Reviews

Tribeca 2012: Critic's Choice – Shorts

For Brokaw’s feature choices and an overview of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival click here.

Critic’s Choice – Shorts

Picture Paris
(Brad Hall. 2011. USA. 28 min.)

The Grand Guignol was Paris’ longest-running theater, offering twin bills of playlets that opened with a slice-and-dice horror tale (using magic illusions and pioneering prosthetics) that left audiences limp and exhausted, then an intermission followed by a brief light romance or comedy with the same cast. This proved irresistible to Parisian audiences over 70 years, and its modern-day equivalent is the Tribeca fest’s Cinemania section, usually just on the terror side. But Brad Hall bundles the original Guignol formula into a delicious, all-stops-out short-film showcase for Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Louis-Dreyfus is a peppy, mid-40s homemaker planning a vacation to Paris with her outwardly agreeable husband once they’ve dropped their son off at college. But a quick series of jaw-dropping events changes all that, and Julia makes the trip alone. She has lonely days, then a disappointing overnight with a visiting high-school boyfriend, then a budding romance with a cool young waiter, then another romance with a gentle older widower (Eric Elmosnino, who played Serge Gainsbourg in the recent film and is just as mischievous here). Imagine, this hairraising revenge romp has a happy storybook ending in just 28 minutes. Picture Paris is a star turn for Louis-Dreyfus whose work equals the bold, daring performance of Charlotte Rampling playing an aging, disappearing actress in the 16-minute gem, The End, shown in the New Directors/New Films shorts section.

Stitches (Tfarim)
(Adiya Imri Orr. 2011. Israel. 16 min.)

The LGBT community is, to put it mildly, underserved at the multiplex. But it has a healthy presence in the Tribeca fests, which is cause for celebration. This year’s feature favorite with audiences appears to be the Israeli Yossi, a follow-up to the 2003 Yossi & Jaguar by Eytan Fox, here exploring more of the life of a closeted gay doctor (Ohad Knoller, a teddy-bear Israeli version of Russell Crowe). Yossi’s franchise and popularity is salutary, but the Israeli picture to search out is Adiya Imri Orr’s 16-minute Stitches, which may well be the first festival-honored short drama from anywhere on two lesbian moms.

The title, Stitches refers to the birth stitches of Noa (Shira Katzenelenbogen), being gently examined by her life partner Amit (Riki Blich). The film is a dialogue that shifts into a mediation by the two women on the emotional transitions experienced by many couples as they become parents for the first time. Old intimacies give way, transitioning to new and untested kinds of love and affection. It’s harder for the non-birthing partner Amit—she’s a serious, heavily tattooed young woman who acts possessive. She rudely dismisses a nurse, orders a balloon vendor away, and looks capable of decking you if you glance at her sideways. We see her leaving the hospital as the new baby is being brought down for her to see; she’s not yet ready to meet her competition. Will she return? Director Orr leaves it up to you to decide. This film is breaking new festival ground.

Intermission Time
(Michael Degg. 2011. USA. 4 min.)

Are you old enough to remember the dancing hot dogs and sodas that waltzed across the screen at your local drive-in theater? Ah, those animated snacks that did back flips and worked their little hearts out, beckoning you to the concessions stand while the screen clock counted down the minutes to show time. But what if the franks and other refreshments had a life of their own? What if they didn’t like some concessionaire poking forks into them and yanking them from their comfy home next to the projection booth? What if they sought revenge like Julia Louis-Dreyfuss?

Michael Degg’s goofy, brilliantly animated quickie, Intermission Time kindles deep memories of what were once fondly known as passion pits. The passion here is what the animated foods and beverages feel when they wrestle the concessionaire to the ground and tie him down. Maybe they’re anticipating a snack of their own before the movie starts. Would you like salt on your concessionaire?

Curfew
(Shawn Christensen. 2011. USA. 19 min.)

