Thursday, May 8, 2008

In its final day, the Tribeca Film Festival redeems itself

After spending the last few weeks watching some of the Tribeca Flm Festival selection, I was left more than a bit disappointed. In my review of the festival published in Street last Thursday I gave it a less-than-stellar 2 of 5 paws. While I saw two excellent films (Man on Wire, Angels and Idiots), they were weighed down by some very mediocre movies that I could have done without. This past Sunday I came to Tribeca with a new tactic hoping to catch up on some of festival awards winners. To my surprise of the three films I watched two that were downright superb and go a long ways to redeem the entire festival.

“War Inc.” starring John Cusack and Hilary Duff (yeah, the pop star)

The only non-award winner that I watched on Sunday was the comedy "War Inc." that satirizes the United States and its war in Iraq. The film stars John Cusack, who plays an assassin sent to kill the president of a fictional Middle Eastern country. In this "brave new security world," the United States fights its "first war 100% outsourced to private enterprise." Although most of the gags in the film are less than subtle they often work because of how audaciously they take on the establishment. In one disturbing scene, a prosthetics manufacturer shows off his wares by having amputated female veterans dance the cancan. Hyper exaggerated scenarios like this one unfortunately play second fiddle to a far less interesting drama involving Cusack's character who regrets his life as a professional hitman. During a moment of introspection, he says menacingly "I have many enemies, I've done many things." Wow, stirring stuff. Although the stylish "War Inc." fails as a latter day “Dr. Strangelove,” it stands as a refreshing change of pace from the inert Iraq war dramas that have made their way to the multiplex these past few years (I'm looking at you "Lions for Lambs").

“Let the Right One In”-The Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature

The Swedish movie "Let the Right One in" uses the horror trope of the vampire perfectly to create a moving tale about childhood, coming of age and friendship. Oskar and Eli are two ostracized kids who find solace in each other's company. Although the mysterious girl Eli just happens to be an ageless vampire, she is never the most frightening thing about the film. Through the bullying that Oskar continually experiences, "Let the Right One in" exposes the pain associated with simply growing up in any elementary school setting. Whereas Eli kills for her survival, the kids tormenting Oskar practice a disarming cruelty that seems without motive. These serious moments perfectly offset lighter ones where Oskar musters out the courage to ask Eli "want to go steady?" Lina Leandersson who plays Eli lends her vampire with a convincing maturity that melds well with Oskar’s timid boyishness. For all its success as a drama, the film is no slouch in the horror department presenting bizarre sequences that intertwine innocence with a deep but frightening violence. At once touching and horrifying, "Let the Right One In" is as a classic vampire flick that beats with a fascinating life.

“My Marlon and Brando”-Best New Narrative Filmmaker

The final film of my Tribeca experience "Gitmek: My Marlon and My Brando" was the perfect way to end the festival. The film focuses on actress Ayca who fell deeply in love with a Kurdish actor on a film set. After a year apart, she goes in search of her man, traveling from Istanbul to the border between Iran and northern Iraq just as Operation Iraqi Freedom begins. The star Ayca Damgaci imbues her character who wants "to destroy all fucking borders" with compelling conviction. Meanwhile, Ayca's love interest, Hamam Ali is but a middle-aged bald man who flaunts his imperfect English sprouting phrases like “I kiss you a million times in my dreams” as though they were poetry. His numerous video love letters to Ayca, although shabbily produced, are extraordinary heartfelt and showcase how this imperfect fellow can be the hero for one struggling woman. Ultimately with Ayca's story, "Gitmek" suggests that through cinema we experience our joy, our dreams and our ideals. It’s a powerful but resonant statement that’s particularly apt for the Tribeca Film Festival.

Thanks to the last two features of the festival, my whole experience at Tribeca was elevated. By my final count, four of the nine films I saw at Tribeca were excellent. If you wait until the festival award winners are announced, you can insure yourself a day in the Big Apple filled with great movies. It worked for me and definitely adds another paw to my final score.

Final Tribeca film Festival score-3 out of 5 paws