Wednesday, March 22, 2017

QWFF 2017 All-purpose mega-post

It has snowed before during the Queens World Film Festival, but this is the first time I can recall the snow canceling a day of programming. Opening Night, no less! The Museum of the Moving Image opted to close last Tuesday, the 14th, meaning no gala first-night show, and I can hardly blame them for it, but I've seen worse blizzards than the one that hit New York last week. The roads in my neighborhood were clear relatively quickly. There was a party at a Jackson Heights restaurant, but I chose not to attend. Getting back home might not have been a problem, but I didn't want to take the risk. Besides, I'd see everyone during the week.

It was good to be back at QWFF after last year's hiatus. I've chosen to consolidate my report on the fest into one big post instead of a day-by-day account, to see if writing about it is any easier.

The Museum of the Moving Image

Only two venues for the fest this year, but they're big ones: MOMI and the Kaufman Astoria Studios, a couple of blocks down the street. The Kaufman is one of the oldest film studios in America and home of New York's only backlot. Founded in 1920, it has served as the setting for films with the Marx Brothers, Sherlock Holmes, WW2 training films, musicals, De Niro and Pacino, and more; plus TV series from Sesame Street to The Cosby Show to Law and Order.

QWFF is using a screening area within the Kaufman called the Zukor Theater. I had hoped to see a little more of the Kaufman, never having been there before, but it wasn't to be. Part of me misses PS 69 in Jackson Heights as a venue, but I think QWFF is getting too big for such a locale. It used to be QWFF was spread out all over Queens, but I can see the value in keeping everything in one neighborhood.

So this is my fest diary, including the films I saw:

MARCH 15 (at the Kaufman)

- Forgive Me Father. From French Canada comes this bizarre love quadrangle, interweaving fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. Well-acted if a bit melodramatic. Some shots were hand-held that really should have been done on a tripod.

Forgive Me Father actress Valerie Lecompte (R)

- Someone Else. A tale of two cousins, one shy and withdrawn, the other outgoing and confident, but beware: not everything is as it appears. This one dabbles in alternate realities and Inception-like dreams within dreams, but it's done in a fairly straightforward way, so to speak. I think at this point in time, audiences recognize this kind of storytelling when they see it. Writer-director Nelson Kim said this film was inspired by the work of Claude Chabrol. It's very well acted, with some nice cinematography. Do the Right Thing and Fargo actor Steve Park has a small role.

MARCH 16 (at the Kaufman)

The absence of Opening Night makes the fest feel a bit off kilter. At this stage I have yet to see QWFF organizers Don & Katha Cato, nor any of my other friends. As a result, it doesn't feel like the fest has truly begun.

The Zukor Theater of the Kaufman Astoria Studios

- Late Blossom Blues. Superb documentary about Mississippi bluesman Leo "Bud" Welch, who wasn't discovered and cut a record until he was in his 80s. Much is made of the fact that fewer and fewer of these genuine black blues guitar players are left, but Welch comes across as quite spry, playing numerous shows to promote his record, at home and abroad. Welch also plays gospel music, and the movie talks about the inherent conflict Welch faces from his audiences in playing both the Lord's music and "the Devil's music." What we hear of the record sounds good.

MARCH 17 (at MOMI)

I wish I could've gone to the party on Tuesday, but it would've meant taking a bus, a train, and either another bus or walking maybe 20-30 minutes in the snow at night. I don't recall past Marches being this cold and snowy. Seems like winter sticks around longer now.

Someone Else director Nelson Kim

At MOMI I saw a familiar face: animator Elizabeth Pasieczny has been coming to QWFF for years, working mostly as a projectionist, but this year she finally has a film of her own to screen, which I'll see on Sunday. Delightful woman. We talked for a bit.

I almost didn't get into the block I came for. This year, press passes had to be prearranged online. I was told to get to the blocks well in advance because space was limited. Getting in was never a problem for me in the past, though, and it wasn't the previous two nights. This time, though, I had to be placed on a waiting list - just in case someone didn't show. I was all set to go to a different block until Katha saw me in the lobby. I told her my situation, she talked to somebody, and she got me inside! What a lady, huh? I sat in the front row, the nostril seats, but I got to sit next to Elizabeth. This is what I saw:

- Burnt Popcorn. Unfortunately, I can't evaluate this one properly because I came in late. By the time Katha got me inside the theater, this had already started. It looked like a horror movie. I'm sure it's fine.

