Summing Up Tribeca 2015: Downtown New York festival offers many discoveries

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Spring and its balmy weather never showed up as scheduled, but well over 450,000 attendees did for the 101 new features and many shorts, revivals, premieres, indoor and outdoor events, talks, etc. at the nevertheless hot and happening 14th annual Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) in downtown Manhattan. Also adding to the heat the weather abandoned was a solid turnout of industry people, including executive scouts who scooped up seven films by the end of the festival (A24 and Saban Films were among the pouncers), with a number of deals pending post-fest.

The films, of course, have also been the fest’s raison d’être, and there was the impression that this year they were generally shorter and better. Per usual, there were many U.S. indies and foreign offerings from around the world, most boasting some kind of premiere.

Signifying TFF’S continuing function as a marketing tool and word-of-mouth generator, about 20 of the 101 films came in with distributors attached like Sony Pictures Classics and IFC Films. And several of the films showcased beat a quick path to theatres in the slipstream of fest attention.

The aforementioned industry turnout (an estimated 340 companies and organizations who registered early) further suggested that TFF is gaining ground like rivals SXSW and Sundance as an especially fertile market for acquisition scouts. The fact that the docs and indie fiction narratives seemed stronger than ever bodes well for fests as good places to shop, assuming product is fresh.

The higher film quality also surprised because a number of entries, like Best Narrative Feature winner Virgin Mountain, came from debuting feature directors and even unexpected places (Iceland is not on every distributor’s watch). What follows are some biased takes on the virtues and punishments of the more memorable films caught among many seen.

It’s not every distributor who dreams of luring crowds to a film about a fat, completely inarticulate, mentally challenged mama’s boy of a loner living in Iceland and working as a baggage handler at the airport until an unlikely relationship with a depressed woman sends him on a new course. Sound good?

Virgin Mountain has that but a lot more, including a brilliant performance from Gunnar Jónnson in the unenviable role of Fúsi, a 40-something poor soul in the eyes of everyone but himself. Childlike, he’s also manic about his World War II toys until he’s torn away and taken to a dance class where he meets the woman. A lot happens, but the ending is so surprising and poignant and Fúsi so sweet that the film emerges a feel-good gem. Might a distributor take a chance on Danish filmmaker Dagur Kári’s oddity?

Another winner (and a TFF Audience Award winner, no less), and among many from debuting filmmakers, was Felix Thompson’s King Jack, about 15-year-old Jack, who lives in a downtrodden small Hudson River town and battles bullies, a broken family and a depressing environment. A turning point from his lamentable routine of dodging boredom and the neighborhood’s ruffians arrives when he’s saddled with the care of a younger cousin. The upshot provides lessons in family, friendship and responsibility and suggests where the resource of self-worth comes from. Yes, the backdrop is dreary, but the spirit of triumph and survival simmers until it finally sparkles.

Brooklyn-based Thompson gets a terrific performance from young Charlie Plummer in the title role, helped by a fine cast of other unknowns, and conveys the authenticity of a forgotten American town left behind by the punishing economy.

Because TFF affords plenty of networking opportunities, an encounter with the filmmaker revealed that he based his film on his U.K.-born father and credited casting vet Avy Kaufman for helping find his actors, suggesting the importance for filmmakers to get personal and also find the right support.

Another impressive debut came from Sean Mewshaw with Tumbledown, which stars Jason Sudeikis delighting again (he lit up other films, plus shone in a very brief, clever and charming TFF trailer running before the features) as a Hofstra University pop-culture professor writing the biography of a late and beloved folk singer who died alone but mysteriously. The conflict is that the singer’s tree-hugging widow (Rebecca Hall) up in small-town Maine is also working on a biography. With Hall’s character stubbornly refusing to meet Sudeikis’ prof, Griffin Dunne as the town’s local bookseller brings them together.Peace made, the prof eventually settles near her cabin for a literary collaboration that has the usual repercussions when opposites meet. There’s plenty of friction, along with expected and unexpected developments. Performances (the city slicker/country tough gal leads often lock horns à la Hepburn and Tracy) and the mystery surrounding the singer’s demise (was it suicide?) sustain interest. The story’s woodsy rural Maine locale provides plenty of atmosphere, but the debuting filmmaker could have been braver with his ending. There was distributor interest, but none was consummated

