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Film

Tribeca Film Festival Reviews
April 25 - May 6, 2007
Various Locations

 

(Opposite Photo Credit - Wendy R. Williams)

The Tribeca Film Festival with its slogan,"It's Movies, It's New York," opens next week and the New York Cool writers will be posting reviews daily on this page. See this quote from the Festival's website, "The over 200 films chosen from the nearly 4,500 submissions are from every corner of the globe and offer almost as many perspectives as New Yorkers have opinions."





Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine’s
Avida
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

It makes for a great pitch:

After the accidental death of his millionaire employer, a burly, deaf-mute bodyguard gets a job as a zookeeper. There, he meets a colleague with some eccentric hobbies, like playing tranquilizer gun—tag with another zookeeper and periodically covering his face with Scotch tape. Together, the pair devises a half-cocked scheme to kidnap a rich woman’s dog and collect a ransom. But Avida, the gorgeously gargantuan vixen who owns the pooch, has other plans in mind. She turns the tables and strikes a new bargain: she’ll give the men the money if they transport her up to the top of a mountain, where she wants to commit suicide. The pair accepts the offer, and on this strange odyssey almost everything goes awry, resulting in a series of bizarre mishaps and personal revelations. In the end, the journey leads to a conclusion that’s deeply surreal and ambiguous, and at the same time wonderfully uplifting.

A road trip, tranquilizer guns, redemption, big boobs, exotic animals, strange fetishes, and a cute little puppy! It’s got it all!

Obviously, it’s unlikely that this kind of movie would get the green light at any American studio. Fortunately, as most cinephiles know, the French are much more twisted and permissive in their filmic predilections. And thank God for that, because it means that the film described above, Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine’s Avida, actually made it on to celluloid and has been making the rounds on the festival circuit, temporarily ending its American tour at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Of all the great films I saw at Tribeca, Avida was definitely my favorite. It’s a wonderful, rare and stunning gem; a dazzling, breathtaking, subversive and uniformly hysterical movie, a truly peerless and aesthetically unique piece of cinematic heaven.

Unless you attended a major film festival in 2005, you probably missed de Kervern and Delépine’s first feature, Aaltra, which was a trippy, sardonic and delightfully politically incorrect take on the road-trip buddy flick. With Aaltra, de Kervern and Delépine established a distinct and arresting aesthetic, characterized by visual absurdism, delicious flouting of bourgeois pretensions, and perfectly choreographed, quasi-balletic slapstick comedy. All of these elements are also present in Avida, but they’re taken to an even more surreal, vaudevillian and poetic level. The result is a film that’s an enchanting, enigmatic mélange of comic and philosophical observations about the increasing gap between rich and poor, satiric black physical comedy and metaphysical ruminations and realizations. All these elements not only happily coexist; they meet and interact in pleasantly unexpected ways.

Many adoring American film critics have compared the work of de Kervern and Delépine to the films of Jacques Tati and Luis Buñuel, as well as Buñuel’s frequent collaborator in surrealistic cinema, Salvidor Dali. Those influences are certainly evident in Avida (see if you can spot all the references), but these brilliant young filmmakers have taken these inspirations and transformed them into something completely their own. Much of the surrealism in Avida comes from the deliberate excising of plot exposition and establishing scenes and shots. While this may turn off audiences used to more traditional filmic storytelling, the technique is a stroke of genius. There’s a minimum of unnecessary information and a maximum of masterfully controlled visual interest. The absence of extraneous knowledge ensures that each shot is packed with surprising humor. As a result, almost every shot in Avida leaves the audience roaring with incredulous, irrepressible laughter.

Delépine and de Kervern are aided in their unique artistic vision by a talented, up-for-anything cast. As in Aaltra, de Kervern and Delépine play major parts in Avida; de Kerverm takes on the role of the deaf-mute, while Delépine plays the Scotch tape fetishist. Their on-screen chemistry is truly exceptional. As an actor, de Kervern has an endearing, gentle-giant gruffness that’s a perfect comic foil to the thin and angular Delépine’s deadpan contempt and tightly wound agitation. One can’t help but wonder if this case of opposites attracting is also the success of their directorial collaboration.

Avida’s cast also boasts a few other familiar faces. Cinephiles will delight in a cameo by legendary French auteur Claude Chabrol, playing a voracious carnivore with an unsual palate. Mathieu Kassovitz, Avida’s co-producer, the star of Amélie, and the director of the critically acclaimed La Haine (Hate), also makes a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance. Filling out the film’s population of oddballs are many fine actors in smaller roles. Creating perfectly honed caricatures, the flit on and off the screen in a matter of seconds, delivering snippets of absurd dialogue that add another richly textured layer to the surrealist farce.

But Avida’s true star is the lovely Velvet, who plays the title role of the Rubenesque, suicidal diva. Here is a perfect example of what happens when actors and directors work well together. The role of Avida could have easily devolved into an all-too-familiar French stereotype: the pushy fat American with her ever-present bag of potato chips. Velvet doesn’t shy away from the less flattering elements of the part; she gets the pissy, whiny and demanding aspects of Avida’s character just right, but the performance never slips into cliché. As the story advances, we get to see more elements of Avida’s personality, which Velvet displays with a subtle vulnerability and poignancy. This is no easy feat, considering how little dialogue she has to work with.

Obviously, Avida’s size is an essential part of the (admittedly loose) plot, and it’s certainly played for the occasional laugh. But the whole film is so full of a genuine love for and delight in eccentrics and all those who fall somewhere outside of the norm that the jokes never feel cruel. And, even when placed in the most unusual poses and costumes, Avida looks gorgeous. (This is due mostly to Velvet’s considerable physical charms, but also to the beautiful cinematography of Hugues Poulain.) When Avida finally finds what seems to be (the minimalism of the plot makes one hesitate to speak in absolutes) happiness and affirmation, her triumph is complete. The stunning image of her that ends the film transforms “big is beautiful” from a hackneyed platitude to an absolute artistic and philosophical truth; one that both transcends and reaffirms the film’s satiric stance of the increasingly warped values of mainstream society.

If the fate of Aaltra is any indication, Avida probably won’t have much of a run here in the States. But if, by some happy coincidence, you come across it at a film festival or an indie playhouse, get inside as fast as your kidnappers can carry you. If, like Avida, you finally decide to stand up, you won’t be able to stop yourself from jumping in for a wonderful, wild ride.




Ognjen Svilicic’s
Armin
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

It’s something of a secret, but steadfast, truism in the film industry: movies set in war-torn countries are supposed to be big. Sweeping epics of battles, death and heartbreak are not necessarily required, but wrenching psychological trauma writ large and cinematic lectures about the horror of war and hatred are generally considered essential.

Its insistence on ignoring this dogma may be both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of Armin, a Serbio-Croation-German co-production directed by Ognjen Svilicic. Everything about Armin is quiet, subtle, and slowly understated. It’s full of a dignified determination not to use the tragic history of its locations to cheaply or melodramatically tug at any heartstrings. This delicacy and refinement could, sadly, be Armin’s downfall; there’s a chance that it will simply pass most audiences by. (There were only three journalists, myself included, at the press screening I attended.) For Armin to slide under the radar like that would indeed be a shame, for the film is an admirable piece of work, dealing with both familial tensions and the failed promises of the prosperity of a unified Europe with a great sagacity and nuance.

A glib spectator might dub Armin the Serbian Little Miss Sunshine, but such a comparison would do both films a disservice. The basic plot elements of Armin parallel the story of Sunshine: Armin (Armin Omerovic) and his father Ibro (Emir Hadzihafisbegovic) leave their Serbian village for Zagreb so Armin (a drama-club kid and accordion player) can audition for a German-made film about Serbia during the Balkan wars. The common theme of mass culture’s abuse, exploitation and suppression of any genuine artistic or personal expression is readily apparent. But while Sunshine tackles the topic with perfectly executed satire and instances of hysterical, explosive rebellion and outrage; Armin handles the same issues with lingering scenes of ambiguous sadness and distress, along with heartbreaking moments of all-too-apparent false hope.

The success of the film lies largely in the beautifully crafted performances of the two lead actors, Hadzihafisbegovic and Omerovic. Hadzihafisbegovic does a fantastic job as Ibro, a well-intentioned but pushy busybody who has to offer his expert opinion on everything and can’t ever take no for an answer. But he’s no loud-mouthed stage father; the shades of Hadzihafisbegovic’s acting make it absolutely clear that Ibro’s on this odyssey because he loves his son to death and thinks he’s the greatest thing since Marlon Brando.

Of course, that sort of adulation is the last sort of thing a teenage boy wants from his dad, and the tension between Hadzihafisbegovic and Omerovic is what lends the film much of its drama and poignancy. Omerovic is also a very skilled performer, and he conveys Armin’s mixed emotions of embarrassment, resentment, vulnerability and anticipation with a deft touch rare in an actor so young. The scenes between father and son are fraught with a painfully realistic combination of miscommunication, slight but deadly verbal barbs, and the heavily veiled but nevertheless desperate pleas for affection and acceptance.

Since a modern, jaded audience is well prepared for the inevitable disappointment of the audition storyline, Svilicic lets it run on a bit too long, even while managing to mine both wrenching and satirical moments out of it. And at the end, when we finally get to see Armin’s talent shine through his glum façade, and when father and son reclaim their dignity by refusing to be cast as victims, their triumph is truly gratifying. Like Armin itself, it’s a subtle but definitive victory.



