Lita On Film

Posts Tagged ‘Tribeca Film Festival’

DOWNEAST – TFF 2012

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2012 at 7:19 pm

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DOWNEAST is a documentary about what sounds like one of the most boring possible subjects to put on film: rebuilding a destitute fish cannery. However, directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin manage to incorporate politics, economics, and a large dollop of human interest into their 76-minute film. Though it’s not without significant problems, DOWNEAST nonetheless brings light to the desperate economic situation this country is still in, despite what pundits would have us believe, via a corner of the map—Downeast Maine—that is practically unknown to most everyone south of the New Hampshire border.

Redmon and Sabin focus their story on Antonio Bussone, an Italian expat who runs a lobster company near Boston and decides to buy, refurbish and open a factory in remote Gouldsboro, Maine, in order to sell canned lobster meat. 128 of the tiny town’s residents—most of whom are women over 65—were employed at the factory before it shut down in 2010, and they’re all eager to get back to work. Retirement isn’t an option Downeast; like most rural places in the country, the economic situation in Gouldsboro is beyond bleak—it’s do or die.

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When Bussone rides into town with big plans but not a lot of capital, he applies for federal grants and loans to get his factory up and running. The moments of highest drama in DOWNEAST come from footage of Gouldsboro town meetings (a practice that may be unfamiliar to those not from New England), in which residents urge their town Selectmen to approve Bussone’s application for the grant money. The film implies—heavily—that the Selectmen’s reluctance to award Bussone the money, and allow him to reinstitute many of the residents’ jobs, stems from their vested interest in keeping him out of the lucrative lobster market. Though Redmon and Sabin don’t quite demonize anyone, Bussone’s image is treated with kid gloves while the reputations of some of the lifelong Gouldsboro residents are, at least implicitly, impugned.

As a native Mainer, I think I may have some insight into this situation that Redmon and Sabin, despite their best intentions, are lacking. Number one: Mainers are incredibly suspicious of outsiders—anyone not born and raised in the state is referred to as being “from away.” The simple fact of Bussone’s outsider status would be enough to make him seem suspicious in the eyes of many, regardless of their connection to local fishing interests. Bussone’s impetus to start his factory in Gouldsboro is also never fully explained, and neither is the source of his startup money, though he alludes to having mortgaged various properties in the US and Italy. With the story hinging on the awarding of a few hundred thousand dollars in federal funds on a multi-million dollar project, Redmon and Sabin would do well to explain their subject’s financial situation more thoroughly. (Incidentally, as of April 19th, Bussone is being sued by his Boston bank for $3.4 million.)

The best parts of DOWNEAST are precisely those that focus on the native Gouldsboro folks, especially the incredibly feisty women—several over 70 years old and still going strong. All they want is to get back to work, to make an honest day’s wage and feel like they’re contributing to something. The Yankee work ethic may be legendary, but these ladies take it to a whole new level. One brags about having worked at the old factory for thirteen years straight, often seven days a week, before she took a sick day—quipping simply, “the job comes first.” Another sadly remarks about her lack of health insurance, despite her having put in 44 years of labor at the former cannery. The awful unfairness of the economic downturn hits you square in the gut and makes you want to scream, or maybe race downtown to join the Occupy protestors. If ever there were anyone deserving of a handout, it’s these folks—though, of course, they’d staunchly refuse to take it.

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My main(e) gripe with DOWNEAST is its reluctance to show the full, complicated picture of the situation it’s portraying. It may be easier for the audience to understand and care about the story the film is trying to tell if Bussone is portrayed very sympathetically and the members of the town council aren’t, but that doesn’t do justice to the nuances of reality. For instance, the filmmakers neglect to mention the fact that Dana Rice, head selectman of Gouldsboro and made out (albeit gently) as the villain of the piece, actually recused himself from the vote on the federal grant funds because of his obvious competing interest in the local lobster trade. He’s made to look a bit of a fool, prattling on in one scene about how Eastern Maine should secede from the rest of the state, because that makes the film’s story easier to understand.

At only an hour and a quarter, Redmon and Sabin could have spent an extra ten or fifteen minutes fleshing out the nitty-gritty details of their story without sacrificing its pacing or emotional impact. Indeed, if someone made a film that accurately depicted how incredibly difficult it is to create jobs in this country, leaving out none of the financial, logistical or political machinations involved, we might all be able to get a handle on how to really jumpstart the economy. DOWNEAST is compelling enough, and as a Mainer I’m always delighted to see the state depicted as something more than a land of postcard aesthetics or the backdrop to a Stephen King story. But Redmon and Sabin make the mistake of simplifying their story at the expense of factual accuracy, and that’s enough to make me, for one, lose interest in what they’re trying to say.

