We are spoiled: At this year’s numerous Tribeca Film Festival press screenings, the only thing that was consistent was the bemoaning of cinema’s death between the large gulps of free fruit juice, coffee, and flavored water. While waiting for a film to start, I overheard one critic describe John Dahl’s latest, You Kill Me, as the absolute sludge of the festival while another critic couldn’t shut up about his disappointment over Ken Jacobs’ dizzying Razzle Dazzle – The Lost World. Bad movies abound, for sure, but I found myself burying my headphones in my ears in the hopes of drowning out the thrusts-and-parries of the opinionated masses.
For what it’s worth, Tribeca slowly began to mature this year. The bad movies weren’t quite as bad as last year but the good movies were nowhere near as great as the ones from last year; finding another Rock the Bells isn’t easy. Still, Robert De Niro’s celluloid madhouse has congealed into a more serious showcase for cinematic talent and themes. Returning talents like Patrice Leconte, Jia Zhang-ke, and Shane Meadows were seen in the same multiplex (the 34th St. AMC) as promising first-timers like Seth Gordon and Cao Hamburger. Though last year offered a wider variety and an easier screening schedule (I ended up seeing half of what I took in last year), Tribeca may well be on its way to becoming a more selective, well-respected festival.
Let’s start with some good news: This is England () shows director Shane Meadows growing in leaps and bounds from last year’s flawed but enthralling Dead Man’s Shoes. It’s 1983 England and Toots & the Maytals and The Specials can be heard up and down the city streets like a call to arms. Shaun (newcomer Thomas Turgoose) rebels at school but soon finds comfort in a gang of skinheads who take to him quickly. That is until the leader of the gang, Combo (an explosive Stephen Graham), comes home and begins to separate the group into punk skinheads and white-supremacy skinheads. Meadows takes no prisoners, using fine, gritty camerawork to give the film an authentic 1970s feel and never letting the story go into ‘life-of-a-Nazi’ clichés. Instead, This is England becomes a boilermaker of adolescence gone awry, stamping an often-recalled yet rarely explored era.
In contrast, there was N: Napoleon and Me (), a prosaic handling of Napoleon’s life in exile in 1815. It starts with a young writer and teacher named Martino (Elio Germano) who believes he is meant to kill the Emperor. Low and behold, Martino gets a job working as the Emperor’s dictation specialist and librarian and starts to settle his homicidal wants-and-needs. Napoleon, played here by the fantastic Daniel Auteuil, was an interesting character and his time of exile would be interesting in any context. Here, however, director Paolo Virzi saddles the time period with a bogus love story involving a baroness (Monica Bellucci) and then confounds the story further by focusing on Martino’s family, a tired dysfunctional family jaunt that leaves the film tired, dull, and in need of some history.
John Dahl, the gifted director of Red Rock West and the underrated Joy Ride, returned with You Kill Me (), an entertaining if forgettable riposte to Analyze This. Ben Kingsley plays a Polish hit man sent to San Francisco when his alcoholism gets in the way of a hit in his hometown of NYC. His boss (Philip Baker Hall) has lost faith in him, the head of the rival Irish mafia (Dennis Farina) thinks he’s a joke and his real estate agent/contact (a wily Bill Pullman) thinks he can be of use. While lying low as a funeral-home assistant, he falls in love with a recently-bereaved daughter (a great Téa Leoni) and finds an unlikely AA sponsor in a gay tollbooth operator named Tom (Luke Wilson). Dahl’s direction is assured and the script by Chronicles of Narnia scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely has enough snappy wit to keep interest and laughs pouring out. There’s no denying the inconsequentiality of the film, but for aimless fun, it fires on all pistons.
Bahman Ghobadi, the great Iranian director of Turtles Can Fly and Marooned in Iraq, came packing Half Moon (). Legendary conductor and singer Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari) travels on a bus to Iraqi Kurdistan for his last concert, where he hopes to be accompanied by a fabled female vocalist; an action that would effectively break Iraqi law. Traveling with his sons, Mamo braves every kind of hardship and suffers every indignity on his travels, landing him in the hallucinatory grips of a rampant fever. Ghobadi has a dazzling grasp on the gypsy way of life, allowing it to seep from the very corners of the screen in all its tragedy and unkempt jolliness. Ghaffari’s performance was one of the very best at the festival and Ghobadi continues to be the most powerful and intriguing filmmaker working in Iran today.
Winner of the last Cesar Award (the French Oscar) for best film, Lady Chatterley () sways in on the aftermath of a quick wedding and a wartime tragedy. Constance Chatterley (the dazzling Marina Hands) married her coal-mine-owner husband before he lost the use of his legs on the Flanders battlefield. When he returns, Constance’s sexuality has no outlet and she becomes ill and bored by her lifestyle. That stops once she begins a ferocious affair with groundskeeper Oliver Parkin (an implosive Jean-Louis Coullo’ch) that spans the greater part of the film, which passes the three-hour mark. This erotic epic, based on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, is directed with a keen eye by Pascale Ferran, but there’s a certain hesitancy to the material and the script by Ferran and Roger Bohbot struggles to keep the heat of the drama equal to the passion of the sex scenes.
A passion of another kind drives the participants of Seth Gordon’s charmer The King of Kong (). Since the early ’80s, Billy Mitchell has held the high score in Donkey Kong (somewhere around 850,000 points) and has been a small-scale celebrity ever since. As Mitchell basks in his geeky glory, family-man Steven Wiebe toils on a Donkey Kong machine in his garage. When he crushes Mitchell’s score, Mitchell sends cronies ar
ound to discredit him and a rivalry is born. Gordon’s film enters the floodgates on video-game culture; only the truly die-hard fans of Q-Bert, Galaga, and Pac-Man need apply. Mitchell is the well-dressed devil of the videogame world, always donning a pressed shirt and tie while Wiebe represents the outsider, a man with a normal life. With the like-minded Sundance doc Chasing Ghosts nipping at its heels, The King of Kong makes a name for Gordon and looks to be a great closer to the summer season.
