By Gary M. Kramer.

Ruben features jokes and jump scares in equal measure throughout Werewolves Within, which relies on the crackerjack comic timing of the entire ensemble cast, most of whom are playing broad characters.”

The 20th annual Tribeca Film Festival is actually three festivals in one this year, featuring dozens of World Premieres as part of the 2021 program, but also two additional sections online – one featuring a selection of features and shorts from the 2020 festival (that was cancelled because of COVID), as well as “Tribeca at Home” program of exclusive films for audiences across the U.S.

Here is a rundown of a half-dozen films that are screening as part of this year’s program.

Three World Premiere titles offered different kinds of thrills this year. The horror-comedy Werewolves Within, directed by Josh Ruben, sets its tongue-in-cheek tone by opening with a “scary” quote from…Mr. Rogers (!) and the untimely murder of Dave Sherman (Patrick M. Walsh Jr.). Enter Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson), who is arriving in the sleepy New England town of Beaverfield to be the local ranger. He meets Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), the local postal clerk, who introduces him to the eccentric townsfolk who are embattled over a pipeline project. While a storm forces everyone to hole up in the local inn, the bigger problem is who – or what – killed Dave and one of the residents’ dog. Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson) suggest it was a lycanthrope, which causes the already strained tensions to run even higher. Ruben features jokes and jump scares in equal measure throughout Werewolves Within, which relies on the crackerjack comic timing of the entire ensemble cast, most of whom are playing broad characters. The film features some nifty visual compositions and a mild amount of gore and suspense. For those looking for metaphors, the film touches on themes of fear and greed, but it is the central “who’s the killer?” mystery that is most satisfying. Ruben’s witty film is, thankfully, more akin to those “Old Dark House” films from yesteryear (made contemporary with some salty language) than its video game origins. (The film will be out in theaters and on demand June 25).

All My Friends Hate Me is a tetchy comedy of manners. Pete (Tom Stourton) is turning 31 and to celebrate, he is meeting his university friends Fig (Georgina Campbell), Archie (Graham Dickson), Claire (Antonia Clarke) and George (Joshua McGuire) at a country estate after nearly a decade apart. Pete arrives (after having two unsettling encounters along the way) to find no one there. Hours later, when his friends turn up, they have Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns) in tow. Things are initially awkward for the birthday boy, but worsen as Harry mocks and irritates Pete, driving him to the breaking point. Director Andrew Gaynord maintains an appropriate level of discomfort as Pete sinks further into despair. Viewers may want Pete to just leave, but he is waiting for his girlfriend Sonia (Charly Clive). Moreover, he is quite worried about what she will learn when she meets his friends for the first time. All My Friends Hate Me develops its humor and horror through misunderstandings, backfiring practical jokes, and secrets that are revealed for better or worse. But Stourton, who co-wrote the film, makes Pete sympathetic (and a little pathetic), which is the key to its success.  

Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story is a breezy documentary about the bestselling author who put women on top and sex front and center in her work. Director Laura Fairrie traces Collins’ career from her efforts to become an actress in the shadow of her famous (and better looking) sister Joan, to her breakthrough as a writer of “flash and trash.” The film uses diary entries, photographs, film and TV clips as well as home movies – all briskly edited together – to illustrate Jackie Collins’ remarkable life and career. Lady Boss also includes interviews with Collins’ two siblings, children, friends, agents and publicists who comment on the ups and downs of her relationships – she had two bad ones, and one great one. While the film is not entirely uncritical, as she falls out of favor at one point, it emphasizes how she tried to live like Lucky Santangelo, the feisty heroine of several of her novels. Lady Boss will certainly produce “spasms of delight” for her fans, to coin a Collins’ catchphrase, and it should please even those who are mildly curious about this literary sensation.

In Tribeca’s “At Home” program this year included two worthwhile films that had their Online World Premieres.

