What’s hot (and not) at Tribeca

"Speed Racer" zooms, David Mamet knows kung fu, a Fellini rediscovery and much more at New York's downsized (but still glitzy) spring fest.

Topics: Beyond the Multiplex, Tribeca Film Access, Tribeca Film Festival, Movies,

What's hot (and not) at Tribeca

Photos courtesy Tribeca Film Festival

Clockwise from top left: stills from “Elite Squad,” “Savage Grace,” “Charly,” “War, Inc.,” “Redbelt,” and “SqueezeBox!”

I never know quite what to say about the Tribeca Film Festival, which launched its 2008 edition on Wednesday night with the premiere of the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy “Baby Mama.” Maybe that’s because the festival’s reason for existing has never seemed entirely clear. How do “Baby Mama” and the Wachowski siblings’ “Speed Racer,” this year’s Hollywoodized red-carpet premieres, fit into a festival that encompasses sports movies, experimental New York documentaries, unknown art films from Eastern Europe and the Arab world, and a collection of would-be art-house hits vacuumed up from other festivals?

Maybe it’s a dumb question. Those things stick together because they’re all part of a large, diverse and incoherent film festival that clogs up Manhattan during the very nicest spring weather and fleetingly captures the industry’s attention before all the film-biz bigwigs jet off to Cannes. I’ve opined before that Tribeca got so big so fast because its very scale has given its founders and organizers a sense of purpose and self-justification. In New York, bigness begets bigness, which equates to importance. Call it the Steinbrenner principle, which drives the New York Yankees to spend — and make — more money than any other sports franchise, albeit without notable success in recent years.

Tribeca founders Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff didn’t really have the option of running a sweet little neighborhood film festival, and halfway through their first effort in 2002 they probably grasped that. Their initial idea, at least purportedly, was to launch a modest for-profit festival as an economic engine for lower Manhattan in the wake of 9/11, but that rationale has long been superseded. Downtown Manhattan in 2008 is packed wall-to-wall with luxury hotels, fancy restaurants and $16 fruit-flavored cocktails, and Tribeca’s honchos have embarked on an extended quest to join Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto at the top rank of destination festivals.

I don’t know about that, frankly. I don’t know whether it’s a goal worth pursuing and I don’t know whether it’s ever going to happen. But here’s the good news: Tribeca has mellowed out, at least a little, in 2008. Festival director Peter Scarlet and his staff have programmed fewer movies (120, still an unwieldy number but less so than the brain-melting 157 of last year), and far more to the point, a lot less totally unwatchable crap.

I had made a resolution this year to ignore most of the mid-level American indie comedies and dramas at Tribeca. This was based on several years of attending “major premieres,” crowded with eager-beaver young New Yorkers, at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center (the fest’s only venue in its namesake neighborhood) and suffering through sub-mediocre time-wasters destined to be seen by almost nobody else.

Consider: “Walker Payne,” with Jason Patric, KaDee Strickland and Sam Shepard. “Suburban Girl,” with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin — as lovers! “Gardener of Eden,” with Lukas Haas and Giovanni Ribisi. “The Hammer,” with Adam Carolla as a 40-year-old Olympic boxer and … well, I have no idea who else was in it, but isn’t that enough? “Civic Duty,” with Peter Krause of “Six Feet Under” gone paranoid Islamophobe. “The Grand,” a movie about a poker tournament loaded with cameos by comedians (and by Werner Herzog). Seen any of those? I didn’t think so. Several of them, in fact, have never been released.

But Scarlet, who is both a genuine intellectual and a shrewd operator, has done my boycotting for me, and appears to have backed out of the mid-level Amerindie market. It’s both a sensible and a refreshing decision; to the limited extent that Tribeca is a market festival, it’s better known for showcasing documentaries like the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side” and Oscar-nominated “Jesus Camp.”

Even after downsizing, Tribeca remains among the two or three biggest American film festivals, and perhaps the most ambitious that isn’t Sundance. In recent years, as its screenings have wandered through seemingly every New York neighborhood besides Tribeca — it’s centered in Greenwich Village and the East Village this year — it has gradually carved out its own peculiar niche, or several of them.

