Friday, April 22, 2011

#TribecaFest 2011 Report: Day 1

Today marked my first full day of Tribeca Film Festival viewing, and I used it to catch two documentaries and an indie star vehicle with about the shortest festival-to-release turnaround I’ve ever seen—The Bang Bang Club had a red carpet premiere at Tribeca tonight, and it opens in New York and Los Angeles… tomorrow. (It is going out via Tribeca’s distribution arm, which presumably had something to do with that cherry slot.) Oh, and now’s probably as good a time as any to go ahead and print my review of the strangest film I’ve seen at this year’s festival—though it should be noted, it’s early yet.

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Cameron Crowe started out as a music journalist (his experiences at Rolling Stone inspired Almost Famous, his best film to date), and has always had a barely-concealed fascination with bootlegs and studio chatter, so he’s perfectly suited to direct The Union, a lightweight but ultimately moving documentary account of John and Russell’s collaboration.

The film is also, almost in passing, a biography of the two men, and Crowe’s archaeological bent is well-employed—he trots out old tapes, rare TV performances, the works. But he’s primarily focused on the present, even if the past is always lurking in the subtext. What’s up front is production, the act of putting the album together, and to his credit, Crowe gets what feels like one of the more thorough accounts we’ve seen of the process of making an album. At the end of The Union, on the day of the album’s release, the two men play together at the Beacon Theater in New York, and in their final voice-overs, each shares his thoughts and appreciation of what the other man did for him—then and now. The words have weight. The sentiments have power. It’s a charming conclusion to a truly lovely picture.

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Mila Turajlic’s Cinema Komunisto is, as its opening titles explain, “a history of a country that no longer exists… except in movies.” As you may recall, there once was this country called Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which existed until 1991, when it disintegrated into its individual parts—Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, etc. What you may well not have known was that the man who ruled Yugoslavia, president Josip Broz Tito, was a bit of a movie nut. The Communist Party had always seen film as a powerful propaganda tool, but there was more to it than that for Tito, who supported the country’s film industry to such a degree that the state footed the bill for a central film studio—the so-called “film city.” Within that city, Yugoslavia created its cinema.

There is such pleasure to be derived from documentaries like this one—to discover this rich history, this whole world of films we’ve never heard of. What Cinema Komunisto contributes to the world film narrative is valuable, and the picture has a jazzy, crisp style—it’s fun to watch, and tells an entertaining and informative story that should pique the interest of history buffs and cinephiles alike.

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Steven Silver’s The Bang Bang Club is set during the final years of South African Apartheid, but it was made in America, so of course it’s about the four white guys who took pictures of the struggle. It is also, you will not be surprised to learn, about how one of them enters the group as the brash but inexperienced rookie, slowly earns their respect, has an affair with their sexy photo editor, and wins the Pulitzer before being hit by an unexpected death, a colleague’s drug abuse, and a hard case of existential ennui. You will learn all of those things. You will not learn all that much about Apartheid.

And yet, somehow, here I am recommending the picture—not particularly for what it is about, but how it is about it. Silver shoots his picture with a go-go energy and a run-and-gun intensity; it’s a fast movie, full of hair-trigger encounters and big, epic street rumbles and people on fire, and damned if you don’t get caught up in the breathless spirit of the thing. . The Bang Bang Club is not a great film; it’s too compromised and pat, and mighty thin besides. But it’s better than expected.

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There was a bit of a stampede for the exits around the 30-minute mark at the press screening of Beyond the Black Rainbow; that’s apparently the universally accepted minimum viewing time for critics (at least here), and some viewers will certainly make for the doors before then. You can’t really blame them; this is one weird, inert little movie, with infinitely more interest in look and mood than story. But the direction is so unwavering and self-confident, we’re drawn in anyway. A good chunk of those who toughed the movie out loathed it anyway. But there’s something wonderfully admirable about how utterly uncompromising it is.

Some sequences don’t work, not really, while the leisurely third act will surely cause less-focused viewers’ minds to wander (I know mine did) and the climax is, well, kind of anti-climactic. But you know what? I’ll bet this is exactly the movie that Cosmatos wanted to make, and bully for him. Half-measures don’t get you a movie like Beyond the Black Rainbow. He went all the way with it, and for better or worse, that’s commendable. Most audiences will probably dislike it. But there is a certain slither of an audience that it is pitched right at. They know who they are. And they’ll seek it out.

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On the docket for tomorrow (as far as I can tell, anyway): Jeremy Piven and Mira Sorvino in the snowy melodrama Angels Crest, and the documentaries Renee, The Loving Story, and Bombay Beach. Coverage is gonna be doc-heavy, folks; I’ve learned my lesson in years past. The narrative film selection at Tribeca is occasionally wobbly. The docs are almost always top-shelf. ‘Til then…

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