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Reviews

Film Festival Roundup—2024 Tribeca Festival

2024 Tribeca Festival
Through June 16, 2024
Various locations in Manhattan
Tribecafilm.com/festival
 
As usual, among the dozens of films premiering at Robert DeNiro’s annual Tribeca Festival (“Film” was dropped from the title last year to mark the fact that it’s encompassing much more than just cinema) are an interesting mix of documentaries that touch on subjects as varied as movies, music, theater, and the never-ending business of war, corporate welfare and—yes, still—even UFOs. 
 
Brats
 
Brats 
(Neon, streaming on Hulu)
In this engaging if slight documentary, Andrew McCarthy visits the other members of the so-called “Brat Pack”—a group of 20something actors who 40 years ago starred in movies like The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink—to discuss whether that moniker was helpful, hurtful or somewhere in between. McCarthy chats with Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Jon Cryer, Demi Moore, Lea Thompson, Tim Hutton and Ally Sheedy about their thoughts on the 1985 magazine article that gave them the label. (Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald did not participate, unfortunately—their thoughts would have been welcome.) The conversations are chatty, amusing, even occasionally insightful—as McCarthy also talks with others like writer Bret Easton Ellis and director Howard Deutch (who is Thompson’s husband)—and the result is an entertaining trek back to the mid-80s for some of us.
 
Made in England
Made in England—The Films of Powell and Pressburger 
(Cohen Media, opens July 12)
For three decades and 20 films, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made some of the most enduring works in British cinema, which include many indelible images, from those of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947) to The Small Back Room (1948), The Red Shoes (1949) and The Tales of Hoffman (1951). David Hinton’s informative documentary dissects their partnership and why it ended (Powell made films himself, including the overrated cult item Peeping Tom, in 1960). Then there’s Martin Scorsese, an unabashed Powell and Pressburger fan, who not only narrates but acts as our on-camera host, even comparing what he did in some of his films with what they did in their pictures (a word he loves). Scorsese is always a terrific raconteur and knowledgeable commentator on film history, but Made in England needs a little less Marty and a little more Powell and Pressburger.
 
Satisfied
 
Satisfied 
Broadway performer Renee Elise Goldsberry, who won a Tony for playing Angelica Schuyler in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, is the focus of Chris Bolan and Melissa Haizlip’s personal portrait. Balancing home and work isn’t the most original subject for a documentary, but like the Ani DiFranco doc (below), this makes for often riveting viewing as Goldsberry, who has a young son and adopted daughter, tries keeping her professional and personal lives afloat while dealing with setbacks and triumphs, at times simultaneously—as during her final, filmed performance of Rent on Broadway—and she is the perfect doc subject: endlessly personable and confessional. 
 
1-800-On-Her-Own 


1-800-On-Her-Own 
The same could be said for alternative music pioneer Ani DiFranco, the Buffalo-born musician turned entrepreneur (she has her own record label, Righteous Babe) who’s released dozens of albums in the past three decades. In Dana Flor’s intimate fly-on-the-wall portrait, DiFranco—now in her early 50s—must navigate how to remain relevant in a business that’s very different from when she began and keep her artistic integrity while raising her two daughters. The film’s title refers to the toll-free phone number for her Buffalo office in the early days; it also describes DiFranco’s fierce independence that’s marked her career.
 
Hacking Hate


Hacking Hate 
How right-wing racists and fascists on social media get their hateful messaging across is the focus of Simon Klose’s forceful documentary, which follows muck-raking Swedish journalist My Vingren as she tracks down online offenders, often by creating fake profiles to interact with, and catch, them. The heroic Vingren—well aware of the social media giants’ history of appeasing and even monetizing hate on their platforms—also talks with Twitter whistleblower Anika Collier Navaroli, who emotionally recounts the blowback from her decision to ban Trump from the site after the January 6 riot.
 
Checkpoint Zoo


Checkpoint Zoo
Russia’s illegal 2022 invasion of Ukraine not only put people and property at great risk but also countless animals; Joshua Zeman’s wrenching documentary homes in on Feldman Ecopark, an animal refuge near Ukraine’s second-largest city where those in residence there need to be removed from their dangerous location to safer spaces. Zeman also introduces the many brave people, from zoo workers to volunteers, who risk their very lives to try and get the animals to safety, all while a deadly war rages around them. In fact, the most memorable moments of the documentary are the raw footage from the front lines that these same people record for posterity.
 
