This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.

Wave of Mutilation: The 2008 Tribeca Film Festival

Things keep getting weirder and weirder at Robert De Niro’s international film funhouse, properly known as the Tribeca Film Festival. Though the restorations weren’t as plentiful and the opening movies bordered on unbearable, the main portion of the competition was extremely strong with something north of 120 films being reeled out along with a few dozen shorts. As an indicator of sorts of how 2008 is going in terms of film, Tribeca spotlighted that the real ruckus was going on downstairs: shoestring budgets, non-professional actors, and directors who still haven’t heard the siren’s call of the cash machine. Here’s a roundup of everything we saw.

Nothing proved this more than the three tent poles that propped-up the festival: two summer juggernauts and the latest offering from a master craftsman. First there was Baby Mama (), a dead, flopping fish of a movie that tries desperately to turn Tina Fey and Amy Poehler into mainstream stars. The fact that Steve Martin, as Fey’s boss in the film, steals every scene without so much as an eyebrow tweak stands both as a testament to his irrefutable legend and as a worrisome note to two talented comedians who can’t act out of a paper bag. Click the link for Bill Gibron’s full review. CC

Much more enjoyable though ultimately languid, David Mamet’s Redbelt () takes a similar construct as his nine other features and plops it in the middle of a professional-fighting free-for-all. You can’t help but like Chiwetel Ejiofor as an ironclad, honor-obsessed martial-arts trainer who gets the horns from a bunch of Hollywood shysters (represented by Tim Allen and Joe Mantegna) but Mamet’s skill at building and implementing a seductive con has gone limp. The film is heavy on setup and finally gives a payoff of such utter condescension that you wonder if the newly-Republican Mamet has finally succumbed to the business he has so often mocked. CC

One of the highlights of the fest was John Crowley’s Boy A (), a serene-looking but quite punchy British drama about a young man who’s released back into society with a new identity after spending 14 years in prison for committing a brutal crime as a child. ‘Jack’ — hunted by vigilantes convinced he hasn’t paid the full price — is steered into his new world by a gruff but kindly probation officer (the always likeable Peter Mullan) who seems to have sublimated all his failed duties as a father into his probation charges. Played with sublime authority by Andrew Garfield (he was the Gen-Y slacker who Robert Redford lectured in Lions for Lambs), Jack slowly opens himself to his new life where even mundane things like getting an apartment and finding a job are huge obstacles to overcome, particularly with his haunting past erupting in chilling flashbacks. Boy A is a tight film that doesn’t take sides and will probably suffer for that honesty when it hits theaters later this year. CB

Matters of grave importance arise in Peter Galison and Robb Moss’ provocative exposé on the pros and cons of government secrecy, properly titled Secrecy (). Battleaxes from the CIA go tête-à-tête with lawyers, journalists, and liberal firebrands of all makes and models to sniff out if public knowledge is of universal benefit or if some government info should be kept under lock and key. The consensus is that some secrecy is necessary but that without any sort of checks and balances, there is no way of telling when important information is being kept quiet or when people are just trying to save their own hides. Galison, a professor of science history at Harvard, and Moss, the director of the past-prime-hippie doc The Same River Twice, keep things simple and lean, allowing the debate to present itself front and center. Though it lacks for any major revelations, save the somewhat stale news that possibly publicizing the U.S.’s detaining of bin Laden’s driver just prior to 9/11 might have botched the attacks, Secrecy draws blood from a source that I thought had been tapped dry. CC

Less provocative and more earnest, Brazilian director José Padilha sets off a hootenanny in Elite Squad (), his follow-up to the excellent Bus 174 and a shameless doppelganger of City of God with the added twist of being from the police’s point of view. Violent and not without a certain viscosity, Elite Squad moves but doesn’t really think: The pummeling serves to divert attention from the fact that Padilha is basically playing footsy with the viewer and hasn’t given a single character scope or dimension in the film’s tiresome two hours. Similarly, there was Declan Recks’ translation of Eugene O’Brien’s Ireland-set Eden () which concentrates on the rift forming between a married couple as their latest anniversary approaches. The husband and wife, well-played by Aidan Kelly and Eileen Walsh respectively, indulge in separate acts of worn-out betrayal and disappointment before a truly unbearable cathartic meltdown just moments before the credits roll. Beautifully shot by Owen McPolin, Eden aesthetically feels as crisp as the lagers and pints that the husband and his buddies vigorously consume but ends up having the dramatic punch of a Sunday-morning hangover. CC

