Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"Do you just never wanna get laid again?": Tribeca Part Whatever

So, like I was saying, subject matter. I am always looking for films that deal honestly and insightfully with issues of race and class in America, like Crash, if that film had anything honest or insightful to say about race and class in America. I mean, if provocation was sufficient, than White Man's Burden and Soul Man would be important films.

The Architect, which played at Tribeca, intrigued me because the synopsis in the festival catalogue made it seem like it was about an architect (Anthony LaPaglia) who had designed a housing project in Chicago, and a resident/activist (Viola Davis) who was trying to have the buildings--now a haven for drug dealers--torn down. Having read There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz's excellent nonfiction book about a family living in Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green, and being a fan of Bernard Rose's underrated Candyman, which took place at a fictionalized version of Cabrini Green, I had a lot of curiosity about how detailed the film would be in its depiction of project life, and how incisive it would be in confronting the culpability of well-meaning, well-to-do white liberals in the suffering of poor black people.

Well, filmmaker Matt Tauber has taken the opportunity to make yet another film in a long, storied tradition, about the suffering of well-meaning, well-to-do white liberals. The Architect is not so much about a poor black woman who is so desperate to change her family's surroundings that she petitions the government to destroy her home, and comes into conflict with the arrogant man who had some very progressive ideas in mind when he originally designed that home. It's a little bit about that. But it's much more about the architect himself and his midlife crisis and his kooky wife (Isabella Rossellini), and his sexually confused and vulnerable teenage children. So, it's kind of a bait-and-switch, and by the standards of your typical "rich people and their problems" flick, it still doesn't have much to offer. The film is based on a play by Scottish playwright David Greig, and I suspect that the original play has nothing at all to do with race or America, and it hasn't been sufficiently adapted to address its new setting. Why would you want to adapt this story to Chicago only to gloss over all of the racial issues involved, focusing on the poor architect and his familial woes? The answer escapes me.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Tribeca Part 2: "Every day is a gift, but does it have to be socks?"

Again, I have to mention that I know it's bad form to complain about movies that one is lucky enough to be able to see for free. And I feel especially bad about bitching out a fluffy little bunny of a documentary like When Fried Eggs Fly. In a perfect world, I would never have seen it. Tribeca has this little screening library where press people can go and watch DVDs or tapes from a select library. I had about 75 minutes to kill between screenings, so I figured it would be a good time to watch the aforementioned Maquilopolis, but for some reason that screener wasn't available. They tell me that you can't take the screeners out, but then that screener is still somehow out, so maybe it's just us lowly Franklin Pass people that can't take them out. Anyway, the only other film I have time for is this doc about a music teacher at Manhattan's PS 3 who gets 150 or so kids, their parents, and the other teachers to compose, perform, and record a little pop ditty about the environment. This story would be perfectly good fodder for a six minute human interest piece on the local news, but as a feature documentary at a major film festival, it just does not cut it. Nothing against this hard-working teacher or his adorable and ever-so-talented brood, but this is fairly dull stuff, and only one of the kids is given enough screen time to differentiate himself in any substantial way. Spellbound it ain't. But then, I despised Paper Clips, but that got a distribution deal and the old perfume-soaked hags at the video store seem to like it enough. I mean, I like kids, generally, and they're all stars, in their own way. Maybe the kids I know, like my wonderful nieces and nephews, and Josh and Alex, and Brielle and Neo, and little Shmemma have just raised my standards too high, but I figure if I would rather spend an hour with those brats, the flick ain't working.

On my previous visit to that screening room, I'd watched the doc Rosie Perez made with Liz Garbus, Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas! and that was a much more worthwhile use of my time. It's essentially Perez's celebration of her heritage, and, in addition to a very warm, personal point-of-view, it contains a wealth of fascinating and often troubling historical data about the island of which I knew very little. It's always nice to actually learn something from a documentary, particularly when it's presented with passion and vigor. What I mean is, there's a lot of names and dates, but it's never dry because the whole thing is infused with Perez's electric personality. Of course, if you're one of those people that cringes at the sound of her voice, this film is probably not for you. Oh, and go fuck yourself!

Just kidding, of course.

Say what you want about Rosie, but don't start talking shit about my girl Sarah Silverman, or there will be trouble. I know what you're thinking: This is another one of those pathetic online blog nerds who is hopelessly in love with Sarah Silverman just because she is so funny, and is kind of cute. Right?

