F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 1, 2017)

1 06 2017

There’s nothing like the NBA Finals to make you appreciate the incredible talent in takes to make it to the top of your game. LeBron James is back in the championship, as he seemingly always is. Back in 2009, King James’ high school years got the documentary treatment in “More Than a Game,” which is little more than hero worship that treats his pre-NBA time as mere prologue to a Hall of Fame career. (Before there was ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, we had to settle for highlight reels disguised as art like that.)

But James is the exception, not the rule. Many great basketball players thrive in high school and display tremendous potential for advancement with their talent. They don’t all make it. Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Lenny Cooke” tells such a story, the darker underbelly of basketball superstardom. For every LeBron James, there are ten Lenny Cookes he must step over on his way to the top.

The Safdie brothers inherit a good deal of footage from producer Adam Shopkorn, whose camera followed Cooke in his high school years in the early 2000s. This was the boom of high school imports into the NBA thanks to players like Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. In 2001, Kwame Brown was the first player to go #1 in the NBA Draft without having played a minute of college basketball. It seemed like the beginning of a new era, but little did Lenny Cooke know it was the apex of a trend that was about to come crashing down.

The Safdies find the tragedy inherent in the old footage, which is what elevates their documentary to “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. With scarcely any talking heads, they locate the intersection of hubristic decisions made presuming a straight shot to stardom and the unfortunate coincidence of timing. Were Cooke but a year older, he could likely have ridden Kwame Brown’s to a draft selection in 2001. Yet he came after Brown struggled for playing time, and high school phenomenons no longer received the same benefit of the doubt they once did. There’s no way Cooke could have known this, though footage shows countless instances of coaches and other authority figures exercise caution in presuming that millions of dollars inevitably await every upstart player.

What really pushes the film over the top is the final act, an abrupt cut into Cooke’s life in the 2010s after a short montage of his unspectacular career in B-leagues across the world. He’s gotten large in his post-basketball years (some of which is due to his new profession as a cook) and carries around the bitterness and regret of someone twice his age. The camera tracks him to an NBA game where he sees former competitors like Joachim Noah and Carmelo Anthony, and his jealousy only gets amplified by the lack of attention they pay him. Especially when Cooke goes on a profanity-laced tirade, it’s hard not to think of “Raging Bull.”

REVIEW: Daddy Longlegs

21 05 2017

Josh and Benny Safdie were not the first people to assume verité-style camerawork guaranteed emotional authenticity, nor will they be the last. But their Cassavetes clone “Daddy Longlegs” might just be the film that made me far too aware of how low-budget filmmakers can hollow out techniques just as easily as their studio counterparts.

The Safdie brothers obtain a remarkable quality of naturalism that pervades their shaky camera and grainy look … but in service of what? The filmmakers are so focused on the how that they lose sight of the what. “Daddy Longlegs” tells the story of a deadbeat dad that essentially amounts to little more than a cross between the first act of “Kramer vs. Kramer” (pre-Dustin Hoffman’s redemption) and “Blue Valentine.” He’s a mess to the point of being a danger for his two young children, but he does love them! That’s true in both the first frame and the last.

The film feels less like a character study and more of a chain of cringe-worthy events that further convince us of his complete lack of qualifications to be a parent. Narrative journeys are not a mandatory feature of cinema, and the stasis of a character often speaks just as loudly as a drastic evolution. But given the self-conscious naturalism the Safdies work so hard to obtain, it’s a shame that “Daddy Longlegs” amounts to little more than the latest variation on a familiar stock character. B-

REVIEW: Heaven Knows What

14 09 2015

Heaven Knows WhatJosh and Benny Safdie often draw comparisons to filmmakers like John Cassavetes for their sluggishly paced realism.  In their 2010 film “Daddy Longlegs,” I found this stylistic choice little more than a conceit.  Slow, ambling scenes tied together by little more than the whims of life were simply a method of communicating the frequent failures of a single father.

But in the Safdie brothers’ latest work, “Heaven Knows What,” that meandering quality feels integral to the experience.  The film follows Arielle Holmes as Harley, a fictionalized version of herself, as she experiences various challenges related to homelessness and drug addiction.  To have a conventional plot driven by goals and forward motion would feel disingenuous for a world populated by characters whose compulsions have them running in circles.

The movie pulses along as Harley does, from score to score, motivated by nothing little more than getting to the next high.  It makes for a unique window into a world rarely seen on screen with any sense of veracity.  “Heaven Knows What” allows us not only to stare the depravity of heroin addiction in the face on screen but also to experience the listlessness and danger that comes along with it.

Stripped of sensationalism, the Safdies endow the material with a scrappy, grimy tenacity.  Holmes’ story proves a natural match for their aesthetic sensibilities.  Hopefully they continue in this vein and reinvigorate the “social problem” drama for the better.  B+3stars