From Great Rifts to Massive Frauds

A rich field of local, national, and international subjects, from short to feature length
“The Last Safari” follows a journalist back to East Africa, where she shares the photographs she took there with her subjects.

    The opening, closing, centerpiece, and spotlight films may get all the attention, but the movies people talk about online, the ones that may not get major distribution but are singular and captivating as well, are the ones that define a film festival and make it memorable. The Star staff previewed a handful of these films to see whether each was worthy of some non-spotlight attention. They are a rich field of local, national, and international subjects, from short to feature length.

“Big Shot”
Kevin Connolly
East Hampton, Saturday, 3 p.m.
Sag Harbor, Monday, noon

    Are you one to admire the gumption of a 33-year-old nobody who essentially bought a marquee professional sports franchise without anywhere near the money to do so? Or are you weary of a culture in thrall to bullshitting and the overvaluation of mere self-confidence. Are you appalled by bald-faced lies? Or do you expect them and consider that reaction naive.

    How you answer those questions may affect your view of Kevin Connolly’s ESPN Films documentary “Big Shot,” the story of John Spano and the legendary snow job he pulled on the National Hockey League and the ownership of the New York Islanders. It could have been titled “Big Lie,” because we all know those tend to get swallowed whole. After all, who would be crazy enough to simply pretend to have hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal?

    At one point Mr. Connolly, the Patchogue-born Islanders fan best known for his role in the HBO series “Entourage,” asks Mr. Spano if he remembers one particular whopper — that his money was tied up in British ventures and he couldn’t get at it because of an I.R.A. bombing — and his answer is telling: “More importantly, did they believe it?” Right, the onus is on the suckers.

    So, “Big Shot” is what he wanted to be and what he took. Sure, he later went to the slammer, but just for the record? He doesn’t regret any of it. He came with it and he went with it, in Jackie Gleason's words, bedding gorgeous women, supping to surfeit on steaks and vodka, kicking it in the finest hotels, and glorying in the adulation as the presumed savior of a storied franchise on the rocks.
    You call those memories, sports fans. B.G.

“A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times”
Samantha Grant
East Hampton, tomorrow 3:45 p.m.
Sag Harbor, Saturday 1:30 p.m.

    If you think a 10-year-old story about journalistic plagiarism is old news, think again. “A Fragile Trust,” a film about Jayson Blair, the New York Times journalist whose serial fabrications besmirched the “newspaper of record” and brought down two top editors, is a fascinating and suspenseful documentary. Directed by Samantha Grant, the film is artfully assembled from interviews with journalists from The Times and other publications, television news clips, and extensive footage of Mr. Blair explaining and reflecting on what he did.

    The film opens with the story that broke the story — Mr. Blair’s article on his visit to the mother of a soldier missing in Iraq. Macarena Hernandez, a reporter for The San Antonio Express-News, and her editor Robert Rivard, discovered that the article had blatantly plagiarized the piece Ms. Hernandez had written and published eight days before. From that point, the film moves backward and forward in time to detail Mr. Blair’s rapid rise to a job as a Times reporter at the age of 23 to his eventual exposure and disgrace.

    Mr. Blair’s story alone is complicated enough, involving drug and alcohol abuse, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and his admission that “I lied, and I lied, and I lied.” At the same time, he is articulate, remorseful, even sympathetic. Yet, as one Times editor remarks, “Where does the illness end and gaming the system begin?”
    But the film is not just about Mr. Blair. It is about the culture of The New York Times, the implications of the Internet for print journalism, and, inevitably, since Mr. Blair is black, whether affirmative action was a factor in his retention by the paper despite mounting evidence of his malfeasance.    M.S.

“The Last Safari”
Matt Goldman
East Hampton, Sunday, 2:15 p.m.
Sag Harbor, Monday, 5:15 p.m.
    The photojournalist Elizabeth L. Gilbert spent a decade covering the bloody civil wars of Central Africa, eventually finding herself wondering if her record of those tragic times had made any kind of positive mark. As she says in this film, after capturing all that horror, she wanted to leave Africa having documented something beautiful. And she did, traveling across East Africa’s Great Rift Valley photographing its various tribes and their age-old traditions at a moment when many of those traditions were in danger of being lost.
    After publishing the stunning “Tribes of the Great Rift Valley” in 2007, she returned to Kenya to hold “cinema” shows of her images for those same tribes, revisiting many remote regions and reconnecting with people she met and photographed there. “I wanted people to have an experience of photography that would counter that feeling of exploitation,” she explains in the film, which she produced.
    That often-difficult trek with the director, Matt Goldman, and a crew of 10 Kenyans in three cars, few of them familiar with the rough terrain they were covering, is the heart of this compelling and personal documentary. A loving portrait at times, it is also an elegy for ways of life already extinct and a way of seeing. Filmed entirely in Kenya, it offers plenty of breathtaking backdrops, but it is hardly anyone’s fantasy version of a safari, instead showing that there’s lots of dirt and dust and disappointment along with the beauty inherent in this type of sweeping journey.    C.K.

“A Poet Long Ago”
Bob Giraldi
East Hampton, tomorrow, 5:30 p.m., Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
    Peter Malloy is a media guy who drives an Audi with telltale pollution-yellow Jersey plates. Sonny Rizzelli rides the back of a garbage truck. Their chance meeting on a New York side street in Bob Giraldi’s new short film, “A Poet Long Ago,” triggers a pained exploration of a life’s trajectory and lingering regret over talent left to die on the vine.
    In a coffee shop, the two old pals’ reminiscence is intercut with flashbacks to their school days in the 1970s, when they were “kids from the wrong side of Brooklyn” and Sonny was writing poetry good enough to get published in a city tabloid. But, sorry, kid, a tough neighborhood, hostile classmates, and a traditionalist ignoramus of a father conspire to beat it out of him.
    This is based on a story by Pete Hamill, bard of New York newspapermen, so you know it’s got heart and grit. It stars two veteran TV actors, Steve Schirripa and Boris McGiver, and Mr. Giraldi has been around long enough to have directed Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” music video. Given all that, you may find yourself equating young Sonny’s drive to write poetry for its own sake with the ambition of the filmmakers to make a short just for a stab at artistry.