Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 3

Documentarian Kirby Dick is a rabble-rouser, and an unapologetic one. His last film, the ridiculously entertaining 2006 nose-thumber This Film Is Not Yet Rated, was an expose of the hypocrisy and lack of transparency in the MPAA rating system, and included the disclosure of the secret members of that organization’s ratings board. He goes a step further in his new film, Outrage (or, as it is cleverly designed in the title sequence, Out Rage), which freely and openly discusses the rumors of homosexuality that have long swirled around several prominent lawmakers.

Those disclosures are certainly what will get the most attention in the coverage of Outrage, but the movie is about much, much more than that. Dick sets the stakes high at the beginning of the film, when he (or the text on his screen, anyway) alleges a “brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy” that has kept gay lawmakers in the closet and has kept the media from investigating why it is that the very same men who are reportedly in the closet work so very hard to advance the anti-gay agenda. “There is a right to privacy,” notes openly gay Representative Barney Frank early in the film, “but not a right to hypocrisy.”

“Everyone loves a good outing,” notes a commentator in the film, and while this is probably true (these allegations and the examination of them is fascinating), Dick doesn’t make light of what he’s doing. He spends a good deal of the film with Mike Rogers, the blogger who has investigated and outed several of these politicians, and gives voice to those who object to this practice. And Dick isn’t just making a gossipy whisper-fest. He doesn’t short the themes of sexual identity and the importance of coming to terms with one’s own self—particularly when denying that can hurt so many others. It is here that the participation of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevy is so valuable; he talks about living a double-life and draws parallels to the “spinning” of politics and of one’s own personal life. Dick ingeniously intercuts this with particularly potent interviews and news images of Florida Governor Charlie Crist and his campaign girlfriend (she doesn’t go on camera, but her off-camera statement about Dick’s line of inquiry is quite the bombshell).


Outrage is beautifully constructed; the director-as-investigator motif used (more literally) in This Film serves Dick well again, particularly when he tracks down the (seemingly credible) sources for many of the rumors. Archival footage, stills, and interviews are convincingly assembled to make Dick’s case, which becomes more persuasive and bitter as the film draws to a close. It’s not as much ballsy fun as This Film, primarily because the more serious subject matter doesn’t allow as many opportunities for snarky bomb-tossing (though I could all but hear Dick rubbing his hands gleefully as he uses the on-screen text “Now, here’s where it gets interesting” in a key moment). But this is a more important film—it’s funny, yes, but it’s also angrier and timelier, and with a vital, imperative story to tell.


* * *


So here’s an oddity. Don McKay is a peculiar hybrid of thriller, black comedy, small-town drama, and who knows what else, pitched at an odd angle that resembles no reality I recognized, either in life or in other movies. It’s so strange, in fact, that I half-wonder if writer/director Jake Goldberger was trying to remove himself from the conventions of storytelling entirely, and stake out a claim in the surreal. I’ve never seen a film quite like it, though I can’t tell you if that’s a good or bad thing.

From the opening passages, something isn’t quite right—the dialogue is too deliberately stylized, and the timing is just a little off, a little sprung. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the picture takes an unexpectedly grisly turn (which I won’t reveal here). Then, for the bulk of the second act, Goldberger basically tries to see how long the movie can subsist purely on dread, atmosphere, and strangeness. We keep asking questions that the movie doesn’t answer, even when the main character asks them. Things get particularly daft between leads Thomas Haden Church and Elisabeth Shue—they’re saying all of these odd things to each other (some of the dialogue scenes are little more than exchanges of non-sequitors), and sometimes they say them seriously, and sometimes not, and are they buying into this? Are we supposed to? Just what the hell is going on in this movie?

When we finally find out, when we get the first of the film’s big reveals, it’s frankly kind of lame—all that weirdness was for this? It’s certainly a relief for the actors, though, who are finally freed from being willfully oblique, so they all start vamping it up and acting like they’re in a smoky B-movie. I had just about given up on the movie, but then it got to its climax, which plays like a deliriously freewheeling improvisation, both for the characters and the actors. The movie’s way off the rails by this point, but that sequence is crazily entertaining in its own strange, half-brutal and half-funny, universe-onto-itself kind of way (I was strangely reminded of some of DePalma’s funnier climaxes). For about five minutes, it feels like, everyone—the actors, the writer, the director (yes, I know they’re the same person, but the movie doesn’t always play that way), and the audience—are on the same page.

