Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

Give me your tired, your poor, your gorgeous

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

I remember an early David Letterman show where he recruited a dentist to review some current movie, and the dentist only talked about the actors’ teeth. That’s how I’m looking at The Immigrant—as a story of immigration. That’s why I went to see it—when I see so few movies these days—and I’m glad I did. But my focus was also a source of dissatisfaction, because to some degree the story of immigration felt like a backdrop, especially at first, when the score swells to fill the Guastavino arches of Ellis Island’s Registry Room.

It’s 1921, and Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister are newly arrived from Poland, where they have no family left. It has been a cruel trip, and her sister has an ominous cough. In no time the sister has been whisked off to the infirmary and Ewa is told that due to her lack of money and rumored low morals, she will be deported. Their aunt and uncle are nowhere to be found. Frantic, she accepts the spurious custody of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who runs a girlie show, and tries to safeguard her body while seeking a way to get her sister off the island—either through Bruno or his rival and cousin, the magician Emil (Jeremy Renner). Emotions run high, and one unfortunate event leads to another.

I liked the period feel, Ellis Island, the tenements, Central Park. And the film does a good job of underlining what a risk steerage-level immigrants were taking, especially women on their own. It was easy to understand why going back was not an option for Ewa and her sister. But for me, with my immigrant-experience focus, the problem is that Ewa’s such an exception: English-speaking and beautiful. Her desirability, besides her devotion to her sister, is what the drama revolves around. I couldn’t help wanting to know more about everyone else—the regular arrivals. While I applaud director James Gray for telling a story that is not what you might expect, it’s not a story that would have held much interest for me had it not concerned an immigrant. (And I must admit, as a public health student, I wasn’t entirely sympathetic with the idea that she should break her tubercular sister out of quarantine.)

So go for the performances, the atmosphere, the melodrama, and maybe the feeling of loneliness these new arrivals convey. Don’t expect revelations of what it was like for your ancestors. As for the teeth . . . I didn’t notice them.

Bitter bread

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

It’s Italian Heritage Month (thanks to Cristoforo Columbo), and the Museum of the City of New York is screening Pane Amaro, a documentary produced by RAI, Italy’s public TV, about the Italian American immigrant experience from 1880 through World War II. The film doesn’t shy away from the hostility Italian immigrants faced—including a mass lynching in New Orleans in 1891. There’s a lot more to the history than portrayals of Italian Americans as mobsters.

Producers Gianfranco Norelli and Suma Kurien will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening, which is at 3 pm Saturday, Oct. 17. Free with museum admission.

Brooklyn and the Chinese immigrant

Monday, August 31st, 2009
Chinese laborer Goon Bow; photo from Brooklyn Historical Society

Papers for Chinese laborer Goon Bow; photo from Brooklyn Historical Society

Finally, I made it to the Brooklyn Historical Society‘s exhibit Living and Learning: Chinese Immigration, Restriction & Community in Brooklyn, 1850 to Present, which, happily, has been extended to October 18.

Through a series of panels with photos and a couple of census books, the exhibit discusses the reception that Chinese immigrants found in New York in the late 19th century and how they began to make Brooklyn a home. The caricatures are appalling, but they’re not only directed at the Chinese; apparently, there was something of an Irish resistance to Chinese immigration, and defenders of the Chinese did not hesitate to stereotype the Irish in comparison. And Chinese laundries not only offered economic competition but carried a more insidious threat: if men did laundry—women’s work—the sacred concept of manliness was in danger.

Overall I found it a very interesting introduction to the history of Chinese immigration to New York, with a rare focus on street-level Brooklyn and the churches and businesses that were part of Chinese life at the time.

The exhibit also takes a brief look at Sunset Park today, and on the historical society’s website you can download the oral histories of some Chinese-American residents of Sunset Park.

If you’re counting the days until the grand opening of the Museum of Chinese in America on Sept. 22, definitely pay a visit to the BHS.

The journey is the destination

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

What I found most notable about Paraíso Travel, now showing at the Quad Cinema on 13th Street in Manhattan, is that it is not the story of a desperate immigrant trying to escape debilitating poverty. Marlon is simply addled with desire for the young and highly manipulative Reina, who lures him from his middle-class home in Medellín to accompany her to the United States. In fact, Reina’s needs are beyond anything Marlon can imagine, but that’s not what the story is about. Marlon gets lost upon arrival and wants only to find her again.

The film, directed by Simon Brand, is a colorful portrait of some of the Colombian community in Jackson Heights and, in general, of the ways people find to get by. The supporting cast has a lot of personality, and there’s plenty of music and sex. I only wish Marlon himself were more interesting; while I sympathized with his predicament, I never really grew to like him.

Ecuadorian film festival

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

The Queens Museum of Art presents the third annual Ecuadorian Film Festival: Views from the Middle of the World this weekend.

medium_flag_of_ecuadorThe program runs from 7 to 10 pm March 13–14 at the museum in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park.

Friday’s program starts with 16 pieces of video art from Quito (or at least that’s the group title) by Ecuadorian filmmakers and continues with Este Maldito País, an hourlong documentary by Juan Martín Cueva about what traits can be said to define Ecuadorians, then wraps up with Pedro Andrade’s Trafficombo, a 36-minute documentary about immigrants.

Saturday’s program features six video artworks from Guayaquil, followed by Retazos de Vida, a drama by Viviana Cordero about three generations of women in Guayaquil.

All the features are in Spanish with English subtitles, and you can read more about them here. Suggested donation for museum entrance is $5.

Flag courtesy of Applied Language Solutions.

African stories on film

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

A couple of weeks ago the Times (yes, again) had a story by Paul Berger about the African Movie Mall at 179 E. 165th Street in the Bronx. Owner Rabiu Mohammed says he stocks 300,000 African DVDs, and the films are a big hit in African and Caribbean communities.

Nigeria boasts the world’s third-largest film industry—they call it Nollywood, of course. Production is low-budget, but the stories, they say, are compelling to the point of being addictive.

Tribute to movies

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Congratulations to Tom McCarthy for winning a Spirit Award for Best Director for The Visitor, which was my third favorite movie of 2008. Various Spirit Award nominations also went to Chop Shop, Sangre de mi Sangre, Take Out, and Year of the Fish producer Jason Orans.

And, of course, congratulations to Academy Award nominees Richard Jenkins for The Visitor and Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath for the documentary The Betrayal (Nerakhoon).

1925 Yiddish film & music

Friday, February 6th, 2009

The Museum at Eldridge Street will show the Yiddish film His People (1925), the story of a Lower East Side immigrant family at the turn of the (last) century and the division between a son and his father, at 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 8.  Jazz musician Paul Shapiro and sextet provide live musical accompaniment.

Admission is $10; students and seniors $5. The museum is at 12 Eldridge St. You can RSVP online.