Thursday, March 26, 2015

Frank Capra

Frank Capra always struck me as one of those directors who were almost too good to be true. His films were polemics, coming from a specific point-of-view, and yeah, sometimes they were preachy - I don't think one could dispute that - but they were products of their time as well, a time of tremendous economic hardship followed by a period of world war.

Capra was the perfect filmmaker for the New Deal era of President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR entered the White House during the heart of the Great Depression and he brought hope to millions of Americans in desperate need of money, jobs, food and shelter. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that Capra's films fed off of this climate. Look at some of his common themes:

- The American Dream. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the obvious example, but throughout a number of his films, he was very big on extolling the ideal of making it in America, no matter where you come from. Capra himself emigrated to the US from Sicily when he was five and he never forgot the experience of traveling by boat with other immigrants. He graduated high school and went to college against the advice of his parents, who insisted he start working instead, and he enlisted in World War 1 even though he wasn't a naturalized US citizen at the time. This was a guy who really believed in America as the land of opportunity, and the success he achieved in Hollywood allowed him to help his country out again during World War 2, when he not only enlisted again (this time with the rank of major), but he put together a series of films, called Why We Fight, to explain the American soldier's role in the conflict.

- Class warfare. Pitting rich against poor, turning rich people poor (as in It Happened One Night) and poor people rich (as in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), is a Capra staple, and it's easy to guess who he favored. There's a scene in Mr. Deeds where an unemployed man, a victim of the Depression, tries to assassinate Deeds because he sees him as frivolous and shallow, a man who spends his wealth on trivial things like feeding donuts to horses, not realizing, perhaps, that Deeds is still new to his wealth and is just having fun. It's an eye-opening moment for Deeds, who eventually decides to help out others like this man. It's a sobering jolt of reality in what has been to that point a fairly light comedy.

- The worth of the individual. Related to class warfare, Capra's heroes are their most heroic when the odds are steeped heavily against them and they have to stand alone - but it turns out they're not really alone in the end. As Jeff Smith engages in his epic filibuster with the Senate, Taylor undermines him by spreading lies about him in his home state, but wait! Here come the Boy Rangers to the rescue, handing out leaflets letting people know about the fight Smith is waging to defeat Senator Paine's bill. Smith's lone stand inspires others because of who he is and what he's fighting for. George Bailey doesn't think his life accounts for a great deal until he sees what things would've been like without him. Longfellow Deeds is afraid to stand up for himself when his sanity is called into question because his actions have been misconstrued, but his friends urge him to speak out because of the example he has set and what it has meant to them.

- The value of small towns. It's a Wonderful Life's Bedford Falls resonated with so many people, in part, because of its verisimilitude. Whether or not you believe that Seneca Falls, NY served as inspiration for the fictitious town, Capra had a great amount of detail put into its creation, including planting 20 full-grown oak trees, outfitting a drugstore with real products, and having pigeons, cats and dogs roam the set. The Mandrake Falls inhabitants of Mr. Deeds are befuddling to the visitors from New York, but we're clearly meant to sympathize with them. Even the Brooklyn of Arsenic and Old Lace resembles a small town, if one ignores the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

- The possibility of a better world. Lost Horizon takes place in a secret utopian community hidden from the rest of humanity. The ersatz John Doe, created on a whim, inspires a real movement in which people all over America strive to be better neighbors. The mirror-universe Bedford Falls is everything the real Bedford Falls is not, and it makes George realize how good he has had it all along. 

Kindness and decency and fairness in an unjust world may come across in films like these as "Capra-corn," but he believed in it enough to return to it time and again. This quote attributed to Capra probably says it all, in the end: "My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other."

Next: Bernard Herrmann

Films by Frank Capra:
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Great Speeches: The Wizard of Oz

screenplay by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf
based on the book by L. Frank Baum

Sunday, March 22, 2015

QWFF 2015 Day 5: One of those days

This was a crappy day. I had to wake up at seven in the morning on a Saturday just so I could go to Starbucks to write, because Starbucks on the weekend is always crazy packed with people and it's next to impossible to get a table. I missed breakfast (a tea and a pastry doesn't really cut it) so I went to a bagel shop right before heading back to the Secret Theater for a 12:30 show. It was one I had never been to before, and I neglected to check if their grilled chicken sandwich comes with mustard, which I don't like...

