Reviews and impressions from the 2015 Tribeca Film
Festival in New York City.
What is a film festival? Unfortunately, that’s a question whose answer almost becomes less clear when you’ve attended one. Ostensibly, it’s a program of a specific selection of films, presumably good ones. It’s also a media event and a business venture. In varying degrees, they are also celebrations of cinema. Basically, a film festival is a concentrated representation of the dialectic that characterizes the film industry as a whole — the confluence of art and commerce. And each film festival can, to a certain extent, be characterized by the interaction of these two factors. The Sundance Film Festival, historically a showcase for American “independent” film, has become a sort of business expo, where most of the films are vying for sweet distribution deals with companies like Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics. The Cannes Film Festival, arguably the most famous film festival in the world, was for years regarded by many as the standard of international cinematic excellence, but has become essentially a media blitz surrounding a line-up of the usual suspects of world cinema. The Locarno Film Festival seems to me to approach a pure celebration of film, with a focus on original, diverse, and challenging films.
The Tribeca Film Festival is undoubtedly more an economic proposition than a cinematic one. The festival was founded in 2002 as a way to revitalize the lower Manhattan area of New York City after the 9/11 attacks. Revitalization meaning, in part, getting people to go to lower Manhattan and spend money. The program of films also indicates a commercial, more than a cinematic thrust. Out of 101 feature films at the festival, 69 were produced at least partially in the United States. There were only three feature films at the festival by directors from Asian countries, three features directed by filmmakers from Latin American countries, and one feature from an African director. This makes any claim about representing the best of world cinema immediately untenable. Clearly, the festival is geared toward mostly American and European films with broad commercial appeal. The festival’s emphasis on big stars and red carpet premieres also points to this trend.
Another aspect of the business orientation of most film festivals, Tribeca included, is that many of the films are on the market for distribution deals. It’s all well and good to make a movie, but someone has to have the means to put it where people can see it, and film festivals are the primary way that “independent” films (meaning not produced by a major studio) do that. The festival is full of publicists trying to sell films and sales agents looking to buy them, and you hear a lot of chatter before screenings about market performance estimates and the like. The critic’s role in all this is clearly to help build buzz. Upon entering a Press & Industry screening, a publicist will often greet you and take down your information, and then email you later about interviewing the filmmakers and the like. You also receive countless unsolicited emails from publicists and film companies about red carpet premieres, extra screenings, and other such “MEDIA ALERTS.” The ideal film festival critic doesn’t participate in criticism so much as publicity. This holds true even for films that already have distribution, as many at Tribeca already did; the more critics are talking about a film, the more likely people are to go see it when it comes to a theater near them.
Of course, the Tribeca programmers need to get butts in seats, and much of their choices are no doubt dictated less by what they think the best films are, and more by what movies they think will get the general public to come to a film festival; hence the preponderance of films with mainstream appeal at Tribeca (Man Up, Ashby, Slow Learners, The Overnight, Grandma, Backtrack). However, I’m not so sure “mainstream” movies actually represent the types of films audiences would enjoy the most. What’s considered “mainstream” or popular is, for the most part, dictated how films are publicized, the sway of the major studios, and the general backwardness of film distribution in this country, which is dominated by a small conglomerate of multinational companies that can throw their weight behind whatever they need to. Who’s to say that if an experimental film like Lucifer was given a primetime red carpet premiere like the conventionally "mainstream" Ashby, audiences wouldn’t come in droves to the former movie? Unfortunately, a festival like Tribeca doesn’t seem concerned with asking such questions. To be fair, it would probably take some time to build a festival that would be more challenging and less safe in its choices, and they would probably lose the support of AT&T and other giant corporate sponsors. But it would mean a better and more valuable festival for audiences and filmmakers alike.
My favorite films at the festival were Lucifer and Aferim!, two of the least “mainstream” movies I saw, and my preference for these films is undoubtedly affected by my position as a critic; the more movies you see, the more you value ones that offer something new, rather than just rehashing already existing ideas, forms, and modes of expression. At a film festival, where you see a large quantity of movies in a short amount of time, and where the movies are relatively similar (all produced within about a year of each other, mostly all “independent” or “art” films, all selected by the same committee) this is especially acute, and the ones that break from the norm become even more valuable. Certainly the festival context shapes one’s interpretation of the films one sees, and maybe not for the better. At the very least, it makes similarities more similar, and originality more exciting.
The limitations of a film festival like Tribeca, or indeed any film festival, doesn't preclude the presentation of films, and there was a good deal of originality on display at Tribeca, and a lot of films that made me excited about the state of world cinema. No matter the context movies are shown in, being able to see good movies in a theater — many of which won't have a chance to be played in a theater again — is a valuable experience, and I was pleased and surprised by many of the films I saw at Tribeca. Below are reviews of all the movies I saw at the festival, in chronological order.
day 1 — Wondrous Boccaccio, Democrats, Hyena, Lucifer
day 2 — Scherzo Diabolico, King Jack, Wednesday 04:45
day 3 — The Overnight, Stop, Aferim!
day 4 — The Cut, Jackrabbit, Ashby
day 5 — Dirty Weekend, Sunrise, Being 14
day 6 — Stranded in Canton, Grandma
day 7 — Requiem for the American Dream, In Transit, Man Up
day 8 — Men Go to Battle, The Birth of Saké
day 9 — Backtrack, Hungry Hearts, Slow Learners
day 10 — Far From Men, Viaje
day 11 — conclusion
day 1 — april 16
Wondrous Boccaccio, directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani — who, I learned from the pressbook, only after seeing the movie, are “the modern-day masters of Italian cinema” — centers on a group of ten young people in 14th century Florence who flee their plague-stricken home for refuge in the countryside. To distract themselves from the horrors they’ve left behind, the group lays out rules in order that they may enjoy life and forget their sadness. One of these rules is that each day someone will present a story to the group, and much of the movie is taken up by dramatizations of these stories within the movie.
