The following blog entry is an article I wrote for TheFilmTalk.com in 2012. That site removed all of their content, so I am gradually reposting my articles here.
2012 Nashville Film Festival Reviews
Days 1 & 2
As I write this, the clock strikes 12AM on Saturday morning, and I come upon a realization: I’m going to be doing quite a lot of hustling this week. For the past two nights, I’ve hustled from work to cinema, cinema to concert, concert to computer, and computer to (presumably) bed. And those were the easy days. My weekend docket includes an intimidating 10 films. As I’m very fond of sleep, I have to figure out a way to write faster.
Here it goes. My first film of the fest – and my only film on Thursday – was ATTENBERG, a Greek slice-of-strange directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, the producer of the 2010 NaFF standout DOGTOOTH and 2012 NaFF entry ALPS. 23-year-old Marina gropes for some kind of connection with someone other than her dying father and her best friend Bella. Somewhere around the third or fourth silly walk, I wondered if all the weirdness was thrown in for weirdness sake. But oddly, it didn’t distract from a very touching portrait of a woman in transition. I really enjoyed this film.
Oh, and the soundtrack features a Daniel Johnston song. Tip of the hat to the king of awkward / beautiful.
My sole flick on Friday was BESTIARE, a near-wordless, experimental documentary by CURLING’s Denis Côté. BESTIARE was mostly recorded in a Canadian safari-park, featuring long takes of the various animals exhibited. Near the beginning, I wondered if the director was too in love with his prettily-framed shots. That hunch soon faded as I became washed in equal portions of awe and fidgetiness (the Bela Tarr effect). The film was not so much about the animals, whom we see prodded, gawked at, and eventually stuffed and hung on the wall. Rather, BESTIARE is a film about humans and their control of the world. We never see the animals in natural environments. Every frame reveals a human’s mark: a cage, a pen, a feeding bowl. In one scene, a baby chimp hugs a teddy bear, presumably a surrogate mother. The chimp doesn’t seem to notice that the teddy bear is upside down.
Tomorrow (or I should say this afternoon), I’m banking on PILGRIM SONG and V/H/S to be the day’s winners. I’ll also most likely check out the rock docs THE GODMOTHER OF ROCK & ROLL: SISTER ROSETTA THARPE and LOUDER THAN LOVE: THE GRANDE BALLROOM STORY. And because I have a soft spot in my heart for Lizzy Caplan (TRUE BLOOD, PARTY DOWN), Alison Brie (MAD MEN, COMMUNITY), and Martin Starr (FREAKS & GEEKS, PARTY DOWN), I’m on for the potentially-hazardous American romcom SAVE THE DATE.
After assembling my list of films to see at the fest, I worked out a schedule. Unbelievably, Saturday (the day with potentially the largest audience of the fest) was bare. I had PILGRIM SONG at 1pm and V/H/S at 10pm with nothing in between. So I re-studied the films and worked out three pick-ups — films I didn’t have high confidence in but would keep me in the seats and (hopefully) surprise me. This is a bit of a shame considering how many films I wanted to see but couldn’t because of scheduling conflicts (LAST CALL AT THE OASIS, DAYS OF GRASS, GEORGE THE HEDGEHOG, ABSENT, and GIRL MODEL most notably).
I started the day with a film I didn’t have high hopes for: PILGRIM SONG, Martha Stephens’s narrative feature about a Louisville teacher’s hike through the Sheltowee Trace Trail. There are many reasons to be suspect of American films shot on video with partially non-professional casts at regional American film festivals. I usually avoid them like the plague. But there was something about the trailer (and, admittedly, an early review) that made me want to give this one a try. So I entered the theater expecting a nice little film with pleasing bluegrass music shot in my home state of Kentucky.
The film took my expectations and shot them through a canon! This is a beautiful, touching, skillful, and mature work about a man’s passage from boy-child to adulthood. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Martha Stephens is definitely a director to watch. PILGRIM SONG plays again on Tuesday, Apr 24, at 4:30. Go see it!
