Now in its 10th year, the Tribeca Film Festival has become an essential fixture on New York's spring cultural scene. With the shrinking number of screens for indie fare, TFF is a showcase for new voices, global story-telling, and edgy documentaries -- a godsend, really, bringing cinephiles an alternative to the numbing commercial product that dominates the multiplex. This year underscores more than ever the community vibe TFF has always aimed for. In contrast to a fest like Sundance, where you have to sell your sister to score a ticket; where the main drag is so clogged with private parties you could perish in the snow for lack of nourishment, at TFF there's room for everybody at the inn. In fact, fest kick-off The Union, Cameron Crowe's biopic about Elton John, was open to the public at a free outdoor screening in the World Financial Plaza, followed by a live performance by the singer. And for all its focus on world cinema, TFF also pays homage to the neighborhood of its title: Edward Burns's closer, Newlyweds was almost entirely filmed in Tribeca.
From excellent actor/director Peter Mullan (The Magadelene Sisters) comes NEDS, an indictment of a society that offers an upward path to its monied citizens, while dooming working class kids to the margins or a life of crime. Set in his native Glasgow in the 70's, Mullan focuses on a bright, ambitious adolescent boy (gifted newbie Conor McCarron), who simply can't get a leg up. His alcoholic father (Mullan) terrorizes the family; his teachers, themselves brutalized and cynical, specialize in corporal punishment; and the gangs of NEDS -- or non-educated delinquents -- exercise an irresistible lure. Especially as one of the gang's king pins is the boy's brother. It's truly chilling to watch this lovely kid's slide into violence and madness in a culture that discards its disadvantaged like detritus. Though this material may sound altogether too grim, in fact, the tough-minded realism is leavened by flashes of dark humor -- as when "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" plays on the soundtrack over a brutal gang war -- and daring tonal shifts push realism into hallucination. Amusingly, the film is sub-titled, since the boys' dialect -- "wee shite" is a typical endearment -- is as comprehensible as Urdu.
On the other end of the spectrum you'll find The Trip, a breezy five-finger exercise of improv from versatile Michael Winterbottom. Brit comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon star as themselves on tour together -- after Coogan's gf bails -- to do a story on the haute cuisine hostelries dotting Olde England. Coogan consoles himself for his flagging relationship with comely innkeepers who seem to be part of the menu, while Brydon enjoys phone sex with his wife. The sumptuous meals are almost upstaged by the glorious Bronte-esque countryside. In between courses the guys amuse themselves with competing impersonations of Michael Caine -- hilarious. A road trip like no other, the film is a gamble, freewheeling and seemingly script-less, to discover whether a film can stay aloft on comic schtick alone.
Last Night, the feature debut of Massy Tadjedin, centers on a happily married couple (Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington) who live in an enviable loft they should do nothing to jeopardize. But comes the temptation to sleep with a different attractive partner. Worthington must contend with a predatory Eva Mendes in her undies in a swimming pool during a business trip; while Knightley encounters in the 'hood -- quelle coincidence! -- former sort-of lover Guillaume Canet. The entire burden of this chamber piece is when/where/if the players will get laid. No one here's worried about the deficit or the mess in the Middle East. Essentially this chamber piece is soft core for the chattering classes -- complete with insinuating sound track -- which I don't intend as a put-down. Pure titillation has its place, especially since everyone looks so dishy -- though there's a curious lack of chemistry between the actors. We're accustomed to seeing Knightley doing Jane Austen and other period pieces -- here, just playing Keira, she's enchanting, a more worldly Audrey Hepburn. Re Eva Mendes: did they really have to go ethnic in casting the temptress?
Also worth checking out
Stuck Between Stations directed by Brady Kiernan, brings home to Minneapolis a young soldier on leave (Sam Rosen) who meets up with school days crush (Zoe Lister-Jones). Separated by a gulf in education in class, the twosome leaves you wondering whether they can re-up in the future. Lister-Jones is an electric screen presence and film's dialog is hands down the best I've heard in months, so natural you could be eavesdropping.
Romantics Anonymous from Jean-Pierre Ameris is another two-hander, this one about a pair of strangers who seem phobic not only about love but their fellow humans, period, and meet through their passion for making and selling chocolate. The film is a tad ingrown -- what a friend calls "Franco-Francais" -- but thanks to expert turns from Isabelle Carre and Benoit Poelvoorde, dishes up French farce at its tastiest. The Bang Bang Club by Steven Silver about photogs who court danger in the world's trouble spots is, with the recent death of filmmaker Tim Hetherington, all too timely. But despite a hot cast including Ryan Philippe and Taylor Kitsch, lookin' good, it trivializes the suffering of its South African subjects.
A real find is Bombay Beach, a USA/Israel docu from Alma Har'el about the degradation of the American Dream. It's set in the area around the inland Salton Sea, a dumpster of a town and relic of a failed 1960's development boom. Featured is a couple with a bipolar, but potentially gifted seven-year-old who's zonked on meds prescribed by indifferent doctors; an octogenarian poet-prophet who regularly passes out on the street; and -- my favorite -- an escapee from the L.A. gang wars who views Bombay Beach as the promised land. For this character alone Har-el deserves the Irony Award. In its alarming and surreal portrait of an underclass all but forgotten by the rest of America, this film may prove all too prescient.