Beautifully photographed on pastoral Italian landscapes, Wondrous Boccaccio is best in these little movies within the movie told by its main characters. These sections are lively and emotionally vivid, whereas the portions featuring our 10 young people are for the most part bland and flat — partially due to the overall lifelessness of the performances — which ends up making those sections feel like filler. The film also has a deliberateness of style that fits better with the heightened formality of the “story” sections. Eschewing a traditional narrative structure and character development for variations on a few themes (love, sickness, death), the film is meditative, lyrical, and distinctly anti-commercial, which makes it both exciting and unlikely that it’ll land any sort of significant distribution deal.
Democrats is a Danish documentary about the process of writing the first democratic constitution in Zimbabwe, a process co-chaired by representatives from opposing political parties. Robert Mugabe has been president of Zimbabwe since the country gained independence over 30 years ago, but after a controversial election in 2008, a coalition government was formed and Zimbabwe began a difficult process toward democracy. Providing no historical or social context with which the viewer might have been able to understand the political climate of the country, filmmaker Camilla Nielsson reduces a lot of complex and historically contingent issues to simple dichotomies — right vs. left, democracy vs. dictatorship, freedom vs. authoritarianism, etc. Though some care is given to the portrayal of the two politicians at the center of the constitution-writing process, and their changing relationship, the film aligns itself with an uncritical liberal ideology about “human rights” and “democracy” and ignores the region’s history and larger socio-political context, leaving the viewer with little to take away other than the fairly insipid moral that dictators are bad and democracy is good. And maybe I’m picking nits here, but something about a European making a film about a post-colonial African country — a film which elides colonialism from its narrative — rubs me the wrong way.
Hyena is a British crime film that made me grimace perhaps more than any film I’ve ever seen. The whole thing was so difficult to watch that it pains me to attempt to summarize it. Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando) is part of a crew of corrupt, hardened London cops who take a cut from the criminals they’re supposed to be pursuing, meanwhile living a wild party lifestyle of endless booze and stolen coke. When Logan gets in deep with the new drug lords in town, and with an Internal Affairs investigation on his heels, all shit hits the fan, blood splatters and all. It’s a film engineered to be “gritty,” with a stylistically violent, neo-neo noir, handheld style somewhere between The Departed and The Bourne Identity.
If it was the filmmakers’ goal to make the audience uncomfortable for the film’s entire duration, they’ve succeeded brilliantly. In between countless montages of fat middle-aged guys snorting coke and guzzling Guinness in slow-motion, there’s enough Eastern European tattooed thugs bashing heads in, women being drugged and raped, and vicious stabbings to keep you on the edge of disgust for the full two hours. And if that doesn’t do it for you, there’s a heavy dose of latent English xenophobia to tide you over — both sides of the law are corrupt, the film tells us, but one side is populated exclusively by white Englishmen, the other by “Pakis,” Albanians, Arabs, and all manner of other foreigners. To top it all off, the thing ends at such a point you’d think they ran out of money before they could shoot the last ten pages of the script.
By far the best film I saw today was Lucifer, directed by Belgian filmmaker Gust Van den Berghe. An incredibly inventive, moving, and beguiling film, it would surely take several viewings to fully grasp everything that’s going on. Some preliminary thoughts will have to do for now.
Since I found the plot rather elusive, let me quote the description given in the festival materials: “An angel falling from heaven to hell unexpectedly lands in a Mexican village where his presence affects the villagers in surprising ways.” It goes on to say that Lucifer is “inspired by the biblical story,” that this is the third part of a “religious-themed trilogy,” and it was filmed with “a lens created especially for this film.” This was the only factual information I had going in, and it’s interesting to note that this description both provides you with details that aren’t apparent in the film itself, and leaves out a lot of important information. The film centers around Lupita, an old woman, her brother Emanuel, who is bedridden, and her granddaughter Maria. The family is very poor, surviving off the few sheep that they keep on their small patch of land. When a stranger passing through apparently heals Emanuel, the family and the entire village are overjoyed by the presence of an angel in their midst. When he leaves just as suddenly, their lives are thrown off balance, and it becomes unclear whether his visit was the miracle they thought it was.
The format that Van den Berghe shot the film in is called Tondoscope. Essentially, it’s a circular frame at the center of the screen. At several points, another lens is used that gives the viewer a spherical, 360-degree image, with a small hole in the center of the image, almost always directed up at the sky, which warps the sides of the image almost beyond recognition. Though apparently restricting, the circular image seemed to me to provide a whole range of new possibilities, or at least new ways of seeing. A few observations:
A circular frame, on the one hand, encloses the image. The characters seemed trapped inside the frame, or observed through something from a distance, as, say, a god looking down from above.
