Friday, April 24, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 1

It’s exciting to be at a film festival. Everyone’s got their passes on their necklaces, and they’re carrying around their festival guides and their notebooks and their bottled waters, and there are volunteers to tell you where the bathrooms are, and everyone’s just so damned nice and glad you’re there, and damnit, you’re glad too. We get to see new movies, for free, and then write about them. Forgive my Pollyanaism, but seriously, what the hell is better than that?

I saw three foreign language films today, plus I can now write about two films in our native tongue that I saw in the week or so leading up to the festival. None of them blew me away, and many of them have serious problems. But all of them had at least something worth seeing, be it is a skilled performance, an interesting look, or a scene or two that stuck with me. We hope that all the movies we see are masterpieces, but we can’t expect them to be; when it’s clear that they’re not, the trick is not only to understand what they did wrong, but what they did right.

* * *

Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite is a broad blaxpoitation parody that knows all the words and none of the music. There are laughs in it, to be sure, some of them robust. But it is primarily a triumph of photography and design, and the script that they serve is undercooked and weak—a one-joke premise that wears mighty thin by the time the film’s brief-but-somehow-flabby 90 minutes come to an end. To be fair, Black Dynamite looks just right, as if it were an honest-to-goodness 70s B-movie that’s been sitting in a vault for thirty-plus years. And some of the gags—especially those that come early on—do play, but there are also plenty of would-be comic set pieces that just lie there. Sanders and his screenwriters don’t do the hard work of writing comedy—they’re so impressed with their own cleverness that they forget to put in the punch lines.

Black Dynamite mocks blaxpoitation pictures with affection, and make no mistake, they’re easy to sneer at. Those filmmakers were often making it up as they went along, doing their best with ridiculously low budgets and limited resources. But part of the reason that so many of them have survived and influenced filmmakers today was that their energy was undeniable. Little to none of that energy is evident in this send-up, which lurches from scene to scene and often leaves its cast standing around in period costumes on period sets, waiting for something funny to happen. It works in places as a parody, but also has the misfortune of following the Grindhouse films to the marketplace—which worked both as spoofs and as their own enjoyable entertainments. In Black Dynamite, not much happens once they’ve wrung the easy laughs out of the premise.

If I’m a little too hard on the movie, it’s mostly out of disappointment—I was genuinely excited to see if after taking in its brilliant trailer a few months back. The trouble is, you’ll get about as much out of the film as you will from that trailer (the clothes, the cars, the action, the flawless recreation of period low-budget filmmaking), but it’s 88 minutes shorter and it’s free.

* * *

An Englishman in New York is a slight, minor work, but it is absolutely worth seeing as a showcase for a brilliant John Hurt performance. Quentin Crisp, the famed writer, raconteur, and all-around gay icon, is a role Hurt has played before (the 1975 TV version of Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant was a breakthrough role for the British thesp), but he brings to it the full skill of his decades as an actor; it’s a snappy, razor-sharp performance, full of bitchy charm and devilish grins. It’s also a warm, likable turn that pauses for pathos without clobbering the audience.

If only the movie were having as much fun as he is. They’re sometimes in sync, particularly in the opening scenes, which find Crisp arriving in New York in the early 1980s, thoroughly delighted by what he sees—he struts through the village to the sounds of Donna Summer and Rhinoceros, his voice-over assuring us that “without her outcasts, the metropolis would be a very dull place indeed.” Brian Fillis’ screenplay has moments of punchy exhilaration, but it often verges on didacticism. Director Richard Laxton is good with actors, but has some difficulty staging big scenes. Paul Englishby’s music is also troublesome; the score is too damned pushy, sitting on nearly every scene and trying to crush it. Laxton may have relied on it too much to try and build momentum; Fillis’ script keeps starting and stopping, jumping ahead years at a time in such a fragmented fashion that it almost feels as though scenes are missing (the picture runs a suspiciously brief 74 minutes).

However, Laxton finds exactly the right nimble tone in the closing scenes, and has the good sense to hold that tone for as long as possible. Its final moments are just perfect, and they, along with Sting’s closing title song (it’s from his 1987 album …Nothing Like The Sun and is based on Crisp, who was casual friends with the singer), leaves the viewer with a warmth and good cheer that the film may not have entirely earned. But in spite of its flaws, my affection towards An Englishman in New York is genuine. It feels incomplete, yes, but what’s there is frequently effective, and Hurt is just a joy to watch.

* * *

The Swimsuit Issue is an affable little comedy that reminded me, quite intentionally I’m sure, of The Full Monty; it too is the story of a crew of men, past their prime, who find a love and passion for something they probably have no business doing. It’s a likable picture, and it’s just light as a feather, which I mean as neither a dig nor a compliment. You’ll have forgotten it by the time you walk out the theatre door, and there are some moviegoers who don’t mind that at all.

