Genre films make a strong showing at the 16th annual Tribeca Film Festival

ScreenerBlog

With a feature film slate that’s 82 titles strong, the 16th annual Tribeca Film Festival has a wide variety of offerings for New York-based cinephiles. The fest’s doc lineup is always strong, and among the narrative lineup there’s the expected spate of big names, like Tom Hanks (James Ponsoldt’s The Circle), Jon Hamm (Brian Shoaf’s Aardvark) and Cate Blanchett (Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto).

But one of the joys of any film festival is eschewing bigger titles to take a chance on lower-profile films that one likely would not have seen otherwise. This “avoid the A-list” route doesn’t always work out—sometimes you miss good things and see some stinkers—but this year at Tribeca I’ve had remarkable luck, particularly concerning genre films.

Put simply? This year’s horror lineup is killing it.

First up for me was Hounds of Love, from Australian writer/director Ben Young. Ashleigh Cummings stars as Vicki, a teenage girl who sneaks out to go to a party one night and is subsequently abducted by married, murderous lovebirds John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth). With the clock ticking, Vicki begins to poke and prod at the cracks in her captors’ relationship in order to somehow enable her escape.

Hounds of Love is not an easy film to watch. The terrible things that take place (and there are terrible things) occur mostly off-screen, but even so, there are times when Hounds of Love feels like an endurance challenge. That’s to Young’s credit. He’s crafted a relentlessly tense thriller that maintains its nail-biting pace despite mostly taking place in one location with three characters. Booth turns in one of my fest favorite performances as Evelyn, who’s both monstrous and incredibly damaged herself; though she willingly serves as John’s assistant, she’s been mistreated by him as well. Speaking of John, I was shocked to discover that Stephen Curry is a comedian in his native Australia. If I saw him on the street, I would run the other way. That’s a compliment.

There’s more violence from unexpected places in Kasra Farahani’s Tilt, an L.A.-set thriller that would serve as a fitting double feature with Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. In that film, Jake Gyllenhaal played Louis Bloom, a crime journalist driven by his desire for fame into increasingly appalling acts. In Tilt, documentarian Joseph Burns (Joseph Cross) has already tasted some small measure of fame. His first film was a success, and now he’s working on his second. He’s married and expecting a child. But under his privileged middle-class existence lurks a simmering cauldron of resentment and rage at not being recognized—by his wife, by his friends, by the world at large—as the exceptional genius he clearly thinks he is.

Farahani deftly tracks the emotional and psychological breakdown of a man who he labels a “modern narcissist.” Joseph is a chilling character precisely because he seems so normal. The political situation over the last year has brought a lot of Josephs to the forefront: privileged white men who lash out, particularly at women, because the world isn’t giving them something to which they feel entitled. Tilt’s political resonance is somewhat unintentional; when I interviewed Farahani, he said that he and co-writer Jason O'Leary wrote Tilt back in December 2015, back before anyone thought Donald Trump had a chance in hell of winning the election. It was certainly before the alt-right, a group among whom Joseph would fit quite well, migrated off fringe “news” websites and social media into the wider public consciousness. But alt-right Joseph is. Not all neo-fascists wear Pepe pins.

Joining Tilt and Hounds of Love in Tribeca’s Midnight category is Super Dark Times from first-time feature director Kevin Phillips, who incidentally wins the award for best director bio: “Kevin Phillips was born in 1982 as the second son of a chocolatier.” The setting here is '90s suburbia, where best friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) talk about normal teenage boy things: food, masturbation and who’s the lonelier comic-book character, Silver Surfer or the Punisher. Then things get, well, super dark, because hot tip: Teenage boys shouldn’t play with samurai swords. In the aftermath of an act of accidental violence, the gulf between the one-time best friends widens, leading to an eventual rupture. And all scored to '90s hits. There’s one particular musical cue, during a scene between Zach and Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), the object of both friends’ affections, that made me bark out a seal laugh. Oh, the memories.

As Super Dark Times goes on, it gets darker and darker, but in a way that feels earned and isn’t just there to prove how shocking and edgy Phillips and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski can be. Within five minutes of meeting them, Zach, Josh and their friends Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth) feel instantly authentic, which makes watching what they go through positively gutting. As with Tilt, what sells Super Dark Times is that the horror feels real. You’ve read about this sort of thing in the papers. Special kudos go to Campbell and Tahan, the latter of whom is creepy as hell.

If true crime’s not your thing, there’s Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s The Endless, part of the U.S. Narrative Competition lineup. Without giving too much away, it’s set in the same universe as the duo’s Resolution, a Tribeca standout when it debuted back in 2012. In that film, the directors had small roles as two brothers who are members of a cult. Fast forward ten years to The Endless, and they’ve left the cult, with elder brother Justin (Benson) insisting to a more skeptical Aaron (Moorhead) that he’s saved them from a UFO group suicide situation. But some closure is required, so Justin and Aaron head up into the California hills to visit their old brethren one last time. And then weird stuff starts happening, and whoops, maybe the all-powerful entity that the hippy-dippy cult members worship isn’t quite so made-up as Justin assumed.

Though possessing supernatural elements, The Endless is at its core really about the at-times fraught relationship between Justin and Aaron. An opening quote tells us, “Friends tell each other how they feel with relative frequency. Siblings wait for a more convenient time, like their deathbeds." Funny, inventive and emotional, The Endless pulls off several “Wait, what?” moments that make me really look forward to whatever Benson and Moorhead do next. I’d recommend watching Resolution before The Endless, as the way they tie the two together is clever as hell, but you don’t need to. I watched The Endless first and liked it enough to then search out the earlier film. Each of them very much stands on its own.

Finally, there’s SABU’s Mr. Long, which is less horror or science fiction than crime drama with a side of dark comedy…or dark comedy with a side of crime drama…regardless, it’s not a genre movie. But I’m including it here because its blend of wit and action should endear it to midnight movie crowds.

Chen Chang stars as the eponymous Mr. Long, a Taiwanese hitman who we first see carving through gangsters with emotionless efficiency. Then a job gone wrong leaves him stranded in a dilapidated Japanese village. He’s injured, he doesn’t have a passport, gangsters are still on his tail, he doesn’t speak the language, and oh yeah, he needs to somehow scrounge up some money if he wants to go home. Naturally, what happens is that a handful of local loons essentially adopt this hardened assassin, giving him food and clothing and encouraging him to open a food cart, of all things.

Chang wrings an astonishing amount of pathos and comedy out of a character who’s emotionally undemonstrative and barely speaks—aside from a little boy (Run-yin Bai) and his drug-addicted mother (Yi Ti Yao), he can’t understand anybody in his newfound family, which makes for some very funny interactions. Pacing here is off—the movie essentially stops at one point to tell the story of Yi Ti Yao’s character, and while it’s her story that gives the movie most of its emotional heft, the end result of all the back-and-forth is a bit like emotional whiplash. The whole thing's very episodic. Still, the episodes, such as they are, are good enough to make this one a festival favorite. Watching Mr. Long, the stereotype of every silent, too-cool-for-school hitman character, have his defenses gradually broken down by these small-town weirdos is both hilarious and sweet.