The circular image, by concentrating the field of view, intensifies the viewer’s gaze. A circle, which has a definite center point, seems to provide a much more powerful image-subject than the broader rectangular frame.
The camera lens and the eye are both circular.
The two most important props in the film, a church bell and a megaphone that broadcasts announcements to the town, are, when looked at straight on, a circle with another circle directly in the center. This may be a deliberate choice on the director’s part to replicate his spherical lens, but I’ve yet to discover what the significance could be.
A circular image, which makes it easier to take in every detail in a shot, almost seems a more natural format than a rectangular image. It focuses the eye of the viewer to a more concentrated area and reduces the quantity of details while augmenting their quality.
The narrative, thematic, and stylistic riches of Lucifer are many, too many for one viewing. Apart from being a sort of religious allegory, it is also a sensitive portrait of rural Mexican life which uses — unless I’m much mistaken — non-professional actors, who are brilliant and perfect for this film. Suffice it to say I’d rather have watched it three times than see several of the other movies I saw today.
day 2 — april 17
Scherzo Diabolico, a Mexican horror-thriller directed by Adrián García Bogliano, is screening as part of Tribeca’s “Midnight” program (which also includes Hyena [see Day 1 below] and 3 other films), and I wonder if the fact that I saw it about 12 hours too early affects such a classification.
Aram (Francisco Barreiro) is an apparently mild mannered lawyer who is overworked and underappreciated at the office, and under pressure from his wife to get a promotion that will likely never come. But this is a “midnight” movie, and so he’s also a psychopath. Aram plans and executes a coldly precise kidnapping of a high school girl whom he holds hostage and brutalizes, a scheme which ends up making his career aspirations come true and reinvigorates his home life. But when a tiny detail slips through his twisted and perfectly designed plan, it all falls apart — or, rather, is bashed to smithereens.
Tribeca describes their “Midnight” movies as “The best in genre cinema from around the globe.” And as a genre picture, Scherzo Diabolico is fairly successful — it’s a tightly constructed, wickedly violent, and at times terrifying thriller of the revenge-horror variety; it also features some nice widescreen photography, and a powerful, if overbearing, use of sound and music. But I like my “midnight” “genre” films to have a little more fun in them, and though this movie made me laugh a few times, the delights were far outweighed by the overall joylessness of the whole affair.
I wonder if the classification here is in part a reaction of anxiety about this group of movies — after all, there’s only five of them, while the other categories (World Narrative, World Documentary, Spotlight, to name a few) contain many more films. Assigning labels like “midnight” and “genre” is a sort of qualifier for the gruesomeness and violence, a way to assuage the nervousness that a movie like this isn’t “serious” enough for a Film Festival. “Genre” also seems to have become a euphemism for a certain type of violent movie — you’d never see, for example, a romantic comedy or a period romance in a “genre” program, even though those are as much genres as horror or thriller films. But Scherzo Diabolico fits its label, I suppose, even if it’s a largely meaningless one.
In terms of genre, King Jack fits the American Indie Coming-of-Age Drama about as perfectly as you could imagine — it’s almost as if it was written as a genre exercise for a college course. Which is not to diminish its quality. It’s a well-written, well-acted portrayal of one weekend in a teenage boy’s small town life, and has much more pleasures to offer than the “genre” movie Scherzo Diabolico. Jack (Charlie Plummer) is a rebellious teenager living an archetypical lower-middle-class life with his mom and older brother in upstate New York. He’s about to start another year of summer school, he’s constantly harassed by a group of older bullies, and he’s not having any luck with the ladies. But when his cousin comes to visit, the two embark on a weekend that will define who they are and who they’ll become (I said coming of age, right?).
The movie’s greatest strength is its earnest and vivid depiction of being a teenager in a small town, which it depicts with a specificity and richness of detail that transcends its genre trappings. First-time director Felix Thompson handles his young actors with a sure hand, offering a powerful and intimate portrait of the joy and direness of being young. Surely at least partly autobiographical, King Jack is a strong if typical first feature.
In Wednesday 04:45, Stelios (Stelios Mainas), a jazz club owner in Athens, has a failing business, a failing marriage, a dissatisfied mistress, a coke habit, and a bad case of insomnia. Over the years, he’s racked up too many debts with the wrong type of people, and when it comes time to pay he’s forced to endure a series of increasingly grave and seedy situations to settle his scores.
The movie is lit by the pallid neon gloom of the Athens underworld, the photography a logbook of lurid atmospheres — middle-end strip clubs, shadowy alleys, abandoned industrial buildings, and the like. In a way, it’s a fairly paradigmatic film of the modern, stylish crime type. But it’s a good one at that, with a pulsing forward momentum (punctuated by timed sections that build towards the titular 04:45) and a fantastic use of light and color. Besides a highly structured narrative, the film also moves according to an increasing texture of visual, aural, and thematic detail — the regular clicking of a car’s blinkers, the buzz of a cell phone, the squeak of windshield wipers; repeated lines of dialogue; the conflating of the protagonist with the son of another character, according to, of all things, their untied shoelaces; the mixing of greens and reds in many shots. As these details recur, build on each other, form swirling eddies, and overlap like a fugue, Stelios’s own premonitions begin to be understood and discovered by the viewer along with him.
