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2008 Tribeca Film Festival (April 23rd-May 4th)

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Baby Mama
-(*Opening Night Film*) Directed by Michael McCullers.

Kate (Tina Fey), a single businesswoman, discovers that she’s infertile, so she hires Angie (Amy Poehler) to be her surrogate. Greg Kinnear plays Kate’s love interest, Rob, while Steve Martin has a small role as the quirky owner of the organic food store chain where Kate works at. The most fun scenes to watch are those where Angie and Kate play off of each other’s differences: Angie is unmannered, ditzy and dumb while Kate is serious, uptight and well-mannered. Most of the comedic attempts fall flat from either being too forced, repetitive or just plain juvenile. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s chemistry slightly enlivens the dull plot, though. Writer/director Michael McCullers combines drama, romance and comedy with awkward transitions that simply don’t allow the film to gel. He should have included more smart, witty dialogue rather than insulting the audience with old, inane jokes and moments that feel contrived. Anyone expecting insights about motherhood or friendship won’t take anything away from Baby Mama while those expecting to laugh and have some light, diverting entertainment will be somewhat underwhelmed and disappointed. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Universal Pictures. Opens April 25th, 2008 nationwide.

- Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass.

Four friends, Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Michelle (Greta Gerwig) and Catherine (Elise Muller), retreat to an isolated cabin in the woods to write a screenplay about a villain who terrorizes people with a bag over his head. Their retreat turns for the worst when someone with a bag over their head scares them there just like in their screenplay. Is it some kind of sick prank or has somebody really decided to turn their life into a living hell full of fear? What begins as a funny drama with organic, realistic dialogue (known as “mumblecore”) turns into a mess once the plot veers toward Blair Witch territory. If you’re afraid of the dark, you might be almost as scared as the characters feel during a few scenes. Co-writers/directors Jay and Mark Duplass mix too many genres all at once: romance, drama, “mumblecore”, horror, satire and comedy. The film fails to succeed in any of those genres, though. Once the silly, implausible, unsatisfying third act comes around, you’ll wish the writers had just focused on and excelled in two or three genres and not tried to be too gimmicky with such a chaotic, poorly-structured script. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens July 25th, 2008 at the AMC Empire 25 and Landmark Sunshine Cinemas.

Before the Rains
- Directed by Santosh Sivan.

Based on the segment “Red Roofs” from The Desert Trilogy: Yellow Asphalt. In 1937 Kerala, India, Henry Moores (Linus Roache) has an affair with his housemaid, Sajani (Nandita Das). When her domineering husband, Rajat (Lal Paul), discovers that she has an affair, he sets out to hunt down her secret lover. Sajani pretends to have been killed by escaping and leaving a garment of hers in the river. Meanwhile, T.K. Neelan (Rahul Bose) helps Henry, his friend, to keep the affair and the rest of the events a secret from Rajat as well as Henry’s wife (Jennifer Ehle). The first act sets up a lot of potential suspense, but it all fizzles out by the tedious second act that simply feels too dull. Screenwriter Cathy Rabin should not have allowed the audience to know as much as Henry does about what happens between him to Sajani which would have added much-needed mystery and tension to the film. Predictability in a romantic drama or comedy is acceptable, but a dramatic thriller, it makes the proceedings rather uninvolving. Moreover, the mediocre performance by Linus Roache and other cast members fail to enliven this often bland film. On a positive note, director Santosh Sivan includes exquisite cinematography, lots of beautiful scenery and a terrific musical score, but that’shere’s not enough to truly compel you. Number of times I checked my watch: 6. Released by Roadside Attractions. Opens May 9th, 2008 at the Paris Theatre and Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Boy A
- Directed by John Crowley.

Jack (Andrew Garfield), an ex-con recently released on parole from prison, comes to terms with his troubled past as he starts a new life in Manchester. His caseworker, Terry (Peter Mullan), supervises his parole and becomes like a father figure to him. Meanwhile, Jack develops a romance with a young woman, Michelle (Katie Lyons). Although much of what happens throughout the plot lacks surprises and feels a bit emotionally draining, what saves the film from being stuck in mediocrity is Andrew Garfield’s heartfelt, utterly convincing performance as Jack. The audience already knows that Jack has done something terrible in his past. Writer/director John Crowley wisely exposes the particular details of those past events gradually through flashbacks. What happens to Jack as his past comes back to haunt him feels very real because you’re able to grasp what’s going on in his mind. Even the gritty cinematography allows you immerse yourself in the story while the quiet, somber moments help you to care about Jack as a complex human being. He’s not simply bad nor is he good; he’s somewhere in the middle. Boy A explores these gray areas with just the right amount sensitivity, intensity and raw tenderness to keep you thoroughly absorbed and engaged. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by The Weinstein Company. Opens July 23rd, 2008 at the Film Forum.

