Friday, September 30, 2011


last seen online via Hulu

Happy-Go-Lucky is a movie I never really gave a fair chance until last night. It first came out when I was still living in Columbus, and even though I like Mike Leigh movies in general, the premise - a look at the life of a perpetually-perky young woman and her eternal optimism - turned me off. Of course, it turned out to be a critical smash, and netted star Sally Hawkins a ton of awards (yet somehow she missed out on an Oscar nomination, which is mind-boggling to me because she seemed like a lock). 

So when it came out on DVD, I figured, okay, I guess I'll take a look at it. So I did - and the first half hour or so confirmed my expectations. Hawkins' character Poppy struck me as irritating beyond belief. I thought she was either on a permanent high or simply a ditz. Maybe it's simply my New York cynicism at work, but she struck me as the kind of person I'd go out of my way to avoid. I turned the movie off, unfinished, and forgot about it.

Then the other day I saw it was on Hulu and I thought well, enough time has passed; why not give this movie another chance. It is Mike Leigh, after all. So I did - and I have to admit, I'm glad I did, because I definitely see it in a different light - for more than one reason. But I'll get to that later.

I remember discussing HGL with Max after the trailer came out. I think Max kind of identified with Poppy. He, like her, is an eternal optimist. He's had, in some respects, a tumultuous life, but he's been able to overcome his personal obstacles without a great deal of bitterness or angst. He also has an extremely generous nature, typified by his agreeing to let me room with him (despite the fact that his place was barely big enough for one person, never mind two). In a lot of ways, I envied him for that.

HGL seemed like it was up his alley, but I remember arguing that a character like Poppy seemed like an unrealistic exaggeration. He disagreed. (Neither of us had seen anything other than the trailer yet.) In this, as with most things we disagreed on, our fundamental worldviews made it difficult for us to find common ground. This was relatively minor compared to our epic debates about, say, art, but we got along in plenty of other ways. Anyway, Max saw the movie without me, needless to say.

So now, three years later and having seen HGL in its entirety, I find I have to slightly revise my opinion of it. I see now that Poppy does indeed have depth and compassion, not to mention a remarkable perceptivity with people. That said, I still couldn't imagine myself being anything more than acquaintances with her if I knew her in real life. Her perpetual giddiness is still off-putting. On the surface, she's difficult to take seriously - and if it weren't for the fact that she's the focus of this movie, I probably would not be inclined to want to dig beneath that surface. 

So all due credit must go to Leigh and Hawkins for giving Poppy dimension. Leigh's unusual method of collaborating with his cast to craft a story has been well-documented, so I don't doubt that there's something of Hawkins in Poppy, but Leigh was able to bring it out and shape it into a character-driven narrative that made me think about her beyond the surface, and that's what makes him such a fascinating and individual director.

There's another aspect to HGL that stood out to me, though, as I re-watched it, and I'm afraid it means I have to perch upon my soapbox once again. The wonderful opening credits of HGL show Poppy happily bike riding through the streets of London. As someone who has come to appreciate biking a great deal, this is a sight to see. In a culture that not only celebrates, but fetishizes cars, it's inspiring to see a sequence within a movie that clearly shows how much fun biking can be, especially for a woman, double especially for a woman not dressed like a hardcore biking athlete. Too often, people think that biking is only for the Lance Armstrongs of the world and not for regular people. (Compare this to the trailer for the upcoming movie Premium Rush, which sells the stereotype of the daredevil scofflaw biker.)

Poppy gets her bike stolen (should've locked it) and decides she wants to learn how to drive instead. Why? We never find out. Does she have a history of getting her bike stolen? We see her taking a bus to work before deciding to drive; does she not like public transportation? Never explained. I understand that if she doesn't take driving lessons, she never gets to meet Scott, who's a huge part of the story, but still, it disappoints me greatly that she never rides a bike again after the opening credits...

...especially since London has become a great place to bike! In recent years, London has taken extraordinary steps to not only improve biking conditions, but to calm street traffic in general, and in HGL one can clearly see bikers everywhere in the backgrounds. If Poppy had gotten her bike stolen repeatedly and was sick and tired of it, I could understand her wanting to drive instead, but her reason to switch is never articulated, and that bothered me.

As for the character of Scott, Poppy's driving instructor, well, he's clearly a dick, no question about it. However, he's absolutely right in chastising Poppy for not taking her lessons seriously (at first, anyway). The whole point behind London's "20's Plenty For Us" campaign is to slow down car traffic to make the streets safer, because - obvious as it sounds - the slower cars drive, the less the possibility of a serious injury to pedestrians and bikers. Not enough people are aware of that, especially here in America.

Anyway, like I said, I'm glad I watched HGL again. I definitely see it much differently than when I first saw it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens, NY

I first found out about the book Moneyball several years ago from a different baseball book, which made a number of passing references to it as a shorthand metaphor for the changing nature of the game. I, of course, didn't understand the reference at the time, so I looked it up and decided I wanted to read this book too. I had long ago stopped following baseball on a regular basis, but I never abandoned my love of the game itself. I knew Major League Baseball was going through some difficult times in recent years - the steroid scandal was headline news everywhere, for one thing - but I liked to think that the game itself was relatively unchanged. So reading about things like newer and deeper statistics to determine a player's worth and changes in traditional baseball strategies and philosophies was off-putting at first.

I could understand, however, why a small-market team like the Oakland Athletics would need to embrace such a radically different paradigm. As a New Yorker, I've been long aware of how The Team From the Bronx has had the ability to buy championships through pillaging the remains of less-affluent teams. Even today, I get sick of seeing them in the postseason all the time (partially because it instills in their fans a sense of entitlement that's hard to shake). When I was still a baseball fan, I had given the matter some thought, but I was at a loss as to what could be done about it - and while this new method has proven to be successful for the A's, to an extent, the fact remains that it still has not brought them a pennant, much less a World Series championship.

