The Tribeca Film Festival returns for its 16th edition, running at various venues through April 30. As usual, it doesn't lack for boldface names and big events, opening with Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, a documentary about the legendary music mogul, accompanied with a concert featuring some of his discoveries, folks you may have heard of named Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Dionne Warwick, Earth Wind, and Fire, Barry Manilow, and Jennifer Hudson.
Closing out the festival on April 29 is a double feature of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, followed by a talk with principal creators Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and Talia Shire. A nostalgic vibe will also be stoked by a 25th anniversary screening of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, followed by a talk with Tarantino and select cast and crew.
Other buzzy titles include The Circle (with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson), The Dinner (with Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, and Rebecca Hall), Can't Stop, Wont Stop: The Bad Boy Story, a documentary on the influential hip-hop label led by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, also accompanied, like the Clive Davis doc, by a star-studded concert.
Also, other than feature films, television, virtual reality and interactive films, and many live talks are on offer, making for a well-rounded fest experience.
However, as usual for Tribeca, some of the better films can be found if you look past the paparazzi bait and the entertainment fluff-journalism-friendly fare. Below are some titles that are worth seeking out, and which may be a bit easier to get into than the ones highlighted above. These will afford you a fest experience much longer lasting than fleeting celebrity sightings.
For more information on these and other Tribeca offerings, and to purchase tickets, visit the festival's website.
MANIFESTO (Julian Rosefeldt)
There was a weekly feature here at Screen Anarchy, organized by the inimitable editor Ard Vijn, called "The Many Faces Of ...," quizzing readers about some of the roles played by that week's featured actor.
While such a quiz would cover years of an actor's career, Manifesto, an art film in the very literal sense featuring Cate Blanchett, one of the great actors of our time, could be called a "many faces" of Blanchett, all contained in a single feature. No surprise, she steps up to the plate in a major way, putting on full display her chameleonic talents of transformation, all the more impressive for being compressed in the way it is here.
Manifesto is the feature film adaptation of Rosefeldt's celebrated installation last year which played at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Blanchett, in the guise of such personages as a homeless man, a stockbroker, a news anchor, a choreographer, a scientist, a puppeteer, a housewife, and others, acts out the text of various artist and political manifestos. Included are Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto, the manifestos of Dadaism, Futurism, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Fluxus, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Dogme 95, and many others. The artists and thinkers represented include Tristan Tzara, Guy Debord, Dziga Vertov, Andre Breton, Claes Oldenburg, Stan Brakhage, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, and many others.
The torrents of text spoken by Blanchett are embodied by her in various backgrounds - a news room, a Wall Street office, a laboratory, a news room, a classroom, a dance studio, a family dinner, a cocktail party - that form provocative contrasts to the idealistic, iconoclastic, and revolutionary statements foregrounded by Rosefeldt and Blanchett. It may seem like an impenetrably intellectual exercise, but Blanchett's prodigious talent and charisma make it not only accessible, but often quite playful and funny.
The feature film format somewhat constrains and streamlines what, in installation form, was more sonically and architecturally an immersive experience, with all 13 vignettes screening simultaneously in the Park Avenue Armory space. (The film crosscuts between the vignettes.) Also, other than Cate Blanchett superfans and art scholars, it's hard to tell what audience there'd be for this. However, for reasonably adventurous viewers, it's quite a rewarding experience.
HOUNDS OF LOVE (Ben Young)
This well-made, unnerving film, about a serial rapist/killer married couple in 1980's Perth, Australia, shares its title with a classic song and album by the British chanteuse Kate Bush, though any connection must be deeply buried, if not nonexistent.
Instead, this is a film based on real-life Aussie killers that expertly marries nail-biting suspense with psychological acuity and complexity. Troubled 17-year old Vicki Maloney (Ashley Cummings), fleeing her suffocating home life to go to a party, has the extreme misfortune to run across John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth), who have been disappearing young girls in the neighborhood, abducting, raping, killing, and burying their victims. Even in these horrible circumstances, Vicki has the perception and presence of mind to suss out that Evelyn, though completely a culpable participant, is also a battered wife at the hands of John. Vicki's plan is to use their relationship to manipulate and play one off against the other, and hopefully escape her potentially fatal ordeal.
