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Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

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Maryhan in CAIRO EXIT (Photo: Tribeca Film Festival)

April 20 – May 1, 2011

Even before the recession, big fat acquisition deals made at film festivals were a thing of the past. It’s been years since we’ve seen multi-million dollar deals for the likes of 2008’s Hamlet 2 ($10 million). So the if the buying frenzy has dissipated at such festivals as Toronto or Sundance, the pressure is off for the 10th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival and the talk is centered more on the programming, where the discovery of a little-known gem holds more promise than a seven-figure check. Though the festival has yet to launch an all-out smash, several of last year’s strong nonfiction premieres went on to a theatrical release, like the very well received The Woodmans, Into Eternity, and the award-winning The Arbor, out later this month. One of the biggest indie feature films of 2010 came out of the 2009 edition, the two-hander City Island.

Certainly the world dramatic competition category is an upgrade from last year’s. I haven’t seen any obvious out-of-place selections, like 2010’s shiftless slasher flick Open House. Nor is the likes of the violently tone deaf Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives found anywhere so far. Most of the filmmakers here are first-timers or up and coming, and the boldest debut is Kivu Ruhorahoza’s feverish Grey Matter, a Rwandan/Australian co-production. Its film-within-the-film blends reality, hallucinations, and nightmares for a perpetuator of the Rwandan genocide and a brother and sister whose parents were murdered. Ruhorahoza doesn’t play it safe. His film’s both surreal and concrete, more theater of the absurd than all-out strange, and resistant to a literal interpretation. Rather than a depiction of the atrocities, he portrays a paranoid, scared frame of mind, conveying violence without shock value. The rich shot-on-video cinematography should help silence griping about digital cameras.

I sense an audience-award winner in the lighthearted French/Belgian comedy Romantics Anonymous, also in the competition (talk about counter-programming). Two terrified-of-intimacy wallflowers fall in love—the obstacle: their sabotaging sense of fear. Fans of The Sound of Music will immediately be hooked when the wispy Angélique sings “I Have Confidence” to boost her self-esteem. (The movie’s French name is actually “Emotions Anonymous,” named for the 12-step program Angélique frequents.) The guileless couple, played by the equally charming Isabelle Carré and Benoît Poelvoorde, hasn’t a clue about first-date etiquette. She tries out the topic of the Middle East as an icebreaker, and Jean-René, terrified of women, bails, fleeing the restaurant through the bathroom window. However, the actors take the characters seriously, earning the happy ending. And, what’s better, director Jean-Pierre Améris wraps this up in 80 minutes. Reese Witherspoon, the American remake’s for you.

The bullet-point biopic Black Butterflies rushes through key points of the life of South African writer Ingrid Jonker: her affairs, alcoholism, erratic behavior, and daddy issues. Like many of its genre, the film spans an entire life, perhaps relying more than necessary on expositional dialogue. However, it makes the case for the significance of Jonker’s poetry, even though, not surprisingly, the handsome production and the histrionics overshadow her writing. Actress Carice van Houten, now a brunette, is almost unrecognizable from Black Book and Valkyrie. Her performance as a petulant, untamed woman/child with the posture of a rag doll holds the episodes together. More than one of her lovers complains that the self-absorbed and destructive Jonker drains the life out of him—and the audience will feel the same, too. However, the screenplay defiantly never softens Jonker, but challenges the audience to take her or leave her. Don’t be surprised if van Houten wins the best actress award.

Like the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, the neo-western Blackthorn, by way of Bolivia, doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s a straight-on morality tale that embraces the iconography of the Old West, though set in the high altitude, lunar landscape of Bolivia. With the pace of a ’60s western, director Mateo Gil reels you in, even if you don’t give two hoots about what ever happened to Butch Cassidy. Here, he has survived the 1908 shoot out where he was supposed to have died and has settled in the Bolivian mountains as a horse trader under the alias of James Blackthorn. He has now cashed out his entire bank account and is ready to return to the States, when his horse (and his money) is stolen by a lost Spanish engineer on the run. The out-of-his-element European offers Blackthorn a split of the loot hidden in a defunct silver mine in exchange for helping him to navigate on foot through the harsh landscape. With very little choice, Blackthorn accepts. As Blackthorn, this is the closest to a movie star role Sam Shepard has had. It relies mainly on his laconic, vanity-free presence than on showboating, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this film lands his co-star, Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega, more English-language roles. Expressive and born with killer matinee idol looks, it almost doesn’t matter what language he speaks. However, Irish actor Stephen Rea (yes, the cast is that international) turns in a subdued performance as Butch’s nemesis that doesn’t allow the ending to fully resonate as it should.

