The 16th edition of New York’s Tribeca film festival screened a limited number of feature film selections (97 from 28 countries) while expanding its offerings in previews of made-for-television work and virtual reality experiences at the Tribeca Hub. Television and streaming services are allowing quality filmed content, both narrative and documentary, to reach much greater audiences than independent films can hope to achieve through a traditional theatrical release. Tribeca TV presented a world premiere episode of Hulu’s acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale (showing on the Bravo network in Canada, it’s adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel), and excerpts from a forthcoming PBS series The Vietnam War by master documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. In the area of VR, especially notable was the Earth Day world premiere presentation at the Tribeca Hub of National Geographic’s The Protectors: A Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes, a closeup look at efforts to combat elephant poaching, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, with Hillary Clinton as a surprise guest.
Enriched by a number of “Tribeca Talks” (for example, Tom Hanks with Bruce Springsteen at the storied Beacon Theatre), the festival also opened and closed with special events at the Radio City Music Hall. On April 19 a new documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives was followed with a performance by Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson among others. On April 28 the RCMH hosted a 45th anniversary screening of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II followed by a panel discussion with director Francis Ford Coppola and original cast members which can be viewed online at: https://www.facebook.com/Tribeca/.
Turning to the feature narratives, several premiered just prior to theatrical release. Co-written with Dave Eggers by director James Ponsoldt, adapted from the former’s novel The Circle underwhelms as a cautionary near-future tale in which the corporate entity of the title seeks a global all-seeing reach (imagine the end of privacy through total Internet-of-things surveillance). Emma Watson is the rising recruit, Mae, who turns the tables on founder guru Bailey (Tom Hanks channeling Steve Jobs) after her off-grid friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood) becomes a victim of this online chimera. In raising issues of accountability for invasive spying on citizens, The Circle barely scratches the surface.
Oren Moverman’s The Dinner leaves a bad taste. The centrepiece is a meeting of two couples over an absurdly lavish dinner, ostensibly to settle what to do about teenage sons who have committed an appalling crime against a homeless person. Flashbacks between courses fill in details and a backstory of conflict between the Lohman brothers, Stan (Richard Gere), and Paul (Steve Coogan), accompanied by wives, Claire (Laura Linney), and Katelyn (Rebecca Hall, also in Permission). Stan is an ambitious congressman; Paul a sour depressed former history teacher obsessed with the Civil War. Watching the four squabble one feels increasingly awful. Small wonder their kids are screwed up. As commentary on the distemper of a divided America, the Sundance selection Beatriz at Dinner, due for a June release, is much more to the point. And Coogan, a fine actor, is so much more enjoyable in another Tribeca film, trading quips and impersonations with Rob Brydon in Michael Winterbottom’s latest, The Trip to Spain.
I was also not that taken with most of the relationship movies (Aardvark, Love After Love, The Lovers, The Clapper, The Boy Downstairs, Permission, Thirst Street, One per cent More Humid, Paris Can Wait, Literally Right Before Aaron) even if they were more interesting than formulaic Hollywood rom-coms. And I had qualms about Keep the Change, which won the jury prize for U.S. feature narrative as well as an award for first-time director Rachel Israel. Brandon Polansky plays David, a 30-year old autistic New Yorker living with his upper-class parents who develops an odd romantic relationship with Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), whom he meets through court-mandated attendance in a support group. There can be sweet gentle humour in these “weirdos” desire for “normal” connection, but I sometimes had the uncomfortable feeling of laughing at the characters.
Here are the dramas that I found more compelling:
Nobody’s Watching (Colombia/Argentina/Brazil/U.S./Spain)
Guillermo Pfening won a jury best actor award for his affecting performance as Nico, an actor and gay man, in this New York story directed by Julia Solomonoff. Having left behind loves, fame and a successful career in Argentina, he struggles to make it while taking jobs as a bartender and a friend’s babysitter. The bittersweet poignancy of his new roles as a solitary immigrant is beautifully observed.
Holy Air (Israel)
Writer-director Shady Srour is terrific as Adam, a Christian Arab-Israeli citizen residing in Nazareth, with his pregnant wife. Facing financial difficulties he comes up with a scheme to bottle air from biblical Mount Precipice as filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s both a brilliant satire on Holy Land tourism and a pointed commentary on the vexations of Palestinians living under Israeli control.
King of Peking (China/U.S./Australia)
Love of cinema drives this father-son story from Beijing-raised Australian writer-director Sam Voutas. Big Wong (Jun Zhao) has an eager helper in Little Wong (Wang Naixun). But that changes after his mobile projection of old Hollywood movies fails and he resorts to selling bootleg DVDs while living as a janitor in a movie theatre. An unusual and captivating twist on growing up with the movies.
The Wedding Plan (Israel)
Writer-director Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void) excels with another story set within Israel’s Orthodox Jewish community as Michal (Noa Koler), an exasperated but determined 32-year-old woman, sets her marriage date trusting God to provide the groom. Through the human comedy of mis-matchmaking that ensues, including a trip to Bulgaria and offer from a secular pop star, will the bride’s prayers be answered?
