Review: ‘Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music,’ starring Taylor Mac

June 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Taylor Mac in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music”

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 2016 in New York City, the documentary film “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) who are connected in some way to drag performer Taylor Mac and his one-time-only, 24-hour performance of pop hits.

Culture Clash: During his performance, Mac discusses some of the racism and homophobia behind some of history’s most popular songs.

Culture Audience: “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” will appeal primarily to viewers who are fans of drag performers and music documentaries that focus on unconventional artists and unusual performances.

Taylor Mac in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Vivacious and engaging, this concert documentary starring drag performer Taylor Mac offers a bittersweet presentation of iconic pop songs, without glossing over some of these songs’ problematic histories. It’s an extremely unique 24-hour performance. The 2016 show took place as a one-time-only event, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. During this 24-hour continuous performance, Mac performed popular songs from 24 decades (each decade got its own hour), from 1776 to 2016. Attendees had the option to sleep at the venue in a separate room.

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. The majority of the documentary’s footage is of highlights from this epic concert. The rest of the documentary consists of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with principal members of the events team.

Mac explains in the beginning of the film that he conceived this event as a tribute to those who lost their lives in the AIDS crisis. The show starts with 24 musicians on stage, but after each hour, one less musician goes on stage, until the last hour, when Mac is be the sole performer on stage. The decreasing numbers of band musicians on stage are supposed to be symbolic of how communities and families lost people to the AIDS crisis.

Mac also says in the documentary, “The show is about our history of Americans. That history is in our souls.” He also says that “a queer body can become a metaphor for America.” He later adds, “I learned my politics from radical lesbians.”

Mac gives a brief personal background about himself, by saying that he grew up in Stockton, California, which he describes as a very homophobic city that’s overrun with a lot of “ugly tract houses.” After he graduated from acting school, Mac says that he had difficulty getting auditions. However, he found work at New York City drag nightclubs. And the rest is history.

Some of the key people on the event team also give their perspectives of the show. Niegel Smith, the show’s co-director, calls it a “radical realness ritual” that “asks us to move closer to our queerness.” During one of the audience interaction parts of the show, Mac tells audience members to slow dance with people who are of the same gender. The song selection for this same-sex slow dance is “Snakeskin Cowboys,” a song made famous by Ted Nugent, who is a political conservative. It’s obviously Mac’s way of reclaiming the song and putting it in a progressive queer context.

Matt Ray, the show’s musical director, comes from a jazz background. He says the biggest problem in America is “lack of community.” This 24-hour performance, says Ray, is Mac’s way of trying to bring back community to live events. Machine Dazzle, the show’s costume designer, is seen in costume fittings with Mac, who says that he gave no creative restrictions on how Dazzle could make the costumes. Also seen in the documentary is makeup artist Anastasia Durasova.

It’s no coincidence that the performance starts with the year 1776, since it’s the year of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Freedom, liberation and fighting against oppression are constant themes throughout the show. During his performances of popular songs from each decade, Mac gives historical context of what was going on in the United States at the time when the song was popular and why some of the songs have a much more disturbing meaning than they seem to have.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” performed in the hour covering the years 1776 to 1786, sounds like an upbeat and patriotic song. But Mac also reminds people that during this time, the United States was also built on the enslavement of black people and the destruction of Native Americans. The 1820s song “”Coal Black Rose” has racist origins, since it was originally performed by white people wearing blackface makeup, and the song’s lyrics are about raping an enslaved black woman. For the 1830s song “Rove Riley Rove,” Mac says he’s performing the song to evoke a mother or nanny during the Trail of Tears era, when the Native Americans were forced to go on dangerous and deadly routes when they were forced off their ancestral lands.

Not all of the songs performed have depressing and bigoted histories. When Mac gets to the 1970s decades, he performs songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.” For “Heroes,” which is performed in the context of the Cold War between Russia and the United States, two giant inflatable penises—one with a U.S. flag decoration, one with a Russian flag decoration—float around on stage. Mac straddles at least one of these inflatable sex organs.

Other songs performed in the show include Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” (which Mac interprets in the performance as a sexual liberation song); the Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic “Gimme Shelter”; and “Soliloquy” from the 1945 musical “Carousel,” which Mac was his father’s favorite song. Mac also says that his father died when Mac was 4 years old.

Audience members are encouraged to sing along and participate. And sometimes, Mac invites audiences members on stage during the performance, such as when he selects the oldest person in the room (a man in his 80s) and youngest person in the room (a 20-year-old woman) to dance on stage together. In another part of the show, audience members throw ping pong balls at each other.

Mac doesn’t do all of the lead vocals during the show. There are also guest singers, including Heather Christian, Steffanie Christian, Thornetta Davis, and Anaïs Mitchell. However, there’s no doubt that Mac is the star. He has a charismatic command of the stage, even though he’s not a great singer. He has a wry sense of comedy and keeps the energy level fairly high, even though performing this 24-hour show would be exhausting by any standard.

“Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” has a simple concept with an extravagant and very flamboyant presentation. If drag performances and some bawdiness meant for adults have no appeal to you, then watching this documentary might be overwhelming or a little hard to take. The performance in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” will never be duplicated by Mac, but this memorable documentary is the next best thing to being there.

HBO and Max will premiere “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” on June 27, 2023.

Review: ‘Our Son,’ starring Luke Evans, Billy Porter, Christopher Woodley, Andrew Rannells, Robin Weigert, Kate Burton and Phylicia Rashad

June 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Billy Porter, Christopher Woodley and Luke Evans in “Our Son” (Photo by Amy Mayes)

“Our Son”

Directed by Bill Oliver

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Our Son” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and some Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two divorcing husbands fight for primary custody of their 8-year-old son.

Culture Audience: “Our Son” will appeal primarily to viewers who are fans of the movie’s headliners and who are interested in watching divorce dramas from a gay male perspective.

Billy Porter and Luke Evans in “Our Son” (Photo by Amy Mayes)

“Our Son” might get some comparisons to the 1979 Oscar-winning drama “Kramer vs. Kramer” because of the many similarities, but “Our Son” is more like a made-for-TV movie instead of an Oscar-worthy film. The convincing performances elevate this formulaic divorce drama when the pacing drags. “Our Son” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Bill Oliver (who co-wrote the “Our Son” screenplay with Peter Nickowitz), “Our Son” has so many characteristics that are just like “Kramer vs. Kramer,” people who’ve seen “Kramer vs. Kramer” will know exactly how “Our Son” is going to end within 15 minutes of the movie starting. The main difference between the two movies is that the divorcing couple fighting over child custody is a heterosexual couple (played by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep) in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” while the divorcing couple fighting over child custody in “Our Son” is a gay male couple, played by Luke Evans and Billy Porter. But even if viewers don’t know anything about “Kramer vs. Kramer,” it’s still very easy to predict the outcome of “Our Son” as soon as the divorce starts to happen.

Both movies take place in New York City. Both movies have an adorable son under the age of 10 who’s the only child of the divorcing couple fighting over custody of him. Both movies show that one person in the marriage is the more nurturing parent, while the other person in the marriage is the more emotionally distant parent. Both movies have the lower income of one parent used as a reason in the divorce battle as “evidence” that this lower-income parent should not have primary custody.

In the very beginning of “Our Son,” the marriage of Nicky (played by Evans) and Gabriel (played by Porter) seems to be solid but stuck in a rut. It’s not mentioned how long Gabriel and Nicky have been married, but they’ve been a couple for 13 years. Nicky and Gabriel have an 8-year-old son named Owen (played by Christopher Woodley), who is a high-energy and curious child.

Nicky is a workaholic who is consumed with his work as a book publisher. Gabriel is a former actor who gave up acting to become a homemaker after Owen was born. Gabriel is the parent who spends more time with Owen and has a closer emotional bond with Owen. Gabriel also gets help from an amiable babysitter named Isabella (played by Nuala Cleary), who visits the family home multiple times a week.

Owen was born in Philadelphia to a surrogate named Penny, who is not involved in Owen’s life and is not seen in the movie. Owen was conceived through artificial insemination using Nicky’s sperm. The egg donor is Adele (played by Cassandra Freeman), Nicky’s longtime friend from college. Adele, who currently lives in London, has no say in how Owen is being raised. She considers her egg donation to be a gift to Nicky and Gabriel. Adele is seen as a family friend, but she is not in regular contact with Owen.

From the movie’s opening scene, the cracks begin to show in the marriage of Nicky and Gabriel. After Nicky and Gabriel go home from watching Owen dance at a school talent show, Nicky and Gabriel immediately disagree on how they react to Owen’s dance performance. Gabriel gives Owen a small token gift to show his admiration for Owen, while Nicky says the gift is unnecessary. Nicky’s reasoning is that he doesn’t want Owen to be spoiled, while Gabriel sees nothing wrong with giving Owen this gift.

Later, in their bedroom, Nicky and Gabriel argue in private about their different parenting styles. Gabriel expresses frustration that Nicky isn’t more available for parenting responsibilities. Nicky’s response to Gabriel is: “Sometimes, I feel like you don’t appreciate my work.” Gabriel vehemently denies this accusation.

Nicky and Gabriel also disagree about Owen sleeping in their bed with them whenever Owen wants. Nicky thinks Owen is too old for it, while Gabriel thinks that Owen can still sleep in their bed. Gabriel and Nicky call a truce on this argument, give each other a light kiss, and then go to sleep. But there’s more trouble brewing ahead.

Gabriel and Nicky’s social circle consists almost entirely of other LGBTQ people. Two of their closest friends are a lesbian couple named Claire (played by Liza J. Bennett) and Judith (played by Gabby Beans), who happily announce at a dinner party that they are expecting their first child together. Gabriel and Nicky are at this dinner party and express sincere congratulations. But seeing Claire and Judith so happy about becoming parents seems to trigger something in Gabriel.

When Gabriel and Nicky go home from the dinner party, Gabriel makes a confession to Nicky: “I met somebody. Somebody I have feelings for.” Nicky is shocked, because he and Gabriel had agreed to be monogamous, after experimenting with being in an open marriage. (The “open marriage” part of the relationship is never seen in the movie.)

Nicky demands to know who Gabriel’s lover is. “It’s nobody you know,” says Gabriel, who tells Nicky his lover is someone he met at a nightclub about six weeks ago. Gabriel also tells Nicky that he’s sorry for the affair but he’s undecided about what to do. Nicky is hurt and upset, but he still wants to save the marriage.

