The 300 Week 16: 2018 Tribeca Film Festival Critic's Notebook (Part 1)


A first of batch of reviews from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival

Hey there, gang, and welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my foolish quest to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be watching new releases, classics, hidden gems, and festival films to experience the wide world of cinema in all its forms. I hope there’s something here for you to enjoy and share as well.

As always, there are three rules for The 300:

  • The movie must be at least 40 minutes long, meeting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ definition of a feature film.
  • I must watch the movie at a movie theater, screening room, or outdoor screening venue.
  • While I can watch movies I’ve seen before 2018, I cannot count repeated viewings of the same film in 2018 multiple times.

The 2018 Tribeca Film Festival is in progress and runs until Sunday. I’ve been able to catch 15 films in the opening days. It would have been more, but I needed sleep and time to finish some other work. Jesse Lab and I will have more reviews out by next week, so keep checking back with Flixist and our Tribeca 2018 coverage.

Right now, I am tired, drinking coffee, and trying to finish this before heading in for another long day of movie watching, including three movies at the festival followed by a screening of Avengers: Infinity War.

It’s raining, my feet are soaked, and my blazer smells funny.

And so, onward.

101 of 300: Love, Gilda (2018)

Director: Lisa D’ApolitoCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalThursday, April 19th

There’s something so intimate about another person’s handwriting, as if the shape of their letters could communicate just as much as their choice of words and the sound of their voice. Gilda Radner’s own writing plays such a pivotal role in D’Apolito’s loving portrait of the late comedian that the mere sight of it has a peculiar emotional power. We get such an endearing glimpse at her life through these diaries and audio recordings and home movies. So often documentaries about people no longer with us have a certain distance about them, but D’Apolito’s made Love, Gilda feel so achingly close. The movie approximates the feeling of the last long chat you had with a relative.

Love, Gilda is just as funny as it is heart wrenching. This is a who’s-who for comedy nerds of a certain generation, and it’s incredible how interconnected the SNL and SCTV crews were at one time. I often got teary-eyed watching the film, whether it was about her childhood or her success and insecurities or her battle with cancer. While watching Radner prepare for chemo, we can hear Gene Wilder’s voice behind the camcorder. How reassuring it sounds, and how loving. This is a film deeply felt.

As a teenager I remember seeing Gilda Live on Comedy Central several times, and that song at the end, “Honey (Touch Me with My Clothes On),” always stuck with me given how innocent, wistful, and pretty it was. Hearing that song during Love, Gilda enhanced its already innate melancholy beauty, and just absolutely gutted me.

102 of 300: Nico, 1988 (2017)

Director: Susanna NicchiarelliStarring: Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair, Anamaria Marinca, Sandor FuntekCountry: Italy/BelgiumSeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalThursday, April 19th

Nico, 1988 is a showcase for Dyrholm’s fine performance as the eponymous model, singer, and actress. Nothing big happens beyond seeing Nico, sadly high or strung out, on the road in the last years of her life. Yet this is a movie built on small observations about interpersonal relationships, whether it’s Nico and her band, her son, or her lovesick manager. One of the highlights takes place during a secret show that might get shut down by the government. Such urgency in that moment, and such power as it unfolds. The film made me realized how little I knew about Nico beyond her brief stint with The Velvet Underground and her time as an Andy Warhol scenester (The 300 Week 11). There’s more to Nico than events that happened decades ago, we’re reminded and shown.

103 of 300: Tully (2018)

Director: Jason ReitmanStarring: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron LivingstonCountry: USASeen at BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalThursday, April 19th

I really likedTully, which offers a funny and sad glimpse at parenting, motherhood, and getting older. That said, I think someone’s enjoyment of the film may come down to a) their age and b) how they feel about the plot taken as a whole. So many of the film’s views on parenting, marriage, and the social obligations of women in child-rearing roles feel so painfully, specifically true. Sometimes it’s just a matter of clever word choice and the proper inflection. How it must sting for a parent to hear their child called “quirky”, yet how necessary that word might be to avoid all of the other things a “quirky” child can be called.

Theron is great here as a dissatisfied mother at her wit’s end. She’s well-paired with Davis as the newly hired nanny who’s part Mary Poppins and part manic pixie dream girl. At first I rejected many aspects of the film as bougie nonsense, a type of twee wish fulfillment designed for urbane hipsters who’ve left the city for the suburbs and regret the move every day. Yet asTullyshowed its hand and what it was really about, I softened and warmed very quickly to the film. But then again, I’m getting older, and I see a lot of what my friends and I are gong through or thinking about on screen.

104 of 300: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018)

Director: Gabrielle BradyCountry: Germany/UK/AustraliaSeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalFriday, April 20th

Island of the Hungry Ghosts is a documentary overflowing with empathy, poetry, and elemental power. Set on Christmas Island, the film follows a therapist named Poh Lin who works with refugees kept in a detention facility run by the Australian government. The film braids Lin’s emotionally draining work with images of crabs on a massive land migration and locals performing traditions to appease the ghosts of their ancestors.