It’s a Swedish film, but that’s of little concern; it’s the kind of foreign film that could feasibly do well Stateside because you could remake it in English and not change a word. In short, it concerns unemployed divorced dad Fredrik (Jonas Inde), who forms a synchronized swimming team with his buddies as a joke, but then they decide to take it seriously and compete at the men’s world cup in Berlin. The film’s trouble, from a narrative point of view, is that we’re not sure why Fredrik wants to do this (maybe to connect with his swimming daughter? It’s hard to tell), and the guys seem to go along with it immediately, for reasons similarly difficult to discern. The Full Monty was bolstered by the real and definite economic impetus for those busted guys; here, there’s no urgency or motivation except that they have nothing better to do.

Most of it is fairly predictable (we have an inevitable appearance by that old warhorse, the training montage), but there are a few unexpected touches. The most interesting surprise is that the subplot—the sometimes-difficult relationship between a divorced dad and his maturing daughter—is actually more compelling than the main story. Their very tentative bond is handled with grace and sensitivity, and puts far more at stake than, say, the manufactured third-act crisis over a mix-up in the number of competing swimmers.

Director Måns Herngren orchestrates the film with smooth, appropriate professionalism, and I’ll give him kudos for one of the most admirably restrained endings I’ve seen recently; in an age where movies frequently go on and on and on, this one ends sooner than expected but no later than it needs to. The Swimsuit Issue is an easy pill to swallow; it’s charming and has much to like, entirely forgettable though it may be.

* * *

“I don’t remember much of that day,” Galia says. “I’m trying hard, but all I have are fragments of time.” That’s a key line in Omri Givon’s Seven Minutes in Heaven, explaining a great deal of its storytelling methodology. Galia was involved in a horrible bombing, which killed her boyfriend and left her badly scarred, physically and emotionally. She can’t remember how it happened, and she now wants very badly to piece it together (always an effective storytelling hook). One of the first things she finds out is that she was “considered clinically dead” for seven minutes, and she is told (by a perhaps unreliable source) that there are some souls who rise to heaven, only to return if that is deemed necessary. So suffice it to say that the title is not a reference to making out at a high school party.

Givon tells Galia’s story in a film that is almost equally compelling and irritating. Its imagery (particularly in the dialogue-free opening scenes) is striking; this is a director who knows how to tell a story without “telling a story.” But when the dialogue does come, it’s often troublesome. We get a lot of old standbys (“What do you want?” “I want my life back!”), and Givon sometimes makes the mistake of assuring us that scenes are dramatic and important by leaving in mile-wide pauses between the lines.

Some of Givon’s other devices work, though, particularly his use of subtle, non-linear shifting in the cutting of the picture. That kind of ingenious editing gives life and potency to the tricky scene where her search for answers and her memories meet and intertwine; that scene is powerful and masterfully constructed, pushing us headlong into the film’s powerful climax. Givon then takes the final scene into an unexpected and fascinating direction; I wouldn’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say, it’s one of the few genuine “a-ha!” moments I’ve experienced recently. Some scenes in Seven Minutes in Heaven try our patience, and some (like that one), reward said patience. It’s an uneven film, that much is certain. But there is still much to admire here.

* * *

Rudo Y Cursi is a reunion, of sorts; it co-stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who previously shared the screen in Y Tu Mama Tambien, and it is directed by Carlos Cuarón, who co-wrote that film with its director, his brother Alfonso. For much of its running time, it shares much of that film’s off-the-cuff energy and charm, complimenting its sharp screenplay with the same kind of intimate, subtly handheld photography that helped give that film its immediacy. And then it all falls apart.

The first hour or so of Rudo Y Cursi has a terrific momentum; it’s beautifully paced, the scenes zip by, and the performances are just right  Then, as its title characters (poor village “hicks” who become soccer superstars) become more rich and famous, a few cliché beats start to creep in—drugs, gambling, women, and other distractions—but, at first anyway, they’re played with freshness and spontaneity, and we don’t lose hope for the picture. The trouble comes around the top of the third act, when Cuarón takes an unsuccessful turn on his material and starts to take it (and the wheezy devices within) too seriously.

Rudo Y Cursi starts out as such a unique and quirky movie, it’s hard to believe that it degenerates into a story that is resolved with not just a Big Game, but the final Big Play at the Big Game. Cuarón is doing clever things right up through this miserable cliché of an ending (and even in the somewhat unexpected beats that follow), but it’s become a final Big Play at the Big Game movie nonetheless, and you can’t steer out of that. It’s disappointing when a movie with this much talent involved doesn’t land, when it gives itself over to ancient, rusty storytelling conventions, because when they gave themselves the leeway to tell a story and have some fun, they were really on to something.

* * *

A much shorter wrap-up tomorrow, with only two films (planned at this point, anyway) to report on: the Polish Brothers’ Stay Cool and Yojiro Takita's Departures, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.


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