Wednesday 04:45 is marked by a visceral sense of over-the-hill gloom and doom which is presented contrapuntally to the current economic situation in Greece. On the news and in conversations we hear about riots, austerity measures, the “credit” problem; and it can’t be a coincidence that Stelios and his home country both suffer from debts to foreign powers they can never hope to pay off. I wouldn’t call it an allegory, but the movie’s incorporation of modern socio-political circumstances is another aspect of its brilliant structure and attention to detail.
day 3 — april 18
The Overnight is a comedy for adults. Alex and Emily (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) are young parents recently relocated to Los Angeles, anxious about making new friends and fitting in to their surroundings. They meet Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), another neighborhood dad with a child the same age as theirs, and he invites them to dinner at his house. The couples hit it off, but as the night goes on and they get more comfortable with each other, Alex and Emily start to worry they’ve crossed the line from L.A. “openness” to flat out debauchery. A sort of comedic descent through the nine circles of marriage hell, The Overnight is a graphic and profane comedy about parenthood, adult friendship, sex, and buttholes.
What makes the movie enjoyable is its lack of ostentation; it seems to know what it wants to do, and it goes about doing it with considerable verve, and for just the right amount of time (80 minutes). The Overnight is marked by drastic tonal shifts — at one moment the dirty jokes seem straight out of an Apatow comedy, the next moment it’s a deadly serious sex drama, the next, a sweetly observed meditation on parenting. While these shifts give the film a good deal of energy, they also put its chances at commercial success near zero (not to mention the extended scenes of male frontal nudity, albeit simulated [poorly]). The movie features four great lead performances, particularly from Schwartzman, who makes the L.A. stereotype he’s playing simultaneously believable, lovable, pathetic, and exuberant, as only he could. But, ultimately, for a movie with so many jokes about cocks, pussies, and (have I mentioned?) buttholes, The Overnight ends up taking itself a little too seriously.
Among the otherwise uninteresting films in the narrative shorts program New York: Double Espresso, one stands out. Stop, expertly directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, is essentially a dramatization of stop-and-frisk policing. Just nine minutes long, the film follows Xavier (Keishawn Butler), a New York high schooler, on his way home from baseball practice. Walking along a street at night, he’s stopped by two police officers who search his bag, his pockets, and his person. By far the most harrowing movie I’ve seen at the festival, Stop’s power comes from its understated handling of its material, which serves a dual purpose — on the one hand, this happens to many people every day in New York City; on the other hand, the camera’s nervous handheld energy mimics Xavier’s cold terror. It’s a simple moment, but the film’s characterization of the power dynamic that marks these encounters made me understand what they mean in a more real and complex way than I had before.
Aferim!, a Romanian film directed by Radu Jude, is the most exciting film I’ve seen at the festival so far, exciting because of its brilliance, and because of what it suggests for the possibilities of period filmmaking. In 1835, a constable and his son (Teodor Corban and Mihai Comanoui) search the Romanian countryside for a runaway gypsy slave, whom they must capture and return to his master. Like their journey, the narrative meanders, swells and contracts, bursts into sudden fits of rage and sadness — it explodes with a visceral energy that could only exist on film.
The press notes for Aferim! give a quote from Jude: “When we speak of the past, in fact we speak of our perspective of the past.” It seems to me this film is his attempt to do the opposite, to depict a moment in time not based on a contemporary perspective, but fully immersed in the atmosphere, attitudes, customs, and culture of that period. Its frank portrayal of the epoch’s strident racism, its depiction of the organization of feudal laws and alliances, its characterization of ideas about sex, its representation of the system of slavery and ethnic power dynamics — the whole thing is perfectly done, with no sense of clouding from historical judgment, to give the audience as close to a pure experience of the past as possible. Rohmer’s The Marquis of O. and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev are the two other films that come to mind that come closest to this ideal.
A period film’s only responsibility should be to depict its period with accuracy, or at least with a commitment to a concrete and believable evocation of the period. Aferim! has done so through a novelistic commitment to research; the end credits tell us that situations, characters, and pieces of dialogue were taken from writers and historical documents of the period. And in fact its dedication to historical immersion, rather than distance us from the past, throws into relief our current attitudes in relation to past ones more effectively than anything else could.
The pleasures of Aferim! are innumerable: beautiful black and white photography, use of Romanian folk music, bombastic performances (especially Teodor Corban as the constable), crass jokes, magnificent landscapes, a boundless energy, and an exultation of the expressive possibilities of cinema.
day 4 — april 19
The Cut, a story set in the early 20th century about an Armenian refugee (Tahar Rahim) searching for his daughters, is a maudlin period piece that provides an illustrative counterpoint to the brilliance of Aferim! (see below). Jackrabbit is too awful to merit any comments. Ashby, an old-man-young-man friendship, coming-of-age story that resembles Harold and Maude (directed by Hal Ashby) and Rushmore, with little of the audacity or passion of those two movies, is a saccharine, stridently commercial movie that, overall, is pretty easy to take. It’s pleasant enough, buoyed by good performances (especially the two leads, Mickey Rourke and Nat Wolff, but also Emma Roberts and Sarah Silverman) and features a good deal of witty dialogue, but it’s derivative and formulaic to a fault.
day 5 — april 20
Neil Labute’s Dirty Weekend, a story about two co-workers (Matthew Broderick and Alice Eve) trapped on a layover in Albuquerque who slowly reveal something of their inner selves to each other and themselves, reminded me a lot of the only other work of his I’ve seen, a play called In a Forest, Dark and Deep. Both feature a bit of incest, the uncovering of a deeply held sexual secret, and a narrative that centers around two people talking. Maybe these two works aren’t a fair sample of the writer-director’s work, but the issues I had with the play are the same as I have with the movie: unnatural sounding dialogue, a keen sense of audience manipulation, and the inevitable letdown of a story that hinges on the drawn-out revelation of a secret. There are some funny jokes, but the drama feels wrenched out of a relatively banal situation, as does the relationship between the two leads.
