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2021 Tribeca Film Festival (June 9th - June 20th)

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Top Narratives

All My Friends Hate Me

Directed by Andrew Gaynord

      Pete (Tom Stourton) works as a volunteer at a refugee camp and lives with his girlfriend, Sonia (Charly Clive). To celebrate his 31st birthday, he travels to the isolated, countryside home belonging to his friend, George (Joshua McGuire), whom he hasn't seen for years, for a birthday reunion with his friends. He also reunites with Fig (Georgina Campbell), George's girlfriend, Archie (Graham Dickson),  Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), and Claire (Antonia Clarke), whom he used to date.

      All My Friends Hate Me begins as though it were a horror film. Pete leaves his girlfriend at home while he drives to the countryside where he gets lost and asks directions from a creepy old man who looks like someone who might end up kidnapping and torturing him like in Wrong Turn. The screenplay by Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer teases the audience with psychological horror which mirrors how Pete's friends play mind games with him. When Pete enters the countryside home, it's completely empty. Audiences are conditioned to think that at that moment, something sinister will definitely happen, but All My Friends Hate has something else on its mind that subverts your expections in a satisfying way. Stourton and Palmer explore the meaning of friendship, selfishness, narcissism, character and jumping to conclusions. The audience can easily jump to conclusions about the true intentions of Pete's friends as well as about Pete himself, but should they? Fortunately, the filmmakers don't offer easy answers and, instead, let the audience judge Pete and his friends if they wish to.

      Without giving away any spoilers, what happens during the birthday reunion reveals a lot about Pete so that by the time the reunion ends, you learn a lot more about his personality, how he treats others and how others view him. The screenplay effectively blends witty, offbeat and dark comedy with the drama in a way that avoids unevenness. The screenwriters wisely avoid voice-over narration, schmaltz and flashbacks, so they incorporate just the right amount of exposition without allowing the narrative momentum to wane or for the audience to be too confused. There's just the right amount of room for interpretation, too, especially in the final scene that's similar to the provocative last shot in 45 Years. Although, All My Friends Hate Me isn't as profound, poetic or powerful as Force Majeure when it comes to exploring the flaws, complexities and dysfunctions of human relationships.

      The performances are all solid with no one giving a hammy performance, so it's easy to feel the chemistry between the group of friends. They seem to have a lot of fun together on-screen, and it often shows. Some of the performances show off the comedic talents of actors, so they're skilled at handling comedy and drama equally. That's no facile feat to accomplish because if they went too far with their comedic performance, they would've been over-the-top and silly. Yes, there's some very bizarre moments, indeed, but nothing that leads to unevenness, just awkwardness which is a part of life. The film has an unpredictability that makes it surprising at times. Even the red color of the title card and the music chosen over it plays around the audience's expectations--much like the movie Safe did as well with its title card. All My Friends Hate Me does have something dark in store for Pete and the audience alone, but it's not what he or you expect based on the first thirty minutes. Another one of the film's strengths is that no scene overstays its welcome. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, All My Friends Hates Me is provocative, witty and refreshingly unpredictable.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Super LTD.
Opens March 11th, 2022 at Angelika Film Center.

The Beta Test

Directed by David Hackl

      Jordan (Jim Cummings), a Hollywood agent engaged to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), receives a fancy purple envelope inviting him to a hotel for an anonymous sexual encounter while blindfolded. He yields to temptation, but the encounter doesn't quite go as he expected, leaving Jordan desperate to know the identity of the woman in the hotel room, of who sent him the invitation and why. He becomes abusive toward his fiancée and behaves paranoid as he suspects that something much more sinister might be going on. Meanwhile, he confides in his friend and coworker, PJ (PJ McCabe), who helps him to investigate the mysterious purple envelope.

