Friday, April 21, 2006

REV: TriBeCa Film Fest

The Movies That Ate Manhattan: A User's Guide to the TriBeCa Film Festival
By DAVID CARR, The New York Times


IMAGINE you are at the multiplex. There are 17 movies — indies, comedies, dark dramas, foreign films and documentaries. Most have something to recommend, and each one would meet at least someone's fancy, maybe yours. Surveying all the options, you wonder where to head first.

Now multiply by 10, and you have some idea of the scope of the Tribeca Film Festival, the downtown orgy of cinema that begins Tuesday with the premiere of "United 93" and winds down on May 7 with a lovingly restored version of the 1955 noir, "The Big Combo." The Tribeca Film Festival was conceived as a civic gesture to help the neighborhood get back on its feet after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has mushroomed into the film fest that ate downtown. Last year, its fourth, it sold 135,000 tickets to over 700 screenings. This year there will be at least 764 screenings — 174 features and 100 shorts — bursting out of TriBeCa and heading even north of Columbus Circle.

It needn't eat you alive however. New Yorkers are terrified of missing anything, and they take their movies seriously, but there is no way even the most dedicated film aesthete in a great pair of running shoes could take in the whole festival. Choices must be made. There are dark little movies that reflect someone's deeply held personal vision and not much else, Hollywood hopefuls with bona fide stars, and all kinds of projected images in between. And that's not even counting the parties, the discussions, family events and the après-cinema bar scene.

"New York is a big town and has the biggest of everything, so it should not be daunted by having a huge festival," said Peter Scarlet, the executive director, who pointed out that Berlin, a much smaller city, has a festival with twice as many movies. By sheer numbers TriBeCa can be a bit of a crapshoot: choose unwisely and you could end up in the cinematic equivalent of a table in crowded restaurant next to a really obnoxious, self-impressed grad student who doesn't know how to tell a story.

Still, what we've got here is a problem of opportunity. Downtown may still have a big hole in the middle of it, but nothing scares away the dark better than a movie projector. So let's not panic, or let paralysis set in in the face of too many choices. The festival, like New York, is really a series of niches that accrete into a very large whole. Last year the screening of "Ushpizin" was filled with Hasidic Jews — not your usual matinee crowd — and first- and second-generation Chinese-Americans flocked to "Red Doors."

"We have diverse cultures and diverse audiences coming to see films," said Jane Rosenthal, co-founder of the festival along with Robert De Niro. "We are working hard not to repeat ourselves and to have the festival be something that the audiences and the industry feel belongs to them."

Film festivals generally bring to mind madly texting people in black waiting to get in to the next big thing, but this festival is more democratic: it even has about 15 movies for kids, free drive-in movies and a street fair on Greenwich Avenue with all sorts of ways for the children to engage in controlled mayhem. Since the festival continues to vacuum up new movies — often with no discernible pattern — serendipity can be your friend: you could do a lot worse than walking up to the main festival box office on Laight Street at Canal and throwing a dart.

Let the scenesters compete in this year's treasure hunt for this year's version of "Transamerica," the TriBeCa-bred film that made it all the way to the Oscars thanks to Felicity Huffman's mind-and-gender-bending performance. Why not just take a flier on "The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl" or "Fat Girls," a comedy directed by a 20-year-old about a young man who yearns for a leading man in his life and a turn on Broadway?

Probably better, though, to grab the hefty 48-page guide, which is easier to navigate this year and even has an Amazon-style preference indicator. (If you like "Wordplay," you'll flip for "Flock of Dodos.") In addition to a listing of all feature films, the guide has groupings by subject, so if you want to spend the next two weeks watching movies about the Iraq war or religion, Tribeca is there for you.

After spending some time talking to the film programmers at Tribeca — Nancy Schafer and David Kwok sifted through their share of dogs on your behalf — and some folks who would just as soon spend the rest of their lives in a dark room, we came up with a few ideas of our own. Given the torrent of movies, here are a few ways to paddle through the festival, whether you want to dip a toe in or go for the full immersion.

Feeding the Incurable Romantic
Edward Burns — he directs, he acts, he's cute as all get-out — is back, this time with "The Groomsmen," a tender look at men who are constitutionally opposed to maturity. And a pair of fish — "Kettle of Fish" and "I'm Reed Fish" — do that winsome thing that makes girls wistful and sensitive boys hold their hands. (Bonus star points in this one: Gina Gershon is the loveliest interest in "Kettle," and "Gilmore" girl Alexis Bledel shows up in "Reed.")

And then there's "The Treatment," in which a schoolteacher, freshly dumped, comes together with an alluring widow and firm-handed therapist to romantic ends. "Driving Lessons," replete with shy teenager, knowing older woman and the great, new world beyond, offers coming-of-age sparkle. And meet-cute gets complicated in "New York Waiting," which pivots around the Empire State Building and the city at its feet.

Reality With a Bite
"Jesus Camp" is a documentary look at love of a more devotional sort; "Flock of Dodos" takes on the evolution-versus-intelligent-design debate to comic ends. "American Cannibal" is a tutorial in how fame and fortune — or a reality-television version of them — induce people to do really dumb stuff. And music and politics mix in "Lockdown, USA," about work by the hip-hop producer Russell Simmons and a passel of other music luminaries to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws.

"The Heart of the Game" is a "Hoop Dreams"-like riff on the round ball, a girl and the coach who tries to help her play between the lines. "The One Percent" features a scion of the superrich — Jamie Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson clan — discussing justice with other members of the elite as well as mere mortals like cabdrivers and disaster victims.

