Sunday, June 5, 2016

2016 Tribeca Film Festival Roundup

15th Tribeca Film Festival
New York, NY
April 13-24, 2016

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival again adroitly mixed new features and shorts with fistfuls of documentaries, for which the festival is becoming increasingly known. There was also a new wrinkle: TV programs, like the new multi-part documentary epic about O.J. Simpson, O.J.: Made in America, received showings on Tribeca’s big screens.

Elvis & Nixon
Of the features, Elvis & Nixon—the festival’s opening night film—was an amusingly cockeyed imagining of the fabled meeting between Elvis Presley and President Nixon in the Oval Office, with Presley railing against hippies and drugs and Nixon, while doing the same, tossing some barely concealed acid at the King himself. Kevin Spacey’s winning Nixon impersonation is equaled by Michael Shannon’s Elvis, which shrewdly isn’t just another Elvis impression, but a full-bodied (and funnier) characterization. Liza Johnson’s directing keeps this one-joke movie from ever spinning off the tracks.

In The Meddler, Susan Sarandon plays the most annoying mother ever, always bothering her daughter even while they live on opposite sides of the country: that understanding and love eventually win out is a distinct given, but that doesn’t make Lorene Scafaria’s comedy any less authentic, especially with necessary emotional grounding given by Sarandon—despite a wavering Brooklyn accent—and the delightful Rose Byrne as her daughter.

French director Christian Vincent started auspiciously with 1990’s La Discrete, then floundered for awhile; his latest, Courted—whose English title cleverly puns on the near-romance between a conservative judge and a beguiling juror with whom he has a history—is as enjoyably fluffy as his last, Haute Cuisine, especially for pairing the incomparable Fabrice Luchini with one of Denmark’s most accomplished leading ladies, Sidse Babett Knudsen.

This year’s documentaries ran the gamut from the arms trade to sex offenders to the ballet world to a last conversation with one New York’s great directors. By Sidney Lumet is essentially one long discussion with Lumet that director Nancy Biurski conducted before his 2011 death, concerning his early days in television to his film work that included a string of ‘70s and ‘80s films that took the pulse of his city (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City) and even the nation (Network, Running on Empty). Throughout, Lumet is smart, funny, personable and compulsively listenable, while Biurski shows copious clips from his most—and least—celebrated films.

In Betting on Zero, director Ted Braun documents more shady dealings on Wall Street: the case of Herbalife, a company accused of being a pyramid scheme with its investors being taken for a ride. The movie cleverly begins one way than takes an unexpected turn, asking the question: is the company a fraud or not? Even more heinous is what’s shown in Johan Grimonprez’s absorbing Shadow World, a grim look at how the global arms trade has overtaken both governments and the private sector when it comes to our current state of perpetual war.

The unbalanced American justice system is targeted in two films, clear-eyed and restrained in their venom. The Return is director Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s study of the effects of California’s three strikes law, which threw many (mainly black men) in jail for decades for as little as a bag of weed because it was their third arrest. The law, which has since been overturned, has affected families and individuals profoundly, as the directors humanely show. In Untouchable, the emotions embroiling incredibly stringent sex-offender laws passed in states like Florida are brought to the fore, as director David Feige tactfully explores all sides of an issue that is far more complex than it might appear at first glance: for example, some experts think these laws are doing far less good than they should be.

Benjamin Millepied, in some circles best known for being Natalie Portman’s husband, is an accomplished choreographer whose tumultuous first year as director of the Paris Opera Ballet is shown in Thierry Demaiziere and Alban Teurial’s fly-on-the-wall Reset. And John Greenhaigh’s riveting Team Foxcatcher—which covers similar ground as Bennett Miller’s 2014 Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher—allows many of the those directly involved to talk, including slain wrestler David Schultz’s widow, children and brother, which brings immediacy to the sordidly awful saga of crazed John E. DuPont’s point-blank murder of Schultz (DuPont died in prison in 2010).

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