Young has created a rather stunning debut feature, elegantly shot, with most of the violence and horror suggested rather than explicitly shown. Which means that as far as cinematic models go, Young hews much closer to Hitchcock than, say, Eli Roth, which is a very good thing. Combined with skilled, committed performers, this is a film that will disturb you well beyond the final frame, and will definitely get audiences talking.
NOBODY'S WATCHING (Julia Solomonoff)
International Narrative Competition
Nico (Guillermo Pfening), an actor in a popular soap opera in his native Argentina, decides to chuck it all and move to New York City to start fresh (if you can make it here, etc.). He does so for a number of reasons: weary of paparazzi, wanting a new locale and a new start. But most of all, he needs to escape his frustrating and doomed affair with Martin (Rafael Ferro), the married-with-kids producer of his TV show.
But it's a hard, uphill struggle. He can't get roles because his blonde looks aren't stereotypically Latino, but his accent is too thick for other roles. So he tries to make ends meet babysitting, bartending, and other odd jobs, just like any other immigrant starting at the bottom. But even though Nico can't get any roles, he's still an actor, putting up a front to his mom and others from back home, making believe he's much more of a success than he really is. But when what he left behind back home comes to him in the form of a visit from Martin, the facade he's so carefully put up starts to disintegrate.
Solomonoff tells an immigrant tale of attempted reinvention in an often cold, uncaring, big city, which is less plot-driven than observational in showing us how Nico must navigate the bewildering situations he finds himself in, and in discovering what's left of his identity and humanity when the glitz and glamour of being a famous face is taken away. This is a lovely, poignant portrait of loneliness and confusion that finds room for some gentle humor and insightful character portraiture.
HOLY AIR (Shady Srour)
International Narrative Competition
If ever you were looking for the Woody Allen of Israeli Arab Christian filmmakers, look no further. Srour gives us a view of Israel very rarely, if ever, exposed to viewers outside that country, that of the Arab Christian community in Nazareth, a minority inside a minority.
Writer/director/actor Srour is Adam, a man constantly on the hustle to get rich or die trying. Lately, he's in especially desperate circumstances, with his wife Lamia (the strikingly beautiful French-Lebanese Laetitia Eido) pregnant and his ailing father bedridden in hospital. He comes up with a bold scheme, selling air, "holy air" as a similar idea to holy water, bottled on the peak of a sacred mountain in Nazareth.
Srour's multicultural cast of characters, clashing and fighting with each other - Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Arabic - forms a vibrant portrait of this politically and religiously volatile part of the world, constantly on the hair trigger of conflict. Srour injects some caustic commentary on the commodification and politicization of religion, which is all the more potent for being embedded in smart and warm humor that is as infectiously enjoyable as it is thought-provoking.
ICE MOTHER (Bohdan Slama)
International Narrative Competition
Hana (Zuzana Kronerova) is a long suffering, self-sacrificing mother who devotes herself to the care and well-being of her family and in-laws. Unfortunately, she's saddled with two sons who are selfish, man-child pricks, who take after their deceased father. Her young grandson Ivanek (Daniel Vizek) is bullied at school and resentful of both his own parents and Hana's attempts to bond with him.
However, all this changes when, on an outing with Ivanek, Hana comes across Brona (Pavel Novy), whom she rescues from drowning in a freezing river. Brona introduces Hana to his group of ice water swimmers, and it opens up a new world for Hana. She and Brona become fast lovers, but her sons - who treat Hana more as a domestic servant than their mom - and the other family members are loath to accept this new addition to their home.
Czech filmmaker Slama, just as in his previous films Wild Bees and Something Like Happiness, specializes in contemporary portraits of families, and how these ties can often constrict those within them, and how an outside force or circumstance can expose the oppressive nature of these bonds. Slama's understated filmmaking style is deceptively simple, yet yields profound insights into character.
