Ronit Avni, Julia Bacha / Discovery
Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha’s Encounter Point feels like another one of those good-for-you documentaries about the evergreen issue of Israelis and Palestinians trying to live together in peace. We’ve seen this subject matter tackled before—in a couple of cases, as with the Oscar-nominated 2001 documentary Promises, quite powerfully—and one wonders what Avni and Bacha will bring to the story that’s new. At first, not all that much: Encounter Point depicts a number of unlikely individuals on both sides who have decided to help build grassroots, non-violent dialogue. Most of the people involved are victims as well—many are parents who lost children to terrorists or soldiers, one is a former intifada zealot who spent four years in prison and lost a brother to violence, and so on. Avni and Bacha dutifully film these individuals as they go about their journeys, joining silent protests, attending conferences, arguing with their fellow countrymen, etc. The filmmaking here isn’t exactly revolutionary—much of it is dry, episodic, and undistinguished. But as I watched Encounter Point, I began to sense it working on me in quite a different way. Most documentaries covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even the ones about the peacemakers, are cries of despair, but there’s something extraordinarily upbeat about this film. The idea behind Encounter Point—and it’s a new, bracing one—isn’t that these people are iconoclasts and heroes who have broken the mold, but that they are part of a growing movement of non-violence, and that there are thousands like them. It may not break any new aesthetic ground, but Encounter Point might just be the most optimistic film about this conflict you’ll ever see.—B.E.
Full Grown Men
David Munro / Discovery
David Munro’s Full Grown Men is being pitched as a film about thirtysomething guys who are unable to leave their childhood behind, and one walks into it thinking it’ll be a classic Everyman story—didn’t New York Magazine itself just do a whole cover story on dudes who refuse to grow up? But pretty soon, it becomes clear that this film is about someone much, much more unique and troubled. The film opens as an angry Alby (Matt McGrath) leaves his wife and young child, taking his collection of action figures with him. Dreaming of his glory days as a young boy, he heads back to his mom’s house and reconnects with his old friend Elias (Judah Friedlander), now a special-ed teacher. Together, the two get in a car and head to their favorite place as kids, Diggityland (a sort of Disneyworld-Seaworld combination, presumably renamed so the filmmakers won’t get sued for a hundred billion dollars), reliving their youth along the way. Sounds pretty basic, but Alby’s nostalgic yearning isn’t just a by-the-numbers Peter Pan complex; it’s a lot more pathological. Curled up on his mom’s couch, watching kung-fu movies and eating Froot Loops, he gives off the distinct impression of someone with a serious mental block. (Tellingly, his invalid mom suffers from an indistinct case of memory loss. She too only remembers the past, but in her case it’s clearly a form of dementia. Similarly, many of the special-ed students Elias deals with are kids who won’t be allowed to become functioning adults.) Munro’s film, on its surface, is shot in a warm, affectionate style that heightens the nostalgic mood of the piece: At first, everything is blue skies, white clouds, verdant lawns, and playful kids, all set to a cute, twinkly score that lulls us into this inviting, dreamy world. Underneath it all, however, this is a surprisingly intelligent work. Alby’s nostalgic visions are reflected back twisted by the events around them whether it’s in Alan Cumming’s hilarious supporting turn as a former Diggityland worker driven to vigilante madness, or in a brief gag involving an icky lothario trolling the helpless and lovesick residents of a retirement community. Don’t let its brief running time and candy-colored textures fool you. Full Grown Men is a lovely, bewitching film with a lot on its mind.—B.E.
Maquilapolis: City of Factories
Vicky Funari, Sergio De La Torre / International Documentary
Perhaps worried about getting lost in the shuffle of today’s glut of social-issue documentaries, Vicky Funari and Sergio De la Torre created a portrait of the perils of globalization that admirably seeks new forms of expression, but with mixed results. For starters, they gave video cameras to their subjects, workers at the multinational factories along the U.S.-Mexico border, and most of their film is made up of these workers’ video diaries. The lives of these impoverished women, who work under absolutely horrid professional and environmental conditions, often with little legal resource, are a ghastly sight—when focusing on exposing these conditions, Maquilapolis is a stirring work that’ll provoke genuine outrage. But Funari and De la Torre also appear to have taken a page out of Godfrey Reggio’s book and styled up their doc with other expressive devices, such as elaborate montages or interludes in which the film’s s ubjects rotate on a pedestal like some kind of product on display. There’s a bit of a disconnect here for sure, and these moments come off as unnaturally strained. That said, Maquilapolis is often very effective. So effective, in fact, that it only really falters when it seems to try too hard.—B.E.