I didn't have time to eat it anyway, because the goddamn 7 train took its sweet time heading to Queensboro Plaza (construction work again, as usual), so I had to hurry to get to the Secret Theater on time only to find out that the show started late, so I didn't need to hurry in the first place. Anyway, I was fighting fatigue during the second movie. There was a cellphone user in the row behind me, but she was just barely outside of my peripheral vision, so all I had to do was lean forward in my seat to ignore her, which had the added benefit of keeping me awake, so that actually worked out alright, so there's that... but then I found out I couldn't get my schedule to match up with the person I wanted to interview.

So I walked from the Secret Theater to 35th Street and wrote up yesterday's post at the Panera Bread, thinking that the next block at the Museum of the Moving Image was at 4:30 when it actually started at 4. I got to see one movie, at least. But then! - as I left MOMI, this chick walks up to me and says she lost her ATM card and she wants to see a QWFF movie and can she borrow my press badge to get inside? I swear to god! I might've felt pity for her if she had come from out of town just to see QWFF, but no, she lived in Astoria. I told her I didn't think her half-assed plan would work.

On top of all that, I didn't go to the party that night because I was too damn tired.

Waiting for QWFF screenings... or for the Mad Men exhibit?

But hey, at least it stopped snowing! In fact, you can't even tell there was snow yesterday. I'd say 90-95 percent of it is gone now. 

So yeah, I'm afraid I only saw three movies yesterday - but here they are:

- TNT: Tago Nang Tago.  An undocumented Phillipine immigrant, struggling with his future, makes a questionable decision to improve his lot in life. The title, loosely translated, means "constantly hiding," and indeed, the protagonist of this story feels like he's a fugitive, worried not only about the law but about members of his own family turning him in. It's an important story, it's a timely story, but it's also a story told with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

- Asintado. Set in the Phillipines, this one's about a teenager who falls in with the wrong crowd and makes a mistake that could cost him his life. This takes place during a festival that commemorates the time during WW2 when the populace were saved from the Japanese through what they believe was the intervention of St. John the Baptist. A riveting story. The acting was very good, especially the actress who played the teenage boy's mother.

- El Mal Trato. A tale of an abused husband - yes, husband - whose opportunity for payback comes through pure chance. Obviously, one rarely, if ever, sees this kind of story, especially in America, which explains why this film is from Chile. I missed the first few minutes, and at the time I had thought I was coming in at the beginning of the block when it was actually the end. Either way, I'm glad I saw this, even if I did have to sit in the nostril seats. More of a psychological thriller than a domestic drama, especially in the use of cinematography.

A good festival overall, though there weren't as many films that blew me away as in past years. It happens. Still glad I went, as always.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

Saturday, March 21, 2015

QWFF 2015 Day 4: And then it snowed

It snowed. On the first day of spring, it snowed. Actually, it wasn't as terrible as it sounds; it's more the timing, I think, that has bothered everybody. And can you blame us? This winter wasn't as brutal as last winter, but it felt almost as bad, and for a brief moment, it looked as if we had finally put it behind us. It's like the killers in horror movies - never count 'em out until you're absolutely sure they're out! (Sometimes not even then.)

I came to P.S. 69, the third venue for the Queens World Film Festival, all the way from Bayside, which is far to the north and east. I thought the weather might impede traffic somehow, and indeed I had to wait awhile for a bus, but once it came, the ride was fairly quick. The weather didn't stop the great big crowd from coming - lotsa friends and family of the filmmakers who were in the house last night.

P.S. 69 in the snow
- Comic Book Heaven. The last days of a neighborhood comic book shop and its cantankerous octogenarian owner. Speaking as someone who used to work in a comic book shop a lot like the one depicted in this short documentary, I have to say that it's not surprising at all that it's out of business. It looked like little more than a hole in the wall, and I counted a grand total of one female customer and zero kids. It appeared as if the merchandise was mostly of the long underwear variety, and I couldn't tell if there were any trade paperbacks (collected editions of monthly issues).

Folks, comics were my life for a long time, so believe me when I say that that character on The Simpsons may be an exaggeration, but he is heavily based on reality, and he should not be any kind of role model when it comes to running an actual comic shop. I can only go by what I saw in the doc, and I concede that I may not have gotten the complete picture (it was only 12 minutes long), but what I saw was an owner who wasn't making any concerted effort to bring in more than just adult white men as customers, and for too many years, guys like him were not rare at all.

As a film, however, this was good. I can see why director EJ McLeavey-Fisher chose his subject. Joe Leisner makes for good sound bites, and his crankiness played very well to the crowd I saw this with. Hell, I laughed a few times, too. The film was shot and edited well, made nice use of the score. As a film, this works... but I only wish that the subject matter was someone who didn't perpetuate the worst stereotypes involved with comic book retail.