Sunrise, an Indian film about child kidnapping, prostitution, and a police detective, assumes all the attitudes of a crime thriller without ever really becoming one. The film reprises Lang's shadow on the wall trick from M, a nice but overused motif, and the plot is opaque to the point of incomprehensibility.
Being 14 is a French film about three girls (Najaa Bensaid, Athalia Routhier, and Galatéa Bellugi) suffering the joys and traumas of friendship, boys, and parents in their last year of middle school. Shot in an ultra realist, handheld verité style that feels lifted from Maurice Pialat, the movie is a remarkably vivid portrait of adolescent, French, female friendship that at times almost feels more like a documentary about these girls than a fictional representation. Ultimately though, it doesn’t offer anything surprising in form or content, and feels like a safe effort.
As it follows the last middle school year of three friends before the transition to high school, Being 14 could correctly be read as a coming-of-age film. What’s refreshing about Hélène Zimmer’s movie is that, unlike more conventional coming-of-age films at Tribeca like Ashby or, to a lesser extent, King Jack, there’s no neatly tied ribbon around the story, no convenient narrative markers of emotional maturity; there is only these three girls and their last year of middle school. At the end of the film, they’re about the same they were at the beginning — smoking cigarettes, talking about boys and sex, cattily badmouthing other girls, dissing their parents — but because of what they’ve gone through, we understand that they’ve changed without a contrived sense of emotional maturation and a sentimental happy ending. In that way, Being 14 is a surprisingly effective portrayal of lived experience.
day 6 — april 21
Stranded in Canton follows Lebrun (Lebrun Iko Isibangi), a man from the Democratic Republic of Congo who has come to Guangzhou, China for a business opportunity — he has ordered a whole bunch of political t-shirts which he hopes to sell to a buyer in his home country before the presidential election. But the problem is, the t-shirts aren’t finished until the election is already over, and Lebrun’s buyer in the Congo no longer wants them. With debts owed to Wassim (Wassim Hasbini), the warehouse owner storing his stock, and his business partners in the Congo, Lebrun is stranded until he can find some way to deal with all these t-shirts. Reluctantly guided by Sylvie (Nana Nya Sylvie), an African immigrant living in Guangzhou, Lebrun tries to negotiate his way out of his debts and back home to Africa.
In a Q&A after the film, Swedish director Måns Månsson explained that when they arrived in Canton to shoot the film, all they had was the idea that Lebrun had ordered these political t-shirts that had arrived too late. The rest they discovered along the way; all of the characters in the film are non-professionals playing, essentially, themselves — one character, Frank (Frank No), originally served as a translator for the crew before he became a part of the film, and Sylvie and Wassim are both real people working in China. Apparently much of the film was improvised, and it has the immediacy of a documentary, treading a fine line between fiction and nonfiction that imbues the film with a palpable energy. Foremost, though, Stranded in Canton is a fascinating portrait of the personal effects of globalization. Lebrun is a French-speaking Congolese man in China on a business, who hopes to sell cheaply produced Chinese t-shirts back to his home country. He speaks English with his Chinese partner, Lingala with his Congolese partner, and French with Sylvie, who’s from another Francophone country and speaks fluent Mandarin for her business affairs. That these characters from various countries have all been brought together in this city in China, all for a bunch of cheap t-shirts, speaks volumes about the power and reach of the global economic system.
Lily Tomlin is the main attraction in Grandma, a story about Elle Reid, an aging poet and academic (Tomlin) whose granddaughter (Julia Garner) comes to her in need of $630 for an abortion. Elle, who’s recovering from the death of her long-term partner a year and a half ago and a breakup with a girlfriend earlier that morning, embarks on a journey with her granddaughter to rustle up the money, taking the two through a veritable emotional tour through Elle’s past and present. Tomlin is funny as the caustic feminist academic, and the film is likeable enough, but not particularly memorable; it goes along just about how you’d expect.
In Grandma, it’s all women: the drama is entirely centered around conflicts between women (save one scene with Sam Elliott, playing Elle’s former lover), women are in positions of power (the doctor at the abortion clinic is a woman; Elle’s daughter is a powerful business woman), and there are strong feminist overtones (mainly, Elle is a feminist poet, and the film often references feminist literature and ideas). It’s nice to see such a woman-centric movie, though that it was written and directed by a man (Paul Weitz) seems, for whatever reason, a little disingenuous. With undeniable broad commercial appeal and Sony Pictures Classics attached for distribution, expect to see Grandma playing a successful run at an arthouse theater near you in the coming months.