Docs, too, were high-quality and of special note, including Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, director/producer Robin Hauser Reynolds’ entertaining examination of why so few women and minorities are working as coders and software engineers and what factors make them hesitant to enter so lucrative and happening a field. The doc is immensely helped by the many talking heads the filmmaker corralled (Walter Isaacson, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, a number offemale academics and college presidents helping explain the hurdles, and many bright and impressive grads new to the field are among those speaking out). A dip into computer history enriches the subject, as do beautiful graphics and the film’s mission to get more women into coding. Polished, entertaining and informative, Code is mainly a trove of impressive women and articulate voices addressing an important issue.

Polished also is Vanessa Hope’s All Eyes and Ears, which goes to China with the charming former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, whom President Obama appointed as U. S. ambassador there. The focus shifts back and forth and sideways to his daily chores, his young adopted Chinese-born daughter Gracie confronting her homeland for the first time, and the country itself and its growing place in the world.We see how ambassadors help further U.S. policies, deal with serious issues and enjoy the usual frivolities that go along with their assignment. The doc features several Chinese activists and U.S. China experts who address problems and is also travelogue-gorgeous, especially during Huntsman’s Tibet visit. Hope’s film also gives off a subtle whiff of promotion for the very likeable former ambassador, who may make a second bid for the U.S. Presidency. But overall it’s a very pleasant introduction to China and, amazingly, Hope got these nicely packaged goods with only a two-person crew.

Anyone envying Peggy Guggenheim after viewing Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, a detailed portrait rich in the usual archival material of arguably the 20th century’s most renowned and controversial art patron, will be excused. An extravagant bohemian, she was an art addict, yes, but also an artist addict and admitted sex addict (affairs with Samuel Beckett and Jackson Pollock were among the many). Guggenheim began collecting modern art (Cubist, Dada, Surrealist, Abstract Expressionist, etc.) before anyone else would touch the stuff, and managed brilliant recoveries from all her “addictions.” Generous and free-spirited, she successfully moved through career (using the term broadly) and carousing years spent in New York, Paris, London and Venice, buying mansions and palaces and opening galleries and salons as part of her agenda to host, support and promote modern art. Coming from the storied Guggenheim mining and banking family (her father died on the Titanic while traveling with his mistress), she took her first real job in 1921 at a New York bookstore, where she learned about the avant-garde and then took off for Paris, which was only a beginning.

The doc, which is apparently close to an acquisition deal, captures all this and much more. Italian filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland (Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel) is again in her comfort zone and knows how to scour it.

Focusing on the U.K. but resonating worldwide, Michael Winterbottom’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, with the unlikely but invaluable participation of star comic Russell Brand as guide and commentator, is a hilarious and highly impassioned critique of renegade banks, corporations and their executives; tax dodgers and shelters and havens; blue-collar and welfare injustices; the horrific economic gap separating the one percent from the other 99 percent; and lame government and regulatory oversight of so many economic problems as the rich get richer and we know the rest.

Brand, proud of his working-class background (in Grays, Essex, England), travels the country, interviewing working-class and welfare locals and badgering the big banks with visits (Lloyds and RBS are among the many swung at). Funny and serious, sometimes at the same time, he names names (the banks, corporations, executives, politicians, free-market promoters, et al.). Prime Minister David Cameron called Brand “a joke,” but the joke, as Brand’s skillful manipulation of his oft-told subject suggests, may be on you guys.

Strong fiction narratives showed up among a cluster of domestic indies across genres, from light (comedies, dramedies) to heavy (drug abuse, war) and all focusing on thirty-somethings (or thereabouts).