Jon Poll’s
Charlie Bartlett
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Starring: Robert Downey; Anton Yelchin: Hope Davis: Kat Dennings: Murphey Bivens

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Charlie Barlett is a quirky charming saga that tells the story of the new guy at a suburban a high school, a charismatic misfit who parlays his unassuming wit and charm to become the most popular kid on campus. And along his route to becoming “prom king,” he falls in love with the principal’s quasi-Goth daughter Susan (a charming Kat Dennings with lots of red lipstick) and finds his nemesis in person of the manically-depressed-alcoholic-high-school-principal, Mr. Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.).

Here is a quote from the Tribeca Film Festival press release, “Failing to fit in at a high school run by a disenchanted principal (Robert Downey, Jr.), awkward Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is running out of options for making friends--until he names himself the school "psychiatrist." When he starts doling out advice, and the occasional pill, to classmates, his popularity soars in this witty take on teenage insecurity.”

This movie is funny on so many levels. Charlie lives in gothic mansion with his eccentric mother Marilyn (played by the mega talented Hope Davis), with whom he has a Hansel-and-Gretel-in-the-woods relationship. The family obviously has money (there is a chauffeured Bentley), but are also obviously over come by some mysterious melancholy. There are so many hysterical scenes: (1) Charlie looking up psychiatric drugs in pharmacological texts and then surfing psychiatric couches describing the exact symptoms that can be cured by the pill-of –the-month (2) Charlie setting up his psychiatric office in the men’s room (he in one stall the supplicant in the other – Catholic anyone?). This movie has an amazing tone and the credit can only be given to the director, John Poll. He kept his symphony under tight control.

And now about Robert Downey in his role as the principal, Mr. Gardner. Downey plays Gardner as a total whack job, but as the scariest kind of whacko – the one where all of the rage is tamped down so far you can only “see” it when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The scene where Downey is drunkenly shooting mechanized toy boats in his swimming pool should be taught in acting class. He is terrifying but he also seems trustworthy??? He is enraged by Charlie; but who doesn’t become enraged when forced to watch someone else walk on water?



Yoo Ha’s
A Dirty Carnival
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

Mix two parts Sopranos and one part Godfather. Add a little kimchee and a whole lot of karaoke and baseball bats, put it all in a blender and you have A Dirty Carnival (Biyeolhan Geori), Korean director Yoo Ha’s gangland drama, making its North American debut at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The film’s Korean title literally translates as “mean streets,” which is both an allusion to Martin Scorcese’s landmark 1974 film of the same name and also a telling indication that Ha has been strongly influenced by American mafia sagas, from which he borrows too heavily to give his own movie much interest.

Byung-doo (Jo In-seong) is a mid-level hood with his own crew who’s fallen on some rough times. His former boss took off with all his money. He now works for Sang-chul (Moon Yoon-Jae) a stingy thug who gives Byung-doo no chance for promotion. Life at home is just another pain in the neck. He’s got to take care of two younger siblings and an ailing mother who has a pesky habit of desperately clutching her chest every time she ponders what she did to force her son into the mob. Add a scruffy white bathrobe and a penchant for ducks, and this starts to seem a little familiar.

Looking to move up in the business, Byung-doo seeks the counsel of top boss President Hwang (Jeong Ho-jin) a slick character looking to delve into more profitable and legitimate business with a real estate venture, if he can only get rid of the pesky DA who’s hounding him. Meanwhile Byung-doo reconnects with Min-ho (Nam Gung-Min) an elementary school friend and aspiring filmmaker who wants to interview real-life mobsters for his script.

The film-within-a-film subplot eventually becomes significant, but Ha doesn’t devote enough time to this most interesting angle of his story. Nam is an incredibly affable actor, and he plays Min-ho with a great deal of charm, nuance, and a psychological depth lacking in most of the other characters. The scenes between Min-ho and Byung-doo have a tender nostalgia and subtle ambiguity, and it’s a shame that the relationship wasn’t given more screen time. Another subplot, involving Byung-doo’s rekindled interest in a childhood crush (Lee Bo-young) is bland and conventional; the woman functions as a device at best and set-dressing at worst.

Of course, inventiveness is not necessarily the mother of greatness when it comes to mob flicks, but A Dirty Carnival lacks the intensity and subtlety that makes the best work of Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola and David Chase transcend the genre. All of these artists also had a great deal of passion for portraying the spirit and character of the Italian-American experience; if Ha has something significant to say about the culture of modern Korean gangsters, it is completely lost in translation. The story is too generic and predictable – all archetypes and tropes with no unique angle or insight to give the film some punch.

A Dirty Carnival also lacks the slick action and thrilling violence of the best Asian gang films. Its ongoing saga of deception and betrayal never reaches the pitch-perfect hard-boiled tension of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs, the inspiration for Scorcese’s The Departed. Ha manages to get in a good choreographed battle and a fun, grisly execution, but by the time the last drawn-out fight scene rolls around (a huge part of Dirty Carnival’s problem is that, at 141 minutes, it’s far too long) the audience has grown tired of seeing hordes of men go at each other with steel baseball bats for minutes on end. Several of the film’s gangster characters complain that the violence in mob films is not realistic, but if Ha is attempting a vérité approach to his own fight scenes, the sad fact is that the gangster’s life is, as Byung-doo discovers, repetitive, dull, and not at all what it’s cracked up to be.

It is, in fact, as the producer who reads Min-ho’s script laments, the same old story. Watching A Dirty Carnival, one can’t help wishing that its director had been wise enough to listen to his characters.




Michel Kammoun’s
Falafel
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

The best films emblazon images in your memory, images that elicit memories, responses and sensations long after the screen has gone black.

For example:

A handsome young man leisurely admires his freshly trimmed beard as he tries on a jean jacket. As his mother dozes in front of the TV, the man and his adoring little brother playfully sneak up on her to tickle her feet.

At a party, a group of twenty-something boys jockey for position at a telescope to catch a glimpse of the acrobatic extramarital activities of a doctor’s wife living in the building across the street.

In another room, our young hero teasingly flirts with his crush, languidly gazing at her while she playfully avoids his glance by looking in the mirror.

She wears a white dress with a ruched neckline that exposes the beautiful golden skin of her bare shoulder. She spills a bit of her margarita on her dress and flirtatiously licks it off. The boy watches, smiling, staring at her large dark eyes and that perfect shoulder, his eyes hinting at a thousand fluttering heartbeats and a million reverberating fantasies and dreams.

He whisks the girl away on a moped, taking her to little arcade to play pinball. He creeps up behind her, his eyes constantly shifting to that tempting shoulder. Tentatively, he moves his lips closer.

And the night goes on, the scent of fried food from greasy-spoon joints throughout the city filling the streets.

The fact that all of these wonderfully evocative scenes, all of which are found in Falafel, the first feature directed by Michel Kammoun, take place in modern-day Beirut, is – paradoxically and refreshingly – both inconsequential to a Western viewer’s enjoyment of the film, and, at times, intensely resonant and relevant to the development of the plot.

Kammoun depicts the night-long adventure of the young man, Toufic (Elie Mitri) and his friends with a breezy and erratic style, perfectly suited to the serio-comic, ambiguous dynamic of love and friendship in twenty-something social circles. A long, almost entirely wordless scene, in which Toufic and two of his friends stand on a balcony watching the objects of their affections dance with other people, says more about young heartbreak than most angsty novels could dare to aspire to.

In keeping with this spirit of youthful realism, Kammoun lets the camera move freely about the motley crew of friends and strangers, lingering on odd little bits of conversation and focusing in on funny-poignant subplots. This freewheeling artistic style, coupled with naturalistic, seemingly off-the-cuff dialogue, evokes the work of American auteurs like Robert Altman and John Cassavetes, but Kammoun puts his own stamp on this filmic style, infusing it with a slow-simmering, utterly intoxicating, erotic energy. The young cast members are all incredibly skilled and charismatic – particularly Issam Bou Khaled, who plays Abboubi, the clique’s long-suffering sad clown.

But Mitri is clearly the film’s most engaging actor, emanating both sly, sardonic charm and languorous sensuality. Also enchanting is his lady love, the bewitching Yasmin (Gabrielle Bou Rached). Their scenes together are packed with a sweet and smoldering chemistry that could never be achieved with cute beards, soulful eyes and bare shoulders alone.

The tribulations of living in a country that, like Lebanon, has been plagued by fifteen years of civil war, can, as Kammoun demonstrates, range from slight annoyances to scrapes and bruises. He lets these details emerge slowly and subtly, as they gradually intrude on the everyday pains and pleasures of the young characters’ lives. The juxtaposition of normality and turmoil comes to a head when, after an accidental and asinine altercation with a corrupt bigwig, Toufic hops on the moped again, determined to get some satisfaction. His bumbling pals pile into a car to follow him, determined to save their friend from himself.

As this nocturnal odyssey progresses, Toufic encounters a motley crew of characters, each with a particular way of venting his frustrations with the state of their nation. (One of them, a barber, suggests boosting the Lebanese economy by exporting a percentage of the nation’s women to work as belly dancers.) Facing this wild rage and anger, Toufic is forced to ponder the righteousness of political and personal outrage, as well as the futility of sacrificing the pleasures of everyday life (and indeed, of staying alive) to become another anonymous victim of a conflict beyond reason. Kammoun is wise enough to express this philosophical dilemma with restrained visual and textual gestures, preserving the subtlety of Falafel’s political commentaries.

