VIFF 2021 Review: Queen Of Glory

The sudden passing of a doctoral student’s mother becomes a path of self-discovery, transformation and learning of her Ghanian routes in Queen Of Glory.

It’s not that often that I see American films at the VIFF. Queen Of Glory caught my attention and it turned out to be a very nice story.

Sarah Obeng has been a doctorate student at Columbia University as long as she can remember. Approaching thirty, she’s thinking of abandoning her Ivy League career and follow her married-with-children lover on a cross-country trip. She’s tired of the same life of studying, preparing for an Ivy League job, dinner with her religious mother and sharing an apartment with a male roommate who’s not her boyfriend. Then things change suddenly. Her mother has a fatal heart attack. Being the only child and more responsible than her own father, she has to take care of the funeral preparations.

Dealing with her mother’s cremation and memorial service isn’t the only thing Sarah has to deal with. She also heads back to her mother’s house as her father had arrived from Ghana. She will tend to him and hope to reconnect with him. On top of it, she has to deal with her mother’s Christian bookstore in the Bronx, named King Of Glory, that didn’t have a post mortem business plan. All this happening just as Sarah’s life was about to take off. She decides to continue studying at Columbia temporarily. She also decides to sell her mother’s Christian bookstore, but spend some time in it to understand the business. She meets Pitt, an ex-con with facial tattoos who has been loyal to the business and her mother. Especially since her mother is one of few people to give him a second chance. She also finds time to take a break from all the stress when the next-door Russian-American family welcomes her in and gives her dinner.

Lots of things change over time as the funeral nears. First there’s the Ghanaian community that wants to hold a traditional funeral. They’re surprised Sarah had her cremated before. She has to do all the cooking of traditional Ghanaian food for the services. Then she has dinner with Lyle only for him to deliver some shocking news. The attempt to reconnect with her father is not working as well as she wants it. He is more interested in watching football on television and falls in love with a New York woman, which outrages Sarah. As Sarah works at her mother’s bookstore with Pitt, they start a friendship. However this is put to the test as potential buyers of the bookstore arrive, upsetting Pitt.

The day of the funeral/memorial service happens. Sarah is all dressed in a new red dress and hair. You can tell she’s ready, nut not ready. There, she’s greeted by other members of family and members of the Ghanaian community. There she’s able to properly mourn her mother’s death. Over time she’s able to make peace with her father and found a solution to her mother’s business that pleases her and Pitt.

Immigrant identity is a common theme in a lot of films. It’s about living in your current country while still maintaining a personal bond to your motherland or fatherland. We have seen this motif done many times in films about Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans and Jewish-Americans, to name the most common. Last year, there was the story of Minari of a Korean family and their attempt to achieve their own American dream. Very rarely do we see a story of an African-American and ties to their motherland or fatherland. There have been a lot of African immigrants coming to North America in the past few decades. I’m sure there aren’t enough stories of them and their experiences. This is a great story of a young Ghanaian-American as she deals with her identity. This is something you rarely see in the cinema and I’m glad it was made.

It’s not just about a Ghanaian-American daughter. It’s of a daughter who is trying to establish herself and so much happens to her at once. Over time, she gets her biggest personality changes and has a new outlook on life and herself. She starts as business-like, making decisions about her mother’s funeral and her business. Then she starts to learn a lot more from the people around her. She gets to experience more from the Ghanaian community: a community I don’t think Sarah was too close to before. She learns more about her mother’s Christian bookstore. This is more than a business. This is a place a lot of people liked and a place where an ex-con gets a second chance, thanks to her late mother. It’s right after her immediate decisions were made she learns just how apart she was. The community wanted a traditional funeral, but Sarah rushed the cremation. Also Sarah learns how much the business meant to Pitt after she put it on sale. All this happening within the days of her mother’s death and the funeral. You can understand how stressful this would be for Sarah.

This film is an accomplishment for Nana Mensah. An American born to Ghanaian immigrants herself, she has had moderate success as an actress. In film, it’s mostly been bit parts in films like The Mysogynysts, Like Father and The King Of Staten Island. Television success has been better as she had recurring roles in An African City, New Amsterdam and13 Reasons Why. This film she directs, writes and plays the lead protagonist is definitely an achievement. It’s very multi-dimensional and it gives a quality story of a daughter and her sudden changes just as tragedy happens. She does a good job of portraying a young woman who’s hurting inside, but trying to hold it all in and keep it under control. Meeko also does a very good job with Pitt. He does a great job of playing a character you least expect to be the one that will change Sarah’s outlook or one who Sarah seems least likely to befriend.