A bordello scene, heavy petting, a black-market gun, an operation to restore a hymen, and a brief appearance by the Virgin Mary: Egyptian films are loosing up. Made in 2010 on the sly with a portable digital camera, Cairo Exit makes great use of on-location street scenes, from the slums to the Miami-style nouveau riche enclaves. They all blend together in this neorealistic, low-key melodrama. Fresh out of college, Tarek works at a supermarket, blaming his fate on his lack of connections. He wants to emigrate to Europe, sure that he has no future in Egypt or with his girlfriend Amal, considering one impenetrable obstacle: he’s Muslim and she’s Christian. He remains just as determined to leave even after she announces that she’s pregnant. In a sensuous performance by Maryhan, Amal’s eyes eat up Tarek. At least that explains the attraction when he’s rough and a dullard in comparison. Of course, someone else loves Amal, too, if only she would open her eyes. The drama steadily builds, with a genuine surprise or two, and remains subdued, considering some of the stock characters and plot twists. It’s a good choice for the competition: timely, aiming to please, and with a strong dose of street cred.

The only film in the main competition section that landed with a thud is the frosty and oddly cast Angels Crest, an adaptation of Leslie Schwartz’s novel of a reverberating small-town Montana tragedy. A lot of attitude is on display instead of acting, notwithstanding Elizabeth McGovern’s sensitive performance. Kate (“I don’t do d***”) Walsh plays her mannered lover. Rising star Thomas Dekker looks like he’s still going through puberty, and the demands of a grieving, guilt-plagued father are too heavy for him. Lynn Collins, as his ex-wife, looks too good for a chronic alcoholicshe always has a bottle in hand. Filmed in mountainous Alberta, Canada, the beautiful widescreen cinematography will probably win an award, though.

Some of the best films can be found in the new, catch-all “Viewpoints” section, like writer/director/star Park Jungbum’s strong debut, The Journals of Musan, based on his real-life friend, Seung-chul, a North Korean defector in consumer-crazy Seoul. Park has no other agenda than to put the viewer in Seung-chul’s shoes. Like the film’s other bemused characters, the viewer will likely misjudge or at least change her/his opinion of the stolid man underneath a severe bowl cut. Seung-chul earns just dollars taping (alas, not plastering) posters for a few dollars during the day, and at night he buses tables at a karaoke bar (for $4 an hour) managed by a pretty woman he first spies in church. (The film features one of the most beautifully directed scenes I’ve seen in a long time—a cringe-producing karaoke version of a Christian hymn.) Seemingly simple, deferential—stunned, really—Seung-chul’s slow to react, even when bullied. The only friend he has is a dog he finds on the street. (You’d be crazy not to be reminded of De Sica’s Umberto D). And it’s another film from South Korea that depicts Christianity without cynicism or condescension, in which faith plays an important motivator. (Park has worked as assistant director to Lee Chang-dong, whose Secret Sunshine is another probing, expansive film that deals with faith.) For dog lovers, it also features the cutest. Puppy. Ever.

After seeing this film and Oleg Novkovic’s White White World, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at the art-house magnet, the New York Film Festival. Subtitled “The Miners’ Opera,” it’s a Greek tragedy with Balkan melancholic melodies for monologues, set in a smog-shrouded town barely hanging on thanks to the Communist-era copper mine. Besides singing, there’s plenty of drinking, spitting, and cursing; the c-bomb is the closest thing to a term of endearment in the townspeople’s vocabulary. The tone turns even bleaker than you’d imagine—unrelentingly so, but the film is still compelling. You become completely immersed in but not immune to the cruel behavior, and the film begs for readings about the national character of Serbia, especially of the generation that had already come of age when the legacy of Tito fell apart.

