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Tony McNamara’s
14th Annual Tribeca Film Festival 2015
April 15–26, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

In Tony McNamara’s “Ashby,” a teen boy befriends a mysterious old coot who turns out to be a former CIA assassin. Okay, so we have seen a variation on this before. And the film is harmless enough but I never found the premise here completely believable the way I totally bought “Apt Pupil,” where a teen boy befriends a former Nazi Officer. I guess the difference is that “Ashby” is a comedy. The difference is also in the presentation and execution.

Ed Wallis (the quirky Nat Wolff) is new in town and fairly friendless, living with his divorced mom (Sarah Silverman, good, but needing more script pages) and crushing on Eloise (an off-puttingly sweet Emma Roberts). He’s given a school assignment to basically befriend an old person so he seeks out his neighbor, Ashby (Mickey Rourke), and hounds him until he discovers his secret; he’s a former secret government killer.

When did Rourke go from being renewed-cool dude to being crotchety old fart? C’mon, Hollywood, “The Wrestler” wasn’t that many years ago! And what’s with Rourke’s face? It was always hard and ravaged (well, since the ‘90s, anyway). But now it’s looks like someone sand blasted it and then a team of plastic surgeons tried to smooth it out. I really don’t mean to be cruel but I had to stare at it for close to two hours. Can’t ANYONE in Hollywood age even slightly naturally?

Anyway, Ashby utters lines about Ed’s generation being “a bunch of Ritalin addicted porn freaks who are probably sociopaths.” Yet, soon enough, he’s bonding with the boy and deciding he want to right some of the wrongs he’s done, especially since he’s discovered that he’s terminal. Meanwhile Ed’s biggest hurdle is making the football team. Oh, and, courting Eloise but that remains secondary.

Wolff’s rapport with Roberts is a treat but there is not enough of it and Roberts isn’t given enough to work with. Ditto all the female actors in the movie.

And the chemistry between Wolff and Rourke feels forced for most of the film.

Had writer/director McNamara decided to truly give his narrative some dramatic weight, instead of wanting to keep it light and airy, it might have been quite amazing. Instead, it’s merely a diversion. A film you watch and then forget. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Rourke’s face.

Andrew Niccol’s
“Good Kill”
14th Annual Tribeca Film Festival 2015
April 15–26, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

In many ways it’s easy to see “Good Kill” as the film “American Sniper” should have been, especially if your take on the Eastwood work is that it’s war-mongering propaganda (I wholly disagree with that assessment).

Written and directed by the amazing and underrated Andrew Niccol, who has given us “Gattaca” and “The Truman Show,” this film is far from science fiction, making it the helmer’s most frightening work to date.

Set on the outskirts of Las Vegas, the narrative follows a group of air force pilots who target Taliban members via drone strikes from the (dis)comfort of an air base. Shocking as it might have once seemed, our military can now take out entire areas and decimate large numbers of civilians, yet be nowhere near the target area since we have carriers ready to take off from “whatever country we’ve invaded.”

“I blew away six Taliban just today. Now I’m going home to have barbeque.”

Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) has grown weary and disheartened by being ousted from actual combat (flying planes in Iraq) and placed into a claustrophobic crawl space where he basically plays video games with peoples lives (albeit, the enemy, we hope). There are no personal risks involved, so there’s no thrill for him (echoes of the Jeremy Renner character in “The Hurt Locker.”) And there are no consequences or apparent enforced limitations. The latter point becomes dramatically clear when the CIA push their way into the operation and decide that killing based on a “pattern of behavior” vs. having actual proof of being a terrorist is now a justified reason for murder--sometimes women and children as well as bystanders, who are blown to bits when an immediate second drone attack is ordered to clean up the area.

All of this takes its psychological toll on Tom who, with the help of lots of vodka, proceeds to take a lot of his anguish out on his wife Molly (January Jones). Tom is an oddity among most of his co-workers, some of whom were “gamers recruited in malls.” And the entire operation, we are told, was modeled on X-box.

The schizophrenia involved in Tom’s required-desensitized day job of game consul slaughter with the expectation that he can then drive home and be some kind of loving father and husband is at the core of this arresting and emotionally-draining/fulfilling feature.

The film also examines the ethics (or lack thereof) involved in these kinds of government sanctioned drone killings. The “where” in the “be where the action is” cliché has drastically changed and morphed with all the recent technological advances and Niccol is uncompromising in his examination of the toll on both those manning the deadly joysticks and those being annihilated.

The title comes from Tom’s excited reaction each time he makes a successful kill, early in the film.

