Tribeca Journal . . .

I don't know whether the Tribeca Film Festival's documentary selections have generally made a stronger impression on me because there are more of them -- the ESPN sports sidebar tips the numerical balance and the qualitative one as well -- or because they are better than the narrative features, or because I usually end up writing about more of them. Perhaps it's because the fiction films tend to be heavily weighted towards American independent films at their most anodyne, maundering, meandering and maudlin family melodramas.

Whatever the reason, my Monday viewing seems to me typical. The only fiction feature I went to was Dito Montiel's Boulevard, and that provoked an unusual reaction in me: I walked out after 40 minutes. I almost never leave a film before the end credits and when I do it usually has more to do with the audience than the film. But there is no mistaking my reaction of Boulevard. It's one of those low-key, ostensibly sensitive portraits of middle-class angst with Robin Williams in his "tragically repressed" mode, all fluttering eyelids, quivering lips and when-is-the-explosion-going-to-come. Williams is a bank officer who has fallen into a very deep rut at home and at work. Then he almost inadvertently picks up a male hustler and is instantly infatuated to the point of becoming something of a stalker. By the end of the first half-hour I realized that there were only two or three ways this film could go and none of them were very interesting. Suddenly, after two-and-a-fraction films and four hours in the dark, it seemed like a good time for lunch. Unfair to Montiel no doubt, but that's festival life.


My reaction was probably colored by the fact that the film I had seen immediately prior to Boulevard was Maravilla, a first feature documentary by Juan Pablo Cadaveira that profiles the middleweight boxing champion Sergio "Maravilla" Martinez. As regular readers of this blog may recall, I am not only a former sportswriter but also a fairly serious boxing fan. Martinez is probably my single favorite active fighter in the world today, and I was looking forward to this film with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the result is a huge disappointment.

Damon Runyon once offered the scriptural advice, "The race is not always to the strong, nor the battle to the weak. But that's the way to bet." Unfortunately, fiction films about sports seem only to be interested in defying the smart money, focusing almost exclusively on the rise of the downtrodden. The result is that the genre is almost inevitably manipulative on a level so crude that the worst horror film director on the planet would be ashamed to put his name on the result. Ironically, the major exceptions are almost always boxing films. For better or worse, the sport is so identified with corruption and the underworld, and attracts such outsized, outrageous and deeply dangerous personalities -- think Jake LaMotta or Mike Tyson -- that the drama doesn't center on whether the "hero" can win but if he will be allowed to. The moral uncertainties that  rule the boxing film almost never come into play in fiction films about other sports and the result is that boxing movies tend to be about what is actually interesting in sports, the interplay of personalities in and out of competition. That is one of the key elements -- to my mind -- that made covering sports compelling. along with the socio-economic and political aspects of our games and what they tell us about our society, and what former major-league baseball player Ted Simmons elegantly called "the mental application of physical skills."



Sergio Martinez: A Marvel, sure, but who is he?


On paper, Maravilla should be about precisely those themes. Martinez grew up as one of the working poor of Quilmes, one of Buenos Aires's poorer barrios. The collapse of the Argentine economy forced him to move to Spain to move his boxing career forward. After considerable struggles in and out of the ring, he finally won the WBC middleweight title. But as is typical of the sport, he was stripped of the title by WBC president Jose Sulaiman, who essentially handed the strap to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., son of the Mexican boxing legend, and Sulaiman's godson. The WBC darted and dodged as capably as Willie Pep on one of his best nights but eventually had to give Martinez a chance to win his belt back from Chavez fils. It's not exactly a spoiler if I tell you he did so, and in fine style.

Maravilla wants to be every kind of sports movie, a fearless revelation of the corruption of the sport's sanctioning bodies, a profile of a singularly compelling man, a dramatic underdog story, a family drama and a spectacle. It only succeeds as the last, intermittently. Watching footage from his fights on a big screen is a joy seldom offered any more; why watch a fight on closed-circuit TV in a movie theater when you can see it in your own home? Even that pleasure is spoiled somewhat by Cadaveira's tinkering with the soundtrack of the fight footage so that every punch thuds, every whiff zips and the crowd noise ebbs and flows with the ostensible story line.

Martinez seems to be an intensely private guy, guarded and heavily armored. Given that both his manager and promoter were involved in the production of the film, it comes as no surprise that his privacy is never really challenged. Sulaiman, who died after the film was completed, sounds eminently reasonable if you're not actually listening, but the easy morality of the sanctioning bodies -- and the seeming complicity of the major cable networks in their nonsense -- are stated but not explored. What we are left with in the end is a compendium of visual cliches -- the ring being assembled in speedy time-lapse shots -- and a complicated, looping narrative structure that adds little but confusion. A painfully missed opportunity.

Fortunately, the day began and ended much more happily.

One would expect the director of the deft food doc King Corn to be appalled by the culture-bending spectacle of American adaptations of Chinese dishes that is the heart of The Search for General Tso, but Ian Cheney has a rich sense of humor, a thriving curiosity and a hunger for . . . well, in this case for General Tso's chicken. Me too, although given the regrettable coincidence of the screening of Cheney's film and the penultimate day of Pesakh, I had to settle for a cheese omelet at a nearby diner. (General Tso's chicken is lightly breaded, you know.)

Well, it turns out there was a General Tso, and he died nearly within living memory. A major figure in 19th century Chinese history, he came out of the Hunan region and was famous for never having lost a battle, which makes him the Perry Mason of war.



I'll have the brown rice, please


For reasons that the filmmakers and their many interviewees can only guess at, the dish which bears the general's famous name is one of the most ubiquitous in North America, found on just about any Chinese food menu on the continent. Yet until very recently, it was completely unknown in China. Cheney goes to Hunan and shows many locals photos of the insanely bright red concoction and they profess utter bafflement. When he finally tracks down the Hunanese chef who invented it, living and working in Taipei, he is utterly flummoxed by the alien sight; needless to say, it bears almost no resemblance to the recipe he devised.

Along the way, Cheney talks to a dazzling selection of restauranteurs, food historians and writers, Chinese food buffs and memorabilia collectors (who even knew there was such a thing?) and historians of the Chinese-American diaspora. The result is witty, smart and insightful, offering some useful lessons on issues of acculturation, assimilation and "authenticity." The film displays some minor lapses in judgment in its rather too-cute use of animation, but the overall effect is as delightful as, well, as a good plate of General Tso's chicken. Which is what I think I'll go have after I post this.

The nerdiness/neediness of engineering students is proverbial. On the evidence of Tonislav Hristov's film Love and Engineering every cliche you've ever heard about the males of the subspecies seems to be true. The Finland-based Bulgarian documentarian follows an affable but profoundly maladroit group of perpetual bachelors and their would-be mentor as they search for an algorithm or some other formula that will find them true love with the opposite sex. Or just sex with the opposite sex. Or a date. Anything.


Reservoir Engineers: Four guys getting their Tarantino on

Okay, I'm picking on these guys but the thing that struck me most forcefully while watching this charmingly goofy movie was how much these guys resembled the film students of whom I was one back in the mid-1970s. (The most significant difference between them and my classmates and me was that they are virtually guaranteed a sizeable living when they have their degrees.) For the most part, the quartet of losers are engagingly dopey and at least one, Todor, is a genuinely sweet guy whose helplessness in the face of his own emotions is really quite moving. Atanas, their instructor, has a certain clumsy self-knowledge that is refreshing: he tells them, "[The] fact [that I am married] is practical proof that an engineer can find a wife." Todor gets the last word, and it's a charming one: "Love is the algorithm," not the other way around.


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