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De Niro spotlights his artist father Zach Braff back at Sundance with tragicomedy

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan 20, (RTRS): Robert De Niro may best be known as an Oscar-winning actor, but in a new documentary he takes on the role of a devoted son as he spotlights his own artist father, Robert Sr, for his influential but not well-known works in the New York City abstract expressionist art movement. De Niro, 70, who won Oscars for his lead role in “Raging Bull” and his supporting turn in “The Godfather: Part II”, attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Sunday to premiere “Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr,” a HBO documentary about his father, who emerged alongside contemporaries including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Robert Sr grew up in a conservative Italian-American family in New York and married fellow artist Virginia Admiral, with whom he had one child, De Niro. The marriage did not last very long and the couple made an amicable split.

Abstract expressionism came about in post-World War II and was the first notable American artistic movement to define a stylistic era. While Robert Sr’s works emerged during that time period, his style was not described as abstract expressionist but instead as figurist, often depicting still life “in simple set-ups with no pretension,” as described in the half-hour documentary. Robert Sr strived to achieve the success of some of his contemporaries throughout his career and worked hard to hone his own craft and style. He became increasingly disconnected from the abstract expressionist movement, inspired more by early 20th century French artists such as George Roux, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. Robert Sr’s works included vibrant and intense color palettes and fluid silhouettes.

Generous
“He was very clear about what he thought was art and what he liked, and yet at the same time he was generous, people can appreciate things, it doesn’t matter if the aesthetic can be different from yours,” De Niro told Reuters at the film’s premiere. “He didn’t feel that certain things art-wise were art. It was another thing that wasn’t enough for him, and his own style as you see was always the same. It varied some but not a lot,” he added. De Niro delved into his father’s path as an artist though Robert Sr’s journals, which revealed the artist’s struggles with his relationship with God and his attempts at coming to terms with being homosexual. De Niro said his father, who died in 1993 from prostate cancer, may never have resolved those issues. De Niro founded the TriBeCa Film Festival in New York, a showcase for independent films, but he wanted to bring the documentary to Sundance, the top US independent film festival, to make sure the spotlight was fully on the works and memory of his father. “We were really thrilled that it was chosen for Sundance because it separates from having it at Tribeca and we see Bob’s father’s works on its own in a different setting than you would in New York,” producer Jane Rosenthal said.

After exploring the quarter-life crises of young adults in the critical and commercial hit “Garden State” a decade ago, actor-director Zach Braff turned his eye to examine the existential dilemmas faced by parents in his new film “Wish I Was Here.”Braff plays 35-year-old Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor and married father of two, who decides to home school his children after the family can no longer afford the tuition for the private Jewish school the kids attend.As Aidan battles with his own spiritual beliefs while he attempts to teach his “indoctrinated little matzo balls,” he must find the motivation to move into a new chapter in his life and finally take responsibility for being a father who provides for his family. “Wish I Was Here” marks Braff’s return to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival exactly 10 years after he made his directorial debut with “Garden State,” a film that garnered the actor-director critical praise and became a cult hit.

As an actor, Braff, 38, rose to prominence as daydreaming doctor J.D. on television sitcom “Scrubs,” and “Wish I Was Here” sees him reunite with fellow “Scrubs” cast member Donald Faison, who plays a small role. Braff, who co-wrote the film with his brother, Adam, told the audience at the movie’s premiere this weekend that “Wish I Was Here” reflected the personal experiences that the two of them have had in their lives. “‘Garden State’ was all the things me and my 25-year-old friends were obsessing about and talking about and worried about,” Braff said. “With this, my brother and I are sharing the things we’re talking about. He’s got two young children, so what are the things he’s wrestling with and teaching them? For me, it’s my own spirituality.” Braff does not have children.

He blends moments of levity and gravity in his film, from a rabbi on a Segway driving into a wall to his dying father, Gabe, wanting to make amends with his two sons. In one poignant moment, Gabe, played by actor Mandy Patinkin, says, “When life becomes tragic, it always circles back to comedy,” something that “Wish I Was Here” plays with throughout. The film’s final touching scenes brought tears to most in the premiere’s audience, generating a standing ovation for Braff. “With films, the ones I love the most are the ones that are someone’s unique story,” the director said. “This is a unique story. No one else could tell this story that my brother and I wrote.”

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