37 Uses for a Dead Sheep
Ben Hopkins / International Documentary
Evocative title, that. Could the film itself possibly match it? Director Ben Hopkins finds the Pamir Kirghiz, a small Central-Asian tribe now living in eastern Turkey, and works together with them to craft a fleet-footed, intriguingly pomo documentary about this little-known group of nomads. Hopkins uses the tribespeople to reenact moments from their history (shot in grainy 16mm), then shoots himself shooting them, then interviews them about it, while intercutting it all with images of their life today, in a village the Turkish government pretty much settled just for them. Oh yeah, there’s also a framing device in which the director talks to an old Kirghiz man about—you guessed it—all the things they can do with a dead sheep. It’s all very meta, but once Hopkins reveals the odd backstory of this people, pingponging between the Great Powers (Russia, China, the U.K.) who controlled their homeland at various times, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate approach to this material. The result is an inventive look at some truly unwitting victims of history’s relentless, unforgiving march.—B.E.
American Cannibal: The Road to Reality
Perry Grebin / NY, NY Documentary Feature
Parental advisory: What follows is the most outrageous line of dialogue I’ve found at Tribeca: “I could make ten tapes of Paris Hilton and she could suck off the Queen of Jordan. It’s still going to be Paris Hilton sucking dick. You’ve never seen anybody eat people on television, have you?” That’s Paris Hilton porn-video promoter Kevin Blatt, speaking from the back of a strip-club in the Tribeca documentary American Cannibal by Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro. In this oddball film, two frustrated writers end up selling a show to Blatt based on the idea of stranding contestants on an island, starving them, and then convincing them to become cannibals. The premise itself is a bit shaky and unclear—and, not so surprisingly, the show crumbles before they’ve filmed the pilot, as a mysterious cast member falls ill (and, crew members claim, into a coma). The quotes from industry experts, including the founder of Sex.com and Debbie Demontreaux of IFC, are fairly fascinating, as they suggest how low reality TV may soon go. But the gaps and elisions are too sloppy to be convincing—including the bizarre inability to determine the name and fate of the cast member who supposedly fell ill. There are so many odd incongruities that the end result—whether a put-on or not—feels like one (think: more Incident at Loch Ness than Control Room). But then again, reality TV has rarely cared much about truth—and maybe this is the doc it deserves. Besides, the crass truthiness here is far more apt than any of the glossy satire in American Dreamz.—L.H.
Eric Steel / International Documentary
Fictional suicide—that predictable end to the disappointing first novel, that bogus thrill of the mythic artist, that shrill threat in so many pop songs and intense teen tales—has been so endlessly romanticized on screen that perhaps a documentary filmmaker must do something extreme to capture the terrible, real thing. In this new documentary, scheduled for release later by IFC Films, Eric Steel set up cameras at two points near the Golden Gate Bridge and waited for all of 2004, as twenty-four people jumped from the bridge to their deaths that year. More people commit suicide at the bridge than any other place in the world, the filmmakers state. Their footage—of tiny bodies leaping from that great red bridge—is deeply unsettling, and interviews with the dead’s families are terribly sad. There’s nothing terribly literal in this film that explains why people kill themselves. Instead, you get the sense that the filmmakers are just as baffled at the end of all their family interviews as they were at the beginning. I was left with just as many unresolved questions about their film. No doubt, the interviews are sensitively executed, and the footage is powerful. But does this film further romanticize suicides? You can’t help but feel a sickly sadness creep in, as you watch that last man stand high up on the rail and fall slowly into the ocean—not just because he is dead, but because you and the filmmakers just sat there and watched him do it.—L.H.
Brothers of the Head
Louis Pepe, Keith Fulton / Showcase
Do conjoined twins rock twice as hard? And do they hurt as hard too? That’s the idea behind this operatic faux-rockumentary about conjoined-twin rock-stars who suffer doubly through the VH-1 rise-and-fall in seventies Britain. Clearly aspiring to be 24 Hour Party People more than Ray, this Toronto Film Festival pick never quite reaches Michael Winterbottom’s comic heights, in large part because there’s no actor of Steve Coogan’s caliber to electrify the film’s more predictable lulls. It’s all shot with a glossy music-video director’s eye and some of the visuals are strong, but the gimmick never really delivers and the narrative seems to, well, double in on itself. But maybe it’s not the fault of directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. Stuck on You, the Farrelly brothers comedy about conjoined twins, was a flop as well. Maybe this whole Siamese-twins craze is finally over and Chang and Eng can finally rest soundly in their doublewide grave.—L.H.
