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Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

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Joey Arias in ARIAS WITH A TWIST: A DOCUFANTASY (Photo: Seven menendez)

2010 Tribeca Film Festival: There's No Business Like the Celebrity Business
April 21
May 2 

Many of the documentaries (or docudramas) in the festival focused on celebrities and entertainers, with more leaning towards the fawning hagiography end of the portrait spectrum than others that looked at the famous with more cynicism or used them to make political points.

Vidal Sassoon: The Movie includes many sparkling nuggets of biography about the legendary hairdresser, particularly when the octogenarian revisits the Jewish orphanage where he grew up or proudly shows photos of his service in the Palmach, Israel’s early army. His reminiscences about the Swinging Sixties with Mary Quant, the clothing designer his geometric hair styles were most associated, are marvelous. However, black-and-white reconstructions confusingly blend in with archival documentation.

Arias With a Twist: The Docufantasy profiles two idiosyncratic performers and collaborators. “Twist” is Basil Twist, a third-generation puppeteer whose training, inspirations, and prodigious talent are vividly demonstrated in many clips, delightful interviews, and performances that expand the art of puppetry. More of the film, though, is devoted to the far less modest “Arias,” the downtown performance artist Joey Arias, and his friends and admirers in New York City’s downtown performance art/rock scene from the late 1970’s on, such as Ann Magnuson, who vociferously protests too much that Arias is more than a drag queen. Director Bobby Sheehan includes very touching reminisces of the many denizens who did not survive the AIDS epidemic.

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage is an unabashed advocacy documentary to make the musical and influential case for the induction of Canada’s power trio Rush into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I was convinced—even though directors Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn don’t acknowledge female fans until the closing minute or include my favorite song “Dreamline.” (The film was voted the audience favorite in the festival.) The trajectory and longevity of the almost countertenor singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, intricate guitarist Alex Lifeson, and literate lyricist/drummer Neil Peart surprisingly do not follow the rise-and-fall stereotypes of Behind the Music bio docs. Their cultish fame comes more from impassioned fans, like the devoted and articulate performers interviewed, including Jack Black and Billy Corgan. The film covers the group chronologically, from their start as an early 1970’s high school band in the Toronto suburbs through more than 25 albums, with a trove of clips, memorabilia, and occasional immigrant family insight. This may be the only time you’ll hear a band celebrate the road as a way to discover new book stores in each city on the tour.

sex & drugs & rock & roll is a full blast, warts and all portrait of a rude, crude, best-selling Brit punk rocker, the late Ian Dury. Its frank perspective is a jolting reminder of the lives, like Dury’s, scarred by polio before the development of the vaccine 50 years ago. Director Mat Whitecross, who pushed the limits of documentary in The Road to Guantanamo, sustains realism in the fictionalization through meticulous details. The abused, crippled young Ian is portrayed by an actor with cerebral palsy, but most striking is the extraordinary performance by Andy Serkis—physically, emotionally, and musically. (He rerecorded songs with Dury’s original band, the Blockheads, including the 1979 hit singles “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons To Be Cheerful”). Tribeca’s Video on Demand is showcasing the film before a limited theatrical run.

The Last Play at Shea sentimentally intertwines the biography of pop superstar Billy Joel with the story of Shea Stadium as they came together in 2008 for the last concerts held there before its demolition. Creatively, both of their stories are viewed in the context of the rise of the baby boomers and the suburbanization of working-class New York, illustrated with cute animations and some archival footage (with au courant revisionist approval of Shea’s master-builder Robert Moses’s construction projects). In addition to plenty of the usual game highlights and Mets memories for sports fans and the official spin on Joel’s ups and downs familiar from the tabloids, a longtime groundskeeper keeps the documentary segments (directed by Paul Crowder) amusingly grounded. The concert excerpts (directed by Jon Small) feature guest stars who resonate with the stadium’s history, from Queens native Tony Bennett dueting with Joel on “New York State of Mind” to the ecstatic climactic medley with Paul McCartney that commemorates the Beatles’ famous performance there in 1965. As a big-budget entertainment, several versions of the film will be released.

