Doc Holiday

05.08.11

Alma Har'el, Bombay Beach, 2011, still from a color film, 80 minutes.


WITH A SLATE divided roughly 40/60 percent between nonfiction and fiction films, any foray into the Tribeca Film Festival this year was bound to involve documentary. And an unlucky sampling of dramas could make the docs portion seem all the more engaging. Swede Lisa Aschan’s World Narrative Competition award-winner She Monkeys, for example, was an assured yet inert depiction of two teenage equestrian frenemies, its young actors incapable of sustaining our interest in the trickle of revelation and humiliation (periodically stopped dead by a tone-deaf side plot about a younger sister’s awkward sexual stirrings). Putative showstopper Beyond the Black Rainbow, an anesthetizing megadose of shoestring futuristic dystopia, demonstrated director Panos Cosmatos’s complete and utter mastery of … two or three visual effects. Rwanda trauma meta-drama Grey Matter, in recounting the efforts of a young filmmaker and the grim postwar drama he is struggling to get made, failed to revivify clichés of artistic struggle and madness.

On the other side of the doc/fiction line, Bombay Beach (also a prize-winner) offered an acute chronicle of hard times on California’s dilapidated Salton Sea community, leavened with staged dance sequences. Israeli director Alma Har’el, who also makes music videos, pulls in an ambitious spread of personalities from American past, present, and future. Perhaps none is so poignant as the divergent portrait of youths: there’s the teenager looking to get out through football and currently deep into a bout of puppy love, and then there’s the pint-sized son of an excon, a serious-looking boy zonked on psychotropic cocktails that seem to be slowly flattening his off-the-wall spirit. Shadowing their two portraits is the ancient Depression veteran who makes money reselling cigarettes, the epitome of a go-it-alone survivor, a maverick on his own terms. A fascinating bookend to the hardscrabble Americana was Eva Mulvad’s The Good Life, about a Danish mother and daughter—the once rich and now flat-broke Beckmanns, living abroad in Portugal—whose insularity will inevitably elicit comparisons to the two Edies of Grey Gardens. Markedly less eccentric, their “plight” is epitomized by the baby-faced middle-aged daughter’s blinkered sense of entitlement, toxic arrested development, and bewildering flashes of self-awareness. But the film (Mulvad has called her subjects “bad at being poor”) leaves a viewer feeling queasy about all the class-reinforcing voyeurism.

A rollicking run of old-fashioned escapism was available to the Tribeca-goer who caught Tsui Hark’s Tang Dynasty adventure yarn Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. From the introduction of the premise (the empress’s underlings keep bursting into flames) on through the early moment when a deer opens his mouth to make an oracular pronouncement, you know you’re in good hands, with a rejuvenated Tsui happily embracing a world where the fantastical is second nature.

Nicolas Rapold