From Mary J. Blige—The London Sessions (Tribeca Film Festival)

From Mary J. Blige—The London Sessions (Sam Wrench)

In the 13 years since the founding of the Tribeca Film Festival, a handful of films have careened onto the world’s cinematic stage. Let the Right One In, Taxi to the Dark Side, and War Witch are a few of the more identifiable titles, but (relatively) mainstream success has not necessarily been the goal of Tribeca. Rather, the festival thrives as a platform for new filmmakers and international concepts to merge for two weeks in New York City.

This year, Tribeca offers films from around the globe—United Kingdom, Germany, Argentina, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo—as well as from underrepresented communities within the United States. The feature films reviewed below (with updates throughout the festival) highlight some promising directorial debuts, but along with the hits, there is one miss. The documentary field is particularly strong, profiling names familiar—Monty Python, Mary J. Blige—and many not as well known. That description belongs to the subject of a powerful festival entry.

TransFatty Lives

One of the most stirring, poignant films to screen at Tribeca, TransFatty Lives invites viewers to witness the slow, harrowing decline of its director, Patrick Sean O’Brien, from the devastating disease ALS. A New York City DJ and Internet celebrity formerly known as TransFatty, O’Brien wholeheartedly endeavors to lead his life like a work of art. Toting his camera everywhere he goes, he captures and shares moments that others would likely strive to keep private. He shoots the doctor’s appointment at which his diagnosis is revealed; the physical struggles to bathe himself with the assistance of his parents, siblings, and devoted friends; he even insists that his sister keep the camera rolling in the minutes prior to being taken to the hospital due to his lack of breath.

And yet, despite these stressful, uneasy sequences, O’Brien never asks his loved ones (or viewers) for sympathy or tears. Even in the most fraught of circumstances, the director routinely offers a cheerful line to lift his companions’ spirits. Because, at its core, Lives is first and foremost a love letter to his young son, Sean. In a voice-over, O’Brien tells his then-unborn child, “I couldn’t wait to see you, but I knew I’d never be able to hold you.” Our hearts break in these tender moments, but they are quickly restored whenever the director reminds himself (and us) of all of the good that he encounters by simply living for the day. “Imagine waking up one day, and everywhere you go, everyone is nice to you. Even the thugs move out of your way.” Adding a tinge of sass to complement his sincerity, TransFatty chooses to live in the hope for a cure and, above all else, for the love of his son.

We Are Young. We Are Strong.

In Burhan Qurbani’s unnerving, scathing feature, blood is shed, property is destroyed, and a hope for peaceful existence is all but nullified. But the most haunting details of We Are Young. We Are Strong. lie in the lingering sense of unbridled hatred that is left seething throughout a hysterical community.

Qurbani depicts the 1992 xenophobic riots of Rostock, Germany, through the perspectives of three individuals: Stefan (Jonas Nay), a young, introspective ruffian who spends his afternoons scuffling with his bored, underemployed friends; Lien (Trang Le Hong), a Vietnamese immigrant who settled in Rostock with her extended family, seeking a life of opportunity and advancement; and Martin (The Counterfeiters’ Devid Striesow), a local politician and Stefan’s widower father.

The city, once a major industrial center for East Germany, lost much of its prominence following reunification, leaving its citizens underpaid and the community struggling to sustain. Adding fuel to the fire, the government erected asylum housing for Sinti and Romani refugees, positioning them adjacent to a Vietnamese enclave. As conditions surrounding the asylum deteriorate due to lack of funding and government accountability, German right-wing extremists corral the community into hateful protests against the foreigners. Peter sums up their animosity: “[These riots are] not about Sinti, Romani, Vietnamese. They’re about German frustration.” Such frustration is aptly depicted here by characters propelled by inaction, dejection, and cowardice.

With nary a likable individual to be found on screen, Qurbani’s film is hard to watch, but it succeeds in terrifying us with evidence that with enough unchecked, imbalanced hatred, there is no telling how far ignorance, and violence, can spread.

