Broadway Review: ‘Tina’ – Riveting, Heartfelt, and A Testament To Tina Turner’s Indelible Star Power

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

Upon hearing that the Tina Tuner musical was coming to town, I had trepidation and a bit of skepticism. As a theatre and musical lover, I had no choice but to succumb to a new rendition of one of my childhood idol’s life portrayed on the Broadway stage. Would the actress playing Tina measure up? Would she be able to convey this powerhouse of a woman justly? Would the music move me? The answer to all my resounding questions: Absolutely! Tony-nominated actress, Adrienne Warren (Shuffle Along, Bring It On: The Musical) reprises her role of rock legend, Tina Turner; Warren had performed ‘Tina’ in London’s West End this past spring with rave reviews. And, now she’s traveled to New York to shatter all expectations of fans and critics alike. Warren’s portrayal of Tina Turner is sensational. The octaves in her similarly raspy voice to Turner’s are spectacular. Warren interprets Tina’s signature moves with grace, sans mimicry.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan, Steven Booth as Phil Spector, Adrienne Warren as Tina

The musical begins with Warren seated on the stage floor wearing Turner’s iconic red leather dress reciting a Buddhist chant. Turner, a Buddhist since 1973, credits the religion for helping her endure life’s hardships. Then the audience is introduced to a young Tina (given name: Anna-Mae Bullock) played by Skye Dakota Turner masterfully, belting out church songs with fervor in her hometown of Nutbush, Tennessee, where her mother, Zelma, played by the talented Dawnn Lewis (A Different World, This Is Us) isn’t too pleased and constantly scolds her for being to loud and boisterous. At the behest of her grandmother, played by Myra Lucretia Taylor (Macbeth, A Streetcar Named Desire), she pursues her talents as a singer, and moves to St. Louis to be with her mother and sister.

The pacing of the musical is perfection. There are no lulls. We transition through the different phases of Tina’s life with Tina’s hit songs and sets so visually stimulating the rest of your senses have to play catch up! The scenes between Tina and Ike are electrifying. Their chronicled relationship is replete with success and abuse at the hands of Ike Turner played by Daniel J. Watts (Hamilton, The Color Purple). Ike Turner is undoubtedly the villain from what is known about his persona and documented past relationship with Turner. Watts does an excellent job of balancing the complexities of Ike, as the abusive husband, yet talented musician that discovered Anna-Mae Bullock’s talents at 17 years-old, Watts is able to convey this atrocious man, with comedic flair at times, while showcasing his singing and dancing abilities. After all, this is a musical and the tone shouldn’t be too gloomy.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan, Adrienne Warren as Tina, Daniel J. Watts as Ike Turner

Executive produced by Tina Turner, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia, The Taming of the Shrew), and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast (Mamma Mia!, Sister Act) ‘Tina’ is a true gem for biopic and musical aficionados. Run! Don’t walk to see this fantastic production of the Queen of Rock n’ Roll. Tina, The Tina Turner Musical will be on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre through September 2020, for upcoming performances, click here.

 

PRODUCTION: A presentation by Stage Entertainment, James L. Nederlander, Tali Pelman, Feste Investments B.V., David Mirvish, Nattering Way, Teg Dainty, Katori Hall, Mark Rubinstein Ltd., Warner Chappell, Peter May, Eva Price, No Guarantees, Caiola Productions, Jamie DeRoy, Wendy Federman, Roy Furman, Independent Presenters Network, John Gore Organization, Marc Levine, Carl Moellenberg, Al Nocciolino, Catherine Adler, Tom Perakos, Daryl Roth, Iris Smith, Candy Spelling, and Anita Waxman, in association with Tina Turner, of a musical in two acts, with book by Katori Hall (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins), originally produced at the Aldwych Theater in London, by Stage Entertainment, Joop van den Ende and Tali Pelman.
CREATIVE: Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Choreography, Anthony Van Laast. Sets & costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Bruno Poet; sound, Nevin Steinberg; projections, Jeff Sugg; hair & wigs, Campbell Young Associates; orchestrations, Ethan Popp; musical supervision, arrangements, additional music & conductor, Nicholas Skilbeck; production stage manager, Kristen Harris.
CAST: Adrienne Warren, Dawnn Lewis, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Daniel J. Watts, Steven Booth, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Gerald Caesar, Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Charlie Franklin, Judith Franklin, Matthew Griffin, David Jennings, Ross Lekites, Robert Lenzi, Gloria Manning, Jhardon Dishon Milton, Destinée Rea, Mars Rucker, Jessica Rush, Carla Stewart, Jayden Theophile, Skye Dakota Turner, Antonio J. Watson, Katie Webber.