DAY 7 — April 22
Requiem for the American Dream stars famed academic and activist Noam Chomsky as a talking head, laying out ten principles of the concentration of wealth and power by what he terms the “masters” of society, principles which include things like “attack solidarity,” “run the regulators,” “engineer elections,” and so on. On the one hand, Chomsky does a fine job of giving some historical context to social inequality and the popular movements that attack it — like Occupy Wall Street — and this film could serve as a nice introduction for those unaware of these issues. On the other hand, Chomsky favors an inane and inaccurate cause and effect logic that has very little to do with the actual workings of the system he means to condemn.
Chomsky is appalled by the injustices he sees being perpetrated in the United States and the rest of the world, and he conceives a direct system of power in which a small percentage of the wealthy manipulate the interests of the lower classes in an elaborately disguised class warfare. Essentially, Chomsky’s main concepts — worker insecurity, the function of the tax system and the credit system, offshoring, the disciplining of labor, class struggle, etc. — were laid out by Marx in Capital in the late 19th century, and their rehashing and jumbling here, whether conscious or not, does little to throw light onto the contradictions of capitalism laid out in that text. Chomsky continually refers back to the '50s as a sort of paradise in the United States, when incomes were rising, labor unions were strong, there were jobs to be had, and all the rest of it; but what he fails to recognize is that this was not some historical anomaly or social ideal, but simply part of the larger movements of the capitalist system, in which there are rapid and dramatic ebbs and flows. In his conception, free market capitalism is in opposition to the system of corporate handouts and social coercion that have developed since then, when in fact such things are part of a necessary drive toward compound growth, which, as Chomsky fails to point out, is the essential motor of the whole global economic system, and on which capitalism's survival is contingent. For someone who claims that the terrible things going on in the economy make total sense within the system of power that’s in place in this country, he sure doesn’t let on that he has a real understanding of the underlying system.
Rather than pick on the CEO’s and corporate “masters” of society (who, as Marx pointed out, have no social function other than being the personification of capital, and thus have no other choice), whose greed Chomsky sees as the essential evil in society, rather than reciting a litany of injustice and moral turpitude perpetrated by the 1% followed by a bland call for general action on the part of the lower classes, Chomsky might make better use of his time developing some actual critique. His basic line of argument could be summed up much more efficiently and intelligently than he does here, which would then leave room for some real analysis. Not to mention that he simply has many of the facts wrong when it comes to classical political economy, the fluctuations of the market, and the contradictions of capitalism. As Zizek has said, “I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong.”
In Transit, a documentary directed by Albert Maysles and four other people, is a sweet and powerful study of the passengers on the Empire Builder, the most popular long-distance train service in the United States, which runs between Chicago and Seattle. The film traces one trip going each way, intercutting between them to give a detailed portrait of the passengers aboard each. Through interviews and fly-on-the-wall observations, In Transit paints a vivid picture of many of the passengers, from a single mother with four kids hoping to reconcile with her estranged family on a trip back home to Montana, to a nine-months-pregnant woman traveling to Minneapolis to be escape her abusive boyfriend and be with her family, to several workers either coming or going to the North Dakota oil fields, to many others. With a shocking intimacy, the film captures the dreams and frustrations of this diverse group, who are all connected by being in transit, which comes to mean different things for each of them. The filmmakers are able to draw a wonderful and intense pathos from each of these short encounters, and the movie is a simple but vivid picture of humanity. It also features the funniest moment in any film I've seen so far at the festival.
I happen to love romantic comedies. The Romantic Comedy is one of the oldest and greatest film genres, but its reputation has, rightly, taken a dive recently. Nonetheless, I always go into them with utmost optimism. Man Up was another in a series of letdowns. Before the screening, one of the film's producers made an apology for the genre and for the movie: "This is a rom-com," she said, "so just go with it." And it turned out to be one of the most self-aware romantic comedies I've ever seen, featuring a constant litany of tropes and references old and new (the "meet cute," a dramatic closing declaration-of-love speech, a simulated orgasm at a restaurant table, etc., etc.). It's a rom-com that knows it's a rom-com and can't stop talking about it. Hence the apology. Starring Lake Bell and Simon Pegg, a basically unlikeable pair, the movie is about as interesting as listening to someone talk about how much they love cheesy romantic comedies. There are a few laughs, but it's not fun or funny enough to justify its dedication to the worst aspects of the genre.
day 8 — april 23
Men Go to Battle is a modest, low-budget drama set in 1861. Brothers Henry and Francis Mellon live together on a farm in rural Kentucky. They’re struggling to get by, with a large swaths of their farm lying overgrown and unused, and as the winter approaches tensions run high between them. After a fight with Francis gets out of hand, Henry takes off one day without a word and joins up with the Union army. The brothers correspond by letter, but the war takes its toll on both of them, and on their relationship.
Whether or not they’re the product of budgetary restrictions or a deliberate aesthetic, the stylistic and technical choices of the film work perfectly for the subject matter. Employing unknown actors for the lead roles; the use of natural lighting like candlelight, firelight, and sunlight, as opposed to synthetic lighting; the absence of music on the soundtrack; everything contributes to an analog feel that replicates a Civil War ambience as well as could be hoped. Like Aferim! (see Day 3), this is a great example of a period movie — and this should be the primary criterion for all period films — that succeeds foremost by evoking a real sense of the period it depicts.
