Tribeca Film Festival 2016

As is my habit, for the Tribeca Film Festival 2016, with little exception, I eschewed the glitz, glamour and celebrities of the festival because, for me, the festival is all about the films, documentaries in particular. At film festivals the documentaries are always the best parts, in my opinion, while fiction films can be “hit” or “miss.”

Starring Austin Pendleton

“Starring Austin Pendleton” is a well paced, infectious and informative 19-minute-long documentary, about character actor, writer, teacher and director Austin Pendleton. The title is a bit of a misnomer, or perhaps an inside joke, as one of the film’s points is that Pendleton has had a career consisting of supporting roles in the 100 plus movies in which he was cast…that is, until now, as the title suggests!

austin pendleton

Austin Pendleton, the subject of the short documentary “Starring Austin Pendleton.”

I have always been intrigued by Pendleton. For me he will always be Mr. Larrabee in “What’s up Doc?” (1972), one of my favorite movies. For others it will always be the stuttering lawyer in “My Cousin Vinny” (1992). I remember once seeing Pendleton perform, in the summer of 2006, in Bertolt Brecht’s play “Mother Courage and Her Children”, as part of “Shakespeare in the Park.” The play starred Meryl Streep. I attended a preview performance and, at one point, Pendleton’s on stage antics made Streep break character and laugh. I had not seen anything like that happen in the theatre before.

Streep, interviewed in the documentary, says of Pendleton, “There’s no line between the man and his work.” Streep goes onto describe Pendleton as “never having lost his mission” to act. Pendleton can just as easily be appearing in a small 99 seat theatre, or in a Broadway show. As one interviewee puts it, “People in the universe who we think are celebrities and stars, they think of Austin in that caliber.” To that end, “Starring Austin Pendleton” features an impressive array of luminaries who share their experiences and anecdotes with and about Pendleton. These include the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bob Balaban, Wallace Shawn, Olympia Dukakis, Ethan Hawke, Natalie Portman, Denis O’Hare, Maggie Gyllenhaal and many others.

Directors Gene Gallerno and David H. Holmes, and editor Jeff Marcello, keep the proceedings moving at a such a brisk, entertaining pace, that, by the end of the film’s all too short running time, my only criticism was that I wanted more. I have a feeling that Pendleton wouldn’t want it any other way. “Starring Austin Pendleton” is part of a collection of short documentaries called “New York Then.”

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four

“Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” is a documentary that belongs in, what seems to me, to be an important genre of documentary filmmaking. I am referring specifically documentaries that are about people who have been the victims of wrongful criminal prosecution, where exculpatory evidence was overlooked, or covered up, and where witnesses’ testimonies were not believable. My personal list includes “Capturing the Friedman’s” and “Give Up Tomorrow,” (both part of the Tribeca Film Festivals in 2003 and 2011, respectively). The documentaries “Crime After Crime” (2011) and the “Paradise Lost” trilogy” (1996, 2000 and 2011) are also part of this list.

“Southwest of Salem” concerns four gay women in Texas, who, in 1994, were convicted of sexually abusing two very young girls, and were given long prison sentences. The trial reeked of homophobia. This was abetted by an irrational fear (going around in the 1980s and 90s) of satanic rites being performed on children in day care centers. The four women have maintained their innocence for 20 years. “Southwest of Salem” is their story. It is absolutely heart breaking and infuriating.

More and more, documentaries are using techniques usually used by narrative films. All of the documentaries listed in the first paragraph of this article are engrossing films that use narrative techniques in order to build to very dramatic climaxes.

Although there is much to recommend in “Southwest of Salem,” I did not feel that it had as strong of a narrative drive as the documentaries listed in the first paragraph of this article. Director Deborah Esquenazi captures some wonderful, intimate moments, as well as great interviews with the women themselves, their lawyers and various experts. Despite all of this, I found the over all structure of “Southwest of Salem” to be a bit choppy dramatically. The documentary that “Southwest of Salem” reminded of most is “Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (1996), but “Southwest of Salem” is not nearly as riveting. Granted, documentaries are representations of real life and real life does not always fit neatly into a three act structure. In spite my criticisms, “Southwest of Salem” is still a startling wake up call about our criminal justice system, who it prosecutes, and why.

For more information on the Tribeca Film Festival visit http://www.tribecafilm.com

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on April 26, 2016, in Tribeca Film Festival 2016, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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