Film Talk Archives

2012 Nashville Film Festival Reviews

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

Attenberg

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.

Day 3

Pilgrim Song

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.

Day 4

Intouchables

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!

Day 5

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

Oslo, August 31st

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.

1. OSLO, AUGUST 31

2. ELENA

3. ADALBERT’S DREAM

4. PILGRIM SONG

5. THE INTOUCHABLES

 

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2013 Nashville Film Festival Reviews

The following blog entry is an article I wrote for TheFilmTalk.com in 2013. That site removed all of their content, so I am gradually reposting my articles here.

2013 Nashville Film Festival Reviews

Day 1

Nashville may be internationally-known for music, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: Our film community is top notch. We have one of the best art house cinemas in the country, The Belcourt; a strong film and television industry that produces shows like ABC’s Nashville; and residents such as director Harmony Korine and actor Nicole Kidman. And then there’s the Nashville Film Festival, which at first glance appears to be a nice little regional festival that caters to those who can’t make it to Sundance or Toronto. But a closer examination reveals a well-run, accessible (one location) MAJOR festival with a top notch set of international, U.S., and regional films.

The festival began last night. I watched the first two of over 30 films on my schedule, and over the next seven days, I’ll be writing daily updates about the fest. I scoured the schedule, watched all the trailers, and read every review I could find to chart out my docket. Here are the films I recommend (my rationale for each in parentheses).

A Band Called Death (Doc about legendary Black American punk band, stellar reviews.)
A Letter to Momo (Anime by Hiroyuki Okiura, dir of Jin-Roh. 7 years in development.)
A River Changes Course (Cinema-verite doc about over-development in Cambodia from the cinematographer of Inside Job.)
After Tiller (doc about doctors who perform third-trimester abortions, great reviews.)
All the Light in the Sky (Mumblecore director Joe Swanberg’s new film, surprisingly positive reviews.)
Flicker (Swedish black comedy that’s been getting great reviews, filmmaker to watch.)
Grave of the Fireflies (Classic heartbreaking anime from Studio Ghibli.)
I Killed My Mother (Retrospective screening of Xavier Dolan’s breakthrough film.)
In the Fog (Epic World War 2 drama from Russia, some calling it a classic)
It Felt Like Love (Coming-of-age Brooklyn love story that’s been getting great reviews.)
Kick Off (Retrospective screening of classic Kurdish film about war and soccer in Iraq)
Laurence Anyways (New film by Xavier Dolan)
Mekong Hotel (New film by Thailand auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul. ‘Nuff said.)
Nairobi Half Life (Kenyan rise-through-the-ranks crime drama, positive reviews.)
NASHVILLE 2012 (Locally-made doc about colorful characters in Nashville, including musician-turned-wrestler Jocephus Brody)
Paradise Trilogy (Faith, Hope, Love) (Austrian trilogy, each about a woman on vacation searching for happiness.)
Persistence of Vision (epic documentary about Who Framed Roger Rabbit animator’s 25-year quest to complete his magnum opus)
Pieta (From Kim Ki-Duk, director of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring.  ‘Nuff said.)
Post Tenebras Lux (From Carlos Reygadas, direct of Silent Light. ‘Nuff said.)
Rhino Season (From Bahman Ghobadi, director of Turtles Can Fly. ‘Nuff said.)
Safety Last! (Retrospective screening of Harold Loyd’s silent comic masterpiece.)
Sightseers (UK comedy that’s been getting great reviews.)
Stories We Tell (documentray by actor Sarah Polley about her lineage, stellar reviews.)
The History of Future Folk (Intergalactic banjo comedy that was the hit of Fantastic Fest last year.)
The Kings of Summer (Coming-of-age comedy that was a hit at Sundance.)
This is Martin Bonner (won 2013 Best of NEXT Audience Award at Sundance.)
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (New film by legendary French director Alain Resnais. ‘Nuff said.)