Meanwhile, viewers see that Gabriel’s lover is a younger man named Will (played by William Demeritt), who meets up with Gabriel for a sexual tryst after Gabriel has confessed the affair to Nicky. During this hookup encounter, Will isn’t exactly thrilled when Gabriel suggests that Will, Gabriel and Nicky should all meet for a drink together to talk things over. Will isn’t just annoyed; he’s completely turned off by the idea. He coldly tells Gabriel, “I can’t go to an emotional place with you because you’re married.” And that’s the end of the relationship between Gabriel and Will.

Gabriel tells Nicky that his relationship with Will is over. A relieved Nicky thinks the end of this extramarital affair will mean that Gabriel will want to work on their marriage. However, Gabriel mournfully tells Nicky that he hasn’t been happy in their marriage for a very long time. Gabriel doesn’t think going back to couples therapy will work either. Gabriel then leaves the home while he figures out what to do next.

Gabriel can’t stay away from Owen for long, and he eventually comes back to the family home. Although Gabriel was the one who cheated, Nicky takes some responsibility for their failing marriage too. Nicky tells Gabriel: “I know I’ve gotten lazy in our marriage. I know I could do better. I could be better.” Gabriel says, “I love you too, baby. I don’t think it’s enough anymore … I’ve spoken to a divorce attorney.”

And so begins the divorce battle between Gabriel and Nicky. Gabriel eventually tells Nicky that he doesn’t love Nicky anymore. Nicky doesn’t want the divorce and goes through all the five stages of grief over the end of the marriage. Because Gabriel had essentially been raising Owen like a single parent before the divorce, Gabriel incorrectly assumes that Nicky will automatically agree to let Gabriel have primary custody of Owen.

Nicky gets angrier the more that he starts to hear about how much alimony and child support he would have to pay to Gabriel if Gabriel had primary custody of Owen. Nicky also feels very hurt by Gabriel rejecting Nicky and refusing to get back together. These negative feelings from Nicky escalate until he decides he’s going to fight for primary custody of Owen. Nicky’s main argument in this custody battle is that he’s the more stable parent because he earns a lot more money than Gabriel.

Gabriel’s financial situation is shaky but not alarming. After filing for divorce, Gabriel gets his own place (a small apartment) and a low-paying job helping homeless youth at a non-profit center. The person who got him the job is a talkative friend named Matthew (played by Andrew Rannells), who has been working at this non-profit for the past 10 years. Matthew is one of the friends who was at the dinner party where Claire and Judith announced that they are going to become parents.

Nicky and Matthew briefly dated each other when they were “23, newly out, single, and living in the city,” according to Matthew. Their romantic relationship didn’t work out, but Nicky and Matthew decided to remain friends. Naturally, Matthew feels caught in the middle of Nicky and Gabriel in this divorce/custody battle. Matthew tries to stay neutral, but it’s awkward. “Our Son” realistically shows how divorces and similar couple breakups also have an effect on friendships.

Nicky hires a tough-minded and ambitious attorney named Pam (played by Robin Weigert), who happens to be a lesbian. Gabriel’s attorney is the more easygoing Lorenzo (played Alfred Narciso), who is no pushover either. The expected arguments ensue between Nicky and Gabriel. The divorce also takes a toll on Owen, who has a hard time accepting that his parents are not getting back together.

“Our Son” also shows how Nicky reluctantly gets back into the dating scene during his divorce. He meets an attractive younger man named Solo (played Isaac Powell) at a nightclub. And everything that you think will happen does happen after Nicky and Solo flirt with each other. The sex scenes in “Our Son” are not completely explicit, but they’re definitely meant for adult viewers.

“Our Son” capably explains some of the legal issues involved in this type of custody battle. For example, Pam tells Nicky almost from the start that just because Nicky is Owen’s biological father, that doesn’t mean Nicky has more parental rights than Gabriel, because Nicky and Gabriel legally adopted Owen together. Why can’t Nicky and Gabriel agree to joint custody of Owen? Gabriel believes that Nicky’s job is too demanding for Nicky to have the time for joint custody.

Porter and Evans give admirable performances that show the nuances of why couples who thought they would be together for the rest of their lives end up splitting up due to incompatibility. (Stay for the end credits to hear Porter and Evans duet on the song “Always Be My Man.”) It would have been very easy to portray Nicky as the “villain,” but there are no real “villains” in this story—only people who get hurt by the pain of divorce.

Owen’s arrival in the relationship did not cause the breakup of Gabriel and Nicky, because their incompatibility issues were already there. Nicky and Gabriel both have their share of flaws and responsibilities in why their marriage failed. But who’s the more deserving parent to have primary custody of Owen? You’d have to be asleep for most of the movie to not see the answer that you know is coming.

“Our Son” goes deep with some raw emotions, but this type of divorce/custody battle has been done on screen so many times before (especially in TV shows), it all seems overly familiar. The movie’s supporting characters are mostly underdeveloped. Kate Burton has a small role as Maggie, also known as Miggie, who is Nicky’s mother. Likewise, Phylicia Rashad makes a brief appearance as Maya, who is Gabriel’s mother.

Even with the movie’s clichés and flaws, “Our Son” does a very good job of showing how there’s not much difference in divorces between gay couples and heterosexual couples. In the production notes for “Our Son,” filmmaker Oliver says when co-writing the screenplay, he drew from a lot of his own experiences of being a gay parent. That authenticity comes through in a lot of the movie’s dialogue and scenarios, although “Our Son” somewhat glosses over many of the racial issues that would come up in an interracial marriage and custody battle for an interracial child. A talented cast and interesting main characters are ultimately what save “Our Son” from sinking into a mediocre mush of melodrama.

UPDATE: Vertical will release “Our Son” in select U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on December 15, 2023.

Review: ‘Between the Rains,’ starring Kole Achucka and Patrick Achucka

June 23, 2023

by Carla Hay

Patrick Achucka and Kole Achucka in “Between the Rains” (Photo by Andrew H. Brown)

“Between the Rains”

Directed by Andrew H. Brown and Moses Thuranira

Swahili and Turkana with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in northern Kenya, the documentary film “Between the Rains” features an all-African group of people in rural villages.

Culture Clash: The Turkana-Ngaremara community and the Samburu community have conflicts with each other over thefts and dwindling resources during a drought, while the younger of two brothers is constantly challenged to prove his masculinity.

Culture Audience: “Between the Rains” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in watching documentaries about how people are affected by climate change.

Kole Achucka in “Between the Rains” (Photo by Andrew H. Brown)

The documentary “Between the Rains” tells a compelling parallel story of rivalries between communities and rivalries between two brothers during a tension-filled drought period in Kenya. One of the highlights of the movie is its impressive cinematography. “Between the Rains” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, where it won the prizes for Best Documentary Feature and Best Cinematography in a Documentary Feature.

Directed by Andrew H. Brown and Moses Thuranira, “Between the Rains” was filmed over four years in northern Kenya. (The specific years are not mentioned in the documentary, but the mobile phones shown in the movie indicate that filming started in the late 2010s.) Brown is also the documentary’s cinematographer. Thuranira is a native of Kenya.

The cinéma vérité-styled “Between the Rains” is told from the perspective of a teenager named Kole Achucka, who was 13 years old when the movie began filming. Kole (pronounced “koh-lay”) and his older brother Patrick Achucka (who was about 20 years old when the movie began filming) live in the pastoral community of Turkana-Ngaremara, also known as Turkana for short. Kole and Patrick have a brotherly relationship that goes through ups and downs during the course of the film.

Kole is the intermittent narrator of “Between the Rains,” which begins with this voiceover introduction from Kole: “Long before we became locked out on this cursed land, the Turkana lived in harmony with nature. We followed the rains, never settling long enough to burden the land. The colonizers and the other tribes of Kenya have tried to erase us, but our enemies’ fear of us has always crippled their efforts. Nature is the only power that can destroy us. It is a vindictive beast and the only thing worthy of our fear.”

During the course of “Between the Rains” (which is a brutally honest look at the effects of climate change), nature is not kind to the people in the documentary, due to a drought that has been plaguing the area. There are dwindling resources that have left many people in the area dead from diseases or starvation, or moving away in search of a better life. The mother and the grandmother of Kole and Patrick are dead. These two women were beloved members of the family. Kole (the more sensitive brother) still openly grieves for them. The father of Kole and Patrick is away, looking for work in the Kenyan countryside.

The brothers’ other family members who are in the documentary are their friendly aunt Veronica (who is the sister of their late mother) and Patrick’s adorable son, whose name is not mentioned in the movie. Patrick’s son is about 3 to 5 years old in the documentary footage. The mother of this child is not seen or mentioned in the documentary. Veronica says that the mother of Patrick and Kole was filled with goodness and taught them respect for nature.

Throughout the documentary, Patrick tries to teach Kole how to be a better hunter and warrior, but Patrick often grows frustrated because he doesn’t think Kole has what it takes to live up to Patrick’s ultra-macho standards. Patrick is considered an “alpha male” of the Turkana community. Patrick is both feared and respected. A recurring theme in “Between the Rains” is that Kole has to “prove” his manhood by going through some harsh rituals that will be very uncomfortable for many “Between the Rains” viewers to watch.

Kole says in the documentary: “I’m known as the boy that was born amongst the goats. I’m told that shepherding is the only path I’ll ever know.” He adds, “I wish my path led to a different life, but my brother says it’s not good to have childish dreams.”

Depending on your perspective, Patrick is a pessimist or a realist. There are multiple times in the movie where Patrick describes the land they live on as “cursed.” Patrick feels stifled by but also loyal to staying on this land. He tells Kole that they shouldn’t expect rain anytime soon. Patrick also repeatedly lectures Kole and tells him in various ways to “grow up,” such as when he tells Kole: “Put the innocence of childhood behind you.”

Because resources are scarce during this drought, nearby communities have gotten into fierce rivalries with each other that result in thefts of livestock and crops. A woman named Josephine is described as the “peacekeeper” of Turkana. She is often seen talking on her phone as she fields information about who has stolen what and where the stolen goods are. Josephine tries to act as a negotiator when she can.

Near the beginning of “Between the Rains,” several goats have been stolen from the Turkana community. Josephine is seen saying to an unidentified person on the phone: “The thieves will try to sell them [the goats] quickly in the market. If we don’t recover the stolen livestock, there will be violence. Our informants say that they’ve already sold some [goats], so it’s best if we intervene and outsmart the livestock thieves.

