From April 22-May 3, this year’s modestly slimmed-down Tribeca Film Festival lineup still features the fest’s trademark hodgepodge of synergistic marquee debuts; fest-circuit culled American and international features and documentaries, of wildly varying name recognition, screening in and out of various competitions; a sports film festival copresented by ESPN; free family-friendly events; talks and panels; and photo ops on makeshift red carpets outside of various downtown ‘plexes. What follows is the first batch of our reviews — keep up with us as we keep up with the fest at thelmagazine.com — and our best guess as to which Tribeca films you’re likely to be hearing about in the coming weeks.
Directed by Stephan Elliot
Elliot, the director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, attempts to “modernize” a period piece by eliminating from a Noel Coward comedy of manners any subtlety, lightness or wit. What do they pump in to replace it? Coarseness, dog-squashing jokes, symbolic shots of fire (it means passion), bad bleach jobs and costumes that look like they came from Forever21. The film stars Jessica Biel as an irreverent American whose arrival causes an upheaval in the manor house, and Colin Firth as the indifferent husband who, unshaven and disheveled, spends every scene looking as though he’s wondering how the hell he got in this movie.
The Exploding Girl
Directed by Bradley Rust Gray
Or, The Girl Who Ran Over Her Minutes, as epileptic Ivy (Zoe Kazan) spends half the film chatting on her cellphone. Some of those conversations are unsettlingly authentic, but — hark, young directors! — authenticity alone is not a virtue. This is the kids-in-Brooklyn-apartments movie run amok: shallow people stammer insufferably with little subtext, insight or significance, criminally underserving cinematographer Eric Lin’s gorgeous compositions. Gray’s wife, So Yong Kim, served as producer and assistant director; Exploding is In Between Days’ de-Koreaned doppelganger. Each was named for opposite faces of the same Cure 45; this is, conspicuously, the B-side.
Directed by José Padilha
Hard not to see this as penance for Padilha’s prior bloodsporty favelasploitation Elite Squad: a critic-proofingly austere (black and white, no soundtrack) immersion in the hunger — the distended bellies, fly-swarmed scabs, soggy mattresses, barbed-wire clotheslines and boiled drinking water — of two rural families and one slum-dwelling clan. (“Garapa” is starvation’s cheapest stave-off, a sugar-water mix.) Moments of truth re: alcohol and sex as poverty’s motor oil; but Padilha’s off-camera questions prompt sob stories more than context, and the film seems edited less with a trajectory than a target run-time to elapse before the guilt-tripping, undeniably effective closing title cards.
The Girlfriend Experience
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
The past decade of NYC gentrification was a false front, propped up by money that never, in fact, existed. Shot on hi-def last October and populated with semi-improvising nonpros, The Girlfriend Experience notes the background chatter of awful, awful people — balance-sheet bubble-blowers and bodybuilders — worrying about the economy at New York-approved restaurants (like the since-closed European Union). Among them is label whore and multi-diamond escort Chelsea/Christine (now-21-year-old porn star Sasha Grey), whose full-service facade of emotional involvement is an illusion-popping metaphor for a city whose solution to everything, even loneliness, is to throw more money at its ego.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Mishmashing myriad influences — Cassavetes, Godard, Bujalski, Woody Allen, Astaire-Rogers — writer-director-editor-lyricist Chazelle fashions something new: the first Mumblecore Musical. It’s a black-and-white, naturalistic, 16mm exploration of young people and their romantic affairs that plays out on Boston streets and in apartments. But instead of awkwardly stammering their way around What They Mean, Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia), respectively, play the trumpet and spontaneously slip into song. It’s affecting, endearing, and, even better, toe-tapping.
Directed by Duncan Jones
The happiest surprise of Moon is not the nifty look of its mid-budget special effects (though the target audience, OG science fiction fanboys, should be satisfied), it’s the fact that Kevin Spacey, when voicing a robot, sounds noticeably more human. Borrowing its lunar conceits from every outer-space classic you can name, the highly derivative Moon reeks of larceny and pretension, though it’s a good deal more coherent than Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Praise be, however, to a virtuoso performance by Sam Rockwell, who shares the screen with himself, playing two clones of the same astronaut.
