Monday, March 31, 2014


seen @ AMC Fresh Meadows 7, Fresh Meadows, Queens, NY

Pastor Fred Phelps is dead.

For over fifty years, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas preached the gospel of the Bible to his congregation. In recent years, however, he and his constituents became notorious for sitting in judgment on their fellow man in a fashion numerous Americans found reprehensible.

This godless heathen believes Phelps was a small-minded, bigoted, intolerant, hypocritical sham of a human being and that the world is a vastly improved place without him.

But he was not in any way unique.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

Muppets Most Wanted
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica NY

The superb movie site The Dissolve wrote a piece recently about Muppets Most Wanted from the angle of how a movie like this can't help but recycle certain themes from past Muppet movies because these days, that's the safest way to guarantee that people will actually go see it:
...Is there an inherent limit to what talking, singing animal puppets can do in a movie? Or are studios simply too timid to push those limits? On the big screen, the Muppets have generally run through two basic plots: "Let's put on a show right here!" (The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppets), and "Let's re-enact a beloved story that's safely in the public domain right here!" (The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Muppet Treasure Island, The Muppets' Wizard of Oz). Only Muppets From Space doesn't fit the mold, and it's an oddball in the series for numerous reasons, as it focuses on Gonzo instead of Kermit, and has no original songs. But that film aside, the Muppets operate in a small number of modes, and "Let's get involved in a caper of some sort right here!" has become the third thing the series can do. Or at least it's the only other option Disney seems willing to try.

I'm not about to dispute this claim. Indeed, MMW has lots of call-backs to earlier Muppet movies; some obvious, others less so. But you know what? I find that I'm okay with that. I still found it amusing, if not quite on the level of the earlier films, and if Disney's not willing to stray too far from the formula, I suspect that that'll be alright by me.

I don't want the Muppets to change too much. That's simply how I feel. The Muppets, as I explained last time, mean a great deal to me, from the time I first watched them on TV. Fair or not, appropriate or not, the image I have of them is the one from my childhood, when Jim Henson was still alive, and it's difficult to adjust. I find it strange seeing them do things like operate cellphones or computers, or interact with modern celebrities, or even sing modern songs! And now you expect me to entrust future Muppet movies with anyone other than the Henson family?

Well, I'm not completely dense. I realize that the Muppets can't stay exactly the same. But you know, so many other things from when I was a kid have changed - it'd be nice to have some things stay as close to the same as possible. I realize how this sounds, but I don't care: if Disney wants to recycle old plot points, I say let 'em!

Why? It's hard to explain. By way of comparison, let's look at another intellectual property from childhood: superheroes. As I get older, I start to think that forcing the superhero genre to "grow up" may have been the worst thing to happen to it, because 95% of the time, "growing up" has meant dumbass "very special episode" type stories that compromise the integrity of the characters and cheapen the real-world issues they're trying to address. (Here are a few examples.) And while the potential for a Muppet equivalent to Watchmen may exist, frankly, I don't need to see that. I just don't! (Also, before you shove Rule 34 at me, may I remind you that those who indulge in that sort of thing are far, far off the beaten path and are easily avoidable.)

And anyway, while MMW was derivative, it did have its moments: a Kermit doppleganger in a fight scene; some terrific songs; Tina Fey, whom I finally got to see in a movie for the first time (and I can see her appeal) and the usual guest cameos, some of which were even funny. To coin a phrase, MMW is what it is and I do not expect nor want too much deviation from the formula.

Though if Walter's gonna be a regular now, he desperately needs more in the way of personality.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Kaufman, MOMI to be part of Queens art district

A new arts district in Queens will promote Astoria to visitors and potential new venues, local elected officials will announce Friday at the Kaufman Astoria Studios.
The 94-year-old film studio, which once set the stage for classic Marx Brothers movies and the Cosby Show, will partner with the Queens Council on the Arts and the Museum of the Moving Image to promote art in the 24 block zone.
This is wonderful news. To anyone who has been aware of the changes taking place in the Astoria/Long Island City area over the past decade or so, this is something that the neighborhood has been building up to, although I doubt anyone could've predicted that this might happen. Still, between the Kaufman and MOMI, the Queens Council on the Arts' recent move to Astoria, and Sinatra High School, not to mention the revived literary scene thanks to the presence of two new bookstores in the area (just outside of this district, though), plus an actual movie theater, there's a definite arts-related vibe that has intensified in recent years. This proclamation simply confirms to the rest of New York what Queens natives have recognized all along.

Of course, the joking(?) quote near the end of the article about the fear that Astoria will get too expensive as a consequence reflects a growing city-wide trend. Articles like this one, or better yet, this one, by musician David Byrne, are indicative of how New York (read: Manhattan) is perceived as stifling creativity due to its increasing expense. As a result, the arts scene is no longer centered around one borough, but is now spreading outward, and Queens, among other places, is a beneficiary. Hopefully, the benefits that come from this arts district will apply to all of Queens, and not just the elite.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel
seen @ Regal Union Square Stadium 14, New York, NY

I don't recall the name of the hotel I stayed in when I spent a summer in Barcelona during college. It was on a side street just off of Las Ramblas, which is kinda like the Fifth Avenue of Barcelona. (I think it was even in the local red light district!) 

