Directed by Camilla Nielsson
Imagine every hackneyed adjective ever dropped in praise of a thriller: taut, riveting, bravua, gripping, pulse-pounding, hard-boiled, a roller coaster of emotion—it is hard not to lavish them all on Camilla Nielsson’s Democrats, winner of the festival’s top documentary prize. What’s easy is assuming the film’s title is a simple ironic inversion, as Nielsson and her crew step into a decisive turn in Zimbabwean politics, following Robert Mugabe’s 2008 reelection as President—the fifth of its kind, in one of the most blatantly stolen elections of the last 10 years. While Mugabe’s iron-fisted Zanu-PF party runs the government from one end of the country to the other, the ancient dictator is met with enough international pressure, rendered in one of Nielsson’s handy transitional edits as a succession of shrugging and finger-wagging Western heads of state, to form a “coalition government,” with challenger Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement For Democratic Change (MDC).
Remember when romantic comedies used to come out in theaters? Like, a lot of theaters? All at once? As recently as 2010, something like Valentine’s Day could make bank by positioning itself as a rom-com Avengers before Avengers even existed, but in the last few years they’ve all but disappeared from the release schedule beyond the occasional dude-centric take that markets itself as a long-overdue corrective to all that girl stuff. Truthfully, much of that girl stuff, at least of recent vintage, has been appalling, but it’s nonetheless strange when big studios shuck off a whole genre. Indies have taken over some of this territory, to the point where last summer’s entirely accessible and mainstream-friendly What If got a specialty-house release, seemingly just because it had English accents and Zoe Kazan (and also: girl stuff!). Similarly (and similarly British), Man Up, which premiered at the just-concluded Tribeca Film Festival, has only its modest scale and just-barely-foreign locale to mark it as anything less than a big-studio-grade romantic comedy. It’s got recognizable faces (Lake Bell, doing the best Fake Brit since Gwyneth Paltrow; and genuine Brit Simon Pegg), a farcical premise (Pegg mistakes Bell for his blind date, and she just goes with it), and hacky music cues (seriously: “Bad to the Bone,” for no discernible reason). It’s also fairly charming, not least in its modest 88-minute running time and taming of its wackier instincts. When Bell first decides to deceive Pegg, she feels her way through the contrivance with a low-key authenticity—she’s real-world funny, not mugging-lunatic funny. As silly as the premise is, the movie makes it reasonably convincing for as long as it needs to—and doesn’t string it out for that long, thankfully.
Directed by Matthew Heineman
How rare, and what a thrill, to see a documentary that could double in large part as its own narrative remake. Most docs are woefully uncinematic, strings of talking heads and archival footage that too often ends with links to “for further information” websites. Cartel Land, exhilaratingly, could not be translated into an op-ed piece.
As the title implies, the film considers modern narcotic trafficking, but while dealers and manufacturers do appear (masked, with one shocking exception), the primary focus is on the vigilante groups—on both sides of the border—fighting back. In Mexico, a small-town physician forms one such group, becoming a folk hero, while stateside, a veteran marshals a militia to monitor the border. Both sides raise important questions about how much citizens should step in if the official apparatus to provide security fails, while the leaders of both sides sometimes seem just as ominous as their opponents.
The War on Drugs is too big a topic for any film to go into fully, but some context would be helpful. Both sides seem to relish living out machismo fantasies, shooting into the air in celebration, so their necessity and effectiveness is uncertain, making it difficult to know how to evaluate their role in the issue. Nonetheless, director Matthew Heineman has made a tremendous work, getting so close to the action that you fear for the camera operators. The filmmaking itself is extraordinary, so one can forgive it if it gives less basic reportage. It’s difficult to imagine someone making a more vivid depiction of this issue.
A theatrical release is planned for this year.
Arnold Schwarzenegger dispatches but a handful of zombies over the course of Maggie. This is a decent amount for a regular person, to be sure, but Schwarzenegger has only ever been goaded into playing a regular guy for purposes of comedy and, more recently, making a few jokes about his advancing age before he nonetheless kills a fuckton of people. There have been serious, tortured, and/or gloomy Schwarzenegger characters before, but Maggie is, top to bottom, probably the most somber movie he’s ever starred in, and one of his most human performances.
Taking place on the precipice of a hazy, drugged-out South African upper crust wherein Mandela is written off as a fluke, filmmaker Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s debut Necktie Youth spans a single day in the lives of a gaggle of rich kids in Sandton, a posh suburb north of Johannesburg. Youth is a work concerned with both the post-apartheid generation and its painfully complicated self-image, but the filmmaker’s approach appears uniquely collaborative. Comparisons between the 23-year-old director’s film and the work of Bret Easton Ellis have been tendered, as well as Larry Clark’s Kids —I would add to that list Dazed and Confused, the improv-intensive set pieces of the younger Spike Lee, and Doug Liman’s Go.
