2012 Tribeca Film Festival review: First Winter

The 2012 Tribeca Film Festival is roaring along smoothly, as celebrities, cinephiles, and NYC residents of all stripes descend on Lower Manhattan for this ever growing event.  There are many films making their World Premiere at this prestigious gathering, including one from NYC based production company Ghost Robot, who bring “First Winter”, filmmaker Benjamin Dickinson’s directorial debut.

“First Winter” takes the viewer to upstate New York and a yoga commune of sorts, where the harsh winter is setting in, and a catastrophic power outage changes the dynamics of the sojourn.  The film’s premise is fairly straightforward, as a tightly knit group who share the same world view must overcome human emotions in a fight for survival.  But the straightforwardness pretty much ends there, as the narrative unfolds in what can only be called an unconventional manner; one that is deeply personal, revealing, brave, and most importantly real.

Left to right: Matthew Chastain (Matt), Jennifer Kim (Jen), Benjamin Dickinson (Thomas), Lindsay Burdge (Marie) in First Winter Photo credit: Adam Newport-Berra

The film certainly is not shy about looking in a forthright manner at the contradictions that can be part of the yoga world.  Certainly, their lives revolve around spiritual enlightenment along with healthy eating and exercise, but they also indulge in drugs, alcohol, and sex with multiple partners simultaneously in what can only be described as an orgiastic atmosphere.  Judgments could be made immediately by audience members, but one should take caution before doing that.  The film is telling a story in a way that feels uncomfortable, but allows, if given a chance, an understanding of both human and cosmic ideas in a deeper way.

A way of life, a specific world view is what defines these characters.  It can be seen in the laborious preparations of the vegetable laden fare, the big ideas, the deep philosophical issues facing the world that are discussed in many scenes, the hard work and physical struggle involved with this simpler, more rugged way of life.  How many people chop wood for their heat, grow vegetables and fruits for canning to survive the harsh winter?  Sure, these characters smoke doobies, indulge in other things some in society frown upon, but these are their choices and the film simply seems to lay them out, forcing the viewer to confront them.

Paul Manza (Paul) in First Winter Credit: Adam Newport-Berra

It is made easy through the naturalistic way the actors bring to life on the screen these actual lifestyle choices.  The honesty in their portrayals is uncanny, slipping the viewer into this world many have never seen before, whether they want to go there or not.  This naturalistic realness that flows from the characters creates a certain level of discomfort however.  As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to empathize with them, as more and more flaws are exposed.  But again, that is the beauty of the film, it is unapologetically honest.

Contrary to the limited ability to manipulate light in a natural setting outside covered in white snow, the interior scenes were superb in their use of lighting.  Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra uses a painterly touch to give insight into the characters’ thoughts and relay important sub-textual information.  Shadows or beams of light that cross characters in what must have been due to choices made by the visual team and director, elicit a semiotic response in the viewer that is undeniable.  Using sources like fire, sunlight piercing a shade, and a variety of others gives the film a polished look that aided the narrative and never interfered with it.

Left to right: Lindsay Burdge (Marie), Haruka Hashimoto (Haruka), Jennifer Kim (Jen), Paul Manza (Paul) in First Winter Credit: Adam Newport-Berra

The film unfortunately lost some of its pacing as it progressed, but perhaps that was due to the elevated emotional ground it stood on earlier in the narrative.  There were also a couple of moments that felt a tad contrived, but they were few and far between, as the film set a high bar for intensity that was bound to be missed a few times.  That is what happens when a filmmaker actually takes chances and tries to tell a story that is unconventional in method and subject matter.  This film will elicit a reaction from viewers, one way or another, that is a fact.

Look for many more reviews and other helpful information on the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in following along with the coverage of the TFF or film festivals in the future, you can receive these articles directly as they are published by clicking on the Facebook Like button at the top of this piece. You can also follow me on Twitter by searching for ericshlapack or by clicking the link below or at the top of page.

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2012 Tribeca Film Festival review: Rat King

The 2012 Tribeca Film Festival is taking over Lower Manhattan with a great vibe and it really has just begun.  Over the next ten days, one of the most diverse array of films ever brought together will light up the screens at many theaters across the area.  There is literally a film for everyone, and for most, there are likely many that will please.  Looking for a violent, intense, and dark, both psychologically and literally, thriller?  One film that can deliver this is “Rat King”, from Finnish filmmaker Petri Kotwica.  The film just made its international premiere at TFF, but there are still at least two more chances to catch it there.  Onto some thoughts on the film.