I was concerned that the film version of Moneyball might gloss over that fact, but to its credit, it didn't. In fact, by acknowledging it, the film builds up to a bigger point about its lead character, Billy Beane, the team's general manager and the main architect of the A's revival: that even if his team didn't go all the way, his ideas have. (I don't think I'm spoiling anything from the movie here; it is based on actual events that are common knowledge.) 

Yes, there are the usual complaints about accuracy. I was concerned when I read that Paul DePodesta, Beane's right hand man during that 2002 season, didn't want to be associated with this film (Jonah Hill's character is basically DePodesta in disguise). I took that to be a bad omen, and indeed, it did bother me somewhat as I first watched the movie, since I did read the book and knew that there was no such person as "Peter Brand." Eventually, though, I stopped thinking about it. I enjoyed the film overall, though I thought it relied too much on real-life footage.

A word about the Jamaica Multiplex, since I don't think I've ever written about it here before. It lies in the heart of downtown Jamaica, right next to the subway and in the middle of a ton of shops and fast food joints. Nothing special about it in terms of appearance; it looks like many other multiplexes across America. It is notable for screening discount family films on the weekends and discount classic films every Monday afternoon. Next month is Hitchcock month. One of these days I'm gonna need to see a classic film there. Still, I don't go here as often as I used to. I think the last film I saw here was Invictus.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Five film blogs I've been reading lately

Okay, the truth is that I'm stuck for a topic this week. I thought about complaining about the new Facebook changes, but I'm sure you've heard plenty of that from your friends already, so I figured, why not give a shout out to some fellow film bloggers who have caught my eye in recent months. I read a lot of film blogs and websites, so this is by no means a complete list. Some are LAMBs, some aren't, but all have a certain something to them...

- Sunset Gun. I had never heard of Kim Morgan prior to the day a few months ago when I chanced upon her blog, but it turns out she's been in the biz as a film critic and historian for quite awhile. I like her writing style and respect her great knowledge of cinema. She seems like the type whom you'd talk movies with at the cafe down the street from the theater, from which you've come after meeting her at the Film Noir retrospective playing there. A strong fervor for movies and a life lived with them comes through in her writing.

- The Lady Eve's Reel Life. A little more on the scholarly side, but that's perfectly fine, because Eve's posts are like small essays, remarkably articulate, thoughtful and packed with insight.

- Tales of the Easily Distracted. I don't know how to be funny when I write. I've tried, but I can never get it the way I want it to sound, which is why bloggers like Dorian and Vinnie make me jealous because they do it so naturally. Though they only post once a week or so, they bring a lively, welcoming and lighthearted approach to their blog and to the movies they write about, which run the gamut from the classics to the cult.

- The United Provinces of Ivanlandia. This guy indulges in all manner of bizarro, far-left-of-center films. Don't let the flashy style fool you; he's real smart about movies.

- justAtad. Remember that piece on the Star Wars Blu-ray DVDs I linked to a few weeks ago? That was this guy. He's a Toronto blogger, and I'm slowly realizing that Toronto bloggers have got it going on.

So there you are.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Cold Turkey

The Dick van Dyke Show Blogathon is an event honoring the career of Dick van Dyke and his eponymous television show, hosted by the blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. For a complete list of participants, visit the host site. The complete list of posts will go up October 3, 2011.

Cold Turkey
seen online via YouTube

To be honest, for years, Dick van Dyke was little more to me than that guy from Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, two family musical movies I adored as a kid that I'd see on TV all the time. I loved his character in Mary Poppins in particular (in later years I would recognize his horrible Cockney English accent for what it is, and not care), partly because it's the better movie by far, but also because he knew things about Mary that no one else did, and he seemed to have a bit of magic all his own (remind me to one day share my theory of how Mary is actually a Timelord with you). My favorite scene was the one where him and his chimney sweep buddies are all dancing around on the roof.

Then at some point as an adult I read or heard about the old TV show that he used to star in with Mary Tyler Moore (who, it was recently announced, will receive a Life Achievement Award from SAG). It was pretty good, people said. Okay, I figured I'd get around to watching it one of these days, though it's probably not as good (so I thought) as my favorite old sitcom, The Honeymooners. (I still miss watching the Honeymooners marathons they used to show here in New York.)

A year or so ago, I finally did. I picked out a bunch of episodes from the first season that were on Hulu and I liked them. The humor is different from The Honeymooners; while Ralph Kramden is a coarse but lovable blue-collar hero, Rob Petrie is wittier and a bit more sophisticated. Plus, he's a father as well as a husband, so that adds another layer to his character. I like to think that Ralph and Rob would get along if they were to meet; certainly Ralph would be awestruck by Rob's job working in television. I could see him watching "The Alan Brady Show" and maybe even hitting Rob up for tickets for him and Alice to see it.

I can't say I'm too familiar with DVD's films outside of Mary and Chitty, however, though it should be said that those two films loom quite largely in my memory. The majority of his career has been spent on television, as have been most of his movies. Of his other theatrical films, I saw Bye Bye Birdie once when I was working in video retail. And then, several weeks ago, I read on a film blog somewhere about another film he made that sounded good called Cold Turkey.

The wacky premise is simple: an impoverished small Midwestern town takes part in a contest staged by a tobacco company in which everyone in town must forego smoking for 30 days. DVD is the preacher who spurs the town onward in their quest to win the $25 million prize, which would help restore their sagging economy. Cold Turkey was written, produced and directed by the great Norman Lear, who brought to the small screen such television classics as All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and more.