Goldberger goes and blows it it with another turn that’s pure nonsense, the kind of head-scratching hokum that may not be a cheat, technically, but sure feels like one. So what are we left with? I’m honestly not sure. I can’t fully endorse or recommend Don McKay—it’s too messy and all-over-the-place for that—but it certainly isn’t boring. I’ll give it that much.


* * *


“It was the music that created a sense of solidarity.” Those words come early in Soundtrack for a Revolution, and they form the somewhat tenuous connection between the two halves of Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s film. Like Standing in the Shadows of Motown, it is a hybrid of historical documentary and modern performance film, with icons like Julian Bond, Ambassador Andrew Young, and Congressman John Lewis telling the story of the civil rights movement while performers like John Legend, The Roots, and Blind Boys of Alabama perform the songs that defined the time. They don’t quite manage to pull it all together—the documentary segments barely skim the surface of this story, while the music is hit and miss—but it is a passionate film nonetheless.

Its streamlined approach to the history of the civil rights movement sometimes amounts to a “greatest hits” approach, with only the most familiar signposts of the era visited, and then sometimes only briefly. The only trouble is that so much of this material has been covered, with greater depth and insight, in countless other, better documentaries, from Eyes on the Prize to 4 Little Girls to Tom Brokaw’s excellent King TV doc last year. Much of the archival footage is powerful (I’ll never get numb to that shocking film of Bloody Sunday), but it’s almost entirely clips we’ve seen countless times before.


The film’s other flaw is that it can’t quite tie its theme into the narrative in a compelling way; the idea of telling the story through the music seems like an afterthought, an obligation to attend to whether it is organic or not, and the new musical performances sometimes stop the movie cold. Joss Stone, for instance, is a fine singer and an able performer, but her take on “Eyes on the Prize” is all wrong; she performs it like some kind of a slinky sex kitten, and her over-singing approaches Mariah Carey territory. Other songs play stronger—The Roots’ rendition of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” is evocative and brilliant (seriously, what can’t these guys do?), while John Legend’s rich, pure voice is exactly the right one to accompany the footage of Dr. King’s funeral procession.

There’s not much in Soundtrack for a Revolution that’s new to those who have studied the period or have seen other, superior docs on the movement. But its accessibility and brevity, and the hook of the performances, could make it an easier sell to younger and less informed audiences. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up playing in a lot of high school history classes—and let’s be honest, that’s not a bad fate for a documentary these days.



* * *


On the menu for tomorrow: the Cheryl Hines-directed dramedy Serious Moonlight, the documentary Con Artist, and the horror parody Hysterical Psycho.

Don Mckay

Um... I'm gonna have to get back to you on this one. Yeah.

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Outrage

This movie is a fucking flamethrower--angry, smart, wickedly funny. A
must-see.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 2

“That sucked,” says Henry McCarthy (Mark Polish) about twenty minutes into Stay Cool, which is a funny coincidence, because I said the same thing when the movie ended an hour and a half later. This is the sixth film from the Polish brothers (Mark wrote and stars, Michael directs), whose earlier films include the odd and fascinating Twin Falls Idaho and the lovely Astronaut Farmer, so its poor quality is all the more surprising. According to imdb, it was shot back-to-back with their currently-unreleased fifth film, Manure; I’m not sure if they were just worn out from the quick turnaround, but however you slice it, I think they gave that title to the wrong movie.

Stay Cool (not to be confused with the unfortunate Elmore Leonard sequel Be Cool) concerns Henry, a New York City writer who returns to his home town to give the commencement speech at his high school. His rekindled relationship with a high school crush (Winona Ryder) is the primary thrust of the movie, and while Polish and Ryder are likable enough (though we are getting pretty much the same performance out of her in every film these days), much of their dialogue is tepid and clunky.

But the film’s worst element, far and away, is the inclusion of Henry’s two best high school buddies. Sean Astin plays a mincing, preening, hairdressing, catty gay friend who calls himself “Big Girl”, while Josh Holloway is a mulletted, bearded tattoo artist. They’re like sitcom caricatures, flat and underdeveloped, ideas instead of people. Their interactions are forced, their dialogue is atrocious, the laugh lines land with a loud thud, and the scene late in the film where they sing Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It” at an IHOP is so painful, I wanted to crawl under my seat.

Much to my shock, the one supporting performance that really sings is that of Hilary Duff, who plays a high school senior with a crush on Henry (nice when you can write yourself a role where both Winona Ryder and Hilary Duff want to get in your pants) who talks him into taking her to the prom. Duff is a bubbly, zippy force of life, and the movie invariably perks up when she slinks into it. Frankly, you know you’re movie is in trouble when the secondary romance is more interesting than the primary one; there’s a whole other, better movie hinted at when he tells her, sadly, “you haven’t even been through your Led Zeppelin phase,” especially if she had a less predictable response.

