It’s the Ailey Extension’s 60th Anniversary! Meet Your Holiday Fitness Goals With These Exhilirating Classes

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Photo: Courtesy of Karen Arceneaux’s Instagram @kaep247, Students and Instructors at the Ailey Extension

If you’re like me and need to some inspiration to try a new fitness routine; look no further. The Ailey Extension has you covered. On a recent November evening I was invited to a press-only dance and fitness class event at the Ailey Extension studio in Manhattan. They promoted the most popular classes on their holiday schedule: BellydanceBURN – a mix of interconnected spine, chest, hips, and shoulders movement designed to make you become one with the music. All Styles Vogue – teaches students the fundamentals of Vogue Dancing, as well as current trends with special emphasis on its rich history, and classic Runway. The class begins with a funky contemporary jazz warm-up, targeting core muscle strength, grace, clean lines, balance and control. The third and most exhilarating class I took, was DanceFit. I’m not impartial to this class and I’ll tell you why. Created and developed by instructor, Karen Arceneaux – this is my 4th time taking DanceFit. It’s a high-intensity training, full-body workout that will push your muscles to the limit and beyond. I was introduced to DanceFit over the summer for Ailey’s NYC Dance Week. For this DanceFit class sampling, students received a 15-minute teaser. The class is normally 60-minutes of dance-based training with a mix of cardio and strength training to sculpt the entire body. Karen keeps the momentum going throughout the whole class with intermittent pauses to let you catch your breath. Thanks! Karen.

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Photo: Courtesy of Janelle Issis’ Instagram @jbellyburn

The evening began with BellydanceBURN. Instructor Janelle Issis distributed colorful sarongs with chains, sparkles, and sequins to get your mind bellydance-ready and move to the sultry beats of the dance’s traditional music. Belly dancing is believed to date back to 6,000 years ago with origins in Turkey and Egypt. As the class progressively reached hip-swaying levels of 15 – everyone relished in the upbeat energy and sensuality of Janelle’s steps. Issis has been studying classic Egyptian bellydance since the age of 4. Featured, as the top 6th female finalist on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 9 and debuting her first international T-Mobile commercial with artist, J. Balvin, is a testament to Janelle’s rising star. Apart from joining the Ailey Extension in 2018, she currently travels teaching with “Hollywood Dance Jamz” and “Showstoppers on Tour.” Her love for the art of choreography extends past bellydancing. Janelle has trained in multiple genres of dance including contemporary jazz, hip-hop, lyrical, Bollywood, modern, tap, salsa and more. Don’t Miss Janelle’s BellydanceBurn Schedule.

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Photo: Courtesy of the Ailey Extension

The second class to get students revved up was All Styles Vogue with Cesar Valentino. Out of all the classes, this had to be the most intimidating for me. Images of Madonna’s hit song, “Vogue” came to mind. I remembered as a teen being in awe of the elegance and enviable fluidity Madonna and her dancers exuded throughout the black and white video. How my friends and I would try to mimic their poses by rewinding and fast-fowarding our VCRs – to get the moves right. Cesar’s demeanor completely obliterated my voguing fears. He instilled a resolute confidence in the class –stripped away our shyness – with no turning back. Leading with skilled precision, Cesar and his students  sashayed across the studio and to learn the fundamentals of vogue dancing, and the elements of classic runway stances and walks. Cesar Valentino is a legend on his own. You wouldn’t be able to tell by his youthful appearance, but Cesar has 35 years of dancing under his belt. Caesar became a fixture in the vogue dance genre early – with the underground ballroom and club scene winning trophies for his performances. Valentino was featured in the cult classic vogue documentary Paris is Burning, Netflix original series Get Down, has appeared in music videos with Toni Braxton and Carmen Electra, and served as runway and performance coach for New York’s Olympus and Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. Apart from being the resident vogue expert at the Ailey extension, Cesar Valentino is a master craftsman and designer of one-a-kind garments, costumes and accessories. Check out his upcoming All Styles Vogue schedule.

