By Gary M. Kramer and Michael Miller.

Gary Kramer reports:

The 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, now in its ninth year, provides an intriguing mix of popular and independent films – from its opening night feature, Shrek Forever After (Mitchell, 2010) to its closing gala Freakonomics (Gibney, Spurlock, Grady, Ewing, Jarecki and Gordon, 2010). In between there were dozens of world premieres, some outstanding documentaries, New York movies, and ESPN sports films. Here is a rundown of ten titles that unspooled at this year’s fest.

The astonishing, multi-layered Irish drama Snap (Winters, 2010) opens with Sandra (Aisling O’Sullivan) being interviewed by a film crew about a crime from her recent past. Clues to what happened are revealed though her glances and testimony – but the event itself unfolds in an intercut narrative featuring her son, Stephen (Stephen Moran). Stephen has kidnapped a toddler and is keeping him at his grandfather’s. His actions – tender one minute, startling the next – eventually dovetail with his mother’s. Snap is riveting throughout, because writer/director Carmel Winters makes some important connections between memory and trauma. The film-maker creates interesting visual connections with the use of super-8 footage, videotape, film cameras and cell phones. The issues of documenting truth also come into bold relief – especially when Sandra watches herself on the video screen. As assured as Winters’s writing and direction is, she also elicits a sensational performance from O’Sullivan. Experiencing pleasure one minute and then barking at someone the next, Sandra is a complex character that viewers will want to understand. Snap is an auspicious, audacious film debut.

Winning the Best Documentary Feature award in the World Documentary Competition, Monica and David (Codina, 2009) was a touching non-fiction film chronicling a year in the life of its inspiring subjects, a couple with Downs Syndrome. From their marriage ceremony through a move to their efforts to live with some independence – learning to cook a meal or work at a job – the film is a tender portrait of people with intellectual disabilities. Director Alexandra Codina wants to show that given the right care, patience and attention to their needs, people like Monica and David can thrive and have happy, active lives. Monica’s dedicated mother acknowledges her own overprotective efforts at making her daughter and son-in-law feel safe, but she gets choked up when asked about their lives without her (so too, does his mum). The empowering film highlights many issues regarding the intellectually disabled, from how the subjects define a handicap to how they find comfort in routine. Monica’s unresolved issues with her biological father are also addressed, and seeing David support her in these moments is quite moving. Monica and David presents its subjects and their lives matter of factly, and asks viewers to accept these people for whom they are. It is difficult not to be affected by their story.

Monogamy (Shapiro, 2010) won an award for the Best New York Narrative film, but this artfully composed drama about Theo (Chris Messina), an engaged wedding photographer who moonlights as a ‘photo stalker’ – he takes surreptitious photos of people who pay him – was far from perfect. Set in Brooklyn, the film certainly has affection for its setting and characters, but director/co-writer Dana Adam Shapiro’s feature debut lacks the kinetic energy of his Oscar-nominated documentary Murderball (Rubin and Shapiro, 2005). While Theo’s efforts to get intimate with his fiancée Nat (Rashida Jones) are repeatedly stymied, he becomes obsessed with ‘Subgirl’ (Meital Dohan), a client he shoots experiencing sexual pleasure around the city. The film really plays out like a 90-minute version of the erotic/fantasy cable TV show Red Shoe Diaries (King, 1992), with Theo recognizing the importance of his relationship by living vicariously through Subgirl’s public affairs. Monogamy is trying to explore issues of identity and voyeurism, but the characters and their situations are not complex enough. Theo is a horny, unsympathetic idiot, and the film’s treatment of the female characters is simplistic at best, offensive at worst.

Another disappointment was Legacy (Ikimi, 2010), a low-budget ‘thriller’ about Malcolm Gray (Idris Elba), a fugitive soldier holed up in a Brooklyn apartment years after a failed mission. Malcolm is haunted by the violence he experienced in eastern Europe and the film shows him struggling with reality and truth. Legacy provides Elba with an actor’s showcase – he gets to spout pages of introspective dialogue, sometimes as video recordings, sometimes just thinking out loud. He also gets to fight, verbally and/or viscerally, with the handful of supporting characters that enter the story. Alas, writer/director Ikimi boxes Elba into a corner as he makes muddled points about the horrors of war and the cynicism of politics – as when he introduces a storyline about Malcolm’s brother Darnell (Eamonn Walker) considering a run for president.

A better thriller was Dream Home (Ho-Cheung, 2010), a morally dubious revenge film about a Cheng Lai-sheung (Josie Ho, in an incredible performance) who will just kill to get a sea-view apartment in Hong Kong. Given the expense of the real estate, the film suggests, murder may be the only way to get a decent place to live. And Dream Home contains one of the best murders in recent films – a pregnant woman literally gets the life sucked out of her by a vacuum. Yes, this gratuitously violent film is gleefully nasty, and a lengthy sequence involving a drug-and sex-fuelled party that goes horribly awry when Cheng Lai-sheung turns up gives new meaning to the phrase ‘torture porn’. But the social commentary gives this coarse film its civility, as does the incredible camerawork. A scene of a building being destroyed, shot entirely in the reflection of a row of windows is one of many glorious images and compensate for all the messy carnage.

There are plenty of fabulous visuals in the documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston (Smith, 2010), a life-and-times portrait of the American designer. The film features terrific interviews with Halston’s contemporaries, including Liza Minnelli, Andre Leon Talley and Anjelica Huston, as well as a spirited history of the designer’s achievements, from creating Jackie O’s pillbox hat to his deal with J.C. Penney’s that ultimately reversed his fortunes. The film also celebrates the hedonistic excess of the 1970s, represented by Studio 54, Halston’s hangout. However, director Smith’s penchant for appearing on camera in bad period hair and clothes is as self-defeating as his idiotic questions to the subjects he interviews. Smith may think his approach is cute, but it does his otherwise rollicking film a disservice.

