Tribeca 2010: 'Meskada,' 'Get Low,' Brillante Mendoza's 'Lola' & More

Unlike fall’s artsy New York Film Festival, New York’s downtown spring festival boasts a much larger and more mainstream, yet still decidedly indie line up. Created by Robert De Niro as an attempt to support lower Manhattan’s devastated economy in the wake of 9/11, the festival tries to include something for every taste. Despite mixed results in the last few years, Tribeca remains an interesting player in the film festival space. Picking up a handful of older festival titles, summer blockbusters, and eclectic international fare, this year’s festival kicks off with animated “Shrek Forever” and closes with omnibus documentary “Freakonomics.” But, this writer attempted to check out things off the beaten path, with again, mixed results…

A murder investigation ignites class tensions in this briskly paced drama that distinguishes itself from standard police procedural by following both the investigators and criminals. When the son of a local politician is murdered in a well-to-do town, detective Noah Cardin (Nick Stahl) finds evidence pointing to the neighboring blue-collar town in which he grew up. Meanwhile, the underemployed perpetrators Shane (Jonathan Tucker) and Eddie (Kellan Lutz) face the possibility of cementing their community’s ruin when the victim’s mother (Laura Benanti) stonewalls investment until the suspects have been found (Rachel Nichols also stars). Most of the youngish cast inhabits their roles well despite an occasionally contrived script by writer/director Josh Sternfeld (“Winter Solstice”). Ultimately, the problem is the exploration of America’s sociopolitical divisions doesn’t lacks bite and doesn’t go far enough – it propels the narrative successfully, but doesn’t shed any new light. [B-]

“Get Low”
Centering on a belligerent hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) in 1930s rural Tennessee who hires a funeral home owner Frank Quinn (Bill Murray, firing-on-all-cylinders of incredible nuance) and his assistant (Lucas Black) to plan a funeral party for him before he dies, “Get Low,” strikes an enjoyable balance between folksy charm, wry humor, and sensitivity with lovely and rich lived-in aesthetics. Felix’s decision to see his former romance (Sissy Spacek) and reverend (an excellent Bill Cobbs) hint at his cryptic motives, while the decision to turn the party into a raffle for his property raises the stakes. The repartee between the eccentric Felix and deadpanning Frank provides the film’s real spark and some of the tastiest toe-to-toe acting we’ve seen in months. The climactic party is subtly poignant, but the build-up to it led me to expect a meatier revelation. Sony Pictures Classics is releasing the film this summer and the best way to illustrate the quality of this little indie picture is: Bill Murray rarely shows up to work these days and when he’s this good, it’s because he recognizes the material is top notch. If it’s good enough for him it should be more than good enough for you. A modest and quiet highlight of the festival so far. [B+]

Following up to his controversial and reviled Cannes picture “Kinatay” (which one him a director’s prize, but suffered from massive walkouts and jeers — it still has no U.S. distribution), Brillante Mendoza reaffirms his naturalist style, with its nonprofessional actors and inquisitive handheld camerawork, but with a gentler, less-provocative work. The protagonists are the grandmothers of a murder victim and the accused killer who must deal with the legal fallout of the case. One woman is determined to pursue the case against the murderer, but the financial burden of the funeral makes the settlement the other woman hopes for seem tempting. Both inhabit the slums of Manila and the crime exerts nearly unbearable pressure on them. The women, played with impressive authenticity by Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio share a determination that earns our admiration. Their quiet indignities, tragedies, and pleasures add up to a compassionate yet unromantic portrayal of struggle through hardship. [A-]

“Dream Home”
Technically superior and very grisly indeed, “Dream Home” revels in conceiving of creative new ways to off people. More interested in making us squirm than shiver, experienced director Pang Ho-Cheung’s slasher features the macabre humor and graphic gore found in the gross-out classics of the ’70s and ’80s. The plot is slight — no giallo mystery, this — but the steady unveiling of seemingly innocent murderer Cheng Lai-sheung’s (Josie Ho) backstory provides a satire of gentrification and class mobility. Strictly for gorehounds, this is the only film of which we’re aware that uses a vacuum sealer as a murder weapon. (And the second, after “Leprechaun: Back 2 Tha Hood,” to do the same with a bong.) [B-]

“Moloch Tropical”
Inspired by Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov’s 1999 picture “Moloch” and buoyed by skilled acting and cinematography, this unsettling feature, directed by Raoul Peck (“Lumumba”), recreates a tense day leading to Haitian president Jean de Dieu’s (played with dynamic aplomb by Zinedine Soualem) fall from power. The prevailing mode is irony, the scene a mountainside palace. Preparations for the celebration bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution and the arrival of film stars are juxtaposed with the sexual harassment and torture occurring behind the scenes. Word of the brewing rebellion trickles in via the television and a visit from Aristide’s mother, leading to a gradual deterioration in the president’s mental state. This is an accomplished, if slightly distanced, portrait of corrupt and deluded power. [B]

College student Hee-jin (Nam Sang-Mi) returns home to find that her younger sister (Shim Eun-Kyung) is missing, her mother is a religious fanatic, and the neighbors keep committing suicide. As evidence of demonic presence mounts, Hee-jin works with the case’s detective to uncover the truth. Director Lee Yong-Jo, who assisted star director Bong Joon Ho on his breakthrough feature “Memories of Murder,” manages to attain assured performances from a varied cast in his debut effort. But this mystery wrapped in a ghost story suffers from a confusing chain of events and a conclusion that seems to raise as many questions as it answers. The requisite creeping about and eerie clues are fun at first, but simply become a bit repetitive after a while. The use of evangelical Christianity, which is on the rise in Korea, is intriguing, though it compares unfavorably to Carrie. [C] — Daniel Caron