Wednesday, April 20, 2011

#TribecaFest Preview

Well, kids, it’s that time of year again. For the third consecutive year, I’ll be cramming in as much of the Tribeca Film Festival as my weary eyes can take; the plan this year (and don’t hold me to this) is to see about three dozen of the fest’s 93 feature titles. I’ve already seen a few (and have posted reviews for three of the best, below); here’s a few more that I’m really looking forward to:

Catching Hell: You may have noticed that I’m a bit of an Alex Gibney fan. He had no less than three films at last year’s Tribeca fest: My Trip to al-Qaeda, the Eliot Spitzer doc Client 9 (which screened as a work-in-progress), and Freakonomics (an omnibus documentary, to which he contributed a segment). He only has one film showing this year, the slacker. But the good news is, that one film is this collaboration with ESPN Films, who originally slated it as part of their excellent 30 for 30 series.

Stuck Between Stations: One of my favorite underseen indies of last year was Breaking Upwards, which starred the wonderful (and, let’s admit it, adorable) Zoe Lister-Jones. She’s up front in this Before Sunrise-style romantic comedy/drama from director Brady Kiernan.

The Union: This was actually the opening night film, but your humble (and impatient) author chose not to brave the ginormous crowd at the outdoor screening and concert; I’ll see it tomorrow instead. The subject matter may not exactly get my pulse pounding—it’s a look at the recent collaboration of Elton John and Leon Russell—but it’s the first film in years from Cameron Crowe, who knows how to make a great music movie.

Everything Must Go: Writer/director Dan Rush’s adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “Why Don’t You Dance” boasts one of the festival’s most impressive ensembles: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Laura Dern, Michael Pena, Steven Root, and, yes, Glenn Howerton (Dennis from It’s Always Sunny) turn up in this American Beauty-style seriocomic drama, which has one “special screening” at the festival before its May theatrical run.

The Bang Bang Club: It’s not uncommon for a film that’s already picked up a distributor to turn up in theaters shortly after its festival playdates, but this Salvador-esque tale of war photographers in South Africa circa 1994 has about the quickest turnaround we’ve ever seen: it has a special screening Thursday night, and then opens in limited release on Friday. Ryan Phillipe and Malin Akerman star.

A Good Old Fashioned Orgy: Saturday Night Live’s Jason Sudekis fronts this “summery romantic comedy with a dirty mind” (thank you, Tribeca Film Guide) in which a perpetual bachelor tries to put together one last big bash—the titular event—at his dad’s Hamptons beach house. The supporting cast includes Leslie Bibb, Lake Bell, Hot Fuzz’s Lucy Punch, and Sudekis’s SNL castmate Will Forte.

The Swell Season: Lotta music docs at this year’s festival. This one focuses on Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who famously fell in love while making Once, but found the strength of that relationship tested by the two-year world tour that followed.

Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest: This documentary profile is directed by actor Michael Rappaport, a longtime fan of the groundbreaking hip-hop group. But Tribe member Q-Tip is apparently not a fan of the film; “I am not in support of the a tribe called quest documentary,” he tweeted in December. “The filmmaker should respect the band to the point of honoring the few requests that’s (sic) was made abt the piece.” No word on whether Rappaport chose to honor those mysterious “requests” or whether he stuck with the decision to make, how do you say it, a documentary; either way, should make for an interesting film.

God Bless Ozzy Osbourne: This profile of everyone’s favorite bat-biter-turned-reality-star may very well fill the warts-and-all doc profile slot that Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work took last year. While the credits have the scent of a puff piece (son Jack is a producer), the Osbournes have never been much for hiding their dirty laundry, so this could either be a penetrating portrait or an absolute train wreck. Or, of course, it could very well be both.

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Massy Tedjedin’s Last Night begins with a sequence that is a bit worrisome, it seems so self-consciously artsy. Married couple Joanna (Keira Knightley) and Michael (Sam Worthington) are going to a cocktail party, some kind of work function, but their time at home before, their taxi journeys back and forth, and their encounters at the event are played in fragments, hopscotching to and fro to the accompaniment of rather sad piano music. We brace ourselves for a mannered and overwrought examination of white people problems.

To some degree, Last Night is that. It is also a very good film. Does it suffer from the kind of upscale New York insularism that turns some people off of, say, Woody Allen’s movies? Sure. The characters that populate Last Night are, for the most part, wealthy and privileged, preoccupied with matters that don’t require them to cast a gaze further outward than the four walls of their fabulous downtown apartments. But when the characters are drawn with complexity, and when the dialogue they exchange is intelligent—as in Allen’s films, and as in this one—those concerns are of little consequence. Once it gets past its somewhat too-precious opening and in to the heart of matters, the picture penetrates.

The quality of writing and performances is a bit uneven—but for once, in the favor of the female roles, so those complaints are registered mildly. Overall, Last Night is a nuanced and compelling picture, and has moments so honest and true, it’s almost uncomfortably personal to watch.

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Director Michael Winterbottom and actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have met before; they collaborated on the baffling yet enchanting Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, with the two actors playing both themselves and characters in the film-within-the-film. In The Trip, an improvised mockumentary/travelogue, they’re only playing themselves—or, at least, an extension of the (presumably) comedically exaggerated personas that they played in the earlier film. The result is a giggly, entertaining treat, albeit one that overstays its welcome a touch.

It’s a fast, witty movie, a kind of My Dinner with Andre with a bit more mobility. Coogan and Brydon’s patter is snappy—it’s the best kind of improvised dialogue—and their relationship, which seems composed of equal parts respect, exasperation, and jealousy, has enough complexity to sustain the thin narrative.

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The title of Peter Mullan’s NEDS is shorthand for Non-Educated Delinquents, and it tells the story of how a good kid becomes one of them. Mullan’s approach to this material is matter-of-fact, but not flat—he’s not showy, but he gets results. A venerable character actor (his credits include the Red Riding trilogy and Trainspotting), he broke through as a director a few years back with The Magdalene Sisters; he’s one of those filmmakers who clearly still thinks like an actor, and is more interested in performance than overblown technique, though he accomplishes a couple of nice effects. He’s got real skill at creating unsettling scenes; there is, for example, an attack at a dance, which turns into a chase, which then eerily reverses itself, and then takes a comic turn that couldn’t be less expected (or effective).

The notion of acting out simply as an act of belonging to something is not a new one (it’s been in juvenile delinquent films for 50-plus years), but it’s seldom been conveyed so convincingly. The casual gutter dialogue—in English, but subtitled due to the thick accents and copious slang—feels less written and performed then overheard, and the brawls have a rough, messy quality reminiscent of Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The film drags a bit and holds its beats too long, but we must give Mullan due credit for giving the narrative enough breathing room. He’s not interested in easy answers, or pat resolutions. It’s a smarter movie than that; it knows that for some people, once you take a turn, there’s no going back.

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