Another sort of rift befalls the characters in Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor’s Strangers (), a rambunctious if conventional romance between an Israeli single mother and a strapping Palestinian that blooms when they trade backpacks in Germany. When they trade back, they keep each other company at the World Cup Finals, where they begin to neck over beer, exhilaration, and good ol’ fashioned animal instinct (it’s mostly the beer). The next day they part for good on her call, or so she thinks. The nimbleness of the camerawork helps bolster a rudimentary romantic scheme, but it’s Lubna Azabel and Liron Levo as the conflicted lovers that gives Strangers an added leg above most current Israeli cinema. CC

Germany doesn’t set the stage as much as give influence to the stoic genius of Lou Reed in Julian Schnabel’s engrossing Lou Reed’s Berlin (), an assemblage of Schnabel’s video clips, starring his wife and Diving Bell actress Emmanuelle Seigner as a lost party girl, projected during one show of Reed’s recent six-gig stay at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. The week-long residency
set out to reclaim Reed’s commercial-deadweight Berlin album as the masterpiece Schnabel considers it to be by performing the album in full on stage. Though I can’t speak to loving Berlin (I’m more of a Transformer man, myself), the performance is pure wonderment with Reed’s no-bull persona given free rein under Schnabel’s flourishes. That being said, Reed is ultimately upstaged by Antony Hagerty, the lilting coo that fronts torch-songsters Antony and the Johnsons, in a show-stopping rendition of the Velvet Underground classic ‘Candy Says.’ Reed’s visage after witnessing Hagerty’s sublime handling of lines like ‘What do you think I’d see / If I could walk away from me?’ is one of admiration and staggering aplomb. CC

There are tales in Berlin that sound dangerously similar to the human procedures of Isild de Beslo’s scrappy Charly (). Through concentrated handheld camerawork, Beslo follows Nicolas (Kolia Litscher), a lazy teen who finds a picture of the island of Belle-Ile one day and sets out to find the real thing, only to happen upon the slightly senior titular prostitute (Julie-Marie Parmentier) as she walks back to her trailer. It’s Dardennes for Dummies but Beslo, a great actress last seen in Benoit Jacquot’s The Untouchable, has an ease and drive that gives the film an uncommon boost of vitality. Both Litscher and Parmentier give noteworthy and natural performances that lead to the film’s carnal climax, a moment that puts most other films to shame in terms of purity. Nicolas’ expected awkwardness and Charly’s steadfast eroticism blend seamlessly, and I can only hope that next year’s Tribeca offers similar moments of loving bewilderment. CC

Another engaging, though less satisfying film, is Let the Right One In (), by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. In a barren little town near Stockholm, 12-year-old Oskar stews in bully-enforced loneliness, obsessing over a series of ugly murders that have been happening nearby. Then Eli moves in next door. A nice girl Oskar’s age, she’s a prime candidate for friendship… but for the fact that she very well might be a blood-sucking creature of the night who’s responsible for all those murders. While Let the Right One In is for the most part a film of cool seriousness, the bloody but chuckle-worthy conclusion is the best hint of the director’s ultimately comedic intentions. CB

A disappointment in many ways was Andrzej Wajda’s long-awaited Katyn (), which takes a must-be-told tale from history and loses it in thickets of poor exposition. Wajda’s film opens powerfully in Poland, 1939, on a bridge crowded with refugees, half fleeing the advancing Wehrmacht, the others running from the Red Army. The chaos, panic, and dividing of families that ensues as the Polish officers and intelligentsia are taken from their families to be massacred by the Russians in the thousands is Spielbergian in its vivid intensity. But after the opener, Wajda siphons off much of the film’s drama with a wandering narrative and poorly detailed characters who pop in and out with little warning. Ending with a bone-chilling reenactment of the infamous massacre itself (censored by the Soviets for decades), Katyn summons plentiful dry-eyed rage at one of World War II’s least-known tragedies, but can’t back it up with the necessary storytelling spirit. CB

