Thursday, April 26, 2007

Tribeca 2007: Day One

Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten me into, dear reader. Over a hundred and fifty films and only eight days to see them all in. Using my careful "index" methodology (turn program guide, place finger down, see film), I've come up with a refreshing mix of not just the artsy Narrative films in this year's competition, but with a nice blend of nonsensical Midnight films and hopefully some great new Discoveries as well. Today I kicked off the grand tour with the artless Black Sheep and then overdosed on Turkish culture with the heavy-handed Times and Winds. How fitting that the day's final screening, The Last Man, was then a bland blend of both sense and nonsense. Let's begin at the beginning though, as all good stories must.

-Black Sheep
You can't possibly expect me to give a film with the tagline "Get ready for the violence of the lambs" a positive review, so I won't insult your intelligence. But guess what? Neither will the director/writer, Jonathan King. For the first half of the film, King works off the natural terror of sheep, a passive, but certainly zombie-like species. Watching a cab get boxed in by a flurry of sheep is a peculiar sort of horror, but it works . . . up to a point. When the first sheep bursts through a wood door, a furrier but somehow less animal version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, we're okay: but when Tucker drives him off with a shotgun and the catchphrase "You're one dead muttonchops" (which is less funny in context), much less so. Even less when the response to the leading question, "Who's driving the car?" is the money shot of a sheep behind the wheel. (To be fair, it promptly drives off a cliff.)

In Michael Crichton's hands, the genetic modification of livestock for food purposes could make even sheep seem frightening. In the hands of a man who'd rather crack jokes about bestiality ("I understand you've got a pretty fucked up idea of animal husbandry") to cover up the awful special effects of his monsters (paging Sam Raimi), there's just a ba-a-a-a-d joke that won't end.

-Times and Winds (Bes Vakit)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: that's why directors need to bring more to the table than rustic tableaux. Reha Erdem has the panoramic shot mastered, and he's handy with the long shot, the tracking shot, and the awkward rhythm of stillness. He's even got some truly beautiful scenes that express the way children forge ties with one another and rebel against their parents, no matter what the culture. Unfortunately, while the shots are anchored to the five phases of the film (broken up by the five daily prayers) and involve a lot of similarly executed shots, the majority of the film is as restless as the wind. The mundane moments and the passivity of the camera don't instill any tension in this supposedly tragic world, and the one event that catches us off guard is as quickly forgotten as it occurs. Perhaps the strong, classical score was meant to be enough of an emotional prompt, but it's not, and because of the distanced and piecemeal narrative, the actions of these characters are often inexplicable and careless. Children will be children, I guess; but I weep more for those eroding cliffs and wasting forests than for the characters themselves.

-The Last Man
I kept hoping that Ghassan Salhab's surreal opening -- three interwoven scenes involving a scuba diver's POV, a flamenco dancer in the black darkness, and grainy footage of a sleeping man -- would somehow develop into a coherent plot. Once it did -- a doctor, who happens to be a scuba diver in his spare time and who dates a flamenco dancer -- I longed for it not to be so obvious. For you see, this doctor is on the trail of a serial killer who keeps leaving dead bodies behind that have only a single bite mark on their neck. And it turns out this doctor had an encounter of his own not so long ago. And leaves blood bags emptied in bathroom stalls. This is the world's most pretentious vampire film, filled with a bevy of incongruous scenes that are frequently superimposed over one another for some dubious artistic effect.

The film is also remarkably quiet, though it could stand to be more Kubrick-like in the actual cinematography. There are far too many shots of our hero, Carlos Chahine, and his blank face: here he is popping into focus from a camera effect . . . then there he is again, moments later as the window-wipers suddenly reveal his stoic gaze . . . and there again, making oblique small talk with a painter as the film slowly turns a reddish hue (the worst sort of foreshadowing). At its core, The Last Man might work as a post-neo-Gothic story of horrific self-discovery, that's just overdressed in the baroque, but sluggishly presented here by Salhab, it's just got no bite.

No comments: