Downtown Diversity: Tribeca Film Festival continues to explore new platforms

Movies Features

With the Rocky Trump Horror Show getting a little more horrifying and, let’s face it, less entertaining, how timely that lower Manhattan’s 17th annual Tribeca Film Festival (TFF), running through April 30, again arrives to entertain and, important these days especially, to educate, explore and provoke.

The roar of technological innovation and the underlying digital storm (forecast in the 1990s by Wired magazine’s “weatherman” and M.I.T. media guru Nicholas Negroponte in the best-selling Being Digital) have affected everyone and everything everywhere. In media and entertainment too, the many “Wows!” and “Awesomes!” are as loud as “What the *#@&??”

Even once-safe havens like stormproof film festivals are valiantly adapting: The Tribeca Fest’s tweaking—both light and aggressive—include an embrace over recent years of new ways to tell stories, beginning with its Storyscapes initiative five years ago, and new platforms, notably the now even bigger stretch into virtual reality (VR) at TFF’s Spring Studios.

In another sign of the times, the Fest this year gives even more attention to TV. As Tribeca Enterprises executive chair and Fest co-founder Jane Rosenthal (along with Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff) said, “If there’s a good story to tell, no matter what platform, we’ll seek it out.” Even gaming at TFF has grown. As Rosenthal quipped about this newer foray: “Who would have thought sixteen years ago [TFF was launched in spring 2002 as a response to the nearby 9/11 tragedy] that Donald Trump would be in the White House and we’d be talking about gaming?”

Change at TFF is also evident in some marketing tweaks—less print, outdoor or TV promotion as the Fest harnesses the energy of social media and the Internet.  And, sorry beloved celluloid loyalists, TFF only accepts submissions on digital, says Cara Cusumano, longtime TFF staffer and now new director of programming. (In another shift, she took over from Genna Terranova, who recently moved to Amazon Studios to oversee their efforts in VR.)

But one of the biggest changes this year is that while feature film submissions increased (even shorts showed a big bump), TFF made a 20% reduction in its feature lineup selection, a shift that works—in theory—as a win-win for both filmgoers, including industry scouts, and filmmakers. The former get a higher quality to choose from; the latter gain more prestige as winners in a more selective process.

Like VR, TV has an unusually strong presence this year, with many episodic premieres being shown (e.g., Nat Geo debuts an episode of its Ron Howard-directed, Geoffrey Rush-starrer “Genius,” its first scripted series, is a bio of Albert Einstein). Asked about how from her perch she believes so much quality TV might be impacting theatrical, Cusumano answered, “From our point-of-view, it’s another exciting place where filmmakers can go, which is why we’ve embraced TV as a festival within our festival.” Acknowledging that “viewers are getting more and more open to all kinds of screens,” she adds that “we want to protect the theatrical experience.”

TFF again offers many premieres, including dozens of world premieres. And well-known filmmakers and (movie) stars are again aligned for films, talks and panels. As usual, a number of features come in with distributors attached, but the vast majority of are acquisition titles up for grabs. All are for audience discovery.

Only a small fraction of TFF’s close to 100-film lineup of feature narratives and feature docs (culled from 3,372 feature submissions) were press-screened early and these were embargoed until their premieres (although even journalists can’t always hide love!). And, sure, TFF again has films divided into the usual categories (competition, galas, etc.) and genres. And selections come from filmmakers worldwide. But ultimately what really matters is what ends up on the screens.

And what a way to begin: Clive Davis: Soundtrack of Our Lives, a world premiere, is one for the ages. This spectacular doc goes rich, deep, sparkly, classy and often profoundly emotional and even intimate in its profile of the legendary and still-kicking record industry titan Clive Davis. The Harvard lawyer turned genius with “golden ears” was as brilliant at finding artists (Janis Joplin was his first and he never stopped) as he was at finding material. Radio City Music Hall was the perfect venue for this film loaded with much charm (Davis is much loved) and endless clips of some of the greatest and enduring pop artists from the ’60s to the present. And, oh, that soundtrack!

For fictional drama, IFC Films’ Chuck, about the real-life 1970s Bayonne, New Jersey liquor salesman who turned boxer and was the inspiration for Rocky Balboa, provides Liev Schrieber, Elisabeth Moss and Naomi Watts with the kind of material real actors love. Not just a knockout for its performances, the film’s ’70s look should also linger.