Real Actual Stars
The rule of thumb in New York is that it is déclassé to get in a tizzy just because you walked by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but that does not mean that we don't enjoy the chance to pretend to ignore movie stars. "Lonely Hearts" contains more than sufficient wattage, with John Travolta and James Gandolfini playing lawmen to Jared Leto and Salma Hayek's murderous thugs. David Duchovny and Sigourney Weaver star in "The TV Set," a film about a show about a concept — well, you get the idea — directed by Jake Kasdan, son of the director Lawrence Kasdan.

Alec Baldwin has been turning up in a number of surprising roles, and "Mini's First Time," a comedic noir, should be worth a look. And you can see John Malkovich being someone else in "Colour Me Kubrick."

All Cinema Is Local
It has been more than four years since the attacks of Sept. 11, which is about the length of time it takes the film industry to digest and produce stories about tectonic events. "United 93" is not the only take on those events at Tribeca: "The Heart of Steel," produced in partnership with the September 11th Families Association, chronicles volunteer heroism amid tragedy while "Saint of 9/11" is a tribute to the Rev. Mychal F. Judge, who died while ministering to victims amid a rain of debris.

In terms of ambassadors for New York, there would not be much argument with Rosie Perez, whose documentary, "Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'Que Tu lo Sepas!" ("I'm Boricua, Just So You Know!"), takes a long look at Puerto Rico through the prism of the city. The dark side of the city's immigrant narrative is on view in "Golden Venture," which follows the lives of the nearly 300 undocumented Chinese immigrants stashed in the hold of the merchant ship that ran aground in 1993.

There are plenty of Gothamic dramas as well, including "Fifty Pills," with Kristen Bell, star of "Veronica Mars," as the girlfriend of a young man in a spot who needs to sell 50 doses of Ecstasy to make his tuition payment. "East Broadway" takes Cinderella to Chinatown while the raconteur-with-kid-in-tow motif gets a workout in "Just Like the Son." Brooklyn gets it share of shout-outs, including "Brother's Shadow," about an ex-con whose real troubles begin when he is back at large.

Foreign, but Not Alien
"Madeinusa" is set in an Andean village, but has lavish contemporary resonance, while "Backstage" goes through the looking glass of celebrity culture both ways. You can see gobs of money spent on screen in "The Promise," the most expensive movie to come out of China ever, according to the program, with lots of action; an epic love triangle among a general, a slave and a princess; and lavish, period sets. Far cheaper to make, but probably no less interesting is "37 Uses for a Dead Sheep," a documentary about itinerants, forced out of country after country, who finally come to rest in a remote part of Turkey.

Buzz Factories
There are a few movies that, because of cast, events or Hollywood potential, will be talked about throughout the festival. If you are making a movie like "Street Thief," about a criminal enterprise, there is always the possibility of collateral damage. One of its producers may not make the premiere. He was arrested on charges of armed robbery and kidnapping in connection with a truck hijacking in Illinois. "Civic Duty" is about an accountant, played by Peter Krause of "Six Feet Under," who flips his noodle over the terrorist threat. "Walker Payne" has a down-on-his-luck guy (Jason Patric) confronted by a series of Hobbesian choices presented by Drea de Matteo and Sam Shepard. "Alone With Her" features Hanks the younger — Colin, Tom's son — playing a creepy stalker who surveils his way into a young victim's life.

G-Rated Tribeca
For those of you who have reproduced, but can't stand the thought of another homebound night with a DVD and microwave popcorn, Tribeca is getting more serious every year about programming for, by and about families. There is a street fair on May 6, and for the length of the festival there are movies children can see that will not leave their parents wanting to poke out their own eyes, including a remake of "Lassie" — will there be whistling? — and a documentary called "When Fried Eggs Fly," about a teacher who tried to get all the frogs in the wheelbarrow by training 150 children and parents to compose and perform an original piece of music.

When the Lights Go Up
Half the fun, or perhaps more if you don't choose your movies wisely, occurs once the movie ends and you head out into the night: premiere parties and movie events that truly beckon. Any locals worth their ticket stubs know that a velvet rope is an invitation, not an obstacle. Strategies abound, including staying after the movie and chatting up the second director, making nice with employees at any of the major locations, or, when all else fails, a bat of the eyes, a flash of an impressive business card or the drop of a name that may or may not be exactly kosher.

For sheer theatricality and scale, the TriBeCa Grand Hotel is a good bet, as is the other Grand, the SoHo, up the way. SoHo: 323 will be the epicenter of a lot of nonsense and wonder, with a number of A-list events. If you want to wander, you could do worse than leave a trail of popcorn among clubs like Sugar, Libation, Aer and Velvet. When TriBeCa Cinemas does not have a nighttime event, the lower-level bar can be a spot where a lot of people in the business toe-touch, and you might want to do the same. The "Tribeca Talks" events, with chatters from Harold Ramis to T-Bone Burnett, will be scenes unto themselves.

(For those who are not fully movied out, there are a bunch of quirky midnight offerings, including "Air Guitar Nation," which explains itself perhaps too well, and "Hatchet," a slasher homage that promises "beer, beads and blood." (Mardi Gras, anyone?)

If you've had enough of the industrial-strength stuff, get a folding chair and a bottle of beer in front of the Ear Inn in SoHo; on a warm spring night it is one of New York's seminal experiences, with or without a film festival.

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