Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tribeca Part 4: Korean Gangsters

Things did get better at Tribeca, before they got worse again.

Before I go into that, in response to ‘heckler blog,’ who’s apparently created an account just to comment here (perhaps he should have named himself ‘blog heckler’), I have to reiterate that I realize my story about Jamie Kennedy and Pablo is hearsay. However, in the little time I’ve known Pablo, he has proven himself a very trustworthy person. He acknowledged that the crowd seemed to be against him. No surprise, really; there might have been some Jamie Kennedy fans at the premiere of his new film, and they might not be the type of people who are predisposed to listen to someone who speaks very good English (but with a foreign accent) criticize their hero. I have absolutely no reason to doubt his account of what happened.

That said, I think you might be right about me being a nerd. So that stung a little.

Anyway, the two best films of the few I managed to see at Tribeca were Michael Kang’s West 32nd and Yoo Ha’s A Dirty Carnival, which has already achieved some success in South Korea.

Both are follow-ups to films that I liked a lot. West 32nd is Kang’s second feature. His debut was the humane but brutally honest coming-of-age comedy, The Motel. A Dirty Carnival follows Yoo’s well-executed political/social drama, Once Upon a Time in High School.

I was slightly disappointed in West 32nd, not so much because of the film’s shortcomings, but because in many ways it is a standard, if culturally specific, gangster film, and with my enthusiasm for The Motel, I was expecting even more. It’s a solidly entertaining drama about a driven young attorney, John Kim
(John Cho of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), who, in his efforts to help the family of a Korean teenager who’s been arrested for murder, immerses himself in the shady underworld of Manhattan’s Koreatown, with the untrustworthy, volatile low-level gangster, Mike Juhn (a noteworthy debut from Jun Sung Kim), as his guide.

John’s beneficence is motivated in part by his attraction to Lila Lee (Grace Park, whom fellow nerds will recognize from Battlestar Galactica, handling a challengingly complex role with aplomb), the older sister of the murder suspect.

Naturally, things spiral out of control, and John, unable to turn away from the case, finds himself increasingly wrapped up in Mike’s chaotic world.

Kang writes multilayered, believable characters, directs his actors with skill, handles the violence reasonably well (including a chopstick assault lifted from Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks), keeps things moving forward despite an incident-laden plot, and his film has a strong sense of place, and of community, from the room salons of Chelsea to the Korean neighborhoods of Flushing, Queens. But I didn’t find the story quite as convincing as the characters or the setting.

A Dirty Carnival is also a standard gangster story in some ways, but Yoo Ha writes and directs it with such power and energy that it transcends any genre limitations. This is the gangster saga at its pinnacle.

In an amazingly magnetic performance (I almost think you can tell how good he is, and how well shot the film is, from the screenshots posted here), Jo In-Seong plays Byung-du, a low-level gangster with money troubles who finds brutality and murder the only way to ingratiate himself to a mob boss (Jeon Ho-jin) and get ahead.

He turns out to be quite good at it, but naturally, there are complications in his rise to the top. Aside from his dangerous gangster rivals, Byung-du has to contend with a
manipulative old school friend, Min-ho (Min Nam-gung), a desperate aspiring filmmaker. Min-ho wants to make a gangster movie, and he needs Byung-du’s help to make it gritty and believable.

Min-ho ingratiates himself by re-introducing Byung-du to his old high school crush, Hyun-ju (Lee Bo-yeong).

The fascinatingly detailed and fluid relationships between the characters, combined with the strong visuals, the magnificently choreographed chaos of the fight scenes, and Yoo’s intricate but believable plot, held me rapt throughout its 141 minute running time. This is a special film, and Yoo may now be in the same class with the immensely talented Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host)

If I’m up to it, I may come back later and write something about the last film I saw at Tribeca, Rise: Blood Hunter, yet another Avid-fart (term © Vern) -laden saga of a vampire who hunts her own kind, this one distinguished by the surprisingly frequent appearance of the bare boobs of Lucy Liu’s body double.

Or maybe that says it all.

Tribeca Part 3: Nobel Son better Lookout

The first movie I saw at Tribeca this year was Nobel Son, and despite the presence of a fairly strong cast, including Alan Rickman, Mary Steenburgen, and Bill Pullman, it was an inauspicious start.