El Cinco

In his attempt to portray the obstacles encountered during one man’s not-quite-midlife crisis, Argentinian director Adrián Biniez (the droll comedy Gigante) misses the mark with his lackluster feature, El Cinco. Patón (Esteban Lamothe), the veteran captain of the Talleres soccer team, is served an eight-match suspension after fouling another player. During his time away from the field, the 34-year-old begins to realize that his soccer career has largely reached its end, leaving him with few skills or plans for a post-retirement future. Along with his wife, Ale (the charming Julieta Zylberberg), Patón fills his days brainstorming future business ventures and studying to earn his high school diploma. Basically, the stakes are pretty low in Biniez’s follow-up to the highly superior Gigante. Rather than fashioning a thoughtful meditation on the minutiae of nearing middle age or on the anxieties of losing one’s youth, El Cinco mostly trudges along without much vitality.

Mary J. Blige—The London Sessions

Titled after the singer’s most recent studio album, Mary J. Blige—The London Sessions offers a peek into the making of a contemporary R&B/soul record, extending insight into the influences that have affected and melded the sounds of 2015. Blige, an undisputed star with a consistent track record of producing hits across multiple genres and platforms, endeavors to present a warts-and-all illustration of the creative struggles of a recording artist. To an extent, she succeeds, particularly during her writing sessions with preeminent UK performers (Sam Smith and Emeli Sandé) and producers Disclosure, Jimmy Napes, and Sam Romans. But at the same time, a bit too much emphasis is placed on the London location of the recording sessions without delving into why the city may be such an instrumental setting for artistic freedom.

That word, “freedom,” is thrown around quite a bit. Though Blige and her co-writers and producers continue to insist on its veracity in relation to the London music scene, the documentary itself does not do much to prove it to be necessarily true. Of course, any listener to contemporary Top 40 and beyond will be aware of the drove of talent being discovered and primed across the Atlantic—Smith and Sandé are just two of a plethora of examples—but Blige and The London Sessions do not seem to know why this is the case any more than viewers do.

That’s not to say that the documentary isn’t an engaging, and at times emotional, insider’s look into the throes of making an album. Blige is mostly game. Though outwardly she may hide behind glossy hair and makeup, the singer isn’t afraid to get raw, at least as raw as her producers and studio execs will allow. One particularly touching scene features Blige meeting Mitch Winehouse, the father of the late Amy Winehouse, one of the first star artists to reintroduce British blue-eyed soul to the mid-2000s American music scene. With tears in her eyes, Blige notes, “People like [Amy] are like a starburst.” Many might say the same about MJB, but if The London Sessions is any indication, she will continue to shine bright for years to come.


Evoking early Spike Lee (an executive producer on the film) mixed with a mild dose of Kevin Smith’s sardonic style, Cronies follows Louis (George Sample III), a young black father from St. Louis whose behavior straddles between responsibility and recklessness. On the surface, Louis’ two potential paths are represented by his companions: Andrew (Brian Kowalski), his white co-worker at the car dealership, and Jack (Zurich Buckner), his unemployed black childhood best friend. Though Louis’s friends presume that his dissimilar counterpart will fit easily into a stereotype, the film veers away from confining these men into the boxes that they reflexively construct for each other. St. Louis-raised director Michael J. Larnell forgoes depicting overtly simmering racial tensions in favor of a broader fear: how to convey love for your brother without sacrificing your machismo luster. Shot in gleaming black-and-white and featuring a soundtrack exclusively with St. Louis-based artists, Cronies arouses just enough wit and spirit to indicate more to come from this promising young director. (Posted on April 24, 2015)


Monty Python: The Meaning of Live

Full disclosure: The extent of my first-hand Monty Python knowledge begins and ends with one viewing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at a middle school sleepover. However, my lack of Python savvy did not detract from my experience watching this reunion documentary. Quite the contrary, the film, directed by Roger Graef and James Rogan, succeeds in indulging die-hard fans and adequately accommodating viewers who may lack the cult obsession for the British comedy pioneers.

Documenting the lead-up to the Python’s 10-night reunion show, Live takes us from the project’s initial conception in mid-2013 to the final curtain call in July 2014 at London’s O2 Arena. Featuring all five remaining Pythons (the sixth member, Graham Chapman, passed away in 1989), the sketch show, cheekily titled One Down, Five To Go, recaptures and reinterprets a bevy of their most indelible skits, including “Dead Parrot,” “The Spanish Inquisition,” and “The Ministry of Silly Walks.” In candid interviews, the performers reminisce about their former rock star status and combat ageist reactions to the announcement of their comeback. The men aim to prove that age is nothing but a mindset, and in doing so, they demonstrate that it’s never too late to hop on the Python bandwagon. (Posted on April 26, 2015)