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New York Trilogy: A Guide to Romantic Festival Flicks

Huffington Post Blogs the Tribeca Film Festival

I may have overdosed on romance after screening three romantic TFF movies. Perhaps it was screening them in quick succession that did it, or the languorous pace, or maybe it's just that the films featured some of the more conventional, formulaic characteristics of the genre. Don't get me wrong, I love a good beauty shot of New York City -- Central Park; the Empire State Building; the bustling streets of Chinatown; the Brooklyn Bridge; the Hudson River at sunrise; a brooding Dumbo; aerial views of Queens -- it's just that seeing them in three films over and over again, you start realizing that they are easy shots to fall back on. Or maybe I'm jaded from all those Sex and the City re-runs playing on TV.

But, maybe I'm being unduly cranky -- after all, New York has always been a magical backdrop for great romantic films -- Superman, Breakfast at Tiffanys, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, and so many others. And perhaps those of us who live here never really tire of seeing the city portrayed as a legitimate living, breathing character. We love our city, our city loves us. After all, there are multiple angles, shots, times of day, and vantage points from which to survey the human drama. The architecture, street life, and diverse neighborhoods change daily and that's why New York is so fascinating on film and to filmmakers.

Three of the latest love letters to New York come in the form of films making their Tribeca debut -- East Broadway, a Chinatown-Cinderella-meets-Prince Charming-by-duplicitous-means flick; Kiss Me Again, a trying-too-hard story of a young married couple whose threesome with another woman results in a wave of betrayal and angst; and New York Waiting, a slow-paced, quiet and sweet-but-spineless tale of following your heart to find true love (hint: it features the windswept top of the Empire State Building).

Each film feels somewhat derivative in parts, veering into an almost cartoonish portrayal of love and desire. The photography and art direction in Kiss Me Again offers exciting visual compositions, photo montages, and video sequences that feel more substantial than the film's storyline (and if you've seen the trailer, you can get an inkling). The Chinatown street scenes in East Broadway are crisp, aesthetically composed portraits that look like paintings; Chinatown never looked so good. In fact, it looked well-scrubbed. Of course some might wish for less composition and more photo-realism, but the shots went nicely with the movie's high-gloss patina, and I must give props to the filmmakers for highlighting the charms of a New York neighborhood that's under-represented in cinema that doesn't feature Jack Nicholson's sliced-up nose. The colors and textures in New York Waiting were so rich and so deep, adding to the painfully slow pace of the film. But perhaps it's a metaphor for the process of finding true love.

In East Broadway, directed by Fay Ann Lee, and written by Lee and Karen Rousso, Grace Tang (she names herself "Grace" after Grace Kelley), a Chinese American, wants to hobnob with the New York elite. At an opera gala, she is mistaken for the family that runs Shanghai Tang, a chic boutique on Madison Ave. Grace meets a handsome hunk who becomes taken with her (he is, of course, spoken for; she is, of course, dazzled). Prince Chaming, played by an Ashton Kutcher look-a-like, is the scion of a wealthy family that's acquiring an apparel company that runs sweat shops in Chinatown. And surprise, surprise: Grace's mother works as a seamstress in the shops.

Prince Charming work for the state Attorney General's office and has worked diligently to expose the sweat shops, much to the chagrin of his arrogant asshole of a father. Grace works in mergers and acquisitions for the firm that's putting the deal together for the dad and has the inside track on the takeover plans. Of course Grace supports the Prince's (Andrew's) work and ultimately helps him "out" his father.

The tale quickly descends into cartoon-like absurdity as mistaken identities collide predictably and implode. Actress Christine Baranski plays against her usual shrill, tough as nails character type as Prince Charming's mother -- it's shocking and odd to see how soft she can be. It's a good effort on a time-tested plotline, and most of the characters do come across likeably. That said, the film doesn't have any of the added complexity, sophistication, and nuance of great New York film romances like When Harry Met Sally or Annie Hall.

The same goes for Kiss Me Again, directed by William Tyler Smith, and written by Smith and J.D. Hoxter. This sweaty tale of lust and desire unspools as a cloying parody of the married couple that decides to spice things up in what seems an already active bedroom by inviting another woman into their relationship. The thing is, Julian, a cultural studies professor played to Golden Retriever-like perfection by Jeremy London, has already tapped the perfect lass for the role--one of his graduate students--the very alluring, mysterious, and earthy Elena. Trouble is, Julian's wife Chalice, a sexy thing in her own right, doesn't know about the prior arrangement with Elena and her husband's attraction. Chalice has no problem getting turned on by Elena and eventually becomes ensconced in her own affair with her, unbeknownst to Julian, who was initially only looking for a little extracurricular excitement. The arrangement eventually goes south, as is commonplace with these types of affairs. There is plenty of ealousy, betrayal, tears, screaming, running, and chasing in beautiful Manhattan and what looks like Dumbo.

Of course there are plenty of lusty sex scenes in Kiss Me Again -- woman on woman, woman with man, two women with man and lots of great photography and video, but it's all such a waste because the narrative is weak. The moments of betrayal come swiftly and predictably. The actors are wasted because the story isn't rich enough to sustain them. Julian's wiseass faculty friend is played by Darrell Hammond who is relegated to little more than backpatting "good luck brother" advice-giving. What a waste.

Finally, New York Waiting, directed and written by Joachim Hedén is a slow-moving (and the cynic in me thought at points kind of cheesy) meditation on the effects of lovesickness and wanderlust. The listen-to-your-heart gang might like this one because it's a sweet movie for the uncynical. It's also a great story for non-New Yorkers: It involves two people who are from elsewhere (Florida and San Francisco), and so put the city on a tourist's pedestal. It's nice to see the city through the wondering eyes of visitors, and that's a nice metaphor for how love stories set in New York speak to audiences from beyond the five boroughs.

The story is set into a meandering slow-motion when Sidney sends his former lover a plane ticket and a letter asking her to meet him at the top of the Empire State Building. (Haven't we heard this before?) While he sits composing a long love letter accompanied by Polaroid photos, he unexpectedly meets a cutie who's run away from her jerky boyfriend. They wander the gorgeous streets of New York in spring/summer (boy those greens are knockouts!), questioning their love lives and decisions while secretly wondering if they're falling in love with each other. One of the sweetest scenes in the film comes as Sidney and Amy lay on the oh, so green grass of Central Park talking quietly and wishing on a ladybug. Sweet, but overwhelmingly sappy and thus hard to take seriously.

New York Waiting is a quiet little movie that forces the viewer to slow down to a crawl. Unfortunately, I couldn't crawl -- what can I say, I'm a New Yorker.