Next up were two rock documentaries: THE GODMOTHER OF SOUL: SISTER ROSETTA THARPE and LOUDER THAN LOVE: THE GRANDE BALLROOM STORY. I try and avoid “subject” documentaries at film fests because I feel the films take a back seat to that which is being profiled. In the case of these two films, the subject is extremely fascinating. I knew little about the pioneer rock & roller Rosetta Tharpe and even less about Detroit’s 60s rock bastion the Grande Ballroom. The films educated me, and I’m glad I saw them. Subject matter: 5 stars.
Now on to the production. THE GODMOTHER OF SOUL is well enough made, but I can’t help but feel that its home is the small screen. And indeed, as it turns out, it was made for British television. LOUDER THAN LOVE was the labor of love of television producer Tony D’Annunzio. He produced it over the course of four years, as money came in and as former Grande bands toured through Detroit. Hats off to Tony for finishing this film and capturing so many memories about the Grande. But there are problems. First, the interview clips are edited so tightly, that there is no room to breath. I quickly became exhausted from sound-bite after sound-bit. It felt like Tony had a wealth of material that he was trying to cram into 75 minutes. Next: stylistic choice. Interviewee after interviewee talked about Detroit’s lack of pretensions and affectation. From the town that created the MC5 and the Stooges, substance ruled over style. Crowds were brutal to what they perceived as bullshit. And yet, LOUDER THAN LOVE is extremely slick, glitzy inter-titles zooming over scenes of the now-abandoned Grande Ballroom. Come on now, Tony, kick out the jams!
Ok, I have about 10 minutes before I need to leave for today’s crop of films. (BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING, TALES OF THE NIGHT, INTOUCHABLES, and ALPS.) I’ll have to make the last two reviews quick.
SAVE THE DATE is an American romantic comedy starring Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Allison Brie, and Mark Webber. Caplan and director Micheal Mohan attended the screening. After the film, Micheal told us that the film was being considered for widescreen distribution and that he wanted to move out of his studio apartment. He pleaded with us to “like” the film on Facebook and tell all of our friends how great it was. I have no desire to hurt Michael’s chances. . . so I’ll move on to the next review.
The last film of the night was V/H/S, a found footage horror anthology by David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Ti West, Adam Wingard, Radio Silence and Joe Swanberg. (Joe and I attended the Cinema & Photography department at Southern Illinois University around the same time, though I don’t recall ever meeting him.) Joe and Producer Roxanne Benjamin spoke after the film. Roxanne said the filmmakers were each told to go make a found footage horror and that no one knew what the others were doing. That was unfortunate. The result is an extremely uneven, radically tone-shifting, overly-long, and unforgivably-silly horror anthology made by 10 white dudes in their 20s and early 30s. The problem with commissioning big-name directors to make an anthology film is the way it ties your hands. Ti West’s segment about a pair of wild west vacationers should have been cut. But who’s going to tell that to Ti West? My favorite segments were by Joe Swanberg and Radio Silence. Joe’s idea was innovative — the whole film a screen capture of a Skype conversation. Radio Silence’s short was everything the others should have been: economical, doing exactly what it set out to do and getting out of the way.
I’ll have to make this one quick. I have to leave to see ELENA in 25 minutes.
First up on Sunday was BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING, a very nice documentary about artist and former Chattanooga resident Wayne White. Wayne is responsible for designing and voicing Randy, Dirty Dog, and other puppets on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. For those of you who grew up watching the show like me, the section about the seminal children’s program is worth the price of admission. Wayne spoke after the screening and proved he was even more charismatic in person than on screen. A well-made movie about a fascinating and extremely-talented character.