Lingering in the ’70s and also based on a true-life story comes the standout The Divine Order, about women’s struggle in Switzerland to get the right to vote at a time when the country, the provinces especially, were steeped in macho culture. And this was 1971! There’s much to pay attention to here: jaw-dropping scenery, fine performances and some graphic talk about sex and the female body and some visuals to go along. All unfolds in an unsteamy and quaint small mountain town, a locale that enhances the charm quotient.

Oren Moverman’s The Dinner, which The Orchard soon releases, is a strong drama about a looming family tragedy that must be confronted over an elaborate posh restaurant dinner. A great cast that includes Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan and Rebecca Hall represent the two related couples who must square off over the five-star, six-course meal that also serves up a shocking act of murder.

From Czechoslovakia comes another charmer by way of Ice Mother, a drama mixing levity and severity while recalling Czech imports of decades ago. Here, a grandmother deals with her two warring sons, a lovable but challenged grandchild, a slippery boyfriend and a love of swimming. Yes, it really all does cohere.

Going way East but staying within charm range is King of Peking, whose main attraction is a father-son duo who share not just a love of movies but presenting them—with rickety projectors—in makeshift theatres in poorer and, of course, underscreened Beijing areas. The father deals with an estranged wife who is difficult and the kid deals with being a restless six-year-old caught up in an unpleasant family drama. Will movies or illegal DVDs save the day?

Several TFF indie female-driven dramas like One Percent More Humid and Flower, featuring Millennials or thereabouts and dealing with some heavy stuff (like murder and sleeping with the wrong men), also perked serious respect.

A number of gay-themed films deserve attention. These include the Argentinian Nobody’s Watching, about a young actor/soap star from Buenos Aires encountering problems, new lessons and himself during an uneasy summer break in New York; Saturday Church, a beautifully played musical drama about an effeminate black Bronx teen who, fleeing a harsh, religious aunt and her disapproval, finds friendship, shelter and maybe love amongst a Greenwich Village crowd of showy but generous trans youth and other teens teetering on the cusp of coming out.

In secure heterosexual territory is Roadside Attractions’ Israeli film The Wedding Plan, notable because writer-director Rama Burshtein had a hit at last year’s fest with Fill the Void and again stays within the Orthodox Jewish community. She goes lighter here, but with a sharper hook that has the young heroine, determined to be married, going all out for a big catering hall wedding with date, food, guests and gown but no committed groom.

Selections that might woo because of big names in the cast include Aardvark, a dramatic comedy that has Jon Hamm and Zachary Quinto playing estranged brothers—one mentally ill and nerdy-looking (Quinto) and Hamm, the handsome and successful L.A. actor paying him an unexpected visit over a real-estate situation. What comes between them is a shared but clueless shrink. Staying starstruck but moving into the experimental is FilmRise’s Manifesto, starring Cate Blanchett as multiple characters in largely unrelated multiple vignettes from multiple writers reflecting multiple cultures.

For the many who just have a thing about Dan Stevens (too suddenly extracted from “Downton Abbey”), there’s Permission, with co-star Rebecca Hall onboard. They play an engaged couple who explore sexuality. Gina Gershon and Jason Sudeikis are also around for some glittery support.

For Francophiles who like to see the French and their stars take a stab at that mysterious subject of L’Amour, Rock'n Roll arrives with real-life couple Guillaume Canet (well-known filmmaker and French star) and Marion Cotillard (she the Oscar-winning actress) going sexy and satirical and in the good company of other French screen regulars Gilles Lellouche and Yvan Attal.

Burt Reynolds shows up as almost Burt Reynolds in Dog Years, an ultimately sweetish send-up of film festivals and their habit of honoring Hollywood veterans who’d rather not be there.

Art-themed films at TFF should grab attention. These include Barry Avrich’s richly sourced, handsome and not so kind doc Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World, about the contemporary art world and its players on both sides of the canvas. From an entirely different art corner of determined performance artists doing their thing is filmmaker/star Laurie Simmons’ fictional My Art (or, how fictional is it really?), about a single, sixty-something downtown New York artist, apparently financially and spiritually comfortable, taking a break alone at a friend’s upstate retreat to recharge creatively and maybe romantically. Lena Dunham, Parker Posey, Blair Brown and German-born Barbara Sukowa figure lightly in this light and lightly romantic piece.

