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Four Movies at the Tribeca Film Festival That Don’t Pretend

A film-within-a-film is a well-worn narrative conceit, but one that seems more complicated in the context of a documentary. Madeleine Sackler’s extraordinary It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It was shot entirely at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison near Indianapolis. (The occasional animated interludes were done by Yoni Goodman, of Waltz With Bashir.) The incarcerated men there are both subjects and filmmakers in Sackler’s construction, talking about their lives in front of the camera while learning film lingo and devices from the classroom environment Sackler creates.

We sit in on the filmmaking lectures Sackler delivers to the inmates. (At the same time this was going on, she shot a separate feature at the prison: the narrative piece O.G., starring Jeffrey Wright and also showing at Tribeca.) During the sessions, the men interview each other about their experiences and discuss what they want to add to the final cut of the movie. We witness the canny results first-hand, as when the men decide to finally share — midway through, after we’ve gotten to know them — their sentences and crimes in the form of onscreen text just below their faces. Poverty, abuse, addiction, and racism all play familiar roles in these stories. But the haunting exchange that best illustrates the divide between the men and the director (who hails from a wealthy Connecticut family), along with most of us who see the film, comes when one of the inmates expresses incredulity at the fact that none of Sackler’s former high-school classmates have either been murdered or killed someone.

He asks, “No one?”

She replies, with certainty and sadness, “No one.”

The sharp cast of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” helps to cohere its verbose source material.

Writer-director Desiree Akhavan, whose 2014 film Appropriate Behavior (in which she starred) was a loose, autobiographical jaunt through queer women’s experiences in New York City, could not have picked a more different approach for her second feature, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance). An adaptation (Akhavan wrote it with Cecilia Frugiuele) of Emily M. Danforth’s popular YA novel, the film takes place in Nineties Montana, mostly in an isolated teen residential program that implements Evangelical Christian, anti-queer “reparative” therapy. The script omits the verbose source material’s many tangents and spins its lively, last third into a more cohesive whole.

I had been worried in the lead-up that Chloë Grace Moretz would be too femme to play Cameron, who is a butch athlete in the book. But Moretz’s appalled face in reaction to the program’s dogma, along with her other responses to life in the facility, won me over. A poker-faced “good” is how Cameron invariably replies to staff questions about how she’s progressing. After Erin, a fellow “disciple” (as the teens in the program are called), catches her shoplifting, Moretz’s Cameron quickly adds a disingenuous, “I feel so ashamed,” to keep Erin from telling staff. Sasha Lane, whom writer-director Andrea Arnold famously plucked from the mass of college students during spring break to star in American Honey, proves a delightful comic presence in Miseducation as Jane, another resistant teen at the facility. Her skeptical, liquid stares say as much as her expertly delivered punchlines.

The repressive setting would be, in a less nuanced film, a site of unadulterated horror. But Cameron, Jane, and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), like queer people through the ages, find ways to bond, joke, and help each other through the circumstances. When something terrible does happen (eliciting gasps in the audience, as it does for readers of the book), the experience cements the three together with newfound determination.

The killing of a trans woman in the Philippines galvanizes outrage in “Call Her Ganda.”

Call Her Ganda, a documentary from Filipinx American PJ Raval (Trinidad), covers the trial of an American Marine, Joseph Scott Pemberton, for the killing of Jennifer Laude, a trans woman in Olongapo City, Philippines. The 2014 incident occurred in a motel across the street from the disco where the two had met earlier one evening. The case, and the dismissive reaction to it, prompts outrage from Jennifer’s devoted sister, mother, and fiancé, as well as a spirited legal battle from the family’s pro bono lawyer, Virgie Suarez. As the murder of Rita Hester did in the U.S. two decades ago, Laude’s death galvanizes the trans community to take to the streets in protest. Owing to colonialist influence, any crime American service members committed in the Philippines had never previously been brought to court. Pemberton’s lawyers attempt to justify his actions as “trans panic,” an enraging defense that’s been used in the U.S. in murder cases with trans women victims.

The doc also follows trans Filipina investigative journalist Meredith Talusan, who has lived in the United States since she was a child, as she returns to her birthplace to extensively report on the case for VICE, the Guardian, and Buzzfeed. Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, known globally for the mass killing of his own citizenry, even plays a peripheral role, manipulating anti-colonial sentiment around the case (and others like it) to win votes. In the end, the verdict appeases neither side, but it has had lasting effects on the trans community and has set a long-overdue precedent for holding individuals in the American military responsible for heinous crimes.

Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, 79, is the focus of the moving doc “Every Act of Life.”

I wasn’t prepared for the emotional release of Every Act of Life (written and directed by Jeff Kaufman), a wonderful documentary on the prolific playwright Terrence McNally. McNally’s life has the sweep of an epic novel, except that the novel’s inevitable movie version could never have as much star power as his life did. Edward Albee was his first boyfriend. Nathan Lane and Audra McDonald both affirm they wouldn’t have their careers without him. Angela Lansbury was the one who told him to get sober. He even had a brief, secret relationship with the acclaimed playwright Wendy Wasserstein. (His brother reports that seeing the two of them in a romantic kiss made him think, “He has a girlfriend?!”) He also was one of the first playwrights to put queer life and characters front-and-center in his work. Even though, as his husband, Thomas Kirdahy asserts, cancer surgery has left McNally with a total of less than one functioning lung, he’s still energetic and writing new pieces — and having them produced.

