of work that is still not much more than a series of barely-connected riffs. As Garlin shows on Curb Your Enthusiasm, he’s able to milk a surprising amount of comedy out of nothing, making an art out of the non sequitur. In Cheese, Garlin is a Chicago comic who’s still living with his mom and eking out an existence as an improve comic and occasional actor. A series of low-key humiliations for Garlin then follow that provide plenty of comic opportunities not just for him but also the high-grade performers Garlin ropes in: Sarah Silverman, Bonnie Hunt, Tim Kazurinsky, Richard Kind, and so on. (One scene in particular is crudely jammed in just to give Amy Sedaris a cameo.) The film – a love letter to Chicago and its comedy scene – is far from the vanity project that might have been expected and goes down smoothly enough, even if afterward one is pressed to remember much of what happened.

Resembling nothing so much as a feature-length episode of America’s Most Wanted, Billy Corben’s documentary Cocaine Cowboys () takes the fascinating story of Miami’s change from a sleepy southern town into an ultraviolent shooting gallery for drug cartels in the 1980s and turns it into tone-deaf mush. There’s grand dramatic material inherent in this transformation, which Corben hints at through lengthy interviews with big-timers like Mafioso smuggler Jon Roberts and the dead-eyed Chicago gunsel Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala. But with a repetitive editing scheme and a cheap, synthetic score by Jan Hammer (bringing on the guy who did the Miami Vice theme is a poor choice, tonally, to say the least), the film is surprisingly repetitive, losing its narrative thread amid the endless TV n
ews footage of mountains of coke and cash.

The members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple had a seemingly more constructive approach to fighting a world they saw to be rife with racism and other sins: they wanted to create heaven on earth. Stanley Nelson’s sobering Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple () follows the group from their 1960s roots in Indiana, where Jones – a white, barnstorming Pentacostal preacher – was making waves with his message of social justice and integration, to the cataclysmic mass suicide at their compound in Guyana, where Jones had convinced them that death was the only way out; 909 people died, only five survived. Nelson’s film mixes interviews with Temple survivors and astounding footage of the creepily charismatic Jones and the final massacre itself. A perfectly realized record of the frightening ease with which the lost and lonely can be lead into the abyss.

Jaime Johnson has a unique sort of problem: being an heir of the Johnson & Johnson fortune, he’s not sure what he wants to do with his life, or wealth – in the meantime, he makes films about this indecision. The One Percent () is a double helix of self-recrimination and rabble-rousing centering on Johnson, a genial but hard to figure presence. He alternately interrogates his family about the family fortune and converses with people (ranging from ideologues like Milton Friedman and Ralph Nader to the simply rich, like Warren Buffett’s granddaughter, who works as a nanny) who either bolster or argue with his loosely-defined thesis about the reasons behind the growing gap in America between the very wealthy and the rest of us. Curiously messy and a touch navel-gazing but mostly passionate in the right places.

As portrayed in the documentary Jesus Camp (), Becky Fischer sees herself as a kind of evangelist Pied Piper, leading the flocks of children whom she enthralls with her folksy, funny performances to a Christian summer camp called, disturbingly, ‘Kids on Fire.’ Problem is, there’s something additionally disturbing about watching nine-year-olds being compelled to speak in tongues. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Boys of Baraka) occasionally let the snark get away from them in their film about born-again youth indoctrination, but there’s an undeniable villainy behind Becky’s bland soccer mom visage, and a disturbing vision of how the next wave of culture warriors are being trained to combat the evils of the ‘sick old world’ they reside in. – Chris Barsanti

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By far the best film at Tribeca, Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton’s Brothers of the Head () mixes the starkness of early Burton with themes and imagery that recall Gilliam and Cronenberg. In telling the story of conjoined-twin punk heroes Tom & Barry Howe (remarkable Harry and Luke Treadaway), Pepe and Fulton orchestrate a haunting pseudomentary about fame and loneliness that never goes limp. The songs, written by members of Brit-punk legends The Buzzcocks, will make you want to start jumping around in the theater, but Tom’s love for journalist Laura (Tania Emery) and the last scene with the twins’ sister are moments that are impossible to forget.

An unlikely entry, French New-Wave godfather Claude Chabrol unveiled his Comedy of Power () with a wink. A warning before the film says that any real likeness to it’s tale of corporate malfeasants is ‘as they say, coincidental’. Instead of playing it for thrills, Chabrol uses this arena to study male/female dynamics as Chief Judge Charmant-Killman, played to perfection by Isabelle Huppert, interrogates several members of a misappropriated funds scandal while trying to keep her husband feeling loved and her morals unfettered. Huppert delivers the last line (‘To hell with them all!’) with an inappropriate amount of magic.

