A Week of Films in the Triangle Below Canal
by Johnny Pomatto
New York has no shortage of Film Festivals these days. The TriBeCa Film Festival has never been my favorite. Originally conceived as a gift to the people of lower Manhattan after 9/11, it has since devolved into a showcase of leftovers from Sundance and an overpriced exhibition for premier events and upcoming summer movies. Though it may be a craps shoot, there are usually some gems to be found. Here are some of the highs and lows that I saw at this year’s festival.
The opening night film at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival was “Live From New York,” a documentary about the history of “Saturday Night Live.” The premier was a star-studded affair at the Beacon Theater, filled with past and present cast members of the show. But you wouldn’t find me there. Not to sound too snobbish, but I feel that in recent years “Saturday Night Live” has lost a lot of its edge and danger. So instead, I was downtown with the rest of the juvenile perverts, at the delightfully twisted new documentary about another comedy institution, DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON. Douglas Tirola’s new documentary chronicles how an underground college magazine became a defining voice of a comedic generation that launched the careers of people like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and countless others. While many are familiar National Lampoon’s later film franchises, this documentary delves into the roots of their more depraved humor, and features some enlightening interviews with the likes of Chevy Chase, John Landis, and P.J. O’Rourke. This comprehensive history simultaneously left me inspired, invigorated, and depressed. In the new politically correct landscape, where lip-syncing celebrities pass for mainstream comedy, I feel as if there’s no place left for an institution like National Lampoon, where jokes are offensive by design. Gone are the days when a racist or sexist joke could be used to call out hypocrisy without the joke teller’s character being called into question. DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD is an essential film for any comedy fan and it was probably the most fun I had during the whole festival.
The narrative options I experienced during the week were a pretty mixed bag, to put it mildly. I don’t know what possessed me to attend DIRTY WEEKEND, the latest film from Neil LaBute. Perhaps I needed closure on my fandom for an auteur whose films used to feel so fresh and daring in the late 90’s, but now LaBute seems to be writing over the same template that has proved reliable for him for decades, only with nothing new to say. Matthew Broderick tries his best to play a man who starts questioning his own sexuality after years of resigned comfort, but this 90 minute film doesn’t even begin exploring its own ideas into over an hour into the slog, and the result is an empty, missed opportunity. I was equally indifferent to TUMBLEDOWN, a moody drama featuring Rebecca Hall finding new love as she attempts to write a biography of her late musician husband. The film requires you to accept the musical genius of a fictional artist, as well as the poetic writing of a pretend book, and the script is just never able to fully sell it. Only the charm of Jason Sudeikis, as Hall’s collaborator and love interest, manages to slightly elevate it above the typical indie flavor we’ve come to expect from this kind of sincere but dull story. Sudeikis’ charm is effortless in a movie that always seems to be working too hard to tell its incredibly simple story.
Sudeikis’ fiancé, Olivia Wilde, is the best thing about director Reed Morano’s MEADOWLAND, the deeply sad and upsetting film about two parents dealing with their child’s abduction. When the film began with Wilde’s and Luke Wilson’s young son vanishing from a roadside gas station, I dreaded the idea of watching another film about the tense days surrounding a kidnapping, a story that seems pretty well worn after recent films like “Prisoners” or the BBC series “The Missing.” But I was intrigued when the film immediately flashed forward to a year later, after all the police reports had been filed and attempted searches have been made, yet the child is still missing. A film that deals with Wilde and Wilson coping with the idea that all hope may be lost and trying to resume their everyday lives is an interesting and new take on the subject, though I feel the conclusion strives a bit too far to reach a poetic ending without quite pulling it off. Still, Olivia Wilde continues to impress as an increasingly compelling actress who has become far too good to be just another pretty face in Hollywood studio fare.
