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The Last Festival: The 2005 Tribeca Film Festival

Local real estate brokers may argue with you, but it’s a pretty safe bet to say that by the spring of 2005, the downtown Manhattan area, TriBeCa especially, had mostly recovered from the economic and psychological devastation wrought by 9/11. So then, what is one to do with the Tribeca Film Festival? Conjured up by Robert De Niro, with the largesse of American Express behind him, to resuscitate his beloved neighborhood, the festival is now entering into its fourth year and starting to undergo a kind of identity crisis. No longer necessary as an artistic bandage for a wrecked neighborhood – though the pit of Ground Zero still provides an eerie frisson of nightmarish memory when you glance at it through the windows of the multiplex where most of the films are screened – Tribeca now seems to want to be a buyer’s market, like Sundance and Cannes, where daring, small films are screened to enraptured audiences while the studio suits fight over distribution rights.

Needless to say, that hasn’t quite happened yet, as most of the films which attracted the biggest audiences seemed to be those with name stars and studios already attached to them. So, without the attraction of celebrity glitz and glamour (and no, a chance spotting of Tiffani Thiessen in the press line doesn’t count), a lack of knockout premieres (those go to the smaller, infinitely more prestigious and precious New York Film Festival uptown), and not a lot of studio buzz, what is the purpose of the festival? For lack of anything else, Tribeca’s raison d’être appears to be simply packing in a couple hundred pretty good movies (mostly, but not entirely domestic, weighted towards New York-centric stories) over a week and a half – and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. The general-purpose film festival is nothing new, most every major city in the country has one, but until Tribeca came along, New York (which has a film or video festival for seemingly every micro-genre or ethnic group on the planet) didn’t have one. Now it does. It’s as simple as that.

Up front, it must be stated that this critic has an atrocious record when it comes to picking out the handful of movies I’ll have time to see over the course of a big festival, and this one was no exception. Of the nine films I screened (a decent bunch, I thought), not a single one won an award (jury or audience) of any kind. With that in mind, let’s proceed.

Starting with the worst first, there was a trio of literary, New York-set minor star vehicles which seemed to have promise – a notion which viewers were swiftly disabused of. Piccadilly Jim () had every indication that it would be a hoot. An adaptation of a frothy P.G. Wodehouse bit of nonsense about the roustabout son of a social-climbing family, it had a script by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and included in its cast Sam Rockwell, Tom Wilkinson, Alison Janney, and Brenda Blethyn. A baffling mish-mash that could never really decide what it wanted to be (or even when it was set, tossing pointless anachronisms into the pseudo-1930s setting), the film wastes its fine performers (who, for the most part, go down with a fight, guns blazing) on a story that’s never quite as madcap as it wants to be.

Quite a bit more serious was The Tenants (), which is based on the 1971 Bernard Malamud novel about two battling novelists, one white and the other black. The choice to cast Snoop Dogg as one of the writers (a mostly homeless Black Power activist) is an inspired one that definitely pays off, but ultimately undermines the plot’s essential duality. By having such a charismatic audience favorite on one half of the narcissistic writer divide, the other half (played purposefully more morosely by Dylan McDermott) can’t hope to compete. And so by the time this ugly story of rivalry and racism has played itself out, instead of realizing how alike these two ostensibly different men are, all we can see are differences.

Down on the lower end of improbability and suffused with the kind of photogenic quirkiness that still afflicts the more box-office-friendly films on the lower end of the budget scale (can’t quite call them ‘indies’ anymore, can we?), the third of these films, Griffin Dunne’s Fierce People (), would have been utterly insufferable, had it not been for a batch of very fine performances. A too-neat coming-of-ager about a New York teen and his recovering addict mom who get a job on the compound of an insanely wealthy Donald Sutherland, it starts off as generally purposeless but pretty affable comedy and then loses its head by moving into morally turbulent waters which it has no idea how to navigate. Sutherland proves his mettle once again, however, while Diane Lane and Anton Yelchin (as the mother and son) are luminously real, showing that Dunne’s eye for actors is as excellent as his eye for scripts is abominable.

