Monday, May 19, 2008

Docs Dominate

2008 Tribeca Film Festival
April 23-May 4, 2008
Various Manhattan locations

The Tribeca Film Festival began in the spring of 2002, as a lot of post-9/11 good will was put to proper use. Founders Robert DeNiro and Jane Rosenthal have since made the festival an annual film party; now in its seventh year, the festival's presentation of hundreds of features and shorts from around the globe may have peaked with audiences (attendance was down this year), but the selections were particularly strong, especially in the documentary arena.

Herewith an evaluation of several festival titles, including a handful of the more interesting non-fiction films, like the winner of the Best Documentary Award at this year's festival, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Gini Reticker documents the intensely moving and extremely powerful account of the indescribably brave women of Liberia, who took it upon themselves to raise pressure on the warring factions of their war-torn country–President Charles Taylor and his minions against warlords and their recruited militiamen, some boys as young as seven or eight years old–to end the senseless and spiraling violence. There's bitterly black humor in the women's decision–as in Aristophanes' ancient Greek drama Lysistrata–to withhold sex from their husbands until they agree on a truce. But there's much more to this heartening story, which Reticker explores through revealing and touching interviews with many of the principals, finally culminating in footage of Liberia electing its first woman president in 2006.

Half a century ago, Mexican painter Diego Rivera collaborated with photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa on what was to be a documentary giving an intimate view of Rivera's working methods. That footage languished for 50 years after Diego's death: until now with the release of A Portrait of Diego: The Revolutionary Gaze. Figueroa's son and Rivera's grandson have taken that footage and, interweaving interviews with fellow artists, historians and others, have created an intriguing facsimile of that original project. Watching Rivera working on his murals and recreating his paintings in real life–similar to making actual films–before putting brush to canvas is particularly eye-opening. Of course, at 80 minutes, A Portrait of Diego can't hope to encompass the great artist's genius, but by touching on the various media he worked in–including Bunuel's Mexican films, culminating in the 1950 masterpiece Los Olvidados–this is an essential portrait of an artist as a cultural icon.

Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic presided over one of the worst mass murders in history during the Balkans conflict of the 1990s, when his army and police forces massacred thousands of Croats, Bosnians, and Muslims. Michael Christoffersen's Milosevic on Trial–a 70-minute account of his trial for crimes against humanity at the Hague–is culled from actual footage from the trial, which began in 2001 and ended prematurely four years later when the defendant died in prison. Although Milosevic was undoubtedly guilty of these heinous crimes, he kept running out the clock with often irrelevant questions or digressions (he was his own lawyer); Christoffersen includes enlightening interviews with chief prosecutor Gregory Nice, saintly in his ability to avoid exasperation at Milosevic's methods, and his defense assistant, Dragoslav Ognjanovic, an unabashed admirer who admits that he shed tears upon Milosevic's death.

A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy—Robert Drew's remarkable cinema-verite account of the Kennedy presidency, cut short on November 22, 1963–consists of footage shot by Drew and others (including then-unknowns D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles) with cameras surprisingly mobile for their time. The result is a first-hand glimpse of JFK from the 1960 primaries to his assassination that's a real eye-opening slice of history as it was occurring. We see JFK stumping for the nomination, winning over undecideds, besting Nixon in the debates and election, delivering memorable speeches and huddling with his brother and advisors over seminal events on his watch: the Bay of Pigs debacle, the Cuban missile crisis, Alabama Governor George Wallace's refusal to abide by a federal court order allowing black students to attend the state university. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, A President to Remember also shows us a First Lady to remember, as Jackie charms us (and the world) all over again.

Tom Capello's compelling documentary A Powerful Noise follows three very different but equally extraordinary women leading necessary crusades against poverty, oppression, ignorance and ethnic strife in their home countries. There's an HIV-positive widow from Vietnam; a survivor of the war in Bosnia; and a woman working in the slums of Mali. Straightforwardly and with complete humility, the film recounts these women's ongoing struggles as they attempt to bring some hope and possibly even a brighter future to those people in their societies who have never had such a choice in their lives before.

Philippe Petit's walk on a high wire between the World Trade Center Towers in August 1974 was an amazing achievement that, in hindsight, has grown quite poignant. James Marsh's documentary that recounts Petit's daring feat, Man on Wire, admittedly suffers from Errol Morris-itis in its contrived re-enactments of Petit and his co-conspirators exhaustively planning and carrying out the young Frenchman's "impossible dream." Still, this is a valuable account of a man who refused to kowtow to conventional wisdom, whether by illegally walking on a wire over the Sydney Bridge or making that now-immortal 200-foot walk eight times between the Twin Towers. Petit–interviewed along with the men (and ex-girlfriend) who took part–remains a ball of untamed energy, someone with no use for rules or acceptable "normal" behavior. Strangest about Man on Wire is Michael Nyman's score, lifted nearly wholesale from his witty music for Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, Drowning by Numbers and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which threatened to draw me out of Petit's story.

Rosa von Praunheim, a maker of provocative and scandalous homosexual-themed films, is actually Holger Mischwitzky, and his documentary Two Mothers shows his unexpected and far-reaching journey to discover his real parents after he discovers that the 96-year-old woman who recently died was only his adoptive mother. Rosa returns to his hometown of Riga, Latvia and travels around Germany to track down his birth parents, and he discusses his adoptive mother's background and upbringing with various family members and friends. The result is a quite touching demonstration of just how much is unknowable about our own lives. Rosa himself is an engaging screen presence as he shares the details of his plight with disarming honesty.

