The 300 Week 17: 2018 Tribeca Film Festival Critic's Notebook (Part 2)


Second batch of Tribeca Film Festival reviews, plus Infinity War, a new wave cult oddity, and a William Friedkin classic

All right now, boppers, welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my goofball 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. Casting such a wide net, I hope there’s something that you can also enjoy and share.

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 ended over the weekend. I was able to catch 26 films that screened at the festival, one festival film that opened in theaters during closing weekend, as well as the feature-length debut episode of a Showtime documentary series. While the show doesn’t count for the final tally, I did get almost a month ahead of schedule in just a week and a half.

I also watched Avengers: Infinity War, like every other dutiful nerd on this planet.

Be sure to check out Jesse Lab’s reviews from the Tribeca Film Festival:

The 300 will slow down and get back to normal for the rest of the month. I’m just hoping MoviePass remains solvent long enough for me to get to 200. If MoviePass as we know it dies and I have 100 movies to go, I’ll have to get creative to close this out.

And so, onward.

116 of 300: Nigerian Prince (2018)

Director: Faraday OkoroStarring: Antonio J. Bell, Chinaza Uche, Tina MbaCountry: USA/NigeriaSeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalWednesday, April 25th

There are two narrative strands braided together in Nigerian Prince. One involves Eze (Bell), an American sent to Nigeria to get in touch with his roots, the other follows his cousin Pius (Uche), a Nigerian conman in over his head. Eze’s story reminded me of my own obnoxious ethnocentrism when I visited the Philippines for the first time; his narrative could have sustained its own film, but it’s given short shrift here to just given time constraints. Nigerian Prince really belongs to Pius, whose story snowballs into life-and-death stakes. Uche so good as the compelling, charismatic screw-up. I could have watched an entire film about him scamming foreigners (and the mechanisms of deceit) while steadily losing the trust of his friends.

117 of 300: When Lambs Become Lions (2018)

Director: Jon KasbeCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalWednesday, April 25th

When Lambs Become Lions might be the most beautifully shot film I saw at Tribeca this year. It’s a startling work of non-fiction filmmaking, composed with the tension of a stirring dramatic narrative. Kasbe follows the fates of elephant poachers and the Kenyan rangers who thwart them. By going back and forth between these groups, the film offers an exploration of poverty in Kenya. A lack of opportunities leads these men to poach elephants for ivory; even the rangers, whose pay is meager, are occasionally seduced by the money brought in by poachers.

The visuals in the Kenyan wildlife preserve are breathtaking. The quiet movement of a giraffe through the trees or the majesty of a roving pack of elephants on a hill have an uncanny wonderment. Yet I think the image that best encapsulates the whole movie involves dozens of birds flying through a kitchen window to feed on crumbs left on a stack of dirty dishes. These birds, these scraps—that is everyone’s day-to-day struggle.

118 of 300: General Magic (2018)

Directors: Matt Maude and Sarah KerruishCountry: UK/USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalWednesday, April 25th

Named after the dead tech company, General Magic is a case of technological foresight viewed in hindsight. In the early ’90s, a team of Apple engineers created a touchscreen mobile device that was essentially the forerunner to the iPhone.General Magic is a solid post-mortem of the team’s pipe dreams, and I was amazed by the talent that worked on this project and what they did after. Still, I was hoping for just a bit more about Silicon Valley’s tech landscape at the time, and other iPhone forebears of the era. I also felt that there was a bit too much genuflecting over company co-Founder Marc Porat, to a point where it felt like a corporate video.

119 of 300: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe RussoStarring: The MCUCountry: USASeen at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 (New York, NY)Wednesday, April 25th

Avengers: Infinity War is the cinematic version of an event comic crossover. Each character gets a moment to shine, yet maybe not enough given its size; the film juggles its multiple narratives as deftly as it can, yet maybe there’s too much going on. It’s the storytelling of voluminous spectacle, a movie that assumes you know what’s up with most of these characters, so it’s okay to throw them together in different combinations in service of a cosmic life-or-death plot. And somehow it works, or at least as well as the first half of an event comic is capable of working. (We’ve got a year to prepare to be let down.)

Thanos is the central character in the whole film after sitting on the outskirts of so many movies. He’s a fascistic Malthusian hiding his bloodlust beneath the mask of utilitarian utopianism; he’s that sociopathic provocateur in the back of your philosophy class. While Killmonger in Black Panther (The 300 Week 7) at least had a point about the ugliness of colonialism and imperialism, Thanos is just someone justifying mass murder with population control.

I generally dislike event comics, which is why I’m surprised how much I enjoyed Infinity War. Maybe it’s because of the character moments—Thor in particular is the best he’s been—and maybe it’s some of the narrative risks involved; “risk” being a relative term when it comes to a dominant worldwide film franchise. When the end credits rolled with that somber music and prestige white text on a black background, I giggled impishly.

I wonder what happens next. There’s the illusion of novelty in a cinematic event film that a comic does not have. The actors are aging and their contracts are ending, whereas I already know that the status quo will be maintained in an event comic. What happens in this film may be partially undone in Avengers 4: Automatic F**king Money Machine, but I hope some of it sticks.

