Credit: Frank Worth/Tribeca Film Festival
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 2: Nuked, Shelf Life, Witches

June 15, 2024

Nuked

Imbued with plenty of allure and the potential for surprise, friendly get-togethers and familial gatherings in cinema sustain such an appeal that they never outright feel dusty or outmoded, and, on the contrary, still hold a special place for many contemporary indie dramedies. Despite financial practicalities that often circumscribe such indie films to a single primary location (interior or otherwise), these films are still able — with the aid of unique and well-developed characters — to flesh out multi-faceted portraits of people, places, and the dilemmas of the human condition. Films such as BenDavid Grabinski’s Happily, Kestrin Pantera’s Pretty Problems, or even Tyler Taormina’s most recent effort, Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point (which premiered at this year’s Cannes) are only a few examples that come to mind, with Deena Kashper’s feature debut Nuked belonging to the same ilk.

Jack (Justin Bartha), a teacher, and Gill (Anna Camp), a popular podcaster, are a supposedly happily married couple. Gill’s had some success with her marriage podcast (“Marriage in the Middle Ages”), often cribbed from personal experience, but once Jack finds out about her secret birth control pills and a group of friends show up for their joint 40th birthday party, things quickly go sideways, revealing long-hidden secrets, well-concealed desires, and personal doubts from behind the thin façade of felicity and tenuous ostentation. From its playful opening voiceover and screwball-esque dialogues to the easygoing yet composed performances of its octet ensemble (and supported by the occasional visual gimmick, splitting the screen between ongoing events and utilizing cell phone screens), Nuked, at least during the introductory first act, promises to deliver an amusing deadpan burlesque, if not a purely original comedy of manners. But after the guests reluctantly surrender their phones so that everyone might become more present and celebrate “the times before Facebook and Instagram,” the cannabis-induced revelry that opens the film soon peters out, and things fail to ever really take off.

Instead, as these initial charms and wits evaporate, everything begins to nosedive into overfamiliar banality and kitsch. When one of the guests, Penelope (Lucy Punch), sneakily checks her phone and realizes a nuclear missile is heading right their way, the characters are provided not much to work with apart from hysterics and an excessively cartoonish disposition that stymies more profound and precise observations of both the situational crisis and its participants’ interiorities. All this is essentially due to Kashper endeavoring to cover more than a handful of different characters and their singular issues at once, from matrimonial misunderstandings and discomforts to secret affairs and old flames, with pregnancy, mid-life challenges, and queer romances all thrown in for good measure. Nuked thus remains tonally unfocused and narratively shallow, to the point that it seems likely Gill’s podcast would present more insight, humor, and unconventional content about middle-aged married life than the actual film does. AYEEN FOROOTAN


Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

Shelf Life

The playful vignettes of various cheesemongers, makers, and even competition judges in Ian Cheney’s Shelf Life are much like the dairy product itself — each a little different, some more enticing than others, but all delightful in their own way. Much like Cheney’s last film, The Arc of Oblivion, Shelf Life features experts from around the world reflecting on and explaining a particular microhistory: here, it’s the world of cheese. First, we meet Jim Stillwaggon, a cheesemaker and philosopher living “somewhere in the Pyrenees,” who waxes poetic on how time enriches flavor. Later in the film, microbiologist Rachel Dutton shows us the living nature of cheese, reflected in the dust mites that live on the rind. There’s even a cheese librarian, Jean-Jacques Zufferey, who introduces the audience to his prize cow. All of these people are connected by cheese and a preoccupation with the “life” of the food, whether it be a fascination with the creation process or love for the endgame of its consumption.

Taken on a surface level, Cheney’s latest is a slight but amiable little documentary on many people’s favorite food, but a deeper watch reveals Shelf Life as much more. This isn’t just a superficial survey of fromage; Cheney uses the food as a lens through which to meditate on aging and mortality. Through the art and science of cheesemaking, Cheney delves into the complexities of time and its impact on both the human experience and the natural world: Stillwaggon’s reflections on the maturation process of cheese parallel humanity and ripening with age; Dutton’s scientific approach to living and dying furthers this examination, illustrating how life continues to thrive and evolve in the most unexpected places.

