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TRIBECA CRITICS NOTEBOOK 1 | Taking on Art vs. Biz and Finding Some Gems--and then some

By Howard Feinstein | Indiewire April 24, 2008 at 7:14AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the first of three critics notebooks, New York-based film critic Howard Feinstein takes a look at some of the fiction offerings at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Feinstein, a former editor at the Village Voice and a current programmer at the Sarajevo Film Festival, also offers up some opinion on the event itself, now in its seventh year.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: In the first of three critics notebooks, New York-based film critic Howard Feinstein takes a look at some of the fiction offerings at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Feinstein, a former editor at the Village Voice and a current programmer at the Sarajevo Film Festival, also offers up some opinion on the event itself, now in its seventh year.

It's a thrill to be able to see some of the titles in Tribeca's lineup, but I do think that, as always, some institutional accountability is in order before we delve into the individual movies themselves.

I have huge problems with the continued use of the moniker "Tribeca." The neighborhood revitalization project and ongoing reference to the 3000 victims of 9/11 have fallen by the wayside, with a zillion excuses. In the end, though, the term "festival" is the real misnomer. Even before 2001, the three overly visible founders, more Patrick McMullenites than cinephiles, made no bones about creating an event to bring production back from cheaper New York stand-ins like Toronto. Bravo. But the resulting lynchpin, the signifier of this initiative, was never a festival: It was and is a market. Commerce trumps art in a medium where the balance is precarious.

Tribeca Productions, which Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro began in 1989, is, like the festival itself, a for-profit enterprise. Rosenthal is a veteran producer; her biggest film producing credits include "Meet the Fockers," "Analyze This," and "Analyze That." De Niro is of course a living legend, though he seems to be resting on his laurels. Rosenthal's husband, philanthropist Craig Hatkoff, is the last of the troika. Film doesn't seem to be his bag. I may be wrong, but I believe he is the link to the huge Am Ex support.

What keeps Tribeca from being merely a magnet for future productions and a random hodgepodge of films, some of which are connected to the founding fathers and mother professionally, are some of the programmers, who, in spite of the pablum that takes up a majority of the available slots, find some fabulous works, the kind of art that causes you to exit the cinema in a different state of mind than you were in upon entering.

Not to be pretentious, but Wagner referred to a piece like that as a "gesammtkunstwerk" the total, integrated work of art. Don't you feel somewhat transformed after a great play, a powerful opera, a sublime concert? We are fortunate to have so many choices in the Big Apple, so why settle for mediocrity? (According to one Tribeca insider, there is a push from above to have more English-language fare--here!) Isn't the idea to raise spectators up, to trust them rather than talking down to to them?

Artistic director Peter Scarlet is an internationalist, one of the last of the cinema supermavens (people like Adrienne Mancia or the late Richard Roud), a legend from the time he ran San Francisco, then the very best, unadulterated film "festival" in this country. Few know about the heady contributions of experimental programmer Jon Gartenberg. The knowledgable David Kwok is more Amerindie-oriented than either, but I gather that because Tribeca wants premieres, he loses a lot to more desirable launchpads like Sundance.

Habib Boufares and Hafsia Herzi in a scene from Abdellatif Kechiche's "The Secret of the Grain." Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.

These programmers are the people whose contributions and taste keep "festivalness" in the mix of this overproduced, Howard Rubensteinesque, well, vanity production. Spin is as cultivated and valorized as it is at Hillary headquarters, and some journalists are complicit in its transmission. (Just read last Friday's New York Times piece on the event for a, um, blow-by-blow.) No wonder so many of the small, low-budget Amerindie selections end up being represented by celebrity P.R. agencies like 42 West. Ethical boundaries are blurred. I was horrified to see the entry for one of Tribeca's films in the festival catalog signed by one of the selectors who is listed on the print as executive producer. Fine if it were merely a synopsis, but "a visually saturated and incendiary film" is a critical evaluation and just plain inappropriate. I do not think that would fly at the Film Society, Moma, BAM, or AMMI.

