Female Filmmakers Rule The Spotlight At The 22nd Annual Brooklyn Film Festival

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Photo: Mercedes Vizcaino

If you’ve had enough of the quintessential Hollywood hyped films that have been – and will continue to be – splashed all over TV stations and streaming services with overly saturated ads (after all it’s only the beginning of June), then check out the roster of films at the 22nd Annual Brooklyn Film Festival to embrace global innovation and creativity. I’ve seen a few films thus far, in the narrative and documentary features and shorts, and experimental and animation categories, and wow! have they made an impact on me. And, we still have 6 more days of film festival-ing to revel in and see more fascinating films.

It all began with the presentation of The Gathering on BFF’s opening night and this year’s festival theme of empowering women to tell their stories and call out Hollywood for their inaction towards predatory powerful men. The Gathering, directed by Emily Elizabeth Thomas, showcases actresses dressed in character (the nun, elf queen, spy) all sharing personal accounts of sexual assaults within the film industry. The film and director’s message: “NYC…Brooklyn is a space for the other, the weird, the disruptors. And, that a better Hollywood is possible.” Following this powerful short film was the world premiere of Above The Shadows by Claudia Myers starring Olivia Thirlby, Alan Ritchson, Jim Gaffigan, and Megan Fox.

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Olivia Thirlby and Alan Ritchson, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

Above The Shadows is a supernatural action romance between a tabloid photographer (Holly) and a disgraced MMA fighter (Shayne). Holly has been invisible to her family and society for more than a decade. After discovering that one of her tabloid photos resulted in Shane’s downfall, she tracks him down to make things right and realizes he can see her and has the potential to restore her existence in the world. Director Claudia Myers brings a softer perspective to the sport of MMA and reverses the age-old boy-saves-girl paradigm with Thirlby as a believable heroine and savior of the day.

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Elephant in Africa’s Congo Basin Region, Photo: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Film Festival

Regardless if you love elephants or whether you just love all animals, the documentary, Silent Forests, is worth seeing. Taking place in Africa’s Congo Basin region, the film follows Cameroon’s first female eco-guard conversationalist, a Congolese biologist studying elephant behavior, an anti-poaching sniffer dogs team leader led by a Czech conservationist all tackling the unbelievable corruption, lack of funding and weapons, as they deal with the huge crisis of the decreasing population of forest elephants. The film is eye-opening and sentimental in the depths these activists undertake to examine the problem head-on,  from poaching to conversation and vice-versa. Check out director Mariah Wilson’s documentary feature on June 4th at 10pm at the Wythe Hotel.

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Numa Perrier as Susan (Center), Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

A recent film that had me immersed in thought long after it ended was: Una Great Movie by Director Jennifer Sharp. The story begins with an African-American woman (Susan) traveling back to Mexico to rekindle a romance with a former lover; then it cleverly switches to the film’s screenwriter second-guessing her characters and their actions in the film and the all-too-familiar producers, “screen therapists,” agents, and movie insiders injecting their formulaic and over-used anchors to drive the film to “sell” and have a mass appeal. This film will speak volumes to all, but is especially poignant for any creative who has dreamt, tried-but-failed, or succeeded in making their vision come to life. It’s funny, full of heart, and entertaining for the entirety of its 96 minutes. Check it out and buy tickets to the world premiere on June 7th at the Wythe Hotel at 8pm.

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Mollie Cowen as Casey, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

The documentary short, 3 Sleeps, by painter-turned-director, Christopher Holt is based on the true story of a 9-year-old girl (Casey) left to take care of her younger siblings for a whole weekend in a tough London neighborhood. After her mother leaves young Casey with little money to watch over herself and sisters, her youngest sister, aged 5, becomes ill. While Casey is forced to make the harrowing decision to either protect her mom or save her sister’s life, the audience is at standstill – grappling and sympathizing with Casey’s predicament. Fine acting by actresses Mollie Cowen, Keira Thompson, and Emily Haigh. 3 Sleeps has its U.S. premiere tonight at the Wythe Hotel at 6pm and encore on June 7th.

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Bernard in Bristled, Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

The animation short Bristled is a gem of a film that captures the idiosyncrasies of dating perceptions in the modern world. After countless failed blind dates, Bernard believes he may have found “the one,” only to find yet another fault in the person and is quickly consumed with his perceived “fault” she possesses, only to discover he’s not perfect either. The narration’s comedic dialogue and timing is superb. Bristled, by Scott Farrell has been selected by the Beverly Hills Film Festival, Chicago Comedy Film Festival, and Canadian International Comedy film Festival to name a few. Go see this quirky film on June 5th at the NY Media Center.