In maintaining this delicate balance, Kammoun succeeds in making a movie that portrays life in a country torn by civil strife as it really is; full of vitality and ordinary humanity, with occasional eruptions of violence, corruption and terror.

And yet, in spite of these difficulties, life goes defiantly on, with humor, lust and vitality. Days after seeing Falafel, those exhilarating scenes of exuberant joy and rapturous sensuality floated through my mind, much like the scent of those frying chickpea patties wafting through the streets of Beirut. It’s a potent perfume that, even though it’s flown past soaring rockets to travel halfway around the world, will never fade away.





Kevin Connolly’s
Gardener of Eden

2007 Tribeca Film Festival

 

Reviewed by Corey Ann Haydu

The new dark comedy, Gardener of Eden follows an underdog protagonist, Adam (Lukas Haas), as he navigates life in New Jersey after getting kicked out of college. He returns home to a tired, comfortable life with no purpose and accidentally becomes the town hero by inadvertently capturing a serial rapist. Adam’s life takes a turn after this event and he begins spending all his time building muscle and learning how to fight so that he can continue his newfound career as a hero. He becomes obsessive and his good intentions are confused by his desire to remain a hero in the eyes of his parents, friends, and love interest (Erika Christensen).

Gardener of Eden is a solid film with a fresh storyline and extremely well-cast actors who find the humor and the drama in the script. Lukas Haas in particular is excellent as Adam, easily moving between comic foil and frightening troubled soul. He carries the film, bringing forward the pain and struggle of his character. That being said, the atmosphere captured in Gardener of Eden seems outdated or cliché. The peripheral characters are all caricatures of certain Jersey suburbanites and though at first these tired stereotypes are fun and entertaining, they quickly wear out. We are ultimately left with a two dimensional world for the very complicated three dimensional lead character to exist in. The film is also stuck in between two genres. Some moments it reads as a frat boy comedy straight out of the Wedding Crashers or Orange County school. In other moments it is dark and tragic with Adam as the quintessential tragic hero, undone by his human flaws. It is hard to settle into the film because of these inconsistencies and the film finds timid compromises, instead of looking for a way to incorporate and embrace both genres.

Gardener of Eden is not an exceptional film, but it is an enjoyable one despite its flaws. The pay-off at the end is well deserved and surprising, giving the film a tight finish. There are some stellar scenes and the dialogue between male friends has a casual accuracy that helps the moments read with refreshing honesty. It is unusual and odd, but enough of it works for it to have some validity and even, ultimately, a bit of a message.



Richard Trank’s
I Have Never Forgotten You
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Simon Wiesenthal. We all know who he is: He is our conscience, the man who won’t let us forget because he can’t forget. He walked through the jaws of the Nazi's death camps and survived. And with his survival he took on the incredible burden of obtaining justice for those who did not survive.

When the Allies liberated his concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal was near death from starvation. Although he did not know it at that time, eighty-nine of his relatives had perished in the Holocaust. Here is a quote from the Tribeca Film Festival press release, “How did a man who trained as an architect track down some of the world's most notorious war criminals? Discover the history and legacy of legendary Nazi hunter and humanitarian Simon Wiesenthal in this stirring documentary. Narrated by Academy Award®-winning actress Nicole Kidman, it features previously unseen archival footage and interviews with friends, family and world leaders.”

Wiesenthal never practiced his architect’s trade after the war. From then on he was obsessed with bringing the murderers to justice. Reunited with his wife (who managed to escape a trip to the death camps because of her "non-Jewish" blonde hair and blue eyes), he set up shop in Vienna. Here is a quote from Wikepedia.org: “His relentless pursuit led to the arrest, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann [and] of Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer responsible for the arrest of Anne Frank. Silberbauer's confession helped discredit claims that The Diary of Anne Frank was a forgery. During this period Wiesenthal also located nine of the 16 Nazis later put on trial in West Germany for the murder of the Jewish population of Lwów and also captured Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps, and Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, a former Aufseherin (literally, "female supervisor") living on Long Island who had ordered the torture and murder of hundreds of children at Majdanek.”

Nicole Kidman narrates the documentary, which is illustrated with old film clips and stills. We hear from his daughter, who tells what it was like to grow up with no relatives and a father who was consumed with the task of obtaining justice for the Holocaust victims. The documentary tells the story of how Wiesenthal's work did not stop with just the Jewish victims, he also searched for the murderers who killed the Nazi's other victims: the gypsies; homosexuals; and Poles. He even spoke out for other victims of genocide like the victims in Rwanda. Because he knew one very important lesson (to quote Eugene O'Neill), "There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now." And we also should never forget.





Michael Addis
Heckler
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Katharine Heller
http://www.katharineheller.com

Critic Peter Grumbine once said about comedian Jamie Kennedy's rap album, "Kennedy and his fucknut buddy deserve to be lynched, hung, and dragged across Texas behind a F-350" and "He lacks any creativity or even a single interesting quality as a person". That's pretty harsh considering Jamie Kennedy (TV's The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, Scream 1&2) does have a pretty solid career as a comedian. His new documentary, Heckler, addresses just that: The difficulties that come with placing yourself in the spotlight and how now, in this information age of blogs and chat rooms, not only is everyone a critic but everyone has a venue.

Heckler starts off as a funny little glimpse inside the world of stand up comedy. With snippets of video footage and commentary from comedians including Arsenio Hall, Roseanne Barr and David Cross among others, Jamie Kennedy explores the reasons behind heckling, and even talks to a few of the smart-aleks after shows to grill them as to their motives.

A third of the way through the film, the subject changes from audience hecklers to movie critics. Kennedy is notorious for several box office flops, (Malibu's Most Wanted, Son of the Mask), and feels that some were unflinchingly hard on him. He goes on a mission to confront some of the reviewers, to mixed yet entertaining results.

So the question becomes this: What is the purpose of a critic? How does overly cruel language in a review assist the reader in making an informed decision, and if anyone can set up a website, are there standards set in the art of critique? It was especially interesting to sit in a movie theater at a press screening attended solely by critics, as the contentious subject matter induced much seat shifting
and awkward coughs along with bursts of well earned laughter.

Kennedy's weakness is his strength in this movie. His honest and sometimes immature vulnerability is fascinating to watch as he personally tackles those who have called for his career assassination. Both thought provoking and entertaining, I believe anyone can learn a little something from this film. And for what it's worth, the room full of critics watching criticism of said critiques broke into
applause at the end of this screening.

Runtime: 80 mins.


Alex Holdridge's
In Search of a Midnight Kiss
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Corey Ann Haydu

In Search of a Midnight Kiss is certainly destined to be one of the must see films at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Set in Los Angeles and filmed startlingly in black and white, the film is a love story between two strangers who meet on Craigslist on New Year’s Eve. The premise is basic and the films pace is even and relaxed. However the relationship between the two beautifully likeable lead characters, Wilson (Scoot McNairy) and Vivian (Sara Simmonds) is so powerful and natural that the film succeeds in a powerful and moving way. The entire film takes place in the hours before midnight and the hours just after and somehow in the end very little has changes and very much has changed. It is so rare for a film to capture that very simple reality and this one does it with an engaging, smooth confidence.

Writer/director Alex Holdridge has an impeccable script and an off beat style of filming. He pulls off the black and white film well—never letting the medium seem pretentious or unnecessary. Instead, his choices enhance the decidedly hipster love story, and showcase the strength of his actors and dialogue without the extra help of colorful costumes or flashy scenes. In Search of a Midnight Kiss is perfectly suited for the Tribeca Film Festival; its characters live in L.A. but are reminiscent of the Williamsburg crowd as they scan Craigslist for love and/or free furniture, explore the city and try to decide what to wear on first dates. My only fear for the film’s future release is its ability to reach a wider audience. Its characters are intellectual artists with twenty-something pain and their struggles are often specific to the life of an artist in a new city not quite making it.

Wilson and Vivian are exceptional characters — flawed, well intentioned and fun. McNairy and Simmonds are perfectly cast and their chemistry is intoxicating. They live in the film with a heightened sense of reality and urgency that is rarely seen in film. The audience is a privileged voyeur watching these two troubled souls embark on a new relationship and a new year. They capture the way we are and the way we wish we were, and the combination is deeply satisfying. Holdridge is a writer/director to watch, and In Search of a Midnight Kiss is an enormous accomplishment for the cast and crew.




Invisibles
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Directors: Isabel Coixet (Letters to Nora); Wim Wenders (Invisible Crimes);
Fernando León de Aranoa (Good Night, Ouma); Mariano Barroso (Bianca’s Dream); and Javier Corcuera (The Voice of the Stones).

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons


For people living in privileged societies, the impulse to shield one’s self from the horrors and injustices perpetrated in other, less fortunate, areas of the world is all too common. The news is so relentless, so horrifying, that looking away seems to be a question of self-preservation.

It is this willful ignorance that Invisibles, a film co-produced by Oscar-nominated actor Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls) and the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, seeks to eradicate. The result is a powerful testament to the overlooked suffering in the world, as well as an inspiring tribute to the people who decline to ignore what the rest of the world refuses to see.

Invisibles is comprised of five different segments, each shot by a different director and each focusing on a different humanitarian issue. The best films in Invisibles hit a perfect balance between cinematic interest and altruistic passion. The most fascinating and compelling is Wim Wenders’ Invisible Crimes, which records the testimony of women raped by Maï-Maï rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Standing before a blackboard in a rural schoolhouse, the women recount their stories with an eerie calmness that belies the horrific ideals they have experienced. At a key moment in her narrative, each woman will vanish from the screen while her voice continues speaking. It’s a simple technique, but one that powerfully and economically conveys the effect of rape on a victim’s psyche.