Most were on the funny side. Leslye  (Bachelorette) Headland’s Sleeping with Other People, which IFC Films will release, gets another memorable performance from Jason Sudeikis, especially in an introductory scene where his character is a goofy Columbia University student who shares a loss of virginity with a classmate (Alison Brie). Both go their separate ways but 12 years later accidentally meet at a sex-addiction support group (not the easiest setup to buy, but worth the price), having both flunked out since their first coupling in the school of adult relationships. The two, now comfortable New York achievers, form a friendship they are determined to keep platonic. Even viewers who doubt at the get-go that this will not be the case will be rewarded for sticking around and beholding the near-epidemic mating mess. Ideally suited as the perfect couples’ movie for thirty-somethings, the film provides enough chuckles, charm and trendy apartments to stir “other people” and keep them awake.

More “amusing” than funny among the sex-spiced fare for the thirty-something crowd was Neil LaBute’s Dirty Weekend, whose title denotes something naughty and over-the-edge seemingly straitlaced people will do on the sly. Matthew Broderick, a family-man traveling sales exec for a tech company, plays that straight lace right down to his shoes. His partner in crime but maybe not beyond is his young colleague (Alice Eve) with whom he ventures to an Albuquerque gay club they visit when their Dallas flight is stuck there because of weather conditions. Revelations emerge between the two, who each have their separate adventures at the club before reuniting for their flight.

On the dark side were several good entries including A24’s The Adderall Diaries, picked up late in the fest, and IFC’s war (waged from home) drone drama Good Kill, starring Ethan Hawke, “Mad Men”’s January Jones and Canada’s always excellent Bruce Greenwood.

In The Adderall Diaries, everywhere actor James Franco stars as the real-life Stephen Elliott, whose memoir filmmaker Pamela Romanowsky adapted. The “Adderall” of the title seems more sales tool than central to what transpires, except to underscore that the hero abused drugs among the sins that contributed to his undoing. Elliott is a successful writer of true-crime stories who screwed up royally in his memoir by not telling the truth about his father (Ed Harris). Discovered when Harris shows up at a promotional reading, Elliott alienates his agent (Cynthia Nixon), publisher and everyone else as he turns to drugs.

On the way to recovery, he meets and beds a young, hot New York Times court reporter (Amber Heard in an unbelievable role) who’s into drugs, motorcycles and S&M sex. Other story threads include Elliott’s obsession with a murder trial involving a man (Christian Slater) who might have murdered his wife, and the writer’s problematic relationship with the father who might have abused him (unless he deserved a good beating).It’s all pretty frantic and high-energy, but the film presents a problem of what to believe, even though it’s inspired by a true story.

IFC Films’ Good Kill, a grim but superbly produced drama about Air Force soldiers, actually drone pilots, killing the enemy remotely from a base outside Las Vegas, generates much of its interest from a fine cast: Ethan Hawke, especially, is gripping as the tortured former pilot who longs to go back to flying and walk away from the daily killing of terror targets in command headquarters by videogame-like weapons systems actually inspired by Xbox.

Hawke conveys an uncanny blend of deep emotions simmering beneath a sadly ordinary guy who never stood a chance of serving beyond the military. January Jones as his besieged wife, Greenwood as his commander, and Zoë Kravitz as a young drone pilot colleague contribute to the authenticity. The awful results of these drone attacks, captured in frequent overheads of remote Afghan desert compounds, often cause collateral damage to innocents. But who knows? The ugly nature of the work is underscored by monitors capturing recurrent rapes of a cleaning woman in an Afghan compound. Bottom line is that, if this is the new the way to wage war, better targeting is needed for what the soldiers hail as “good kills.”

There’s a brief, much appreciated (by characters and viewers) scene of an R & R break the soldiers make to flashy downtown Vegas, but the dreary Air Force base and boxy Vegas development where soldiers are housed are where the film lives.