My favorite narrative film I saw at the festival was Onur Tukel’s APPLESAUCE. Tukel is quickly becoming one of the freshest voices in New York film. Kind of a darker, hairier Woody Allen. His previous film, “Summer of Blood,” was a surprising and modern entry into the vampire genre, which is very difficult subject matter to present as fresh. This film also begins as a comedy and takes unexpectedly dark turns into strange, film noir territory. Tukel plays a man who is casually coerced in telling his wife and friends about the worst thing he has ever done. What starts off as a shocking but harmlessly amusing anecdote begins to disrupt the lives of everyone who learns the secret, and it isn’t long before marriages and friendships are broken, and severed body parts begin to appear in unlikely places. Tukel has a great comedic voice, and a twisted kind of glee that menacingly glows in even the dourest of circumstances. Though he can be somewhat aggressively abrasive during his festival Q and A’s, Tukel is an exciting new filmmaker that consistently surprises and I’m excited to see where his career may go from here.
One’s best bet when rolling the dice with a festival like this is to stick with documentaries. I was moderately intrigued by VERY SEMI-SERIOUS, a profile of Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor for “The New Yorker.” As a fan of the one-panel, highbrow funnies, I was hoping to gain some insight into what goes into the making of them. Mankoff is a very entertaining subject, but too many of the cartoonists profiled in the film seem to have similar backgrounds and dispositions. Only a select few stand out, and seeing “New Yorker” cartoons blown up to fit a movie screen took a bit of the humor out of them. I was very excited to see PRESCRIPTION THUGS, director Chris Bell’s follow-up to his fascinating and entertaining 2008 steroid expose “Bigger Stronger Faster.” Once again, Bell uses a casual, pop culture clip-filled approach to tackling the serious subject of prescription painkillers and addiction. Having had a brother die from an accidental overdose, Bell’s views on the subject are incredibly personal and he involves his entire family in the telling of this story that affects millions of Americans like him. Bell’s style reminds me a lot of the early films of Michael Moore, in being a documentarian whose films might not be nearly as compelling without his presence front and center. The film takes a shocking turn in the final stretch that changes the way you view everything that you’ve seen previously, and while this partially undermines some of the film’s motivations, it also gives the message of the film an even greater power. I don’t think that PRESCRIPTION THUGS is as focused or concise as Bell’s first film, but I nonetheless must recommend it based on the importance of its subject matter alone.
Circumstances prevented me from attending the epic Beacon Theater showing of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” featuring an onstage reunion of the surviving cast members. I lamented missing the chance to see the film with a live audience, even if I’ve seen it so many times that I could recite the dialogue myself. Instead, I closed my week with a special premier screening of MONTY PYTHON: THE MEANING OF LIVE. This new documentary following the Pythons during their sold out reunion show in London last summer was the chance to see a side of them that they often make an effort to keep hidden. Whenever one of the great ones makes a media appearance, it’s usually to promote one of their ventures and the interview is almost always light and comedic. It was refreshing to see the Pythons in this film behind the scenes and not always pretending to be enjoying themselves. They openly admit that they’re only doing the live shows for the money, (a recent lawsuit had cost them all millions), and they even bluntly acknowledge that they don’t always enjoy being around one another, (John Cleese seems to have a particular disdain for Terry Gilliam). While I may know most of their routines word for word, one can imagine that if there were anyone who has had no desire to revisit their old material, it would be the members of Python themselves. So it’s an unexpected joy to see them break out in genuine laughter as they read sketches like “The Dead Parrot” or “Crunchy Frog” for the first time in decades. They seem truly surprised how much they enjoy reuniting, even as they clearly hope that they never have to do it again. While the troupe seems to achieve comfortable closure with their place in the pantheon of comedy history, I felt an appropriate sense of goodbye with the Flying Circus as well. I started the week with a documentary about comedic pioneers and I was able to close the week with another. As I stepped out of the theater on Saturday afternoon, still humming “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” I realized that I was the happiest during my time at TriBeCa when I wasn’t taking it too seriously.