|Along with an elevated pollen count, spring also heralds the annual arrival of the Tribeca Film Festival; those weeks in May where Manhattan lampposts decked out in brightly colored promotional banners compete with the blossoming magnolia and cherry trees to dot the post-winter cityscape with a splash of color. I've yet to come across any of the American Express free popcorn stands, but other festival festoonery has been spotted in various locations around the city.|
Once again the festival is taking great measures to make its presence known, and the planned weeklong event centered around Spiderman III makes last year's Tom Cruise multi-means-of-transport dash through Manhattan look like amateur hour. I haven't been bothered to read all the details, but I believe it includes non-stop blanket screenings of the "most expensive film ever made" projected into the night sky for the enjoyment of all New Yorkers. That Target has signed on as a signature sponsor of the festival makes this exercise in crass commercialism hardly surprising. (Don't even get me started on the ESPN-sponsored sidebar of sports-related films.)
Yes, I'll admit to being both a crank and an elitist snob. Why, you may ask, shouldn't there be room in a festival for the likes of both Jia Zhangke and (sigh) Adam Carolla. Maybe it's the fact that Cannes is right around the corner (and I'm not going!), or simply a result of an extreme case of hay fever, but each year I find myself wondering why the TFF isn't quite like its brethren in Berlin, London, San Francisco, Pusan, etc. If pressed to choose one thing, I'd lay the blame at the festival's emphasis on world premieres. I'm sure there are many New Yorkers who would prefer a critically acclaimed "leftover" to an unknown, possibly awful, premiere. (Especially when ticket prices have gone up by 50%.) Still, buried between the Hollywood tripe and yet another Ed Burns film, there are some gems to be found at this year's festival, and I've been lucky enough to catch three of them so far.
|1959's The Letter That Was Never Sent is one of two restored classics at this year's fest lensed by Russian master Sergei Urusevsky (the other being Grigori Chukhrai's The Forty-First.) One of four films that Urusevsky made with director Mikhail Kalatozov, it's sandwiched between 1957's The Cranes Are Flying and 1964's I Am Cuba. While nowhere near as powerful as either of those films, The Letter That Was Never Sent is an absolute must see for lovers of dramatic cinematography.|
The paper-thin plot revolves around four geologists, three men and one woman, who are sent to Siberia to search for a diamond mine. Driven not by dreams of personal wealth but rather for make benefit glorious nation of Russia, they drink a toast to the future funding of the space-race, and other examples of socialist pride. Though we do get a bit of backstory on all of the characters, and there are hints at sexual tension between alpha-male Sergei and the married Tanya, it's little more than a red-herring, for the bulk of the film finds the quartet fighting for survival after they are driven deep into the Siberian wilderness by an unexpected forest blaze. As the Siberian summer quickly turns to winter and the number of survivors thins, we learn of not one but several letters that remain unsent, as well as a thing or two about personal sacrifice for a greater good.
Urusevsky's cinematography lends itself perfectly to this tale of man vs. nature, and visually there isn't a dull moment. It's been said the film influenced both the look of Tarkovsky's Stalker and Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and there are indeed elements here that can be found in both of those films. Urusevsky's camera is extremely fluid – from the opening shot taken from the back of an unseen helicopter as it rises upward, to the liberal use of hand-held shots as the group traipses through reeds and woods – there are scant few moments of stillness. Though not shot from a character's POV, the camera, at times, mimics the action we witness – swinging violently around when somebody is punched, or rapidly jerking up and down to the motion of an arm swinging a pickaxe. Though Urusevsky employs all sorts of Dutch and low angle shots, as well a handful of slow dissolves, they never feel overstated or overused, as they often can (and do) in lesser films. This new print from the Moscow film archives looks positively wonderful, and deserves to be seen on the big screen.