The Orchard’s The Overnight, definitely an L.A. kind of indie, takes high concept and pushes it to the firmament. Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling play a sweet Seattle couple newly relocated to L.A. with their kid and trying to make new friends. At a playground, a new friend pops up as if by magic (and certainly too enthusiastically) by way of Jason Schwartzman as a super-unctuous, wealthy dilettante with a trophy French wife (Judith Godrèche).

At their lavish L.A. spread, a dinner and playdate with their kids turns into an overnight, where unexpected and sometimes unbelievable things happen. The players in this romp are more caricatures than characters, but a few pleasures along the way and a nice message somewhat redeem. There’s beaucoup nudity, and that doesn’t hurt either.

Going even broader and hurling Brit comedy even further East than “The Eastenders,” was Man Up, which has Lake Bell (In a World… and delivering a pretty good British accent) and Simon Pegg as two single Londoners eager for mates who accidentally meet up when an Internet arrangement goes awry. They roam around London as they get acquainted. Those who can stomach the broad humor will wonder whether the mismatched pair will hook up. For others, the film affords a terrific tour of London, a welcome detour from the blind-date silliness. Mid-fest, Saban Films acquired Man Up, and they also grabbed Backtrack, a thriller starring Adrien Brody.

Richard Gere delivers another stunning performance in Franny (here as an eccentric Philadelphia philanthropist), with key support from Dakota Fanning and Theo James as a thirty-something couple with whom Gere gets a little too intrusive. Another impressive TFF debut comes by way of writer-director Andrew Renzi.

Gere’s Franny is seriously injured in a car accident in which his married best friends are killed.Five years later and still devastated, he reconnects with their daughter (Fanning) with whom he had been very paternal. She shows up in Philly with her new doctor husband (James), whom Gere quickly has appointed to the hospital he supports. As the largesse extends to a beautiful country home he buys for them, discomfort grows, especially for the young doctor, who is feeling emasculated. Beyond his profound need be accepted and have control, Gere’s eccentric has worse problems—an addiction to morphine that began after the accident—and matters go downhill. Sensitively done, the film deserves distribution.

In Sony Pictures Classics’ highly entertaining Grandma, as in Franny and a few other big star/small film pairings, viewers get another showstopping performance, here from Lily Tomlin as a grandmother like no other. Foul-mouthed, angry, lesbian and recently widowed from her lifetime partner, she’s a veteran of the women’s-lib war who tries to help her granddaughter (Julia Garner) pay for an abortion. As the two scramble to get the cash, memories are stirred by old friends and haunts. Grandma clearly was no piece of cake, further evidenced by her messed-up daughter (the great Marcia Gay Harden), who is proof that even on the West Coast apples don’t fall far from the tree. Sam Elliott as an ex contributes to the hippie and ’60s sensibilities that inform the characters. With a light, funny touch in spite of his hot-blooded granny, writer-director Paul Weitz shows off Tomlin while proving that there’s life left in Left Coast indies.

Tim Blake Nelson’s deeply New York indie drama Anesthesia follows the many Upper West Side New Yorkers who cross paths after the unexpected brutal beating of a beloved, newly retired Columbia University professor (Sam Waterston) during a late-night errand at the corner deli. Besides Nelson, who also co-stars, Kristen Stewart and Glenn Close are among those who lend their talents. As happens in populated dramas like this, the relationships of the many characters are mainly revealed at the conclusion (not that these are big “reveals”), creating an illusion of tying things up. The film is nice enough and well-intentioned, but there’s nothing to distinguish it.

Small movie also meets big star in Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions’ indie zombie film Maggie (opening on May 8), which gives us a smaller-than-usual Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here he’s a simple family man and farmer in a rural Midwestern town where his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) is rapidly deteriorating from a virus that is afflicting the country (it’s post-apocalypse time again). The stakes are high, as the authorities want the daughter. Schwarzenegger, in low-key mode as a loving and protective father, is often touching. Trying more to push emotional rather than chiller buttons, this is a zombie horror film for everyone else, but are they there?

