Saturday, May 2, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 9

Spike Lee’s new documentary, Kobe Doin’ Work, is a great movie for sports fans and a passable one for the rest of us; when it was over, I was still ready for a new Spike Lee joint. Make no mistake, it does what it does very well—presumably as well as it could possibly be done. What may come into question is whether it needed to be done at all.

The conceit of the film is right there in the title—this is Kobe going to the office. It takes place over the course of one evening, during one important game (playing the Spurs in the Staples Center on April 13, 2008). Lee and his cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique (Pi, Iron Man), shadow Bryant as he suits up, stretches, watches game tape with Jackson, and gets ready for the game. Once it begins, they put 30 cameras on the game and put a wireless mic on Bryant, getting into his space and his head during an important play-off game.

Bryant does extemporaneous narration throughout—a device that’s a little off-putting at first. It’s something akin to watching a movie for the first time with the audio commentary on (and many of his comments have that same kind of tone—“This is funny watching because I didn’t realize I talk all that damn much”). Once you get used to it, however, it does work, and he provides some real insight into his strategies for defense and pacing himself, as well as the moment-to-moment play of the game. In general, the film’s use of sound is masterful; Lee does some experimenting in the design, occasionally isolating effects; in one key moment, he takes out every sound but the bouncing of the ball and the swish of the net, nicely augmented by Bruce Hornsby’s charming score (it’s a jazzy piano number that kind of reminded me of Dave Grusin’s music for The Firm).

The cutting is fast-paced without going overboard; it moves, yes, and the multi-camera set-up is fully exploited, but this isn’t an MTV job. Lee stays with shots during slower moments and lingers on close-ups when necessary. Visually, the film is at its best when Spike stops worrying about the game and starts to play around—he trots out some pretty inventive tricks. Slow motion is used at a couple of key moments but not abused; on a couple of other occasions, he shows a play or a trick move in a series of black and white stills rather than moving images (shades of his very first feature, She’s Gotta Have It). The only problem is, when Lee isn’t playing with his photography and having fun with his effects, it feels like we’re just watching a game on a movie screen. It’s a good game, and an expertly photographed and assembled one, but it’s a movie of a game nonetheless. For some people, that idea is very exciting. I found myself wishing Spike had found a few more devices that would keep his movie-nerd fans interested.

* * *

Yoav Shamir’s Defamation is a fascinatingly honest and open personal documentary that seldom steps wrong until its final moments, when he kind of blows it (more on that presently). Shamir, an Israeli director, takes on the broad and difficult concept of anti-Semitism—specifically, is it a prevalent and terrifying threat that could tip the world into another Holocaust, or a scare tactic used for purposes of guilt, fundraising, and attention to agendas?

The truth of the matter is, it’s somewhere in between. Shamir’s film is distinctively homemade (right down to the handwriting style of the on-screen text), but he certainly doesn’t lack for ambition; he travels from Israel to America to Moscow to Poland to points in between, talking to school kids, fellow journalists, activists, professors, and his slightly crazy grandmother.

His interview strategy is one of the simplest but most effective: he lets people keep talking. An astonishing percentage of the time, even the most reasoned and thoughtful interview subject, allowed the rope of uninterrupted camera time, will proceed to hang themselves. He talks to a couple that represent the West coast branch of the Anti-Defamation League, and they end up confessing that they don’t agree with a lot of what they’re supposed to agree with. ADL head Abe Foxman seems an incredibly bright and effective guy, but he’ll occasionally carry his logic to a realm that can only be called paranoia. Most disturbingly, author Norman Finkelstein gives a piercing rebuke to “warmongers from the Hamptons” which had people in our theatre laughing and cheering—and then he proceeds to compare Foxman to Hitler, a comparison that he only withdraws because it “isn’t fair to Hitler.”

Shamir manages to be fair and still personal; he lets everyone say their piece, as borderline insane as it may turn out to be. It’s occasionally worrisome but, it seems, accurate—there are no good guys and bad guys in the film, no easy targets, no black or white. It’s all shades of grey, too complex and difficult for easy designations.

That’s why his final voice-over is such a misfire. Throughout the film, he has followed a group of Israeli students as they prepare for an extended trip to visit the sites of the Holocaust’s greatest crimes. Early in the trip, there is a riveting sequence where they visit a concentration camp and feel horrible—but only for not getting more emotional. Later, however, they go Auschwitz, and it is powerful and moving. Shamir doesn’t interfere, doesn’t ask so much as a question. He hangs back and observes. But then, in the final scene, he offers up a brief and not-terribly-insightful voice-over, wrapping it up with his take on the issue. The film, and the issues it addresses, are too inscrutable for that, and the efficacy of the final sequence doesn’t require a director to come in and tell us what to think. We’ve put it together for ourselves—and some of us may have arrived at a different conclusion than he does.

* * *

In the nearly-perfect film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, the hero gets over a new break-up by comparing it unfavorably to his “top five break-ups,” which he takes us on a tour of. In that film, it’s an effective device for setting up the character and his hang-ups. In Julian Kemp’s My Last Five Girlfriends (which tries so hard to be Hornby-esque, it’s almost embarrassing), that’s the whole movie. Which is not to say that it’s doesn’t have its own charms—it does. You just wish it would get out of its own way after a while.

The trouble is, Kemp is trying too damn hard to be clever. They’re constantly stopping the movie with these asides and bits and devices and little jokes to break things up. Some, especially those towards the beginning, are genuinely funny (like a detailed analysis of exactly what the odds are of Duncan and the first of the five meeting on an airplane); others (like the film’s extended motif of a visit to “Duncan World,” an amusement park of his neurosis) are, to put it politely, a stretch.

And that is not to say that it is without some pleasures. In general, it’s a bright, candy-colored pop confection, and all of the performers are good-looking and charming and funny in that lovely British way of theirs. But it’s often too self-consciously cute for its own good, and that hurts the narrative; it’s so fast-paced and in such a hurry to dazzle us with all of its little tricks, we don’t actually find out much about Duncan (Brendan Patricks) or these women or their relationships. They just provide a construct for all of Kemp’s little skits.

The sole exception is Gemma (played by the charismatic Naomie Harris), the final of the five. Her character is actually well-developed and has some meat for her to play, and there is some very good material in their section—most of which is played straight, without all the artifice. It gives you an idea of what the film could have been, if Kemp trusted his characters and his material.

But at least that comes towards the end, so the stronger third act (and the satisfying if predictable ending) may give the film a stronger overall impression than it deserves. There are some laughs and insights in it, and it has some smart performances, and some people may even like all the gimmicks. It’s fun, I guess, as long as you don’t think about it too much.

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