May 10, 2006
The Good The Bad The Ugly
Tribeca Film Festival: Part 2
Depending on your purview, star-studded Hollywood premieres are either a sign of the health or the degradation of a film festival — and so, for better or worse, Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon enjoyed a gala showing at Tribeca on Saturday. Last Wednesday, the same festival also hosted a PR event that had Tom Cruise, in honor of the release of Mission: Impossible III, traversing Manhattan by taxi, motorcycle, speedboat, helicopter, and subway — in other words, simulating the experience of this year's sprawling film-to-film commute.
In any case, Poseidon — the nadir of Hollywood's recent remake obsession, opening everywhere Friday — has no place in a festival context, even if Petersen got decent notices the last time he went underwater (1981's Das Boot). Poseidon removes the existential dilemma of the original Poseidon Adventure (1972) — in which one group of passengers went to the bow of the ship and died, while the other, smaller faction went to the stern and lived — and replaces it with a gang of nincompoops barreling toward the propellers, accompanied by little or no suspense.
It's possible the movie sets some sort of record for last-second exposition, with most of the major players' professions kept unmentioned until the moment they become dramatically necessary. ("I used to be a fireman — we're gonna get him down safely!" "I'm an architect!" "He was the mayor of New York for a while.") All told, the film suggests less a case of characters working themselves out of an enclosed space and more an instance of a lazy screenwriter struggling to get to act three.
But as long as Tribeca makes a point of showcasing other nations' megaproductions alongside our own, it's not worth quibbling. Winner of a festival award for Best New Narrative Filmmaker, Marwan Hamed's The Yacoubian Building is the most expensive Egyptian film ever made. An almost three-hour cross-section of life in Cairo as metaphorically represented by the residents of the title building, the movie — with its gleeful camera moves and excessive sentimental scoring — at times suggests an overwrought miniseries. Covering everyone from an aging aristocrat nostalgic for French colonialism to a poor, disillusioned religious fanatic to — most audaciously, given Egypt's censorship rules — a gay newspaper editor, this sporadically moving film gains in power as it goes along.
One of the most controversial films at Tribeca has been a documentary called The Bridge. To make it, director Eric Steel and his camera crew camped out over the course of 2004, filming every suicide that occurred off the Golden Gate Bridge between January 1 and December 31. It's not that uncommon: On average, two people jump from the bridge every month, and it is a relief to hear that Steel and his crew apparently saved people during the year. (At the Q&A, Steel said the moment anyone looked like he or she might jump, the crew called the authorities.) Having seen the movie — which mostly comprises interviews with family and friends of the dead — and listened to Steel speak, it's clear he intends this de facto snuff footage not as a provocation but as means of preventing further suicides. That said, the footage is more surreal than shocking, and using these clandestinely shot images — especially when many bridge-jumpers, though not necessarily the ones in the film, are mentally ill — seems blatantly immoral.
Another, more conventional question of documentary ethics is raised by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross's The Road to Guantanamo, opening in June. Winterbottom gets too much credit for dabbling in different genres — he's made films as disparate as The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, In This World, and Tristram Shandy — but here he makes good, telling the powerful story of the "Tipton Three," a trio of British citizens arrested in Afghanistan and held without charges in Guantanamo for two years. (Turns out they were, as they attested, completely innocent.) The film is most effective when it shows their testimony on life on Guanatanamo; what's problematic is the use of re-enactments — scenes that may, in their fondness for hyping up each incident, give detractors too much grist for counterarguments.
More documentaries: No festival is complete without the latest Michael Moore imitation, here represented by A Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus. Randy Olsen's film has a habit of making liberals look insufferably smug, but it has one legitimate point to make — namely, that evolutionary biologists need to start taking intelligent design seriously, because that's certainly what school boards are doing. The film also captures ID's leading scientist, Michael Behe, saying for the umpteenth time that he believes the "designer" is God. So much for objective reasoning.
Flock of Dodos' unofficial companion piece — and one of the fest's real buzz-getters, of which I was regrettably only able to catch 40 minutes — was Jesus Camp, about a summer camp that epitomizes the indoctrination methods (religious, political, and educational) of the evangelical movement. Showing kids being tutored to refute the existence of global warming (temperatures have only gone up 0.6 degrees!), it offers a disturbing portrait not of faith but of dogmatism: the spectacle of people who can't be dissuaded from their beliefs because their beliefs — God put us here on earth, God will one day take us into heaven, therefore we can exploit the earth's environment while we're here — are self-reinforcing.
On a lighter note, one of Tribeca film fest's major movers and shakers, Martin Scorsese, put in an appearance Saturday to introduce a screening of Fair Wind to Java (1953), a forgotten Republic Pictures adventure movie that entranced him as a boy. "This one's just for fun," Scorsese said, praising director Joseph Kane as more of a "traffic cop" than an auteur — but adding that that wasn't an insult. Cheesy and ethnocentric, this seafaring escapade features delirious costume changes from eye candy Vera Ralston, dialogue like "Your insolence will cause you pain tonight," and the unforgettable spectacle of Fred MacMurray trying to fake a fistfight. The film has a certain overheated insanity; it's easy to see how it could have bewitched a small boy, or even a boy at heart. It's a voyage worth taking once — and unlike Poseidon, it was a vessel that sailed.