Also adding much-needed star glitter to an indie is Michael Fassbender as a traveler to the Old West in A24’s Slow West, a stripped-down western with many of the fixins familiar to the genre (the cabin on the plains, Indians, oddballs heading west) but little that makes sense. The directorial debut of Scotland’s John Maclean, the film has Fassbender meeting up with a 16-year-old kid (Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching for the woman he loves (talk about growing up fast!) and encountering some frontier characters and a few Indians along the way. Underpopulated and unconvincing, this West is also too slow.

A trio of noirs were among the more notable entries, notable mainly for their extreme visual style. The German-Greek-Israeli oddity Wednesday 04:45has Romanian mobsters closing in on a Greek jazz club owner who owes them money. Definitely watchable, there’s enough style here for three movies but not quite enough story for one. Stelio Mainas as the besieged club owner is excellent and this effort is worth a pick-up as long as expectations are where they should be.

Shot in Mumbai, Sunrise is about a law enforcer’s manic search for the gang that kidnapped his young daughter. Featuring a sinister and seedy nightclub he suspects the kidnappers frequent and shot largely in the city’s desolate back alleys on excessively rainy nights, the film has the look of noir on steroids. In spite of so much murkiness and style, this minimalist film somehow fascinates.

Mid-fest, A24 picked up Mojave, a sun-drenched, dark drama that is noir in spirit. Raising a big middle finger to that sleazy cross-section of Hollywood that produces dreck (the kind that filled film market basements), writer-director William Monahan gives us a messed-up and despicable Hollywood director (Garrett Hedlund) who takes to the Mojave Desert with a knife and vodka to clear his head. Paranoid, he accidentally murders a cop, but the event is witnessed by a mysterious drifter (Oscar Isaac), who gives every sign of being a failed and dangerously bitter Hollywood screenwriter. In a cat-and-rat chase (actually rat-and-rat), he follows the director to his fancy Hollywood Hills spread and the tension heightens. As the two tangle to the death, players in the director’s life rear their unappealing heads, including a trophy girlfriend and a decadent producer (Mark Wahlberg), forever ordering out for call girls and Chinese food. As ugly as it is fun, Mojave is a nasty piece of work that has surely been pushed by a shoulder with a chip on it.

Besides the docs cited above, others were mightily impressive. The Birth of Saké poetically and hypnotically follows six months in the life of an old Japanese saké country brewery where tradition and the virtues of dedication and craftsmanship are alive and well. The focus is on the process at this small family establishment, pit against the large industrial breweries, and on the loyal workers who give up their family lives for six months to toil at the brewery. Also seen is the brewery family’s young heir apparent, who travels as a salesman to keep alive his saké’s reputation in a world of changing tastes.

Democrats is a doc that goes inside Zimbabwe’s first constitutional committee as it strives to move away from President Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian leadership. What is impressive here is the access to these figures given Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson and how the attention, egomania and power games seem to reflect Western players. Mugabe and others comfortably in power stay out of this picture. It’s not easy to keep track of all the acronyms (mainly for political parties) bandied about. Curious but totally irrelevant are the number of tongue-twisting proper names among these political animals that begin with M.

In My Fathers House, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), moves worlds away from Rivers to the subject of Grammy Award-winning Chicago rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith, now a recovered bad boy and happily married husband and father, and his attempt to rehabilitate his own homeless alcoholic father. Getting up close and intimate, the doc follows Smith as he brings his father from a shelter and the streets to recovery and respectability. Amid struggles, victories and setbacks, the problems of addiction and homelessness hit powerfully and Smith’s determination and tenacity are unforgettable. There’s another lesson here about the importance of family.

