Tribeca Preview

25 movies that intrigued, annoyed, and greatly pleased our fest-happy critics

This year's Tribeca Film Festival (April 25–May 6) opens with earth mother Al Gore and his eco-themed shorts, ends with Central Park drapists Christo and Jean-Claude (Albert Maysles's The Gates), and kicks off the summer blockbuster season early with Spidey Fever In between there's a whole lot of, umm, other stuff, including some panel thingy with Debra Messing, a chat with Today show news (!) correspondent Tiki Barber, and the Goo Goo Dolls live at the Verizon Wireless lounge. But do not let the above distract you from what's really going on: 159 features and 87 shorts, many of which the Voice's film critics were excited to preview, thereby providing you with this 25-film overview of what lies ahead.

For more info: tribecafilmfestival.org

Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother
Sister . . . brother . . . sister . . . brother . . . she's my sister andmy brother! That pretty much sums up this weirdly appealing documentary, which follows Alexis Arquette—the semi-famous scion of a semi-famous Hollywood family—as he (now she) prepares for a sex-change operation. Our mercurial subject cycles between melancholy and flamboyance: At times she is reflective about her gender trouble; at times she retreats into a shell of drag-queen bitchery. The scariest scenes come when directors Matthew Barbato and Nikki Parrott juxtapose home videos of Alexis as a happy teenager with diary-style footage of her today, a drug-addled blonde who vacantly asks the camera, "Is there any celebrities in space?" JULIA WALLACE

Black Sheep
Or: Mutton Chomps. Genetically tweaked and dangerously pissed-off sheep turn rabid in this cheeky, campy Kiwi gorefest, loosely modeled by writer- director Jonathan King on countryman Peter Jackson's early dead/alive puppet gross-outs. Subtext—indeed, substance—is nonexistent, but King's sense of fun is as infectious as the disease of his zombie sheep; sharp-fanged stuffed animals tossed from offscreen toward the jugulars of various deserving victims. Bitten humans turn sheepish, too, which allows the FX department to uncork some old-school, American Werewolf–style flesh-ripping transformations. Karo syrup abounds, as does the irresistible spirit of juvenilia; the last few gags in particular are a gas. ROB NELSON

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe
Recent biodocs have an unfortunate tendency towards desperate myth- ologizing ("Though today forgotten, so-and-so changed history"); this clips-and-interviews portrait of late collector-curator Sam Wagstaff is no exception, ornamented with breathlessly overwrought narration. But Wagstaff's life nevertheless holds up as the doc makes a case for his primary influence on the rise of minimalism and the market for vintage photography. His relationship with the much younger Mapplethorpe—an only-in–New York mixture of love, lust, mentorship, mutual inspiration, and careerism—provides the tale's fascinating core, much of it told through the reminiscences of close friend Patti Smith. ED HALTER

Bomb It
The first 15 minutes of the documentary Bomb Itare a retread of the seminal 1983 New York City graffiti doc Style Wars, but once director Jon Reiss leaves the gritty streets of late-1970s New York, his film begins to pave its own way. Bomb Itfollows graffiti artists all over the world, most poignantly in the garbage-strewn shanty towns of São Paulo and Cape Town. In developed nations, graffiti is treated as desecration or extravagance, but in bleak corners of the earth, wall art is a true political statement. JESSICA GROSE

Half Moon
Bahman Ghobadi, Dogpatch fabulist and dean of Iranian Kurdish cinema, leads another magical mystery tour through his mountainous homeland—populated, per usual, by a small army of cute urchins, irascible wives, and garrulously self-important old goats. One of the latter, a renowned Kurdish musician named Mamo, visits a village where 1,334 women singers have been exiled and attempts to smuggle one into Iraq for a concert with him and his 10 sons. The music is, as always, terrific; the overall ethno-funkiness brings Ghobadi within hailing distance of such folk cinema maestros as Alexandr Dovzhenko and Sergei Parajanov. J. HOBERMAN

The Hammer
A surprisingly charming Adam Carolla anchors this likable comedy from the director and producer-star of Kissing Jessica Stein, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld and Heather Juergensen. Carolla plays Jerry Ferro, an out-of-work carpenter who rediscovers his talents as a boxer. The schlubby former host of The Man Showmaintains a breezy on-screen persona that belies the hard work it surely took to become such a convincing pugilist (check out those skills on the jump rope!). The ending is predictable, but you can't beat that ironic "Eye of the Tiger" montage for pure comic gold. MATT SINGER

In the Beginning Was the Image: Conversations With Peter Whitehead
Experimental documentarian, political radical, jet-setting '60s hobnobber, and world-class falconer to Saudi royalty (!), British filmmaker Peter Whitehead is an unsung visionary of a breed only the Age of Aquarius could have produced. This lengthy two-part extended interview with Whitehead at times retraces its own steps, but director Paul Cronin's strategy of allowing Whitehead to expostulate freely on his life and philosophy nevertheless pays off, providing an entrée into an artist's mind at a level of detail rarely achieved outside of written biography. E.H.