Patrick and a group of other Turkana men swiftly react when they find out that the thieves are members of the nearby Samburu community. Patrick and his cronies show up unannounced, retrieve the stolen goats, and proceed to rough up the men they suspect of stealing the goats. Some of the men quickly confess and beg for mercy. The suspected thieves are forced to get into a truck. The documentary doesn’t show or tell what happened to these suspected thieves, who are never seen in the movie again.

Kole says that he places a high value on spirituality and nature. He explains, “Our god is called Akuj—the spirit of nature. Our god is the blessing of rain and water. When nature is happy, we live in peace, without fear. But between the rains, the river dries, and neighbors become enemies. I’m not afraid of our enemies. I only fear nature.”

Sensitive viewers should be warned that there are multiple scenes in the documentary that show animals being killed for various reasons. One of the reasons is for doing a ritual where a goat is killed so that a local shaman can “read” the goat’s intestines to determine what nature’s prophecy is. In scientific terms, it’s like doing an amateur autopsy to see the qualities of what the goat ingested. Another animal-killing ritual, which is described as “the most important” ritual, is the asapan: when a warrior becomes a respected elder. This asapan ritual involves drinking animal blood.

“Beyond the Rains” also shows that although there is some modern technology in the Turkana community, the gender roles are still steeped in ancient traditions. The men are the physical protectors and hunters, while the women are in charge of food preparation and child rearing. There are some exceptions, of course. Patrick appears to be a single parent, and he is loving and nurturing in raising his son. Kole is also a doting uncle to this child. But given Patrick’s staunch machismo, it’s hard not to speculate if Patrick would be as attentive to this child if the child were a girl.

There is a lot of cruelty in the rituals that the Turkana men go through to “prove” their manhood. In one hazing ritual, Kole is forced to kill his favorite pet sheep. In another ritual, Kole is held down while some men in the group remove one of his teeth. They order him not to cry, or else they’ll make things worse. Kole’s attackers wanted to remove more teeth, but Kole puts a stop to it. He is then jeered at and insulted for being a “wimp.”

In this community, male crying is considered an act of weakness that could make a man or a boy a social outcast in this community. When Kole cries, he does so silently and as far away from other people as possible. Kole also visits his grandmother’s grave on his own. These are things that observant viewers of the documentary will notice without any intrusive talking head “experts” weighing in with their comments.

It’s pretty obvious that Patrick is not the type of person who talks about his feelings of grief, so he and Kole do not have a close brotherly bond where they can open up to each other about their deepest emotions. Luckily, Kole has his aunt Veronica, who seems to be emotionally available to him if Kole ever needs to talk about his feelings. But in this community, Kole has to be careful about how he is perceived when it comes to his masculinity, or the men in the community could make his life miserable.

There’s also a hint that drug abuse could be a problem. A scene in the movie shows Patrick ordering Kole to snort an unidentified white powder when they’re alone together in a hut. This drug use is shown once in the documentary and never discussed again. It’s hard to know how often Patrick and Kole ingest whatever substance they snorted because a lot of the footage that was filmed over four years was no doubt edited out of the documentary.

“Between the Rains” has striking nature shots that show the dichotomy of the beauty of this natural land but also the ravaged devastation of a drought. It’s also a poignant coming-of-age-film about a boy who has to forge his identity as a man under some very tough conditions. Many people around the world live in a bubble of modern technology conveniences and think climate change is far removed from their lives. “Beyond the Rains” is a jarring look at the environmental damage for the people who live on the front lines of climate change and can’t afford to escape from where they live. They are part of our ecosystem warning that rural people in underdeveloped countries aren’t the only ones who are going to suffer from climate disasters.

Review: ‘Breaking the News’ (2024), starring Emily Ramshaw, Amanda Zamora, Errin Haines, Kate Sosin, Andrea Valdez, Chabeli Carrazana and Abby Johnston

June 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Errin Haines in “Breaking the News” (Photo by Heather Courtney/PBS)

“Breaking the News” (2024)

Directed by Heather Courtney, Princess A. Hairston and Chelsea Hernandez

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2020 to 2022, in various parts of the United States, the documentary “Breaking the News” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) who are connected in some way to The 19th* news media outlet.

Culture Clash: The 19th* experiences ups and downs during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a reckoning about needing more diversity on its staff. 

Culture Audience: “Breaking the News” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a documentary about start-up media groups and news media coverage from a female perspective.

Kate Sosin and Arin McKona in “Breaking the News” (Photo by Heather Courtney/PBS)

“Breaking the News” is a smart and incisive look at the origins and growing pains of The 19th* as a groundbreaking female-centric news media outlet. This documentary is honest about showing that some women have more privilege than others in battling sexism. “Breaking the News” isn’t just about reporters getting news scoops. The movie also offers a realistic look at keeping a start-up company afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Breaking the News” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Heather Courtney, Princess A. Hairston and Chelsea Hernandez, “Breaking the News” (which was filmed from 2020 to 2022) begins in March 2020, the first month of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns around the world. The 19th* (which is headquartered in Austin, Texas) was co-founded as a non-profit group by Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora in 2017, as a reaction to Donald Trump being elected president of the United States. The concept was to have a female-oriented news website staffed by women and reporting news that is considered important to women.

The 19th* is named after the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment, which gives women U.S. citizens the right to vote. It’s explained in the documentary that the asterisk in The 19th* signifies that there’s more work to be done for women’s rights in the United States and around the world. When The 19th* began, the staff and freelancers consisted entirely of women. Now, there are a few men and gender non-conforming people who are among The 19th* employees.

Although the leaders of The 19th* say in interviews that this news media outlet is non-partisan, the reality is that the political views expressed by the majority of the staff are undoubtedly liberal—either progressive or moderate. And it seems as if the core audience for The 19th* also has a left-leaning perspective, based on a segment in the documentary showing that The 19th* receives numerous complaints from readers every time The 19th* interviews a politically conservative person. The 19th* publishes original content on its own platforms and syndicates its content to various other media outlets, including The Washington Post.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, The 19th* was in the process of raising another round of funding. Ramshaw (a former reporter with the Dallas Morning News and Texas Tribune) is shown in the beginning of the documentary having a Zoom conference call with Whurley, a well-known investor. He bluntly tells her, “I think journalism is dead.” But he makes this optimistic remark: “All the great startups started under terrible circumstances.”

Ramshaw has the title of CEO of The 19th*, while Zamora has the title of publisher. Both women say in the documentary that they knew at an early age that they wanted to become journalists. Although Ramshaw is shown doing some fundraising responsibilities, her main preoccupation shown in the documentary is managing the growing staff of The 19th* and making executive decisions about the editorial direction of the company. Andrea Valdez, who is also based in Austin, works closely with Ramshaw as The 19th* editor-in-chief until she is replaced by Julie Chen, whose appointment is shown toward the end of the documentary.

As the publisher, Zamora is shown worrying about being able to pay the salaries of The 19th* employees during a time when media outlets are downsizing or having hiring freezes during the pandemic. As a non-profit startup, The 19th* faced its share of challenges that were made more difficult in the middle of an economic downturn. However, 2020 turned out to be a pivotal and breakout year for The 19th*, due to the U.S. presidential election and the worldwide racial reckoning over police killings of unarmed African Americans.

Several editorial employees for The 19th* are shown in “Breaking the News,” but the documentary gives a particular focus on four of these employees: Errin Haines, a Philadelpha-based former Associated Press reporter, is an editor-at-large with a specialty in covering racial issues. Kate Sosin, a former employee of Viacom and NBC, is a transgender reporter covering LGBTQ+ issues. Sosin’s pronouns are they/them. Chabeli Carrazana (based in Orlando, Florida) has an editorial beat covering the economy. Abby Johnston is The 19th*s deputy editor.

One of the biggest criticisms of many feminist groups is that they tend to give the most power and importance to middle-class and wealthy cisgender, heterosexual white women. Ramshaw fits that description. Zamora (formerly of the Texas Tribune) is Latina, but in the documentary, Zamora acknowledges that she has privilege because she appears to look white. There are some scenes in the movie where Ramshaw shows that she’s living in a bubble and can’t really see the perspective of other women who are not in her own demographic.

For example, in May 2020, a video went viral of a racist confrontation in New York City’s Central Park, where an African American bird watcher named Christian Cooper asked a white woman nearby named Amy Cooper (no relation to Christian Cooper) to put a leash on her dog, because it’s the law in New York City to have dogs on leashes when the dogs are in public. In response, an angry Amy Cooper called 911 and falsely claimed that Christian Cooper was physically attacking her. She made a of point of repeating that an African American man was assaulting her.

Haines felt this story was important enough to report to show how some white women can use white supremacist racism as a way to put people of other races, particularly African Americans, in harm’s way with false accusations. In a completely tone-deaf moment with racial overtones, Ramshaw is shown questioning Haines on whether or not The 19th* needed to cover the case in the first place. Without knowing all the facts, Ramshaw wonders out loud if Christian Cooper did anything to provoke Amy Cooper. (When police arrived at the scene, Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper both were not there, but the situation could have escalated.)

Haines (who is one of the smartest and most well-connected people on The 19th* team) patiently explains to Ramshaw that America has a long history of African American people being killed because of false accusations from white women. The story is eventually assigned to Haines, with Ramshaw still being skeptical that it was important for The 19th* to report. Of course, the story ended up becoming huge international news. Later, Ramshaw makes an apology to her staff for her error in judgment and for being so ignorant.

It took this Christian Cooper/Amy Cooper story for Ramshaw to understand the ugly truth that these types of false accusations rooted in racism aren’t just stories about past lynchings but can still happen various ways today. If there had not been a video showing that Amy Cooper was lying, and if the police had shown up during this incident, it’s very likely that Christian Cooper would have been arrested based on a false accusation. “Breaking the News” shows that when an editor in charge of assignments lacks this intelligence or empathy about racial issues, it can negatively affect the type of coverage that the editor chooses to assign.

On a side note, after this Central Park video went viral, Amy Cooper was fired from her job at an investment firm. She was charged with the misdemeanor of filing a false police report. The charge was ultimately dismissed because Christian Cooper decided not to press charges against her, and she agreed to enroll in a racial bias therapy program. Amy Cooper’s wrongful termination lawsuit and appeal have been dismissed by the court system.

Under Ramshaw’s leadership, The 19th* is shown as being not very open to having a diverse representation of LGBTQ staffers. During most of the time that this documentary takes place, Sosin is the only openly LGBTQ employee on staff. Sosin repeatedly asks Ramshaw and other supervisors of The 19th* to hire more LGBTQ staffers, so that Sosin isn’t the only one. Ramshaw is shown making excuses for delaying this inclusive hiring. There’s really no good excuse for it, considering all the cisgender heterosexual women that The 19th* made the effort to recruit.