 

‘Hurdle’ Review: Palestinian Youth Combat Political Strife With Inspiring Creative Outlets

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film

The world is in political turmoil domestically and internationally as evidenced by the ongoing deadly protests in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia. Reaching its 50th year of Israeli military occupation, Palestinians have mastered the virtue of resiliency in fighting for their rights to exist and living with the oppression that brings social injustice; they’ve taken to the streets for half a century, and attempting to reclaim their land is nothing new. But what has emerged, and shed light on this age-old Middle Eastern conflict, is a fresh perspective by documentary filmmaker, editor, cinematographer, producer: Michael Rowley. In his film Hurdle, audiences can judge for themselves what Palestinians are fighting for.

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film, Mohammed by Wall In Occupied Palestine

Hurdle begins with Mohammed, a Palestinian photographer examining a wall built to confine Palestinians to their “territory” by the Israeli military. Mohammed is clearly anxious and frustrated by his and his family’s current situation, but uses his photography business to enlist the youth in his community to find what’s beautiful and intriguing in the midst of all the violent attacks on their people. It’s gut-wrenching yet hopeful to see this community persevere and strive for a better life and brighter future.

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film, Parkour Team Member Jumping

The film then follows Sami, a parkour instructor who teaches young men to jump and flip over rooftops and structures with measured form. Apart from the mental and physical demands the sport requires – it invokes the spirit of these young men to persevere, to attain the unattainable and overcome obstacles in currently occupied Palestine, even with all the violence and bloodshed simultaneously consuming their daily lives.

Rowley’s Hurdle film is candid. It shows daily Palestinian life: the celebrations, familial moments, triumphs and tribulations that connect us on human level. There are devastating violent attacks that can strike at a moment’s notice. On one side, we see people (Palestinians) fighting for their very existence, and on the other, Jews waving their flags rejoicing as they claim victory over their enemies. It’s an eye-opening experience to see basic freedoms we are all entitled to, squashed, but in succession, witness a movement of self-preservation and determination. Rowley documents the breathtaking landscapes and energy of Jerusalem with captivating cinematography and music. Winner of the Best Documentary Feature Film from the 2019 Tulsa American Film Festival, Hurdle is destined for more accolades and world-wide recognition. To learn more and check out future screenings of the Hurdle documentary, click here.

Review: ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Edward Norton Resurges Dynamic Film Noir Storytelling

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20 years in the making and the film adaption of Motherless Brooklyn is finally here. Triple threat Ed Norton serves as writer, director, and star of this highly stylized film noir rendition of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name. Unlike its printed predecessor, Norton’s film takes place in the 1950s, whereas Lethem’s crime novel describes a 1990s Big Apple. Some resistance from the author could have been expected, but according to Lethem, when Norton asked for his input, he said: “Just run with it.

And Edward Norton did just that. For two decades the artist researched the New York City of the 1950s and its place in history with politics, race, community displacement and power struggles interwoven – the major components that make up this crime drama. Edward Norton plays Lionel Esrogg, a junior detective with Tourette’s syndrome that is determined to find the truth about his mentor’s (played by Bruce Willis) murder, all while uncovering unsavory truths about New York City’s powerful and disenfranchised. Joining Norton in this dramatic ensemble are acclaimed actors: Alec Baldwin, as the powerful, money-hungry and bigoted developer, Moses Randolph intent on bamboozling anyone and any institutions that get in his way of seeing his projects through (loosely based on actual New York developer, Robert Moses). Baldwin’s casting and interpretation of Randolph is quite apropos and authentic as his portrayal of Trump has been well received by the public and condemned by the president; and well, extremely timely.

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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. L to R, Alec Baldwin and Edward Norton

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose, a mixed-race lawyer and activist intertwined in this crime story is fantastic. Mbatha-Raw and Norton have great chemistry on-screen and there’s a beautiful connection their characters convey with an unspoken recognition of the struggle each has endured within a less-than accepting society. Rounding out the cast with electrifying performances are Willem Dafoe as Paul, Moses Randolph’s more humane, and less corrupt brother and Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) as the trumpet man with keen situational awareness.

