Tribeca Film Festival, Awards Dispatch: ‘Zero Motivation’ and ‘Gueros’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)
(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

Two of the award-winning narrative films at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival didn’t quite fit the fest’s usual mold. Neither Zero Motivation (which won for best narrative feature) or Gueros (best cinematography) were the usual small, tightly-focused chamber-piece dramas. Both had large ambitions that might have outstripped their abilities, but were thrilling nonetheless.

My review for PopMatters is here.

Zero Motivation is a deft Israeli comedy set in a military post’s administrative office that’s most easily described as a mash-up of M*A*S*H* and Office Space, with a little surrealism thrown into the mix:

Sullen whiner Daffi is so resistant to doing anything of value that she’s been designated “Paper Shredding NCO;” a position at which she fails miserably. All she cares about is transferring to cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, which holds an exalted a position in her mind. The kibbutz-raised Zohar doesn’t understand Daffi’s desire, and finds her own distractions, channeling her energy into desperately trying to lose her virginity. They kill more time with an epic staple-gunfight and general slackness. In other words, these are barely soldiers you would trust to carry live ammunition, much less defend a nation’s borders…

The Mexican film Gueros is a sprawling, black-and-white, French New Wave-inspired ramble through Mexico City:

Even with its striking compositions and embrace of visual disorder, Güeros gets hung up on its own cleverness. The longer it ambles on, the more it takes on the feel of a string of short films mashed together. A midpoint breaching of the fourth wall (we see a clapper, and one actor talks out of character regarding his opinions on the screenplay so far) doesn’t serve much purpose. Neither does Sombra’s declamation on the state of Mexican film: “They grab a bunch of beggars and shoot in black and white and think they’re making art movies.” Enough moments like that, and the film begins to take on an unfortunate tone of self-satisfaction. There’s beauty here, though, that portends greater things in Ruizpalacios’s future…

Hopefully these wins will lead to both films getting at least a limited American release and enlivening what’s been a fairly limited slate of foreign films that made it to these shores so far this year.

Tribeca Film Festival, Part III: ‘Match’ and ‘1971’

Two common Tribeca tropes in this pair of reviews: an interesting but underwhelming drama with name performers doing their level best and a solid historical documentary that’s practically required viewing. My most recent dispatch from the Tribeca Film Festival is here.

The drama is Stephen Belber’s Match, a three-performer melodrama about a high-strung, Wildean dance instructor (Patrick Stewart) who gets an unwelcome blast from his wild past:

Match is a tight, comically uncomfortable little box of a story about selfishness and pasts that refuse to die. It features enough salty turns of phrase and violently clashing expectations to generate a reasonably entertaining evening in its company. But essential it isn’t…

1971_Keith
‘1971’: Picking the FBI’s locks

Highly essential is 1971, a pitch-perfect historical thriller about antiwar activists whose burglary told the country what hippies had thought all along: the Feds are spying on us:

Johanna Hamilton’s sharp film looks back on the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, a meticulously organized protest cell who brainstormed possibly the single most significant act of illegal political protest in US history. Perhaps most remarkably, they were never caught. The film describes not just how these eight Philadelphia-area activists came to break into an FBI office and helped expose the heretofore unknown COINTELPRO, but also why they risked everything to do it…

Both films should probably get some kind of release later in the year.

Tribeca Film Festival, Part II: ‘All About Ann’ and ‘Art and Craft’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)
(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

In the last weekend of the Tribeca Film Festival, a strong slate of documentaries showed that covered things southern, eccentric art forgers and brassy politicos. My second dispatch runs today at PopMatters, here.

First is All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State. Befitting its once-in-a-lifetime subject, this clearly worshipful documentary is big-hearted and loud-mouthed, but gets by on the strength of sheer personality. It’s also screening tonight on HBO:

Ann Richards seems a perfect subject for a documentary. The beloved Texan progressive wore her hair in a signature bouffant and power-lunch suits, and was well known for her remarkable comic timing. Her knack for bringing crowds to their feet recalled a long-ago era, especially when she embarked on stemwinders skewering the traditions that kept women and minorities in their place (and her state in the 19th century), while also pointing the way forward. As her old buddy Bill Clinton—who is about the only Democrat of recent years to have come close to her facility with humor and language—notes in All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, you can get a lot more people to listen to what you have to say if you’re funny…

Next up we’ve got Art and Craft, a taut story about a spindly little criminal who may not actually have broken any laws, just infuriated museum staffers across the south who have been taken in by his forgeries:

Already the subject of numerous news stories and magazine profiles, Mark Landis is a square peg in a round hole figure, the sort that raises questions about the “art world” every so often. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker’s film shows an appreciation for Landis’ oddities, not just personal but also professional. Landis is an art forger and a schizophrenic, but he doesn’t forge for money. He just likes to create fake pieces of art and give them away to museums and other institutions under false pretenses. As he puts it, “I went on philanthropic binges.”