One of the more poignant scenes in the documentary is when Sosin confesses that when employees of The 19th* were celebrating the website’s launch day, Sosin spent the day at home crying because Sosin felt left out and sidelined for being a transgender person. Sosin is intelligent and a tremendous asset to The 19th* team. It’s really unconscionable that a so-called inclusive media group would take so long to hire more than one LGTBQ+ person to cover LGTBQ+ issues. It eventually happened, but only after Sosin and other staffers had to push for it. Ramshaw made an apology to The 19th* employees about that diversity problem too.

But for every misstep that Ramshaw might have taken, The 19th* had some triumphs. Haines was the first reporter to get an exclusive interview with family members of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American nursing student who was shot to death in March 2020, by white police officers while sleeping in her home in Louisville, Kentucky. The officers claimed it was a case of a mistaken identity because they went to the wrong house during a warrant raid. The 19th* was also the first media outlet to interview Kamala Harris after it was officially announced that she would be Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate. Haines got that scoop too.

Sosin was at the forefront of reporting many LGBTQ+ issues, especially in the trans community where health care and crime have disproportionately more devastating effects than for cisgender people. For example, many states have been slashing public health funding for gender affirmation surgeries. And crimes against transgender people are often underreported or often don’t get adequate investigations, compared to crimes against cisgender people.

Sosin’s story for The 19th* about how the pandemic was affecting transgender surgeries ends up being one of the biggest viral stories for The 19th* in that period of time. Sosin is shown interviewing people such at Transhealth in Northampton, Massachusetts, including CEO Dallas Ducar, charge nurse Arin McLona and pediatrician Dr. Drew Cronyn. They all express concerns about how certain U.S. states are starting to make their work more restricted or illegal.

Carrazana tells her personal story about being a Cuban American. She says that coming from an immigrant, working-class family gives her more empathy and understanding in covering underrepresented communities for economic news stories. Almost all of The 19th* employees featured are shown working from home during the pandemic lockdowns.

The movie also briefly shows the personal lives of featured employees of The 19th*, as a way of demonstrating that these are well-rounded people. Ramshaw, Zamora, Sosin and Carrazana are seen with their spouses or partners. Haines is shown having a close relationship with her mother, whom she calls on a regular basis. And most of these employees have adorable dogs, who sometimes amusingly get in the way while the employees try to work from home.

“Breaking the News” includes footage of how The 19th* covered historical moments, such as the 2020 U.S. presidential election; the U.S. Capitol riots that occurred on January 6, 2021; and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade that gave federal protection for abortion. The documentary does not over-simplify or gloss over the real problems that The 19th* has or the mistakes that were made by the company’s leadership. The measure of any group’s future is how it can learn from its mistakes and make improvements.

It remains to be seen how long The 19th* will last. However, “Breaking the News” is an insightful look at the early years of this resourceful news media outlet. It’s not only an inspiring documentary but also a stark reminder that with all the progress made in women’s rights, a female-dominated news media outlet is still a rarity today.

UPDATE: The PBS series “Independent Lens” will premiere “Breaking the News” on February 19, 2024.

Review: ‘Adipurush,’ starring Prabhas, Saif Ali Khan, Kriti Sanon, Sunny Singh and Devdatta Nage

June 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Devdatta Nage, Prabhas and Sunny Singh in “Adipurush” (Photo courtesy of AA Films)

“Adipurush”

Directed by Om Raut

Released in Hindi and Telugu versions with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, the fantasy/action film “Adipurush” (based on the epic Hindu tale “Ramayana”) features an Indian cast of characters in a world populated by humans and talking creatures.

Culture Clash: A god prince goes on a mission to rescue his kidnapped wife.

Culture Audience: “Adipurush” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching an overly long fantasy film that has terrible visual effects and stupid dialogue.

Saif Ali Khan in “Adipurush” (Photo courtesy of AA Films)

“Adipurush” is a spectacle for all the wrong reasons. Viewers will be watching to see if the tacky visual effects and idiotic plot can get any worse. They do. And at three hours long, this bombastic and mind-numbing fantasy film becomes an endurance test. According to MeaningDB (a database for English-language meanings of Indian words): “Adipurush is a Sanskrit name that refers to the God Ishwara. Adi means first, and Purush means man. The name together denotes First Man/Supreme Person.”

Directed by Om Raut (who co-wrote the atrocious “Adipurush” screenplay with Manoj Muntashir), “Adipurush” is based on the epic Hindu tale “Ramayana.” However, there are enough changes to this movie adaptation, that there’s not much resemblance to the original story. What viewers will see in the movie is just a mishmash of fight scenes and chase scenes that revolve around rescuing a kidnapped princess. “Adipurush” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

In “Adipurush” (which takes place in an unspecified time period in India), the main hero is Raghava (played by Prabhas), a god prince who has extraordinary fighting powers. In the beginning of the movie, he’s seen defeating an army of harpy-like demons. Raghava’s loyal and loving wife Janaki (played by Kriti Sanon) soon gets kidnapped by the evil Ravana (played by Saif Ali Khan), a demon king of Lanka. Ravana can sprout 10 heads. The 10-headed Ravana is one of the more laughable (and not in a good way) parts of “Adipurush,” because the visual effects look so fake.

Ravana’s sister Shurpanakha (played by Tejaswini Pandit) actually instigated this kidnapping. Shurpanakha is jealous of Janaki, because Shurpanakha wanted to have a love affair with Raghava, but he rejected her and told her that he was going to remain loyal to Janaki. Raghava’s younger brother Shesh (played by Sunny Singh) also became a target for Shurpanakha’s seductions, but Shesh rejected her too. Shurpanakha tried to harm Janaki, but Shesh thwarted this effort and cut off Shurpanakha’s nose as a result.

Shurpanakha then told Ravana that she wants his help to get revenge on Janaki and Raghava. Ravana sees Janaki and immediately becomes smitten by her beauty and decides that he wants her for himself. This desire led to Janaki being kidnapped and hidden away in the Forest of Panchavati. Raghava, Shesh and many allies then go on a mission to find and rescue Janaki and defeat Ravana and his army.

One of the allies of Raghava and Shesh is a mutant human/monkey named Bajrang (played by Devdatta Nage), who looks mostly like a human, except for his long monkey tail. Bajang also has the ability to grow to the size of a skyscraper building. There are several talking primates in “Adipurush,” and they all look like rejects from director Matt Reeves’ masterful “Planet of the Apes” movies. There are also a few talking bears. The acting performances “Adipurush” range from average to barely watchable.

Perhaps the most ridiculous scene in the movie is when Bajrang finds Janaki in the forest. She is by herself in an open field, where she is unguarded, unrestrained, and not locked up in a room. In other words, it would be easy for anyone to rescue her at that moment. But no. All Bajrang says is that he’s a messenger for Raghava, and the message is that Raghava loves Janaki.

Imagine being a kidnapping victim and a warrior ally has a chance to rescue you, but all he says is, “Nice to see you. I have a message. Your spouse loves you. I have to go now so that your spouse can be the one to rescue you. Goodbye.” That’s essentially what happens in “”Adipurush,” which takes a full hour (the last third of the movie) to show Raghava trying to get to Janaki and the battles he has along the way. Anyone who wants a good adventure story that doesn’t insult your intelligence should steer clear of “Adipurush,” which is nothing but idiotic and very loud movie junk.

AA Films released “Adipurush” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on June 16, 2023.

Review: ‘Cypher’ (2023), starring Tierra Whack

June 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tierra Whack in “Cypher”

“Cypher” (2023)

Directed by Chris Moukarbel

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2019 to 2021, in various parts of the U.S., the comedy mockumentary film “Cypher” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Real-life rapper Tierra Whack becomes the target of a conspiracy-theory cult. 

Culture Audience: “Cypher” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Tierra Whack, hip-hop culture and movies that poke fun at how social media plays a role in how celebrities are perceived and how they interact with fans.

“Cypher” is an inconsistent but mildly interesting mockumentary starring real-life rapper Tierra Whack as herself. The movie could have done more with its conspiracy cult storyline, but what’s there is fairly amusing. “Cypher” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, where became the first mockumentary to win the festival’s Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature. It’s the top prize at the Tribeca Festival. And this top prize might lead viewers to believe that “Cypher” is a prestigious film. It’s not.

“Cypher” (written and directed by Chris Moukarbel) is nowhere near the level of an Oscar-worthy film. It’s not even the type of movie that will win any MTV Awards. It’s a moderately entertaining mockumentary to watch for people who like or have tolerance for hip-hop culture. Everyone else will be bored or turned off by this hit-and-miss comedy. As far as music-industry mockumentaries go, if 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap” is the gold standard, then “Cypher” is like imitation bronze. Imitation bronze has a purpose, but just don’t expect it to be gold.

As many music celebrity mockumentaries tend to do, a great deal of “Cypher” shows the artist on tour. The movie’s title is explained by an on-screen caption saying that the definition of “cypher” is “a gathering of rappers freestyling together in a circle.” The beginning of “Cypher” has the obligatory backstory on Tierra Whack (yes, that’s her real name), who was born in 1995. For the purposes of this review, the Tierra Whack character in the movie will be referred to as Tierra. The real-life Tierra Whack will be referred to as Whack.

From an early age, as Tierra says in an “interview” for the movie, she was introduced to hip-hop by her mother. She also started writing poetry while still in elementary school, which led to her being a freestyle battle rapper in her hometown of Philadelphia. At age 15, one of her rap videos went viral, and she became an Internet sensation. (Nyla Naveah has the role of teenage Tierra.) Tierra got a record deal as a direct result of her Internet fame.

Just as in real life, “Cypher” shows that Tierra’s debut album “Whack World” (released in 2018) became a hit, and she became a fan fave of other music celebrities. The movie has snippets of artists such as Rihanna, Cardi B and Billie Eilish praising Tierra Whack. “Cypher” is supposed to take place from 2019 to 2021, but some of the timeline looks off in the movie.

Tierra’s entourage consists mostly of people under the age of 35. They include her co-managers Kenete Sims and Johnny Montina; hair stylist Jamilah Curry; makeup artist Camille Lawrence; and photographer Nick Canonica. A few music producers who are “interviewed” in the film include Warren “Oak” Felder and Jay Melodic. All of them play versions of themselves in “Cypher” and say the usual sycophantic things about Tierra that people would say about celebrities who are paying their salaries.