- Old Days. Aging rock band The Atomik Age Project reminisces about its glory days. They sound like a good band, in that Eddie and the Cruisers, nostalgia-rock vein, but the entirety of this short consisted of a couple of very brief talking head interviews and a music video. That's it. I learned more about them from this webpage than from this short.

Some of the filmmakers (and subjects) at P.S. 69 last night
- As You Pass By. Doc about a florist in an unusual part of town: next to a cemetery and under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The location of the business is as much an element in this short as the business itself: there are a number of shots of the oppressive-looking ceiling of the BQE covering the wide street, people on the tiny sidewalk, car traffic, etc., and this is apparently part of what will become a bigger piece about the BQE and its effect on those who live and work in its vicinity. If this film is any indication, that's something I'd like to see.

- The Walk. Boy whose father recently died befriends an old man who just wants to go for walks. I expected some kind of M. Night Shyamalan-type twist to this story, but it was exactly what it was on the surface - and I'm grateful for that.

- Gasper & Son. A father-and-son neon-making business. Neon lights have been a huge part of the visual iconography of New York for generations, but according to this doc, it's a dying art, and seeing how neon is made was pretty cool, as was the family dynamic at the heart of this story.

More pics at the Tumblr page.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

Friday, March 20, 2015

QWFF 2015 Day 3: Sentimental journeys

My first night at P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights was a relatively short one. It was also Parent-Teacher Conference night, so the Queens World Film Festival activities didn't get under way until around 9:30, but it was worth the wait. All four movies I saw were good:

- Dollar Night. The ancient projectionist of a movie theater on its last legs tries to bring back the patrons with a promotional event. Shamelessly saccharine and manipulative, with a way-over-the-top score specifically designed to tug at your heartstrings, but you know what? I'm giving this one a pass, and I'll explain why.

Before the show, I talked to a fella named Sam, who was the projectionist for this venue. He's nowhere near as old as the one in the movie, but he said he was in the game for 40 years, and as you might expect, the industry's transition from celluloid to digital projection has meant less work for him, but, as he told me himself, he takes the time to do the job right - and the filmmakers (the ones screening at QWFF, at the very least) appreciate him for that.

Sam, the projectionist at P.S. 69.
Forgive the blurriness; I didn't take this shot.
In this digital age of online streaming and video-on-demand and watching movies on your friggin' iPad, we're forgetting what watching movies used to be like, and a generation is growing up knowing no other way of watching them. I accept that there are faster, cheaper, easier ways to make and watch movies, but that shouldn't mean setting the old ways aside if they're still viable. I believe they are, and I know others think the same - and this movie, as sentimental and fetishistic towards 35mm film as it is (long, loving shots of celluloid strips held up for examination, watching the projectionist carefully load up the film projector, the dust particles floating through the flickering light of the projector, etc.), comes from what I believe is a genuine love and appreciation for the medium by director Marco Antonio Martinez, and I can't knock him for that. Sadly, he wasn't in attendance last night; I wish he had been.

With the love of celluloid also comes a love of classic films, and that's part of Dollar Night. We see the torch being passed to a new generation, which, let's face it, is necessary if the old stuff is to survive. No matter how often I see it, I'm still amazed whenever I see bloggers or fans of Old Hollywood under 30, and not just casual ones, but hardcore cinephiles. Over the years, I've introduced you to some of them at this very blog, and I expect I'll see more in the future.

Finally, when you get right down to it, sometimes - not always, but sometimes - sentiment is okay! For all of the genuine quality of films on display here at QWFF every year, many of them are deadly serious. It's good to also see a few that are simply uplifting, feel-good crowd-pleasers... and Dollar Night is definitely that.

Diversity Plaza, at Jackson Heights
- Between Times. A tale of two clocks, one indoors, one outdoors, and the different ways they perceive time and the world of humans around them. Yes, the narrator of this stop-motion animated film from the Netherlands is a clock, and she has a personality and a perception of her surroundings that makes this story quite clever. The look of the animation is nice, especially the village street and the design of the clocks.

- The Shed. Portrait of a happy, healthy, normal marriage. It's a lie, of course, but not in the way you think. This nine-minute Irish film has not one, but two plot twists, and it ends at exactly the right moment! Great fun.

- Mousse. Dog Day Afternoon if it were a comedy, and if Al Pacino and the cops spoke different languages, and if the cops were a bunch of old men. This Swedish film could've ended in the first ten minutes by having the cops shoot the robber (they have ample opportunity to do so without hurting the hostages), but that's not what happens. It goes in a different direction for a little while before arriving at the inevitable finish, but once you embrace the absurdity of it, it's not bad.

