Saturday, April 23, 2011

#TribecaFest 2011 Report: Day 3

More docs on the docket today, in addition to the truly terrific what-if Western Blackthorn. But later for that: today was the day of celebrity sightings! Your humble correspondent spotted Harvey Weinstein on the way into a screening (I don’t think he was actually there as much for Tribeca as for some kind of special screening of Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, which is a real thing), and both Anna Kendrick and Rainn Wilson after that very same screening. Impressions as expected: Weinstein seemed powerful, Kendrick was charming and pretty (and tiny!), while Rainn is kind of a giant. That’s all I can tell you about any of them. I’d make a terrible TMZ reporter.

#TribecaFest Review: "Blackthorn"

On my way out of the media screening for Mateo Gil’s Blackthorn, I overheard someone calling it a “standard Western”—as if that would be a bad thing, if there were any such thing anymore. Making a Western these days is anything but standard; they’re enough of a novelty that it’s still worth being thankful when we get one, and not dismissing it for being less than a masterwork. Blackthorn, a Spanish production with an international cast, has touches of artsiness and a low-budget offhandedness, but more than anything, it’s a good old-fashioned dusty B oater, and more power to it for that.

#TribecaFest Review: "Gone"

The facts are these: Aeryn Gillern flew back to Cortland, New York for ten days in September 2007. He then flew to Vienna, which he’d made his new home; his mother, Kathy, planned to follow shortly thereafter for an extended visit. They spoke on the phone for the last time on October 27. Four days later, his employers called Kathy to tell her that Aeryn hadn’t shown up for work for the last two days. No one ever saw him again.

Gretchen and John Morning’s Gone tells the story of how Kathy Gillern went to Vienna to try to find out what happened to her son, and what she encountered there. It is not a comprehensive documentary, not in any traditional sense; the filmmakers do not do much of their own investigating, and do not seek out multiple sources. There is, in fact, only one interview subject: Kathy, a retired cop who is absolutely wrecked by her son’s disappearance, and confounded by the local authorities’ apathy towards the investigation. It is not a muckraking piece of journalism; it is her story. That is enough.

#TribecaFest Review: "Revenge of the Electric Car"

Chris Paine’s 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? was an earnest and well-meaning documentary, though one that was ultimately harmed by its infomercial iconography and reliance on whiny, C-list celebrities as protagonists. His follow-up, Revenge of the Electric Car, is a far stronger picture; given three years’ access to the powers-that-be behind the auto industry, Paine’s new film is less about full-throated advocacy and more about good, solid documentary storytelling. It’s a switch that suits him well.

#TribecaFest Review: "The Swell Season"

The Swell Season opens with a clip from Once, the small, lovely film that brought folk singer/songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová worldwide fame and an Academy Award. Though the process of making that film, its stars also fell in love, providing an off-screen ending happier even than the upbeat but bittersweet one that closes the picture. (Oh, um, spoiler alert.)

Their story doesn’t end there, of course. After the surprise success of the film, the duo went on the road—and pretty much stayed there, for a couple of years. The Swell Season (which shares the name most commonly affixed to the duo), directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, goes on tour with them, as they visit America and visit their respective homes (he in Ireland, she in the Czech Republic). They’re successful, they’re playing music, and they’re in love. “It’s a great life we have, isn’t it?” he asks cheerfully, as she gives him a bedroom haircut. And for a while, it is.

Friday, April 22, 2011

#TribecaFest 2011 Report: Day 2

The photo above is of Alma Har'el, whose Bombay Beach is the best film I’ve seen so far at Tribeca. (Granted, we’re only a couple of days in).

#TribecaFest Review: "Bombay Beach"

Alma Har'el’s Bombay Beach mixes documentary naturalism and observation with artful peculiarity and an offhandedly surreal quality. I’ve never seen a film quite like it. This is a compliment. It is a sometimes-tragic, sometimes-befuddling, thoroughly impressionistic portrait of poverty in the desert—specifically, in the area near the Salton Sea, once considered a prime area for California development, now a barren wasteland littered with trailer homes, discarded objects, and “the misfits of the world” (according to Red, who is one of them).

#TribecaFest Review: "Renée"

And ESPN Films has done it again. Renée, as with the best films in their brilliant 30 for 30 series, is ostensibly a sports documentary, but it is about much more than the playing of a game. Director Eric Drath profiles Renée Richards, the female tennis contender who was revealed, in the summer of 1976, to have been born Richard Raskind. A doctor, father, and amateur tennis player, he underwent surgical sexual reassignment in 1975 and went on the women’s circuit as Renée; she became a cause celebre when the U.S. Open refused to allow her to participate, insisting that she submit to chromosome testing. She ended up suing the United States Tennis Association, and won.

#TribecaFest Review: "The Loving Story"

The documentary format has taken on so many frills and trills over the past few years that it’s almost a surprise to see one that operates in such a straight-forward fashion as The Loving Story, which basically bounces back and forth between archival footage and modern talking heads. It’s not a terribly innovative or particularly exhilarating way to make a documentary these days; at times, it plays more like an episode of PBS’s American Experience than a feature film. Then again, American Experience is an awfully good show—and Nancy Buirski has made a fine film. It may not blow your hair back, but it tells an important story simply and effectively.