Burke and Wills
Matthew Zeremes, Oliver Torr / Discovery
At first bringing to mind the master-shot deadpan of early Jim Jarmusch, Oliver Torr and Matthew Zeremes’s offbeat film, directed for a pittance and starring its writer-directors, begins as a slight comedy about two very different people: Wills (Torr) is a wide-eyed, talkative moocher who moves in with the subdued, morose Burke (Zeremes), and it’s initially quite fun watching this hilariously mismatched duo bounce off one another. Things get a lot darker, however. Burke’s reserve begins to turn corrosive and alarming, even as the perpetually optimistic Wills reveals himself to be more of a go-getter than previously imagined. Soon, Burke and Wills starts to feel less like a story and more like a laboratory experiment, and watching these two personalities interact goes from being a comic experience to one far more troubling, almost voyeuristic. Appropriately, the film’s style changes as well, gradually shifting from slyly observatory static shots to uncomfortable close-ups, handheld shots, and elliptical cutting. The resulting work is one of the oddest, most perplexing birds at Tribeca, a trifle that leaves its viewer scarred. Despite a melodramatic ending and some awkward moments, Zeremes and Torr’s assured, complex film demands to be seen.—B.E.
The Cats of Mirikitani
Linda Hattendorf / NY, NY Documentary Feature
How refreshing it is to see a documentary nowadays that doesn’t announce from its opening frames exactly where it’s headed and how it’s going to get there. Linda Hattendorf’s film begins with images of a curious, elderly homeless Japanese artist known as Jimmy (real name: Tsutomu Mirikitani) living on the streets of New York in 2001, selling elegant pictures of, among other things, cats. The filmmaker strikes up a friendship with the man, who it turns out was born in Sacramento in 1920 and raised in Hiroshima. Mirikitani returned to the US as a bright-eyed teen aspiring to become an artist, only to wind up interned with other Japanese-Americans during WWII. Along the way, most of his clan back home was wiped out by the atomic bomb. When September 11 hits and covers downtown Manhattan in a toxic cloud, Hattendorf takes the man in. As images of racist backlash and smart bombs once again flit by on the television inside the small apartment, this unlikely new houseguest begins to relive his painful past. To her credit, Hattendorf allows us to experience Mirikitani much as she did—watching the old fears creep across his face, hearing his bitter rants against the U.S., and then, slowly, delving into this sad, brilliant man’s history. As Hattendorf encourages Mirikitani to revisit his tragic past, she also helps him to integrate back into the society against which he has waged mental war for most of his life. The result is a profoundly gripping film, with a cumulative impact that may well wipe you out.—B.E.
Jeff Renfroe / Discovery
Civic Duty grinds its way into the most predictable and irritating plot twist I’ve seen at this year’s festival—one of those that triggers an audible sigh of disgust from even the press audience. But before that, Jeff Renfroe’s film stirs up some timely anxieties, including the War on Terror, racial profiling, and downsizing, as Six Feet Under’s Peter Krause plays a paranoiac accountant who gets downsized and then begins to suspect that his neighbor is a terrorist. The few early scenes tracking Krause as he stalks his neighbor generate eerie, if often comical suspense, but soon the screechy horror soundtrack and too literal TV newscasts (oil prices, war in Iraq, terrorist attacks) begin to wear thin. Pretty soon, that terrible cliché—a hostage crisis with a gun held against the temple of a helpless man—is the only thing holding your interest, as the director unconvincingly explores a series of red herrings and reversals. (If Krause weren’t such a strong actor, the film would collapse from the start.) It’s oddly frustrating, not just because of the groaner, how-low-can-you-go twist, but also because you feel the double frustration of being exploited and instructed at the same time.—L.H.
Billy Corben / Midnight
Most of this festival’s documentaries are earnest and eager, which is probably why the fest’s most amoral documentary seems like such fun. Billy Corben’s often hilarious, exuberant documentary practically celebrates the bloodbath that was Miami’s cocaine heyday, while delivering more solid reporting and facts than most of its sober competitors. Scored with a bumping soundtrack from a Miami Vice TV veteran, the story is told partly by former detectives and prosecutors but mostly from the perspective of the guys who profited from the crime: ex-cons, murderers, drug dealers, and transporters who brag like gangster-movie bad guys. Corben nails his history with vintage footage, death counts, and headline busts, while the crooks relish the good, bad ol‘ days with often absurd anecdotes, and the mob mother Griselda Blanco emerges as a bloodthirsty crime boss who would put Tony Soprano to shame. Sure, the bombast is extreme, and, yes, it spends more time on tall tales than impact reports, but this vigorous, energetic doc captures the allure of a business that has never thrived on subtlety.—L.H.
