Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Festival Preview

I’ve covered smaller, regional festivals before, but this is the first time I’ll be covering an event as massive as New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. The buzz was that the festival was “scaling back” this year, but it looks plenty ambitious to me—a total of 86 films, narrative and experimental and nonfiction efforts from the world over.

TFF officially kicks off tonight with an opening night screening of Woody Allen’s latest, Whatever Works, starring Larry David (that’s one of my most-anticipated pictures of the year, but I’m not important enough to pull a seat at that one—“ we are unable to accommodate your request to attend the premiere due to limited tickets” goes my official rejection email, boo). My current festival game plan is to take in 31 films over the 11 days of the fest, starting tomorrow; I also saw five festival films at pre-fest screenings (more on those later). Here’s how my festival coverage for DVD Talk will work: I’ll do mobile updates during the day, blogging quick impressions of the films I see. Each evening, I’ll post a more thorough nightly update, with at least a couple of paragraphs on the films and events of the day. So check back for updates, or “follow” me, or however the hell this technology works.

Here are a few of the films I’m most anticipating:

- Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, a low-budget, low-tech, experimental picture starring porn star Sasha Grey as a sought-after Manhattan escort. Soderbergh is one of my two or three favorite working filmmakers, and word from the early Sundance screening is that it is a fascinating film.

- Spike Lee is another director whose work I’ll always check out, and he has two films screening at Tribeca this year. There’s no press screening for his performance film of the Broadway show Passing Strange, but I am looking forward to seeing his documentary Kobe Doin’ Work, which uses a body mic and multiple cameras to document a Lakers/Spurs game—or, a day at the office for the superstar athlete.

- This Film Is Not Yet Rated was one of the most daringly entertaining docs in recent memory, and its director Kirby Dick will premiere his latest, Outrage, an examination of the hypocrisy of closeted lawmakers who campaign against the gay community.

- Carlos Cuaron co-wrote Y Tu Mama Tambien with his brother, director Alphonso Cuaron. Now he reunites that film’s stars, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, for his feature directorial debut. If it’s half as good as their previous collaboration, it’ll be one of the best films of the fest. No pressure, dudes.

- The Polish Brothers consistently make interesting pictures (Twin Falls Idaho was odd and unforgettable, and I maintain that The Astronaut Farmer was highly underrated), and they’ve assembled a peculiar but intriguing cast (Winona Ryder, Sean Astin, Hillary Duff, Chevy Chase, Jon Cryer) for their latest, the comedy Stay Cool.

-Speaking of good casts, first-time director Jake Goldenberger has Thomas Haden Church, Melissa Leo, Pruitt Taylor Vince, M. Emmet Walsh, and Elisabeth Shue in the thriller Don McKay.

- I’m also intrigued by Julio DePietro’s The Good Guy, although it could have more to do with my crush on Alexis Bledel than I’d care to admit.

- The strange and horrible death of writer/director Adrienne Shelly made her final film Waitress especially poignant, and now that picture’s co-star Cheryl Hines directs Serious Moonlight, one of Shelly’s unproduced screenplays. Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton star (oh lookie, it’s a French Kiss reunion!), along with the lovely Kristen Bell.

- Moon, directed by Duncan Jones, has a terrific trailer and an always-reliable leading man (Sam Rockwell); it’s also a character study by way of sci-fi thriller, which is a subgenre I’ll always perk up for.

Other films of interest include Departures, this year’s Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language film; the music documentaries Soul Power and Burning Down The House: The Story of CBGB; and the circumcision documentary (no kidding) Partly Private.  I won’t be getting much sleep over this week and a half, and subsisting on a lot of bananas and Cheez-It. But I’ll be seeing some movies. That’s for damn sure.

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Of the films I saw in advance, the best of the bunch was Armondo Iannucci’s In The Loop. It’s a wickedly funny political satire, the kind of smart and tart, take-no-prisoners mockery that seldom makes it to screens intact (the last one I can think of, at least that was this skillfully done, was Wag The Dog). Director Iannucci and his crew of four credited screenwriters (loosely expanding their BBC series The Thick of It) have constructed an admirably zippy picture—it’s paced within an inch of its life—where the punch lines are beautifully well-aimed but characterizations are never sacrificed for the easy laugh.

The transatlantic tale is centered on the run-up to an invasion and war; the U.S. is chomping at the bit, the Brits are more hesitant, and the word “Iraq” is never uttered once in the film, but it doesn’t have to be.  In general, this very British film and its attitudes about American power, both political and military, are right on the money; one character, noting the youth of our nation’s military advisors, says Washington is "like Bugsy Malone but with real guns.” James Gandolfini, as the general who is against the war (mostly), is very good in a very different kind of role than we’re used to. Anna Chlumsky (remember her? From the My Girl movies?) is flat-out terrific here, but the scene-stealer is Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the British Director of Communications. I’ve often said that good swearing is an art form, and if that’s so, Capaldi is a Monet; he paints beautifully with his toxic, inventively vulgar dialogue.

You’ll have such a good time with In The Loop, you’ll barely notice that it peters out towards the end (the film kind of mumbles away when it’s over instead of putting a period on the end of it). The dialogue pops—it’s snappy, literate, and funny as shit—and the film’s wit is so adroit, by the third act they’re getting laughs with the edits. It’s filled to the brim with accomplished performances by its stellar ensemble cast and filled with enough throwaway moments and quotable lines for any three comedies, with a few zingers left over. Bottom line, In The Loop is the first must-see picture of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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Bette Gordon’s 1983 film Variety is being presented as part of the “Restored/Rediscovered” program; it’s an interesting film, if not a successful one. It mostly works as a curio, an artifact of a very different time in a very different New York City. Director Gordon (and cinematographers Tom DiCillo and John Foster) didn’t realize it at the time, but their film has survived as a representation of the seedier Times Square of the early 80s-- the scenes have a rough, grimy, inhabited quality, and for much of the first hour, we’re intrigued enough by the scenery and the minimalist style that we forgive the film its clunkiness.

It’s also worth seeing for the work of a preposterously young Luis Guzman, making his second film appearance; he’s as energetic as ever, and the film gets a shot of adrenaline every time he turns up, even if he’s not quite as confident an actor as he would become. John Lurie’s music is also a bright spot, particularly his brassy, big-city cues that start to pop up when Sandy McLeod’s Christine starts tailing a mysterious businessman who frequents the porno theatre where she sells tickets. Unfortunately, these scenes mark the beginning of the end for the narrative. The film goes slack precisely when it needs to tighten up, degenerating into a shambling series of vignettes, some of them deathly dull, some of them missing their payoffs entirely.

I’m sure they thought they were making some kind of commentary on voyeurism, but if they were, it only plays in the abstract; up there, on the screen, the movie is dying, and if they’re trying to dramatize how she’s lost control of her life, they’ve done it by losing control of their film. And don’t even ask me what the hell’s going on with her relationship with Will Patton’s character. Or with the ending, for that matter; McLeod disappears after delivering her worst dialogue reading of the film, and then we’re left with an ending so ambiguous it makes No Country For Old Men look like a Garry Marshall movie. I’m all for an open ending, but this one looks like they ran out of money before they could film one. Variety is an interesting film, particularly for New Yorkers on the lookout for documents of their city’s skuzzier past. But from a storytelling standpoint, it’s kind of a mess.

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Full-on coverage starts tomorrow, with notes on Black Dynamite, An Englishman In New York, The Swimsuit Issue, Seven Minutes in Heaven, and Rudo y Cursi. 

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