Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tribeca 2007: Day Six

-Watching the Detectives
Comedy is a very fine art: there's highbrow, lowbrow, and then genre-specific -- we're talking the sort of niche humor that entertains a smallest common denominator. Writer/director Paul Soter has taken a little bit of the low and the genre work that he mastered working with Broken Lizard, and he's made a fitting salute to the old Noir detectives with his fantastic film Watching the Detectives.

Neal (Cillian Murphy) is a staid, movie-obsessed video-store owner (fitting, if you think about it), who gads about on a plush sofa like some upper-class version of Randall (from Clerks), imitating films and mocking customers with his two friends, Lucien (Michael Panes) and Jonathan (Jason Sudeikis). As romance has it, the girl of his dreams is his total opposite, a foxy wildfire of a dame (Lucy Liu, all foxfire, is luminescent in her reacquired giddiness). This girl, Violet, is a practical joker who suffers from boraphobia (yes, the fear of boredom), and who invents all her own fun in the absence of TV. She's "pretty consistently out there," and she allows the film to range from awkward to terrifying to sweet, all while staying absolutely endearing. Whether Soter is doing a straight-spoof of old detective shots (birds-eye through the ceiling fan, golden light spilling through slits in the shade) or the glitzy mockery of digital graininess in his flashbacks, Watching the Detectives is great fun. As Violet says about Neil, I say about this film: "I'm crazy about [it]." Both parts of that sentence are true.

-Born and Bred
Pablo Trapero's Born and Bred is another one of those Spanish films that mixes an exotic location with a savage truth: in this case, the wastes of Patagonia mixed with the almost inevitable (these days) car crash that causes Santiago to try losing himself, as he has lost his wife and daughter. It's an adequate film, but it's lacking the extra edge of crispness found in directors like Alfonso Cuaron, the jagged beauty of a fabulist like Guillermo del Toro, or the epic scope of a panoramic artist like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (to go for the obvious names).

The acting is what woos the audience: there's a heartfelt camaraderie between Santiago and his new best friends, the Santa-like Cacique, and the rough-cut ladies man, Robert. Their friendship is well documented in all walks of life, from the drunken lows of an attempted three-way to the beautiful highs of clear hunting in a snowy forest, all the way to their mundane work on an eroding airstrip in the middle of nowhere. Trapero does well to show us a man drowning in his own sorrow, and the musical selections only serve to pull him further underwater, and there's nothing about Born and Bred that doesn't work (except, perhaps, the extreme cut between the accident and the present day); it's just an unfortunate reality that this sort of narrow-minded tragedy is, for the moment, tapped.

-The Optimists
Let the critics waste their breath finding the good films among the new premieres: the best bang for your buck is letting the best come directly to you, courtesy of Tribeca's Spotlight series. The Optimists, a Serbian film by Goran Paskaljevic, is a fantastically dry and witty meditation on the nature of optimism, by means of Voltaire: "Optimism is insisting everything is good, when everything is bad." Five short films, which share only the actor Lazar Ristovski (from the excellent film Underground), take up this saying as we leap from a miraculous master of hypnosis, come to save a town (that he's an escaped mental patient shouldn't matter, should it?), to a young son, come to make good on his father's (and grandfather's, and great-grandfather's) gambling debts by . . . gambling it all away himself.

What Paskaljevic does so poetically is to capture the grim determination of suckers after the fact, that is, to show the actors at the moment of realizing that they've been had, but that since there's nothing they can do about it, that they should put on a happy face anyway. And so, in the second film, we are immersed in the smoldering rage of an impotent father who cannot avenge his daughter's rape because the rapist is his boss, and the owner of the foundry. In the final film, a bus full of terminally ill or permanently crippled victims are conned into seeking out a spring of youth, only to settle (with a forcefully giddy enthusiasm) for an oily pond that they discover in its place. Here, the shot that lingers is that of the father, clutching his blind daughter in a tight embrace as she continues to say, "I think I can see, Papa, I think I can see something," even though it's painfully obvious to both of them that there is no light at the end of her tunnel. But who am I to say what hope is and isn't? All I can say is that The Optimists has the savage wit of satire down cold: I hope more American directors take note (Thank You For Smoking was the closest we've had, and that was tamed by its political nature).

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