As mentioned, Tribeca’s programmers bring glitzy Hollywood premieres to Manhattan (e.g., “Spider-Man 3″ last year). They deliver festival hits from all over the world to New York audiences, who for better or worse remain tastemakers. They co-produce a sports-related mini-festival with ESPN. Scarlet has a few well-defined specialties: experimental and/or political documentaries, challenging foreign films from way off the cultural and geographic radar screen, rediscovered and restored classics. (I’m looking forward to the African film “Harvest 3000 Years” and Fellini’s reconstructed “Toby Dammit” more than anything else in this year’s festival.)

Although the spectacle, the hype and the shameless corporate hucksterism sometimes seem to define the Tribeca experience — as a for-profit entity, Tribeca can “co-brand” and shill for sponsors as much as its organizers want — I’ve seen movies at this festival every year that I’m profoundly grateful for, and that I’d never otherwise have caught. There will surely be some of those this year. An overstuffed festival deserves an overstuffed list, so here are ultra-quick takes on 15 narrative features and 15 documentaries, most on the odder side but all worth pulling from the clutter. And no, I haven’t included “Speed Racer” or “Baby Mama” or Madonna’s no-doubt heartfelt documentary about some troubled part of the world, whatever it’s called. (Oh, OK. I looked it up. It’s called “I Am Because We Are” and it’s about children orphaned by AIDS in Malawi. She interviews Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu.)

Narrative features

“The Aquarium” An anesthesiologist and a talk-show host find each other in the Cairo night, in this exploration of social and sexual repression from Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah. Given Tribeca’s track record with Arab films, I especially want to catch this one.

“Boy A” Reportedly riveting drama from British director John Crowley stars Andrew Garfield as a young man trying to re-enter society after serving 14 years for a crime he committed as a child.

“The Caller” Frank Langella is a corporate whistle-blower and Elliott Gould is the private eye he hires in this American neo-noir from director Richard Ledes.

“Charly” Young French actress-turned-director Isild Le Besco is back with another film about kids on the outer edges of society, this time a 14-year-old runaway who moves in with Charly, a girl who lives on her own in a trailer.

“Eden” Irish filmmaker Declan Recks tackles Eugene O’Brien’s play about a crumbling working-class marriage in a small provincial town; reported to be grim but excellent.

“Elite Squad” Brazilian director José Padilha (“Bus 174″) won the big prize at Berlin with this brutal police thriller. Padilha’s a leftist, but some critics have branded the film as fascist, and even speculated that Harvey Weinstein, its U.S. distributor, rigged the Berlin vote.

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“Harvest 3000 Years” This 1975 film by Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, regarded as a masterpiece of African cinema, “has a particular kind of urgency which few pictures possess,” says Martin Scorsese. When else will you see a movie in Amharic?

“My Marlon and Brando” Maybe the title lost something in translation, but this entrancing love story about a Kurdish man and a Turkish woman is true, and the two characters are played by the real people involved, who met on a film set.

“My Winnipeg” If you know the purposefully quirky films of Canadian director Guy Maddin, odds are you either love them or loathe them. This time around Maddin offers a “docufantasia” history of his uncharismatic hometown, packaged as usual in the filmmaking styles and techniques of the 1920s.

“Redbelt” David Mamet has come out as a right-winger (I’m, like, so shocked) and now he’s made a martial-arts film starring Chiwetel Ojiofor, Joe Mantegna and Tim Allen (!) that is one of Tribeca’s marquee offerings. Is there a connection?

“Savage Grace” Tom Kalin’s film starring Julianne Moore as Barbara Baekeland, subject of a tabloid-ready 1960s incest-murder case, has been around the film-festival horn, from Cannes to Sundance to Tribeca. Some love it, some really, really hate it, and that’s an endorsement of sorts. I found it a meticulously crafted, arch voyage into sexual nightmare.

“The Secret of the Grain” Abdellatif Kechiche’s melodrama about a North African immigrant family in the South of France swept most major awards at the Césars (or French Oscars). That could be the result of French guilt, but those who’ve seen it report it’s wonderful.

“Simple Things” Tribeca programmers always do well with Russian and Eastern European titles, and Alexei Popogrebsky’s film about a doctor facing midlife crisis has been acclaimed as one of Russia’s best recent offerings.

“Somers Town” Shane Meadows, ex-skinhead director of indie hit “This Is England,” returns with the next chapter of his film autobiography (again starring the terrific young Thomas Turgoose), this time about the friendship between a 1980s London runaway and a Polish immigrant.