The Divine Order (Switzerland)
Winner of the audience award, writer-director Petra Volpe also received the jury’s Nora Ephron prize and Maria Leuenberger its international narrative best actress award for her stirring portrayal of Nora, a married woman with children in a small conservative Swiss village who takes a brave stand in the fight to get women the vote (not achieved until a 1971 referendum). The so-called “divine” order of things yields to this housewife as she unmasks long-standing prejudices and mobilizes women of all generations.
Director and co-writer Amit Masurkar offers a sparkling lesson in the value of the vote in the world’s largest democracy. Newton (Rajkummar Rao) is an idealistic election worker parachuted into a remote jungle polling area where Maoist guerillas have ordered the mostly illiterate locals not to vote. But they and the cynical commander of accompanying security forces have not reckoned with Newton’s dutiful determination.
The Exception (U.K./U.S.)
At 87, Canadian Christopher Plummer can still command the screen, which he does as the aging Kaiser Wilhelm II in David Leveaux’s adaptation of a story of deadly wartime intrigue. In 1940 the kaiser and wife Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) wait anxiously in their Dutch exile as Hitler’s armies advance. Guarding them is Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) and serving them a young Jewish woman, Mieke de Jong (Lily James). A high-stakes visit by SS head Heinrich Himmler proves the ultimate test for the bond that has formed between the uniformed exception and the secret agent.
Dabka (U.S./South Africa/Kenya/Somalia/Sudan)
Writer-director Bryan Buckley used a number of Somali refugees to tell this bracing true story of how Torontonian Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters) went from living in his parents’ basement to becoming the only western journalistic voice reporting from the ground on Somalia’s lawless conflict zones and offshore piracy, leading to a bestselling book and international recognition. Al Pacino plays a crusty veteran journalist and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) Bahadur’s Somali translator and fixer in this daring improbable venture.
The 13th century strife-torn west of Ireland is a gauntlet facing a band of monks when ordered by a zealous Cistercian papal envoy to deliver their sacred relic (a reliquary containing a stone used in the first martyrdom) to Rome to aid in the Crusades. Director Brendan Muldowney fully recreates the ominous atmosphere of the journey in which religious compulsion must contend with the unholy impulses of violent men.
Ice Mother (Czech Republic/Slovakia/France)
Zuzana Króneróva is wonderful as Hana, an older woman living alone in writer-director Bohdan Sláma’s affectionate story. Escaping the nagging of several adult sons, she goes out with her grandson Ivanek and ends up joining a group of competitive winter swimmers. That starts by rescuing Brona (Pavel Novy), another elder ice swimmer with a pet hen, proving it’s never too late to find a new life of love and friendship.
Son of Sofia (Greece/France/Bulgaria) — Winner of the jury award for international narrative, Viktor Khomut gives a great child performance as Misha, a Russian boy who after his father dies is sent to Athens where he must cope with his mother’s situation in the summer of the 2004 Olympics.
Saturday Church (U.S.) — In this audience award runner-up, Luka Kain shines as Ulysses, a transgender teen who must overcome family and religious pressures as he discovers a different world of compassionate acceptance.
Dog Years (U.S.) — Octogenarian Burt Reynolds delights playing himself as a cranky guest of honour, including sending up his own screen legacy, after accepting a misleading invitation to a low-rent Nashville film festival put on by film-geek fans Doug (Clark Duke) and Shane (Ellar Coltrane).
Blame (U.S.) — In writer-director-producer-editor Quinn Shephard feature debut she also plays a lead role as the outcast Abigail in a fraught highschool setting of rivalry with mean girl Melissa (jury best actress award winner Nadia Alexander) for the attentions of a male substitute drama teacher, brought to a head through a school production of the play The Crucible.
My Friend Dahmer (U.S.) — In this adaptation of a graphic novel about the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, Ross Lynch convincingly portrays Dahmer’s troubled teenage years, the antics egged on by schoolmate “friends,” and the increasingly disturbing impulses that became a prelude to abduction and murder.
Abundant Acreage Available (U.S.) — Amy Ryan gives a compelling performance as the sister adamant about holding on to a failing North Carolina farmstead after the father dies and her repentant religious brother wants to give it to a strange trio of elderly brothers who camp out on these acres’ edge bringing their own memories.
Rock’n Roll (France) — Actor-director Guillaume Canet and actual life partner actress Marion Cotillard play satirical versions of themselves in this rowdy affair that pokes fun at the anxieties and vanities of the celebrity artistic lifestyle to the point of comic absurdity. (Quebecers, however, may find less funny Cotillard’s exaggerated imitation of a coarse Québécois patois slang, claiming to be preparing for a role in a Xavier Dolan film being shot in Montreal.)
Drawing on 19th century Estonian folklore and myth, November (Estonia/Netherlands/Poland) merited the jury’s cinematography award for its spectral black and white visual landscapes (shades of Canadian maverick Guy Maddin). Sweet Virginia took a satisfying noirish crime thriller turn as anything but what the title suggests. There were some effective chills in Super Dark Times and The Endless. While I’m not big on the horror-cult tropes typical of “Midnight” program selections, Australia’s Hounds of Love is a stunner dealing with the abduction, rape and murder of young girls. (The creepy couple involved will remind Canadians of pyscho-killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.) Lastly, the aptly named Devil’s Gate, a Manitoba-Quebec production, evokes a desolate rural outpost of menace and mystery before turning into an aliens-from-a-dying-planet monsterfest. Viewers beware.