2016 Tribeca Film Festival (April 13th - April 24th)
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James (Dan Stevens), a blind man, suddenly regains his eyesight, and lands himself a high-paying job that allows him and his wife, Sam (Malin Akerman), many things that they couldn't afforc when he had a lower-paying job before he was able to see. While everything improves on a financial level, his marriage begins to crumble as he flirts with a co-worker, Jessica (Kerry Bishé), and his wife has an affair with his best friend, Bob (Oliver Platt). James' sudden regain of his eyesight can be seen as a metaphor---how and why did he regain it, and is it a metaphor for is left for your own imagination. Featuring one of the most memorable opening credits sequences since Enter the Void, The Ticket is a slow-burning drama that's sophistacted, unpredictable, engrossing and profound. Writer/director Ido Fluk and co-writer Sharon Mashihi aren't afraid to trust the audience's intelligence and leave some room for interpretation. Dan Stevens gives the best performance in his career, and exudes charisma as he sinks his teeth into the role of James with conviction. There's not a single false note in his performance. The ending could have been a convoluted, contrived mess with a less sensitively-written screenplay (especially if it were a Hollywood film), but, fortunately, it works on many levels and, much like the entire film itself, even goes beyond your expectations. In Junction 48, Kareem (Tamer Nafar), an aspiring rap singer, rises above the tragic events in his home by rapping about his frustations at his new gig at a Tel Aviv club. His girlfriend, Manar (Samar Qupty), also a musician, remains fearful of Kareem taking the risks of singing politically-charged raps. Meanwhile, another Palestinian, Talal (Saeed Dassuki), a band manager, must deal with the possibility of father becoming homelessness when the Israeli gov't announces its plans to bulldoze his home and erect a Museum of Reconciliation in its place. Equally captivating and deeply moving, Junction 48 doesn't shy away from going into dark territory or bringing light to political issues surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This isn't one of those sugar-coated musical dramas; director Udi Aloni along with co-writers Oren Moverman and Tamer Nafar add a sense of realism and grittiness to the film that hooks you right into it from the get-go. The great music with thought-provoking rap lyrics in the soundtrack helps to enrich Junction 48 further. Another drama in the fest that also incorporates the themes of politics and artistic freedom is As I Open My Eyes by director Leyla Bouzid. It follows Farah (Baya Medhaffar) goes against the odds and the wishes of her family by joining a band along with her friends including her boyfriend, Borhene (Montassar Ayari). She doesn't tell her mother, Hayet (Ghalia Ben Ali), the truth about going to play with her band whenever she asks. The dynamics between Farah and her mother feel very organic and compelling especially the way that their relationship evolves by the time the end credits roll. Baya Medhaffar shines in a truly radiant performance. Prepare to be exhilarated and emotionally engrossed from start to finish, especially with the very poignant, memorable and deceptively simple line of dialogue that the film ends on. All We Had marks Katie Holmes directorial debut. She stars as a Rita, a single mother struggling to make ends meet with her teenage daughter, Ruthie (Stefinia Owen). She ends up working at a diner thanks to the generocity of the manager, Marty (Richard Kind). Although the screenplay doesn't have much in terms of subtlety and the narration feel a little contrived and not always necessary, it's genuinely heartfelt and isn't afraid to go into dark territory. This is a very refreshing turn for Holmes because it goes against type. Her raw, brave and tender performance manages to be one of the best performances of her career, and it truly invigorates the film. All We Had opens December 9th, 2016 at AMC/Loews 34th St. via Gravitas Ventures. In Adult Life Skills, Anna, a young woman approaching 30, suffers from arrested development. She still lives at home with her mother and lacks ambition, but that all changes when her threatens to kick her out of her home if she doesn't get her act together. Screenwriter Rachel Tunnard finds just the right balance between poignant drama and offbeat comedy while avoiding schmaltz, melodrama and over-the-top comedy. With a less sensitive screenplay, this would have turned into an anarchic, uneven mess. It also helps that Jodi Whittaker is quite radiant and charismatic as Anna despite that the character isn't particularly likable. Anna's character arc feels believable and organic by the time the end credits roll. Adult Life Skills is ultimately a crowd-pleasing gem, the kind of film that Hollywood doesn't make anymore. Courtedis the perfect kind of vehicle for Fabrice Luchini. He stars as a stern, icy judge who gradually thaws when he meets a juror, Ditte (Sidse Babett Knudsen), whom he had known earlier in his life. He played a similar character in The Women on the 6th Floor. Although Courted isn't particularly intriguing as a courtroom drama, it's at least amusing and witty as it explores the relationship between Ditte and the judge. Both Luchini and Knudsen elevate the material ever so slightly above mediocrity thanks to their charisma. Writer/director Christian Vincent keeps the tone light and breezy for the most part. One of the best films of the festival is Don't Think Twice about a group of friends who are part of an improv group in NYC. Some of them succeed in their careers, some of them don't. Writer/director Mike Birbiglia keeps the film grounded in realism and humanises his characters as he explores their complex relationships and their messy lives outside of theater. The screenplay is equally funny, moving and wise which proves to be very entertaining even though there are no car chases, explosions or superheroes to be found. It also helps that the actors, especially Gillian Jacobs and Kate Micucci, all get a chance to shine and have great chemistry together as an ensemble. The ending works without too many Hollywood cliches (not that there's anything wrong with cliches, but it's refreshing when they're avoided). The Film Arcade opens Don't Think Twice at Landmark Sunshine Cinema on July 22nd, 2016. Another gem of the festival is El Clasico, a Kurdish film about two midget brothers, Alan (Wrya Ahmed) and Shirwan (Dana Ahmes), who embark on a road trip to deliver a pair of handmade shoes to soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. Alan hopes that fulfilling his mission will persuade the father of his girlfriend, Gona (Rozhin Sharifi), to approve of his marriage proposal to her. The film takes half an hour or so to become truly engaging because the first act merely shows the exposition before Alan and Shirban go on their journey. Once their road trip commences, that's when El Clasico soars and becomes suspenseful as well as outrageously funny. There are a few hysterically funny sight gags. Screenwriters Anders Fagerholt and Halkawt Mustafa blend pathos and dark/quirky comedy very deftly thereby making El Clasico a crowd-pleasing delight full of surprises.
