Tribeca Film Fest: Must-see picks
New Yorkers are standing in long lines--or playing the 'don't you know who I am?!' card--as the Tribeca Film Festival gets underway with its usual mix of dazzling small films and interesting major productions.
And the normal geographic confusion--this year it seems most of the 120 feature films from 31 different countries are actually screening in the East Village.
* See an interview with Bart Got a Room director Brian Hecker (and yes, see William Macy's Jewfro)
* Click here for fellow film fanatic Emily Ngo's interview with acclaimed director Robert Drew about his recut documentary, 'A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy'--and the comparisons with Barack Obama.
And my early favorites thru Tribeca's first weekend--from Muslim women playing soccer to fighting with chicken, crab and halibut--are after the jump.Football Under Cover
This documentary about a German and an Iranian women's soccer teams struggling to play a match in Tehran is exactly what you want out of a film fest: a peek into the lives of strangers more interesting than yourself, but whom--it turns out--you can totally relate to.
Because it's about women playing soccer I'm forced to mention it's as stirring and memorable as Bend it Like Beckham... but without the cloying sweetness and pat resolutions.
The players include Marlene, a sweet but determined German who comes up with the idea for the match and faces down bureaucrats and pigheaded men to make it happen.
And Narmila, a pretty student at one of Iran's top colleges who learned soccer from her mom, plays the electric guitar and seems to dress entirely in things that have the Nike logo on them (except for her mandatory headscarf).
The film gives New Yorkers the rare chance to see what ordinary Iranian people are really like--the food, the culture, the great pride, the strong women, the sly humor, the stubborness, and of course the tensions between the regime's version of Islam and people's desire to lead fulfilling, normal lives.
There are some mesmerizing scenes near the beginning of the film of driving through nightime Tehran, set to a jazz soundtrack. And the directors skillfully intercut shots of the penultimate soccer match (played entirely in modest Islamic dress by both teams) with those of rambunctious, horn-blowing, protesting fans in the stands (all women).
It's a must-see; and afterwards, you gotta go out for chelo kebab (or bratwurst and beers).
The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab
Speaking of food... "My priorities are chicken, crab, and halibut. What about my girlfriend?
Oh! Well, chicken, crab, halibut, and then my girlfriend."
So says one of the chefs preparing for the Oympics of cooking, the Bocuse d'Or competition.
And indeed, master chef JesÃºs Almagro--head of the Spanish team at the 24-nation competition--spends much of this documentary obsessed with the 2007 contest's chosen ingredients, as he and his all-star collection of chef friends frantically search for the perfect recipes and techniques in the months leading up to the high-pressure competition.
If you think you've had bad meetings at work, wait until you see the withering criticism Almagro stomachs when he presents his first efforts.
His fellow chefs, determined to end Spain's 20-year victory drought, stand in a ring around his offerings and rip everything from the taste to the shape to the color to the chosen plates for his dishes.
But even after an unbelievable amount of hard work that tops anything you've ever seen in Kitchen Stadium, it's not until--sacrebleu!--the proud Spanish chefs bring in a turncoat ex-winner from France that Almagro's team really starts cooking with gas.
The finale shows the best of the best sharing laughs, grimaces, and best dishes, with the winner raising high a golden statue of legendary chef Paul Bocuse.
Which, oddly, looks a bit like Oscar after one too many five-course meals.
My Marlon and Brando
How far would you go for love? The real-life heroine of My Marlon and Brando was willing to slip into Iraq at the start of the 2003 war.
The film is based on the frustrating and poignant struggle of the leading actress, AyÃ§a Damgaci, to be with her Kurdish beloved.
She left her home in Istanbul and made her way alone to the Turkey-Iraq border, before being forced to detour their meeting to a small village in Iran.
Damgaci isn't what you'd expect as a romantic lead--she's cherubic, hot-tempered (screaming at an elderly neighbor at one point; justifiably, I'd say), and almost ruthless in her desperate pursuit of companionship.
Director HÃ¼seyin Karabey follows along as Damgaci retraces her harrowing journey, mixing CNN Turkey coverage of the buildup to war with the actual 'video postcards' sent out of Iraq by Damgaci's boyfriend to create a faux documentary in the style of Iranian directors Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Or, This is Spinal Tap, just without the zaniness.
Karabey revealed after the screening that a major moment in the film was not based on the real story at all, but came out of his desire to put a face on the nearly 3/4 million Iraqis who have died in the war.
Playing for Change: Peace Through Music
"When you play on the streets, you don't have a particular audience--you have all the world coming to you," says Clarence Bekker, a street musician from the Netherlands.
And I think all the world should see the opening sequence of this global music documentary--it's absolutely one of the best things I've ever seen in a movie theater.
A street musician in Santa Monica, California starts singing a plaintive version of Stand By Me; through the magic of digital editing a deep-voiced singer in New Orleans is layered in, followed by singers from all over Europe, South Africa, India, Tibet, Native Americans....
By the end of it more than 35 diverse musicians from 18 locations can be heard doing Ben E. King's classic, in a variety of languages and vocal styles. It gave me goosebumps--and the audience gave it an ovation when it ended.
After that amazing start the 76 minute documentary, culled from more than 200 hours of footage, meanders a bit, with a fuzzy narrative and a lack of backstory about some of the musicians who flash on screen. (You can find some of their biographies on the website.)
And although the sound quality is wonderful--the filmmakers dragged their studio equipment around the world and miked all the performers to make sure it sounds like we're there--I think there is a tradeoff when musicians caught on the street sound so crystal-clear.
You lose the ambience, some of the sense of place; it's weird not to hear traffic noises when you can see cars passing, and jarring to see the performers wearing headphones under sunshine.
Indeed, the filmmakers sometimes even pluck the musicians away from their people, posing them against backdrops that--while beautiful--seem sterile compared to the energy of scenes actually shot in the streets.
But these are just things that keep the film from becoming great; it's still good.
You'll walk out remembering not just the Stand By Me sequence, but also the electrifying sitar player in India, the almost-Biblical power of musicians in New Orleans, the oh-so-cool drummer perched on a porch in the Congo, the bewitching Tula in Israel, the Cuban musician making music from a tube of bright red industrial plastic in Spain....
And for a taste of the film, check out this interview by my uber-colleague Lauren Johnston with Playing for Change's directors, Jonathan Walls and Mark Johnson.
All film stills courtesy the filmmakers, via Tribeca Film Festival