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Portraits and Passions: Tribeca Film Festival 2019

Gasoline Thieves

Gasoline Thieves

By Gary M. Kramer.

The Tribeca Film Festival, April 24-May 5, offers a variety of features, shorts, documentaries, television and new media productions from new and established filmmakers. This year’s programs offered some impressive and ambitious films. Here is a rundown of seven distinctive titles.

One of the gems of the festival was Run, Scott Graham’s tough but exhilarating drama about Finnie (Mark Stanley), a tightly-wound, working-class Scottish father of two trying his level best to keep it together. Finnie has “Born to Run” tattooed over his heart, but he has long been stuck in his hardscrabble life working a dock job. His car, which starts and dies, is an apt metaphor for his life. Finnie is frustrated – not just by life – but by his wife, Katie (Amy Manson), and his elder son, Kid (Anders Heyward), who may be out of a job. When Finnie borrows Kid’s car one night (without asking), he connects with Kelly (Marli Siu), Kid’s pregnant girlfriend. The pair drive around for a good part of the night and the film. The dynamic between Finnie and Kelly – both of whom have passionate feelings toward Kid and feel hurt by him – is what make Run so electric. The film creates a rush whenever Finnie revs the car engine looking for a sense of control and freedom. The driving scenes provide a strong sense of place as the chatty Kelly wonders: how you can love someone one day, and not the next? These thoughtful moments are nicely contrasted with an exciting sequence of Finnie racing along the breakwater – and Siu’s expressions throughout this episode are terrific. But it is Stanley’s remarkable performance that captures Finnie’s palpable despair and anxiety, and how he sees his son turning into the failure he has become, that truly propels Run.

The slight but enlightening documentary, Picture Character chronicles the origins, meaning, development, and acceptance of emojis. Martha Shane and Ian Cheney’s film hopscotches around the world to interview linguists who trace the use of images as means of communication; members of the Unicode Consortium, that decide what emojis are accepted; as well as Shigetaka Kurita, who “discovered” (not invented) emojis two decades ago. But Picture Character is far from a dry documentary. Shane and Cheney nimbly follow three case studies to get emojis approved for menstruation, mate (the beverage), and a hajib – and show the importance emojis have to provide messages of diversity and normalization and that these icons related to cultural identity are universal. In between, the filmmakers showcase Brooklyn Queen, a teenager who performs the song “EMOJI,” or the woman who lobbied Unicode to create five skin tones so texters could represent themselves better in their messaging. Picture Character is most interesting when it provides an understanding of the development of image-based language, such as how the Chinese characters for women can mean “peace” or “wicked” depending on use, or how an eggplant has shifted from being a vegetable to something not to be texted professionally. The film also features poop emoji shirts – indicating the icon’s popularity – and highlights underused emojis, like the aerial tram. But as far as understanding goes, Unicode’s decision-making is a behind closed doors process. While there are rules – e.g., no celebrity emojis – a better explanation of the use (good and bad) of certain picture characters might have been illuminating. Nevertheless, this [film emoji] will certainly generate [smiley face emoji] for most viewers.

Tribeca alum Sasie Sealy’s – she twice won the short filmmaker award at the festival – returns with her diverting feature, Lucky Grandma. The title character is Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin), a plucky octogenarian who is advised abut fate, loss, and change in the film’s opening moments. Withdrawing her entire (and meager) bank account, she boards the Golden Panda Express to Foxwoods casino and bets – and wins – on roulette, Sic Bo, and craps. Unfortunately, she loses at cards. However, on the bus ride home Grandma Wong has an unexpected reversal of fortune – one that soon generates threats from a local gang. This prompts her to hire a bodyguard, Big Pong (Corey Ha) and get involved in two attacks, two shootouts, and a kidnapping. Sealy keeps the action relatively mild, and there is an engaging chase through New York’s Chinatown. But the violence and comedy never quite reach the outrageous heights they might have. The film greatest asset is veteran actress Chin, who get a plum part here. Her expressions negotiating with a crime boss, and her interactions with Big Pong communicate her wisdom and moxie. Chin is the film’s lucky charm and the reason Lucky Grandma is so satisfying.

