April 30, 2007

Tribeca Dispatch. 3.

Chávez is one of the "buzz films" of Tribeca's opening weekend, to hear indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez tell it; here's David D'Arcy's take. A cascade of notes and pointers follows.

Julio Cesar Chávez Al Gore and Jon Bon Jovi aside, "green-is-the-new-black" environmentalism is far from the only theme de saison at the Tribeca Film Festival. This year we also have sports, in the form of a new section of the event, the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival.

It would be wrong to echo the skeptics and dismiss this new theme as a sponsor's naming opportunity, which it also is. Sports have been part of the independent film scene for longer than most of he audience at Tribeca will remember. Hoop Dreams and When We Were Kings are the most obvious examples. And let's not forget Chariots of Fire (from the studio perspective) and Werner Herzog's short masterpiece from 1974, The Great Extasy of the Woodcutter Steiner, about a young ski-jumper (sky-flyer, he calls him) who talks as if he walked right out of Woyzeck and makes his living crafting wooden objects by hand. (Perhaps it's not such a coincidence that Herzog is present at the Tribeca Festival this year in The Grand, an ensemble comedy set around the poker tables of Las Vegas, where he plays a German professional gambler. I guess poker can qualify as a sport, at least formally. Television airs it, people earn money playing it and people watch it.)

Most of our experience of sports comes through moving pictures, and, like it or not, most of sports - even the Olympics - is supported by the revenues that come from bringing advertisers to those images. Film should be a natural step ahead. Think of the writers who have written about sports as well as other topics like war and politics. It's a shame that David Halberstam died suddenly last week, on his way to interview the New York Giants' hero quarterback YA Tittle, before any of his sports stories were made into films. I suppose we have to assume that Halberstam wanted it that way.

So far, and we're still just starting, the sports film to watch at Tribeca is Chávez, a documentary about the Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chávez by the actor Diego Luna in his directing debut.

For years in the late 1980s, when Chávez (born in 1962) was fighting in the super featherweight division, he was considered to be among the finest fighters in the world. He weighed less than 130 pounds, and at that weight you don't get that much attention from anyone but diehard boxing fans or from your compatriots, whom you represent all over the world. It turned out that Chávez (career record of 108 wins, six losses, and two draws) earned an army of fans, which meant that he got plenty of attention from all the wrong people, like the now-disgraced Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and the Saddam Hussein of boxing, Don King.

Julio Cesar Chávez Diego Luna is a fine actor, and this first film is nothing if not a story told from the heart. Chávez was, and still is, a cherubic presence. He is all of five foot seven, and he comes from a middle-class family in Sonora, Mexico, which means that he grew up poor. From an early age, he and his brothers boxed. Their father coached them, until he was beaten by stowaways on a train and seems never to have recovered. At times, Chávez and his family were living in the railroad yards. If that can't teach you survival instincts - and the notion that the best defense is a good offense - what can? Once Chávez got his career off the ground, all of Mexico saw that this boy was something special - gentle, courteous, and unwilling to surrender. Luna has breathtaking shots of him coming back to win over favored opponents, inter-cut with soft-spoken reflections on being in the ring when hope appeared to be gone. Chávez is an extraordinary subject.

As his career flourished, other people wanted part of him. This is the iron law of boxing. Usually other people want that part as quickly as possible, because boxers don't last that long at the top generally, although Chávez did, belying his beatific presence. One of his public supporters was Salinas (who later fell from power in assassination and corruption scandals). The president was seen everywhere in pictures with the innocent-looking champion, images which for a while cleansed him of association with the institutionalized kleptocracy of his ruling party, the PRI. Chávez seemed not to know any better. It's a flaw of Luna's film that the director didn't provide more context about Salinas or go deeper in the scandals that tore Mexico apart, but Mexicans don't need any help to get the picture.

With Don King, who took over Chávez's career later and gobbled up whatever money was to be made before he let the boxer lose his future in the ring, we see a cruder kind of exploitation. King took everything - this is something that those of us who followed boxing knew - and Chávez wasn't just robbed of his money. The fighting schedule imposed by King set the young man on a downturn that ended his career. It happens again and again. Funny how King's name is associated so frequently with such a trajectory. On camera, the motor-mouthed King (a convicted murderer and George Bush supporter) tells Luna that he doesn't seek out boxers. Needy boxers come to him. For once, the man is mostly telling the truth. It's a truth about the sport that Luna would have done well to explore in more depth.

At the end of the film, Julio Cesar Chávez Jr is fighting, coached by father. He doesn't have the father's natural ability, but even at a young age, he seems to have learned some out-of-the-ring preservation skills that passed his father by. As Chávez senior loses his last fight at 150 pounds in Phoenix in 2005 on a technical knockout (in an abrupt humbling end to what was supposed to be a victory lap around major cities, followed by a definitive retirement), the son is there to comfort him. It's a tender moment. If only other boxers could have been so lucky. Luna, who will surely make a better film with this one under his belt, should be thinking about a sequel.

- David D'Arcy

"A new documentary about a Mexican boxing hero (Chávez) and a pair of titles making the trip to Tribeca from European festivals (2 Days in Paris and We Are Together) were among the buzz films during the fest's opening weekend," writes Eugene Hernandez, rounding up coverage at indieWIRE.

Taxi to the Dark Side "Exactly how and when did the United States of America become a police state?" asks Andrew O'Hehir at Salon. "Even Alex Gibney's elegant and terrifying documentary Taxi to the Dark Side can't exactly answer that question. But it sure gives some clues." Also, first looks at Suburban Girl ("a moderately sophisticated, not-too-sweet cocktail") and " the enjoyable low-budget black comedy," You Kill Me.

More on Taxi from Anthony Kaufman (as "harrowing and upsetting as Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib"), who also sees I Am an American Soldier: One Year in Iraq With the 101st Airborne ("helps expose the way 9/11 has been exploited by the military to justify their abusive actions overseas") and Beyond Belief: "I wept like a baby throughout the film."

"Vivere plays like a demonstration exercise for How to Sucker an Arthouse Audience," writes Steve Boone at the House Next Door.

Erik Davis at Cinematical: "Featuring an all-star cast of talent, and some of the funniest on-screen bits I've seen in a long time, The Grand marks [Zak] Penn's second mockumentary - a no-holds-barred look at the highly-comedic (at times), yet painful world of high-stakes tournament poker." Also, Ryan Stewart on Napoleon and Me and the panel The Kid Slays in the Picture.

More insanely paced coverage from the Reeler:

Mulberry Street

At Zoom In Online, Christina Kotlar finds Nobel Son to be "a tightly wound, fast paced, avant garde thriller with an equally thrilling film score that keeps the pulse racing at every twist and turn."

Daniel Kasman on Passio: "Though by no means a prescriptive film, [Paolo Cherchi] Usai's unique and deliberate staging of the experiencing of his film—both in terms of the live music and in the religious setting—is certainly an attempt to find a middle-ground for the spiritual evocation of film between photography and the world outside it."

New York's special section is still hopping.

John Seabrook's snapshot of Julian Schnabel in the New Yorker has little to do with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but still.

For the New York Times, Mickey Rapkin spends "a night out with" Fred Durst (The Education of Charlie Banks).

The Film Panel Notetaker has pix - and of course, notes. More and more.

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Posted by dwhudson at April 30, 2007 11:41 AM