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A trim Tribeca: Downtown NYC film festival gets more selective

Published on : May 03, 2012
A trim Tribeca: Downtown NYC film festival gets more selective

 -By Doris Toumarkine


The annual Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) has become one of the industry’s great success stories. Born of the 9/11 tragedy that struck near New York’s Tribeca neighborhood at the Twin Towers, the inaugural event launched only months after the attack. Having just completed its 11th installment on April 29, the festival, with deep-pocked sponsors galore including founding sponsor American Express, enjoys its rep as one of the world’s must-attend film events for both fans and professionals.

Beyond the fest have grown the activities and operations of Tribeca Enterprises, the Tribeca Institute, and distributor Tribeca Film. The fest too has greatly expanded its offerings (panels, street fairs, Apple Store events, etc.) but not so the number of features. TFF has become much more selective in recent years, and the 2012 event offered an especially strong lineup of 89 features.

TFF’s new programming team chose from over 3,000 long-form submissions, a record. There was also a record number of world premieres, though a number of the films were cherry-picked from previous events like Toronto, Sundance and Berlin. But the real story of this year's event was “story” itself—the importance of narrative in many of the selections, and even how one film's story grew more compelling off-screen.

The importance of story to film is tricky because, as TFF director of programming Genna Terranova puts it, “you can’t put a fine point on it. We’re always looking for strength of story and quality, but films come in all shapes and sizes. Sure, story is important, but things like directing, acting and style are elements that all have to work together. My advice to filmmakers is to believe in your story and makes stories that people want to see.”

A trend this year, according to Terranova, was that American independents became a lot more creative. She cites filmmakers like Lynn Shelton (TFF’s Your Sister’s Sister) and writer-director Kat Coiro (While We Were Here) for “evolving the no-budget, minimalist ‘mumblecore’ movement by elevating the work. They are being more creative, even adopting genre assets to their films and keeping a step ahead of audiences by moving away from predictability.”

Hewing to its traditional recipe of a dash of Hollywood glitz as flashy Opening and Closing Night attractions sandwiching a heap of domestic indies and foreign fare, the fest kicked off with Universal’sThe Five-Year Engagement and closed with Disney and Marvel’s new blockbuster, The Avengers.

But it’s the TFF films in between that are the story here. About 20 out of the 89 arrived at TFF with distributors, including Tribeca Film, which claimed several of the most memorable entries.

Two of these were the brilliant German-Irish co-production Death of a Superhero and Chris Kenneally and Keanu Reeves’ Side by Side, the industry’s and any film fan’s must-see documentary about cinema’s 100-year journey from photochemical celluloid to digital and where things stand today in the disappearing window of co-existence for both.

Death of a Superhero, directed by Ian Fitzgibbon and written by Anthony McCarten, who adapted from his novel, is a stunning tale of a gifted Irish teen who would be destined for a long career as a graphic-novel illustrator were it not for cancer. But the beautifully acted and realized drama is no cancer story. It’s rich in the emotional lives of its compelling leads—Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the stricken, suicidal teen hero, Andy Serkis as his complex, challenged shrink, and rebellious Aisling Loftus as the classmate who may teach the hero something about love as death encroaches. The film’s animation sequences bring alive the hero’s extraordinary talent and dark thoughts but never get in the way of an emotionally riveting tale set in a picturesque, upscale, gorgeously lensed Dublin. 

While Death could have been morbid and cynical, its thrilling story about real people, real desires and real feelings is just the opposite. Things happen unexpectedly, such as when the classy hooker hired to give the hero a frisson of sex before he dies imparts a simple bit of wisdom: It’s love, not sex, that matters and true love is about “wanting to make the other side win.”

Can there be a more relevant story for today’s film crowd than Side by Side, required viewing for anyone anywhere who works in and cares about film? The doc covers the transition from photochemical film to digital and features about 70 interviews (pulled from about double that amount). Not quite an obit for celluloid but close, the movie covers the history of film and digital’s historic big moments (the Dogme movement, George Lucas’ nervous Phantom Menace debut, the milestone of the digitally captured Slumdog Millionaire’s cinematography Oscar, etc.) and focuses on the historic revolution now in its final stages.

Many big names appear in the doc—among them, directors James Cameron, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and David Lynch, and veterans in the areas of cinematography, special effects, color correction and editing.

Yes, there are still a few well-known celluloid holdouts/sentimental souls (cinematographer Wally Pfister, et al.) and much anxiety regarding effective archiving of digital content. But the evidence onscreen (including amazing cameras like The Red and Arri’s Alexa, the boundless imagery and color corrections computers and their software can achieve, etc.) makes the case for digital. With its journey across so many years of film history and film disciplines, Side by Side isn’t just required viewing—it’s required second viewing.