120 of 300: The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

Director: Desiree AkhavanStarring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Jennifer Ehle, Forrest GoodluckCountry: USA Seen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalThursday, April 26th

I mentioned in Flixist’s Tribeca Film Festival preview that The Miseducation of Cameron Post has been considered an LGBT version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That’s definitely the case; you can even graft the “rabbits and wolves” scene from that novel right onto this story of teenagers forced into a gay conversion therapy camp. (I’m curious how close this is to the Emily M. Danforth novel the film is adapted from.) Cliques, crushes, and rebellions big and small ensue.

Even when Miseducation gets a little too-on-the-nose at times, it’s often a gripping watch thanks to the performances. Moretz grapples with guilt and young love (first love entails first sorrows) while Ehle is chilling as the lupine evangelical who runs the camp through pious gaslighting. What Miseducation does best is explore the difficulties of being a teenager, and how repression only makes things worse. Repression is never righteous. Adults just wind up hurting kids by forcing them to be something that they’re not.

121 of 300: To Dust (2018)

Director: Shawn SnyderStarring: Géza Röhrig, Matthew BroderickCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalThursday, April 26th

There’s a deep sense of grief at the heart of To Dust, which may be matched by the slapstick absurdity. A Hasidic cantor in mourning worries about his dead wife’s rate of decay, and enlists a hapless non-Jewish science professor from a community college to conduct a morbid science experiment. To Dust didn’t connect with me that much, though that might be because I’ve been fortunate enough not to lose a parent or a spouse. I may have understood the cantor’s bizarre grief, even metaphorically, if I had gone through something similar.

122 of 300: Phantom Cowboys (2018)

Director: Daniel Patrick CarboneCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalThursday, April 26th

The premise of Phantom Cowboys made me think of Michael Apted’s Up series, which focuses on the effects of time on people as they get older. Three teenage boys in small-town America are revisited eight years later to see what has happened to them as young men. Many of the images are meditatively quiet, shot by Carbone and Ryan Scafuro (the latter worked on one of my past Tribeca favorites Bending Steel). Carbone transitions associatively between past, present, and place through linked imagery—a burning sugar cane field in Florida becomes a bonfire in California; a small stream coursing through drought-dry dirt contrasted with a large West Virginia river.

These are plain lives artfully observed. It’s interesting to see how a personality persists over time, especially when teenage dreams give way to adult realities. I’m left wondering what will become of these men seven or eight years from now. What will have changed? What will have remained the same? Such mysteries of life.

123 of 300: Roll Red Roll (2018)

Director: Nancy SchwartzmanCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalFriday, April 27th

Roll Red Roll is an impassioned, painful, and disturbing examination of the Steubenville High School rape case. The film covers the facts related to the 2012 incident, the mood of the town in which it took place, and how social media played a role in uncovering the truth about what happened. The movie is soul-withering, especially when we’re shown how the football team continued to denigrate and humiliate the victim after she was raped. They talk about it like it was just a big joke. What is it about that “boys will be boys” mentality that allows such horrible things to happen without repercussions? Or that creates codes of silence to keep certain institutions in place and above the law?

By the end of Roll Red Roll, I was emotionally exhausted and also enraged. This is a must watch film about the moment rape culture could be discussed openly, and perhaps a key part in a timeline of social change between the Penn State scandal and the current #MeToo movement.

124 of 300: Time for Ilhan (2018)

Director: Norah ShapiroCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalFriday, April 27th

Time for Ilhan may be one of the documentaries that best captures our current political zeitgeist. Ilhan Omar’s 2016 run for Minnesota state representative was fed by a desire to remove long-time incumbents who’d become part of the status quo, and to better represent a younger and more diverse constituency. Omar is Muslim and a former Somali refugee, which similarly addresses other political realities regarding marginalized and underrepresented groups. There’s something about Time for Ilhan that reminded me of Marshall Curry’s Street Fight, which chronicled Cory Booker’s run for mayor. Omar is a person who captures the popular imagination because her time, now, has come.

125 of 300: The Feeling of Being Watched (2018)

Director: Assia BoundaouiCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalSaturday, April 28th

The Feeling of Being Watched can get pretty granular about court proceedings and FOIA requests, but at its heart this is a chilling watch about government surveillance of Muslim communities before and after 9/11. Boundaoui’s own Chicago suburb was the target of a massive FBI surveillance effort that went by the name “Vulgar Betrayal.” She documents her attempt to learn about the extent of the surveillance and who was targeted, ratcheting up the paranoia as she delves deeper into the process. Boundaoui has a background in public radio, and I think the measured tone and approach to the material is reflected in the film.