#TribecaFest Review: "Angels Crest"

Gaby Dellal’s Angels Crest has a palpable feeling of unease in its opening scenes, as young father Ethan (Thomas Dekker) loads his three-year-old son Nate into his pickup truck and drives him out to the woods so they can watch the snow fall. But Nate falls asleep on the way, and Ethan sees a deer he wants to track. So he leaves the heat on, locks the door, and leaves the kid in the truck. No points for guessing that this idea doesn’t work out well, for anybody.

#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.

#TribecaFest Review: "Cinema Komunisto"

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.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

#TribecaFest Review: "The Union"

By 2009, Elton John had reached a point where he was, in his words, “too young to retire, and too old to make music that was crap.” So he decided to look back, to make the kind of songs that he started out wanting to make. To do that, he decided to collaborate on an album with Leon Russell, his idol, whom he’d toured with in the early 1970s and hadn’t seen since. John became a multi-platform superstar, a cultural icon, an industry. Russell—who was always more of a musician’s musician than a pop star—was all but forgotten, doing small gigs in secondary markets. John reached out to him. They made the album. The great T-Bone Burnett produced it.

#TribecaFest Review: "The Bang Bang Club"

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 Bang Bang Club—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.

#TribecaFest Review: "Beyond the Black Rainbow"

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.

In Theaters: "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold"

Morgan Spurlock’s films are less documentaries than filmed gimmicks—clever ideas mounted breezily, but not to be confused with analysis or insight. The results thus far have been mixed: Super Size Me was such an ingeniously gonzo premise that the film’s preachiness and occasional cruelty were mostly overlooked, but the relentlessly self-infatuated and overinflated (though, admittedly, slightly entertaining) Where in the World is Osama bin Laden was panned or ignored by critics and audiences alike, and his segment in the documentary omnibus Freakonomics made Spurlock seem even more of a lightweight when grouped with real documentarians.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

#TribecaFest Preview

Well, kids, it’s that time of year again. For the third consecutive year, I’ll be cramming in as much of the Tribeca Film Festival as my weary eyes can take; the plan this year (and don’t hold me to this) is to see about three dozen of the fest’s 93 feature titles. I’ve already seen a few (and have posted reviews for three of the best, below); here’s a few more that I’m really looking forward to:

#TribecaFest Review: "Last Night"

Massy Tedjedin’s Last Night begins with a sequence that is a bit worrisome, it seems so self-consciously artsy. Married couple Joanna (Keira Knightley) and Michael (Sam Worthington) are going to a cocktail party, some kind of work function, but their time at home before, their taxi journeys back and forth, and their encounters at the event are played in fragments, hopscotching to and fro to the accompaniment of rather sad piano music. We brace ourselves for a mannered and overwrought examination of white people problems.

To some degree, Last Night is that. It is also a very good film. Does it suffer from the kind of upscale New York insularism that turns some people off of, say, Woody Allen’s movies? Sure. The characters that populate Last Night are, for the most part, wealthy and privileged, preoccupied with matters that don’t require them to cast a gaze further outward than the four walls of their fabulous downtown apartments. But when the characters are drawn with complexity, and when the dialogue they exchange is intelligent—as in Allen’s films, and as in this one—those concerns are of little consequence. Once it gets past its somewhat too-precious opening and in to the heart of matters, the picture penetrates.

#TribecaFest Review: "The Trip"

Director Michael Winterbottom and actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have met before; they collaborated on the baffling yet enchanting Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, with the two actors playing both themselves and characters in the film-within-the-film. In The Trip, an improvised mockumentary/travelogue, they’re only playing themselves—or, at least, an extension of the (presumably) comedically exaggerated personas that they played in the earlier film. The result is a giggly, entertaining treat, albeit one that overstays its welcome a touch.

#TribecaFest Review: "NEDS"

Peter Mullan’s NEDS opens in Glasgow, circa 1972; young John McGill (Gregg Forrest) is graduating from primary school, at the top of his class. His mother and sister beam; pictures are taken. The nostalgic good cheer lasts all of about thirty seconds, until John is threatened—in harsh, vivid detail—by an older kid who’ll soon be a classmate. John’s not sure what to do about it, so he goes to find his older brother Benny, a tough dropout. Benny and his buddy show the tough kid what’s what—and then bring him to John’s window.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On DVD: "James Brown: Body Heat- Live In Monterey 1979"

Newly re-released on DVD, the 1979 special James Brown: Body Heat catches “The Godfather of Soul” live in Monterey, with a performance that doesn’t quite match the sheer force of his 1960s shows, but comes pretty damn close. Brown’s live performances were justifiably legendary, a boiling mix of tight instrumentation, energetic vocals, inimitable dancing, and extraordinary showmanship; many of them thankfully made their way to vinyl, but there’s frustratingly few films of the “James Brown Revue.” 2008 saw the release of the indispensible I Got The Feelin': James Brown in the ‘60s, as well as the slightly less impressive Double Dynamite, a collection of two 1980s TV performances (after Brown was rather past his prime). Last year marked, at long last, the release of T.A.M.I. Show, with a show-stopping, name-making Brown set; now we have Body Heat, which catches Brown at what would turn out to be the end of an era.

Monday, April 18, 2011

On DVD: "If God is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise"

The things is, all Spike Lee wanted to do was make a sequel. If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise was intended solely as a follow-up to his (justifiably) acclaimed 2006 HBO documentary When the Levees Broke, which was a one-year-later examination of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That two-part, four-hour film was a riveting howl of pain and anguish; with If God is Willing, Lee intended to revisit the people he met in the first film and to track the progress of the region. And then, on April 20th of last year, the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Lee’s film was suddenly even more of a sequel than he intended.