Another rough nonfiction effort but much more worthy in final consideration is Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans (), which takes a meandering walk through the history of that New Orleans neighborhood, one of the oldest black communities in the nation. Local newspaperman and co-director Lolis Eric Elie frames the film as a search for the roots of the community once he buys a grand old house there and starts renovating it. He uncovers enthralling documents and footage about Tremé’s history, particularly in being home to America’s first black newspaper, which played a crucial role in both Reconstruction and the early civil rights struggle. The film is not as focused as it could be, and a narrative device whereby the words of a storied Tremé resident are relayed by an actor in period garb, doesn’t play all that well in execution. But Elie is a thoughtful guide to an enthralling past, and the pre-Katrina footage of second-line dancers in Tremé is so infused with heartache and passion as to make it nearly unmissable. CB

A valentine video to the memory of the weekly drag rock show that ran for most of the 1990s at a West Village bar, SqueezeBox! () wants to make sure that there is absolutely nothing left unsaid on the subject — and if something has been said then the film ensures it’s said three more times. Now, SqueezeBox! the bar looks like it would have been awesome: an undiscriminating door policy, drag queens leading the house band on punk and glam rock songs instead of the same old tired Judy numbers, go-go girls and boys, and a generally good debauched time for all. It even helped midwife John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which certainly counts for something. But while the story of SqueezeBox! makes for an interesting chapter in the history of Manhattan nightlife, it’s really nothing more than an hour and a half video testimonial for all the old gang, with only the barest scintilla of outside perspective. Nightlife navel-gazing for those who wish they’d gone out more. CB

Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon () is the latest in the increasingly crowded genre of Chinese period action epics and it lands just about squarely in the middle of the pack: not as ludicrous as The Promise and less stiff than Curse of the Golden Flower but not nearly as thrilling as Hero. Director Daniel Lee (best known for the great Jet Li actioner Black Mask) doesn’t waste much time in exposition for the film, which is based on a classic of early Chinese literature and is set in the 3rd century, when the country was torn by constant warfare between three kingdoms. Said warfare gives Lee the chance to stage near continuous big-spectacle battles with fluttering flags, bellowing generals, and notions of honor and sacrifice. At its base, Three Kingdoms is a story about two simple villagers, Zilong (a energetically regal Andy Lau) and Pingan (Sammo Hung, also responsible for the so-so fight choreography) who join the army to become heroes but whose lives take radically different routes. Although the film never quite comes together — the truncated running time hardly allows for the emotional impact or character identification Lee is trying for — it ends on a note of surprising ambivalence that just about rescues the whole enterprise. CB

Richard Ledes’ cool and haunted neo-noir Th
e Caller
(), at least for half of its running time, goes down like a smoky Old Fashioned. But as the film winds down the cocktail turns out to have been mixed with a vat of cheap bourbon. Frank Langella, in all of his icy glory, is Jimmy Stevens, a meticulous and cultured executive from an international energy conglomerate who blows the whistle on company atrocities in South America. Knowing that his days are numbered (he is scheduled to meet his demise in Red Bank, New Jersey), he anonymously hires a rumpled, bird-watching detective (Elliot Gould) to track his movements. New York City is stylishly depicted, even if most of the buildings in town are photographed held up by support scaffolding, as if the vertical city is ready to fall down upon the characters. Ledes channels Vertigo, Rear Window, Chinatown, and Blow-Up to move his narrative forward, but an intrusive flashback to World War II France overtakes the noir aspects of the film, redirecting the film to a troublesome character study. It is great to see Gould back again in detective mode, and his waddling around his cramped apartment implies what may have happened to Phillip Marlowe if aged into dotage. There is another detective in the film — Anabel Sosa, a little girl who mines Jimmy’s past for the requisite back-story (Sosa is quite a find and there is a nice little scene with her sitting with her doll and calmly trying to get the doll to sit up that is a breather from Ledes’ hermetic control of the film). Laura Harring of Mulholland Drive fame is also on hand, as a nightclub chanteuse who, like Dorothy Lamour in The Road to Hong Kong, has nothing to do with anything and just appears as a sultry smoke-and-mirrors cleavage display. Aside from featuring Gould’s best role in decades, The Caller is a murky, pretentious muddle. PB