Being represented and covered dutifully by Bruce Springsteen on last year’s fantastic We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, folk-legend Pete Seeger got ample study in Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (). Directed by Jim Brown, the story of Seeger as a folk-loving upstart and working man’s singer slowly grows momentum as it fumbles through his early days and starts to focus on the singer’s rebellious and dangerous activities during the 1950s and ’60s. Using archival footage and interviews, Seeger’s life gets a loose tribute, unfocused and unable to balance the man and the time period he existed in and changed. When the final 20 minutes of the film takes a look at his efforts to clean-up the Hudson River, one can’t help but feel that the film has gone from studying a folk singer to simply praising a believed saint. It’s bogus hero-worship, but Seeger’s story is worth telling in the end.
A grotesque and often eye-popping experience, György Pálfi’s Taxidermia () wraps you in a world of sub-surrealist patriarchs and the sons who hate them. When a daft soldier makes it with his superior’s wife, he creates a son and his superior creates a bullet-hole in his forehead. His son becomes a talented Hungarian competitive eater but loses his title after a case of lockjaw. His son, a supremely creepy skeleton who works as a taxidermist, feeds his absurdly-obese father on his lunch breaks as his father bickers about how he is an embarrassment and how he will train cats to eat competitively next. Pálfi’s film could best be viewed as a panorama of the freakish and festering, punctuated by Gilliam-cum-Fellini flourishes of color and putridity. The eating contest scene alone could run this as the most disgusting portrayal of the uncanny to be unveiled in years. That is meant solely and earnestly as a compliment.
From the grotesque to the terrifying: Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman’s Nanking () tells the story of the raping of Nanking and the few people who tried to stop it in vivid detail. Though bumbling at first, the film quickly gets lost in the fog of terror of the Japanese occupancy of the China capitol and the subsequent heartless slaughters and rapes that the Chinese endured in the throws of World War II. The stories, half told by survivors while the other half are accounts read by actors like Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway, are depictions of true evil and carnage that continually astound the viewer. Its structure and stylistic daring don’t always pay off, but the footage and interviews more than make-up for any falters in architecture. It’s a harrowing experience from beginning to end.
Equally fascinating was Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s The Devil Came on Horseback (), a whiplash view of the current state of Darfur. Focusing mainly on Brian Steidle, the American marine who signed up for a mission to neutrally observe happenings in Darfur, the film shares much of the power of Steidle’s book of the same name. Employing Steidle’s shocking photography blended with stories of the Janjaweed (the Sudanese death squads who might be funded by the government), Stern and Sundberg’s film puts real images to the Darfur conflict and give Steidle’s story some real definition. The problem: The execution comes off as clinical at the end of the day, as if the film were plucked from an elongated 60 Minutes segment. All told, the film is a phantom punch that introduces the popular subject with horrifying actualities.
Planet B-Boy () is a film that, by going abroad, goes a good distance toward restoring some actual credibility to domestic hip-hop style; who knew that break-dancing was alive and well in countries like South Korea and Germany, where competitions attract thousands of screaming fans? Benson Lee’s study of international break-dancing documentary has all the hallmarks of a quite overly earnest production, with its over-the-top talking heads proclaiming the glory of true b-boy style (while giving the uninitiated zero specifics) but overcomes that shortcoming through sheer dint of exuberant passion. These are kids who really want to break-dance, and how long has it been since somebody could say that and mean it?
Saying that John Laurence’s I Am An American Soldier: One Year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne () is yet another excellent attempt to portray on film the reality of life on the ground in Iraq for American soldiers doesn’t really do justice to this vivid and humane effort. Following a particularly hard-bitten brigade of paratroopers through a tour that goes from Samarra to Sadr City to Tikrit, John Laurence’s extraordinarily direct and unfussy film has an obvious affection for these professional soldiers and doesn’t bleed over into over-the-top flag-waving. As one soldier bluntly puts it after his tour, when asked about the usefulness of the war, ‘It’s never worth it.’
In 1966, film editor Danny Williams, a young and rising protégé in Andy Warhol’s Factory group, left a family gathering and was never seen again. It was presumed he drowned in Boston Bay. Through a fortuitous circumstance, his niece, Esther Robinson, was connected with a Warhol archivist who had discovered 20 silent experimental shorts by Williams, whom she wasn’t familiar with. Robinson’s dreamy and sparkle-hued A Walk into the Sea () is her attempt to mine the memories of Factory denizens like Paul Morrissey, Billy Name and John Cale about Williams’ time with Warhol and find out some answers. Were he and Warhol lovers, how important were his contributions to Warhol’s art, what really happened? The result is a mess of jealousy, backbiting, and purposeful forgetting, showing just easy it is to be written out of history.
Another emotional digging-up of the past occurs in Jeffrey Morgan’s documentary Lillie & Leander: A Legacy of Violence(). The film starts with a shocking tale of the 1908 lynching in Pensacola, Florida, of black worker Leander Shaw after he was accused of raping and fatally beating Lillian Davis, a young white woman. But under the serene guidance of Alice Brewton Hurwitz (Davis was her great-great-aunt), even uglier truths begin to come to light as a simple look into her family’s history appears to have uncovered a wider campaign of racist bloodlust that the townspeople would just as well keep hidden. Morgan’s film spends a little too much time monkeying about with forensic investigations, but a vibrant cast of characters and stylish yet understated reenactments (done in jerky, silent-film method) make this tale quite a bit more than just another cold case.