It wasn't huge. It was fairly old. I remember it had a courtyard in the center, around which the rooms were arranged. You could walk out of your room, lean out over the wrought-iron railing and look down into not only the courtyard, but at other rooms on other floors.

The elevator was the old-fashioned type, with an outer gate opening up onto the inner car. I think it was the type that didn't need an operator. On the ground level, there was a kind of rec room or lounge with a big TV, where some of us in our party would watch the Tour de France or Wimbledon. There was also a small dining room where the hotel would serve what Europeans call a "continental breakfast" - croissants, juice, fruit, that sort of thing. It was nice to have spent my European vacation in a hotel with some style, some character - a throwback to an earlier age. 

I've stayed in my fair share of hotels and hostels and B&Bs over the years. I won't bore you with too many stories, but I remember incidents such as wandering through the outskirts of downtown Pittsburgh, trying to find a hotel that would take cash; watching gay couples getting married on TV in my San Francisco hotel room; freezing my butt off for a night in a tiny room in a Washington, DC hotel; getting drunk with friends in the bar of a Chicago hotel after the train ride from hell; even sharing a bed in a Columbus hotel for a night with a dude! (I suppose one day I'll have to tell you that story, at least.)

From a production standpoint, I don't think there's been a hotel in movie history quite like that in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Why? Because it's real and not real at the same time. It's a meticulously crafted work of artifice that's meant to give off the impression of a real place, but you can still see the seams, so to speak. 

I suspect this is deliberate: writer-director Wes Anderson has put together this elaborate bit of artifice, yet at the same time, he's not going out of his way to make it look like the real world. The GBH is a detailed, small-scale model that he uses for establishing shots. It looks like a model. But Anderson is okay with that. There's no attempt to use camera trickery or computer-generated effects to make it look more "realistic." That's clearly not what he's going for, and there's something kinda quaint and charming about that.

But then, that fits the movie in general, which in construction reminded me of those Russian nesting dolls - you know, you open it and there's a smaller one inside; you open that one and there's an even smaller one inside that, and so on until you're left with a tiny little doll at the heart of it all. GBH opens in what could be the present day and then retreats further and further back in time through multiple flashbacks - normally considered a poor literary trick, yet here it works. Anderson even switches aspect ratios of the picture to indicate the different time periods. 

The cinematography, the art direction, the production design, the costumes, the colors, the music - everything contributes towards creating this unique world, but unlike the digital dreamscapes of Cameron and Jackson and Lucas, the world of the GBH feels closer to one you could actually inhabit and still have it be distinct from our own, which I find marvelous. And it's an amusing, entertaining story as well, the kind that encourages multiple viewing.

I paid fifteen goddamn dollars for this movie... but this is one instance where I know I got my money's worth. I would've seen this someplace cheaper, but this was another outing for those of us in Vija's movie club. The lineup this time was me, Vija, Franz, Andi and Susan, and we all loved it. Vija, in particular, was drawn to the fine art aspects of the film: on Facebook today, she posted links to a bunch of articles, such as this one, describing how visual art factors in GBH beyond simply the painting that acts as the film's Macguffin. I probably would've figured out some of the art-related motifs on my own. but it helped a lot more to have someone around who's much more learned than I am at these things.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

All that glitters: A Diamonds & Gold Blogathon update

It feels really good to be part of what's shaping up to be a successful blogathon! Of course, I have my pal Paddy Lee to thank for this. You can still get in on this action if you want: we're looking for posts featuring performances by actors age 50 and over, and so far, this is what we got:

Margaret Perry: Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter
Another Old Movie Blog: Rosalind Russell, A Majority of One
Vintage Cameo: Gloria Swanson, Sunset Blvd and beyond
Once Upon a Screen: Josephine Hull, Harvey
Portraits by Jenni: Edna May Oliver
Girls Do Film: Joan Crawford & Bette Davis, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and beyond
Tales of the Easily Distracted: Charles Laughton & Elsa Lanchester, Witness for the Prosecution
A Trip Down Memory Lane: Bing Crosby, Dr. Cook's Garden
A Person in the Dark: Peter O'Toole, Venus
Critica Retro: Spencer Tracy & Fredric March, Inherit the Wind
Thrilling Days of Yesteryear: Harry Davenport, The Ox-Bow Incident
The Man on the Flying Trapeze: Cary Grant, Charade
They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To:  James Stewart & Bette Davis, Right of Way
Movies Silently: William S. Hart
Silver Screenings: Fredric March, Death of a Salesman
ImagineMDD: Anthony Hopkins & Anne Bancroft, 84 Charing Cross Road
Journeys in Classic Film: William Holden
Movie Classics: Laurence Olivier, Bunny Lake is Missing
Ramblings of a Cinephile: John Wayne, True Grit
Mildred's Fatburgers: Marie Dressler
Motion Picture Gems: ?
Silver Scenes: ?
Screaming Argonauts: Ruth Gordon, Rosemary's Baby
Classic Movie Hub: ?

