April 13, 2010
 

Tribeca Film Festival, Part Four.

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New York ad campaigns that blanket the city--particularly on downtown street media--don't happen by accident. The ones that work, that create buzz and get remembered are usually campaigns that reflect back the culture in some vivid, telling way. The creative objective for Tribeca Film's 7th annual Festival (April 23-May 4) had to be pretty simple--building awareness for 121 feature films and 79 shorts opening in that brief 12-day window. Part One in this series described the themes ("Film Junkies, Prepare To Relapse" and "Enjoy Responsibly") and the longer launch commercial. That's the young guy who moves to the city with his girl and can't stop watching movies 24/7. She commits him to a Brooklyn rehab and, coming out, he spots the Tribeca festival posters. You think his 28-day withdrawal and 12-step program are going to withstand 121 new movies from all over the planet?

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During the festival, multiplexes were rotating a series of shorter executions of the same theme, same guy, to refresh the message. In one he's lifting the top of his toilet tank and taking out a DVD player encased in plastic, to view movies in the john. In another, coyly titled "Sticky Feet Fixation," he's pouring a can of cola on his apartment floor and walking back and forth on it until it's a gluey mess like the floors of Manhattan multiplexes after a day of showings. In a third--named "Excessive Shushing"-- he's walking around the apartment, shushing his cat and even the ticking wall clock, the same way film junkies do to people in theaters who can't stop yakking on cells or commenting on the movie. The campaign satirizes behaviorscommon to our perceptions of alcoholics and drug addicts. It's clever, funny and dead-on.

What gets really interesting is when the movies up on screen start reflecting the ad campaign. Your culture editor previewed 23 feature films during the run, probably more than most working press writers. Some choices were initially suggested by members of the 2500 (mostly) young volunteers working at the festival. A surprising number of these young women and men are film majors in colleges, and their eyes, ears and minds are keen. You've read film reviews on six personal favorites. Here are critiques of seven more (not all of them favorites), each of which contains characters and themes strongly related to booze or dope. Seven out of 23 in one unbilled category is a lot. Each merits some attention in this final TFF wrapup:

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"Finding Amanda." Here's Matthew Broderick, two years sober but buried in a gambling addiction to horseracing. He's a hugely successful writer/exec producer of a trashy sitcom, so he can drop thousands at the track and thousands more in gambling excursions to Vegas without losing what's left of his marriage. Broderick is heavier and has a quick, comic delivery in this engaging solo role. The engine driving the story is his 18-year-old niece (a funny-but-poignant Brittany Snow) who's moved beyond recreational drugs and is turning tricks in a Vegas hotel. Matthew's job is to get her out of prostitution and into rehab.

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Instead he starts drinking Jamieson-on-the-rocks and somehow drops $185,000 he can't remember at the tables. He's begging the pit guys for a credit extension while his niece sinks a little lower into describing and living the teenage whore's life. "Finding Amanda" walks a delicate and increasingly uncomfortable line between the humor of that ad campaign and the nasty reality of lives sliding down the drain. This is a directorial debut at the feature level for veteran writer/director Peter Tolan, who seems aware of the razor's edge his movie is precariously resting on. Matthew Broderick shows a mastery of denial and rationalization, a drinker's two best defenses, and Maura Tierney is well-cast as the wife who's ready to dump him. There's a vaguely hopeful ending (for Matthew) that will help your response to this movie.

"Elite Squad." Just when you were thinking "Black Hawk Down" and "The Bourne Ultimatum"had raised the bar on frenetic action/suspense to unscalable heights, along comes this raging, barely controlled thriller of a SWAT-style team in Rio de Janeiro whose job was backing up the police in rooting out the city's worst drug gangs in 1997. The drama is partly a series of real-time raids in the slums, with rock-solid editing and an intense voice-over narration that keeps clarifying where we are and the chaos that's all but enveloping us. One of the screenwriters served over a decade as an officer of this ferociously trained unit, and "Elite Squad" gives us a long, raucously detailed account of what these men go through to qualify for shooting it out with the violent drug traffickers. In 2005 the police recorded nearly 1100 drug-related deaths in Rio. "Elite Squad" is a hell-on-earth drama that works like gangbusters.

