Of the more than 350 films selected for this year's Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF), 73 are documentaries, which, according to my broken deluxe Radio Shack solar-powered calculator, equates to 208.57 percent. That such a large chunk of celluloid (and videotape) would be culled from filmmaking's nonfiction side reflects documentaries' growing acceptance by moviegoers. Or maybe everyone's just really into FearFactor. Whoever we have to blame, thank them we should because there are many fine docs screening this go-round.
Among the most uplifting documentaries you'll see at the NBFF is Emmanuel'sGift, Lisa Lax's beautifully made profile of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. Born in a tiny, impoverished Ghana village with a right leg so severely deformed his father believed the boy would be better off dead, Emmanuel rises to become a top disabled athlete, inspiring competitors in the U.S. and using his new fame to better his neighbors back home. Oprah narrates! Lax attends the screening! Equally inspirational is RhythmIsIt, which chronicles an unusual collaboration between the Berlin Philharmonic and 250 German schoolchildren. The kids get to develop and perform a dance to Stravinsky's LeSacreduPrintemps(which is not exactly a toe-tapper), choreographed by Royston Maldoom and accompanied by the Berliner Philharmoniker and chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle. Rhythmdirectors Thomas Grube and Enrique Sanchez Lausch keenly zero in on a few students who become compelling fodder for their piece. "Superb," wrote Chuck Wilson of our sister paper LAWeekly."Watching [the kids] awaken not only to the music but the unexpected grace of their own bodies is a beautiful thing."
Like that successful voter initiative Rob Reiner spearheaded a few state elections ago, WhatBabiesWantargues that an infant's first three years have a profound effect on the rest of the individual's life. Director Debby Takikawa, who attends, interviews an expert who says it goes back even farther than that, as the shape, size and function of a fetus' brain are determined by the mother's feelings while carrying the child. If Mom feels anxious or threatened, the back part of the baby's brain controlling survival skills will be bigger. If she's calm and serene, the section of the brain dedicated to intellect and creativity will be larger. This film is narrated by ERstar Noah Wyle, who is scheduled to attend; his wife, Tracy, produced. When she tells the camera Congress should allow three years of maternity leave, the underdeveloped Republican part of my brain caused me to yell back at the screen, "Who is going to pay for that!?!"
Jenny Stein's PeaceableKingdomis an earnest look at a red-state farm that has become a sanctuary for threatened farm animals. Watching folks with farming backgrounds describe how they've seen the evils of their animal-eating ways is provocative, and Dr. Jane Goodall hailed the film as "a masterpiece." While I'd agree it does effectively get its point across, it could have used tighter editing so there would be more time to give viewers the backgrounds of those we barely get to know onscreen.
Of course, nothing goes better with a plump farm chicken than waffles. ScatteredSmotheredCovered, an engaging look at that Southern staple, the waffle house, was among the best documentaries I prescreened, but clocking in at less than 40 minutes keeps it out of the full-length division and in the Life in Shorts program. Matthew Serrins focuses on one particular waffle house, its loyal workers and its even-more-loyal customers. This could easily have been filled out to make a full-length doc by adding the history of the particular waffle house he filmed.
Ripped from the pages of the Weekly,Frisbee:TheLifeandDeathofaHippiePreacherarrives weeks after our cover story "The Passion of the Hippie" (March 3). But to be honest, director David Di Sabatino's egg came before the Weekly's horse; after seeing Frisbeeas a volunteer festival screener (oops, forgot: full disclosure alert!), I wanted to write about Lonnie Frisbee whether the film got selected or not. (Read more in "Ears on Their Heads, But They Don't Hear," an interview with Di Sabatino and the late Frisbee's ex-wife, Connie Bremer-Murray.) But Wash Westmoreland's GayRepublicansis showing up hot on the closeted high heels of every story the Weeklyhas ever done on Orange County's congressional delegation. Okay, to be honest, again, this focuses on a key moment for the GOP's gay Log Cabin Club: President George W. Bush's announcement of his unequivocal opposition to gay marriage, which forced Log rollers to either stand for the party or their own civil rights.
Some docs didn't do much for me, but there are probably audiences for them. Newport's bluehairs will probably love Gregg Barson's Goodnight,WeLoveYou, which is about Phyllis Diller's final performance after 47 years of standup comedy. It would have been more effective to build the entire doc around her last show ( la The Last Waltz), with the interviews featuring such folk as Don Rickles, David Brenner and Lily Tomlin interspersed; but as it's presented the film will be chiefly of interest to Diller's relatives and whatever hardcore Diller fans exist in the world. It certainly does not do proper justice to a groundbreaking entertainer.
Documentary boredom and the quest for justice also haunt BetweentheLines, a U.S./German production that could have been a terrific story about a little-known consequence of the Cold War. In 1980, an East German border guard killed his partner at the gate so he could escape to the West. Directors Dirk Simon (who attends) and Reinhardt Joksch do a pretty good job of showing us how that incident affected families on both sides, and they provide a haunting scene when a camera mounted high pans from grungy East Berlin over the wall and into bustling West Berlin. But this damn thing is way too long, dreary and, ultimately, sleep-inducing.
Award-winning documentarian Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) also drops the brain, er, ball with GrayMatter, which looks at the awful mutilations, murders and postmortem research of kids deemed inferior by Austria's Nazis. The filmmaker makes the fatal flaw of inserting too much Joe Berlinger into the film, narrating the story and showing himself among the journalists seeking answers. If he'd stayed behind the camera where he belongs, he'd have sharpened the focus on a story that was compelling before he touched down in Austria.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.