      Like Eyes Wide Shut, The Beta Test is more about love, trust and fidelity than about the mystery in its twisty plot. Both films are mindfucks, but the similarities to Eyes Wide Shut end there.The screenplay by writer/director Jim Cummings and co-writer/director PJ McCabe has more satire, dark comedy and less room for interpretation than Kubrick's film. It opens with a prologue where a husband murders his wife after she admits that she's unhappy with their marriage. That prologue provides a foreshadow of the dark territory that The Beta Test will head towards. Jordan's character is like nails-on-a-chalkboard, though. He's cocky, manic, and narcissistic, so he's far from a decent human being. What does Caroline even see in him? How he treats security men at his apartment building so rudely just to get camera footage from him says a lot about what kind of an inconsiderate and obnoxious person Jordan is.The third act has some surprising revelations and twists that won't be spoiled here. That's when the film makes it clear what messages and critiques of modern society that it wants the audience to ponder. It's far from subtle and becomes slightly overwrought with some on-the-nose dialogue, and it's not as ballsy or shocking as the ending in one of the best 90's paranoid thrillers, Arlington Road, which is much, much darker and bolder this film. To be fair, though, The Beta Test defies genre; it's hard to classify it is just a paranoid thriller because it ends up being more than that. It even has shades of Alice in Wonderland and The Player.

      Jim Cummings gives a solid, over-the-top performance. He's lucky to be a charismatic actor because tha charisma is one of the few things that makes the character of Jordan remotely bearable to the audience. Otherwise, Jordan would be merely annoying and completely unbearable. It's interesting how Cummings doesn't veer into campiness, although he comes close to it at times. The production design including the editing and cinematography add some style to the film. Fortunately, at a running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, The Beta Test doesn't overstay its welcome nor does it become exhausting like it could have if it went on 30 minutes longer. The Beta Test is ultimately razor-sharp, suspenseful and provocative. It's one of the best Hollywood satires since The Player.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by IFC Films.
Opens November 5th, 2021 at IFC Center.

Brighton 4th

Directed by Levan Koguashvili

      Kakhi (Levan Tediashvili), a former professional wrestler, travels from Tbilisi to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York to help his son, Soso (Giorgi Tabidze), deal with a gambling debt to Amir (Yuri Zur). Soso had borrowed money from Kakhi and moved to Brighton Beach in hopes of pursuing a career in medicine and paying Lena (Nadezhda Mikalkova) to marry him, but instead he got addicted to gambling and must pay Amir back or else his life remains at stake. It's up to Kakhi to protect and help his beloved, troubled son.

      At heart, Brighton 4th is a story about a father who will do anything to be there for his son like any good parent would. After all, it's the job of a parent to protect their child from harm and to love them unconditionally the way that Kakhi does. The screenplay by Boris Frumin approaches that narrative in a way that's reminiscent of how Ken Loach tackles the issues of poverty, family dynamics and socioeconomic issues. Kahki does his best to make ends meet when he visits Brighton Beach, and the film doesn't shy away from showing the details of his struggles without any sugar-coating. Even though Bright 4th doesn't veer into thriller territory, it always flirts with it because the danger and menace of the gangsters that Soso got caught up with remains a foreboding, imminent threat. Director Levan Koguashvili and screenwriter Boris Frumin keep the tension understated which, in a way, feels more powerful because it relies more on the audience's imagination to wonder when and if something very dark and tragic will occur. That makes the film somewhat suspenseful in the way that Hitchcock defines suspense: suspense comes from the anticipation of an event that will transpire. Fortunately, the filmmakers don't go over-the-top in the intense third act, so it's a testament to their filmmaking skills that they show restraint. This isn't the kind of film that relies on violence, gore or shock value. They trust the audience's patience because they focus on Kakhi's experiences until the third act, so by then the audience cares about what will happen to Kakhi and his son and feel emotionally invested in their struggles.

      . Director Levan Koguashbili should be commended for not resorting to shaky cam as a means of generating tension. He achieves tension mostly from the well-written screenplay. The nuanced performances add to the film's authenticity while the cinematography, which includes mostly washed-out, dreary colors, add to the film's atmosphere and tone. Sometimes style can become part of a film's substance which is the case here without allowing style to overpower the substance.  Moreover, Brighton 4th moves at an unhurried pace which is yet another sign that the filmmakers trust the audience's patience. Patience, after all, can be rewarding, so this is the kind of film that's most rewarding for patient audiences who don't need quick cuts to be entertained. There's nothing too showy about the camerawork, but, at the same time, there doesn't need to be. At a running time of 1 hour 30 minutes, Brighton 4th is genuinely heartfelt, gripping and unflinching with shades of Ken Loach. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens January 28th, 2022 at Village East by Angelika.


Directed by Wyatt Rockefeller

      In the distant future, Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) lives with his wife, Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), and daughter, Remmy (Brooklynn Prince), on a farm on Mars. Remmy was born on Mars after Reza and Ilsa arrived there because their home planet, Earth, was destroyed. A stranger, Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), disrupts their peace when he shows up out of nowhere and claims that their farm rightfully belongs to him.