And this is where Cheney’s filmmaking talent lies; the metaphor that makes study of aging and the ripening of cheese might not be all that profound in conception, but as with The Arc of Oblivion, the director takes care to explore his chosen subject matter through his films’ structure and visual storytelling. Each segment and interviewee are used to present a different perspective, from the initial curdling to the final aging process. This construction, of course, mirrors the stages of all life, but the progression is subtly underscored by the film’s pacing and the careful attention to detail in each shot. The beauty of the metaphor of time’s inevitable forward march here is in its simplicity and universality, and the way Cheney presents this as something to hold gently in ourselves rather than some grand, unlocking idea.

But where The Arc of Oblivion succeeded in its, well, arc, Shelf Life struggles. Cheney’s latest can occasionally suffer from a loss of focus, meandering through its various segments without the strong connective tissue that made his previous film so compelling — the sequencing can make the sum feel like an enumerated list of related tangents rather than a cohesive essayistic work. This results in individual stories and insights that are each fascinating in a vacuum, but an overarching narrative that sometimes feels fragmented and unable to hold its thematic thread throughout the runtime. Still, Shelf Life’s charming characters and humble efforts to marry the universal appeal of cheese to deeper philosophical probing are largely able to help mitigate its areas of wanting. After all, a cheese course is never meant to be the entrée. EMILY DUGRANRUT


Witches

One thing left uncertain: just who are Dorothy Gale’s parents?

I don’t quite mean that literally, though the overgrown Oz extended universe probably has an answer for me. For instance, in a 2007 apocryphal novel, Halloween in Oz: Dorothy Returns, authors Leo Moser and Carol Nelson assert that Thomas and Sarah Hopkins Gale died in a fire in their hometown of Bowling Green, KY. But most authors — L. Frank Baum and Victor Fleming among them — saw no reason to specify the exact circumstances that lead Dorothy to Kansas and then to Oz. And in the case of the 1939 film, an eerie, absent presence animates Dorothy’s sense of where home is, grained in the way Garland aches the primordial, ineffable “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” That adult obliqueness touching loss, desire, terror, and longing finds itself implausibly uttered aloud in the way a child makes a map of an unknown world: “somewhere,” bluebirds fly.

As a pop myth that imprints on us — or is it the other way around? — it’s Dorothy’s sense of dis/mis-location that lingers first and most. She sings from a site of boredom and horror, and the film responds with a dream that both processes and resists naming that zone of yearning. Like any good unconscious text, it presents familiar faces in alien places: a charming farmhand becomes a dopily rakish Scarecrow, a wayward huckster the con-man Wizard, a mean old woman a Wicked old Witch.

The Wizard of Oz is so close to dreams that narratively, it wouldn’t exist without them. Dorothy reimagines her nascent affection for Ray Bolger in the figure of an aloofly hunky Scarecrow in the same way countless spectators reconstitute our selves in Dorothy’s shoes, identify in her quest to put language to her own longing. It’s hummingbird chow for psychoanalysts; objects of desire, suspicion, and repulsion return, subconsciously. To varying degrees of its own awareness — like a text disclosing any responsibility for its own insight, fully submitting to cinematic treatment — The Wizard of Oz reveals in fantasy submerged aspects of reality. What then, does it make of that forgotten parentage?

It’s this last phantom that obsesses Elizabeth Sankey’s new film. Witches could just as easily have been called Mothers, a detail that does not go unexamined. The film collates a trove of found-footage witches and — less obviously — “bad women,” many of whom are mothers. The footage ranges from René Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942) to Griffin Dunne’s Practical Magic (1998) through Eastwood’s underrated Changeling (2008) and Mia Farrow’s changing face in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which pulls double-duty as the story of a reticent mother plagued by witchcraft of a kind. There are liberal servings of Eggers and Häxan (1922) and Margaret Hamilton herself, and it would have been enough, frankly, to have mashed up this rolodex of cinematic image and look. The film’s editing, undertaken by Sankey herself, joins the gazes of Kim Novak, Susan Sarandon, Fairuza Balk, and a firmament of countless others. The ensuing cinematic space is history as reel, a new archive that puts figures on the margins in conversation and shared space.