Emergent City
 
Emergent City 
(to air on PBS’ POV series in 2025)
A long-disused area in Brooklyn called Industry City is the center of a plan by developers to have it rezoned for commercial use, while local politicians and ordinary people line up to oppose it. But Kelly Anderson and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg’s documentary, which follows many of the principals over several years of back and forth in community meetings and other settings, allows everyone to tell their side of the story—and the result is a complex mosaic of how the 21st century city can exist for all, even those with diametrically opposing viewpoints.  
 
They're Here
 
They’re Here 
Directors Daniel Claridge and Pacho Velez talk to several people in New York State—several in the Rochester area and others in Scarsdale and Orange County—who believe they have either seen or been visited by aliens. (The title, of course, comes from the famous line spoken by the young daughter Carol Ann in Poltergeist.) Although the film takes their claims seriously, and they definitely seem affected by something inexplicable, there’s also a welcome lightheartedness to this study of people who are looking for any sort of connection, and so those who are skeptical can also appreciate and even sympathize with their wide-eyed wonder.

Film Series: Open Roads—New Italian Cinema 2024

A Brighter Tomorrow
 
 
Open Roads—New Italian Cinema 2024
Through June 6, 2024
Film at Lincoln Center
165 West 65 Street, New York, NY
filmlinc.org

 

 
This year’s edition of Open Roads, Film at Lincoln Center’s annual survey of new films from Italy, includes the latest by Nanni Moretti, one of the mainstays of the festival circuit since his early triumphs like 1994’s Ciao Diario. Unfortunately, A Brighter Tomorrow is one of his most unfocused efforts. Moretti plays a director busy on his current film and who wants to make a long-cherished pet project but is upset that his producer wife (Margherita Buy) is working on someone else’s film. Moretti’s casualness extends to mild jokes about the movie industry, and supporting turns by the likes of Mathieu Amalric amount to little more than winking at the viewer. Buy is always an asset, but Moretti doesn’t do nearly enough with her; the result is watchable but far from essential.
 
I Told You So
 
In I Told You So, the sophomore feature by Ginevra Elkann, Rome seems to be on fire as a heatwave in January is affecting everyone, including the kaleidoscope of characters Elkann intercuts among for 100 intriguing but ultimately exhausting minutes. In a large and talented cast that includes Valeria Golino as a former porn star turned YouTuber, Danny Huston as a priest and former heroin addict and Greta Scacchi as his exasperated sister who comes to town with their mother’s ashes, only Alba Rohrwacher as a desperate single mom who doesn’t want to lose her son gives a compelling but not over the top performance. 
 
In the Mirror

Rohrwacher is also superb in Roberta Torre’s In the Mirror, a fractured character study about a woman with amnesia who rebuilds her life through reenacting scenes from films starring beloved Italian star Monica Vitti. It sounds like a credulous idea, and it is, for the most part—although Rohrwacher gives a beautifully modulated portrayal of mental illness (and does a great Vitti impersonation as well), Torre never makes this stab at credible psychological drama anything more than a stunt.
 
Enea

While Stefano Sollima’s Adagio is a suffocating film noir about a teenager who becomes enthralled with the corrupt cops and criminals he falls in with (including stark turns by Adriano Giannini, Pierfrancesco Favino and Toni Servillo), Pietro Castellito’s Enea stakes much the same terrain with more assurance. Castellito Jr.—his father, the great actor Sergio Castellito, plays the father here—confidently makes himself an unlikeable but sleazily charming protagonist who sells drugs on the side; if it at times bites off more than it can chew, Enea has a stylishness that underscores its satirical sleaziness.
 
The Beautiful Summer
 
With The Beautiful Summer, Laura Luchetti has a made an empathetic and sensitive coming-of-age saga about 17-year-old Ginia (a starmaking turn by the terrific Yile Yara Vianello), who is simultaneously confused and happy at her attraction to Amelia (the smoldering Deva Cassel), a headstrong model for local artists. The 1938 Turin setting is both evocative and quietly chilling, as Mussolini’s fascists hover in the background; Luchetti’s gorgeously realized feature, one of the best surprises of this year’s Open Roads, is scheduled to be released stateside by Film Movement later in 2024. 
 