More pics at my Tumblr page.

Day 1
Day 2

Thursday, March 19, 2015

QWFF 2015 Day 2: They say it's your birthday

St. Patrick's Day always comes right before my birthday, but Tuesday night was the first time I had ever bothered to take advantage of it by getting drunk the night before. Who cares if everyone else is getting plastered for a completely different reason? I've always considered myself a kind of honorary Irish by virtue of being born the day after, anyway!

The crazy part is that it only took me one beer to get drunk! But that one beer looked like this. I think the bar where the Queens World Film Festival Opening Night after-party was held at was offering a special, but it was an odd one: either that one humongous beer or two smaller ones, and I couldn't get one now and the second later, so I bought the one big one and carried that mug around with me all night as I talked to old friends and made new ones. 

Long Island City,
where the Secret Theater is located
How did I get home? Well, I wasn't totally out of it. I was coherent enough to get on the train and then the bus, but what it came down to was that I told myself one thing, over and over: DON'T FALL DOWN.

Yesterday, I treated myself to a late lunch/early dinner before heading to Long Island City for Day 2. I had salmon. And that was the extent of my celebrating...

...because I had other plans. The Secret Theater in LIC once again hosts QWFF screenings. I wouldn't mind coming back here for something else one day, though it's easy to see what puts the "Secret" in Secret Theater: if you were walking past it, you'd think it was just another loading dock to a warehouse. Yes, despite all the development in LIC, there are still warehouses, and artists' spaces. My friend Nancy has an art studio there, not unlike what you'd see in SoHo or DUMBO.

I stayed for the first two movie blocks of the night; this is what I saw (Reminder for all you newbies: QWFF shows mostly short films, so they're arranged in "blocks," and the audience pays by the block and sees about an hour or two worth of short movies):

- Into the Dark. In the future, two prisoners shipped on a space-worthy vessel headed for their execution find the only comfort they can - in each other. It always amazes me how modern software technology can make outer space and computer graphics and spaceships look as slick as anything JJ Abrams can come up with, and that's the case here as well, but the story by writer-director-star Lukas Hassel is equally compelling. It's a one-man show, like recent films Buried and Locke, with all other characters off-screen, a format that I think works better for short(er) films like this one. Genre fans will dig it.

Filmmakers from the first block of films at the Secret Theater
- 4AM Gas Station Muzak. Heaven and hell compete for the soul of an ordinary guy just trying to put his life back together. Maybe a little too clever for its own good (did they really think that by showing an angel and demon playing chess together that we wouldn't think of Ingmar Bergman?), but it's still a game effort. Multi-cultural cast, nice use of location shooting in the California prairie, among other places, good editing.

- Reuber. From Germany comes this Gilliam-esque modern-day fairy tale, a bedtime story about a boy whose act of negligence leads him to run away into a magic forest with some bizarre characters. Like The Wizard of Oz, characters in the real-world framing sequence play double roles in the fairy tale, which is a nice touch, and there are funny moments, as you'd expect, but I thought it rambled far off course at times and wrapped up too neatly. Worth a look, though.

- Bright in Here. A one-night stand between two lesbian women on New Year's Eve. A nice character study, but that's about it. One would like to spend more time with these characters, though, to see where their relationship leads.

- Middle Man. At a tele-texting service for hearing-impaired people, a phone operator facilitates a conversation between two gay dudes trying to patch up their relationship. Clever premise, well-executed (although it took me awhile to figure out why one half of the couple didn't speak), but this is a Scottish film, with very, very thick Scottish accents. That, plus the fast pace of the dialogue made it difficult for this Yank to follow the story. Subtitles would help tremendously.

- Intrinsic Moral Evil. From the Netherlands, a very unusual short that's more of a performance video than a narrative, in which the concepts of homosexuality and youth are expressed in interpretive dance. Excellent cinematography and editing that uses the Zack-Snyder-slow-down-then-speed-up trick well. Quite fascinating and hypnotic.

Filmmakers from the second block of films
- Fire Island. Could the end of this marriage be decided by pure chance? Shot on location at the titular strip just off of Long Island (right before Hurricane Sandy hit!), the dodgy American accents by the actors were a distraction for me, but otherwise, it was okay. Good mix of comedy and drama.

