April 13, 2010

Brokaw's Tribeca Film Festival, Part One



"Shadow Billionaire." There's a certain unseemly pleasure in watching the hidden, shabby lives of media titans and captains of industry being peeled back, layer by scruffy layer, by brilliant documentarians. The New Directors/New Films festival recently introduced us to Joshua Harris, the Internet explorer who cast himself as the chief contentmaker in a Soho sex warehouse. Now the Tribeca Film Festival has premiered the remarkable life and afterlife of Larry Hillblom, the "H" in DHL Worldwide Express. Hillblom's body was never recovered from a private plane crash at sea in 1995, and all his personal belongings quickly vanished from his mansion on an island of Saipan in the Philippines. We quickly discover why in Alexis Manya Spraic's intelligent and splendidly paced investigation. Hillblom's will bequeathed considerable monies to his brothers and the University of California for medical research, but not a penny to any children, legitimate or illegitimate. But the footage reveals beyond dispute that Hillblom was a sex addict who maintained a stable of teenage virgins, and at least one of these grown women comes forward with a boy ("Larry Junior" looks a lot like Larry) and a paternity claim for a piece of his fortune. Other women and love children will follow. The stage is thus set for a knockdown, drag-out legal battle, even though initially there's no DNA and thus no proof of paternity.


"Shadow Billionaire" draws you into the lost crevices of yet another corporate sleaze whose sexual appetites seem to have swamped his private life. The pattern emerges that Hillblom's fear of disease led him to insist on unprotected sex with guaranteed virgins, while still dousing himself with iodine. Both Alexis Spraic and the director of "We Live In Public," Ondi Timoner, each have chosen corporate visionaries with creepy sexual proclivities as the subjects for their feature debuts. Both women demonstrate a sensibility that probes with a scalpel's precision, and while neither director eviscerates her subject, Hillblom and Harris hardly emerge as men you'd want to spend an evening--let alone a night--with. Much of Spraic's film is narrated by opposing legal counsels, all of whom (particularly David Lujan who may be the smartest guy in the room) are articulate and as puzzled by the deepening mystery of Hillblom's back alley life as you will be. The winning team produces a strangely satisfying verdict in this court battle, though you may leave the theater ready for a cleansing dip in the South Pacific.


"Yodok Stories." The Polish director of this bristling, provocative documentary, Andrzej Fidyk, filmed a massive youth rally in North Korea in 1988. It's called "The Parade" and footage from it begins this film. The young population that gathers in a stadium--a vast display of choreographed signage and acrobatic bodies--is far too ambitious for any team or school to have assembled. (Another historical event with a similar sweep and spectacle which you may have seen is "Triumph Of The Will," Leni Reifenstahl's 1934 record of a massive Nazi youth rally that's also chillingly robotic in its precision) Here it's North Korea's regime demonstrating how it grows and bends a new generation to its will. And what happens to the children and adults who protest? They're hauled off to rural prison camps to rot and die. Fidyk estimates the North Korean government is holding nearly a quarter million dissidents in these labor camps, and "Yodok Stories" is their cry of protest, told in a completely unexpected form.


Since Director Fidyk couldn't get into the prisons, he filmed the testimony of a handful who escaped from Yodok, the least secure of the internment camps. One was an artist-in-exile, Jung Sung San, a radical musical theater director. Over the past two years, Fidyk and San collaborated in writing, casting, costuming, choreographing and presenting a musical that lifts the curtain on life in a North Korean concentration camp. The score and staging are thrilling--a kind of real-life "Miss Saigon"--and San's artistic depictions of starvation and atrocities make dazzlingly colorful theater. Thus "Yodok Stories" is mostly a play within a film, and it has the same visceral impact of Broadway hits like "The Pillowman" and "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" that stylize brutality and torture without the Grand Guignol's shock visuals. But "Yodok Stories" is even more than this, adding its own realistic touch of humanity to its staged endeavors. In the concluding scenes, the members of Jung Sung San's company carefully wrap baskets of the play program and history into air-filled balloons, and release them at the border between North and South Korea. The wind carries them into the forbidden zone of the north. It is a moving and indelible finale.


"My Last Five Girlfriends." Leave it to the Brits to give us the last word--or at least the first word of 2009--in whipsmart, highflying, mile-a-minute satire on the state of contemporary relationships among young professionals in London right now. Think Monty Python meets Michel Gondry meets Baz Luhrman, with the sight gags piled higher and deeper. The versatile and immensely likeable Brendon Patricks' voice-overs his continuing romantic stumbles and tumbles, and the picture is practically a rebus--a wacky, edgy, fantastical show-and-tell of each line of his narration. It has that over-the-top pacing of "Moulin Rouge" and Mike Leigh's "Topsy Turvy," and never ever slows down until the picture runs out of budget and Brendon runs out of pills.


For all the film's innovative and expensive goings-on, it has the grace and pedigree to stay good-humored and never nasty, and its language and bedroom trysts are modest and restrained. The five women in Brendon's life are brave actresses who never behave like foils or fools, but are distinctly drawn personalities, even when they're recognizable corporate workplace types. It's just that the silly writer/director Julian Kemp keeps stealing their scenes. Here's one example. Brendon's in bed with one of his five lovelies. They're starting to make love and he's watching the stuffed elephant she's tossed onto her bedside table. The elephant is watching them and Brendon can't stop eying the quizzical creature. Then the elephant suddenly animates and begins a conversation with Brendon. The elephant's message to Brendon is to stop being concerned with the elephant and be more attentive to the partner below him. This cheeky exchange goes on and on until the elephant leaps off the table and holds suspended in mid-air, rather like Wile E. Coyote, before crashing to the floor. "My First Five Girlfriends" stakes its claim as the most unpredictably delicious comedy of 2009.