The Elephant King
Seth Grossman / Discovery
Seth Grossman’s tale of brotherly love and rivalry begins promisingly. Shy young Oliver Hunt (newcomer Tate Ellington, doing a terrific job) lives with his parents, working a dead-end job, dreaming of becoming a writer, and slowly sinking into deep depression. His older brother Jake (Jonno Roberts), meanwhile, is living it up in Thailand, where he went initially to do anthropological research and wound up indulging in the country’s infamous sleaze industry, doing some occasional kickboxing, and spending a lot of time with a beautiful young bartender named Lek (Florence Faivre). Jake invites his younger brother to exotic Southeast Asia, and amazingly, Oliver agrees. That director Seth Grossman would have the moxie to set his low-budget debut feature in Thailand is impressive enough; and for a while, as these two very different siblings reconnect, it works: Helped along by his conflicted and flamboyant older brother, introspective Oliver begins to open up to this strange new world around him. And then, slowly, it all begins to fall apart—both narratively and conceptually. Grossman begins to rely on stock fraternal jealousy to move his plot along, and Roberts begins to overdo the whole drunken self-loathing bit. There’s also some unfortunate symbolism (in an act of drunken goofiness, Jake buys a baby elephant, thus making sure that many of the scenes between the two brothers literally have an 800 lb. elephant in the room) and a climax that feels like it’s in the wrong movie. Director Grossman, who won a short film award at the 2004 Tribeca festival, is definitely someone to watch—but the strained dramaturgy nearly does him in here.—B.E.
Ash Christian / Discovery
A lot of the Tribeca selections feel as if they’ve been filmed by 20-year-olds, but this promising debut actually was. Ash Christian writes, directs, and stars in this rough but warm coming-of-age tale about a slack-faced gay teen in a dipstick Texas town who discovers that “we’re all fat girls.” With his true “fat girl” friend (the very funny and crass AshleyFink) and Cuban-refugee sidekick (Robin de Jesus), Christian sets off on a series of misadventures, some quite funny, some crassly derivative, and eventually bonds with his teacher, Jonathan Caouette, who at nights impersonates Liza Minnelli (in a wonderful performance that fans of Caouette’s marvel Tarnation must see). Many of the jokes don’t quite hit, but this is the kind of low-budget, homegrown indie that deserves a look.Christian shows some real comic talent here, and despite his film’s flaws, it’s miles more interesting than Tribeca’s A Very Serious Person, a musty, mothball of a coming-of-age film by gay theater icon Charles Busch that is one of the festival’s greater disappointments.—L.H.
Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig
Katherine Linton / NY, NY Documentary Feature
How can you not be absolutely crazy about John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s anthemic transsexual rock odyssey Hedwig and the Angry Inch? Like almost anyone who saw the show onstage (and later onscreen), I can sing along with every word of “Wig in a Box” and “Wicked Little Town” (though, admittedly, terribly). So I enjoyed watching Rufus Wainwright, Frank Black, the Polyphonic Spree, Jonathan Richman, and others cover these songs in the studio sessions filmed for this documentary, particularly since it was for an album benefiting downtown’s once-besieged Harvey Milk School, which rather famously has a strong contingent of gay, lesbian, and transgendered students. If you’re a fan like I am, you’re likely a fanatic too (again, how can you not be?), so you probably won’t mind that the thin biographies of four Harvey Milk students get lost in musical montages from time to time and don’t quite jell with cast-recording footage that seems to be three years late (the album was released in 2003, and much of this film seems more suitable to an extended DVD release packaged with that album). The structure here, studio session meets soul-baring teens, seems to favor the musicians at the expense of the students and rather limits its appeal to newcomers, who will likely be baffled by this film from start to finish. But if you’re a Hedwig-head, you’ll just savor another opportunity to turn on the 8-track and pull your wig down from the shelf.—L.H.
