Tribeca 2008: Day Five and Six

Elite Squad doesn't live up to the hype, but Bart Got A Room surprises out of the blue.

by Amber Wilkinson

If yesterday's rainfall was a gentle drum roll, today's has taken on Wagnerian proportions. The fashion accessory as I paddle my way to the subway seems to be wellington boots. Somehow can't imagine that catching on in a big way back in Edinburgh. Still, forget about the catwalk, it's the dog walking that really catches the eye. Today I've seen a sausage dog in a sowester and a bulldog carrying a set of saddlebags. Only, as they say, in New York.

On the film side of things, it was just as well I had the rain alarm call since it meant I was in good time for the early press show of Elite Squad this morning. The winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, it is set in the same drug-addled favelas of Rio that played host to Brazilian hit City Of God. This time, the focus is on police corruption and the attempts of a chief of the Elite Squad - essentially a force set up to police the police - to find a replacement. As two recruits struggle to get in, he is fighting to get out. Hard-hitting and frenetic in the way only Brazillian films seem to manage, its certainly got an energy to it but is about as subtle as a bag of hammers. The sub-plots regarding the two recruits occasionally also become incredibly difficult to follow - though this may well be because of the subtitles. There is a constant narratorial voice too, which only ever serves to distance viewers - repeat after me, filmmakers: narration for books, dialogue for film. All in all, although by no means a bad film, it does make you wonder about the strength of the competition at Berlin this year, if this was the winner.

Time for a change of tack then, so opt for Idiots And Angels - a feature length animation from Bill Plympton. Somehow I've managed to miss all his previous work, which given that it stretches back three decades is not a great admission. Still, everyone's got to start somewhere, right? His animation has a lovely, flowing quality with the kind of movement within the drawings of individual people that is reminiscent of kid's show Roobarb, but probably has a much more high-falutin' name that I'm unaware of.

Tales about reluctant angels are certainly nothing new and the storyline here is strongly redolent of Mervin Peake's Mr Pye. But where Mr Pye swang from good to evil, growing wings or horns accordingly, Plympton's angel is misanthropic through and through. From crushing bugs to random acts of violence he is as self-centred as they come. It is something of a surprise then, when he discovers wings sprouting from his shoulders one morning. As they grow, however, it turns out he may have to change his ways.

Although very dark in terms of subject matter, there is an undercurrent of optimism throughout the film. Eschewing the need for dialogue, the action is accompanied by music that flows with the drawings perfectly.

And if Idiots And Angels is an adult look at the evil that men do and the gradations of it, then Terra - aimed at a family audience - has no less of a hard-hitting message. In fact, it may be all a little too heavy, on balance. It tells the story of a planet where the population swim through the air like mermaids and whose chief facial feature is their huge eyes. Mala is a tomboy - if that term hasn't become non-PC. She likes to make things - even though the tribal elders disapprove (natch) - and has a rebellious streak. One day, though, spaceships arrive. Thinking them to be from the Gods, many of the folk on Terra surrender themselves up but when her dad is taken Mala chases down a ship which, it turns out, contains a human. Having wreaked havoc on their own blue/green planet, they are seeking a new home regardless of the indigenous population.

Although it has some nice set pieces its got BIG problems. Firstly the green issues - and even a possible Iraq bombing reference - are very BIG. Not that green issues can't be tackled successfully through family animation, as Happy Feet amply proved. The trouble here is that they are largely dealt with here through BIG exposition. This means that when the set-pieces stop everything gets far too talky. There is a decent sidekick in the form of robot Giddy - although he is one part R2D2, one part C3PO and one part Johnny Five - but he doesn't get enough screen time. The animation is interesting and has a very specific look but the plot weighs it down unecessarily.

No such problems in Bart Got A Room, which is the most entertaining comedy I've seen in many a long month and the first one in ages that I actually feel like watching again. Danny Stein (Steven Kaplan) lives in the sort of Floridian retirement community were people go to play golf and die, not necessarily in that order. His mum (Cheryl Hines) and dad (William H Macy, sporting the finest afro perm to grace celluloid in a while) are separated and trying to forge new relationships, but his biggest problem is getting a prom date - though he'll settle from anyone other than his platonic pal Camille (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat).

The script is great fun and not hampered in any way by the fact that proms are such a quintessentially American thing. Director Brian Hecker has a sharp eye for the details and if the site of Macy making orgasm sounds on a scale of one to 20 to test the soundproofing doesn't make you laugh, you have no soul and never deserve to get a date again.

I headed over to the filmmakers' lounge after the film for a swift bottle of Stella and ended up chatting both to the Czech cinematographer of short film Cargo, Martin Preiss. I make a mental note to check out the film. I also get chatting to Marco Palermo, the producer of a film Being Human, put together by his brothers, who I also end up meeting. I take a press pack and screener disc so will bring you news of that as soon as I get the chance to watch it.

If Bart Got A Room is a joyful romp, then it's back to reality on day six with a more documentaries. First up is Pray The Devil Back To Hell, which just about everyone seems to be talking about. The story of how the women of Liberia took a stand to change their nation and end the civil war is a testimony to what can be done if enough people protest. Filled with the sort of traumatic stories that break your heart, what emerges is the sense of the strength of these sisters in peace - both Christian and Muslim - who decided enough was enough. I suspect it would make a pretty good companion piece for Ladies From Liberia, and is definitely worth looking out for at film festivals.

Deciding to take a short intermission before watching Milosevic On Trial, I opt for a handful of shorts. Last Time In Clerkenwell could be subtitled 'birds go bonkers' since that's kind of what happens. This black and white animation is full of movement and inventiveness and, worryingly, I'm still humming the tune to it several hours later.

Next up was a total change of tone with Cargo. As heavy as Clerkenwell was light, this is a tale of the abuse of migrants and the tainting of innocence. It is well shot - nice cinematography, Mr Preiss - but unremittingly bleak and its hard to fully believe the moral bankruptcy on display.

Absolutely top drawer, however, is Leonardo Ricagni's Feathers To The Sky. This tale of a little girl, her grandfather and a teacher is a treat from beginning to end. The camerawork is lovely, capturing the little girl against a big landscape and the strength of his visual storytelling means that the scripting is kept to a minimum. Someone should give it an award and quick.

Back then to the serious stuff, and Milosevic On Trial is, as you would expect, a pretty heavy number. Michael Christofferson is to be complimented for his painstaking work in sifting through hundreds of hours of trial footage and acquiring on the spot interviews with prosecutors and defenders to present a fully fleshed out picture of the man who took part in the longest war crime trial in modern history. The things he stood accused of were complex, but they are presented here in a form which is understandable yet which never talks down to the viewer. An admirable feat.

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