Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Gene Seymour's Tribeca Film Festival Notebook

By Gene Seymour

The party line on this year’s Tribeca Film Festival has thus far been the same as it’s been every year: The documentaries own most of the buzz and carry all of the weight while the features are…well, pick any guttural sound that adequately expresses your own ambivalence. This has always seemed to me a kind of lazy-hazy shorthand on the part of movie pundits. Over the last decade, it’s struck me that not all Tribeca docs have been five-star hotels and not all of its features have been flea-ridden SROs. And even if the festival’s percentages favor what we now call “nonfiction film” over what we now call “narrative film,” you have to concede that those skewed percentages apply to American movies in general. Good, original stories either are unsubstantiated rumors or exist beyond the reach of most writers and directors at every strata of the movie marketplace – which, by the way, seems to care less than a monkey dropping for anything that isn’t pre-tested, i.e. any comic book franchise you can name.

So, as always, I wonder as I wander from venue to venue; all of which, by the way, seem to be getting further away from the eponymous neighborhood every year. You have your Tribeca game plan. I have mine. These are a few of things I’ve seen – and, mostly, liked:

The Two Escobars -- Compared with all the chatter about this year’s edition of Tribeca being the “Alex Gibney Festival” because of all the stuff he’s showing this year (“My Trip to al-Qaeda,” In-progress print of “Elliot Spitzer,” part of “Freakonomics”) and the stuff he’s shown here before (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Taxi to the Dark Side”), hardly anyone has mentioned the return of Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, whose award-winning “Favela Rising” from five years ago was one of the festival’s biggest coups. They return with yet another one of their own trips to the dark side: The sad tale of how soccer in Colombia became one of the many casualties of that country’s extravagantly violent and immensely stupid drug war.
The title refers to two legendary, unrelated figures of the country’s late-20th-century folklore: Pablo Escobar, CEO of Medelin’s most notorious drug cartel and Andres Escobar, charismatic heart-and-soul of the Colombian national soccer team. Sifting through miles of archival footage and extracting remarkable interviews with everyone from Andres’ sister and fiancĂ©e to Pablo’s incarcerated henchmen, the Zimbalist brothers orchestrate a dual portrait that connects the rise of Pablo’s fortunes with that of the sport itself. Because of Pablo’s geek-like infatuation with soccer, much of his blood money (and you’d swear you see every drop of that blood spilled throughout the movie) went into soccer. Images of dead people in the streets are juxtaposed with those of the national team in its full, lightning-strike glory – and you’re a little startled by how the latter images, almost but not quite overcome the other.
After Pablo’s untimely, inevitable death, gloom and tension permeate the once-mighty national team. Their nerves are so shot by the 1994 World Cup that they lose in the first round (to the U.S. team, no less) on a goal scored by Andres himself in his own net. Two weeks later, he was gunned down in Medelin, allegedly by vengeful drug lords who lost gambling money because of the team’s collapse.
At times, you wish the Zimbalists would have taken their feet of the gas and refrained from piling on as much detail into each development as it can bear. It mucks up their momentum, which otherwise carries the movie with an almost rock-arena fervor. That propulsive, riveting style is reason enough to check this thing out when it surfaces on ESPN sometime later this spring.

Legacy – Thomas Ikimi, a writer-director educated in Nigeria, England and Columbia University, assembled this deep, dark puzzle thriller about a former “black ops” soldier (Idris Elba), who’s holed up in a Brooklyn flophouse sorting through the shattered remains of his psyche. He was captured and tortured for the unit’s slaughter of an arms dealer’s family. It’s not entirely clear how he made it back to the world, but now that he’s there, he intends to take some revenge of his own against his older brother (Eamonn Walker), a right-wing senator who’s campaigning for president on a radical anti-terror platform.
Ikimi shows considerable talent for wooly atmosphere, serrated dialogue and calculated enigmas. Still, “Legacy” mostly comes across as a referendum for Elba’s ability to carry a movie on his own. Anyone (anyone?) who saw the just-released “The Losers” (anyone?) or has followed Elba’s career since his breakout performance in “The Wire” knows that he’s got the brooding magnetism to carry any action movie he gets. “Legacy,” though not quite big enough to raise his status, gives him plenty of room to twitch, roar, smolder and kick ass. He’s got my vote for a star vehicle. Only thing is: I’m not sure commercial American movies as they exist now are going to be able to do much better than this for Elba. And if they can’t do it for him, they’re certainly not going to do it for any other emerging black actor with his range and mobility. I hope I’m wrong – but I doubt it.