Hawke is on a roll after “Before Midnight” and “Boyhood,” He has never been stronger as the tormented Tom. It’s a meaty, intense performance.

Jones finally has a role worthy of the tremendous work she’s done on “Mad Men.” This is no one-dimensional cardboard spouse turn (Sienna Miller, much) but a raw, heartfelt portrait of a wife who refuses to be secondary.

The production design (Guy Barnes) and camerawork (Amir Mokri) are superb with muted colors painting a depressing picture of a spiritually and morally bankrupt culture (ours).

“How’s your war on terror going?” a cop sarcastically asks Tom who, without missing a beat, replies, “Kinda like your war on drugs.”

Things are getting more and more bleak. And no one seems to win. Niccol’s work might be dystopian but that doesn’t make it any less resonant and truthful.

Paul Weitz’s
14th Annual Tribeca Film Festival 2015
April 15–26, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

It’s sad that it’s so refreshing when a female-centric film actually gets made. Then to have a 75-year-old woman play the lead reaches the edges of astonishing. And when that cinematic anomaly turns out to be one of the most delightful features of the year to date, well that’s just reason to yell, scream, cheer and wonder if bone-headed producers will start paying attention to the fact that there’s an audience out there looking for something more than mind-numbing action-adventure sequels.

“Grandma” is the movie I am referring to, but don’t let that title lull you into thinking this is the story of some sweet, little old lady. As played by the genius Lily Tomlin, this grandmother is beyond fiery and feisty, she’s a multi-faceted, complicated woman making important choices in her life—and none of them have to do with memory loss or incontinence (wow, an older character who isn’t being made fun of!)

Credit writer-director Paul Weitz, who worked with Tomlin on “Admission,” for creating a real, vital and volatile female character, one who is in her third act.

Elle Reid is a cantankerous poet who was “marginally well-known 40 years ago,” and must come to terms with the loss of her longtime female partner as well as the disintegration of her new relationship with Olivia (a thoughtful Judy Greer), a younger woman who she is constantly at odds with.

Elle’s life is complicated by the arrival of her pregnant granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who needs $600 for an abortion. Elle recently paid up all her debts and cut her credit cards and made them into wind chimes. “I’m transmogrifying my life into art,” she explains, so she’s broke.

The two embark on a journey (in more ways than the obvious) where the self-admitted misanthropic Elle must confront her past in order to come to terms with what her future holds. Part of her catharsis (and search for $$) means visiting an old love, Karl (an affecting Sam Elliott) and working through some demons that include why she left him over 30 years ago. “I always liked other women, I just didn't like myself,” Elle says to Karl, trying to explain the fact that her sexual orientation never changed, it was just being suppressed.

And in some of the richest scenes in the film, Elle clashes with her live-for-work lawyer daughter, Judy (a truly wonderful Marcia Gay Harden), the kind of person who does business at a treadmill desk.

Elle, Sage and Judy represent three very different generations of women and certainly initial traits may be seen as symbolic examples of their respective and defining generations, but Weitz and the three actors create incredibly nuanced characters that step beyond the stereotype.

When Elle and Olivia fight, the dialogue goes like this. Elle: “You neophyte. You ingénue. “ Olivia’s response: “You solipsist. You artist-in-residence!” Not your typical argument, even for intellectuals.

And when Elle gets angry at Sage’s annoying babydaddy (Nat Wolff), she beats him with a hockey stick. Age allows for a certain kind of bullshit free behavior to take hold. That and the film is a comedy.

The film is also courageous in it’s taking on abortion at a time in our culture where a woman’s right to choose is under fire (and how crazy is that).

One of the key, and most subtle themes, that “Grandma” tackles is just how far we have come when it comes to LGBT acceptance and how, even when it wasn’t as “tolerated,” gay men and women made lives for themselves and raised families that were just as nurtured and just as screwed up as traditional households.

Tomlin is an entertainer who has lived through the changing times and has gone from not discussing her sexuality openly, for fear of being marginalized in her industry, to marrying her partner of 40 years and being out loud and proud—in a very short period of time. It’s hard not to feel that in her portrayal here as well as on the terrific new TV show, “Grace and Frankie,” with Jane Fonda.

The actress hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since her debut in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” in 1975. With “Grandma” she seems destined to finally get her second shot at an Academy Award.

Saverio Costanzo’s
“Hungry Hearts”
14th Annual Tribeca Film Festival 2015
April 15–26, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Saverio Costanzo’s “Hungry Hearts” is an exasperating, infuriating yet fascinating feature. At least I wasn’t indifferent to it and it did stay with me. And it offered quite a few unusual, poignant moments but too often reminded me of a bad train wreck with mangled bodies all around; you can’t help but keep looking even though you feel increasingly powerless and nauseous.

