For the past two weeks, the Tribeca Film Festival took over a tiny piece of New York, screening hundreds of films, shorts and panels before they reach wide release or VOD. After tackling the comedic and dramatic films I saw at the festival, my attention now turns to the documentaries.
Has the documentary ever been hotter than it is right now? With Going Clear and The Jinx (not to mention Citizenfour or any of Netflix’s killer docs), documentaries have never been more mainstream or sexy, and that’s arguably one of the more refreshing trends in pop culture. The trend is only continuing, clearly, as some of the best films found in Tribeca were documentaries. My reviews follow.
In Transit (dir. Albert Maysles, Lynn True, Nelson Walker III, David Usui and Benjamin Wu)
Awards: Special Jury Mention (World Narrative Competition)
This is the late Albert Maysles final documentary. He’s a legend in the field, thanks to his work with Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, and with In Transit, he caps off his career in tremendous form, with the help of a slew of other talented directors. The result is a film that may be destined for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination.
Albert Maysles’ film follows several people on the cross-country Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the busiest long-distance train in the country. In Transit captures people that are exactly that: in transition, on their last trip, or their first trip, returning home, or leaving it. Following their heart, turning over a new leaf, escaping, forever at a crossroads. We meet drunks, dreamers and single mothers, and In Transit showcases a swathe of different people, all united in trying to figure their lives out, and using the train to do so.
In Europe, trains are commonplace. It’s the transportation mode du jour, and the romanticism is still there (just watch Before Sunrise). In the states, the trains just take too long (because we foolishly believe our time is more precious than anyone else’s), and are treated like a glorified bus, with the associated stigma attached to it. Of course, in some circles, trains still have that romantic allure in the U.S., as evidenced by Amtrak’s Writers Residency. In many ways, there isn’t a better way to see the country or to travel, and it’s a shame that it’s not used more. But here, In Transit mostly finds people using the train because that’s all they can afford, the vessel of their last ditch attempt at fixing their lives. There’s a pregnant woman who’s three days past due, a man quitting his job to see about a girl, and many traveling to North Dakota for work thanks to the oil boom, destined to spend little to no time with their families.
The resulting film illuminates an unfortunate cross-section of humanity, those that have been dealt a bad card but still have hope and determination to bounce back from it. It’s inspiring but tragic, because I couldn’t help but see a train of people that are doomed to make the same mistakes again, perpetuating socioeconomic inequities. But it’s profound to see people try. GRADE: A
Misery Loves Comedy (dir. Kevin Pollak)
Kevin Pollak’s Misery Loves Comedy seeks to answer why comedians do what they do, and most importantly, if they have to be miserable to do it.
The result is a star-studded, funny affair, but not really a movie and I’m not sure it provides satisfactory answers to the questions Pollak asks. That’s likely because there isn’t a universal conclusion to be found, but the insightful journey Misery Loves Comedy takes is a worthy one, as we find out a little about what makes comedians and comic actors like Lewis Black, Amy Schumer, Bob Saget and Matthew Perry tic, dealing with bombing, and where and when these comedians first heard jokes and started to tell them.
Everyone has a different answer for what makes someone funny, or what makes someone pursue comedy, but there’s certainly a commonality, that all these people suffer from what Pollak terms as a “hey look at me” condition. They have to be a little insane, self-obsessed, there’s something wrong with you, that you’re different, that you have dissatisfaction with the world, and you’re afraid, lonely and possess a need for attention, and a desire to reveal the inner angst of humanity through a microphone. Some people just don’t have it. As William H. Macy says, “I wouldn’t do stand-up if you put a gun to my head.”
There are incredible moments, but none more disturbing and shocking than when Tom Hanks admits to self-loathing for the past 54 and a half years. When things like that are said, almost cavalierly, you want Pollak to pause, to go further, to ask why, but oftentimes, Misery Loves Comedy flits to and fro just when you’re getting somewhere, afraid to make any breakthroughs.
The most interesting inclusions are those there to talk about their fathers, like Kelli Carlin and Freddie Prinze Jr. and what it was like growing up in the shadow of a famous comedian. At first, you’re wondering, why the hell is Freddie Prinze Jr. in this movie? By the end, Prinze Jr. is the most revelatory and best addition to the documentary, regaling us with unbelievable stories, such as when his Grandfather tasked him early on to “fix what your Dad fucked up.”
The wide array of talent assembled is astounding, yet the film has come under fire for its lack of racial diversity. Kumail Nanjiani is the only non-white actor or comedian in attendance, and to hear Pollak tell it, he reached out to everyone he could think of, and included all who responded, and I believed that he tried. But it still feels glaring. GRADE: B
Live From New York! (dir. Bao Nguyen)
You may have heard: it’s the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live this year, and that has meant three-hour specials, nostalgia, innumerable articles and now, this documentary devoted to the New York institution.