Melvin Van Peebles transforms himself from Sweet Sweetback into Brer Rabbit in his easily regurgitatible Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha (). From the perspective of his 75-year-old in-your-face on-camera narrator, Van Peebles recalls in flashback mode, with ample prosumer digital effects, the picaresque tale of a young cat that ‘had the urge to get into the wind.’ Leaving to Chicago to see the world, Van Peebles unveils an assortment of whoppers –waylaid by gangsters, swimming solo past the Statue of Liberty, beating the shit of a duo of young thieves, thwarting a gang of pirates (the Pirate Captain cameoed by son Mario Van Peebles), advising an African warlord and screwing his wife — as his character lunges and lurches through the years, coming to the conclusion to ‘learn to live with what life shoves in your face.’ Van Peebles here is in a light-hearted, larky mode, with Van Peebles shoving himself and his elderly ass into scenes as a youngster and, most hilariously, as young/old Van Peebles discovers women and sex (particularly in an uproarious sequence of Van Peebles making moves on girls in a movie theater) — in a way Van Peebles’ performance resembles the leering horror of Groucho Marx in Skidoo. Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha is part comedy, part musical, part harangue, but all Van Peebles. Only after thirty-seven years, Van Peebles has gone from being baadasssss to just an asssss. PB

‘Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Winnipeg. Snowy, sleet-making Winnipeg. My home for my entire life. I’m leaving it. I must leave it. Must leave it… right now!’ Guy Maddin’s paean to his hometown is all one would expect in a Guy Maddin film (a phantasmagoria of early sound film aesthetics, dubious facts, Dziga Vertov editing, ballet, Theater of the Absurd, sententious melodramatic confrontations) and more — in My Winnipeg () Maddin takes on both the old-fashioned travelogue and bargain basement film noir icon Ann Savage. Maddin explores Winnipeg as a fabulist city of the absurd, if not the ludicrous. Maddin asserts that Winnipeg contains ten times the amount of sleepwalkers of any city in the world with the sleepwalkers jingling keys and compelling non-sleeping residents to take the sleepwalkers into their homes until they awaken (‘It’s the law,’ Maddin states in voice over). An actor playing Maddin is seen on a train trying to skip town but the power of sleep is too great and he keeps hunching over his seat in slumber. As Maddin goes in and out of stupefaction (Maddin says that Winnipeggers are ‘stupefied with nostalgia’), the manic filmmaker layers on Winnipeg lore — the Happy Land amusement park, Garbage Hill, the secret Winnipeg backstreets with no names, a turn of the century coven of psychics portrayed by dancers, an eerie tourist attraction of horse heads frozen in a river. Whether all of this is true or not is up for grabs, but it all fits right in to My Winnipeg. So does Ann Savage, who plays his mother in staged reenactments of his youth. Savage may be pushing 90 but she is still Vera from Detour — ‘a force as strong as all the trains in Manitoba.’ A confrontation scene between Maddin’s mom and his sister concerning the sister hitting a deer with her car is a scene for the ages, and Savage’s delivery of the line ‘Every night I look at my pills. One little pill… is…. all… I… need,’ will make Edgar Ulmer rise from his grave like a phoenix. Maddin’s passionate love/hate relationship with Winnipeg makes the film a true joy, and when he calls upon a fantastic Citizen Girl to cure all of Winnipeg’s ills, this viewer is with him all the way. PB

A too-perfect example of a documentary in search of anything to say about its subject, Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers’ Lioness () is a thin and exasperating film about the U.S. female soldiers in Iraq (five in particular) who are organized into so-called ‘Lioness’ teams and sent into the field to help soldiers who need help dealing with female civilians. McLagan and Sommers have a gold mine here, not only the underreported growth of women in the ranks of the U.S. military, but also the fact that the Lioness teams are now essentially going into combat even though that is explicitly against U.S. law. It’s a dispiriting effort, though, flitting from one subject to the other with little sense of proportion, and ultimately not doing justice to these immensely brave women. CB

Federico Fellini’s inspired, over-the-top time capsule of sixties indulgence, Toby Dammit (), gets a final divorce decree as the climactic episode from the lugubrious horror film anthology Spirits of the Dead (the other directors being Roger Vadim and Louis Malle). Separated from the turgid Vadim and Malle sections, Toby Dammit stands on its own as a concise rendering of mid-period Fellini. Based on Edgar Allen Po
e’s short story ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head,’ the film is less a horror film than a triumphant satire on celebrity and artifice. Terrence Stamp is emaciated and ghostly as a drunken and repugnant British movie star braving the paparazzi to receive a Golden She-Wolf Award in Rome, payment for which is a shiny new Ferrari (on the way to the awards ceremony, his sleazy Italian producer is signing him up for ‘the first Catholic Western; something between Dreyer and Pasolini, with a touch of Ford, of course’ — could Fellini have foretold El Topo or Zachariah?). The awards ceremony itself is a roundhouse burlesque, complete with comedy acts, fruity fashions, buxom, well coiffed starlets and a boozy crackup acceptance speech by Stamp. But horror stills lurks around the edges, with a particular Fellini-esque devil in the guise of a cute blonde girl dressed in white, bouncing a white ball. Restored to its original color palette by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, the film is a must-see, visual delight. PB