Max Ovaska as Juri and Julius Lavonen as Niki in Rat King Credit: Mika Orasmaa

Hardcore gamers often keep themselves immersed in the subculture, spending most of their time in dark rooms illuminated only by their flickering computer screen, and with the advent and improvements in online gaming, the ability to connect with others who are similar is easier than ever.  In “Rat King”,  Juri, a soon to be graduating high schooler who has lost touch and connection with nearly everything in his life except gaming, befriends someone online in the gaming world who turns out to be another student, Niki.  After disappearing online for a period, Niki meets up with Juri looking for help with a “new game” he has become embroiled in, one that has real stakes involved, and one that you cannot quit until you win.  The plot continues to intensify as the film races towards its conclusion, upending assumptions and confounding expectations.

Julius Lavonen as Niki in Rat King Credit: Mika Orasmaa

Maybe it’s the long winters, prolonged periods of darkness, or other factors, but films from Finland and other Scandinavian countries seem to generally have a great sense of the visual aspect of filmmaking, which is especially important for thrillers like “Rat King”.  Kotwica and DoP Mika Orasmaa have a keen sense of lighting to enhance the narrative thrust as well as the tension in a given scene.  The film genuinely has a psychological effect on the viewer from the lighting choices alone, intensifying the effects from the action and narrative elements unfolding on the screen.  On the other hand, the intensity of the semiotics involved may bother some who do not enjoy being put into an altered mental state, even though it is mild in this film’s case.

Niina Koponen as Mia and Julius Lavonen as Niki in Rat King Credit: Mika Orasmaa

Inventive camera angles and movements metaphorically illuminate the film’s narrative as well, almost taking the viewer inside the minds of the characters at times.  Extreme, and they are truly extreme, close-ups, while close in physical distance, put a certain psychological distance between the viewer and the characters early on.  As the film progresses, these extreme close ups tend to pull back a touch, allowing the viewer inside the characters’ motivations, fears, and desires even when they utter nary a word.  Into this wizard’s brew of stimulation goes a hard driving soundtrack and score that keep the blood pressure elevated throughout.

The young actors in the film do commendable work, showing great chemistry with each other that goes beyond one’s expectations for actors of this age group.  Max Ovaska (Juri) and Julius Lavonen (Niki) adeptly portray the angst involved with “plugged in” youth “unplugging” by entering into real human interactions.  They also keenly display how friendship in youth can blossom quickly into a desire to help someone out in the most dire of situations.  Juri’s girlfriend Mia, played by Niina Koponen, is an adequate narrative foil for the two male leads, showing a compassion and a certain softness that blends well with a strength and self reliance during her character’s evolution.

Max Ovaska as Juri and Julius Lavonen as Niki in Rat King Credit: Mika Orasmaa

But the film is unfortunately not perfect, as problems with a sort of “running out of gas effect” from time to time were troublesome, as well as a few incidents of going to the lowest common narrative denominator that were somewhat beneath the skill level displayed in the majority of the film.  For some, the experience of watching the film itself may be too intense, as its nature, coming from the visual style and the narrative it weaves, creates a certain level of discomfort, disorientation, or perhaps alteration of the senses that the viewer must accept in order to walk in the shoes of these characters.  There is also a certain level of suspending of disbelief that must occur to fully engage with what the film is attempting to do.

All told however, the film is entertaining, one that could certainly be classified as mind bending and stimulating as well.  A film about gamers of this ilk is intriguing for sure, and the method for telling the narrative was inventive.  But a slightly firmer grounding in a reality that works within the world of the film might have served it better, removing a portion of the suspension of disbelief, and allowing that energy to be directed by the viewer into engaging with the characters.

Look for many more reviews, a very special interview, and more on the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in following along with the coverage of the TFF or film festivals in the future, you can receive these articles directly as they are published by clicking on the Facebook Like button at the top of this piece or via following me on Twitter by searching for ericshlapack or by clicking the link below.


Five documentary features to catch at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The 2012 Tribeca Film Festival gets into full swing today with films playing across Lower Manhattan as well as online through both VOD and the Tribeca Online Film Festival.  Getting to be part of this festival becomes easier ever year, as the powers that be at TFF seem to truly want to allow as many people as possible to enjoy the great works the festival is showing this year.  Here are five documentary features I identified as films I was not going to miss at this year’s TFF.  There is a wide ranging grouping here, and this is not to endorse these over others necessarily, just five that I will make sure I see.  You can see the narrative features at this year’s TFF I identified here.