Another top TFF doc that is powered by a story that seems too good to be true (but is!) was Sony Pictures Classics’ Searching for Sugar Man, about early ’70s Detroit recording artist Rodriguez (think poetic Dylan lyrics crossed with a rich, crystalline Donovan voice). A laid-back but charismatic troubadour, Rodriguez seemed to inhabit Detroit’s shabby streets and performed at unimpressive local venues. But his music was magical. He developed a following, sealed a record deal but disappeared off the planet after his first two albums tanked. 

Oddly, his quietly powerful, anti-establishment music re-emerged in South Africa at the height of apartheid repression when a copy of his album circulated and word-of-mouth grew. What followed is the incredible tale of how the singer, unbeknownst to him and to America, became a voice for the anti-apartheid movement and an inspiration to South African musicians and reform-minded citizens.

Things took a whole new and surprising turn when a curious South African journalist—discounting rumors of Rodriguez’s suicide—did some digging and found him living very humbly back in Detroit, where he worked steadily in low-end jobs like home demolition. Brought to South Africa, he gave live concerts in packed stadiums to many thousands of cheering fans. Besides showcasing his immense talent, this doc—alternating between a sunny Capetown and dank Detroit—also delivers, thanks to a deeply endearing Rodriguez, a picture of saint-like decency, modesty and belief in the work ethic. While solving a mystery, the film also suggests one: Who in the music biz pocketed Rodriguez’s earnings?

TFF had a handful of gay-themed films, but Music Box Films’ exceptional Keep the Lights On, from filmmaker Ira Sachs, is not just another gay story about AIDS or discrimination. Rather, unfolding in the late ’90s to the near-present, it takes a close-up and unapologetic look at the challenge of sustaining a long-term relationship and crushing the demon of drug addition. The two upscale heroes, played with remarkable authenticity by Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth, soon move in together in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood after what they thought would be a typical one-night hook-up and habitual routines of phone sex and quick encounters. There’s plenty of honesty and graphic depictions of drug use and sex play, but the film does provide insights into what love and addiction to pleasure may be about—in all their glory and horror. 

IFC had a number of strong entries at TFF, including Lynn Shelton’s ( HumpdayYour Sister’s Sister, which is a stunning example of how a low-budget filmmaker—with the right story and cast—can get terrific work up on the screen. This hugely entertaining, mostly improvised rom-com features a trio in their late 20s or early 30s (Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass)—two sisters and the male best friend of one—who get entangled in an amusing folie a trois at a family country home where they were just meant to chill. But when lesbian sister Hannah (DeWitt) and Duplass’ character drunkenly get it on one night and try to keep it secret from younger sis Iris (Blunt)—who harbors a thing for her best-bud male guest—things unnerve. 

IFC also hit the jackpot with the French police drama Polisse, about a very tight-knit team in Paris’ Juvenile Protection Unit. Using a doc-like style, filmmaker Maiwenn gives required screen time to convey the sordid nature of the work tracking abusive parents, child molesters, etc. but it’s the solidarity and personal stories amongst this motley band of law enforcers that is front and center. Sharing their personal dramas and hanging together for meetings, raids, partying and interrogations, they make a case for crowd-policing. But it’s the fast pace, forceful acting and breathless camerawork that force our constant attention.

Tribeca’s story isn’t just the strong offerings that arrived with distribs in tow. A number of orphaned gems were surefire bait for post-fest acquisition. (A Tribeca spokesperson confirmed that “a number of deals are on the table.”)

Among orphans sure to be pocketed is the fest’s multiple award-winning Una Noche, writer-director Lucy Mulloy’s U.K.-Cuba-U.S. co-production that is a perfectly cast, wonderfully performed but harsh look at Havana poverty, its victims, and an anachronistic Communist political order due for retirement.

Employing a surefire narrative with a devastating ending, this adventure, inspired by a true story, involves a trio of teens fed up with their menial jobs and grim existence. They plot and embark upon a 90-mile escape by raft to freedom in Miami that provides a lesson in better preparation. The sun-drenched images of a decaying Havana can’t gloss over real conditions there and the sharp editing and heroine’s occasional voice-overs also bolster the story here.

The film itself and its TFF awards (best acting nods to the two male leads, best cinematography and best new narrative director) signal sunny days ahead for Una Noche and the talent behind it (their amazing story continues below).

