This year at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, audiences listened to filmmakers as they told their vibrant stories in their own words.
Three Brooklyn Latinx bond in this very charming family comedy drama. Screenwriters Elizabeth Rodriguez and Bob Snyder set the stage, and Snyder as the director pushes and pulls the characters around NYC’s biggest borough. The hub is a bar/restaurant run by Daisy (Rodriguez) who’s adopting a child from a pregnant mother (Mackenzie Lansing) she found on Craigslist. They’re going through an adjustment period. Daisy’s nurturing sister Ida (Liza Colon-Zayas), a health clinic counselor, watches over their drug addicted brother Desmond (Felix Solis). While sister-in-law Serene (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is having issues with her rambunctious Gen Z daughter (Shyrley Rodriguez).
Nothing happens beyond the realm of a good soap opera. Accept those terms, and the women’s sisterhood, punctuated by the cast’s very natural performances, becomes the selling point for this slice of Nuyorican culture. The very everyday dialogue rings true and can be glib and endearing. Film’s production elements never run above average indie and Snyder’s direction tends towards serviceable, and not extraordinary. Actress-turned-writer Rodriguez could easily become a showrunner on a series that hits the same themes and demographics. She’s shown what she can do.
“My whole life I’ve been battling. Everything has led me to this.” For 95 minutes, director Amanda Micheli shows viewers the major achievements of the former In Living Color Fly Girl dancer who’s now an actress, producer, CEO, mom… Her successes are on the menu and her amazing Superbowl LIV halftime show is the main entrée. The superstar’s bravura is balanced by Lopez’s disappointments: E.g., not garnering an Oscar nom for Hustlers, when clearly, she deserved it. For those who need more convincing that she is worthy of a self-aggrandizing doc, keep in mind that she has cut a path that other Latinx entertainers can follow, her road wasn’t easy and few came before her.
The camerawork (cinematographers Jason Bergh, Michael Rizzi, Thorsten Thielow) is often too obvious. As Lopez commands a cadre of stylists, assistants, producers and choreographers, little of it seems candid and lots of it seems staged. Even some of the tears shed appear too camera ready. But don’t call this a vanity project. Scenes where Lopez comments about her struggles in a white man’s industry and argues with Superbowl execs about getting more stage time invite viewers into her harsh reality.
Nice mix of interviews, clips, performances. Editor Carol Martori keeps the pacing nimble. The lighting flatters Lopez at every angle. The final focus is on her dazzling Superbowl halftime show. That’s when Lopez, the consummate entertainer, shines. In the flurry of self-promoting publicity (magazine covers, gossip columns, late night TV appearances), sometimes Lopez’s ego seems inflated. However, in this revealing doc her self-confidence and enthusiasm are contagious.
“Land back!” It’s a call to action that powers this very insightful documentary. It’s part of a stream of thought that you can watch, study and internalize. You learn that Native Americans have a deep connection to their land and nature. Here, their discussions center on the Lakota Nation’s fight to reclaim control of the Black Hills Mountain range in South Dakota and Wyoming. Credit writer, narrator and acclaimed Oglala poet Layli Long Soldier for pulling discernible issues together. Accolades to co-directors Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli for sending a clear message that America’s first inhabitants deserve respect and their territories too.
Photos, footage and paintings reveal the past. Interviews with NDN Collective founder Krystal Two Bulls and activist Candi Brings Plenty, among others, express outrage, determination, goals and a plan for reparations. Discovering the history of European expansion (starting in 1492), grueling wars (Custer), 400 broken treaties and genocide is sobering. Hearing about the activism (Wounded Knee Occupation), war heroes (Code Talkers) and lineage of their culture is enlightening.
Cinematographer Kevin Phillips makes every visual aspect striking. Editor Laura Tomaselli boils a lot of facts and figures down to what’s essential. While Raven Chacon’s deeply felt musical score adds a strong emotional core. A powerful documentation about a beautiful struggle. You’ll be astounded. It’s like taking a grad course in Native American studies and loving the professor.
