Monday, May 5, 2014

Tribeca Film Festival 2014

13th Tribeca Film Festival
April 16-27, 2014

Seigner and Amalric in Venus in Fur
Having ended its 13th annual edition, the Tribeca Film Festival looks to be comfortably settling into its teenage years with a wide-ranging mix of movies from around the world. Venus in Fur, David Ives’ witty and adult play, has been turned by director Roman Polanski into an often exhilarating romp in many ways superior to what I saw onstage in New York in 2011. Set in an empty theater, this two-hander features Mathieu Amalric as a playwright-director who auditions Emmanuelle Seigner, the real-life Mrs. Polanski, for the sizzling starring part. Though far too old for the role, Seigner gleefully throws herself into it as her husband lustfully photographs her from every angle; Amalric has less to do but holds his own while keeping out of Seigner’s way. Unlike Carnage, his stillborn adaptation of the play God of Carnage, Polanski never allows staginess and talkiness to bog the film down.

About Alex, a millennial The Big Chill, follows a group of former college buddies reuniting after one attempts suicide, and the usual laughter, tears, insults, heartbreak and sexual couplings inform and shake up their relationships. Although writer-director Jesse Zwick has a fondness for the endless would-be witticisms that seem to afflict every movie nowadays, his intriguing characters are made sympathetic by an excellent cast, of whom Maggie Grace—whose last name perfectly describes her onscreen persona—is best.

Rory Culkin dominates every frame of Gabriel, writer-director Lou Howe’s study of a mentally ill young man at the end of his admittedly small rope. Too bad Howe leaves loose ends in plotting and psychology—would a family whose father killed himself leave knives lying around and car keys not hidden to be easily pilfered by Gabriel?—and the protagonist’s increasingly erratic behavior suggests narrative convenience rather than credibility, almost nullifying Culkin’s sensitive, focused performance. 

Ardant (right) in Bright Days Ahead
In Bright Days Ahead, the ageless Fanny Ardant plays a contented grandmother who has an affair with her computer class teacher 20-plus years her junior. This slight May-September affair never seems farfetched since director-cowriter Marion Vernoux’s credible characters are fully inhabited by her performers, especially Ardant, who has always effortlessly conveyed intelligence and sexiness onscreen.

Human Capital, director-cowriter Paolo Virzi’s drama about the global post-stock market collapse economy, zeroes in on a dysfunctional family whose teenage son is accused of hitting a man while drunk driving. Virzi juggles his story strands effectively and the acting is estimable: although why the festival’s judges saw fit to award Valerie Bruni Tedeschi’s fine but unexceptional performance as the boy’s mother instead of Matilde Guidi’s lancingly truthful portrayal of a friend of the son—who holds his fate in her hands—is a mystery.  

It seems that, each successive year, the documentaries programmed at Tribeca become far more interesting than the narrative features that are shown, and this year was no different. Two documentaries, The Newburgh Sting and All About Ann, were made for HBO, which has become one of the top purveyors of endlessly revealing non-fiction films. David Heilbroner and Kate Davis’s Newburgh dissects the very real possibility that four would-be terrorists sentenced to 25 years for plotting to bomb Jewish centers in the Bronx were talked into it by an FBI informant so that both the government and law enforcement agencies could tout a “victory” in the ongoing War on Terror. Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper’s Ann provides an essential overview of the life and career of Texas Governor Ann Richards, whose straight talk and homespun wit are sorely missing from today’s political scene.

Jessica Yu’s tripartite Misconception, which studies how overpopulation myths set agendas on both sides of the debate, is centered around Hans Rosling, who comes off as a slightly nutty professor as he gives his own analysis of the data. Of the three segments, the final one about a reporter in Africa who writes a column about orphaned children in a part of the world where so many go hungry that their parents abandoned them most persuasive and devastating. 

It’s been a long drought for New York Knicks fans, of which actor Michael Rappaport counts himself—he was three when the team won its last championship—so When the Garden Was Eden, a love letter to the team’s early ‘70s heyday, is an exciting look back that mixes vintage game footage and interviews with Knicks legends Bradley, Reed, Frazier and Munroe. An Honest Liar, featuring magician-turned-paranormal-skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi, forcefully illuminates how he has combated charlatanism over the past several decades; directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Meason present interviews with the still-vigorous octogenarian Randi alongside great footage of him bringing down the fake preacher Peter Popoff on Johnny Carson.

Finally, there’s Super Duper Alice Cooper, an entertaining portrait of the former Vincent Furnier, a Detroit pastor’s son who grew up from an asthmatic, lonely child to one of rock’s greatest showmen and elder statesmen. Directors Reginald Harkema, Scot McFayden and Sam Dunn smartly utilize archival interviews, TV clips and concert segments as the voices of the principal players—Alice, band members, manager, wife and admirers Elton John, Bernie Taupin and Iggy Pop—narrate warts-and-all accounts of the debauchery that went into the making a rock’n’roll legend.

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