The Tribeca Film Festival this year has been…weird. Naturally, certain changes were inevitable thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the festival’s scrambled response resulted in an unusual system where only major, triple-A publications were given access to their complete screener library. Everyone else had to make due with a severely truncated selection. Even worse, the films initially offered didn’t always remain available—some distributors got cold feet at the last minute and pulled their films from the festival after they’d been provided to critics. More than one writer found themselves tearing their hair out after learning they wouldn’t be allowed to post reviews they’d written because the films had been officially withdrawn. But still, the festival plowed on. So we have here now presented in alphabetical order ten of the films showing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
12 HOUR SHIFT
Conventional wisdom says that if one makes a movie with a morally ambiguous protagonist, there needs to be a moment early on where they do something unmistakably good to earn the audience’s goodwill. A “save the cat” moment, if you will. Well, if any of the characters in Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift found a cat in need of help, not only would they not save it, they’d kill it, sell a video of them doing it to the Dark Web, and use the money to buy drugs. 12 Hour Shift is a deeply, deeply hateful film. It hates good people, it hates bad people. It hates anyone foolish enough to want to help others and hates those who’d abandon their fellow man. It’s a film that thinks it’s a black comedy thriller in the same vein as the nastier Coen Brothers outings, but it misinterprets the Coen’s nihilism for misanthropy. The film follows nurse Mandy (Angela Bettis), a scowling, cursing, drug addicted scorpion of a woman who works in a hospital-wide black market organ-harvesting scheme, murdering terminally ill patients with bleach before stealing their vitals. After her cataclysmically stupid and stunningly psychopathic cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth) loses a shipment of organs, she goes on a one-woman killing spree in Mandy’s hospital to find suitable replacements, all to Mandy’s rage and exasperation. Things snowball until the hospital is a veritable blood-soaked charnel house, and all along the way there are obnoxious patients to help, a cop-killing addict on the loose, and a super-nosy (and super cute) cop who keeps sticking his nose in the wrong places.
It’s painful to see such unpleasant material helmed by such talent, for Grant is a wonderful screenwriter and director, having worked on the Emmy-nominated series Eastsiders as well as several other indie films. And though the material on display in 12 Hour Shift is nauseating in its cruelty, the writing, acting, and directing are formidable. The script is airtight with scarcely a wasted scene and Grant knows how to give her performers the right amount of space to get the right kind of performances (her character is loathsome but Farnworth’s Regina is a spectacle to behold). But to what end? When Mandy’s inevitable face turn comes near the end we don’t buy it because she hasn’t earned it. And neither has this grotesque—though competently made—film.
In 1521, Hernán Cortés and a small army of Spanish conquistadors and local natives conquered the ancient Aztec empire. Now, nearly 500 years later, one of those conquistadors mysteriously washes up on the shores of Veracruz, confused, frightened, alone. Once ashore, he pauses for a moment to examine a disposable plastic cup on the beach, puzzling over it before the sound of a nearby motor snaps him back to reality. Recognizing the area, he makes his way towards land and the ancient capital city of Tenochtitlan where, surely, he will find Cortés and his fellow Spaniards. Along the way he discovers an elementary school. Interrupting a flag ceremony, he begins a speech where he imperiously threatens to kill and enslave them if they don’t submit. But suddenly his throat seizes up and the words evaporate from his mouth. Mysteriously struck dumb, the conquistador wanders the countryside towards the capital city he once helped murder. Along the way he passes through a kaleidoscope of a country still reeling from colonialism half a millennium later: a graveyard of shot-out police trucks left to rust and rot; furious activists protesting mass “disappearances” next to a town square where the elderly blithely salsa dance; a flock of illegal migrants risking life and limb to jump onboard moving trains headed “El Norte”; an endless chain of penitents trailing a procession of the Virgin Mary, the same Madre in whose name their ancestors were slaughtered; a nondescript field suspected of being an unmarked mass grave where volunteers search for bodies with sticks they poke in the ground until they start to smell putrefaction. And the whole time the conquistador cannot escape the stories. Stories of activists vanishing in the night, stories of teenagers fleeing their homes and families in fear of gangs, stories of butchered little girls and miscarriages of justice. And all the while the conquistador struggles to understand. Why is he here? Where are the Spaniards? How have the native savages reclaimed what Cortés had justly conquered? And why are their stories beginning to wound his heart? Part documentary, part magical realism, Rodrigo Reyes 499 is a hypnotic, devastating look at the scars of Latin American colonialism. Drawing stark links between the brutal conquering of Latin America with Mexico’s endemic political corruption and economic disparity, the film feels like a Gabriel García Márquez-penned reimagining of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987).