“Cypher” director Moukarbel can occasionally be heard (but is never seen) on screen talking to the people he’s interviewing for the movie. “This Is Spinal Tap” director Rob Reiner played mockumentary director Marty DiBergi in “This Is Spinal Tap.” Moukarbel does not make his presence in “Cypher” compelling or amusing. In other words, there is no Marty DiBergi-type director character in “Cypher.”

However, film producer Natalia-Leigh Brown portrays herself as a producer of this mockumentary. (In real life, Brown is not a producer of “Cypher.”) The Natalia-Leigh character is intensely driven and, in many ways, seems more in charge of the movie than the director. Viewers will either find her kind of hilarious or really annoying.

“Cypher” wastes some time with repetitive “goofing off on tour” footage from 2019. After a concert in Philadelphia, Tierra falls off the stage and mildly injures herself. She’s mostly embarrassed instead of hurt by anything physical from this tumble. After the concert, she and her entourage are hanging out at a diner when Tierra meets a 58-year-old woman named Tina Johnson Banner (played by Chris Anthony), who claims to be a devoted fan of Tierra.

Tina seems shy and hesitant at first when she approaches Tierra, who invites Tina to sit next to her at the table. This scene cuts back and forth between the conversation that Tina and Tierra are having by themselves and the innocuous conversation that members of Tierra’s entourage are having at a nearby separate table. It isn’t long before Tina starts to get weird and makes Tierra feel uncomfortable.

Tina gives a rambling monologue about sounds influencing people’s thoughts. She says there’s a video that explains everything. At this point, Tierra is done with the conversation and politely but firmly tells Tina that it was nice meeting her, but Tina needs to leave Tierra alone now. Tina is reluctant to leave, but before she does, Tina makes these cryptic comments to Tierra: “Watch the video” and “Don’t let them use you.”

At first, Tierra thinks this was just a harmless encounter with an offbeat fan. But then, Tina sends Tierra a bizarre video about belonging to a group called Warren, which has worked for years to decipher a document called the True Vision Manuscript that they discovered in the early 20th century. The True Vision Manuscript was supposed to be written by a secret society in Europe called Oculus, an offshoot of the Freemasons. Part of the True Vision Manuscript translation says that there’s a “chosen one” who has to pluck an eyebrow hair to gain true powers.

It’s at this point in “Cypher” that viewers will be turned off from or intrigued by finding out more about this mystery. And things get weirder. Tierra finds out that Tina has gone missing. Tina’s young adult daughter Marigold Johnson (played by Bionca Bradley) has been going on social media blaming Tierra for Tina’s disappearance, because Tierra was the last-known person to have seen Tina. Police start to investigate.

Tierra wants to find out the truth too, partly to clear her name, and partly out of curiosity. During this investigation, Tierra and her entourage find videos online or elsewhere, showing that Tierra and her entourage have been filmed with hidden video cameras by an unknown stalker or stalkers. The rest of the movie then becomes a tangled web of solving the mystery of not only Tina’s disappearance but also the translation of the True Vision Manuscript.

It should come as no surprise that Warren is a cult-like group that’s obsessed with the True Vision Manuscript, which is believed to hold the answers to a conspiracy. Tierra says she doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories. Where “Cypher” falters a little bit is that it can’t quite keep the momentum of the mystery going in a consistent way, resulting in a shift in the movie’s tone that’s sometimes awkward. One minute, Tierra is acting like a hip-hop Nancy Drew. The next minute, she’s preoccupied with recording her next album.

Luckily for “Cypher,” Whack is a natural actress who often holds scenes together when other people in the scene are acting a little too fake and corny. It might seem easy to play a version of yourself in a movie, but it’s actually much harder to do this type of performance in a mockumentary. Except for the over-the-top conspiracy cult part of the plot, much of this mockumentary could pass for a real documentary.

The choppy editing and shaky camera work in “Cypher” is intended to make the movie look hastily compiled, as if the information in the movie is too urgent to wait for more polished editing. “Cypher” is not a must-see film for mockumentary enthusiasts. However, it’s worth checking out for viewers who are up for a fairly bizarre ride that mixes music-industry shenanigans with conspiracy-theory investigations.

UPDATE: Hulu will premiere “Cypher” on November 24, 2023, the same date that the movie will premiere in select U.S. cinemas.

Review: ‘Maestra’ (2023), starring Mélisse Brunet, Tamara Dworetz, Anna Sułkowska-Migoń, Zoe Zeniodi and Ustina Dubitsky

June 18, 2023

by Carla Hay

Zoe Zeniodi in “Maestra” (Photo courtesy of Foleo Films)

“Maestra” (2023)

Directed by Maggie Contreras

Some language in French, Greek and Polish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2022, in France, Greece, the United States, and Poland, the documentary “Maestra” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few black people and Asians) who are connected in some way to the international classical music industry.

Culture Clash: Five women go to Paris to compete in the 2022 La Maestra competition, the only all-female contest for classical music orchestra conductors. 

Culture Audience: “Maestra” will appeal primarily to classical music fans and people who are interested in watching an engaging documentary about women in a male-dominated profession.

Mélisse Brunet in “Maestra” (Photo by Isabelle Razavet)

“Maestra” offers a riveting look at the challenges and triumphs experienced by five contestants competing in the all-female La Maestra competition for classical orchestra conductors. In total, there were 14 contestants chosen for the 2022 La Maestra competition in Paris, where most of this documentary was filmed. The musicianship is excellent, but the human stories have more impact. “Maestra” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Maggie Contreras, “Maestra” doesn’t do anything innovative or groundbreaking in filmmaking, but this documentary does excel in choosing interesting contestants and in how the film editing skillfully weaves their stories together. All five of the contestants who are the focus of this movie have personalities and backgrounds that are very different from each other. Unless a viewer is not paying attention, it’s very easy to tell these contestants apart.

These are the five contestants who get the spotlight in the documentary:

  • Mélisse Brunet is a bachelorette originally from France but currently lives in the United States. At the time this documentary was filmed, Brunet was working as a classical music teacher in Iowa City, Iowa. Brunet is a self-admitted neurotic who expresses many times during the film that she’s nervous about going back to her hometown of Paris, because it will bring back traumatic memories for her.
  • Tamara Dworetz is an American living with her husband Stephen Delman in Atlanta. Dworetz has an optimistic and upbeat personality. She and her husband, who been married since 2018, are trying to start a family. Dworetz worries about when the right time would be for her to become a mother and how it parenthood might affect her career.
  • Anna Sułkowska-Migoń is Polish and living with her husband Maciej Migoń in Warsaw, Poland. Sułkowska-Migoń is the youngest and least-experienced of the five contestants featured in the documentary. At the time this documentary was filmed, Sułkowska-Migoń was in her last year of college and had only started being a conductor in the previous year.
  • Zoe Zeniodi (based in her native Athens, Greece) is an outspoken single mother to twins (a son and a daughter), who were about 4 to 6 years old when this documentary was filmed. Zeniodi is a freelance conductor, so she has to do a lot of traveling to wherever her work takes her. Zeniodi says she has constant challenges with balancing her career with parenting very young children.
  • Ustina Dubitsky, who is from Ukraine, is introduced much later in the documentary than the other four subjects. She’s not shown in her home because by the time Dubitsky is seen in Paris for the competition, the Ukraine had been invaded by Russia and engaged ina brutal war. Understandably, this turmoil weighs heavily on quiet and introverted Dubitsky during the Maestra competition.

Although all of these contestants have compelling stories, it’s fairly obvious that the “Maestra” filmmakers thought that Brunet is the most fascinating one out of the five, because she gets the most screen time. The movie also opens with a scene of Brunet teaching a class in Iowa City. Brunet is the one who seems the most intense about winning the competition because she’s a mid-career contestant who needs the exposure of La Maestra so that she can get a professional job with an orchestra instead of only being a teacher.

Brunet also keeps talking about experiencing trauma that happened to her in Paris and being afraid of going back to Paris because of this trauma. Brunet says that this trauma left her so emotionally affected, she is living with anxiety and depression. Clearly, the filmmakers of “Maestra” were expecting Brunet to eventually reveals details of this trauma. And sure enough, Burnet does tell more information. Her trauma is exactly what you probably think it is.

Dworetz is the happy-go-lucky cheerleader in the group. She is the one who’s most likely to give pep talks and praise to other contestants. If she is feeling any fear or sadness, she likes to keep it private. Dworetz is seen briefly at home with her husband, who is completely supportive of her conductor ambitions.

Sułkowska-Migoń is also seen having a happy home life with her husband. In the documentary, Sułkowska-Migoń (who is eager and slightly insecure) gives a lot of credit to her mentor: her father Piotr Sułkowski, a classical musical conductor who has worked with the Warmia-Masuria Philharmonic Orchestra in Poland. Sułkowska-Migoń comments: “My father, he is the best conductor of my life.” Sułkowski is shown briefly in the documentary in a video conference call with her.

If Brunet is the one in the group who is the most emotionally fragile, then Zeniodi is the one who is the emotionally resielient and most tough-talking. However, she also shows a compassionate side, such as a moment of solidarity when she gives Dworetz some advice on being a parent juggling a career as an orchestra conductor. Zeniodi tells Dworetz that there never really is a perfect time in a female conductor’s career to have children but that working mothers in these siutations can learn as they go along.

Zeniodi has experienced significant ups and downs in her career, as a freelance conductor and as the oldest member of the five contestants. She mentions that she was fired from a conductor job in Athens because she was pregnant. Zeniodi does not elaborate on what she did about this discrimination, but it’s implied that she did nothing about it, out of fear of being blacklisted from the industry.

Because of her quiet personality, Dubitsky isn’t shown doing much talking in the documentary. When she does talk, she’s mainly preoccupied with what’s going on in her home country of Ukraine, because most of her family members and friends are at risk of being killed or injured during the war. Many people in the La Maestra competition express sympathy and empathy to Dubitsky for what she and her fellow Ukrainians are going through in her lives.

Aside from showing the five contestants’ interactions with each other, “Maestra” has a great deal of footage of the contestants rehearsing and performing. Music performed in the documentary includes pieces from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Louise Farrenc and Maurice Ravel. Of the five contestants, Zeniodi moves around the most on stage while conducting. Dworetz has the quirkiest facial expressions while conducting; she has a tendency to lick her lips and quickly touch her nose. She might want to work on some of those quirks because they make her look really nervous or look like she’s under the influence of a stimulant.