In Isabel Coixet’s Letters to Nora (Cartas a Nora), the protagonist details her husband’s losing battle with Chagas disease -- a parasitic illness that runs rampant in many parts of South America – in letters to her sister Nora. Nora supports her sister’s family by working in Spain. Her own daughter also died of Chagas disease. All ambient sound is muted, and against images of the protagonist – who remains unnamed until the final scene – going about the business of everyday life, her voice-overs express her stifled rage at the medical and pharmaceutical industry’s refusal to help her or her family.

In the Letters’ credits, we learn that no laboratory in the world is researching a cure for Chagas disease. (Since it primarily affects poor communities in Third World countries, big pharmaceutical companies don’t consider research into Chagas a profitable enterprise.) Coixet’s cinematic technique beautifully portrays the feelings of invisibility and insignificance of those who fall through the cracks of the system of humanitarian aid.

The next segment, Good Night, Ouma (Buenas noches, Ouma), directed by Fernando León de Aranoa, tells the story of young Ugandan boys kidnapped and forced to fight in their country’s ongoing civil war. The interviews with the former child soldiers are poignant and haunting, and the stories of the activists trying to protect other children from the same fate are genuinely inspiring. However, the film’s emotional content suffers slightly from poor editing and would benefit from a bit more narrative focus.

Mariano Barroso’s entry, Bianca’s Dream (Los sueños de Bianca) takes an interesting approach to the issue of the pharmaceutical industry’s negligence in dealing with sleeping sickness, which is annihilating populations in Western Africa. Barroso combines black-and-white footage of two non-government organization (NGO) workers arguing with a Scrooge-like CEO about working to improve anti—sleeping sickness drugs to rural communities. This footage is intercut with color shots of an ailing woman crawling along a dirt road seeking treatment for the disease. The contrast is effective, but a little heavy-handed, and ultimately does victims of sleeping sickness a disservice by not devoting enough attention to the woman’s side of the story.

Invisibles’ final segment, The Voice of the Stones (La voz de piedras), directed by Javier Corcuera, is a more straightforward documentary, but an incredibly well crafted and moving one. Voice follows a resolute group of displaced Colombian peasants determined to leave the city and reclaim their homeland. Corcuera manages to tell their story with simple passion and dignity, admirably demonstrating their determination to start over from scratch and return to their ancestral way of life. Interviews with the émigrés are interspersed with folk songs and dances commemorating their rural heritage and emphasizing their passion for preserving the way of life of their ancestors. Their conviction, in spite of bureaucratic corruption and scheming, to live their lives the way they choose is truly inspiring.

While the cinematic mastery exhibited in each of the segments in Invisibles varies, every single one of them opens the viewer’s eyes to appalling humanitarian and medical crises that the mainstream media has indeed rendered invisible. The mere possibility that this film could make such suffering visible to the Western world and encourage its audience to take action on behalf of those who have no voice makes Invisibles essential viewing.





Bill Guttentag’s
Live!
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Corey Ann Haydu

Live! is a film for anyone who has ever wondered just how far realty television will go. The question has been asked countless times— where are our boundaries in this relatively new medium? Is it possible we would kill someone on air? Have game shows where contestants have to do much more than eat bugs or find true love? Will producers run out of ideas and eventually, desperately, take things too far?

These are the questions writer/director Bill Guttentag asks in his new film, a very dark, satirical mockumentary. In the film, TV executive Katy (Eva Mendes) proposes a reality television show that televises a game of Russian roulette. Six likeable contestants compete against each other. The winners win five million dollars each, and the loser, of course, ends up shooting himself in the head. There is something eerily real about this film, despite its clearly comical edge and its over the top acting style. As the audience, we watch the final product-- a half hour Russian roulette reality TV show that mirrors our own over-produced television aside from the frighteningly high stakes.

Eva Mendes does a fair, if inconsistent, job in her role. At times she is powerful and believable, managing to play a real character while also acknowledging the lunacy of the character’s ideas. Other times, however, she gives into the superficiality of the dialogue, making her performance less compelling. The real stars of the film are the six Russian roulette contestants, each of whom is wildly optimistic and deeply scared. They give excellent dramatic performances that enhance the satire, leaving the audience deeply disturbed.

Live! struggles with finding its niche, and would have been better served without the useless device of having a mockumentary premise. It does nothing but hurt the film, as it is never fully committed to. The film reads as a straight narrative, and the occasional reminders that the filmmakers are part of the fictional world of the film become confusing clutter that distracts from the real strengths of the film. It is a strange decision, as if Guttentag didn’t believe that film was strong enough without the use of such a device. That being said, the film is a strong, entertaining and affecting look into our own flawed culture. I, for one, am happy a film has finally been made about the downward spiral of television programming and the scary place we may be headed.




Péter Forgács'
Miss Universe1929
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

A Queen in Wien

Reviewed by Katharine Heller
http://www.katharineheller.com

The striking Lisl Goldarbeiter was the first and only Austrian to win Miss Universe in 1929. In this documentary written and directed by Péter Forgács, the tumultuous story of her rise to fame occurs over the backdrop of a country in turmoil at the start of World War II. The majority of the footage was filmed by Lisl's cousin, Marci Tänzer. Marci was admittedly obsessed with his cousin's beauty, and in interviews interspersed throughout his old footage Marci claims that he believes no other woman has, or ever will, be as close to perfection as Lisl. Disturbing as it is, this odd love story successfully conveys both the beauty of a country soon to be overtaken by the Germans and the tumultuous life of the heroine, Lisl.

Péter Forgács does a very nice job of taking hours of grainy and almost completely deteriorated film and constructing an intense story. Some of the creative license he takes with the affected voice-overs and scene repetition seem a little over the top (if you have footage all the way from 1929, it's automatically impressive) as the story alone sells itself. But all together this was a very fine documentary.

70 Minutes.




Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s
Nanking
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s haunting new documentary Nanking, a film about the brutal 1937 attack on and occupation of the Chinese city by the Japanese army is, simply put, a must-see. An incredibly powerful piece of filmmaking, Nanking brings a shameful chapter in international history back into the public eye, and makes a powerful case for the necessity of remembering the crimes of the past.

Guttentag and Sturman use a unique and effective array of storytelling techniques to bring the horrors of Japanese-occupied Nanking to life. They’ve laid their hands on an astonishing amount of still photographs as well as archival footage, mainly taken – on pain of punishment or death – by Westerners determined to make the rest of the world see what the Japanese government was determined to hide. Most of this footage is harrowing beyond words. One particular film – shot by an American missionary and Dr. Bob Wilson, who cared for the countless wounded at Nanking hospital – elicited gasps from at least half the audience members I watched the movie with.

Equally powerful and wrenching are the interviews with survivors of the Japanese occupation, most of whom were children and adolescents at the time of the invasion. Now aged and often sporting scars and shrapnel wounds, they tearfully and angrily recount tales of multiple gang rapes (after the war, a military tribunal estimated that at least 20,000 – and perhaps as many as 80,000 – rapes were perpetrated by Japanese soldiers in Nanking) and remember mothers and baby brothers killed with bayonets in front of their own eyes. The outrage and despair of these men and women are infectious and devastating. After one survivor narrated an especially horrific story, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

However, Nanking’s most interesting narrative angle is the sparsely staged reading of the written testimony of the handful of Westerners who stayed behind to try and protect he defenseless Chinese from the approaching onslaught.

Their story is truly a unique one. In 1937, Nanking was the capital of China. An economically prosperous city, it boasted a sizable Western population, the majority of whom evacuated after the first Japanese air raids. Only a few men and women remained, believing it their duty to do all they could to save the less fortunate. As the occupation wore on, these unarmed men and women were astonished at their ability to keep the notoriously brutal Japanese troops with nothing more than strong conviction and vague verbal threats.

Despite resistance from the Japanese government, the Westerners set up a safety zone in the center of the city, harboring thousands of displaced Chinese citizens, and saving more than 200,000 lives.

Seated in a circle, wearing minimal costumes and makeup, the actors recite the testimonials of these historic figures with a potent, well-balanced mixture of humility, steely determination, incredulity, and moral outrage. The performances are all very strong, but special praise should go to a few of the talented cast members. Mariel Hemingway delivers an impassioned performance as Minnie Vautrin, a missionary and the dean of a women’s college who single-handedly saved thousands of Chinese girls from sexual assault. Woody Harrelson does fine, subtle work playing Dr. Wilson, who witnessed much of the savage butchery of Chinese civilians first-hand. Particularly notable is the work of Jürgen Prochnow, who plays John Rabe, a successful businessman and member of the Nazi party who felt a strong obligation to stay and help the Chinese. When given a chance to visit Germany, he smuggled a copy of Wilson’s film with him, convinced that if Hitler was made aware of what was really going on in Nanking, his Führer would put a stop to the carnage. This error in judgment would subject him to years of harassment, first from the Nazis and then from the Soviets.

The altruistic passion of people like Vautrin, Wilson, and Rabe – a passion that endured regardless of the consequences they suffered – demonstrates that the story of Nanking is far more than a simple history lesson. (Although the continual glorification of the rape of Nanking by vehement Japanese nationalists certainly makes a strong case for the contemporary relevance of the occupation’s legacy.) As the modern world watches many humanitarian crises transpiring across the globe, the example of these few brave men and women who fought for justice against all odds is a powerful lesson in the power of the individual to stop similar atrocities. Their story makes Nanking not only a fantastic historical documentary, but also a powerful call to arms.




