If you’ve been covering Tribeca as long as I have (since 2009, thank you very much) you’ve probably learned one hard lesson: if a movie with stars is premiering there, that means it didn’t get into one of the higher-profile festivals early in the year, and there’s probably a reason for that. Of course, there are always some exceptions: the Letitia Wright vehicle Aisha and B.J. Novak’s Vengeance are worth seeing, and The Integrity of Joseph Chambers is better than that. It reunites writer/director Robert Machoian and star Clayne Crawford, whose The Killing of Two Lovers was a tough, emotionally volatile examination of the fragility of masculinity.
Joseph Chambers pushes even further, telling the riveting story of a mild-mannered insurance salesman who decides to go on a solo hunting trip, out of some kind of survivalist instinct, though his wife (Jordana Brewster) correctly points out, “It’s not about providin’, it’s about your ego.” Hilariously, he spends a good chunk of the day just farting around in the woods, not really sure what to do when he gets there – and then, well, something happens. More than that I won’t say, but Crawford crafts another raw, vulnerable performance, Machoian’s storytelling instincts are sturdy as oak, and the harrowing sound design makes this frankly terrifying experience visceral and immediate.
That all-but-sure thing aside, I mostly stuck to documentaries for my leisure viewing this year, and unsurprisingly, I flocked to the soon-to-be film-freak favorite Lynch/Oz, a thoughtful essay doc on David Lynch’s career-long obsession with The Wizard of Oz. The director is Alexandre O. Philippe, and his latest thankfully skews closer to the digressions and detours of his Psycho examination 78/52 than the DVD-special-feature quality of Memory: The Origins of Alien. But he’s also not repeating himself; rather than replicate the clips-and-talking-heads format of 78/52, he breaks Lynch/Oz into thematically organized chapters, each one narrated by a different expert (most of them fellow filmmakers, though ace film critic and historian Amy Nicholson kicks things off, and well.) The results are something closer to Room 237 – whose director, Rodney Ascher, is one of the participants – than a conventional documentary, and the film is better for it, tackling both Oz and the Lynch filmography from multiple angles, perspectives, and degrees of reverence.
Similar movie-geek appeal is plentiful in Chop & Steele,Ben Steinbauer and Berndt Mader’s documentary portrait of Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, who have spent the past decade and a half creating live performances of the “Found Footage Festival,” an uproariously funny collection of clips from long-forgotten training videos, exercise tapes, TV commercials, and other relics of the VHS era. Steinbauer and Mader find a hook for the story in a 2017 federal lawsuit, in which a giant media company sued Pickett and Prueher for fraud over a prank appearance on a local morning news show.
But the suit itself isn’t terribly dramatic (it’s settled out of court, and off-camera); what’s noteworthy is its fallout, which puts the boys in the national spotlight, and in an odd way, leads them to question the long-term viability of has long been a dream life. Chop & Steele serves as both a serviceable introduction to FFF and a blast for their fans (it is, I must admit, a kick to tour their massive video library), but its closing passages move into more thoughtful, melancholy, and relatable territory.
The documentary field is so thick that it’s probably tempting to seize on gimmicks and novelties to make one’s film stand up. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for the central conceit of Rudy! A Docu-musical, which tells the story of the rise and fall (and fall, and fall) of “America’s Mayor” via the usual assemblage of talking heads and archival footage, but with the occasional interruptions of fully staged musical numbers. Director Jed Rothstein justifies the device by noting Giuliani’s love for opera, but whatever the reason, the interludes just don’t work; they’re so irregularly deployed that they become jarring, they don’t add much of anything, aren’t particularly good songs on their own, and slow down the storytelling. And the ultimate stakes make it all seem a little too cutesy.
But the “docu” sections are quite good; the pace is tight, archival footage is well chosen, and the interview subjects insightfully dig into the contradictions of his personality, the extraordinary extent of his popularity and goodwill, and the motivations of his more dubious actions, particularly of late. This was a man who had it all and blew it, in a spectacular and public fashion, and you can’t help but find that fascinating.
Tribeca is always a tricky festival to navigate, even more so now that they’ve dropped ‘Film’ from their name, and made their aim and audience even more vague. But as always, there are gems in their line-up – if you know where to look.