Egon Schiele's "Portrait of Wally" (1912) Image Courtesy of The Leopold Museum

“Portrait of Wally”:  Directed by Andrew Shea.  Written by David D’Arcy and Andrew Shea

During the rise of Nazi Germany, many of the great art collections and pieces in Europe were seized by Hitler’s regime, with most being taken back by the Allied forces, namely the United States, following Germany’s fall.  Unfortunately, many pieces ended up being given back to someone or an entity other than the rightful owner, as was the case for art collector Lea Bondi, whose Egon Schiele painting, “Portrait of Wally”, was given to the Austrian government and then on from there.  A detective story, wrapped in historical perspectives, and the journey to try and find justice make this film one I will be sure to see.  The film will be making its World Premiere at TFF on Saturday April 28th.

Don McLeroy in The Revisionaries Credit: Zac Sprague

“The Revisionaries”:  Directed by Scott Thurman.  Written by Jawad Metni and Scott Thurman

The fight over evolution and “creationism”, whether climate change is being affected by man or not, rages on, and the frontlines are in the deep south, especially Texas.  Leading the charge to change textbooks to include new ideas concerning not just science, but history, social studies, and other subjects is Evangelical Christian and Young Earth Creationist Don McLeroy, a dentist who will attempt to use the Texas Board of Education to bring his religious ideas into public school education.  As a political junkie and fighter myself, for reason that is, this is one I picked out right away as a film that was absolutely necessary to see, hopefully gaining a better understanding of the gravitational forces pulling the edges of this argument.  The film will be making its World Premiere at TFF on Friday April 20th.

Image from Broke Credit: Courtesy ESPN Films

“Broke”:  Directed and Written by Billy Corben

Coming from ESPN Films, which partners with TFF for the TFF/ESPN Sports Film Festival, this film will be of high quality, I assure you.  This partnership has allowed a flurry of great films over the past few years, including “Senna”, “Fire in Babylon”, and “Renée”, and one would suspect “Broke” will follow in that line.  Reexamining the stories of professional athletes who had it all, then managed to find a way to lose it, sometimes in heartbreaking fashion, but other times in a tragically unintelligent fashion, “Broke” brings into focus the stories behind such falls from financial success.  Anyone who has seen “The U”, which is from ESPN FIlms as well, about the University of Miami Hurricanes football factory, will certainly realize how good this film could be, as Billy Corben was also behind that masterpiece.  Don’t miss this one.  The film will be making its Work-In-Progress Premiere at TFF on Wednesday April 25th.

Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese in Side by Side Credit: Chris Cassidy

“Side by Side”:  Directed and Written by Chris Kenneally

As the world of filmmaking has been irrevocably transformed by the rise of digital technology, the real effects can be somewhat elusive.  Kenneally will attempt to unravel the conundrum, while also celebrating the power of movies in our culture.  He really got great access, interviewing filmmaking luminaries such as James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and  Andy and Lana Wachowski, among others, to probe the realities of making films today in a world where innovation happens almost instantaneously it seems, yet maintaining the artistic sensibility to make films people will enjoy.  The intrigue of how people who spent most of their filmmaking lives on old school film, transitioning to digital technologies is a fascinating subject and one any fan of film should find to be of interest.  The film makes its North American Premiere at TFF on Tuesday April 24th.

Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello performing "Immigraniada (We're Comin' Rougher)" in Antonino D'Ambrosio's film LET FURY HAVE THE HOUR. Credit: Antonino D'Ambrosio

“Let Fury Have The Hour”:  Directed and Written by Antonino D’Ambrosio

The 1980s saw a relentless imposition of reactionary cultural views by the government, which was overtaken by conservative, both fiscally and socially, lawmakers.  The response to this came from a place many would expect, the arts, and it has continued through today.  Using interviews and a variety of multimedia to tell the story, D’Ambrosio will hopefully allow audiences to experience these times in a different way, through the expressions of the artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and others who helped shape the forces that fight oppressive and reactionary ideas then and now.  With our current political situation in this country, this film seems to be more relevant than perhaps even the filmmakers could have imagined when they began working on it.  The film will make its World Premiere at TFF on Saturday April 21st.

Get tickets now and don’t be discouraged if tickets say rush line status for any of the films you want to see.  Check out TFF’s policy regarding Rush Tickets.  Speaking from experience and having had friends also get in through rush lines, it can happen.  Just check out their instructions for the best chance.  If you are interested in following along with the coverage of the TFF or film festivals in the future, you can receive these articles directly as they are published by clicking on the “Subscribe” button at the top of this piece. You can also follow me on Twitter by searching for ericshlapack or by clicking the link below.

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