Among the Believers offers a disturbing look at the brainwashing of students in Pakistan’s fundamentalist schools whose libraries no doubt stock one book—the Koran, which the kids bury their noses in all day. The goal is to feed these young bodies to ISIS, and the villainous leader of the schools, Maulana Aziz, is doing a damn good job. Families and reformers help fill out a bleak picture of how these madrassas are pushing Pakistan into fundamentalist directions by reshaping the Muslim world and beyond.

Staying on the grim side of things, A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did follows Jewish lawyer and scholar Philippe Sands in his conversations and travels with two sons of Nazis with criminal pasts. The scary son, whose father was hung for his crimes after the war, defends his father; the other, whose father was also punished, is strongly against what his equally culpable father did. Together, they suggest the divide that keeps hatred and prejudice in the safe quarters of denial never to be breached. Even when Sands takes them on a visit to the Ukraine where thousands of Jews were slaughtered in pits, denial survives.

In Transit, Albert Maysles’ last film, is a curious “road” pic that takes place on a storied train that regularly travels between Chicago and Seattle. The focus is strictly on the  everyday passengers on board (no jet set on these rails) and things going on in their refreshingly ordinary lives. Camaraderie blossoms and confessions emerge in this utterly pleasant and unique ride.

Kino Lorber’s Steak (R)evolution, about a Frenchman’s search for the world’s best steak and the breed of cattle behind the miracle, is just what steak lovers ordered. In his enviable quest, filmmaker Franck Ribière and butcher Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec travel the globe looking for the best meat sources, the best cut, the best preparation and even some of the best restaurants (New York’s Peter Luger gets its close-up). Argentina, the U.K. and Japan are among the places visited.

Several interesting TFF entries from overseas have already landed in theatres, including Tribeca Film’s Hyena, a highly stylized and violent corrupt-cop drama from the U.K., and Far from Men, a 1950s drama that’s also intriguing because of Viggo Mortensen’s excellent performance as a French teacher in an Algeria now at war for independence.

Also foreign, and not quite coming in from the cold, was Sony Pictures Classics’ curiosity Aloft, adrift and aloof like a disjointed dream with a pile-up of strange characters and inscrutable circumstances involving a mother (Jennifer Connelly) and son (Cillian Murphy) who are mysteriously separated, The frozen, expansive and barren landscapes and drab interiors of northern Canada don’t add clarity.

Comedy at the fest was strong. Already in theatres is Tribeca Film’s Kevin Pollak doc Misery Loves Comedy, packed to capacity with many famous comics working today who confide about what they do. Many aspects of the humor trade (stand-up especially) are explored, except that the mystery of what actually makes someone or anyone funny requires at least a second look at the doc, if indeed there are answers.

Also on the funny side at TFF was a big tribute to Monty Python, including the new doc Monty Python: The Meaning of Live, a history of their live performances; the fest opener Live From New York!, telling the story of Lorne Michaels’ perennial baby “Saturday Night Live”; and, most notably, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, a rich chronicle (no dirt or outrage left unturned) of the Harvard-born magazine turned franchise known for its irreverent if shocking humor, and its brilliant, disturbed, tragic co-founder, Doug Kenney. This nostalgic gem is ripe for acquisition.

And what better way to close the 14th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival than with a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mobster classic GoodFellas, seen in a recently remastered print from a 4K scan of the original camera negative in a process supervised by Scorsese. The film’s stars Robert De Niro, Lorraine Bracco, Ray Liotta and Paul Sorvino and screenwriter Nick Pileggi reunited on the Beacon Theatre stage. (Joe Pesci, immortalized for his monstrous Tommy role, was a no-show.) Scorsese delivered a warm greeting for the occasion via video from Taipei, where he is now shooting Silence, a historical drama. He reminded the audience that the GoodFellas soundtrack, full of period pop hits, should also be considered part of the cast, as he gave that music so much attention. Audience response to the film was overwhelming; who remembered how funny it is?

With so good a session behind it, next year’s Tribeca has a lot to live up to, but only one sure assignment: Book spring again. Fans miss it.