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Redmon and Sabin

© Lita Robinson 2012

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SUPPORTING CHARACTERS – TFF 2012

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Daniel Schechter’s new comedy SUPPORTING CHARACTERS follows the tribulations of a pair of film editors (Alex Karpovsky and Tarik Lowe) who are trying to salvage what sounds like a godawful romantic comedy about a down-on-her-luck dogwalker (Arielle Kebbel). As they go through the process of cutting scenes and re-recording dialogue, both struggle with relationship problems and creative roadblocks—but it’s hardly the uplifting industry exposé you’re expecting. Thankfully, it’s much funnier than that.

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Karpovsky’s character, Nick, is having trouble with his fiancée, Amy (Sophia Takal), and finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Jamie (Kebbel), the glamorous star of the film he’s re-editing. At one point, Nick gives a little speech about the plight of film editors; they feel like they know the stars of their films intimately, since they stare at them on screen all day, but in reality the stars—and, by implication, the audience—don’t even know that the editors exist. Nick is pedantic to a fault; even when he’s hanging out at home with his fiancée, he sounds like he’s conducting a lecture rather than a conversation. Though Karpovsky and Takal could vie for top prize in an annoying vocal inflection competition, they manage to make their characters’ relationship believable, if only just.

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Darryl (Lowe), on the other hand, is madly in love with a girl he’s barely met, and his over-enthusiasm is both distracting him from his job as assistant editor and blinding him to his girlfriend’s obvious extra-curricular activities. Though he’s plagued by naivete, Darryl gets some of the funniest moments in the film; a scene in which he has to fill in as vocal talent (“Put a leash on this motherf***ing dog!”) is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in this year’s festival so far. As both Nick and Darryl’s personal lives become more complicated, they take out their frustrations on their film and on each other, and the project teeters on the brink of disaster. Throw in a crotchety director (Kevin Corrigan) bent on retaking creative control, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

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The acting in this film is great, despite lots of intense irony and self-referentiality. All the characters could be incredibly annoying, and they all come close to it at times, but Schechter manages to keep the story’s momentum his priority, and fortunately SUPPORTING CHARACTERS doesn’t devolve into a series of pretentious mini-character studies. The end result is hilarious, mildly touching and completely satisfying; the dynamic between Nick and Darryl is what holds the film together, and Karpovsky and Lowe are surprisingly well-matched as a comic duo. Setting their relationship within the nitty-gritty world of post-production makes it all the more entertaining, at least for the audience of critics and industry types with whom I saw the film. Here’s hoping that those outside the industry find it just as amusing.

 

© Lita Robinson 2012

 

FAIRHAVEN – TFF 2012

In Uncategorized on April 21, 2012 at 10:37 pm

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Writer/actor/director Tom O’Brien isn’t from Massachusetts, and that much is clear right away. With his perfect diction and skin unweathered by salty sea spray, it’s a little hard—as a girl who grew up on the coast of Maine—to take him seriously as the protagonist of FAIRHAVEN, a buddy dramedy set south of Boston that premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. While the seeds of a really compelling story are visible below the surface, and several performances (though not all of them) are noteworthy, FAIRHAVEN is a film that isn’t clear enough about what it wants to be—like its protagonist, it’s muddled, unpredictable, and difficult to get attached to.

The story follows O’Brien as John, an aimless bachelor still living in his hometown and working on a fishing trawler to make ends meet. However, we learn early on that John has Ambition for Greater Things; namely, becoming a writer. His mother (Maryann Plunkett) sarcastically refers to him as “John Hemingway” in an early scene, and since we never actually see John engaged in the craft of writing or learn anything about his work—aside from a mumbled, drunken poem—it’s hard not to side with her.

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The film’s focus, however, isn’t on John and his work, whatever it may be; it’s on his relationships with his two best friends from high school, Sam (Rich Sommer) and Dave (Chris Messina). Still living in Fairhaven and divorced by his unrealistically pretty wife, Kate (Sarah Paulson), who has already remarried a much older guy, Sam is overwhelmed by his job and his young daughter. Dave, on the other hand, got out of Dodge as soon as he could, and only comes back to Fairhaven from Arizona for his estranged father’s funeral. When the three reunite, we learn about new possibilities and past betrayals, and there’s potential for some poignant insight into the nature of modern male relationships. Sadly, these emotional climaxes never really come together, with Messina instead getting both emotional highs in the film—scenes in which he confronts his bereaved mother and Sam’s ex Kate, respectively.