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Photo: Courtesy of Kyle Froman, Karen Arceneaux

Last, but never least, was DanceFit. Karen Arceneaux combines cardio, strength training, her high-octane energy and dance-based training background. This final class of the evening was not meant to wind you down – but lift you up into the stratosphere! Karen’s choreography and teaching expertise is extensive and impressive. Receiving her B.F.A in Choreographic Design from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette (ULL) and Master of Arts Degree in Organizational Management from the University of Phoenix may have led you to believe that she wanted to pursue a career in academics. You would be wrong. She has choreographed performances for the Saint Paul’s Church annual Christmas concert in NY, ULL in Louisiana, collaborates with dancers from the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A program, and founded the Genesis Dance Company, LLC – she serves as the Artistic Director and has presented her work in New York, Connecticut, Michigan, and South Carolina. Besides being a celebrated choreographer, Karen is a certified personal trainer, weight loss specialist, and TRX Suspension Trainer. Part of the Ailey Extension for over 10 years, Karen’s mission is to be an inspiration to others. Click here for the upcoming DanceFit schedule. 

This year the Alvin Ailey American Dancer Theater is celebrating its 60th Anniversary. To commemorate this milestone, the company will be hosting an array of events, workshops, panels and performances for patrons to indulge in. From November 28th – December 30th, you can catch these holiday engagements featuring the world premiere of Ronald K. Brown’s The Call and Rennie Harris’ Lazarus. Contemporary workshops by Ailey Company dancer and choreographer, Jamar Roberts, plus Young New York Night, where patrons aged 21 – 30 can purchase tickets (any seat in the house) for $29. Free your mind of holiday stress and join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company for these captivating performances. To learn more, click here.

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Review: ‘Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story’ – Captivating and Heartfelt

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Common Pictures, Film Poster of Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story

Documentaries, if the subject matter is compelling enough, are meant to educate, stir up emotions, challenge perceptions, and shed light on topics otherwise nonexistent in mainstream films. Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story exemplifies all these attributes. Whether you’re a baseball fanatic or not, this documentary is a must-see to learn about the sport’s historical and cultural significance – not just within a sports context, but as it relates to the progression of race relations in America. The film, about the first racially integrated Little League Baseball game played in the South in Orando between the Orlando Kiwanis and the Pensacola Jaycees, by first-time feature documentary filmmaker, Jon Strong, interviews the players from both teams, 60 years after playing in this monumentally historic game, and documenting their unexpected reunion.

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Photo: Courtesy of Common Pictures, Film Still (L to R) of Stewart Hall of the Orlando Kiwanis revisits Florida’s 1955 Little League Tournament with Will Preyer of the Pensacola Jaycees

We first meet, Will Preyer, once team captain of the all-black Pensacola Jaycees, as he describes playing baseball in the South in the mid 1950s during segregation and his experiences as a 12-year-old black youth. Will proceeds to meet up with Stewart Hall, the team captain of the rival team: the all-white Orlando Kiwanis, whom Preyer hadn’t seen since that fateful day in August 1955 as the two teams, one black, one white competed against each other, breaking color barriers and cultural stigmas. Director, Jon Strong, does a fantastic job of juxtaposing these men’s stories with their love of baseball and perspectives on race with candor. The limitations placed on one group based on their skin color versus the other. It’s poignant, revealing of peoples’ past and present prejudices, which the director was unapologetic about depicting. According to Strong, “I wanted to dig into the uncomfortable, real stories that many find difficult to share.” And that he did. He shares sports milestones and also features interviews from prominent figures in Major League Baseball such as Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken Jr. and Davey Johnson and Civil Rights Leader, Andrew Young to give contextual background into pivotal movements in sports and cultural history that changed society – for the better.

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Photo: Courtesy of Common Pictures, The 1955 Pensacola Jaycees All-Stars and the Orlando Kiwanis All-Stars reunite in 2016 during the filming of Long Time Coming

Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story doesn’t portray victims or villains with heroes and protagonists and subscribe to a tidy, happy resolution. Instead it tells a story of a vehicle, in this case: baseball, as a unifier of people with a shared love for a sport that transcends race and economic status. It presents opposing views and aims to continue the conversation of race relations in present day America. Released nationwide, Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story can be seen just in time for the World Series. The Hank Aaron Chasing The Dream Foundation, Derek Jeter’s Turn 1 Foundation, and the Global Peace Film Festival have screened the documentary and acknowledge the power of its historical significance to affect change. To learn more about Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story, click here. 

