An Offer You Can’t Refuse: 'Godfather' reunion caps a busy Tribeca Film Festival

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The just-wrapped 16th Tribeca Film Festival (TFF), beating last year’s attendance record, again introduced many worthy new films, including dozens of world premieres. And again there was an avalanche of other events (celebrities and industry insiders in talks, music concerts, TV and VR sidebars and on and on). Ever watchful of what is looming on the entertainment and media trends, TFF also introduced into its massive program a new games festival, because “good storytelling is good storytelling, no matter the platform,” said Jane Rosenthal TFF co-founder and executive chair of Tribeca Enterprises.

Again, TFF had its share of retrospectives, but nothing in the Fest’s history could match this year’s closing-night event that packed movie palace Radio City Music Hall, a celebration of the 45th anniversary of The Godfather’s release with back-to-back showings of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. What immediately followed was the kicker: an onstage reunion and discussion with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and stars including Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire and TFF co-founder Robert De Niro, who pulled the reunion together and, not incidentally, won an Oscar for his supporting role in Part II.

The patter onstage was lively but largely familiar, with tidbits shared about the studio- and Robert Evans-generated tremors that beset the Godfather shoot and the film’s wholly unexpected success. (Even Coppola’s first read of the book put it in dime-novel territory.) But some nuggets did emerge, such as Brando, on his way to an Oscar Best Actor win, not needing direction or dialogue support so much as he needed to know how he was being framed.

Films have always been at the core of TFF and remain so. This year brought 97 features, of which most were acquisition titles, though some came in with distributors. By festival’s end, eleven found deals, including Apple Music taking a big bite by acquiring both the electrifying hip-hop doc Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: The Bad Boy Story and the biopic Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, the utterly thrilling (and sounding) nostalgic sweep through decades of top pop hits and the artists behind them as it profiled, even getting very personal, the record industry giant, talent magnet and magnate who made it all happen.

The Orchard picked up the weirdly intriguing dark comedy Flower, featuring a feisty Zoey Deutch as a naughty, rebellious California Valley teen who kills time, then really kills in a crime that has her mom’s boyfriend’s severely overweight and medicated son become an unlikely rescuer. And Kino Lorber hustled Tom of Finland, the handsomely produced period biopic about the gay Finnish artist and illustrator whose notorious, porn-prone gay renderings of musclemen favoring leather and motorcycles brought him fame and fortune.

Proving that preposterous sells, The Orchard also abducted the ludicrous comedy caper Take Me, about a wig-wearing jerk heading a California startup of one, who’s in the failing business of getting clients to pay him so they can be kidnapped. Taste continues as the Fest’s ongoing mystery.

Again, this year’s lineup served up many strong films, including a number already cited in FJI’s recent TFF curtain-raiser (Chuck, The Dinner, etc.). With the disclaimer that no reviewer can entirely wipe out personal taste and has only one set of eyeballs to take in too much in too little time, what follows are brief takes on the more memorable entries.

Maybe one of the fest’s biggest surprise delights was The Divine Order, a Swiss dramedy, based on recent history, about small-town women in the early 1970s fight to win women the vote. This charming and confident film apparently hasn’t yet been acquired, but its mix of top performance and production values, magnificent scenery, and some graphic sexual content as women get liberated from the country’s archaic beliefs and widespread machismo cheating women of pleasure will generate offers. Deservedly, the film landed two TFF awards: the all important Audience Award for best narrative fiction and the Nora Ephron Prize for the film’s writer-director, Petra Volpe.

Another gem from afar but discovered late in the Fest was the World War II spy-thriller/romance The Exception, a believable what-if, suspenseful tale that has Nazis and undercover resistance partisans moving around the grand Netherlands estate (Belgium serves as a fine stand-in) where Germany’s exiled royal Kaiser Wilhelm and his staunch wife reside. Soon to hit screens through A24, the film will get star Christopher Plummer awards attention for his role as the stern Kaiser who just may be a pussycat underneath it all.