Adam Green / Midnight
Adam Green’s homage to seventies horror flicks wants to be the next Halloween, but it’s actually the next Wet Hot American Summer. A couple of guys partying during Mardi Gras take a lame haunted boat cruise on the bayou; they and their fellow oddball passengers wind up getting stuck when the boat sinks, and they’re pursued and hacked down by a deformed, axe-wielding maniac named Victor Crowley. Sounds pretty basic, but the devil is in the details. The castaways here aren’t the usual assortment of fun-loving teens, but a wannabe porn producer with his dim “stars,” an insufferably nice midwestern couple, and an incompetent Asian captain with a fake Cajun accent. Hatchet, it turns out, is a comedy—perched somewhere between the wink-wink self-awareness of Scream and the wide-open goofiness of Club Dread. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to know it—or, more accurately, chooses to ignore it, in favor of copious (copious!) amounts of gore and, in the final act, a lot of purposeless running around and shrieking. Green is a talented comic director with confident timing. However, despite his obvious enthusiasm for the horror genre (the film is choc-ka-block with cameos and references to other flicks) he’s a lot less sure-footed when it comes to suspense. As a result, the second half of the film loses much of its momentum—it’s more interested in rubbing our faces in the free-flowing blood and innards than keeping the comic energy going. There’s a very funny movie in here struggling to get out, but by the time it’s all over, that funny movie has been impaled, gutted, and had its head ripped off its torso in excruciating detail. It’s enough to make you scream.—B.E.
Kettle of Fish
Claudia Myers / NY, NY Narrative Feature
Full disclosure: I went to college with Kettle of Fish writer-director Claudia Myers. So I hope she’ll forgive me if I confess to being initially dispirited when her romantic comedy began with the kind of montage-of-bad-dates we’ve come to know from countless other films. Luckily, the film recovers quickly. The idea of that aforementioned montage, of course, is to illustrate the fact that our lead character, a jazz saxophonist named Mel (Matthew Modine), can’t quite bring himself to find the right girl and settle down. It’s a simple enough setup, and it gets even simpler when Mel lets his New York apartment to Ginger, an attractive English biologist (Gina Gershon, sporting an accent that will probably divide some audiences, but which I personally dug). We know where this one is headed, but Kettle of Fish is more about the how and not so much the where. And this is a genuinely sweet-natured film that provides unexpected moments of inspiration: Mel may not be the greatest sax player, but he sure can send his pet goldfish into a blissful state with his playing; likewise, Ginger’s mousy, love-struck co-worker Casey (Kevin J. O’Connor) changes before our very eyes from an awkward schlub to another ordinary guy looking for romance, suggesting a certain big-heartedness all too often lacking in this genre that’s supposedly all about heart. More significantly, when Mel falls unexpectedly head over heels for a well-heeled bride-to-be (Christy Cashman), Myers avoids going for the easy complications of a typical romantic triangle, instead opting for a more refined message about how amorous flights of fancy need to be grounded in the real world in order to mean anything significant. It all goes to show that even the most tried-and-true stories can be given new life with thoughtful writing, elegant filmmaking, and a game cast.—B.E.
Kiss Me Again
William Tyler Smith / NY, NY Narrative Feature
Hovering in that dangerous middle ground between wish-fulfillment fantasy and morality tale, William Tyler Smith’s Kiss Me Again might be an earnest attempt to lay bare the tragic pitfalls awaiting those who dabble in threesomes, or a shameless exploitation of an attractive, game cast. Or, more likely, some unholy combination of both. What it most surely isn’t, unfortunately, is the irreverent and steamy romantic comedy it could have been. A Brooklyn prof (Jeremy London) and his reserved wife (Katheryn Winnick) are inspired by their sexually liberated flatmate (Elisa Donovan) to invite a third to their bed. Hubby gets the bright idea to propose the arrangement to the hot Spanish student (Mirelly Taylor) he’s been flirting with. She accepts. Faster than you can say, “Too good to be true,” things start to go horribly awry. Trouble first arises when the wife falls in love with the student. This provokes the ire of the bisexual flatmate, who has apparently been carrying a secret torch for some time. Pedro Almodóvar could have had a field day with this thing. So, too, could Jenna Jameson. But Kiss Me Again wants to be a tragic melodrama—Douglas Sirk by way of Zalman King—and squanders a likable cast in the process.—B.E.
Michael Skolnik, Rebecca Chaiklin / NY, NY Documentary Feature
Documentary filmmaking is a risky business. Hitch your wagon to the wrong horse and you can go galloping off a cliff or never get anywhere at all. Rebecca Chaikin and Michael Skolnik decided to take a wild ride with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, as he pursued his on-again, off-again lobbying effort against the retrograde and too severe Rockefeller drug laws. You wonder if they regret the choice. Simmons is filmed interrupting a drug-policy meeting to try on new sunglasses, jabbering away on his cell phone, and being accused by several other activists of becoming Pataki’s patsy. Simmons’s Hip Hop Summit Action Network has generated great press but has never been terribly consistent. Simmons himself was censored for financial misdeeds related to his activism, and his own wife was arrested for marijuana possession in 2004—a fact not mentioned in the documentary which later damaged his credibility. Still, a Simmons rally turned out hip-hop stars and 60,000 people at City Hall, and his A-list exposure does seem to have helped raise awareness of the law’s unfairness and contribute, in part, to lessening some sentences. With such a mixed bag of accomplishments, it’s no surprise that this documentary leaves you feeling a bit uneasy, and more than a bit unconvinced of Russell Simmons’s political skill.—L.H.