The film does a very good job in telling its story. It divides from the world Sarah knows to the world her mother knows and the world of her ancestry. It tells the story well in color with presenting images in black and white of a traditional Ghanaian funeral. It shows the story of Sarah and the bookstore while occasionally cutting to images of the man nearby selling Ghanaian movies outside. It also shows what it’s like to live or work in the Bronx. All these added aspects add to the atmosphere of the story.

The film has had a good share of awards and nominations in the film festival circuit. It was a nominee for an American film award at the Champs-Elysees Film Festival, nominee for a New Visions Award at the Reykjavik Film Fest and a Best Film nominee at the Warsaw Film Fest. It’s also won the Best New Narrative Director award at the Tribeca Film Festival and the New York Women in Film & Television Award at the Hamptons International Film Fest.

Queen Of Glory can be seen as a triumph for actor/writer/director Nana Mensah. It’s an excellent story of how one can discover themselves during a time of grief and of great personal change. It was a great film to watch. Meeko is also good to watch as Pitt. He does a great job of playing the most unlikeliest of men that will help change Sarah’s outlook.

VIFF 2021 Review: The Scary Of Sixty-First

Supernatural hauntings of a New York apartment and a ring of famous sex offenders spark intrigue in a pair (played by director Dasha Nekrasova and Madeline Quinn) in The Scary Of Sixty-First.

The Scary Of Sixty-First is an American film that’s part of the VIFF’s series of Altered States films which set one up to expect the unknown, unusual and even bizarre. Here, bizarre is an understatement.

The story begins close to Christmas with two female friends, Noelle and Addie, searching for an affordable apartment in New York City. The come across one place in the East Side which is grand in size and has just been made available after the recent death of its tenants. The realtor however makes clear that at an affordable price any place they accept is taken as is. The girls find a place in New York’s downtown area. They are willing to clean everything up even though it was left behind with a big mess, including a moldy turkey with a dead mouse found in it. After their cleaning, they decide it’s worth staying in temporarily.

They have no problem living together, even though Addie has a boyfriend named Greg. Addie is at a crossroads in her life. She doesn’t know whether to move on and establish herself, or live with Greg. One day, a young woman visits the place while only Noelle is home. She introduces herself and informs Noelle that this suite was owned by Jeffrey Epstein before he was arrested. Just when both Addie and Noelle were already starting to sense the bad vibes of the place, it gets even worse when they notice blood underneath the mattress. They find a tarot card with a provocative image that they feel holds a clue to the place.

The other woman and Nicole start having a tempestuous relationship. It almost appears the place is becoming more like Noelle’s and the other woman’s instead of Noelle’s and Addie’s. As they both are trying to get a better understanding of the place, Addie is feels drawn to the place, despite also sensing the danger of it. Addie starts having an interest in Prince Andrew as the woman tells Noelle of the stories involving Prince Andrew to the place. Things turn for the bizarre as while she has sex with Greg, she shouts in a demonic voice for him to imagine her underage. That creeps Greg out and starts the friction in the relationship. The woman and Nicole are especially freaked out by Addie’s frequent masturbation, child-like behavior, and fixation with Prince Andrew memorabilia.

As the woman and Noelle get further and further into the Epstein connection with this place, they have had enough. They go to a crystals shop where they think the man who runs the store will know what the tarot card means and will have a good sense of what’s wrong inside. The man turns out to be creepy as he appears to deride them both of what he senses in their aura. However once they show him the card, he’s convinced of the problem and warns them to leave.

Then one day, Addie arrives to the place appearing like she’s possessed by a demon. Both of the women notice Addie worshiping whatever appears to be in the place. The two have to go in, fearing the worst. The end culminates in something you would not at all expect no matter what you had anticipated. It’s even a surprise for Addie, Noelle, the woman and Greg.

This is truly a bizarre story. The story already begins on a creepy note about a house left over by deceased people which the two have to clean up themselves, only to discover a moldy turkey in the fridge with a dead mouse in it! The bizarreness just starts there and continues into weirder territory. The weirdness grows with the mention that this was owned by an associate of Jeffrey Epstein, then comes mention of Prince Andrew, and the bizarreness grows and grows after that. Sometimes, you’re left wondering what the main theme of the film is about? Sex-offenders? The supernatural? Bizarre possessions? What is the main subject? There were even other people leaving the theatre wondering what was the point?

