Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 29th, 2021
FROM CHRIS REED:
The 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which ran June 9-20, offered an interesting selection of movies to see. Just before the start of it, Adam Vaughn and I each presented our recommendations of what to watch. In total, I reviewed five films for this site, all of which I wholeheartedly enjoyed: A-ha the Movie, Do Not Hesitate, Mark, Mary & Some Other People, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, and Souad. In addition, I reviewed ten for Hammer to Nail (HtN), where I am lead film critic. Below are brief capsule excerpts from five of those HtN reviews.
Bernstein’s Wall (Douglas Tirola)
Born in 1918, Leonard Bernstein became many things, among them a musician, composer, educator and, perhaps most important of all, a conductor (from which most of the rest flowed). He matured at a momentous time in American history. Just as the nation was emerging from the doldrums of the Great Depression, the economic impetus of the World War II-generated industrial machine added to the New Deal’s successes to make the United States the powerhouse of mid-20th-century military, diplomatic and cultural might, for better or for worse. As a rising star of the classical-music universe, Bernstein therefore became an influential and inspirational figure to many, both here and abroad. As a Jewish man trying to break into leading one of the top symphony orchestras, he was considered ethnically unfit, until his rise to prominence opened doors for others to follow. In his new documentary Bernstein’s Wall, director Douglas Tirola (Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon) explores the life, career and legacy of his subject, who died in 1990, allowing him to speak directly to us via copious archival interviews. It’s a stirring, comprehensive portrait.
The Conductor (Bernadette Wegenstein)
As is Bernadette Wegenstein’s The Conductor, which offers a similarly exhaustive (but hardly exhausting) profile of Marin Alsop. As a young girl, Alsop attended one of Bernstein’s celebrated Young People’s Concerts, given with the New York Philharmonic, and it inspired her future choice of profession. Like him, she found barriers in her way, though for her they were far greater, since no woman had ever been appointed to lead a major American orchestra. Then, in the 1980s, Alsop studied with Bernstein, and still looks to him as a foundational mentor, even to this day. When, in 2007, she became Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), she was the first of her kind, breaking a glass ceiling that so far, sadly, no one else has broken. Through her own significant pedagogical efforts (another connection to Bernstein), however, she is likely ensuring that one day, other women may also reach that level. Wegenstein (The Good Breast) offers a lively, wholly engaging look at what makes this accomplished, electrifying titan of the music world tick.
The independently produced film Kids was something of a cinematic sensation when it first came out, featuring raw scenes of New York teenagers engaging in sex, drugs, violence and more. Given that it starred mostly non-actors culled from the very streets it portrayed and the explicit nature of the material, Kids raised all sorts of ethical questions at the time about how director Larry Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine may have exploited their young cast, though it also played at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, garnering acclaim (and a fair amount of criticism) at both. Made on a budget of $1.5 million, it grossed well over 10 times that, enriching its creators, if not its cast. Now, in the new documentary The Kids, director Eddie Martin (Have You Seen the Listers?) looks back 26 years at how the film was made and what happened after its release. However one feels about the original work (and at the time, I certainly found it intriguing), there is no doubt that, at the very least, Clark and Korine engaged in very problematic, if not completely indefensible, practices. Perhaps The Kids will serve as a much overdue comeuppance. Even if not, it is well worth watching, for it gives a voice to those whose real-life stories were overshadowed by the scripted presentation of such. It is finally time for them to speak, unfiltered.
Perfume de Gardenias (Macha Colón)
Queer Puerto Rican artist Macha Colón (otherwise known as Gisela Rosario Ramos) has created quite the auspicious feature debut with Perfume de Gardenias, set in her native island’s capital of San Juan and focusing on an elderly widow, Isabel, as she struggles to find meaning after her husband’s death. She’s actually not quite a widow as we begin, though shortly becomes one. When her skills as a funeral decorator and flower cultivator (on display at her deceased spouse’s ceremony) earns her the admiration of a group of women at her local church, Isabel soon finds herself doing more of the same for the entire community. Though the underlying subject is serious, there is an element of delightful absurdist comedy that lends a buoyancy to the affair, all of it bolstered by vivid production design and occasional stop-motion animation. A quick look at a music video from Macha Colón y los Okapi, the band fronted by the director, shows that this brand of exuberance is nothing new for her. There are many layers to the narrative, colliding in sparkling harmony and, when needed, dissonance.