This first of three critics notebooks I'm doing over the next week focuses on fiction features -- good, bad, and middlin'-- the second on docs (and there are some terrific ones this year); the third surveys mostly American indies whose producers or sales agents or publicists are so nervous about the reaction and potential damage for sales that they do not allow critics to see them in advance -- which to me sends out a no-confidence signal, and serves as a creepy reminder that this is more about biz than culture. No wonder we are losing our film critics. But it's only fair that those films come under some sort of scrutiny when the others are willing to put themselves on the line. Now, some evaluations, and a few faves:

Odd Couples

"Boy A," dir: John Crowley, UK
Few British films successfully meld the pleb culture of violence with aesthetically appropriate atmospherics -- many sure try, from the Guy Ritchie hacks on -- but when they come together, they are among the best films to be seen anywhere. The Irish-born Crowley follows a young man of working-class roots, Jack (an unbelievable Andrew Garfield), who is released from prison after spending 14 years inside for his part in the murder of a young girl while still a preteen. He assumes a new identity under the tutelage of a social worker/father figure, the great Scots actor Peter Mullan. The undersocialized Jack also forges a romantic bond with a coworker at the factory he is placed at in Manchester. Faces are sometimes abstracted; the whole gestalt is overwhelming. In its astute handling of a difficult topic, as well as its flawless execution, "Boy A" lies in the tradition of Thomas Clay's "The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael" and, long before that, Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." "Boy A" is a great film about the possibility of redemption, but nothing is pat or predictable in this masterpiece.

"Seven Days Sunday," dir: Niels Laupert, Germany
Nothing glamorous here. The two teen boys at the center are lumpen from a Leipzig housing project with psychological issues not so far removed from their low social standing. Like Jack in "Boy A," there is a senseless murder that changes the lives of the perps. You could call it "Funny Games" without manners, an existential crisis for protagonists who don't know what the word means.

"Charly," dir: Isild le Besco, France
Young actress-turned-director le Besco follows a shy young, amoral teen male and an obsessively neurotic hooker with a handheld camera throughout her tiny trailer. Le Besco dignifies them. The down-and-out, the decidedly unadorned are subjects worthy of dramatization. This is the real France, not the recherchez Bruniesque or Deneuvian one that still informs much of our thinking.

"Eden," dir: Declan Recks, Ireland
Irish director Gerald Stembridge made a fantastic film called "Guiltrip" back in '95. In part it dissected a marriage and its underlying violence. The spousal relationship in "Eden" is even worse: There is nothing left. The very plain, flawed working-class couple at the center just ENDURE their fate. Declan Recks films an adaptation of Eugene O'Brien's play, and though the film engages, its occasional theatricality -- especially in the last scene -- undermine its impact. Yet the observation of the useless flailing we see by the drunken husband with the roaming eye and the wife who has lost her confidence is astute, mature.

"Simple Things," dir: Alexei Popogrebsky, Russia
A shameless, financially strapped anesthesiologist who pushes patients for bribes to keep their pain down forms a strange bond with a dying old man in severe pain, a famous retired performer. The physician covets the apartment the man will leave behind, and the financial arrangements the two self-serving fellas make is but a microcosm of their perverse newly capitalist society.

"My Marlon and Brando," dir: Huseyin Karabey, Turkey
One of the great finds this year, and a bit more bourgeois than the titles above, this film tracks a young Turkish woman's pursuit of her Kurdish lover in Iraq after the Americans have invaded. Both are actors; neither is conventionally attractive. They try to reunite in Iran. Tragedy ensues, thanks to our military. This is a true story and is played by the woman who experienced the joint frustrations of stifled love amidst our own hubris. A gem.

"Quiet Chaos," dir: Antonello Grimaldi, Italy
Even more bourgeois. Nanni Moretti is back in form as an actor, not an auteur, and he does a gorgeous job of portraying a tv exec and widower who leans on his young daughter because he is unable to cope with his grief and loneliness. Shot with restraint and respect, a window to the enervated zeitgeist in contemporary Italy, this is one of the best films to come out of that country in years.