Based on the novel by Marco Franzoso, the film is a blend of melodrama and thriller that owes a lot of its look, sound and style to the American cinema of the late ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Beware the opening, a sweet, funny, lovely sequence that show two people stuck in the wash area of a small bathroom in a Chinese restaurant where one has just taken a dump and the other is dying from the odor.

In the very next scene they’re a couple, having sex. She says, “Come inside me.” He does. The tone has shifted dramatically. Cut to her in the bathroom taking a pregnancy test. They, then, get married. And all along I was never certain if he even liked her. I knew I didn’t.

She’s Mina (popular Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher). He’s Jude (popular indie actor Adam Driver). They live in New York (although for some strange reason, it never really felt enough like New York to me). Mina is extremely superstitious (in a lunatic way, even for an Italian—and I can say that). She visits a psychic, while she’s pregnant, who tells her she is having an “indigo baby,” basically a supernatural being. From there she takes crazy to new levels insisting on giving birth naturally, even though that could kill the baby and only eating vegan food, compromising the child’s growth.

Once the boy is born, she becomes increasingly germ-phobic and refuses to let him leave the house, continuing to nearly starve him. Jude finally takes action and steals the boy away to a doctor who explains that the child is being malnourished and at risk for, “retarded growth, rickets and damage to the nervous system.” Jude begins feeding him meat, which, of course, does not please psycho, annoying Mina who keeps having ominous recurring dreams involving a deer and a hunter who disappears into the darkness. But Jude has had it.

Why it takes Jude so long to take action is one of the more maddening questions that dog this film (that and why stay with her in the first place since her psychotic choices are putting her own child in danger).

Jude, with the help of his well-meaning mother (Roberta Maxwell), takes steps so the child’s welfare is of primary concern. Then the movie spends it’s last portion in a rushed attempt to bring things to a conclusion (a ridiculous one, but a satisfying one for audiences primed for extremes.)

Costanzo is a talented director and he obviously loves the medium and his framing and use of colors never ceases to intrigue. His script, however, is too grave (all levity is gone after that first encounter), too heavy handed (especially when it comes to symbolism) and he doesn’t do his characters justice at all—especially Mina.

It’s not so much that the screenplay strains credibility (which it does) as that it presents Mina in such a way that you cannot possibly understand her motivations or side with her at all. SPOILER--Each time Jude hurts her, you can’t help but feel that hopefully it will knock some sense into her.

Did the filmmaker really think giving us a loving scene of her bathing the child and then ocean shot of her with the baby would elicit sympathy for the character? Wrong!

Driver does his best and grounds the film. When Jude has finally had it, you can see relief on Driver’s face.

Rohrwacher has a hard enough time acting in a language foreign to her (stream some of Penelope Cruz’s early English-language work and you’ll see just how difficult it can be). She’s forced to act in such a outrageously stubborn manner that I wanted to see her die a painful death less than a half an hour into the film. If that was Costanzo’s intention, bravo, but make a short next time.

Felix Thompson’s
“King Jack”
14th Annual Tribeca Film Festival 2015
April 15–26, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Felix Thompson should be very proud of his first feature film, “King Jack;” since it’s a charming indie that only stumbles (slightly) in the last quarter, mostly because it resorts to the typical and predictable depiction outcome when it comes toa work that deals with teens and bullying. But enough about that…for now.

Let’s begin with Charlie Plummer, an astonishing young actor who fearlessly embodies the title character. Jack is fifteen and stuck in a mind numbingly dull small town where tweens make a sport of bullying younger kids since, apparently, there’s nothing more exciting to do.

It’s another hot summer and Jack is going through typical teen angst which includes doing push ups, crushing on a girl that is out of his league and sending requested nude pix of his “bottom half,” which of course leads to the photo being mass emailed and Jack being humiliated. His homelife isn’t any better since he doesn’t get along with his trying-to-make-ends-meet mom (Erin Davie) and he really doesn’t get along with his mean older brother Tom (Christian Madsen, Michael’s kid), who is a grease monkey in a garage but a lot more enigmatic a character than we are initially led to believe.

Worst of all, Jack is continuously being harassed and called a “scab” by a lowlife, scumbag townie, Shane (Danny Flaherty, doing the bully thing alarmingly well) and refuses to capitulate to Shane’s constant badgering which gets him hurt and chased a lot.

As if he didn’t have enough problems, he must now babysit his portly young cousin, Ben (Cory Nichols), who has come to stay with Jack and his family indefinitely.