It would have been enough, but Witches is, like Sankey’s previous film, Romantic Comedy (2019), reticent to let the images speak for themselves. Witches is composed of both found-footage and newly-shot testimonials, from Sankey as well as her friends, many of whom have shared her struggles with postpartum mental health. Many of the women are from an online support group, Motherly Love. The film positions this chorus as a kind of coven that literally kept its members alive through their experiences of anxiety and depression after childbirth. Sankey’s voiceover binds the whole film together, laying her memoir and memory of hospitalization and institutionalization over the montage of images and interviews with friends. It recalls John Berger’s bound volume of Ways of Seeing, how some of the essays include text to accompany the images, how others present the essayistic inquiry in images themselves. I thought, occasionally, how Sankey’s narration and inclusion of talking-head segments keep the film’s narrative rigidly on-track, sapping some of the natural turbulence that occurs in splicing images that “don’t belong” together.

Turbulence is not always welcome though. Historically, some bodies come through periods of turbulence just fine. Others get lost in the margins. Witches is principally occupied with historical threads, with the question of narrative agency; isn’t Glinda’s asking “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” an inquiry into what predetermined arc she’s looking to lay over Dorothy? Or: is your adoptive mother Glinda or the Wicked Witch? And: which one will you be? Sankey’s intentional placement of her anthropological, cinematic, and personal essay is a reaction to how patriarchal actors have rigged systems of narrative itself to de-privilege how women identify themselves in a society. Without Sankey’s exact witnessing, without her saying the words, Witches could be dismissed as film essay inanity or cinema history novelty. Instead, it is a film that breathes, craves breathing, fights to breathe equally in collaboration with the image and its companions. Isn’t this maybe the goal of The Wizard of Oz? Of cinema itself?

Near its end, one of Witches’ women cites “testimonial injustice” — the notion that a given account of reality is denied simply because of the giver’s identificatory status. In a world where “mother” and “witch” might be interchangeable, where women can collectively be treated as unreliable narrators of their own pain, the notion of testimonial becomes akin to liberatory. Such an act cuts through the dreamspace to locate a self in a community of other selves. It edits us in. You have to be ready to tell your story, at the right time, to the right person, the film says. And that’s what it does. FRANK FALISI


Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

Some Rain Must Fall

Writer-director Qiu Yang’s first feature film, Some Rain Must Fall, begins during monsoon season. Cai (Yu Aier) is in the midst of finalizing her divorce from Ding (Wei Yibo), the coming-of-age rebellion of her daughter, Lin (Di Shike), and the illness of her father (Zhu Lizheng). The film opens with, and maintains, a thematically consistent asphyxiating frame. The margins are narrow (4:3), and most scenes either take place at gloam or in the shaded darkness of hallways, stairwells, hospitals, and markets. There is a notably liminal quality to the film, one that reflects the fork of Cai’s midlife.

In the first scene, she fails to get in touch with her husband to confirm that he has finalized the signatures on her divorce petition. Then, she walks into a basketball gymnasium to pick up Ling, only to find out she is absent, having snuck off with a boy. With her back turned to the darkness of the gymnasium, she is hit in the back by a stray basketball. After brusquely being told to throw it back, the reserved Cai — who possesses a flat affect and moves as if a ghost — throws the ball back forcefully, accidentally hitting an elderly woman offscreen. Qiu does not move the camera from Cai, and the effect she’s caused remains extradiegetic, confined to the periphery of her experience. The other woman is hospitalized, and it’s unclear whether she will survive.

While this scene’s dramatic tension is not quite sustained over the remainder of the film’s 90-minute runtime, it serves as a microcosm of the melodramatic cycles that take place over the next three days. With each sequence, Cai navigates her life in a zombified stupor, outwardly dispassionate and apathetic. Then, in moments of critical frustration, she lashes out; whether by throwing plates or by self-harming. Often, these scenes are followed by an oneiric denouement which finds Cai locked in a plane of darkness, adrift and in search of light. Indeed, the use of light is Qiu’s greatest strength in his first feature, although at times it can also feel overwrought. His main stylistic flourish is in his use of chiaroscuro and baroque lighting, defaulting to a palette typically leveraged both in sparse dramas (like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas) and unconventional noirs (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for instance).

Just as in Paris, Texas, the colors he primarily employs are green, yellow, and red. Yellow is often found in the home’s lighting, where there is a pervasive sense of foreboding, celebration, and grief simultaneously, at the site of Cai’s marriage’s demise. Green is frequently found in sites of rebirth; Lin can often be seen wearing it throughout her development as a woman, and in the daylight after the long-awaited storm. Red, the color used maximally by Qiu (at times to a fault), encroaches on Cai, the landscape, and eventually the viewer in the purlieu of their screen; it represents at once Ling’s engulfing rage and her anxiety toward the structurally collapsing environs in which she finds herself.

