April 13, 2010
 

Brokaw's Tribeca Film Festival, Part Three.

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The first Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) was organized from scratch and launched just 120 days after 9/11. Founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff, it was a spontaneous and untested effort "to spur the economic and cultural rehabilitation of lower Manhattan." But from the get-go, this festival set out to be something more and something different for countless New Yorkers who'd never attended a world premiere in their lives. Its founders wanted "to enable the international film community and the general public to experience the power of film by redefining the festival experience." And so TFF initiated the largest inclusive festival New Yorkers had ever experienced-- everything from family/teen film groupings to sports-themed offerings to a "Midnight" series of horror and other extreme-edge scaries. There are traditional (and very untraditional) documentaries, mainstream and obscure narrative dramas and discoveries even retrospectives and restored classics. The producers put on street fairs on Greenwich Street, outdoor screenings at dusk in World Financial Center Plaza, a Tribeca/ESPN Sports Day, panel discussions and even a mentoring program for very young filmmakers.

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TFF's 8th year is April 22-May 3, and its 86 feature films and 46 shorts (yes, there's even a category of themed short subjects) show in a number of mostly downtown theaters. The first seven years have drawn well over two million visitors to Tribeca and generated more than half a billion dollars in economic activity within the immediate community. American Express remains the founding sponsor. The De Niro/Rosenthal/Hatkoff trio continues to set up the widest possible tent in which to entertain and inform, which probably grows out of the collaborative work of actor De Niro and producer Rosenthal partnering each other in rollicking multiplex comedies like "Meet the Fockers," "Analyze This" and "Analyze That," as well as profound and moving dramas like "The Good Shepherd,""Night and The City," and "A Bronx Tale." These are New Yorkers who really do love New York, and this MAJ series of reviews over the next several weeks will identify and salute some of your culture editor's top favorites

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"American Casino." "We want to HELP you" reads the headline of the Baltimore newspaper come-on ad, yet another lender trying to reel in homeowners losing their homes to foreclosure. The ad is being held up and angrily deconstructed by an African-American Professor of History, and she's conscious that the unwritten market target is people of color in what were once stable Baltimore neighborhoods. This is the ultimate trickledown--what we might call the end-end betrayal--of something called the Commodities Futures Modernization Act passed by Congress in 2000. Phil Gramm's bill essentially gave Wall Street permission to deregulate the trading of credit derivatives, which has built the massive mortgage mess that's taken away one million homes and is estimated to remove another eight million by 2012.

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This is the sobering and heartrending story assembled in 89 minutes by the distinguished and multi-award-winning documentarian, Leslie Cockburn. It's the filmed record you'll wish President Obama had been able to hold up on his recent Jay Leno appearance when he tried to distill nine years of cumulative failure by the American banking system into about two minutes. "American Casino" is less about greed than the erosion of trust in our fundamental institutions. Cockburn's work divides into three equally riveting sections--an erudite but easy-to-follow treatise on the miscalculations of government coupled with the deceits of Wall Street, the plights of struggling Baltimore residents who've either lost or may lose their homes, and a final numbing tour of blocks in Stockton, California, where foreclosure's devastating effects appear in the debris and disease growing in abandoned swimming pools. "American Casino" is that rarest of educational docs-- a piece of ongoing history ideal for college and high-school students to evaluate, as well as a wake-up call for from-the-bottom-up changes that financial leaders worldwide must take to heart. The film's poster pictures a casino table at which, as we used to believe, you play by the house's rules but any number can win. Unless, of course, the house changes the game so all the bettors lose.

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"About Elly." It takes a while to sort out the Iranian husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, children and assorted visitors who finally tumble into a deserted, ramshackle weekend house directly on the docile Caspian Sea, and begin unpacking their weekend clothes and picnic supplies. The director, Asghar Farhadi, is in no hurry to move events along, and you may think you're watching a pleasant domestic dramedy of little consequence. But pay attention--Farhadi is ever-so-carefully engineering every member of his superbly chosen ensemble into the personalities and roles you think they're going to play out. As the men improvise and strut Iranian chants and dances, the children and their teacher race up and down the beach flying a kite. Almost imperceptibly, the waves and surf begin to increase in intensity and volume. It will dawn on you that something is amiss, and then every parent's worst nightmare of children playing on a stormy beach seems to happen. Only it doesn't. But something else is discovered that's almost as terrifying.

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All the patience you've given to what has seemed inconsequential filler begins to pay off; as what was lighthearted domestic fare slides into a tragedy we're powerless to stop. There's a mystery within a mystery that everyone has to sort out. The surface friendliness of the two families begins to fall away, and everyone's true strengths, frailties, uncertainties, fears and fury begin to emerge. What catches us by the throat seems almost a violation of the social contract--it's a feeling you experience in a darkened movie theater once in a blue moon, and it's terribly unsettling. Because the plotline has such a palpable and all-encompassing sense of grief piled on grief, it's likely no other film will come to mind with this exact story The result--and this is a tribute to the crisp and darkening performances of every member of director Farhadi's cast is that by the conclusion you no longer feel you're watching an Iranian drama. The events have taken on a universality that could be played out on any beachfront in the world. With its deepening moods and shifting sands, "About Elly" has the deadly allure of an undertow.

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