Other TFF high points were Replicas, a terrific spin (and hats off here to the Red Camera responsible for such eye-candy visuals) on a terrifying and violent home-invasion crime with undercurrents of the economic collapse and its fallout subtly simmering beneath; and Evocateur, a ridiculously entertaining biopic about the late, unabashedly confrontational TV talk-show personality extraordinaire Morton Downey, Jr. and his big, bullying mouth.

Replicas, shot in British Columbia with Canada’s Selma Blair one of the three stars, is an intense, classy genre exercise that should put to rest notions that Canada is just too nice a place to spawn mean, lean nasty business. (At least the family dog is killed off-screen.) An upscale family, hoping for a quiet vacation break at their country home, immediately gets a “welcome” visit by neighbors bearing firewood. They have in tow their son, maybe the same age as the family’s eight-year-old and maybe a nice kid like him, and all seems so country-friendly (assuming they live in a house and not a car). Small details soon accrue that something else is afoot. Also afoot is a deal in the works as, according to the film’s spokesperson, producers are fielding at least three offers. 

The hard-charging Evocateur about hard-charging Downey tracks his rise, rage, foibles and fall. Bursting with a wealth of material and research, it amasses a ton of fascinating archival footage, familiar faces (Phil Donohue, Alan Dershowitz, Al Sharpton, Gloria Allred, Pat Buchanan, the Kennedys and so many others), troubled family history (Downey’s estranged father was the legendary ’30s music and film star and his long-gone mother one of entertainment’s famous Bennett sisters), his professional rollercoaster (as recounted by former staffers and friends) and even notorious news events like the Tawana Brawley case in which Downey himself was embroiled.

On view is Downey’s immense blue-collar appeal (no doubt helped by the cigarettes and insults forever on his lips) and how he so skillfully leveraged that everyman anger embodied by Paddy Chayefsky’s iconic Howard Beale creation for Network. If an issue like drugs, gangs or the death penalty was hot-button, Downey pushed it with a force driven by his furious bias. But the story here is also how such mighty mouths fall.

On the narrative front, Free Samples, starring a remarkable Jess Weixler, The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg and the ever-engaging Jason Ritter, is ripe for pick-up. Weixler plays an aggressively cynical but lost Stanford Law dropout determined to do something artsy (and in L.A., no less), as if her drinking, partying and waking up hung over with strangers in her bed might be the right direction. When she accepts a friend’s offer to man her ice cream truck for a few hours, chance encounters with persons unknown and not change her life. Viewers of a certain age will treasure the heroine’s new friendship with an aging movie actress living near the truck. The onscreen reclusive Hollywood legend, played by real Hollywood legend Tippi Hedren, generously shares therapeutic stories and wisdom that help heal her needy new friend. (Legend Polly Bergen is also a breath of fresh air in TFF’s quirkyStruck by Lightning, about an obnoxious high-school writer wannabe who recounts his story post-mortem after meeting not so cute with a lightning bolt.)

Also distrib bait is another of the stronger gay-themed films, Any Day Now, the TFF’s Heineken Audience Award winner for narrative. This gentle and affecting tale has stars Alan Cumming and Garret Gillahunt as a West Hollywood gay couple (Cumming plays a drag performer with legit cabaret dreams; Gillahunt’s a hunky lawyer in the D.A.’s office) in the unenlightened late ’70s. They struggle against gay prejudice to adopt a drug-addicted neighbor’s severely handicapped and abandoned son.

AIDS hasn’t yet emerged as the horrific pandemic it became, but discrimination against gays continues alive and well. Cumming slips easily into his drag performer garb but less easily into his Queens, New York Italiam accent (often reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo Midnight Cowboy street rat). So more to Cumming’s credit that, playing a most fearless but selfless caregiver determined to give the boy the proper home he never had, he is the emotional motor who elicits the tears. Also affecting is the anti-gay environment within which the couple struggle (and which now looks pre-historic). The story’s highs and lows could not have had their punch were it not for Isaac Leyva as the teen with Down syndrome.

Another gay entry, filmmaker Eytan Fox’s Yossi, is a follow-up to his 2003 Yossi & Jagger. Hero Yossi (Jagger is now gone) is a closeted, solitary gay hospital doctor, obviously overworked, with warm bear-like appeal but who remains wounded by the loss of his former lover. When Jagger’s mother unexpectedly shows up as a patient at Yossi’s hospital, he awakens to old memories and pays a visit to his late lover’s parents’ apartment. Yossi then takes to the road for a much-needed break from work and meets up with an attractive young gaggle of party-ready Israeli soldiers. They and Yossi all end up at a lovely seaside resort where one of the soldiers brings the doctor back to life.

