Co-host of Bravo's Fashion Queens talk show and longtime Friend of PAPER, Bevy Smith reports on her favorite films screened this year at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The Safdie brothers' documentary Lenny Cooke was the first film I saw at the festival and one of the saddest. It's an old story, but unfortunately there are always new victims -- hoop dreams are easily deferred. Lenny Cooke was a top-ranked high school basketball player in 2001, a bigger star than current superstars Amar'e Stoudemire, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Lenny was expected to be among their ranks, he was gifted with an innate talent, he even had a Blind Side scenario complete with a nice white lady who moved him out of his Brooklyn home, into her tony New Jersey one, in the hopes of helping him reach his potential and to finish high school. Unfortunately for Lenny, this is a documentary and not a feature film, and Sandra Bullock didn't save the day. Instead, Lenny left the suburban comforts of his host home to take a chance with an unsavory "agent" who promised he would go first round in the draft.
Fast-forward ten years later and Lenny is out of shape, out of work, and out of sorts, living in Virginia. Thankfully he has a loving family including a fiancée who works multiple jobs to support them, explaining that due to Lenny's former "stature" he can't possibly just go work at McDonald's. Really? Lenny Cooke is a cautionary tale of what happens when unbridled potential and greedy adults preying on talented inner city youth meet.
In God We Trust
Documentary In God We Trust (directed by Victor Kubicek and Derek Anderson) is a look at the criminal network that allowed Bernie Madoff to steal billions of dollars. Though it's tempting to think of most of Madoff's victims as the rich and the greedy who turned a blind eye to earnings that were impossible to achieve, that's not the whole truth. Madoff's victims were also Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a multitude of charities, lower middle class families and the United States Government.
What was once thought of as a Ponzi scheme is unearthed as an elaborate money laundering operation that spanned the globe. Much of what is now known about how Madoff was able to pull off such a colossal scam is thanks to the investigative work of Eleanor Squillari, Bernie's personal secretary of 25 years. Bernie robbed her of all her savings including her retirement fund (she's seen moving out of her home), but she refuses to be a victim and searches for the truth instead. Squillari gives voice and justice to herself and to all of Madoff's victims. In God We Trust forces you to examine with whom you place your faith and ultimately your trust.
Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia
"I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television." I wish those words were mine, but they're actually one of a plethora of pithy quotes from one of the greatest raconteurs of the 21st century, Gore Vidal. The documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia is thoroughly enjoyable because filmmaker Nicholas Wrathall relies mostly on footage of Vidal to drive this film -- a smart move. After all, when you have a subject with an immeasurably biting wit who's unafraid to insult anyone and everyone including his friend, President Kennedy, you don't let that go to waste. (Vidal on Kennedy: "He was one of the most charming men I've ever known. He was also one of the very worst Presidents.") Just roll film and step out of the way. Highlights of the film include his LEGENDARY battles with William Buckley, Norman Mailer and an inside look at his glamorous -- yet sexless -- decades-long "love affair" with his life partner, Howard Austen.
This movie proves that Vidal was truly the King of throwing shade, albeit it in an erudite way. He would have been genius on RuPaul's Drag Race.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
If I ever doubted that I had a future as a ballsy, brassy babe with a baritone voice, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me gives me hope! I'm a huge Stritch fan and seeing her perform at her home, The Carlyle Hotel, inspired me to begin writing my own one woman show, G.A.W. (Grown Ass Woman!). "Shoot Me" is a riveting documentary chronicling Stritch's incredible five-decade career and focuses on the cabaret legend taking her show on the road for the last time at the ripe old age of 87. As you can imagine, it's not all cosmopolitans (Elaine's cocktail of choice, although she's a recovering alcoholic and a diabetic) and Broadway banter. This is a candid, behind-the-scenes look at an artist who has lived an unapologetically fascinating life, but is now feeling the affects of aging, mainly due to diabetes and a faulty memory. Director Chiemi Karasawa does an amazing job showing you Stritch's frailties without playing the sympathy card, however you will be on the edge of your seat, hoping Stritch can belt out her signature tune "I'm Still Here" just one more time.
Much to Gucci Group's chagrin, Gucci will forever be synonymous with Tom Ford for an entire generation. Watching The Director (which was produced by James Franco, who's modeled for the brand), you almost hear the sigh of relief from Gucci Group, thankful to have an anti-rock star designer who doesn't overshadow the brand. And they chose perfectly when they selected Gucci's current creative director, Frida Giannini. Giannini runs a kinder, gentler Gucci, gone are the days of debauched excess in the name of one man's vision. Disinterested in trends and relationships with editors, Giannini comes alive when shot in the confines of her design studio, working side-by-side with her team. In this era of competing luxury brands, however, public relations is kind and it's the part that Giannini seems to like least of all (though she rises to the occasion and wears her designs well on the red carpet).
Although I loved the hedonistic, über-glamourous days of Tom Ford's Gucci, it's nice to see a more romantic, classic version of the brand. This is an excellent film to counterbalance the recent rash of fashion documentaries highlighting designers as celebrities and divas. The Director shows that fashion is a business and Giannini is an employee. She does her work but doesn't allow it to consume her, an imperative lesson to be learned for anyone interested in a career in fashion.
G.B.F. is a fun coming-of-age/coming out film -- think 16 Candles meets Mean Girls with a dollop of inclusiveness courtesy of Glee. The film is centered on two teenage gay boys Tanner and Brent (played by Michael J. Willet and Paul Iacono). Brent yearns to be the "Popular Gay" of the school, meanwhile Tanner just wants to get through high school unscathed and unnoticed. Tanner is outed when a well-meaning group of geeks decide they want to create a Gay Student Alliance if only they could find "a gay" at school. Meanwhile the "Popular Girls" (the Judgmental Mormon, the Poor Little Rich Girl and the Sassy Black girl, played by scene-stealing Xosha Roquemore) decide that in order to have any chance at being nominated for prom queen they'll need the boost of a Gay Best Friend. After all, a GBF is the newest accessory; I guess Louboutins are so last year! Calamity ensues but thanks to interventions from adults like Megan Mullally as Brent's overly supportive mom (she screens Brokeback Mountain for Brent), Natasha Lyonne as a kooky faculty advisor and Rebecca Gayheart as Tanner's stepmom, all the teens come to their senses, learn not to objectify people and have a fun time at their dual gay/straight prom. At times G.B.F. comes across like an after school special, but overall it's a fun film that has the makings of a cult classic.
I Got Somethin' to Tell You
As a kid, I loved Moms Mabley. My parents listened to her albums (my sister I and would sneak in and listen along) and I saw her perform on various talk shows. She always felt familiar, like someone in your family. It turns out I wasn't the only one who felt that way about Moms: Whoopi Goldberg's I Got Somethin' to Tell You gives insight into the complex world of this pioneering female comedian. Mabley honed her craft in the '30s and '40s on the "Chitlin Circuit" (a string of theaters black acts performed at across the country) and by the time TV came along, Moms was ready for her close up. Mabley's career skyrocketed in the 60's and 70's but even though she was making the most money of her career she didn't turn a blind eye as to what was taking place in our society. Instead she used her comedy to champion the civil rights movement. In her unique way, she stealthily questioned the powers that be, made them laugh along with the rest of the audience and gave them food for thought at the same damn time.
Whoopi secured interviews with iconic comedians like Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, who each tell stories of how much they learned by watching/listening to Moms. This film is a must-see for anyone who is interested in how comedy can be used to illuminate societal ills, in need of a black history lesson, or who just want to laugh out loud.