Neely Swanson

Tribeca Film Festival: Be careful what you wish for

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page
Tribeca Film Festival

The Tribeca Film Festival takes a shotgun approach to worldwide independent film. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Covering the Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) in New York brought to mind two quotes, one famous, one not so much. The first is “be careful what you wish for, it may come true.” The second, from “The Big Chill” is by the character Meg when asked why she quit the public defenders’ office: “I didn’t know they’d all be so guilty.”

I had always wanted to go to a film festival and immerse myself in what I assumed would be a first glimpse at the cutting edge films of tomorrow. I just didn’t know that so many of them would be so bad.

And that, in a nutshell, is the Tribeca Film Festival that takes a shotgun approach to worldwide independent film under the competitive categories of “World Narrative – storytelling at its finest” and “World Documentary – the truth from the personal to the universal.”

Additional groupings were called “Cinemania – no rules, no boundaries; bursting with imaginative energy;” “Short Film Programs” (self-explanatory), “Spotlights,” a catch-all grouping of so-called anticipated new releases and festival favorites, and “Viewpoints – a snapshot of international independent film.”

TFF is huge in scope with 3,100 feature submissions for 89 slots. Founded by Robert de Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff in 2002 following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, its goal was to reignite the economic and cultural growth of lower Manhattan through a celebration of film and culture, a noble, if overarching goal that has been largely successful. Although only 12 films in each of the competitive categories are eligible for prizes, all of the films are shown in theaters throughout lower Tribeca and Chelsea.

In addition to the films, Tribeca also sponsors public panel discussions and screens some of the features and shorts online. TFF is covered in varying levels of depth by all major print and online sources, all of whom have multiple reviewers covering as many of the films as possible. And so, as the South Bay ambassador to film, I did my best to pick and choose based on a number of factors, foremost of which was the description of the film which, in many cases, was misleading. Schedule and energy level were other deciding factors.

If I were to make a couple of generalizations, the first would be that the documentary submissions were of a much higher quality than those of the feature films. Documentary as a narrative form continues to grow even as their viewing outlets continue to shrink. And the average American-made independent film is far outstripped by its European and Asian counterparts. Most of the European co-production small films that I saw at the festival deserve a wider audience and a commercial release. Most of the American independent films I saw should die a quiet death on the festival circuit without finding a distributor.

As my own personal round-up of the films I viewed at the festival, I would divide them into three categories: The Good, The Mediocre, and The Ugly.

Previously stated, my limited sampling indicated that the quality of the documentaries was generally superior to that of the features, or certainly that of the American-made features.

Documentary films: The Good (to Excellent)

“Side by Side,” a stunningly fascinating documentary written and directed by Chris Kenneally and narrated by Keanu Reeves, one of the producers, is about the differences between shooting on film versus digital media and its evolutionary progress. Interviewing some of the foremost experts in the field, Kenneally unravels the mystery surrounding the debate between the two media, going back in time to show both the perceived and real differences.

“Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,” previously reviewed in the Easy Reader, by Raymond DeFelitta revisits Greenwood, Mississippi 45 years after his father, NBC documentarian Ray DeFelitta chronicled life of its residents.

The Mediocre

“Town of Runners,” Jerry Rothwell’s latest documentary, takes an in depth look at Bekoji, Ethiopia, a rural town that can claim more Olympic long-distance champions than any other. Interviewing the local coach Sentayehu Eshetu, the film purports to follow two promising female runners who are eventually chosen to run for different “elite” clubs in their country. Unfocused, Rothwell touches on many subjects – education, sports, local politics, shoddy management, poverty, hopelessness – without ever digging very deeply into any of them.

The Feature Film category covered both domestic and foreign films – those with domestic release dates (New York and in some cases Los Angeles), those that should attract attention and those that, god willing, will never again see the light of day.

Feature films: Four Excellents and a Good

Hysteria,” an English film by new American director Tanya Wexler, is that rare film that tackles a serious subject with a generous dose of humor. Telling the story of the invention of the vibrator, this period piece set in the 1880s sets wealthy Victorian London against the backdrop of the still Dickensian lifestyle of the poor. A superb cast led by Hugh Dancy and Jonathan Pryce with able support from Maggie Gyllenhaal and Felicity Jones, make this a must see.

“Grupo 7,” directed by Alberto Rodriguez and written by Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos, is a police thriller following an elite drug unit created specifically to clean up the drug-related crime in Seville prior to the World Expo in 1992. The members of this team, dedicated and, for the most part honest, represent the bell curve of society with Angel the holy at the top and Raphael chaotic at the bottom.

