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Archive for May 19th, 2019

Scottish documentary “Scheme Birds”

by Sam Juliano

Following is a listing and short commentaries for my Top 15 Feature Films of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, which concluded two weeks ago:

  1.  Scheme Birds (documentary; Scotland)  The final day of the festival included a screening of the raw and searing Scottish, narrative-styled documentary, directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellimor Hallin, which is a metaphorical, poetic and sensory coming of age tale in an impoverished Scottish hamlet where blistering indictment of the Scottish welfare system plays out. A piercing voiceover narration and searing visuals make a powerful, unforgettable statement.
  2. Meeting Gorbachev (documentary, USA)  Another Werner Herog documentary tour de force on the famed Nobel Prize winning, now 88 year-old former leader of the Soviet Union, a reformer who promoted ‘glasnost’ (openness) and one committed to ending the Cold War.  Gorbachev was the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union before the communist government was replaced.  Herzog’s probing investigation in fascinating interviews and his ever-present black humor (notable in three successive funerals for aging Soviet leaders) make for one of the best documentaries of recent years.
  3. The Place of No Words (narrative, UK) A unique and creative feature which takes viewers into another dimension, one that seamlessly blends fantasy and realism to answer the age-old question, “what happens after one dies?” A father battles a terminal illness, but utilizes the time he has left to transport his young son (Bodhi Palmer in an extraordinary performance) into a wooded hamlet where monsters and menacing creatures meet their travel at all turns. Filled with visual wonderment and underlined by a lovely score, the films build valid emotion in a world where the human spirit emerges triumphant.
  4. The Apollo (documentary, USA) is a rousing celebration of one of the nation’s most beloved and influential landmarks. A stirring investigation of black America directed by Roger Ross Williams is an electrifying and soulful history of the 85 year-old theater on 125th that was closed, rescued, closed again and rescued again (by the state) after decades of hosting some of the most amazing acts in black music like “Amateur Night,” Motown groups and soloists, budding childhood stars like Stevie Wonder, James Brown, who was waked in the theater and whose music was a guiding light and even a charismatic appearance by Barack Obama. Everything in African-American music stopped here, and Williams does a fabulous job integrating and encapsulating the advent of the civil rights movement and how economics will always chart the long term course of any entertainment entity. Never less than deeply moving and informative this revered institution could hardly have been given a more accessible and impassioned treatment.
  5. 17 Blocks (documentary, USA) An unconscionable tragic act transformed a home movie-styled family chronicle into an urban exploration of how those shattered by the unspeakable can turn around their own lives and pick up the creative baton. A chance meeting at a Washington D.C. basketball court launches a decades long friendship and video investigation of a family under siege from the urban maladies of drug abuse, poverty and violence. Director Davy Rothbart developed a profound relationship with the Sanford family and helped aspiring filmmaker Emmanuelle hone his own skills until in an instant the their world came crashing down. The film’s title identified the distance from the blighted neighborhood and the Capital rotunda, but the irony of course is that any semblance of normality and safety is many miles from fruition. One of the best films of the festival this naked and heartfelt work leaves you gutted. There is a sense of urgency projected by the unrefined footage and inconsistent sound, but this tends to heighten the realism.
  6. Luce (narrative, USA)  Directed by Julius Onal, and starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, this high school drama proposes that the audience serve as jury in a subversive story about a dynamic and personable African-American (the adoptive son of white parents) who is under surveillance by a school guidance counselor (Octavia Spencer) who si convinced of the boy’s guilt.  A superbly written and subtly directed piece of work.
  7. Gay Chorus Deep South (documentary, USA)  300 choral singers from San Francisco travel to the deepest southern states to forge some common ground and erase a good measure of the hate and bigotry that made a comeback in the last few years for obvious reasons. Some individual stories of chorus members ostracized by their family and their church, there are some achingly poignant human moments and several musical segments are extraordinarily moving. Directed by Charles Rodrigues, the film captured the coveted Audience Award for Best documentary of the festival.
  8. House of Hummingbird  (narrative; South Korea) This acute coming of age Korean drama may be the most beautifully photographed film of the festival and yesterday it won Best International Narrative film from the jury as well as Best Cinematography. The focus is a 14 year-old girl and a dysfunctional family and the long, elegiac, multi-layered film by Kim Bora is remarkably observational and impressively acted.
  9. Our Time Machine (documentary, China) is a superlative and brilliantly shot documentary on puppet makers and a family’s aging patriarch that is culturally captivating and visually rapturous.  The Best Cinematography Award the Tribeca jurors bestowed upon it was richly deserved.
  10. Changing the Game (documentary, USA) Mack Beggs won two state wrestling championships in Texas, but at the same time he is a transitioning from female to male in this riveting investigation of the social constrictions facing transgender athletes. The superlative documentary also features two others who transition from male to female and how their families and society at large respond to the metamorphosis. The stories are intertwined, with Beggs’ is the most fascinating but all work and support the theme beautifully. The bigoted Texas lawmakers’ insistence on Beggs wrestling other girls as per “gender at birth” sets off controversy on all fronts. The director and cast all showed up at this premiere screening and engaged in a captivating Q & A.
  11.  Dreamland (narrative, USA)  Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, this revisionist, dust bowl “Bonnie and Clyde” styled crime drama is taut and entertaining even with some familiar narrative and twists.  Eugene Evans, a naïve Texas teen who ran off with on-the-law beauty Allison Wells and wound up etched beside her legend in history is the basic premise and Margot Robbie and the film’s cinematographer are luminous.
  12.  For They Know Not What They Do (documentary, USA) is Daniel Karslake’s powerful and poignant follow-up to his award-winning 2008 “For the Bible Tells Me So” and it features a quartet of gay and trans-gendered teenagers who receive varying baptisms under fire in this quest for acceptance and love from their initially shocked families. The deeply moving film includes the Pulse nightclub massacre which affects one of the gay boys, trans-gendered Sarah McBride’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention and the decent of one teenager into drugs and an early passing after failed conversion therapy.
  13. One Child Nation (documentary, China/USA) Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, this largely disturbing examination of China’s infamous one-child police in practice from 1979 till 2015 paints a bleak portrait of forced abortions, abandonment, home destruction and its permanent impact of Chinese society and those children growing up in other countries with no way to trace their lineage. The aching and absorbing documentary won the Jury Prize and Sundance and is making the rounds and deeply affecting those who can’t even fathom how such an edict could even be instituted for whatever its tactical benefits would be in an overcrowded nation. The penalties enacted against those breaking the law are unconscionable and in some cases parents must participate in the government’s harshest resolves. The film is impressively crafted and makes harrowing use of a chart of the endless number of children who are de-personalized and are identified only by number.
  14. Noah Land (narrative, Turkey) by Cent Erturk never really establishes a central focus and it clearly borrows heavily from Turkish master Ceylan, but still offers up a mostly intense drama about ownership and funeral rites in an impoverished village.
  15. White as Snow (narrative, France)  Isabelle Huppert plays a wicked stepmother in this tale of initial innocence morphing into carnal sexuality in a powerful tale of feminism based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Our young protagonist Claire is a stunning beauty who retires her tame demeanor to revel in her sexuality and must ultimately decides between her seven conquests and her re-appearing caretaker. A slowly enveloping drama beautifully filmed sensually underscored. Directed by Anne Fontaine.

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