The film conveys a refreshing lack of pretense about the work of being a refined artist. Over two decades into McNally’s stellar career, when the script for Lips Together, Teeth Apart — a highly anticipated play for “his favorite actors” — was handed to the ensemble, only one member, Christine Baranski, summoned up the courage to tell him it sucked. McNally took it home, rewrote it, and it ran for over a year Off-Broadway. Four years later, he wrote Master Class, which went on to win Tonys for its stars (Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald) and for McNally himself — another inspiring chapter in a life full of them.

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This Week in Food: Tattoos, Tequila, Dim Sum Dinner, and Free Beer

Dim Sum Dinner
Vic’s (31 Great Jones Street)
Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Chefs from Cookshop, Rosie’s, Hundred Acres, and Vic’s are teaming up for a special, one-night-only dim sum dinner. The traditional cart service includes dishes like labne with flatbread, crab with green chiles, and monkfish cheeks poached in brown butter. Dinner is $68 per person (tax and gratuity not included). Reservations can be made by contacting Vic’s.

Kosher USA Book Talk
American Jewish Historical Society (15 West 16th Street)
Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Learn about the history of kosher food and taste some Passover treats from Breads Bakery. Author Roger Horowitz will discuss Kosher USA, a book that details, among other things, Coca-Cola’s and Jell-O’s attempts to break into the kosher-food world. Tickets are $10 for general admission, which includes sweets like cupcakes and chocolates. RSVP here.

Tattoos & Tequila Pop-Up
Burger & Lobster (39 W 19th Street)
Wednesday, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Looking to show off some new ink this spring? Burger & Lobster has a free tattoo promotion just for you. Guests who get the Burger & Lobster logo (size restrictions apply) tattooed somewhere on their body will receive a free tequila shot… plus free food and drink at the restaurant for the remainder of 2016. Tattoo artists from Rising Dragon Tattoo Parlor will be on site, so you can get your ink and freebies right away.

Top of the List Tasting
The Vine Event Space (851 Avenue of the Americas)
Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Grab a glass of wine from some of America’s top producers — including California’s Cakebread and Silver Oak wineries — at this walk-around tasting. Then, feast on bites from restaurants like Tía Pol, Gramercy Tavern, and Casa Mono, among others. General admission tickets start at $85 and include unlimited wine tasting, food, and a one-year subscription to Wine & Spirits. Reserve your spot here.

Beer and Popcorn Pop-Up
Gild Hall (15 Gold Street)
Friday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Need to make a pit stop between flicks at the Tribeca Film Festival? Grab some complimentary Pipcorn popcorn and Bira (choose from the white ale or blonde lager) at Gild Hall this Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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Tribeca Film Festival Offers Almost 100 Tough-Minded Flicks

The 13th Tribeca Film Festival opens with Time Is Illmatic, celebrating the 20th anniversary of rapper Nas’s groundbreaking 1994 record (with a Nas performance to follow), and closes with Begin Again, a narrative feature starring Keira Knightley as a budding songwriter. In between, the festival once again offers, through nearly 90 fiction and documentary films, an overwhelming menu of subjects for the tough-minded: third world communities’ livelihoods threatened by modern development; unraveling families; teenage depression.

Three of this year’s finest films are gritty accounts of doomed drug dealers, be they in the East Brooklyn projects (Five Star, featuring real-life Blood members in key roles), the poverty-lined streets of Myanmar (Ice Poison), or the perilous swamps of rural Colombia (Manos Sucias, produced by Spike Lee).

Keith Miller’s Five Star is a dizzying tour-de-force, with the camera often as jittery as its conflicted teen protagonist’s gun-wielding hands. Midi Z takes the opposite approach in the gorgeous and grim Ice Poison, laying out 10 or so static panoramas in which unspeakably sad things happen (most chiefly, the prolonged shot of two self-employed taxi drivers, a father and son, trying in vain to draw customers at a bus station.) Meanwhile, Manos Sucias‘ close-up of a sobbing 19-year-old drug runner, as he drowns a petty thief, will throttle even the most desensitized viewer.

Several of the bleakest works are set in more affluent but no less dysfunctional milieus. In Lou Howe’s unnerving Gabriel, a young mental patient (an outstanding Rory Culkin) returns home to his Hamptons family, but keeps sneaking out to search for a long-lost love, with disastrous repercussions. Paolo Virzi’s Human Capital borrows some elements from American Beauty — unscrupulous or unloving fathers, philandering mothers, and somber daughters lusting after unstable boys — but is overall a far more searing, scathing story of greed and familial self-destruction, told from multiple viewpoints.