Despite the bizarre story, I give credit to Belarussian-born Dasha Nekrasova. This is a very ambitious film she directs, co-writes with co-star Madeline Quinn and acts in. It’s a very daring story as it reaches into the supernatural, the provocative, and even the taboo. However it’s a story that gets you wondering what is the overall point? Yes, the ending is different from what one would expect, as one should be, but it doesn’t make sense in the end. Sometimes you wonder what was the film aiming to be? A scary drama? A scary comedy? A load of shock value? What exactly?

Despite my confusion with this, I will say the acting from Dasha was very good as she did an excellent job with her part. even the scenes where it didn’t appear to make much sense. Actually if anyone should understand this story, it’s Dasha. Madeline Quinn was also very good as Noelle. Being the co-writer of the story, she would most likely be the only other person who understands the story best. Betsey Brown was also very good as Addie. Being under a bizarre possession opens the door for bad acting. But Betsey pulled it off well. Mark Rapaport is also good as Greg. He has the luxury of portraying possibly the sanest character in the story!

Despite the weirdness of the film, this film has attracted awards mention. At the Berlin Film Festival, it won the Best First Feature Award and was nominated for an Encounters Award and a Teddy Award (given to LGBT films) for Best Feature Film. At the Sitges – Catalonian Film Festival, it was nominated for a New Visions Award for Best Motion Picture. Over on Rotten Tomatoes, many critics see this film as a tribute to the bad horror movies of the 80’s. Maybe these film festivals and critics are seeing something in it most of us didn’t.

The Scary Of Sixty-First is definitely far from your conventional story. However it’s a film that is often too weird or too bizarre in either subject matter or story line to make sense. Sometimes you’re left wondering what was the point? The story or shock value?

Oscars 2020 Shorts Review: Animation and Live-Action

Just hours ago, I posted my opinions and predictions for the Documentary short films that were nominated. This is a continuation of the short films where this time the focus is on the nominees for Live Action and Animated:

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM

Feeling Through: dir. Doug Roland – A young man in New York leaves his friends for a date. He bumps into a man who through a sign says he’s both blind and deaf. His name is Artie. Tareek wants to leave, but Artie needs his help. First it’s a case Artie needs to be helped across the street. Then it becomes a case Artie needs help on a bus. Tareek wants to leave and be with is girlfriend, but reluctantly agrees. Artie can communicate by writing letters and numbers with his finger in the palm of people’s hands, and vice-versa. It’s there they introduce themselves to each other and Tareek cancels out on the date to guide Artie. It continues through the night as Artie needs food and needs a bus ride home.

This is a unique story of the start of a friendship of two unlikely people. I’ve seen similar films before but this is unique that it features a friendship between a fully-able person and a Deafblind person. Robert Tarango who plays Artie is Deafblind in real life and works at the kitchen of the Helen Keller National Centre. This is also excellent how it showcases people that we hardly know that much about. Sure, we may be familiar with Helen Keller, the most famous Deafblind person in history, but it reminds you of the others that have gifts of their own too. Reminds you that Deafblind people are more capable than you think.

The Letter Room: dir. Elvira Lind – Richard is a prison officer who does his duties faithfully. His job is in a maximum security penitentiary and often works with people on Death Row. One day, Richard gets a new duty. His new duty is to overlook incoming mail communication. It’s not just looking over letters, but scrutinizing for any hidden messages or hidden drugs or other things. Most messages are routine. However one set of messages catches his eye. It’s from a woman named Rosita. She’s the wife of a death row inmate. Her letters are romantic messages to her husband. Most of the time, Richard loses his focus on his job and looks at the letters like they’re pages from a romance novel! Then comes the ultimate. He has to meet face to face with her!

This is an amusing story. With a guard, played by Oscar Isaac, becoming infatuated with letters he’s supposed to scrutinize, you get the feeling this will lead to something bizarre. It’s the comedic nature of the story that gets you. You don’t expect a story like this to lead to anything comedic, but it does. And it looks good instead of dumb.