There was plenty of music to be heard on TFF screens. Dare to Be Different, a nostalgic doc about Long Island’s cooler-tha- cool WLIR radio station that, in the early ’80s, began giving listeners what they couldn’t hear elsewhere: British New Wave music and other artists on the edge who went on to be chart-toppers. The station’s m.o. was to score early imports, coddle artists who couldn’t otherwise get attention stateside, and defy bureaucracy-hobbled record labels and the rules of the industry game. Joan Jett, U2, Billy Idol, Debbie Harry and Blondie and Frankie Goes to Hollywood are just a few of the many artists and groups seen playing or commenting. Converging at a time when MTV was ascendant, genres were evolving (e.g., punk became post-punk, reggae snuck in), synchronizers loomed and audiences craved something different, WLIR was in the eye of a huge storm shaking rock ’n’ roll. The WLIR team also comes alive here, but things didn’t end well for the station.

Also teeming with music but ending far more tragically was the doc Whitney: Can I Be Me, from well-known British documentarian Nick Broomfield. This is a sad and startling, detailed look at Whitney Houston, who triumphed in music, then film (The Bodyguard), but lost it all, her life included, to a drug addiction she could not shake. The doc includes never-before-seen footage from her last world tour at the turn of the new century and much other material bringing alive the artist who even surpassed The Beatles with consecutive number-one hits. Her fall is enshrouded in questions surrounding her relationships with a younger, streetwise husband and a longtime loyal girlfriend with whom she might have had a gay relationship. In spite of so much success, Houston was insecure. Not helping were notions that she was not black enough or, claimed others in gay quarters, not gay enough. Motherhood, fame and wealth were just not enough to save her.

TFF had a handful of strong gay-themed films, two of which brought alive the new and older Greenwich Village. In Saturday Church, both today’s Greenwich Village and the Bronx converge in its music-propelled tale of a black Bronx teen, who, living under the harsh rule of a disapproving, devout aunt, escapes to the Village, where his life changes. As the young lead, Luka Kain delivers a stunning, career-launching performance, but he told FJI that he’s currently applying to colleges where he’ll be a math or science major. Debuting writer-director Damon Cardasis, agreeing that his music-inflected film has touches of both La La Land and Moonlight, will assuredly be moving onward in film.

The doc The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson focuses on tireless activist Victoria Cruz’s dogged search for details behind the unexplained 1992 drowning death or even murder of her transgender activist friend and self-described “street queen” Marsha P. Johnson, who helped instigate the Stonewall riots. Her body was found below a Village pier when the piers back then were a dingy, dangerous no-man’s-land for many a romping gay man. As Cruz digs, the doc provides a detailed look back at the gay-lib movement, the Stonewall confrontation that drove it and the well-known personalities and Village fixtures like Randy Wicker and Vito Russo who were forces in the movement.

Besides Flower, TFF served up other contemporary narrative works showcasing young women questioning their lives. Both One Percent More Humid and The Boy Downstairs had female writer-directors behind cameras. The former film co-stars Juno Temple in a story of friendships and love affairs tested during a summer vacation meant to ease the stress of growing up. But a past trauma involving a deadly accident and a current affair with a married man (Alessandro Nivola) interfere. For the much lighter The Boy Downstairs, debuting writer-director Sophie Brooks tapped Zosia Mamet in a sometimes touching but often wisecracking, familiar look at hip Brooklyn Millennials dealing with career and romantic pangs. Mamet’s familiar character, a striving writer working in a bridal store, dumps her boyfriend, but that’s only the beginning of what could turn out to be true love in a film that even plays it cool at the end.

Also in the young and contemporary corner (and it looked like Brooklyn again) but far more polished was Permission, which has a couple who were college sweethearts finally on the brink of tying the knot when they agree to first experiment with an open relationship. Blessed with more great performances from Brits playing Americans (Dan Stevens and Rebecca Hall are the couple testing the hot tub waters) and a great supporting cast (Gina Gershon as a steamy, rich divorcée, Jason Sudeikis as a nice guy, among others), this entertaining piece is firmly footed in the tried and true values of solid filmmaking, storytelling and playing it inclusive by throwing in a gay thread.