Review: ‘Skin In The Game’ – Electrifying and Entertaining

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, L to R: Christian Monzon and Erica Ash

An unlikely vigilante duo team up to track the abduction of a 15-year girl destined for human trafficking from a seemingly safe suburb of Los Angeles, California. This is the premise behind new film, Skin in the Game. First-time director, Adisa, tackles this subject of human trafficking and the lure traffickers use to find their victims. Leading actress, Lena (Erica Ash), a former prostitute-turned advocate for young women that have fallen into the sex trade has her hands full providing a safe house for girls looking to start anew and break free from the clutches of their pimps.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, L to R: Elisabeth Harnois and Erica Ash

Lena, played by Erica Ash (Survivor’s Remorse, Uncle Drew), is stoic and resilient. Conflicted with her own past trauma doesn’t deter her from helping others and convincing them there is a way out. When a former high school classmate, Sharon, (Elisabeth Harnois) contacts Lena in a desperate attempt to find her missing daughter Dani (Sammi Hanratty), Lena resists, as the two women are estranged and have a rocky past. We don’t know exactly what transpired between these two women and as the viewer you want to know their history– to understand their motivation to join forces and risk their lives. Skin in the Game’s plot is reminiscent of the Liam Neeson Taken trilogy, minus the CIA training, but with captivating female characters with their own set of survivor skills.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, Sammi Hanratty

Written by Adisa and Steven Palmer Peterson, produced by Oscar-nominated producer, Howard Barish, and founder of Kandoo Films, Skin in the Game explores the dark underworld of human trafficking. The threat it poses – to not just poverty-stricken and drug-addicted individuals with little resources– but also to young, misguided vulnerable girls in American neighborhoods. It’s no longer an international problem – it’s become a domestic problem. Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery with illegal smuggling and trading of people into forced labor and sexual exploitation. The human trafficking business is currently estimated at 150 billion up from $44 billion in 2005, according to The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes’ 2016 Global Report.

Urbanworld Film Festival recently Selected Skin in the Game for their narrative features’ category. To learn more about this suspenseful indie thriller, its’ female-led cast, and their upcoming national release date, click here.

Urbanworld’s 22nd Film Festival Wrap-up: Controversial, Thought-provoking, and Fearlessly Female

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, L to R: Tiffany Haddsish and Kevin Hart

The Urbanworld Film Festival is the premiere global festival for emerging filmmakers, actors, and musicians to showcase their talent. The nation’s largest competitive multicultural film festival screened 76 selections, featured 4 original screenplay finalists and hosted digital, music, and spotlight events, which included narrative features, documentaries, shorts, animations and music videos this past weekend. Former Miramax executive and MoviePass co-founder, Stacy Spikes, recognized a void present in Hollywood during the 90s – there was a lack of African-American and culturally diverse films for audiences. And, in August of 1997 Urban Film Festival became the catalyst for change and the first internationally competitive black film festival in the U.S.

After perusing the festival’s schedule, I knew I was in store for some amazing films with well-known and not-so-well known talent that was going to leave a lasting impression. The results far exceeded my expectations. This year’s theme: badass and unapologetic. Actresses, female filmmakers, writers and producers brought unconventional and dynamic characters to the screen. On opening night the festival’s Spotlight Screening of Night School, starring funnyman Kevin Hart, comedienne and “actress-of-the-moment” Tiffany Haddish (Girl’s Trip, Keanu) attended the screening. Hart, who co-wrote and co-produced the movie, stars as Teddy Walker, a BBQ grill salesman living well above his means to impress and maintain his girlfriend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) happy. When unfortunate events ensue and Teddy ends up unemployed, he must face reality and go back to school to get his GED and land a better job, alongside a band of misfits and troublemakers. There are lots of laughs in Night School. Hart and Haddish’s comedic timing are impeccable. Although, there are a lot of far-fetched scenes that didn’t make sense, although the story moved at such a steady pace, you don’t mind it. After the screening, the audience was treated to a Q&A with producer, William Packer and director Malcolm D. Lee (Girl’s Trip, Best Man). Lee confessed that he almost passed on the film due to exhaustion from his previous film, the female-led comedy, Girl’s Trip. You’ll be glad he stuck around.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urban Film Festival, Ellis Haizlip