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The director, Jose Padilha, doesn't ignore a compelling human drama at the heart of his story--the captain's wife is about to give birth to their first child, and the officer wants to turn over the leadership of his unit to one of his two closest childhood friends. One, though, is too intellectual and the other is too trigger-happy. The journeys of these three police officers form the dramatic core of the movie. Rio's drug lords were not happy about a film crew shooting reconstructions of their gun battles with authorities--they stole weapons from the company and fired on crew members. In the film's final minutes, the lead drug pusher, little more than a slimy, evil kid, faces execution by the commanding officer of the special unit. The kid pleads not to be shot in the head, so his corpse can be displayed in an open coffin. In 2007 "Elite Squad" was Brazil's #1 film, and the producers estimate that eleven million Brazilians have already watched the picture, most on pirated DVDs.

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"Lake City." Sissy Spacek's grown son (Troy Garity) is conflicted over Mom's decision to sell their pretty old country home outside Richmond, Virginia. But as a single mom and grandmom, Sissy hasn't found anyone to share her home with, and her boy is being pursued by bad guys in a drug-deal-gone-bad. (Sissy lives with her own sad memories, having backed over one of her grandchildren.) The son is a recovering alcoholic and he's back counting days in Lake City's AA meeting room, after swilling some 100 proof vodka and spitting a mouthful into the flame of a cigarette lighter. The lighter was being held by one of the drug dealers, and the fired-up booze set the creep ablaze, enabling the son to flee. This is a movie with more problems than the considerable skills of Sissy Spacek will ever solve.

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The substance abuse subplot is complicated by the fact that Lake City's one visible cop is a warm, attractive young woman (Rebecca Romijn) who sits across from the son in AA meetings and is clearly attracted to him. She has what appears to be good sobriety but is ignoring a basic AA suggestion that female alkies don't get involved with guys counting days. It won't surprise you to learn that a fortune in heroin eventually turns up in the boy's car trunk, and is found by the cop. Meanwhile, Sissy is running for her life through the family cornfield as the killers do their best to run her down in their widebody getaway car. Trouble, trouble, trouble.,

"Eden." Tullamore, Ireland looks like the quintessential Irish hamlet--sleepy, manicured, barely industrialized. The local pubs are the age-old meeting centers for most of Tullamore's working citizens. The young telephone lineman (Aidan Kelly) has plenty of time in his solitary work to sweat off last night's hangover and get ready for that night's drinking with the school buddies he's grown up with. His loyal wife (Eileen Walsh) sits home with their children, wondering if she's going to spend the rest of her life picking up this drunk off the floor. The crisis point in their marriage occurs one night when the husband completely loses it at a big community party, and his spurned, forlorn spouse gives herself on impulse to another lad with a clear head.

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"Eden" is a closely observed, superbly acted drama, based on a two-character play by Eugene O'Brien. Miss Walsh is splendid as the lonely, plaintive, enabling wife who briefly transforms herself into a striking beauty dressing up for what she hopes will be a lovely evening with her husband. But he's lost in the drink again, and her bittersweet collapse is one of the most memorable sequences in the entire Tribeca festival. (The older sister of the actress played the same role on stage.) O'Brien's intelligent adaptation and Declan Recks' sensitive direction never quite acknowledge that we're looking at the disease of alcoholism destroying a marriage.

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Recks and O'Brien, interviewed at a press conference, held fast to the notion that the drinking life is so imbued in the Irish mindset and character that not drinking is simply not an option for the husband. This is the same kind of denial and rationalization that Matthew Broderick practices in "Finding Amanda." Declan Recks is a fine young Irish filmmaker in full command of his craft, but he needs to understand he's made the first great movie of the 21st century on alcoholism.

From Within." Tribeca's multi-genre festival includes a section labeled 'Midnight'--a mixed collection of slasher, supernatural, porno and other extreme imagery items. This is the teen-oriented suicide thriller. Its shadowy menace is unpredictably inventive in getting under the skin of a small town's girls just before they're dismantled. The picture's signature visual is an adolescent facing her double in a mirror, who moves differently in the mirror than she does. Spooky, huh? The one sweetie who we know is going to survive (a perky Elizabeth Rice), has to survive something far worse, and that's her alcoholic mom (Laura Allen). Mom's a loud, ugly drunk who makes terrible choices in boyfriends, and we breathe a collective sigh of relief when she's chased out of her house to her car, which explodes in flames. The director of this mayhem is Phedon Papamichael, an A-list cinematographer ("3:10 to Yuma"), and he gives "From Within" a slick, handsome look.