Rickman plays Eli Michaelson, an insufferable egomaniacal lout of a college professor whose head just swells bigger when he learns he’s won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Eli cheats on his wife Sarah (Steenburgen) and looks down on his son, Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) because Barkley is studying anthropology, more specifically cannibalism. The femme fatale, a poetess who calls herself City Hall (Eliza Dushku), seduces Barkley, who soon finds himself kidnapped by self-proclaimed autodidact Thaddeus (Shawn Hatosy).

If this already sounds a bit overstuffed, believe me I haven’t begun to scratch the surface. I didn’t even mention that Sarah is a brilliant forensic psychiatrist or that Danny DeVito plays the obsessive compulsive who rents the upstairs room. It’s not really clear why this particular family would need to rent out the spare room, but then there’s an awful lot here that doesn’t make sense. The kidnapping plot and the subsequent revenge plot are of the type that rely on a vast multitude of unlikely coincidences to work, and yet somehow they pretty much all come together.

It’s all presented with a surfeit of annoyingly gratuitous vertiginous camerawork and rapid-fire editing (including split screen). Director Randall Miller, who co-wrote the film with his wife, Jody Savin, also edited the film himself, and the model for the shooting and editing appears to be Tony Scott. I get a headache just writing that name, so I wasn’t impressed with how convincingly Miller copies his style.

Rickman is still pretty fun to watch, and Dushku is way too talented to be playing such a ridiculous role. I liked her character, but it soon became clear that I was responding to the actress’s energy, and by the end, I had no idea who she was playing. Greenberg was also fine, but he has one long heavy scene with Hatosy in which Barkley undergoes some kind of sudden and unmotivated personality change. The writing is flashy, like the directing, but sloppy.

I also saw The Lookout this week, with Pablo. Not at Tribeca, obviously, but this was a much stronger example of the caper film.

Pablo didn't care for it, but I thought it was very smart entertainment. Great performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, and Matthew Goode, a sharp script by Scott Frank, who also directed. He keeps things fairly simple and clean, and lets the twists and turns of the plot and our growing attachment to the characters drive the suspense. Isla Fisher plays the requisite seductress in this one, and I thought she was solid. She’s not necessarily a better actress than Dushku, but the script presented her as a real person, rather than some convenient construct whose personality shifts around to suit a convoluted plot.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Tribeca Part 2: The Heckler of Heckler

Before I even got down to Tribeca, I heard from Pablo about an incident that had taken place during a screening of Heckler, Michael Addis’s documentary, which features Jamie Kennedy. Pablo apparently got into an argument with Kennedy during the Q&A after the film, and it turned somewhat ugly. If you happen to read Portuguese, I recommend that you check out Pablo’s blog and read his account. I’ll summarize here for those who don’t.

The film starts out as an illuminating documentary about heckling, featuring talented comics like David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Eugene Mirman, Rosanne, Paul F. Thompkins, and Judah Friedlander talking about their experiences with hecklers, and including some classic footage of comics responding to hecklers, including an amazing clip of Bill Hicks flipping out, and a reenactment of Michael Richards’ recent onstage meltdown. Kennedy is the film’s onscreen “host,” and he describes his own encounters, and confronts some of his own hecklers on camera.

Unfortunately, about twenty minutes into the film, Addis and Kennedy pull a switcheroo, shifting the focus of their complaints from hecklers to film critics. The next hour or so consists mainly of Kennedy whining about the scathing reviews
he’s received and commiserating with fellow “victims” like Carrot Top, Tom Green, Joel Schumacher, Eli Roth, George Lucas, and filmmaker/pugilist Uwe Boll, the atrocious German videogame-adapting filmmaker (Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead) who infamously challenged critics to step into the boxing ring with him. The filmmakers clearly take great pleasure in showing Boll beating up various online critics. Who would have thought that they would be such poor fighters?

Kennedy also confronts some of his harsher critics, a few of whom do seem to have a sadistic streak. But Kennedy may be the only individual who takes what these relative lightweights have to say seriously.

When the show was over, Pablo told the filmmakers that he was entertained, but confronted them about changing the subject of their film in midstream, and about the quality of the critics they interviewed, implying that they were trying to stack the deck against film criticism by interviewing incompetent practitioners. Addis seemed ready for a thoughtful discussion of the issues Pablo raised, but the thin-skinned Kennedy was not hearing it. He got very defensive, and at one point began making fun of Pablo’s accent, which Pablo did not take lightly.