Paddy herself will write about Ride the High Country, featuring Edgar Buchanan, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. As for me, I've decided on Cocoon, which features a whole bunch of old-time movie stars, including Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Wilford Brimley, and more.

If you see the name of your blog on this list without a movie and/or a subject, don't worry, there's no pressure, you've still got time to decide, but when you do, let Paddy or me know and we'll update the list. If you've already got an entry listed here and you want to change your movie or subject, ditto.

The blogathon goes live April 12-13. I'll collect the posts about the men, Paddy will collect the posts about the women. Thanks for participating!

My Hometown Blogathon
The Movie of My Life Blogathon

Monday, March 17, 2014

Charlie Chan in Paris

The Sleuthathon is an event dedicated to the great cinematic detectives of the past, hosted by Movies Silently. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the host site.


The Blind Spot is an ongoing series hosted by The Matinee in which bloggers watch and write about movies they've never seen before. For a list of past entries, visit the home site.

Charlie Chan in Paris
seen online via YouTube

Recently at the TCM blog, Movie Morlocks, there was a piece that discussed casting against race, gender or sexual orientation. This is an issue that has come up recently in relation to the Oscar-winning movie Dallas Buyers Club, specifically Jared Leto's portrayal of a trans woman, which has come under heavy criticism from various sources (though he has his defenders too). There was one incident in which Leto was openly challenged by a woman at a screening for taking such a part. Leto, to his credit, engaged her in conversation, but the resentment over his casting still lingers among some.

It's really difficult to judge when this sort of thing is appropriate and when it isn't, or if it ever is. I tend to think in some cases, I would rather see more movies that are rooted in the direct experiences of the "other," whether that other is black, Korean, disabled, lesbian, or what have you, as opposed to, for instance, substituting a minority character for a traditionally white character (why cast a black actor as the Human Torch in a Fantastic Four movie out of a misguided sense of political correctness when you can put that same actor in a Black Panther movie instead?).

At the same time, however, I can't deny that I have enjoyed certain movies with actors cast against race, gender or sexual orientation. Shakespeare, for example, has provided a number of opportunities for casting of this type, on the stage as well as in film, and no one complains. So like I said, this is not a situation with an easy solution. I honestly don't think there is one.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises
seen @ Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers, Yonkers NY

Even if you don't live in Texas (I don't), chances are that if you follow film at all, at some point you've heard of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters. Simply put, they are the model by which all modern movie theaters should be judged. A lot has changed in the way we watch movies these days - Netflix, online streaming, video on demand; these have all become viable and profitable options when it comes to watching movies. For those of us who still prefer going to a theater and seeing a movie with a crowd, it's fair to say that nobody does it better than the Alamo. I've read about it, and now, I can finally say I've experienced it firsthand.

Next year, an Alamo theater will open in downtown Brooklyn, but for now, the closest one near me is the one in Yonkers, up in Westchester County. From where I live, it's a long trip: a bus to the subway to another bus, though I saved a little by walking to the subway. The 4 train, like its Lexington Avenue-line brothers the 5 and 6, traverses up the east side of Manhattan and deep into the Boogie Down Bronx, passing Y-nk-- Stadium along the way. It was the first time I had seen the new ballpark. I suppose it looks impressive enough, though it's not like I've been there very often.

Of course, once I got off the train, I took the wrong bus (actually, it was the right bus; it just didn't go as far as I needed it to) and got off at the wrong stop. I can't remember the last time I had been to Yonkers. I think it may have been back in my college days. I remember going to see Star Trek VI on opening night with friends in Yonkers, though where exactly, I couldn't tell you. It was dark and rainy and we had driven up there.

Anyway, from the outside, the Yonkers Alamo looks like any other theater in a strip mall, until you go inside. For one thing, there are the posters: reinterpretations of classic and contemporary movie posters with magnificent art, all of them much more imaginative and creative than the ones you normally see. 

Then there's something very peculiar: they have a re-creation of the bomb from the climax of the movie Dr. Strangelove - the one Slim Pickens giddily rides on the way down to destruction - and apparently you can climb on board it and have your picture taken on it. It even comes with a replica of the hat Pickens wore. I think all the Alamo theaters have something like this. If I had been with someone else, I suppose I would've had my picture taken, but I didn't, so I didn't. (And no, it didn't occur to me to use my cellphone to take a "selfie.")

The movie I saw was The Wind Rises, an animated film based on the true story of the Japanese guy who invented the zero wing airplane. The Alamo did something clever: before the film, they played videos and shorts related to it. (I assume they do this sort of thing for all their films.) They played WW2 newsreels, old footage of attempts to create flying machines, videos of Wind director Hayao Miyazaki, even a Simpsons clip that was an homage to the films of Miyazaki. Needless to say, all of this was much more entertaining than your average edition of "The 20."