The Diversity of the Maghreb

"The Secret of the Grain," dir: Abdellatif Kechiche, France
This is possibly the finest film in the lineup. The Tunisian-born, French-based Kechiche ("Games of Love and Chance") aims his mobile lens at an extended family of Arab immigrants and their semi-assimilated offspring in a poor southern French port town, weaving in and out of their lives. At the center is a man in his sixties who decides to open a fish couscous (his wife's specialty) restaurant on a boat, against such odds as wife vs. lover and the threatened white power elite, but who benefits from the familial devotion customary to his culture. The film deservedly won the Special Jury Prize, the FIPRESCI (international critics) award, and an acting prize in Venice for the energetic daughter of his lover. Now THIS is a gesammtkunstwerk; you will not forget it.

"The Aquarium," dir: Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt
A good film, though not of the caliber of Nasrallah's earlier successes, such as "Mercedes." A protege of Egyptian legend Youssef Chahine, Nasrallah subtly addresses the threats of Islamic fundamentalism and government repression within an intimate narrative about two loners, one a quiet doctor, the other a ravishing radio talk-show host, who are approaching middle age -- and who don't even meet until the end. Samir Bahsan's cinematography is mesmerizing.

"Whatever Lola Wants," dir: Nabil Ayouch, France/Morocco
One of the worst films in Tribeca, its style is bad Western copycat fraught with cliches of Arab as well as American life. A young American woman follows her Egyptian lover to Cairo only to find she is a fish out of water and that belly dancing is more her speed than a handsome lover anyway.

A scene from Harmony Korine's "Mister Lonely." Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Constipated Beauty

"Katyn," dir: Andrzej Wajda, Poland
Wajda was -- and I mean WAS, not is -- one of the greats. "Katyn" has that sterile co-pro look, sanitized throughout. Yet the true story it is based on, the massacre of nearly 15,000 Polish officers in 1940 by Soviet soldiers (and for years blamed on the Nazis) is so horrifying that it is worth a look.

"Before the Rains," dir: Santosh Sivan, USA
So sad. This gifted Indian filmmaker and cinematographer, whose "The Terrorist" (1999) was a brilliant, fluid study of desire between warring factions, sold out and made an Indian film in English. Everything about it -- the British colonists (it is set in 1937), the Indian villagers, the housemaid in love with her English master -- is frozen, cliched, leaden. The individual frames are stunning, but pretty pictures do not a good motion picture make. I'll take "A Passage to India" anyday.

Fallen Auteurs

"Elite Squad," dir: Jose Padilha, Brazil
Padilha's doc "Bus 174" was powerful as film art and as an indictment against a horrifyingly stratified society. "Elite Squad," set mostly in favellas and centering on a right-wing police enforcer, adds nothing to the Brazilian urban slum genre, except for its captivating close-ups and medium shots. It's not as faux arty as the insulting "City of God," but definitely beneath this director's capabilities. Joao Salles made a much more riveting film, a doc, about strife between cops and slum drug dealers with "News of a Private War" eight years back.

"Mister Lonely," dir: Harmony Korine, USA
I was a big fan of "Julien Donkey Boy" and "Gummo." But what happened to the talented Korine? Did rehab ruin his artistry? The film's celebrity impersonators opt to live in a commune in rural Scotland. Diego Luna is an excellent Michael Jackson, Samantha Morton a fine Marilyn Monroe, but the concept wears thin. Occasionally we see remarkable sequences, like a nun skydiving to earth, that remind us of the Korine who seduced us in the '90s.

"Savage Grace," dir: Tom Kalin, USA
It's hard to believe that the man who directed the coolly alluring Swoon made this incompetent, "LOL" campfest. Julianne Moore's rags-to-riches Bakelite heiress beds her overdeterminedly gay son. Sadly, after the austere beauty of "Swoon," this one is shot as if it were a student movie.

[Howard Feinstein is a New York-based film critic and journalist for publications and websites in the U.S., U.K., and the Netherlands. He programs fiction, documentaries, and directors' retrospectives for the Sarajevo Film Festival].

This article is related to: New York, Festival Dispatch