These thoughts about the movies I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival are really late, but then I've been behind on lots of things these past several weeks.
My introduction to the Tribeca Film Festival came in the form of David LaChapelle's documentary Rize (QT trailer). It tracks the rise of a form of dancing called clowning which evolved into its more well-known incarnation: krumping. Invented by kids in the ghettoes of Los Angeles, krumping fuses hip-hop, African tribal dancing, stripper dancing, and the convulsions of an epileptic in seizure. Its movements are so fast and furious that a disclaimer appears at the beginning: none of the footage has been sped up in any way.
The theme of the movie is that these youths struggling to survive in the ghetto have found a creative outlet of expression and an alternative to the gangster lifestyle in krumping. Midway through the movie, clowning originator Tommy the Clown (a birthday clown for the ghetto, second from the left in the pic below) leads his group of Clowners in a dance battle against a new wave of krumpers, packing an entire arena, and the intensity of the competition and trash talk reveal a competitiveness at the heart of krumping. At dance parties, krumpers regularly shove each other off the dance floor, but the physical confrontation, as aggressive and combative as it appears, is peaceful in spirit.
The most charismatic dancer was Miss Prissy (she's the crazy-ripped girl in the movie poster), and she was one of the few stars not to attend Q&A because she'd gone on to become a backup dancer for the rapper The Game. Is krumping a fad? It's too early to say. It has yet to spread beyond Los Angeles, but perhaps the release of this documentary will spread the movement to other parts of the country. Though the documentary ties krumping to the ghettoes of LA, its violent and uninhibited movements look like a physical release of universal teenage feelings: alienation, anger, rebellion, and the conflicting desires to stand out and fit in.
In Red Doors, the NY Narrative Award winner, nearly all the characters are nearly at the end of their story arcs when the movie begins, and the story cliches shorten the distance they travel. All signs pointed to a family dinner with everyone's significant others at movie's end (Joy Luck Club style), and so it came to pass. Maybe some of the familiar tropes of these dysfunctional Asian American family stories are just too familiar to me as other people around me seemed to really enjoy it. The story of how a few college girlfriends banded together to stitch together financing and bring the movie to the festival, revealed during Q&A, was the portion of the screening that caught my attention. It's the type of story one hears over and over at film festivals, but it still hasn't gotten old for me.
Puzzlehead revives the Frankenstein myth. In this sci-fi thriller, a man who builds a robot of himself, only to lose control of it. The main actor was so wooden, I lost track of who was the robot, who was the man. Poor acting is a risk with any low-budget movie, but an audience will forgive if the movie is original. This one isn't able to outrun audience expectations. I felt as if I'd skipped ahead in the presentation and reached the finish while the movie was still presenting the first chapter.
I loved the docudrama 24 Hour Party People, by Michael Winterbottom, and 9 Songs was said to include concert footage by Franz Ferdinand, among others, and lots of sex. The movie should have been more accurately titled: 9 Songs, 24 positions. A young couple, Matt and Lisa, meets at a concert and begins an affair that alternates between live music and home-schooling in the kama sutra. The story is narrated in retrospect by Matt, now working in Antarctica on some sort of geological expedition. Long shots of the desolate, icy white snowscape hint at the shallow and empty nature of Matt and Lisa's relationship, but that idea isn't as tragic as it aspires to be considering how shallow both Matt and Lisa seem. The overall effect is much less provocative than it sounds, though at least it's an attempt to push audience buttons, something movie festivals should provide as an alternative to the average fare at local cineplexes.
Runaway is directed by Tribeca veteran (yes, there is such a think even though the festival has only been around since 9/11) Tim McCann and follows a pair of brothers on the run from a dark family past. Older brother Michael works at a convenience store and leaves his younger brother Dylan at the cheap motel that serves as their home base. Michael begins to fall for a fellow clerk named Carly (a back from wherever she's been Robin Tunney with the best performance in the movie), and as she opens up about her past, so does Michael, leading to a massive twist at movie's end. It's the type of twist which has become somewhat popular in movies in recent years, using a visual metaphor for an internal state of mind (I won't reveal what the trick is as it would ruin the movie). The first time you see it in a movie, it's surprising. Now, having been used several times, it feels a bit like a magician's invisible string. It's a dangerous game, because the gimmick also causes the audience to have to re-evaluate much of what they've seen. Leaving aside the plot twist, though, the greater problem is that Michael isn't sympathetic; it mutes the tragic payoff.
Fox Searchlight had already picked up Night Watch for distribution prior to Tribeca, so the Stuyvesant High School auditorium screening I attended had an unusually strict security detail. At the door, they took my phone and backpack and still security-wanded me before allowing me in. The director came on stage beforehand and billed Night Watch as the first fantasy movie to come out of Russia.
Night Watch is the first chapter of a trilogy, so it's particularly unfortunate that it's a mess. Take a vampire movie, zombie movie, a few witches and magic spells, and a heavy dose of CGI, put in a blender, top with a dollop of squid ink to darken the cinematography, and puree. The ending is a setup for part two of the trilogy and offers little emotional satisfaction. I welcome new entries in various genres from foreign countries, but the same economic pressures that produce unoriginal but globally palatable Hollywood fare can work in reverse. Night Watch feels a bit like Hollywood genre movies refracted back by a Russian fun house mirror, a Frankensteinian quilt of genre chunks. A movie like The Return, though it's in a genre with a long-standing tradition in Russia, feels far more original and unsettling.