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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. L to R, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton

Edward Norton has a gift for portraying dimensional characters. He can go from 0 – 100 instantaneously, from self-deprecating to exuding complete confidence without hesitation; his Academy Award nominations for Primal Fear and American History X speaks to this. It’s a given. The audience will root for underdog, Lionel Essrog, to defeat the villains in Motherless Brooklyn but what is most compelling about Norton’s brilliant portrayal of Lionel’s disability is the way he outsmarts those who believe he’s no match for them with grace, humility and humor. And as the audience, we buy it.

The cinematography (Dick Pope) and set design (Kara Zeigon) conjures ups a romanticized nostalgia moviegoers crave. Manhattan and Brooklyn streets littered with 1950s Cadillacs and Chevys in an array of models and colors is a sight to behold. At first glance, you might think you’re in a tourist attraction in present day Cuba, but no, it’s the extraordinary production team that made this era come life with beautiful visuals. The film is lengthy but worth sitting through and witnessing wonderful storytelling. Motherless Brooklyn comes out tomorrow, November 1st. Click here for showtimes.

Urbanworld Film Festival 2019 Review: More Than A Platform for Filmmakers – A Community of Content Powerhouses and Artists Breaking Barriers

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival

Urbanworld’s 23rd Film Festival has come to an end but the lasting impression their 78 official film selections made still lives on. Opening this year’s festival was Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine). Harriet tells the story of Araminta Ross, born into slavery in Dorchester, Maryland as 1 out of 11 siblings in her family. She became famous for freeing over 300 slaves in the south as a conductor in the Underground Railroad and integral leader of the Civil War. Lemmons does a fantastic job of portraying Tubman, played by Tony Award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo (Color Purple on Broadway, Widows), as a crusader. This isn’t just another film about slavery depicting atrocities and pulling at your heartstrings. It’s the impossible tale of a true female warrior with incredible perseverance. When we first meet Araminta, she seems scared; she’s illiterate and a bit crass, having suffered a childhood assault, and possessing divine vision and clarity, she executes numerous and courageous efforts to lead her family and others to freedom. This is the 19th century Oscar-worthy biopic we’ve been all been waiting for – the heroine of our dreams makes her way to the big screen. Harriet comes out November 1st. Click here to learn more.

Other narrative features worth spotlighting are DC Noir, and the female-led cast, If Not Now, When?

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Photo: Urbanworld Film Festival, Actor, Gbenga Akinnagbe in DC Noir 

DC Noir is an anthology of 4 films based on writer/producer/director George Pelecanos’ (The Wire, Treme, The Deuce) critically acclaimed short stories. Each story is based in Washington D.C. and follows working class characters that in some way or other want to escape their circumstances, yet find themselves riddled with obstacles and propensity for crime. Pelecanos does a remarkable job of capturing the essence and culture of the urban communities he writes about and DC Noir is no exception. Long-time collaborating actor-turned-director, Gbenga Akinnage (The Wire, The Deuce, To Kill A Mocking Bird – currently on Broadway) directs and stars in one of the shorts. Pelecanos hires many of the same actors in his television series and now film series, to portray his three-demensional characters. During the panel discussion after the screening, I saw many familiar faces supporting Pelecanos and the cast and audience members emphasized his stellar efforts to characterize people from the places he writes about with authenticity. To learn more about DC Noir, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, L to R, Meagan Good and Tamara Bass on set of If Not Now, When?

Next up: If Not Now, When? The predominantly black cast led by stars-turned directors, Meagan Good (Think Like A Man, Minority Report) and Tamara Bass (Krazy Actress Productions) bring a poignant film about high school friends and the ups-and-downs they’ve encountered 15 years later. The film is reminiscent of 90s film, Waiting to Exhale with Whitney Houston and Angela Basset, as it explores the complexities of female friendships and love interests. If Not Now, When? tackles addiction, love-loss, infidelity with grit and honesty. The characters aren’t always likeable and that’s okay, you still root for them. Good and Bass directed the movie by chance, after their original director dropped out. According to Good, “I feel like I’m cheating on acting by saying this, but I definitely love directing as much as acting, maybe a little bit more sometimes.” Good and Bass have been friends for over 21 years and took turns behind the camera. To learn more about, If Not Now, When? click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba Film Still

I’m always in search of documentaries that strike a nerve in me – good or bad- and leave me thinking about the subject matter for a while. This year’s Urbanworld Film Festival presented: Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba and Skin – two films that have taken up residency in my mind.