Síofra Campbell / NY, NY Narrative Feature
There are those who can play big and those who can’t. Director Síofra Campbell deserves some credit for recognizing that perpetual oddball Ewen Bremner, the Scots actor still best known for playing “Spud” in Trainspotting, would be the right man to pull off this weird satire of celebrity culture. Unfortunately, Bremner’s performance is the only thing that works in Marvelous, primarily because while he can be big, everyone else just seems to be overacting. A shame, too, because the story is promising: Upon discovering that she can magically “heal” broken machines and sick people, divorceé Gwen (Martha Plimpton) finds her life changing—people turn to her for help in straightening out their lives, men want her, and her married sister (Amy Ryan) no longer looks down at her lovesick sibling. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law Lars (Bremner) is discovering new feelings for Gwen—and conjuring up a business plan. The elixir of fame, of course, will eventually prove quite toxic. Campbell works in broad strokes here: People become sensations virtually overnight, dreams are realized from one scene to the next, and the outside world remains somewhat unseen and aloof (in that sense, Marvelous feels more like a play than a movie). Bremner navigates his character well, giving this quick-tempered dimwit some genuine soul and charm. But the rest of the cast, struggling with an uneven script, isn’t always up to the challenge. We get understated naturalism one minute, zinging satire the next. Ultimately, Marvelous is a work that never really coheres.—B.E.
Mini’s First Time
Nick Guthe / Discovery
Here’s how I imagine the pitch meeting for the worst film I’ve seen atTribeca: “Dude, it’s like Thirteen, only she’s 18 and we can get away with more! Like, you know, she sleeps with her stepdad and kills people!” It even stars Thirteen’s Nikki Reed, as the ne’er-do-well rich girl who takes revenge on her pill-popping Hollywood Mom (Carrie-Ann Moss) and sleazy stepdad (Alec Baldwin) in an implausible and obnoxious series of twists that aren’t so much offensive as idiotic. When Reed signs up to be a prostitute for a few nights and meets her own stepdad on her first gig, you know the oh-so-racy satire’s going to keep banging down on your head like so many Acme anvils. Sure enough, the plot more devolves than develops, as Baldwin and Reed merrily molest one another, all the while smarmily delivering corny one-liners with all the misplaced confidence in the world.—L.H.
New York Waiting
Joachim Hedén / NY, NY Narrative Feature
There must be a dozen little Tribeca dramas as tone-deaf as this one, but none as sentimental. The first few shots alone are laughably corny: lovers kissing in the rain; a man throwing his cell phone into the ocean, after inviting a long-lost lover to meet him in New York (apparently, so that he can’t receive his lover’s RSVP—in a critical misunderstanding, he doesn’t quite understand the mechanics of voice mail). By the time the Nora Ephron setup warms up, you’re slack-jawed watching as this guy takes cute pictures with a Polaroid camera and falls in love with a stranger he meets at a cafe—on his way to meet his starcrossed lover (repetition of “long-lost love”) at, yes, the top of the Empire State Building (he even carries a little paperweight souvenir with him). No matter how much the director Joachim Hedén attempts to complicate his structure, he’s still left with the silliest and most maudlin arc for his characters. Most bizarre, the film is a Swedish production, so there are some odd tics in the stilted dialogue, which may explain, in part, how this movie got lost in translation.—L.H.
The One Percent
Jamie Johnson / NY, NY Documentary Feature
The phenomenally obnoxious Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, adopts the impetuous tone of an overprivileged private-school student sniffing at his tutor in this disappointing follow-up to Born Rich.Exploring much the same territory as his first documentary, Johnson tries to make some greater claims about the grotesque and growing gap between the extraordinarily wealthy and everyone else. Despite his recent Oprah guest spot, Johnson just isn’t up to the important task. So puffed-up with pride at his soft rebellion against his parents, Johnson films scenes of himself arguing with his father as if they’re shocking exposés—and his father comes out on top, arguing, quite sensibly, that his son has taken on an important project but doesn’t know what he’s doing. Some of the A-list interviews are strong (Steve Forbes recalls his father saying: “Nothing wrong with nepotism, so long as you keep it within the family”) but Johnson really needs to do some more legwork if he wants to make a stronger point. This slapdash effort isn’t the strong argument this issue deserves.—L.H.