Perhaps you've heard about how the Alamo offers restaurant-quality food in addition to traditional theater snacks. When you go into the auditorium, the aisles of seats each come with long shelves in front of them, on which you can eat, and underneath them are the menus. There are ushers who double as waiters, and you write down your order on a piece of paper, position it upright in a slot on the shelf in front of you, and that's how they take your order. The emphasis is on quiet, since you can do this during the movie as well as before it, though that wasn't an issue on Tuesday; it was a tiny crowd. I had a burger called a "royale with cheese," just like out of Pulp Fiction, with fries and a root beer, and it was great, though expensive. I think next time I may settle for an appetizer. Did I mention that the waiters here also expect tips?

And then, of course, there's perhaps the Alamo's most well-known element - their zero-tolerance policy on talking and texting. Again, it wasn't an issue on Tuesday because there were so few people, but I still got to see it in action: slides and video clips remind the audience - humorously but firmly - that if you talk or text during the film, you get a warning first, and then an ejection with no refund. I had read about this, of course, even wrote about it here, but actually seeing it for the first time, and knowing that the Alamo cares enough to enforce this policy, was a quite unusual feeling.

So that's what going to the Alamo is like. I also copped an issue of their in-house magazine Birth Movies Death, which had articles about the monthly features and current movies playing at the Alamo. I think if when I go again, I'd like to go for one of their special events, but again, getting there is a long trip. Still, I'm familiar with it now, so it won't be as intimidating... and I'll know which bus to get on!

As for the movie itself, well, I thought it was okay, but the problem I had with it was that it seemed a bit too rosy-colored. Jiro Horikoshi, the main character, keeps saying throughout the story that all he wants to do is make awesome planes for his country, yet he must have known that they would be used as weapons of war. There's some talk about Japan's political and economic situation leading up to WW2, but the war itself seems far away. Hitler is mentioned only once. And the second half of the story is dominated by Jiro's relationship with his girlfriend-turned-wife Nahoko and her illness. There wasn't enough war-related material to suit me, and I felt like there should have been.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Back to School

Back to School
seen on TV @ AMC

College was a fine experience for me overall, even though I didn't go through it the way many young adults do. I went to a local school - School of Visual Arts - and so I didn't live in a new and unfamiliar city. I commuted to class, just like I did for high school. I didn't need to stay at a dorm, and wasn't privy to any wild parties. There was a school in Rhode Island that I was accepted to, but the tuition was pretty steep - not that SVA was that cheaper, but I least I got a partial scholarship - so staying home really was the best choice for me.

And it turned out alright, all things considered. There were all sorts of people I met, directly or indirectly, who made quite a difference in my life while I was at SVA. My favorite teacher was this woman named Julie who encouraged me to think outside the box when it came to my art, and I experimented more, in different media, as a result. 

I had life-drawing classes that taught me different ways of seeing, which had a profound impact on the way I draw. My decision to study comics illustration was a direct result of being around peers who were getting work in the industry, as well as studying under leading figures from that industry, and that led to a decade's worth of self-published material that took me around the country.

Only in the movies could a chick like Sally Kellerman fall for a dude like Rodney.

I also studied acting and playwriting. I developed a yen for classic literature. I was a DJ at our college radio station for a semester. I experienced anti-war protests for the first time. Most of all, I got the opportunity to study art in a foreign country for one summer, where I met, among many other people, Vija, who has been and is one of the best friends I've ever had. That alone made going to SVA worth it.

All that said, however, a part of me wishes I had been able to experience the stereotypical college life: living in a dorm, partying every night, living in a different city, that sort of thing. The year I spent living in Columbus was close, except my roommate wasn't exactly what you'd call a party animal. Still, that occurred much later in life. There's something to be said for going through those kinds of things as a young person, when the world still feels new and you've got a taste of freedom for the first time.


I don't recall struggling academically. The only class I had a really hard time with was an Astronomy class I had to take to fulfill a requirement for a science-based class. I've talked about that class here before. Oh sure, I had my late-night cram sessions, like many college students go through, but overall I did alright. Don't recall what my GPA was, but I hardly ever think about that stuff anymore.

I made my share of friends, though honestly, I think the friends I had in high school and even junior high school were better. I felt closer to them - not that my college friends were bad. I remember my freshman class felt somewhat cliquish, and I never belonged to one, unlike in high school. I had regular friends over time, but after graduation I rarely kept in touch with them, for various reasons. Just one of those things. But like I said, overall, I can't complain about my time in college.


Which brings us to Back to School, a movie I had time to watch during the activity of the Queens World Film Festival last week. I hadn't seen it in a long time and I had forgotten not only how funny it is, but how utterly Eighties it is, and I mean that in the most loving way possible. It's essentially a star vehicle for Rodney Dangerfield, but it's got an all-star cast! 