The comedies are likewise often dark and dense, deliberately messy takes on divorce, cheating, and the temptation to cheat. In Ryan Piers Williams’s stylishly gloomy, New York City–set X/Y, a quartet of emotionally stunted twentysomethings (among them Ugly Betty‘s America Ferrera) engage in ill-fated trysts, usually in public restrooms. On the other coast, the lovesick characters of the bittersweet Goodbye to All That — the directorial debut of Junebug writer Angus MacLachlan — are a little older and calmer, but equally confused. Otto (Paul Schneider) finds himself suddenly estranged from his brittle, unfaithful wife and mature young daughter, but he’s so earthy and handsome that he’s granted nonstop sex with a succession of embittered single moms, kooky fetishists, and no-strings-attached starlets. As Otto weighs arrested hedonism versus parental responsibility, the film is by turns heartbreaking and breathlessly erotic.

Even the lighter comedies border on the perverse. Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love presents Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass as sparring spouses who, during a would-be idyllic retreat, encounter funnier, more level-headed replicas of themselves, with delightfully loopy results. And even if you’ve never heard of the controversial, Islam-mocking French author Michel Houellebecq, whose lengthy disappearance after a 2011 book tour spurred rumors that he was abducted by Al Qaeda, Guillaume Nicloux’s breezy mockumentary The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is essential viewing. Nicloux imagines that the perpetually lugubrious Houellebecq was seized not by radicals but by three rustic buffoons, who end up treating him more like an adopted pet than a captive. Houellebecq, whose droopy-lipped nonchalance could rival Peter Bogdanovich’s, is a marvel of self-loathing in his debut screen appearance.

As always, the documentaries range wildly in tone, content, and setting. Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’s mesmerizing Mala Mala devotes equal time to several spritely yet bruised entertainers and streetwalkers in Puerto Rico’s transgender community, who gradually band together to fight for civil rights. It is a surprisingly optimistic film, with a bouncy score by Flavien Berger. On the other hand, viewers will surely share the indignation flooding The Newburgh Sting, a long-overdue indictment of the FBI’s alleged entrapment of four men from economically depressed Newburgh, New York, now serving 25 years for attempted terrorism.

For a happier slice of recent politics, check out Kevin Gordon’s buoyant True Son, chronicling 22-year-old Michael Tubbs’s painstaking, victorious run for Stockton, California, city council in 2012. All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State is another uplifting ode to an unlikely champion, fondly recollecting a brief but resonant era in which Texas was actually progressive.

Quirkier but no less enticing docs include The Search for General Tso, an exhaustive history lesson on how the fiery Taiwanese chicken dish hit America and started to lose its pep; and Art & Craft, which slyly questions whether Mark Landis, who forges other artists’ work for his own pleasure, is really all that damnable. With his Truman Capote–like chirp and innate shyness, Landis will charm you even as he’s giving you the creeps.

To its credit, Tribeca continues to showcase unknown actors and directors, but for the star-hungry, there’s Courteney Cox’s directorial debut, Just Before I Go, with Seann William Scott, as well as new films from veterans Paul Haggis (Third Person, an international love story and tragedy), Jon Favreau (Chef, a sweet-natured father-son bonding film set mostly within a ramshackle traveling food truck and peppered with wry patter), and Roman Polanski at his kinky, demented best in the theatrical adaptation Venus in Fur.

My favorite festival film, though, falls outside all these categories. It’s not war-torn, drug-laced, or even macabre. It’s a sassy, sunny confection from newcomer Susanna Fogel called Life Partners. The characters — a picky, immature lesbian (Leighton Meester), her straight, equally finicky best friend (Gillian Jacobs), who has less time for her after falling for a gentle nerd, and the neurotic or overly praising friends, parents, and lovers who drift in and out of their periphery — are remarkably insightful and fleshed out. The comic timing is impeccable, whether the characters are squabbling about The Big Lebowski or staging fake fender benders for kicks. Life Partners is the festival’s most resplendent good time.

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The 2013 DOC NYC Documentary Festival Is the Biggest — and Best — Yet

When it comes to film festivals, bigness can be a dubious bargain. Tribeca, for example, suffered from sprawl in its early years, overwhelming audiences with over 200 films and underwhelming them on quality and focus. In its fourth year, DOC NYC, another New York upstart, has boldfaced its claim to being the country’s largest documentary festival. This year’s lineup, which includes 73 features (12 more than last year), 39 shorts, and an array of events, is the biggest yet. It is also, I’m pleased to report, easily the best.

Which is saying something, given the track record of returning artistic director Thom Powers, also a programmer and regular presence at the Toronto International Film Festival. This year’s program has expanded in all the right places, adding an “Art + Design” section to its roster and filling existing showcases, including “Midnight Docs,” “Metropolis,” and “Viewfinders” with vividly observed and original films. Though it nurtures an “International Perspectives” showcase as well (this year doubled from four to eight films), DOC NYC leans decisively toward American stories. The opening night film, The Unknown Known, Errol Morris’s fitfully illuminating exit interview with Donald Rumsfeld, and Oliver Stone’s presentation of the prologue to his 10-hour Showtime series, The Untold History of the United States, are only the most obvious variations on a theme.