Paolo Virzi’s
N (Napoleon and Me)
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Starring: Elio Germano; Daniel Auteuil; Monica Bellucci; Sabrina Impacciatore; and Massimo Ceccherini.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

At last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the one motion picture that emerged, in my humble opinion, as far superior to all the others never even got commercial release here in the United States. It was an Italian gem called Romanzo Criminale (Crime Novel).

The terrific work that Italian helmers have been producing these last few years rarely get attention. As a matter of fact, the New York Times, which prides itself on reviewing important films and events, did not even bother to cover last year’s Film Society of Lincoln Center sponsored Open Roads which showcases the best of Italian cinema. Romanzo was featured. Had they bothered, perhaps one of the best films of last year would have been seen by more than a few hundred lucky people.

Another Italian wonder is being shown at Tribeca this year: Paolo Virzi’s N (Napoleon and Me). Let’s hope history does not repeat itself!

Based on the novel “N” by Ernesto Ferrero (and written by Furio Scarpelli, Giacomo Scarpelli and Francesco Bruni), Napoleon and Me chronicles an angry and passionate young man’s vehement need to take revenge on one of the most notorious historical figures of all-time.

It’s 1814 and Napoleon Bonaparte has been exiled to the Island of Elba. The sheep-like villagers as well as the nobles begin falling over each other welcoming the former Emperor. But there is one young man who refuses to take part in the parade of sycophants: Martino Papucci, an idealist whose dream is to assassinate the despot. Papucci is, ironically, offered an important position working directly with Napoleon, which he gleefully accepts. Now all he has to do is commit murder. There’s just one problem: the new King seems to be winning him over.

For a film like this to truly soar, a strong lead actor is key and luck would have it that Elio Germano perfectly embodies the radical revolutionary spirit this character needs without becoming a caricature.(the gifted actor was, actually, briefly featured in Romanzo Criminale.) Germano is fascinating to watch and proves a dynamic and mesmerizing actor.

Which is molto good because he is playing opposite some towering thespian figures.

The celebrated French actor Daniel Auteuil tackles the part of ‘the little corporal’ with aplumb. It’s an almost sympathetic portrait and only someone as amazing as Auteuil could get away with it.

The stunning Monica Bellucci (The Passion of the Christ, Malena) manages to make a seemingly distateful character into someone we adore and feel for. She’s one of Europe’s finest film actresses.

Outrageously funny in a supporting turns are the magnificent Sabrina Impacciatore and Massimo Ceccherini.

Napoleon and Me is hilarious at times, yet contains moments of great power, especially near the end of the film. And while the movie meanders just a bit, Virzi is to be applauded for an extraordinary achievement.


Beth Scacter's
Normal Adolescent Behavior

2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Corey Ann Haydu

Normal Adolescent Behavior is a dark film that explores teenage love and sexuality. The film is focused on a group of six teenaged friends—three girls and three boys—who are in a group relationship. The six teens all sleep together and are not allowed to sleep with other people; they switch partners fluidly within the group and have dedicated themselves to each other. Tension arises when Wendy, one of the girls, falls for Sean, the new kid in school who is of course not part of the group relationship. She is forced to choose between a traditional monogamous relationship and the safety and comfort of her five friends.

Though Normal Adolescent Behavior has all the makings of an honest, interesting film, it falls short. Most strikingly, Wendy and Sean’s relationship develops so quickly and for no apparent reason that it becomes entirely unbelievable and unmotivated. They are two very different teenagers, from to very different worlds and it is impossible to believe they would ever fall for each other. The film does nothing to prove what their bond is and thus the plot seems thin and unlikely. The characters themselves also lack credibility as true adolescents. Though the potential is there, writer/director Beth Scacter fails to provide enough information and history to justify their unusual relationships with each other and with themselves. Without the necessary proof, the mature characters read as impossibilities instead of as compelling anomalies. Luckily, the young actors, most notably the fantastic Amber Tamblyn, attack the heavy material with real a dedication and what is lacking in script is made up for in the deep pain and honest behavior exhibited on screen.

Normal Adolescent Behavior is a cross between two excellent movies exploring similar territory; Thirteen and Mean Girls. It does not manage to tap into teen reality with the same understanding as these films, however it is none the less a meaningful look into teen sexuality. What it lacks in development and motivation it makes up for in gritty pain and loveable, flawed, three-dimensional characters. It is a film that is trying to hard, but at the end of the day it must be applauded for trying at all to take adolescents’ love and sex lives seriously. The passion is apparent, and it is easy to imagine this film succeeding with some fresh editing and a few new scenes. Above all, it is refreshing to see young actors working on a challenging film that asks tough questions instead of getting lost in the sea of pop culture dredge we so often associate with young Hollywood



Goran Paskaljevic’s
The Optimists
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

Ah, optimism: that good old American cure-all. Its virtues are touted in pop psychology books, and in countless sound bites from politicians. If the glut of self-help pablum that seems to regenerate like frisky rabbits is to believed, optimism can make us richer, cure cancer and, best of all, improve our sex lives.

Fortunately for the skeptics among us, Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic has got our backs. His newest film, appropriately titled The Optimists (Optimisti), consists of four vignettes that each, in its own unique way, illustrates the complexities and pitfalls of an optimistic attitude. Like his ideological comrade in arms, the French philosopher Voltaire, Paskaljevic seems convinced that if you think that you’re living in the best of all possible worlds, you’re indulging in some serious delusion.

The first segment is perhaps the most ambiguous. In it, the denizens of a rural town decimated by a flood have gathered into a dank barn, bitterly lamenting their fate. Enter a gimlet-eyed stranger who claims he can help them rebuild all that has been lost. His solution? The dual powers of positive thinking and hypnosis. Despite the citizens’ profound doubts, his unique brand of mysticism seems to be working – that is, until a patient’s wallet goes missing. Is he a petty thief, a madman, a skillful charlatan, or a genuine do-gooder? It’s a question that is ultimately unanswered, leaving the villagers more adrift than they were in their flooded houses.

The second vignette has a much darker, almost sickeningly cruel tone. This is a tale of optimism as a front, an excuse for cowardice. After his daughter – in a scene of intense brutality and shattering emotional impact – is raped by his vulgar and corrupt boss, a mild-mannered factory worker is determined to exact his revenge. However, after further consideration, a bit of blackmail and some not-so-thinly veiled threats, he demurs, convincing himself that it’s better to maintain a moderate income (not to mention both of his kneecaps) than to fight the good fight. All the performances in this segment are perfectly done, understated yet full of emotion, and seething with barely contained anger and frustration. As a director, Paskaljevic has a profound understanding of the lies and platitudes people tell themselves in order to justify inaction, and he paints this delicate philosophical tableau with perfect, subtle strokes.

From here, Optimists shifts gears into the delicious black comedy that aficionados of Eastern European cinema have come to know and love. The next segment follows a doctor responding to an emergency call from a nouveau riche pig slaughterer who’s been cursed with getting what he wished for: son who follows a little too closely in his father’s footsteps. (The details are just too wickedly hilarious and absurd to give away.) In the final vignette, a shady faith healer (played by the hypnotist from the first segment) leads a bus full of the blind, crippled, and terminally ill on a bus trip to a “magical” fountain that will – for a reasonable fee – cure all their ailments. En route, he lifts their spirits by proselytizing about the power of optimism. He even throws in a song-and-dance routine. (If you’ve ever wondered what “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands” sounds like in Serbian, Optimists gives you the chance to find out.) In the end, even after their leader predictably absconds with their money, the fountain (actually more of a dirty puddle) appears to be the real deal. But in their zeal to cure themselves, the invalids desert one another, proving that the virtues of optimism and charity rarely go hand in hand.

With The Optimists, Paskaljevic masters this deadly accurate depiction of the dark, hypocritical aspects of human nature. The fact that he can deliver such incisive moral criticism with a heavy dose of ironic comedy makes him a director to watch. As long as an audience can see cancer patients rolling around in the mud, we can all sleep soundly, knowing the future of sardonic cinema is secure.





Kirill Serebrennikov’s
Playing the Victim
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

“Russian cinema is in the arse.” These are the first lines we hear from Vlaya, the protagonist of Kirill Serebrennikov’s smart and intriguing new film, Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaya zhertvu). Whether the comment is just youthful indignation, fiercely held belief or, in fact, something between these two extremes, is never made clear. However, one thing is certain. With Playing the Victim, Serebrennikov has proclaimed the thriving existence of crazy, impassioned, and masterful Russian filmmakers ready to take their place in their country’s pantheon of cinematic greats.

Serebrennikov’s title proves shockingly apt. Vlaya (Yuri Chursin) quite literally plays the victim. He works for the Moscow police, standing in for murder victims in crime reconstruction videos. With his colleagues – a high-strung captain (Vitali Khayev), an easily distracted camerawoman with boyfriend troubles (Anna Mikhalkova), and some bumbling young officers – he reconstructs five murders throughout the course of the film, and each scenario grows more farcical and bizarre. The team’s bumbling attempts to extract detailed confessions from handcuffed suspects are a constant source of jolly, black-hearted fun. Serebrennikov has an uncanny mastery of the comedy of inept bureaucracy, which is displayed to sardonic perfection in these scenes. The shot in which the inspector and a midget immigrant murderer have a heated argument about breath-holding by the side of a pool while, in the background, an officer – dressed in a flowery woman’s bathing cap – has an altercation with a giant inflatable duck, is sheer bliss.

