Saturday, May 28, 2011

2011 Tribeca Film Festival

Tribeca Film Festival
April 20-May 1, 2011

The Tribeca Film Festival began in the spring of 2002 as the brainchild of Robert DeNiro, Craig Hatkoff and Jane Rosenthal, who envisioned an event to help united and heal New York City after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Nine years later, Tribeca wraps up its first decade entrenched in the fabric of the city’s cultural life, spreading out into other Manhattan venues and neighborhoods and slowly encroaching on the New York Film Festival (which began in 39 years earlier) as New York’s premier film festival.

Tribeca is a democratic festival comprising more than 100 features (and dozens of shorts, panel discussions and other events); so even dedicated movie buffs who can squeeze in 6 daily screenings throughout the festival would see 66. I saw a baker’s dozen which showed a maturing festival whose depth and breadth of features and documentaries bodes well for its second decade.

The deserved winner of the festival’s Best Actress award, the Netherlands’ Carice van Houten, pictured (Black Book, Valkyrie), gives a fearless portrayal of South African poet Ingrid Jonker in Black Butterflies. Her sublime, unforgettable performance overshadows the rest of Paula van der Oest’s biopic, which has good, intense sequences visualizing Jonker’s tortured psychology but too often falls into the melodramatic trap of too many similar screen biographies. But Houten is such a shattering presence that it rarely matters.

Strong performances also distinguish other features this year. In Catherine Trieschmann’s 
relentlessly downbeat Angels Crest, the accidental death of a toddler—thanks to his young 
father’s carelessness—forces a small town’s inhabitants to deal with their own inadequacies and 
prejudices. But despite a good cast led by Lynn Collins as the boy’s distraught, alcoholic mother, 
Thomas Dekker as the unfortunate dad and Kate Walsh and Elizabeth McGovern as an unlikely pair 
of lovers, the movie never escapes its own melodramatic trappings.

If you want to see the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, pictured (The General, In Bruges) knock heads with our very own Don Cheadle (Crash, Hotel Rwanda), then don’t miss John Michael McDonaugh’s uproarious The Guard, a pitch-black comedy about an unorthodox local cop in Galway, Ireland who teams with a visiting FBI agent to break up an international drug smuggling scheme. The maniacal Gleeson, who is on the same wavelength of McDonaugh’s acidic script, gives an exceptionally accomplished demonstration of how to walk the overacting tightrope without falling off. (Sony Pictures Classics; opens July 29)

Movies don’t get much more glamorous than Last Night, Massy Tadjedin’s sophisticated-looking but ultimately superficial examination of a couple dealing with temptations of the flesh and the spirit on the same night. Keira Knightley (who has never looked more ravishing) and Sam Worthington (without Avatar’s blue pigment) play the tempted couple; that he has the chance to cheat with the equally gorgeous Eva Mendes makes his predicament even more difficult, poor guy. A listless Guillaume Canet rounds out the quartet. (Tribeca Film; released May 6)

French director Cedric Klapisch’s boisterous films cram many characters and story lines into their two-hour running times. His most recent, Paris, was among his most diverting; his newest, My Piece of the Pie, wastes a superb cast (led by a luminous Karin Viard) and the director’s effortless sleight-of-hand in cutting back and forth among London, Paris and Dunkirk, a seaside town where his protagonist, an unemployed mother appropriately named France, resides. The first hour is Klapisch at his best, as the precarious global economy and small-town blue-collar struggles bump up against each other, but the second half falls apart as Klapisch muddies his message of responsibility and accountability with a shrill, feel-good revenge ending.

Director Michael Cuesta’s talent for exploring the lives of people on society’s fringes shone through in his unsettling debut L.I.E. He returns to the well again in the overly familiar Roadie, in which Jimmy, long-time Blue Oyster Cult employee, returns to Queens and pretends to be a successful songwriter and producer for the band. Jill Hennessey is delicious as an old flame building her own singing career and Bobby Cannavale (as he does in Win Win) paints another warmly funny portrait of a loser with dreams of grandeur, but Ron Eldard is a wanly unconvincing Jimmy, preventing Roadie from reaching its rather modest aims.

Romantics Anonymous is a movie that only the French (and Belgians) can get away with: an unashamedly winning fairy tale of love found between two terminally shy people thanks to her gift for making chocolate concoctions and his for running the business. Despite (or because of) its straight-faced silliness, director Jean-Pierre Ameris has made a charming 80-minute trifle, with the help of two supremely gifted performers: the delectable Isabelle Carre and the hilarious Benoit Poelvoorde. (Tribeca Film, no release date yet)

A brutish world is vividly if unpleasantly displayed in Serbian director Oleg Novkovic’s White White World, which covers up its essential grimness by occasionally letting its characters break into song. Perhaps if that device was used more coherently, the movie wouldn’t seem like such a grimy downer, even if Miladin Colakovic’s gritty photography and a splendid cast elevate it above its meager interest. The real find is young Hana Selimovic, who gives an amazing performance as the scalded offspring of a woman just released from prison after serving time for killing her husband. To tell more would ruin the movie’s tragic trajectory.

A particularly strong documentary slate is led by Shakespeare High, Alex Routau’s uplifting look at an annual program several California schools participate in, as the students—many of whom come from broken homes or have had tragedy touch their lives thanks to poverty, drugs or gangs—act out Shakespeare’s plays in their own ways, in the process getting their first chance to hone new skills and talents. Routau’s engaging movie include interviews with the program’s most illustrious alumni: Kevin Spacey, Mare Winningham, Val Kilmer and Richard Dreyfuss.

The festival’s most timely film, Revenge of the Electric Car, is a rare documentary sequel. The original Who Killed the Electric Car? showed how quickly automakers wanted to eliminate the car that could have changed their industry, and Chris Paine’s follow-up displays that, in a totally different landscape of a failed economy and high oil prices, electric cars are—surprise!—making a comeback. Such a prescient, philosophical and entertaining treatise as Revenge of the Electric Car should be must-viewing for anyone involved in “fixing” our broken economy.

The Miners’ Hymns, Bill Morrison’s provocative, dream-like reminiscence, comprises newly restored British Film Institute footage of coal miners working below the earth and their families celebrating what seemed an unassailable way of life. Morrison’s evocative imagery shows what remains of the mine locations today and provides a glimpse of a hard-working generation that sometimes gave their lives in a most dangerous, and thankless, occupation.

Yugoslavia’s national cinema pretty much disappeared after President Tito’s death in 1980. But as Mila Turajlic’s Cinema Komunisto entertainingly and educationally shows, it was one of the most stable and efficiently run cinemas in Europe for many decades. With a plethora of clips, archival footage and interviews with filmmakers, actors, producers and even Tito’s personal projectionist, the documentary is an elegy for a lost cinematic history that’s also practical: it points out that even a notable success like 1969′s Oscar-nominated The Battle of Neretva had the distinction of blowing up an actual bridge twice for a pivotal shot that didn’t even end up in the film. Maybe that could stand as a metaphor for what happened to this once-thriving industry.

There’s only one Carol Channing, and the aptly named Carol Channing: Larger than L presents the now 90-year-old Broadway legend in her element, giving viewers a tour of her eventful life and career, from her childhood to her classic performance in Hello Dolly to her finding love a man with a man she hadn’t seen in 70 years since junior high, Harry Kujilian, whom she married in 2003. Dori Berinstein’s affectionate portrait of the ultimate, if offbeat, Broadway baby is 83 minutes of pure bliss.

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