Well, I don't really have a comeback for that one.

I try not to be obsessive about it. I think I find her so beguiling in part because she reminds me a bit of Lisa, but that doesn't detract from her enormous talent, which exists beyond my personal peccadilloes. Just like Mary Louise Parker is an amazing actress, regardless of whether or not she bears a passing resemblance to my aforementioned wayward soulmate.

In any case, enough of that crap. I was determined to see the atrociously titled I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, written and directed by Jeff Garlin of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" fame, partly because I find Garlin moderately amusing, but mainly because Silverman has a substantial role in it. So, I shouldn't have been too surprised that the film is moderately amusing, while Silverman is fucking awesome. There is a temptation here to lapse into even more embarrassing confessional mode, and I am having a hard time resisting it, but in the name of all that is holy, I shall. Or, I will just briefly mention that I liked that scene where Beth (Silverman) takes James (Garlin) along as she goes underwear shopping. I won't even say that I really liked it, and you between-lines readers can just chalk whatever you make of that up to your own twisted projections.

One problem I had with the film is the way it nearly constantly evokes "Curb." I'm not suggesting that Garlin is ripping Larry David off. I'm sure he shares a certain comic sensibility with David, and as the show is largely improvised, his own comic persona is obviously integral to the overall tone of CYE. But still. James's stand-up inflected conversations with his buddy Luca (David Pasquesi) as they search for a place to eat; his encounter with a guy in a pirate outfit (Joey Slotnick) promoting a hot dog stand who turns out to be a friend of his and whom he ends up filling in for, briefly; the coincidental run-ins with various eccentrics... It's all a bit too familiar, and because Garlin is a much more amiable sort than David, a lot of it comes off as CYE without the edge. For edge, we have Silverman's brazen sex and ice cream talk and her sweetly unhinged passive aggressiveness. James's relationship with Beth is the most interesting thing about the film. Garlin seems to strain to make James unattractive, what with him living with his mother, his food issues, his immense self-pity, but then he goes through lovely women at an alarming rate. I count three very attractive (thin, pretty, intelligent) love interests for James in the film, so it's hard to feel as sorry for him as he does for himself. I mean, maybe it's especially hard for me. Anyway, it's still worth seeing, from my disgruntled perspective. It's a decent first feature, and I was entertained, despite my reservations.

Okay, this isn't going as smoothly or as quickly as I'd hoped. I'm going to try to wrap the whole thing up tomorrow, I guess. So stay tuned?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Tribeca Part 1: "You've really never heard of a no-win situation? Vietnam? This?"

Well, Tribeca is over. I didn’t see any of the award winners, unfortunately. The Free Will, the Jonestown doc, Maquilapolis: City of Factories, loudQUIETloud (Pixies doc) , and The War Tapes were among those I meant to see, but just didn’t get to. I agree with Filmbrain about the size of the festival. If they showed half as many films, it would still be massive, and they could focus more on the quality of the films they present, weeding out some of the less interesting stuff. I only saw twelve films (cheating to include MI:3 and United 93, which I did not actually see as part of the fest), but two of those really had no business being in a major festival. If there are about 300 really good feature films out there right now, waiting to be shown, Tribeca either couldn’t get them, or made the wrong choices.

If they’d given me a fancier press pass, I would have been able to see more, but because I wasn’t guaranteed seating to any of the public screenings, I stuck mainly to the press screenings, and tried to choose the stuff I thought would interest me, based on subject matter, clips (if they were available online) and the creative people involved (which means mostly whether or not Sarah Silverman was in them).

Thankfully, I saw what I have to believe was the most important film of the festival, and certainly the best I saw. You know, that expertly made docudrama about the “real cost” of 9/11.

What? United 93? You’re joking, right?

No, I’m talking about The Road to Guantanamo.

My Tribeca was all about make-believe. We had:

-John Malkovich pretending to be Kubrick,
-Sabina Guzzanti pretending to be Berlusconi,
-Reed Fish pretending to be Zackary Adler, who pretended to show us a movie, when it was really a movie within a movie,
-Jeff Garlin pretending that no one would notice him pretending to be Larry David
-Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe doing a very good job of pretending that their Brothers of the Head was a documentary about the Bang Bang, a conjoined twins fronted 1970s rock band,
-Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro doing a somewhat poorer job of pretending that their purported documentary, American Cannibal, was a sly commentary on our national obsession with reality TV, and not just a cynical attempt to exploit that obsession.
-The US government pretending that three innocent British men were best buddies with Osama bin Laden and Mohammad Atta,
-Tom Cruise pretending to be Philip Seymour Hoffman,
-JJ Abrams pretending that it will take extremely complicated plot by a rogue agent to get us into another war in the Mideast,
-Paul Greengrass pretending that a well-executed partial simulation of the events of the morning of 9/11 is somehow important or useful.