Kyle LaBrache,Chris Bradley / Spotlight
Trouble starts with a “T” which rhymes with “P” and that stands for, um, Pittsburgh? This juiced-up comic documentary, like its star Jeff Goldblum, may be a little insane, but that’s fine by me. Both have a kind of goofy energy that’s immensely likable. Sure, the film plays with truth and fudges the facts, but it’s too silly to get bogged down in some meta-meditation on the nature of documentary truth. The setup is the real-life love affair between Hollywood star Jeff Goldblum and musical-theater actress Catherine Wreford. The execution is all very-much like something Christopher Guest might dream up: The initial, hokey staged footage shows the May-September couple (Goldblum’s 51, his love 23) frolicking in the crashing waves on the shore, mugging like newlyweds aboard a carriage ride in Central Park, and skating gleefully in Rockefeller Center. But when Goldblum realizes that his Canadian love is about to be deported, he hatches a scheme to get her a work visa and keep them together: They’ll both star in a homegrown production of The Music Man at the Civic Light Opera Theater in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Fact and sketch-comedy intermingle recklessly, as Goldblum persuades his pals Ed Begley and Illeana Douglas to co-star, Begley enlists Goldblum to help him sell the fake environmental energy invention “Solar Man 2000,” and Douglas breaks up with her onscreen boyfriend Moby (who gamely plays along as a man fascinated with amateur porn). Of course, it does get a little meta—as Goldblum becomes a real-life music man, cajoling his friends into creating a big, beautiful cast (if not band) that gleefully plays to a Pittsburgh audience. (The mayor names a holiday after him in the end!). You’d have to think that the old huckster Harold Hill would approve.—L.H.
Pelin Esmer / International Documentary
Turkish director Pelin Esmer’s portrait of a group of women in a remote Anatolian village who perform a play based on their life experiences is boisterously insightful, hilarious and socially relevant in equal measure, and the perfect antidote to today’s crop of dryly crusading, good-for-you documentaries. Esmer follows nine very different peasant women, part of a small local theater troupe formed with the help of the local school principal, as they rehearse a bitterly comic piece depicting the grueling nature of their lives. The women not only play each other, they also perform the parts of all the men, including their husbands. The catch? Those very same men are also part of the village audience that will be viewing this play. Approaching her subjects without any hint of condescension, Esmer is smart enough to let her fly-on-the-wall camera do the heavy lifting, showing us the profoundly brave nature of these women, who work on their play even as they go about their backbreaking daily chores. Not to be missed.—B.E.
Saint of 9/11
Glenn Holsten / NY, NY Documentary Feature
Documentarian Errol Morris often frets about the levelling plotline of hagiographies that praise incontrovertibly good people, and this portrait of Fire Department chaplain Mychal Judge represents the best and worst of the genre. On one hand, you couldn’t ask for a better subject. Judge, according to every report, was an extraordinarily charming, eloquent, and generous man up until the day he died, while administering last rites to firefighters who died on September 11. His good works with local organizations, including the Fire Department and various AIDS relief programs are astonishing. And Judge himself was a fascinating character, a gay man and activist, a recovering alcoholic, a paragon of flawed virtue. So it’s odd that this documentary doesn’t quite bring his vibrant life into focus, and it’s probably not the filmmakers’ fault so much as a tragic shortage of intimate footage of Judge. Much of this film relies on talking heads, who inevitably repeat one another’s unalloyed praise. Certainly, this documentary honors Judge’s memory, but one wishes for something greater.—L.H.
Shoot the Messenger
Ngozi Onwurah / International Narrative
If Tribeca had an award for Most Stunning Mid-Movie Turnaround, Shoot the Messenger would have it locked up. Joe Pascale (David Oyelowo), a successful black man with a high-paying software job, hears that Britain’s schools need more black male teachers, and is inspired to leave his prosperous career to start teaching at an urban high school. He quickly transforms into a true hard-ass, giving out detention slips like they’re going out of fashion and becoming generally reviled among the tough kids at his school. The tonally unsettling narrative veers and weaves all over the place. All along, Joe offers snide asides to the camera, suggesting that some of the film’s more laughably florid moments are meant to be exactly that—bitter punctuations in a darkly comic narrative. Then, one of his adolescent nemeses falsely accuses him of being violent, the black community turns against him, and a court case ensues. Found guilty and disgraced, our hero begins to lose it, doing a stint in an asylum and even spending some time on the streets before his eventual, and unlikely, redemption. And that’s just the first half hour! Like some unholy cross between To Sir With Love and A Clockwork Orange, Ngozi Onwurah’s film at first doesn’t seem able to decide if it wants to be a satire or a painfully earnest social drama; it doesn’t help that the story is also often painfully contrived. But it turns out by the final act that the film’s uneven tone is actually intentional, and Shoot the Messenger attains a strange confidence sorely lacking from its first half. And it begins to sell us on its kooky, off-putting conceit. It’s still not exactly a success—the broad-strokes script and the heavy-handed acting feel less like parts of a grand artistic design and more like those of a confusing misfire—but what began as an obvious social-problem film turns out to have a much subtler and unexpected target in its sights.—B.E.