My friend Bibi cannot be around smokers at all. She gets physically ill in the presence of cigarette smoke, which means that whenever we hang out, we have to constantly be on the alert for smokers coming down the street. (Her husband has perfected the act down to a science over the years they've been together.) I don't smoke, and I'm certainly no fan of the smell of cigarettes, but at least I don't have to be around it as much anymore, thanks to the tightening of smoking restrictions here in New York. In Europe it's different. I'll never forget the time I went to a concert in Barcelona and came out of the hall reeking of sweat and cigarette smoke. The smell wouldn't come out of my shirt for weeks!

The one time I tried smoking, I knew it wasn't for me. I was at Jenny's place, back when she still lived in the East Village. I've never known Jenny to be a regular smoker, though every now and then she'll indulge in it, and this night she did. As a child of the 80s, I grew up with "Just Say No" pummeled into my brain everywhere I went, but as I got older, I decided that I wanted to make my own mind up about smoking, so I waited for the right opportunity, and it came that night at Jenny's. I asked her for a hit and of course, I did it wrong. She tried to show me how to smoke, but it didn't take long before I decided that I could not do this. So that's my one and only smoking story. Honestly, I do not understand how people can do it...

... but I can see how it could be a hard habit to break. Turkey plays the weaknesses of the townspeople trying to quit up for big laughs, and DVD brings plenty of gusto to his role. He's surrounded by a good cast, too: Pippa Scott plays his wife (she was in a Dick Van Dyke Show episode which has to be one of, if not the first, depictions of a bar mitzvah on television); Bob Newhart plays the dude whom the tobacco companies use to try and prevent the town from winning the contest (even though he was the one who talked them into holding the contest to begin with), and he's simply awesome; Edward Everett Horton as another man of the cloth; plus others who would go on to become familiar TV stars, including Tom Poston, Jean Stapleton, and Paul Benedict.

Dick van Dyke has always been an eminently likable, down-to-earth actor, which makes his long career in (mostly) television easy to understand.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


seen @ Center Cinema 5, Sunnyside, Queens, NY

I hadn't realized how accustomed I had gotten to having high-backed seats arranged stadium-style in movie theaters until yesterday, when I went to see Drive. I'd been to the Sunnyside before (that's not the theater's name, but that's how I refer to it), and while it's not the greatest theater in town, it's not the worst, either. I copped an aisle seat like I always do, this one maybe two-thirds of the way back from the screen. The seat felt a little wobbly, so I moved back an aisle to another one. No stadium-style seating here; all the rows are on the same plane. The armrests - the kind with cup holders - were immovable, which left me with just enough wiggle room, but it was okay since I could stretch my legs out in the aisle (though not far enough to trip people, of course). The auditorium had perhaps a dozen people or so.

The film starts and wouldn't you know it, an old couple across the aisle and behind me begins an on-again, off-again pattern of mumbling to themselves about the action on screen. It doesn't take me long to decide that this is gonna be a problem, so I grab my stuff and move forward about eight or nine aisles and in towards the wall, the point being to get as far away from the couple as possible.

And this is where I start to become more conscious of the seats. I can't stretch my legs out comfortably, me being somewhat tall, so I have to swing them sideways. Because I can't stretch out my legs, I try to compensate by leaning down, but I can't do that very comfortably either because the seats only come up to just below my shoulder blades, so I have to kind of contort my body sideways to adjust to not only the lack of legroom but to see the screen better, since I'm now on the side instead of in the middle. The Angelika is arranged this way too, but there's much more legroom there; I can slump down in my seat comfortably without it being a big deal.

As for the movie, well, I liked it, though it didn't blow me away like with most critics. Much more violent than I expected, but the violence comes in mostly quick bursts, kinda like Ryan Gosling's character - generally placid on the surface, but ready to kick your ass if the need arises. The whole film simmers like that - the use of dissolves, long takes, and pregnant pauses makes the action, when it comes, feel more abrupt. It also has a bit of an 80s vibe going on, what with the hot pink of the credits, the Miami Vice-like cinematography of LA, and especially the synth-heavy soundtrack.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The frog prince: The legacy of Jim Henson

As a child, there were few television shows (not counting cartoons) I was more devoted to than The Muppet Show. This would've been approximately during the early-to-mid 80s for me; I suppose by this time the show would've been running in syndication. I do know that when 7:30 came around, I would be parked in front of our TV, singing along to the theme song, and having a grand old time with these extraordinary creations of felt and rubber that were as real to me as my own family.

My love of the Muppets begins and ends with the characters. The humor was great (and still holds up all these years later), and seeing them with the pop singers and actors of the day was nice (although many of them were unfamiliar to me at that age), but what kept me coming back night after night was the characters. So many of them, and all so distinct, and the best part was that while they could often be childlike, the show as a whole never felt juvenile. Kermit and Fozzie could've been Richie and Potsie from Happy Days; Miss Piggy could've been Flo from Alice, Gonzo could've been Latka from Taxi; not so much in terms of direct comparisons but more in the sense of the functions they served on the show. The Muppet Show stood up favorably to the popular sitcoms of the day, and in some ways, surpassed them, and credit for that has to go to the visionary artist responsible for it, Jim Henson.

Henson would've turned 75 this Saturday, the 24th. Henson's Muppets, as seen not only on The Muppet Show, but Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and a variety of other TV shows and movies, may seem quaint in this modern era of performance-capture, computer-generated creatures, but as I've discussed before, for an actor, there's nothing like having a physical object sharing the same frame of reference to play off of, and I believe that physicality is something the audience can sense more intuitively than a CGI creature, no matter how lovingly detailed. Henson's Muppets changed the world, but his skill as a filmmaker and an artist is just as important, and all of these aspects of his life and career are on display in a current exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image here in Queens.