From what I can tell from my scanty Tribeca press notes, director Takeshi Fukunaga is an ethnic Japanese filmmaker with no ties to the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan’s northern island Hokkaidō. Conquered by the Japanese in the ninth century, the Ainu have since faced the same persecution and disenfranchisement felt by colonialized native peoples the world over. With official estimates placing their population at around 25,000, the Ainu still face extreme xenophobia in Japanese society. All of which is to say that Fukunaga’s role as director of Ainu Mosir, a drama about modern Ainu culture, is controversial in the same way as a white American making a film about Native Americans. In short, if Fukunaga isn’t at least partially Ainu, this wasn’t his story to tell. But tell it he did, and to his credit the film is both respectful and understated. It follows a fourteen-year-old boy named Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) living in an “Ainu Village” that’s presented as a glorified Dollywood without the rides: essentially a theme park tourist trap where foreigners—mostly Japanese and Americans—visit, buy Ainu handicrafts, watch their tribal dances, and gawk at their ancient festivals. Everyone seems to work in the tourism agency and Kanto and his family suffer from the burden of having to be perpetually “on” for visitors. (One early scene shows Kanto being woken up in the morning by bilingual PA announcements in Japanese and English welcoming tourists to their village.) The film picks up shortly after Kanto loses his father and gets taken in by family friend Debo (Debo Akibe) who teaches him their ancestral Ainu ways.
Usually in this kind of story the prodigal awakens to the beauty of their neglected culture, but that’s not necessarily the case here. Kanto’s newfound interest in his heritage is damaged when he discovers Debo and the other elders are preparing an Iomante, an ancient (and controversial) ritualistic sacrifice of a brown bear. The details of the brutal ritual shakes Kanto to his core, and we see him struggle between his modern sensibilities that recoil at such animal cruelty and his blossoming love of his community. Ultimately Fukunaga sidesteps the political implications of this conflict, choosing instead to focus on Kanto’s emotional coming-of-age. It makes one wonder how an Ainu filmmaker would’ve handled both. Until then, we could do worse than this obvious work of good faith.
CALL YOUR MOTHER
Now here’s a documentary that could’ve easily been a wimpy softball. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Call Your Mother is a Comedy Central-produced film about the relationships stand-up comedians have with their mothers. How easy it would’ve been for them to pile on the cheese with nothing but sappy stories about moms supporting their children as they went into comedy. Maybe throw in a few melancholy scenes played over minor key piano music where a couple of the talking heads recount how their mothers were disappointed they didn’t “make something of themselves” and never believed in them. Well, Call Your Mother does have its fair share of cheese, sap, and minor key music, but it attempts more nuance and complexity than one might initially imagine. We immediately realize this with the opening scene of comedian Bridget Everett onstage singing a grotesquely graphic lounge number about fellatio. Suddenly, mid-song, it cuts to a nondescript suburban home where she’s belting it out with her elderly mother who, almost impossibly, is singing with more gusto than her daughter. This is a film examining how mothers actively shape their comedian children, from influencing their innate comedic sensibilities to providing them with the confidence to perform controversial material. The most direct example is Judy Gold, a comedian who famously plays recorded answering machine messages left by her overbearing, neurotic Jewish mother during her act. She confesses in an interview that the messages aren’t just great material, they’re how she keeps her mother close after she passed away a few years ago. Ewing and Grady also don’t shy away from issues of class and race and how they play their own roles in the mother-comedian relationship, best demonstrated in a lengthy aside on black comedian and The Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. Wood recounts how growing up in a poor black neighborhood in Alabama made his mother anxious about him going into stand-up as she feared it wouldn’t keep him out of trouble with the police and wouldn’t provide him with any financial security. And though Wood eventually made it out of Alabama, it’s easy to see in his story a thousand other poor black youths who couldn’t make the cut and were forced to stay in their impoverished communities. Call Your Mother is almost impossible to dislike. It might just leave you wanting to call your own mom, too.
