NEW YORK -- For two weeks every spring, the bigshot crazies from Hollywood -- studios, filmmakers, thespians -- descend upon the Tribeca Film Festival, New York's top showcase for independent film, with stiff suits on their backs and business on their minds.
They come here to sell a flick, buy one, or backslap their way into the next one. Here, the next one -- like with most indy festivals -- is likely to be the dark tale of an alcoholic dad or drug-abusing daughter. Sports and, by extension, sports fans aren't easy to come by.
This year, however, things in Lower Manhattan were not as they once were. Festival co-founder Robert De Niro and his cohorts let a new player into their game, partnering with ESPN for Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival. The fest-within-a-fest premiered 14 sports-themed flicks, held several fan-friendly events, and hosted a bushel of real-life sports heroes, thereby infusing the proceedings with their tales of joy, heartbreak and hope -- and drawing raucous sports fans who crave these stories.
Howard Stern, who walked the red carpet to support pal Adam Carolla's boxing comedy "The Hammer," gets it -- sort of. "This festival is for anyone who loves sports and loves movies," Stern says. "Personally, I just don't like when they mix. That could be dangerous."
The following is a two-part recap of the good, the brazen, and the bizarre that was the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival, where only one rule should be followed: Don't be afraid to cheer, sports fans. They like to be cheered.
* * * (three stars)
For the return of sports flick luminary Woody Harrelson.
The festival kicked off with the world premiere of "The Grand," an improvised mockumentary about a gaggle of zany pros at a fictional Las Vegas poker tourney. Rookie director (and "X-Men: The Last Stand" writer) Zak Penn's game plan was simple: Hire funny people to play poker while in character, and let the chips fall where they may. Cheryl Hines and Jason Alexander are among the actors who do battle with pros like Phil Laak and Doyle Brunson, but it's Harrelson who carries the film as a listless party boy trying to reclaim his grandpa's casino -- and who nearly lit the premiere on fire.
And the fans outside the velvet rope weren't the only ones who lost their minds upon Harrelson's arrival. Said Giants linebacker Brandon Short: "Woody is the greatest actor of our time."
Short was not inebriated, but we get it. Harrelson previously starred in Ron Shelton's classic "White Men Can't Jump" and the Farrelly Brothers' "Kingpin," so naturally, many festival goers were feeling nostalgic. But was Harrelson feeling as nostalgic as the rest of us? To find out, one must have, roughly, three hours to kill. See, Harrelson reacts and speaks as slowly as can be expected of an outspoken proponent for the legalization of marijuana -- and the narrator of a documentary titled "Grass." Witness the following exchange:
Page 2 reporter: Hey, Woody. (Shake hands.) So, you starred in two of the greatest sports comedies of all time. How does it feel to--?
Woody: Hey, man. Nice to see you.
Page 2 reporter: Yeah, nice to see you, too. So, how does it feel to--?
Woody: Thanks, man.
Page 2 reporter: For what?
Woody: For, you know, saying I was in the greatest sports movie of all time.
Me: Yeah, absolutely. But, what I'm wondering is--
Woody: Did you mean "Wildcats"?
Well, Goldie Hawn did a play a football coach in that classic.
Welcome back, Woody.
* * * (three stars)
For festival organizers who employed a loose definition of "sports films."
This year's competition-themed films included "Chops," which follows a Jacksonville high school jazz band at an annual NYC competition, and "King of Kong," about the rivalry between the Donkey Kong high score record holder and his latest challenger. As a sports fan in the purest (and most snobbish) sense, I reluctantly took in something called "Planet B-Boy" at the Tribeca Drive In, an outdoor screening series at the World Financial Center Plaza.
As fate would have it, this film might arguably prove to be the audience favorite. The flick follows breakdancing teams from Osaka, Seoul, Paris, and Las Vegas as they overcome stereotypes, racism, and their parents' disapproval on the way to "The Battle of the Year" in Germany, where they compete for the title of world champs.
Despite a soft rain, the film landed an audience of 6,000. Reflecting the film's international flavor, people of all races and persuasions bopped their heads to director Benson Lee's sick sounds and slick cinematography. If you want the good spirit of New York, this was it -- and Lee couldn't help but smile in awe.
"We don't look at each other as human beings anymore, so my goal was to promote cultural awareness through hip-hop culture," said Lee, a Korean-American. "It's a universal language and it lets these dancers work out their angst and aggression in the form of competition. If they can battle on the dance floor, then maybe they won't battle off it."
* * * (three stars)
For Iowa baseball and the return of Rudy.
Set in 1991, "The Final Season" is the true story of tiny Norway (Iowa) High School's legendary baseball team and its efforts to keep tradition alive amidst threats of a school closure. Powers Boothe ("Deadwood") plays coach Jim Van Scoyoc and Sean Astin, the man who was "Rudy," is Van Scoyoc's protégé Kent Stock. "I always believed that I could never do a sports movie that'd be as good as 'Rudy,' said Astin, who also served as an executive producer. "The thing is, because Iowa is baseball, the drama was inherently there, so it was hard to foul up. I just hope we did the people of Norway justice."
Justice is great. Swag is better. Only an hour into the after-party at the Soho bar Safe Harbor, Van Scoyoc and his contingent of friends and family were fighting off the likes of Horatio Sanz and Rachel Leigh Cook in stockpiling swag bags. "There's only baseball caps and chapstick," admitted Van Scoyoc. "But we need to make sure everyone from the Iowa crew has a souvenir."
Later, the party included a special musical performance by The Calling, who played their radio hit "Wherever You Will Go" and a song written for the film. A song I didn't hear because of ...
* * (two stars)
To Tom Arnold.
God bless the Iowa native and one-time "Best Damn Sports Show" co-host. He's a knowledgeable sports fan, a fan of sports flicks (he starred in "Pride") and a fan of telling many, many long stories. In only 10 minutes, I learned how Arnold severed the tip of his left forefinger (the family saw), how he excelled in his church softball games (lots of liquor), and how to anticipate a tornado in Iowa (sit on the porch and look to the southwest).
Even when I excused myself to the restroom, Arnold's stories continued, leading to ...
* (one star)
For ill-timed movie pitches.
When Hollywood's decision makers come to town, so do fledgling go-getters. And not even a low-key sports festival is immune to such trappings. Writers and actors pitched producers and producers pitched stars- -- even Tom Arnold, who was regaling me at the restroom urinals when a young man who identified himself as a writer interrupted. The exchange:
Man: Dude, I have a great idea for a sports movie but I don't know how to get in the door.
Tom: You're doing it right now, man. Just don't be too aggressive.
Man: Can I tell you my idea?
Tom: Of course, just call my agent.
Man: What's his number?
Tom: Uh, you know ...
Man: I also want to act. Can you hook that up?
Arnold then left the urinal for a stall -- and I ran far away.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.