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Many critics have pondered what makes a good film good, but what about the less glamorous conundrum of what makes a bad film bad? Tribeca's feature film competition offers an excellent case study. Some notes-toward,then (avoiding merely unremarkable entries like the Tunisian-French drama The Bookstore or Chinese pop-vid experiment Chicken Poets in favor of the exceptionally unfit):
1. The American Indie, Buy the Numbers. No surer testament to Sundance's poisonous trickle-down could be found than levelland, Clark Walker's Dogtown-does-Disney Channel coming-of-ager. Twentysomething actors portraying bleach-blond high school skateboarders "bro" their way through a dim echo of Larry Clark's Ken Park tadpoling plot. The Midwestern look is all strip malls and gas stationscopped Mike Mills, minus talent.
2. The Log Cabin Republican Syndrome, Writ Large. Apparently cast from the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog's Hebrew edition, the Israeli gay military romance Yossi & Jagger provides bitter proof that liberal and conservative politics are caving in on one another. The über-cute, coed platoon joshes through shenanigans as if their mountain outpost were a dorm room. The "enemy" is unseena pure, nonhuman force. The idea that the viewer is freethinking enough to swallow the pandering closet-case romance but unable to face political reality bespeaks the bad-faith hallmarks of the age of liberal empire.
3. Old Clichés Never Die, They Just Go Digital. No noir trick is too shopworn for Ramin Niami's Paris, a pathetic American-set DV policier featuring affectless former child star Chad Allen and Chinese pinup Bai Ling: cheap motels, gold-hearted whores, bitter ex-cops, a cash-stuffed duffel bag, and a smoky poker game that erupts in slo-mo gunfire.
4. Neofakeism: The New Neorealism. Italy birthed documentary-inflected neorealism as a form of of post-war arte povera. The Afghan-French Nilofar in the Rain attempts same with DV, to confusing, unsteady effect. So terrible it's fascinating, Fire Dancer is an Afghan-American identity pic completed after director Jawed Wassel's brutal killing in October 2001 (his producer has been charged with the murder). Fire Dancer struggles to articulate an ultra-low-budget 21st-century aesthetic, slapping together a hodgepodge of home-movie acting(-out), sub-Bollywood fantasy, soap-opera romance, and film-schooly Scorsese/Spike Lee nods. Yet, somehow, this global-pop ripoff conveys true heart and tough reality through the cheesiest means. It succeeds because, unlike much of this lineup, it knows it has a reason to exist. Ed Halter
Among the half-dozen restorations of great interest at Tribeca, UCLA historian Janet Bergstrom has assembled an invaluable program with "Murnau's 4 DevilsTraces of a Lost Film." All prints have vanished of F.W. Murnau's 1928 circus drama, the German director's second American film, made just after his masterpiece, Sunriseit's perhaps the most important lost film of all time. Bergstrom evokes this ghost movie through materials documenting its production and reception, stills, and stunning art-director sketches.
Victor Schertzinger's Redskin (1929), one of Paramount's last silents, is one of the rare movies of its period to offer a sympathetic portrait of Native Americans. This meticulous Library of Congress restoration brings out its prettiness, but can't avoid the somewhat artificial look of two-color Technicolor. The UCLA Archive's restoration of Joseph Mankiewicz's acerbic film à clef The Barefoot Contessa(1954) was not available for preview; nor was legendary UCLA archivist Robert Gitt's program, "Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter," composed of rushes and outtakes from the actor's sole directorial effort, a flop in 1955 but now regarded as an American classic. (Gitt's program is followed by the original film; Film Forum repeats the bill on May 8.)
Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), the spaghetti western that catapulted Clint Eastwood to stardom, was cut by 20 minutes for its release here. The restoration of an English-language version required some redubbing, and posed a problem for MGM's John Kirk, since Lee Van Cleef (the Bad) had died in 1989his lines were handled by a voice-over artist. (This version will also play Film Forum starting May 30.) Leone's most ambitious film, Once Upon a Time in America(1984), was an epic poem at its original 227-minute European release, and a bewildering shambles when cut by 90 minutes for U.S. releasethe shorter version seemed endless because the internal structure had been removed. This somber, hallucinatory reinvention of the American gangster movie will be shown as intended, uncut and on the big screen at Tribeca. Elliott Stein
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