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OPINION | REVIEW: Three standout movies from 2022 Tribeca Festival

by Piers Marchant | June 17, 2022 at 1:31 a.m.
Former tennis enfant terrible John McEnroe looks out over the Manhattan skyline in Barney Douglas’ documentary “McEnroe,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.

Watch Philip Martin's OnFilm video for more coverage of the Tribeca Festival.

Tribeca has returned in full force to New York, with a bevy of films, TV shows, special presentations and virtual programming. Here are some instant reactions to what I've seen so far.

"The Integrity of Joseph Chambers": The title turns out not to be ironic, but it's nip and tuck for a while. Writer/Director Robert Machoian, who made the terrific "The Killing of Two Lovers" in 2020, returns with his leading man, Clayne Crawford, to spin another story about a man pushed to his limits and making it through to the other side.

Crawford plays Joe, a well-meaning insurance agent, living with his loving wife, Tess (Jordana Brewster), and kids up in Minnesota. On something of a lark, Joe decides he's going out to the woods to go hunting by himself, even though he barely knows what he's doing. Despite Tess' warnings, he borrows his buddy's truck and rifle, and heads to an area of his friend's privately owned land. He sits up in a blind for a while, but soon enough, gets bored, and begins goofing off, re-enacting the end of the '91 World Series, skipping stones, and singing fake musical numbers in the wilderness.

Naturally, Joe, who is so out of his depth he doesn't even know how to hold his buddy's rifle -- at one point, out of childish temperance, he starts swinging the muzzle down at some corn stalks, then peers down the barrel to clean it out -- comes into trouble, and the film's barebones plot settles in on a moral conundrum for him to solve. You might call it the difference between a big-budget studio picture, which would undoubtedly involve grizzly bears, double-crossing mountain men, and a woodsy showdown; and the far more modest modulations of an indie drama (as with his previous film, Machoian has enlisted many family members of Crawford's as cast and crew), less a thriller than a slow-burn psychological exploration.

Again, Machoian makes up for some of his budgetary limitations by placing a distinct emphasis on the film's sound design: The opening shot, a slow pan deep into the forest, has in its ambient soundtrack everything from chirping birds, to running water, to the deep-set moans of what sounds like a massive beast. Throughout the story, Machoian adds auditory verve -- at times, as when he puts in an audience cheer when Joe first ascends into the deer stand, somewhat distracting; other times, as with the sound of a groaning tree suddenly crashing to the forest floor, very effective -- and, along with "Lovers" director of photography Oscar Ignacio Jimenez, blends his camera work eclectically, veering from long, static shots to short, choppy numbers from a long distance, or right up close, further creating an atmosphere of off-kilter emotional peril. Not everything holds together exactly, storywise, but there remains more than enough filmmaking flair, and another strong, committed performance from Crawford, to anchor it down.

"Rounding": A psychological drama in the guise of a medical mystery thriller, Alex Thompson's film about a young doctor with significant mental imbalances working his residency in a rural hospital some distance from Chicago makes a solid attempt at putting us inside the very troubled mind of its protagonist, but it only partially succeeds.

Dr. James Hayman (Namir Smallwood) is a gifted student of medicine, dedicated to his patients and impressively credentialed, so when he asks to transfer out of a big, fancy city hospital in favor of a much smaller operation in a town called Greenfield, it's at first seen as odd. His supervisor there, Dr. Harrison (Michael Potts), takes an immediate interest in him, and bequeaths him his own patient, a shaky young woman named Helen (Sidney Flanigan) with a history of lung problems, and what appears to be an overly dominating mother (Rebecca Spence), who acts suspiciously around her.

Given the stresses of the job, and his growing mental instability -- before long Dr. Hayman is hallucinating wildly and takes "naps" that seem to last for days -- it's difficult to discern if his concern for Helen's being used by her mother in some sort of facetious disorder (what used to be called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy) is legit, or part of his own delusion. Thompson's film gives us few answers at first, instead relying on off-kilter jump edits and auditory chaos to put us at least briefly inside the mental landscape of someone nearly on the edge of a breakdown.

By the last act -- with Dr. Hayman taking more and more drastic steps, shuffling around on a very badly twisted ankle that has him hobbling like Jack Torrance in "The Shining" -- the film becomes a sort of nightmare fantasia of medical anomaly, paranoia and misty, multi-headed monsters lurking in the shadows. Its effectiveness is certainly open to question: With such little grounding of Dr. Hayman in the first act, it's impossible to trust his judgment to begin with, and the screenplay, by Thompson, and his brother Christopher, doesn't seem quite sure itself. In one scene, he's a deeply concerned man, in another he's a cold automaton, in ways that don't quite add up by the final tally. It has its interesting beats and imagery, but in the end it can't quite pull off its difficult agenda.

"McEnroe": It might be hard to imagine now, but there was a time in the mid-'70s through the '80s where men's tennis was one of the more popular sports to watch in this country. It helped tremendously that a number of supremely talented characters emerged from courts all over the world to take the sport by storm, many of whom had distinct personalities, from the recklessly fun-loving Vitas Gerulaitis, to the high-hatting snootiness of Jimmy Connors, or the obnoxious boorishness of Ilie Nastase. But the king of the tennis world at the time was Bjorn Borg, a stunningly handsome Swede known for his absolute implacability on the court -- a player so reserved as he played, it was impossible to get into his head, which isn't to say players didn't try.

One notorious figure in particular, a young, brash American from Queens, N.Y., named John McEnroe, known as much for his loud-mouthed petulance as his formidable skill on the court, brought the legend of Borg to a close. After improbably reaching the Wimbledon semifinals as an 18-year-old in 1977, where he lost to Connors, McEnroe began a ground assault on the world rankings, finally breaking through with his first Slam, winning the U.S. Open (a tournament more or less held in his own backyard) in 1979.

For the next five years, the outspoken, often cantankerous McEnroe held the tennis world in his grip, maintaining the number one ranking as he won a staggering seven Grand Slams in five years. Known for his furious outbursts against what he considered egregiously bad calls by tennis umpires, McEnroe became the embodiment of a particular strain of petulant Americanism, demanding the world meet up to his impossibly high standards.

Barney Douglas' doc, which recounts the now 62-year-old's career, as it follows him wandering around what appears to be a mostly deserted New York in the middle of the night -- a somewhat strange conceit, reminiscent of zombie movies like "28 Days Later..."-- hits most of his professional and personal highs and lows. Much is made of the thorny relationship between McEnroe and his father, a hard-driving perfectionist, who instilled in his son both a steely drive to succeed and an inability to enjoy his own success. One of the more interesting tidbits we learn comes from McEnroe's wife, the singer Patty Smyth, who suggests that her irritable, acutely sensory sensitive husband, who, by his own admission, lacks empathy, is likely autistic.

It's true that McEnroe's honesty in wearing his emotions on his short-sleeves directly countered Borg's ice-cool demeanor but also the cavalcade of supremely brand-conscious mega athletes (including Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Tom Brady) who have come after him. For better, and oftentimes worse, McEnroe let you know exactly how he felt at any given time. In that, he makes for a solid documentary subject -- controversial, successful, and often painfully honest about his various shortcomings. It is interesting to watch his face change over the years, from the perpetually furrowed and unforgiving brow of his early days on the tour to his vastly more relaxed countenance as he spends time with his now-grown children. In his later gray-haired days, perspective and wisdom, it would seem, have finally come to the once-embattled tennis star. We should all be so lucky.

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