Thursday, April 25, 2013

What's Good and Bad at the Tribeca Film Festival Today?

Posted By on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 at 9:30 AM

Byzantium Neil Jordan
Byzantium
Directed by Neil Jordan

Gemma Arterton has been, for the past few years, an odd bombshell in search of a good genre-role: after playing Strawberry Fields, the more fun and less-used Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, she took on gods and demons in Clash of the Titans and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, plus whatever they were fighting in Prince of Persia. In Byzantium, she plays, perhaps inevitably, a vampire. Arterton has a striking, comic-bookish physicality; she's broader-shouldered and less slight of frame than some of her waifish contemporaries. Her vampirism, then, isn't sallow or skeletal: her Clara is a working woman, albeit as some manner of stripper or prostitute as the movie opens—a less risky profession after you've achieved, more or less, immortality.

She's also a working immortal mother, and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), like the girl in Let the Right One In, has been a teenager for a very long time. As the movie opens, the pair must flee the neon lights of an unnamed city for a quieter coastal town, though both locations have plenty of opportunities for framing the two women in slanty hallway shots. Clara finds the closest approximation of urban neon at a rundown carnival, where she returns to hooking, while Eleanor mopes around, meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), and kinda-sorta attends a local school.

Director Neil Jordan makes his return to the vampire underworld following the famous Interview with a Vampire, which featured Tom Cruise at his movie-star peak and Brad Pitt hot on Cruise's heels. This movie glows with less star wattage, but it's a livelier, more original meditation on the promise and peril of eternal life. As with Pitt's Interview character, Ronan's Eleanor wants to be heard; forbidden from seeking out an actual listener, she tells the long, gothic backstory on paper and casts the pages out of windows. The movie shows us this backstory in bits and pieces as different characters come across it, an ambitious and only occasionally clumsy structure (and one that only occasionally invites silly pressing questions. For example: they're both so sloppy and indiscreet with their feeding; how could they have lasted this long?)

Having Eleanor go on and on about the tale she can never share drains the movie of some immediacy; it adopts Eleanor's seriousness, even though Clara has more agency as a character. The prostitution-heavy backstory itself is also a bit pat, as is the memory/repression dichotomy between tortured Eleanor and her mother, who just wants to power through. The contrast works better in shorthand, like the refrain of "don't"/"I won't" that the pair exchanges and repeats throughout the film—and just as Jordan capitalizes on Arterton's cartoon looks, he takes advantage of Ronan's eerie stillness, too. The women take center stage here; the quivery man who takes them both in? He turns out to be a passing sap, while Sam Riley and a sneering Jonny Lee Miller flit in and out of the narrative. Byzantium has some quiet, artsy flourishes, but really it's just a decent pulp workout with moments of human (and neatly inhuman) feeling.

Screens tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday. Click here for more info.

A Case of You Justin Long
A Case of You
Directed by Kat Coiro

Nothing breaks your heart like indie rom-coms. The romantic comedy is a genre that seems like it should be revitalized by independent film: you don't have to spend a lot of money to make one (snappy dialogue is free! Or at least available for scale, theoretically), and you don't have to cater to the wedding-centric, likability-driven, hackwork-celebrating formula. Yet what might have only been cutesy and disposable so often becomes facile and self-conscious when shifted further down the payscale.

Take A Case of You, an obvious passion project for Justin Long, who stars and also serves as cowriter (with his brother and his buddy) and producer. It tries to flip relationship clichés a little; it's neurotic dude Sam (Justin Long) who's intimately familiar with his local Chinese takeout guy, not a sad-sack girl embarrassed to always order for one. It tries to comment on the way we live now: Sam pursues his barista dream girl Birdie (Evan Rachel Wood) by finding her Facebook page and tailoring his fake interests to her real ones. It tries to offer edgy comedy with a bunch of supporting ringers. And it is, somehow, a thoroughly depressing experience.

Here's a detail that stuck with me: Sam is a struggling writer. Ok, strike one, but at least he's not an aspiring architect. Then we find out that he actually writes what sound like novelizations of popular movies, and has a supportive agent (played, in an amusing cameo, by Vince Vaughn). So, ok, he's actually not struggling and fairly successful, but he feels stifled by his uncreative and presumably anonymous work. But we find out about his job during a scene at a book-signing, which is, granted, sparsely attended but also (a) attended at all, by (b) at least one fan who seems to have no idea that the (c) hardcover copy of a book which (d) features Sam's name prominently displayed on the cover is based on a movie he didn't write (until Sam tells him so). Also, the signing is clearly held at a comics shop and features a comics-style illustrated cover, so I also lost sight of whether Sam is writing graphic novel adaptations of popular movies, or graphic novels commissioned to support what were actually first conceived as screenplays, or prose novelizations that are popular with comics fans, or if Long and his writing partners seriously didn't stop and ask themselves what in living fuck their lead character actually does for his much-talked-about nonsense job. (I realize I've just expended a lot of energy on figuring out what the hell a Justin Long character does for a living. But more, I think, than Justin Long did, which kind of puts me off any passion project.)