Stay Cool has some good ideas, to be sure. But the characters are poorly developed and the dialogue is terrible; it plays like a first draft that’s in dire need of a rewrite. The Polish brothers have made good movies before, and I have no doubt that they will again. But this time, they’ve made a very bad film.


* * *


“We are here for the encoffment,” they say when they arrive. The two men burn their incense as they clean the dead body in a ritualistic fashion, in order to “prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure.” It is their job, and they take it very seriously; they are there for both the family and the deceased, as a kind of buffer that soaks up their grief while respecting the dead. It’s not a job that Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) would have sought out (he sees that ad for an agent of “departures” and thinks it’s for a job at a travel agency), but it becomes honorable in his eyes, though perhaps not in everyone else’s.

The story of Daigo’s journey is told in Departures, which pulled a big upset by beating out Waltz with Bashir and The Class for the Best Foreign Language Film award at this year’s Oscars. From that strange, fascinating opening scene, director Yojiro Takita weaves a tale that is by turns odd, dryly funny, and deeply moving.

It also takes too long to get going and relies too heavily on voice-over narration; as is often the case with Japanese cinema, you have to choose to give yourself over to the storytelling style and the deliberate pace, which require some getting used to. I’ll confess that there was a long stretch in the middle of the picture where I wasn’t sure where it was going, if anywhere; there are scenes and episodes that seem extraneous, until they’re calmly pulled together in the third act.

Director Takita is a terrific visualist; his compositions have a marvelous symmetry, and a scene where Daigo plays his cello (melding into a series of childhood memories) has some knockout imagery. But what pulls the film together is Takita’s mastery of tone, and his patience. Departures is a quiet, measured picture, somewhat clinical in its opening passages. But that gives way to the tremendous emotion of its closing sequences, and that final scene is a wrecker.


* * *


Back tomorrow with notes on Soundtrack for a Revolution, Don McKay, and one of my most anticipated films of the festival, Kirby Dick’s new documentary Outrage.

Departures

Lotta sniffles by the end of this one-- and don't forget, this is a crowd of hardened "P&I". The deliberate pace takes some getting used to, but it's worth the effort. A moving, graceful picture.

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Stay Cool

So this is one of the flicks I was most looking forward to... and boy is it not good. Bad dialogue, thin characters (seriously, Sean Astin's mincing queen is one of the worst performances you'll see in this lifetime, much less this festival), and painfully, painfully unfunny.

You know who's great in it though? Hilary Duff. Seriously.

Tribeca Report No. 1

It’s exciting to be at a film festival. Everyone’s got their passes on their necklaces, and they’re carrying around their festival guides and their notebooks and their bottled waters, and there are volunteers to tell you where the bathrooms are, and everyone’s just so damned nice and glad you’re there, and damnit, you’re glad too. We get to see new movies, for free, and then write about them. Forgive my Pollyanaism, but seriously, what the hell is better than that?

I saw three foreign language films today, plus I can now write about two films in our native tongue that I saw in the week or so leading up to the festival. None of them blew me away, and many of them have serious problems. But all of them had at least something worth seeing, be it is a skilled performance, an interesting look, or a scene or two that stuck with me. We hope that all the movies we see are masterpieces, but we can’t expect them to be; when it’s clear that they’re not, the trick is not only to understand what they did wrong, but what they did right.

* * *

Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite is a broad blaxpoitation parody that knows all the words and none of the music. There are laughs in it, to be sure, some of them robust. But it is primarily a triumph of photography and design, and the script that they serve is undercooked and weak—a one-joke premise that wears mighty thin by the time the film’s brief-but-somehow-flabby 90 minutes come to an end. To be fair, Black Dynamite looks just right, as if it were an honest-to-goodness 70s B-movie that’s been sitting in a vault for thirty-plus years. And some of the gags—especially those that come early on—do play, but there are also plenty of would-be comic set pieces that just lie there. Sanders and his screenwriters don’t do the hard work of writing comedy—they’re so impressed with their own cleverness that they forget to put in the punch lines.