After the Q&A, Pablo continued to speak to Addis outside the theater, reiterating that he enjoyed the film. For his part, Addis was so receptive to Pablo’s criticism that he suggested he might try to add interviews with two of the esteemed critics Pablo mentioned, Manny Farber and Pauline Kael. Pablo, sensing what a coup these interviews would be, suggested that Addis also try to track down James Agee. At this point, Kennedy approached Pablo again, and apologized repeatedly for mocking him during the Q&A. Pablo graciously accepted his apology, and walked out with Kennedy in pursuit, still apologizing.

(Pablo, if you’d like to correct or add anything to this account, please let me know.)

I didn’t see the film until the press screening a couple of days later, and I pretty much agreed with Pablo’s assessment that the film was very watchable, but disappointing in shifting its focus from insight into the mindset of hecklers and the comedians who suffer them to whining about bad reviews and championing the likes of Schumacher and Boll.

However hostile they may be, however painful it may be to read what they have to say, critics are not the same as hecklers. Hecklers clearly want to be part of the show. They may hurt the performer’s feelings, but they are distinguished by their disruption of the show itself, for both performer and audience. Unless you’re
watching movies with Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, there’s no analogous experience with film critics. As for me, I have never gotten up in front of the screen during the movie to proclaim whether or not I liked it. Most critics don’t. Though I do remember hearing about how Joel Siegel made a big show of denouncing Clerks 2 when he walked out on the movie, I don’t really consider him a representative of film critics as a class.

I’ll be back later with more Tribeca coverage. Thank you for your patience.

The Trials of Tribeca (Part 1)

Tribeca is so damn big and sprawling, even if they did show fewer films this year, that one person’s experience of it can be completely different from another’s.

I certainly know that my Tribeca 2007 was vastly different from that of Pablo Villa├ža, the renowned Brazilian film critic, because he was sleeping on my futon throughout the event. (In fact, it almost seemed as though he slept through the event, but that’s another story.)

I have been interning at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, and back in February, my bosses there asked me to spread the word about an event they were holding there: The Moving Image Institute.

The Institute, co-sponsored by The New York Times, was intended as an educational forum for film writers and editors from smaller markets, and I contacted various organizations to encourage people to apply. I posted a notice on the message board of the group I belong to, the Online Film Critics Society. My fellow OFCS member Pablo applied, and got in.

The Institute was providing participants with press accreditation for Tribeca, which took place immediately after the five day event. A few days after learning that he’d been accepted, Pablo posted a message saying that he needed a place to stay in New York during Tribeca.

Now, I had never met Pablo, and judging from his posts on the OFCS board, he seemed like a bit of a nutjob, but then again, they all do. They are online film critics, after all.

In any case, my little hovel on the Upper East Side is not really big enough for two people, and it’s filthy for some reason, and the walls are unconscionably thin, and I have loud inconsiderate neighbors.

So, naturally, I offered to let Pablo—a total stranger, an online film critic, and a Brazilian to boot—stay in my apartment during Tribeca. I presented it as a possible last resort, but naturally there were no other resorts pending.

Considering the odds against my ever taking Pablo up on his kind offer to reciprocate the next time I visit Belo Horizonte,

it was pretty much a selfless act of human kindness, and one which I increasingly regretted as the days counted down to the Institute.

I feel the need to be somewhat discreet about my experience of the Institute. I volunteered to “help out” during the event, but being a freelance film critic myself, I was hoping to be able to sit in on more of the panels and discussions than I did. Ah well. Such is life. Maybe I’ll apply the next time they do it. The kids got to meet Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Frederick Elmes, and other luminaries. I hear it was good.

I jokingly wished that I could join a panel with some big-time critics, to offer some perspective. I’ve been writing for over a decade now, I think I’m a pretty good critic, and I’m fairly certain that I’ll never make a living at it. Boo hoo.

But as it turns out, there was little need for my input. From what I heard, the speakers were all pretty cynical about the state of the independent film business, of repertory exhibition, and about the future of film journalism and criticism, or at least the dismal prospects for making a living at it. Dennis Lim, the great former film editor at what is now jokingly referred to as the Village Voice, now works at the museum, and from what I heard, offered his own less-than-sanguine take on the subject.

What’s clear is that the independent film business and film criticism are mutually dependent, to some extent. I think reviews have an impact on the box office for every film, even such so-called “critic-proof” films as Spider-Man 3. They’re much more important to lame-ass “prestige” releases like Crash and Brokeback Mountain. But they’re crucial to smaller independent and foreign releases.