This year The Brooklyn Festival’s programmers are committed to advocating for filmmakers who are working in critical systems, taking risks and challenging themselves to tell stories that are breaking barriers. Please check out these amazing films and support these extraordinary and talented artists. To see Brooklyn Film Festival’s full schedule, click here. Plus, don’t miss my festival wrap-up piece next week. The Brooklyn film festival will be running through, June 9th.

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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:

The Brooklyn Film Festival’s 21st Season is Upon Us: Get Ready for Love, Loss, Triumph and Controversy

The Brooklyn Film Festival is back with a vengeance – an artistic, thought-provoking reprisal – in the form of documentaries, features, narrative and animated shorts meant to strike a nerve, inform and leave audiences with a welcomed or unwelcomed – shock to the system. The film festival kicked off its 21st season at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn with a treasure trove of documentaries produced by The New York Times and a mix of animated and experimental films from the Brooklyn Film Festival. The 10-day festival is comprised of approximately 125 features and shorts from 30 countries spread over all continents, except Antarctica. The lineup includes 19 world premieres, 21 from the USA – 37 east coast debuts and 30 first-time screenings in New York City. The festival will present in total 36 short narrative films, 16 short documentary films, 25 animated films and 20 experimental films. There is bound to be a film for all tastes in this roster of diverse presentations from around the globe.

I’m a film buff and constantly seek out new and exciting films – especially independent films that will stake a claim on my brain and will leave me deep in thought for days. Two films that have ambushed my psyche so far: “Lieutenant of the Alt-Right” and “The Story of Esraa.” As the title suggests, “Lieutenant of the Alt-Right” is about one of the members of an extremist, white nationalist group. At first, I scoffed at this documentary, but as I was watched the film’s subject, Eli Mosley, a rising white supremacist leader, whose deep-rooted white male inadequacies was becoming the focus of his drive to spew hate and present himself as an American hero – was quickly challenged in the film. Bravo! To filmmakers, Emma Cott and Andrew Michael Ellis for letting the narrative take shape and expose Eli Mosley and his group’s false, albeit dangerous beliefs, and shed light on to an unfortunate rising movement.

Lieutenant of the Alt-Right, Credit THE NEW YORK TIMES

Photo: Courtesy of Times Documentaries

The second film that left a lasting impression on me is: “The Story of Esraa” – a young 20-something woman who challenges Egypt’s system by attempting to live her life free of her country’s constraints on family, religion, and personal freedoms as she embarks to rent an apartment with her like-minded friends, only to find obstacles and disappointment. This film will resonate with everyone who’s struggled to find their identity and establish themselves on own their own terms. I felt sorrow and hope for this woman, and as I chatted with one of the filmmakers, Mona El-Naggar, Mark Meatto, and Yousur Al-Hlou, I learned about Esraa’s story further. It made me question the freedoms and choices I currently have in the U.S., but for how long? With this administration at the helm chipping away at our Democratic freedoms daily, who’s to say, we can’t find ourselves like Esraa one day?

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Photo: Courtesy of Times Documentaries

The accompanying films on opening night were fantastic as well. The animated short from Italian director Fausto Montanari, “Weird” about girls being different and perceived as odd is a painstaking glimpse of society’s judgmental lens on how we see each other and ourselves. “Deportation Deadline’s” subject matter, by directors Brent McDonald, John Woo, and Jonah M. Kessel is straight from our current news cycle, as many families are continuously torn apart by ICE agents with deportation orders enforced by the Trump administration. The relevancy is strikingly accurate and telling of the injustices currently happening to undocumented immigrants in our country.

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Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Film Festival

The Brooklyn Film Festival’s (BFF) theme this year is: “Bad times make great art.” And I for one can’t wait to see what’s in store for the duration of this provocative festival that has been staging international and competitive films and independent production of films and drawing worldwide attention to Brooklyn as a center for cinema. BFF promotes artistic excellence and creative freedom without censure, and has done so since 1998. To see an encore of The New York Times produced documentaries and the Brooklyn Film Festival’s stellar films, click here for ticket info, venues, dates and times. Viva la Cinema!