I felt a powerful consternation watching Jean-Cosme Delaloye’s Harley. What exactly was he trying to say about his subject with this film, I thought. His intentions eluded me for most of the runtime before it finally became clear in the last twenty minutes. But let’s back up. The film’s a documentary about Harley Breite, a criminal defense attorney in Paterson, New Jersey who has centered his practice around defending obviously guilty clients that nobody else will touch. His office is plastered with newspaper clippings of his greatest successes: a cocaine dealer with gun charges he got declared not guilty; a homicidal domestic abuser he got a mistrial; a terrorist who tried to bomb the synagogue he personally grew up attending whose criminal record he got expunged. Breite is a true believer that everybody deserves a fair trial no matter what—as he succinctly explains in an interview where he dismisses the predatory justice system, he simply doesn’t like bullies. But there’s another side of Breite that brings his legal career into sharp relief: the man is one of the most pathetic embodiments of toxic masculinity since Tiger King. A former bodybuilder, Breite strives to transform himself in his old age into a macho he-man, training for an MMA fight in Brazil he hopes will win the love of his “girlfriend” in Switzerland. The poor man is oblivious to the reality that his “girlfriend” is using him as a sugar daddy, milking him for gifts which he submissively provides while he dreams of beating up her real-life partner. Meanwhile he adorns himself with shirts that declare “when you’re f**king him you’ll be thinking of me” while he asks people on the streets if they’ve seen him on television. He’s one of the most deeply insecure men I’ve seen in a documentary, and when the MMA fight finally arrives it’s a complete disaster—one perfectly sculpted Brazilian fighter going up against a short, out of shape, delusional has-been a fraction of his size. That’s when it all clicks: this film sees Breite as a sideshow freak. It relishes in the irony that Breite’s zeal for “fair trials” is merely him projecting his wish that life would give him the fair trial he thinks he deserves to win. The film’s concluding dedication to “bullied people everywhere” is a masterstroke of cruel disingenuousness—this whole film is an act of bullying.
LA MADRINA: THE [SAVAGE] LIFE OF LORRINE PADILLA
In 1969, a group of Puerto Rican and black youths formed the Savage Skulls gang in the Bronx. They quickly established themselves as one of the most feared gangs in the area, and during the next decade when New York City became an epicenter of urban decay they held their own against the drug pushers and rival gangs infesting their neighborhoods. Much of their success came at the hands of Lorrine Padilla, wife of their founder “Blackie” who became their de facto matriarch. The product of a broken home, Lorrine grew up in the ruins of Harlem, playing hide-and-seek with her friends in the basement of a funeral parlor. Though whip-smart, her mother refused to let her accept a scholarship to an upstate school and in retaliation dropped out in the seventh grade and joined a gang. Her family eventually moved to the Bronx where she met Blackie and joined the Savage Skulls, becoming a community organizer who worked with the Southeast Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO) to rebuild the literal burnt-out ruins of the borough while she marshaled her troops. She may not have any monuments or streets named after her, but Lorrine has been a cornerstone of Bronx culture for decades, and Raquel Cepeda’s La Madrina: The [Savage] Life of Lorrine Padilla attempts to finally give her her due. Through a series of interviews and fly-on-the-wall segments where she holds court with her surviving gang sisters and young people in her community, Cepeda paints a portrait of an indefatigable materfamilias. But at scarcely eighty minutes in length, I wanted more. More stories of Lorrine as a gang leader and activist. (A lengthy segment of Lorrine fighting to pass a mandatory minimum sentence bill for people who discharge weapons near playgrounds after her grandson got shot playing in one is a good start, but the film sidesteps legitimate protests from well-meaning politicians that such laws tend to backfire on minority communities.) All great documentaries leave you wanting to know more about its subject, but this one left me feeling like they hadn’t told enough. Maybe Lorine herself was reticent to go further into her troubled, abusive past—who could blame her?—but if so it’s the documentarian’s job to work around their tight-lipped subject by exploring the community or environment around them. In this sense, La Madrina feels woefully, undeniably incomplete.
