REVIEW: Queen City [2013]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Release Date: 2013 (USA)
Studio: Galora
Director(s): Peter McGennis
Writer(s): Peter McGennis

“You have any hot water left, Mr. Bubbles?”

The second film in writer/director Peter McGennis‘ Buffalo trilogy, Queen City is a very different beast than his first. Where Buffalo Bushido utilized the locale as a backdrop to the personal story of loss at hand, his newest appears to have been written around its inside jokes dripping nostalgia. With photographs by famed artist Milton Rogovin spliced throughout, a never ending slew of name drops, and one of the best utilizations of the city’s underrated architecture, one can’t help but wonder whether the crooked cop drama unfolding was an afterthought. A resounding success as a love letter to the filmmaker’s hometown—if the world premiere crowd’s reaction was any indication—I’m not sure it was ever meant to be more.

Listening to McGennis before the screening helps understand his goals. Remembering the old days of his youth exposed to the blues by parents more than willing to escort him into genre-defining acts at local venue The Tralf, we can see how close this era is to his heart. But in order to depict that experience onscreen, we too need to be there alongside him. What better way to transport us back than with an age-old tale of police corruption led by the one man personally invested enough to expose every last mobster? Through Officer Brinker (McGennis) we enter mid-1980s Buffalo in the dead of winter as the once booming city continues what sometimes seems to be a perpetual decline.

While Lady Midnight (Vivica A. Fox) brings down the house nightly on stage, kingpins like Valdone (Peter Palmisano) are out rubbing shoulders with politicians to line his and their pockets. And only Brinker and his partner Duffy (Samuel Ray Gates) seem to care. Putting themselves on the line while the department drags its feet and possibly looks the other way, these two best friends are embroiled in the wake of the destruction. Brinker’s father has already been murdered, his wife and daughter are held at arm’s length emotionally, and his captain (Vincent O’Neill) readies to kick him to the curb for all his trouble. The battle to clean up the streets makes them go vigilante to tragic circumstances as Brinker is hung out to dry once the Russian sex trade comes to town via Toronto.

With period automobiles, wardrobe, and accoutrement like lava lamps, McGennis has done his best to recreate the decade. He’s fixed up a portion of the Central Terminal to feign operation, the Lafayette Hotel follows suit as its newly renovated form today hadn’t yet been completed during filming, and radio personality Rick Jeanneret is utilized with a trio of Queen City Roller Girls to capture Buffalo’s sports culture without needing the torn down Memorial Auditorium. Add a Paula’s donuts stand-in, a street vending Louie’s Hot Dogs, and blatant references to other Buffalo staples, the abundance to regional-specific detail can even be daunting to someone who has lived here his whole life. That said, hearing mentions of basketball’s The Braves, our lackluster subway, and the Kensington Expressway are a hoot for those in the know.

The question remains, though, whether the story is enough to keep those not “in the know” from completely checking out. Unfortunately, with the acting leaving a bit to be desired, I’m not sure it is. McGennis’ brood turns his natural charisma into woodenness—something his character’s mental instability overcame in Bushido; Susan Tedeschi‘s Maggie Brinker rings false until in her element singing; and locals O’Neill and Josephine Hogan go too big as though still on one of Buffalo’s many stages. Others like Palmisano, Jack Gwaltney‘s Assemblyman Wilson, and Brinker’s charity project/confidential informant Sol played by Sarielys Matos work because their roles require a stereotypical slant. Only Gates’ Duffy, Lyriq Bent‘s Takiri, and Peter Jason‘s Bernie come across as three-dimensional despite the two-dimensional world portrayed.

I’m being too critical about a work meant to service more than selfish gains. McGennis would probably love Queen City to garner wide appeal and enhance his professional stock, but the true goal is in capturing an era when Buffalo wasn’t the butt of so many jokes. Visually and aurally achieved with an attention to detail not to be disregarded, he also enlists a who’s who of performers to bring his original songs to life. Tedeschi’s voice shines, blues legend James Cotton gets his harmonica on, and the likes of pianist Allen Toussaint and soul/funk singer Sharon Jones round out core group. Even Fox’s Lady Midnight helps cultivate the unique atmosphere that indelibly marked McGennis as a boy—I’m just not sure she’s actually singing since the re-dub rarely matches lips to words.

The end result therefore becomes a mixed bag that if nothing else points a spotlight on a city whose inhabitants faithfully defend as easily as breathe. For Buffalonians it’s a treat to reminisce about the old days through inspired art direction and overt sentimentality pushing the slight story to the background while more local gems from the past are uncovered. And in this regard you couldn’t ask for a better representation of the climate and history our region possesses. Even so, I still hope McGennis will one day utilize this passion in a work that shares the Buffalo we love with the masses. It’s nice to think his Buffalo ’66 is yet to come because his optimistic view of the city can only help reverse the pessimism Vincent Gallo‘s opus instilled in those who haven’t yet seen what we have to offer.

[1] Vivica A. Fox as Lady Midnight (Queen City). Photo By William J. Ingalls – © 2010 Galora, LLC.
[2] Samuel Ray Gates and Peter McGennis.

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