I’ve been to 7 of Cuba’s provinces. I was born there and left for the United States at the age of 4. It took my 28 years to finally return to my motherland. And I’ve always wanted to go to Oriente where my mom was from and where the movie Bakosó is based, but I’ve never quite made it there on my 4 trips to Cuba. Habaneros, or those from Havana have always thought people from Santiago were guarijos (hicks from the countryside) and spoke a weird dialect the rest of Cuba couldn’t understand. Wow, are these Habaneros wrong! After watching Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba, directed by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, and seeing the energy and vibrancy Santiagueros have, I completely understood what the people from the region of my native Cuba had to say and I want to visit Santiago more than ever. The film starts off with Isnay DJ Jigüe Rodriguez’s grandmother smoking a cigar and moving to African chants. African rhythms are a central theme in this documentary. DJ Jigüe takes us through the various parts of Santiago and introduces us to artists making due with homemade speakers and equipment. It’s Cuba after all – electronics and anything for that matter, are in short supply. He also shows us neighborhoods bursting with new dances and young people celebrating their local Bakosó superstars like: Ozkaro Delga2, Maykel El Padrino and El Inka making their music and receiving recognition for their upbeat and innovative contribution to Hip Hop. To learn more about Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, Skin Film Still

The second documentary that made an impact on me was Skin, directed by Daniel Etim Effiong, starring and produced by Beverly Naya. Naya poses the question: Why do women and men bleach their skins and succumb to “supposed beauty standards” they feel they need to conform to? Naya is on a quest and travels to different regions in Africa and interviews public figures, cosmeticians, actresses, beauty entrepreneurs, local women and school children who feel compelled to feed into the beauty myth – that lighter is beautiful. Naya addresses her own insecurities growing up with her skin color and learning to accept her beauty and confidence as a grown up. Naya does a wonderful job of exploring this sensitive topic that is universal and warrants discussion amongst people of color within their communities. Skin color does not merit the worth of a person and Beverly Naya is an excellent advocate for championing this message. Please go see this movie and embrace how God made you – beautiful to the last cell of your body! To learn more about Skin, click here.

Launched in 1997 by founder Stacy Spikes, co-founder of MoviePass and former executive of October Films, for over two decades Urbanworld Film Festival is the premiere platform for emerging filmmakers and musical talent to showcase their work and partner with distributors such as HBO, BET and Warner Media for global exposure. Spikes believed people of color were underrepresented in film and there was a void to fill, and embarked on establishing, what is now known as the: Urbanworld Foundation Inc. Under the umbrella of the foundation is also Urbanworld Digital, which includes esteemed panelists in television and film holding invaluable conversations on how to get great content out there and what the process entails. Gabrielle Glore serves as Festival Director &Head of Programming. To learn more about the Urbanworld Film Festival, click here.

Harlem Stage Debuts The Mystical World of Afrofuturism – Bewildering and Charming Experience

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Movie Poster Still From Film, “ROXË15”

Before attending the Order Out of Chaos, a night of Afrofuturistic short films, music performances and a ‘Mind Share’ panel discussion recently, I had a vague understanding of the term: Afrofuturism. The phrase: Afrofuturism, was coined by Mark Dery in 1993 in his essay: “Black to the Future.” Dery, a cultural critic, essayist and journalism professor, examines the intersection of sci-fi and African pride. According to Dery, “a community of people whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” The wildly successful Academy-Award winning pop culture movie: “Black Panther” is a testament to Dery’s hypothesis and focuses on black diaspora and technology – central themes in Afrofuturism.

On this night, Harlem Stage’s audience was treated to two experimental short films delving into the theories of Afrofuturism. The first: “ROXË15”, directed by Celia C. Peters, is a film about a virtual reality female programmer, living in a bleak futuristic New York City setting, searching for a better life through technology, reliving certain events she can’t escape from that prevent her from moving forward; it’s jarring and uncomfortable, but hints at the limitless possibilities technology has to shape our lives.

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Still From “Prototype” Film, From Left to Right, “Android 499” and Sol

The second short, “Prototype,” by writer-director, Christopher Ortega examines human emotions when a black female scientist tests out different android prototypes in her mother’s lab to determine if they can experience empathy. In her quest for substantiated results, she discovers family secrets about her mother and her own existence. It’s “Black Mirror” meets modern-day Telenovelas; and I’m here for it. Would love to see a full-length feature made and have the subject matter explored further.

