Saturday, 14 May 2011

The word from Cannes...

Fiona Fletcher, Branchage Manager, dons her sunnies and gets ready for some swanning around...

The Croisette is sweltering and the usual suspects, industry big wigs, critics, chancers and super-tans arrive in force to the other-worldly Cannes Film Festival.

After a calf toning uphill quick march to breezy apartment I hit the Lumiere with a lucky ticket for Cannes opener, Woody Allen's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.  The audience absorbs this nostalgia jest, starring Owen Wilson as self-effacing wannabe writer Gil Pinder and Adrian Brody in a fine tongue-in-cheek turn as Salvador Dali (!) not to mention first lady of France Carla Bruni as a museum guide! Glad to also see rising Brit star Tom Hiddleston (who Branchagers may remember from Joanna Hogg's UNRELATED at the 2009 fest) play a convincing F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Next morning an early rise for Gus Van Sant's quirky teen mortality romance RESTLESS - with a heavy lidded wink to Hal Ashby's 1971 classic HAROLD AND MAUD.

Much anticipated competition film WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay) proves worthy of the hype as well as the sunburn as the eager queues stretch out in the lunchtime heat. A deeply disconcerting and stunningly composed film about a mother son relationship awry from the start.    

Escaped crowds and sunk into the patch of beach fronting the British Pavilion. They have a whole host of British features to promote as well as a packed schedule of production and finance advice, director talks and pitching sessions over the course of the festival.

Word on la rue is that competition film erotic debut feature SLEEPING BEAUTY (by novelist turned director Julia Leigh) is one to watch, plus Sundance contender MARTHA, MARCY, MAY, MARLENE which is described by Variety as "expertly crafted and cinematic storytelling".

I'm look forward to Dardenne brothers' A KID WITH A BIKE, plus Lars von Trier's MELANCHOLIA and... well some sleep mainly!  Chow for now earthlings x

Friday, 6 May 2011

Felix's Final Tribeca Round Up

I must say, after attending Tribeca for the past three years, that 2011 has had the best line-up thus far. Documentaries, in particular, had a strong showing (I’ve already written about a few of them in previous entries, so I’ll refrain from mentioning those again here). Sold-out audiences greeted Gone, about a mother searching for answers after her adult son suffers a mysterious death in Vienna; and When The Drum is Beating, which charts the modern history of Haiti through the prism of Septentrional, one of its most popular big bands. 

A fascinating subject is covered in Donor Unknown, which observes the gathering of the children of a prolific sperm donor. The offspring of “Donor 150” come together and find their donor -- an eccentric hippie in Venice, California -- via an article in the New York Times. The film helps us to expand the meaning of family, and shows us that, indeed, what us humans crave is a meaningful connection. Ironically, this doc won “Best Documentary” at Tribeca in the “Online” viewing category. Um, whatever happened to connecting and movie-watching as a collective experience?

Another Tribeca winner, in the “Best Editing in a Documentary Feature” category, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, follows Jerry Ensminger, a Marine veteran whose young daughter is one of several victims of cancer produced by toxic dumping at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Ensminger is fierce and measured in his investigations, and witnessing the fight that numerous cancer survivors and families put up against a numb military bureaucracy is life-affirming. There was nary a dry eye in the audience during the Q&A with filmmakers Rachel Libert, Tony Hardmon and Ensminger.  

Greg Barker’s Koran By Heart is a more conventional crowd-pleaser. Taking the winning formula of other kids-in-competition films (e.g. Spellbound), this doc takes place in Cairo, where hundreds of Muslims congregate to participate in the world championship of Koran recitation. Ages of the participants range from people in their 20s to as young as seven-years old. The filmmaker follows three main characters -- all of them not older than 12 -- and they’re all compelling. At 77 minutes, the film is perfect for family movie night, with great role models in bright-eyed, dedicated protagonists. The adult presence is personified by one of the judges in the competition, an Imam who advocates a moderate Islam. The film was financed by HBO and thus it will receive plenty of airtime.

