Tribeca, Part 1

Here we go. A week-and-a-half of heavy moviegoing.

Yesterday, I kicked off my personal festival with three programs. I don't have much to say about the experimental shorts package entitled Journeys Across Cultural Landscapes. It would be manifestly unfair to say that the best thing about the selection is the title. In fact, the program is worth seeing just for Jay Rosenblatt's latest film, "Inquire Within," four minutes of very funny use of found footage, with Rosenblatt's signature mordant provocation. As usual with his work, you could easily write a lengthy essay on this little gem, if only to ponder the ramifications of the series of false moral choices the film explores. Martin LaPorte's "Barcelona," a symphonic orchestration of still photos of that city's streets and dazzling interiors (surprisingly light on Gaudi, but what's there is dazzling), is an elegant tone poem with a charming circular structure. "All the Lines Flow Out," by Charles Lim, is a graceful meditation on the sound and undulating images of water in motion, as seen in the concrete canals and drainage system of Singapore; beautifully shot, it's a vivid reminder of why filmmakers love water. The remaining films are not without merit; "The Valley" and "Abyss of Man's Conscience" have striking images, and Joel Schlemowitz's "Scenes from a Visit to Japan" has sections that are downright brilliant, especially a sonnet-like passage of Japanese signs seen in rapid succession. But there is a palpable overreaching and, by and large, the program is rather disappointing despite its best moments.

Frederic Jardin's Sleepless Night should be a crowd-pleaser. While it is not as empty as most recent French thrillers, it is one of those exercises in pure kinesis that have taken over the nation's commercial cinemas in a valiant effort to fight off the even-more vapid American product teeming on their shores. Vincent (Tomer Sisley) is a narcotics cop whose career seems to have gone off the rails. At the film's outset, he and his partner are involved in a heist of a large drug shipment destined for Corsican gangster Marciano (a memorably droll gargoyle-ish performance by Serge Riaboukine). Marciano's response is to grab Vincent's son and demand the return of his merchandise. Nothing is simple, though, in this film. Vincent spends a hellish night in Marciano's nightclub/restaurant/casino, which seems to be larger than the Mall of America, fighting off Marciano's henchmen, his competitors, his customers and a bunch of other cops. Gradually, our understanding of the power dynamics governing Vincent's actions is significantly altered. Jardin  and co-writer Nicolas Saadia can't seem to make up their minds whether this is a character study or a 98-minute adrenaline rush. Visually the film is congested and fidgety but Jardin, to his credit, is most concerned by the play of emotions across Sisley's face, and the film is one of those rare contemporary thrillers that seems more interested in existential suffering than gore, in pain rather than violence.

It sounds funny just to explain this: Babygirl, the third program I saw yesterday, is an Irish independent drama about a single mother and her teenage daughter, a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. I assume that Macdara Vallely, the writer-director, wanted to look at a different set of streets of Northern Ireland, the setting of his first feature, Peacefire (2008). In truth, Vallely brings a fresh eye to the barrio, and his attention to the rhythms of the Bronx is one of the great strengths of Babygirl. A gentle humanist parable about the difficulties of growing up a young woman in an urban culture that valorizes male sexual prowess to the detriment of nearly everything else. Although she is the daughter in their relationship, 16-year-old Lena (Yainis Ynoa) is by far more mature and realistic than her mother Lucy (Rosa Arredondo), who has endured a string of catastrophic relationships. When the pair meet the charming Victor (Flaco Navaja) on the bus, he charms Lucy after immediately striking out with her offspring. The three leads are uniformly excellent and they are the greatest strength of the film. Vallely's subtle touch is pleasing and his rigorous avoidance of melodrama refreshing, but this does feel a bit like a Sundance-bait American indie. Still, it's a pleasant 77 minutes that never pushes its agenda too aggressively, and Ynoa and Navaja are definitely keepers.

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