The initials in Initials S.G. belong to Sergio Garces (Diego Peretti), an Argentine who fancies himself in the Serge Gainsbourg mold. (He once recorded an album of Gainsbourg covers, the poster of which sits on the floor of his apartment). Sergio, as the film’s narrator (Daniel Fanego) indicates, is a man who lives his life in the background – he is a film extra and former porn actor. Writer/directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia put Sergio at center stage in this quixotic feature. At the film opens, he has suffered a bicycle accident that mars his craggy face. He is also put on probation and sent to counseling for anger management stemming from a violent incident in his recent past. Sergio’s only joy – and it is filled with anxiety—comes from watching Argentina in the World Cup games. He wryly notes that his life mirrors the team’s success, and it has been 24 years since they went the distance. Sergio’s life improves when he meets Jane (Julianne Nicholson), an American film sales agent, and they have a tryst. However, an incident Sergio has in an elevator with a stranger jeopardizes his potential happiness. Initials S.G. asks the audience to go along with a plot twist that can be hard to swallow. For those that do, this character study will induce awkward chuckles and gasps – from a horrible and hilarious scene featuring Sergio on a porn shoot to a cringe-inducing encounter he was with a comely neighbor. Peretti is pitch-perfect as this despicable, self-destructive sad sack, but the reliable Nicholson is underused. As for Serge Gainsbourg, the film could have been more fittingly named after his song, “Requiem pour un con,” which Sergio performs in the film.

The Gasoline Thieves opens with a gripping pre-title sequence, filmed in a shadowy style, depicting the underground world of gas siphoning in Mexico. Director Edgar Nito, making his feature debut, immerses viewers in this world where fourteen year-old Lalo (newcomer Eduardo Banda) finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Wanting to buy a cell phone for his middle school crush, Ana (Regina Reynoso), Lalo stops working with Don Gil (Fernando Becerril) and becomes involved in the risky, illegal business of gasoline extraction when Rulo (Pedro Joaquín) offers him easy money. Of course, trouble comes just as fast as the cash. Nito’s film offers no surprises in terms of plotting, but The Gasoline Thieves is plenty atmospheric. The scenes of Lalo and his downtrodden mom are authentic, while the courtship between Lalo and Ana is sweet. But it is the palpable desperation Lalo, Rulo, and their partner Mariano (Pascacio López) express – in their body language and in speeches – that truly resonate. Watching Lalo and Rulo fight while gasoline rains down on them is both beautiful and distressing—as is the film’s tense but not unexpected ending. The Gasoline Thieves may not break new ground, but it is a striking debut.

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

Bliss is a grungy, bloody grindhouse film about a foul-mouthed female artist, Dezzy (Dora Madison in a helluva performance) who is overdue to a deliver a painting to her gallerist. She is also behind in her rent. When her agent drops her, Dez heads to her dealer who gives her a drug that he warns her not to take too much of. But of course, she does. And she goes on a bender which includes a superimposed, strobe lit three-way sex scene. Moreover, after a bad reaction in a bathroom, Dezzy soon starts waking up naked and bloody with no memory of what transpired. In addition to her hallucinations and blackouts, Dez also has developed a taste for blood. Nevertheless, she makes considerable progress on her painting. Bliss goes for broke with over-the-top violence and gore – a cat fight practically pummels the audience and there is a nice special effect of bodies melting like ice cream—but the film never quite uses its whacked-out scenario to comment on the artistic process. A film like Bliss may not want (or need) to be metaphorical, but it doesn’t serve much of a purpose beyond providing Madison with a magnificent showcase for her talents: she flips her mane of kinky red hair and spews blood and one-liners with noticeable aplomb.

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin is Werner Herzog’s affectionate tribute to his friend, the late writer. Herzog creates a kind of anthropological travelogue tracing a skin of a brontosaurus that fascinated Chatwin as a young boy and presenting interesting discussions of indigenous Warlpiris and aboriginal culture – which are featured in Chatwin’s book, The Songlines and Herzog’s film Where the Green Ants Dream. Nomad highlights other intersections of Herzog’s films – Scream of Stone, Herdsmen of the Son, and Cobra Verde – with Chatwin’s book, The Viceroy of Ouidah, but it is the personal stories that resonate. Herzog interviews Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, and his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, who describe the author’s infectious personality and his complicated sexuality. As Herzog pulls out a rucksack Chatwin gave him—a talisman of his travels – Nomad becomes a lovely, elegiac documentary about two men who shared a real brotherhood.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

Read also:

Surveying Shorts in 2019: A Interview with Sharon Badal (Tribeca Film Festival)

Truth and Fiction: Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire and Queen of the Desert

The Enormous Gap Between Dream and Realization: Scenarios by Werner Herzog

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