- The Blood of Love. A woman goes to any and all lengths to keep her husband from dying of an unusual blood disorder. If there's one genre that QWFF has been far too short of over the years, it's horror, and this one had a good mix of gore and genuine drama. I was worried that the audience was laughing in places that weren't meant to be funny, but director Jeff Meyers said afterward that the laughs, intentional or not, didn't bother him.

- Remains. I'm sorry, but this Israeli drama about two gay guys bored the living hell out of me. I was already a little drowsy by this point in the night, but I swear, it seemed like all the characters did was bicker and I didn't care about either one of them - and of course it was the longest one in the block. Ugh.

More pictures from QWFF at my Tumblr page.

Day 1

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

QWFF 2015 Day 1: Parental guidance

Five years may not seem like a big milestone, but for the Queens World Film Festival, it's a sign of rapid and remarkable growth. From its humble beginnings, it has drawn together the Queens film community at large and linked it up with filmmakers worldwide, giving independent films of every stripe an opportunity to shine. 

Credit, as always, must go to the dynamic duo who put it all together, Don & Katha Cato. The amount of energy and passion they put into this festival, as well as the truckloads of genuine love and respect they receive in return, cannot be understated. You only have to be around them once to understand. Last night, QWFF 2015 kicked off at the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI), and once again, they were at the heart of it, doing what they do best: telling the world about the movies they love.

Queens Councilman Jimmy van Bramer (center), a QWFF
presenter, with Katha and Don Cato at MOMI
This year's QWFF is also significant in that MOMI's involvement is greater. In addition to hosting Opening Night, the museum, for the first time, is one of the screening venues, along with returning sites P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights and the Secret Theater in Long Island City. Within the past year, the area of Astoria/LIC which MOMI calls home was declared by the city an arts district, a further indication that Queens is being recognized for its unique culture and artistic contributions, and QWFF has been part of that.

This year's Spirit of Queens honoree was Cuban filmmaker Leon Ichaso. Among his best-known films, both in and out of the mainstream, include the Wesley Snipes crime flick Sugar Hill, El Cantante, a biopic of singer Hector Lavoe, with Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, and the political drama Bitter Sugar (screening tonight at MOMI), in addition to a variety of theatrical and TV movies and shows in a career dating back to 1979. Here's a recent New York Times article about him.

The opening night "sampler" of films had parents (and surrogate parents) as a recurring theme:

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz
- Roxanne. From England comes this character study in which a young girl on the streets is taken in by a transgender sex worker. Not exactly warm and fuzzy. Borders on cliche, but the tension inherent in a situation where a child is in an environment of sex-for-money is addressed in the brief running time. Makes good use of the location shooting.

- Godka Cirka (A Hole in the Sky). From France, but set in Somali, this one focuses on the lives of shepherdesses, narrated by a young girl. It almost seemed like a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction; the footage of the shepherdesses, young and old, have a documentary feel. We follow them around the countryside and the spare and ramshackle streets, we observe their rituals and gatherings and songs, and it looks like something you might see on the BBC, but imposed over all of it is this girl's narrative about her life, her family and her expectations. A unique approach.

- Dirty Laundry Day. An animated short about a laundromat change machine that is more than it seems. An American film, but the filmmaker is of Syrian descent, and recent events in that specific country inform the narrative in this film, although I kinda wish that it was a little bit more obvious within the story so that the film wouldn't need a post-script title card telling us so. Good otherwise. The sketchy artwork combined with computer effects made for an unusual contrast.

Spirit of Queens honoree Leon Ichaso
- Big Girl. Why is young Hannah's mother pulling her and her younger sister out of school for the day - and why does she need to be a "big girl," today of all days? The answer is as shocking as it is subtly depicted. My favorite of last night's films by a big margin. At first, you don't know what the mother's deal is - she almost seems like the bad guy at first - but the deeper the story gets, the more obvious her love for Hannah is. A movie that deals with a difficult and sensitive subject, yet it's handled so delicately, and you get just enough of the puzzle pieces to add it up yourself in the end. Outstanding film, with a moving performance from the young actress who plays Hannah.

- 16 Carry On. From China, set during World War 2, a father has to figure out how to protect his daughter from the Japanese soldiers raiding his village. Another gem, one that shows how not even duty can get in the way of simple human compassion. Even mixes in some funny moments. Cinematography, screenplay, performances, all tops.

Plus, there was a bonus screening of Sundance award winner World of Tomorrow, an animated short about cloning that was as adorable as it was visually striking. There's quite a bit of buzz around it, from the looks of things, so I'd strongly advise you to look for it when it becomes available to watch later this month.

Look for more pictures from QWFF 2015 this week and next on the WSW Tumblr page.