Elite Squad
- Directed by José Padilha.

In favelas of Rio de Janeiro during 1997, Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a member of the BOPE police force, seeks someone to replace him to fight against all the drug dealers. One of those replacements might be Neto (Caio Junqueira) or Matias (Andre Ramiro) who Nascimento eventually trains. Nascimento desperately wants to settle down with his wife and baby without risking his life anymore. Much of the film follows the three characters as they struggle to survive in the dangerous favelas. Matias hasn’t even told his girlfriend, Maria (Fernanda Machado) that he’s a member of the police force. In a rather contrived subplot, Maria has ties to a powerful druglord, Biano (Fábio Lago). Director/co-writer José Padilha does a great job of keep you engaged through the use of energetic soundtrack, the gritty and fast-paced cinematography and the depiction of the raw, disturbing violence that makes the favelas look like hell on Earth. There’s no comic relief, so be prepared for the stark realities of favelas staring right at your face. None of the plot twists and turns will be spoiled here, though. Just keep in mind that you’re in for a non-stop, relentless intense experience that’s not as emotionally powerful and haunting as City of God, but it’ll still make you feel very lucky not to be living in those favelas where even young kids kill others and die day by day. Number of times I checked my watch: 1. Released by IFC Films and The Weinstein Company. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on September 19th, 2008.

Let the Right One In

Directed by Tomas Alfredson.

Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. In Swedish with subtitles. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a 12-year-old boy who’s bullied at school, befriends Eli (Lina Leandersson), the daughter of his new neighbor, Hakan (Per Pagnar), at an apartment complex. During the opening scenes, Hakan slowly squeezes blood out of a corpse hanging like meat from a tree branch. Just when you think the film will turn into familiar Saw or Seven territory with reliance on gore or gimmicky plot twists, it suddenly switches to psychological horror mixed with some surprisingly poignant drama. It takes a while for Oskar to notice that his new friend, Eli, isn’t human. She’s actually a vampire and he must keep that as a secret even during an investigation of mysterious serial killings. Writer/director Tomas Alfredson wisely creates a chilly atmosphere through the use of cinematography, pacing, lighting and a well-chosen musical score. Also, the snowy settings provide an added sense of eerie calmness and foreboding terror. Nothing will prepare you, though, for the third act’s visual and dramatic surprises, none of which will be spoiled here. Let the Right One In never overstays its welcome at a running time of 114 minutes and manages to be one of the most refreshingly poignant, atmospheric, haunting and intelligent vampire films in recent memory. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Magnet Releasing. Opens October 24th, 2008 at the Angelika Film Center.

Lou Reed’s Berlin
- Directed by Julian Schnabel.

Your enjoyment of this visually stunning concert film depends on much you enjoy the music of Lou Reed, particularly his 1973 album titled “Berlin.” Director Julian Schnabel not only filmed the December 2006 concert in Brooklyn where Lou Reed performed songs from the album “Berlin,” but also controlled the production design. Joining Lou Reed are other musicians such as Steve Hunter, Rob Wassermann, Rupert Christie, Sharon Jones and a seven-piece orchestra. Schnabel occasionally distracts you from the concert experience by including a visualization of the songs which depict the character from the album Caroline (Emmanuelle Seigner) in a variety of activities. It would have been better had he left all that to your own imagination, which makes you feel less absorbed in the music itself. Nonetheless, avid fans of Lou Reed will be able to appreciate all the close-ups on the musician’s face that highlights all the sweating and emotion that it takes to give such a great musical performance. Watching Lou Reed’s Berlin, they will feel entranced and overwhelmed by the experience while everyone else will feel bored and underwhelmed. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by The Weinstein Company. Opens July 18th, 2008 at the IFC Center.

Mister Lonely
- Directed by Harmony Korine.

A Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) who takes him to a Scottish commune where her children—dressed as Shirley Temple and Charlie Chaplin—stay at along with other impersonators. The unpredictable plot is filled with crazy, wild, totally unconventional characters in very bizarre situations. Have you ever seen skydiving nuns fall through the sky and crash, intact, onto the ground? That’s just one of the many imaginative surprises in Mister Lonely. At times, the excessive weirdness comes across as pretentious, tedious and headache-inducing, but if you’re familiar with Harmony Korine’s earlier films such as Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, you’ll understand his vision. Whether or not you can actually tolerate and be entertained by his vision depends on how open-minded your taste in film is. Not much happens here that truly makes sense, which will irritate those accustomed to or expecting a conventional plot with conventional characters. Everyone else will be wildly entertained as if on an acid trip that can only be experienced, but not explained. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by IFC First Take. Opens May 2nd, 2008 at the IFC Center.

Man on Wire
- Directed by James Marsh.

This thoroughly fascinating and riveting documentary focuses on how French stuntman Philippe Petit dared to cross the World Trade Center’s twin towers on tightrope in 1974. Petit had always dreamed of using tightrope to walk across the twin towers and his girlfriend helped him to prepare for the very risky stunt. Crossing to the other side of the towers, though, is just half of the battle. The other half had to do with illegally trespassing into both towers to set attach the ropes appropriately. Petit assembled a small team who helped him plan the big event up until he set foot on the long tightrope. Director James Marsh includes many compelling interviews with Petit, his girlfriend and his team, who all discuss their experiences in vivid detail and articulately. Moreover, Marsh also stages reenactments of key moments from the big event, such as when Petit and his team hid from the guards at the top of the towers and had to wait until early morning to complete their mission. You’ll watch in awe and thrilled as the stunt unfolds before your eyes. It’s quite frightening and unnerving even though you already know the outcome. Man on Wire spends less time delving into the aftermath of the stunt when police took him away and he was psychoanalyzed for possible insanity. By showing the events through the perspective of Petit, you’re able to see through his seemingly craziness and notice his courage, passion for life, and physical/intellection strengths which will inspire you to believe that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to no matter what the obstacles are. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Magnolia Pictures. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

My Winnipeg
- Directed by Guy Maddin.

This “docu-fantasia” is an homage to the city of Winnipeg, Canada, where writer/director Guy Maddin grew up in. Anyone familiar with his previous films, such as Brand Upon the Brain!, Cowards Bend the Knee and The Saddest Music in the World knows that he’s not only a great filmmaker but an artist who remains true to himself and refuses to abide by conventional rules of filmmaking. His visual style here is filled with black-and-white colors and stylish editing which can be quite hypnotic at times. A few scenes seem so bizarre that they border pretentiousness and may be headache-inducing, but at least he balances all that with some offbeat humor. B-movie actress Ann Savage portrays his stern mother while Amy Stewart plays his sister. Guy Maddin made the right choice by not casting himself in the film; instead, representing Maddin is Darcy Fehr. Through the use of images, sounds, voice-over narration and scenes of stilted dialogue, Maddin creates a strangely beautiful and lyrical portrait of the city of Winnipeg, Canada from his own, unique point of view.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2. Released by IFC Films. Opens at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Directed by Gini Reticker.

This moving and inspirational documentary focuses on the plight of Liberian women to bring peace to Liberia during a time when Charles Taylor, the tyrannical dictator of Liberia, brought violence to the country. A few Christian women gathered to spoke out to promote peace, which soon led to dozens and then hundreds more joining them in unison. Director Gini Reticker wisely allows the subjects to speak for themselves without excessive voice-over narration. Each of the brave Liberian women, such as Leymah Gbowee, speaks articulately and you can tell that what they say comes from the heart. Many of them even went to the extent of denying sex to their husbands until they reached their goal. The lively footage of these women relentlessly protesting and speaking their minds not only shows their courage, but their compassion as well, which feels quite moving to watch. In many ways, they’re much like heroes who do all that they can to save their country with their ardent voices and perseverance. At a running time of only 72 minutes, Pray the Devil Back to Hell manages to be inspirational, moving and uplifting. It deservedly won the Best Documentary Award at this film festival. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Balcony Releasing. Opens November 7th, 2008 at the Cinema Village.

- Directed by David Mamet.

Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jiu-jitsu instructor, becomes heavily indebted after an attorney, Laura (Emily Mortimer), enters his workplace and accidentally shoots a window with the gun of a cop (Max Martini). Desperate to pay off his escalating debts, Mike tries to get a job in the film business when he meets Chet (Tim Allen), an actor, but that doesn’t go exactly as planned. A fight promoter, Marty (Ricky Jay), persuades him to fight in a televised martial arts tournament, but he’ll only get paid if he loses the secretly fixed fight. Despite a terrific performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the plot never really gels into a believably compelling drama. Writer/director David Mamet certainly has a knack for writing an intelligent script with full of zingers, but here the dialogue seems awkward and stilted. Mamet fails to find the right combination of tones to hold your attention for 98 minutes. It’s actually quite refreshing to see Tim Allen in a more serious role than usual, although he doesn’t really have enough material to stand out as much as Chiwetel does. Much of the dramatic tension fizzles out by the time the convoluted and slightly ludicrous third act comes along. Ultimately, Redbelt fails to pack any real punches and leaves you feeling underwhelmed. Number of times I checked my watch: 4. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens May 2nd, 2008.


Directed by Aaron Woodley.

When Carter (Ryan Lynn) was a teenager living in Tennessee, he ran from his abusive, alcoholic father, Roy (Bill Sage), while taking his mother and younger brother, Ellis, along with him. Now into his adulthood and living in New Mexico, Carter (Adam Rothenberg) learns that Ellis (Ethan Peck) has leukemia, so he agrees to take him on a road trip all the way to Tennessee in hopes that their estranged father will be able to donate his bone marrow for a transplant operation. Their car breaks down and, soon enough, they hitch a ride with a diner waitress, Krystal (Mariah Carey), who joins them on their road trip while running away from her abusive husband, Frank (Lance Reddick). Frank happens to be a state trooper, so now he uses his power to paint Roy and Ellis as criminals on the lam for kidnapping his wife. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Russell Schaumburg fails to generate any real drama or intrigue, with the exception of a somewhat suspenseful car chase. None of the characters truly come to life and the performances are mediocre at best, so it’s difficult to care about what happens to any of them. Perhaps a lengthier first act showing Carter and Ellis spending more time with their parents during their teenage years would have helped because the brief flashbacks don’t really add anything particularly interesting. A subplot involving Ellis trying to muster the courage to reunite with his high school girlfriend, who’s now a teacher, falls flat with contrivance. On a positive note, though, director Aaron Woodley does include picturesque scenery and cinematography throughout the road trip as Ellis likes taking photographs along the way. While slow pacing usually works to create a somber, pensive mood, here it just makes a lot scenes drag. At a running time of 90 minutes, Tennessee has beautiful scenery and brief suspense, but that’s not nearly enough to keep you immersed or captivated in the often contrived story or any of its poorly developed characters.
Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Vivendi Entertainment.
Opens June 5th, 2009 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Theater of War

Directed by John Walter.

This provocative and mildly fascinating documentary focuses on the interprations of Bertolt Brecht’s play “Mother Courage and Her Children” as well as the rehearsal for its 2006 production, directed by George C. Wolf and translated by Tony Kushner, at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Talented actress Meryl Streep, who stars as in that production, candidly discusses her thoughts and feelings about playing Mother Courage and how she perceives her as not just a tragic figure, but an everyday character that goes through universal hardships that everyone can emotionally connect with. She steps back a bit to stress her opinion that to film actors rehearsing a show is like observing all the plumbing and pipes of a new building in a way that doesn’t highlight the brilliance and essence of the production itself. In a way, she emphasizes what sociopsychologist Erving Goffman once said about how people live two different versions of life: one frontstage and one backstage. The experiences backstage appear to be very messy and chaotic with many flaws, but frontstage the chaos turns into something more coherent and structured. It’s interesting to learn about the life of playwright Bertolt Brecht during the 1950’s when he testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about allegations that he was a member of the Communist Party. After denying those allegations using a thick accent in front of the HUAC, he fled to East Germany. Brecht’s assistant director, Carl Weber, reminisces about those moments as well as the opening night of the production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” in 1949 Berlin. Unfortunately, director John Walter does a lazy job of structuring Theater of War into a truly sharp, coherent and compelling documentary. The observations about Brecht’s life and interpretations of his work as an artist are somewhat fascinating and informative, but there isn’t enough analysis and exploration when it comes to the significance of the play. As such, Theater of War remains mildly engaging with brief moments of insight, but it’s mostly a missed opportunity to dig deeper into the play’s sociopolitical relevance to the world of today.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3.
Released by White Buffalo Entertainment. Opens December 24th, 2008 at the Film Forum.