The French animated film TALES OF THE NIGHT (IN 3D!) may be mildly entertaining to French children, but to American kids who don’t read books, let alone subtitles, I suspect the film will be a bore. I found it entertaining enough but perhaps a bit too inconsequential. Someone please tell me why a movie featuring computer-rendered versions of shadow puppets would need to be in 3D?
I had a couple of hours to kill. NaFF really wanted me to see STREET PAPER because it was the only film playing in that time slot. The roughly-made documentary about Nashville’s street paper THE CONTRIBUTER may not win any awards, but I’m glad I saw it. The characters were fascinating, and I can safely say no other film this year will change my outlook as much as STREET PAPER did. From now on, I’ll be buying the CONTRIBUTER regularly.
The major winner of the day was the French “feel-good” film THE INTOUCHABLES about a paraplegic man’s budding friendship with his unlikely caretaker. This is the second highest grossing film in French box office history. Yes, this type of slickness usually makes me run for the door . . . BUT! . . . despite that, it actually works. I was not prepared for how much I enjoyed this film. The only thing that really irked me (and this is a sore point) is the casting of an able-bodied actor in the role of the paraplegic man. (See: GLEE / Artie controversy.) Sure, Francois Cluzet did a fine job; but disabled actors have a hard enough time as it is getting film and television acting roles. There are plenty of disabled actors who could have brought their life experience to this part. Perhaps the filmmakers thought the idea of a truly disabled actor in the role was just a little TOO real, and there lies the sad state of affairs we are in.
By the time ALPS began (the follow-up to Giorgos Lanthimos’s DOGTOOTH), I was exhausted. Perhaps partially due to my yearning for sleep, I just didn’t connect with the film. ALPS wasn’t without merit, and fans of DOGTOOTH will likely enjoy it, but I found the film a bit too in love with its premise. Normally when other people in the audience are laughing and I’m not, I wonder what it is I’m not getting. In this case, I wondered what they weren’t getting. There were some very funny moments to be sure, but I speculate people primed for DOGTOOTH-level weirdness were laughing at shadows.
More tomorrow! Time for ELENA!
While I sit in theater chairs, waiting for films to begin, my mind wanders. After 11 solid hours of screenings, my mind wanders straight off the deep end. Occasionally, I think of things to post. For example:
Things to Bring to a Film Festival:
1. A light jacket. I don’t care if it’s warm outside. There’s a good chance the theater will be COOOOOOLD. A jacket doubles as a seat saver, a snack stuffer, and a pillow. Don’t leave home without one.
2. Pocket snacks (granola bar, trail mix, etc).
3. Collapsible water bottle.
4. Chewing gum. Let’s face it, you could use a breath freshener (and a popcorn kernel dislodger).
5. A small backpack or shoulder bag. This is a must if you’re lugging around film guides, snacks, water, etc.
6. A paperback. You may have lots of downtime. Put down that cell phone and pick up a book!
7. Pills. In my case, pain pills, allergy pills, and heartburn pills.
8. An electric cattle prod. When the person in front of you starts texting or talking in the middle of the movie, do you really want to get out of your seat to tell a manager? A quick jolt is worth a thousand words.
Ok, maybe not electric cattle prod. But I can dream.
On to the reviews.
I started Monday evening with the Russian drama ELENA, the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. I don’t want to give too much away (this is the type of film where the less you know, the better), but let’s say it explores the relationship between a late-life married couple and their non-mutual children. ELENA started off slow and methodical but quickly drew me in. What I loved most was the way it subverted my preconceptions about the characters. Some viewers may feel cheated by this. We are used to films that clearly tell us who is the hero and who is the villain. Once we make up our minds, it causes cognitive dissonance to have those conclusions questioned. ELENA is my favorite film of the fest so far. The Phillip Glass score is also a treat.
