Tribeca Film Festival: Capsule Reviews

Every Tribeca Film Festival is a mixed bag. There are movies that are too pure for their own good, and others that simply perfect.

Before Midnight

This might just be the initial wave of euphoria, but I suspect Before Midnight might be one the most romantic movies I’ve ever seen. Set nine years after Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater reunites Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) for a day in Greece. It would be criminal to reveal any more plot details: the movie answers several big questions about their relationship within its first five minutes. As Jesse and Celine talk and argue, it’s fascinating to see how age has changed them. They still have their unique perspective – Jesse constantly thinks about how perception changes our idea of time, and the state of worldwide feminism still worries Celine – but with added baggage. There is no way the 23 year-old version of themselves could conceive of their 41 year-old selves, and both of them are keenly aware of it.

Like the previous two films, Linklater achieves a peculiar sense of tension through dialogue alone. Death, love, commitment, and sex are their chief topics of conversations. These are well-worn subjects, this is true, but the script by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy holds our attention by keeping constantly aware of how experience changes how we feel. Did I mention the movie is also hilarious? Even during their biggest arguments, Hawke and Delpy can toss a one-liner so that we experience the same whirlwind of emotions that their characters do. The chemistry between Hawke and Delpy is still there, only now it’s deepened. When the credits inevitably began, I didn’t want to leave these two characters, yet also I knew that any moment longer would take the piss out of the whole thing. Before Midnight is just perfect.

Taboor

Thirty-five minutes pass before anyone speaks in Taboor, the minimalist drama from Iranian filmmaker Vahid Vakilifar. Up until the point, the film follows an old who man moves with deliberate control. He begins his night in a room lined with tin foil, and he puts on a tin foil suit underneath his clothes before setting off into the night. There is no explanation for what he’s doing; in fact, we never hear him speak. We’re left with the imagery, which is monolithic and spare. There are some takes that last longer than three minutes, and others where there’s barely any light. Vakilifar keeps his intentions obscure, and so Taboor works as meditation on… well, I don’t know what. Challenging films like this are common at festivals, but nowhere else, as most audience prefers not to have their patience tested. It is rewarding to see a filmmaker who absolutely refuses to compromise his vision, although that kind of commitment rarely entertains.

Frankenstein’s Army

Frankenstein’s Army combines genres that have business with each other: a World War 2 thriller and a found footage horror film. Director Richard Raaphorst begins with a group of Russian soldiers who are in charge of reconnaissance. Crucially, one of the soldiers has a camera (a brief prologue explains he’s a student of cinematography, and he’s filming them for posterity). The group finds some disquieting things alone the countryside: there is a pile of burned nuns, and another corpse looks like a steam-punk nightmare. Before long, the soldiers realize that the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein (yes, that Dr. Frankenstein) is creating Nazi super-soldiers, one with simplistic yet brutal weapons attached to their bodies.

The creatures are wholly convincing. A memorable one has a swastika emblazoned on its forehead, and a giant drill bit for a mouth. Their killing methods are gleefully disgusting: one soldier has his head squeezed until his brain literally pops out of his head. It’s gross and fun, yet Frankenstein’s Armyfalters with its flat characters and disorienting visual style. The actors accents are inconsistent, and the camerawork is deliberately sloppy so that when the mayhem begins, we cannot fully comprehend their terror. Raaphorst has a perfect premise – demented Nazi monsters are irresistible to horror fans – yet his execution cannot match his imagination. By the time Dr. Frankenstein reveals his true intentions to his final victim, there’s no serious engagement with this kind of material, so this horror film amounts to little more than a highly specific, bloody playground.

Michael H. Profession: Director

Early in Michael H. Profession: Director, the Austrian director patiently explains how he respects his audience. This respect, he reasons, is why he’s able to challenge them (all his films are disturbing, and usually on multiple levels). This documentary looks at his films, going in reverse chronological order. Director Yves Montmayeur, who worked with Haneke throughout his career, gets uncommon access to the work behind the scenes. We see how he works with actors – he pantomimes what he wants them to do – and how demanding he can be. There are also interviews with Haneke, and he (wisely) avoids talking about what his films mean. Method and intent are far more interesting.

Unlike most documentaries about famous artists, you absolutely need to be familiar with Haneke’s film to take anything about from this. Montmayeur assumes the audience has seen all of them: they never discuss plot, and instead go into greater depth about Haneke’s formal instincts, and how they tie to grander themes. In the discussion of Cache, for example, Haneke describes how he intends to deconstruct the audience’s typical notions of objectivity. It’s intellectually challenging stuff, but rewarding since Haneke is brilliant and, like all great directors, can easily articulate what he wants (a film director is the last job where someone can command dictatorial power). Any fan will admire this highlight reel of his career, but if multiple interviews with Isabelle Huppert do not pique your interest, neither will this documentary.

Teenage

Whereas the Haneke documentary takes a traditional approach, Matt Wolf’s Teenage is riskier.The only imagery is stock footage from the early twentieth century, and well-known character actors (Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw) provide an impressionistic, melancholy voiceover. Based on a book, “Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945,” Teenage describes how the West’s idea of youth and young people evolved. In the early twentieth century, the transition from childhood to adulthood was seamless: young men would abandon school for factory work, and soon create families of their own. That all changed with World War I. Soldiers were celebrated as heroes and this renewed an emphasis on youth. Trends grew popular in the post-war years – including swing and “Bright Young Things – although this shift in culture took a darker turn in Germany.

