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Luckey in Amsterdam

Paralyzing hopelessness at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam
By GERALD PEARY  |  January 23, 2009



Snowstorm over Amsterdam! This wasn't the plan, in my escaping Boston in November for a week in Holland at the International Documentary Film Festival of  Amsterdam (IDFA). The temptation was to skip movies altogether and hang with Amy, my wife in our cozy hotel room. Should we mellow out each with a "Spacecake"? That's Amsterdam's popular, fresh-from-the oven variant of a hash brownie. And totally legal!

Should we bunker down with our tourist guide-books, thinking ahead, when the weather cleared, to Rembrandt paintings and the Anne Frank House?

No! There was Phoenix reporting to be done, and I was intent on a local Hub angle. Amy and I took a tram across Amsterdam, pushing through a pre-Thanksgiving blizzard for IDFA's world premiere of Luckey, a feature documentary by Arlington filmmaker, Laura Longworth. Longworth also arrived there by tram, following an all-night plane trip from Boston. She’d been too excited anticipating her screening to take an afternoon jetlag nap. Simply, there’s no more prestigious place for a documentary to debut than IDFA, rightly regarded as the very best documentary festival in the world. It’s the best organized, has the most righteous global-village-eco-political-human rights agenda, and the most responsive and sophisticated audiences. And great non-fiction films!

Buoyed to be in IDFA’s First Appearance Competition Longworth couldn't help but be let down that the fierce snow really cut down her audience. Only several dozen braved the windy storm for Longworth’s unveiling of Luckey to the world. One teensy consolation: the Phoenix was there! And I can report, happily, that Luckey is a classy, engrossing documentary, and that it should have a sound life back home in New England. How about a run at the MFA?

The “luckey” of the title is Tom Luckey, a talented, driven Connecticut architect-designer of climbing environments for children, who is hired for the ultimate gig in his field. He's to develop a kind of mini-Tower of Babel for Boston's Children's Museum, a mammoth construction in the main hall for which enthralled children could climb way way up,  slide way way down. Fun fun, but in a high-modernist, artsy way.

Luckey is an ironic title, for the protagonist of the film has a horrific break, passing out, falling from a high window. This type AA control freak is paralyzed in a wheel chair, and must rely on his adult son, Spencer Luckey, to be the walking, touching, climbing, building part of the Children's Museum project. It's a forced partnership, two Alpha males with their own bold, often competing ideas. The eternal, prideful father-son struggle comes vividly to life in Luckey, but what makes the story especially juicy is the third wheel: Tom Luckey's gorgeous, proprietary wife, Ettie, who loathes Spencer, child of Tom Luckey's first marriage. And Spencer hates her back.

Tom and Spencer really like the movie, Longworth said in a Q&A. "Ettie doesn’t want to see it. She's heard that Spencer comes across as a pretty reasonable person, and that's difficult for her."

There was one more Boston film at IDFA, Bestor Cram's Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. This is a sincere, noble try, interviews with ex-prisoners and guards who were witness when, in January, 1968, Cash took to the jailhouse stage. But all the sleek graphics and bouncy editing can't mask the hole in the middle: that there's no actual footage of the so-legendary Folsom concert. Photographs and the Man in Black singing and strumming on the soundtrack just aren't the same.

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