      The screenplay by writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller keeps the plot very lean and threadbare while eschewing a lot of exposition when it comes to Reza and Ilsa's life on Earth, how they ended up on Mars and how Earth was destroyed. He essentially skips the first act and jumps right into the second act. That choice would've been forgivable if leaving so many basic questions unanswered weren't so frustrating. Even a very crucial scene where something happens that changes the course of the plot is shown off-screen and implied. A lean plot worked in Gravity because there was enough suspense, action and drama going on on-screen that it didn't need the extra padding and backstory. Also, Gravity doesn't jump forward in time like Settlers does. All of a sudden, after a tragedy that won't be spoiled here, the film jumps years ahead when Remmy is a young woman (now played by Nell Tiger Free). Yet again, Rockefeller leaves questions unanswered about what life had been like for Remmy during that jump in time. Like M. Night Shyamalan in his recent films, especially Old, Rockefeller doesn't know where to take his ideas to, and the few ideas that are present on-screen feel uninspired and unimaginative. There's also not nearly enough comic relief or thrilling scenes which makes Settles feel monotonous.

      The performances by Jonny Lee Miller, Sofia Boutella, Brooklyn Prince and, later, by Nell Tiger Free, are decent enough to add some emotional depth that the screenplay itself lacks. They definitely help to make their characters seem like a family, even in the brief scenes that they're bonding together before Jerry arrives. The set design along with the landscape adds some style and provides some atmosphere which at least keeps your eyes glued to the screen. At a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, Settlers is breathtaking and visually stylish, but unimaginative, underwhelming and, ultimately, forgettable.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Midnight.
Opens July 23rd, 2021 at IFC Center and on VOD.

Werewolves Within

Directed by Josh Ruben

      Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) arrives at the small town of Beaverfield just in time when some kind of creature, possibly a werewolf, happens to be terrorizing the townspeople. They include the mailwoman, Cecily Moore (Milana Vayntrub), Joachim Wolfson (Harvey Guillen) and his husband, Devon (Cheyenne Jackson), an innkeeper, Jeanine Sherman (Catherine Curtin), Emerson Flint (Glenn Fleshler, Marcus (George Basil) and his wife, Gwen (Sarah Burns), and Trish Anderton (Michaela Watkins) and her husband, Pete (Michael Chernus). Dr. Judy Ellis (Rebecca Henderson) studies the samples that she collected from the murder scenes to determine whether or not the murderer is human.  

       Werewolves Within wastes no time with a prologue showing someone getting murdered in the woods by a mysterious killer before flashing forward 29 and a 1/2 days later. That's just a foreshadow of the horror to come, although the screenplay by Mishna Wolff leans more toward dark comedy than horror. The film's tone blending is effectively established when Finn Wheeler gets introduced to the audience as he's driving to Beaverfield while leaving his girlfriend at his hometown. He hasn't realized yet that his relationship with her has ended, but his new love interest at Beaverfield, Cecile, sets him straight. Even though Wolff does include a plot Werewolves Within, as well as a subplot involving an oil pipeline being built in the town, this isn't the kind of film that needs much of a plot to begin with because it doesn't take itself too seriously.  

      On the one hand, it's a who-or-what-done it which generates a little suspense until the twist gets revealed later on. Even if you can figure out the twist early on, you'll at least have some dark comedy to rely on as entertainment. The plot itself isn't as clever or brilliant as the plot of Knives' Out, but the characters are just as eccentric and off-the-wall. Some of the scenes are a little trippy and crazy in a refreshing sort of way, like a dance number that won't be spoiled here. There's also some campiness that works as a guilty pleasure, but sometimes the film tries too hard to be campy. You won't find too many scenes that palpably scary, although it does have a few scary scenes, so as long as you're not expected a straight-up werewolf horror movie like An American Werewolf in London or Wolf, you won't leave disappointed.  

