Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012
April 18-29, 2012

Begun in 2002 to help heal post-Sept. 11 wounds in lower Manhattan, the Tribeca Film Festival, now in its 11th year, has settled into respectability with a well-rounded collection of features, short films and documentaries. That much of the festival takes place north of Manhattan’s Tribeca section (it could be renamed the Chelsea and East Village Film Festival) only shows that it has become part of the city’s cultural fabric for ten days every spring.

I managed to see 10 documentaries, 6 features and 6 shorts, all variable in quality and subject matter. Notable shorts included Every Tuesday: A Portrait of The New Yorker Cartoonists, which introduces the creators of those famous—and infamous—cartoons, and the thoroughly disarming Catcam, in which we discover the journeys a stray cat takes. There was also a pair of Neil Labute-scripted shorts: BFF, which he also directed and which telegraphs its “twist” immediately, and Nathaniel Krause’s Double or Nothing, which, though marginally better, proves that Labute is no O. Henry.

The half-dozen fiction features I saw had, despite their other shortcomings, fine acting to distinguish them. Travis Fine’s Any Day Now (above), which won the fest’s Audience Award, is a sentimental but hopeful drama, based on a true story, with the excellent Garret Dillahunt and Alan Cumming as a gay couple trying to become wards to an unwanted Down syndrome teen (Isaac Levya, compelling in his debut) in the courts in 1970s Los Angeles. In Babygirl, writer-director Macdara Vallely’s dicey material—older-than-her-years Bronx teenager Lena dates her mother’s latest boyfriend—is transformed into something delicately truthful by the natural performances of Yainis Ynoa as Lena and Rosa Arrendono as her immature mom.

Alex de la Iglesia might say a lot about how our 24/7/365 wired-in culture has overtaken our world in his satiric As Luck Would Have It (above), but despite the engaging Jose Mota and Salma Hayek as a married couple dealing with hubby’s tragic accident being beamed to billions around the globe, there’s little insight; his shallow, repetitive movie might have made a perfect short. Likewise, Frederic Jardin’s Sleepless Night is so desperately frenetic that this breathless actioner about a crooked cop trying to rescue his son from gangsters during an endless night at a club ends up exhausting rather than enervating.

The appearance of actor Chris Messina—hard-working and likeable if not very charismatic—in two films was cause for, well, a shrug. Fairhaven—written and directed by co-star Tom O’Brien—is a thoroughly clich├ęd character study of small town New Englanders, while The Giant Mechanical Man wastes a workable premise (unemployed street performer and distracted young woman meet and tentatively fall for each other) and the delightful Jenna Fischer; that Fischer’s husband Lee Kirk wrote and directed this soggy mess doesn’t bode well for their professional relationship.

Tribeca has grown into a wide-ranging doc fest. I caught ten of them, all worth seeing, if you ever get a chance. A celebratory overview of the first century and a half of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the country’s oldest performing arts center, BAM150 includes vintage clips from innovative or once-shocking shows like Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, along with interview snippets of them and others. But missing—except in a brief still photo—is the imposing presence of Brooklyn Ingmar Bergman, who brought 11 extraordinary productions to BAM, still the venerable institution’s high-water mark.

Raymond DeFelitta revisits the segregated South in the touching Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, which tells the sad story of Booker Wright, an outspoken waiter whose presence in DeFelitta’s father’s network TV documentary in the 1960s most likely led to his death. The fest’s obvious audience-pleasing documentary, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey (above), introduces Arnel Pineda, literally plucked off the streets of Manila to front rockers Journey after Steve Perry’s departure; Ramona S. Diaz directed this surprisingly in-depth exploration of the vagaries of rock stardom.

Downeast, set among the fishermen and women of coastal Maine, analyzes the politics and economics involved in getting a new lobster processing plant up and running in a cogent 76 minutes, thanks to directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin. Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat is an emotionally exhausting journey through the lives of the director’s just-deceased 98-year-old grandmother, whose life—and that of his grandfather—in Nazi Germany was more complicated than anyone originally thought.

To be shown on PBS’s American Masters series, Joe Papp in Five Acts is an entertaining look at the hucksterish but stubborn head of the Public Theater and Shakespeare in Central Park who, along with his debits—lots of poor Shakespeare—can be credited with some of Broadway’s biggest hits, like Hair and A Chorus Line. Even by his haphazard standards, Mansome is minor Morgan Spurlock, a one-note look at manscaping; a few amusing anecdotes and interviews about appearances are ruined by painfully unfunny recurring scenes of Will Arnett and Jason Bateman waxing would-be philosophically on the subject.

As relevant as it is depressing, Off Label powerfully introduces a handful of Americans dealing with our labyrinthine pharmaceutical system: some take part in experiments, others are hooked on them, still others—like the young Iraq War vet—are ruined by them. Directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher shine a needed light on a sub-culture that has been hidden from view, as does director Scott Thurman in his must-see The Revisionaries. Structured and paced like a murder mystery—which it may well be—Thurman’s film of the conservatives on the Texas Board of Education trying to rewrite history and science that differs from their religious beliefs will make intelligent viewers scratched and shake their heads at the narrow-minded arrogance on display. Thurman somehow remains objective throughout it all, to his everlasting credit.

Nisha Pahuja’s important and brave The World Before Her juxtaposes the female opposites in today’s India: beauty pageant contestants and fundamentalist Hindus. And never the twain shall meet: independent and western-leaning beauty queens are moving along in the 21st century while backwards fundamentalists are returning to the Stone Age. Pahuja’s intelligent and unblinking look at such extremism is canny, insightful and sobering.
Wagner’s Dream, Susan Froemke’s behind-the-scenes look at director Robert Lepage’s new Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, crams a lot into 115 minutes: a summary of the composer’s themes and intentions for his 16-hour tetralogy; a birds’ eye view of Lepage and his technical team approaching opera’s most daunting work; and how the singers—already under Wagner’s enormous musical demands—cope with the machinery taking up much of the production. There’s a scary moment when soprano Deborah Voigt trips and falls on the raked stage, but she laughs it off, trouper that she is. (It’s telling that afterward Voigt insists her entrance will be changed to avoid future mishaps, but no such thing occurs: Met general manager Peter Gelb would rather defend Lepage’s “vision” than his performers’ safety.) Newcomers to Wagner might not get much out of it, but Wagner’s Dream is manna for Ring maniacs.

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