"Jim Henson's Fantastic World" includes Muppet figures under glass (including a breathtaking Miss Piggy in a bridal dress), original artwork by Henson from his youth, storyboards, production notes, concept artwork, props, and video footage of some of his old commercials and TV appearances. There is a short avant-garde film of his called Time Piece that plays in rotation. And every weekend throughout the life of the exhibit there are panel discussions and related activities. 

This past Sunday, as part of my visit to MOMI to see the exhibit, I attended a panel featuring a group of past and present Muppeteers, Henson executives and associates, including his daughter Cheryl Henson, president of the Jim Henson Foundation. Each of the panelists showed specially-selected clips from the various Muppet shows and films, as well as behind-the-scenes footage of Henson and the other Muppeteers in action. They talked about the evolution of the characters, in terms of not only their creation but their personalities, as well as how the changing times have affected their approach to film and television making. For instance, they mentioned the rise of political correctness and feminism, which meant a Sesame Street short of two girls playing with dolls was looked upon less favorably now by parents watching the show with their children than when it was first made. They briefly discussed the forthcoming new Muppet movie with Jason Segal and Amy Adams. Henson had always wanted the Muppets to be part of Disney, who will distribute the new film, and its success will determine how Disney moves forward with the franchise in the future.

I remember crying over Henson's death - and I never get weepy over a celebrity death. With him, though, it was different, partially because he died so relatively young (only 53), and partially because it felt like the end of an era. I knew that the Muppets would continue without him, of course, but it would never be the same without him. And with his death, if felt like a chapter in my childhood had ended. Now, thanks to the MOMI exhibit and the new movie, it almost feels like coming home.

A brief word about MOMI: this was my first time there since the re-opening, and because the panel was so long I didn't get to linger around the rest of it as long as I would've liked, but what I saw of it was fantastic. The design has an almost retro-futuristic feel to it, like something out of George Lucas' THX-1138: low, sloped ceilings, inclined walkways, and stark white walls. There's an exhibit to your left as you enter that's a large mosaic of hundreds of YouTube-like videos of ordinary people, projected along the wall. There's a cafe towards the back of the lobby.

What I saw of the permanent collection included photos of movie stars, make-up and Latex masks, original screenplays, costumes, set designs, old cameras and other film equipment, and film memorabilia, as well as video displays of classic film moments. There are also interactive displays that show how certain aspects of film and television are made. It looks great but I'll definitely have to come back again soon to pay closer attention to it all.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Urbanworld FF: My life as a paparazzo

As I may have mentioned, the Urbanworld Film Festival is my first-ever film festival of this size and scope, and it's been a memorable experience. I had thought it would be comparable to covering a comic book convention, as I've done plenty of in the past, but even for a fest as relatively small as this one, it's quite different - and I don't just mean the lack of fans dressed as Klingons. This is the fifteenth year of Urbanworld, and over that time they've attracted an impressive variety of stars as well as films made by people of color from all around the world, and there's a certain level of glamor that goes with that - a glamor that manifests itself most sharply at the red carpet.

The red carpet here is actually indoors. The films are screening on the fourth floor of the AMC, and the stars walk down it as they come off the elevator. A barrier cordons off the media, and that's where yours truly was when I took many of the pictures you've seen over the past few days. I've got a new cellphone, and this is the first time I've taken pictures with it. They would be better, except the red carpet area where we stood had poor lighting. Only two of the three overhead lights were operational, and while the professional photographers around me had flash in their cameras, I did not. I did the best I could.

Thursday night was my first night as a paparazzo. Call time was six PM and I got there on time, but there were maybe 12-15 photogs already set up behind the barrier. The stars wouldn't arrive for another half hour at least. I made small talk with one of the shutterbugs next to me - a dude working for an overseas MTV affiliate that plays reggae music. When the stars began to arrive, even though I had a good spot I found myself getting jostled to and fro by others from all around me as they snapped away at the parade of filmmakers, stars, models, rappers and others. They called out to them, directing them to look one way, then another. I didn't feel entirely comfortable doing that myself, since I was the rookie, so I tended to rely on everyone around me when it came to taking advantage of the angle and the light from the flashes. Naturally, I took a ton of pictures in succession - you have to, because some (most) shots will be crap. If you can get one good, usable shot of your subject, consider yourself lucky.

Being in that position made me realize: celebrities do this sort of thing all the time. (Duh!) It never occurred to me until I was a part of it; I mean, we see movie stars on the red carpet at the Oscars, at Cannes, at premieres, and we don't think about what running that gauntlet must be like for them. It's not something you learn in acting school, that's for sure, and there's no way to prepare yourself for it. I'd imagine most movie stars probably experience it a handful of times a year at the most, but for the Tom Cruises and Brad Pitts, they do it constantly. Can you imagine how stressful that must be? It's no wonder some celebrities occasionally flip out and jostle or even punch a paparazzo who gets too close.

There were a lot of stars whom I didn't recognize, mostly rappers and models and a few TV stars, but I felt like I had to justify my presence there on the red carpet by snapping pics of them anyway. I was very conscious of my newbie status - I kept referring to myself as a "lowly blogger" whenever I had an extended conversation with someone - as if I'd be found out and have my precious press badge revoked.

I would've liked to have seen more movies, but it didn't work out that way for several reasons. One, I'd need time in-between shows to post about the movie I had just seen. Two, since evening shows tended to start late and I would want to stay for the after-show Q-and-As, I'd be tired and would just wanna go home instead of staying for a late show. It's too bad because I would've liked to have seen some of the shorts that were also playing.

