2011 Nashville Film Festival Reviews

The following blog entry is an article I wrote for TheFilmTalk.com in 2011. That site removed all of their content, so I am gradually reposting my articles here.

2011 Nashville Film Festival Reviews

Day 1

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Tuesday, After Christmas

My first day of The Nashville Film Festival was filled with some pretty spectacular cinema. Takashi Miike’s new film 13 Assassins is a few dials less crazy and a few notches more assured than his average fair. Cut from the SEVEN SAMURAI mold, the film follows a group of samurai as they plot to kill a corrupt leader. I really enjoyed the film’s strategic plot and unrelenting fighting scenes. Four out of five.

The best film of the first two days is by far Tuesday, After Christmas, a Romanian drama following the logical conclusions of extra-marital affairs. Romania is on fire lately with stark and truthful cinema like 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days and The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu. Tuesday, After Christmas holds its own against those great films. Five out of five.

Last year, Bloodworth screened as an in-progress print under the title Provinces Of Night, the title of the William Gay book it was based on. This year, the film returned finished with stars Kris Kristopherson, Reece Thompson, and W. Earl Brown (also the writer) and director Shane Dax Taylor in attendance. After the screening, Kristopherson announced that it was probably the best film he’s ever been in. I have to respectively disagree. The southern drama about a dysfunctional Tennessee family living deep-county felt artificial from start to finish. I saw the actors playing roles and never fell into the characters. I really admire writer and actor W. Earl Brown who hails just 30 minutes from my home town of Mayfield, Kentucky. (He knocked it out of the park as Deadwood’s cheery henchman Dan Dority.) But this film is played with a little too much gravitas. Two out of five.

Day 2

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Road to Nowhere

I’m a few days behind on my day-to-day Nashville Film Fest posts, and for that I blame the Nashville Film Fest. The schedule is so chocked full with must-sees, I don’t have a moment to catch my breath. I am trying to get this particular post out in the 25 minutes left on my lunch break. Let’s see how I do.

On Saturday, April 16th — my second day of the fest (but technically the third) — I began the day by engineering The Film Talk podcast interview with Monte Hellman in the lobby of the Green Hills Landmark theater. (Check it out here.) Hearing the legendary director’s conversation with Jett and Gareth was the highlight of my day (and my year!).

My first film was Most Valuable Players, a documentary about the 2008 Freddy Awards — a competition that could be called the Tony awards of high school musical theater in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The film follows three high schools as they put on productions for the 2008 school year. I really enjoyed all of the personalities in the film and the constant tug the students and teachers faced between “must win” stage lust and a positive, educational experience. Do awards shows make us better, or do they just redefine our definition of success? The overall pacing, presentation, and editing of the movie was fairly ho-hum; and I feel like the producers could have looked a little deeper. For instance, the perception that gay male students have a higher involvement in musical theater than other school activities was brought up but brushed aside without any real analysis. This is a fun documentary, but I was left wanting. Three out of five.

After being pumped up by the Monte Hellman interview, I couldn’t wait to catch his first film in 21 years, Road To Nowhere. Hellman and the producer/writer Steven Gaydos introduced the film and led a Q&A after. I had high hopes, but I am sad to say I was left scratching my head. A friend of mine quipped later that she knew there was going to be problems when the writer told us how to watch the film. Gaydos also thanked an audience member for “truly seeing the film” after the member asked an insightful question. Gaydos similarly praised the foreign press, indicating, I suppose that the U.S. press (who largely panned it) and anyone who dislikes the film is simply not “truly seeing it.” To me that feels like a convenient way to write off criticism. I followed Gaydos’ advice by not attempting to piece together the largely incoherent plot about a movie within a movie within a . . . (how far this goes is debatable and/or unknowable). But still, even after “experiencing” the work without trying to dissect it, I was left without any real insights or enjoyment. A movie doesn’t need to make sense for me; but I need at least one of those two things. Yet still, I feel like my appreciation can improve with further time to reflect and another screening. But for now: three out of five stars.