Winner of the Best Documentary Feature this year was Mr. Soul! Billed as the first “black Tonight Show, the revolutionary program, SOUL! was hosted and executive produced by Ellis Haizlip. SOUL! launched as a local, New York broadcast during the Civil Rights Movement in 1968. In 1969 SOUL! began airing nationwide on PBS. Considered a beacon of hope and pioneer of black American entertainment and arts programming, director and niece of Ellis Haizlip, Melissa Haizlip, provides a fascinating history of the show with clips and interviews with unknown then, turned A-list stars, Al Green, Maya Angelou, Ashford and Simpson, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier – to name a few. Radical poets, dancers, and experimental artists filled the broadcast airwaves of this groundbreaking show. Mr. Soul! is delightful, historic, and so timely and replete with parallels to the current political climate.

 

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, Viola Davis

Categorized under the Spotlight Screenings series, the film Widows, starring Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out); director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave); packs a punch with the powerful ensemble of actors. I’ve seen just about every film and TV series actress, Viola Davis has been in, and she is incapable of any wrongdoing or missteps. As the film’s lead, she is tasked with forming an alliance with four women she has nothing in common, except each of their husbands’ past criminal activities, and a debt left behind by Davis’ husband (Liam Neeson). Davis is the mastermind behind a plan to eradicate her husband’s mess and reinvent a new future for her and her newfound friends. The twists and turns in this movie will have you one edge until the end. It’s incredibly refreshing to see Viola Davis and her female counterparts acting in roles typically reserved for male actors. Slated for release in mid October. Do not miss this film!

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival

Awarded the Best Young Creator Award, short film Three in Stride follows the harrowing journey three African-American sisters (Rainn Sheppard, Tai Sheppard, and Brooke Sheppard) endure, from homelessness to becoming track and field stars in Brooklyn and possibly the Olympics. Director Sasha Whittle’s candid interviews with the sisters, their mother, and coaches will melt your heart and leave you rooting for these future sports stars.

The Hate U Give closed the Urbanworld Film Festival. The much-anticipated film, adapted from the book with the same name and written by young-adult novelist, Angie Thomas and #1 New York Times bestseller, is currently trending and all the rage. The lead young star, Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games, Everything, Everything) is the breakout star of the year – by far. Stenberg (Starr) witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood friend, Khalil at the hands of a white police officer. Starr resides in two worlds: an unsavory neighborhood with her family and friends and the private, predominately white high school she attends with her brother, and Caucasian boyfriend. Stenberg does an incredible job portraying this multi-dimensional character so seamlessly and genuinely. The rest of the casts’ performances are stellar. Regina Hall and Roger Hornsby as Starr’s parents are smart, stern, funny and practical, attributes rarely seen in a movie with a teen lead. Not surprised if this film is Oscar-bound. The audience enjoyed a Q&A with director, George Tillman Jr. (Fun-fact: Tillman’s film: Soul Food, closed Urbanworld’s first film festival in 1997), actors Amandla Stenberg (Starr), Algee Smith (Khalil) and moderator and filmmaker, Ava DuVernay. The audience’s reaction to this film was so powerful. Mine as well. It validates the term code-switching that so many cultures must participate in to assimilate into society – or really, just American culture. The constant police brutality communities of color endure and how activism will affect change.

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival, L to R: Russell Hornsby, Regina Hall, Amandla Stenberg and Common

The 22nd Urbanworld Film Festival came to a close with bang. The abundance films addressing thought-provoking and risqué subject matter need to be told and distributed and will continue to set a precedent and inspire future filmmakers to share their stories. To check out Urbanworld’s Film Festival’s film schedule, click here.