- Ayny: My Second Eye. A folk tale about a village, two brothers and a bunch of magic flowers. The stop-motion animation was minimal, but it kind of suited the tone of this story. Not sure I got the ending, though.

L-R: Butterfly director Serife Potuk, Burnt Popcorn director Rafael De Leon Jr.,
Arts and Crafts director Nina Gielen, Swiss Cheez Brain director/star Pat Campo

- Arts and Crafts. You wanted arts and crafts? How's this for arts and crafts: a son missing his dead mother starts to believe he can summon her spirit. Took me awhile to get where this was going, but the payoff was worth it. Very Twilight Zone-ish.

- Butterfly. An act of kindness from an artist to a down-and-out man in the park has unexpected consequences. I was talking to him outside the theater, I saw the poster for this movie right behind him, but it didn't register until I saw his name on the screen that Don Cato was in this movie. It was the first time I saw him act. With the makeup, he looked pretty convincing. I thought he did fine. The film itself was only so-so; I thought it was too gee-whiz, wish-fulfillment simplistic. It did, however, make nice use of Astoria Park.

- Swiss Cheez Brain. Why is a sock puppet sending a man on a scavenger hunt around the city? The answer will surprise you. If I say this film reminded me of Memento, I hope that won't be construed as spoilery, because this is a clever little screenplay, well thought out, with a strong soundtrack also.


(at the Kaufman)

More snow was not the birthday present I had hoped for. Too bad it can't be re-gifted.

Elizabeth's Dillzilla display in the lobby of MOMI

- Children of Hip Hop. An ensemble set in the Boogie Down Bronx revolving more or less around the different ways the musical genre impacts the characters' lives. Huge cast; I had trouble following who was who for awhile before I figured it out. Diverse, too. That said, I found the film uneven thematically. It couldn't seem to decide whether it was a follow-your-dreams musical drama, a debate on what hip hop is and should be, or a political rant. I really felt the stories could've benefited from tighter cohesion. I did, however, appreciate its attempt to convey a hopeful attitude in the face of adversity.

(at MOMI)

Got a call from Sandi. That made my day.

In my past life as a comics artist, I went to a whole lotta conventions. I tend to liken film fests to cons, except 95% of the cons I went to were in other cities. I almost wish I could attend QWFF as an out-of-towner sometimes.

To hopefully avoid a situation like last night, I'm revising my schedule, which means passing on a film I had wanted to see. These things happen, I guess.

My strategy worked. I was first inside the theater!

Children of Hip Hop director Antonio de la Cruz (L)

Celeste Balducci is here. You may remember her from the film Lovely Lily. She's part of a film playing tonight. Social butterfly that she is, she's all over the place, chatting with people, but she did spare a couple of minutes for me. 

And now Katha just talked me into taking a selfie with her. They're trying to get everyone to tweet selfies this year. I should've known I wouldn't be immune!

- Binary Elevation. A meditation on zeroes and ones. Director Eli Tak said he edited several takes to make it look like one long take, which is impressive. I can't say I cared about the rest, though. It was like a TED talk on acid.

- Wade. A bizarre pair of artificial-looking Stepford people and the man who envies them. The imagery reminded me of early Fincher. If there was a narrative here, though, I have no idea what it was.

- Now. An old woman soliloquizes about her life. This is the second team-up of writer-director Paul Kelly and star Judith Roberts, who worked together before on the short My Day. This is pretty different. It felt like they were trying to evoke a Shakespearean speech at times. The problem was, it was all too even; no emotional highs or lows to suggest any subtext. It also would've been nice to give Roberts more to do physically. Celeste was the editor on this. For the most part, she was unobtrusive, which good editors should be.

- Viriato. A wordless vignette depicting activity within a cafe. A short like this relies heavily on ambient sound, composition, editing and close observation of its subjects, and it succeeds on all counts.

- Building No. 13. An old man, a Muslim woman, and their typewriters. Another wordless piece, the personalities of the main characters are suggested nicely through their actions.

- Puertas. One dude's obsession with doors. This is from Spain. Whoever worked the subtitles did an imperfect job; the syntax was off in places. The story wasn't creepy enough for me to get a feel for the protagonist's fetish, if it can be called that.

- Limbo. An albino kid who may or may not be dead. Also, a beached whale. Honestly, I nodded off on this one. Too many kids whispering, Sixth Sense-style, plus my patience was nearing its limits by this point in the night. The artificial whale at the end looked pretty neat, though. I know it was fake because there was a credit for "whale construction."

L-R: Binary Elevation director Eli Tak; Now director Paul Kelly

This block was a difficult plate full of cinematic vegetables on which to chew. I realize they can't all have straightforward narratives, but while I may not have grokked them, they all had a degree of merit in terms of either acting or filmmaking. I wouldn't even mind looking at some of them again... just not right away.

MARCH 19 (at MOMI)

A warmer day. Feels good to feel the sun again.

Another thought about the differences between comic cons and film fests: if you bring your film to a fest, even a small five-minute thing you shot on your cellphone, it's a big deal. You come with your cast and crew, your friends and family are there to cheer for you, and you're guaranteed an audience. Everyone wants to shake your hand. Everyone wants to ask you questions. And afterwards, you drink the night away at the local bar. 

At a comic con, if you come with your self-published book, no one gives a damn because everyone's too busy lining up to get an autograph from Brian Michael Bendis at the Marvel booth or Jim Lee at the DC booth or paying $100 to get their picture taken with some has-been actor from a fifth-rate SF show that was canceled years ago. You count yourself lucky if you make back the cost of the table. And you eat dinner alone at the local greasy spoon.

Well, it was never quite as bleak as that for me when I was in the game. But you get the idea.

Pat and Tom are here. I might have mentioned them in past QWFF reports; they've volunteered at the fest in the past. I sat with them in the Redstone theater, the biggest of the MOMI theaters. We saw Katha on our way in. She was crazy emotional. This is the block, "Queens Corner," dedicated to Queens filmmakers. It got a huge turnout, and Katha looked thrilled beyond words. Indeed, there was a strong sense of pride for Queens in the room, a familiar feeling to anyone who has come to QWFF long enough.

- Kill the Witness. Another abstract piece. I couldn't even give you a proper summation. It's well crafted - the use of sound is particularly noteworthy - but this sort of thing just doesn't interest me.

- The Last Tip. A man enjoys a final meal in a restaurant before it closes, remembering past glories. Thoughtful, meditative, but I didn't know the restaurant was gonna close until the director said so afterward.

- Two Gays and a Girl. Three new roommates learn to get along. The director said this was meant to be a TV pilot, and that's exactly what it feels like. Great chemistry between the three leads.

- I Am Them. One actress plays three different characters in three vignettes. Very well acted.

The filmmakers from the "Queens Corner" block on March 19 at MOMI

- The Fisherman. A fisherman in one part of Queens is juxtaposed with images from another part. Why? I dunno.

- Man's Best. A sick dog prompts his owner to shake his depression. The director explained the twist to this movie afterwards, and as I told Pat, I kinda wished he hadn't. I wanted to be left with my interpretation, which as it happens, was close to the mark. Well filmed. The dog didn't have to do too much, but he did seem expressive, in his own way. Dog lovers beware, though: this one may make you cry.

- Lovestuck. A year in the dating lives of two roommates. I couldn't help laughing with this one; the two women's reactions to their respective dates were genuinely funny. Still, I would've preferred some kind of progression in their dates, some kind of pattern that led somewhere. This doesn't end so much as stop. But I enjoyed it.

- Dillzilla: Titan of Terror! Giant mutant sentient pickle runs amok in small town. Is he truly monstrous, or just misunderstood? This is Elizabeth's film, which she promoted all over MOMI and Astoria. After years of seeing her manic, wild sketches on Facebook and seeing photos of her Pickleman puppet, I was ready for this one. If you remember growing up watching bad 50s sci-fi films on TV and loving them, this film is for you! In this CGI era of digital destruction and photorealistic monsters, is it possible for a movie featuring a foam rubber pickle puppet, obvious miniature sets, amateur actors, and a total lack of grim or grit to find an audience? Friends and neighbors, I'm here to tell you the answer to that is a resounding yes. My only real complaint: the audio track wasn't in sync with the actors. Not sure if that was due to the projection or a flaw in the film itself, but it was distracting. Otherwise, this was worth the wait.

My writing group met a couple of blocks down the street. I was tempted to drop in on them after the block and the Q&A ended, but I had already told them I wouldn't show up.

So that's it. There were a few changes to my experience from previous years, but they're a result of the fest slowly growing. Don & Katha go to extraordinary lengths to make QWFF as accommodating to as many people, and as many kinds of people, as possible. After seven years in the game, they've accomplished much.


  1. Yeah, it is. It's not as prestigious as the NYFF or Tribeca (yet), but it brings people from all over Queens together and it gives us one more thing to be proud of.


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