Unsurprisingly, Vlaya chooses to combat the mind-numbing banality of his job with flip, goofball antics. He takes this attitude home with him, where the situation is not much better. His father has just died and his plump, pragmatic mother (Marina Golub) has taken up with Vlaya’s uncle (Fyodor Dobranravov). Naturally, this situation recalls the tribulations of a certain Danish prince of theatrical lore. Serebrennikov, a renowned stage director in Russia, uses this allusion to great effect. There’s even the requisite ghost – the spirit of Vlaya’s father – who comes to Vlaya in the night, speaking obliquely about betryals, without, like Papa Hamlet, telling him exactly how to extract his plan of revenge. This, understandably, leads to a campaign of futile – but nonetheless gleefully irritating – resistance.

Vlaya, clearly upset with this new domestic arrangement, does his darndest to cause as much as chaos as possible at home, confounding his petit bourgeois mother by singing and dancing through the house in aviator sunglasses and his father’s old military jackets. His behavior is equally perplexing to his mousy, desperate-to-get-hitched girlfriend Olya (Yelena Morozova), who looks on with trepidation but no apparent distaste when Vlaya insists on wearing a bunny mask during intimate moments. When not generally annoying family members, he escapes the monotony of everyday life by launching extreme conspiracy theories. Why go out to buy pita bread, he argues, when the terrorists could easily poison a batch and wipe out the entire populace? His mom decides they’ll have noodles instead.

Chursin is a true find. He’s something of a dangerous, hawk-like cipher. His ludicrously bold and eccentric rebellions against society are empowering and endearing. Yet we have no idea about what’s going on in those omniscient yet strangely illegible eyes. Our only true entry point into Vlaya’s innermost psyche is a series of black and white animated vignettes, full of dark scratchy lines that evoke primitive etching, that offer us fleeting and ultimately ambiguous glimpses into the thoughts and fears of a man on the brink.

All this leaves us with a burning question. How far will the intelligent and eccentric Vlaya go to break free of the constraints of a repressive and inept society? The answer to this question, served up in the film’s conclusion, is both shocking and and somehow desperately inevitable. Serebrennikov’s concerns about contemporary Russian society are plain to see – a widespread culture of mediocrity and conformity, as well as the oppressive banality and inefficacy of government institutions, rank high on his list – but Serebrennikov is far too smart to let this trail off into political diatribe, focusing instead on the modes of surrealist escapism that act as a security blanket from the harsh realities of Vlaya’s world.

A bizarre and yet deeply human exploration of the agonies of the human soul, Playing the Victim crowns Serebrennikov as a sublime poet of the absurd and one of the most refreshing new voices in Russian cinema.



Györgi Pálfi's
Taxidermia
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

I remember the scene clearly. I was celebrating my sixteenth birthday with my family at an upscale French restaurant. While trying to choose the right dish for such a milestone, the waiter gamely suggested I try an innocuously named plate that was actually a carefully chosen selection of innards. “It would be,” he said, in his inimitably Gallic way, “a rite of passage.” At this point in my life I was still rather green, gastronomically speaking, and declined the challenge. Nevertheless, my inner wannabe daredevil always regretted not taking that leap.

Now, after seeing Taxidermia, Hungarian director Györgi Pálfi’s deliciously disgusting surrealist farce based on the works of Lajos Parti Nagy, I’m ready for anything the chef chooses to tastefully arrange on my plate. Bring on the brains and sweetbreads: I’ve been to the top of Entrail Mountain, and the view’s looking good.

Needless to say, shock value alone does not a great film make. But every once in a while, a movie comes along that is so original and inventive in its perversity, so unbridled in its desire to give creative expression to life’s seedy underbelly, that it demands acclaim and attention. For me, Taxidermia is that film. Judging from the response of the audience I watched it with at the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday, I’d venture a guess that many of them had similar reactions. The room full of jaded film critics clearly got a perverse thrill out of being so utterly astonished. They seemed incredulous to discover that there were some things they still couldn’t stand to look at.

To give away too many of the details would disappoint those seeking gross-out thrills and offend those who aren’t interested. Loosely speaking, the film is an extended family drama, telling the stories of three succeeding generations. In the first segment, a lowly soldier (Csaba Czene) serves a lieutenant and his family in the barren countryside, finding bizarre and creative outlets for his sexual frustrations. Years later, his son (Gergely Trócsányi) becomes Hungary’s champion sport eater, and struggles with the twin pressures of being a proud symbol of Communist manhood and wooing the top female sport eater (Adél Stanczel) away from his teammate (Zoltán Koppány). Finally, the sport eaters’ inexplicably scrawny son (Marc Bischoff), who has grown up to become a taxidermist, fights feelings of anger and failure while grappling with the challenges of an aging (and ever-expanding) father.

If you think that the combination of sport eating and taxidermy can make for some cookie-tossing cinema, suffice it to say that you have no idea. Take the restaurant scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, the most squirm-inducing episodes of South Park and Jackass, and everything in Silence of the Lambs, multiply it all by ten and splash it across the screen in glorious Technicolor, and you’re getting close. In other words, if you had to close your eyes during Borat, you might want to consider skipping this one.

However, if you have a strong stomach and a taste for something different, there is much to love in Taxidermia. Even the most grotesque scenes are brightened with splashy color and infused with a luminous beauty. (The credit for this is due to the skill of cinematographer Gergely Pohámok, who can even make human intestines and slaughtered pigs look pretty.) The competitive eating story line is both a brilliant farcical critique of the ridiculous perversities of a bloated Communist bureaucracy and a very tender human drama. All these elements are in perfect balance, and the film elicits many belly laughs and sympathetic sighs as well as moments of nausea. A movie this heavy on the absurd and the icky can quickly – once the audience’s expectations have adjusted – go from shocking to ho-hum. Pálfi manages to keep upping the ante, and the film’s outrageous conclusion will leave both your stomach and your brain spinning. Taxidermia is not for every viewer, but if you don’t mind dipping a toe or six into the deviant pool, you’ll find the water just fine.




Alex Gibney’s
Taxi to the Dark Side
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

“Americans want to believe that we’re more moral than the rest of the world,” says a military interrogator interviewed in Taxi to the Dark Side, a gripping new documentary about the US military’s torture policy. The comment provokes the film’s director, Alex Gibney, to ask the man if he shares that belief. He pauses for a moment. “I think that’s bullshit,” he replies.

It’s a sentiment that will doubtless be shared by everyone who sees Taxi, a powerful and well executed film that boils over with an infectious outrage, and that establishes Gibney (who also directed 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) as a powerful and confident voice in contemporary documentary filmmaking.

While it shares many of the attributes that made Enron so powerful, Taxi is more of a mirror image than a carbon copy of Gibney’s previous film. Enron started with a story of corruption in the highest echelons of power (the malfeasance of company bigwigs Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling) and argued that it was indicative of a much larger culture of corporate greed and recklessness that pervaded an entire institution. Conversely, Taxi starts with a single incident perpetrated by interrogators at Bagram prison in Afghanistan (many of whom were later transferred to Abu Ghraib) and makes a persuasive case that this and other examples of detainee torture and homicide were not, as high-ranking military personnel maintained, the work of “a few bad apples,” but rather the result of willful obfuscation and vagueness from the top of the military chain of command, perpetrated with the intention of tacitly condoning violations of the Geneva Conventions.

The result, Gibney maintains, was that military personnel – particularly interrogators – never knew what protocol to follow when dealing with detainees. (He repeatedly stresses the fact that, despite numerous requests, staff at Bagram and Abu Ghraib never received written directives on what they could and could not do in interrogations.) This uncertainty, coupled with constant reminders of the threat of terrorism and an immense pressure for “results” (which generally meant extracting confessions, whatever the cost) led to abuse of power on a wide scale. In the end, it was the soldiers who were punished, while none of the superior officers (or government officials) who deliberately failed to guide or correct them have been charged, tried or disciplined.

Gibney starts off with the story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver from a remote village arrested (on no evidence and the word of corrupt Northern Alliance troops) and detained in Bagram prison, where he died as the result of injuries sustained from brutal beatings. After the autopsy, the military coroner ruled his death a homicide. New York Times reporters Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden pursued the story, alerting the public to the issue of detainee torture.

From here, Gibney travels to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, effectively arguing that the chilling accounts and photos of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib were part of a more widespread use of psychological manipulation – including humiliation, sensory and sleep deprivation, and intimidation – in prisoner interrogations by military personnel. He convincingly argues that responsibility for this policy goes back to the top of the power structure, particularly to Vice President Dick Cheney, who stated from the days immediately following September 11th that, in order to win the war on terror, America would have to travel to “the dark side.”

Just how dark that dark side became is revealed through photographs and videos taken within the various prisons and via interviews with a wide cast of characters, who each help to shed light on the many facets of corruption and incompetence that make up the story. Military experts and personnel of all ranks are interviewed, as well as detainees’ attorneys. John Yoo, co-author of the infamous “torture memo,” makes an appearance. So does Alberto Mora, the former Navy General Counsel who, upon receiving news of widespread detainee abuse, threatened to go public with the story if the Pentagon did not change its interrogation policies. Moazzam Begg, a British national detained for almost two years at Bagram and then Guantanamo, was an eyewitness to the abuse of Dilawar. He also delivers first-hand accounts of what detention for an alleged “enemy combatant” is like with a surprising amount of humor and grace, most notably when he describes the irony of being asked to testify against the soldiers who detained him.