I’ll be back soon with my impressions of days 3 and 4, including my takes on Steve James The Interrupters and James Marsh’s Project Nim. Tonight after work, I’ll be engineering The Film Talk live at the festival. I don’t know if I am allowed to mention who Jett and Gareth are interviewing; but let me just say, I’m looking forward to it!

Day 3

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Project Nim

For my third day at the Nashville Film Festival, I screened three of the best movies in the fest: Steve James’ The Interrupters, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and James Marsh’s Project Nim.

I began the day engineering The Film Talk podcast live at the festival. Jett and Gareth interviewed Writer’s Guild Of America East Lead Strategic Organizer Ursula Lawrence. If you’re looking for tips on how to make it as a writer in the film and television industry, then you need to check out this episode immediately. (<– No longer online.)

Steve James, co-director of the milestone documentary Hoop Dreams and director of one of my favorite films Stevie, brings a new project to the festival almost every year. This year he brought The Interrupters, an exceptional documentary about violence interrupters — volunteers who seek out conflicts in inner city Chicago and attempt to diffuse them before they reach a boiling point. James’ greatest gifts are compassion and an eagerness to seek out marginalized points of view. These are hallmarks of all of his documentaries, and The Interrupters is no exception.

The film makes a case for community empowerment. The political officials may talk about solutions– perhaps more vocally when a deadly beating is captured on video — but ultimately nothing substantial is ever accomplished. The remarkable thing about the violence interruption program in Chicago is that it is a private entity, employing community members (many former gang leaders) and empowering the neighborhoods to have a hand in solving their own problems. The film addresses the popular misconception that the majority of inner-city violence is gang-related. Most of the violence (an interrupter claims) spawns from disputes between individuals. James follows several interrupters as they speak to troubled teens, give speeches at schools and funerals, and stand between a powder keg and a flame. Time and time again, the solution lies in the hands of the slighted. Bravery sometimes means walking away, forgiving, and being strong enough to endure accusations of weakness. Four and a half out of five.

Next up was the Palme d’Or winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Thailand’s premiere auteur Apichatpong Weerasethaku. The director’s slow, lush, contemplative style fits me like a glove; and I wrote about him in my The Film Talk article on the emerging genre of Cinema Anima. His new film is one of the most celebrated films of the last few years, but I couldn’t connect with it in the same way I did his previous works. Another viewing is definitely in order. Uncle Boonmee focuses on a dying man and his family in the deep-green jungles of Thailand. As death approaches, he is visited by ghosts and jungle man-beasts. The film meanders and darts toward the next shiny thing, be it a memorable catfish mythological tale or a quiet conversation on the docks. I need to revisit this film when I’m not sleep deprived. For now, three and a half out of five.

My last film of the day was the documentary Project Nim by James Marsh, the director of the acclaimed Man on Wire. This is the story of Nim, a chimpanzee plucked from his mother’s arms by a scientist determined to unlock the secrets of communication. Nim begins his journey as a part of a human family, but they soon discover that a baby chimpanzee is not a human child. Nim is moved from place to place as researchers attempt to teach him communication through sign language. I found Project Nim to be an engrossing and emotionally-powerful indictment on human curiosity. Our desire to know is often so insatiable that we overlook the injustice and cruelty we wreak in its pursuit. (You could say we miss the gorilla for the pass counting.) I support Peter Singer’s Great Ape Project, which seeks to extend human rights to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans; and I have a hunch you will too after watching this film. James Marsh has the Errol Morris gift of turning any subject into living cinema. Four and a half out of five.

Tony Youngblood is a film and music snob and producer of the experimental improv music blog and podcast Theatre Intangible. His favorite films include Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, Abbass Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap.

This entry was originally posted on Friday, April 22nd, 2011 at 6:22 pm.

Tony’s note from April 14, 2016: Shortly after I published this article in 2011, two people posted comments. I’m not making it a practice of reposting the comments from my original blog articles to their new home here, but I couldn’t resist posting these, from Road to Nowhere producer/writer Steven Gaydos and director Monte Hellman. (Btw, Road to Nowhere now has a Metacritic score of 59, so my initial impressions were in line those of most other critics.)