Check it: you've got Robert Downey Jr. IN FULL 80S NEW WAVE MODE, looking like he just came off the set of a John Hughes movie, two-tone hair, punky outfit and all. You got a pre-Deep Space Nine Terry Farrell, looking not unlike Brooke Shields. You got SAM KINISON, a total guilty pleasure of mine from back in the day (I still miss him). Plus, there's Adrienne Barbeau (in only one scene, sadly), Sally Kellerman (looking so gorgeous), Burt Young, Ned Beatty, Edie McClurg, M. Emmet Walsh, William "Sweep The Leg, Johnny" Zabka, a pre-Voyager Robert Picardo (lotsa Trek connections here), and DANNY ELFMAN PERFORMING WITH OINGO BOINGO!!!!!!

LOL Jadzia Dax needs help with her Astronomy.

Plus - and this is a rather unusual bit of trivia - Back to School came out the same week as Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The latter actually beat the former by two days. In both movies, the lead characters either sing (Rodney, if you can call it singing) or lip-sync (Ferris) to the song "Twist and Shout." Obviously the Ferris version is more iconic, but I remember Rodney's version being released as a single and hearing it on the radio, back when novelty songs were much more common. 

And that wasn't even his first single.

What can I say? The Eighties were a different time.

He's a dick, but we love him.

And to top it all off, this was co-written by the late Harold Ramis. Much has been written about Ramis in the weeks since his death; let me just say here that like many of you, I completely love his movies. Their place in film history is secure. In all the obituaries on Ramis, no one mentioned this film, but part of what I like about it is that it's a sweet father-son story. Rodney's character adores his son, and even if he goes a little overboard in expressing it, that love gives what would normally be just a raunchy comedy a heart (not that there's anything wrong with raunchy comedies), and if Ramis contributed in any way to making that so, then he's to be commended for that, too.

So seriously, if you've never seen this before, give it a watch. I really think you'll like it, even if you didn't grow up in the Eighties.

Monday, March 10, 2014

QWFF wrap-up: Cinema and cupcakes

At the Queens World Film Festival Awards, held Saturday night at the Long Island City restaurant Dutch Kills Centraal, one of the winners (unfortunately, I forget who) was greatly enthused about her win, and her moment in the spotlight, to the point where she stood up on a chair and led a brief chant of "In-die film! In-die film!" It was a giddy moment, a moment of solidarity with her fellow filmmakers and an audience supportive of an artist at the start of her career.

When most people think of independent film, they think of movies from the likes of Fox Searchlight or The Weinstein Company or Lionsgate. Saturday night, however, one could see the true face of independent cinema - mavericks operating on shoestring budgets without the benefit of a studio of any kind to back their efforts. And yet, in that one moment, that filmmaker realized she had something quite valuable: she had her peers. Speaking as an creative person, I can assure you that the worth of having peers you can lean on cannot be underestimated.

But where will these filmmakers go from here? New York Times movie critic Manohla Dargis wrote a piece earlier this year about what she perceived as the glut of indie films flooding theaters. She argued that many of them are too mediocre for theatrical distribution and that this is having a deleterious effect on the industry. (At first I kinda sympathized with her point of view, but I've read some counter-arguments since then that made sense.)

Could the solution involve different screening locations? The majority of venues QWFF has used throughout their brief history have been non-traditional, and in many cases, off the beaten path, and people have come, in significant numbers. Getting a New York Times review is a goal worth shooting for, no question, but modern media has changed to the point where it's possible for word of mouth on a given film to spread through social media, or as the result of a crowdsourcing campaign - techniques many of the films at QWFF have used.

While I would love to see films like Recursion or The House That Jack Built get shown at places like Cinema Village or the IFC Center or Film Forum, at the same time, if showing these films in a tiny screening room in Brooklyn or Queens means the difference between keeping these films alive and building their audience, and oblivion, I know which option I'd take if I were in the filmmakers' places. 

Then again, maybe one doesn't have to think small. The success of AFFRM, for example, is a direct result of gathering together like-minded film festivals and using their collective clout to get independent films in mainstream theaters. I haven't seen this business model replicated anywhere else yet, but regardless, it's an example of a non-traditional solution to the long-standing problem of wider distribution - relying on one's peers. The idea implicit in that QWFF Award winner's victorious chant.

QWFF was very good this year, and I'm glad I was able to discover not only some new movies, but some places in Queens that were new to me... such as the cupcake shop in Astoria which raised a tiny bit of a stir when I talked about it on Twitter. It's called Sweets First, and they make these delicious cupcakes named after movies and TV shows. I first went there on Wednesday, when I was on my way to the Nesva Hotel and needed something quick and easy to eat. I'd seen the shop before, but had never been inside, and now I'm glad I did. 

I went there twice: the first time I had a "Twilight" - a chocolate cupcake with Oreo cookies and frosting - and on Saturday I had a "Vanilla Sky" - a vanilla cupcake with frosting and sprinkles. You can see the photos I took of the place and of my cupcakes on the WSW Facebook page. Definitely a place to visit if you're ever in Astoria.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5

Sunday, March 9, 2014

QWFF Day 5: Intergalactic planetary

Saturday was the last day of the Queens World Film Festival and the Nesva Hotel was buzzing with activity. The block of films I watched were genre movies of various stripes, including Recursion and My Art is Not Dead, which I saw opening night. The new stuff included:

- King Theodore Live, about an alien intelligence who inhabits the body of an Earth woman just to meet a member of his favorite rock band. Fun premise, and the original music wasn't bad, but I didn't feel any sense of urgency to the story. I didn't feel like anything was at stake on the part of the alien, or the musician, for that matter. It was simply a means to act out the wacky premise and nothing more.

