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.