The interviews with four of the officers charged in connection with Dilawar’s death provide some of the film’ most complex – but ultimately effective – moments. Gibney works hard to depict them as fall guys for much bigger fish while still making them accountable for the fatal blows inflicted on Dilawar’s body. Their stories of insufficient training and lack of support from superior officers are horrifying, but at the same time many of their own comments – sweeping and derogatory generalizations about Islam and Middle Eastern culture, a smirk or laugh that leaks out in the middle of a description of torture and humiliation – can be chilling and deeply disturbing. In the end, they are the best proof of one interviewee’s assertion that the military attracts people who are “just this side of the Marquis de Sade,” and therefore need strict codes of conduct to stay on the straight and narrow.

One of the reasons that Gibney is so good at arousing feelings of indignation and outrage in his audience is that, unlike other cinematic provocateurs like Michael Moore, he doesn’t rely on bombast or gimmicks to do his work for him. He lets evidence and rational argument speak for themselves. The individuals he is criticizing damn themselves with their own words, while Gibney skillfully contrasts their dissimulations and justifications with the cold, hard facts. A great deal of credit must also be given to Taxi’s editor, Sloane Klevin, who, in her first documentary film, masters the art of making an argument with sound and image. Taxi is undoubtedly a charged and passionate polemic, but it’s a very successful one. This is because it’s a highly filmic piece, which expertly uses all the tools available to make its case.

In an elegant and moving codicil, Gibney dedicates the film to his late father, Frank Gibney, who worked as a military interrogator in Japan during World War II. It was his father’s deep distress at the news of Abu Ghraib – which, in his own words, “destroyed” his faith in the American government – that prompted his son to make the film. One can only hope that, in finding an impassioned audience, the son’s work will fulfill the father’s dream of a country that lives up to the principles it is fighting to defend.



 


Reha Erdem’s
Times and Winds
2007 Tribeca Film Festival


Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

Early on in Reha Erdem’s breathtaking, heartbreaking film Times and Winds (Bes Vakit), the grandmother of a large rural clan, anxiously awaiting death, laments that little boys are all sweet, but once they grow up and become husbands and fathers, they are all the same – “grumpy.”

Her comment is an eloquent expression of the climate of violent fatalism that the little boys (and girl) who are the film’s protagonists, chafe and struggle against in this lyrical and haunting film, which documents the slow, alternately beautiful and stifling pace of life in a rural Turkish village.

Each of Times and Winds’ three young protagonists suffers under the patriarchal oppression of their environment in different ways. Ömer (Özkan Özen) is the son of the local imam, a distant judgmental father who makes no secret of his preference for his younger son, a precocious little tyke with an annoying penchant for constantly rattling off multiplication tables. Ömer’s father, who constantly reminds his elder, less intellectual son of his shortcomings, is suffering from a chronic illness, causing Ömer to constantly fantasize about (and even take steps towards) speeding up Dad’s journey to the great beyond.

Yakup (Ali Bey Kayali), Ömer’s best friend, has father troubles of his own. So, for that matter, does Yakup’s father, whose aging Dad never misses a chance to physically abuse him or compare him unfavorably to his more capable brother. Yakup’s father, in turn, takes out his aggression on his son and his pregnant wife, who’s had one miscarriage already due to her husband’s violence. Yakup’s cousin Yildiz (Elit Iscan), a bright and charming girl, loves school and is the apple of her father’s eye, but her mother thinks she spends too much time preoccupied at school and play when she should be at home caring for her baby brother.

To escape this cycle of misplaced anger and repression, the children escape to the wild, beautiful countryside, where they develop a sweet and conspiratorial camaraderie. The principal actors, all between the ages of 11 and 14 at the time of shooting, are all first-time film performers who won the roles over thousands of other Turkish children. The extensive casting search paid off: each one plays their part with a deftness and subtlety rarely seen in adult actors. They manage to pack an incredible emotional wallop with nothing more than a slight movement of the eyes.

The children do experience occasional moments of bliss, which Erdem depicts with a lush, rapturous beauty. They creep out into the craggy landscape at night, sleeping in fields and beds of dead leaves, almost as if, by burying themselves in the comfort of nature, they can shut out the harshness of their lives. Yakup has a passionate crush on the village schoolteacher; on a class outing he tenderly removes a thorn from her foot and refuses to wash her blood from his thumb for days. After the teacher lends her a book to read, Yildiz, in a gesture of giddy bliss, brushes her upturned face against the branches of an olive tree. These exquisite moments of quiet joy, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Florent Herry, are all the more precious because of the banality and brutality that surround them.

As the title suggests, time is an important thematic element in Times and Winds. The film is divided into five sections, each named after a time of day when Muslims are called to prayer. This gives the impression that the whole plot is occurring over the course of one very long day, further emphasizing the heavy atmosphere of repetition and a yearning to escape from the routine. Erdem has a unique sense of the rhythms of rural life, alternating moments of pastoral pleasure and tense drama and longing with more quotidian scenes of sheep herding, bread baking, and animals copulating.

One of Erdem’s great accomplishments with Times and Winds is that he’s made a movie that deals with the oppression of time, and moves slowly without feeling dull or too long to the audience. They are so invested in the dreams and aspirations of the young protagonists, so anxious for them to escape the tyranny of their lives that they are literally at the edge of their seats, desperate for something to happen. As the film reaches its conclusion, they are like the children pressed against the craggy cliffs, staring down into the unknown, yearning for a leap into the void.



Matthew Leutwyler’s
Unearthed
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons


Aliens and Indians and uranium, oh my! There’s all this and more in Unearthed, a new monster flick, written and directed by Matthew Leutwyler, which teaches its audience the dangers of cutting off funding to archaeologists and messing with Native Americans.

Trouble comes to OldAnasaziBurialGroundville (located somewhere in New Mexico) in the form of Kale (Luke Goss), said archeologist, complete with creepy face tattoo, who (shockingly) got cut loose from his university because of his insistence that something other than a draught wiped out the Anasazi tribe centuries ago. In his zeal to prove his theory correct, Kale ends up pissing of a long-comatose space dinosaur by interrupting his nap. Proving that it’s definitely not a morning creature, Space Dinosaur of Undetermined Origin picks up right where it left off, except now instead of killing off Indian tribes, it’s just preying on everything in its wake, sucking up Earth DNA to…bring back to its home planet? For some nefarious purpose? (Don’t ask -- you’re not going to get an answer.)

Caught up in the turmoil are a stereotypically noble aging Native American (Russel Means), his foxy botanist granddaughter (Tonatzin Carmelo), and a motley crew of travelers, including a fish-out-of-water city slicker (played with delicious, hammy abandon by Charlie Murphy), a cowboy drifter (Tommy Dewey), and a wannabe starlet and her long suffering friend (Beau Garrett and Whitney Able), all conveniently trapped in town thanks to a gas shortage. (This film brought to you by the Toyota Prius…making sure all your road trips are monster-free!)

The only thing (sometimes) standing between this gang and certain doom is Annie (Emmanuelle Vaugier), the town’s feisty but haunted lady sheriff, who likes a little Stoli in her morning OJ. The troubled alcoholic angle is played up a bit too much, but Leutwyler manages to mine one great moment out of it. After a monster attack, our band of outsiders takes refuge in the barn of a gruff local rancher (M.C. Gainey). Annie, understandably rattled, immediately starts chugging the first booze she lays her eyes on – a bottle of wine. Gruff Rancher tells her to enjoy, since she’s downing a $300 bottle of Montrachet. What’s a rural rancher doing stashing vintage Montrachet next to his farm equipment? It’s one of the great, crazy, evocative details that Unearthed gets just right.

Vaugier is the film’s greatest asset. With her doe-like eyes and devil-may-care attitude, she’s a little bit Audrey Hepburn and a little bit Philip Marlowe, all stuffed into a skimpy muscle tank. She mixes equal parts sassy sexpot and Gary Cooper with admirable aplomb, always sure to hint at a profound vulnerability and never veering into obvious schlock.

Unearthed does make some standard horror flick missteps. There’s too much exposition (although the far-fetched monster plot does make this something of a necessity, it’s delivered heavy-handedly, particularly with a film that generally demonstrates great visual economy.) Another problem is that much of the dialogue is truly awful, both trite and overblown. Means is forced to deliver such a tacky, clichéd monologue – it might as well be entitled “Wise Old Native Americans Say The Darndest Philosophical Metaphors” – that it’s amazing he manages to emerge with his dignity in tact. It’s the kind of scene that makes a viewer wish the Mystery Science Theater guys were still doing their thing, salivating at a chance to rip it to shreds.

What Unearthed lacks in dramatic flair it generally makes up for in good thrills and giggles. There are plenty of slick, well-executed scary/funny death scenes, and Leutwyler seems to have absorbed the valuable lesson that the less an audience sees of a monster, the scarier it is. It’s only toward the very end of the film, when the creature is exposed as a rather wimpy-looking thing – call it the fey, mincing cousin of The Predator – that the whole charade becomes a bit too ridiculous for willing suspension of disbelief.

In spite of these flaws (which horror fans have been quite happily ignoring for decades), there’s plenty of goofy good fun to be had in Unearthed. It’s gooeyness sticks quite nicely to the ribs. Serve piping hot with a glass of Montrachet, sit back, and enjoy the ride.


