April 13, 2010

Tribeca Film Festival, Part One.


The pensive 20-something blonde confronts her boyfriend with a pair of movie ticket stubs. "They're not mine," he quietly protests. "Look, I'm reading a book." But he's not. He's cut out the inside of a thick hardcover movie book and wedged in a DVD player rolling another movie. This guy is a film junkie. He won't leave the multiplex even after the last feature's ended at midnight, and his breath always smells of popcorn. Eventually his girl puts him into the Brooklyn Detention Center rehab, where he uses his one call a day to dial up more showtimes. Later, when she comes to take him home, he looks better, calm and relaxed--until he spots the Tribeca Film Festival poster. April 23-May 4...121 features, 79 shorts. He's a goner. With a TFF logo and super, "Enjoy Responsibly," we take a slow fade to black.


At the kickoff press conference opening the 7th annual Tribeca Film Festival, some very boldface names stood under a huge screen in lower Manhattan watching this commercial. There was New York governor David Paterson, who was signing into law a new state film tax credit raised to 30%. NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg saluted the Festivals for attracting two million visitors and adding $525 million in economic activity to the community since 9/11. TFF Co-Founder Jane Rosenthal noted the 53 world premieres and 30 North American premieres taking place over 11 days. Director Doug Liman, one of 191 global directors attending the festival, described a mentoring program he's helping set up for young local filmmakers. And American Express' chief marketing officer John Hayes pledged Amex' continuing role as Founding Sponsor (leading the parade of 25 returning and new Signature Sponsors) for another five years. Here's the beginning of several articles sampling a fraction of the best of this year's offerings:

"Man On Wire." "Three oranges I juggle, two towers, I walk." This artistic credo of Philippe Petit fills the 2002 book, "To Reach The Clouds," his nail-biting diary of the step-by-step, year-by-year planning of the wire walk between the Twin Towers at 7:00 a.m. on a summer morning in 1974. James Marsh's uplifting and riveting 89-minute documentary reassembles Petit and members of his original stealth team who helped smuggle his 450-lb. cable, 55-lb. balancing bar (in pieces that extend to 26') and a slew of other equipment up to the top floor under the roof, the night before.


Marsh's film artfully blends pre-74 footage of the prep, rehearsals and actual "test crossings" (at Notre Dame Cathedral in '71 and Harbor Bridge in Sydney in '73) with staged reenactments of security guards prowling a shadowy top floor at night while the nervous intruders hide under tarps. It's easy to tell where we are because all the principals are three decades older. You may find this art-imitating-life (and life-imitating-art) premise somewhat discomfiting at first. After all, their faked IDs and assumed identities as journalists and construction workers gained them access to the inner sheaths of the skyscapers, as well as interviews with real WTC builders and even one executive.

But the innocence and guileless, childlike devotion of Petit and company to their impossible dream begin to win your heart. Just like in a caper movie, they make scale models, calculate wind velocities, enlarge photos to evaluate anchor points, and watch scenes from a 1952 heist movie, "Kansas City Confidential." And then, as in the comic crime novels of Lawrence Block and Don Westlake, things start going wrong. Several members of Petit's crew bail out on him. One guy shows up stoned. On the roof during the night, the setup for the walking wire starts with a fishing line that's propelled from one tower to the other by bow-and-arrow, and Petit can't find the arrow and fish line that have landed in the dark. Then a length of heavy cable falls off one side of the tower and has to be painfully hoisted back up one foot at a time. Petit himself has a split second of doubt when he first inches his leg off the ledge and onto the thin cable that's finally stretched taut 1,350 feet above the ground.


Suddenly we see his face break into a smile, and this may be the first time in your life that you'll wipe away tears of joy looking at the World Trade Center. The actual footage and still photos we've waited for are stunning. Petit makes the cross and back a total of eight times as the crowds below build and the police threaten to have him removed by helicopter. He's arrested, fingerprinted and taken for psychiatric examination, but all charges are quickly dismissed (and he's given a permanent pass to the observation deck) when he agrees to perform for the children of New York. Today, sitting in his teeshirt from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where he's an artist-in-residence, Petit looks at peace.


As the mission statement says, the Tribeca Film Festival was founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff "to spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan." In its poignant and stirring way, "Man On Wire" is a major contribution to the healing process, a film that demonstrates that when you reach for the stars, you may well touch the clouds.

"Let The Right One In." While exploring the Carpathian Alps of Transylvania on the Dracula trail in 1975, this writer was fortunate enough to pick up a lot of European folklore about beliefs in the undead. Some of this formed the eventual cross-cultural study of Dracula, "A Night In Transylvania" (Grosset & Dunlap), along with summaries of all the important vampire films of the century. The one defining characteristic of the vampire--its eternal search for rest, fueled by nightly meals of human blood--is inviolate. Beyond that, the iconic symbols we've come to know from films and fiction--the cruciform, garlic and holy water as defenses, shape-shifting into bat form, not casting reflections in mirrors--are all subject to reinvention.


The sleek, stealthy, Swedish vampire film, "Let The Right One In," demonstrates how the genre has developed. It's a children's horror film for adults, not unlike "Pan's Labyrinth." The focus here is an impossibly handsome and likeable 12-year-old boy with porcelain skin and that gorgeous straw hair the Swedish seem to have invented. He's a child of divorce and is bullied and beaten by his ruddy classmates, but finds a friend and defender in the girl in the next apartment, who's downsizing the town's population with a ferocious appetite.


"Are you really a vampire?" the boy asks her, after they agree to go steady. "I've been 12 a long time," she answers quietly. The picture's Stockholm-born director, Tomas Alfredson, knows how to build a sense of dread, and gives us teasing suggestions of the pubescent vampire's ability to fly, to crawl across the sides of buildings (as Frank Langella did in "Dracula"), and, perhaps, to drink her own menstrual blood (there's one quick shot of her stitched-up groin). One of her few surviving victims is exposed to sunlight and literally explodes in flame. "Let The Right One In" has a nasty but singularly inventive edge and never quite topples into Tribeca's "Midnight" selections of grindhouse horror and other extreme imagery. But it's close. Christopher Lee would like this film, though he might be crawling under his seat in a few scenes.


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