A number of small, sweet films came from afar and were absolutely worth savoring, not just for their foreign flavors. Ice Mother, a family drama with charm, has a Czech mother in the middle of an ongoing squabble with her adult sons but distracted by an almost-as-needy grandchild and love of swimming. A celebration of both cinema and family, King of Peking, made in China by some film-savvy Chinese-Canadians, is a charming memory piece about a little kid (who as an adult connects the narrative in voiceover) and his dad, separated from the mother, who run a kind of shabby traveling circus of film screenings in impromptu spaces and with equipment that is museum or junkyard-worthy.

From Israel came high-concept with some charm and suspense in The Wedding Plan, the story of a young Orthodox Israeli woman so determined to get married and in style that she prepares a wedding with all the trimmings but without a groom.

From an entirely different cinematic planet came a handful of often-troubling docs exposing human dysfunction. Utterly mind-blowing and deeply disturbing was The Family I Had, which provides an almost too close-up look at a trio of estranged family members: an extremely wealthy, much-married older Tennessee woman who apparently murdered her mobster husband (although she was acquitted); her estranged daughter living in Texas, who fought drug addiction in her teens when she gave birth to a 13-year-old gifted son; and, to round out a troubled trio, that son, now a young man in his early 20s serving a life sentence for violently murdering his four-year-old sister for no other reason than jealousy. Whether the estranged mother and daughter will reunite gives the doc tension, but deep mystery emanates from the fact that all three principals talk so freely and openly for the doc.

A Gray State also goes wacky and gripping (the tip-off is master filmmaker of the unusual, Werner Herzog, as executive producer) in its true and complex story of a dynamic, charismatic young Minnesota ex-soldier and battle- and weapons-obsessed alt-right fanatic turned wannabe filmmaker with a smart and lovely wife and sweet little girl. But the guy apparently slaughtered his family, then killed himself at their home in 2014. The horrific incident (he’s still unproven as the culprit) came on the heels of his manic attempts over a few years to become a filmmaker and get a project off the ground. Mad obsession seems to be at the heart of this tragedy, which is also a peephole into a filmmaker’s psyche. But in spite of a doc so rich in material, the guy completely eludes comprehension.

Shadowman gives us artist Richard Hambleton, the once-handsome (a Chet Baker lookalike), once-acclaimed painter (big gallery shows, a spread in LIFE magazine, etc.) and drug addict/lower Manhattan denizen in its struggling-artist heyday decades ago (think Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was a pal). Considered an artistic genius and successful with the ladies, Hambleton achieved what would bring others a measure of stability, but he couldn’t shake the addiction, became homeless, didn’t really care about his art and apparently today lives with the habit and other health issues. Archival footage and interviews with familiar faces of the downtown scene enrich this artist’s portrait. Art dealers still believe in him.

The Sensitives tries but doesn’t quite make the case for its various afflicted subjects who live on the margins of society, claiming they are hypersensitive to chemicals, broadband waves, even smells. With no input from medical experts, some viewers will suspect it’s mental, not physical, illness that plagues these often likeable sad souls.

Several worthy docs brought needed context to the endless, usually violent news footage over the years covering ongoing Middle East problems. Filmmaker/adventurer Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS did just that by providing ample history and commentary from families who’ve suffered and from experts. Hondros goes more personal by profiling the colorful award-winning war photographer Chris Hondros, who enthusiastically hit many of the world’s hot spots, losing his life in one, Libya, in 2011. What impresses but in a negative way is his curious relish for the violence and danger that attract him. More gentle but with its own menace is When God Sleeps, which follows a dissident Iranian pop singer/outspoken activist fleeing for his life to Germany after falling into the crosshairs of Iran’s religious extremists who declare a fatwa against him. And City of Ghosts chronicles the lives of some middle-class activists who have fled war-torn Raqqa, Syria to Turkey, where they help spread news from contacts inside the once-livable town, which is literally being blown apart day by day.