The movements back and forth between Lin and the crabs and the locals have a hypnotic lyricism, enhanced by Aaron Cuppels’ mesmerizing score. Brady’s approach to this material and her way of juxtaposing ideas leads to rich thematic and contemplative moments. I was struck by Lin’s use of a sandbox as a way to encourage the refugees to share their troubles. How tragically fitting a box of sand seems for people kept locked up and away from the beaches; meanwhile, the crabs roam free on open land, and sparks fly as offerings are made to the dead. Meditative, metaphor-assembling work like this reminded a bit of the hybrid narratives of W.G. Sebald.

105 of 300: Cargo (2017)

Director: Ben Howling and Yolanda RamkeStarring: Martin Freeman, Simone Landers, Susie PorterCountry: AustraliaSeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalFriday, April 20th

Parts of Cargo reminded me of other zombie movies and post-apocalyptic narratives, with one shot very reminiscent of Train to Busan. For the most part, this is a competently done, nicely shot ticking-clock zombie movie. Freeman has just 48 hours to find a safe home for his baby daughter somewhere in the harsh Australian outback. As with many post-apocalyptic narratives, the end of the world is a good place to explore the worst parts of humanity. Cargo came alive for me more when it addressed Australia’s colonial past and its long history of racism. This was probably strong on my mind after seeing Sweet Country not too long ago (The 300 Week 14).

106 of 300: You Shall Not Sleep (2018)(aka No dormirás)

Director: Gustavo HernándezStarring: Eva De Dominici, Belén Rueda, Natalia de MolinaCountry: Argentina/Spain/UruguaySeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalFriday, April 20th

There are some great images in You Shall Not Sleep, but I still can’t figure out what happened in the movie or why anyone did the things they did. (Apparently that matters. Go figure.) For some reason a crazy stage director is holding an immersive theater experience in an abandoned mental asylum. And if you stay awake long enough, you wind up unstuck in time and reliving a nightmare of someone else’s past… maybe? But why have these actors stay awake for the play? Why not just some random people who aren’t acting? I watched confused and passive, unsure what anyone’s motivations were or why anything was happening.

I nearly slept.

107 of 300: O.G. (2018)

Director: Madeleine SacklerStarring: Jeffrey Wright, Theothus Carter, William FichtnerCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalSaturday, April 21st

O.G. may not forge new paths as a prison drama, but it’s well put together, anchored by a solid performance by Wright. He plays an aging inmate set to be released in a few weeks if he just keeps out of trouble. Sackler’s lyrical touches as a director are nice, and the choice to shoot the film in a correctional facility heightens the carceral state of mind. Perhaps the most effective scene comes relatively late in O.G. as Wright’s character must consider the repercussions of his crime. The moment could be simple, and it seems to start that way, but then emotions come; a wound scarred and healed but torn open again.

108 of 300: Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through the Gateway Chosen By the Holy Storsh (2018)

Director: Vivieno CaldinelliStarring: Kate Micucci, Sam Huntington, Dan HarmonCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalSaturday, April 21st

In Seven Stages, a naive couple moves from the Midwest to LA to pursue their dreams, but then cultists break into their apartment to commit suicide in their bathtub. Hilarity should ensue, but doesn’t. There are so many funny people in this aggressively unfunny movie, and a lot of the jokes left me sighing, wincing, or squinting. What an exhausting slog, like being at a friend’s improv show out of obligation rather than interest. The movie even squanders an original Flaming Lips song. Comedy is subjective, of course, and at least Seven Stages reaffirmed my preferences: I like comedies in which the cast doesn’t realize they’re in a comedy.

109 of 300: Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable (2018)

Director: Aaron LieberCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalSaturday, April 21st

Bethany Hamilton’s story is inspiring. After surviving a shark attack that resulted in the loss of an arm, she continued to surf professionally, adapting her style accordingly. Unstoppable follows her journey through celebrity and back into surf competitions, with some beautiful cinematography and sound design. Some of the drone shots capture the towering, vertiginous size of the waves she rides, and the underwater imagery is remarkable. The second half of Unstoppable gets a bit repetitive as it demonstrates the grind of celebrity and athlete life; it could perhaps trim 10 minutes and be a better film, but what’s there is good.

110 of 300: Zoe (2018)

Director: Drake DoremusStarring: Léa Seydoux, Ewan McGregor, Theo JamesCountry: UK/CanadaSeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalSunday, April 22nd

Doremus’ previous film, Equals, was like a less-interesting riff on Gattaca and THX-1138. Zoe, an exploration of love and AI, is like a less-interesting riff on Her and the Blade Runner movies. The ideas about sentience aren’t new, but I at least appreciated its willingness to explore the questionable aspects of what love might mean between people and programming. And yet the movie never goes far or deep enough despite Seydoux, McGregor, and the rest of the cast elevating the material.

The movie winds up waylaid by a pharmaceutical subplot before it heads into the final act. There’s a drug that can simulate the feeling of falling in love. Opioid-like addiction ensues. Thematically it ties into synthetic love and temporary fixes for loneliness, but it seems like it could have supported its own film rather than being awkwardly grafted into this one.