That’s no slight: America, now as ever, has stories to spare. Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Citizen Koch details the controversy surrounding Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the nearly recalled union-buster supported by the billionaire Koch brothers. Making its world premiere, Kids for Cash investigates a Pennsylvania judge incentivized to lock up juveniles by the raging incarceration industry. In Kink, director Christina Voros’s examination of San Francisco’s pornography vanguard, the production of fetish porn is carried out cleanly and professionally, and the balance between mechanics and desire is made literal — and very graphic.

Elsewhere we find the Diaz family, whose number expands by three in The Dark Matter of Love, Sarah McCarthy’s international adoption case study. As three Russian orphans head to America, McCarthy and a pair of psychological researchers stand by, poised for disaster. The Diazes — mom, dad, and adolescent daughter — introduce themselves as “a Disney family,” but their American cheer doesn’t last long. Shot before Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ban on American adoptions, The Dark Matter of Love appears apolitical, focusing on the painful, intensely psychological (and sometimes physical) struggle to bond; its triumphant ending takes the form of a statement.

Documentary loves a personality almost as much as it loves an enigma, and there are plenty of both to be found at DOC NYC. The Punk Singer, part of the “Sonic Cinema” showcase, is a deft and gratifying portrait of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, who is returning to the stage after years of struggle with undiagnosed Lyme disease. Hanna, whose fearless stage presence belies an allergy to fame and other invasions of her privacy, makes a surprisingly forthcoming subject, and director Sini Anderson frames Hanna not as a relic but a still-vibrant product of an angry, uncompromising era in rock. Less rousing is A Fragile Trust, a rehash of the Jayson Blair scandal whose subtitle — Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times — just about covers it. Other profiles include Dori Berinstein’s Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love and Donna Zaccaro’s Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way.

On the enigma spectrum is Finding Vivian Maier, in which the random auctioning of some old negatives sets a young man looking for the photographer behind a vast and remarkable body of work. She is Vivian Maier, career nanny and hobby photographer, and she is recalled here mainly by baffled and sometimes pained members of the families who employed her. It’s our great luck that co-director (with Charlie Siskel) John Maloof became obsessed with Maier’s images — many of them street photography of striking quality — and the tantalizing but futile question of what makes an artist tick.

Equally wondrous is Doug Pray’s Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer’s Monolithic Sculpture, a tale of contemporary art made phenomenal. Like everything in its orbit, Heizer himself recedes behind the 340-ton chunk of granite he ordered transported from a California quarry to a Los Angeles museum, the raw material for a daring, decades-old idea. Pray follows the extensive planning and, most indelibly, the rock’s slow-motion, 105-mile journey, around which a bona fide scene begins to gather.

That scene, and its chatter, forms an unlikely connection to Michel Gondry’s closing night film, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, a delighted, Waking Life–like animated conversation with Noam Chomsky. Both films explore the continuum between the physical and the conceptual world, and the mysterious process by which we might identify a big boulder — or even a documentary — as a work of art.

 

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Tribeca Lives! Ten Films to See at a Fest That’s All Grown Up

Now that the Tribeca Film Festival is in its 12th year, let’s take a moment to reflect on the six words you can find in just about any account of the previous 10: “Tribeca is finally up and running.” That reasoning suggests that programming a festival is like building a machine, a network of working parts that, over time, can be tweaked to perfection.

But festivals are more like life forms than machines. The better metaphor might be sourdough starter: You’ve got to begin with something alive and go from there. This is the second year of the tenure of Artistic Director Frédéric Boyer, formerly programmer of Cannes’s Directors Fortnight sidebar, and the mix—more than 100 films—appears to be broadening and deepening. Tribeca kicks off April 17 with Mistaken for Strangers, Matt Berninger’s documentary about Brooklyn rock stars the National, followed by a live performance. And while the lineup includes festival favorites—Mira Nair, David Gordon Green, Ramin Bahrani—there’s a wealth of under-the-radar riches here. We’ve sifted through the choices to help you on your way. Meanwhile, forget all that finding-its-footing business: Tribeca lives.

Byzantium: Sure, you’ve seen enough vampire movies to last a lifetime, but don’t seal yourself into a sepulcher just yet. Neil Jordan has done the bloodsucking thing before (with 1994’s Interview with the Vampire). But Byzantium, in which Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton play vamps on the lam in a tumble-down Irish coastal town, is sexy, spooky, just a little bit grisly, and elegant in a dog-eared way.

The Rocket: Do you avoid films set in famine-stricken villages for fear of watching patriarchs kill beloved pets just to make a point and orphaned children forced into slavery or the military—all in the first scene? Fear not Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket, which features none of those things. Set (and beautifully filmed) in rural Laos and featuring mostly nonprofessional actors, The Rocket gives us a 10-year-old boy, striving to prove his merit by entering a rocket in a village competition. The picture has its share of raw emotion, but Mordaunt’s touch is delicate—he never clobbers you with feel-bad vibes.