"In The Loop." There's a risk in seeing this second British satire directly before or directly after "My Last Five Girlfriends"--the risk is that you'll be carried out of the Tribeca Film Festival helpless with laughter. This one puts you in the hands of the mad genius who created the BBC series "The Thick Of It," writer/director Armando Iannucci. He'd like to introduce you to a slice of British Foreign Office that's heading to Washington DC to debate invading or not invading some unnamed rogue nation. The cast is rife with government ministers, communications advisors and aides, a Pentagon general (momma mia, it's James Gandolfini), and assorted wacko politicos-- only here none of the planning's coming together and everyone feels his or her job and career are on the line, so most folks are badly behaved, crassly obscene, and prone to suffering terrible indignities. As an example, the U.S. Assistant Director for Diplomacy (Mimi Kennedy) has bleeding gums and starts spitting up blood in the middle of a meeting. Her aide (a wide-eyed deadpan hilarious Anna Chlumsky) greets the young political advisor (Chris Addison) she's gotten wasted with and slept with the night before, as the unshaven lad lurches in late "smelling like a pissed seaside donkey." This is a much saltier and bruising comedy of blunders than Brendon Patricks ever has to manage.


Political satire is a delicate film genre to pull off well. TFF co-founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal raised the bar considerably 12 years ago with "Wag The Dog," which involved staging mock combat scenes for a madeup war with Albania in what we'd call virtual reality today. "In The Loop" stages its cultural train wreck at the highest levels of government, before the image mavens get involved. The blustering, ferocious Peter Capaldi anchors the company as the Prime Minister's spin expert who's tasked with pushing a UN vote a certain way, and if you have a serious objection to rude language it may be because you've never heard it invented and woven in so many devious, loopy ways. There were four writers involved in the creation of "In The Loop," and for once having four disparate talents at work on a screenplay is a cause for celebration.


"An Englishman In New York." The most relevant question walking into Richard Laxton's tightly focused biographical drama isn't what happened to Quentin Crisp--he died in 1999 in London trying for a last tour at age 90--but what's happening with John Hurt. Well, he's doing magnificently. Here's an actor we don't see that often, the young chap who made a lifetime impression in "Midnight Express" over 30 years ago, who carooms around Harry Potter and Indiana Jones and Hellboy films, yet here makes a claim at rivaling Michael Gambon, Tim Courtenay and Roger Rees in assuming the mantle of the late John Gielgud as the finest English actor of our generation. Hurt is 70 and again channels Crisp, even more acutely than in "The Naked Civil Servant" 35 years ago. It's a portrayal as passionate and believable as Philip Seymour Hoffman's "Capote."


When he arrived in Manhattan from England, Crisp quickly became a Greenwich Village icon with his crushed velvet suits, ascot scarves, slouch hats and lipstick. He was as much a part of the daily cityscape as Tom Wolfe and Moodog, two other cultural figures who never broke character, costume or persona. Crisp styled his signature outfits after Radclyffe Hall, the pioneering writer whose novel of a lesbian invert, "The Well of Loneliness," in 1928 broke glass ceilings in 20th century literature. He was an iconoclastic wit with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a gentle soul. As an actor Crisp played opposite Helen Mirran in "Hamlet" and was Elizabeth I in Sally Potter's memorable "Orlando" in 1992. It's not surprising he found a cabaret audience--sometimes straight, sometimes mixed gay/straight, occasionally all gay (as in a final scene in Tampa Florida), that paid to listen to him do spontaneous Q&As. These sessions earn some screen time, and you can sense that his self-help bromides like "fashion is what you adopt when you don't know who you are" and "if at first you don't succeed, perhaps failure is your style" resonate with city dwellers stuck in a kind of downward mobility. Crisp was a literary figure of another era, a pedigreed relic of Victorian and silent screen times, a monologist who might have become a senior leader of the gay rights movement but chose to stay a refugee on the sidelines of Stonewall.


When the film gets to the huge misstep in his long career--a dismissal of the growing AIDS epidemic in the early 80s as a "passing fad"-- it takes on its dark and dramatic arc. The remark derails his career and earns him the enmity and near-violence of the gay community. It's a mistake he stubbornly refuses to recant, even as he champions the raw sexual art of a young Soho painter and quietly sends checks to AMFAR ("just so I might get to meet Liz Taylor"). We see Crisp suffering chest pains and prostate discomfort in his dilapidated and shabby downtown flat, even when he's saved over a million dollars and dresses every day like a Bond Street dandy. He's a maverick, a public figure who manages to remain an isolated loner, mostly a mystery. What else would you call a performer who tells you that "for flavor, instant sex will never supersede the stuff you have to peel and cook"?


The camera stays in tight on Hurt--he's in every scene and dominates his supporting cast which includes Denis O'Hare playing an amalgam of both his Christopher Street magazine editor as well as the friend who becomes his dresser and caregiver. Swoosie Kurtz is his abrasive US agent and Cynthia Nixon is the performing artist Penny Arcade who accompanies his stage act, and each actress gracefully yields the screen to Hurt. The many moods and ambiances of Manhattan's downtown scene and a variety of gay bars from Christopher to the West Side Highway are authentically rendered. There's an affectionate title song composed and sung by Sting. The credits note that Crisp's body was flown back to New York and his ashes scattered in the one city he called home. Quentin Crisp rarely got the kind of crank calls here that he routinely fielded in London from gay baiters who'd threaten to kill him, only to have Crisp consult his calendar and politely inquire if the following Tuesday afternoon would be convenient.

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