Review: ‘Antigone in Ferguson’ Greek Mythology, Modern Times, and Social Justice Parallels

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Photo: Gregg Richards, De-Andrea Blaylock-Johnson (center) and choir members 

With so many transgressions of police brutality plaguing African-American communities in our country, daily – it’s quite easy to slip into a path of desensitization. The Harlem Stage in collaboration with Theater of War Productions, the citizens of St. Louis and Ferguson refuse to let that transpire with the production of Antigone in Ferguson. One-part play with gospel chorus inflections; one-part panel discussion and equal parts entertainment, patrons of this unconventional presentation are in store for an eye opening cultural awakening. With scenes from Sophocles’ ancient Greek play, staged readings performed by leading television, film, theater actors and an unusual – yet extraordinarily talented choir – comprised of law enforcement, activists, educators, and counselors – form this experimental show.

At first, I couldn’t fathom staged readings in lieu of customary scenes with verbal and physical components performed against picturesque backdrops to illustrate the highly popularized Sophocles’ play, Antigone – done in past iterations, similar to the Classical Theatre of Harlem Stage production I covered earlier this the summer. The synopis: Antigone, it’s about a young woman who is adamant about burying her brother, Polyneices, whose slain body lays lifeless in the ancient city of Thebes at the end of the civil war, against the wishes of newly crowned King Creon. The courageous Antigone is ready to risk life and limb to honor her deceased brother and seek a proper burial for him even though he was considered an enemy of the state. The parallels, from this more than 2,500-year-old play, couldn’t be timelier, as this rendition focuses on the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown Jr. in 2014 at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. The subsequent African-American deaths by white police officers that followed in our country, the lack of action this administration demonstrates, and the perseverance of movements such as Black Lives Matter to affect change.

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Photo: Gregg Richards, (L to R) Actors Tamara Tunie and Tate Donovan

What’s fascinating about this production is that the mix of stage readings from acclaimed actors Tate Donovan (King Creon) from the Damages and The O.C. series, Tony award-winning actress Tamara Tunie (Antigone), Chris Myers from the She’s Gotta Have It and Netflix’s Sneaky Pete series (as Creon’s son, Haemon, among other roles) and Chinasa Obguagu from the Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and A Walk Among the Tombstones films (as Ismene, Antigone’s sister, and Eurydice, Creon’s wife) are instrumental in telling the story, yet their performances don’t overshadow the focal point of this production – which is: solutions communities and lawmakers – can and should – come up with to end senseless deaths as a result of police brutality and gun violence across the nation with much needed conversation. Panel discussions with Michael Brown Sr., community members-turned-activists describing first-hand accounts of the night of the Ferguson shooting, members of the Man Up Project, therapists and individuals committed to make an impact and let their voices be heard – moved the audience in the theater that night: including me.

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Photo Credit: Gregg Richards, Panel (L to R): Erica Wright, Lt. Latricia Allen, Michael Brown Sr.

Artistic director and moderator of the Antigone in Ferguson production, Bryan Doerries has presented over 60 performances across all five boroughs. Antigone in Ferguson at Harlem Stage marks a departure from the company’s history of nomadic presentations. Having mounted over 700 events at a range of venues around the world, from Guantanamo Bay to a playground in Brownsville, Brooklyn, this extended run (September 13 – October 13) will be the first time Theater of War Productions will embed itself in one location for an extended period of time. Exclusively supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the 30 free (RSVP required) performances at Harlem Stage will offer expanded opportunities for community participation in this innovative social justice project. Don’t miss upcoming performances by actors: Frankie Faison (Coming to America, The Wire) Chris Noth (Sex and the City franchise, Law & Order), Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black), and Kathryn Erbe (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) to name a few. For more information on Antigone in Ferguson and upcoming schedule, click here.