 


Fredi M. Murer's
Vitus
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Starring: Fabrizio Borsani; Teo Gheorghiu; Julika Jenkins; Urs Jucker; and Bruno Ganz.


Reviewed by Ryan Eagle at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Vitus is the story of a child prodigy whose aptitude for classical piano, among other intellectual gifts, does battle with his yearning for a normal childhood. The film served as Switzerland’s 2006 Academy Award submission for Best Foreign Language Film. In Vitus, Director Fredi M. Murer used real-life piano prodigy Teo Gheorghiu for the title role. Opposite Gheorghiu acclaimed actor and Swiss native Bruno Ganz plays Vitus’s grandfather. The on screen relationship between these two actors alone warrants praise. The film works as a whole because of such individual performances as well as the playful tension strung through several subplots.

The overarching theme is a familiar one for stories about prodigies. At what point do the exploitations of talent outweigh the importance of an intact childhood? In this story, unlike the melancholic non-fiction approach in Scott Hicks’s Shine, Murer discusses conflict in a softer and more uplifting tone. Though the director has said he did not intend for the film to be a fairy tale, it does have idealized if not magical threads. The film is unapologetic about its verisimilitude – or lack thereof. It needn’t apologize because the tender packaging of this story complements the story itself.

One of the most compelling instances of rebellion in the picture is Vitus’s “accident.” Deciding that he must cast off his special gifts, Vitus leaps from the second story of his house on wings that he and his grandfather have made from wood and fabric – a sort of flugtag inspired creation. After his fall, Vitus feigns a head injury that turns him into a normally functioning child. Only his grandfather – the boy’s best friend – is brought into the fold. From this new vantage point Vitus re-examines life and decides just how he might best experience his music and his passions. For all its admitted impracticality, the tension that springs from Vitus’s solution is palpable. How poignant that a child would sacrifice otherworldly gifts in attempt to blend in and garner attention for who he is rather than what he can do.

The roles of Vitus’s parents are played beautifully by Julia Jenkins and Urs Jucker. Both actors make their impressions on the film, but are able to take a step back from Gheorghiu, allowing the audience’s energy to focus on the child’s point of view. While love and expectations are generally rationed out by Vitus’s parents in pleasing ratios, Ganz’s portrayal of the doting grandfather tips the scales once again toward the idealized and maintains the cheerful tone of the film.

Vitus could easily have drifted into saccharin indulgence. Instead of succumbing to the pitfalls to which such films are prone, Vitus triumphs. But what else would you expect from a prodigy after all?



John Dahl’s
You Kill Me
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Ryan Eagle

The problem with so many dark comedies is that they have plenty of dark and no comedy. You Kill Me is director John Dahl’s latest film about a hit man battling alcoholism and stumbling upon a fortifying relationship in the process. The balance between humor and pain makes for an unusually pleasing romantic comedy devoid of the predictable exchanges between male and female leads. Ben Kingsley is an unlikely choice to play Frank Falenczyk, an aging, liquor repository who is slipping up as his Polish mob family’s hired gun. After establishing his character’s honest and sincere approach to a livelihood that is less than angelic, the unlikely choice looks like the perfect one. Kingsley’s appeal as a damaged man is obvious to the audience from his first vodka laden scene. He is equally appealing to Téa Leoni who plays the part of Laurel, herself a damaged person who finds Frank’s straightforward approach to life irresistible. Theirs is a May/December romance that works well on the screen in part because of a script that doesn’t try to do too much.

Laurel accepts Frank’s alcoholism and his struggle to overcome it just as she accepts his profession, not because either one is terribly attractive, but because his honesty about what he does and the way he wishes to do it is a welcome change from what she’s used to. Just what has haunted Laurel in the past is not dragged out in the light. Omissions of pat explanations from the script, like those that would cheapen Laurel’s appeal in the movie were they present, are a hallmark of the delicate subtleties that set this film apart from many of its romantic comedy brethren. The film’s success is thanks to more than just a thoughtful script. Kingsley and Leoni share a dry comic sensibility that comes to life in a story filled with some unsavory subjects. Because both characters have been around the block and neither is game for the childish back and forth one associates with newfound romance, the onscreen couple exudes a freshness that younger Hollywood talent might not be able to sustain. Leoni is still beautiful in spite of her character’s darkness and Kingsley’s charm allows his role tremendous sympathy.

Hit men have been called “cleaners” in other films dealing with mobsters. Cleanliness indeed comes to mind when describing this movie. Frank is forthright when he opens up to Laurel and to strangers at his AA meetings. His conscience is clean. His temporary job while on hiatus from killing is preparing bodies in a funeral home – literally cleaning and even beautifying death. Even the liquor in this film is unmolested. Nearly all of the drinks drunk by all of the characters are neat. No ice, no mixers, no garnish. This no frills approach is refreshing and the film’s total commitment to it is easy to see.

Supporting performances by Dennis Farina, Philip Baker Hall, Luke Wilson, Bill Pullman and Marcus Thomas all help shoulder the film’s driving force, which is a man’s struggle to right his life through avenues of work and love. No supporting role overpowers a scene with either of the two main characters. Such scenes are not stolen by solid performances, but offered up to the greater good of the film as a whole.

You Kill Me lacks the flash of some mob movies and the graphic filler that is so often tacked on to films that can’t survive on mere suggestions of love, sex or violence. This is a thinking viewer’s mob movie and a dark, but clever comedy as well.



Paul Soter ‘s
Watching the Detectives
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Reviewed by Katharine Heller

Here's the story- boy dreams about idea-of-girl, meets girl, girl is crazy and fun but soon the crazy overrides the fun, boy freaks out, girl freaks out more, but in a lovable way, plus she's hot, guy is confused, guy's friends each have their two cents. No, no, it's not just the story of my love life last summer; it's also the idea behind Watching the Detectives, a new comedy at the Tribeca Film Festival
this week.

Written and Directed by Paul Soter of Broken Lizard troupe fame, (Super Troopers, Club Dread), this sharp and witty film reinvents the idea of a "romantic comedy" by bringing in a raw and fresh sexual energy that is either forced or lacking in most scripts today. Too often, relationship driven films tend to take a turn for the predictable - irresistible Quirky Girl has some crazy secret that leads her to a breakdown; Handsome-Yet-Non-Threatening Hero helps her overcome said emotional obstacles. I'd like to believe that no matter what, Paul Soter is too twisted for that. Luckily, I was right.

This film follows video store clerk Neil, the pleasantly dry Cillian Murphy. When he meets Violet, an adorable yet clearly unhinged Lucy Liu, Neil leaves his inhibitions at the store and gives in to Violet's penchant for living out the adventures most people watch on the screen. (We're not just talking kinky role play people, but yes, there is some of that.) Dates get stranger, trust is tried and pranks go too
far as Neil wonders if he may be in over his head. All the while Watching the Detectives remains an exciting, unpredictable and deliciously sexy story that succeeds in never taking itself too seriously.

Murphy and Liu give command performances; credit must be given to first time director, Paul Soter. Watching the Detectives is a sweet, intimate film with big laughs. And unlike my previous summer flings, I'll be thinking about this one for a long time.



Michael Kang's
West 32nd
2007 Tribeca Film Festival

Cast : John Cho; Jun Sung Kim; Grace Park; Jane Kim; Jun Ho Jeoung

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

I used to work two blocks away from West 32nd Street’s Koreatown (between Fifth and Seventh Avenues. And I would wonder, as I walked through Koreatown with its Korean signage, just what was going on behind the doors of the numerous karaoke bars. Did Koreans really like to sing that much?

Michael Kang’s Tribeca Film Festival entry, West 32nd, tells a story of just what is going on behind those doors. It isn’t singing and it's a story that the businesses on the street may rightfully resent.

This film tells a story of a corrupt Koreatown with "private room" Karaoke bars populated by gangsters and illegal immigrant bar girls. It is a world where everyone is compromised and gangsters with flashy cars rule the street. The film also tells the story of the base of New York's Korean community (Flushing, New York), a place where hard working Korean families struggle to raise their children and keep them away from the flash and glamour of the ever present gangster world.

Here is a quote from the film’s Tribeca Film Festival listing: “After hustling his way onto a homicide case, an ambitious young lawyer, John Kim (John Cho, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) infiltrates the gritty dimensions of New York Korean organized crime in order to free a 14-year-old boy blamed for a brutal murder. When he meets Mike Juhn (newcomer Jun Sung Kim), his match in the syndicate, they soon discover they’ll both do anything to get to the top, no matter where the truth lies."

West 32nd is a “western without any white hats.” The good guy scores just a little higher on the moral scale than the mobsters. The protagonist John Kim sees his connection to the Korean community as his way to get ahead in his Anglo law firm. Kim is their token Korean and he plans to use his "tokeness" as a way to claw his way to the top. Kim and his firm take on the case of the 14-year-old-boy not for any altruistic reasons but as a way to get their names in the papers and turn Kim into the Korean Johnny Cochrane. And as he prepares his case, he become attracted to the boy’s sister Lila (played by Grace Park) and drawn into the gangster world by Mike Juhn (his alter ego from the gangster world).

No one can enter or live in such a world without becoming tarnished and John Kim and Lila are no exceptions. In Kim’s cynical efforts to defend Lila's brother he manages to corrupts his very soul and his only redemption is the same cynical brilliance that led him into the abyss in the first place. There is no happy ending because there simply can’t be; because to paraphrase of Walsh’s advice to Gittes in Polanski’s Chinatown, it’s Koreatown.



 


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