It’s not an Asian crime-noir unless the assassin dotes on a pet. In the case of Thai master Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s HEADSHOT, the pets are the aquarium fish he lovingly feeds. I’m a big fan of Ratanaruang’s other work, but the early reviews for HEADSHOT were mediocre at best. I came out very pleasantly surprised. They said the non-linear plot was convoluted. I found it unexpectedly easy to follow. They said the film was boring. I found it immensely entertaining. The film feels like Ratanaruang’s attempted break from the art house circuit to the mainstream Thai box office, and maybe that’s what bothered the critics. To summarize: an incorruptible cop is framed for murder. When released, he becomes a hitman for a secret organization that targets crime lords and corrupt officials. He’s shot in the head during a job, and when he wakes up three months later, he sees everything upside down. There were a few too many “come on!” moments for me to put it in my top films of the fest, but I enjoyed it all the same.
Tonight I’m screening LA CAMIONETA: THE JOURNEY OF ONE AMERICAN SCHOOL BUS and Joe Berlinger’s UNDER AFRICAN SKIES. I’ll tell you about them tomorrow!
Days 6 – 8 / Wrap-Up
After eight exhausting and exhilarating days, the 2012 NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL is at an end. I was so consumed with the fest and my day job that I haven’t had a free moment to post on The Film Talk for the past three days. Here’s what I saw Tuesday though Thursday.
LA CAMIONETA: THE JOURNEY OF ONE AMERICAN SCHOOL BUS was not on my original docket; but I had nothing in that Tuesday night slot, and the reviews seemed positive. My chief worry about subject documentaries, that the subjects can overshadow the quality of filmmaking, was quickly assuaged. The documentary follows a U.S. school bus from the Texas auction lot all the way to the final buyer in Guatemala. Boy, I’m glad I gave this one a shot. Every aspect of the production was professional, artful, and highly-skilled. Director Mark Kendall told the story with a great respect for his subject and an eye for detail. Early on in the film, we learn that Guatemalan bus drivers are preyed upon by extortionists who demand money for protection. Those who don’t comply are killed. News footage shows one bus ablaze, bombed, 7 passengers dead and more injured. Documentary filmmakers too often rewrite the facts (THE KING OF KONG) or stand idly by while the subjects are in danger (BLACK BULL) for the sake of the story. It is to Mark Kendall’s great credit that he decided not to follow the bus on its highly-dangerous city route. As he explained in the Q&A, he did not want to risk the lives of the bus operators by bringing a camera on board. It would have made for a compelling ending to the film. But some things are more important than images. Kudos to Mark. I eagerly await his next film.
Next up was UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, a documentary about Paul Simon’s return to South Africa to reunite with the GRACELAND musicians, directed by Joe Berlinger (BROTHER’S KEEPER, PARADISE LOST). First off, let me confess that I lack the Paul Simon gene. His music just doesn’t do it for me. I showed up for the consistently-great work of Joe Berlinger. Even if you’re not a Simon fan, you’ll find much to like, especially the extended discussion of the controversy surrounding Simon’s decision to break an international embargo to record in Apartheid South Africa. In the end, I found Simon’s arguments much less persuasive than Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo’s. UNDER AFRICAN SKIES is slick and high in star power (Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, etc), but it so lacks the grit and artistry of Berlinger’s earlier films that I wonder if it’s primarily a meal ticket. Grit or no, the film is a worth your time.
I started out Wednesday with the Romanian film ADALBERT’S DREAM, a film I had reviewed for the Nashville Scene. Yes, I liked it so much, I watched it for again. My second viewing only deepened my appreciation. Here’s my Scene preview:
This biting Romanian satire opens with the final moments of the 1986 European Cup, when Steaua Bucharest goalie Helmuth Duckadam miraculously blocked all four of Barcelona’s overtime spot-kicks. The next day, it’s all safety engineer Iulica and his factory co-workers can talk about, back-handedly praising Helmuth by wondering, “What’s wrong with him?” A fitting metaphor for life in Communist Romania where beneath the surface, the real economy bubbles — Iulica sells tickets to private screenings on his contraband VCR, a lathe operator makes extra utensils on the sly, another worker smuggles eggs in her hair buns. While the workers attend the premiere of Iulica’s two new “work safety” films, another accident occurs, perhaps inevitable in a culture where survival means keeping up appearances while looking the other way.