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton: New Yorkers need a little jolt of the West Coast now and then, and this documentary by Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, and Dawn Logsdon, about California poet, experimental filmmaker, and mischief-maker James Broughton, plugs right into that current. Broughton was a complicated guy—it’s easiest to call him pansexual, for lack of a better designation. (In the late 1940s he fathered a child with fellow Berkeley luminary Pauline Kael; Kael raised their daughter on her own.) He was also charismatic and intensely creative, and Big Joy—using clips from films like The Bed, his silly-wonderful 1968 paean to the joys of making love, en plein air and otherwise—captures his oversize spirit.

Harmony Lessons: Kazakh filmmaker Emir Baigazin wowed audiences at this year’s Berlin Film Festival with his debut picture, a stylized waking dream about a misfit who exacts revenge against bullies at his rural school. Now New York audiences will have a chance to see for themselves: Harmony Lessons is imaginative, stark, more than a little chilling.

Michael H.—Profession: Director: Michael Haneke looks like a disgruntled priest from a medieval woodcut—no wonder his movies are so merciless. But Yves Montmayeur’s lucid documentary shows another side of the notoriously precise Austrian filmmaker. He laughs, he smiles, he guides his actors gently through difficult scenes. In other words, Mr. Funny Games is surprisingly human.

Before Midnight: Some who have seen Before Midnight say they cried right at the beginning. Others report weeping at the end. It would risk breaking a code of faith to say too much about what triggers such feeling in this picture, the third entry in Richard Linklater’s romantic trilogy that began with 1995’s Before Sunrise. But it’s safe to tell you that even though Julie Delpy does most of the talking in Before Midnight (quelle surprise!), it’s Ethan Hawke—whose character is now a battle-scarred but sturdy adult—who shoulders the emotional weight. If you’ve been following along since ’95, it’s likely that Before Midnight will get to you—at the beginning, at the end, or somewhere in between.

I Got Somethin’ to Tell You: Everyone knows who Richard Pryor is (and his life and work are documented in another Tribeca offering this year, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic). But Moms Mabley is arguably an even more important figure in the nation’s comedy history, a performer who came up in the chitlin’ circuit and crept to the forefront of civil rights activism. The performance clips in this documentary, produced and directed by Whoopi Goldberg, resonate: Moms, in her trademark bucket hat and floral housedress, knew how to bring the house down with her quips about the real lives of black folk in America—but she also brought the hammer down, so brilliantly that you could barely feel it hit.

Just a Sigh: American fans of the French actress Emmanuelle Devos (whose talents have been put to use so gloriously by Arnaud Desplechin in movies like A Christmas Tale and Kings and Queen) rarely get to see her in a leading role. Jérôme Bonnell’s Just a Sigh remedies that: Devos plays a self-absorbed actress who meets, and follows, a mysterious older man played by silver fox Gabriel Byrne. The picture’s dialogue may be clumsy at times, but the actors always tame it into submission. Devos—prickly, vulnerable, maddening and touching—reigns supreme.

Lil Bub & Friendz: You say you never look at viral cat videos, but come on: You’re a person alive now, so you do. Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner’s compact little doc explores the mystique of cat memes—mewms?—like Keyboard Cat, Nyan Cat and Grumpy Cat. More importantly, it chronicles the adventures of the Internet’s beloved dwarf cat Lil Bub who, with her winsome eyes and caterpillar crawl, is surely the pick of the litter.

Lily: Tribeca is a New York festival, so it’s fitting to cap off our list with a picture that’s pure New York. In Matt Creed’s modest, marvelous debut, Lily, the title character—played by newcomer Amy Grantham, who also co-wrote the script—fills her days by being a stepmom to two rambunctious kids, a girlfriend to a much older man, and an observant wanderer in the city. She stops to look at everyday things—an Asian woman picking through a litter basket for bottles, a crazy dude spouting bizarrely sage-sounding nonsense on the street—as if they weren’t incidental to her life. Lily, it turns out, is also finishing up treatments for cancer (the story is based partly on Grantham’s own experience), but don’t think of it as a cancer movie. It’s more about being alive to the world around you—in this case, a city that smells bad, costs too much, and teems with weird people—and never thinking for a minute you’d rather be anywhere else.

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Andy Dick: “I’d Be Dead Now If I’d Accepted That Part”

Nutty funnyman—or funny nuttyman—Andy Dick recently swung around for the Tribeca Film Festival showing of Freaky Deaky, based on the Elmore Leonard book about revenge and mayhem, ’70s style. In a refreshing interview, Andy—who does a weekly Friday show at L.A.’s First & Hope—gave me an earful of Dick-tation.

Hi, Andy. I wish you were in Freaky Deaky more.

I had a blast working on it. I got to know Crispin Glover. (We play brothers.) I’ve been fascinated by him since the ’80s. He remembers that when I first moved to L.A., I stalked him in a Studebaker underground into the parking lot of his building and followed him up to his apartment and accidentally scared him. He told me he’s only had two stalkers. The other one was a lady who climbed onto the fire escape.

Usually, he’s the stalker.

Usually, he plays stalkers. I’m infatuated. I hope I’m seen in that light where you feel like even if you spent the rest of your life with him, you still wouldn’t know the guy. He’s a true artist.

Did you have sex with him?