United 93 was a gut-wrenching experience, as they say, and I found its real-time depiction of the nuts and bolts aspect of air traffic control and military decision-making on that morning fairly fascinating. Seeing it in real time is not the same as reading about it, and I did find myself wandering off and thinking about seven minutes of My Pet Goat, for some reason. So it was useful to me, in that limited sense. When it’s focus is on the actual plane and its passengers, it seems more like docudrama bullshit to me. Clearly, Greengrass knows that we will never know what those passengers said to each other or did on that morning. His solution is to avoid showing anyone saying or doing much of anything that might indicate that they had any type of individual personality. This might be respectful, but it’s certainly not insightful, and, unlike the earlier scenes in the control towers, it doesn’t really capture what was so irrevocably horrible about that day. Which is not to say that I wanted to relive those feelings I had, sitting up here with Lisa in what was then, thankfully, our apartment (by which I mean to say, I am glad that neither of us was alone that morning) watching the TV, horrified about all those people, and wondering what would become of our city and our world. But this film brought those feelings back to me with an immediacy that I did not expect. Which is not to say that a less capable filmmaker couldn’t have done the same damn thing, which is why I guess some people think of United 93 as exploitation, despite its virtues. And I have mixed feelings about it, but I guess I am leaning toward agreeing with them. The real time element makes the nuts-and-bolts element, which you could read about in a multitude of newspaper and magazine articles, more immediate, but the film's emotional impact--the trauma it evokes--is not justified by the information it imparts. Since the film doesn't put these events in the context of what's happened since, the sorrow and anger it brings up are not useful emotions.

The Road to Guantanamo inspires feelings just as powerful, but it is a much more "important" and "useful" film, providing a very detailed and convincing look at one aspect of our country's ongoing efforts to produce more terrorists. I think the film is great, and I want everyone to see it. I'm astounded that Michael Winterbottom can go from making Tristram Shandy to this, and can do both things so brilliantly. This is as good a time as any, I guess to plug earlier films of his, like Wonderland and I Want You, that you might have missed.

Early on in the film, I wondered about the Tipton Three, because the story they tell (the film is comprised of interviews with the former prisoners, reenactments, and news footage) of how they ended up in a Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan doesn't make much sense. But in the end, there's no evidence of anything other than their being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and evidence used to be the standard that we used before we put people in prison, let alone for years, and let alone while torturing them for information that they clearly did not have eg. "Where's Osama?"

It seems there are fewer and fewer of the Kool-Aid drinkers around these days (unless you look online) so maybe a lot of people will actually get to see this film, and will get an inkling of how far from our ideals our country has strayed.

While those two films both left me in a grim mood, hope was proffered at a screening of Ronit Avni's fine documentary, Encounter Point. One of the films subjects, Ali Abu Awwad, attended the screening, and spoke afterward. He is a Palestinian whose brother was killed by Israeli soldiers, and who was himself imprisoned for many years, along with other family members. Now a peace activist, Awwad approaches the notion of peace between Palestinians and Israelis from a very pragmatic and practical, as opposed to an idealistic or political point-of-view. He pointed out at the Q&A that communication is key, because peace itself represents something very different for Palestinians than for Israelis. For most Israelis, it essentially means that they can continue their lives as they have been, without having to worry about suicide bombing, while for Palestinians, it essentially means, as Awwad put it, that "we can begin to live." Selling the notion of statehood and peaceful coexistence to Palestinians is harder, because it's so much further removed from their current existence than it is for Israelis. He explains that many of them have no hope of peace, so their anger becomes destructive. But he and others are out there, talking to both Palestinians and Israelis of all political stripes, trying to shift the focus from the violence that the media obsesses over. And it seems to be working, slowly. He does win people over, and he makes a compelling case that this kind of grassroots activism is the only possible way to affect real change in the region.

I'll post some more about what I saw later today, or tomorrow.