Kristi Jacobson / NY, NY Documentary Feature
In this affectionate slice of Americana, documentary filmmaker Kristi Jacobson films a biography of her grandfather, the famous barkeep Toots Shor, who kept post-WWII New York properly inebriated. Aimed at anyone who loves a snootful of New York nostalgia, this film paints a beer-stained portrait of a bygone day when men were, well, often sloshed. Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Pete Hamill, the gangster Frank Costello, and plenty of other grand old guys drop by for a drink—but it’s the heavyweight drinker Jackie Gleason who steals the show, as friends recall old pranks he and Shor pulled on one another. There’s not much context or analysis here in this straightforward and nostalgic doc, nor does Jacobson make an ambitious case for Shor’s relevance in American culture, but it sure is a fun, loving ride.—L.H.
Oren Rudavsky / NY, NY Narrative Feature
With a cast made up almost entirely of actors we really wish would work more, it’s hard not to have high expectations for Oren Rudavsky’s literate romance about a brokenhearted private-school English teacher (Chris Eigeman) falling for a well-heeled widow (Famke Janssen). Luckily, Rudavsky’s film, based on a novel by Daniel Menaker, is more rewarding than that simple plot logline would suggest. Eigeman, whose delicately aristocratic features made him Whit Stillman’s go-to-guy back in the day, turns out to be a genuinely compelling, and surprisingly nebbishy, romantic hero, and Janssen manages to be both supernaturally beautiful and touchingly human. And let’s not forget Ian Holm’s terrific turn as Eigeman’s old-school Freudian shrink—who may or may not be a figment of this highly educated loser’s imagination. The Treatment is not without its flaws—the adoption subplot that takes over the third act smells a bit too contrived—but its sterling cast makes it a real joy to watch.—B.E.
Richard E. Grant / Showcase
In the opening scene of Richard E. Grant’s Wah-Wah, 11-year-old Ralph (Zachary Fox) pretends to be asleep in the back of a car while his mother, Lauren (Miranda Richardson), makes love to his father’s best friend in the front seat. This unbearably primal moment, it turns out, is the ideal kickoff for Grant’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale set in Swaziland in southeast Africa in the late sixties: In many ways, Wah-Wah is a fairly typical tale of family dysfunction that becomes a lot more compelling when refracted through the prism of Ralph’s conflicted adolescent perspective. After the parents divorce, the boy’s alcoholic British diplomat father (Gabriel Byrne, giving his usual rumpled charm a jolt of vulnerability) marries an American flight attendant (Emily Watson), thus provoking the displeasure of the cliquish expatriate class in this remote land. True, this all sounds painfully earnest and soggy. But Grant’s cast does a terrific job with the material, especially when one realizes the emotional high-wire act going on here: These characters are all being remarkably brutal to one another, while harboring the secret fact that they still love each other very much. It’s the central paradox of many a divorce, and this is probably where Grant’s childhood experiences have served him so well. In particular, Nicholas Hoult, playing Ralph as a 14-year-old, perfectly conveys the inner rage of a child just coming to terms with the terrors of the adult world. As a story, Wah-Wah is far from perfect, but its wonderful cast brings it a complexity all too rare today.—B.E.
When I Came Home
Dan Lohaus / NY, NY Documentary Feature
Dan Lohaus’s documentary about returning veterans of the Iraq war is a case study in what’s wrong with current Iraq documentaries. Ironically, so many of these anti-big-media films seem to replicate the flaws of television news, substituting sound bites and telegenic subjects for rigorous analysis, history, and context. The military’s benefits programs and history are not clarified or explained in any detail, while not-so-random man-on-the-street interviews make drastic claims that may or may not be true. This country has a long history of mistreating veterans of its wars (we’ve hosted a few draft riots in this city), but you never hear about that in this generation of films (aside from vague Vietnam comparisons), while mediagenic personalities like the homeless veteran Herold Noel keep popping up repeatedly in documentary films like this one and the very similar Ground Truth, which just screened at Sundance. If our veterans deserve better care, they certainly deserve better films, too.—L.H.