And Men Go to Battle is good for many other reasons as well. Apart from being unrecognizable and so more believable as actual Civil-War era people, the two leads (David Maloney and Tim Morton) do a brilliant job. Henry is diffident and awkward, with a deep sense of passions and resentments bubbling just below the surface of his placid expressions. Francis is strident, sociable, and quick to laughter, a laughter that only underscores the fear its meant to cover up. And the relationship between the two is one of the best and most perfectly characterized brother relationships I’ve seen in the movies. On top of all this, it’s also funnier than any Civil War film has a right to be. Though it's a modest picture, it achieves what I think it sets out to, and Men Go to Battle is a well made film that deserves to be seen by more people than will probably get a chance to see it.
The documentary The Birth of Saké, the first feature of director-cinematographer Erik Shirai, tells the story of the workers at the Tedorigawa saké brewery in Northern Japan. The popularity of saké in Japan has been on a downswing for years, with many breweries closing down and most of the others converting to modern, machine-centered modes of production. At Tedorigawa, they still make saké the traditional way — almost entirely by hand, over a six-month period, led by the Toji, or master brewer, who has been making saké for over 50 years. The small team of men live together away from their families from October to April, working seven days a week, morning till night, to make one of the most well respected sakés in Japan.
The film, in a multi-layered narrative, follows the painstaking process of brewing saké, traces the familial bonds and friendships that tie these men together, charts the passing of the torch from the Toji to his apprentice, and tells the personal histories of several of the brewery workers. The story intercuts different periods of time (the brewing season and the off season), the lives of different characters, and different stages in the saké-brewing process to construct an intricate narrative that charts at once both a linear and an emotional progression. It’s also beautifully shot, taking advantage of the lyricism of the brewing itself, moving at a meditative rhythm that matches the pace of the work.
But The Birth of Saké is also a first feature, and it suffers from an over-eagerness of style that’s characteristic of young filmmakers. In sound design, music, cinematography, special effects, even the use of color, you get the sense that Shirai tried to fit everything he knew into this film, which at times leads to extravagance and distracts from the subject he’s dealing with. There’s also a development of emotional, interpersonal drama between the brewery employees that sometimes feels forced, even coercive. A measure of simplicity, of allowing the subject to speak for itself, would make this film even better, especially with a process so full of tradition and beauty as saké brewing. But Shirai is clearly a talented filmmaker, and I hope to see more work from him in the future.
DAY 9 — April 24
Backtrack, a slickly produced psychological thriller from Australia, stars Adrien Brody as Peter Bowers, a psychotherapist mourning the death of his daughter. When a strange young patient begins to visit him, he remembers a long-forgotten incident from his childhood, and he must travel back to his childhood home to uncover familial and personal secrets long buried in memory.
The movie is a sort of Freudian nightmare, full of all sorts of pop-psychoanalytic concepts — repression, guilt, daddy issues, childhood trauma, the unconscious — which are combined with typical horror movie tropes — ghosts, cheap scare tactics, murder — to create a pretty dense tableaux of psychological and emotional terror. The most interesting thing about the movie is the way it combines psychoanalytic concepts with horror-thriller genre elements. Its basic idea is that emotional repression hides away things in our unconscious, causing guilt, a guilt that must be overcome by coming to terms with the repressed memory; the movie transforms this guilt into literal ghosts that haunt and torment Peter and who won’t rest until he has unrepressed his past. This is all put together with a murder mystery narrative, which pairs Peter with a local detective to try to solve the crime that haunts him.
A major issue with Backtrack is its failure to handle Peter’s grief over the death of his child. I don’t think it will be giving too much away to say that at the end of the film Peter has achieved “closure” over the death of his daughter. Maybe it’s just that the narrative constraints of film — the drive for that all important closure — don’t allow for a proper depiction of grief, but this seems to me an utterly false and facile conception of the way grief really works, and gives a sour ending to an otherwise solid entry in the genre.
I never thought I’d see a film that begins with a meet-cute in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant and ends as a terrifying, life-and-death psycho-drama about marriage and parenting, but somehow Hungry Hearts pulls it off. Mina and Jude (Alba Rohrwacher and Adam Driver) fall in love, get pregnant, and get married. When the baby is born, an ideological rift widens between the couple’s respective parenting styles. Mina becomes obsessed with the baby’s “purity” and controlling his contact with the outside world, and as their baby’s health suffers, Jude and Mina’s relationship begins to break down.
There’s no question that Hungry Hearts is a basically unpleasant viewing experience. From a narrative standpoint, the film makes you powerfully uneasy for the last two-thirds of its running time. But there’s also a lot to be enjoyed, principally great performances from Driver and Rohrwacher and beautiful, richly textured and colored 16mm photography. Director Saverio Costanzo also does an incredible job slowly transforming the couple’s apartment from a stylish and idyllic place of romance into an unsettling and claustrophobic battleground — mainly through changes in lighting and color and a creative use of super wide-angle lenses — that coincides with the couple’s own unraveling. Definitely the scariest baby movie since Rosemary’s Baby, though not nearly as fun, Hungry Hearts is a fine film that I wouldn’t rush to see a second time.
Slow Learners is a comedy about good friends Jeff and Anne (Adam Pally and Sarah Burns), a high school guidance counselor and librarian, respectively, who are too dorky and boring for their own good. Frustrated with their lack of fun and romance, they decide to slough off their nerdy personas and become “cool,” which they actually manage with no trouble at all. But, being cool turns doesn't turn out to be what Jeff and Anne really are on the inside, and … you see where this is going. Hey, turns out, maybe they were happier just being themselves, but you know, they learned something along the way, and they really just needed each other, and all that. It’s a painfully uninteresting and formulaic story, and at times feels so forced it’s almost as if it was written by a college sketch comedy troupe, with an uncomfortable mix of bland, sophomoric humor and bland, overserious romantic sentimentality.