John’s conflicts in life revolve around his own malaise toward just about everything; he’s dating a new-agey girl (Alexie Gillmore) who espouses a belief in “open relationships,” but he isn’t sure how deeply he cares about her. He goes to therapy every week, but doesn’t seem to have much to talk about with his therapist.. Dave, on the other hand, has a lot that he should be talking to a therapist about—paternal abandonment, perpetual bachelorhood, bereavement—but of course he doesn’t want to. Messina’s performance is much more natural and less pretentious than O’Brien’s, and Messina is simply more believable as the prodigal son, made desperately uncomfortable by the familiarity of his hometown surroundings. Sommer also turns in an excellent performance as the sweet but damaged Sam, though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time.

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The film’s most interesting moments come when John, Dave and Sam are on the verge of breaking into one giant fight and finally letting all their anger and jealousy towards one another out into the open. This never quite comes to pass; instead, we’re made to focus on the aimless and slightly annoying John, while the much more compelling and better-acted stories of Dave and Sam are relegated to the narrative sidelines. FAIRHAVEN would be much more interesting and satisfying if it focused on either Sam or Dave; as it is, it feels too much like a vanity project to be alluring, and its storyline isn’t satisfying enough, in the end, to live up to its exposition. The accents could also use a little work.

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Provincetown International Film Fest 2011!

In Film News, Film Reviews on June 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Beginning next Friday (the 17th) I will be posting from beautiful Provincetown, MA, at the very end of Cape Cod, for a couple of days while covering the Provincetown International Film Festival.  The PIFF is one of the country’s hottest up-and-coming festivals, and this year much of its content has already screened at other top-tier festivals including Tribeca (see the April/May archives for my coverage of Tribeca 2011!).

This year PIFF will be honoring Darren Aronofsky, Vera Farmiga, and Albert Maysles, as well as screening a ton of great indies, international and short films (check out the schedule here).  There’s no place more beautiful than the Cape in the early summer, so if you’re up for a jaunt to P-town (as it’s known to us locals), now’s the time!

Stay tuned for my festival coverage, which will also be going up on ScreenComment.com!

 

 

“Grey Matter” (2010) – Tribeca 2011 Selection

In Film Reviews on April 30, 2011 at 6:14 pm

“Grey Matter” is the first Rwandan feature film whose director was both born in Rwanda and is still living there.  This is significant because when trying to grapple cinematically with an event as incomprehensible as genocide, who gets to tell the story makes all the difference in the world.

Director Kivu Ruhorahoza’s semi-autobiographical film follows a young director named Balthazar who is trying desperately to bring his film, “The Cycle of the Cockroach,” to fruition.  Everyone he asks for funding turns him down; the government wants him to produce public-service announcements about HIV instead.  Rather than telling his production team that the film has no funding, he decides to proceed as though everything’s in place.  From that point on “Grey Matter” becomes a dreamlike vision of Balthazar’s film, which tells the story of a brother and sister whose family was murdered during the genocide.  Eventually, the sister is institutionalized in the same facility as a man who has gone crazy from the atrocities he committed, the victim and the perpetrator becoming indistinguishable.

The performances are very emotional, and though the story fragments and rebuilds itself repeatedly, making it hard to follow, the overall effect is quite profound.  The two characters are complex and well developed, both grappling in very different ways with the aftereffects of immense and indescribable trauma.  “Grey Matter’s” film-within-a-film structure gives this narrative an interesting aspect of meta-commentary: we’re reminded at the end that the siblings’ story is being constructed by a real Rwandan (even if, like Ruhorahoza, he wasn’t witness to the genocide himself).  In turn, the fact that Ruhorahoza is also a true Rwandan gives this rhetorical structure even more significance.

Most Americans know about the events of 1994 because of the Don Cheadle film “Hotel Rwanda” (2004).  “Grey Matter” could not be a more different type of film; far from aspiring to be a romanticized Hollywood version of events, Ruhorahoza’s film is semantically closer to the early works of Ousmane Sembene, often referred to as the father of post-colonial African cinema.  Much like Sembene’s seminal “Black Girl” (1969), “Grey Matter” borrows much of its visual language from the innovators of the French New Wave—which is to say that it can be, at times, difficult to sit through.  If you’re not used to 90-minute films shot in real time, make sure you’ve had a lot of coffee before sitting down with “Grey Matter.”  (In fact, no less than three critics fell asleep during the press screening I attended.)

