From Steven Soderbergh’s controversial Girlfriend Experience to a chilling documentary about the mortgage bubble to Spike Lee’s paean to Kobe Bryant, film writer Darrell Hartman offers a guide to the six movies generating buzz at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The Girlfriend Experience
In a highly strategic move, Steven Soderbergh tapped leading porn star Sasha Grey to play an upscale Manhattan call girl. Instead of explicit sex scenes, however, Soderbergh’s partly scripted drama has the improvised feel of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with plenty of dialogue devoted to the tanking economy. More than Bubble—the director’s last experiment in low-budget, no-star filmmaking— Girlfriend Experience blurs the line between fact and fiction. It may also ending up being a major bridge for Grey, who’s already been cast in at least two more non-adult films.
In the Loop
Politically oriented BBC miniseries remade stateside are having a moment, with State of Play in U.S. theaters now and this hilarious, razor-sharp adaptation of The Thick of It. Slated for July 24 release, it’s already shaping up to be a festival favorite. The plot: After going off-message in a radio interview, an obscure British minister (Tom Hollander) unwittingly becomes a major player in an American-led resolution to invade the Middle East. In the Loop (starring James Gandolfini and Steve Coogan) presents straight-faced buffoonery at a breakneck pace; once the action moves to Washington, it’s The West Wing meets The Office, with the prime minister’s foul-mouthed communications capo (Peter Capaldi) spewing expletives that still feel too hot for TV.
OK, so maybe the subprime mortgage crisis isn’t the most scintillating subject out there, but Vanity Fair contributing editor and former 60 Minutes producer Leslie Cockburn’s examination of the housing-market meltdown at least makes sense of it. (It also includes a few real zingers, including this line from an internal email at Standard & Poor’s: “We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.”) Industry talking heads explain how banks and mortgage-lending companies gambled with homeowners’ money then used credit-default swaps to suck in insurance companies like AIG, and thumbnail portraits of hard-hit neighborhoods in Baltimore and Stockton, California, put a face on foreclosure. The scariest part: The worst may still be yet to come.
The Exploding Girl
Last year, Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia) made a name for herself on the New York stage and at least one major critic called her small role in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road the best thing about it. With The Exploding Girl, Bradley Rust Gray has basically built an entire film around the actress—and people are buzzing about her performance. The film is an understated indie romance, with Kazan playing an epileptic girl who makes a series of small discoveries while back in New York on college break with a childhood friend (Mark Rendall).
Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi
Like Taxi to the Dark Side, which took the Best Documentary prize at Tribeca in 2007 and at the Oscars in 2008, Ian Olds’ documentary uses the tragic tale of an abducted Afghan citizen to make a larger point about war in the Middle East. When Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo was kidnapped by Taliban forces in 2007, Italy helped secure his release, while Naqshbandi, his interpreter, was killed. Using video from assignments he undertook with Naqshbandi, reporter Christian Parenti helps Olds (who also directed the Iraq-war film Operation: Dreamland) tell the story of one of the many Afghan “fixers” who risk their lives to help foreign journalists get the news. The film also includes the sort of disturbing footage (a beheading, and what appears to be a dead U.S. soldier at the scene of a suicide bombing) that you never see on television.
Kobe Doin’ Work
Spike Lee was given unprecedented access to the Lakers star for this intimate portrait of an athlete in action. During one late-season 2008 game against the San Antonio Spurs, he attached a wireless microphone to Kobe Bryant and recorded his every move with upwards of 30 cameras. Conceived as a promo of sorts for an ambitious ESPN program that will attach big-name directors (including Barry Levinson and Barbara Kopple) to one-hour sports documentaries, it’s one of two Lee movies at this year’s Tribeca—the other being his film about the now-defunct rock musical Passing Strange.
Darrell Hartman writes about movies for Interview magazine and Artforum. He is also a regular contributor to Style.com, Travel + Leisure, Art + Auction, and New York magazine.