Werewolves Within (Josh Ruben)*
Finn, the new forest ranger in town, has a problem. It’s not the fact that he’s an outsider in an insular place, nor that he’s Black and almost everyone else is white (though that certainly reinforces his outsider status), nor that he was reassigned to the middle of nowhere because of a stupid mistake on the job, but more his heartbreak over a relationship gone stale. He and his girlfriend are “taking a break,” which really means they’re broken up, though he hasn’t quite realized it yet. And so he listens to motivational tapes and tries to be as nice as he can, even while figuring out the rules of Beaverfield, the strange place in upstate New York where he arrives as the film begins. Good thing he makes a friend in the equally fish-out-of-water mail carrier, Cecily. If only it weren’t for the werewolf lurking around the corner, somewhere. Thus is the setup of Werewolves Within, a new whodunit from director Josh Ruben (Scare Me) and screenwriter Mishna Wolff. Very loosely based on the eponymous Ubisoft game (as in, it borrows the title, the basic idea of a werewolf hiding amidst humans, and nothing else), the movie proves delightful in most ways, even if not all aspects of the story entirely hold together.
*As you will see in Adam’s section, my colleague very much disagrees with me on this one.
FROM ADAM VAUGHN:
Werewolves Within (Josh Ruben)
My most anticipated film of Tribeca, Werewolves Within ended up being a clunky, over-the-top comedy, hardly addressing its central topics. A film that promises both eerie, horror-genre components and the comedic timing and slapstick humor, it barely takes off from its premise and relies heavily on seemingly improvised dialogue, cheap entertainment, and a story that was as cookie-cutter in plotline as possible. While the bar of expectations wasn’t necessarily raised the highest going into the movie, that same bar was not (in most ways) met coming out of it either.
Perhaps one of the most satisfying film experiences at Tribeca was a conventional thriller/drama about a young lady, who is blind, defending her client’s home from invaders. See For Me delivers intensity and action, all the while presenting a unique and original twist. While various scenes fit into genre clichés, and no larger meaning is explored in the film, director Randall Okita overall succeeds in bringing a coherent, entertaining film to the screen.
Not only was this on the top of my personal lineup for Tribeca 2021, but director Josef Kubota Wladyka’s narrative about a former boxing champion on a perilous mission to save her little sister from the clutches of a sex-trafficking syndicate also went on to win Tribeca’s Audience Award for “Best Narrative Feature.” Filled with great character exploration, truly heart-stopping scenes depicting real life tragedies that befall young women around the world, and a protagonist-driven ride of a film, Catch the Fair One was a true gem from this year’s festival.
Without a doubt, All These Sons was one of the most surprising and captivating documentaries this year at Tribeca. The film is an intimate look at the hard work volunteer mentors in inner city Chicago put in to provide guidance and instill responsibility to the young Black men in the community. The combination of dedication to its main idea, its follow up with various heartfelt moments of laughter, pain, struggle, and perspective, and crisp cinematography make the film an all-around eye-opening experience.
I was not expecting a film with the charm that Claydream was able to bring to the table, much less the real-life tragedy that it also contained. Following the life and astounding career of “The Father of Claymation,” Will Vinton, the film explores his early beginnings, numerous scenes of clay-animation wonders – from early works to some of Vinton’s most popular successes – and the saddening outcome of his lawsuit against Nike owner Phillip Knight. While the film has struggles with its pacing from time to time that distract from the wonders of the clay sculptures and movements, director Marq Evans has overall captured a golden look at a classic visual-effects technique and its founder.