By Johnny Pomatto
In the last week I attended daily screenings at the TriBeCa Film Festival where I saw numerous films, some great, some not. Here’s a wrap up of the best that I saw.
This year’s winner for Best Narrative film went to Demetri Martin’s comedy DEAN. Though Martin has graced the big screen before with mixed results, this film is the truest to the comedic persona that he’s established in his years as a deadpanned, contemplative stand-up comedian. DEAN tells the story of a man coping with the various relationships in his life following the death of his mother. This is a confident film that plays to Martin’s strengths well, down to incorporating his drawings and cartoons into the narrative, though I couldn’t help but thinking that the film occasionally adheres too comically close to its stand-up origins. Martin is undeniably playing a version of himself, much more so than in other film roles he’s taken before. It works, but I worry that he has exhausted this character now and there may be nowhere to go in the future. Now that he’s committed this act to film, I don’t know if he’ll be able to repeat this style when attempting to tell stories in the future. But perhaps I’m worried over nothing. DEAN feels very reminiscent to me of the early films of Woody Allen, in which a comedian’s persona is at the center of a larger story. And the story of DEAN does have more going for it than simply Martin’s pathos-filled humor. Kevin Kline does typically wonderful work as Martin’s father, and is matched by Mary Steenburgen in a subplot that may have been able to support its own film. There’s also some fine work by actress Gillian Jacobs, but I’ll have more to say about her before long. DEAN is a movie that feels deceptively slight and simple upon first viewing, and yet it has stayed with me throughout the week and I look forward to revisiting it.
DON’T THINK TWICE
Like Demetri Martin, Mike Birbiglia’s debut film as a director, (2012’s “Sleepwalk With Me,”) was inspired and adapted from his own stand up comedy. I wondered if Birbiglia’s subsequent films would also be based on his comedy monologues, but he has surprised me with a thoughtful and often hilarious drama that shows major potential for an evolving storyteller and filmmaker. DON’T THINK TWICE focuses on six members of a comedy improv group of some modest notoriety. When one of the members (Keegan-Michael Key) gets cast on a show not terribly dissimilar from “Saturday Night Live,” the rest of the team reacts in a multitude of ways, ranging from genuine support to bitter jealousy. Though it finds laughs throughout, the film is a pretty biting and occasionally devastating drama, meditating on the themes of professional vs. personal success, envy, fear, and failure. The characters and cast are just about perfect, with several of them having rich backgrounds in improv comedy, including Birbiglia, Chris Gethard, and Tami Sagher. I sometimes find it difficult to enjoy even truly excellent improv and watching the early scenes of the group filled with unbridled and borderline annoying enthusiasm made me concerned that I would be running towards the lobby after ten minutes. It’s a testament to the writing and performances that my prejudices were completely forgotten after a few scenes and I soon found myself fully invested in the characters and their lives. Though Birbiglia may get most the credit for that, props have to be handed over to Gillian Jacobs, who has one of the most difficult roles in the film and solidifies herself as an immensely talented actress and someone to wait and watch for a bright career ahead of her. With DON’T THINK TWICE, Birbiglia has done something truly remarkable. He has made a very adult film about grown ups who often act like children.
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
Although “Don’t Think Twice” was the best film I saw at the festival, I might have to admit that my favorite was HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, a comedy adventure that filled me with absolute joy every second its images were flickering on the screening. WILDERPEOPLE is directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi, whose vampire flick “What We Do In the Shadows” ended up being my favorite comedy of last year. This film easily gave me just as many belly laughs. WILDERPEOPLE tells the story of young, troubled youth Ricky Baker, (the atypically average and hilarious child actor Julian Dennison), who after a series of returns from foster homes is brought to the rural house of Hec and Bella, (Sam Neill and scene-stealer Rima Te Wiata). Bella welcomes Ricky with open arms, while the gruff Hec is less interested in feigning affection for a foul-mouthed, unpleasant child. But due to elaborate circumstances that I won’t spoil here, Ricky and Hec find themselves on the run from the police and, even more frightening, a child services representative. Their madcap adventure takes them through the thick and dangerous bush of New Zealand, and often plays like a cross between “Moonrise Kingdom” and “First Blood,” if directed by Chuck Jones. Taika Waititi will soon be regarded as one of our great directors, as he effortlessly channels the whimsy of Steven Spielberg or Wes Anderson at their most fantastical. He’s also full of constant surprises. I might have been quite content to sit back and enjoy a simple family comedy about young Ricky being raised by Hec and Bella, so when sudden plot developments change the course of the film multiple times, I was at first a little disappointed that aspects of the film that I was loving were suddenly vanishing. But before long I learned to trust Waititi completely, knowing that he would not do anything to remove the enthusiastic grin plastered on my face for the film’s 90-minute runtime. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE opens in June and I can’t wait to see it again and for it to be discovered by the masses.