As the years progress and the unit corrupts itself by stealing some of the drugs they were meant to confiscate in order to bribe junkies and dealers into spying for them, the positions on the curve begin to shift. Raphael, finding some hope in hopeless situations, becomes a voice of reason. Angel, convinced of the duplicity of those around him takes up the cudgel that Raphael has released as gradually their positions on the curve are reversed. In Spanish with English subtitles, this stunning film deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

“Death of a Superhero,” directed by Ian Fitzgibbon, working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based on McCarten’s young adult novel of the same name, has given us a thoughtful, insightful, even philosophical portrait of lives worth living, regardless of timeframe.

Donald, in remission from cancer, constantly contemplates and flirts with suicide. Nihilistic, this extraordinarily talented teenage graphic artist, lives inside the graphic novel of his mind, complete with a superhero, damsels in distress and a villain who may be the devil incarnate. No longer able to communicate with him, and frustrated that he has rejected every therapist they have sent him to, they put him in the hands of Adrian King, a psychiatrist of last resort.

Adrian helps Donald deal with the fact that there’s always an expiration date, no matter who you are, but most people are never gifted with the kind of talent Donald exhibits. His art is his light and his gift is to share. Donald, in turn, forces Adrian out of the shell he constructed long ago to shield himself from a major loss. The incredibly talented Thomas Brodie-Sangster plays Donald, the normal-teenager-turned-nihilist who needs attention and rejects it at every turn. Andy Serkis, already known by name as the king of the motion capture model, reveals depth and character heretofore unimaginable, no matter how complete his characterization of the ape in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

Available on VOD, it would be criminal if this deep, unsentimental and inspiring film did not get a theatrical release.

“Una Noche,” by Wendy Mulloy, tracks the plight of three Cuban teenagers who decide, for various reasons and motivations, to leave Cuba on a homemade raft and head for Miami. Mulloy paints a vivid picture, warts and all, of today’s Cuba. The story of Elio, in love with Raul, Raul, in love with himself, and the reluctant Lila, who won’t allow her twin brother Elio to leave without her, their motivations are well dissected. It is, at once, a story of survival, a story of dreams, and a story of dreams crashing into reality. It will keep you on the edge of your seat all the while breaking your heart.

Filmed entirely in Cuba with non-professionals, Dariel Arrechada (Raul) and Javier Nuñez Florian (Elio) shared the Best Actor in a Feature award. Complementing the theme of flight in the film, Florian and costar Anailin de la Rua de la Torre (Lila) disappeared after their flight landed in Miami for a connection to the festival in New York. They are presumed to have defected. Awaiting a distributor, it is a film not to be missed. In Spanish with English subtitles.

“Free Samples” is a never boring day-in-the-life-type film circling the activities of Jillian, a Stanford law school dropout who is utterly and totally at a loss when it comes to her meaningful place in the universe. And as is often the case in such situations, her present place is usually at a bar, drinking far too much and commenting on the losers around her, little realizing that she is one of the losers around her.

An interesting study of the slackoisie, director Jay Gammill, working from Jim Beggarly’s sly script, expertly takes something slight like sponge monkey capsules, adds water and character growth occurs. That Jillian still doesn’t know what she wants to do at the end of the film is unimportant. What she does learn is that she is not the center of the universe and that time stops for no one. Never pretending to be something that it isn’t, this film is slight and satisfying even if it, at times, seems more like a thesis film than the feature that is intended. Unlikely to get a theatrical release, it is certainly deserving of placement on pay cable such as HBO or Showtime.

The Mediocre

“Whole Lotta Sole” is a “coulda, woulda, shoulda” kind of film. Written and directed by the very accomplished Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Some Mother’s Son” “In the Name of the Father”), George tells an amusing story of circumstance, crime and punishment as he tracks the hapless Jimbo, trying to escape the consequences of his debt to local gangster Mad Dog Flynn. When Jimbo, on the run after a robbery, escapes into an antiques shop run by Maguire, an American he believes to be his long-missing father, mistaken identities, hostages, Irish gypsies and general mayhem both hinder and help the coppers, now joined by British Homeland Security working under the mistaken impression that terrorists are involved.

Somewhere in here is a farce that could have worked had the necessary fast-paced, farce-like caper not been slowed down by the international co-production presence of Brendan Fraser. The convolution of why Maguire was in Belfast and how he might or might not have been related to Jimbo was one too many strings in a film that needed to pace itself like a thriller and rise like a soufflé. Not only did Fraser slow things down, but adding a relationship between his character and that of Jimbo was the slamming of the oven door on the fluffy dessert.

This may end up with an international distributor, but its shelf life is extremely limited.