Despite the film’s general subtlety, it is not particularly allergic to clichés. The rain finally comes, the divorce is finalized, and Cai is reborn. Some Rain Must Fall, then, ends on a rather contrived note: a visit to the dentist. He tells her that her tooth is broken, and that he has to “clean it first. The damage is quite deep. This will be painful.” She grimaces when he inserts his instrument; in a moment of small triumph, we finally see Cai accept her circumstance, and she begins to cry. Qiu’s debut is a quiet one, respectably uplifting Yu’s strong performance. It’s a movie about death and rebirth and the varying cycles of life, propelled one after the other by their obverse — sacrifice and selfishness, loathing and love — to great effect. And while Qiu may not be able to sustain the suspense he initially establishes or fails to distinctively interrogate the film’s content, he has made an assuredly beautiful film frame-by-frame, one that gestures toward the work of a great filmmaker to come. CONOR TRUAX


Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes

On paper, a recently discovered 1964 interview between author and journalist Richard Meryman and Elizabeth Taylor, then at the absolute height of her fame and notoriety, should be the perfect raw material for Nanette Burstein’s documentary, Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes. At the time, Taylor had just seen the release of Cleopatra, then the most expensive film ever made; begun her world-famous relationship with co-star Richard Burton, a union controversial enough to earn official condemnation from the Vatican; and set out to begin production on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the film that would finally legitimize her status as an actress, not just a movie star. What better time, then, to delve into the intricacies of fame, fortune, and folly that hound the life of the world’s biggest star?

On the tapes, Taylor speaks warmly of a childhood in Los Angeles, and her fascination with the scale and glamor of Hollywood filmmaking. She also recalls her roller coaster 1950s, when a series of failed and tragically truncated marriages clashed with her frustrations with an industry that seemed at once hell-bent on making her older than she was, infantilizing her as a perennial ingénue, and limiting her choices in roles that would allow her to really act. Whether reminiscing on the past or grappling with the present, Taylor’s voice always has a palpable immediacy. You can hear it in the opening moments of the film, as the pair get settled before officially starting their interview, a mixture of strain, exhaustion, and good-natured hospitality giving it the depth and perspective earned from spending a lifetime in the spotlight.

Woven into the story are other recordings and television appearances of Taylor herself and of her friends and colleagues. A common refrain in The Lost Tapes is the voice of Roddy McDowell, Taylor’s long-time best friend, and her very first co-star. Apart from television appearances that we can see, it’s unclear when and in what context the other recordings were made or taken. They have a muddying effect on the clarity of the film’s central premise of these lost tapes. So while they add breadth and depth to the film’s perspective on Taylor’s life, the diversity of viewpoints ends up diluting Taylor’s.

At a time when the public’s access to celebrities’ personal lives is simultaneously at its greatest and most calculated, the raw vulnerability of Taylor’s recollections is necessarily tempered when transposed onto something so pedestrian as Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes often is. If the material at Burstein’s disposal holds within it deep insights about the toxic nature of hypervisible celebrity, about an industry’s exploitations, her film deploys them hesitantly. The effect is not only disappointing, it prompts the same questions many celebrity biographical documentaries prompt, such as what exactly we’re getting from this that can’t be accomplished by reading a biography and watching the star’s movies. As it plays, the film feels like it’s just trying to kill those two birds with one stone.

If there’s one intriguing mystery to Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes, it’s the question of how it will conclude. Given the immediacy of the 1964 conversation, conducted as it was at such a volatile point in Taylor’s life, one expects the conclusion to be open-ended, ambiguous, to broach unanswerable questions about celebrity, to imbue some mystery in the life of a very well-known woman by deliberately not answering the already answered. However, when Meryman’s job is done, the film is not, turning instead to a half-hearted montage of news clippings, talk-show segments and other recorded interviews to sweep us along the next 20 years of Taylor’s life, during which she and Richard Burton divorced, remarried and divorced again, and found herself, for the first time ever, living on her own. The film concludes with another set of tapes, recorded in 1985 by journalist Dominick Dunne, but their insights feel like an afterthought. “To thine own self be true,” she offers as a motto for her life. If there’s one instance in which someone else should have spoken for Taylor, perhaps it was here.   CHRIS CASSINGHAM