“Toby Dammit” A rediscovered and restored 1968 film from Federico Fellini? Yes, we can. At 37 minutes, this Edgar Allan Poe adaptation is somewhere between a short and a feature, and follows Terence Stamp as a drugged-out British celebrity trying to navigate the insanity of Rome.

“War, Inc.” Co-written by star John Cusack, Joshua Seftel’s film attempts Terry Southern-style satire of current events, following an American hit man into a fully outsourced Middle East war. Joan Cusack, Marisa Tomei and Ben Kingsley are along for the ride.

Documentaries

“Baghdad High” It’s the Iraq war as a social-networking experience. Directors Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter gave video cameras to four Baghdad high school seniors of different ethnicities (Shiite, Sunni, Christian and Kurdish) and asked them to capture their world. Sure to be talked about.

“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” Christopher Bell’s provocative investigation of the steroids issue is both social and personal, since two of his brothers are longtime steroid users and bodybuilders.

“Chevolution” How did that one photograph of Che Guevara — you know the one I mean — stop signifying Marxist revolution and become an icon of hipster capitalism? Directors Luis Lopez and Trisha Ziff explore.

“Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans” A first-person history from New Orleans natives Dawn Logsdon and Lolis Eric Elie about the historic African-American neighborhood just outside the French Quarter, a major center for black empowerment and solidarity since the 19th century.

“Gunnin’ for That No. 1 Spot” A basketball documentary directed by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys? Yes, really, and reportedly a high-energy portrayal of a street-ball tournament at Harlem’s legendary Rucker Park, where future NBA legends make their reputation.

“Lioness” Officially, female United States soldiers don’t take part in combat operations. But on the ground in Iraq, as Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers’ film about a female counterinsurgency unit dubbed “Team Lioness” explores, reality has been otherwise.

“Man on Wire” A sensation at Sundance, James Marsh’s wistful and hilarious film about French artist-stuntman Philippe Petit’s 1974 wire-walk between the unfinished towers of the World Trade Center has all the earmarks of a docu-indie hit.

“Milosevic on Trial” Now for the light comedy. Well, in fact those who’ve seen Michael Christofferson’s behind-the-scenes doc about the Hague Tribunal’s genocide trial of Slobodan Milosevic say it is blackly funny, in places. That’s probably not the overwhelming sensation you’ll take away.

“My Life Inside” A profoundly troubling doc (from director Lucia Gajá) follows the true-crime case of Rosa Jiménez, an illegal Mexican immigrant forced to stand trial on flimsy murder charges in Texas when the baby she’s caring for dies tragically.

“An Omar Broadway Film” Yet another first-person documentary — but co-director Broadway is an incarcerated gang member, capturing his life as an inmate in Newark, N.J.’s notorious maximum-security Northern State Prison with a contraband camera.

“Progressive Landscapes” This double bill of experimental documentaries about forgotten elements of radical-left history — John Gianvito’s “Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind” and Mark Street’s “Hidden in Plain Sight” — definitely isn’t for everyone. But if it might be your cup of jasmine tea, don’t miss these lyrical, challenging films, because you may never get another chance.

“Secrecy” Robb Moss and Peter Galison’s film digs into our government’s long-standing obsession (in the post-9/11 era, mania might be a better word) with keeping enormous volumes of information from the public, largely based on outdated rules developed in World War II.

“SqueezeBox!” At last, the world may be ready for the true story of the legendary ’90s Manhattan sex club that welcomed explorers of all orientations, where John Cameron Mitchell first performed as Hedwig. (Yes, it’s the same scene Mitchell captured, in quasi-fictional form, in “Shortbus.”)

“Theater of War” Ideal for downtown New York audiences — and unlikely to play anywhere else — John Walter’s film explores the work and thought of Bertolt Brecht, and takes us behind the scenes with Meryl Streep and others at the Public Theater’s recent production of Brecht’s “Mother Courage.”

“Two Mothers” At age 58, German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim (a he, despite the name) found out he was adopted, and his literally incredible search for his birth mother leads him back to Latvia in 1942, through death camps and secret Aryan genetic experiments and deep into the nightmarish shadow world of the Third Reich.

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