Film Review: ‘All Is Not Lost’ – Mixes Laughter With Geriatrics

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Photo: Courtesy of Natalie Gee (L to R) Robert W. Smith as Calvin and Natalie Gee as Claire

I’m rooting for All is Not lost – and so should you. The indie dramedy starring and directed by Natalie Gee has a great premise and two unusual male and female leads. The short film: about an octogenarian (Calvin) with the onset of Alzheimer’s and his twenty-something care-giver (Claire), who also happens to reside at The Greens Geriatric Assessment Center where Calvin is a resident, have a nice dynamic. She tends to Calvin and while making sure he goes to his appointments and Bingo, he rebels against his daily schedule, is lost in reverie – thinking about his deceased wife, and occasionally breaks out of the facility. We don’t know for sure if his behavior is wholly attributed to his disease or the mourning of his wife.

All is Not Lost is charming in that it doesn’t take a somber approach to growing old and dwelling on the pitfalls that accompany the twilight years. It has Wes Anderson-like qualities with its vibrant color hues, quirky character wardrobe and funky music to move the story. Calvin and the residents of the Greens facility are entertaining, especially the film’s villain, Barney.

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Photo: Courtesy of Natalie Gee, Robert W. Smith as Calvin

What I do wish the film possessed is backstory. How did Calvin and Claire come together? What were their lives like, prior to The Greens Geriatric Assessment Center? Why does Claire live there? As the audience, we need to know these details to fully invest and understand these characters – especially their evolution in the film. Perhaps this could be remedied by making All is Not Lost into a full-length feature. If that happens – I’m all for it!  All is Not Lost is currently making the rounds in film festival circuit with its world premiere on August 17th at The HollyShorts Film Festival. For updates and to learn more about All is Not Lost, click here.

The Kew Gardens Festival Of Cinema’s 2nd Year Anniversary Review: Tragic, Timely and Titillating!

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Song of Sway Lake, Photo: Courtesy of Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema

Kew Gardens isn’t known to be epicenter of film, but with this year’s film festival lineup – it is well on its way. This culturally rich Queens enclave is currently hosting 110 films from 23 countries, including the U.S. Canada, Italy, Turkey and South Africa. The Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema, now in its 2nd year, is claiming its status as a purveyor of cutting edge cinema. Watch out Cannes! This year’s festival categories include narrative features, documentaries, short films, animation, experimental, music video and web series. The Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema has partnered with the Regal Entertainment Group’s UA Midway Stadium 9 and The Queens Museum to bring these brilliant films the recognition they deserve. After meeting their crowdfunding goals, festival organizers are committed to endorse neighborhood businesses to festival attendees.

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(L to R, Elizabeth Pena and Mary Beth Peil. Photo: Courtesy of Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema

On opening night, there’s always a film that steals the spotlight and sets the bar for the rest of the festival, At the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema, this night was no exception. “The Song of Sway Lake” directed by Ari Gold was it. The film about a young man, Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin), who travels along with his friend, a comical and sly Russian transient, to the his family’s once glamorous lake house in the Adirondacks to steal a one-of-a-kind vintage record with the secret recording of the hit “Sway Lake.” Ollie believes the record will improve his life and help him understand his father’s suicide at the famed lake – until his plans are thwarted by his grandmother, Charlie Sway (Mary Beth Peil). The cinematography and original music by the director’s brother, Ethan Gold are expertly sprinkled throughout the film and transport the audience back-and-forth to a simpler elegant era in America. The scoring in the film is a character in itself with nostalgic interludes between scenes. “The Song of Sway” is a romantic drama tackling the complexities of family, love, friendships, and death with beautiful storytelling. Rory Culkin and Mary Beth Peil are extraordinary to watch. The late actress, Elizabeth Peña as Charlie’s housekeeper/confidante/friend/punching bag is resilient and stoic. Known for “La Bamba” and “Jacob’s Ladder,” Peña will be missed.

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(L to R, Aurora Perrineau (Addison) and Rachel Hendrix (Lyle), Photo: Courtesy of Rushaway Pictures

Festival closer and critically acclaimed film, “Virginia Minnesota” also examines complicated friendships. The indie film by Daniel Stine about two friends reconnecting after 15 years for a will reading at the foster home they both lived in as young girls and vowed never to return, due to the mysterious childhood tragedy bestowed on their young friend Virginia. Now in their mid-twenties, Lyle and Addison embark on a journey of painful childhood memories, turbulent relationships, and self-reflection. This film will make you believe in fairy tales and the monsters that sometimes inhabit them – with optimism and faith.

