Tribeca Film Festival: Days Eight and Nine

Fish Eyes, Serious Moonlight, When We Were Beautiful, plus a flash of brilliance and award-winning shorts.

by Amber Wilkinson

Sitting through four films on Thursday it occurs to me that people must think I'm one of those who cries at anything as I sniffle in the dark. When you're full of cold, every film is a weepie.

Before I get on to the films of the day, however, I must mention the 'appetizer' which has been running all week before screenings - a brief film to illustrate the festival contention: "Think you've seen it all in New York? Think again."

The brief but very funny story, penned by Jon Wagner, stands up to repeat viewings and concerns two friends who are confronted by a flasher (Doug Moe). Instead of running for the hills, one of the girls (Jen Morris) asks him for a date, much to the disgust of her pal (Jennifer Bowen). Neatly directed by David Gray, I'm amazed we haven't seen more of Moe and Morris... maybe this sort of, er, exposure, will help.

Back on the main film front, first of the day is Fish Eyes, by Zheng Wei. Like so many "sixth generation" directors - think Jia Zhang-Ke, Li Yang - his focus is on the stark realities of life for many in modern China in the face of unprecendented change. His pared down story - which features barely a handful of lines of dialogue - focusses on a man and his son, who take in a mysterious girl. Partly concerned with the dynamics and notions of 'family' it is also an unflinching look at the experiences of those scratching a living at the edges in the country which put so much emphasis on its modernity through the Olympics.

Next up is Serious Moonlight - which is at the other end of the dialogue scale. Written by Adrienne Shelley - tragically murdered shortly after making Waitress - her co-star from that movie, Cheryl Hines, takes on the director's mantle. For the most part a two-hander, Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton play a long-married couple. When Ryan's Louise turns up at their country retreat for a weekend of romance, things turn sour, when hubby Ian (Hutton) tells her he's leaving her for a younger woman (Kristen Bell). His confession prompts Louise to hold him captive until he agrees to work on their marriage. It is very talky and somewhat constrained by its largely one-room scenario, but Ryan and Hutton are both on excellent form and it's an assured feature debut by Hines. One can't help wonder, however, about what might have been if Shelley - whose flights of fancy lifted Waitress in a visual way that is occasionally lacking here - had still been with us to direct.

Visual flair lies at the heart of Bon Jovi documentary When We Were Beautiful. Shot by photographer-by-trade Phil Griffin, shown at Tribeca as a work in progress. His black and white photography recalls that of Anton Corbijn - and we all know how well his move from still photography to the moving image worked out. This isn't a slavish biopic tracking the band from their beginnings through the height of their success, but rather a snapshot of where they are now, both physically - tracking them through their Lost Highway tour - and emotionally, as they speak about the psychology that has kept them together down the years. Insightful and great to look at, this is sure to please fans who want to know more about what makes Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Tico Torres and David Bryan tick but there's plenty here for the casual observer to admire as well. The only thing that I can think that may still need to be done to the film is some colour correction, since oddly the tone of the black and white seemed to shift slightly through the course of the movie.

After the screening, I asked him why he'd chosen to shoot in monochrome. He said: "I'm a photographer as well as a filmmaker and When this film was originally conceived I had taken a series of photographs of Jon in Minnesota when he was performing. And he saw one particular shot, which was a black and white shot, which he loved, and asked me to go on tour with the band so I could do more photography. So, I joined the Lost Highway tour just after Minnesota and did a month with them on the road doing stills, all of which were black and white - they always look good like that. And then he said: 'I really like this one picture, it's me - it's a grumpy old guy who sits in the corner moaning about things. I'd like you to make a film like this photograph.' And I said: 'Well, okay, this is your 25th anniversary and as long as you allow me to expose the band like those black and white photographs, I will do it.'

So the working title of the film was 25 Years In Black And White and black and white not because of the colour but because black and white is the truth."

He went on to say he shot around nine months of footage. When asked about the 'work in progress' moniker attached to it here, he said: "In many ways it is complete but I wanted to see what people thought of it, because if they left me I would work on it for another... There's so much footage and so many scenes we could add and so much honesty in what the guys said to me that I wanted to see it on a screen and in a cinema before I said, it's done."

When asked how Jon reacted to the film, he says it was "mixed". He adds: "There were a lot of conversations about what would be included and what wouldn't be included. He felt quite exposed by some of the things that I managed to get him to say, as did Richie, and we had many conversations about that. He's a very good collaborator because he knows what he's good and and he knows what he's not good at, but he has a very big opinion about what he's not good at at the same, but if you talk long enough and hard at him he will give in, because he just gets bored.

"My final comment with some of the lines that he wanted removed from the film was that if Richie's prepared to sit on a boat with me and talk about his addictions, then you should be willing to talk about how great but tiring your life is."

He adds that he was "absolutely not" a fan of the band before he began to work with them. He says: "I think there are many pluses to the fact that I knew nothing about their history - and I didn't read anything about them either. I did a little bit of Googling about who each character was and got their Wikipedia stuff up but I wanted to go into those conversations with them not knowing much, so I could learn something."

He also says it was a conscious decison both to focus on the band themselves, not their families, and to keep their current position at the forefront, without going over the ashes of the past. He adds: "We wanted to refer to the past but I wanted this to be a contemporary look at a band that have lasted a long time and I didn't want it to be a Behind The Music because then I didn't think it would be a film, it would just be a retrospective, I wanted to hear what they had to say now."

I wrapped up the day with a screening of The Eclipse, attended by director Conor McPherson. Since I waxed lyrical about that in my last diary piece, I won't haunt you with it, except to say that it has been snapped up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures, who clearly aren't bothered by its dissonance of tone as much as I am.

The cold laid me pretty low on Friday but after the announcement of the jury prize winners (read about them here) inspired me to nip to the screening library to catch the short film winners and special mentions.

The Road North, which won the narrative award, is a subtle examination of grief seen through the tale of a man returning home to reinter the remains of his father who died 20 years previously. It's an admirably shot film and one which tone lingers.

Sadly, I couldn't get the documentary winner, home, to play all the way through, but the three minutes I saw were very impressive. Shot in post-Katrina New Orleans, Matthew Faust uses still photography footage from the past overlaid with images of the devastation to help plug us in to the emotional impact of the disaster.

I did manage to catch Last Mermaids in full - which received a Special Jury Mention - and it was my personal favourite. Telling the story of the last generation of female free-divers, it managed, even in its short runtime, to cover their history, their philosophical embracing of the future and to evoke a real sense of the beauty and sisterhood of what they do.

Finally, I caught the student visionary award and jury mentioned films. Aussie flick Short Change proves director Anne McGrath has a real eye for visual storytelling, as a tale of one little girl's lost tooth subtly expands into an exploration of family. Meanwhile Laimir Fano's Oda La Pina (Ode to the Pineapple) is an explosion of colour and energy - the cinematic equivalent of being immersed into a Latin flavoured fruit salad.

Cold permitting, I'll be bringing you a last handful of reviews and some final thoughts on the festival soon...

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