Oh, and did I mention that in-between shows, I also swung by Vija's place on Saturday for a party she was throwing? I finished my Restless City review in a cafe across the street from her place before coming up. Vija always throws great parties, and I got to meet some friends of hers, and just when I was really enjoying myself, I had to leave again. I must've spent an hour there at most. Oh well.

So would I do this again? I like to think so. If I did, though, I'd know enough to not plan to see so many movies. I thought I could see nine movies in three days - you believe that? I imagine in someplace like Toronto it's worse, since it's so much bigger over there. If Urbanworld is any indication, I'm definitely not ready to take on a show of that size. (Remind me to tell you one day of the summer I went to the San Diego Comic-Con and how I almost lost my mind.)

Urbanworld does good work, providing a platform for good movies - movies by and for people of color, yes, but good movies first and foremost. I didn't like every film I saw, but who can expect that? Bottom line: I was in the presence of legitimate Hollywood stars and I saw movies I might not have seen as easily anyplace else. You better believe I'm grateful for that!

I'm taking tomorrow off. Back Tuesday. Look for more pics from the fest on the WSW Facebook page.


Previously from the Urbanworld Film Festival:
Brooklyn Boheme
Love Arranged
All Things Fall Apart
Restless City

Urbanworld FF: Kinyarwanda

The Urbanworld Film Festival is a showcase for filmmakers and actors of color, presented at the AMC 34th Street in New York City. For more information on the festival and to see the full 2011 schedule of films, visit the website.

Kinyarwanda, the closing night film from the Urbanworld Film Festival, directed by Alrick Brown, is an ensemble drama set during the Rwanda massacre of 1994, an ethnic clash in which the Hutu, the ruling class, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the Tutsi minority. Real and fictional characters intermingle in this series of vignettes depicting not only key events, but everyday life among the Rwandan people, young and old.

This film packs an emotional punch because of the theme running throughout it of forgiveness. The cycle of violence between Hutu and Tutsi had been going on for a long time prior to the '94 massacre, but unlike similar civil wars in other countries, the Rwandans realized that if it were ever to end, somebody needed to swallow their pride and put the wrongs of the past behind them. This is a point Brown emphasized in the Q-and-A after the screening: the fact that as a storytelling trope, revenge is easy, and it's one that many movies throughout history return to again and again. In one scene early in the non-linear movie, set years after the massacre, we see former Rwandan soldiers in a kind of rehabilitation program in which they're trained to acknowledge their role in the conflict and accept responsibility for the things they've done. Looking at their faces and hearing their confessions, it's easy to believe that their emotional scars will not go away anytime soon.

As I mentioned, Brown shot the film Pulp Fiction-style, non-linearly, but this was not a stylistic choice. Brown, who has come to Urbanworld with a film three prior times, was weaned on shorts, and felt more comfortable with them, so when he sat down to write the script, he broke the story down into smaller vignettes that he interconnected. For example, one story involves a pair of young lovers who witness Hutu troops about to execute a bunch of civilians. Later on, we see what led to that moment from the other side.

Brown is young, but wise beyond his years. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he took on the job of making this film after sharing a correspondence with a Rwandan native who finally got a grant to make movies. Brown seemed aware of the potential his film had to open hearts and minds, but as he said, the people whose opinions matter most to him were the Rwandan people, who love the movie.

Kinyarwanda is the second film to be released by the black film distribution organization AFFRM. AFFRM head Ava DuVernay was in attendance at last night's screening, and she announced that the film would be released nationwide November 23.


Previously in the Urbanworld Film Festival:
Brooklyn Boheme
Love Arranged
All Things Fall Apart
Restless City

'Kinyarwanda' is AFFRM's second release!
Kinyarwanda: a primer

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Urbanworld FF: Restless City

The Urbanworld Film Festival is a showcase for filmmakers and actors of color, presented at the AMC 34th Street in New York City. For more information on the festival and to see the full 2011 schedule of films, visit the website.

Director Andrew Dosunmu
Restless City is a film from first-time director Andrew Dosunmu following the life of a young Senegalese immigrant to America, as he pursues his dream of being a singer in New York. It also covers the lives of the friends and acquaintances that weave in and out of his life.

I cannot express strongly enough how much I loved this film. The story is very character-driven, bouncing back and forth between characters, but mostly sticking with the young singer. Its great strength, however, is in the look. Dosunmu, in a Q-and-A after the screening, said that he shot with a RED digital camera and it's breathtakingly beautiful to look at. New York rarely looked better. The colors make the skin tones of the cast look rich and vibrant. 

More than that, though, Dosunmu, a photographer, understands composition, light and shadow like a seasoned pro. One could take a freeze frame of almost any shot in the film and analyze the composition, the framing, and the use of light. This might be the artiest film in exhibition here at the Urbanworld Film Festival. Dosunmu plays with speeds as well, and there are quite a few lovingly-rendered slow-motion shots of things like the singer riding his moped through the streets of lower Manhattan and Harlem.

Dosunmu (third from left) w/cast and crew after screening
The screenplay places little emphasis on dialogue; indeed, at Dosunmu's insistence (as he admitted at the Q-and-A), he strove for silence and pregnant pauses more often than not, in a fashion that makes City positively Kubrickian. I said the film looks arty, but not in a pretentious way. I never got the sense that he was doing anything to show off, but rather to present the beauty of the city and these African people.

Unfortunately, I don't see a trailer for City anywhere, not even on the website, but I'm gonna keep watch, and when I see one, I'll post it on the WSW Facebook page. I believe Dosunmu said that this would also be available on VOD at some point soon. I'll also post that on the Facebook page as soon as I find out. Bottom line: seek this movie out however you can, because it is a work of art.