The Present: dir. Farah Nabulsi – The film begins with a Palestinian man named Yusef crossing the overcrowded Israel Checkpoint to get back home after finishing work in the morning. Back at home, he meets with his family. The fridge is breaking down. He wants to buy a new fridge for his wife Noor as an anniversary present. He decides to take his daughter Yasmine with him. Getting the fridge means going to past Israeli guards into the town of Beitunia and it’s a walking trip. The guards at the border before entering the Palestinian region, one younger and one older, debate what is the right way to people that cross. Yusef tries to cross with his daughter by his side, but is given a cold treatment by the guard. He is let through where he can buy the fridge, have a red bow put on it, and have it carted back to his home at his request. He and his daughter cart the fridge up the hill. However it’s again meeting with the crossing guards. As they inquire, they demand he cart the fridge past the gates himself, which causes him to have an outburst, feeling it’s impossible. His daughter resolves things by pushing it through the narrow gates herself.

This is a story where you don’t know where it will go. You know of the hostility between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. You know how badly Palestinians are treated. You have a sense how something as innocent as a refrigerator can be seen as a terrorism threat. You can understand how Yusef has the frustration where he has to live a life of facing crossing guards every single day of his life. The film says a lot. It says what’s it’s like to be Palestinian. It says what it’s like to live in an area of political turmoil and common terrorist incidents. How even a simple refrigerator can be seen as hiding a bomb. Makes you glad you don’t live there.

Two Distant Strangers: dirs. Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe – African-American Carter James wakes up in the morning. He’s in the bed of the woman named Perri, also African-American, he dated the night before. He wants to get home to feed his dog Jeter before he goes to work at his job as a graphic designer. Shortly after he leaves the building, he’s approached by a white police officer named Merk who suspects he has marijuana in his bag. Carter tries to justify it, even defend it, but the officer violently reacts on him as a woman videotapes the incident with her cellphone. Instead of dying, Carter wakes up in Perri’s bed. He tries to leave again. There are some differences from the day, but officer Merk returns and the same confrontation happens with Merk pinning his head to the ground with his knee. Again instead of dying, Carter again wakes up in Perri’s bed. He decides not to leave, but Merk enters in where Carter’s shot in bed. This is a continuos time-loop. Carter even develops conversation with Perri. Carter hopes to end it all. He approaches Merk. Merk is friendly and offeres him a ride home. It appears to end on friendly terms, but Merk shoots him in the alley. Again instead of dying, he wakes up in Peri’s bed.

This is a unique time-loop story that has something to say. The biggest topic is about how African Americans are treated by the police: one of the hottest topics of 2020. Every death at the hands of officer Merk appears to be very similar to a lot of high-profile deaths at the hands of police like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The film has something to say where deaths like these also happen to well-to-do African Americans. Even that line where Carter asks Perri if she owns a gun and her response: “I’m a black woman in America. Of course I do.” Even the playing of the Bruce Hornsby song “The Way It Is,” an anti-racism hit song from 1986, sends a strong statement about the police force’s brutal treatment of African Americans in the United States. That’s why I pick it as my Should Win and Will Win pick.

White Eye: dirs. Shira Hochman and Kobi Mizrahi – An Israeli man named Omer is searching for his stolen bicycle. It’s been gone for two weeks. He tried reporting to the police, but they haven’t bothered listening. He walks past the alley of a restaurant and sees what looks to be his bicycle. He sees it locked at a bike post. He insists to the police that’s it. The police inquire with the restaurant of who the owner/thief is. The man, an Ethiopian immigrant named Yunes, comes out and insists he bought the bicycle. This leads to a debate with the police. They insist they see his passport. The passport shows his Visa expired four months ago. His boss insists to the police Yunes renewed his visa. Meanwhile Omer goes looking around for a powersaw to get the lock sawed off. As he goes around, he sees the officers being hostile on Yunes while his boss insists his innocence. We see Omer go through the restaurant and see illegal immigrants in the freezer trying to hide themselves. We then see the police car gone, and Yunes. Then Omer has the saw to saw off the lock. He saws the bicycle instead.