My ever-growing curiosity about mixed martial arts is indulged in the satisfying Like Water by first-time director Pablo Croce (named “Best New Documentary Director”). On the surface, it’s a portrait of Ultimate Fighting Championship Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva as he prepares to defend his title against a powerful contender. In a more elemental way, however, this is the story of good versus evil. Silva is a dark-skinned Brazilian, a charismatic, innate fighter with graceful moves and easygoing personality. His opponent, Chael Sonnen, is a bulky white man from Portland, Oregon, who is easy with explicit racist and xenophobic taunts. The piece does a great job of creating suspense (will Silva snap out of his complacency?), while leaving no doubt who will claim the championship title.

Speaking of redemption, in Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard, a former alcoholic in recovery travels throughout the U.S. to see family and past lovers, seeking to make amends. Predictably, the film is full of awkward encounters. But these feel real; while Richard’s friends and family are eager to get to know this new man, they remain skeptical. Richard himself is heartbreaking. Trying to stay present as he exorcises his past is a hard, yet commendable task. 

I didn’t catch much on the narrative end of the festival. The selection I did watch -- Cairo Exit and My Last Round -- reflected Tribeca’s increasing interest in global filmmaking, for which it should be applauded. Too bad they both were rather mediocre. The Egyptian Cairo Exit has a Romeo and Juliet romance between a Muslim and a Christian at its center. As such, it is intensely melodramatic. I preferred its quiet moments, and didn’t even mind its fantasy happy ending. In contrast, My Last Round, an entry from Chile, is a bit too quiet. In this film, a love triangle between a journeyman middle-aged boxer, his young boyfriend, and the latter’s new crush on his female co-worker, cannot but end in tragedy. That much is predictable. I did find the performances affecting and very moving at times -- I just wished there wasn’t so much lull in between the moving of the plot.

Horror is one of my favorite genres, so after much “eating-your-veggies” with all the documentaries I was consuming, I was ecstatic in indulging my craving with The Bleeding House. What can I say? I know not to expect much beyond some predictable chills and thrills, but I was disappointed. A mysterious traveling man seeks shelter after his car breaks down in the woods. The hosts are a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind in horror?) with a really weird teenage daughter (she displays a remarkable bug collection in her room that would make any entomologist envious). They also hold a deep, dark secret. Can you guess what’s coming? Mystery man speaks in odd phrases punctuated by a folksy Southern accent? Check. Mystery man did not end up there by coincidence? Check. Mystery man sees himself as a messenger of God delivering punishment, but manifests as a psycho into slicing and bleeding out family members, hence the title of this gem? Um, check. The film doesn’t work because it fails in one crucial way: make the audience care. For a more masterful take on a traveler as trickster/avenging angel, please see Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, where all the bleeding is internal.  

The festival’s shorts programmes were a mixed bag, as expected. The best selection was the one I was dreading the most: under the programme title “Impressions of Memory,” it showcased experimental work. Predictable elements included extensive use of archival footage; looping images; black and white as well as psychedelic colors; and asynchronous sound. Aside from this minor peeve, there were several gems. Highlights were the hypnotic After The Fire by Jacques Perconte, The D Train by the veteran New Yorker Jay Rosenblatt, the coyly sexy Strips by Felix Dufour-Laperriere, and the nostalgic process art piece Bye Bye Super 8 by Johan Kramer. My favorite, though, was Melissa Friedling’s Garden Roll Bounce Parking Lot, an affectionate portrait of kids reflecting on a forgettable piece of pop culture that nevertheless holds meaning for them.

Filmmaker Q&A following the Impressions of Memory shorts programme

There were several fascinating short docs -- a category that handily trumped its narrative counterpart, in my opinion. (This could be the subject of a debate about whether short-form documentaries are intrinsically better than short narratives. We won’t conduct that debate now -- don’t worry!) Rick Rodgers profiles a rock-duo in Crash & Burn, at the moment when one of its members decides to transition from male to female. San Francisco’s role in the history of representations of sex in the U.S. is the subject of Smut Capital of America (which had a delightful cast of talking heads, including the hilarious John Waters). In Jonathan VanBallenbergue’s Guru (Special Jury Mention), a motivational speaker is revealed as suffering from severe bipolar disorder. 