Consider the essential ingredients of the quintessential Tribeca fest short set in Manhattan. It would have to be hard-edged, maybe even a touch desperate, yet buoyed up by a tough, resilient sense of humor and at least a grain of hope. Fair enough? Shawn Christensen’s Curfew, starring its handsome young, bruised and sensitive director, wins the day.

Richie (Christensen) has just slit his lower arm with a razor blade in his bathtub and the water is turning blood red, when the phone rings. It’s his estranged older sister Maggie (Kim Allen) a few blocks away, and she can’t find a sitter to take care of her 11-year-old Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) for a few hours. So Uncle Richie dutifully postpones killing himself, bandages his arm up and grumpily ambles over to her building, where the girl is waiting in the lobby.

Sophia is a chatterbox, though we come to recognize her public-school-kid patina still shelters a little girl. Her mom specifies they should go bowling. On the way, Richie stops at a drug den where he once lived, but only to pick up some flip books (he was once an aspiring artist) to amuse Sophia.

The bowling alley is the centerpiece of the movie, for Sophia suddenly hears a tune she adores and starts dancing down their bowling lane in time to the music. In a moment of directorial genius, Christensen breaks the fourth wall and has all the bowlers and drinkers matching her moves in a flash-mob call-and-response. This sequence has a touch of genuine magic and it works.

Richie delivers Sophia safely back home to her mom, and we catch a glimpse of the restraining order that Maggie had placed against Richie when he dropped Sophia as a baby, probably when he was stoned. The dialogue between Richie and his sister, remembering their childhoods at PS 198, is tender. Richie goes back home, undresses and gets back in his tub with that razor blade. The phone rings again. And again, it’s his sister, asking, tentatively, if he might like to come over again, in a few days, to see her and Sophia. The seeds of forgiveness are being offered. Richie gives a tiny smile.

Christensen graduated from Pratt Institute and once fronted a rock band; he comes across as a hurt Manhattanite druggie poised between promise and doom—not an easy role to establish in seconds. Curfew is one enormously smart movie.

Donkey
(Keir Burrows. 2011. UK. 7 min.)

The untrustworthy narrator remains largely a literary device, except in films noir and neo-noir where the voiceover narrator is usually a femme fatale or some unhinged killer. (Think Casey Affleck as Lou Ford in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, the most untrustworthy narrator in 20th century fiction and 21st century films.) And so we initially assume the handsome, assured banker David (James Farrar) whose voiceover narrates us through scenes revisiting his childhood and secondary schools growing up in London, is speaking the truth. But in Keir Burrows’ skillful and accomplished mini-drama, Donkey, it’s David’s truth, not the truth.

David tells us his best friend and the most popular kid in class, Stanley, was the school cut-up whose specialty was a donkey imitation—HEEE HAWW, HEEE HAWWWW! That as the boys grew up, Stanley began to be bullied by his classmates because he was slower than the other kids—“a Forrest Gump type, a retard.” David’s voiceover descriptions of Stanley grow meaner, slipping into hurtful, abusive pejoratives.

Then one night long after graduation, David meets the adult Stanley (Andrew London) in a bar. David continues voiceover as he brags to Stanley of his successes (his banking career, his $3,000 watch, a beautiful girl who proposed to him though their marriage failed). Stanley seems quite normal, in fact quite ordinary, and invites David up for dinner to meet his wife, a nursery school teacher, in their modest apartment. David goes and sees how happy this couple is in their marriage, their home and their lives. On David’s way out, Stanley whispers one little hee haw to David for old-times’ sake. We watch David walking away from their apartment into the night, as his final voiceover line speaks the question that’s been haunting him, and maybe us as well: Who’s the donkey now?

Burrows wrote, co-produced and directed Donkey as a student film. It’s shot in crisp, wide-screen black-and-white, and James Farrrar and Andrew London are perfectly cast in their roles as the 1 percent banker and the 99 percent everyman worker. Donkey may be the most artful and sophisticated moral lesson shown at Tribeca.

“Picture Paris” review originally published here April 24, 2012; additional reviews published April 30th.

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