No. I don’t think he would have, but I wouldn’t put it past me.

Were you self-conscious doing your big scene in your underwear?

Yes, because I’m in way better shape now than I was back then. I walked around the set for about an hour in my underwear—”OK, people, get used to it.” Breanne [his co-star] took the director aside and said, “Can I not be topless?” I thought, “Gee, I was looking forward to all that jazz.” The other person I hung out with a lot was Michael Jai White, who was spectacular. You’d expect him to be this tough-ass black guy, but he’s super nice. I’m trying to get him to put me in Black Dynamite II.

Did you have sex with him?

No, not him, either. I didn’t have the opportunity to have sex with anybody because I hired a sober companion. I pictured Detroit being a big drinking city, and I was right. Driving around going to my meetings, I saw these dive bars. It’s like a dive bar is a magnet, and I’m an iron filing. I’m not gonna lie: I miss it, even though nothing gets accomplished.

So you’re sober?

For a long time. Tribeca was temptation. Everybody was drinking. But I ended up being able to have just as much fun and sex and laughing my ass off and never drinking, never feeling sick. I met one person who didn’t drink, and I tried to just cling to him. I was fascinated by him because he’s 27, but he’s never had a drink in his life. I understand not drinking, but you have to drink first.

So you had sex with that guy?

I only hooked up a couple times.

With star-fuckers?

Aren’t they all? Thank God I’m a star. [Laughs.]

Does comedy always come from a dark place?

Yeah. Irony is something you don’t expect, so it’s almost not welcome. But if you don’t make fun of the crap you’re going through, you’re doomed to be miserable. I saw something on CNN that said people who swear live longer. If you’re uptight and hold it in, you’re doing yourself a disservice and breeding cancer.

So Joan Rivers will live forever. As a comic, do you have survivor’s guilt?

Completely. I’m riddled with that. Not only do I think: “It should have been me. Look at how I’ve lived and how crazy I am and my drinking issues,” but I get people that tweet it to me—”It should have been you!”

Your mother?

No, she’s in the ground. She would have been one of them—but very tongue in cheek.

Do you respond to nasty tweets?

If it makes me laugh, I will sometimes retweet it. If it’s pure evil, like the devil himself sent it directly to me, I’ll retweet it just to stick the dicktards on them. I’ve had people shut down their accounts because all my followers will gang up like fire ants on an infant. Or I’ll give a snide comment back, ending with “. . . blocked.”

Like, “How many dicks do you have in your mouth now?” I’ll say, “Enough to choke a . . . blocked.” I already have enough crappy things in my own head. I don’t need validation of crap.

By the way, you and I once did a skit for VH1, and you were very professional.

We ended up writing my character in that into Zoolander. Will Ferrell played it because I was stuck on a show. My lawyer advised me not to drop out of the show because I’d just gotten out of my very first rehab, and people would think I’m a loose cannon. It was my biggest mistake.

I doubt it.

Yeah, I’d be dead by now. I would have been a big movie star and have had too much too soon, and it would have driven me nuts. The thing is, I’m still alive! I’m looking forward to doing another series.

If Charlie Sheen can get one . . .

His promos are funny—”Everyone deserves a 24th chance.” That’s how I feel. I’m like a cat. I’ve had more than nine lives, and I always land on my feet.

 

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What To See at the Tribeca Film Festival

To begin its second decade as the largest and most aggressively marketed survey of new movies in New York, the Tribeca Film Festival (April 18–29) is raising its international profile even as it deepens its roots in the Lower Manhattan asphalt. Led by new artistic director Frédéric Boyer (formerly of Cannes’s indie offshoot the Directors’ Fortnight), it still doesn’t have as ensconced of an identity as either Sundance or South by Southwest, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Looking over the films in this year’s catalog, and judging from the 30-odd films I was able to preview, it’s apparent that Tribeca takes all kinds. Between high-profile Hollywood launches like opening night’s The Five-Year Engagement and closing night’s The Avengers, and the micro-budgeted, literally garage-made films celebrated in the entertaining documentary Journey to Planet X, Tribeca is an all-inclusive slate of contemporary cinema. Such diversity is commendable but can also be overwhelming for the casual festivalgoer. Allow us to help: Here are 14 films worth your time.

‘Keep the Lights On’

Unforgivably ignored at Sundance, this beautifully aching love story gets the hometown spotlight it deserves. Ira Sachs’s semiautobiographical, Chelsea-set tale spans a decade in the on-and-off romance between a Danish documentary filmmaker (a revelatory Thure Lindhardt) and his Yankee lit-agent lover (Zachary Booth), cutting to the bone with the gentlest of knives in its dissection of commitment, addiction, and gay sex, withholding judgment even at its grimmest displays of human frailty. Sachs’s stunner is a front-runner for best American film of the year.

