Sunday, May 08, 2005

Tribeca Film Festival - Part I 

It’s happened again. I fell off the posting wagon. And it’s not because I haven’t had anything to write about either. We’ve been seeing a lot of films and plays. In fact, that’s part of the problem. K. and I have been so busy seeing stuff I haven’t had time to process it all! I think that perhaps I have to settle for more frequent shorter posts vs. the longer weekly essays I have been tending to write. We’ll see. In any case, It’s time to talk about the films we saw at the Tribeca Film Festival.

We began this film festival obsession at Sundance 2004 and Tribeca 2004 was our second festival ever. Sundance was so amazing and Tribeca was terribly disappointing; there were very few films that I enjoyed and overall I found the screenings to have sensationalist content combined with abysmal execution. It seemed like the dregs of the independent scene to me. So I was – understandably – tentative about returning.

Then the Tribeca guide went online and I was shocked at how much I wanted to see. The timing did not work out for us to be able to see as much as I would have liked, but we did pretty well nonetheless.

I should also point out that K. has said that I always “find some way to see something positive” in all the films I see and that I should institute a ratings system to give Evangelist readers a better sense of my response to a particular film, play or other event.

I would like to point out that part of the issue is that if I didn’t like something (unless it was at a festival and I summarize it with the rest of what we saw), I have not bothered to review it here. This blog is called The Evangelist and not The Detractor for a reason.

The fact is that year we have been subscribers to Manhattan Theatre Club, Second Stage Theatre and Brooklyn Academy of Music and the only show I reviewed here was Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. Tells you a lot by omission, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s a story for another post. Let’s return our attention to Tribeca, shall we? But before we do that, let’s talk ratings. Here’s what we’re going with:

One Star: Save your time! I wasted mine so you don’t have to waste yours.
Two Stars: Skip it. Unless there is something specific (subject matter, actor, director) about it that you know you want or need to see.
Three Stars: Worthwhile. While not perfect, it has something substantial to appreciate.
Four Stars: Very strong. You should put it high on your list of things to see.
Five Stars: Outstanding. The work will stay with you long after you see it.

Mysterious Skin (*****)
Greg Araki’s latest feature film is a truly remarkable work. Based on Scott Heim’s novel of the same name, Mysterious Skin tells the story of two young Kansans who grew up in the same town and each of whom had a specific childhood experience that they view as the defining moment of their life.

Neil fell in love with his Little League coach and was sexually abused by him. Brian suffers nosebleeds and fainting spells that he dates back to a faintly remembered experience of what may have been an alien abduction. Neil becomes a gay hustler and Brian spends his time trying to sort out and clarify his memories of the aliens. Both of them are pushed apart into very different lives and then gradually back together as Brian begins to recover fragments of his memory. Ultimately, they connect for a shattering moment of unlikely grace.

Araki has managed to do a wide range of extraordinary things with this film. He has gotten tremendous performances from his cast, including Brady Corbet as Brian and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil. (If you weren’t at Sundance, you probably remember Gordon-Levitt as the talented young physical comedian who played the alien son on Third Rock from the Sun. If you were at Sundance and didn’t see Mysterious Skin there, you might remember Gordon-Levitt as the star of Brick. In either case, stayed tuned. This young man promises to be the next Johnny Depp: a daring and very young actor who takes strong, quirky scripts and delivers top notch performances.) Araki has also managed to edit together incredibly frank scenes using very young children. They appear to show the abuse in action, although Araki explained at the Q&A that the children were filmed in a completely different context. Not since Hitchcock edited the Psycho shower scene has a director so effectively used their craft to make you think you see something that you never actually saw.

Mysterious Skin is a film that brings a full spectrum of experience to the viewer. It is different things at different moments: funny, shocking, engaging, moving, uncomfortable, beautiful and finally haunting.

I Am a Sex Addict (****)
Caveh Zahedi’s latest effort almost defies description. It is an autobiographical, somewhat documentary comedy with multiple streams of meta-commentary. Zahedi set out to make an autobiographical film about his struggle with his addiction to prostitutes. But fate intervened on several levels and the results are wonderfully unexpected and fresh.

Because Zahedi had no money, he had to recreate scenes from his life in cities where they didn’t happen. His freewheeling revelations of this sort of detail, which he addresses directly to the camera, provide one of the unusual levels of meta-commentary. Additionally, unbelievable coincidences in his casting process (which I’m loath to reveal) prod him to begin to address the camera about the actors he has chosen to portray key figures from his life experiences.

On top of all of this, Zahedi is unflinching in recreating the worst of his behaviors. He is brutal in showing his ability to continuously and hilariously justify his nonsensical strategies for trying to overcome his sex addiction, which ruined a number of ill-fated marriages.

I Am A Sex Addict resembles Ross McElwee’s seminal work Sherman’s March in its ability to let the audience get ahead of its protagonist as the story unravels, but also continuously and effectively throws wrenches into our expectations due to the creativity in its storytelling and filmmaking. Also like Sherman’s March, it’s a longer story than it needs to be although it’s a fraction of a fault by comparison. For all its joys, Sherman’s March overstayed its welcome by as much as ninety minutes and managed to be successful due to in spite of that. This film is only a wee bit longer than need be.

I Am A Sex Addict is well worth catching when it comes your way. It’s funny, fresh and creative.

The Power of Nightmares (****)
The Power of Nightmares is a BBC documentary that all Americans who want alternate points of view about the Bush Administration and its engagement with Al Qaeda should see.

The premise of the documentary is that two schools of disciples are in conflict with each other: those who follow the teachings of Islamic fundamentalist Said Qutb and the American Neoconservatives who follow the teachings of University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss.

Both groups were dismayed at their perception that liberalism failed to make the world a better place. And both groups believed that only a vanguard spinning a mythology that would engage the masses uniting for a common cause could make the world better.

Having failed at coming up with a positive mythology, both sides settled on nightmares to establish power and authority. The fundamentalists use the nightmare of “Western corruption” of Islam and their countries. The Neocons use “freedom” and the “war on terror”.

While the film suffers from a certain amount of didacticism and would benefit from more detailed “hard evidence” (as much as that is possible) to support its claims, it pulls together a striking alternate view of our current world situation: that both the Neocons and the Islamists were facing complete irrelevancy. The Cold War ended and the Neocons had no enemy left to give them meaning. The Islamists tried and failed for many years in Algeria and elsewhere to foment revolution, but failed. Bin Laden and Al Zwahiri were desperately trying to achieve relevance when they happened to fund “the planes operation”, an idea created by a separate group and funded by Bin Laden as a sort of venture terrorist. Up until that point, there never was an “Al Qaeda” as we have come to perceive it in the news. But with the execution of the “planes operation” both the Neocons and the Islamists found an enemy and a new and terrible raison d’etre.

This concludes the first group of Tribeca reviews. Stay tuned for the rest of this festival's reviews in a subsequent post.
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