Film festivals have never been more important given the domination of movie screens by blockbuster spectacles (Captain America: Civil War being among the best). It’s where one can discover cinematic gems that would otherwise be lost in the noise, and hope that they might become available to view in some form even if prospects for theatrical release are limited.
In its 15th edition New York’s Tribeca Film Festival (April 13-24) has earned its place among the world’s best. Selected from many thousands of submissions, the festival presented over 100 features and 74 short films drawn from some 40 countries. Beyond that, it has also expanded other offerings ranging from virtual reality installations, immersive “storyscapes” at the Festival Hub, “Tribeca Tune-In” television events (including the entire 7.5 hours of the ESPN documentary series O.J.: Made in America), and a stimulating offscreen “Tribeca Talks” program of conversations with leading filmmakers and actors. Many of these can be viewed online at: https://tribecafilm.com/videos.
A marathon of press screenings allowed me to see 59 features. Three of these arrived in theatres shortly after their Tribeca premieres and do not disappoint. Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler presents a challenging and touching story of maternal dynamics (much superior to Garry Marshall’s mawkish Mother’s Day). Susan Sarandon is terrific as the recently widowed Marnie whose clinging presence and constant desire to be useful is driving her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) crazy. But the movie does not indulge the stereotype of the interfering mother. Rather it allows Marnie to be a fully rounded character who genuinely helps other people with a heartfelt sincerity that softens the pain of her loss. The humour is never mean-spirited as Marnie works out her relationship with Lori and finds companionship with retired ex-policeman Randy (J.K. Simmons) that promises a new chapter for both.
Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon is an imaginative recreation of one of the most bizarre episodes to take place in the White House oval office, a brief 1970 meeting between President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) and the king of rock ‘n roll Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) that produced an iconic most-requested photo. Elvis, by then way past his prime, addled and upset over left-wing influence on the nation’s youth, decided he must help the president combat domestic threats. It would be easy to parody the gun-toting, costumed former idol and his absurd demand to be made a federal agent. But Shannon, having a banner year, invests the role with an earnestness that goes beyond caricature. Spacey captures Nixon’s shifty nervous mannerisms as his initial sharp rebuff is overcome by blandishments worked out between Elvis’s entourage (notably Alex Pettyfer as Jerry Shilling) and Nixon assistants Bud Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters).
Another Hanks, Colin’s dad, Tom, is the protagonist of German director Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King, adapted from the eponymous novel by Dave Eggers who co-wrote the screenplay with Tykwer. Hanks is perfectly cast as middle-aged business man Alan Clay tasked with selling a holographic teleconferencing system to the Saudi monarchy. (Coincidentally, the April 20 Tribeca world premiere took place as President Obama arrived to a cool reception in Saudi Arabia.)
In 2010, America is recession-scarred and Clay already in the throes of existential crisis — newly divorced and having testy relations with his daughter and dad — when he lands in an unfamiliar Planet Saudi. His local guide is a jesting taxi driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), who ferries him from his swank Jeddah hotel to the surreal half-constructed desert complex, “King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade,” where bureaucratic runarounds compound the exasperating circumstances as Clay’s team is kept waiting to make their pitch. Clay gets a warmer greeting from Danish consultant Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen, who played the Danish prime minister in the superb television series Borgen), and a wild embassy party to which she invites him contrasts the pleasures of the private world with the severe religious strictures imposed in public.
When the stressed-out Clay has medical issues and is admitted to hospital, he is attended to by a rare female doctor, Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), whose luminous beauty is only partly concealed by her conservative attire. Clay is a burdened man. In his business past he was charged with outsourcing American jobs to China. A satirical turn of ironic justice gets his Saudi deal undercut by Chinese competitors. But that is also a signal to move on. Indeed the relationship that cautiously develops between doctor and patient is like water in the desert to Clay’s parched soul.
Here are more dramatic narratives that impressed:
El Clásico (Norway/Iraqi Kurdistan)
Alan and Shirwan are two dwarf brothers, “little people,” living in a small village in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region where they are employed by Jalal, a maker of traditional “Klash” shoes. They are passionate fans of opposing soccer teams — Alan of Real Madrid and its star Ronaldo; Shirwan of Barcelona and Messi. While Shirwan is married to another little person, Alan is in love with Jalal’s daughter Gona, and when he forbids the relationship the brothers embark on a perilous impossible journey to win Jalal over by presenting a special pair of his shoes to Ronaldo. Actual shoemaker brothers Wyra and Dana Ahmed give winning performances as Alan and Shirwan in this remarkable love story from director Halkawt Mustafa that is also a stunning portrait of contemporary Iraq, earning a cinematography award from the Tribeca jury.