Don't Look Down, director Daniel Gordon's doc on Sir Richard Branson, a businessman and adventurer who owned Virgin Records, is captivating and has its fair share of thrilling footage. In 1987, Branson set out with a professional hot air balloon pilot, Per Lindstrom, to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon in an attempt to break the World Record. In 1989, he attempted to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Don't Look Down has the standard combination of archival footage, modern-day footage and talking heads all of which are well-edited, but what's lacking is more depth of emotion and insight that's found in other docs about adventurers like the brilliant Man on Wire. At times, to be fair, this doc feels a bit hagiographic. Nonetheless, it's still a solid introduction to the hot air balloon adventures of Sir Richard Branson. A less hagiographic doc in the fest is Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, directed by Lydia Tenaglia, which centers on the ups and downs Jeremiah Tower's career as a chef. You learn what made Tower so significan in the world of culinary arts as well as how he honed his skills and talents early on in Chez Panisse before moving onto the restaurant Stars and Tavern on the Green. Tenaglia wisely doesn't shy away from documenting Tower's failures and showing his imperfections as a human being---like any human being, he does have his faults and failed relationships (both business and personal). The doc's minor flaw, though, is when it comes to its editing toward the end when it focuses on Tower's experiences at Stars before leaving you hanging about why Stars failed, moving on to a new topic, and then finally jumping back to explore what caused Stars to fail. The suspense felt while you're wondering about the end of Stars' story also comes with a sense of confusion, so better-organized editing would solve that issue. Every Tribeca Film Festival has at least one appetite-whetting food doc (i.e. Jiro Dreams of Sushi and General Tso's Chicken), so because of the many scrumptious images of food on display throughout Jeremiah Tower, don't watch this doc while you're hungry. Betting on Zero follows the complicated relationship between hedge fund manager/investor Bill Ackman and Herbalife Ltd., a nutrition and weight management company that may or may not be involved in a pyramid scheme, depending on whom you ask. Ackman believes that it is indeed a pyramid scheme, but should we believe him if he has invested in derivative stocks that make him money the more that Herbalife fails? If it's a pyramid scheme, then why does the U.S. government allow for it to continue to exist. Further complicating matters is the lawsuit by Hispanics who joined Herbalife and subsequently lost a lot of money. Betting on Zero doesn't offer any easy conclusions because Ackman's battle with Herbalife is still ongoing, so it would be interesting if director Ted Braun were to make a follow-up documentary a few years from now that has a little bit more closure.In By Sidney Lumet, the late, great director himself talks to the camera about his long career in filmmaking, and how specific events from his personal life inspired and shaped his films. Director Nancy Buirski combines her interview with Lumet before his death in 2011 with clips from his films---mostly the popular ones that you have probably seen like Dog Day Afternoon. Buirski is lucky because Lumet comes across as charismatic, articulate and a good story-teller, so hearing him talk captivating alone. If only what he had to say were more revealing and insightful about who he is as a human being. Some of the stories from his life are juicy, but not particularly surprising, i.e. how Hollywood execs who never were nor planned to be on his film set showed up to a meeting with him. Compared to recent docs about directors, i.e. Everything is Copy and the far superior De Palma, By Sidney Lumet pales by comparison. It's not a bad introduction to Sidney Lumet, but anyone who's looking for a more profound peak behind the curtain, both intellectually and emotionally, will be left underwhelmed and disappointed. American Masters opens By Sidney Lumet on October 28th, 2016 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. One of the highlights of the festival is Life, Animated about autistic man, Owen Suskind, who has managed to cope with his autism and overcome by obsessing over Disney's animated films. Director Roger Ross Williams provides audiences with access to candid moments from Owen's family life as well as his relationship with his first girlfriend, Emily. Much of the film feels heartbreaking, but there are also some heartwarming and inspirational aspects as well. You might even feel that some of what Owen goes through is relatable---after all, we all want to be loved and to make sense of the world around us. This documentary is lucky to have such a warm charismatic human being as its subject whom you'll never forget. Life, Animated opens via The Orchard in select theaters on July 1st, 2016. Another must-see is the doc My Scientology Movie about Louis Theroux's attempts to investigate the truth behind the mysterious religion known as Scientology. Prepare for a wild, riveting and illuminating roller coaster ride with twists and turns along the way. You've never seen this side of Scientology before as Theroux tries to get an interview with Scientologists and gain access to their facility, a task that's easier said than done. Some of the footage is quite shocking and even horryfing given how Orwellian the Scientologists and Scientology as whole seem. Director John Dower deserves to be commended for finding just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. There's not a dull moment to be found in this well-edited doc that offers both style and substance. Magnolia Films opens My Scientology Movie in select theaters on March 10th, 2017.
The NYC Movie Guru