Magnolia’s lesbian-themed Jack and Diane is a different story, a murky tale of two girls supposedly in love that is (pardon the simile) as phony as a three-dollar bill. Starring Juno Temple (Brit music-prone filmmaker Julien’s daughter) and Riley Keough (Elvis’s granddaughter) as the respective femme and butch smitten, writer-director Bradley Rust Gray’s film has Temple’s Diane stranded in New York’s Chinatown, where Keough’s Jack finds her and falls hard. What follows is a free-form spin to clubs, neighborhoods, an eccentric aunt’s apartment, and horror-movie sequences that make no sense. A lot of mumbling dialogue and off-kilter framing are no help. But the mere promise of a story of two teen girls in love surely provides want-to-see value.

Cedric Kahn’s French-Canadian co-production A Better Life is a moving drama about a down-and-out Parisian chef on the outs with his beautiful Lebanese lover after he runs into serious debt developing a restaurant in the outer suburbs. Actor/director Guillaume Canet (the upcoming Little White Lies) stars as the victim of the economic downturn also left to care for his lover’s young son. Maybe or maybe not the three find salvation in Canada, but the film ought to find it soon with a distributor.

Writer/director/actor Tom O’Brien, with Fairhaven, delivers a nice but familiar and modest drama about a townie (O’Brien and the real seaside town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts star) who must come to terms with a stagnant life in the place where he grew up and where finding Ms. Right could be easier. Chris Messina as the rebellious best childhood bud who returns to a very snowy Fairhaven for his estranged father’s funeral may or may not help send the hero onto a smoother path. Rich Sommer (“Mad Men”) as the more centered member of the old clique is also an asset here.

The story at TFF was also bright on the genre front. Magnolia’s Deadfall is a pummeling, sometimes sexy, always tense crime thriller that takes place in northern Michigan’s snowy wilds near the Canadian border. Several fugitives running from the law tear through the barren wintry countryside and splatter blood and terror amidst decent local folk before landing at their slippery doorstep. The strong cast (an always surprising Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Kate Mara and Charlie Hunnam, and dependable perennials Sissy Spacek, Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams), great pacing and the remote locale make the film oh-so-watchable. No surprise that the likes of Stefan Ruzowitzky, who directed the exceptional Holocaust-themed drama The Counterfeiters, called the shots here.

Perhaps the fest’s most original genre entry was Amir Naderi’s Japanese actioner Cut, about a die-hard Tokyo film buff and film club programmer who becomes a human punching bag to raise money so he can pay off his brother’s debt to the mob. The Fight Club-ish premise and its cine-club backdrop sound impossible, but the film sizzles as both a crime tale and a passionate love letter to the greats of cinema.

Cut is also a fierce indictment of corporate profit-driven forces in the film industry that threaten cinema’s great heritage. There are numerous references to legendary directors and films (Mishima, Keaton, Bresson, Detour, Citizen Kane, and on and on). Naderi also ventures to the gravesites of several filmmaking legends. Somehow the director weaves his film-worship and genre elements into an organic whole that makes Cut a remarkable celebration of both. 

Continuing in the genre mode, a fast and furious visual style fuels the slick Sleepless Night, another Tribeca Film winner. This France-Belgium-Luxembourg co-production first sweeps viewers into a breathless Parisian car chase that has a drug trafficker (could he be an undercover cop?) in pursuit of rival dealers. When all is said and done (actually just beginning the story here), a cop’s son is held hostage as the dealers believe their rival has hidden a big stash of cocaine. 

The ticking-clock countdown allows the hero (Tomer Sisley) only so much time to recover the booty and get his son back. Recalling updated haunts of the classic Jean-Pierre Melville crime thrillers (especiallyBob Le Flambeur), the hero tears through bars, restaurants, discos and apartments in his journey through a world of exotic women and oily, pockmarked thugs to recover the stash. Director Fredric Jardin skillfully uses a dependable bag of tricks (close-ups, flash cuts, nervous cameras, authentic locales) to maintain suspense and interest.

The comedy genre came with an icky twist and lightly absurdist, melodramatic Almodóvar overtones in Spain’sAs Luck Would Have It, which IFC picked up. The story of a down and out-of-work ad exec (José Mota) who can’t get hired begins familiarly enough before the story goes loco. Distraught over yet another rejection, the loving family man decides to take a drive to the hotel where he and his wife had their wonderful honeymoon. But the location has become a dangerous restoration site because of the discovery beneath of a Roman theatre. Ignoring signs, the hero ventures forth, trips, and slams his head into an iron rod, which impales him atop the ruins. Taking a big chunk from Billy Wilder’s cynical Ace in the Hole, the film becomes a satiric window into greed and media frenzy as everyone, except his loving family, gets caught up in the race to exploit the terrible situation. In addition to Salma Hayek as the frantic wife, the film boasts a messy situation (How do you remove a guy with a rod in his brain without killing him?) and nail-biter ending that will “impale” audience attention.