Brunet comments in a “Maestra” documentary interview: “The only place where I’m really happy is when I open the score,” she says of the first step of a conductor’s performance. Dworetz says she likes to practice her conductor moves alone. She shares her philosophy on her conducting style: “You just have to conduct the music the way you want to go. It’s not really about the timing. It’s about the shape, the color, the character.”

Other people interviewed in “Maestra” are several La Maestra competition officials and other classical music experts. Interviwees include conductor Paul David, who is on the La Maestra selection committee; conductor Kwamé Ryan, who is a La Maestra judge; and conductor Kenneth Kiesler. Anaïs Smart and Aline Sam-Giao, who are both on the La Maestra selection committee, both say that the chemistry between a conductor and an orchestra can make or break a performance. An excellent conductor in the competition might have the bad luck of being paired an orchestra, resulting in little or no chemistry in the performance and the conductor contestant most likely to be eliminated from the competition.

Many of the interviewees also talk about how the conductor expresses emotions during the performance is a major factor in the judging process. An intangible “authenticity” is also frequently mentioned as a quality that sets apart the conductors who are considered to be very good and those who are considered to be outstanding. Passion is important during a performance, but a conductor can’t be too passionate to the point where it’s a distraction during the performance.

Deborah Borda, La Maestra chair and New York Philharmonic president/CEO, comments in the documentary: “One of the things we look for as a conductor is our authentic self. That’s what we all strive for. We can’t fake it.” Kenneth Kiesler, a conductor, mentions that the one thing that all La Maestra winners have in common is that they all look like they belong there.

“Maestra” does a capable job of exploring the reasons why La Maestra exists in the first place. It’s no secret that being an orchestra conductor is a very male-dominated profession. La Maestra was a created as a way to showcase female conductors in ways that they might not otherwise be showcased and to give them a level playing field, in terms gender. Marin Alsop, a conductor and a La Maestra judge, says of this feminist approach to creating opportunities for female conductors: “We have a responsibility to make the path easier for future generations.”

Observant viewers will notice that “Maestra shows,” rather than tells, some of the subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination that plays out during the La Maestra competition. It would be very easy (and frankly, quite boring) to have talking heads drone on and on in interviews about sexism in the industry. But even when only women are contestants, the sexism and ageism find ways to seep into the competition.

This review won’t give away who ends up winning this particular competition. However, it can be noted that the older female contestants get a lot more criticism than the younger contestants for “showing too much energy.” The contestants who get this criticism wonder aloud to themselves and other contestants if a man who did the exact same performance would have gotten the same criticism. It’s valid speculation.

And although it’s not said out loud, the women are also judged by the way they are dressed during a performance. One of the five contestants keeps it casual by wearing a white button-down shirt and slightly messy hair. Other contestants dress a little more formally.

There’s much thought that goes into whether a contestant will decide to wear bright colors or neutral colors. Do men have to put this much thought into their wardrobes for a conductor contest? Probably not, because women tend to be judged more harshly than men, when it comes to clothing and outward physical appearances.

As contestants are eliminated and other contestants advance to the next round, “Maestra” gets a little more suspenseful. For obvious reasons, the judges are not interviewed in the documentary while the contest is taking place. But viewers get snippets of what the judges might be thinking when the eliminated contestants reveal in the documentary what the judges gave them as feedback.

There’s an old saying that the true measure of someone’s character isn’t just by how someone achieves victories or accomplishments but also by how someone handles failures and defeats. “Maestra” is an example of how a high-profile competition such as La Maestra, while certainly important in the classical music world, should not fully define someone’s career. It should be a “win” to even be part of this highly selective competition. And how the contestants handle the results of this competition are largely indicators of how they handle challenges in life.

Review: ‘Dead Girls Dancing,’ starring Luna Jordan, Noemi Liv Nicolaisen, Katharina Stark and Sara Giannelli

June 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Luna Jordan, Noemi Liv Nicolaisen and Katharina Stark in “Dead Girls Dancing” (Photo courtesy of Kalekone Films)

“Dead Girls Dancing”

Directed by Anna Roller

German and Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2021, in Germany and in Italy, the dramatic film “Dead Girls Dancing” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three German female friends, who are all recent graduates of high school, go on a road trip to Italy, where they meet a rebellious teenager, and get up to some mischief with her. 

Culture Audience: “Dead Girls Dancing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in female-oriented coming-of-age stories that explore teenage rebellion and sexuality.

“Dead Girls Dancing” is an uneven but well-acted drama about teenagers on a road trip that’s more than what it first appears to be. It’s also a journey of a closeted queer teenager who’s taking tentative steps out of the closet and yearning to connect with someone with whom she can be her true self. The movie has a meandering quality that sometimes drags down the pace. However, the deeper meaning behind the story becomes very apparent in the last 20 minutes of film, where there’s an emotional powerful moment that’s at the heart of the story. “Dead Girls Dancing” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival in New York City.

Written and directed by Anna Roller, “Dead Girls Dancing” takes place in 2021. The movie’s opening scene shows a montage of German high school students taking their class pictures for their last year in high school. (The cities where this movie takes place are never mentioned.)

Most of the teens smile or make goofy faces for the camera, except for 18-year-old Ira Noe (played by Luna Jordan), who stares solemnly at the camera while her photo is being taken. Ira, who is a quiet introvert, has an air of sadness about her. As time goes on, observant viewers will notice that Ira’s tendency to be withdrawn probably has a lot to do with her being a closeted queer woman.

Ira isn’t a compete loner. Her two best friends are also in the same graduating class. Ka (played by Noemi Liv Nicolaisen) is a talkative and extroverted blonde who is the most rebellious of the trio. Malin (played by Katharina Stark) is fun-loving and is more attuned to what Ira might be feeling emotionally. After they graduate from high school, the three teenage pals decide to take a road trip through Italy, using a car owned by Malin’s father.

“Dead Girls Dancing” is mainly about this road trip and how it changes the lives of Ira, Ka, Malin and another teenager close to their age whom they meet in Italy. After a long day of driving, the trio stops at a hostel (the closest lodging for miles) to get a room. But to their disappointment, there are no rooms available at the hostel.

Outside the building, there’s a teenage woman who has her own room. Ira, Ka and Malin all need to use a restroom, so Ira approaches this stranger to explain the situation and to ask her the unusual request for all three of them to use her hostel restroom. The stranger introduces herself as Zoe (played by Sara Giannelli) and agrees to this request in a friendly manner. Zoe says she is an orphan who has been on her own “for a while.”

After Zoe invites Ira, Ka and Malin into her room, they all form an instant rapport. Ira’s attraction to Zoe indicates that she hopes that Zoe could become more than a friend, but Ira is too shy to make the first move. The four teens get caught smoking marijuana in the room by the hostel manager. Before they can be thrown out, Zoe impulsively decides to take off (without paying her hostel bill) with her three new acquaintances and join them on the road trip.

But a major problem occurs when the car breaks down in a remote area. The insurance company for the car says that the company won’t be able to send mechanic help in the area for the next 48 hours. In the meantime, Ira, Ka, Malin and Zoe walk to the nearest village, which is completely deserted because it has been evacuated due to impending wildfires. The rest of “Dead Girls Dancing” shows what happens when these four teens are left to their own devices in this temporarily abandoned village.

Not surprisingly, something else goes very wrong besides a car malfunctioning. Unfortunately, the middle section of the movie gets repetitive with scenes of the four teens goofing off and partying in the deserted village, including getting drunk in an abandoned church. But these party scenes also show the undercurrent of attraction that Ira has for Zoe, who senses Ira’s attraction and flirts with her.

“Dead Girls Dancing” doesn’t really get interesting until something else goes wrong on the trip. It’s the catalyst for all of the teens, especially Ira, to have a reckoning with who they are and what type of moral character they have. The potential relationship between Ira and Zoe is also affected.

Jordan’s nuanced performance as a sexually repressed queer woman succeeds in filmmaker Roller’s intention for it to be the standout performance of “Dead Girls Dancing,” which has effective cinematography from Felix Pflieger. There’s a scene showing Ira going through a quiet devastation that is the defining moment of the movie. Viewers who have the patience to watch a somewhat disjointed and rambling film will find these authentically portrayed scenes as a worthwhile reason to watch “Dead Girls Dancing.”

2023 Tribeca Festival: complete list of winners

The following is a press release from the Tribeca Film Festival:

The 22nd annual Tribeca Festival, presented by OKX, today announced the winning storytellers in its competition categories at an awards ceremony at Racket NYC. The top honors went to Cypher for the Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature, A Strange Path for Best International Narrative Feature, and Between the Rains for Best Documentary Feature. Awards were given in the following competition categories: Feature Film, Short Film, Audio Storytelling, Immersive, Games, Human / Nature, AT&T Untold Stories, and Tribeca X.

The Festival, which hosts more than 600 events across New York City, concludes on June 18th.

“We take great pride in recognizing this year’s collection of diverse, trailblazing works and creators,” said Cara Cusumano, Festival Director and Vice President of Programming. “Today’s honorees are a compelling testament that storytelling across genres and platforms is on a vibrant and inspiring trajectory.”

Some award winners received the unique Tribeca Festival Art Award from a selection of artists led by curator Racquel Chevremont. Supported by CHANEL, the world-class artists donated work to honored filmmakers.

Winners of the Audience Award, which are determined by audience votes throughout the Festival, will be announced at a later date.

Select awarded films, including A Strange Path, Between the Rains, and Boca Chica will be available to watch via the Tribeca at Home platform beginning June 19 through July 2, 2023.

2023 Winners and Special Jury Mentions, as selected by the 2023 Festival Jury, are as follows:

U.S. NARRATIVE COMPETITION

“Cypher”

Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature: Chris Moukarbel for Cypher, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “For its kaleidoscopic use of music, created imagery and found materials, in service of an interrogation of celebrity, conspiracy culture and the nature of narrative reality itself.” This award is sponsored by OKX. 

Best Performance in a U.S. Narrative Feature: Ji-Young Yoo for Smoking Tigers, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “For this actor’s skill in holding the depth of their character’s experience with a quiet strength, vulnerability and a willingness to stay soft and open to their scene partners and camera alike.”

“Smoking Tigers”

Best Screenplay in a U.S. Narrative Feature: So Young Shelly Yo for Smoking Tigers, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “This screenplay pulled us into its leading characters, making us care deeply about their pasts and futures. It skillfully juggled multiple storylines and journeys with nuance, emotional honesty, deft sequencing until the final beautiful scene.”