Thompson has a great ear for teen dialogue (“Sorry your mom went crazy,” Jack says to Ben, trying to be nice) and an impressive grasp of what post-adolescent angst and boredom look and feel like.

One of the best scenes in the movie involve a game of Truth or Dare, something done very often in films but rarely striking such a realistic chord.

There are no real authority figures in this cesspool. The police are virtually non-existent (no one ever bothers to call them), no one is professionally treated for wounds and parents seem to ask little to no questions, even when their children come home with the crap obviously beaten out of them. In this town there appears to be an unspoken “don’t squeal” policy as well as a “fight your own battles” mentality—which is the case in many working class American shitholes (I can say that having grown up in one).

“When's the last time you did something for somebody else?” Tom asks Jack this question and it resonates throughout the film since everyone seems to behave selfishly. It’s when Thompson examines his character’s dynamics and idiosyncrasies that the film soars. When he focuses on making a statement (as he does near the end) things feel a bit hokey and contrived and, dare I say it, Hollywood. And the one scene of graphic violence truly felt out of place with the tone of the rest of the pic.

No matter, you have to love a film that opens with a boy spray-painting the word cu*t on someone’s garage. No? Okay, if you were ever a teen boy living in a Podunk town, you’d find it hilarious and cathartic.

John Maclean’s
“Slow West”
14th Annual Tribeca Film Festival 2015
April 15–26, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

John Maclean has fashioned an elegiac, modern day western that is somewhat reminiscent of post 1970s western genre films (“The Long Riders,” “Pale Rider,” “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” and the Coen’s “True Grit”) but with a flavor, pace and look all its own.

Set in 1870 dog-devours-dog-and-leaves-no-bones America, the story follows young Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smith-McPhee) leaving his homeland to seek out Rose (Caren Pistorius), the gal he’s in love with.

While traveling the Colorado Territory, the boy life’s is threatened and he is rescued by Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a handsome, enigmatic stranger who offers to protect Jay, for pay. The unlikely duo head out together to find Rose, who, unbeknownst to Jay, has a bounty on her head

Jay is an innocent, a “jackrabbit in a den of wolves,” as Silas sees him, who slowly grows to realize that everyone is out for themselves and no one is to be trusted—except, maybe, Silas, who he sees as a “brute.”

They soon encounter a quiet but sinister bounty hunter by the name of Payne (excellent Ben Mendelsohn, who needs a romantic comedy soon), whom Silas has a history with and does not trust.

The film occasionally flashes back to Jay and Rose in Scotland, establishing the unrequited nature of their love.

Lots of brutality follows the boys along their journey but, as photographed by Robbie Ryan, it’s beautiful brutality.

Our 16-year-old protagonist and his guardian establish a bond that’s only marginally creepy but in keeping with Fassbinder’s bold and risky work. In “Fish Tank” he seduces an underage girl and while there’s no seducing here (that would be too provocative for a “cool” anti-western) there is a subtle homoerotic tension. (Speaking of, there’s a moment between Fassbender and Mendelsohn that reeks of guyguy sex history, as well—which makes sense since guys were often just with guy along the lonesome trail…just sayin’)

Maclean keeps the dialogue to a minimum and mesmerizes us with his vision of the shaping of America (ironically, the film was shot in New Zealand), a place known as ‘the land of hope and good will,’ where people killed for sport, to stay alive, to hold onto what they perceived as theirs, for land, for love and because everyone else is doing it.

Fassbender is the actor of his generation and can convey so much subtext with very few words. His Silas has seen what men are capable of, and knows what he himself is capable of. He wants to shield Jay from it, but knows that for Jay to survive he has to be privy to how the folks living in the real world, in this new world, behave and that the rules are that there are no rules.

Smith-McPhee is one of our best young actors, odd (in the best sense of that word) and always fascinating to watch. Here he’s a boy coming of age in a foreign place and chasing a misguided dream, but with tremendous sincerity. You can’t help but root for him.

“In a short time, this will be a long time ago,” Silas rather profoundly states.

“Slow West” is engrossing cinema from the opening to the very powerful ending with sprinkles of hilariously satiric moments spread around a dark, dispiriting, Darwinian tale of survival and conquest.


Chris Modoono’s
14th Annual Tribeca Film Festival 2015
April 15–26, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Brooding and handsome Ethan Collins (Gil Zabarsky) is a 5th grade English teacher who allows his students to go up onto the school roof unsupervised and superglue fish to the floor. But he has an excuse for behaving so badly and not caring about the well being of his kids: he’s horribly depressed since his wife (Emily Wilson) left him for another guy.