‘Ballroom Dancer’

The latest from the rising Danish documentary new wave (The Good Life, Enemies of Happiness), this observational portrait of competitive ballroom dancers Slavik Kryklyvyy and Anna Melnikova starts out as a phoenix-from-the-ashes comeback story before (d)evolving into something much messier and more engrossing. Competing at such a high level is hard enough—try getting through it without wanting to disembowel your partner and lover. Although impossible to please for Melnikova, Kryklyvyy turns out to be a filmmaker’s dream. Almost hyperbolically handsome, with diamond-cut cheekbones to outdo Johnny Depp, he’s a brooding matinee idol and self-destructive genius—a master craftsman undone by his own gloomy, preening perfectionism.

‘Planet of Snail’

Cinematic love stories don’t come more convincing or singular than this understated doc about married couple Young-Chan and Soon-Ho—a deaf-blind man and a physically disabled woman who complement each other body and soul in a modest Korean flat. Director Yi Seung-jun neither sentimentalizes nor heroicizes his subjects and instead lets their personalities and idiosyncrasies lead the way. What they accomplish together—and how much fun they have doing it—will put your able-bodied concerns to shame. And you’ll never look at a lightbulb the same way again.

‘Take This Waltz’

Sarah Polley’s follow-up to her moving directorial debut, Away From Her, is a modern fable about a young woman torn between her cozy marriage and the handsome artist next door. By turns sweet and salty, quirky and dirty, idealized and bleak, Take This Waltz is a deceptively candy-colored existentialist rom-com—which is to say there’s nothing quite like it. Michelle Williams plays the conflicted heroine, Luke Kirby is the unconscionably charming other man, and Seth Rogen is perfect as the Ralph Bellamy straight man. Before turning moralistic in its final minutes, it’s a democratic and quietly devastating dissection of fidelity and its discontents.

‘Postcards From the Zoo’

It takes a while for anything resembling a story to emerge from this elliptical, magical-realist spectacle, but it entrances from first frame to last. Set almost entirely in Jakarta’s sprawling Ragunan Zoo, the film wanders over the diverse community of fauna within its environs: the felines, snakes, ponies, hippos, giraffes, children, handlers, vendors, and homeless vagrants huddled like refugees at the fringes. The world beyond the zoo is far more threatening by contrast, yet no less curious.

‘Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie’

As blistering and half-cocked as its subject, this doc recounts the rise and fall of shock TV emcee Downey and the reactionary mob culture that filled his audience and never left. The disgruntled son of a beloved Irish tenor, Downey achieved belated fame in his fifties by fashioning himself into a loud-mouthed, straight-talking, chain-smoking man of the people, prone to profane tirades and belly-bumping debate opponents. The toast of the town in 1987, his show was canceled by 1989. The film features interviews with family, friends, and fans, and footage that still seems too outrageous to believe.

‘Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal’

Boris Rodriguez’s inspired first feature strikes just the right balance between camp horror and clever satire. Desperate for peace, quiet, and inspiration, celebrated painter Lars Olafssen (high-low double-dipper Thure Lindhardt of Keep the Lights On) accepts an artist-in-residence post at a small, snowbound Canadian art school. A wealthy benefactor is keeping the cash-strapped school afloat on the condition that they mind his mute, mentally challenged son, whom Lars volunteers to board in his cabin. What follows is an absurdly satisfying deliverance of the title’s promise, with Lars’s artistic spirit awoken by Eddie’s grisly impulses.

‘The Fourth Dimension’

This three-part omnibus inspired by the divergent notions of a fourth dimension is one-third OK (Alexey Fedorchenko’s computer-hacker time-traveling fable), one-third great (Jan Kwiecinski’s exquisitely choreographed punk-party-before-the-apocalypse), and one-third gloriously moronic. If Harmony Korine was put on the earth for anything, it was to cast Val Kilmer as a shamelessly mugging roller-rink motivational speaker named Val Kilmer. Dressed in Salvation Army rack trash (yellow Izod, Native American amulets, black fanny pack), popping feeble wheelies on a dirt bike, and spouting seemingly stream-of-conscious nonsense about mother ships, the gold standard, and “awesome secrets,” national treasure Kilmer is a sight to behold—and seems to be having the time of his life.

Finally tiring of all that futon-hopping, American indie filmmakers are taking up genre in droves. Andrew Semans’s Nancy, Please veers from a yuppie nesting comedy into a nifty psychological thriller—as well as a dead-on depiction of doctoral-student psychosis. In Benjamin Dickinson’s visually accomplished first feature, First Winter, freak-folk hipsters gather in a remote wintry farmhouse for rigorous sessions of yoga and fucking, only to find themselves stuck together for the apocalypse. And in the disarmingly funny bromance Supporting Characters, Alex Karpovsky and a fine Tarik Lowe play an editing duo charged with reworking a fatally flawed film.

Industrious auteur Michael Winterbottom returns with Trishna, a remarkably apt transposition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles to the entrenched classism and sexism of modern-day India (starring Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed in the leads), while in The World Before Her, documentarian Nisha Pahuja contemplates Indian modernity and female identity at opposite extremes, cutting between contestants at the westernized Miss India beauty pageant and a militant fundamentalist Hindu camp. In a similarly bifurcated look at a country in transition, High Tech, Low Life tracks two online “citizen reporters” in press-restrictive China—one a self-promoting individualist, the other a modest muckraking comrade, and each, in his way, a national hero.

