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Harlan Jacobson Breaks Down the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Reviews The White Crow


Tribeca continues to be this blast of energy radiating from the downtown media hub on Varick Street,  including the Regal multiplex in Battery Park through the SVA Theatre on W. 23rd up through some events at the Beacon on the UWS. The festival opened with The Apollo, an HBO doc by Roger Ross Williams, about the life of one of the most vibrant showplaces in the world, over there on 125th St. 

Along the way have been 118 films, scattered across 10 sections, from Galas through new fiction and doc categories, special Spotlight films, or those with edgier Viewpoints, a week of 5 films picked by critics, just like Cannes, some Midnight freaky stuff, and Movies Plus, a section of 18 films, including Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev, and XY Chelsea, not about the neighborhood but about Chelsea Manning, the Army Officer caught up in the Wikileaks scandal 6 years ago whose gender transition is understood now as more than a historical footnote but a harbinger of the battle between past and future American culture. 

There have been TV premiers of Chernobyl, the new HBO series, State of the Union, 10-minute snapshots of a couple played by Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd working it out, sort of, and Wu Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, a Showtime doc on the group’s 25th anniversary of remaking American culture. I took my teenage son to the legendary 1994 Hip Hop concert with NAS, Wu-Tang, Arrested Development, and A Tribe Called Quest at the then Continental Arena in Rutherford – or rather he took me -- and we might’ve been the only two white guys in the house. It seemed like 20,000 people stopped and stared wondering what we were doing there,  a good 20+ years before WTC or Biggie Smalls got NYC street names. If you’d have asked me that night did I think I’d be dewy eyed—well maybe not dewy eyed—at a doc about Wu-Tang Clan in 2019, I’d have bet the house against it.  Across the spectrum is Wild Rosein the Viewpoints section, about a Glaswegian girl with a potty-mouth and a parole ankle bracelet she breaks to go audition as a Country singer in Nashville. But there it was too, alongside Wu-Tang, at Tribeca. Plus, more shorts than you have in your drawer by a factor of 10, some new TV series and a few good talks between Marty Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, Guillermo del Toro, David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence, Philly’s Questlove and Boots Riley, Sarah Silverman and Mike Birbiglia, Rashida Jones, and Michael J. Fox and Denis Leary. That’s a festival. 


You can still catch films this weekend, like Gay Chorus / Deep South, After Parkland, Framing John DeLorean, Woodstock: 3 Days that Defined A Generation -- these doc titles are pretty self-explanatory. Buffaloed, an indie comedy about the novel trip a tough girl in Buffalo means to take to the Ivy League, shows on Saturday afternoon. There’s a talk with Marielle Heller at 1 PM Saturday at the School of the Visual Arts on West 23rd. And fresh outta Sundance is Maiden, about the 1989 Whitbread round-the-world regatta made famous by the entry of an all-female crew, who broke new water and whose 33,000-mile race is both thrilling and a reminder of where we’ve been and where we have to go. I was skeptical of Maiden — bringing gender parity to yacht racing is not exactly at the top of my list -- but of course the story is compelling, it is by design. Film, particularly at festivals like Tribeca, is always about discovering where the heart beats in unlikely places that you can’t get to and might erroneously not go to even if you could. Then it’s … Surprise! There’s also  a reprise of all the winners at Tribeca – best films, directors, actors, writers, audience prize winners -- at the Battery Park Regal all day Sunday, starting at noon. You can just parachute in and enjoy bragging rights Monday at work.

Finally, outside Tribeca, in the real world of movies check out Ralph Fiennes’ The White Crow

That means sidestepping the Avengers thing, about which mature critics mostly talk about the boxoffice -- $1 billion in five days. My friend Bill Goodykoontz, film critic of The Arizona Republic, has a kid who says it’s all about grownups in spandex kicking each other.

The White Crow is a different  kind of super hero in tights story, that of the somewhat impromptu defection of then Kirov Ballet Company dancer Rudolf Nureyev in 1961 on a Soviet concert stop in Paris. The film is directed by Fiennes, the actor’s third as director—leaving him far in the directorial dust behind countryman Kenneth Branagh, whose own All Is True, about the final days of William Shakespeare—played by Branagh, of course—comes out May 10.  The defection of Nureyev was big news in the West back in Cold War Days—one wonders if that’s how Russians feel about Edward Snowden as a privacy defector now. But Fiennes gets a wonderful performance out of Russian dancer Oleg Ivenka, who interprets Nureyev as the diva we know stymied by the Soviet system.  Here a green Nureyev arrives at his first class and meets ballet master Alexander Pushkin, played by Fiennes. They speak in Russian, there’s a lot of French and some English, too, but you can hear what the eye sees—master and pupil taking the measure of each other, eye to eye, as the stripling heads to the bar temporarily at the mercy of his master:

Screenwriter David Hare sees in Nureyev something more than a bundle of nerves, but rather the expression of individual perfection that didn’t fit in a communist world—a round peg in a square box. The West used Nureyev as a propaganda victory, which is between the lines in The White Crow. You watch Oleg Ivenka dance Nureyev and think how ironic that Nureyev Superstar eventually corrupted itself as the celebrity culture that has since replaced individual genius with idiots everywhere demanding legitimacy. Twitter is where characters go to die. The White Crow is a window back in time to when we bought Russians, instead of now, when they buy US.   

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.