|With a lineup of nearly two hundred films (almost double from last year's festival), it goes without saying that not all will be excellent. However, it seems (based on both personal experience and conversations with nearly everybody I've run into) that the disappointments outweigh the gems by a surprising ratio. Many of the films I saw were simply average -- films like Wah-Wah, Crime Novel, Pittsburgh, and Alone With Her -- all were entertaining, and not entirely lacking in interest, but at the same time almost instantly forgotten. In other words, not the kind of films I'd expect to discover at a festival. Yet perhaps it's wrong of me to expect a lineup akin to the New York, Berlin, or Rotterdam festivals.|
This raises an additional question -- does NYC truly need a festival of this size? During the two weeks of the TFF, there was also the opportunity to see a dozen Naruse films, Melville's Army of Shadows, an impressive African Film Festival, an Altman retrospective, and not to mention the releases of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Three Times, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Were two hundred additional films really necessary?
|At half the size, the festival would still be large enough to be classified a "big" event, and would have forced the selection committee to pare down the selections -- some of which, quite frankly, didn't belong in an international film festival. One such film was Metro, part of the NY, NY Narrative Feature competition. Directed by Adolfo Doring (cinematographer on Capturing the Friedmans, and director of a pair of Hootie & The Blowfish videos), Metro takes place in a New York City awash in orange-hued sunsets, where attractive young women do little but talk on the phone and pursue careers as models, actresses, filmmakers, photographers, etc. There's not a single male character to be found in the film, which, while an interesting concept, leaves us with little more than 105 minutes of male fantasy that tries very hard to be anything but. (The film's gaze couldn't be any more masculine if it tried.)|
The women in Doring's world hail from all over the globe -- there's Tina, a whiney, rail-thin supermodel from the Midwest who has been forced into her career by her family. Anke is a cloyingly naive German woman who speaks of life in East Germany, even though she would have been approximately seven when the Wall fell. Chikako, from Japan, lounges around all day listening to garage rock and masturbating to pictures of Tina (such character development!), while Amber hangs out in Japanese supermarkets and photographs the cool food packages. Finally there's Lila and Tia, who are working on a documentary film about women and television.
Doring's characters talk much, but say little, as evinced by the dozen or so one-sided telephone conversations that take place every few minutes. Serving as neither expository device, nor a means of furthering character development, they consist mostly of, "Hi....Really?....No!....You're kidding!.....When?....", ad infinitum. It's clear that Doring wasn't interested in creating a traditional narrative, but he makes the mistake of equating under-written characters with naturalism. Unfortunately, there's nothing that distinguishes one character from another, other than their career goal, and perhaps Lila's occasional tough New Yorker stance. They talk alike, act alike, and drift like waifs through the city in an almost somnambulistic state. Metro may represent Doring's idealized world of women, but even as fantasy, it's pretty lifeless.
|Unlike Metro, Todd Robinson's Lonely Hearts isn't a small, self-made indie, but rather a big budget period piece with bankable stars. However, unlike Doring, Robinson takes no chances as a director, and the end result is a formulaic, cookie-cutter policier that offers not even a hint of imagination. That there's already been some "Oscar contender" buzz around the festival shows how out of touch I am with mainstream Hollywood tastes.|
Lonely Hearts is a re-working of the true story of the Lonely Hearts Killers -- Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, who, posing as brother and sister, robbed and killed, wealthy widows who had fallen under the seductive spell of Fernandez. Their story has been told in three films -- The Honeymoon Killers (1970, the best of the bunch), Lonely Hearts (1991), and the Mexican film Deep Crimson (1996). Whereas the other films were told from the killers POV, Robinson splits the story between the killers and the two Long Island detectives who pursued them around the country, Elmer C. Robinson (John Travolta) and Charles Hildebrandt (James Gandolfini). With a screenplay that reads like a Robert McKee wet dream, the sordid story of Beck and Fernandez has been transformed into a syrupy drama about a detective (Travolta) coping with his wife's suicide and ever-increasing emotional distance from his teenaged son. (The director happens to be the grandson of detective Robinson, thus adding a level of personal involvement in the drama.)
Fans of true-crime stories will no doubt find the casting of Salma Hayek as Martha Beck somewhat odd. The real-life Beck was a rather unattractive 200 pound woman, which made the dynamic of her relationship with Fernandez (played here by Jared Leto) that much more interesting. That Beck has been transformed into a curvaceous, lusty Mexican beauty in form fitting dresses doesn't exactly leave us wondering why Fernandez is so drawn to her. But as a famous producer once declared, audiences don't want to pay money to see ugly people.
The beautification of Martha Beck is only one of the film's many problems. Robinson does a poor job of directing his actors, and they are often left reciting his third-rate dialog ("Hell's coming home for Christmas") with a burning sense of urgency that is entirely unnecessary. As a fellow critic observed, Travolta spends the entire film looking as if he has a bad case of acid reflux. Gandolfini doesn't fare much better, and his character portrayal is little more than Tony Soprano as a 40s gumshoe. But what ultimately makes Lonely Hearts so enervating is its use of the Fernandez-Beck story as mere backdrop to the larger, saccharine domestic drama, which teaches us that there's nothing like capital punishment to heal the rift between father and son.