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AT THE DRIVE-IN

Small, dark, usually sticky-floored theaters are a staple of the cinema experience. Unfortunately, they’re not so much conducive to enjoying a spring evening. This is why it was wise of the Tribeca Film Festival to heed the advice of its inaugural outdoor feature and get a “bigger boat,” so to speak. Tonight, the Tribeca Drive-In, a series of al fresco screenings on the Hudson, will launch with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws to celebrate Universal Studios’ centennial anniversary. After all, there’s nothing like watching a film about the most vicious marine creature of all time with a substantial body of water in your peripheral vision. Arrive early to hear local artists exercise a different set of chops with musical performances courtesy of the New York Downtown Jazz Festival. On Friday, compete for best “truffle shuffle” and set off on a neighborhood treasure hunt prior to The Goonies, or come out for a pitching clinic with pro ballplayers R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, and Jim Bouton before catching Knuckleball on Saturday.

Thu., April 19, 8 p.m., 2012

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INDIE GEMS

There’s the Tribeca Film Festival, the Queens World Film Festival, the Staten Island Film Festival . . . and now, may we present the New York Hell’s Kitchen Film Festival! The 11-day program offers 140 features and shorts as well as panel discussions and parties. It opens with the New York premiere of Jay Duplass’s Kevin, an official selection of the SXSW film festival, which tells the true story of Austin-based musician Kevin Gant’s disappearance and redemption. On Friday at 7:30 p.m., don’t miss a rare screening of the raw cult classic Ken Park, written by Harmony Korine and based on the stories of filmmaker Larry Clark, about a group of teenage skateboarders dealing with sex, drugs, incest, and murder in a small California town. The film will be followed by a Q&A with Clark and actress Tiffany Limos.

Sept. 1-11, 2011

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A Tragic Life, Lip-Synched, in The Arbor

Precocious playwright Andrea Dunbar (1961–1990) spoke for the lumpen abused of her native Bradford, England; The Arbor, video artist Clio Barnard’s pitch-perfect Dunbar biopic, named best documentary last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, reprises her pungent, profane voice, but from a discreet distance. Barnard revisits the foredoomed career and tragic afterlife of this slum-born self-educated writer to electrifying effect, shooting mainly on location in Bradford, with actors lip-synched to actual recordings of the people they portray.

Barnard’s reconstruction, like Dunbar’s first play, written at 15, is named for the bleak housing estate, where garbage is strewn and dogs run free. The playwright grew up here, on “the toughest street in Bradford,” born into a life her daughter Lorraine characterizes as a tumult of “swearing, cursing, and shouting”—and drinking. The Arbor’s wasteland provides the alfresco setting for Barnard’s restaging of scenes from Dunbar’s quasi-autobiographical play, just as it served as backdrop for a mid-’80s TV documentary that, after the success of her screenplay for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, interviewed the Bradford wunderkind in her natural habitat.

Dunbar had never been out of Yorkshire or inside a theater until The Arbor was staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1980. Success brought disaster; she returned to Bradford, had two more children out of wedlock, and drank up her screenplay money to die at 29 of a brain hemorrhage on a barroom floor. It’s a compelling story, delivered here after the fashion of British “verbatim theater,” which takes trial transcripts, diaries, and other documents as the basis for factual dramas. (Indeed, Dunbar’s life served as the basis for an early instance of verbatim theater, the 2000 play A State Affair.)

The blurring of reality and representation was essential to Dunbar’s work, and cinema allows an additional dimension. Barnard compounds the hall of mirrors, using the text of her plays (staged as plays), with her appearance in earlier documentaries (shown as documentaries), and the oral history provided by her children. Their voices, like those of other witnesses, are given to actors—including George Costigan, once upon a time the randy male lead in Rita, Sue and Bob Too, who stands in for one of Dunbar’s lovers.

As Dunbar’s plays recapitulated her life, Lorraine’s life might be their sequel. A mulatto child growing up in a virulently racist environment, Lorraine tells us (through the grave, demure person of Manjinder Virk) that she wishes she had never been born. Cut to the Andrea character in The Arbor (Natalie Gavin), standing in the Arbor, insisting that she wants to keep the baby. Midway through, Barnard’s Arbor becomes Lorraine’s story—a horrendous saga of drugs, abuse, prostitution, and prison rendered all the more affecting for its cool, subtly discombobulated delivery. Creating a moment of communication that could never exist, there’s a brief cutaway from Lorraine’s recollections to the prematurely life-battered Dunbar watching one of her plays in rehearsal, as if looking down from some celestial arbor.

Barnard makes the psychological mayhem Dunbar endured and inflicted tangible. Film Forum also supplies something of her artistry with four screenings of the rarely revived Rita, Sue and Bob Too, directed by Alan Clarke and shot largely in Dunbar’s girlhood haunts. A garrulous pair of 15-year-old babysitters make a brief, giddy ménage à trois with a married householder over twice their age. It’s a sex comedy with an insolent, unsentimental attitude that’s more than enough to carry the film—and light another candle for its writer.