Previously from the Urbanworld Film Festival:
Brooklyn Boheme
Love Arranged
All Things Fall Apart

Urbanworld FF: All Things Fall Apart

The Urbanworld Film Festival is a showcase for filmmakers and actors of color, presented at the AMC 34th Street in New York City. For more information on the festival and to see the full 2011 schedule of films, visit the website.

Director Mario van Peebles
All Things Fall Apart, the recently-retitled film from Mario van Peebles starring rapper-turned-actor Curtis Jackson, AKA 50 Cent, is about a college football star forced to not only abandon the game when he is stricken with cancer, but to reassess his entire future. 50 Cent co-wrote and co-produced the movie.

I know very little about 50 Cent. I know he's from my neck of the woods in Queens, and that he got shot a number of times either prior to or during his rap career, but other than that I couldn't identify any one of his songs to save my life. I came into this movie willing to give him a chance as an actor, however, even though I wasn't convinced he was much of one. And to his credit, he came to it with a remarkable level of commitment. I suspect he always was physically fit, but as a football star, he's really built - and then, according to MVP in the Q-and-A after the film, he went on a liquid diet and lost a fair amount of weight in order to show the ravages of cancer on his body. As a result, he does look like he's suffering and in pain.

A dramatic weight loss for a role, however, does not turn 50 Cent into Christian Bale. Without having seen any of his other films, I'd be willing to bet that this is his best performance. He cries on cue, at least. Ultimately, however, I didn't believe him. His range is still painfully limited; his face is wooden when it should be expressive and his voice tends to remain at the same level. In fact, something about his voice is off-putting when he acts; you can tell he hasn't been formally trained as an actor, unlike someone like Dustin Hoffman, whose voice also seems off-putting at first. 50 Cent gives it a game effort - there was a moment or two in which I wanted to believe him - but he still doesn't quite reach that level.

Co-writer, co-producer and star 50 Cent, with Van Peebles
The rest of the movie follows many of the cliches you'd expect in an inspirational sports movie: arrogant hero is humbled and learns a life lesson, family torn apart over uncertainty of the future, brainy brother/brawny brother sibling rivalry, etc. MVP explained afterwards that they wanted to show young black males who idolize rappers like 50 Cent that sports and music are not the only path to success, and that if that dream fails, it's necessary to have a fallback plan that doesn't involve drug dealing. A laudable goal, to be sure, and there's only one scene that comes across as preachy, in which MVP, as 50 Cent's stepfather, lays it all out for him.

MVP, in attendance with his filmmaker father Melvin van Peebles as co-ambassadors of the Urbanworld Film Festival, talked about independent film in general and the need for quality black films to reach people, not just through better distribution, but through word of mouth as well.


Previously from the Urbanworld Film Festival:
Brooklyn Boheme
Love Arranged

Friday, September 16, 2011

Urbanworld FF: Love Arranged

The Urbanworld Film Festival is a showcase for filmmakers and actors of color, presented at the AMC 34th Street in New York City. For more information on the festival and to see the full 2011 schedule of films, visit the website.

Love Arranged, directed by Soniya Kirpalani, is a documentary about the practice of arranged marriage in Indian culture, and two modern women who want them. The film follows the struggles they face in trying to meet the expectations of their culture while satisfying their personal desires. One woman lives a busy life between work and an active nightlife and knows the kind of man she wants, but is in danger of becoming undesirable because she's pushing thirty. The other is chubby (though not disgustingly so; I thought she was cute), and that alone is a great turn-off to most prospective Indian men. Both women speak frankly about their hopes and fears, and we get added perspectives from their mothers and other relatives, as well as professional matchmakers and prospective dates, including one in particular who goes on a few dates with the party girl.

Director Soniya Kirpalani
In Western society, feminism has led us to regard the liberated woman as one who doesn't necessarily need a man to complete themselves, but that's only one angle of the picture. These women are a product of their culture, after all, and they've been led to believe that marriage (and children) is the ultimate goal of every woman. Beyond that, though, they just sincerely want a man in their lives, and they can't be blamed for that. 

My knowledge of modern Indian culture is limited, I think, to Jhumpa Lahiri novels and Mira Nair movies, but it's remarkable how little difference there actually is regarding mating rituals. In scenes where they each search an online Indian dating service, they scrutinize the shortcomings of other men even as they realize that they themselves are being scrutinized in turn. They agonize over what kind of clothes to wear, talk about bad dates from the past, and listen to the counsel of matchmakers and family members.

I liked the movie, but thought it a bit light. I would've liked it to have gone deeper into Indian culture in relation to not only arranged marriages, but male-female relationships in general. Maybe get some more perspectives from the older generation.


Previously from the Urbanworld Film Festival:
Brooklyn Boheme

Urbanworld FF: Brooklyn Boheme

The Urbanworld Film Festival is a showcase for filmmakers and actors of color, presented at the AMC 34th Street in New York City. For more information on the festival and to see the full 2011 schedule of films, visit the website.

Co-director Nelson George
Brooklyn Boheme, the opening night film at the 2011 Urbanworld Film Festival, is a documentary co-directed by notable black culture writer and filmmaker Nelson George (with Diane Paragas) about the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and the thriving black artistic scene that he was part of as a native. George, a former Village Voice columnist, has authored a number of books on a variety of subjects, from James Brown and Michael Jackson to movies and basketball. In this movie, not only does he explore the recent history of his neighborhood, but he discusses how different black artistic movements - film, jazz, spoken word poetry, stand-up comedy, visual art - interacted with each other and made each other stronger. Among the fellow neighborhood denizens, past and present, he talks with includes Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Rosie Perez, Vernon Reid, Branford Marsalis, and many more.