My final film Wednesday was the only repertory film of the fest: Brian DePalma’s glorious rock opera PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. While the direction was choppy and the character motivations obfuscating, Paul William’s songs were great and the set and costume designs were inspired. There were several unexplainable lapses of competence including vocals mixed way too low in some songs and the miscast Jessica Harper. I can see why PHANTOM was a flop, but I can also see how it has slowly gained the status of a cult classic. As late shift organizer Jason Shawhan astutely pointed out, Jack White’s Third Man Records bears an uncanny resemblance to Swan’s Death Records in the film.
I asked off work on Thursday to cram in more films on the festival’s final day. The first was Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary PAYBACK based on the Margaret Atwood book of the same name. Jennifer’s last NaFF entry was MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, and it was one of my favorites of that year. After buying my ticket (and before the screening), I learned of the PAYBACK’s mostly-dismal reviews. Critics accused it of being desultory and unfocused. While I agree with that assessment, I still recommend the film. The book and film set out to explore the subject of debt in all its forms. In the case of the film, that meant the debt BP owes the environment, an Albanian assailant owes his victim neighbor, and Florida apple orchard companies owe their workers. The subjects are disparate in category and scope, and that may be magnified by a pesky sub-theme of conservationism in two-thirds of the main stories. We so want this to be a ’cause-doc’ in the vein of FOOD, INC or LAST CALL AT THE OASIS. Perhaps the fault lies with Baichwal in not properly managing our expectations. Yet I feel, like MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, PAYBACK is philosophical exploration, not a conclusion. Meandering isn’t a weakness. It goes with the territory.
My second film Wednesday was OSLO, AUGUST 31, two days in the life of Anders, a recovering heroin addict. NaFF 2012 was an extremely strong year, and yet this film was easily, EASILY, my favorite film of the festival. Second-time director Joachim Trier isn’t a master in the making. He’s already there. An early scene takes place in a cafe. Anders helplessly eavesdrops on the conversations surrounding him. The scene is composed with such effortless skill and beauty that it rivals the best moments of Tarkovsky, Bergman, or Dreyer. Yeah, the film is that good. See it any way you can.
THE DYNAMITER won the festival’s narrative prize (announced the day before), so I decided to watch it instead of 5 BROKEN CAMERAS. While I wouldn’t have awarded it the prize when PILGRIM SONG and ADALBERT’S DREAM were eligible, THE DYNAMITER was thoroughly entertaining. I agree with Jim Ridley’s assessment in the Nashville Scene when he said, “. . . a real diamond in the rough. … Comparisons to Days of Heaven and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows suggest less the style or level of accomplishment than the mark the movie leaves in memory.” NOBODY KNOWS it isn’t. But it’s still an impressive debut from director Mathew Gordon. Keep an eye out for him.
There was little chance I wouldn’t love the closing film PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE. The star and director attended, and how can you be bet against the man who wrote RAINBOW CONNECTION? The documentary tracks down the reclusive songwriter / former television icon and offers a glimpse of what his life has become (celebrity golf tourneys, concerts in the Philippines). A big part of my enjoyment came from the osmotic energy of Paul Williams being in the house. The lively Q&A also was fascinating. Without that contact high, I may have given the film a decent 3 out of 5 stars. If you enjoy William’s work, don’t miss it.
And thus ended the 2012 Nashville Film Festival. I can honestly say that this has been the best year of the 6 I’ve attended.
I’ll end my coverage with my top 5 films. I was not able to view the documentary prize winner SALAAM DUNK or the acclaimed ABSENT, 5 BROKEN CAMERAS, A TRIP, or GIRL MODEL. Thanks for reading.
4. PILGRIM SONG