Mina Sundwall in “The Graduates”

Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature: Caroline Costa for The Graduates, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “From the very first frame, it was clear the cinematographer was someone in complete command of their craft. From their naturalistic approach to lighting to tight compositions, the cinematographer supported the emotional journey of the film at every turn.”

U.S. Narrative Feature Special Jury Mention: Monica Sorelle for Mountains, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “For its authentic, specific portrayal of a culture we had not seen on screen. A deeply emotional and empathetic portrait of a family in a changing world with brilliant leading performances.”

INTERNATIONAL NARRATIVE COMPETITION

Lucas Limeira in “A Strange Path”

Best International Narrative Feature: Guto Parente for A Strange Path, (Brazil) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “In considering the International Narrative Feature Award, one film rose to the top with its surprising warmth and deeply compelling storytelling. We are honored to present the best International Narrative Feature award to Guto Parente for A Strange Path.”

Best Performance in an International Narrative Feature: Carlos Francisco for A Strange Path, (Brazil) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “In a slate full of compelling performances, one radiated a magnetic realism. In a brief but essential turn, this actor balanced the nuances of humanity and demanded to be watched. We happily honor Carlos Francisco with Best Performance in an International Narrative Feature.”

Carlos Francisco in “A Strange Path”

Best Screenplay in an International Narrative Feature: Guto Parente for A Strange Path, (Brazil) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “A great screenplay is a combination of structure and poetry. Our award is going to a screenplay that gave us not only the grief of reconciliation but a joyful expression of absurdity.”

Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature: Linga Acácio for A Strange Path, (Brazil) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “The Winner in this category blew us away with the strength of their visual force. Cinematography that illuminates the narrative with not only the natural beauty of the location, but the psychological landscape of the lead.”

DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Patrick Achucka and Kole Achucka in “Between the Rains” (Photo by Andrew H. Brown)

Best Documentary Feature: Andrew H. Brown and Moses Thuranira for Between the Rains(Kenya) – World Premiere.Jury comment: For craft, storytelling, impact — and above all a raw, elegant coming-of-age portrait of resilience that unanimously blew us away.”

Best Cinematography in a Documentary Feature: Andrew H. Brown for Between the Rains(Kenya) – World Premiere. Jury comment:”Combining the patience and elegance of portraiture — with the immediacy of observational cinema verite — this cinematographer truly transported us into a rarely seen world.”

“The Gullspång Miracle” (Photo by Pia Lehto)

Best Editing in a Documentary Feature: Mark Bukdahl and Orvar Anklew for The Gullspång Miracle, (Sweden, Norway, Denmark) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “For cleverly and adeptly taking us on an entertaining and emotionally-layered mystery that zigs, zags and surprises.”

Documentary Competition Special Jury Mention: David Gutnik for Rule of Two Walls, (Ukraine) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “For embedding us with a group of artists who refused to be stripped of their heritage and cultural expression, we would like to give a special jury mention for human rights and artistic expression to Rule of Two Walls.”

BEST NEW NARRATIVE DIRECTOR AWARD

Sponsored by Canva

Laura Galán in “One Night With Adela” (Photo by Diego Trenas)

Hugo Ruiz for One Night With Adela (Spain) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “When we think about what makes a great director, we think about a bold, singular vision. An artist with an ability to sustain a point of view, take risks and surprise us with their unique perspective. This director conjured a superb conductor’s ability to reign in a symphony, delivering a highly ambitious first film that left us all affected viscerally. Unanimously. We are excited and curious to see what they will make next.”

ALBERT MAYSLES AWARD FOR BEST NEW DOCUMENTARY DIRECTOR

Sponsored by Bulleit

A scene from “Q” (Photo by Jude Chehab)

Jude Chehab for Q, (Lebanon, United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “At the end of the day the Jury chose to recognize the rising luminance of a young director who epitomizes the essence of the New Director award. “She did it all.” She wrote, produced, directed and shot this oblique and complicated family story in the closed world of a  mysterious Syrian spiritual order. Her photography is gorgeous, and she speaks with the indomitable drive of a voice demanding to be heard. We are united in our curiosity to follow her development as an artist and observe what she does next.”

Best New Documentary Director Award Special Jury Mention: co-Director Nate Pommer for Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “The first Special Jury mention goes to Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story, for the enduring use of art as a weapon against cant and authoritarianism. We are grateful to the director for translating Gogol Bordello’s rebellious joy and rage at remaining human and vibrant in the face of everything time has thrown in its path.”

New Documentary Director Special Jury Mention: Jane M. Wagner for Break the Game, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “We gave the special jury mention to BREAK THE GAME for taking the innovative risks in its execution, that its protagonist took discovering her authentic self. Within the sterile confines of an electronic universe, the director revealed the critical core of human connection, kindness and growth, which we can shorthand as the real meaning of love.

NORA EPHRON AWARD

Scarlet Camila in “Boca Chica” (Photo by Micaela Cajahuaringa)

Gabriella A. Moses, Boca Chica, (Dominican Republic) – World Premiere. “With strong visual language that drew us in, lived in performances and original magnetic storytelling, this movie fearlessly confronted family dynamics. The filmmaker expertly portrays the disparity between how the American dream  is perceived outside of the US versus the experience of immigrants freshly arriving on American soil. Honoring the chaos of puberty while introducing its exploitation.”

Nora Ephron Award Special Jury Mention: Smoking Tigers, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “A film with an intimate power, captivating performances and striking cinematography. This film tenderly explores the complexity of adolescence, the immigrant experience, being a child of divorce and how familial trauma can impact romantic relationships.”

HUMAN / NATURE AWARD

Sponsored by Bulleit

Jason Momoa in “Common Ground” (Photo courtesy of Big Picture Ranch)

Common Ground, (United States) – World Premiere. Sobering yet hopeful, Common Ground exposes the interconnectedness of American farming policy, politics, and illness. Follow the solution-driven plight of Regenerative Farmers as they make a case for soil health across the continent and beyond. Directed by Rebecca Tickell, Josh Tickell. Produced by Rebecca Tickell, Josh Tickell, Eric Dillon.

SHORTS COMPETITION

Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lilas-Rose Cantin and Leane Labreche-Dor in “Dead Cat” (Photo by Shawn Pavlin)

Best Narrative Short: Annie-Claude Caron and Danick Audet for Dead Cat, (Canada) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “Out of the impressive list of narrative shorts, this one stood out as a complete work that surprised, entertained, and resonated on a universal level. This film tells the story of parents trying to shield their daughter from the reality of death, but it does so with equal amounts of grounded humor and depth.”

Narrative Short Special Jury Mention: Gabrielle Demers for Blond Night, Jury comment: “Takes you on a most unexpected journey. It challenges our understanding of sexuality as told through the unique lens of disability. The protagonist gives a performance that’s steeped in authenticity and leaves an indelible mark long after the credits roll.”

Narrative Short Special Jury Mention: Annelise Hickey for Hafekasi, Jury comment: “The film threads the needle through the nuanced and complex relationship between a mother and daughter but pulls a specific focus on the divide that occurs between them when differing cultures are ignored.”

Best Animated Short: Mitra Shahidi for Starling, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “On its surface, mourning the death of a child is a challenging subject matter, but this film explores it with charm, mischievousness, and a dash of hope. The animation is immersive and stylized in the best ways. To select this as the winner was unanimous.”

Student Visionary Award: Daniela Soria Gutiérrez for Fairytales, (Mexico) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “This director brought a naturalistic style to a child’s imagination with uncanny and nuanced hints of revulsion woven into a greater story of friendship.”

Best Documentary Short: Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson for Black Girls Play: The Story of Hand Games, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “A story that has yet to be told about a vital driving force in music, culture, and society spanning multiple generations.”

Documentary Short Special Jury Mention: Devon Blackwell for Goodbye, Morganza, Jury comment: “This film is a beautiful, humanity filled portrait of a family that tells the larger American story of race, economic inequity, and home.”

TRIBECA IMMERSIVE COMPETITION

“The Pirate Queen A Forgotten Legend”

Main Competition – Storyscapes Award: Eloise Singer for The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend, (United Kingdom) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “For its outstanding technical execution, immersive user experience, and unique and untold story of a nearly forgotten woman in history.”

Storyscapes Special Jury Mention: Kinfolk for Kinfolk: Black Lands, (United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “A profound and authentic representation of the Black experience in America, KINFOLK’s mission to bring history to contemporary audiences through AR technology not only celebrates the richness of Black culture and history in New York City and beyond, but also serves as a powerful tool for education and understanding, making it a standout contender deserving of recognition.”

New Voices Award: Terril Calder for Meneath: The Mirrors of Ethics, (Canada) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “Both a dream and a nightmare, the work incites a necessary conversation with exceptional use of craft, storytelling and unexpected use of technology with the potential to iterate in a way that undoubtedly will empower future work.”

New Voices Special Mention: Poulomi Basu for Maya: The Birth (Chapter 1), (United Kingdom, France, United States, India) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “An imaginative way to tell an everyday story in a vivid world. Presenting a shift in perspective, the project opens new imaginaries with under-told narratives. This project left us on a hook and the jury is excited to see its next steps and continued development.”

TRIBECA GAMES AWARD

KO_OP, Goodbye Volcano High, (Canada, United States) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “For how much this game felt of the moment and questions whether you should still care about anything when everything sucks — complete with doom scrolling, dinosaurs and high school band drama.”

Special Jury Mention for Tribeca Games: Julián Cordero and Sebastian Valbuena for Despelote, (New York, Ecuador) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “For how it offers a dreamlike portal into a soccer-obsessed child’s everyday life, and shows how cultural expression—whether through sports or creative pursuit—can make our lives richer.”

TRIBECA AUDIO STORYTELLING COMPETITION

“The Very Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen”

Fiction Audio Storytelling Award: Alex Kemp for The Very Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen (Wolf at the Door Studios) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “This piece is an ambitious production that drew the listener in, and had us wondering what mysteries would unfold. It was intriguing, moving, and created a strong sense of place in its audio storytelling. We can’t wait to hear the next episode of The Very Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen.”
 

Narrative Nonfiction Audio Storytelling Award: Aline Laurent-Mayard for Free From Desire (Paradiso Media) – World Premiere. Jury comment: “For its delightfulness, its fresh perspective, and its deceptively-easy-sound, we would like to award the Tribeca Audio Award for Established Audio to “Free From Desire” by Paradiso Media. This compelling personal story has lessons and insights for anyone with a body. Aline’s evocative and charming writing was a spoonful of sugar for a deeply-entrenched problem in larger society: the ways we do and don’t talk about sexuality, and how that impacts our sense of belonging in the world.”