The King of Kong
Seth Gordon's astonishingly good doc, featuring 25-year Donkey Kong champ Billy Mitchell, is as much about the perils of hubris as it is the price of heartbreak. Only one man has emerged since 1982 to challenge Mitchell: Steve Wiebe, a family man whose life thus far has been defined by his failures. All he's got going for him are a patient wife, a Donkey Kong machine, and the ability to beat every flaming barrel Kong throws his way. When Wiebe unseats Mitchell, the former No. 1 conspires against the upstart; Gordon's movie would play like dark comedy were there not such cruelty at its core. ROBERT WILONSKY

The Letter That Was Never Sent
Winner of the top prize at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, Mikhail Kalatozov's revelatory World War II drama The Cranes Are Flying was something of a cultural Sputnik—one of the first post-Stalin Soviet films to circle the globe. "One Crane does not make a summer," Time sniffed, but Kalatozov and his brilliant cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky followed up in 1959 with an equally convulsive film, The Letter That Was Never Sent. The story of geologists battling nature in the Siberian wilderness provided the pretext for an even more visually extravagant, almost hallucinatory spectacle. J.H.

Making Of
While a confused 25-year-old breakdancer named Bahta evades the police and joins a group of Islamic fundamentalists, the actor who plays Bahta (Lotfi Ebdelli) battles director Nouri Bouzid for the right to decide the fate of the character. The result is sort of like Richard Rush's The Stunt Man recast as a debate about the ethics and morality of storytelling. Bouzid uses his unconventional structure to cleverly play his own devil's advocate: When Bouzid tells Ebdelli, "With this film, I want to show how a young man like you can be manipulated," he could be referring to Bahta's actions or his own. M.S.

My Father My Lord
My Father My Lordis not a happy movie or a particularly subtle one: It draws a grim parallel between Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and a modern Israeli rabbi's devotion to God at the expense of his wife and son. A series of tense religious scenes culminates in tragedy during a family vacation to the Dead Sea (symbolism duly noted). Still, director David Volach manages to capture the fumbling wonder of a child's world as young Menachem (Eilan Grife) struggles to put on his shoes, save a dying fish, and understand his father. J.W.

Nobel Son
Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman), world-renowned chemist and asshole, has just won the Nobel Prize, to his colleagues' chagrin. Meanwhile, his regrettably named son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) gets by on $35 a week while he plugs away at his thesis on cannibalism. Eli hates Barkley. Barkley hates Eli. So when Barkley is kidnapped just as his father is leaving for Stockholm, who pays the ransom? Throw an obsessive- compulsive Danny DeVito and a criminally insane Eliza Dushku into the mix, and this frenetic, ungainly L.A. story becomes what might once have been called "a madcap romp." J.W.

The Optimists
Goran Paskaljevic takes a page from Voltaire's book and gives us five inter- locking vignettes of Serbian men who are convinced that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Taken as a whole, the film paints a damning picture of modern Serbia as a ship of fools. Each of its parts, though, is kind to its characters, who range from a blind girl dreaming of a miracle cure to a chubby boy whose hobby is slaughtering pigs. Luckily, Paskaljevic complements his sense of pathos with a sense of humor, and every scene is ripe with both. J.W.

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
This admiring documentary about ur-folkie Pete Seeger is as dependably good as its subject. Everyone's here to pay him tribute: Dylan, Springsteen, Baez—and even, inexplicably, Bill Cosby. The mid-century folk revival may seem quaint in retrospect—all those middle-class teenagers learning to play "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" on their brand-new banjos—but director Jim Brown does a nice job of showing its strong influence on progressive politics. Seeger's goal, as he puts it, was "to build a singing labor movement," and his success in harnessing the power of song to achieve social change will be his most enduring legacy. J.W.

Playing the Victim
The title sums it up nicely: The police hire Valya (Yuri Chursin) to re-enact alleged crimes, while a hilariously inept collection of Moscow detectives and deputies film the incident in Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov's feature entry. Alternating with the restagings are scenes of Valya's family life, which are loosely based on Hamlet; he lives in a dank apartment with his blowsy mother and his dead father's brother. Chursin's got screen presence, but the interplay between Valya's darkly funny work life and patently miserable home life doesn't quite work—it's a movie in search of a tone. J.G.

The Polymath, or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman
Author, critic, academic, and occasional Wonder Woman scribe Samuel R. Delany believes that sexuality belongs in public discourse, so director Fred Barney Taylor obliges by crafting a documentary about Delany in which the writer's many literary accomplishments share the spotlight with his sexual ones: A scene about one of Delany's celebrated novels, for example, might segue into a recollection of a night spent cruising old St. Marks Place. Clearly, Delany's claim that he's a very dull, ordinary person is false modesty—how many other Hugo Award winners have slept with 50,000 people? M.S.