Official Competition (***)
If you put Antonio Banderas (Matador) and Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers) in the same film, you can expect these two Pedro Almodóvar veterans to ignite the screen with campy, outrageous performances. That’s why directors/writers Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn cast the duo in this biting film industry satire: A grossly rich billionaire (José Luis Gómez) decides to finance movie making for the prestige. A very spacey director (Cruz) is hired to shepherd the film project. Two very competitive and backbiting actors are cast in lead roles: Felix Rivero (Banderas) is a shallow Hollywood glamour boy. Ivan Torres (Oscar Martínez) is a distinguished stage actor. It’s jealousy at first sight. It’s a throw down.
Duprat and Cohn’s wicked, outlandish type humor mimics Almodóvar’s. Though the cinematography (Arnau Valls Colomer), production design (Alain Bainée), set decoration (Claudio González), costumes (Wanda Morales) and musical score (Eduardo Cruz) are not as dazzling as the godfather of glamour’s might be, the absurdity is comparable. Cruz is flighty and demanding. Martínez’s character shows pure disdain. Banderas has a good time at everyone else’s expense. His scenery-chewing Felix is unmerciful. As the art of filmmaking takes a punch in the face, audiences will love the pummeling and laugh themselves silly.
Somewhere in Queens (***)
Comedian and TV star Ray Romano makes the leap from the little screen to the big one with surprising success. His screenplay, co-written with Mark Stegemann, depicts a tight-knit Italian family in Queens, NY that’s going through changes. Romano’s strong television sitcom instincts melt nicely into the first time director’s low-budget indie. There are very few locations and a Friday Night Lights like plotline is set in the world of high school basketball. Once you get used to the questionable and sometimes cliché Italian culture tropes, solid drama kicks in with emotionally engaging rivalries, betrayals and makeups.
It’s hard to be standoffish when Ray Romano asks you over for dinner and pulls out a chair. Leo Russo (Romano) works in a family construction company run by his overbearing father (Tony Lo Bianco, Law & Order). His condescending brother (Sebastian Maniscalco) is the mouthy demeaning foreman, and Leo is no more than a disrespected employee. His treasure in life is his son “Sticks” (Jacob Ward), a sterling high school basketball player with anxiety issues. Leo and wife Angela (Laurie Metcalf, who doesn’t seem very Italian) want the kid to go to college. The boy is ambivalent. Family strife is everywhere and Romano milks every aspect. Sadie Stanley, as Dani Brooks the son’s Anglo love interest, plays the pouty interloper quite well: “I don’t date average.” Diedre Friel is hysterical as the mouthy sister. And Ray is charming in a put upon way.
Pity the camera (Maceo Bishop) isn’t always in the right place or at the right angles. And sometimes it feels like there are too many characters. Still, the rapid-fire outlandish dialogue will make you chuckle—then roar. You will laugh. You will cry. You’ll be happy that Ray Romano invited you to break bread with the Russo Family, the blue-collar folks living large in Queens, NY.
A Story of Bones (**1/2)
Annina van Neel, an engineer from Namibia, comes to the remote island of St. Helena to oversee the construction of an airfield. The locals hope a new airport will attract tourists and pump up the economy. They are also concerned that the bones of slaves from centuries past lay in the ground that’s ready for construction. Neel makes it her business to protect the sacred bodies of some of the island’s first inhabitants. As she does, she finds herself at odds with others.
Directors and cinematographers Joseph Curran & Dominic de Vere keep their prying lens pointed at Neel and her mission. The interference she faces would stymie anyone less stubborn. Always in contrast, on this isle 1,200 miles off the coast of southwest Africa, is the elaborate monument dedicated to Napoleon. The emperor and slave owner who died on St. Helena. He has a gravestone, the Africans do not.
Sometimes the everyday battles Neel faces, though important, don’t seem as dramatic as they should. Possibly that’s because the filmmakers have a low-key approach. In the end, however, Neel’s need to find respect for thousands of the enslaved is a significant journey. Along the way, she shows that an everyday person who cares can prevail.
For more information about Tribeca Film Festival go to: https://www.tribecafilm.com
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.