- Talk to Strangers, in which an allegedly emotionless woman comes between a young couple. The woman is no Mr. Spock; she seems human but the movie never makes it clear whether she is or not, and anyway, the real conflict is what she does to the couple who are forced to temporarily take her in. As a short, it feels like the sketch of an idea; I'm just barely interested enough in it to wonder how this would work as a feature, especially given the Jarmusch-like approach to the characters.

LIC restaurant Dutch Kills Centraal
hosted the QWFF Awards
- The program guide describes the wordless French short Overnight thusly: "In a city under construction, between dreams and hidden desires, a trader falls down during a financial turmoil." Well-filmed, particularly with the cinematography and music, but I did not get this one at all.

- Day 6011. Imagine WALL-E as a Terminator-like sentry and you'll get the idea behind this computer animated short from Belgium. Loved the sudden twist the story takes near the end.

 'Strangers' director Brett Boshco (far left),
along with Nash, Buntrock & McClure (l-r)
The Recursion creators were in attendance at the Nesva: director Sam Buntrock, writer Stanton Nash, and star Rob McClure. I'll say a little more about the plot: as I mentioned before, it's a time-travel story in which the protagonist goes through loop after loop in time in order to meet his goal. He constantly course-corrects along the way, but that just leads to newer problems. Eventually he realizes the only way out is to do the one thing he must not do. The short would go on to win three QWFF awards at the afterparty in Long Island City, including the Founders Choice Award for Best in Show.

Buntrock said that it took five months in the editing room to put the 22-minute Recursion together, and indeed, editing is key here. Editing implies the idea of McClure in scenes with himself, occupying the same room or street or area, but there are only a few brief, fleeting moments where we actually see two McClures on the screen simultaneously. The rest of the time it's stunt doubles, but the footage is cut so sharply and clearly enough, that the illusion is convincing. And as a viewer, the fun of a movie like this is trying to figure out where and how the loops overlap, which is why I wanted to see this again.

Here's the trailer. This is a highly entertaining, fast-paced and cleverly put-together film that would play quite well at genre film marathons, like the ones in Columbus, Ohio and Boston, to name two off the top of my head. Look for it.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

QWFF Day 4: Far away, so close

Let's get straight to the movies in this post. They were seen last night in two blocks at P.S. 69:

Odessa is a short about an astronaut on her last night before going up in space for a long, long time, and her chance encounter with a stranger in a bar. You could call this Gravity meets Before Sunrise: the key here lies not only in what the actors say, but what they don't say, which makes for a nice character study. Here's the website.

Katia, from Russia, is a doc about a girl traveling through India. She grew up dirt poor, and the narrative of her life story is juxtaposed with images of the abject poverty of the Indian slums, punctuated by occasional moments of bliss. It's a well-made, well-filmed movie, but man, is it brutal to sit through. No trailer or website that I can find, just the IMDB page.

'Odessa' co-star Ken Fuller
& director Cidney Hue
Thanks is a funny short about a guy who's unexpectedly saddled with a strange child who simply walks into his shop one day. But why is it this child in particular...? Lots of deadpan humor, good acting, and a perfect ending. Here's the trailer.

And then there was a film called The House That Jack Built. This one played before a great big, enthusiastic audience that almost filled the school auditorium. Many of the cast and crew were in attendance as well, and when they came up front afterwards for a Q-and-A, they filled up almost one whole side of the floor.

This feature-length dramedy concerns a Latino dude named Jack who buys an entire apartment building in the Bronx and moves his entire extended family into it to live rent-free. He always felt close to his family as a child, and as an adult, he thinks that providing his parents, grandmother, siblings, in-laws and so-forth with a single home (with their own apartments, naturally) would bring them closer together. He's wrong, to say the very least.

'Thanks' director Tom Patterson & co-stars
Dylan Dawson & Erica Tachoir
Jack is directed by Henry Barrial from a screenplay by the late Joseph Vasquez, a story that was completed in 1995, but he never lived to see it filmed; he died from AIDS. Vasquez had a modest breakout hit in 1991 with the film Hangin' With the Homeboys. Jack was his passion project, inspired by his own upbringing. Producer Michael Lieber (who was in attendance last night), along with co-producer Sam Kitt, kept the script alive through the years until they found the right director, Barrial, for the movie.

THIS IS A GREAT GODDAMN MOVIE PEOPLE. You have no idea. Everything works, beginning with a star-making performance by EJ Bonilla as Jack, a highly flawed yet believable character who does morally questionable things to keep his family together under one roof. He has his prejudices, his vices, his limitations, but he remains sympathetic throughout the whole story and Bonilla plays him with equal amounts of comedy and tragedy. It helps that he's surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast as well.