Black Dynamite mocks blaxpoitation pictures with affection, and make no mistake, they’re easy to sneer at. Those filmmakers were often making it up as they went along, doing their best with ridiculously low budgets and limited resources. But part of the reason that so many of them have survived and influenced filmmakers today was that their energy was undeniable. Little to none of that energy is evident in this send-up, which lurches from scene to scene and often leaves its cast standing around in period costumes on period sets, waiting for something funny to happen. It works in places as a parody, but also has the misfortune of following the Grindhouse films to the marketplace—which worked both as spoofs and as their own enjoyable entertainments. In Black Dynamite, not much happens once they’ve wrung the easy laughs out of the premise.

If I’m a little too hard on the movie, it’s mostly out of disappointment—I was genuinely excited to see if after taking in its brilliant trailer a few months back. The trouble is, you’ll get about as much out of the film as you will from that trailer (the clothes, the cars, the action, the flawless recreation of period low-budget filmmaking), but it’s 88 minutes shorter and it’s free.

* * *

An Englishman in New York is a slight, minor work, but it is absolutely worth seeing as a showcase for a brilliant John Hurt performance. Quentin Crisp, the famed writer, raconteur, and all-around gay icon, is a role Hurt has played before (the 1975 TV version of Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant was a breakthrough role for the British thesp), but he brings to it the full skill of his decades as an actor; it’s a snappy, razor-sharp performance, full of bitchy charm and devilish grins. It’s also a warm, likable turn that pauses for pathos without clobbering the audience.

If only the movie were having as much fun as he is. They’re sometimes in sync, particularly in the opening scenes, which find Crisp arriving in New York in the early 1980s, thoroughly delighted by what he sees—he struts through the village to the sounds of Donna Summer and Rhinoceros, his voice-over assuring us that “without her outcasts, the metropolis would be a very dull place indeed.” Brian Fillis’ screenplay has moments of punchy exhilaration, but it often verges on didacticism. Director Richard Laxton is good with actors, but has some difficulty staging big scenes. Paul Englishby’s music is also troublesome; the score is too damned pushy, sitting on nearly every scene and trying to crush it. Laxton may have relied on it too much to try and build momentum; Fillis’ script keeps starting and stopping, jumping ahead years at a time in such a fragmented fashion that it almost feels as though scenes are missing (the picture runs a suspiciously brief 74 minutes).

However, Laxton finds exactly the right nimble tone in the closing scenes, and has the good sense to hold that tone for as long as possible. Its final moments are just perfect, and they, along with Sting’s closing title song (it’s from his 1987 album …Nothing Like The Sun and is based on Crisp, who was casual friends with the singer), leaves the viewer with a warmth and good cheer that the film may not have entirely earned. But in spite of its flaws, my affection towards An Englishman in New York is genuine. It feels incomplete, yes, but what’s there is frequently effective, and Hurt is just a joy to watch.

* * *

The Swimsuit Issue is an affable little comedy that reminded me, quite intentionally I’m sure, of The Full Monty; it too is the story of a crew of men, past their prime, who find a love and passion for something they probably have no business doing. It’s a likable picture, and it’s just light as a feather, which I mean as neither a dig nor a compliment. You’ll have forgotten it by the time you walk out the theatre door, and there are some moviegoers who don’t mind that at all.

It’s a Swedish film, but that’s of little concern; it’s the kind of foreign film that could feasibly do well Stateside because you could remake it in English and not change a word. In short, it concerns unemployed divorced dad Fredrik (Jonas Inde), who forms a synchronized swimming team with his buddies as a joke, but then they decide to take it seriously and compete at the men’s world cup in Berlin. The film’s trouble, from a narrative point of view, is that we’re not sure why Fredrik wants to do this (maybe to connect with his swimming daughter? It’s hard to tell), and the guys seem to go along with it immediately, for reasons similarly difficult to discern. The Full Monty was bolstered by the real and definite economic impetus for those busted guys; here, there’s no urgency or motivation except that they have nothing better to do.

Most of it is fairly predictable (we have an inevitable appearance by that old warhorse, the training montage), but there are a few unexpected touches. The most interesting surprise is that the subplot—the sometimes-difficult relationship between a divorced dad and his maturing daughter—is actually more compelling than the main story. Their very tentative bond is handled with grace and sensitivity, and puts far more at stake than, say, the manufactured third-act crisis over a mix-up in the number of competing swimmers.

Director Måns Herngren orchestrates the film with smooth, appropriate professionalism, and I’ll give him kudos for one of the most admirably restrained endings I’ve seen recently; in an age where movies frequently go on and on and on, this one ends sooner than expected but no later than it needs to. The Swimsuit Issue is an easy pill to swallow; it’s charming and has much to like, entirely forgettable though it may be.