The Universe of Keith Haring
- Directed by Christina Clausen.

This somewhat compelling and lively documentary follows the life and career of Keith Haring, an avant-garde artist who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31. The style of his artistic drawings on both public domains such as subway walls and on canvases may seem simple at first glance, but, for an intelligent spectator, there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Through the combination of archival footage and interviews with Keith Haring along with his family and friends, namely Yoko Ono, Madonna and Andy Warhol, director Christina Clausen does a decent job of showing Keith Haring’s passion for art itself and his relentless, youthful spirit for expressing art in variety of mediums, such as murals or canvas drawings. Subway passengers in New York City would stop to gaze at and to discuss his bizarre drawings on subway walls; not all of them understand the artwork, but at least it catches their attention. Those unfamiliar with Haring or his artwork of the 70’s and 80’s will be somewhat fascinated by all of these facts and observations. However, those looking for a deeper or more insightful analysis of his work will be quite underwhelmed. What truly distinguishes Keith Haring from other brave avant-garde artists, such as those of the “Do-It-Yourself” movement documented in the recent film Beautiful Losers? What makes Keith Haring’s work so significant in the art world? Those questions should have been explored and answered to make the film more complete and satisfying on an intellectual level. On a positive note, director Christina Clausen does help to add some momentum and liveliness through stylish editing and cinematography. The Universe of Keith Haring will keep you mildly engaged, but it merely scratches the surface of an artist who deserves a much more sensitive, profound and thorough exploration of his art. Number of times I checked my watch: 3. Released by Arthouse Films. Opens October 24th, 2008 at the Cinema Village.

The Wackness
- Directed by Jonathan Levine.

During the summer of ‘94, Luke (Josh Peck), about to graduate high school, trades drugs for therapy with his psychiatrist, Jeff (Ben Kingsley), while flirting with Jeff’s stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Jeff has problems of his own when it comes to the lack of chemistry that he has with his wife (Famke Janssen). While Luke goes through teen angst and Jeff experiences a midlife crisis, the two gradually form an unexpected friendship. Both guys have sex and drugs on their mind, but what’s more important is that they implicitly share a desire to figure out their identity and to fit into society. Josh Peck sinks into the role of Luke with plenty of ease and adds an offbeat charm and sweetness that allows you to care for him as a real human being. It’s quite funny to just watch Ben Kingsley’s whacky psychiatrist character smoke dope, give crazy words of advice and, yes, even he even briefly makes out with a trashy hippie (Marie Kate Olsen). Writer/director Jonathan Levine expertly captures the essence of the ‘90s era when Mayor Guiliani went on a mission to clean up all the sex and drugs throughout the city, especially in Times Square. The dialogue has a rare organic, colloquial quality to it that manages to be funny, witty and smart even though the characters themselves aren’t particularly smart nor are they even close to being role models. Even though it lacks the profound insights that other “grown-up” teen movies, such as Ghost World, have, The Wackness still manages to be a refreshingly real and captivating drama. Number of times I checked my watch: 0. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.

War, Inc.
- Directed by Joshua Seftel.

The former US Vice-President and current CEO of Tamerline (Dan Aykoyd) sends Brand Hauser (John Cusack) to Turaqistan to assassinate a Middle Eastern oil minister (Ben Kingsley). To get access to the minister, Brand pretends to be the company’s tradeshow producer. Marisa Tomei plays a reporter who befriends him during his mission while Joan Cusack provides a breath of fresh air in a small role as his secretary. Hillary Duff rounds out the ensemble cast as an Asian pop singer whose wedding Brand organizes. The outrageous plot has plenty of imaginative concepts that simply fail to mold together effectively because of the poor directing of Joshua Seftel and the weak screenplay by co-writers Mark Leyner, Jeremy Pikser and John Cusack. Too many scenes make you feel like you’re watching an over-to-the-top midnight movie with too much style and not enough substance. The comedy often falls flat on delivery and everything else including the drama and some action fizzle out by the time the over-the-top ending comes around. Compared to Dr.Strangelove, War, Inc. lacks the brains and heart to go beyond its weirdness. Weirdness just for the sake of weirdness ultimately feels pretentious and exhausting no matter what actors are onscreen. Not to be confused with War Child, a much different and outstanding film at the festival. Number of times I checked my watch: 8. Released by First Look Pictures. Opens at the Angelika Film Center.

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