Please Give – Nicole Holofcener (“Walking and Talking,” “Lovely and Amazing,” “Friends with Money”) brings forth yet another of her droll, understated comedies-of-(ill) manners with her trademark themes of (quoting the program notes here) “mid-life crises, insecurity, materialism, accumulation of wealth and the liberal guilt and moral paralysis that accompany them.” After two movies set in L.A., she’s back among the New York hip-wah-see. Catherine Keener, who’s been a constant in all Holfcener’s movies, is Kate, an antique dealer who shares both the business and her seemingly blissful life with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt). Yet she’s nagged by the feeling that she’s not doing enough for those in need, hence her habit of handing out $20 bills to every homeless person she can find. (Biggest audience laugh at the screening: When Kate tries to give money to a scruffy-looking, gray-bearded black man standing outside a restaurant and is told, with no inflection or rancor, that he’s waiting for a table.) Meanwhile, her hormonal 15-year-old daughter (Sarah Steele) wonders why Mom can’t be as attentive to her needs (like a $200 pair of jeans).
Adding to Kate’s expanding portfolio of guilt feelings is her sense of watchful waiting over their next-door neighbor, a prickly nonagenarian (Ann Guilbert, best known as Millie Helper from the old “Dick Van Dyke Show”). Even the latter’s two granddaughters, mousey nurse Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and bitchy spa worker Mary (Amanda Peet) acknowledge that Kate and Alex are waiting for the old lady to die so they can expand their own apartment. Still, the granddaughters’ lives carry psychic baggage of such proportions that they get tied up with Kate and Alex’s own.
Holofcener’s approach has previously seemed seem as sour and as brittle as some of her characters. But “Please Give, for all of its deadpan veneer and gimlet-eyed humor, ends up being as moving as “Lovely and Amazing” without that latter film’s traffic jam of complications. And Keener, Hall and Peet are each luminous, but in different ways than they’ve been before. I’m not seeing the commercial prospects here that are found in, say, “It’s Complicated.” But I’ll take Holofcener’s chamber music over Nancy Meyers’ brass band slapstick any day. And yes, I know that makes me a snob. I feel SO guilty about that….

My Trip to al-Qaeda – The aforementioned – and, as noted, ubiquitous – Alex Gibney directed this not-quite-filmed-theater adaptation of a staged monologue by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lawrence Wright about his experiences covering the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the Arab world and the ongoing consequences of that upheaval both here and abroad. It’s an adroit blend of travelogue, archival material and memoir; much of it reviewing and rehashing ideas, indignities and misperceptions catalogued by many post-9-11 documentaries, including Gibney’s. Still, Wright carries his hard-won knowledge with charm, ease and, at times, dry humor. Familiar points are made, warnings are repeated and the untenable-ness of the situation we’re in is depressingly reinforced.
Of all the things mentioned by Wright, the most chilling, to me, was his description of how the people of Saudi Arabia, Syria and other Middle East states don’t care about facts; rather they carry alternate visions of reality choked with conspiracy, dogma and hype. When one contemplates what’s happening to the media universe in this country and the nasty polarities that have emerged in what used to be “civil” public discourse, you can’t help but wonder if these United States we live in are headed for the same collective mental state – and what manner of jihads and sectarian chaos could emerge as a result. Just because the movie doesn’t make such connections (at least, not blatantly) doesn’t mean you can’t infer them.

The Arbor
– My first weekend of Tribeca 2010 ended as it began: With an innovative documentary invoking harsh, rueful truths about the failure of collective and individual responsibility. Clio (pronounced “Cly-oh”) Barnard’s movie leaps in, out and around the barriers separating fiction and non-fiction movie convention in chronicling the complicated legacy of British playwright Amanda Dunbar, who became famous for her semi-autobiographical dramas about growing up in the tough Yorkshire housing project (or, as they’re called in England, “estate.”) that gave the name to both her first play and this movie. Dunbar died in 1990 at age 29 of a brain hemorrhage, leaving behind not only her successful dramas but a troubled mixed-race daughter named Lorraine, who remained in The Arbor, grappling with alcohol and drug addiction – and worse.
Barnard re-introduced Lorraine to her mother’s life and work, through news clips and performances of her work. The movie does likewise with readings of the play,”The Arbor”, staged on the project’s terrain. But Lorraine declined to be interviewed on camera, compelling Barnard to make her most audacious move of all: Using actors to lip-synch recorded interviews with Lorraine and other Dunbar family members and friends. These seemingly disparate tactics risk creating an alienation effect from all the heartbreak. Yet at the conclusion Sunday night’s premiere screening, one heard a stunned silence that was even louder than the applause that followed several seconds later. Other storytellers have breached the walls separating fact and fiction, but few have carried it out with as striking a balance of boldness and delicacy. It’s the best thing I’ve seen so far…with less than a week to go.


Monday, April 19, 2010

REMIX: CULTURE _chafin seymour joins DanceDowntown2010

Don't miss it! Video Preview - select
when Friday & SaturdayMay 7-8, 2010, 8pm
where Riffe Center’s Capitol Theater
77 South High Street, Downtown Columbus
$20 general admission$10 seniors, students w/ID, BuckID, (614) 469-0939. OSU Theatre Box Office in Drake Union. (614) 292-2295.