Rudo y Cursi
Directed by Carlos Cuarón
“Tough and Corny” refers to the nicknames of banana-harvesting brothers turned soccer stars Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, but also to the film’s bearhugging tonal shifts, from locker-room raunch to cautionary-tale moralizing to karaoke sincerity. Zapata-mustached Luna and chav-y Bernal reunite for the first time since Y tu mamá también, for Alfonso Cuarón’s little brother’s feature directorial debut; the family reunion backstory may explain why the best jokes feel inside (like aspiring singer Bernal’s repeated renditions of “I Want You to Want Me”), and the plot so lazily familiar (mentioning that one brother is a striker and one a goalie feels like a spoiler).
SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO…
What to hope — or fear — from the Tribeca Film Festival.
Burning Down the House
Directed by Mandy Stein
Boo-hoo, CBGB’s closed. Where will we pay $6 for a bottle of beer and listen to metal bands on a shitty sound system? This reverential doc hopes to prove why the club matters, er, mattered.
Hope it’s like: Union Hall
…and not like CBGB’s
Kobe Doin’ Work
Directed by Spike Lee
Spike follows Kobe for a day in the life, with lots of cameras.
Hope it’s like: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
… and not like: Spike Lee’s contribution to Lumiere & Co
Love the Beast
Directed by Eric Bana
Israeli assassin/incredible hulk-hunk Bana bets his modest stardom on a self-indulgent doc about racecars and the Bana who loves them.
Hope it’s like: Gran Torino
… and not like: Cars
Directed by Anders Banke
Before you cry foul at this remake of Johnnie To’s Breaking News, know that it’s not an American remake—it’s Russian! In Soviet Union, news breaks you.
Hope it’s like: Breaking News (duh)
… and not like: Bangkok Dangerous: Nic Cage Edition
Directed by Spike Lee
Meanwhile, another documentary “joint.” Lee documents the final performance of the Tony-award-winning coming-of-age musical that gives this doc its title. Not every talented movie director has a knack for making stage shows captivating on film.
Hope it’s like: Shine a Light
… and not like: Lou Reed’s Berlin
Directed by Libby Spears
All your favorite Soderberghites — Steve, Clooney, Grant Heslov — have taken producer credits on this partly animated doc about sex slavery and its American roots.
Hope it’s like: William T. Vollmann (or Taken!)
…and not like: The Toe Tactic
Directed by Barry Levinson
That’s politics plus Hollywood—get it? This doc concerns the effect celebrities have on the political process. Because you didn’t get enough of that during the election itself.
Hope it’s like: Wag the Dog
…and not like: What Just Happened
Directed by Cheryl Hives
It felt like a little kid outlined Waitress, the late Adrienne Shelley’s first film: all the characters had jobs like figures in Playskool’s Americana playset. (Waitress, doctor, mailman — and the mean old man at the restaurant!) This movie boasts a Shelley script directed by Larry David’s TV wife, Cheryl Hines.
Hope it’s like: Curb Your Enthusiasm
… and not like: Waitress
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
The director of Nobody Knows returns with a movie about a dysfunctional family wrestling with its dysfunctions.
Hope it’s like: Tokyo Sonata
…and less like: Lifelines
Directed by Michael Cuesta
The director of L.I.E. adapts E.A.P. (Poe, philistines) for this psycho-supernatural thriller about a heart transplant and its hideous beating. Starring the very talented but usually misused Josh Lucas and everybody’s favorite character actor, Brian Cox.
Hope it’s like: the “Tell-Tale Heart” diorama in The Simpsons’ “Lisa’s Rival”
… and less like: the 42 other adaptations of this story listed on IMDb.
Directed by Bette Gordon
A forgotten possible-classic about a female porn palace ticket taker and (sigh) the male gaze. (Mulvey, Mulvey, Mulvey…) Lots of downtown names are attached — John Lurie, Spalding Gray, Tom DiCillo. But if the 21st Century is more your thing, Gordon’s new movie, Handsome Harry, is part of the festival too. Steve Buscemi’s in it — and what would a Tribeca film festival be without Steve Buscemi?
Hope it’s like: Stranger than Paradise
… and not like: After Hours
Directed by Woody Allen
The Woodman’s NY return after years of self-imposed European exile has Larry David in it! But just because you like Allen and David doesn’t mean they’ll collaborate well — one’s a hilarious, Jewish, New York neurotic and the other’s a… a well, maybe they do go together well.
Hope it’s like: Curb Your Enthusiasm
… and not like: Sour Grapes