The title character (Mauricio di Yorio) in the Argentine-Uruguay feature, The Perfect David, is training to be a bodybuilder, and early scenes show David doing pull ups and lifting weights. Director Felipe Gomez Aparicio shoots David’s body like a landscape – and often in silhouette – to emphasize his developing physique. David’s mother, Juana (Umbra Colombo), is arguably more obsessed by his physical perfection, and scenes of her measuring his body are creepy. She controls him, telling him what to do, what not to do, what to wear, and even wiping his mouth when he eats. David, however, is still a teenager, and when he goes off one night to party with his friends, or have a sexual encounter with a female classmate, his admirable body betrays him. Soon, he is getting into fights at school, getting injections from another trainer at his gym, and shifting from self-disciplined to self-destructive. Aparicio’s film unfolds almost like a documentary as it observes David over time, culminating in an interesting reveal. The Perfect David is at once both mesmerizing and disturbing.

Tigre Gente is director Elizabeth Unger’s eye-opening look at wildlife crime in general and the hunting of jaguars in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park in particular. The film transports viewers to the wildlife refuge where Park Director Marcos Uzquiano protects the most biodiverse area on the planet. (The film’s gorgeous cinematography does justice to the mountains and waterways, as well as the jungle and its inhabitants). Keeping the jaguar population from extinction is critical for the balance of this ecosystem. However, poachers are secretly hunting the animals and fangs can sell for around $2,000. Meanwhile, in Asia, journalist Laurel Chor is investigating who wants jaguar teeth and why. What she discovers sheds light on wildlife trade. Scenes of her visiting markets where animal heads and teeth are sold show the booming nature of this activity that involves both syndicates and individuals. Tigre Gente features some gripping scenes of Marcos in pursuit of poachers and tracking a suspect in an illegal ring as well as some uncomfortable moments of Laurel making discoveries about the use of ivory (e.g., rhino horns) in Chinese medicines. This cogent documentary certainly promotes the respect of the environment and shows the importance of ending this horrific practice.

Two films in Tribeca’s International Narrative Competition were more ambitious than good.       

Souad opens with the titular Egyptian teenager (Bassant Ahmed) on a bus talking with a fellow passenger about her fiancé, Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem) and medical school. But as director and co-writer Ayten Amin’s film reveals, Souad may not be entirely truthful. What exactly is the nature of her relationship with Ahmed, a social media content creator? After a lengthy setup, Souad has the protagonist’s sister, Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh) investigate the truth behind texts and messages on Souad’s phone, by meeting Ahmed and parsing out what exactly is true. And this is an intriguing approach to addressing how young women in contemporary Egypt navigate their lives at home – the sisters have a stern father (Islam Shalaby) – and on social media. But long stretches of Souad is dull as Souad gossips with her friends, Amira (Sarah Shedid) and Wessam (Hagar Mahoud), or hangs out with her sister. Far more interesting are the exchanges between Rabab and Ahmed, but while Amin’s film certainly has an important point to make, it lacks sufficient payoff. 

Brighton 4th is a mostly somber drama, laced with some comic moments. Kakhi (Levan Tedaishvili) is a former Georgian wrestling champion who is first seen helping out his brother who lost his Tbilisi apartment through gambling. Kakhi soon travels to Brighton Beach, NY to see his son Soso (Giorgi Tabidze), who, to his father’s surprise, also has gambling debts. Moreover, Soso’s financial predicament jeopardizes his ability to marry Lena (Nadezhda Mikhalkova) and get a green card. Writer/Director Levan Koguashvili creates a strong sense of place and community, immersing viewers in the boarding house where Soso lives with other Georgians. But the film’s drama unfolds slowly and generates only modest interest and little tension. Watching Soso make bad decisions is frustrating, and a subplot involving Kakhi kidnapping a Kazakh man is perhaps unnecessary. However, Tedaishvili, a former Olympic champion himself, makes Kakhi a compelling protagonist whose sacrificial efforts are noble and redeem this otherwise unremarkable film.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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