While I was in the room, one of the speakers at the Institute, Nadja Tennstedt of Milestone Films, read a snippet of a Janet Maslin’s Times review of Charles Burnett’s brilliant Killer of Sheep from 1978, when it was shown at the Whitney Museum. Nothing against Maslin, but her dismissive review seriously hurt any possibility that the film might get a wider theatrical release, and that had a deleterious effect on the talented young filmmaker’s career.

On the other side of the spectrum, I recently watched the documentary, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, wherein John Carpenter describes how Halloween was widely dismissed by critics on its release, until the Village Voice published a serious, positive review, and the film began to gain some critical traction. Did that help the film's box office? Probably not too much--it was already going to be a hit--but in the end, film criticism isn't supposed to be about the box office, is it? The film's increasing critical cache inspired an expansion of the discussion that film criticism at its best is supposed to help foster.

(I was watching the documentary in preparation for the upcoming horror series at the museum. There’s nothing about it on the website yet, but keep checking; it should be special. In the meantime, be sure and make it over there for the Sam Fuller retrospective and a special screening of Johnny To’s Exiled.)

My point is essentially that smaller films need critics.

Hey, I’m a critic.

I write synopses and reviews for All Movie Guide (see link on the right), which a lot of filmgoers use as a resource when deciding what to see. They get about ten million page hits per month, which from what I understand is a lot. On top of that, they sell content to other sites, including the New York Times website. The Times doesn’t cover every film that shows in New York, and AMG fills in the gaps online.

I’ve been covering the Tribeca Film Festival since the first one in 2002, and I’ve reviewed many smaller films that didn’t get as much coverage as the big premieres.

I mention all this because I am a whiny little bitch.

Before the festival started, Pablo sent me an email because he wasn’t sure about the level of press pass he’d been issued. The festival told him his pass would grant one admission to press screenings and public screenings. He was worried that meant that he could only attend one screening. I told him, yeah, dude, pick the ONE film you want to see from the 200+ titles in the festival that you’re staying in New York an extra ten days to cover. Then I explained that I was joking. He’d been worried, and I enjoyed mocking his less than 100% perfect (though pretty damn good) command of English. Probably because at that point he hadn’t moved in yet, and I was nervous, and got a little passive-aggressive toward him. That’s okay. I later made it up to him by talking endlessly about Xuxa once he moved in. For those of you that don’t know, please click on that link to see Brazil’s favorite entertainer. Pablo claimed that he was not a fan, but I don’t believe him. They all love her. With that be-lipped spacecraft and those seductive underage backup singers, how could he not love her? You’ll be wanting to see more.

In any case, I met Pablo during the Institute. (Aside from a strange incident involving an allergic reaction to carpeting, he seemed normal enough. I was still fairly nervous about living with him for ten days, though.) I was thinking it would be appropriate to spend some time with him during the festival, show him the wonders of Tribeca. After perusing the schedule a bit, however, I realized that very little of the Tribeca Film Festival was actually taking place in Tribeca. Screenings were in the East Village, Kip’s Bay, Chelsea…there were even a couple in Queens at the museum.

I was trying to figure out what films I could see. I am finishing up the semester at school now, trying to meet deadlines for papers, working in the office up at Fordham, and at the internship, so I wasn’t going to be able to see as much as I have in the past. Then I took a closer look at my pass, and realized that, unlike Pablo, I would have to request tickets in advance to get into public screenings. So I was mostly limited to two days of press screenings and whatever public screenings they had tickets for on the two weekends when I could attend. I wasn’t very happy about that, especially as it quickly became clear that I wouldn’t find out whether or not I was getting into the public screenings until the day of the show, and that I wouldn’t be able to get into much. For every day that I had requested tickets (always selecting backup shows if my first choice was not available), I got a long list of titles for which the press office had received nothing. No tickets for press. Which seemed to defeat the purpose. I understand that they have to sell a lot of $18 (!) tickets to cover the costs of the festival, but it might have been in everyone’s best interest (or at least that of the filmmakers) to let the press in. Even the small-time internet press, like me.

So, Pablo turned out to be a great houseguest. Very considerate, and a funny guy, too. I was jealous, though, because he went to see a lot of films (mostly at the festival), and I only got into a few shows.

So here I am, whining. I’ll tell you all about the films I saw if you give me a day or two…

Note: I've posted a couple of Pablo's photos here. I stole them from his blog; I hope he doesn't mind!