There has certainly been an oversaturation of stuff relating to the show, but there’s just so much to talk about, relive and process when it comes to SNL. Live From New York! is concerned with SNL as a time capsule, a reflection of the changing political and socioeconomic landscape, a living historical document.
The film jumps back and forth in time throughout its forty year history (taking us into the digital age and the impact of Lonely Island on YouTube and vice versa), blessed with interview subjects like Andy Samberg, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Alec Baldwin, Dana Carvey, Jane Curtin, Jimmy Fallon, Chevy Chase, Rudy Giuliani, Lorne Michaels and droves of others.
Live From New York! spends considerable time recounting the sketch show’s indelible impact on politics, thanks to Weekend Update and the classic impressions of George Bush (Jr. and Sr.), Al Gore, Sarah Palin and others.
It’s a joy to watch everyone speak about the show, and to see snippets of some of the greatest hits, but I think Live From New York! was too close to SNL to make any sort of commentary. The film seeks to create discussion rather than to make conclusions, and it merely feels like an interactive and massively biased history textbook because of that. The film spotlights SNL’s diversity and lack thereof, and seems to frame SNL as simply paralleling society, a cop out. That doesn’t really say anything, and for the most part, neither does the film, as it almost feels like a pat-SNL-on-the-back for changing history montage.
The film is more interesting when it tries to tackle the claim of sexism, which gets a mixed bag of responses. Laraine Newman, an original cast member, believed it was solely a meritocracy, whereas Julia Louis-Dreyfus said otherwise, and Poehler had a less cut and dry response, learning how to maneuver the writer’s room.
Live From New York! is certainly a joy to watch (in New York especially), but it’s ultimately just a trip down memory lane, rather than the investigation into SNL’s true impact on gender, race and politics that it could have been. GRADE: B
Monty Python: The Meaning of Live (dir. Roger Graef)
Unlike Live From New York!, The Meaning of Live isn’t afraid to potentially put some of the members of Monty Python in a negative light, and these British legends fart in the general direction of political correctness. They don’t mince words and are unfailingly honest, wise in the ways of science. The resultant documentary is a moving portrait of some of the finest performers the world has ever seen, saying goodbye to the stage.
Last year, Monty Python reunited for a completely bonkers sold out 10-day live show at the 02 in London. Before that, they had last performed live in 1982 at the Hollywood Bowl, more than thirty years previously. The show, entitled Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five To Go, is a cheeky reference to the death of dearly departed Graham Chapman and their own forthcoming mortality. The Meaning of Live captures Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin tackling the enormous task of putting on a live show in their advanced age, while delving into the troupe’s history, especially in terms of their live performances that revolutionized comedy.
Only Monty Python can make it okay that they’re doing it for the money, and it helps that they admit it. They’re joking when they say they’re doing the show for Terry Jones’ mortgage, but not really. Following a lawsuit in the aftermath of Spamalot, the troupe needed cash, and decided on one last hurrah.
We learn so much about how this group works together, and how they’ve been so successful, through their dynamic. They’re cracking jokes at one another, and while it’s all in good fun (mostly), the tension bubbling beneath the surface is certainly there. Idle is writing and directing the show, putting undue pressure on himself, clearly forever trying to prove himself to the rest of the group. Cleese is hard on everybody, but harder on himself, and we see a self-admitted changed man at the end of his journey from taking the work and life too seriously, to realizing that life is a mad house. It’s hard to see Terry Jones’ insecurity, but it’s clear they all feel the same nervousness returning to old material. It’s gratifying to see them break out in giggles when first rereading their old sketches and becoming kids again on stage, as if no time had passed.
All of them, with this reunion and final show, have been given a great gift: the ability to choose the end of their career, to choose their own “death” as a performer, and Meaning of Live is a meaningful coda. GRADE: A-
Uncertain (dir. Ewan McNicol, Anna Sandilands)
Awards: Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award
94 people live in Uncertain, a city on the border of Texas and Louisiana in the middle of nowhere, where criminals go to escape the law, and others wait to die. With its lake in danger from an oxygen devouring plant, endangering the fish (and the town’s scant livelihood), the town Uncertain’s name is more fitting than ever.
In this gripping, forceful (and alluringly shot) doc, we meet a fascinating set of characters, all with something to prove and atone for. There’s a young man with diabetes desperately trying to escape the town he grew up in, full well knowing that if he doesn’t, he’ll never be able to leave. We meet a fisherman adrift in infested waters on his last legs, hoping to reunite with his family in the afterlife, if he’s deemed good enough. We’re introduced to a recovering addict; his only salvation being the hunt for Mr. Ed, a boar almost as elusive as the atonement for years of drug abuse that caused a death in a drunk driving accident.
This is heavy stuff, but unlike with legends of comedy, there’s no need to hold back, and bless these men for being unabashed with their time on camera, as we get an unflinching portrayal of the citizens of Uncertain. All three of the main subjects are haunted by the past for different reasons, and just as terrified of the future. Uncertain may be a back water town in the middle of nowhere, but its themes are universal. GRADE: A