The compelling ESPN documentary The Two Escobars (Zimbalist and Zimbalist, 2010) also takes an interesting – and successful – approach of comparing and contrasting its subjects – the famous, but unrelated, Colombians: soccer great Andre Escobar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. As the film reveals, Andre Escobar was beloved by his country until he scored a goal against his own team in a World Cup match. His namesake, Pablo Escobar, was a drug lord who loved soccer, and helped finance the team (Pablo used the team to launder money, and even paid players to play at his ranch). The film shows how Pablo’s criminal activities put a black mark on Colombia and how Andre’s and his team-mates’ heroics on the soccer pitch gave citizens a feeling of pride. The soccer footage is often amazing; it is hard not to get caught up in the World Cup qualifying match against Argentina. Yet it is horrifying to see Pablo’s violent efforts to control judges and prevent his extradition. As both Escobars experience the same fate – albeit in different ways – the film shows just how Colombians may seek escape in soccer, but they must face a harsh reality when the game ends.

Michael Miller reports:

Arguably the best film at the festival was Keshtzarhaye Sepid/The White Meadows (Rasoulof, 2009). Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) travels from island to island in Lake Urmia, the third largest salt lake on earth. His work is to hear the sorrows of those he visits and to collect their tears, thus unburdening them. It is thought that he is able to turn the tears into pearls. Such is the fable-like quality of this film.

As Rahmat collects tears arising from grief, fear, shame and frustration, the individual (and collective) sorrows are keenly felt. Moreover, they provide an allegory for the Iranian zeitgeist. While not overtly political, the film does call into question social and religious constructs which complicate peoples’ daily lives.

Some of the most poignant sequences in The White Meadows include a young village girl who resists an arranged marriage and is sacrificed to the lake – by being set adrift. In comparison, a painter is ostracized and banished for painting the sky red. Rather than conform, he stands his ground and pays a price that engenders viewers’ sympathies.

The White Meadows is emotionally powerful, in part because as each story of suffering unfolds – at a deliberate pace – Rahmat is seemingly unaffected. Yet he is hardly aloof; he is merely doing his job, which he tells a young boy he mentors, is extremely difficult.

The film is also visually dynamic. The sweeping landscapes and Rasoulof’s nearly monochromatic palette are stunning, adding an otherworldly quality to the film. This magical sensation is also apparent as this film reaches its surprising conclusion. What is revealed is at first disarming, but upon reflection it yields a wholly logical and extremely rewarding experience.

Moving from the sea to the bowels of the earth, Into Eternity (Madsen, 2010) is an appropriately serious – if perhaps a little too self-serious – documentary about Finland being one of the only countries seeking a permanent solution to address nuclear waste disposal. Director Michael Madsen reports on the progress Finland is making in the execution of their plan to build the Onkalo (‘hiding place’ in Finnish) – a series of tunnels dug 500 metres down into the Finnish bedrock, where the nuclear waste will be encapsulated in copper vessels and buried. Madsen uses his film to express concern over how to communicate to future generations that what lies buried is dangerous and not to be disturbed.

While Into Eternity showcases a series of talking heads from nuclear physicists to other scientists, the most affecting interview footage features Madsen addressing the camera directly, lit only by a burning match as it is consumed. These scenes illustrate the urgency of the situation. Madsen is adept at creating the necessary mood, and his efforts are enhanced by the atmospheric cinematography and lush soundtrack. Equally poetic are long tracking shots of facilities where the spent fuel is temporarily stored. The pristine white tile and paint looks like a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). These striking sequences never undercut the gravity of the film’s message, which resonates despite some of Madsen’s more self-conscious moments, such as his foreboding voice-over that is used throughout the film.

Lastly, Tribeca’s favourite son Edward Burns premiered his new film, Nice Guy Johnny (Burns, 2010) at the fest. In this crowd-pleaser, Johnny Rizzo (Matt Bush) is almost 25, engaged to Claire (Anna Wood), and doing a job he loves – hosting an Oakland, CA sports talk radio show – albeit from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. and for next to no money. He is happy with his life, but to fulfil a promise he made to Claire, Johnny is travelling to New York for a job interview arranged by Claire’s well-to-do father.

Once in New York, Johnny meets his Uncle Terry (Burns), a rakish womanizer. Whereas Johnny is a stand-up guy, Terry is a schemer, who stoops lower and lower as the film progresses. And when Johnny reluctantly agrees to spend the weekend with Uncle Terry in the Hamptons – both out of respect for his uncle and in part to shut him up – Johnny hopes to demonstrate his resolve to resist Terry’s temptation of a pre-marital fling.

At an East Hampton estate, Johnny meets Brooke (Kerry Bishé) a free-spirited blonde and they have an easy rapport even after Johnny announces his impending nuptials. Over the course of the evening, however, Johnny has several miscommunications with Claire, and he starts wondering if the New York job is such a good idea. The more time he spends with Brooke, the more his new friend echoes his cousin’s ‘be true to yourself’ sentiments.

Nice Guy Johnny delivers its message ably, as writer/director Burns shows how Johnny accedes to others’ wishes at his own risk. Burns’s morality may be obvious, but it comes across naturally through the winning performances by both Bush and Bishé. This is a likable film. And although Burns is playing an unlikeable rogue, he still gives his character most of the wisdom – and many of the great lines.

Gary M. Kramer is a freelance film critic and author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews.

Michael Miller is an independent scholar.

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