Also along the art trail is the doc Bobbi Jene, about an American dancer returning to the U.S. from a long success in Israel, where she also leaves behind a boyfriend and attempts to recharge in San Francisco while maintaining the long-distance relationship.

Happily caught was the excellent profile Frank Serpico, among many TFF doc profiles. He is the elusive ex-cop who exposed New York police-department corruption and inspired the Sidney Lumet/Al Pacino hit Serpico.

Animals deservedly get attention at TFF, notably in Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s (The Hurt Locker) and Imraan Ismail’s “The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes,” which shows the daily work of African rangers protecting elephants from ivory poachers. This eight-minute piece is significant for its important story but also for it being Bigelow’s first effort in VR. The immersive environment will allow headset users to have a virtual sense of being in the Congo and working alongside the rangers.

Also covering the horrific war against hunting animals for profit is A River Below, about efforts deep in the Amazon to save the river’s indigenous pink river dolphin from being hunted to extinction, and The Last Animals, in which this doc’s innocent victims are Northern White Rhinos.

Other important contemporary issues covered (and covered well!) include Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, which, like The Last Animals, is a special TFF attraction for Earth Day. This elaborately produced food- and statistic-filled exposé turns up the heat on the huge waste of food worldwide but especially in the U.S. where so many unnecessarily go hungry. The panoramic sweep across continents features many well-known chefs and food experts and ideas on how to turn rejected meat and vegetable parts into delicious dishes. (Well, taste is a subjective matter.) Much is spiced up by the doc’s executive producer and on-camera bad-boy foodie celeb Anthony Bourdain, who, spouting the usual obscenities, is still a pleasant and passionate scold.

As in The Dinner, food will no doubt be an entirely different matter in IFC Films’ The Trip to Spain (except for the presence at both tables of lucky Steve Coogan). Here, Coogan reunites with gab and chow-down pal Rob Brydon and director Michael Winterbottom (they did same for cinema and Italy in 2014) to offer a culinary sweep through Spain’s fine dining amid their wisecracking. Another escapist food experience awaits in Sony Pictures Classics’ Paris Can Wait, directed and written by Eleanor Coppola, that boasts a yum cast (Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin) and yum food tasted during detours from what was to be a fast trip to Paris from the Cannes Fest.

TFF films of a far, far more serious nature are also plentiful. And based on some caught, definitely worth the detour. To cite but a few, True Conviction showcases a group of former long-term Texas prisoners, wrongly incarcerated, who admirably unite to help others in that situation. Revealed here are serious flaws in a system meant to assure criminal justice but betraying some pretty sloppy and indifferent lawyering when lives matter. For Ahkeem is a doc that raises a huge question—Who’s to blame?—in its coming-of-age close-up of 17-year-old in a poor Missouri neighborhood who struggles with school and motherhood.

TFF has much more to offer (It takes a book!), including sports films and its exploding alt-ent attractions, especially the VR arcade. (An FJI wrap-up will follow the festival.)

For both films and film festivals alike, endings are inevitable and who doesn’t love surprise endings? Closing its 16th annual installment, TFF will bring on the big guns, so to speak, with the triple whammy of unprecedented back-to-back screenings of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, followed by an onstage cast reunion and conversation with director Francis Ford Coppola and actors Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and Robert De Niro, all in celebration of the 45th anniversary of The Godfather’s theatrical release.

Articles, too, can have surprise endings. So for filmgoers inclined towards conspiracy (as spectators, of course), there’s a curious tidbit near the end of the intriguing TFF doc Shadowman, as its real-life, celebrated but drug-stricken subject is saved in 2015 from destitution and life on the streets by a Russian billionaire who pops up out of nowhere to pay for him to lodge at…the Trump Soho Hotel. This buried nugget is as curious as that briefly unearthed in the 2016 New York Film Festival entry Dawson City: Frozen Time, which opens in early June and is about a once-prosperous Klondike town attracting gold miners, and fleetingly reveals that Fred Trump (Donald’s grandfather) had a brothel there. Will there be more Trump intrigue at TFF 2018?