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"Paraiso Travel." Doing a character turn as a boozing, out-of-control alcoholic has to be a difficult job for any actress. In this Colombian romance, a boy and girl make their way to the states and then to Queens, where they lose each other. The boy pulls himself out of poverty and into a job at Mi Terra Colombiana, a well-known Queens restaurant. He spends the rest of the movie searching for his girl, eventually learning she's living in Atlanta. He takes a Greyhound bus there and finds her living in a shabby trailer camp with a madwoman alcoholic. Their relationship is for you to discover. The girl's gone downhill and wants no part of her former boyfriend, it's pouring down rain, the older woman she shares this trailer with is drinking from the bottle. Ugh. Simon Brand's direction up to these final minutes is accomplished in etching a moving portrait of New York's Latin American community, but it's possible he didn't trust that ending with the girl rejecting this decent young man. Endings that deflate audience expectations often occur in indie movies. That's when devices like rain machines and gutter drunks get hauled in to underscore and reinforce the misery.

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"Lou Reed's Berlin." Ah, the grand finale. In 1973 this writer had just left RCA Records, where as creative director he helped launch Reed's solo career. In '73 Reed recorded "Berlin," a thematic story album of Caroline, a 5'10" Berlin model who's led into a spiral of pills, domestic abuse, speed, the removal of her children, and a suicide attempt (cutting her wrists with a razor). Keep in mind this was an entire LP, not just one song. Lester Bangs, Rolling Stone's lead critic, called it "the most depressed album ever made." The trade and fans of Reed's former Velvet Underground band were accustomed to hard drug material being part of Reed's poetic persona. But storybook concept LPs, like rock operas, were still acquired tastes for most record buyers. So "Berlin" faded away. and while the title song turns up in later Lou Reed compilations, he didn't perform the album publicly for 33 years.

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Enter Julian Schnabel. If you've seen "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," you know Schnabel is now a world class film director as well as a shining light in the avant-garde art world. "Diving Bell" also softened his rough edges, because that picture is in part a testament to the director's own years caring for his dying father. Julian and Lou are neighbors in downtown Manhattan, and so their joint staging and performance of "Berlin" at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn for five nights in late 2006 was a good fit for both of them, as well as the audiences that attended the live filmings. "Lou Reed's Berlin" is up on the big screen with big screen sound speakers in all its dark glory, replete with string and horn sections, a large girls' chorus, backup singers and some of Lou's oldest and most trusted bandmates, including guitarist Steve Hunter.

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Schnabel calls the film a tribute to "love's dark sisters--jealousy, rage and loss." It's all that and more, because the final song, "Rock Minuet," which acknowledges "the thrill of the needle and anonymous sex" was written and recorded by Reed decades later (it's part of is "Ecstasy" album) and has been added as a closer to the original "Berlin" material. So if anything, the content is even darker and more bleak. The filming and performances, on the other hand, are breathtaking and magnificent. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") is one of the best DPs working today, and she's operating one of five covering cameras. Reed believes the sound by John Harris is the finest recording of a music doche's ever heard. Schnabel's daughter Lola filmed the visual allusions to Caroline, using actress Emmanuelle Seigner who you'll recognizefrom "Diving Bell and the Butterfly." These brief clips and fragments are interwoven discreetly by Schnabel and enhance your understanding of the lyrics. Seigner's character of Caroline more than slightly resembles Nico, the addicted chanteuse of Reed's Velvet Underground, as well as every 70s playgirl who drank and drugged her way to the grave.
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Lou Reed reads the substance abuses of the rock culture more accurately and artistically than any other singer/songwriter/musician. He has never glamorized addiction of any kind. On the other hand, patches of his life, like David Bowie's (who this writer also helped launch at RCA Records) have had glam trappings, to be sure. And a part of the downtown Manhattan club scene has always been home to "the thrill of the needle and anonymous sex," which Reed knowingly defines as part of the Rock Minuet.

As the ads say, Enjoy Responsibly.

Editor's Note: Kurt Brokaw curates and hosts a continuing film series, "Lost Weekends: Alcoholism and Addiction in the Movies," at the New York Society For Ethical Culture on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Info on prorated subscriptions for the current screenings/discussions are available at nysec.org, under Other Events.

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