Meanwhile, the assistant principal (Kate Flannery) sees this as a perfect opportunity to try and get rid of him, but since he is tenured, the board won’t fire him unless the vote is unanimous and “the board hasn’t agreed on anything since 1987.” Instead, she has the audacity to name him the director of the school play. Oh, the horror!

“Chris Modoono’s wacky, safely inappropriate comedy, “Tenured,” is certainly enjoyable but works, mostly, because Zabarsky is just so damned likeable at being unlikeable.

Part of the problem with “Tenured,” co-written by director Modoono and lead actor Zabarsky, is the lack of depth to any of the female characters—well, the two in Ethan’s life in particular; his one-dimensional ex and the ridiculously sweet teacher who crushes on him (Kathleen Littlefield), whose defining characteristic is the “rope of friendship” she keeps in her classroom (which will have a darker, predictable use later in the narrative).

The film grows a bit tiresome, which is ironic because it was adapted from Modoono’s short film, “Teacher of the Year.”

Even the students, as game as they are, can’t really add too much dimension to underwritten parts.

There are some very funny one-liners here and Zabarsky is a talent to watch since each moment he’s onscreen you wonder what he’s going to do next. If only the film had the courage to either go for black comedy broke or settle into a real character study. What we have now plays like a long SNL sketch.

Patrick Brice’s
“The Overnight”
14th Annual Tribeca Film Festival 2015
April 15–26, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The word “weird” seems to define how many people categorize “The Overnight,” the new indie brilliantly written and directed by Patrick Brice. I heard three people describe it that way (2 journalists) and have read quite a few reviews that contained that word. Googling the definition it reads, “suggesting something supernatural; uncanny.” So basically people are using “weird,” as a substitute for “odd,” or “out of the ordinary” or just “strange.”

So, why such a strong, unsettling word? Because people here in the U.S. are afraid of anything that doesn’t conform to normalized views of the way sexuality is depicted onscreen—even people who consider themselves evolved and hip!

“The Overnight” is almost revolutionary in it’s depiction of the fluidity of sexual attraction. It’s the “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” (stream it!) of the new generation—much more accepting and truly cool with, well, whatever, when it comes to sex.

It’s also a hilarious comedy and features some stellar performances!

Please be warned, “The Overnight” is not for the sexually squeamish (although they should be forced to watch a la “A Clockwork Orange” --stream that one, too!). At my Tribeca press and industry screening, a young woman walked out in a huff (a serious huff, making a grand, “I’m offended” gesture before actually storming out), and that was before the real shocker moment in the film—which I will do my best not to give away!

The movie opens with a happily married couple, Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) smack in the middle of having sex. There’s dirty talk with her instructing him (“Circles, sweetie”) and validating him as he does his best to try and please her. They, then, literally part and climax alone, right before their little boy bursts into the room.

“It smells weird,” the boy announces, using the word better than most critics, since the smell is supernatural and uncanny to him. From there the entire film can be defined as “smelling weird,” if we are to use the word to mean, “bizarre,” “different” and, dare I say, refreshing and outrageously entertaining. But there I go gushing again.

Alex and Emily have recently moved to Seattle and while on a playdate with his kid in the park, Alex meets the VERY weird Kurt (Jason Schwartzman). He’s weird in that supernatural and otherworldly way (among other ways). “I’m sorta the mayor of this area,” Kurt boasts, taking an instant liking to Alex and inviting him and his wife over for pizza night.

When Alex and Emily meet Kurt and his wife, Charlotte (Judith Godreche) at their fancy home, things take a turn for the uber-weird as a swinger vibe is almost instantly established. After they put their kids to bed upstairs, we learn quite a bit more about our foursome via a series of revealing, drink and drug-induced, scenes that are intelligently written, deftly directed and fearlessly acted.

“This is California, maybe this is what parties are like.”

I won’t give any more away because the delights come from the surprises—the very weird (not really, if you’ve lived a little) surprises that prove cathartic and redefining for the characters.

All the performances are fantastic. Scott has never been this good and handles potentially ridiculous moments like a pro, playing it real. Schwartzman is alarmingly funny (as he was in “Listen Up Philip”), proving he’s more than just the Wes Anderson’s go-to-guy for, well, weird. Schilling shows us a very complicated person trying to figure out what she wants. And Godreche is deliciously exotic and smarter than she initially lets on.

“The Overnight” is about desire, both sexual and spiritual and it isn’t afraid to go balls-out (or another part of the male anatomy) to probe certain taboo themes, making some fascinating points in the process. It’s rare to see an American film explore sex so brazenly. That will make the film too weird for some and a cinematic tonic for others.




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