When Slow Learners is funny, and it is often funny, it's because of the performers involved. Clearly a good portion of the scenes were improvised, and the leads, particularly Pally, are great improvisers. Two supporting actors, Gil Ozeri and Bobby Moynihan, are also very funny. But the laughs are spotty at best, and Slow Learners, despite some strong performances, falls flat.
DAY 10 — April 25
Far From Men stars Viggo Mortensen as Daru, a teacher in a small village school in Algeria in 1954. One night, he’s visited by a French official transporting Mohamed (Reda Kateb), an Algerian man convicted of murder, whom Daru is ordered to escort to a nearby town for trial. Encountering Algerian rebels, the French army, and others along the way, Daru and Mohamed make a harrowing journey across the desert, and form a deep friendship along the way.
Loosely based on a short story by Albert Camus, Far From Men, set during a volatile period of the French occupation of Algeria, ends up presenting a pretty complex view of colonialism. Daru is a Spanish-born man who grew up working in agriculture in Algeria, fought alongside the Algerians in his youth, and now teaches French language, geography, history, and the like to Algerian children. Though in his past he was an ally to the Algerian resistance, in his role as a teacher he has become complicit in the French colonization of Algeria, a fact he must come to terms with when he crosses paths with members of the Algerian revolutionary forces, some of whom he used to fight with. The film also paints an interesting portrait of the clash between a Western, imperial system of governance and the more traditional customs and social relations of the colonized culture.
Essentially, Far From Men is a contemporary Western, and in many ways reminiscent of Hemingway. There’s a lot of fairly typical desert photography, but the film is well made, and it succeeds mostly on the strength of its story, which is simple but effectively told. The two leads, Mortensen and Kateb, also give strong performances.
Viaje, a Costa Rican film directed by Paz Fábrega, is another movie that succeeds largely due to the simplicity and effectiveness of its story. Pedro and Luciana (Fernando Bolaños and Kattia Gonzales) have a chance meeting at a party. They hit it off, and spend the night together. The next day, when Pedro has to leave for a three-week trip to the forest for work, Luciana comes with him, and the two spend several romantic days in the forest.
At just 70 minutes long, Viaje packs a lot into its short running time. Shot in beautiful, high-contrast black and white, the film is an energetic love story that’s thrilling to watch. Largely relying on the electric chemistry of its two leads, Viaje is funny, charming, and full of longing and sadness. With handheld photography and naturalistic performances, the movie achieves an incredible intimacy and passion, capturing the budding relationship of these two characters with a searing intensity. Its story spans only a few days, but Viaje’s subtle movements track the trajectory of the ups and downs of a romantic relationship with a remarkable sincerity.
Day 11 — April 26: conclusion
The awards for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival were announced several days ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see the two movies that won all six of the world narrative competition categories. Virgin Mountain, which won best narrative feature, best actor, and best screenplay, is an Icelandic film about a very large and socially awkward man who finds romance through a dance class. Bridgend, which won best actress, best cinematography, and best editing, is a Danish film about a real town in Wales plagued by teen suicides. The Democrats, which I didn’t care for at all, won the award for best documentary feature.
The two best films I saw at the festival, Lucifer and Aferim! weren’t up for the awards, and I’m not sure why. From the description on Tribeca’s website of the films in competition this year, it seems the 12 films in the World Narrative Competition category were chosen solely on merit; those 12 are, according to the programmers, the best 12 at the festival. However, other factors might go into the selection of these movies that I’m not aware of.
Lucifer and Aferim! were certainly two of the strangest movies I saw at the festival, or at least hardest to classify, which is one of the main reasons I enjoyed them so much. Lucifer is presented in a circular format, features almost entirely non-professional actors, and has an opaque story. Aferim! is less technically experimental, but, in many ways, felt even more challenging than Lucifer; it’s a period film completely devoted to depicting the real atmosphere and spirit of the time, including uncomfortable attitudes about race, slavery, and the like. Its utterly earnest and direct portrayal provides a more accurate and critical look at what it shows us than the revisionism and sensationalism that so often characterizes contemporary period movies. These two films were also marked by a powerful feeling of enthusiasm, which is probably partly an enthusiasm for experimentation. They are clearly the work of filmmakers who are devoted to and excited about their craft, a feeling that wasn’t present in many of the more commercial and cynical films I saw at the festival.
Other films that I particularly enjoyed were Men Go to Battle, Wednesday 04:45, The Birth of Saké, Viaje, In Transit, and Stranded in Canton. While several of these might make it into the line-up at an independent arthouse theater in the coming year, most of them will probably remain unseen by most filmgoers. With no place for them at the megaplex and limited spots at smaller independent theaters, films that are harder to classify and market have little chance to be seen by the general public. In fact, probably the best way to see them is to attend another film festival. While this is one of the great things about film festivals, it also points out the main shortcoming of the system of film distribution in this country. In this way, a film festival is both a hopeful and a somber affair — hopeful because of the great movies, and somber for the public who probably won’t get a chance to see them.
//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.