Spike Lee, with 'Attack the Block' star John Boyega (second from left)
I hang out in Fort Greene fairly often. I've eaten in some of the restaurants, but mostly I like to go to the cafes. (A couple of weeks ago I had planned to go to a Mexican restaurant there that plays outdoor movies, but Hurricane Irene put the kibosh on that.) The Brooklyn Academy of Music is in the vicinity, and of course I was there earlier this year to see Belle de Jour. It is a lovely neighborhood, from the rows of brownstones to the shops and restaurants on Dekalb Avenue and Fulton Street to Fort Greene Park itself. The current development of the sports arena on Atlantic Avenue makes me a bit fearful for its future, not to mention that of nearby Park Slope. I wonder how traffic patterns will be affected in the area, particularly that of pedestrians and bicyclists. As the arena is being built right next to a major transportation hub, one would hope that the need for more car traffic would be alleviated, but I suspect it may not be quite that simple.

George, Chris Rock, and co-director Diane Paragas
Still, despite my surface familiarity with Fort Greene, I never knew its history that well, and I certainly didn't know that so many talented black artists came out of this area. Watching this film reminded me of the first time I saw Love Jones, a fictitious movie inspired by the real black bohemian scene in Chicago. I remember being fascinated at seeing an aspect of black life not often depicted in the movies, and it just so happened that the year Love Jones came out, 1997, I was planning a trip to Chicago. I tried to find the nightclub seen in the movie, but I never did.

Co-director Diane Paragas
In the Q-and-A that followed the film, George emphasized the fact that by having so many creative people coming together in different permutations, he and his peers created a community of their own, and that having a community is often a necessary part of the creative process. I can certainly attest to that. My current association with the LAMB is only the latest in a series of artistic enclaves that I have been lucky enough to have been part of over the years in my former life as a comics self-publisher and journalist. Each one has had a positive effect on my work, in one way or another, and of course they've led to some wonderful friendships. Being around like-minded talent has a way of doing that. George said something similar in the Q-and-A when he said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that if you surround yourself with talented people, you're much more likely to make better work, but if you surround yourself with jerks... well, you get the idea.

My only complaint about Boheme is that George, as skillful a writer as he is, does not make for the best narrator. He rushes his words whenever he narrates in the film, making it a bit hard at times to understand him. I sympathize; I used to have the same problem. Regardless, this is a wonderful film that deserves the widest possible audience.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Higher Ground

seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Last month I talked about how Andrea was spending this summer going on a European cross-country hike. I haven't mentioned why. Hers is no ordinary hike. It's a popular trek called the Camino de Santiago, which is a network of trails that traverse through Portugal, Spain and France. It's also a Christian pilgrimage that has existed for over a millennium. The goal is to reach a Spanish cathedral that allegedly is the final resting place of St. James the Great. Andi is deeply religious, and she sees this journey as a way to reconnect with her beliefs. She was convinced that this was something she needed to do now, while she still could, since she had put it off for years. From her surprisingly frequent Facebook updates, she sounds like she's having the time of her life.

She and I have had religious discussions in the past. She's absolutely not the type to push her beliefs on anyone, nor is she prone to spouting dogma of any kind. In fact, she's as anti-dogmatic as one can get: she takes what she needs from more than one source and applies it to her own life. She feels as much at home in a church as in a synagogue.

I wish so much that she could have been with me to see the movie Higher Ground. We would've had a great deal to talk about afterward. She always likes talking about movies afterwards - I mean really pouring over them - but this is the kind of story she would've analyzed forwards and backwards. The directing debut of Up in the Air and The Departed actress Vera Farmiga, it's based on a memoir about one woman's struggle with religion throughout her life in a small town. From childhood, she was taught to fear and love God, and she becomes a true believer, but the more she experiences life, the more she encounters doubts about her faith.

Without getting too specific about it, because some things are simply too personal even for this blog, let me just say that I know what it's like to be programmed with religious dogma practically from birth, only to question it later in life. In the movie, we see Corinne, Farmiga's character, as a child, encouraged by her pastor to accept Jesus into her heart, but it's clear she only does it because she believes it's what's expected of her. I understand why parents would want to indoctrinate their kids into their faith, but from the kids' point of view, it's not like they're given much of a choice. I sure wasn't, I can tell you that much, and I've never felt anything resembling a "divine" presence in my life, even though I went through the motions.

I can't help but think of the writings of the scientist and staunch atheist Richard Dawkins, whose work I discovered a few years ago. He devotes an entire chapter in his book The God Delusion to the issue of raising children within a faith. One of his big pet peeves is how people use the phrase "Christian children" or "Jewish children" or "Muslim children," as if to imply that the children chose to follow these faiths. Dawkins would rather have people say "children of Christian parents" or "children of Jewish parents" because the implication there is that the child has not consciously chosen; indeed, that he or she is too young to make an informed choice as to what faith to follow, if any. I found that to be a powerful and empowering statement when I first read it, because if I had been given a choice as a child, my life would've been quite different.

Higher Ground was more than a little reminiscent to me of Robert Duvall's masterpiece The Apostle. Both films are directed by their respective stars, and while the journeys their characters take are different, they're both portrayed as struggling with their relationship with their god after a lifetime of service and unquestioning faith. In Corinne's case, it almost seems like her path could follow that of the Apostle's - she becomes attracted to other methods of worshiping God that fall slightly outside the boundaries of her small congregation - but she's constrained by her gender; there are scenes where congregation members make it clear to her that it's the men who lead and the women who follow.