      Much of the film's comedy and campiness comes from the talents of the cast who work well together. Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub have great chemistry together as Finn and Cecily, and their banter is often quite funny. Finn and Cecily are reminiscent of a couple from a screwball comedy: they argue and don't like each other at first, but you just know that they're into each other despite their friction. Director Josh Ruben keeps most of the gore off-screen thereby leaving it to the audience's imagination. He makes the most out of the wintry landscape which adds some atmosphere and style. The pacing feels just right without a scene that overstays its welcome. Although it's based on a video game, it doesn't have wall-to-wall action or feel tedious or monotonous for that matter. At a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, it's one of the best horror comedies since Shaun of the Dead. It could even become a cult classic some day. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by IFC Midnight.
Opens at IFC Center and July 2nd, 2021 on VOD.

Top Documentaries

      The First Wave hits just as hard emotionally as a war documentary. In a way, it is about war, but the enemy is a silent one: COVID-19. Director Matthew Heineman films the nurses, doctors and COVID patients at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York City during the first four months of the pandemic, March 2020 to June 2020. It's unflinching, immersive and emotionally devastating which is precisely what a documentary about such a tragic event ought to be. Heineman deserves to be commended for gaining so much access to his subjects right inside the medical center and for putting a human face to the pandemic. To watch The First Wave while still in the middle of a pandemic isn't an easy experience because it asks the audience to confront painful emotions and memories, but by confronting our painful memories, we're at least on the path toward overcoming that pain. Also, it's important not to forget the past no matter how difficult it might be to confront it on an emotional level.

      The First Wave looks at the first wave of the pandemic head-on and asks the audience to do that same, so be prepared for a lot of intense moments. Fortunately, the documentary doesn't focus just on despair and suffering; there's also some hope, perseverance and even a little joy. Also, the cinematography looks terrific with some breathtakingly poetic shots of New York City which adds not only style, but also makes the film more cinematic. At a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, The First Wave is brave, profoundly moving and unforgettable. It's a powerful, unflinching and vital documentary. The First Wave opens on November 19th, 2021 at Quad Cinema and AMC Empire via National Geographic Documentary Films and NEON.

      The second documentary profile is Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, a warm, moving and insightful doc about actress and activist Rita Moreno, best known for playing Anita in West Side Story. Mariem Pérez Riera begins the film with Moreno preparing to celebrate her birthday which is a wonderful way to introduce her to the audience because it captures her charisma, humility and also how funny she is all within the first few minutes. A truly great documentary profile shows its subject behind-the-curtain, so-to-speak, and that's precisely what this intimate doc accomplishes. By the end of the film, you'll get to know Moreno as a human being who's smart, brave and vulnerable which makes her all the more relatable to the audience. Her candidness and kernels of wisdom add plenty of depth to the doc. It's fascinating to watch her reflect on her younger years and to discuss what she has learned since then. She speaks openly about how she was raped, how that affected her throughout the years and how she sought therapy to deal with her issues. You'll also learn about her troubled relationship with Marlon Brando who was abusive to her, what she really thinks about her role as Tuptim in The King and I, and what makes her so significant, vital and inspirational for Latina actors today. It's also worth mentioning the terrific editing by director Mariem Pérez Riera and Kevin Klauber which allows the film to find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. At a running time of only 90 minutes, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, one of the best documentaries of the year, is powerful, heartfelt and illuminating. It opens June 18th, 2021 in select theaters via Roadside Attractions.

      Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, directed by Morgan Neville, is a stylishly edited documentary about the life and career of world-renown celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. When Neville focuses just on Bourdain's work and, eventually, on some of his emotional battles, the doc becomes fascinating, although not very profound, surprising or revealing. The footage of Bourdain as he travels a lot and leaves his family behind shows a lonely, sad man behind the curtain. He worked hard which isn't surprising and was clearly talented, but as a human being he was flawed. While Neville avoids turning the doc into a hagiography, he doesn't quite do a thorough enough job of showing Bourdain as a human being. The focus on Bourdain's suicide toward the end of the film goes on for too long and quickly becomes repetitive. It hits the audience over the head with his death and feels somewhat invasive and exploitative. There are no interviews to be found here with Asia Argento who might've added some insights and definitely would've provided a much-needed and important perspective, especially because they knew each other so well. Whatever Bourdain struggled with before he took his life and what made him commit suicide is a private matter and shouldn't be anyone's business except for those who are close to him. Perhaps only Bourdain himself knows why he did it. Either way, when the doc crosses that boundary, it becomes more of a tabloid than a serious, thoughtful, fair and balanced documentary. At a lengthy running time of 2 hours, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is mildly engaging, but overlong, incomplete and occasionally exploitative. It opens July 16th, 2021 nationwide via Focus Features.

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