Vasquez' script is a gem. It balances a wide variety of storylines throughout the family and it's pleasing to see them weave in and out of each other as the story unfolds, and the actors make the most of it. Director Barrial unleashes them on each other and he gets the right amount of bile and vitriol and pathos and silliness out of all of them. And when the tale takes a turn towards the dark side, Barrial does not flinch (though you might!).

Jack is a delight from start to finish, and it's such a shame that Vasquez is no longer around to see it because I have no doubt he would love it. Here's the website.

Members of the cast and crew of 'Jack,' including producer Michael Lieber (far right)

Friday, March 7, 2014

QWFF Day 3: Hands across the water

Iconoclastic director Spike Lee recently made some statements about the changing, gentrifying face of New York in general and Brooklyn in particular. Whether or not you think gentrification is a good thing is a separate issue. What had me thinking, especially after writing about the changes to Long Island City and Astoria yesterday, was how this issue relates to Queens. I've lived in both East Elmhurst and now Jamaica; I remember how Queens used to look and I'm familiar with how it looks now, and while I've certainly seen signs of changing demographics, the thought that whites are taking over neighborhoods in Queens at a rate similar to that in Brooklyn doesn't quite jibe with what I see.

Maybe LIC and Astoria (and Ridgewood, to a lesser extent) are becoming more like Park Slope and Williamsburg, in their own little way - and gentrification on a larger scale could sweep through Queens the way it has through Brooklyn one day - but right now, I still see enclaves of broad ethnicity. I can point out Orthodox Jewish and Indian and Chinese neighborhoods on a Queens map. I see pedestrian plazas bringing all kinds of people together in places like Jackson Heights and Corona. If I walk down Roosevelt Avenue long enough, I can hear Spanish, Korean, and Bengali languages spoken and more besides.

QWFF's Don Cato leading the procession of student
filmmakers at the PS 69 film premiere
And at a school like P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights, I can see children of color thriving in a curriculum that lets them explore their creativity through the arts - in particular, film. A major component of the Queens World Film Festival (QWFF) is its Young Filmmakers Program, in which school kids not only get the opportunity to learn how to make films, but they get shown as part of the festival and get treated like big shots for a day.

Yesterday was that day this year. Five films from five groups of fifth graders played at the school, and the atmosphere, while less than a world premiere at Cannes, was more than that of a typical school assembly. There was a delightful little "red carpet" down the center aisle of the auditorium made of construction paper, decorated and autographed by the student filmmakers, who walked down it amidst an audience of their schoolmates, their parents, faculty and others.

Led by Don Cato, in his role as QWFF programmer, the filmmaker mentors for this year - Sharif Sadek, Patti Lowenhaupt, Shelley H. Miller and Richard Calvache - assisted the students in making short films that mirror their lives, exploring themes that reflect their experiences, such as bullying and how to prevent it, or coping with wearing glasses or braces. Yes, there's an "afterschool special" vibe reflected in these shorts, but overall, they're fun to watch, they show the enthusiasm the kids bring to the work, and unlike many adult-made films, they don't try to be anything other than what they are. Katha Cato told me afterwards that she was amazed at how mature the kids looked on the screen, and to a degree, many of them did.

Councilman Daniel Dromm
Among the attendees included City Councilman and former teacher Daniel Dromm, a long-time supporter of QWFF, who was recently appointed chair of New York's Education Committee. After the screening, he assisted Don Kato in handing out certificates of achievement to the student filmmakers, along with CDs of the films.

And in case I didn't make it clear - these are (mostly) students of color: black, Latino, Indian, Asian, as well as white. They dressed up for the occasion (one girl wore a lovely sari), and some of them hammed it up a bit for the iPhone and iPad cameras as they walked down the "red carpet," as kids will do. They seemed pretty proud to be there. A few of them spoke to the audience, basically saying how much they enjoyed the experience of making films and how it changed them, and I have no doubt that this will stay with them, even if they never pick up a camera to shoot a movie again. So maybe gentrification is a thing in the rest of New York, and maybe it's something to be resisted... but here in Queens, diversity is by no means a four-letter word.

Later on yesterday, I headed west to the Secret Theater in LIC and had the place virtually to myself for much of the afternoon as I screened two outstanding feature-length documentaries:

The students receive certificates from Councilman Dromm
The Second Meeting deals with the relationship between a U.S. pilot, Dale Zeiko, and the Serbian officer, Zoltan Deni, who shot his stealth bomber down during the Balkan war in 1999. Both men's lives were changed as a result of the confrontation, and twelve years later, they met again, under much more peaceful, and kinder, circumstances. Both men were soldiers in wartime; they knew the risks that came with their jobs and they knew it was kill or be killed in that situation, but off the battlefield, we see how they were able to find common ground and put the fighting aside for good. It's the kind of tale that makes one wonder: if two men can leave their conflict aside and find peace, why can't two nations? Here's the trailer.