Film as primarily a visual medium was foremost with several entries, including the ironically titled neo-noir thriller Sweet Virginia, a worthy-of-pickup, drama-packed cat-and-mouse yarn set in a small Alaskan valley town, and the Estonian horror entry November (winner of TFF’s Best Cinematography award). While the contemporary story in the former unfolds traditionally, November has its strange, retrograde tale drowning in dark, weird set-pieces, haunting locations and production design that carefully calibrated black-and-white can deliver. However different, both films ratcheted up stunning visuals and pervasive mood to the max.

Besides the Clive Davis and Whitney Houston films, most notable among TFF’s exceptional bio-docs was Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, which, using newly discovered interview audio tapes when Lamarr was in her 70s and many film clips and early to late archival material, goes deep into her remarkable life and Hollywood career as one of its biggest stars. Equally important, the doc illuminates her remarkable scientific work as a co-discoverer during World War II of a secret communication system with “frequency hopping” at its core (technology she contrived that makes things like GPS, Bluetooth and WiFi possible today). Lamarr (Louis B. Mayer gave her the name after he met the young Viennese Jewish emigré in pre-war London), who was infamous for her sexy early-’30s role in Ecstasy, was much married but produced two children who, interviewed on-camera, still love her today. She lived life broadly, bravely, enthusiastically, and would have won an Auntie Mame Seal of Approval were it to exist. But it’s her scientific work, well-documented here, and even the success of Hidden Figures that should un-stall one of the many fiction films about her that for years have been in the works.

Other biopics that should be caught include Frank Serpico, about the New York whistleblower cop/plainclothesman who in the late ’60s exposed police corruption and inspired Sidney Lumet’s acclaimed Al Pacino-starrer Serpico. A cool dude and very real back then and now, he’s alive, kicking more slowly, and serenely living simply in upstate New York.

Even for those who don’t quite “get” comedian Gilbert Gottfried or who are put off by his often really filthy brand of humor, the doc Gilbert gives us an endearing look at this surprisingly conventional Brooklyn-born family man and preternaturally driven entertainer who lovingly manages husband/father roles while manically traveling the dive-y standup comedian trail of lower-end venues and hotels where he compulsively pockets giveaway soaps, towels and the like that he methodically hoards in his multi-million-dollar New York co-op.

There were also a number of art-themed films that deservedly got the artful or at least the fine craftsmanship they deserved. Among the very best was Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World, which provided food (really a meal) for thought to skeptics and doubters who see the mad, frenzied world of contemporary art more about business than art. Filmmaker Barry Avrich, no stranger to entertainment and matters that perk attention, canvases (sorry) the art world by way of interviews from all corners: artists, experts, gallery owners, auctioneers, museum directors, et al., and unsparing journalists like one from Vanity Fair who sees an emperor with no clothes. What emerges from this very slick, handsome, not-so-blurred world is the sharp conclusion that it’s stock market dynamics, not aesthetics, that move the product into the billion-dollar range, even if on occasion that product looks like art.

Contemporary artist and acclaimed filmmaker Julian Schnabel got his own show at TFF with Cohen Media Group’s Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait, where emphasis was less on his output than on his outlook and very comfortable personal life. Friends like Al Pacino, Willem Dafoe and Emmanuelle Seigner drop by, but archival and background material and commentary from his grown children help fill in a nice picture, including scenes at Schnabel’s West Village and Montauk residences, of a life being deservedly well-lived.

Art was also alive in the narrative-fiction category by way of filmmaker/star Laurie Simmons’ sweet vanity project My Art, about a clearly comfortable single, sixty-something downtown New York performance artist (Simmons stars) with a weakness for old Hollywood movies, who retreats to a vacationing friend’s lovely upstate retreat to regain her creative mojo and maybe get a little romance in.

Two docs are important in exposing poverty as hobbling the recovery of decent people. True Conviction showcases several former long-term Texas prisoners who were wrongly incarcerated but now band together to help others unjustly incarcerated. That one slips back into crime has much to do with the fact that he could not get back on his feet financially. And For Ahkeem takes a close look at a Missouri teen and young mother saddled with a boyfriend prone to trouble. She manages to graduate from high school, but the doc suggests that the poor environment around her may hold her back from that bigger thing called life.