* * *

“I don’t remember much of that day,” Galia says. “I’m trying hard, but all I have are fragments of time.” That’s a key line in Omri Givon’s Seven Minutes in Heaven, explaining a great deal of its storytelling methodology. Galia was involved in a horrible bombing, which killed her boyfriend and left her badly scarred, physically and emotionally. She can’t remember how it happened, and she now wants very badly to piece it together (always an effective storytelling hook). One of the first things she finds out is that she was “considered clinically dead” for seven minutes, and she is told (by a perhaps unreliable source) that there are some souls who rise to heaven, only to return if that is deemed necessary. So suffice it to say that the title is not a reference to making out at a high school party.

Givon tells Galia’s story in a film that is almost equally compelling and irritating. Its imagery (particularly in the dialogue-free opening scenes) is striking; this is a director who knows how to tell a story without “telling a story.” But when the dialogue does come, it’s often troublesome. We get a lot of old standbys (“What do you want?” “I want my life back!”), and Givon sometimes makes the mistake of assuring us that scenes are dramatic and important by leaving in mile-wide pauses between the lines.

Some of Givon’s other devices work, though, particularly his use of subtle, non-linear shifting in the cutting of the picture. That kind of ingenious editing gives life and potency to the tricky scene where her search for answers and her memories meet and intertwine; that scene is powerful and masterfully constructed, pushing us headlong into the film’s powerful climax. Givon then takes the final scene into an unexpected and fascinating direction; I wouldn’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say, it’s one of the few genuine “a-ha!” moments I’ve experienced recently. Some scenes in Seven Minutes in Heaven try our patience, and some (like that one), reward said patience. It’s an uneven film, that much is certain. But there is still much to admire here.

* * *

Rudo Y Cursi is a reunion, of sorts; it co-stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who previously shared the screen in Y Tu Mama Tambien, and it is directed by Carlos Cuarón, who co-wrote that film with its director, his brother Alfonso. For much of its running time, it shares much of that film’s off-the-cuff energy and charm, complimenting its sharp screenplay with the same kind of intimate, subtly handheld photography that helped give that film its immediacy. And then it all falls apart.

The first hour or so of Rudo Y Cursi has a terrific momentum; it’s beautifully paced, the scenes zip by, and the performances are just right  Then, as its title characters (poor village “hicks” who become soccer superstars) become more rich and famous, a few cliché beats start to creep in—drugs, gambling, women, and other distractions—but, at first anyway, they’re played with freshness and spontaneity, and we don’t lose hope for the picture. The trouble comes around the top of the third act, when Cuarón takes an unsuccessful turn on his material and starts to take it (and the wheezy devices within) too seriously.

Rudo Y Cursi starts out as such a unique and quirky movie, it’s hard to believe that it degenerates into a story that is resolved with not just a Big Game, but the final Big Play at the Big Game. Cuarón is doing clever things right up through this miserable cliché of an ending (and even in the somewhat unexpected beats that follow), but it’s become a final Big Play at the Big Game movie nonetheless, and you can’t steer out of that. It’s disappointing when a movie with this much talent involved doesn’t land, when it gives itself over to ancient, rusty storytelling conventions, because when they gave themselves the leeway to tell a story and have some fun, they were really on to something.

* * *

A much shorter wrap-up tomorrow, with only two films (planned at this point, anyway) to report on: the Polish Brothers’ Stay Cool and Yojiro Takita's Departures, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.

 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rudo y Cursi

It started out so well, vivid and funny, and then it just turns into a big ol' pile of sports movie cliches. Kind of a disappointment, this one.

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Seven Minutes in Heaven

I'm a little on the fence about this one. Some of it is maddeningly pretentious and overwrought, but the imagery is striking and there are some really powerful sequences (esp. the climax). Good outweighs the bad, overall.

Off to my third foreign film of the day!

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The Swimsuit Issue

Just saw this affable "Full Monty"-style Swedish comedy. Likable and funny, if slightly formulaic and forgettable.

Also saw indie guru Bob Hawk there (pretty sure I did, anyway), who I recognized from "Chasing Amy".

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Here we go.

This is the AMC Loews Village 7, home to the Press & Industry (aka "P&I"--jargon!) screenings. So this will be my second home for the next eleven days.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

And so it begins..

So here's the check-in and red carpet outside of the Ziegfeld, where the festival begins tonight with the Woody Allen movie. Huge theater but, alas, no room for your intrepid correspondent.

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.

* * * 

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.

* * *

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.