This intense father-son drama directed by Bart Freundlich was my favourite American narrative film. The title is from the name of the St. Anthony’s High School basketball team on which senior Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith), nicknamed “Saint,” is the star player who is browbeaten at home by his father Lee (Michael Shannon, outstanding), an inveterate boozer and gambler. As the stakes get higher and family tensions rise, Anthony’s sympathetic uncle Charlie (Chris Bauer) plays a key role in a final game showdown that is about life choices, not just the scoreboard.
Winner of the jury award for best international narrative, director Udi Aloni’s story of young Palestinian Arab Israeli citizens pulses with both raw musical energy and the visceral violence of a divided society. It’s set in the town of Lod (Lydda) near Tel Aviv from which there was an exodus of Palestinians following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, hence the title; a place also notorious for drug trafficking. Rapper Kareem and his girlfriend Manar are in a band enjoying rising success but increasingly drawn into a maelstrom of politics and personal tragedy in this gripping and illuminating drama.
Almost Paris (U.S.)
Domenica Cameron-Scorsese directs this family dramedy about a former hotshot Wall Street executive Max (Wally Marzano-Lesnevich, who wrote the screenplay) at loose ends in the wake of the mortgage crisis and financial meltdown. Moving back to his parents’ small-town house, which with money troubles they’ve been trying to sell, he is forced to confront the consequences of the financial tricks he used to play. He needs to repair his relationships with those close to him, to find new purpose, maybe new love, even if more distant dreams are out of reach.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand)
I finally caught this eccentric kiwi tale from writer-director Taika Waititi after missing it at Sundance and SXSW. Based on Barry Crump’s book Wild Pork and Watercress, 10 chapters and an epilogue recount the story of troubled foster child Ricky (Julian Dennison), “a real bad egg” unhappily transplanted from the city. But following the death of foster mother Aunt Bella and a fire, Ricky goes awol in the bush with cantankerous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) and dog Tupac. The two “wilderpeople” elude police and child protection authorities for months until a wild chase catches up to them, with consequences that prove more fortunate than fearful. (Scheduled for a North American release in late June.)
The Human Thing (Cuba)
The title of director/co-writer Gerardo Chijona’s film comes from a winning story submitted by a prisoner, Maikel, which also wins him his freedom. Two years earlier Maikel and his brother, small-time thieves, had stolen the sole handwritten copy of a manuscript by famous writer Justo Morales while burgling his house. In league with a crime boss “businessman,” Suave, the clever Maikel is able to rewrite it as his own for a prestigious literary competition with a rich prize. While the ruse ultimately fails, it also opens a path for Maikel to escape his past.
As I Open My Eyes (France/Tunisia/Belgium/ United Arab Emirates)
In the midst of the tumultuous transformation of Tunisia’s Arab spring, a rebellious young woman, Farah, explores themes of protest as a singer in a band whose music transgresses conservative traditions. Farah’s relationships fray under pressure and when she disappears into the hands of police agents, a moment of truth must be confronted. Director/co-writer Leyla Bouzid powerfully captures the notes of resistance and song in this debut feature.
The Fixer (U.S.)
Director/co-writer Ian Olds (Occupation: Dreamland, Fixer) moves the story from Afghanistan to California as Osman, an Afghan “fixer” for American war correspondent Gabe, finds refuge with the latter’s mother, Gloria (Melissa Leo), a county sheriff. Taking low-paid part-time work as a crime reporter for the local paper he makes the acquaintance of an unstable character, Lindsay (James Franco), who goes missing under suspicious circumstances. Osman has escaped a violent troubled environment to find himself in unfamiliar murky territory he cannot fix.
The Phenom (U.S.)
Like Wolves, writer-director Noah Buschel’s story of a star teenage athlete dealing with an abusive dad goes much deeper than sports clichés about winning being the only thing. The phenom is Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), an ace pitcher whose struggles as a major-league rookie land him on the couch of a sports psychologist (Paul Giamatti) who’s lost a player patient to suicide. Both have something to overcome. For Hopper it means coming to terms with the overbearing presence of a dad, Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who is in and out of prison.
Folk Hero & Funny Guy (U.S.)
Writer-director Jeff Grace delivers a highly entertaining riff on two mismatched dudes who somehow team up on a performing road trip. The funny guy is Paul (Alex Karpovsky), a loser in love who’s also falling flat in his standup comedy routine. The folk hero is childhood friend Jason (Wyatt Russell, who played the stoner ball player in Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!), an easygoing singer-songwriter who has a way with the ladies. A new female singer, Bryn (Meredith Hagner), gets added to become a threesome. While that eventually falls apart, Paul gets his mojo back and the hard feelings are soothed over in song.
I should also mention the U.S. narrative jury award winner Dean about which I have heard good things but wasn’t able to see. Surprisingly the audience award went to Here Alone, a horror film from the Midnight program, though it is a cut above the viral post-apocalyptic plague genre.
Next week: documentary highlights from Tribeca.