Since it’s hard to remember the last time that a Russian film made any sort of dent in the domestic market, it was gratifying to see the quite awesome Night Watch (), which Fox will be tossing into the summer action derby sometime into July, where it will possibly do quite well. The first in a purported trilogy of dark fantasy films, it takes a familiar idea – that beneath the surface of reality there are mystical forces of good and evil battling for control of the human race – and presents it as a high-impact, gritty urban thriller that actually retains the weight of morality to it (just one of many things to set it apart from The Matrix, which it will inevitably be compared to).

A light diversion at least partially spoiled by an audience which seemed composed most of friends and family (the sort of inappropriately uproarious laughter that worked as a damper on everyone else’s enjoyment), The Baxter () is a smart and pretty darn adorable romantic comedy which deserves to get at least a limited distribution. Director/writer/star Michael Showalter plays a type you see in romantic comedies but who is never really thought about much – that is, the guy who gets left at the altar when the bride runs off with the leading man, who has just come storming in to sweep her away. The whole film is the lead-up to that climactic wedding scene, with Showalter doing everything he can to keep his character with his obnoxious fiancé and not the cute office temp (Michelle Williams, more repressed than usual) who we all know will be waiting for him after he leaves the church, alone. Not quite as original as the audience seemed to think, but fun nevertheless.

And then there was the L.A. Riot Spectacular (), howling at the moon somewhere out on the p
eriphery of everything. Imagining itself as a sort of feral kin to the rampaging satire of Natural Born Killers, the film ends up more like a longer and unusually dirty-mouthed TV skit comedy show. A raggedy band of actors (Charles S. Dutton, Emilio Estevez, George Hamilton) who must have not had anything else to do that day show up to reenact the 1992 Rodney King riots in grandly surreal fashion, thinking that sheer audacity will save the day. While nobody could say that the film doesn’t have guts, as it lays out the abuse on every ethnic group and class strata in sight, the sheer pointlessness of it all becomes wearying by the end.

As is not uncommon at festivals, your best bet was to hit the documentaries, and there was a trio of absolutely smashing ones at Tribeca 2005. Punk: Attitude () is another energetic and thoughtful documentary on underground music from the fantastic Don Letts (who also did the Clash film Westway to the World, which simply must be seen by any and all who care about music). A nuanced collage of absolutely riveting archival concert footage and no-holds-barred commentary from a wide cast of talking heads (everyone from Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore to Jim Jarmusch) talking about the punk phenomenon, it’s not afraid to take the piss out of the movement, and won’t settle for simple nostalgia for the fabled late 1970s of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.

A documentary with a premise that seems, on the surface, much more prosaic was Off to War (), whose directors (a pair of brothers) followed the 39th Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard through their entire 18-month deployment (6 months at Ft. Hood, the following 12 in Iraq). Originally part of a series for the Discovery Channel, this spare and harrowing film only includes the initial call-up to their first month overseas, but it’s enough to rend anybody’s heart. Hardly a Hollywood-ready melting-pot group, the Guardsmen followed by the cameras are by and large a salt-of-the-earth group, mostly none too happy about their deployment, but determined to do the right thing. The true affect of this film only hit me the next day, when seeing a news story about combat deaths in Iraq, I found myself reflexively checking to see if any of them were from Arkansas.

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear () was, very simply, like a brick to the head – but in a good way. Originally a three-part BBC documentary, it was edited together into one film for the festival – supposedly, it’s been cut into a more audience-friendly version that will screen at Cannes and possibly hit theaters later in the year. The film’s thesis is that governments once tried to curry favor with their populace by talking about bright futures and lofty goals, whereas these days they just try and scare the bejesus out of us. It takes a dual approach to the subject, following the rise of Islamic fundamentalist terror from the 1940s on, and mirroring that with the beginnings of the American neoconservative movement from around the same time, aiming to show how both ideologies wanted to purify their societies of (what they thought were) weaker and more corrupt elements, and are now battling each other in the sands of the Middle East. There are some massive holes in the film’s argument, especially on the neocon side (which the British filmmakers too often confuse with just ordinary conservatives of the kind who tried to get Clinton out of office), but for every one of those, there’s a smack-your-forehead connection or idea (especially regarding the perhaps non-existent threat from al Qaeda), and not of the usual conspiracy-mongering kind. For all its lapses and gaps in logic, this is thought-provoking political film at its finest. Michael Moore should be ashamed.

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