Now, who would think to start a film with shots of boobs? I don't mean Amber Heard-style boobs. I mean more the garden variety sort, and getting mauled, no less, in the dread ritual of the mammogram, to the jaunty tune of "No Shoes."
Well, Nicole Holofcener has done just that in "Please Give," one of many surprises and subversive acts on tap from the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Now in its 9th year, the fest appears to embrace a wide-open, frontier mentality to programming. So the lineup includes a few trainwrecks and amateurish efforts. But the fest's wide reach brings you both the latest from an indie stalwart such as Holofcener, and the excitement of discovering new talent, getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, of a career. Like ballsy J.Bateson with "The Disappearance of Alice Creed"; or the gifted Lee Isaac Chung with "Lucky Life," even if this meditation on mortality fails fully to cohere.
Holofcener ("Lovely and Amazing") builds up her stories in the manner of an impressionist painter by the accretion of disparate moments that do miraculously cohere. The minimal plot of "Please Give" revolves around a New York couple (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) who are itching to annex the adjacent apartment after its elderly occupant passes along. The setup taps into New York's real estate greed, in this case running up against the tenacious grasp on life of an old woman - and a comically disagreeable one at that. Tweaking the mix are the woman's two granddaughters - one a technician who gives the mammograms from the opening montage (It girl Rebecca Hall), the other a foxy facialist (Amanda Peet).
Through Keener, her cinematic double, Holofcener gently mocks liberal guilt and the impotence of good intentions in a city where the homeless sprawl outside luxury high rises. Also on display is her trademark theme of women tyrannized by worries about body image, here personified by a teenage daughter fighting a losing battle with zits. Holofcener doesn't do much with cinematography; her strengths are transparently natural dialog and characters of good will struggling to find their way in a mean world. A trademark moment: after grandma dies a discussion ensues over which elevator should remove her. Like Noah Baumbach, Holofcener is a counterpoise to formulaic studio films, a highly stylized naturalist bringing us bulletins from the 21st century.
Among the fest's weaker offerings so far, count Alex Mar's "American Mystic," which follows America's marginalized souls into trailer camps and towns called Morpheus, California, as they sit beside their plastic Jesus and talk about healing, visions, or "identifying as a witch." It mainly makes you sad for America. "Meskada" by Josh Sternberg is a police procedural with nice touches of noir and a feel for blue collar America, but the sound is garbled and the community conflicts muddily drawn.
Inspired by a poem by Gerald Stern, "Lucky Life" by Lee Isaac Chung uses a dreamy, fractured narrative about four close friends a few years out of college who rally round one who is gravely ill at a seaside cottage. The main events happen offstage: the friend dies young, the wife of the narrator-writer miscarries. Flashbacks find the friends hanging out on the beach, treasuring the time together; a flash forward a couple assembling a crib in a scene that milks everyday frictions for comedy.
The glorious cinematography ranges from ingenious framing, to static camera setups from mid distance that watch a scene play out, to the quixotic use of archival footage. A sex scene is conveyed through the couple's sounds playing over the ocean's while the camera pans along a table. Though this mystical and strangely moving film is a tad long and still in search of an ending, Chung is a talent to watch.
A reworking of the kidnapping scenario, "The Disappearance of Alice Creed," a first feature by J. Bateson, is good nasty fun. (You can catch in theaters come August 6). Two lowlifes (Eddie Marsan, Martin Compston, superb) abscond with rich girl Alice (Gemma Artherton, fearless) and hit up her dad for two million - mere pocket change for our titans of Wall Street. Familiar stuff, but Bateson turns it into a game of wits between the three principals, each with an unreadable agenda.
At first I was turned off by the screaming and bondage imagery (girl gagged, spreadeagled on the bed, etc.). And some yucky stuff involving a toilet. "The Brits have a long tradition of toilet humor," Bateson explained at a party. Since the girl is often naked, the cuffs and restraints have erotic overtones, which did nothing for me, a nice girl from Queens. But I was seduced by the plot twists coming fast and furious, and the game of Who's faking who out? "When you have a cast of just three," Blakeson told me, "the story is free and damn well better be inventive." It's almost like a Bach fugue, I say. "If you want to put it that way," he laughs. What does he like about Tribeca? "It's young and not set in its ways, reinventing itself year after year." Kind of in the spirit of his film.