  1. dobbsy11 says:

    Tony:

    I can’t do anything about coming off as a pompous prat, I’ve worked in Hollywood too long and it’s probably rubbed off on me. Compared to my peers in L.A., I think of myself as a third-level narcissist bore.

    But in any event, though I can’t fix that, I can correct the record you’ve stated somewhat incorrectly or incompletely above about the U.S. critical response and/or international press for the movie.

    John Anderson in the New York Times said ROAD TO NOWHERE “will perhaps prove as important to the history of indie film as “Avatar” is to blockbusters.”

    Director Atom Egoyan said on stage at the Whistler Film Festival that it was “one of the most extraordinary films (he’d) ever seen.”

    Director Scott Cooper said at the Palm Springs Festival that it was “a brilliant movie made by a master of precision.”

    Anthony Haden-Guest, head of the Harvard Film Archives said it was “revolutionary” and devoted eight pages in ARTFORUM to Monte Hellman and the film.

    Olaf Moller, (yes, he’s German) writing for the Lincoln Center Film Society’s FILM COMMENT said it was “a certifiable masterpiece.”

    Critic F.X. Feeney called it “a twin peak to Monte Hellman’s masterpiece, “Two Lane Blacktop.

    Brad Stevens, in the Village Voice Critics Poll called it “a masterpiece.”

    These enthusiastic responses are, as you’ve noted, joined by noted critics and just plain movie fans in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil where it has garnered really dazzling investigations into how the movie works and why it affected them so strongly.

    CAHIERS DU CINEMA in France devoted 12 pages to Monte Hellman and the film and Cahier in Spain topped them with 14.

    We were just on the cover of TROIS COULEURS film magazine in Paris with no less than three articles on the film.

    LA FURIA UMANA in Italy just published a magazine with 19 articles on Monte Hellman and ROAD TO NOWHERE.

    But as you noted, there are also negative or mixed responses, many of them very similar to yours, but as we have only played two fests in the US and not opened yet, we are largely unreviewed in America.

    That said, for every boat it floats overseas, it sinks another, or just leaves some viewers unmoved or disconnected from the movie experience of ROAD TO NOWHERE.

    Wish we had everyone on board, but it ain’t to be.

    Like every film Monte Hellman has ever made, this one clearly has its own version of the Kubler Ross-like stages of the life of a Monte Hellman film: anger, confusion, gradual acceptance, enjoyment, exaltation.

    Sometimes that takes 20-40 years and even though it winds up at the right station, as a producer of the film, I’d rather see that process completed in perhaps 24 months.

    For the myriad expressions of wonderment and some really brilliant analyses of what makes the film a fresh and exciting experience for these critics and fans, there are scads of notices posted on “Monte Hellman” “Road to Nowhere” at Facebook and our distributor, monterey media, has a nice site for us, ROADTONOWHERETHEMOVIE.COM.

    We open across America in June and I hope if you get a chance to see it again, you will give it another shot.

    And I hope you will tell us if it works any better, “or not” as Shannyn Sossamon says in the film.

    Or was it Laurel Graham? Velman Duran? Never mind…

    All the best and keep up the great movie absorbing, Steven Gaydos

  2. Steven,

    Thank you for your reply and correction. You are one hundred percent correct in taking me to task. My idea that the movie was panned by American critics was based on an assumption, an inference, and too small of a sampling pool. I was squarely wrong, and for that I apologize to you and the readers of this web site.

    The truth is, I need to research the film further and give it a second screening. This was intended to be just a short little write-up, hammered out quickly on my lunch break. Whatever my initial impressions, the film definitely leaves me feeling as if I am on the outside of a mystery, great revelations hiding just out of plain site ready to be plucked by those with the right frame of reference. And I’m not referring to plot mysteries. I agree that works of art aren’t the adjectives that we thrust upon them. The real magic is in the connection between the film and the individual. That being said, my impressions say more about me than the film; and I hope the readers, knowing where they stand with my previous reviews, will get a sense of where they will stand with Road to Nowhere.