Where is George Armitage when you need him? In War Inc. () writer-director-star John Cusack attempts to reconceive the hit man premise of Grosse Pointe Blank as a lacerating, over-the-top political satire in the vein of Dr. Strangelove or Wag the Dog. Unfortunately the result is more like one of those disastrous, live-action, cartoonish romps of the stinky ’60s vintage a la John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. Cusack is a hit man for a Halliburton-inspired international corporation that has just completed a contract on the first 100% outsourced war in the fictional country of Turaquistan. Cusack is sent there undercover as the promoter of the Brand USA Trade Show in order to perform a political assassination. This over-emphatic burlesque wastes an impressive cast that includes Ben Kingsley, Marisa Tomei, Hilary Duff, and Joan Cusack (whose desperately crazed performance saves the film). Not that Cusack lacks the passion to put it across; it’s just that he can’t see the forest for the trees. War Inc. hums in the small throwaway moments — tanks advertise Popeye’s Fried Chicken, a kick line of war amputees dance to ‘New York, New York,’ a hooded cab driver has a photo ID also with the hood over his face — but the film itself is a mess that devolves into a grab-bag free-for-all at the conclusion. In the end, the film has nothing to do with referencing the Iraq War and more to do with watching the lead characters coalesce into a labored formation of a nuclear family of kickasses and in making Turaquistan resemble a Middle Eastern Dogpatch. PB

In some ways a sequel to director Shane Meadows’ last film, the incomparable This Is England, and in other ways its polar opposite, Meadows’ newest, Somers Town () is a rough-hewn audience pleaser that doesn’t condescend. The film stars England‘s Thomas Turgoose as a brash little git run away from his Midlands home and knocking about Somers Town, a working-class London neighborhood near St. Pancras Station. He befriends a lonely Polish immigrant his age, Tom (Piotr Jagiello), and the two of them start getting into trouble, doing odd jobs, and falling in love with the same French waitress at the local café. Begun, oddly enough, as a short film for Eurostar and expanded by Meadows when the inspiration just kept coming, there isn’t much direction here, but except for a rather jarringly inserted conclusion, it hardly matters. Somers Town has all of Meadows’ rough-hewn humor but also a tenderer attitude than we’ve seen before. CB

As Red the Drug-Dealer, rocker Dave Matthews attempts the sinister look on prize chump Billy (Troy Garity) in his efforts to find out what happened to his coke supply. ‘I don’t know where Hope is,’ Billy replies. Billy is referring to his drug-addled wife but might as well be referring to the film itself, where there is no hope is sight: Lake City () is also hopeless. The bulk of the film is a coming-home-to-the-country family drama with Billy moving back with Mom (Sissy Spacek), where they come to grips with a past tragedy and reconnect for the final fade. But filmmakers Hunter Hill and Perry Moore keep bringing in the pursuing drug dealers hot on the trail of the dope — Billy. Lake City is schizophrenic — two mediocre films sown into one leotard: Beth Henley Meets David Chase. The clichés abound: shots of Sissy Spacek sittin’ on the back porch of her farm and starin’ off and lookin’ at the sunset, the forbidden room, the nostalgia-tinted flashbacks as a character’s gaze gets foggy, the heart-to-hearts. And then we have the kilos hidden in a knapsack, the narrow escape from the dealers, the well-dressed Mr. Big and his goons. All of this malarkey culminates in Spacek and a little kid being chased through the stalks by a collection of upscale thugs in a SUV. In the end, the mother and child reunion is capped with a waltz in the fields. No Oscars for this one, Sissy. PB