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Murder Made Easy, Jessica Graham (Joan) and Christopher Soren Kelly (Michael), Photo: Courtesy of Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema

Two whodunits worthy of recognition are “Murder Made Easy” by director Dave Palamaro and Canadian film “The Doctor’s Case,” directed by James Douglas and co-director Leonard Pearl. Each offers a creative spin on the murder-mystery genre. “Murder Made Easy” follows Joan and Michael, two friends throwing an elaborate dinner party for their close friends to remember the passing of Joan’s husband, Neil, on the one-year anniversary of his death. The friends may not want to ingest what these hosts are serving – literally and figuratively. Although some of the scenes are far-fetched and a little over-the-top, the plot twists are so entertaining you’re willing to forego some of the missteps in this clever pop horror film. Based on the short story by Stephen King, “The Doctor’s Case” shines the spotlight on Sherlock Holmes’ assistant, Dr. Watson, as he takes the lead in solving the murder of a contemptuous English lord. When you couple The King of Horror’s story with the mastermind detective, audiences are in store for a thrilling ride. Add to that, actors William B. Davis as Dr. Watson from “The X-Files” series and Denise Crosby (also guest-starred on “The X-Files”) as Captain Norton from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” who keep the suspense going throughout the movie.

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The Doctor’s Case, Photo: Courtesy of Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema

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Modified, Photo: Courtesy of Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema

A film festival isn’t complete without stellar documentaries making powerful statements. And, after watching “Modified” and “Beneath the Ink,” mission accomplished. Filmmaker Aube Giroux takes a startling look at the inclusion of GMOs – Genetically Modified Organisms – for instance: corn crops being injected with pig genes by food manufacturers in the US and Canada with no regulations in place. Scared yet? You will be after viewing “Modified.” Giroux took over 10 years to finish this personal project and interjects touching memoir-style scenes of her family and her love of food throughout the years. It’s eye opening, frustrating and necessary to watch. “Beneath the Ink” by director Cy Dodson is a timely documentary exposing the hate and racism in a Southeastern Ohio (Appalachian region) community and what one tattoo artist is doing to help change people’s views and a chance at redemption. The film shows various facets of racism – how it is taught through generations and the individuals in this community that are committed to changing their indoctrinated hateful beliefs. It’s raw and real and we need more films like these highlighting solutions – not problems – with racism, exacerbated by the current administration.

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Beneath the Ink, Photo: Courtesy of Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema

Short film “R.V” was made right after the 2017 elections by directors Will Hawkes and Melissa Center to give women a voice and take a stand on the injustices seen in this country as basic human rights are consistently stripped away by elected officials. The film follows a couple after they make a difficult decision to have an illegal abortion in a seedy motorhome after the wife is left with no other legal alternative. This film’s subject matter couldn’t be any more relevant as the looming induction of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is underway. Kavanaugh is a vocal opponent of Roe v. Wade. Time will tell if the landmark case and law that followed to make abortions legal will be phased out.

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R.V, Photo: Courtesy of Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema

On a lighter note, the Belgium animated film “Catherine” by director Britt Raes, is about a girl who loves pets, but has a hard time keeping them alive, until she gets a cat. The film illustrates the universal empathy children display to animals. As she grows up she has a hard time socializing with other people but is comforted by her cat and ultimately becomes a crazy old cat lady. This film is reminiscent and a sweet reminder of the childhood pets we love and become accustomed to and how we recover from the limited time they spend with us – funny and bittersweet film worth seeing.

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Catherine, Photo: Courtesy of Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema

Apart the fantastic screenings, The Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema presents two panels: The Jury’s Out: Meet the 2018 Festival Jurors, and A Change Overdue: Diversity in Cinema, a discussion on diversity in independent film featuring invited filmmakers from the festival at the Center at the Maple Grove in Queens. On Sunday, August 12th, the final day of the festival, the Awards Dinner Gala returns to Terrace on the Park in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Do not miss out on this incredible film festival! To get more information and to buy tickets to the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema, click here: