Tribeca Film Festival 2012: Dramas

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Unmanned

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival

Any Day Now

It’s a tough gig, playing a blatant tearjerker’s over-the-top character without turning it into a camp-ing trip; even the grande dames of Hollywood’s Golden Age couldn’t always find the right middle ground between histrionics and heart. So attention must be paid to Alan Cumming and what he accomplishes in this melodrama about a gay couple who take in and care for an abused, mentally disabled teen (Isaac Leyva). That’s not to take away from his costar Garret Dillahunt, an underrated, always reliable actor (see Deadwood) who plays the romantic partner and straight man, as it were, to Cumming’s perpetually wisecracking female impersonator. Or to diminish how director Travis Fine handles this weepie’s setup with such refreshing assuredness. It’s just that Cumming’s performance, a perfect balance of flamboyance, humanity, vulnerability, paternal love and righteous anger (with a Queens accent, no less), is such a beautifully layered turn that you can’t help but fixate on the star. It’s the best work he’s done to date. “I like happy endings,” the young man says at one point, and you can guess that, happy home-movies montage or not, this tragedy won’t be skewing that way. Alas, your worries that the story’s central issue—the impossibility of gay adoption in 1979—may fall prey to message-mongering will prove not to be unfounded as well. As the duo fights vainly for legal custody of their ward, so, too, do the actors struggle against a script that devolves into Lifetime Channel hand-wr

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Chicken With Plums

An adaptation of the second volume of comic-artist-turned-filmmaker Marjane Satrapi’s graphic-novel trilogy, this fablelike fantasy tells the story of Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), a master violinist in mid-20th-century Tehran who refuses to play after his beloved instrument is smashed. Unable to follow through on his suicidal impulses, Nasser decides to waste away in bed, where he ignores the entreaties of his wife (Maria de Medeiros), wishes for the arrival of Death (Edouard Baer), and gets lost in fever-dream flashbacks that piece together a sad tale of lost love, doomed marriage and heartbreak. Careening through the psyche of a melancholic musician who’s lost the will to live, this follow-up to Satrapi and codirector Vincent Paronnaud’s animated, Oscar-nominated Persepolis is ironically the more fanciful affair. Shot-checking everything from Bollywood and German expressionism to Arabian Nights and magical realism, Chicken is an unqualified triumph in terms of visual invention. But those same eye-popping elements also overwhelm a storyboarded-to-the-hilt film that erratically ricochets between gaggery and grave seriousness, building to an operatic catharsis that’s more redolent of the directors’ insistent preciousness than historical-cultural allegory or personal tragedy. There’s some magic in the grab-bag method, but with all the furious wand-waving, the story itself never gets to cast much of a spell. Follow Eric Hynes on Twitter: @eshynes

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Consuming Spirits

If you were to fall asleep reading Raymond Carver stories while Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska played in the background, your nightmares might look a lot like Chris Sullivan’s animated tale of three small-town locals eking out lives of suffocating desperation. (The titular phrase refers both to the inebriating liquids one character uses to kill his existential pain and the way society slowly devours all three of the protagonists' souls.) A genuine labor of love and fictional self-loathing, Sullivan’s animation style is undeniably compelling, whether he’s channeling Grant Wood’s paintings or Robert Crumb’s monochromatic sketches. But the interweaving stories of commercialized religion, rancid Americana and alcoholic wretches start wearing thin around the movie’s midpoint; by the end, the whole morose endeavor risks becoming downright threadbare. Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear

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Deadfall

Familial dysfunctional lurks around every snowy corner in Stefan Ruzowitzky’s recipe for an overdetermined, undercooked thriller. Start with siblings Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde), whose abusive childhoods have left them incestuously close. Then, when a car crash following a casino heist strands them in a blizzard, make sure she falls into the rippling arms of a disgraced boxer (Charlie Hunnam)—who happens to be estranged from his retired-sheriff dad (Kris Kristofferson). The pugilist, meanwhile, is being tracked by an officer (Kate Mara); her own police-chief father (Treat Williams) regularly scolds her with sexist insults. And don’t let something as inconvenient as a howling storm keep Addison from stumbling onto a hunting cabin where an ogreish stepfather holds thrall, chasing his baby-toting wife out into the snow. Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters) may be an occasionally interesting visual stylist, but storytelling-wise, his second English-language effort couldn’t be more stillborn. Bana and Wilde have equally slippery grasps on an Alabama accent, while Williams seems as if neither he nor his character has completely defrosted after coming in from the cold. That the characters will converge in a single, bloody set piece is foreordained, but it doesn’t feel like much of a culmination, since the movie’s theme hasn’t been developed so much as simply reiterated. Follow Sam Adams on Twitter: @SamuelAAdams

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Elles

Anne (Juliette Binoche), a married middle-class journalist, is writing a hard-hitting exposé on prostitution. (Her outlet is, no joke, the French edition of Elle. Synergy, people!) The college-student interviewees: French girl-next-door type Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and an exotic Polish immigrant, Alicja (Joanna Kulig). Unlike the subjects of Michael Glawogger’s indictment of flesh-peddling, Whores’ Glory (coincidentally also opening this week), both enjoy what seems to be a fairly comfortable existence. Sure, they will occasionally be raped with champagne bottles and urinated upon—there’s a reason the film is rated NC-17—but for Anne, their lives somehow suggest a compelling alternative to her bourgie routine. For filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska, if even casual everyday exchanges are sexualized for women, all men have laptops filled with porn, and females are viewed as belles de jour regardless of their position or profession, why not make some money in the process? If that last sentence strikes you as fist-raisingly righteous and head-slappingly confusing, then you’ve already got a great sense of what watching Elles is like. That’s not to say that Binoche doesn’t do her best to humanize a desperate-housewife caricature, or that Szumowska’s contradictory attempts to dig into hypocritical social standards while throwing a few bones to the raincoat crowd aren’t fascinating in fits and starts. But titillation and tentative stabs at gender studies do not a cogent cri de coeur

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The Girl

Filmgoers with abandonment issues should steer clear of Fredrik Edfeldt's drama about a ten-year-old (Engstrm) left all by her lonesome; the film's sense of being deserted is so keenly drawn that PTSD panic attacks are virtually assured. Told that she won't be accompanying her missionary parents to Africa as planned, the freckle-faced heroine (she's never referred to by name) is put under the last-minute care of a flaky aunt (Magnusson-Norling).Filmgoers with abandonment issues should steer clear of Fredrik Edfeldt's drama about a ten-year-old (Engstrm) left all by her lonesome; the film's sense of being deserted is so keenly drawn that PTSD panic attacks are virtually assured. Told that she won't be accompanying her missionary parents to Africa as planned, the freckle-faced heroine (she's never referred to by name) is put under the last-minute care of a flaky aunt (Magnusson-Norling). The relative soon cuts out as well---her "be right back" couldn't sound phonier---so our guardianless protagonist whiles away afternoons by listening to sex-obsessed older girls dish and wandering through the countryside. As the weeks roll on, the youngster becomes grimier and the situation seems likely to turn grimmer. Fate, thankfully, has other things in store. Movies about children fending for themselves are predicated on pushing prepubescent despair into viewers' faces, which only makes this Swedish film's graceful mixture of terror and transcendental girl power that much more impressive.

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Headshot

Noir has long been a go-to for fashionable filmmakers who dig insouciant posing, high-contrast cinematography and ever-stylish cynicism. But rare is the movie that successfully grows these elements from the ground up—which makes this Thai variation on the genre that much more impressive. Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam) is a cop who becomes a hit man after his second-chance-at-happiness lover is brutally butchered and a filthy politician has him framed for murder. But when a bullet grazes his brain during a hit gone awry, he’s left with permanently inverted vision, forced to fight his way through a world turned upside down. The action is artfully choreographed, and the movie convincingly, if questionably, posits vigilantism as a logical response to systemic corruption. But filmmaker Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe) is more concerned with the calm between storms. He specializes in moments of brief but exquisite harmony before chaos reigns—faces in impeccably framed profile, dialogic duets between lost souls destined to betray one another. In terms of genre expectations, Headshot delivers not one but two femme fatales (Sirin Horwang and Chanokporn Sayoungkul), a hardboiled voiceover and a scrambled chronology cleverly organized around Tul’s skewed POV. But the most Naked City–worthy aspect is the film’s temperature, fixed precisely between cool posturing and broiling anomie. Its vision of contemporary Thailand is recognizable as another society undeserving of redemption,

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Jack and Diane

The story of a young woman (Juno Temple) discovering that she is both a lesbian and a werewolf, Bradley Rust Gray’s oddball horror parable starts with an irresistibly trashy premise and proceeds to treat it with the po-faced pretentiousness of a film-school thesis. The filmmaker, who along with wife So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountain), has spearheaded a resurgence of New York–based neorealism, groks the subtextual underpinnings of the genre but has no feel for, or even apparent interest in, its superficial pleasures. Temple’s Diane does go through quasi-lupine transfiguration, realized through cutaways to hairy, gooey stop-motion by the Brothers Quay. But her metamorphosis occurs mainly in the realm of metaphor, dropped into an invariably slight girl-meets-girl story anchored by wide-eyed, rootless wonder.  When Gray isn’t courting controversy (or maybe he’s simply grasping for coherence?) with a subplot about Temple’s twin sister falling under the sway of an online pornographer, he has a tendency to indulge in an unexplained fetish for retro paraphernalia. Diane’s butch crush, Jack (Riley Keough, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter), skateboards around Manhattan listening to Yazoo’s “Only You” on a cassette Walkman, while our heroine bumps tracks from postpunk band the Fall at her aunt’s crash pad. Those Reagan-era college-rock cuts are supposed to remind of us of simpler times, perhaps—or at least of a long-gone moment before every half-assed monster movie was guaranteed a place on a

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