KING OF PEKING (Sam Voutas)
International Narrative Competition
Father and son Big Wong (Zhao Jun) and Little Wong (Wang Naixun) work together as traveling movie projectionists in 90's Beijing. However, Big Wong's livelihood is greatly threatened by the flood of pirated DVDs of Hollywood films which keep people away from theaters. Faced with losing custody of his son to his recently divorced spouse if he can't keep up with alimony and child support, he starts a side business in pirated DVDs as the janitor in a cinema, secretly recording screenings to sell discs of out of the theater's basement. His lack of moral qualms about this is challenged when his son begins to resent being forced to participate, and begins losing respect for his father.
Voutas paints a gently satirical look from the East toward the Hollywood dream factory, its insouciant cinephilia informing its humor. And though the stakes never really seem that high throughout, it's still a diverting bit o entertainment that goes down smoothly and contains funny and enjoyable moments and bits of cultural observation.
CITY OF GHOSTS (Matthew Heineman)
Just as he did in his previous documentary Cartel Land, Heineman delves into an extremely dangerous area of the world, this time in the seemingly never-ending human tragedy that is the country of Syria. In the city of Raqqa, a group of anonymous journalists collectively calling themselves "Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently" risk - and in some cases lose - their lives documenting the atrocities occurring with the ISIS takeover of the city beginning in 2014.
The story is told through members of this citizen journalism collective who exile themselves to Germany and Turkey to get the images and videos collected by those on the grond in Raqqa out to the rest of the world, to try to halt the death and destruction. However, elements of ISIS follow some of them to Germany and Turkey, bringing the risk to their front doors.
Heineman frames the important and necessary, but extremely perilous work with them being honored by a New York journalist association. This powerfully contrasts our distance in the US, even as we recognize and honor their work, from the brutal realities of the struggles in Syria. In the highest tradition of bearing witness to heroism as well as suffering, City of Ghost performs a sadly necessary global public service.
SHADOWMAN (Oren Jacoby)
Shadowman is the fascinating, disturbing story of Richard Hambleton, an artist who was a contemporary of such towering figures as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, but who is considerably less well-known than they are, even though his talent and innovation was the equal of theirs. A rags-to-riches-back to rags story, Hambleton is a picture of extreme devotion to personal expression through art, never caring for career or money, and devotion even through prodigious drug addiction, which has him teetering on the brink of complete self-destruction.
One commentator wryly notes that Hambleton failed to make the great career move of dying young like Basquiat and Haring, so that he never had the fame and the multi-million Sotheby sales. Still, he survives, and Shadowman introduces us to this nearly forgotten figure, a precursor to Banksy, who excelled in both gallery and guerilla street art. As self-destructive and blithely irresponsible as he was, Hambleton's life and art represented a rebuke to the commodification of art and creativity which remains a boldly revolutionary personal statement.
CHUCK (Philippe Falardeau)
The Chuck of this biopic is boxer Chuck Wepner, the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky, known as the "Bayonne Bleeder" for his ability to take punishment in the ring, and whose claim to fame is going nearly 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali and being one of the few to knock him down.
This is standard biopic all the way, and Schreiber is a bit too old for the part (though Wepner himself was in his mid-30's when he fought Ali), but there's a good soundtrack and some interesting period detail. And though it ends with the hoary denouement of Wepner being redeemed by the love of a good woman, the story is elevated by some of the performances around Schreiber (though he's good too). Elizabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, and Jim Gaffigan are especially impressive by immersing themselves into their characters, and bringing a bit of realism to the rather standard story structures.
BUSTER'S MAL HEART (Sarah Adina Smith)
Smith's film is notable for being the first toplining role for the talented actor Rami Malek, who holds the screen with quietly powerful command, even though it's a skillfully filmed version of tropes (divided psyche, surreal David Lynch-like atmosphere, characters who may or may not be a figment of the protagonist's imagination) that by now are over-familiar. Despite Smith's studied stylistics, she brings very little that's new to the table, and it trades a bit too much on Malek's Mr. Robot persona with a paranoid character that's too similar, adding to the general derivativeness. Still, Smith is a promising talent who hopefully will shine with material a bit more truly original.