Breakin' LA is not an 80s breakdancing movie, but rather a German film about a group of German bicyclists who explore Los Angeles on their bikes. They take in not just the local biking scene, but aspects of American culture at large; we see them do things like volunteer at a homeless shelter and fire guns at a shooting range. The cinematography is dynamic, as we follow them breezing through the streets from various POV angles and doing biking tricks in parks. We also hear locals talk about the difficulties of biking in such a car-centric city, and how biking has become a thing, not only in LA but around the country. Entertaining and enlightening. Here's the website.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

QWFF Day 2: Out on the fringes

Long Island City is right up against the edge of Queens, facing the East River. For Manhattanites, it's the first stop off of the Queensborough Bridge, but for me, living all the way the hell in the southeastern part of the borough, it's as far away as you can get before you start to swim, and in recent years, I've begun to feel that distance. LIC, and Astoria to the north, are becoming the hip places to be in Queens now, and for a Kew lifer like me, I still find it hard to believe that we could ever be considered hip, especially in comparison to the gentrified Hipster Nation, otherwise known as Brooklyn.

Don't get me wrong, I like some of the changes, despite the presence of the towering skyscrapers adjacent to Queens Plaza and the recent inglorious death of graffiti mecca Five Pointz. It's just that it kinda sucks being so far away from it all. From where I sit, LIC might as well be in Manhattan, or north Brooklyn at the very least.

The Nesva Hotel
Still, that doesn't stop me from hanging out there whenever I get the urge. Much of LIC is residential, but there are small restaurants and other shops that pop up here and there, off the beaten path of main drags like Vernon Boulevard and Jackson Avenue. For example, there's Enigma Bookstore, a genre-themed joint that recently opened to some acclaim. Along with Astoria Bookshop a little further north, Queens has finally gotten what it's needed for a long time: independent book shops. They both host lots of events - Enigma had a gathering of Star Trek novel authors months ago and I got a bunch of my books signed!

There's a sweet summer flea market that started up last year, way out in the far end of LIC, near the park. It's a bit of a walk from the subway, but well worth it - they attract local vendors from around the area and it's given me a chance to sample restaurants I might not normally frequent. They recently announced that they're gonna expand into the lot of the world famous Kaufman Astoria Studios this summer.

There are also some nice coffee shops in LIC that I frequent, although their big drawback is that they close early - around seven. Sometimes I cafe-hop between LIC and Greenpoint & Williamsburg in Brooklyn. It's easy when you can walk over the Pulaski Bridge. The bridge is scheduled to undergo some changes in which bikers will have their own lane, separate from the pedestrians, and I can't wait. There's not a lotta room for both as it is now.

Patricia Field
Anyway, all the changes to LIC have made it an attractive spot for the Queens World Film Festival (QWFF) and this year it hosts a new venue: the Nesva Hotel. When I first walked there, I saw a comparatively tall, wide looking building rising from up above the smaller residential houses. I took a picture of it before I realized that this wasn't the Nesva, it was a Holiday Inn! The Nesva was the slightly smaller, slimmer building across the street. (One wonders how they deal with the competition.) I stayed for two blocks of films last night: one, a feature length-film called The Little House That Could, a documentary; and the other a grab bag of shorter films, like most of the QWFF blocks tend to be.

House portrays the life and career of film and TV costume designer and stylist Patricia Field, of Sex and the City fame, as seen through the eyes of the many friends, co-workers and peers who worked at her Greenwich Village boutique and salon, which was also a home for many LGBT kids who needed one. Field embraced a wide variety of these people, provided they did their fair share in helping to run the boutique, of course, and a number of them went on to achieve fame in fields ranging from art to fashion to music. They became a surrogate family, with Field as the matriarch who ruled more like a patriarch.

'House' director Mars Roberge (third from left), w/friends
Director Mars Roberge does a good job of gathering testimonials from so many people and providing a voice for what has long been a disenfranchised and discriminated segment of society. The problem I had with it, though, is that as a film, House doesn't offer a wider context for those, like me, who are unfamiliar with Field and/or didn't experience the 80s and 90s from a LGBT perspective. It's too anecdotal, too much of an insider movie; after awhile, it felt a bit like listening to your grandpa telling the same stories of his glory days for the 59th time. Still, for what it is, it's a nice tribute to Field and the legacy she has left. Here's the website and here's the trailer.

Then there were the shorts. Seed Story tells the rise and fall of a miniature civilization centered around the growth of a single dandelion, using tiny figurines and created props in La Jetee-style still shots. Neat way to depict how simple ideas can be twisted and reshaped according to who's in charge... Rotkop, from Belgium, is about a bullied teen and his cancer-ridden mother. The protagonist isn't entirely sympathetic, but that's okay; that means it has gravitas without being too cliche... in Fe la Vida, from Spain, a clerical error sends a woman through a maze of bureaucracy. Couldn't tell if this was supposed to be satirical or not... An artist tries to recreate the image of the woman of his dreams, literally, in the wordless L'ombra Interior, also from Spain. Kinda surreal, yet poetic as well... and in a third Spanish short, Only Solomon Lee, a series of stolen laptops inspires a creepy loner to connect with people in disturbing ways. Very uncomfortable to watch, though in a positive way.