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2021 Tribeca Film Festival Roundup

20th Tribeca Film Festival 
New York, NY 
June 9-20, 2021
After going completely remote in 2020, the Tribeca Film Festival returned to public showings—all outdoors—in various locations throughout New York City, along with online screenings. But the festival remains a base to launch worthy documentaries, as it has for the past couple of decades.
Kubrick by Kubrick

By far the most memorable doc at this year’s fest was Kubrick by Kubrick, Gregory Munro’s too-short exploration of the greatest American director’s philosophies of filmmaking, spoken by Kubrick himself in a series of interviews conducted by the great French critic Michel Ciment over a 30-year span. As we listen to Kubrick’s Bronx-accented voice discuss matters of technique and subject matter in his unpretentious and straightforward way, Munro shows key moments from several of Kubrick’s classics, from Dr. Strangelove and 2001 to A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.
Interspersed are pithy comments by close Kubrick collaborators like set designer Ken Adam, Steadicam operator Garrett Brown, actors Malcolm McDowell and Lee Ermey and actresses Marisa Berenson and Shelley Duvall, as well as his widow Christiane. At only 73 minutes, Kubrick by Kubrick leaves us wanting a lot more—perhaps there’s a Kubrick by Kubrick 2 in our future? 
The Conductor
In The Conductor, Bernadette Wegenstein gains unprecedented access to Marin Alsop, protégée of the legendary Leonard Bernstein and one of the first women to become music director of a major American orchestra (although JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic since 1999, also deserves to be in this conversation).
Alsop engagingly and candidly describes her long and fraught journey from New York to leading conductor on world stages; her mentoring student conductors is given ample screen time. Wegenstein makes good use of vintage footage of Alsop as a child, a student and a young conductor, showing how her tenacity and talent gained her a foothold in the notoriously sexist and misogynistic classical world.

Winner of the festival’s best documentary award, Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension is an eye-opening look at how modern China grooms—literally and figuratively—its people for success in a way that is both warning and cautionary tale. In a series of pointed vignettes astonishing in their breadth and level of access (how did Kingdon get the OK to film so much of this?), we watch a workshop in which young women learn etiquette in English and how to eat western foods properly, factory workers making sex dolls, young men rehearsing filming how-to videos in front of the camera, and aspiring entrepreneurs discussing how many millions they expect to make soon.
In her brilliantly observational style, Kingdon shows the complexity of the “Chinese dream”—from the working poor to the middle-class to the newly affluent—in a nation that remains stubbornly authoritarian as it transforms into a capitalist juggernaut. 
The Neutral Ground

The Neutral Ground (on PBS July 5; opens in select markets in July), comedian CJ Hunt attacks the loaded question of Confederate monuments, starting with his hometown of New Orleans. The question is: why do so many benighted people defend keeping monuments in the name of “history”?
Hunt explores these and other reactions up to a point: his film is more successful as a guide through the historical wreckage of white supremacy and why it’s been so difficult to take the monuments down over the years. Always interesting if only occasionally illuminating, The Neutral Ground works best as a primer about a subject that, unfortunately, will likely remain with us for the foreseeable future.
Love Spreads

Among the festival’s fiction features, Love Spreads is a messy, self-indulgent drama about messy, self-indulgent artists: an all-female band is at a fabled, remote studio to record the follow-up to its smash debut, but the leader and main songwriter, Kelly, finds herself blocked.
Writer-director Jamie Adams records the frustrations and irritations that mount among the women and their manager, Mick—including the guitarist’s departure and the arrival of a replacement, played with gusto by the always winning Eiza González —but very little of it feels organic or insightful. There’s also a fine portrayal of Kelly’s insecurity by Alia Shawkat in an otherwise familiar music tale that spreads itself thin.
In the Heights

Finally, there’s In the Heights (in theaters and on HBO Max), which opened the festival with screenings in all five city boroughs. Director Jon M. Chu’s exuberantly sentimental adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough stage musical—which hit Broadway in 2008—retains much of its street vibe, especially the aura of Miranda’s musical mélange of hip-hop, musical theater and salsa in upper Manhattan. But at 143 minutes, the movie suffers from repetitiveness, including too many meandering storylines and climaxes.
The cast is mainly good: Olga Merediz, the only major Broadway cast member to reprise her role, is a warm Claudia; Anthony Ramos takes on Miranda’s lead role of Usnavi with aplomb; and fresh-faced Leslie Grace is a better Nina than Mandy Gonzalez was onstage. As the vivacious Vanessa, Melissa Barberra is nearly the equal of the electrifying Karen Olivo on Broadway. Miranda himself is in fine fettle as Piragüero, the ice vendor, and Christopher Jackson—also an original cast member—has an amusing cameo as the Mister Softee driver.

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