That being said, “Grey Matter” is, in its own way, an amazing film.  It won a Special Jury Mention in the Best New Narrative Director category at Tribeca this year, and its star, Ramadhan “Shami” Bizimana, was named Best Actor in a Narrative Feature.  As long as you can resign yourself to a storyline that isn’t totally linear and predictable, you will get a lot out of seeing this film.


Saint (2010) – Tribeca 2011 Selection

In Film Reviews on April 26, 2011 at 6:46 pm


Four words: Santa Claus horror movie.  Ok, it’s not quite that simple, but that’s the essential premise of Danish director Dick Maas’s (“The Shaft”) latest flick, a silly slasher with some truly enjoyable special effects and a lack of substance that’s both unabashed and, well, jolly.

The premise is straight out of American meta-horror films of the 1980s: a group of nubile young students is hunted down by an evil version of St. Nicolas, who turns out to have been a bishop who murdered children for fun hundreds of years ago.  “Saint” opens with a scene in which the angry medieval townsfolk get their revenge on St. Nick and his band of marauders.  As he’s burned to death, the monstrous bishop vows revenge on the people of Amsterdam.

Flash forward a few hundred years and all the pieces are in place for 88 minutes of campy fun: a disgruntled cop on the verge of solving the mystery, the aforementioned nubile coeds, and a chiseled male protagonist, who is gradually forced to admit the supernatural nature of what he’s dealing with.

While Maas’s film struggles a bit to stay upright, balanced as it is on a very thin premise, its enormous budget and over-the-top score (also by Maas) help pull it back from the realm of trash into the pantheon of tongue-in-cheek popcorn horror.  If you were bored on a Sunday night, and perhaps a little tipsy, “Saint” would be a perfect way to finish off your weekend.  Talk about getting into the holiday spirit!

“Saint” will be released later this year in theaters and on VOD by IFC Midnight.

NEW TALENT SPOTLIGHT: SARA ZANDIEH, DIRECTOR

In Film Reviews on August 10, 2010 at 8:39 am

Sara Zandieh’s short The Pool Party lasts only 14 minutes, but feels fleshed-out enough to be an entire feature film.  It follows Khani (Sayeed Ali Hassani), servant to a wealthy family, as he struggles to keep up with his mistress’ capricious demands and to endure the constant humiliation of being lower-class in upper-class Iran.

Khani hurries to work in the morning, only to be confronted with Ziba (Mojgan Taraneh) angrily yelling at her husband (Frazad Shojai) on the phone.  He is away on business, and will miss his daughter Lilli’s (Armita Moradi) birthday.  Ziba takes out her anger on Khani, ordering him crossly from one task to another.  Suddenly, Ziba is struck by an idea: her daughter’s birthday party will be a pool party, a blowout for all the other upper-class kids, and the family’s ancient pool must be refinished, filled and ready in less than 24 hours.  Khani has his work cut out for him.  Eventually, after much hard labor, the pool is finished, Lilli’s father shows up after all, and everyone except Khani is happy.  Feeling more and more taken advantage of, Khani finally rebels.  Only then does he finally feel at peace.

The Pool Party is wonderfully shot; the colors of the Iranian city streets and homestead where the action takes place are beautifully rendered.  The film’s music is also highly atmospheric, and judiciously deployed.  Khani’s creased, weary face is expressive of so much more than his individual struggle; the audience knows instinctively that he stands for a whole class of other servants, relied upon but seldom acknowledged.  But even in this contentious situation, Khani has a lovely relationship with Lilli—he coaxes her out of a tree where she goes to sulk after learning her father is away.  Khani even has something of a relationship with Ziba, the lady of the house.  When she’s not busy ordering him around, they are almost kind to each other.  It’s this depth of feeling and nuance that gives the film an expansive quality; it seems more like the abstract of a feature film than a student short.  Accordingly, The Pool Party received a Special Jury Mention in the “Student Visionary” category at Tribeca this year.

Zandieh is herself a native of Tehran, having emigrated with her family to the U.S. during the Iran/Iraq war.  She is currently finishing a Master’s in Film at Columbia, and was recently awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to make her next film in Istabul.  She also recently served as Associate Producer on Bette Gordon’s acclaimed feature drama Handsome Harry (2009), which premiered at Tribeca last year.  For her account of filming The Pool Party just before the election uprising in Iran in 2009 (published in the Huffington Post) click here.

Zandieh’s feel for subtlety and the humanity of her characters is already evident; mark her down as one to watch.