Among the most entertaining of TFF’s always strong docs were AlphaGo, in the familiar genre of a nail-biting tournament countdown (e.g., spelling, chess, etc.) but here involving the less familiar (at least to those outside Asia) board game Go, where players must choose among almost infinite moves. Considered the “holy grail” of artificial intelligence, the tournament, held in Seoul, Korea and eagerly covered by worldwide media, pits Google’s London-based DeepMind team and their AlphaGo A.I. program against one of the world’s top Go players. This doc is terrifically engaging even for those of us who don’t get the fine points of A.I. Yes, it’s very high-science, but it might help to know that devising algorithms, or program instructions, that can incorporate human intuition, chaos and surprise might figure in this grail.

Another favorite doc was Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, which takes on the tragedy of massive food waste (usually the “parts unknown” we discard), especially in this country where so much good edible food is tossed while millions are undernourished. But the doc is also a panoramic look at what people are doing worldwide to alleviate the problem worldwide. Adding spice is Anthony Bourdain, prominent in this doc he produced, who does his usual shtick with equal portions of profundity about the food he knows so well and profanity, because he’s rightfully mad as hell about a problem that can be solved.

Two TFF comedies proved that goofy and loopy still live. Dog Years, in a work that grows from annoying to quite watchable, has Burt Reynolds playing a former Hollywood star reluctantly participating in a shabby Tennessee film festival’s tribute to him and reconnecting with family roots he had severed.

Vanity, thou art incarnate in Rock’N Roll, veteran French film actor/director Guillaume Canet’s take on middle-age crisis. Frantic, silly and sometimes entertaining (certainly scenes with Canet transformed as a cycle-riding muscleman), the film, which co-stars his real-life partner Marion Cotillard and features many French film personalities in lesser roles, impresses as so autobiographical that you can almost hear Canet roaring to his friends and family, “Hey kids, let’s all get together and make a big fat fun movie together that’s a lot about our real lives!”

Several TFF comic entries suggested that funny can be elusive or downright inappropriate. Aardvark, a first feature,blesses viewers with stars Jon Hamm and Zachary Quinto but cheats all by having them as unlikely estranged brothers (Hamm, a successful TV actor in L.A. visiting his hometown where his mentally challenged, nerdy-looking sibling Quinto still lives and works at a coffee shop). They both get entangled with a dreary female therapist, even romantically, but she’s no help to them or the film, which will send some running for a wiki-peek at what an aardvark actually is.

Even starring 50,000 addicts, the three-character 1000 Junkies, as approached here, wouldn’t be funny. It’s a ride (literally) in a beat-up old Volvo through an L.A. we don’t know or want to as three lowlife addicts desperately and dopily search for heroin highs.

Dabka, inspired by a true story a few years back, features a self-proclaimed Toronto reporter who ventures to Somalia on the advice of an established journalist he meets in a doctor’s office. The proven journo, who for some reason takes a shine to the goofball wannabe, is played by Al Pacino. Most viewers will wish the kid hadn’t taken the trip.

Though far from stinkers, a few excellent docs resonated because of the foul-smelling political times we’re in. These included The Reagan Show, a compilation of archival material starring the camera-assured former Hollywood star who reigned as President in the 1980s, actually saying something to the effect that there’s no business like show business to prepare for the Presidency. Sure.

ACORN and the Firestorm is a heartbreaking, must-see doc about the nationwide grassroots organization that gave voice to millions of the country’s poor and disadvantaged before being destroyed by libertarian and far-right forces who engineered a scam and manipulated media to undermine its mission that more than ever needs to be resurrected.

Get Me Roger Stone, a doc about Donald Trump’s still-snarling longtime lobbyist kingpin, friend and confidante, has Stone proudly accepting the “sleazeball” label others give him. Remarkably Teflon, Stone was pals with renowned lawyer and fellow sleazeball Roy Cohn and was recently allied with the notorious Paul Manafort, his partner in a steamrolling lobbying business.

No doubt there will be more docs and features reflecting the Trump era at TIFF 2018. (Cast Dan Stevens in a movie about Trump's early years and I'll be first in line.)