Art and Craft was already picked up by Oscilloscope for a release later this year; keep your eyes peeled.

Writer’s Corner: Oates on Oates

In a mostly successful attempt to undermine and interrogate the whole concept of author publicity, the writer as an identity, the interview process itself, Joyce Carol Oates interviews herself for the Washington Post.

One key takeaway:

Is there something frankly embarrassing or shameful about being a “writer”?

The public identification does seem just a bit self-conscious, at times. Like identifying oneself as a “poet,” “artist,” “seer,” “visionary.”

Also, this:

Let’s get back to the crucial question: Are you, or are you not, the “writer”?

The point of James’s remark is that the “writer” is embodied in his — or her — writing. The place to look for James, for instance, is in his books.

Points to Oates as well for referencing both Henry James and Paula Deen in the same piece without straining.

Department of Weekend Reading: April 25, 2014

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Screening Room, Tribeca Film Fest Edition: ‘An Honest Liar’ and ‘In Order of Disappearance’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)
(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

Getting to the Tribeca Film Festival only in its final weekend, but better late to the festival than never. My coverage will be running in pairs at PopMatters over the next few days, usually a documentary along with a narrative film that has little to no relation to the other. Hopefully the randomness of the pairings will help replicate the festival experience, only without the long lines and well-meaning volunteers.

The initial dispatch runs today, here.

First up is An Honest Liar, all about the magician and professional debunker James “The Amazing” Randi, still as spritely and snarky as ever, like a miniature Gandalf for the forces of logic:

Disturbed to the point of distraction by the sight of mystics and faith healers fleecing the vulnerable, even if they weren’t technically harming anyone, Randi became committed to telling the truth. According to Randi, it’s okay for magicians to entertain their audiences, as long as they’re honest that this is what they’re doing. As he puts it, it’s fine “to fool people as long as you’re doing it to teach them a lesson.” This crusade that he calls “my battle” makes for a great tale, particularly when Randi literally follows the patently fake mystic Uri Geller from one TV show to the next…

Stellan Skarsgard in 'In Order of Disappearance (image courtesy of TrustNordisk)
Stellan Skarsgard in ‘In Order of Disappearance’ (image courtesy of TrustNordisk)

Then there’s In Order of Disappearance, a black comedy from Norway with Stellan Skarsgard as an obsessed dad getting revenge on the gangsters who killed his son. Very Coen brothers by way of a third-rate Martin McDonagh impersonation:

Beyond this hard-boiled revenge tale, In Order of Disappearance introduces some distractions, beginning with “The Count” (Pal Sverre Hagen), the prissy gangster who is Nils’ ultimate target. A vegan who hides his cocaine trade behind a line of cupcake bakeries and lathers his home with punchline-bad modern art, the Count is all bluster and rage as his minions are picked off one after the other. This gets old fast…

Nevertheless, due to the audience-friendly mix of ultraviolence and low humor, it’s likely to get a full release later in the year.

In Books: ‘Shotgun Lovesongs’

shotgunlovesongs1One of the more gushed-about fiction debuts of the season has been Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs. Inspired in part by the story of Bon Iver recording an album in a remote Wisconsin cabin, Butler’s story is a nostalgic, idealized paen to small-town life structured around a plot about four buddies growing up and growing apart.

My review is at PopMatters:

There are quiet hymns to the quiet life still published today. You find them scattered here and there amidst the angsty blank urban snarkscape of modern literature, like eager and well-behaved students in a classroom of smartasses and showoffs. These books usually fly below the radar, hidden in plain sight in the ranks of less-reviewed novels that might rack up honorable sales figures, but are barely noticed from a critical perspective. But sometimes this less attitudinal literature makes its presence known. You’re barely a page into Nickolas Butler’s debut novel, the breathlessly anticipated Shotgun Lovesongs, and already the choirs have sucked in their breath for a great big holler…