Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tribeca Film Festival - Part II 

As promised, here is the second (and final) set of reviews from the Tribeca Film Festival.

Transamerica (****)
I rarely comment on the circumstances of a screening, but this one merits it because the advance word on this film was totally out of control.

At the screening I attended, they overadmitted people and the aisles were full of angry unseated attendees. Despite the fact that festival administrators repeatedly announced that the screening would not start until the aisles were clear, many refused to leave the screening theatre for some fifteen minutes.

Hype aside, Transamerica is a very good film. It tells the story of Bree, male-to-female transsexual on the verge of getting the final surgery when a long lost son suddenly turns up. Refused permission by her counselor to go ahead with the surgery until she resolves her relationship with her heretofore unknown progeny, Bree sets off to find some way to expedite this process and get on with her operation. This desire kicks off a cross-country car trip with Bree and her son Toby; with Bree finding herself unable to own up to their true relationship and masquerading as a Christian missionary.

Felicity Huffman does a remarkable job with the role and there is well deserved buzz that she might garner an Oscar nomination. The entire cast, in fact, turns in terrific performances. Kevin Zegers delivers the goods on all fronts as Toby, a gorgeous gay hustler with strikingly low ambitions. And the divine Fionnula Flanagan fires off an outrageously tempestuous yet plausible performance as Bree’s unaccepting mother.

While there is obviously a lot of room for comedy in this plotline, Transamerica deals directly and sensitively with Bree’s condition, her desires and her relationships. It’s also very strong work on both fronts from writer/director Duncan Tucker and should bring him a fair bit of attention.

Mad Hot Ballroom (*** 1/2)
Speaking of festival buzz, Mad Hot Ballroom was the breakout film at Slamdance (the festival held simultaneously as Sundance is held) and was snapped up by Paramount Classics and Nickelodeon. We didn’t catch it in Park City so we were happy to have a chance at Tribeca. It’s now in wide release.

This documentary shows us a special New York City school program where ten and eleven year olds learn ballroom dancing at school and then teams from each school compete against each other.

While not a brilliant documentary structurally (it plays its hand too clearly throughout), it is a Mad Hot Ballroom is a dedicated crowd pleaser in every sense. The kids come in all flavors of precocious, from verbal skilled to physically adept to emotionally connected. And it is delightful to watch them dedicate themselves to this pastime that their great grandparents might have loved and which has been so neglected in successive generations.

The competition itself is also great fun. You get to witness, along with the professional judges (including Ann Reinking), the marvelous abilities of these underprivileged kids, many of whom have found real meaning in the competition and potentially a lifelong passion in dance. It’s mad. And it’s hot.

Neo Ned (***)
This is film whose premise along would doom it as a straight to video release, were it not for committed performances from Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Renner: throw together inside a mental institution are Ned, a neo-Nazi skinhead, and Rachel, a beautiful black woman who thinks she’s Hitler. They fall in love.

The script doesn’t try to hold this silly premise together for too long. Ned quickly turns out to be a charming troublemaker who just wants attention and Rachel a woman on the run from her past. But the actors rise above the risible material and make this a very watchable movie. They manage to ground us in the implausible and make us care about their characters. And thanks to the strength of their performances, the characters stay with you long after the troubled plotline has floated away.

It makes one wonder why Renner isn’t a star yet and why Union usually gets such bogus material to work with. (Actually, that’s easy. She’s a fantastically gorgeous black woman. Even Halle Berry has only had Monster’s Ball to acquit herself with. Then it was on to Catwoman.) Somebody needs to give these young talents a bigger break because they’re clearly capable of outstanding work.

The Illustrated Family Doctor (**)
An Australian film with the best of intentions. A young man working at a book packager (they abridge novels and the like) soldiers on after the death of his father. He struggles to navigate his dead end job and his dead end life, which gets increasingly surreal as the film progresses. Based on a novel - and it feels like it - The Illustrated Family Doctor manages to hold your attention, but despite everyone’s best efforts (cast, production design and direction), ultimately it doesn’t quite come together.

The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green (**)
Based on a queer comic strip, TMUSLOEG seemed to register a lot more with the largely gay male audience more than it did with me (despite my rampant metrosexuality).

Protagonist Ethan Green is searching for love and stumbling a lot along the way. He can’t seem to decide what he wants so as soon as he gets into a relationship, he’s finding his way out of it.

A farce with some entertaining moments, the film is hampered by a general lack of finesse in the material and the acting. Making matters worse, Daniel Letterle as Ethan seems to be miscast. If he is actually gay himself, he’s simply not that convincing. (Ouch.)
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