Brian Hecker’s Bart Got a Room () is a complete delight. Danny Stein (Steven Kaplan) is the kind of over-achieving, personable high school dweeb that girls prefer only as a good friend. Danny wants more than that but not that much more — he just wants to take a girl to the prom. The film is a series of blackout sketches as Danny asks a battery of unavailable girls to the prom and keeps getting rejected and, at each rejection, becomes more desperate and frazzled. But Danny isn’t the only child with date problems. His separated parents, Beth and Ernie (Cheryl Hines and William H. Macy — with hilarious red, curly hair) also are seeking companionship and having a rough time of it. Macy has it the worst. He asks Danny’s advice on the middle-aged women he is dating (trying to solicit Danny’s opinion about a prospect’s posterior charms, he tells Danny, ‘You should know — you’re an ass man!’) and engages in chat room cybersex (he’s a fast typist). But both are concerned with Danny and his problems in getting a prom date. In his treatment of Beth and Ernie, Hecker displays the charm of the movie: There are no bad people or mean people here. The characters are all likeable and sympathetic (Dinah Manoff is particularly engaging as Mrs. Goodson, the mother of Danny’s longtime girlfriend Camille). Hilariously, Hecker sets the film in a nightmare landscape of a bright, golden-sunned Florida retirement community with retirees positioned as bric-a-brac in the mise-en-scene. Old folks are seen taking up the chairs in the restaurants hitting the early bird specials, spitting past in the background on their golf carts, and even being taken from their retirement homes in body bags. Real flamingoes populate the roadside and plastic flamingoes grace retirement home lawns, Hecker creates the impossible, out of environs of pure cheese, he has created a comedy of warmth
and joy — when Danny dances at a Bar Mitzvah with his parents and his girlfriend, you want to enter the screen and join them. PB

Near the end of the almost indecently entertaining This Is Not a Robbery (), an off-screen interviewer asks the film’s subject J.L. ‘Red’ Rountree whether he thinks he’s getting into heaven or not. Rountree — who became in his 80s the nation’s oldest bank robber — responds in the affirmative, saying that there wasn’t any proscription in the Bible against what he’d done. When prompted about that whole ‘thou shalt not steal’ commandment, Rountree just chuckles, ‘But it’s fun!’ Directors Lucas Jansen, Adam Kurland, and Spencer Vrooman clearly had a ball making this film, but they don’t get carried away. It would have been far too easy to turn Rountree into a one-dimensional, loveable caricature, a latter-day Newton Boy. But although there’s plenty of vicarious fun here (while clearly quite terrible at his latter-day profession, Rountree certainly enjoys his work), the filmmakers keep their eyes on the sad facts of his life, showing with brisk detail Rountree’s decades-long transformation from solid businessman to bank-robbing outlaw. If there isn’t a producer somewhere trying to figure out how to make a ‘loosely inspired by’ feature out of this, starring Harry Dean Stanton, then Hollywood isn’t doing its job. CB

TRIBECA RESTORATIONS

The first film chosen for preservation under the new Film Foundation moniker The World Cinema Foundation, Haile Gerima’s incendiary Harvest: 3000 Years (), shot in 16mm, is an angry, tough, scrappy film, an unvarnished examination of poverty and subjugation in Ethiopia. Gerima sets up a Marxist dialectic between an unfeeling landlord who sits in his chair atop a hill overlooking his dominion and comments derisively on the hard-working family working for him on the land below, delivering insensitive homilies to his help (‘One draws pleasure from hard work… work harder’). The poor workers seethe but continue on. Gerima documents the grueling daily life of the family, detailing their hard, killing toil in leisurely documentary fullness — Cattle grazing, plowing land, gathering milk, making bread, forming dung hills. The film could be passed off as an ethnographic film if it wasn’t for Gerima continually keeping the audience on edge by transforming the documentary aspects into lyricism and dream poetics. Gerima also derives inspiration from Ousmane Sembene in his depiction of a peasant culture through African cultural eyes and Med Hondo in his outrage at the oppressive, backbreaking poverty (a character remarks at one point, ‘The rich live in high buildings with ladders. The poor live in graves.’). Also on-hand is a Greek chorus ‘madman’ who comments on the brutality and calls for action; considered crazy, he makes the most sense (even the landlord’s main retainer doesn’t quite believe the fellow is mad remarking, ‘I don’t think he’s insane. He chooses his words too carefully.’). The film is long and purposefully so. The audience gets lulled into contemplating the tasks the family has to go through to make it through the day and ultimately comes to the conclusion that any world that makes people scrap and grovel like this is a world that must be drastically changed in one way or another. PB