Of the narrative films in this year's festival, the best were films by two undisputed masters: one vintage, and one new. Toby Dammit—Federico Fellini's phantasmagorical short film based on Edgar Allan Poe's tale Never Bet the Devil Your Head—was the only worthy entry in the 1968 omnibus film Spirits of the Dead, which also included dull Roger Vadim and Louis Malle shorts. Now that Toby Dammit has been restored to its original grandeur by its cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, its brilliantly-realized visual palette–one of the most surrealistic and mind-blowing of Fellini's entire career–can be appreciated anew. Terrence Stamp, playing a famous actor who comes to Italy to shoot a new film, is appropriately hammy throughout, and there are many singularly Felliniesque moments, including a lavish party sequence that seems a full dress rehearsal for the excesses of his next feature, Fellini Satyricon. Not truly essential Fellini, Toby Dammit is still a rollicking piece of cinematic sleight of hand as only the Maestro could perform.

Now 82, a still-spry Andrzej Wajda has directed what's undoubtedly his most personal film: Katyn is a fact-based account of the infamous slaughter of 15,000 Polish officers by the Soviets in the spring of 1940. Touching on the scars still lingering from the massacre–whose victims included his father–Wajda pumps up the volume with a big-budget epic that sears itself on our consciousness even as we shake our heads at its obviousness. Indeed, in the first ten minutes, Wajda shows us an adorable lost dog and an adorable child crying, "Daddy!" as her father is taken away by a Red Army train. Wajda's vitality has not left him: there are sequences here filled with the simultaneous horror and black humor of his classic WWII trilogy, Kanal, A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds, alternating with too-frequent forays into conventional melodrama. Was this done to curry favor with Polish audiences, for whom the dark truths might have been too much to watch? It is admittedly difficult to look away during the stunningly-realized final massacre. Katyn's score has been culled, with mixed effectiveness, from several Krzyzstof Penderecki works, including his dissonant The Awakening of Jacob, heard here far differently than Stanley Kubrick's use of it in The Shining.

David Mamet's most risible exploration of machismo, Redbelt is giggle-inducing in its clench-jawed study of jujitsu practitioners–and those who bet on them–who apparently only spout Mametian epigrams that don't sound like anything real people would ever say. Briefly, it looks as if Mamet is heading toward another satire of moviemaking, a la State and Main, but he drops that subplot immediately, instead perfunctorily moving through several farfetched escapades, culminating with a ridiculous suicide, before arriving at the big climactic fight sequence that's as bloody as it is implausible. As the hero, Chiwetel Ejiofor is game but defeated by Mamet's lunkheaded reverence for his subject, Alice Braga and Emily Mortimer are left to drift as the women in his life–Mamet still can't write decent female roles–and such Mamet regulars as Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay and Rebecca Pidgeon (Mrs. Mamet) merely phone in their performances. If Mamet had leavened the mano-a-mano proceedings with much-needed (intentional) humor, Redbelt might have risen to the level of The Karate Kid. Instead, it's more like Karate Kid 3.

Isild le Besco is best known for her collaborations with director Benoit Jacquot: that he is among the weakest of the current crop of French filmmakers doesn't bode well for her own forays into directing. I missed her debut feature, ½ Price, but her sophomore effort, Charly–showing how two alienated teenagers prop each other up emotionally–shows her in complete control of her subject. Her actors are splendidly unactorish–especially Julie-Marie Parmentier as the flame red-haired heroine–and she has an unerring eye for the obscure detail. The problem is that more accomplished directors from Antonioni to Malick to Dumont have made this film, and le Besco doesn't add much to the conversation. Still, let's see what her next film will bring.

Alexei Popogrebsky's drama Simple Things is a study of Sergei, a doctor whose life is hell: his mistress is getting antsy, his daughter has run off with her new boyfriend and his wife has just announced that she's pregnant. Meanwhile, he has a new "job" as the regular shot-giver to a crabby old actor with a lingering illness. That Sergei's problems at home are first exacerbated then slowly reconciled through the unlikely friendship he develops with said actor isn't surprising, but Popogrebsky's thoroughly conventional drama works best as a primer of contemporary Russia. The excellent acting raises Simple Things above the mere melodrama its director flirts with.

As a struggling Manhattan dancer who follows a handsome Egyptian to Cairo only to become enamored with belly dancing, Laura Ramsey gives an engaging, guileless performance that grounds the likeable, slight fairy tale Whatever Lola Wants with a sort of innocent realism. Director Nabil Ayouch tries too hard in the opening New York City scenes, including an unlikely surprise party by Lola's post office co-workers (she's a temp mail carrier, which is something different). But he relaxes once Lola has the inevitable fish out of water confrontations with Egyptian men (thinking she's an easy mark) and women (thinking she's a blonde, blue-eyed threat), which aren't as forced as they might have been. But it's Ramsey's spirited presence that keeps Lola dancing.

With Savage Grace, director Tom Kalin has made his first film since his auspicious 1992 debut, Swoon, a fictionalized account of the Leopold & Loeb murder case. Kalin dully approaches the story of socialite Barbara Daly's failed marriage to plastics heir Brooks Baekeland and her increasingly unsettling relationship with her gay son Tony, shown as the prototypical "Mama's Boy." Ironically, Kalin shoots this sensationalistic true tale with such apparent disinterest that the entire film suffers: Julianne Moore's formidable portrayal of this difficult woman is rendered dramatically inert, along with Stephen Dillane's and Eddie Redmayne's scarcely less accomplished performances as Brooks and Tony.
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