Tribeca Film Festival: Days Four and Five

Creature features, Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns Suburban Girl and Salman Rushdie sighted.

by Amber Wilkinson

Another day dawns in the city which never sleeps, a description that is, by the way, entirely accurate. If it does sleep it seems only to do so between the hours of 6 and 8pm, when in the rush to get home things seem to quieten down. The rest of the time there's a buzz about the place, with horns constantly honking, deliveries being made and people generally enjoying themselves. I'm staying near the Bowery, bordering on to China Town and Little Italy, which means a walk down the street is like a stroll through the United Nations, no doubt one of the reasons that the city feels so vibrant.

The festival has a cross-cultural vibrancy too, with films from right across the globe, although there is also, naturally, a slight focus on movies shot in the city.

I caught one of these this morning. Where God Left His Shoes. A very 'Sundance style' indie drama starring John Leguiziamo). He plays Frank Diaz, a washed up boxer who finds himself and his family (wife, stepson and daughter) out on the streets and in a homeless shelter. On Christmas Eve, it seems that Santa may come after all, with the chance of an apartment but the need for a job sparks an odyssey that frank and his son will never forget. The emphasis is downbeat but there is a warm heart beating at the centre of this film. Many of the scenes with stepson Justin (David Castro) feel improvised, and this is all to the good, adding a realistic emphasis to the dynamic of family life. The cookies and cream stay in the fridge and what is left is a moving, honest portrait of one man trying to do what's right for his own, despite getting kicked at every turn.

Talking of kicked, I suspect that horror flick Unearthed may well get kicked straight to DVD. This cliched horror tale about a monster dug out of the New Mexico desert, that goes on a killing spree is filled with every (old) trick in the book. There's the female cop with a hole in her heart thanks to an accidental killing - a back story which goes from a to a. There's a wise old Native American who knows stuff, a scientist, a good ol' boy farmer and, of course, the obligatory armed-to-the teeth resident, with a secret. Failing to generate even one decent 'boo' throughout is one thing but causing the audience to laugh out loud at bad expositional dialogue is quite another.

Mathew Leutwyler occasionally displays a flair for direction, creating some good frantic action that at least ratchetts up the tension but the leaden script and incredulous plot twists hold it back. Unearthed deserves to be buried in an unmarked grave.

In the spirit of titles reflecting the nature of their content, however, The Grand is, apparently, just that. My EyeForFilm partner in crime describes it a mockumentary in the style of Best In Show, only less dry and, therefore, funnier. Woody Harrelson is a stoner who tries to save his dad's casion by winning a high stakes poker tournament.

Also watchced today was The Sugar Curtain, an exploration of Cuba after the revolution, which saw people livng what they now view as something of a Utopian dream which has since gone sour. A very personal insight, the film is engaging enough but has nothing about it to raise it above the pack.

Day Five brought with it more New York, in the first of two films that see Sarah Michelle Gellar try, once again, to slay her history as The Slayer. Thankfully, she has at last chosen different genre. Suburban Girl - based on short stories from bestseller The Girl's Guide To Hunting And Fishing - could be just the tonic she needs. Playing Brett, a Manhattan-based book editor, she finds her life changed irrevocably after striking up a romantic May to December relationship with influential book man Archie (Alec Baldwin). The chemistry between Gellar and Baldwin works surprisingly well - though Gellar could really do to eat a bun or two, she is looking painfully thin. Maybe she could have some of Baldwin's since his waistline seems to be heading in the other direction. In any event this is smart and sassy, with Gellar's character genuinely believable, although she does seem somewhat diminished when not in the presence of Baldwin. The film also features nice cameos from British actress Vanessa Branch and Lost's Maggie Grace as her best friend Chloe. Sure to be coming at some point to a multiplex near you and well worth a watch.

If Suburban Girl is firmly mainstream, The Education of Charlie Banks can be filed under gritty indie. Limp Bizkit star Fred Durst steps behind the camera for this coming-of-age tale abut a nerdy student who has to come to terms with his past when the school bully, turns up looking for protection. Gripping in parts, it comes up short in the end.

Another solid drama, falling just short is Take, Minnie Driver's latest. She stars as Ana - a woman travelling to see the monster who brought tragedy into her life. As she considers what led to disaster, so does the 'monster' (Jeremy Renner, channelling Kevin Spacey). To say too much about this film would spoil what interest there is. Certainly Driver and Renner (soon to been seen in 28 Weeks Later) put in cracking performances but the plot suffers from predictability. The ending is clearly telegraphed at the beginning, so it's hard to sustain the runtime.

Also in the flawed but interesting category is Mulberry Street. Note to directors, if you're going to make a creature feature, better start with a scary creature... and a rat really doesn't cut it - especially on a tight budget. The basic premise of Nick Damici and Jim Mickle's film, is Manhattan being quarantined after a rat bite results in people turning into rat people. Think 28 Days Later with furry guys and you'll be in the right ballpark.

Although the rat-folk aren't as scary as they should be, there is much that is right with this film, and that marks out Damici, in particular - also starring here as boxer Clutch - as one to watch. The characterisation is spot on.

We genuinely care about all of the people in the movie and have an emotional investment in them when they get killed. Equally, Mickle uses some clever hand-held direction and speeded up sequences to up the tension, although it's a trick that soon gets old. It would be good to see what they could do with a better budget and a meaner set of monsters.

Outside of the festival and in the things I never thought I'd see category, I give you my celeb sighting of the day. Salman Rushdie, grousing about bookshop displays with his pals, as he wandered around China Town.

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