In a festival where documentaries reigned supreme, Denis Henry Hennelly and Casey Suchan’s amazing Rock the Bells () was the absolute pinnacle of Tribeca. Suchan and Hennelly put us in the fire pit with concert promoter/organizer Chang Weisman as he and his team, Guerilla Union, try to pull together all nine members of the immortal hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan for a performance at the Rock the Bells festival. Everything goes wrong: They oversell the stadium, riots break out, fans sneak into the venue and backstage and, most importantly, no one can get the notorious Ol’ Dirty Bastard out of his hotel room. Emotions run high and the soul of hip-hop buzzes along with every second of this riveting, mesmerizing film.

Going to depths I never would have imagined, ridiculously talented actors Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland sink deep into the muck of Land of the Blind (). Robert Edwards flashes up every second of this nauseating film about a soldier (Fiennes) who helps an imprisoned dissident (Sutherland) dethrone the evil president (Tom Hollander) only to find out that the writer has ideas of dictatorship as well. Robert Edwards’ soulless, self-righteous piece of celluloid has the audacity to think that it’s embellished satirical pokes at Hollywood and government smells fresh. But underneath its cool veneer, it’s a putrid, half-assed rip-off of Terry Gilliam’s classic Brazil.

Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay () has all the makings of a sleeper hit. It follows the world of crossword and puzzle enthusiasts, starting with New York Times crossword master Will Shortz and his cohort, Merl Reagle. Interviews with celebrity puzzle addicts like Bill Clinton, The Indigo Girls, and the consistently hilarious Jon Stewart delve into the reasons why we sit and spend part of our day putting letters into little boxes. The real show comes at the Crossword Convention in Stamford, Connecticut where people from around the country come to compete for honors as the best crossword solvers. It never goes deep, but it’s priceless entertainment that we rarely get these days.

Clumsy from start to finish and filled to bursting with talent, Mini’s First Time () saw an all-too-likely mash-up of Lolita and Double Indemnity, orchestrated by first-timer Nick Guthe. Nikki Reed looks the part of hell-on-wheels rich girl Mini as she beds her stepfather (Alec Baldwin) a
nd then persuades him to get rid of her town miscreant mother (Carrie-Anne Moss). It looks pretty, but the script has no soul or conflict (if you don’t see the ending coming, you’ve lost your contacts) and the pacing never even gives us enough time to have fun with the characters, let alone understand them. I’m not even mentioning where Luke Wilson and Jeff Goldblum fit into this mess.

Driving Lessons () marks the first post-Potter venture for Rupert Grint, the redhead who plays Ron Weasley. Here, he plays Ben, a shy teenager who begins to work with an elderly actress (Julie Walters) to get money and get away from his philandering, evangelist momma (Laura Linney, of all people). The acting is good, but the story is nothing but a castrated Harold and Maude rip-off that seems to be more concerned with where to put the next Sufjan Stevens or Nick Drake song than with tone or pacing.

More of a great TV pilot than a movie, Jake Kasdan brought The TV Set (), a thinly-veiled contempt piece about his time working on the boob tube. David Duchovny shows major comedic talent as Mike, the sluggish writer/creator of pseudo-show The Wexler Chronicles. Slowly and painfully, his pilot is turned into insipid crap by a ruthless network head (scene-stealer Sigourney Weaver) who can’t be swayed by the British head of programming (a solid Ioan Gruffudd), who loves Mike’s show just as it is. Everyone from actors to reality TV (Weaver’s network’s biggest hit: Slut Wars) gets skewered with vengeance, but the 85-minute runtime makes it fit for the small screen, not the big. This goes double for an ending that clearly signals ‘on next week’s episode.’

As far as horror goes, there was Adam Green’s Hatchet (), which takes 8 unlikely tourists down into the swamps of New Orleans, where they bump heads, torsos and everything else with disfigured mutant Victor Crowley (Jason Voorhees himself, Kane Hodder). Green described his film as ‘Old School American Horror,’ but it really isn’t. Crowley isn’t an interesting enough monster for us to give a flying crap, and although the gore is fantastic (Belt sander to the mouth? Kudos), Green doesn’t get into the spirit of old horror the way new classics like Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever or Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects did. The ending, setting up a franchise with a smile on its face, exempts the film of almost any credibility as old school or new school. It’s just school.

Already set for distribution, Who Killed the Electric Car? () digs up all the muck from the electric car debate, being reintroduced these days in the current trend of Hybrid cars. Although it’s terribly fascinating and informative, Chris Paine’s documentary has no structure and never digs deep enough into the conspiracy to make it a memorable documentary. The best part in fact is watching crackball Mel Gibson act somewhat normal as he talks about how much he loves the electric car with his freaky beard. At a paltry 90-minute running time, a film about such big issues should have been longer and certainly has more to say than the lopsided film lets on. That’s not to say it’s not good enough for a corporate ethics lecture.

