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A Tribeca Film Festival Preview

A Tribeca Film Festival Preview
by Jason Bailey

This is my second year covering the Tribeca Film Festival, a glorious 12-day orgy of independent, foreign, and documentary films, screened in the Tribeca and Union Square/Chelsea areas of New York City. Last year's fest provided East Coast critics with their first glimpses of some of the spring and summer's best films, including Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, Duncan Jones' mesmerizing sci-fi think piece Moon, Kirby Dick's bomb-tossing political doc Outrage, and the whip-smart political satire (and Oscar nominee) In The Loop. This year's slate boats 44 world premieres, seven international premieres, 15 North American premieres, six U.S. premieres, and 12 New York City premieres; they're screening a total 85 feature films from 38 different countries, and if I play my cards right and keep to the back-breaking schedule I've set for myself, I should manage to take in about half of them (give or take).

So what looks good? Plotting out a schedule when there's up to nine or ten films in various venues to choose from at any given time can be a tricky proposition. Most of my choices are based on the talent involved, or the reports that have trickled in from earlier festivals that have shown some of the non-premieres. Here are a few of the titles I'm looking forward to:

- Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie was one of the most beloved pictures of the last decade, though its follow-up, A Very Long Engagement, failed to recapture that magic. He might have better luck with his latest picture, Micmacs, which sounds dark but charming.

- Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney is the hardest-working man in the festival. Aside from his May theatrical release (the excellent Casino Jack and the United States of Money), which isn't even screening here, he has three additional films showing at Tribeca. He's one of the contributors to the documentary omnibus Freakonomics (along with Morgan Spurlock, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Eugene Jarecki, and Seth Gordon), and he's screening his Untitled Eliot Spitzer Film as a work in progress. I may not be able to see either of those, since they're screening as one-time-only limited-access type events, but I will certainly check out My Trip to Al-Qaeda, his collaboration with Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower.

- Other intriguing documentaries include the Sundance hit Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; Sons of Perdition, an inside look at the fundamentalist LDS sect led by Warren Jeffs; Chuck Workman's Visionaries, a history of avant-garde cinema; Thieves By Law, a glimpse at the Russian Mafia; and the political exposé Gerrymandering.

- Edward Burns is a bit of a Tribeca favorite; Nice Guy Johnny is his fifth film to play at the festival. He hasn't had a film that's made much noise since Sidewalks of New York back in 2002, but hey, I'll give this one a shot. In what I'm sure is a wild coincidence, his wife, former supermodel Christy Turlington Burns, also has a film playing this year (the documentary No Woman, No Cry).

- Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me boasts a big-name cast (Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Bill Pullman), but its graphic violence sparked some controversy and even walk-outs at Sundance earlier this year (Movieline says one sequence includes "the most brutal head trauma since Irreversible). Should be interesting to see what kind of response it gets here.

- Some of the other star power assembling in fiction films: Robert Duvall and Bill Murray in Get Low, James Franco in William Vincent, Oscar winners Renee Zellweger and Forest Whitaker in My Own Love Song, Oscar nominee Melissa Leo in The Space Between, Oscar winner Helen Hunt, Liev Schreiber, Carla Gugino, and Eddie Izzard in Every Day Kim Cattrall in Meet Monica Velour, Patricia Clarkson in Cairo Time, and dragon-trainer Jay Baruchel in The Trotsky.

- The Infidel features Richard Schiff, aka "Toby Ziegler" on The West Wing as, and I quote from the press notes, "a curmudgeonly Jewish cabbie." That's you have to tell me to get me into a seat.

- I may not make it to the film, but still, best title of the festival: Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives.

* * *

I had the opportunity to check out a few of the festival films early. The best of the bunch is Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, a smart and poignant comedy/drama with Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, and Holofcener's favorite leading lady, Catherine Keener. It uncoils slowly and deliberately, carefully establishing the characters' specific personalities in the opening scenes, then slyly slamming them into each other to see what happens. The narrative is compelling, but it's not in a rush; Holofcener is a confident, controlled filmmaker, and every detail is just right. Her writing and direction also excels at looking potentially melodramatic situations right in the face, and dealing with them practically--she sets up situations and scenes that never play as dopey or soapy as they might. It's a solid piece of work from an exceedingly underrated filmmaker.

The always-interesting Neil Jordan is here with Ondine, a lush, sweetly intimate picture that works both as an adult romance and a fantasy. Colin Farrell stars as an Irish fisherman who pulls a beautiful woman out of the water in his nets and takes a fancy to her; she loves him back, and develops a special relationship with his young daughter. Jordan makes a brave, risky choice in Ondine: to make a film that has infinite potential for absolute silliness, and to then play it straight and make it work. The result is warm, lovely, and lyrical. It's a perfectly beguiling little movie.

Bobby Sheehan's Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy tells the dual stories of legendary New York performance artist Joey Arias and innovative puppeteer Basil Twist, and how they came to collaborate. Its best elements are its vivid impressions of New York punk-art scene (the archival footage--ugly old videotapes of low-budget films, performances, and home movies--is priceless), though our interest flags in some other sections. It's is an interesting and entertaining picture, if a bit too all over the place; though a good time, it lacks the sharp focus and discipline of a truly great documentary feature.

Alexandra Codina's Monica & David is the documentary account of a young couple with Down syndrome--their romance, their marriage, their first year together. At first blush, it sounds like the worst kind of crass exploitation (a kind of nonfiction version of The Other Sister, perhaps). But it adopts exactly the right voice and perspective--one that carefully avoids cutesiness or sympathy, but sees these two (and the people around them) exactly as they are. The film definitely has a home movie feel, but that familiarity is vital and valuable. It's a slight but sweet film--not earth-shattering, but still warm and deeply felt.

And finally we come to Lola, which is like a dare to the critic that considers himself even remotely intellectual. It is a naturalistic art picture from the Philippines, a tale of poor people in unfortunate circumstances, done in a semi-documentary style. It is the kind of film a critic fears; confess that it bored you to tears (which Lola does), and you seem some kind of a philistine, a Michael Bay-loving heathen who didn't "get it." It's a risk this critic will have to take; Lola put me to sleep while somehow, simultaneously, giving me both a headache and a stomach ache. Many will look at director Brillante Mendoza's refusal to dramatize and proclaim the result to be some kind of masterpiece. They have been blessed with good intentions, but poor judgment.

* * *

The official opening day for the festival is today, but there's only one film tonight: the big opening night gala, which, in keeping with the festival's theme of independent, low-budget, brainy, foreign, etc. is... uh, Shrek Forever After. My credentials don't extend to that event; I'll try to hide my disappointment. All is full swing tomorrow, and I'll be taking in anywhere from three to five films per day throughout the fest. Reviews will be posted daily here at DVD Talk in the theatrical review section; you can also follow me on Twitter or check in at my Fourth Row Center blog for copious updates throughout the festival.

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