Review: ‘What Is Democracy?’-Thought-Provoking And Essential

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What Is Democracy? Film Poster, Photo: Courtesy Of Zeitgeist Films

While half of the population is debating whether to see Netflix’s BirdBox, here’s an option you won’t regret: What Is Democracy? by filmmaker Astra Taylor. Not only will it get you thinking, as most documentaries set out to do, but long after it’s over the ideas will linger in your brain for the better good. The film forces the viewer to examine what this concept of democracy means to them personally, which makes the film that much more compelling and timely in our current chaotic political state. Taylor begins the film with a roundtable discussion in Greece with political theorists and activists discussing the origins of the democracy: the rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek word dēmokratiā; the combined words dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the middle of the 5th century, notably Athens

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Cornel West, Photo: Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

One of the most refreshing elements about What Is Democracy; is the diverse opinions Astra Taylor interjects throughout the film. We hear from Cornel West – a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual and Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University describing and citing historical moments with democracy and the African-American experience to first-hand accounts of factory workers forming a collective to work for themselves to a student activist coming face-to-face with gun violence during a peaceful protest to spending time with Silvia Federici, a researcher, activist, and educator and Emerita Professor at Hofstra University in Siena, Italy as she dissects the rise of capitalism, financial institutions and the inequality that emerged – illustrated by a medieval painting: The Allegory of Good and Bad Government; Siena is considered to be one of the first centers where banking originated.

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L to R, Silvia Federici and Astra Taylor in Siena, Italy, Photo: Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

The film weaves each subject’s viewpoint without the expectation to take a side; it presents ideas for analysis that beget a slew of questions for a democracy to be successful. Taylor is careful to let each subject tell their story organically and allows the audience to form their own opinions on the continued existence or demise of a democracy. Taylor is no stranger to filmmaking – her filmography includes Examined Life (Toronto International Film Festival Premiere, 2008) and Zizek! (Toronto International Film Festival Premiere, 2005). Her political and activism engagement is still prevalent. Her new book by Metropolitan Books: Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, will be released in early 2019. What Is Democracy?: A Zeitgeist Films Release in association with Kino Lorber theatrical release begins January 16, 2019 at IFC Center in New York followed by theatrical engagements nationwide. To learn more about What Is Democracy?, 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.

2018’s Urbanworld Film Festival Promises to Deliver Groundbreaking Films In Every Genre

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Photo: Courtesy of Urbanworld Festival, (Center: Ava DuVernay)

Now in it’s 22nd season, The Urbanworld Film Festival’s is kicking off opening night with the premiere of Night School, starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. Closing the festival is the highly anticipated film The Hate U Give, directed by George Tillman Jr. During its 5-day run, the independent film festival will showcase documentaries, shorts, and features from filmmakers from around the world.

The Urbanworld Film Festival, founded in 1997 by Stacy Spikes, is one of the largest internationally competitive festivals of its kind. Each year, we curate a slate of films representing the broadest lens of diversity across stories, characters, themes, and cultures. We fight tirelessly to expand the definition of “urban” beyond ethnicity to include sensibility, culture, and proximity. We strive to be “the filmmakers festival” and “the people’s festival,” providing a point of intersection where creators and audiences meet to experience bold and diverse artistic works. Expect no less from Urbanworld on it’s 22nd birthday this September as this year’s program promises even more inclusivity from filmmakers all over the globe.

AMC movie theater will host opening night. The Urbanworld Film Festival is scheduled to run through September, for more info tickets, 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: