Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tribeca 2009

The Tribeca Film Festival decided to downsize this year: the 2009 edition, which ran April 22-May 3 at various locations in lower Manhattan (but mostly north of Tribeca!), unspooled only 85 features, as opposed to 120 last year and 176 in 2005, its high water mark. But any festival that opened with the new comedy by Woody Allen, Whatever Works, starring Larry David, has something going for it. Of the handful of films I saw, documentaries were consistently intriguing and enlightening.

An adaptation of an early Noel Coward play, Easy Virtue is a rollickingly funny comedy that plays off stiff-upper-lip Britishers with devil-may-care Americans: specifically, one American, car racer Larita (a deliciously haughty Jessica Biel), who marries John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), the son of whimsical Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth) and bitch-on-wheels Mrs. Whittaker (Kristen Scott-Thomas in a sharply amusing turn). The Whittaker household is turned upside down when Larita and John come to visit and announce their impulsive marriage. Soon, all manner of elegantly crafted comic misadventures occur, with much of Coward's wit left intact by director Stephan Elliott and his co-adapter Sheridan Jobbins. Easy Virtue is minor Coward, but its perceptive take on the differences between Brits and Yanks--with more venom accumulated for his own countrymen and women--is timelessly funny. Elliott also scores with his fresh musical take on various songs by Coward and contemporaries like Cole Porter, which punctuate the action periodically and are sung by the actors themselves. (Yes, that's Biel herself giving a breathy interpretation of Coward's "Mad about the Boy" over the credits.)

The run-up to the Iraq war was, in retrospect, an unfunny comedy of errors, as the Bush and Blair teams' sundry mistakes were an oblivious attempt to "cook the books" and ensure an invasion of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. In the Loop, the brainchild of British comic writer-director Armando Iannucci, turns those ghastly, fatal errors into sidesplitting comic material: the U.S. government is looking for reasons to invade, and expects its British lackies to provide them. Which they do, through a series of epic miscalculations that are as much sadly tragic as they are hilariously monstrous. In this day and age of reality outstripping satire, a movie needs to go perilously near the comic edge to find laughs without tumbling down into the abyss of missed chances. But In the Loop scores numerous bull's-eyes, thanks to Iannucci's nastily profane dialogue that sounds like what you would expect U.S. generals, cabinet members and other loyal (or skeptical) officers of both governments would say. Even better is a cast that jumps into this deep lake with unbridled glee, hilariously handling Iannucci's one-liners and profanity-laced tirades: Peter Capaldi's almost too-unbridled impersonation of the prime minister's top man leads the way, and there are boisterous portrayals by James Gandolfini as a skeptical general, Mimi Kennedy as a skeptical cabinet member, David Rasche as the Rumsefeld-like war monger, Anna Chlumsky as a lively assistant, and Steve Coogan as a forgotten British constituent.

Surprise winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar over such heavyweight--and more deserving--competition as Laurent Cantet's The Class, director Yojiro Takita's Departures has ingredients that give it gravitas with the Academy: a serious, unusual subject delved into with enough sentimentality and teajerking to make its "seriousness" secondary (think of other winners like Journey of Hope, The Mission and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears). The subject of Departures is certainly a departure, at least for us Westerners: cellist Daigo returns from Tokyo to his hometown with his wife Mika, where he takes a job as an assistant to a veteran "Nokanshi," a person who prepares the bodies of the deceased for their final burial in a ritual before grieving loved ones. Deftly combining humor with a respectful distance, Takita shows how this essential job still causes rifts among families--for example, Mika cannot abide her husband once she finds out, even recoiling when he touches her because he deals with corpses. But this position also holds a measure of respect in a culture that deeply reveres its rituals. At an overlong 130 minutes, Departures succumbs to a melodramatic ending that equates "understanding" with "uplift," which is too bad because the film didn't need to work so hard to earn its tears. Tsutomu Yamazaki is wonderfully no-nonsense as the "Nokanshi," Masahiro Motoki brings a believable mix of naïveté and professionalism to Daigo, and Ryoko Hirosue harks back to the actresses in the masterpieces of the great Yasujiro Ozu as Mika: her subtle looks, gestures and facial play speak a thousand words.

