Tribeca Film Festival 2016 round-up

Subprime drifters, a renegade hitman, Elvis in decline — a sense of uncertainty pervades many of this year’s movies
Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey in ‘Elvis & Nixon’

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One of the most illuminating discoveries of the current Tribeca Film Festival in New York has been the directorial debut of Katie Holmes. The actress’s intimate adaptation of Annie Weatherwax’s novel All We Had not only captures the tortuous nature of a mother’s push-and-pull relationship with her adolescent daughter, but also elicits a resonant performance from Holmes herself.

Holmes is as scrappy as she is naive in the role of rootless, uneducated Rita, who stumbles on a waitress job and tries to settle in a small town in upstate New York for the sake of Ruthie (Stefania Owen), her more practical 13-year-old, rather than continue a life of running and thieving. Since Rita’s default mode in troubled times is seduction, suitors soon start hovering.

The pair’s newfound stability evaporates when Rita is forced to foreclose on the subprime mortgage sold to her by her sleazy new boyfriend. Analogous to “women’s pictures” such as Stella Dallas (1937) and Mildred Pierce (1945), as well as 1990s maternal melodramas such as Mermaids and Tumbleweeds, Holmes’s movie empathetically depicts the plight of single women imperilled by the global financial crisis.

Presenting All We Had at a Tribeca screening earlier this week, Holmes told an appreciative audience that she found it hard directing herself; that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Thelma & Louise were key influences; that she lucked out in having a single investor on the project. It must come as a relief to Holmes to engage with audiences who have come to assess her capabilities as a storyteller, not to gawp at her as a former partner in one of the most gossiped-about celebrity marriages in recent Hollywood history.

Given that All We Had was produced by Jane Rosenthal, the festival’s co-founder, Holmes’s flourishing is a paradigm of the creative opportunities it champions, not least for women filmmakers. Twenty-four years younger than the larger (if less well attended) Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca hasn’t yet evolved into a mecca for Hollywood suits or a marketplace for distribution deals like January’s gathering in Utah.

The idea for a Tribeca festival was first mooted in 2000. It was then fast-tracked by Rosenthal and Robert De Niro, co-founders of Tribeca Productions and the Tribeca Film Center, to help regenerate the Tribeca neighbourhood following the 9/11 attacks on the nearby World Trade Center.

Now in its 15th year, it has established an identity as an artists’ and people’s event with strong liberal values.

These have been conspicuous at this year’s festival — although the most striking films spiked the tonic of open-mindedness with firewater. Daniel Grove’s The Loner, a hallucinatory hybrid of magical realism and neo-noir set in a neon-steeped Los Angeles, follows Iranian hitman Behrouz (Reza Sixo Safai) as he seeks and fails to relinquish the murderous career he began as a boy seduced into fighting the Iraqis in the 1980s.

Having betrayed the Persian mob boss (Parviz Sayyad) who adopted him, Behrouz will be slain unless he retrieves an opium haul from a depraved Russian gangster (Julian Sands). Featuring an outrageous turn by Sands and an elegantly knowing one by Mulholland Drive femme fatale Laura Harring, The Loner isn’t subtle, but Grove skilfully uses noir tropes to tell the tale of a boy soldier who can’t escape his past.

Katie Holmes and Stefania Owen in ‘All We Had’

Ian Olds’ 2009 documentary Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi addressed the Taliban’s kidnapping and murder of the eponymous Afghan facilitator for visiting journalists. In Fixer, Olds’ first fictional feature, he imagines how a man such as Naqshbandi might fare in a coastal northern California town inhabited by feuding, hard-partying latter-day hippies. The protagonist Osman (Tehran-born Dominic Rains) mirrors The Loner’s Behrouz: he can’t help but recreate his old reality in his new situation.

Three days off the plane, Osman is staying with the mother (Melissa Leo) of the Kabul-based American war correspondent he helped and befriended. He takes a lowly job on a local paper but, desperate to prove himself as a reporter, burrows into a roadside murder case. He also befriends charismatic rural slacker Lindsay (James Franco as a younger and less cartoonish version of The Big Lebowski’s Dude), a flirtatious performance artist called Sandra (Rachel Brosnahan) and her pompous director husband.

As Osman grows increasingly befuddled, the teeming backwoods he explores one night come to resemble a war zone (an impression heightened by Adam Newport-Berra’s zigzagging cinematography). The safety of California is, it seems, only relative.

Franco, one of American cinema’s most provocative straight avatars of LGBT freedoms, also produced and starred in Justin Kelly’s King Cobra, a smart, funny, button-pushing black comedy based on a true story about gay porn producers and the boy-band-pretty “twinks” they salivate over in their movies. Franco and Christian Slater play rival porn entrepreneurs whose paths cross when Franco’s Joe tries to wrest control of the lucrative teen protégé Brent Corrigan (Garrett Clayton) from Slater’s Stephen.

Both “daddies” and Joe’s troubled porn-star boyfriend Harlow (Keegan Allen) pay for their greed eventually, but writer-director Kelly is careful not to condemn their desires. He depicts the porn world not as a moral miasma but as a manufacturing business for a form of digital entertainment as bland as any other.

The New York high school basketball ace played by Taylor John Smith in Bart Freundlich’s macho sports-crime drama Wolves is worlds away from Clayton and Allen’s preening narcissists, yet he’s a good deal less fun — monosyllabic and charmless. There’s a half-baked Scorsese-like ambience to Freundlich’s depiction of the high-stakes gambling on which the jock’s writing teacher father (Michael Shannon) has squandered the college savings put away by the boy’s mother (Carla Gugino). Yet the film has none of Scorsese’s visual panache, except in the terrific on-court sequences.

Unable to transcend the limitations of his character in Wolves, Shannon has a field day with the much better-written one he plays in Liza Johnson’s delightfully goofy Elvis & Nixon. Shannon plays “the King” himself opposite Kevin Spacey’s Richard Nixon in the story of their legendary meeting at the White House in 1970. Having persuaded himself that he could serve his country as an undercover FBI agent at large, Shannon’s Elvis pulls his long-suffering former aide Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) away from his film industry job to contrive his meeting with the president.

Spacey’s stunning impersonation of Nixon humanises him while capturing his cramped body language, his social awkwardness, and his emotional conservatism. But this is really Elvis’s story. Thanks to Shannon’s mesmerising turn, we are left with an impression of a man so sad and lonely — and so disparaging of the iconhood that has been bestowed on him — that he has lost himself in a delusion about his power to effect change. Yet he is wholly aware of his power to manipulate people through his charisma and his unfeigned graciousness.

Tom Hanks in ‘A Hologram for the King’

Elvis & Nixon is one of the Tribeca films that could possibly be in the mix come awards season. Another is Tom Tykwer’s visually beguiling and satisfyingly adult adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel A Hologram for the King, which, for once, gives Tom Hanks a role not as an ambassadorial everyman, but as an existentially taxed worrier with romantic and sexual needs.

Hanks has the Jack Lemmon-ish role of a seasoned salesman who travels to Saudi Arabia to sell the monarch a new IT system. Mystified by the Arabs, he is also disturbed by a huge lump growing on the back of his neck; a doctor (Sarita Choudhury) unexpectedly brings about his salvation.

In doing so, she tacitly throws into question the values that have informed his life. Like many of the characters in this year’s Tribeca crop, even the one portrayed by the stalwart Hanks is losing his grip on old certainties.

Festival ends on Sunday, tribecafilm.com

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