Wolf lays out his thesis early. Young people feel a need to assert themselves, and the establishment’s attempts to quash their voices will only make them more defiant. The problem with Teenage is how it lays its cards on the table too quickly: Whishaw, Malone, and the others repeat the same argument without elaborating. Editing and music are the documentary’s saving grace: the score by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox establishes a couple themes, all rooted in post-punk, and music guides us through all the emotional cues. This type of montage is effective – many music videos use the same technique – and it’s surprising to see how Wolf uses it for a feature-length film. Teenage is not a historical record of adolescence, but it does succeed in giving an idea what it felt like to be a kid back then, which is precisely what the kids wanted all along.

Some Velvet Morning

Neil LaBute likes to think about the games people play. In Double or Nothing, one of two short films he had at last year’s festival, Adam Brody humiliated a homeless man as an elaborate way of getting his girlfriend to break up with him. LaBute’s film career has been in decline recently – The Wicker Man is beneath parody, and his remake of Death at a funeral was utterly superfluous – so his latest feature-length effort Some Velvet Morning represents a return to form. Stanley Tucci stars as Fred, a lawyer who surprises Velvet (Alice Eve) at her row-house with luggage in tow. She does not expect him, and they have a disturbing history. Over the next seventy-five minutes, Fred and Velvet push each other buttons, oscillating between outright flirting and grizzled hate.

Some Velvet Morning is unabashedly theatrical. Within the confines of a home, the two actors spar in real-time. The dialogue is LaBute at his clipped best: Fred and Velvet speak in terse shorthand, as if they’re afraid of what ugliness might unfold if they said what they really mean. Sometimes the language gets nasty. Tucci is blunt about his sexual advances, and Venus knows how to bruise his already damaged ego. It’s an electric back and forth, with both actors abandoning their vanity in favor of the demanding story. This is LaBute we’re talking about here, so nothing is exactly what it seems. The climax stands on the razor’s edge between black comedy and misogyny, and no matter the interpretation, LaBute forces his audience to rethink the role performance has in our lives, particularly when it comes to the opposite sex. We pretend way more than we think we do, and LaBute is one of the few filmmakers out there who wants to figure out why.

The Machine

The Machine begins as a dystopia, but it soon narrows its scope toward sleek, intelligent science fiction. It’s the future, and the West is in a Cold War with China, only the focus is on artificial intelligence instead of nuclear bombs. Vincent (Toby Stephens) is a brilliant scientist who’s on the verge of a purely intelligent machine. He enlists the help of Ava (Caity Lotz), a beautiful young prodigy, and together they make substantial progress. Ava dies at the hands of a Chinese spy, so Vincent creates a robot with her likeness. The machine advances at a staggering rate, and while Vincent tries to argue it’s alive, his employers want to weaponize it immediately.

Under the direction of Caradog W. James, The Machine never looks like it has a modest budget. Its hallways are grimy and atmospheric, and the simple special effects are effective (the robot’s eyes radiate in an unnerving way). His plot leads toward a counter-intuitive conclusion: so many science fiction films are about the perils of robotics, and this one turns the premise on its head. We come to care about Ava/the machine because of what befalls it, and how its innocence transitions into hardened anger. James waffles in his middle act, however, when he dwells on an obvious sub-plot and the ambiguity over whether Vincent’s employer is pure evil (he is). But once the lines are drawn, the body count rises along with the thrills. The Machine ends on a curious note. Vincent finds some measure of piece, even if it means that the human race is probably doomed as a result.

Wadjda

Wadjda is earning a lot of buzz for its unlikely pedigree. It’s the first feature-length film from the patriarchal Saudi Arabia, and it’s directed by a woman. On those terms alone, the film is quite an achievement, but it also happens to be funny and moving, too. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is about ten or eleven, and she’s too damn smart to always confirm to what society demands of her. She wears Converse All Stars when her classmates stick to simpler shoes, and she wants nothing more than to earn a bicycle even though that’s not proper for a young girl. A bike appears in a local shop, and since she cannot afford it, Wadjda decides to enroll in her school’s Koran competition for the reward.

The most remarkable thing about Wadjda is how it criticizes Saudi Arabian culture while preserving some of its traditions. There is a scene where Wadjda and her mother (Reem Abdullah) walk through a clothing store, admiring Western dresses while they completely cover their bodies in black (her mother tries on a dress in the bathroom, and she looks gorgeous). These restrictions and rules are matter-of-fact for Saudi women, and writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour shows us how women work around them in a practical way. All of the characters accept this system, basically, so what differs is the severity to which they apply the rules. The mother is more lenient, while Wadjda’s principal is so strict that she wanders into hypocrisy. Al-Mansour empathizes with all the characters, including the principal, so her film is apolitical even while she sees a need to practical reforms.

Speaking of practical, Al-Mansour struggled more than most filmmakers during her shoot. In a post-screening discussion, the director explained how she was not allowed to be outside during the shoot, so instead she would watch/instruct the actors while watching from a monitor in a nearby van. Despite these challenges, Wadjda is an excellent low-key drama, one with satisfying sub-plots and thoughtful character moments. Abdullah is terrific as Wadjda’s mother, a traditional woman who’s not without sympathy for her daughter. All the child actors do a terrific job, but Mohammed stands out as the titular character. She’s plucky and funny, constantly scheming, and there are ample laughs whenever she tricks an adult. It’s hard to tell what the future holds for girls like Wadjda, but given Al-Mansour’s optimism about her homeland, there’s reason to hope yet.