The movie, however, also made me recall Blue Valentine, because of Corinne's relationship with her husband Ethan. They marry young, full of passion (they embrace religion when their infant daughter almost dies), but the older they get, the harder it is to sustain that passion. Indeed, one of the subplots of the film deals with the lack of sexual activity not only in their relationship, but in that of other couples in the congregation. One scene shows the men listening to a cassette tape that offers frank sexual advice for Christian couples, and you can imagine their initial reaction. I was even reminded a little bit of Rachel Rachel in that Corinne is also a middle-aged woman in a small town approaching a critical crossroads in her life - and that movie uses religious faith as a subplot, though Joanne Woodward's character is much more skeptical about it.

Andi has told me that while she feels something she believes to be a divine presence in her life, she admits she could also be mistaken. Still, she feels compelled to heed it and to follow it wherever it takes her - even across an ocean and hundreds of miles through a foreign country. I realize how this could sound to some, but as someone who knows her fairly well, I can assure you she does not come across as delusional in any way. Her faith operates on a much more individual level than most, and while I no longer believe, I can respect that a great deal more than those who feel the need to advertise their faith, to wear it on their sleeve and make sure you and everyone else knows about it. A part of me sometimes wishes I had what she has... but even if I never do, I can't deny that she's a better person because of her faith.

Still, though, that's her. I certainly do not feel I have the right to tell her or anyone else that having spiritual beliefs is wrong if it fulfills their lives, though I do believe one does not need religion to be a good person. Either way, religious faith should be a personal choice - to have it or to not have it - and it shouldn't be pushed on anyone against their will, not even - especially not even - children.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Kinyarwanda: a primer

Director Alrick Brown

...After earning his master’s from Tisch, Brown continued making shorts while consulting for other filmmakers. One of those people was Ishmael Ntihabose, a Rwandan filmmaker who was trying to make a feature about the 1994 genocide that occurred in his country. “We were e-mailing back and forth through a Peace Corps contact for several years,” says Brown,” “and when I got there I realized Ishmael needed a lot more than just consulting to pull this off.”

These videos and links can speak about the film way better than I can, since I haven't even seen it yet. It'll be the closing night film at the Urbanworld Film Festival this weekend, on Saturday night at 7:30 at the AMC 34th Street in Manhattan.



Monday, September 12, 2011

Five reasons why 'Potter' probably won't get a Best Pic nom

I feel it's important to address this now while the Oscar season is still young. I know y'all want it to happen. You saw Avatar, Inception and District 9 get nominated in a ten-film field, you've been breaking out all the comparisons between Deathly Hallows 2 and Return of the King - the money-making final chapter of a series of acclaimed films based on a line of fantasy novels beloved the world over - and you really, really love Harry Potter and want to see him finally make it to the big Oscar dance party (even though eight films and billions of dollars worldwide means he's had a pretty good dance party of his own going on for awhile).

I wouldn't completely rule it out... but the odds do not look good on it happening. And here's why:

- No precedent for a Best Picture nomination. Everybody comparing DH2 to King is forgetting something: yes, King got a Best Picture nomination, but so did Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. In a ten-film field, Deathly Hallows 1 did not make the Best Picture cut, and anybody who thinks that DH2 can get in on sentiment is fooling himself. And don't bring up Toy Story 3 because animated films come with their own set of rules that don't apply here.

- No precedent for a Best Director nomination. Sasha Stone from Awards Daily always says that the director is the star of the Best Picture race. The Potter films have had four different directors in eight films. The Lord of the Rings films had just one - Peter Jackson. So when King won Best Picture, it was as much an affirmation of Jackson's singular vision guiding the entire series as it was a reflection of their quality. Jackson was nominated for Best Director for both King and Fellowship, winning for the former. Give David Yates credit for being the ironman for the final four Potter films, but neither he nor any of the other Potter directors were serious enough contenders for Best Director. And in a field this year that includes Spielberg, Eastwood, Malick, Daldry, Payne, Reitman, Crowe, and Allen, Yates will be lucky to get into the conversation.

- No precedent for any acting nominations. This one is key. Ian McKellen got nominated for Fellowship. That right there is one more acting nomination than any Potter actor has received. If there's any area that DH2 needs support in, this is it. Actors make up the single largest voting bloc in the Academy by a ratio of greater than three to one, and over the course of seven prior films, not one Potter actor has gotten nominated. And it's not like the cast is full of Joe Shmoes: you've got Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, the late Richard Harris, Emma Thompson - I mean, these are some heavyweights here. If these guys couldn't get nominated after seven films, why would they get nominated now?

- Sometimes money isn't enough. The Dark Knight made over half a billion dollars and got near-universal praise and you saw what happened there. Avatar made money and did get into the Best Picture field, but James Cameron had already been to the party before, with an epic drama without any aliens, superheroes or wizards. And as we have learned, the director is the star of the Best Picture race. The Potter films have made an insane amount of money over the years, but the most it has been able to come up with Oscar-wise is only technical nominations. (As an aside: I think Christopher Nolan is at a comparable point in his career as Cameron was after Terminator 2: an innovative director who makes crowd-pleasing, critically-acclaimed genre work that gets little love from the Academy. If The Dark Knight Rises gets nominated for Best Picture next year, make no mistake, it'll be because the Academy decides that it's finally Nolan's time, but if not, then he may have to make a Titanic, or to use an example from a different director, a Benjamin Button. Of course, I say "have to" facetiously; Nolan will do as he will and I doubt he cares that much about the Oscars anyway.)

- The competition is stiff. Warners alone has Clint's J. Edgar, along with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, two huge films that will be in the mix for almost every major category. Warners may start a Best Picture campaign for DH2 as well, but when you also add films like Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, The Help, The Descendants, The Artist, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Ides of March, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse - well, you can see how this will get mighty crowded. And don't forget that a ten-film field is not guaranteed this year.

Like I said, I would not completely rule out DH2 from the running, but I just don't see any way Harry pulls off this magic trick unless some of the competition falls by the wayside somehow.

Agree? Disagree?