Film festivals represent one of the few surefire ways to get audiences off the couch and into a theater. But as media coverage spreads far beyond their physical bounds, larger fests are trying to have it both ways, luring locals with high-profile premieres and offering out-of-towners a small piece of the action. For the second year, the Tribeca Film Festival is making a handful of its titles available on demand. No, The Avengers is not among them, but inquisitive viewers will find a few modest gems in the mix.
Winner of the audience award for 2009’s City Island, Raymond De Felitta is something of a Tribeca fixture, and emblematic of the festival’s desire to attach itself to (sometimes justly) overlooked NYC filmmakers. Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story is part history, part biography and part secondhand apologia. It concerns Mississippi: A Self-Portrait, a documentary directed by De Felitta’s father, Frank, and broadcast in 1967. (It’s now posted in full on Raymond’s blog, Movies ’Til Dawn.) The film made an instant sensation of Booker Wright, an African-American waiter whose recitation of his nightly spiel gives way to a devastating account of life in the segregated South. Discussing customers who nonchalantly greet him with racial epithets, he says, “The meaner the man be, the more you smile,” at once revealing the cost of his employment and setting straight anyone who might take his pasted-on grin for genuine acquiescence.
Wright’s monologue in Self-Portrait cost him his job and may have contributed to his murder, although the evidence for the latter is too shaky to merit the dramatic treatment Booker’s Place gives it, which leads the elder De Felitta to question his own decision to include that footage. Raymond, not surprisingly, lets his dad off the hook, but his investigation provides a fascinating window into the history of unaffiliated civil-rights activism.
The Giant Mechanical Man digs itself a formidable hole with its title character, a street performer (Chris Messina) who paints himself silver to play the part of dehumanized modern man. But writer-director Lee Kirk mercifully downplays the symbolism, focusing on the lost-soul romance between Messina and adrift ex-temp Jenna Fischer, both of whom find work at a Detroit zoo. Fischer’s awkward charm is perfectly captured (it had better be, since she and Kirk were wed in 2010). Ubiquitous second banana Messina steps into the lead with ease, and shows off some mean mime moves to boot.
The French thriller Sleepless Night is a close cousin to 2010’s Point Blank. Tomer Sisley plays a crooked cop and single dad who spends a treacherous evening trying to recover stolen drugs and free his kidnapped son from an angry mobster. Director Frédéric Jardin’s approach is stylish if shallow; he loses his hero in the pulsing rock beats of a crowded nightclub and shifts perspectives like a distracted channel flipper.
Both more assured and less interesting than his ramshackle A Film with Me in It, Ian Fitzgibbon’s Death of a Superhero follows a dying 15-year-old boy (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who channels his fear of, and reconciliation with, mortality into drawings of comic-book heroes and villains. The scowling baddies and scantily costumed femmes fatales who spring to life from his sketches intrude uneasily into the movie’s melancholy narrative, caricaturing his fears and desires rather than complicating them. Fitzgibbon jerks a few tears, but his heroic efforts produce merely mortal results.
Death of a Superhero, The Giant Mechanical Man and Sleepless Night will be available on VOD Tuesday 17. Booker’s Place will be available April 26.