Still Life
A film about persistence and the passage of time, Jia Zhangke's Still Lifefinds a miner returning to a Yangtze town looking for his ex-wife only to discover its houses swallowed by water and its buildings primed for demolition. When he grows weary of searching, the man looks upward to witness a light (an alien spaceship, perhaps?) darting across the sky. Cue fierce rhetorical shift! Across the expansive landscape, a woman sees the craft too but barely bats an eye; she's distracted, after all, also searching for a missing spouse. For those who thought The World was not enough, Zhangke's latest represents progress. ED GONZALEZ

Taxi to the Dark Side
Director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) uses the tragic story of a taxi driver named Dilawar, who was wrongfully incarcerated and later murdered by American forces in Afghanistan, as a microcosm for the War on Terror's culture of torture. As the evidence piles up and his investigation widens to include similarly infuriating abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, Gibney's powerful documentary quickly progresses from chilling to alarming to utterly terrifying. M.S.

This Is England
A nostalgic but bitter trip through Mrs. Thatcher's Britain, from the highs (punk rock!) to the lows (strikes, unemployment, you name it). Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is 10 and miserable after his father's death in the Falklands. He falls in with a group of multicultural, weirdly touchy-feely skinheads, and has a grand old time listening to ska and committing minor acts of vandalism. But when a former member of the gang comes back from jail full of racist rage, the charmed circle is broken, and Shaun has to figure out what it really means to be English in 1983. J.W.

Times and Winds
A quiet depiction of middle-of-nowhere Turkey, seen through the eyes of a group of tweens who are strikingly similar to their American counterparts: They sneak out of their houses at night—although instead of hanging out on street corners or toilet-papering the neighborhood, these pre-teens sit on a cliff—and struggle with growing sexuality and parental demands. (One boy prays every night for his critical father, an imam, to die: "Maybe he'll fall from the minaret!") But despite these everyteen themes, the rhythms of their lives are uniquely Turkish, circumscribed by the lonely landscape and punctuated by calls to prayer. J.W.

Tuya's Marriage
So many sheep! They undulate across the screen like water in this Mongolian tragicomedy, which won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlinale. Director Wang Quanan casts a meditative, almost ethnographic eye on Tuya (Yu Nan), a rural shepherdess who tries to wring a living out of the unforgiving steppes. Her saintly, paralyzed husband can't do much to help her, and when Tuya, too, suffers a debilitating injury, she reluctantly divorces him and interviews a parade of suitors eager to take his place. Her resourcefulness in the face of chronic male incompetence is a delight. J.W.

A Walk Into the Sea
Was Andy Warhol a bottom? A Walk Into the Sea brings us closer to the horrible truth. Pity we know less about Warhol's onetime boyfriend and undiscovered avant-gardist Danny Williams, who may or may not have drowned in the summer of '66. Forty years later, Williams's niece Esther Robinson tries to shed light on the man's abbreviated life, providing what may be the toothiest exposé yet into the soul-sucking modus operandi of Warhol's Factory. The filmmaker never knew her uncle, but she comes to understand him as something of a kindred spirit of Edie Sedgwick—which is to say, a better person than Warhol. E.G.

West 32nd
Some clunky exposition and an ill-advised action-heavy finale aside, director Michael Kang's second feature is a fine piece of filmmaking, equal parts ethnography and mob story. Harold and Kumar's John Cho plays a power-hungry young attorney who takes on a pro bono case and is subsequently seduced by the criminal underworld he discovers in New York City's Koreatown. The film's best moments examine the things that get lost, sometimes intentionally, in translation: One riveting scene, where Cho interviews a witness through a translator with selfish motives, matches anything in Hitchcock's oeuvre for sheer suspense. M.S.

The Workshop
When Marvin Gaye sang about sexual healing, he likely never imagined a place like "personal life coach" Paul Lowe's mountain retreat, where successful yuppies deal with their midlife crises through naked hot-tubbing and late-night orgies. Getting in touch with yourself, it seems, most fundamentally involves touching lots of others first. Director Jamie Morgan's documentary would be a great work of satire if only he were in on the joke. Instead, he's as caught up in Lowe's world as are the nude subjects. M.S.

The Year My Parents Went on Vacation
São Paulo, 1970. Pelé is playing in the World Cup, Brazil is under the rule of a military junta, and Mauro (Michel Joelsas), the young son of leftist dissidents, is dropped off to stay with his Jewish immigrant grandfather while his parents go on an underground "vacation." A series of unfortunate events leaves Mauro effectively orphaned, intermittently cared for by residents of his grandfather's Yiddish-speaking apartment complex, who insist on calling him Moishele. Everyone is football-mad here, even the rabbi, and the sport becomes a metaphor for both Brazil's national struggle and Mauro's personal one to retain his identity in a new home. J.W.

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