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Tribeca '11: Documentaries

Film festivals are all about documentaries. This is where most docs are shown theatrically before winding up on television or a shelf somewhere.

At this year's Tribeca Film Festival, there was a panel about how activist groups can use documentaries as visual aids to promote their causes, and I was surprised as to how bitter they were at those who they were supporting as the charities involved thought that said films were a free donation and all that money spent on production was a gift to THEM!!

The question of how these things make money is an interesting one, and someone will have to discuss it in greater detail, but we’re not going to do it here, mainly because those aren’t the only genre of docs playing in Tribeca, and the others are the ones that dominate the festival.

Docs can be shelved into different genre, as are scripted films. There’s advocacy (propaganda), which highlights a particular political point of view, or is a plea for “justice”, then there’s pure entertainment, which is a concert film or following a diva around while using clips from his/her previous showbiz appearances.

Then there’s real journalism, which can be advocacy or it can be just documenting an event because it’s interesting. This year’s Tribeca has a fair complement of all of them, most of which I didn’t see…

Concerts and Entertainment:

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life: Director Dori Berinstein -- who has done some other docs on show business -- follows the 90-year-old diva as she goes around her daily grind with her second husband (and high school sweetheart) and intersperses this with clips from her extremely long career. She never hit the top of the top, and her two signature Broadway roles were given to others when the movie versions were made, but , even though her first husband was a royal shit, Bernstein shows that Channing has had a pretty much wonderful life, and the subject knows it.

This is fun for fun’s sake and fans are going to love it.

The Union: Rock star singer/songwriter Elton John decided to make an album with semi-retired rock hero Leon Russell. and asked director Cameron Crowe to document it. Since the recording process is mostly boring, there are lots of clips from both John and Russell in their glory days, and while almost no songs are seen done to completion, the music is pretty good.


Semper Fi: Always Faithful: Directors Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert discovered a major scandal involving toxic waste, the Marine Corps, and Camp LeJune, so they decided to do something about it. So they found the leader of the movement to do so, retired Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger, and got him and his associate to let them document their work. It’s quite compelling.

Give Up Tomorrow: Back in 1997, Paco Larrañaga was arrested for a double murder he didn’t commit, could prove he was nowhere near the crime scene, and was convicted anyway in an obvious travesty of a trial that was heavily publicized. Since this was the Philippines’ version of the OJ trial, there’s plenty of video footage lying around. An attack on the Filipino justice system and a call for this guy to be let out of jail, it doesn’t have a happy ending. But this cry for help should embarrass the right people -- at least I hope so.


Koran By Heart: Documentarian Greg Barker covers the World Koranic recitation competition in Cairo, Egypt. This is sort of like an Islamic spelling bee except far more rigorous. The kids highlighted are cute and they try not to keep it totally boring.

Gnarr: Face it, elections are sports, and Icelandic comedian Jon Gnarr decided to satirize local politics by forming his own party and running for Mayor of Reykjavík, But the joke was on him. He had to give up his job and actually become Mayor of Reykjavík. How this happened is an interesting story, and if it hadn’t actually happened, it would have seemed totally bogus. So it’s a fun flick.

Tribeca '11: Horror Flicks

There wasn’t a wealth of horror flicks at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, but several of the ones they did have was choice. There were four memorable ones, two which were really good; one which was really mediocre; and one of which was really bad. Here they are in their order of quality:

This film seems to have been based on an offhand remark by Norway’s Prime Minister (shown at the end of the film) a few years back. Though traditionally a mythical beast, the Troll is treated here as real and this fact is covered up by the government (why is never properly explained) for the safety of the people. For some reason this is the way it always works -- but I don’t know why.

For years people have been looking for a perfect sequel to the Blair Witch Project and, finally, this is it. A trio of wanna-be documentarians manage to get one of Norway’s wildlife management specialists to allow them to film him on his rounds around the Arctic parts of the country, which for the most part consists of culling the troll population that isn’t inside the conservation area. This requires some excellent special effects in an otherwise cheaply made film, and writer/director André Øvredal manages to make everything seamless. It’s riveting!

Directed and written by Dick Maas, this is a cultural treat for the Dutch, who have a different set of holidays and a different version of Santa Claus. This is the original version, where St. Nick is dressed in his bishop garb instead of the American red & white suit. Within the set-up of the film, he’s more understandably evil, and the faux myth works really well. The characters are your typical hero/victims for this genre of flick, and the fact that they’re Dutch and not Californian is a breath of fresh air. It’s about time they did a decent movie set in Amsterdam, and best of all, all the jokes work!

Directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s send up of American slasher films would be considered racist if Israeli jews hadn’t done it. The conceit here is that there is a serial killer, but he’s not responsible for 90% of the mayhem. It tries to be funny and ironic, but the characters are all too unlikeable for anyone to really care one way or the other what happens to them. The jokes, and there are lots of them, for the most part work, but not all that well. Which means that it’s not horrible.

Beyond the Black Rainbow:
This piece of garbage has one interesting thing that makes it watchable: The conceit that the future is over. The film takes place in the 1980s, but not our 1980s. There’s this bizarre woman being held captive by a group of futuristic scientists studying extreme hedonism’s effect on the human psyche. The set looks like it’s the ‘80s imagined in the ‘60s (except some rubes in the woods). The thing makes little sense. There’s a flashback that takes place in the 1960s that is even more futuristic looking and makes even less sense. This one was awful. FEH!

Tribeca '11: Rebranding The Chelsea... Er... Tribeca Film Festival and Street Fair

I know, it’s a tradition, but I think it’s about time that the Tribeca Film Festival should change its name. Most film festivals that call themselves after a certain geographic area usually take place there. But not Tribeca, Nooooooo! It hasn’t actually been there for years.

Okay, take this year for example, where the main venue is in Chelsea, at the corner of 23rd Street and 8th Avenue. This is nowhere near Tribeca. The street festival that’s going to take place during this weekend right next to the venue isn’t there either. Nor is the secondary venue, on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street. The opening film is closer to Tribeca, but the World Financial Center's North Cove Marina is actually in Battery Park City.

The fact that there’s a second street fair that really IS in Tribeca has little to do with it.  98% of the films will have been shown by then, and the hoopla surrounding the event will have already begun to fade. Usually only the people from the neighborhood will show up.

Quite clearly, the Tribeca Film Festival is no longer serving its original purpose, as it’s totally divorced from promoting the actual Tribeca neighborhood. And from what I heard the teensy-weensy Manhattan Film Festival, which is takes place at Symphony Space, (at the corner of West 96th and Broadway) is ripe for the picking since it's grown by leaps and bounds.

The Tribeca people should buy it up and re-brand itself. After all, it’s still in Manhattan. The Chicago Film Festival isn’t in Oak Park, the Miami Film Festival isn’t in Fort Lauderdale, and so Tribeca should either be in Tribeca or be called something else.

It’s only logical.

Tribeca '11: Elton John opens the Show

For the first few years of the Tribeca Film Festival’s existence, back when it was actually still in Tribeca, there was a grand rock concert in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. The tickets were free, but you had to get them in advance, but for those who could actually get in, it was a real treat, better even than the movies! Sadly, sometime around ’04 or ’06, they stopped having them.

This was also about the time that the fest left downtown and moved to other parts of Manhattan. I’ve been pining for the concerts ever since. Well, this year I don’t have to. Elton John has come to the rescue!

This year, the high mucky-mucks have decided that having the opening night gala being a “stars only” event was a really bad idea (something the rest of us have known since back when Pataki was governor), and came up with the idea of a free, under-the-stars opening night screening at the North Cove between the World Financial Center and the River back where it all started. This is an improvement to be sure.

The film shown was called The Union and was a documentary by Cameron Crowe about the making of the eponymous album by the abovementioned Elton John and Leon Russell, who was one of the great rock keyboardists back in the day. He now looks like Santa Claus in ZZ Top drag. The film itself isn’t bad. Crowe uses a bunch of very old clips from here and there to pad the film. The music isn’t bad, but the film is, in fact boring as heck and not a single song is played from beginning to end.

By focusing on the fact that the old geezers aren’t dead yet and not the music as such, this is a film only the hardened fan would like, much less tolerate. To make matters worse, the temperature fell almost 20 degrees and by the end I was really cold. When it was over I got up and ran toward the heated building behind me, when I realized that there was a possibility that Elton John, who introduced the film, would be doing a few tunes afterward.

That was indeed the case and the old queen was in fine form. He did versions of his top five hits and a couple from the new album, and was fantastic. He also bitched about the temperature falling (the forecast said it would be in the '70s), which made me smile because it proved I wasn’t imagining it.

This was the only way to properly open the festival, and I hope they do it again next time.

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