126 of 300: Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (2018)

Directors: Kate Davis and David HeilbronerCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalSaturday, April 28th

Say Her Name is essential viewing for anyone who cares about the Black Lives Matter movement. Whenever it airs on HBO, the film may spark further conversation about criminal justice reform as well as systemic racism in law enforcement. Davis and Heilbroner do a commendable job interweaving details of Bland’s life and activism while also exploring the mysterious circumstances of her death in a Texas jail. Law enforcement pushes a story of a woman driven to suicide because of marijuana, while her family and social media paints a picture of a woman eager for better opportunities. By the end, the one certainty is that she shouldn’t have been pulled over or arrested in the first place.

127 of 300: White Tide: The Legend of Culebra (2018)

Director: Theo LoveCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalSaturday, April 28th

If I were to tell you too much about this documentary, it would spoil the fun. White Tide is non-fiction that’s as bonkers as a Coen brothers comedy, filled with improbable situations and colorful characters. The film is centered on Rodney Hyden, a normal Floridian who attempts to locate $2 million of cocaine buried on a small island. A neighbor told him about it at a drunken bonfire, so it has to be true. Love restages key events in the story using the actual people involved when possible. It’s like translating Rodney’s fantasy world of cinematic coke dealing to the screen. The yarn is too good to be true, and one of the kookiest big fish stories I’ve ever heard.

Outside of The 300: The Fourth Estate (2018)

Director: Liz GarbusCountry: USASeen at Cinépolis Chelsea (New York, NY)2018 Tribeca Film FestivalSunday, April 29th

I went into The Fourth Estate expecting a rote bit of cheerleading for journalism. The ra-ra is mostly implicit. Garbus instead provides a riveting look at The New York Times‘ day-to-day reporting of the Donald Trump administration starting at the inauguration. This 90-minute debut episode takes us through the first 100 days, with the key reporters and editors becoming more nonplussed with each appearance. Watching this, I was reminded just how crazy the last year has been, and how much more insane it got after the first 100 days.

Part of the joy of The Fourth Estatemay be watching these journalists become progressively more bedraggled as our national dumpster fire continues to burn. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is also a highlight. While most of the music is ambient and electronic, Reznor sneaks in a banjo when Attorney General Jeff Sessions is on screen.

128 of 300: Disobedience (2017)

Director: Sebastián LelioStarring: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro NivolaCountry: UK/Ireland/USASeen at Angelika Film Center (New York, NY)Sunday, April 29th

Disobedience may be the most straightforward film I’ve seen from Lelio, which isn’t a bad thing. Different stories must be told different ways. While I think I still prefer A Fantastic Woman (The 300 Week 5), I loved a lot of Disobedience thanks to the performances of Weisz and McAdams. Weisz plays Ronit, a woman who returns to the orthodox Jewish community she abandoned years ago. McAdams plays Esti, an orthodox woman in a loveless marriage. In their first glances at one another, we can tell they have history. The same is true when the two women nod along to The Cure’s “Lovesong.” There’s something conspiratorial about their smiles and sways—friends with an in-joke, lovers with a secret.

There’s a fascinating tension for Esti as she must choose between her love for Ronit and her marriage to Dovid (Nivola). We’re shown how there are certain comforts to remaining in communities and institutions, yet these comforts can be constraining and limiting as well. Notice the moments when Lelio eases up on the gray tones and lets the color back into his images; or when the sunlight seems a bit more yellow rather than just white. Certain things are too brilliant to leave muted.

129 of 300: Liquid Sky (1982)

Director: Slava TsukermanStarring: Anne Carlisle, Paula E. Sheppard, Susan DoukasCountry: USASeen at Quad Cinema (New York, NY)Monday, April 30th

The stylish sleaziness of Liquid Sky is what makes the movie a cult classic. It’s a New Wave, mildly sci-fi take on Andy Warhol’s languid films, with a stilted delivery out of early John Waters. Carlisle plays a double role: our Bowie-esque heroine Margaret and a scummy dirtbag scenester named Jimmy. Liquid Sky features an off-putting rape scene and a lot of misogyny in general mostly directed at Margaret, but it eventually feeds into a reversal of these power dynamics. Not much happens, but maybe that’s the point; there’s at least something interesting to look at in each shot.Liquid Sky might be the strung-out art school cousin to Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames.

130 of 300: Sorcerer (1977)

Director: William FriedkinStarring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, AmidouCountry: USASeen at Metrograph (New York, NY)Tuesday, May 1st

A remake of The Wages of Fear (The 300 Week 2), Sorcerer is 1970s as f**k. This sweaty, stinky riff on the Henri-Georges Clouzot classic increases the dangers of the road and also the sheer narrative ambition. Sleazy, desperate men take a suicide mission to transport nitroglycerine for an oil company in hopes of getting out of their Latin American purgatory. This is Friedkin unhinged, doing his ownTreasure of the Sierra Madre by way of Apocalypse Now.

So many explosions on screen, and all of them look like they might have actually hurt someone. Seriously, they look that dangerous. The bridge sequence in the rain is such a unique suspense spectacle, as is a small riot in the town after an oil well blows up. Burned bodies are held aloft, tragic sacrifices to the god of global capitalism. The whole film is enhanced by a brilliant Tangerine Dream score. Sorcerer is a singular act of inspired madness.