Theres Still Tomorrow

In There’s Still Tomorrow, actress Paola Cortellesi’s directorial debut, Delia, an ordinary mom with two teenage children, stoically puts up with her husband’s unending and unapologetic physical and emotional abuse—until she receives a letter that can change her fate. Shot in striking B&W and cannily changing aspect ratios, Cortellesi’s darkly comic drama not only gets the details right of a small Italian village during the 1940s U.S. army occupation, but Cortellesi herself gives a performance of great empathy and comic grace, the emotional center of an ambitious and satisfying paean to quotidian women everywhere.

Film Series Roundup—Director Patricia Rozema Retrospective

 
 
Patricia Rozema Retrospective
Through April 11, 2024
Roxy Cinema
2 Avenue of the Americas, New York City
Roxycinemanewyork.com
 
Canadian director Patricia Rozema has been making highly personal and idiosyncratic films for several decades now, although in America she is barely known. The Roxy’s retrospective—the first in New York that I can recall—comprises several films, including several rarely seen ones.
 
I Saw the Mermaids Singing
 
In 1987, Rozema made her feature debut with I Saw the Mermaids Singing, a lightweight, alternately enervating and charming comedy about Polly, an aimless young woman who latches onto her new boss Gabrielle, an elegant gallery owner, discovering new things about herself along the way. Although Sheila McCarthy makes a winning heroine, the unfocused film’s literal flights of fancy and narrative tangents are more cutesy than witty.
 
White Room
 
With her next film, Rozema would find her own voice, even though she calls it an “abject failure” (whether jokingly or not I don’t know). 1990’s White Room, which has never been released in the U.S., is an unnerving neo-noir about naïve garderner Norm, who witnesses the murder of rock star Madelaine X (an all too briefly seen Margot Kidder), then gets involved with the mysterious Jane, whom he meets at the funeral. Maurice Godin is a wooden Norm, but Kate Nelligan gives one of her best performances as Jane, a sensual and maternal presence that dominates the movie—shot, as many of her films are, in an always photogenic Toronto. 
 
When Night Is Falling
 
In 1995, Rozema made When Night Is Falling, a trenchantly observed study of the intimate relationship between Camille, a married philosophy professor, and Petra, a traveling circus performer. Although it sounds like mere softcore titillation, Rozema’s direction and writing as well as the first-rate acting from her cast—Pascale Bussières as Camille, Rachael Crawford as Petra, and Henry Czerny as Camilla’s professor boyfriend Martin—makes it one of the more memorable of the mid ’90s entries into lesbian drama.
 
Mansfield Park


Also part of the Roxy retro are Rozema’s first two films made outside Canada, unsurprisingly featuring formidable heroines—and stellar performances—at their center. Mansfield Park (1999) remains one of the most original Jane Austen adaptations, with Frances O’Connor at her most winning as Fanny. And Rozema’s contribution to the 2000 omnibus series Beckett on Film, the one-woman play Happy Days, stars a mesmerizing Rosaleen Linehan as one of Beckett’s greatest creations, Winnie, who’s buried up to neck in sand.
 
Happy Days
 
Too bad that Rozema’s most recent feature, 2018’s Mouthpiece, does little with the conceit that Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken brought to their original play—both enact aspects of the metaphorically named Cassandra, a woman dealing with her mother’s death. Only an admittedly perfect final image redeems this otherwise one-note film, but that shouldn’t detract anyone from seeing the other titles in this long-awaited retrospective.

Film Series Roundup—Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2024

Animal Kingdom
 
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2024
Through March 10, 2024
Film at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
filmlinc.org
 
Back for its 29th edition, Film at Lincoln Center’s long-running annual series included 21 new films. Here are my reviews of a half-dozen of those entries.
 
