A few good docs always emerge from Tribeca. Yet emerging from any film festival with strong reviews and a distribution deal doesn’t mean that anyone will see the film.
Tribeca, with its ear to the ground, recognized that other festivals didn’t take the sports documentary – or jockumentary–seriously. With support from ESPN and others Tribeca has seized the opportunity. The sports docs are now at the core of the Tribeca program.
“Lenny Cooke” is one of them. This much-awaited doc by the Safdie brothers (nephews of the Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie) takes us to a familiar story. But this specific sad journey from potential to present will get under your skin.
Cooke, a prodigiously promising kid from New York who came up with skills comparable to those of LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony (two of the top NBA players today) is now overweight and way over the hill. He looks like an athlete might be expected to look when he’s fat, rich and 50. But Cooke just turned 31 on April 29.
It wasn’t drugs or women that did Lenny in, although he did have his first child when he was in high school. No, Lenny just thought he was smarter than everyone else. When he decided to go “hardship” – which meant going pro and cashing in, and he didn’t get picked in that year’s draft, he believed the pitch (and $300,000) that an agent gave him, and the bet didn’t pay off. No team in the US wanted him, and he began a common journey which involves playing with foreign teams and finally returning to the US with a minor league basketball job, and on to anonymity. Meanwhile, Anthony and James are the top names in basketball.
If Cooke didn’t see it coming, many coaches did, and they speak of college and pro sports in the doc as if these practices are slavery. It’s not just the fault of greedy exploiters. Kids with talent don’t believe that getting an education will get them any farther than getting a new Cadillac with a signing bonus. Of course, as we learn in “Lenny Cooke” (more than twenty years after “Hoop Dreams”), you’re more likely to win the lottery than to get a signing bonus. The movie supplies an update on the story of sports exploitation.
Cooke showed up for the premiere of the doc, smiling mournfully as he looks back at the career that never was.
Muhammad Ali saw what was happening to him when the US government tried to draft him and then prosecuted him for resisting. In the “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” doc that premiered at Tribeca, lots of archival footage takes us back to a time when an athlete spoke to truth in a way that few athletes would dare today. (Maybe gay athletes are beginning to do that now. I’m sure that we’ll have some docs on that subject soon.)
In “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” directed by Bill Siegel (a colleague of the “Hoop Dreams” team) we watch as Ali turns to the Black Muslims, going so far as to condemn Malcolm X (whom the Muslims murdered), and we follow him into a dispute over the draft and religious opposition to a particular war that deprived him of his title and almost landed him in jail.
Despite that rich archival dimension, the film is a martyrology of the sort that we have come to expect in films about Ali. Why don’t more athletes choose to be political? Because they have seen how athletes who speak out have been punished.
In the other field in which some African-Americans were allowed to be successful, show business, Richard Pryor was known to speak his mind. As it did in the case of Muhammad Ali, the archival footage in “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic” gives you a case history that you don’t see today. See the doc by Marina Zenovich for that rich historical texture and for the volcanic wildness of Pryor live.
It’s a happy coincidence that William Friedkin, now touring with his book (“The Friedkin Connection”) and with the restored resurrection of “Sorcerers,” produced the Academy Awards of 1977. The first person to speak in that telecast was Richard Pryor, who declared: “No black person ever won no award for nuthin.” Pryor had originally planned to begin his statement with the N-word. “Go ahead, Richard, you’re known for that,” Friedkin recalls telling him. At the last minute, Friedkin says, Pryor decided against it. He had a career to protect. See the film when it comes to HBO for Pryor’s scorching honesty, and for a television interview with the plain-spoken grandmother who raised him in the St. Louis pool hall that she operated. The scene has the same kind of poignancy that you found in an interview with Stokely Carmichael and his mother in “The Black Power Mixtape.” Whatever you think of Carmichael or Pryor’s politics, you can’t deny their humanity.
Humanity sure looks to be in short supply in the Horn of Africa, where criminals and militant Islam have forged an alliance. “The Project” by Shawn Efran and Adam Ciralsky takes us to Somalia, where contractors (i.e. mercenaries) are training local troops to fight pirates and Al Qaeda militants, who have turned that country into the most failed state in the world. There is always competition for that status. Not that the mercs are much less unsavory. They are South Africans from apartheid days, US veterans (assembled by Eric Bright of Blackwater), and ragtag soldiers from the bloody last African coup. The filmmakers get close to the action, after an Indian ship is high-jacked, and its crew is held for more than a year.
It takes more than guns to clean up a country. The mercs end up learning who is behind the highjacking, but the joke ends up being on them. Their local unit has been infiltrated by the terrorists, and one of their men is killed. Eventually they do save the highjacked ship and free the hostages. This has fictional remake written all over it.
In this doc that is structured around a single maneuver, the strategy to target terrorists in Somalia is initially bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates, who are forced to pull out when the United Nations objects to the freelance vigilantism. Somalia isn’t much safer today. Now you know one reason why.
One export from Somalia is people – some of the tall lean elegant Somalis have become famous models (see: Iman, wife of David Bowie).
“The Director,” a profile of Frida Giannini, Creative Director of Gucci since 2006, begins with something less elegant, the selection of male models for an upcoming runaway show. She sets her eye on a young man who looks great, but walks as if he’s imitating a bizarre London trance victim. After gently drilling him on how to walk naturally, she asks,” What kind of shoes do you usually wear?”
“Sneakers,” he says.
“We’re going to try to show something more than sneakers in this show,” she tells him. Clueless, Part Deux.
Directed by Christina Voros (who shot the ‘making of’’ feature for “127 Hours”), and produced by James Franco, “The Director” looks like an elegant commercial. Will it sell movie tickets? Probably, since the audience for fashion films seems to be expanding. It will sell bags and loafers. Gucci had couture, shoes, handbags and fragrances. Now it has a movie.
Don’t expect anything in this film to break the mold. Remember that Gucci, which began as a Florentine leather shop, sells predictability, not invention. But one section in which Giannini gets attention has her sitting with her staff, looking at new designs. Not catty, not nasty, but clever and lethal.
I haven’t seen the evidence of whether Bernard Madoff was a Gucci
customer, but he was enough of an aspirant to the lifestyles of the rich
and famous to qualify as one.
“In God We Trust” tells the Madoff story from the point of view of his secretary, Eleanor Squillari, an abused daughter of a Staten Island cop who made the journey on the ferry to New York (and to the Lipstick Building where Madoff’s inner circle strategized the ripoff of its investors on the 17th floor) much as did Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl.” Both eventually learned how business works. In Squillari’s case, as documented extensively in Vanity Fair, her enlightenment came way too late.
Besides its first person Noo Yawk narrative that brings a poignancy and fierce doggedness to a much-told story, “In God We Trust” is a reality check on news that has been published but still needs examination. Madoff’s biggest customers were not the investors who lost everything. They were the large individuals and institutions who laundered money with him. Some of them committed suicide, like Jeffry Picower, who was found dead in his Palm Beach swimming pool. (His wife settled with the US government for more than $7 billion.) Some have been pursued by regulators and law enforcement. Most are still out there.
It’s oddly humanizing to Madoff – still a monster – that people more ruthless or just smarter and richer than he were using him. It’s enraging that they are still free. This doc makes you wonder why he took a plea so quickly.
People who think they know the whole Madoff story will disparage “In God We Trust” – starting with the cliché of the Statue of Liberty seen from the State Island ferry. Don’t believe them. It’s the defeatist “that’s old news” idea that everything’s been said and reported that enables the villains in this story to conduct business as usual.