Anyway, the movie is about Sam using Birdie's online profile to make himself more palatable to her and then losing confidence that she actually likes him. But this makes little sense either, because Sam and Birdie have playful, affectionate interactions every single time they speak to one another, and Sam's blatherings about playing guitar or enjoying bourbon seem tangential at best. (Birdie all but says: you are so much more attractive than the sum of our supposed shared interests!) Still he presses on in believing, against all evidence, that Birdie only likes the "fake" him and the relationship is doomed, which is to say this movie is so devoid of actual conflict that it piles on bizarre psychodrama and puts across an astonishingly childish view (even if unendorsed) of how human interactions work.

The script eventually calls Sam out on his neuroses, but that doesn't make the preceding 80+ minutes less frustrating to watch (maybe more frustrating, actually, because apparently the nothingness of the movie's conflict is the whole point). Long and Wood make a cute enough couple, and the movie attempts to pad itself with eccentric supporting turns from famous faces—but for every Sam Rockwell singing a weird cover of the Spin Doctors' "Two Princes," there's Peter Dinklage doing a lame knockoff of Bill Hader's Stefon character from SNL. Guys, it shouldn't be this hard; Long and company shouldn't need to recruit seven or eight talented actors for cameos to prop up a movie about two people who like each other, then wonder if they really like each other, then, well, I don't want to spoil anything. But if you really want to avoid spoiling things, probably just skip A Case of You all together.

Screens tonight and Sunday. Click here for more info.

The Pretty One Zoe Kazan
The Pretty One
Directed by Jenée LaMarque

This is one of the nicest surprises out of this year's festival, in part because I hadn't heard a thing about it before flipping through this year's program. Zoe Kazan plays identical twins: Audrey is successful and confident, the "pretty one" of the title (which is to say, she bears a Kazan-friendly, bangs-heavy haircut), while Laurel is awkward and fidgety (which is to say, she lets her hair grow to unflattering lengths), still living at home and coping with the death of the twins' mother. Audrey comes home (from the never-named "city") for their joint birthday party, and then an accident, or series of accidents, allows them to switch places.

LaMarque's navigation of this plot turn is tricky: it's too weird for Parent Trap-y farce, but too grounded for Cronenbergian and/or Lynchian antics. But as Laurel adjusts to Audrey's life, the movie, too, finds its way. Laurel's version of Audrey takes a liking to Audrey's tenant Basel, and Johnson, playing more laid-back than in Safety Not Guaranteed or on New Girl, makes a charming rom-com lead, and Kazan is lovely as Laurel impersonating Audrey: sometimes awkward and stumbling, sometimes surprised by how her twin turns out to complete it. The movie becomes a funnier and more subtle rumination on identity than the showier high-concept of Kazan's Ruby Sparks.

I understand and even appreciate that it took me a little while to acclimate to The Pretty One because it's a pretty weird situation and a pretty weird movie (mostly in a good way). But at first, when the movie begins in the twins' podunk hometown, it lays the kitsch on thick: Laurel still lives in the childhood bedroom she used to share with Audrey, single "participant" ribbon hanging on her side of the wall, and dotes on her father (John Carroll Lynch), who makes his living reproducing famous paintings. Briefly, what turns out to be a sweet and unpredictable little movie feels off-puttingly cartoonish. I suppose the easy comparison would be festival sensation turned mid-aughts cultural touchstone Napoleon Dynamite, but that movie's comic-strip goofiness has always come off as weirdly authentic to me.

But so many indies strive to capture life outside of major cities and don't quite put it across. Another Tribeca selection, Bluebird, which my colleague Ryan Vlastelica will be covering in greater detail, gets a lot of texture from its wintry Maine setting, but as nicely observed as much of it is, the movie is often as reminiscent of other small-town indies as small-town life itself. In particular, it recalls David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, from the child-related tragedy to the romantic relationships mirroring each other across generations, right on down to the Chinese restaurant pointedly staffed only by white people. Another film, Adult World, about which more later this week, is set in and around Syracuse, much to the delight of this former upstate resident—but its underpopulated desolation feels low-budget rather than evocative. Maybe Napoleon Dynamite still resonates (!) for me because its surroundings feel of a piece with its point of view. The Pretty One's point of view, perhaps appropriately, is less dependent on a sense of place than a sense of self. The movie finds itself along with Laurel; it's almost more endearing for the parallel.

Screens tonight. Click here for more info.

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