Independent Fiction Audio Storytelling Award: Cory Choy and Feyiṣayo Aluko for Aisha – World Premiere. Jury comment: “To listen to “Aisha” is to inhabit this piece and also to be a body within it. The experience that this piece provided not only gave us a firm view of the main character’s external plight, but also insight into their internal struggle and conflict through sound design that blurs the lines between reality and fiction. “Aisha” warrants repeat listening.”

Independent Nonfiction Audio Storytelling Award: David Modigliani for Shalom, Amore – World Premiere. Jury comment: “An unexpectedly moving narrative that blends the personal, political, and comical. Through the uncovering of family letters written decades earlier, Shalom Amore takes us on a journey across generations and continents. From the hosts’ grandparents’ first kiss and a torn stocking to the exploration of rising antisemitism in our own time.”

AT&T PRESENTS UNTOLD STORIES

Color Book, (United States) – Following the passing of his wife, a devoted father is learning to raise his son with Down Syndrome as a single parent. While adjusting to their new reality, the two embark on a journey through Metro Atlanta to attend their first baseball game. Written and directed by David Fortune. Untold Stories is a multi-year, multi-tier alliance between AT&T and the Tribeca Festival that awards $1 million dollars, mentorship, and distribution support to systemically underrepresented filmmakers to produce their films. Color Book will also be guaranteed a premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

TRIBECA X AWARD COMPETITION

Sponsored by Tubi

Best Feature: Farhoud Meybodi for Earthbound (Gjenge Makers) – Earthbound: Nzambi Matee, executive produced by Orlando Bloom, explores the life and achievements of Nzambi Matee, a Kenyan innovator and entrepreneur who is tackling the plastic waste epidemic in her hometown of Nairobi. Directed by Farhoud Meybodi.

Best Short: Rudy Valdez for Translators (U.S. Bank) – Translators, follows Harye, Densel, and Virginia, a few of the over 11 million child translators in the United States, as they translate for their parents in everyday situations. Directed by Rudy Valdez.

Best Series: Patrick Daughters for Full Bleed (Adobe) – Full Bleed, a documentary series taking viewers inside these iconic moments, going beyond the expected creator profile to explore what it takes to push boundaries, and examine how obstacles can become the conduit for groundbreaking work. Episode one of three, submitted here, centers the decade-long development of Freedom Tower with celebrated architect Daniel Libeskind. Directed by Patrick Daughters.

Best Immersive: Jamie Hewlett and Fx Goby for Gorillaz Presents… Skinny Ape (Google) – Gorillaz Presents… Skinny Ape, sets out to revolutionize the concept of musical performances by transforming the streets of New York and London into stages for two groundbreaking experiences. On December 17 and 18 fans gathered together to witness Gorillaz play in real life – actually larger than life – with Murdoc, 2D, Noodle and Russel towering over them in the midst of two of the world’s most iconic skylines. Created by Jamie Hewlett and Fx Goby.   

Best Audio: Pedro Mendes for Making an Impossible Airplane (Atlassian) – Making an Impossible Airplane: The Untold Story of the Concorde, a podcast part of Atlassian’s brand evolution to be seen as a champion of open collaboration. Our goal was to tell a story that hadn’t been told before to engage audiences, solidify Atlassian’s philosophy & promise of ‘impossible alone’, and unleash the potential in each team: engineers in two different countries, with two different languages, two different units of measurement, forced together by politics. Directed by Pedro Mendes.

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About the Tribeca Festival


The Tribeca Festival, presented by OKX, brings artists and diverse audiences together to celebrate storytelling in all its forms, including film, TV, music, audio storytelling, games, and XR. With strong roots in independent film, Tribeca is synonymous with creative expression and entertainment. Tribeca champions emerging and established voices, discovers award-winning talent, curates innovative experiences, and introduces new ideas through exclusive premieres, exhibitions, conversations, and live performances.

The Festival was founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff in 2001 to spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan following the attacks on the World Trade Center. The annual Tribeca Festival will celebrate its 22nd year from June 7–18, 2023 in New York City.

In 2019, James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems bought a majority stake in Tribeca Enterprises, bringing together Rosenthal, De Niro, and Murdoch to grow the enterprise.

About the 2023 Tribeca Festival Partners


The 2023 Tribeca Festival is presented by OKX and with the support of our partners: AT&T, Audible, Black Women on Boards, Canva, CHANEL, City National Bank, Diageo, Easterseals Disability Services, Expensify, Indeed, NBC4 and Telemundo 47, NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, National CineMedia, New York Magazine, Novartis, P&G, ServiceNow, Spring Studios New York, The Wall Street Journal, Tubi, United Airlines, Variety and Vulture.

Review: ‘Elemental’ (2023), starring the voices of Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara and Mason Wertheimer

June 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) and Wade Ripple (voiced by Mamoudou Athie) in “Elemental” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

“Elemental” (2023)

Directed by Peter Sohn 

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional Element City, the animated film “Elemental” has a cast of characters representing fire, water, air and earth.

Culture Clash: A young fire being is under pressure to take over her family’s convenience store business while she has a potentially controversial romance with a young water being in a society where fire and water are not supposed to mix.

Culture Audience: “Elemental” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Pixar movies and stories about following your heart.

Pictured in center front row: Gale (voiced by Wendi McLendon-Covey), Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) and Wade Ripple (voiced by Mamoudou Athie) in “Elemental” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

“Elemental” is a good but not outstanding animated film about societal prejudices, family obligations,and true identities. The movie is marketed to look like that it’s equally about the four main life elements: fire, water, air and earth. Viewers should know that the characters representing air and earth don’t get as much screen time as the fire and water characters. “Elemental” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and its New York City premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Peter Sohn, “Elemental” has dazzling visuals paired with a story that’s very predictable but charming. John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh co-wrote the “Elemental” screenplay, which is padded out with adventure scenarios that all lead to the inevitable way that this movie ends. The movie has some blatantly tearjerking moments toward the end, but nothing that would be too upsetting for the children who are a large percentage of “Elemental’s” target audience.

“Elemental” tells the story of two beings from very different cultures who find themselves drawn to each other, despite everyone around them saying that they shouldn’t be interacting to each other. The movie’s narrator is Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis), whose family immigrated from Fireland to Element City. The residents of the multicultural Emerald City consist of fire beings, water beings, earth beings and air beings. Fire and water are considered the least compatible of these four elements. And so, water beings and fire beings are taught not to mix with each other.

Ember is an only child. Her parents Bernie Lumen (voiced by Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder Lumen (voiced by Shila Ommi) are hard-working and somewhat overprotective of Ember. Bernie owns and operates a convenience store named Fireplace, where Ember has been working part-time since she was a child. Ember has a “fiery temper,” so her customer service skills are very flawed.

Bernie has been training Ember to become more patient and even-tempered (he recommends that she take deep breaths before getting angry), but Ember is fairly stubborn. Ember is expected to take over the family business after Bernie retires. However, what Ember really wants to do with her life (but she’s afraid to tell her parents) is to make glass art.

Several years after Ember began working at Fireplace, she is now the equivalent of a young woman. One day, she loses her temper in the store, which accidentally causes the store’s basement to get flooded. Out of the flooding comes a water being named Wade Ripple (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), a water inspector who’s been sucked into a pipe. It’s the “meet cute” moment for Ember and Wade.

You know where all of this is going. Ember is wary of and sometimes hostile to Wade, who is sensitive and likes to cry a lot. For most of the movie, Ember and Wade’s relationship repeats this pattern: Wade shows that he’s attracted to Ember, but she tries to shut down any possibility of a romance because she’s been conditioned to think that fire and water should not mix.

Through a series of circumstances, Wade and Ember end up going on some antics together. A friendship starts to develop between them. When Wade finds out that Ember has a talent in making glass sculptures and other art, he encourages her to pursue this passion.

As already shown in the “Elemental” trailer, Wade and Ember eventually meet each other’s families. Wade’s mother is a widow named Brook Ripple (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), who is more tolerant of Ember than Ember’s family is to Wade. Cinder is particularly upset that Wade and Ember might be falling in love. “Fire and water cannot mix!” Cinder tells Ember.

Because “Elemental” is so focused on the Ember/Wade relationship, some of the supporting characters aren’t given enough character development. An earth being named Clod (voiced by Mason Wertheimer), who’s supposed to be the equivalent of a boy in his early teens, has a crush on Ember and lets her know it. Clod shows Ember that he’s reached puberty by lifting his arm to show that a flower is growing in his armpit. It’s explained in the movie that earth characters can be a little “seedy.”

Wade’s boss is the blustery air character Gale (voiced by Wendi McLendon-Covey), who looks and acts like a lot of hot air. Gale is an avid fan of the Windbreakers, an Air Ball team, so there’s a time-filling sequence about the Windbreakers playing a game at Cyclone Stadium in Element City. Gale’s mood can easily turn like the wind. “Elemental” makes these cutesy pun references throughout the movie, which might be annoying to some viewers.

Clod and Gale are lively characters but are very under-used in the story. They come and go in scenes that make Clod and Gale look very expendable. Truth be told, if Clod and Gale weren’t in the movie, it wouldn’t have made a difference to the relationship that develops between Ember and Wade. However, for a movie that gives the impression that it’s about life’s four main elements, the sidelining of earth and air in “Elemental” seems like a wasted opportunity.

“Elemental” has a very talented voice cast that brings much-needed personality and spark to what could have been a visually attractive but overly formulaic story. Lewis, Athie and del Carmen are especially good in their performances of making these non-human beings relatable to people watching “Elemental.” Most viewers know people like Ember, Wade or Bernie in real life.

The movie also handles its serious issues fairly well without being preachy. The prejudices passed down through generations about elements that are not supposed to mix with other are obvious metaphors about racism in a multicultural society. The issue of what Ember wants to do with her life—fulfill family obligations that she doesn’t want or follow her own dreams—is a dilemma presented in many coming-of-age films. The “opposites attract” theme is another stereotype in movies that have romance.

Even with all of these not-very-original ideas for a story, “Elemental” offers many unique visuals that are good enough to keep viewers reasonably entertained. There is no subtlety or nuance to this movie. And there are absolutely no real surprises either. “Elemental” is an apt title because the story is very basic and only saves itself by adding some eye-catching visuals and appealing characters.

Disney/Pixar Animation Studios will release “Elemental” in U.S. cinemas on June 16, 2023.

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