Restored by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from an original 35mm negative, Curtis Harrington’s stylish fish-out-of-water mermaid tale was given a rare 35mm screening at Tribeca. Night Tide () appears to have been made as a passport by Harrington to gain admittance to big league Hollywood features after years as an experimental filmmaker (his Maya Deren-influenced 16mm short Picnic was shown before Night Tide) and after Night Tide Harrington made a comfortable Hollywood career out of directing film and television potboilers. Night Tide is somewhere between experimental and narrative feature, utilizing moody, surreal images while channeling Val Lewton (particularly The Cat People). A pre-drug Dennis Hopper stars as Johnny Drake, an eager, friendly, and innocent young swabby, who falls in loves with Mara (Linda Lawson), a mysterious woman Johnny comes across while roaming around the Santa Monica Pier and who may or may not be an actual mermaid. A legion of creepy and seedy amusement park denizens — an old sea captain, a Beatrice Lilly-influenced fortune teller, and the always slightly off-center Luana Anders — warn Johnny off Mara but Johnny shrugs off their blandishments. Harrington delivers the goods in some well shot and atmospheric sequences, particularly the Blue Grotto jazz club crawling with a collection of hepcats and a night scene of neon-blurred freakiness on the amusement pier. But all the mermaid talk makes the film a bit soggy. PB

One of the high points of the Tribeca Film Festival was a restored print of Sergio Leone’s magnificent, towering revisionist western Once Upon A Time in the West (), brought to new life by The Film Foundation and The Museum of Modern Art. There is no added footage; it is same version with the missing 20 minutes that has been making the rounds for a few years. But now the colors have been improved and are sharper and finer-grained, lending a substantial weight to Leone’s compositions — since Leone preferred the widescreen format of Techniscope (a format that utilized a normal lens, resulting in distortion-free images with everything in focus in both foreground and background), which permitted him perfect latitude in framing his now iconic compositions, allowing him to shoot normal looking faces in extreme close-up so that faces, eyes, and hat brims (which cut into the frame from off-screen like a knife in the eye) can consume an entire widescreen image. More stunning are the restored audio tracks, with formerly unnoticed background sounds now heard sharp and clear and front and center — howling wind, creaking wheels, singing locusts, screeching trains, ticking clocks, cocking guns, and brain-numbing weapon blasts. And to top it all off, one of the great Ennio Morricone scores. Leone’s film about an outlaw ‘ancient race’ stepping aside for encroaching civilization overturns the fast paced shoot-’em-up western genre and transforms it into a La Scala operatic aria of stately and leisurely set pieces that usually end in an explosion of violence. In this western inversion, Henry Fonda is now the bad guy, Charles Bronson the nominal good guy, and Jason Robards the comic bandito — and all are given big star entrances. For most of the film, a sexually charged woman (Claudia Cardinale — the film’s one false note) calls the shots (the non-bullet kind). In the end that doesn’t even matter as Fonda meets up with Bronson for their big slow-dance shootout, saying, ‘Nothing matters now. Not the land. Not the money. Not the woman. I’m coming here to see you.’ PB

Finally, Rene Clair’s Two Timid Souls (Les Deux Timides) () is a film that fell through the cracks. Made in 1928 and released in 1929 during the first tsunami wave of talkies, the film was even further obscured by being sandwiched between Clair’s popular silent comedy An Italian Straw Hat and the international success of his string of early talkies. Requisitioning a print from La Cinematheque Francaise and vastly benefiting from the deluxe treatment afforded it by the Tribeca Film Festival with live orchestral accompaniment by the NYU Chamber Orchestra and a fresh and spirited new score composed by Jaebon Hwang, Jin Kyung Lee, Jihwan Kim, and Sean Kyong Kim, Two Timid Souls has probably never before been exhibited with so much love and care. Based on a Eugene Labiche play (as was An Italian Straw Hat), Two Timid Souls is a slight but enjoyable bagatelle, improved immensely in its telling by Clair’s witty and crisp use of film techniques (flashbacks, split screens) and also the Keatonesque performance by Pierre Batcheff (Un Chien Andalou). Batcheff stars as Fremissin, one of the two timid souls; the other soul is Maurice de Feraudy, playing the father of the cupcake daughter (Vera Flory) that Fremissin wants to marry. The whole film revolves around waiting for the two characters to overcome their wimpishness and explode into action. Clair sets the tone in an opening courtroom scene featuring snoring gallery members, an errant mouse, and a defense lawyer that asks the court to give his client the maximum sentence. Like the sprinting mouse, Clair hits the ground running and energizes his farce with effervescent fizz and zip. PB

Read More