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Photo Credit: Marc Millman, From L to R, Celia C. Peters, Craig T. Williams, Nona Hendryx, Craig Harris and Darian Dauchan

Post film screenings, director and moderator, Celia C. Peters led a discussion on the origins of Afrofuturism with fellow speakers: Nona Hendryx, acclaimed vocalist, record producer, songwriter of the hit song “Lady Marmalade” and former member of the group, Labelle, Craig T. Williams (filmmaker) of upcoming movie: “Hanging by a Thread,” Craig Harris (jazz-musician) and avant-garde composer, and Darian Dauchan, award-winning actor, writer, musician of the off-Broadway production of: The BroBot Johnson Experience. These talented artists discussed the past, present, and future of Afrofuturism. The role technology plays and one of the first innovators of the concept of Afrofuturism (before it was labeled a concept), Sun Ra – a jazz musician, who infused elements of space and jazz in his work. Sun Ra, in an NPR interview said: “In my music I speak of unknown things, impossible things, ancient things, potential things,” Known as recording pioneer, cosmic philosopher and poet, Sun Ra claimed to be from Saturn.

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Photo Credit: Marc Millman, Nona Hendryx

Following the panel discussion, the galactic sights and sounds of Nina Hendryx filled the auditorium – Hendryx is currently resident Artistic Director for Afrofuturism at Harlem Stage. With her band mate on the drums and the visual backdrop of colorful orbiting bodies, 74 year-old Hendryx confidently sashayed on stage and made her way to the audience wearing a black cat-suit and digital audio tutu with synthesizers; multifunctional fashion. Hendryx is a force. Younger musicians can take a cue from Hendryx’s sultry appeal and career longevity.

Closing the night was Darian Dauchan as his Brobot Johnson character. He raps. He beat boxes. He dances. Moving to simulated outerspace sounds, manifested on screen with shapes and figures, Brobot Johnson (dressed as a robot, complete with silver hair) got the audience pumped and made his performance interactive. It was strange, yet unexpectedly entertaining to watch as some of the loud, pulsating sounds lingered.

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Photo Credit: Marc Millman, Darian Dauchan as Brobot Johnson

For over 35 years, Harlem Stage has been one of the countries’ leading performing arts centers fostering and showcasing contemporary artists of color, bringing exciting and diverse performances daring to be provocative and engaging new audiences transcending cultural experiences. To check out more Afrofuturistic performances throughout the year and explore other phenomenal programs, click here.

Essential Travel Accessories That Will Simplify Your Life – A Proven Testimonial

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Today’s the first day of fall, although the 90-degree weather permeating the East Coast would have you believe otherwise. We’ve made it to the autumnal equinox. And, with summer soon becoming a distant memory and the inevitable autumn leaves already making their presence known on New York City streets. It’s time to think about practical fall gear. Here are some useful products to ease your commute to: school, work or a weekend getaway and keep those summer travel memories fresh and plans for your next vacation tangible and seamless.

Before I embark on any trip, I’m always in a perpetual search for the perfect travel tote. Even though I’ve acquired handbags, backpacks and luggage (hard and soft-shelled) in a variety of colors, belonging to a host of brands, I can’t seem to rely on any one to fulfill all my travel needs. What are these needs? 1) They can’t have too much hardware and add too much weight to the bag 2) The bag must endure all travel conditions and should not absorb water 3) It must be stylish enough to camouflage with any outfit I own.

BEHOLD THE PARKER TOTE BY SOLO NEW YORK TOTE

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Photo: Courtesy of ECHOS Communication

Inspired by the fashion capital of the world, the Parker Tote offers stylish New York women on-the-go a versatile hybrid backpack for their laptop, keys, light change of clothes, and makeup fundamentals. There are enough compartments to carry your most coveted small accessories. The smart bag transforms into a 15.6 laptop compartment tote with a fun striped padded interior that will hug your device and keep it safe. It’s ideal to travel with in the rain and has conveniently placed backpack straps and overhead luggage handles with light gold hardware. It was a lifesaver as I traveled through meetings between New York and New Jersey with an overnight stay. The Parker Tote is available in black and retails for $69.99. Find it on: Solo New York’s website.