Perhaps the reason I’m hard on the narrative shorts is that filmmakers stay formulaic due to the time limitations of the category. In several instances -- Marion Pilonwsky’s The Ride (starring a menacing Anthony LaPaglia) and Nightlife by Shandor Garrison -- the set-ups and conclusions are stories we have seen before, over and over. Even when contexts and characters were slightly tweaked, as in those in Jon Kauffman’s Storm Up The Sky (Hasidic Jewish brothers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) and Vinz Feller’s Down This Road (Latino father and twelve-year old son in Washington Heights), the end results were disappointing. An exception was the Student Visionary Award winner Rooms by Joanna Jurewicz. In it, a luminescent Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays an immigrant maid who forges an unexpected connection with one of her hotel’s guests. And even though I could see the ending of this one coming, my heart still broke for her.

Tribeca still has way more “product” than many other festivals, perhaps to fit a city with such large and diverse tastes. It’s the kind of festival where you have to sit down and “study” the programme to make your selections (and indeed, it pays to do so -- ticket prices are not cheap). But I also learned that sometimes it’s in the letting go and going with the flow that lovely discoveries are to be found.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Felix reports from Tribeca Film Festival, Part 3

In a previous entry, I briefly remarked on the documentary Our School by Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma. I first became acquainted with this project when I participated in IFP’s Documentray Rough Cut Lab last year. Mona and Miruna were there, too. Back then, I previewed scenes from their film and also had many conversations with this team. Imagine then my delight when I attended the doc’s World premiere at Tribeca this year. I was lucky to make one of the sold-out screenings. Our School is a longitudinal film that follows the paths of three Roma schoolchildren of different ages as they navigate Romania’s mandate to integrate their schools - previously, Roma and non-Roma went to separate (and unequal) institutions.

Stylistically, the film unfolds with little interaction with the filmmakers, more of an observational piece a la Frederick Wiseman (but without the really long takes). Characters are engaging, which helped me become invested in their journeys. I especially appreciated seeing the Roma community depicted in a complex and compassionate manner. During the filmmaker Q&A, the production team (which included emerging editor Erin Casper, first recipient of the Karen Schmeer Editing Fellowship for her work on Our School) was able to fill in some of the gaps left by the film’s open-ended finale. In a moment of levity, when Casper was asked about her process working with so much footage covering a long span of years, co-director Nicoara joked that the editor could now speak Romanian with a Transylvanian accent.

Our School filmmakers: (L-R) Erin Casper, Mona Nicoara, and Miruna Coca-Cozma

Another one of my favorite Tribeca entries this year also happens to come from fellow participants in IFP’s Lab, Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco. Set in the U.S., Spain, and the Philippines, Give Up Tomorrow, records the struggle to win the release of an innocent man wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of two sisters. The film is a relentless indictment of a corrupt political and judicial system, and of the vestiges of colonialism that still haunt a country and its people. I remember chatting with Syjuco about the challenges of editing a documentary that uses material collected from various sources (newscasts, archival, original interviews, re-enactments, etc.) and throughout almost 8 years. That this team has created a film that isn’t only engaging and coherent, but also immensely powerful, is nothing short of amazing.

I’m proud and grateful to have been a part of the lab with these amazing filmmakers.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Felix reports from Tribeca Film Festival, Part 2

It’s been a whirlwind of movie-watching at Tribeca, and so this will be a short entry. Most screenings have been sold out from the get-go. Great news for the festival! As much as I’ve seen so far, I’ve also been at the cut-off point in the RUSH line queue. Two highlights have been the documentaries OUR SCHOOL by Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma and GIVE UP TOMORROW directed by Michael Collins and produced by Marty Syjuco. I will write more about those two projects on my next entry, but suffice it to say for now that I predict they will do well in the festival circuit. For now, here are a couple of photos so you get a sense of the festival’s ambiance.