    >>Like every film Monte Hellman has ever made, this one clearly has its own version of the Kubler Ross-like stages of the life of a Monte Hellman film: anger, confusion, gradual acceptance, enjoyment, exaltation.

    Fair point. I have the benefit of arriving after the first four stages were laid for every one of his films except this one. I like nothing better than feeling exaltation at a great work — I certainly felt it with Cockfighter — and I would welcome such a feeling with Road to Nowhere. We all bring our biases to the table, and this film has made me aware of a few of my own. For one, I can’t (yet) completely get past certain superficial cues that affect my judgement of quality. One such bias is the choice of actors. To me, many effused (for want of a better description) a “b movie” quality. It felt as if they were chosen more because of budget than because of how well they fit the roles. (Perhaps this was quite intentional given the movie-within-a-movie theme. I have trouble believing that the fictitious director would think some of these actors more right for their parts than, say, Leonardo DiCaprio whom he rejected. On the other hand, I could easily see them cast by an off-screen fictitious director, assigning them roles as actors playing actors in a movie within a movie [the 1st level fictitious director being one of these casted players].) A friend of mine in the audience wondered how the film would have been different if Jack Nicholson and actors of his caliber had been cast instead and if the movie was shot on film instead of high quality video. (I found the video quality at times gorgeous and at times distracting. It just occurred to me that the initial plane crash looked more realistic than the second plane crash. Perhaps the cgi-ness of the latter was an intentional artifact of the movie-within-a-movie production quality?) I’m not sure. But if I liked the film more in such a scenario, it would reveal that either I am overly distracted by the superficial details or that I let approval-cues tell me what to think.

    While I have some biases, I am free of others. I have the benefit of seeing the film with a fresh pair of eyes, unencumbered by the long hours of writing, producing, and editing the film. This permanently changes the way we view our own work, and, in some ways, robs us of the privilege of a fresh, first viewing. You are a much greater writer than I will ever be and have incalculably more experience than I have as a film reviewer; but this perhaps is one area where I have you at an advantage. I don’t know the process, only the result.

    It occurs to me that these very questions are all addressed in the film. That the counters to all my arguments are inside the movie itself already deepens my appreciation and makes me feel as if the nut is far from being cracked on The Road to Nowhere.

    Thank you again for your thoughts.

    Best,
    Tony

  3. Monte Hellman says:

    Hey Tony,

    Since you’ve also made some assumptions about me, I’d like to set the record straight there as well. Whatever you think of the acting in ROAD TO NOWHERE is your prerogative, but there was no hypocrisy on my part. Leonardo, great as he is, is way too young for the part of the September partner of a May/September romance. Cliff De Young wasn’t my first thought for the role, but I felt lucky he wound up playing it because he added a comic touch I hadn’t envisioned, giving it a greater dimension. One of the advantages in making an independent movie is that your casting choices are broader, not narrower.

    I have very particular ideas about acting, and don’t like much of what I see on the silver and/or plasma screen today. And I don’t agree with most critics or awards. Someone aptly stated that they don’t give an award to the best acting, directing or score, but rather to the MOST acting, directing, etc. So I don’t expect everyone to agree with my taste. Like Hamlet, I’d rather please the one discerning member of the audience than a whole theatre of others.

    I don’t like acting that seems like acting, or actors that seem like actors. Like every other contributor to my movies, I want the actors to be invisible, for the audience to be unaware that they’re doing anything at all. When choosing an actor, I look for ones that seem no different on screen than they do in every day conversation with me. And we tried to demonstrate this in the movie, hence the confusion in the minds of some members of the audience as to what is real and what is fiction.

    But I love the fact that all this stimulates thought and discussion. So keep up the good work. And thanks for your part in the “radio” show. It made my day as well.

    Best,
    Monte

 

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