Two documentaries in the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival contrast the different sides of sports as entertainment—recreational fun for regular guys vs. the big business that turns celebrity into notoriety. Freetime Machos is a fun Finnish take on what Americans call “weekend warriors.” Near the North Pole, an engaging group of guys play the rough and unpopular sport of rugby to inoculate them from being what Americans would call metrosexuals. The film particularly focuses on two close friends (Americans would call it a bromance). Following the team during what could be their last season—if they keep losing—director Mika Ronkainen adds a serious layer of the psychological ramifications of job cuts at the local Nokia operation to the usual hale-and-hearty camera mugging and sexual braggadocio.

The Two Escobars revisits Columbia’s notorious “narco soccer” era of the 1980’s-1990’s. The lives of two men who happened to share the same last name and their country’s passion for soccer represent two extremes—the handsome national team captain Andrés Escobar and the drug cartel baron Pablo Escobar. Andrés is pretty much nominated for sainthood by the time his crucial error in an intense World Cup game raises him to martyrdom. As they did in Favela Rising, directors Michael Zimbalist and Jeff Zimbalist vividly get the criminals’ viewpoint in jaw-dropping, descriptive interviews. Relatives and colleagues of Pablo, including an incarcerated braggart aide de camp, track the escalating carnage, supported by extensive TV news and surveillance footage. Their perspective keeps this above the usual TV magazine episode. It will be shown on ESPN next month as part of the 30 for 30 anniversary series.

A couple of documentaries use celebrities to entertain the audience while making political points. Gerrymandering makes amusing a complicated, arcane legal issue that has affected every American since the Founding Fathers authorized a decennial census to update Congressional districts. Filling out that form last month was only step one for this call to action. Debut documentarian Jeff Reichert goes through history and around the country to expose how state legislatures torture the numbers into egregious geometry to their individual benefit (the graphics are quite telling). With a barrage of experts and victims on both sides of the aisle, he covers the major controversies with varying degrees of clarity—lines redrawn to favor incumbents and eliminate specific challengers; non-voting prisoners who count as rural residents; and the ambiguities of racially drawn lines (including a re-districting that benefited State Senator Obama’s career). The dramatic arc is structured around a ballot initiative, California Proposition 11, which called for a citizens commission to draw new boundaries instead of the legislature. Because legal stars like Harvard Professor Lani Guiner and political stars like former Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean don’t carry Hollywood heft, way too much flattering attention is given to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s electioneering for the measure, with only passing consideration of his motives.

Just Like Us puffs up its political significance of reaching out to young Muslims. It crosses Albert Brooks’s fictional Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World with Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show, which included two of the comedians on this crowded tour of the Middle East. Director/featured performer Ahmed Ahmed seems to ignore centuries of human culture by defining comedy only as modern stand-up, yet it’s enjoyable to observe how the multi-national, Arab-American comedians glean material for their acts from their hectic visits around each city (mostly by astutely watching the flirting rituals of young folk.) As to censorship issues, when a nervous cast member asks how far he can go on stage, he’s advised to use the same standards as when performing on The Tonight Show.

Far removed from Washington, D.C.’s celebrities, The Other City matter-of-factly, yet movingly reveals a cross-section behind the stark statistics that make HIV/AIDS an epidemic in the capital’s population. Director Susan Koch captures varied stories that illustrate how broadly the virus has cut a devastating swath through the city (white/black/Latino, male/female, gay/straight). They are particularly candid about how relationships with older or abusive partners put them at risk for infection, and how that fuels their determination to help others not fall into the same pattern of behavior. The unending memorial services at a hospice are sobering reminders that the cocktails of miracle medicines can still fail. These men and women are far more heroic than any show biz celebrity. Nora Lee Mandel
May 7, 2010



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