In the semi-boring, semi-enthralling Day Break (), director Hamid Rahmanian explores the Iranian law that allows a victims family to choose whether a murderer gets life in prison or a hanging. Mansour (a hypnotic Hosein Yari) waits… and waits… and waits for the family of his victim (his insulting ex-boss) to make up their mind. Rahmanian mixes perceptive devices (it starts as a mockumentary and shifts into a narrative) and at moments finds a certain transcendence in Mansour’s flashbacks to his wife and family. However, we never really see the happiness and soul that makes Mansour want to live when he has nightmares about the execution. There’s a severe lack of balance, but to say it isn’t a fascinating experience would be wrong.

Pretentious and way too clever for its own good, Kill Your Darlings () throws a mish-mash of culturally diverse and mentally unstable west coasters together for a trip through the desert. A B-movie cast headed by John Larroquette and Lolita Davidovich ramble on between a psychiatrist who is about to hit it big like Dr. Phil, a driver who is bringing three patients to the psychiatrist and a screenwriter who is picked up and sent on a wild ride by a sexy loon who has escaped from a mental hospital. They all collide and… nothing really feels right. Everything goes where you expect it to go and the stories are never anything more than an idea that director Bjorne Larson thinks must be really cool. Devoid of laughs or any real dark subject matter, consider Larson’s arrow miles away from the bull’s eye.

Immensely more interesting was the Brazilian import Brasilia 18% (), from pioneer Nelson Pereira dos Santos. The backdrop concerns a body being examined by famed coroner Olavo (the terrific Carlos Alberto Riccelli) that might or might not be a government aide who spent most of her time on her back. Government officials breezily threaten him to say it’s her and move on, but he doesn’t listen all that well. Like Chabrol’s movie, Santos doesn’t play by any rules and turns the film into an intensely erotic ghost story with an amazingly charming sense of humor. A scene where the government aide is discovered in the coroner’s shower radiates a vibrant sexuality and serves as an interesting answer to the shower scene in The Shining.

A more severe and strange answer to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Civic Duty () sends Six Feet Under’s Peter Krause into a state of post-9/11 panic. He plays an unemployed accountant who begins to obsess over his Middle-Eastern neighbor, who might be a terrorist, and begins to alienate his wife and a tired FBI agent (Richard Schiff). Jeff Renfroe’s thriller has a genuine atmosphere of fright, but it drags its ending out and attempts to deliver a twist that is preposterous to even the most paranoid of Red Staters. Add this to inane dialogue and it ends up as a sub-par thriller with a muddled point; it’s exhausting.

The festivals obvious Hollywood bet was Lonely Hearts (), a shockingly well crafted remake of Leonard Kastle’s classic The Honeymoon Killers starring John Travolta and James Gandolfini. Straying from Kastle’s grizzly portrait of truly disgusting people, director Todd Robinson puts the emphasis on the two detectives who are hunting down the Lonely Hearts Killers, a couple who answer lonely heart ads, pose as brother and sister, and eventually kill the person and take their money. The major flaw is Selma Hayek and Jared Leto, who play the killers amiably, though Hayek pushes her controlling persona a little over the edge. Travolta and Gandolfini play their tortured detectives notably well, but Robinson is the real find. The imagery sticks out with a pungent evocation of death and depravity, and the story, though nowhere near as strong as Kastle’s, makes your skin crawl.

On a lighter note, Kettle of Fish () takes a by-the-numbers romantic comedy and tries desperately to spice it up with some amphibian love and jazz playing. It’s a no-go. Matthew Modine, as tolerable as ever, plays a saxophonist who can’t commit. That is until he bumps into Diane (Christy Cashman), on the day of her wedding. At the same time, he gets tripped up into a situation where he has to share his apartment with a scientist who is studying amphibian sexuality (Gina Gershon sporting a rather unneeded British accent). If you don’t see what’s coming, the assumption would be that you don’t have a girlfriend, or have one with impeccable taste.

If it should get distribution, bring a pillow to Return to Rajapur (), a tiresome and mundane rip-off of Neil LaBute’s Possession (who knew it was worth ripping off?). Kelli Garner, the stunner from Mike Mills’ Thumbsucker, plays a journalist in Rajapur trying to uncover the past of local lord Jai Singh (Manoj Bajpai) and the American woman he romanced 23 years ago. The actors struggle to keep the audience awake but they stand little chance against a flat script that is in desperate need of some heat. Both of the romances in the film are about as arousing as a boiled egg.

Tribeca’s search for a political documentarian with the same endurance as Michael Moore found an unlikely hero in Sabina Guzzanti. Guzzanti’s Viva Zapatero! () takes Moore’s constructs of blending humor and political dissidence to the streets of Italy, where Prime Minister Berlusconi holds all of television in his grasps, prohibiting any mockery of him. Guzzanti brings us into Italy’s strict censorship arena, where the only shows that get the OK are harmless sitcoms and programs that praise Berlusconi. It gets you riled up, but it’s short and never really gives us a rounded out argument (Italy’s censorship past and Guzzanti’s past aren’t even really touched upon). It’s a battle cry, sounded loudly and fading from ears just as quickly. – Chris Cabin

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