Elles,” the provocative film by Malgoska Szumowska, borders on the pornographic as it explores the life of Anne (Juliette Binoche), an upper middle class journalist for “Elle” magazine, and the two student prostitutes who are the focus of her article. With the basic premise that all women are whores, or conversely, all men are pimps, this film goes nowhere unusual, thoughtful or fruitful. With the exception of the always outstanding Binoche, this film paints itself into a corner from which there is no escape. Previously reviewed in Easy Reader.

The Bad

Tom O’Brien’s “Fairhaven” is about two lost thirty-something friends who are brought together when their third friend returns for his father’s funeral. All have desires that have gone unfulfilled and only one has reached an age-appropriate level of maturity. Personal relationship dynamics in need of a feeling of immediacy are explored in more depth on television. O’Brien never quite finds a focus around which to center the longing that all three boys/men feel.

Unlikely to get a theatrical release, “Fairhaven” seems destined for numerous rounds on the film festival circuit.

“The Giant Mechanical Man,” written and directed by Lee Kirk has one positive – Jenna Fisher as Janice, a girl whose life seems to be set in quick sand. Chris Messina is Tim, the giant mechanical man of the title, a performance artist whose medium is face paint, stilts and a shiny suit, who busks for dollars as a “people robot” (as my son used to call the immobile performers who moved only when money was fed to them). His vision of life is so different than that of his upwardly mobile girlfriend Pauline that they were always doomed to failure.

Tim is forced to take the only job available – janitor at the zoo, where he meets Janice, also forced by circumstance to take a job at the zoo working the gorilla juice concession. Two sad souls who find common ground and, in Janice’s case at least, more ambition doing menial labor.

That’s really all there is.

The acting is as fine as the little that is provided can yield. Jenna Fisher can clearly hold a screen with her wry smile, longing eyes and deceptive delivery. Chris Messina, star of the earlier (and lesser) “Fairhaven” has a look but is not compelling. And poor Topher Grace, usually so good, has been given the thankless role of a sleazy narcissistic self-help author who seems intended for comic relief (nervous laughter at best) and is the very antidote to character depth.

There is certainly no commercial viability to this film, but unbelievably, it did get a New York theatrical release.

“Nancy, Please” starts out promisingly as a Bunuel version of hell. Paul and Jen have moved out of their previous house to escape their passive/aggressive roommate, the mean-spirited Nancy of the title. In unpacking, Paul realizes that he has left his copy of “Little Dorrit” back at the old house. Irreplaceable, the book contains the notes and outline for his doctoral thesis, and unless he can produce two chapters of said thesis within the next few weeks, he will be dismissed from the program. Leaving message after message for the hateful Nancy, Paul resolves to go in person. This serves only to infuriate Nancy further and a couple of weeks pass without success. Nancy is holding not only his dissertation hostage but also Paul’s relationship with his partner Jen and, as it turns out, his rapidly deteriorating mental health.

That’s it – 95 minutes of the same dilemma over and over again. I must, however, confess that I was able to tolerate only 70 minutes and left the theater with a splitting headache. I contacted a fellow reviewer for the ending and if you don’t want to know the ending, stop reading because this is a SPOILER ALERT. Paul gets the book back.

“Revenge for Jolly,” written by and starring Brian Petsos and directed by Chadd Harbold, is a film undone by one key storytelling mistake – they give away the punch line to the joke at the beginning of the film and then there’s nowhere to go. Petsos, a veteran of “Funny or Die” has taken a 10-minute sketch and stretched it to an hour and a half. Harbold, a first time features director seems not to have understood the difference.

Harry lives an underworld life and has angered someone in power who has vowed revenge. Coming home one evening, he discovers what form that revenge has taken – a hit man has murdered his beloved dog Jolly. Vowing payback, Harry enlists his best friend and cousin Cecil (Oscar Isaac) and the two go on the equivalent of what turns out to be a Cheech and Chong movie involving lots of killing and beer drinking. The wink-wink joke for the audience is that all of this Quentin Tarantino-style violence is for a dog.

Petsos has called on many of the famous actors he’s worked with in “Funny or Die” so the guest cast is of a higher level than one would expect for a film with such a thin premise. It would have been so easy to hide Jolly’s genus until the end which would have put a much needed exclamation point at the end of the terror and mayhem. How much funnier a joke is when the punch line arrives as a surprise.

Bookended by two major releases, the TFF opened with the starry premier of “The Five-Year Engagement” (reviewed in the Easy Reader) and closed with the world premiere of Marvel’s “The Avengers.” There is no denying that the Tribeca Film Festival is a major event, it just might be a better event if thematically it represented something more than “bigger is better.”