American Casino, the timely documentary about the mortgage crisis that precipitated the financial meltdown, is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in how an unregulated Wall Street duped millions (including those in positions of power in the financial industry) by taking advantage of loopholes in a bill sponsored by Senator Phil Gramm in December 2000. Director Leslie Cockburn interviews Wall Street veterans, former mortgage sellers, law school professors, housing experts, and--most heartrendingly of all--ordinary people caught in and spit out by the machinery that's been relentlessly churning for the past decade. It's Cockburn's thesis that the domino effect of these sub-prime mortgages going bust is more wide-ranging than TV and print news would have us believe. We see how neighborhoods--mostly minority, like those in Baltimore--are nearly gutted with foreclosures and bank-owned properties, and we see how families leaving vacant homes behind allows society's dregs to move in, stagnant water in unused swimming pools that becomes dangerous breeding grounds for disease-laden mosquitoes and garbage- strewn backyards leading to rodent infestations (at least in one California neighborhood). At 90 minutes, American Casino only skims the surface but brings up important points that others would be well-advised to explore further.

The gimmick of Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience is that it stars a real hardcore pornographic performer: Sasha Grey plays a high-class escort whose fairly settled life with her gym-trainer boyfriend hits the skids when she allows herself feelings for a new trick. Throughout this mercifully brief 77-minute exercise in non-drama, Grey doesn't show much acting skill aside from a blank look on her face: she's a pretty, slim brunette (which may be why Soderbergh cast her, since she lacks the requisite fake hair and breasts, and tattoos and piercings that are de rigueur in today's porn) who looks fetching in fancy, expensive outfits, but that's about all. Of course, Grey is not to blame: the movie is a dreary affair, bland and boring about a topic that should be enticing and sexy. Instead, there's a surfeit of hollow dialogue, bad acting and Soderbergh's usual stylistic tricks to try to keep things interesting. When movie critic Glenn Kenny (playing a "disgusting" sleaze merchant) gives the best performance, that's not saying much for the other actors--or the director.

Unlike Waitress, Adrienne Shelley's sweetly beguiling fable about beginning anew, Serious Moonlight--directed by actress Cheryl Hines from what seems like an early draft of a Shelley script--is an arch, unfunny comic drama about a couple with marital problems who work them out amid adultery, kidnapping, robbery, blackmail and sexual abuse. Louise (Meg Ryan) literally wraps her husband Ian (Tim Hutton) with tape to the toilet to prevent him from leaving her for sexy young Sarah (Kristen Bell). It's all played (mostly) for laughs which never come, thanks to Hynes' ham-fisted directing and Shelley's cutesy but unlikeable characters. Maybe Shelley would have tightened up her script and given the movie some of the offbeat charm she showed both starring in Hal Hartley films and in directing Waitress...but we'll never know. The stars have never been worse, and even at 84 minutes, Serious Moonlight is well nigh unbearable.

With the help of a cleverly punning title, director Kirby Dick (who took on the Motion Picture Board's ratings system in his last documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated) now sets his sights on the hypocrisy of our elected leaders--most of them Republicans--who are closeted homosexuals continually voting against gay-rights legislation. Beginning with Larry Craig's infamous airport men's room incident (after which the long-time Idaho senator went to great lengths to deny that he's either gay or bi), Outrage checks off a list of already-outed or not-yet-outed politicians who have long and undistinguished records when it comes to same-sex marriage, hate-crime bills, etc., including retired congressmen, former NYC mayor Ed Koch and Florida's current governor Charlie Crist. For balance, Dick allows Representative Barney Frank and former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey to give a human face to coming out of the closet. Sensationalistic in tone, Outrage never pretends to soberly chronicle an insidious disease festering in our nation's capital, and won't get a fair shake on Fox News. But Kirby Dick doesn't care: Outrage is properly outraged.

Yoav Shamir's engaging documentary Defamation tackles the weighty subject of anti-Semitism through the eyes of the informed, the misinformed and those in between, like Israeli students who go on annual trips to Poland to visit concentration camps. The open-minded Shamir travels to Europe and to the U.S. to discuss the touchy topic with Crown Heights blacks, New York Jews and Chicago professors, all of whom have their own take on what anti-Semitism is or isn't. Shamir draws out the real feelings of everyone, from those who run the anti-Defamation League to those who say that Israel stamps "anti-Semitism" on the slightest criticism. The real story is, of course, much more complex, and by ending his film with the raw emotions of the students--overwhelmed by what they've seen at the camps and related museums--Shamir presents us with an intelligent exploration of contemporary race relations.
originally posted on staticmultimedia.com

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