ALL PRAISE THE PACKABLE BACKPACK BY SOLO NEW YORK

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Animation: Courtesy of ECHOS Communication

Let’s face it. Camouflage print is back in a big way – not just in Women’s and Men’s Ready-To-Wear fashion; we’re talking water bottles, sunglasses, linoleum tiles and wallpaper. Yes, camo has become as permanent as home fixtures. The fun and super vibrant brand, Solo New York, founded in 2008, has introduced the subtlety cool Packable Backpack. But, aren’t all backpacks packable? Yes, what makes this backpack exciting and different is its sleek black camo design, ultra-light weight of .38 lbs., and its ability to be folded into a pouch that fits into the palm of your hand. The Packable Backpack functions as a duffle and takes up virtually no space and has the capacity to fit 13 lbs. (24 liters); can’t deny its multi-functionality. Whether you’re on your way to the grocery store to pick up a few things or at the latest hottest festival and need to safeguard your food and beverages – search no more. You’ve found your travel bag. The Solo New York Packable Backpack retails for $19.99. Get yours today at Solo New York’s website.

THREE CHEERS FOR THE XENOLITH SWEATER

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Photo: Courtesy of ECHOS Communication

Alas, the age-old question: what should I wear during that oddly familiar time between the end of summer and beginning of fall? You’re chilly in the morning and perspiring heavily mid-to-late afternoon as your fall sweater or jacket has let you down. Luckily, the Kora brand – a company specializing in high performance technical clothing has a transitional piece that will accommodate your sweater or light jacket needs. What’s really nice about the Kora Xenolith sweater is that it has insulation, but not so much so that you become overwhelming hot –indoors or outdoors – during these perplexing Indian summer temperatures. The Hima-Layer Yardang 240 fabric – a Merino-Yak wool blend, designed to help you maintain a comfortable body temperature and odor free. It has practical features, such as: thumb loops, and extra zipper for ventilation, and an inside pocket for keys, sunscreen or cell phone. I’ve worn the Kora sweater during 60-75 degree weather morning walks and as a workout cover-up, before and after my workouts, without becoming overheated. It’s an invaluable piece of clothing that will meet your late summer and fall needs; I suspect it will be a great layering piece for the brutal winter months to come! The Kora Xenolith Sweater is available in Epidote Green or Steatite Gray and retails for: $250. To learn more about the Kora company (founded in 2013) and to get your hands on the Xenolith Sweater, visit Kora’s website.

3rd Annual Festival of Cinema NYC: Hosted Brave, Brash, and Beautiful Films

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Photo: Courtesy of Festival of Cinema NYC

Festival of Cinema NYC has wrapped its 3rd season – and it was a season replete with films tackling trauma, love, and hope with authenticity. Cinema fanatics from not just Queens (host location), but all over the world were treated to more than 125 films, relentlessly holding audiences’ emotions hostage and settling up well-deserved ransoms at the end of each screening with sensational works of art.

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Photo: Courtesy of Red Dress. Red Straps film

This years’ roster of indie shorts held their own and commanded as much attention as their full-length narrative features and documentary counterparts. The films that merit mention: Red Dress, Red Straps, Keylight, and Coffee and a Donut – brief in presentation, robust with long-lasting, heart-felt and controversial themes that permeated well after their screenings. Red Dress. Red Straps by director Maryam Mohajer follows the story of a young girl in her grandparents’ home in the midst of Iran-Iraq war in 1985. She’s enamored by a pretty pop star’s red dress she sees on television all the while listening to her grandfather’s favorite radio program spouting “Death to America” chants. The child is nonetheless consumed with how the dress her grandmother is making for her will turn out during this upheaval in her life. The whimsical animation touching upon war, coupled with a child’s perception of the world she lives in is bittersweet and enchanting. Red Dress. No Straps was produced in the U.K. and won the Best Animation award from the 11th annual NYC Independent Film Festival. To learn more about Red Dress. Red Straps, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Keylight film

Keylight by director Simon Kay begins with former child star Sarah, (Samantha Strelitz) about to audition when she’s suddenly confronted with what seems like stage fright but turns out to be thoughts of a traumatic incident in her past she’s incapable of letting go. Sarah finds a way to channel this experience to bring forth her best stage performance – but via dark introspective means. Winning the Festival of Cinema NYC’s Best Cinematography Award, Keylight offers a fresh perspective on how people can address past trauma to release cathartic enlightening and rise above it. To learn more about Keylight, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Coffee and a Donut film

