Tribeca Film Festival: New York stories

We take a look at Time Is Illmatic, Summer Of Blood, Gabriel, Five Star and X/Y

by Amber Wilkinson

Rory Culkin in Gabriel
Rory Culkin in Gabriel
In an ever-crowded festival marketplace, there is, perhaps inevitably, an increasing desire on the part of the media to want to label festivals and mark out their 'identity', from the American indies market of Sundance to the red carpet glamour of Cannes - although I'm not convinced that audiences have a burning desire for or need this kind of pigeonholing. This identity phenomenon seems to be particularly acute when it comes to considerations of Tribeca Film Festival, not least because the festival - though I'm sure its programmers would tell you they hold the original Tribeca ethos in mind - has more or less left the physical triangle below Canal Street behind, with the bulk of the films now shown in the Union Square area and Chelsea (although they still hold notable free drive-in screenings of older films and community events there).

Wherever it has taken place in the city, however, the festival has always tried to celebrate local talent and this year is particularly notable for the films that celebrate the cultural diversity of the five boroughs and which tell less familiar tales from the city, rather than getting stuck in the impossibly expensive loft apartments so often showcased in New York films. Opening film Time Is Illmatic is a case in point. Although no doubt 'sold' because of the Nas gig that went alongside it, it was still a brave choice to pick a niche documentary by a debut director for such a lynchpin role. One9 has done a good job with his profile, making clear connections with the environment where Nas grew up and his music and giving a real sense of the Queens of the period.

Meanwhile, the very similar housing projects on the other side of town in Brooklyn act as the backdrop for Five Star Keith Miller's follow up to Welcome To Pine Hill which, like that film, inhabits the grey area between fact and fiction. James 'Primo' Grant is a member of the Brooklyn Bloods in real life - although no longer involved in illegal activity - and here he plays a gang member with a similar background to his own (his family also appears). We meet him as he takes youngster John (newcomer John Diaz) under his wing after the teenager's absentee dad has been shot dead. Slowly John begins to be immersed in the culture and criminal activity of the gang while, at the same time, Primo begins to harbour doubts.

Like Time Is Illmatic, Miller's film has a very strong sense of place, from the streets where John runs drugs to the interior of his and Primo's homes. Diaz has a haunted look, caught somewhere between teenage obstinacy and the fears of childhood he has yet to shake off and the manhood he doesn't quite fit into yet. Primo, meanwhile, is a bear of a man but also delivers his lines with an emotional intensity. Despite the film being chiefly about the male relationships, it is a scene between John and his mother (Wanda Nobles Colon) which stands out, as she tries to stop him following in his father's trajectory towards a bullet.

Taking an altogether more comedic look at Brooklyn - specifically the area of Bushwick - is Onur Tukel's Summer Of Blood. Wearing its Woody Allen influences proudly, it centres on Eric (played by Tukel), an unsympathetic bumbler who, when he finds himself in a hole, just can't stop digging. In a sly satirical dig at Brooklyn hipsters, he's a commitment-phobe with an unfocused fear of everything, admitting in one of the (perhaps too many) Turkish gags in the movie, "I'm afraid of Middle Eastern men with backpacks... even though I'm sometimes a Middle Eastern man with a backpack". After refusing to marry his girlfriend, he finds himself ditched and dating disastrously - another running gag is the fact he continually takes girls to a restaurant which seems to only serve rocket salad on bread - until he runs into a vampire one night, an encounter that sends his sexual prowess through the roof. Ultra low-budget and structurally somewhat uneven, the script nevertheless has teeth and Tukel's hero is so laughably inept that he wins you over despite everything. That satire may not always bite deep but there is social commentary here, particularly in scenes of Eric staggering, bloodied around the streets of New York - almost certainly shot without using extras - with no one taking a blind bit of notice of this man who looks as though he just has just taken part in a massacre.

The streets of New York are both an escape route and a jungle for the protagonist of Lou Howe's impressive debut Gabriel. Rory Culkin stars as titular young man with mental health issues who, on release from hospital, just wants to lead an ordinary life. Culkin's performance is magnetic. From the moment we meet Gabriel on a bus, just a little bit twitchy, wary, it's clear that something is slightly off-base. Howe keeps his lost boy front and centre, so that we experience the world from Gabriel's perspective. His family are warm, if emotionally fragile, and concerned for his welfare. Meanwhile Gabriel, soon off his meds, is fundamentally conflicted, caught between his dreams and the anxiety of his illness. Howe shoots on a muted palette, a bare tree motif coming to represent the alienation Gabriel feels, while the cold mush of sleet seems to permeate everything. Understatement is key here and Howe uses the soundscape, in particular, to suggest Gabriel's emotional precariousness. A beautiful string-driven score by Patrick Higgins also helps to illustrate Gabriel's agitation. This is definitely my fictional find of the festival so far.

Finally then to those inevitable loft apartments, which crop up in the nicely shot but cliched and emotionally flat X/Y, the latest from Ryan Piers Williams. You know the score - those young New Yorkers just can't seem to find happiness or romance. Here we get a character-based snapshot of four of them, interconnected, and one of them is a screenwriter, natch. Almost inevitably, some of the characters are more memorable than others and, unfortunately in this case, it is the ones who have the least screentime. Williams stars alongside his wife America Ferrera as Mark and Sylvia - a couple on the verge. He moves out and camps on the sofa of friend Jake (Jon Paul Williams), whose under-explored character is marked out by only two traits - bisexuality and the desire to sleep around to erase the memory of lost love. By far the most likeable character is Jen, a pal of Sylvia's, who may be unlucky in love and heavily into retail therapy but at least manages to be fractionally upbeat. As for the rest, the cliches pile up as neatly as Ikea flat pack furniture while the characters wallow in misery that feels entirely out of proportion with the lives they're actually leading.

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