This is a short film that packs a lot. It focuses on hostile accusations, a police force that lacks efficiency, racism, illegal immigration, and all in a film with a single take. That’s the biggest surprise of the film: it’s a story that’s all a single take that follows its subject Omer around to its eventual end of the story. Definitely a great work.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

Burrow: dir. Madeline Sharafian – A rabbit has down on paper her dream hole in the ground: a private hole to herself with her disco ball. Once she digs her place and sets up, she comes across a mole and a field mouse who show her their blueprints and offer their help. She declines and runs off for a place for her own private hole in the ground. It’s no use as she bumps into some frogs, then some hedgehogs, then some newts and then some partying beetles and ants. As she continues to dig for her own place, she comes across water, which floods every other place she dug up in her path. She’s embarrassed of it all, but the creatures offer to build her place where she can have shared access with the others. She agrees happily and she gets her own place — disco ball and all — where she happily lets the other creatures drop in anytime.

This is a fun story to watch. However if you look close enough, it’s a story about introversion and how one feels comfortable being with themselves and having their own way. I feel this short is saying things would be better if we reached out and got together instead of always kept to ourselves.

Genius Loci: dir. Adrien Merigeau – Renee, a loner and an African immigrant to France, finds a lot of loneliness in the streets of Paris. Then one day her imagination takes shape. She’s able to lose the sense of the city and finds herself in the tranquility of a cafe with a woman playing music. It’s there where she’s able to find the peace in her mind.

This is a good story consisting of haunting voices, haunting noises and colorful shapes and imageries. You really get what’s haunting Renee’s mind. You also get the sense of tranquility Renee achieves after she finally gets her peace with the musician. It’s the combination of colorful and creative imagery with the mix of sounds that make this a great story to watch.

If Anything Happens I Love You: dir. Will McCormack and Michael Govier – A couple struggle to stay together after the death of their daughter. As they drift apart, their shadows morph into their hidden emotions. The mother does laundry, but a soccer ball comes out and turns on a record player and plays the song ‘1950.’ As ‘1950’ plays, the daughter’s image comes out and it forms images in her life. The image even shapes the daughter’s tenth birthday party in front of both parents. Then the images of her final day as she says goodbye to her parents. Both prevent her from going, but it’s no use. It’s a dream and the dream relives how she was shot in school. The film ends with the daughter’s note to the parents: “If anything happens, I love you.’ The daughter then appears to both parents and gets them to reunite as the soul of their daughter is a glowing light.

This is unique imagery in a story that hits hard. Nobody likes knowing of a child’s death, never mind a school shooting. Nevertheless this film does act as a healing story filled with eye-catching imagery. It will touch you deeply if you catch it on Netflix. It’s because of the positive and touching rapport that I predict it to be my Will Win pick.

Opera: dir. Erick Oh – This film is one big imagery. It looks to be an ancient civilization as it happens in what appears to be a pyramid as it’s led by a God-like figure. It’s a process that appears to be from birth to death. Then something happens that appears to provoke the chaos in the order. This disruption causes chaos throughout and there are changes throughout the system. Then when it’s resolved, it returns back to its original order.

This is a unique animated film. It’s like a looping narrative that speaks about humanity and all the stories are all on this one big image that one notices as the images focus on going down and then up in a single take. Throughout the film, it appears it’s trying to tell us about the human race as it is educated, as it works, as it serves their religion. The chaos ensues as it tells of class struggle, of racism and of war. The message the film has to say among a continuous image that tells a different story as focus is shifted from place to place is what makes this eye-catching. That’s I make this my Should Win pick.

Yes-People: dirs. Gísli Darri Halldórsson and Arnar Gunnarsson – The only 3D short of the bunch to be nominated. It’s to do about three sets of people in an apartment. One’s an older couple, one’s a middle aged couple who are unhappily married, the other is a family consisting of a mother with both a teenaged son and a young boy. They go about their routines, the older son to school, the middle-aged husband to work and the older husband to shovel the snow. During the daytime inside the apartment, the older wife reads Proust, the middle-aged wife hides a drink from her husband, and the mother teaches her young son recorder. Outside the apartment, the older husband shovels the snow, the middle-aged husband works at his desk and the teenage son snoozes during class. At night, the older couple get it on. The middle-aged wife hopes it will get her husband to make love, which it doesn’t and the mother and teenaged son are shocked from what they hear. At the end of it all, the older husband sees the snowfall for overnight knowing what he’ll be doing tomorrow morning.

This is a fun story. It’s filled with some humor and excellent imagery. It has a lot of surprises. In addition, the only dialogue we hear is the word “Yow.” It’s fun to watch without taking it that seriously.

And there you have it. Those are my reviews of the Oscar-nominated shorts films and my predictions for the winners. Winners to be decided Sunday night.