Finally, the last narrative short that resonated with me was Coffee and a Donut by director Cary Patrick Martin. The story is about a young Spanish-speaking immigrant (Memo), whom after hearing a patron request a coffee and a donut at a local diner, perpetually asks for the same order because it’s the only English phrase he’s learned. He suffers in silence as he watches others order mouth-watering pancakes and the like – until he meets a fellow Spanish-speaking customer (Rocio Mendez) that helps him learn English, but not without some hiccups. This short film has resonated with audiences as it explores the universal immigrant experience of adapting to a new country they now call home; it’s sweet, funny and empathetic; a film so vital in today’s current political climate, particularly with the current administration’s animosity towards immigrants. Actress Rocio Mendez received this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC Best Supporting Actress Award. To learn more about Coffee and a Donut, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Over 18: A Documentary About Porn film

Documentaries must be given their spotlight too. After all they focus on topics that are rarely covered in mainstream films. This year’s standouts: Over 18: A Documentary About Porn and The Queens. Over 18 by directors Jared Brock and Michelle Brock chronicle the life of Joseph, a 13 year-old boy recovering from a porn addiction since age 9. Shocking? Absolutely. As the film progresses and shares eye-opening data, the more disturbing it becomes. The filmmakers examine the correlation between the Internet and the easy accessibility children have to porn sites with inadequate, limited restrictions; the male porn stars and companies who’ve profited and continue to make money from pornography, the female stars exploited and left to pick up the pieces – post porn work, and most importantly, the devastating effects and consequences porn addiction can have on children and adults. The directors did a fantastic job of interviewing subjects to discuss their roles in porn culture – specifically content, distribution and consumption; and what ultimately needs to change to safeguard children’s accessibility. To learn more about Over 18: A Documentary About Porn, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of The Queens film

The Queens documentary introduces audiences to a whirlwind of female impersonators and female illusionists around the country vying for the coveted title of Miss Continental. The national pageant, founded by Jim Flint in 1980, is held annually in Chicago and has preliminary qualifying Miss Continental contests around the country and the world. Forget everything you’ve heard or know about traditional pageants. The true super stars are the contestants in this documentary. Filmmaker Mark Saxenmeyer follows contestants that have invested tens of thousands in becoming Miss Continental; the dance routines they create and practice; the lavish costumes and makeup they spend money on; the perseverance they posses is immeasurable. Saxenmeyer delves into the culture of female impersonators and what’s at stake for them to follow their dreams with grace and integrity. To learn more about The Queens, click here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Quest: The Truth Always Rises film. L to R, Dash Mihok as Tim and Greg Kasyan as Mills.

In a film festival, more often than not, there’s a film that makes you stop, reflect and ponder for a while what you just saw. For me, this film was: Quest: The Truth Always Rises. Quest, written and directed by Santiago Rizzo, is autobiographical. Rizzo’s character Mills is played by Greg Kasyan. Kasyan (Netflix’s “Daybreak”) portrays a troubled teen in Los Angeles from an abusive home that seems destined for doom with tremendous grit and vulnerability. The teen is a graffiti artist and is talented in his tagging pursuits and expresses interest in school, but lashes out, as he internalizes the consistent physical and verbal abuse his stepfather (Lou Diamond Phillips) bestows on him. There’s a teacher and football coach that takes notice of his behavior and attempts to befriend the youth, albeit with resistance, but ultimately changes his life. The educator played by Dash Mihok (Showtime’s “Ray Donovan”) shows a display of compassion and lack of judgment so admirable and mirrors Rizzo’s true-life mentor, Tim Moellering. Mihok interprets the character with great stoicism and sincerity and the audience can’t help but root for both student and teacher. Receiving Best Feature Narrative at this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC, I can’t recommend this film enough. We need more stories like these to be told and raise awareness of troubled youth, the good these films can do to improve their lives and impact change. I impart Santiago Rizzo’s words from his emotional post-film Q&A: “Trust Your Struggle.” To learn more about Quest: The Truth Always Rises, click here.

Festival of Cinema NYC’s name was recently changed from Kew Gardens Film Festival to promote film submissions globally. The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and Governor Andrew Cuomo recently acknowledged the tremendous strides the festival is making to promote filmmakers and their work, and the free programming film panels and workshops events they sponsored in New York City. To learn more about Festival of Cinema NYC, click here.