|Shane Meadows' This is England is a strong contender to replace Alan Clarke's 1982 Made in Britain as the definitive British skinhead film. Set in 1983, this semi-autobiographical tale tells of Sean (Thomas Turgoose), a tween whose father was killed in the Falklands War, and his relationship with a group of skinheads several years his senior. The film works brilliantly as both personal coming-of-age story and searing unrestrained portrait of life in Thatcher's Britain.|
Like Meadows himself was at that age, Sean is an outsider taken under the wing of a kind skinhead named Woody (Joseph Gilgun), whose gang is content to sit around, drink beer, get high, and listen to Ska. Trading in his ratty sweaters and flared jeans for Doc Martens, suspenders, and Ben Sherman shirt (not to mention a freshly shaved head), things begin to look up for the troubled Sean until the arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham), just back from a stint in prison and full of racial hatred and nationalist pride. Though Combo's sudden reappearance threatens to shatter the bliss of Sean's surrogate family, the impressionable boy can't help but fall under the spell of the charismatic racist, who plays into Sean's anger at losing his dad in a senseless war. It's not long before Sean starts attending National Front meetings and intimidating immigrants along with his new neo-Nazi pals.
What separates This is England from other similarly themed films is Meadows' refusal to reduce matters to simply right versus wrong, or left versus right. He reminds us that the skinhead movement was traditionally multi-culti, where working-class English and West Indian kids bonded over Jamaican artists such as Toots and the Maytals and The Upsetters. Mass unemployment under Thatcher resulted in the working-class feeling threatened, which gave rise to the racist attitudes one often associates with skinheads. Combo's politics may be abhorrent, but Meadows takes great pains to show how his character is not necessarily a victim, but a product of the Thatcher era, a divisive time to say the least. Unlike the typical one-dimensional skinhead we've seen countless times before, Meadows exposes a few cracks in the facade, revealing a complexity of contradictions that shuns a simple vilification of the character.
Looking like a pint-sized Winston Churchill (and commanding a similar presence) Thomas Turgoose is remarkable as Sean, and there's no doubt his own troubled childhood informs much of his performance. As Combo, Stephen Graham makes a strong case for entry into the pantheon of great modern English actors, and his performance ranks up there with the best from Tim Roth, David Thewlis, or Ray Winstone. My only gripe with the film is the third act, where an event leads to an epiphany in a way that feels a bit forced, or at least too conventional when compared to everything that preceded it, creating a moral center that isn't really necessary. Even so, the film's strengths are such that this minor contrivance doesn't diminish its power. With its unmistakable allusion to The 400 Blows, This is England is a superb coming-of-age drama that is probably the greatest English film since Mike Leigh's Naked.
|Though I'd be hard pressed to qualify this statement, it's my belief that Hungarian director György Pálfi is some sort of genius. How else to explain his uncanny ability to present acts so utterly repulsive, yet with the poignancy of a philosopher? Imagine if Slavoj Žižek directed a film for Troma – that's just a hint of what you can expect from Taxidermia.|
Pálfi's second feature is a triptych that traces a single family over three generations of men, each with a particular quirk, to put it lightly. Morosgoványi is a masturbating voyeur who does odd things with fire and performs unnatural acts on a dead animal. His son Kalman is a champion speed-eater, the pride of Hungary who is eagerly awaiting the IOC to accept it as an Olympic sport. His twig-thin son Lajoska is a modern-day taxidermist who spends most of his time caring for his father, now an immovable colossus, while fattening cats with bricks of margarine.
The obsession with the body, and the excesses it can sustain, are reminiscent of the works of David Cronenberg, though there's an added cynicism here that borders on misanthropy. Pálfi doesn't think too highly of humankind, but his films come off as more playful than vitriolic. That's not to say they're easy to watch – especially with food or drink in front of you – but there's still something poetic in his disgusting images.
Taxidermia is a fascinating treatise on excess, desire, and the politics of the body. It contains images that aren't easily forgotten, though it's a film that almost begs multiple viewings. Don't miss this one.