THE VIRTUAL REALITY ARCADE
This year The TriBeCa Film Festival tried something completely new to them. They had a private hall dedicated entirely to virtual reality films, and though the sight of dozens of people wearing goggles and headgear might have looked a bit silly, the technology on display was stunning and it’s easy to see the potential of a bright future for the medium. The films offered were of a wide variety and type, ranging from interactive animation, to narratives, to documentaries. With DRAGONFLIGHT, I was guided onto the back of a fire breathing dragon who I then controlled the flight and siege on a castle. It didn’t amount to much more than a simple video game, but with realistic renderings and a strong feelings of actual motion, it was a fine display of the capabilities of fooling one’s brain into thinking the chair they’re sitting on is actually flying away. Some of the documentaries I saw were quite impressive, with one taking me through a vanishing coral reef in Italy, and another into the Australian outback where nuclear bomb testing left the barren land useless for decades. I was even quite impressed by a short that took me onstage at a Grateful Dead concert. I don’t really consider myself a big fan of the band’s music, but having a 360 degree view of my surroundings, (including close up shots of the other cameras used to capture such an experience), made me appreciate and understand what goes into making such a film even more. Some of the narratives I saw weren’t exactly worthy substitutions for what passes as cinema today. A dark short starring Seth Green as a father willing to do dark deeds to get his son a Christmas gift was like one of the worse episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” Another film that took me inside a haunted hotel room didn’t quite provide the horrific scares that it promised, though it did feature a horrific performance from Ian Ziering. But the best VR film I saw all day was Janicza Bravo’s HARD WORLD FOR SMALL THINGS, which turned you into a first person bystander to a fatal incident of racial profiling and police violence. I regrettably knew the premise and outcome of the short even before watching it, so I was perhaps a little too aware and on guard for what was to come. While driving around Los Angeles, I constantly looked behind the car to make sure I wasn’t being followed by a squad car. Though the element of surprise was somewhat removed from the experience, I truly felt a sense of time and place and I could not shake the feelings I had from it for the rest of the day. For those who believe that Virtual Reality is only going to be used for video games and porn, seeing films like these might covert you into a believer. I can’t believe how good these films look, and only at the very beginning of this new technology. I can’t wait to see where things go from here.
AND THE REST…
Jason Bateman proves his potential worth as a director with his sophomore effort THE FAMILY FANG, but even with a fine cast that includes Nicole Kidman and Christopher Walken, the film struggles to tell a cohesive story, due mostly to David Lindsay-Abaire’s meandering, flashback-filled screenplay. FOLK HERO & FUNNY GUY has a very promising start, built on fine chemistry between titular leads Wyatt Russell and Alex Karpovsky, but the road trip story spends too much time spinning its wheels and delaying resolutions. Musician Robert Schwartzman made his directorial debut with DREAMLAND, a sincere first feature with excellent performances from Amy Landecker and Frankie Shaw. Nick Kroll tries to complete with Adam Scott’s literal and figurative handicap when they both fall in love with Jenny Slate in MY BLIND BROTHER, a sweet comedy that flirts with becoming farce but always stays grounded in honest and believable emotion. Patrick Wilson considers killing his wife Jessica Biel, while at the same time becoming obsessed with a man who actually has done it in the gripping Patricia Highsmith adaptation A KIND OF MURDER. And Patton Oswalt and Paul Rudd star in the stylish but uneven and dark animated satire NERDLAND about two losers with dreams of fame, which might have been more successful as a weekly series rather than a feature film.