The D Goes Downtown: gangsters, soccer hooligans invade NYC

by Caroline McKenzie | 4/25/05 5:00am

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series in which the Dartmouth will report on the proceedings at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The Tribeca Film Festival swung into full force this past Friday in lower Manhattan. Robert DeNiro held center court in the opening day press conference that officially kicked off the 11-day festival, while Martin Scorsese has been drawing large crowds to his panel on the works of Vittorio de Seta. However, it is of course the films that are the real stars of the show.

One of the highlights of this week was a unique documentary entitled "Czech Dream." The film is somewhat of an anomaly in that it is both comedic (a rare event for a documentary) and planned to a certain extent (which seems counterintuitive to the assumed purpose of documentary filmmaking). An experiment of sorts, it shows what happens when two Czech filmmakers, still in university and armed with a grant from the government, set out to dupe the Czech people by organizing a massive advertising campaign for a supermarket that doesn't exist.

Touted as "the largest consumer hoax the Czech Republic has ever seen," the two filmmakers, with their ruse, have made a tongue-in-cheek commentary on Czech values and capitalism in post-Soviet society. Flooding Prague streets with advertisements and pamphlets containing slogans like "Don't Go" or "Don't Rush," the filmmakers (Vit Klusak and Filip Remunda) drew a crowd of 4,280 people to the opening day of Czech Dream, their "hypermarket." Even though all the marketing discouraged people from going to their Czech Dream (other ads shouted "Don't Spend"), people were drawn to the fake opening, eager for bargain prices and a new capitalist phenomenon.

At the time of the prank, the Czech Republic was spending 70 million dollars on a campaign in order to encourage the Czech people to vote for joining the European Union. Thus, the film comments not only on consumerism in Eastern Europe, but also on the power of advertising that can convince the masses to make choices without thinking about what's behind the ads (which, in the case of Czech Dream, was nothing).

Although consumerism and the global economy sound like words more suited to that elementary econ class during which one falls asleep, the film proves to be downright hilarious and thought-provoking at the same time. It's hard not to laugh at an advertising scheme as ludicrous as this one, which includes a catchy jingle with children's choirs singing lines like "Get a loan and scream / I want to fulfill my dream." But one disgruntled customer makes perhaps the most profound statement of the film after discovering that the Czech Dream was just a faade. When asked what lesson he learned from this venture, he answers, "A lesson? Don't believe filmmakers."

Another big film this week is "Layer Cake," which was released last year in England, and is holding its New York premiere during the festival. The film follows a suave, highly successful London drug peddler who is -- surprise, surprise -- looking forward to retiring from the criminal life to his mountains of cash and cocaine. Called back for one final job, he not only has to purchase and distribute a fortune's worth of stolen ecstasy pills from an unprofessional Cockney low-life, but also must recover the missing junkie daughter of a major player in the London drug rings. This leads to a series of double-crosses, near-escapes and skeezy drug deals as the characters blaze an action-packed trail across England.

Fans of "Mr. Madonna" expecting something in the vein of "Snatch" or "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" will be sorely disappointed. Director Matthew Vaughn rarely captures the hilarity that characterizes Ritchie's quirky Cockney characters. Furthermore, just as the time has come for Chinese film to move past the slo-mo aesthetic of the fight scenes in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," British cinema should also halt its excessive focus on the London geeza and the seedy world of drug dealing. Unable to resist pigeonholing itself with gangster-film clichs, Vaughn's film, although sporting moments of stylistic innovation, mostly seems like its material has been recycled from other, better movies. "Layer Cake" ends up being slick but shallow; forget the layers, because the film never gets deeper than the icing.

Interestingly, another film about the British Isles provides a different view of a similar demographic -- the football (soccer) hooligan. A new film starring Elijah Wood, the aptly titled "Hooligans" is about Matt, an American ("Yank") journalism student who gets kicked out of Harvard when his big-shot roommate fingers him for the cocaine found in their dorm room. Matt runs off to England where his sister is living and gets involved with her brother-in-law Pete, the leader of the hooligan supporters of West Ham United. Matt gets caught up in the fast-paced and vicious lifestyle of Pete and the other chavs, but must reconsider his choice when the hooligan scene puts his family in danger.

In a time when a Nick Hornby novel about the game is remolded into a baseball-championing flick for American consumption (starring Jimmy Fallon nonetheless), it is a pleasure for every footie fan to see a film that does not dismiss football culture just because Americans "don't get it." Football hooliganism and racism is a serious issue in Europe, even if America chooses to ignore the sport entirely. In trying to expose stateside audiences to a legitimate problem, "Hooligans" becomes a brave and timely venture.

Yet while the concept is novel, the storyline is anything but; the plot's trajectory can be seen all the way from the other end of the pitch. Add to this Elijah Wood's typically icy performance, and it all nearly overshadows the film's better intentions. In order to make the film palatable to Americans, it unfortunately becomes just another Hollywood product. Luckily, Brit actor Charlie Hunnam (the star of 2002's underappreciated "Nicholas Nickleby") steals the show and makes the film at least enjoyable to watch.

Brit culture was saved by "It's All Gone Pete Tong," a fake documentary about deaf DJ Frankie Wilde that, while not exactly revelatory, was at least good for a laugh. A semibiographical account of Wilde's life, the filmmakers obviously took a few creative liberties, such as when dealing with his drug-addled hallucinations of six-foot-tall coke badgers. The coke badgers are likely as real as Czech "ultramarkets" and American journalists-turned-football thugs -- which is to say, not at all. Then again, who ever believed filmmakers anyway?