111 of 300: State Like Sleep (2018)

Director: Meredith DanluckStarring: Katherine Waterston, Michael Shannon, Luke EvansCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalSunday, April 22nd

State Like Sleep is baffling in ways both interesting and frustrating. Set in Brussels even though it doesn’t need to be, the movie is about the emotional fallout of a bad marriage, strained mother-daughter relationships, and brief romances abroad. Nothing quite sticks, and even less coheres. The film’s central mystery about a dead husband’s double-life is a non-mystery. The thriller-without-thrills plot detracts from the underexplored mother-daughter subplot, and it takes the wind out of the scenes with Shannon. Maybe State Like Sleep could have worked better as a book instead. I sensed that so much of what happens hinges on the internal life of the main character and how she processes these events. As a film, it’s inert, but it looks nice.

112 of 300: Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football (2017)

Director: Louis MylesCountry: UK/BrazilSeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalSunday, April 22nd

A long con takes time and character, and Kaiser offers a look at a few strange characters in Brazilian soccer over the course of several years. Somehow Kaiser (real name Carlos Henrique Raposo) managed to sign contracts with a few football clubs without really playing. He’s terrible at soccer, but a good charlatan. Watching the film, I noticed my attitude changed toward this man. At first it was fun hearing about his con, and then I kind of wanted to beat the crap out of him, but finally I was surprised how much I felt for this pathetic, talentless guy. Amid all the samba and bossanova, keep your ears open for music by Nigerian funk artist William Onyeabor.

113 of 300: Horses: Patti Smith and her Band (2018)

Director: Steven SebringCountry: USASeen at The Beacon Theatre (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalMonday, April 23rd

Horses is a concert film about Patti Smith playing the seminal punk album live on its 40th anniversary. It doesn’t break any new ground with the concert film form, but it successfully captures the spirit and feel of seeing Smith in concert. She’s lived with the album for four decades, so every mannerism on stage from her hand movements to launching gobs of spit feels like a reticulation of a previous performance.

Smith’s reached a wonderful NFG point of her career and has lost none of her swagger or sharpness. She reminds the crowd not to mess around with a 69-year-old broad. Before playing “Break It Up,” she encourages the audience to sing along with the refrain.

“I love you!” shouts a fan.

A beat. “If ya love me, f**kin’ sing it,” Smith replies.

Following the screening, Patti Smith and her Band played a live set, which included a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” And then Bruce Springsteen showed. (BAH GAWD, THAT’S BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S MUSIC!) They sang “Because the Night,” which the duo co-wrote in 1978. And then Michale Stipe came on stage to help close out the set with “People Have the Power,” a song Smith co-wrote with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5.

Smith was quippy and totally on the entire time once the screen came up to reveal the band. Seeing “Land” on screen just 20 minutes before didn’t dull its swell when performed in person. There was a political urgency underlying the whole set. Smith kept noting the students of Parkland and mentioned that the youth would would be the ones to save us. You still can’t mess with this broad.

114 of 300: All About Nina (2018)

Director: Eva VivesStarring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common, Kate del CastilloCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalTuesday, April 24th

“I can’t believe she went there,” is a typical (and slightly condescending) comment people have about women in comedy. All About Nina goes there, and does it brashly, unexpectedly, and admirably. Drifting through life, Nina moves from New York to LA in hopes of making it on an SNL analog. During one of her stand-up routines, she talks about the need for women’s stories and women’s fantasies, which is what the film deals with. It’s a story about a person trying to get their life together and failing because of how screwed up their life is.

Winstead anchors the movie with her range. Once Vives gets beyond the LA cliches, her script is a fascinating portrait of an artist as a thirtysomething woman. On the verge of getting what she wants, she is plagued by a fear of intimacy and maybe happiness in general. As we learn more about Nina, we get a context for her actions and choices, but the truth so bluntly revealed offers no sense of resolution. The work of dealing with your own s**t never ends, and it hurts you and maybe even the people you love. That’s brutally, refreshingly honest.

Honesty comes up a lot in All About Nina, which makes sense since comedians deal in reconfigurations of truth. Love, Gilda mentions that comedy is what happens when the truth shows up earlier than expected. There’s another facet to that. Humor might also be necessary as a kind of defense mechanism from the truth, or a means of coping when the truth hurts too much. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “I laugh because I must not cry, that is all, that is all.”

115 of 300: The Saint Bernard Syndicate (2018)(aka Sankt Bernhard Syndikatet)

Director: Mads BrüggerStarring: Frederik Cilius Jørgensen, Rasmus Bruun, Odessa the St. BernardCountry: DenmarkSeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalTuesday, April 24th

I originally thought The Saint Bernard Syndicate was a pure conman movie, yet thinking back, it might just be a cringe comedy about ineptitude abroad. A Danish failure heads to China in an attempt to sell people Saint Bernards, bringing along an acquaintance with money to help fund the trip. Yet neither of them have any idea what they’re doing, let alone how to get this idea off the ground.

Shot handheld and full of awkwardness, the most hilarious and mortifying moments of The Saint Bernard Syndicate play like scenes from The Office. And yet the movie is really about desperate failures in search of a shady buck. I’m not sure how earnest or honest they are in the pursuit, but that may be the point. Uncertainty can heighten cringe-worthiness.