The Animal Kingdom (Magnolia Pictures; opens March 15)
In Thomas Cailley’s dystopian drama, some humans have started mutating into wild animals including some who have developed large wings and try to fly; is civilization unraveling, or is it a new type of evolutionary leap into the future? François (Romain Duris), worried about his afflicted wife, moves with his teenage son Émile (Paul Kircher) to be close to her, and they enter a world of hybrid humans. Calley’s conceit is certainly a high-wire act—eye-popping makeup, effects and photography vividly bring this bizarre but all too real new universe to life—yet his film often wavers, whether in the obvious metaphors for the fear of outsiders or in a wan subplot featuring Adèle Exarchopoulos, an actress incapable of a false note, but who is hamstrung by her role as a sympathetic cop. She and Duris deserve better scenes than Cailley gives them. 
 


Consent 
Vanessa Springora’s soul-baring 2020 memoir created a sensation in France as she described a nonconsensual relationship with writer Gabriel Matzneff, who was 50 when he groomed her as his lover at age 13, and now Vanessa Filho—who adapted the book with Springora—has made a daring, often difficult to watch adaptation that clearly details how the self-admitted pedophile (who wrote quite openly about his scandalous sexual behavior with young boys and girls but was shielded by a literary establishment that looked askance at the real-life consequences) stealthily to her under his wing, emotionally and sexually. Jean-Paul Rouve is creepily persuasive as the destructive Matzneff, Laetitia Casta is scarily pathetic as Vanessa’s complicit mother and the great Elodie Bouchez has a magnificent cameo as the adult Vanessa. But it’s the simply spectacular Kim Higelin, as Vanessa from ages 13 to 18 (Higelin is 24 in real life), who is the beating and bleeding heart of the film, a dynamic piece of acting that is also emotionally shattering to watch.
 


Just the Two of Us (Music Box Films)
Writer-director Valérie Donzelli pairs with current French cinema It Girl, Belgian actress Virginie Efira, for a twisty thriller that begins as a whirlwind romance when Blanche (Efira), still hurting from a recent breakup, falls for the charming Grégoire (Melvil Poupaud). They immediately marry, but it’s not long before she realizes he’s not the man of her dreams: yet it takes several years and two children before she finally takes action to escape his emotional and physical abuse. Efira is her usual powerhouse self, both as Blanche and her suspicious twin sister Rose, but not enough is made of the siblings’ relationship (or with that of their mother) to justify the amount of screen time it receives. Surprisingly, this routine feature was co-written with Audrey Diwan, who wrote and directed last year’s memorable abortion drama, Happening, doubling the disappointment.
 
 


Marguerite’s Theorem (Distrib Films US)
Co-writer-director Anna Novion has created pulse-pounding suspense from the seemingly mundane subject of math: a grad school numbers whiz, Marguerite (a superlative and complex turn by Belgian actress Ella Rumpf), sees her academic life fall apart when it’s discovered that the theorem she has worked on for years has a fatal error. Novion’s brilliantly observed character study follows a young woman who realizes that her life can consist of much more than mere numbers and proofs on a blackboard; director and actress make Marguerite one of the most compelling characters I’ve seen onscreen in some time, and it’s easy to share in her triumphs (her first orgasm is particularly wittily shot) and cheer for her ultimate mathematical—and personal—redemption.
 
 


On the Adamant
In a very distinguished career, French documentarian Nicolas Philibert has made insightful films about subjects ranging from French national radio to rural schooling—in his latest, he aims his sharp eye and lens on the Adamant, a barge on the Seine that serves as a mental health daycare center for adults and provides nurturing activities with a dedicated staff. Philibert, in his usual discerning way, records the interactions between the patients and the doctors and other staff members, along with perceptive and touching interviews, making for another in a long line of generously humane portraits.
 
 


Red Island
Robin Campillo’s most recent film, 2017's BPM: Beats Per Minute, was a feisty, angry and absorbing chronicle of ’90s AIDS activism in France and the formation of ACT UP. His latest, equally autobiographical, feature returns him to childhood, growing up on a French military base on the island of Madagascar. The young protagonist, Thomas, feels left out of family activities and often passes his time daydreaming about a superhero comic book—whose adventures are amusingly visualized by Campillo—and then finds a fellow friend in a young Vietnamese girl, Suzanne. Campillo has made a moody if diffuse work that shows a sympathetic eye but also too often a preference for visual audacity over depth.

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