I arrive to interview Shongwe-La Mer at a chic hotel in the Financial District, and he introduces me to his entourage: lead actors Bonko Cosmo Khoza and Colleen Balchin, and director of photography Chuanne Blofield. As the five of us settle into what I had mistakenly thought would be a one-on-one, the mood is convivial, rambunctious, shit-talking. Forever playing catchup, I ask Shongwe-La Mer to clarify that Youth is without distribution—to which he replies, “No. We have distribution: we’re playing 23 cinemas in South Africa and coming out on same-day VOD. Also playing Brazil, France and the Netherlands. But, yes—we’re seeking US distribution desperately. Write us a puff piece!” Then, lowering his voice: “I mean… you wouldn’t be interviewing us if the film was shit, right?”
Far from Men
Directed by David Oelhoffen
Seldom has a film derived so much of its impact from scenery as does David Oelhoffen’s Far from Men. Wind thrashes at every manmade structure with such ferocity that they seem poised to collapse, while the barren Algerian landscape offers no protection from enemies or elements. When guns are fired, the sound is as painful as the damage they inflict, and the rolling echoes do nothing except betray one’s position.
The film stars Viggo Mortensen as Daru, a teacher of French descent who nonetheless identifies as a local as he’s scarcely left his birth city, let alone the country. When he’s asked to help transport a criminal to trial in a nearby city, his loyalties—to his country, his morals and his prisoner (played by A Prophet’s Reda Kateb)—immediately fall into question. Oelhoffen strips his story down to the basics, counting on the audience to pick up on details it might otherwise miss without a close-up to underscore things . Because the most visible elements of the film—the performances, editing, cinematography—are all so strong, its only when it ends that one realizes how vague the intangible and emotional elements were. This is not necessarily a flaw; the film was based on a short story by Camus, who wasn’t exactly one to spell things out. It will likely improve on subsequent viewings given how little padding Oelhoffen uses, but on first watch it inspire more respect than enthusiasm.
Upcoming Tribeca Film Festival screenings: 9:30pm, Friday, April 25 and 3:45pm, Saturday, April 25. Theatrical release beginning May 1 in NYC
The ongoing fascination with the mechanics of comedy gets plenty of time at this year’s Tribeca, with Misery Loves Comedy (Kevin Pollak’s exploration of the comedic psyche), Roseanne for President! (Roseanne Barr’s exploration of the comedic psyche that undertakes a quixotic run for the nation’s highest office), a Monty Python concert film, and a Saturday Night Live documentary celebrating the show’s fortieth anniversary.
That documentary, Live from New York, opened the festival last week and shows again on Friday as part of the festival’s day of free screening. At the outset, it seems wholly unnecessary, coming as it does on the heels of not just the show’s official fortieth anniversary blowout in February but decades of specials, books (including a recently updated Tom Shales oral-history book that shares its name with the new doc), and other documentaries, including several NBC-produced retrospectives and a James Franco-directed behind-the-scenes film that played some festivals a few years ago but never managed the real theatrical release that Live from New York is getting in June.
Even I, a Saturday Night Live diehard with a small library of books written by former stars of the show, wondered what director Bao Nguyen could have to say about this over-memorialized institution.
I’ve noticed that a lot of Tribeca movies run 90 minutes or less, which makes it easier to pack a day full of screenings, which in turn creates some unintentional but often fitting double features. For example, I saw Melanie Shaw’s Shut Up and Drive and Diane Bell’s Bleeding Heart back to back, and they both involve unexpected and quick-forming bonds between young women. In Bleeding Heart, the actresses playing the women are semi-famous (Jessica Biel and Zosia Mamet); in Shut Up and Drive, they’re not. They both have moments of real endearment, but neither completely works.
High-volume film festivals like Tribeca can showcase performers who hover somewhere below the A-list—actors who have enough name recognition to get studio work, but who may have to turn to smaller movies for chances to stretch. Amber Heard may be better-known as an obscure object of desire, both onscreen and in real life as the current paramour of Johnny Depp, but she’s shown appealing toughness in vaguely to extremely disreputable movies like Drive Angry or John Carpenter’s The Ward. In those pictures, she looks like a pin-up with a substantial right hook; in her two Tribeca entries, When I Live My Life Over Again and The Adderrall Diaries, she takes on less bombshelly roles, managing to look like someone you might actually see on the subway (it’s the hair, mostly; she lets it go long and a little unkempt in both).
Men Go to Battle
Directed by Zachary Treitz
It’s not easy to make a convincing period piece. Show too much deference to the era and the characters risk speaking and acting stiffly, scared too straight by the threat of anachronisms. Be too casual, and it’s unconvincing in another way.
Men Go To Battle is one of the most quietly convincing period pictures imaginable, a Civil War-set drama that feels uncannily like something captured in the 1860s. Because this small-scale film feels so realistic, it feels epic, from its glimpses of battles to quiet scenes indoors, all of which seem entirely filmed with natural lighting.
Tim Morton and David Maloney star as brothers, and its unlikely the festival will offer two better performances. The characters are realized to the smallest degree, from the way they goof around to the various slights on their pride and courage. It’s easy to imagine some growing restless with the story, as it plays out more in body language and unspoken dialogue rather than conventional plot points, but for those who are on its wavelength, there may be no more quietly devastating film on hand.
Upcoming Tribeca Film festival screenings: Monday, April 20, 6:45pm; Wednesday, April 22, 9:30pm