OTTOLENGHI AND THE CAKES OF VERSAILLES
Cover Tribeca long enough and you start noticing certain patterns in their programming, particularly among their documentaries. There’s always a handful of artist hagiographies and fashion industry exposés, and there are always a few examining sexual harassment and other crimes against women that now fall under the #MeToo umbrella. But there are also frequently documentaries about food and, oddly, the Metropolitan Museum. Laura Gabbert’s Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles might be the first time these two subjects have come together in one film, and though it’s leaps and bounds above some of the pap exploring the two in Tribeca’s past (the unabashed Met tourism commercial The First Monday in May  and the unfocused celebrity chef portrait A Taste of Sky  are the most egregious), it still doesn’t quite make it over the edge into the realm of truly compelling documentary filmmaking. To Gabbert’s credit she transforms a subject that could’ve easily been a puff piece into something halfway compelling: examining how famous chef Yotam Ottolenghi prepares for a Met exhibit showcasing the opulence of the Palace of Versailles through pastry. Gabbert and Ottolenghi make the fascinating connection that the historical Versailles was like a modern museum in that it was open to the general public to visit and witness the splendor of the French court. Additionally, they demonstrate that the French court’s explosion of pastry-making techniques and technologies demonstrated the extremity of the royal class’ bottomless economic resources. But my favorite scenes are when Ottolenghi assembles his Avengers-like team of world-class pastry chefs as assistants: Dinara Kasko, a Ukrainian with an architectural background who makes 3D pastry molds on her computer; Dominique Ansel, the trendy Manhattan chef who invented the Cronut; Janice Wong, a Singaporean who makes edible objects out of chocolate like a flower-covered wall; Bompas and Parr, a London duo of conceptual artists who elevate jelly-making to fine art; Ghaya Oliveira, the Tunisian executive pastry chef at Daniel, one of the very best French restaurants in New York City. The little vignettes on their backgrounds and creative processes are fascinating, particularly in how they illustrate the rise of social media as a maker and breaker of culinary careers. But at only seventy-five minutes the film is too slight to give them the space they need to make lasting impressions. Here’s a documentary in desperate need of another thirty minutes.
P.S. BURN THIS LETTER PLEASE
We may never fully comprehend the scope or scale of LGBT history lost to the sands of time. The AIDS crisis so savaged that community that nearly all of pre-80s gay culture vanished, forcing the survivors to rebuild everything from the ground up. Even before entire generations died unseen and unwanted in hospital beds, records from before the modern era were virtually nonexistent. If a family discovered a relative was gay, they’d frequently disown them and destroy their letters and journals after they died to keep the secret. In many cases, the only surviving records of gay people are their arrest records and, presumably, their dishonorable military discharges. It’s within this context that the 2014 discovery of hundreds of letters in a Los Angeles storage unit from members of New York City’s fifties drag scene were so invaluable. Here was an intimate portal into a world long thought lost. The letters were all written to Reno Martin, a young man who moved to New York to pursue a career in radio and became a confidant for many of the local scene’s drag queens. Directors Michael Seilgman and Jennifer Tiexiera’s P.S. Burn This Letter Please use these recovered letters to track down the surviving writers and reconstruct one of the most vibrant pre-AIDS LGBT communities in America. The film is both a historical reconstruction and a shattering work of love and admiration for the gay community’s long-forgotten foremothers. It’s fascinating to watch the anonymous pseudonyms on the letters morph into real people with real stories. Here’s a drag queen named “Lennie” who debuted his character “Dee Dee LaRue” while on a ship in the Navy—he eventually needed an escort to and from shows to keep the other sailors from jumping her. And here’s “Josephine Baker,” an illegal Dominican immigrant both known for her shocking beauty and unrepentant kleptomania. Being immersed in their stories, one truly begins to feel their lost world reshaping around them, from their long-forgotten resuscitated slang (e.g. “trade” – a straight who went with gay guys; “mopping” – shoplifting clothes) to their uneasy relationship with the mafia who owned all the best drag clubs. And so, too, the weight of their sorrow at the loss of so many of their friends and sisters during the AIDS crisis. Both memorial and public service, P.S. Burn This Letter Please is a crucial, necessary work.
SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME
Last year’s Tribeca featured The Quiet One, a documentary on Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman. This year’s Tribeca has its own Stones documentary biopic, Mike Figgis’ Somebody Up There Likes Me about Ronnie Wood. If they keep this up it’ll be another decade before each Stone past and present gets their own Tribeca doc, at which point the festival will probably throw up its hands and restart the process with Herman’s Hermits. I joke, but there’s a world of difference between the two films, least of all their subjects. Whereas The Quiet One used Wyman’s life as a framing device to tell the story of the Stones—practically making him a supporting character in his own doc—Somebody Up There Likes Me never forgets that it’s a film first and foremost about Wood. (No disrespect to Wood, but that’s kind of a shame. The quiet, reserved Wyman comes across in his doc as a much more interesting subject what with his passion for memorabilia collecting, photography, archival work, and amateur archeology. How many rock stars out there can credibly claim to have discovered ancient Roman artifacts?) The film charts his rise as a musician from his days banging out tunes with his family to his tenure as bassist for the Jeff Beck Group and finally his time as guitarist for Small Faces/Faces. The turning point of the film comes about halfway in when he’s finally recruited into the Stones, and from there the film is off to the races with a prolonged archival performance of Ronnie jamming “The Whip Comes Out” with his new band. It’s equally interesting to hear the other Stones reminisce on how Ronnie changed the mood and sound of the band, making their shows more “humorous…good-timey” with his colorful sense of fun. Much of the film is devoted to his music, obviously, but the film really shines when it dives into Ronnie’s struggles with alcoholism and addiction. Coming in front of the camera, Figgis pokes and prods Ronnie with a modified Tarot deck getting him to spill things he’d normally keep to himself. The result is more effective than your usual documentary confessional. Somebody Up There Likes Me isn’t a boring traditional biopic, but an extended pub talk where old friends come together, grab a (hopefully non-alcoholic) drink, and tell stories about the good ol’ days and how they survived them.
One has to wonder when the stylings of the early American indie movement became a conscious stylistic choice for modern filmmakers. Where once directors like Jim Jarmusch or Gus Van Sant made on-the-fly productions with 16mm B&W film stock because they literally couldn’t afford anything else, now film students with cell phones capable of shooting better images are mimicking their poverty. One supposes if anyone has the right to ape from such films it’d be Alexandre Rockwell, a director who actually came up working in that movement in the late eighties and early nineties. And indeed his new film Sweet Thing attempts a throwback indie aesthetic reminiscent of his then contemporaries. The film tells the story of Billie and Nico Holiday (Lana and Nico Rockwell—the director’s actual children), two young teenagers who go on the run when their divorced mother’s abusive boyfriend tries to sexually assault Billie. They meet up with another runaway named Malik (Jabari Watkins) and together the three set out on the road to start new lives. Typical of classic American indies, the narrative is loose and unfocused, more a series of incidental vignettes than a single propulsive story. The most effective involve their biological father Adam (Will Patton), a deadbeat drunk who desperately loves them but is too weak to admit that he can’t take care of them. The weakest center on their mother and her boyfriend—the scenes where they’re abused are chilling, but there’s a paint-by-numbers feeling to them indicative of second-hand accounts and not first-hand recollections. This speaks to the film’s essential issue: despite aping a stylistic plasticity, there’s an emotional artificiality about everything that feels forced and contrived. From what little biographical data I could find on Rockwell, it doesn’t seem like he ever experienced the kind of poverty he subjects his characters to. Instead, we have here a well-to-do NYU film school professor’s idea of poverty. Watching it, I was reminded of Saad Qureshi’s A Great Lamp (2019), a superb indie throwback about three lonely lower class dropouts. That film was inspired by Qureshi’s friends and their lives, so the whole thing rang with the echoes of their lived truths. But Sweet Thing is all forced contrivance. For a more compelling take on adolescent poverty, try Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016). At least it doesn’t use a B&W camera filter.