It mixes documentary naturalism and observation with artful peculiarity and an offhandedly surreal quality. I’ve never seen a film quite like it. This is a compliment.
The story—a triptych of desperate characters living in the area near the Salton Sea—has some pat elements (and, to be fair, some surprises), but the snug, warm cinematography, heavy on shallow focus and hanging-out ease, is what gives the picture its grace. Har'el has a cockeyed way of framing and capturing events that gives them an oddball, almost Lynchian quality. Her camera is capturing rather startling poverty, and the camera dances right up to the edge of fetishizing that poverty, but it never takes the plunge.
Every frame of Bombay Beach conveys the essence of the place, and the spirit of these people. They are flawed, some of them quite deeply. But they live and breath, on that screen and off it, and Har’el treats them, in spite of those flaws, with respect and even a dash of reverence. Afterwards, you can’t get them out of your head. This is an extraordinary film.
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ESPN Films does it again with Renée, ostensibly a sports documentary, but about much more than the playing of a game. Director Eric Drath profiles Renée Richards, the female tennis contender who was revealed, in the summer of 1976, to have been born Richard Raskind. A doctor, father, and amateur tennis player, he underwent surgical sexual reassignment in 1975 and went on the women’s circuit as Renée. But it’s not just the story of her fight to play tennis, or of the legal battle that gave her that right. Renée is all wrapped up in sexual identity and familial obligations, as well as the sexual politics of the 1970s and how media played into them. And it is a character study, of (warning: incoming understatement) a very complicated individual.
Renée doesn’t just see Renée Richards as a transgender hero, or a sports trailblazer, or (as a lesser film might have) a freak. It sees her as a complicated, confused, psychologically haphazard human being. It is interesting how, in these current interviews, Richards often speaks of herself in the third person. When we see a modern athlete doing that, we presume it’s ego. With Richards, there’s a good chance that she still doesn’t know exactly who “Renée” is.
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The documentary format has taken on so many frills and trills over the past few years that it’s almost a surprise to see one that operates in such a straight-forward fashion as The Loving Story, which basically bounces back and forth between archival footage and modern talking heads. It’s not a terribly innovative or particularly exhilarating way to make a documentary these days; at times, it plays more like an episode of PBS’s American Experience than a feature film. Then again, American Experience is an awfully good show—and Nancy Buirski has made a fine film. It may not blow your hair back, but it tells an important story simply and effectively.
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Gaby Dellal’s Angels Crest has a palpable feeling of unease in its opening scenes. But after that, Dellal quickly loses control of the narrative; much wailing and gnashing of teeth follows the death of a young child, underscored by sad music and overstated by swing-for-the-fences acting. The narrative tries to encompass an entire town, but it’s nearly wrecked by the abundance of dead-end scenes, which appear and sort of plod around without going anywhere.
There are pieces of a good film inside Angels Crest—mostly those involving Mira Sorvino (always good) and Jeremy Piven, who turns in a clear, straight-ahead performance of real power and instinct. But the canvas is too wide, sketched in with too many underdeveloped subplots and characters, and not enough discipline in the performances of its younger actors. It’s a good-looking film with potential, but that’s about all it’s got.
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Tomorrow, look for my reviews of the intriguing what-if-Butch-Cassidy-didn’t-really-die Western Blackthorn and three more documentaries: Gone, The Swell Season, and The Revenge of the Electric Car.