Thursday, April 28, 2011

#TribecaFest Report: Days 7-8

Hey look guys, it’s Michael Rapaport from Friends and Boston Public and Big Fan and Bamboozled. And he’s the director of Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, one of the best documentaries of a festival that’s full of them.

The Tribe released five great albums in eight years, but then they fell apart; “the chemistry was dead,” Phife explains now, and the steadily-mounting differences between he and Q-Tip led to, in Phife’s words, “a bitter break-up” in 1998. Ten years later, they reunited to headline Rock the Bells, and Rapaport’s cameras capture that contentious period, seeming to document the conflicts blow by blow—backstage fights, beefing in media, creating an infectious disharmony (when members of De La Soul are asked if it will be the Tribe’s last tour, one immediately replies, “I hope it is!”). The film almost becomes their Let It Be; there’s a bubbling power in those concert scenes, which are shot in close and up tight, studying the complexity of what’s happening between these guys.

But the gossipy Tip-said/Phife-said stuff is far from the film’s primary attraction. Rapaport assembles a remarkable group of artists to comment on the Tribe, those they influenced and those who influenced them, discussing with keen insight exactly what it was that made the group so fresh and new. And in just a few minutes of screen time, Rapaport (and his editors and subjects) wonderfully evoke that period of rap music that these guys came up in the heart of. The picture taps into the excitement of that moment in hip-hop music and hip-hop culture; it remembers what it is to crouch near your tape deck ready to hit pause when a good jam comes on (Ali even remembers the difficulty of tuning a non-digital radio). Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is a breathlessly entertaining movie; it moves quickly and nimbly, conjuring up a wonderful moment and letting us enjoy it one more time.

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Also worth seeing is a documentary profile of a very different musical perfomer. Dori Berinstein’s documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life spotlights the 90-year-old theatrical legend, and she’s delightful—charming and funny, and a terrific storyteller (and who else is still around who can tell a story about Edward G. Robinson?). Her persona is comically over the top, and she certainly is not the most wide-ranging actor; as Bob Mackie points out, Carol was always basically playing Carol. But she played Carol awfully well. In the film, Chita Rivera calls her “a force of nature”—and she knows from forces of nature.

Full of great stories and priceless vintage TV performances, Carol Channing: Larger Than Life is a cheeky treat, entertaining and skillfully crafted—the bridging animations (adapted from Al Hirschfeld’s drawings) are marvelous, and an early montage, in which Channing gets young and younger via intercut performances of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is lovely. There aren’t a lot of performers who can honestly be called “living legends,” and Channing is one of them. The film skips over some interesting stuff, but if Carol Channing: Larger than Life leaves us wanting more of her, well, that’s probably an accomplishment.

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Shakespeare High stirred the Drama Nerd deep inside your correspondent. In my home state, we didn’t have anything like the Drama Teachers Association of California Shakespeare Festival and Competition, in which students from across Southern California gather to present eight-minute cuttings from the Bard’s work. There are no costumes allowed; props and sets are also forbidden. All that the students—in groups of four to six—get are four chairs and a script. While I don’t know this particular gathering, but I know this thing, this combination of athletic competition and geeking out over theatre. At my school, we did forensics, so all the film’s talk of score tabulation and breaking to semi-finals and dubiously qualified judges took me back a good twenty years. (Lord, am I old.)

Director Alex Rotaru tracks teams from several different schools: the inner-city charter school, a girls’ catholic school, a competitive performing arts magnet, the team to beat from the middle of nowhere. If the film has a serious flaw, it is that its canvas is too big; I understand intellectually what Rotaru is doing by introducing us to so many characters, but because the first half of the film is so busy, we only forge real emotional connections to a couple of them—in contrast to the strong bonds we have to so many of the students in, say, Pressure Cooker. But we know them well enough to be pulling for them by the time the film arrives at the final rounds; as in Spellbound, the up-close coverage of the competition lends helpful suspense to the closing scenes.

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Julien Leclercq’s The Assault depicts the true story of the Christmas 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 by four terrorists. With its bleached-out color scheme and you-are-there handheld recreation of a real event, is just asking for comparisons to Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and (especially) United 93. It doesn’t hold up well under that rubric; the film is slick and professional, but doesn’t pack the visceral intensity and sheer emotional power of those works. But it has its moments.

Most come at the film’s climax, which has a thudding, disconcerting inevitability—it’s not thrilling (not in any conventional sense, anyway), but it is bluntly effective. I’ve occasionally taken in foreign action films at film festivals that seemed to be there only by virtue of being subtitled (and by the way, distributors: yellow subtitles, please); had they been made in America, they’d just be another action movie. But this climactic sequence spotlights the differences between French and American cinema. In stark contrast to the rah-rah of most American action pictures, this one is mournful and wrenching, the music little more than a single-chord dirge. As a result, the scene is troublesome, and rather haunting. The Assault ends beautifully. It’s just that it’s a bit of a haul to get there.

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The Vicious Brothers’ Grave Encounters is a modestly clever riff on a film we’ve seen many, many times before. It takes us back to the “found footage horror movie” realm, the land of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, and The Last Exorcism. But the opening sequences have enough of a sly sense of humor that our hopes are lifted, just a little, but ultimately degenerates into what we’ve come to expect: night-vision photography, shaky handheld camerawork, and screeching, expletive-filled acting.

Some of it f is clever. What it is not, though, is all that scary. They finally start to get some tension going in the third act, and even work in a good jump or two (and a couple of gross-outs as well). But it falls apart at the end, which is too bad. In those early scenes, Grave Encounters had promise. It almost seemed like they were doing a wry satire of an overdone genre, when they were really just revving up for a trip down the same damn road.

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Black Butterflies is an uneasy meshing of sex drama, political tract, and father/daughter melodrama; it tries to do everything, and does nothing well. It is ostensibly a biography of Ingrid Jonker, the South African poet whose most famous piece was read aloud by Nelson Mandela in his first speech to South Africa’s first democratic parliament in 1991. Director Paula van der Oest plays that Mandela audio at the end of the film; it gives the picture a credibility that it otherwise doesn’t earn. Until then, the picture is basically a pretentious bore.

As Jonker, Carice van Houten is good, but by the end of the film, we’re simply tired of her. She’s an insufferable protagonist—but not in a compelling or even diverting way. She’s just a brat. A gifted brat, perhaps, but not enough that we care about her, or the soap opera entanglements and breakaways of her and Cope or her other beaus. We need not always have a likable or sympathetic lead, particularly in biographical films (see the finest biopic ever made, Raging Bull). But in lieu of that, we must have a filmmaker with something interesting to tell us about that character, or their time. Here, the Apartheid politics are mostly window dressing. In spite of the plentiful nudity, there’s not much happening of interest. It’s handsomely mounted, painfully sincere, and just dull as toast.

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We’re down to the home stretch; only a couple of reviews coming tomorrow, but you will get my full report on the “Tribeca Talks” conversation between Martin Scorsese and Souleymane Cissé. ‘Twill be awesome.

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