Again, TFF held strong cards in the documentary genre. Tribeca’s top prize-winning The World Before Her, which looks at India’s hugely tacky, mammoth and popular Miss India Pageant and a reactionary Hindu fundamentalist camp where poorer women are brainwashed, gives a riveting picture of two of India’s ideological extremes, both of which are largely lose-lose situations for all the women.

Also with female subjects was the U.K. docTown of Runners, which takes a fascinating look at two young athletes in a small Ethiopian town where Olympic-caliber long-distance runners are born and initially train before moving on to more competitive training centers in the country.

TFF’s best editing prize went to Arnon Goldfinger’sThe Flat, which recounts the filmmaker’s unrelenting research into his German-Jewish grandparents’ past after he discovers provocative letters, documents and photos in his deceased grandmother’s Tel Aviv apartment (the flat of the title). The trail leads to revelations that his grandparents were close to a high-ranking Nazi (Eichmann’s predecessor, no less) and remained close even after the Holocaust horrors emerged. The doc is also a study of deep denial and dogged persistence. 

Andrew Shea’s Portrait of Wally, which Seventh Art will be releasing, looks at the Holocaust by way of a Nazi art theft and a Jewish family’s decades-long struggle to reclaim an Egon Schiele painting that is rightfully theirs. The sleuthing penetrates the rarified worlds of museums, billionaire collectors like Ronald Lauder and the upper reaches of governments and law enforcement.

Stephen Maing’s High Tech, Low Life fascinates with its look at two Chinese rogue bloggers who dare report stories on the Web like government-sanctioned property destruction and government-ignored pollution that would otherwise never be covered. The doc also includes close-up looks at China’s poor, whether farmers or simple townfolk, and how the bloggers find, capture and share their stories as they evade government harassment. 

Wagner fans will have a good time with PBS’ Wagner’s Dream, about the Metropolitan Opera’s challenge, triumphs and embarrassing glitches in mounting director Robert Lepage’s super-elaborate and costly Ring Cycle. Getting 45 tons of largely mechanically operated massive scenery to work isn’t exactly chopped liver. Beyond segments of the opera itself, seeing Lepage remain cool and focused and super-charismatic opera stars Deborah Voigt and Jay Hunter Morris up close and glowing both on and off stage are the greater pleasures here.

A universe away from the glorious opera realm is a dip into the ugly world of the God-vs.-science debate over creation in The Revisionaries. The doc, serious as a heart attack as they say in Texas, presents a dispiriting look at how self-righteous, downright ignorant right-wing evangelical Christians pressure the Texas Board of Education in its choice of textbooks for the state’s schools. Separation of church and state ain’t the story here.

Documentary heavyweight Morgan Spurlock’s Mansome, humorously probing the phenomenon of male grooming and featuring stars like Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, may appeal to many, but is as superficial and disposable as facial hair. 

Sexy Baby
 strains to explain how so much sex in the meme-dom may actually add up to less sexual activity. What sinks this doc is a poor choice of subjects. The hip, New York loft-living family and their precocious early-teen daughter come straight out of a phony-baloney reality show. Why should we care about the sad-soul woman who wants cosmetic tinkering on her vagina and the former porn actress turned pole dancer now turning toward motherhood?

TFF’s lesser efforts, even those with distributors attached, suggested that avoidable bad choices sink what could have been decent films. Much of the blame rests on characters we’d rather not know.

Magnolia’s 2 Days in New York, a spin on the guests-from-hell concept directed by star Julie Delpy, force-feeds us a gaggle of French people that U.S. Customs never should have permitted in. Some films like Sony Pictures Classics’ Hysteria, which goes too giggly-silly over its “Vibrators take Victorian London!” tale, and SPC’s Chicken With Plums oddity from Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi, about a mid-century, nostalgia-stricken Iranian violinist who actually doesn’t seem to play that well, just went steps too far grasping for originality.

If there was any idea behind Fox Searchlight’s Greta Gerwig starrer Lola Versus beyond a lot of wise-cracking and cool posturing, it’s not apparent, nor is any sense of compelling narrative. The Breaking Upwards team of director Daryl Wein and writing partner Zoe Lister-Jones slump a little sophomorically here. click here


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