Katie O'Grady in RID OF ME (Photo: Eric Sellers)
Director James Westby breathes life in the suburban satire (hipsters don’t come off that well either) and also brings a caffeinated jolt to micro-budget Northwestern filmmaking. The sweetly endearing and highly stylized Rid of Me has verve and a large agenda that films most lack—and you’re not likely to forget the opening scene set in a supermarket aisle. Newlyweds Mitch and Meris (rhymes with Paris) have moved to his Oregon hometown. He’s a handsome, clean-cut jock. She, with piercing blues eyes, looks like the offspring of Louise Lasser, the star of the 1970s soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and Meris is just as dazed, determined, and self effacing, to the point of vanishing underneath her bangs. The first shock for the newcomer: her husband’s friends aren’t at all what she thought they would be. They’re aging frat boys and sorority sisters, who make any of the Desperate Housewives look Chekhovian. All of her attempts to befriend the clique backfire. Yup, she’s the one that tracks in the dog poop. Westby surrounds actress Katie O’Grady with the camp antics of the Stepford-like neighborhood and the snarly, punkish attitude of Meris’s one friend in town, yet she anchors the film whenever it swiftly shifts in one direction or another.

For a film promoted as evoking The Wrestler and Brokeback Mountain (what a pitch), the overall tone for the quiet but mercurial Chilean film My Last Round is positively funereal. If a brief scene at a burial or the fact a dog is run over in the beginning isn’t enough to prepare you for the tragedy ahead, keep in mind the title. In his mid-30s and knowing it’s time to move on, Octavio has given up boxing—doctor’s orders, his brain could hemorrhage. He takes off to Santiago with his new boyfriend, the younger, clean-cut Hugo, who arouses protective feelings from all the film’s women. Though I wished it had gone in a different direction, director Julio Jorquera moves the film along, and his lead actors have an easing-going banter and tenderness that’s unusual for a screen couple of any gender. It will be available on video on demand through the Festival Streaming Room.

Also in the Viewpoints section, The Swell Season follows Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova on their tour after their out-of-nowhere Academy Award for best song (“Falling Slowly”) from Once. The film is shot in black and white, and its entire tone is of the morning after. Hansard busked for 20 years before he suddenly became an emo poster boy, and she was 19 when she graciously accepted her Oscar. Now what? How do you top that achievement? The fear and anxiety is palpable from both of them, especially the ambivalent Irglova, who’s as stiff and reticent onstage and off as she appeared in Once. They are generally as laidback as their songs, even when they argue. Later in the tour, the bickering increases, and she makes the observation that he has replaced his old struggles with new ones. And you have to ask yourself, how much was the omnipresent camera another hindrance to the grind of the tour and the strain on their relationship. It follows them everywhere—a nude dip into the ocean isn’t off limits. You might feel guilty.

A call for empathy and action, Lee Hirsch’s absorbing and cathartic The Bully Project is competing in the World Documentary Competition, and unquestionably it’s a strong contender. He focuses on five families in the Bible Belt. Two had sons who committed suicide at ages 11 and 17 after continuous bullying at school. Its offhand, insightful moments are likely to jolt an audience. Eventually Hirsch has to stop observing and become involved, disclosing his footage of bullying on a bus to parents and school officials.

And as part of Tribeca’s full menu, the “Cinemania” section offers midnight-movie goofs on the horror genre. From Norway, Trollhunter is, ahem, culled from hours of footage made by a group of college students following the country’s number one terminator of destructive forest creatures. And if you’ve had enough of It’s a Wonderful Life, you now have a seasonal replacement. In Saint, a maniac Saint Nick rampages through a blood-splattered Amsterdam during a full moon in an affectionate homage to John Carpenter’s original Halloween. Though both films are short on scares (the giant three-headed trolls look a lot like Jimmy Durante), they drolly play the humor straight, without Scream-style winking to the camera. They’re old-school old school. Kent Turner Tribeca Film Festival, Part 2, Tribeca Film Festival, Part 3
Updated April 23, 2011



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