mud-matthew-mcconaughey-tye-sheridan

Mud

My two opening night flms were MUD and FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY. MUD is Jeff Nichol’s follow-up to his acclaimed TAKE SHELTER. It stars Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, a bunch of other weighty adult actors, and two child actors. Tye Sheridan, the poetry-whispering son-of-Pitt in TREE OF LIFE, plays Ellis, a hard-scrabble river rat. Jacob Lofland plays Neckbone, Ellis’ sidekick and the most realistic and entertaining performance in the whole picture. Too bad he’s only the sidekick. The plot of MUD is basically THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE meets STAND BY ME. The two boys befriend a wanted man on an island on the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas and help him elude capture, in the process learning about life, love, and magic shirts. I would have sworn Nichols was a big city director trying make a “Southern” film because the characters came off as dimensionless Southern caricatures (except the aforementioned Lofland). But Nichols grew up in Little Rock, so search me. The plot feels forced at every turn with a few too many “What’s that, Lassie?! Timmy’s fallen in the well?!” moments. The denouement is so absurd I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. But I haven’t been able to find anyone who didn’t love this film, so maybe I’m missing something. The Film Talk’s own Gareth Higgins screened the film as well, and I’m looking forward to hearing his take.

Next up was FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY. I was not prepared for how much I would enjoy this documentary about the children’s book writer and illustrator of subversive erotica. The film follows his childhood in Nazi-occupied France to the brights lights of 50s and 60s New York City, to banishment in Novia Scotia, and semi-retirement in Ireland. What’s remarkable about Tomi is that he was able to lead a triple life of children’s book author/illustrator, anti-war poster propagandist and erotic artist for so long without one vocation threatening the others. Of course, his insular fan-bases did finally discover each other, and as a result, he wasn’t able to sell another children’s book for over two decades. Tomi coined the phase, “Expect the unexpected,” and his work was a principle inspiration for Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” Director Brad Bernstein’s pacing is just right, and I was never taken out of the film, save for the occasional slick-and-gimmicky animation of still-drawings and photos that for some reason is so popular in documentaries these days. FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH plays again Friday at 4:00 PM. Don’t miss it.

Days 2 and 3

I’m starting to feel the mid-festival shakes — that period when I realize my eyes were way bigger than my stomach. It’s one thing to sit down at the computer and work out a schedule. It’s another thing to live through it. Some of today’s insights:

“Interesting. I forgot to schedule lunch and dinner breaks.”

“Where did I put that damn audience award rating slip?”

“#NaFF, #NaFF2013, or #NaFF13?  Why can’t we all just agree on a Twitter hashtag?”

These last two days, I’ve seen six films, and for many, I’m still processing my feelings. Because of that and because it’s 1am, I’m just going to give you a quick rundown:

I found Reygadas’ POST TENEBRAS LUX to be ineffable and absolutely mesmerizing. It did for me what some people claim Terrence Malick does for them. I don’t understand anything that went on, but I enjoyed every beautiful minute of it. This is a deep film that requires study, reflection and repeat screenings.

Laurence Anyways

Laurence Anyways

I enjoyed Xavier Dolan’s LAURENCE ANYWAYS, but I can’t help wondering if it would have been more impactful at two hours instead of three. The style and use of music is reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai, yet the endless conversationing felt very Denys Arcand. There are very few films about being transgender, and I think it’s wonderful that Dolan is telling this story and holding a mirror to our faces. Since I myself am cisgender, there are doubtless aspects of the film I fail to appreciate. And yet, Dolan is cisgender, and I wonder how well his film resonates with transgender people. What does it say about institutionalized transphobia when the transgender experience is continually told by cis artists?

I admit, the Japanese animated feature A LETTER TO MOMO made me cry a little. This is a wonderful film about processing grief and letting go of guilt. See it any way you can.

The Harold Lloyd silent film SAFETY LAST is still a classic, yet this time around, I was disturbed by racist stereotypes. What disturbed me more is that the score — written in 1989 for a previous restoration — plays up the racist stereotypes. We could say the film’s stereotypes are a product of its time, but we can’t deny that the score’s augmentation of these stereotypes is a product of ours.

I really enjoyed the Kurdish film KICK OFF, which deals with Arab and Kurdish relations through a soccer tournament.

I’m still processing Alain Resnais’ YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET. My gut reaction is that it’s an inconsequential story wrapped inside an inconsequential story, starring icons of French cinema playing themselves. But I need to think on it more and research what the master filmmaker was trying to accomplish.

More tomorrow!

UPDATE 4-21-2013 11:23am:

Of course, this is why I don’t need to post when it’s 1am and my brain is frazzled. I completely missed the point of LAURENCE ANYWAYS and YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET, and my friend Marjorie was kind enough to point that out to me via her Twitter handle @brownrabbit122. What she had to say really enhances my appreciation of both films, and I hope to use her thoughts as a kicking-off point for further exploration. With her permission, I’m posting her take on the films.  In short, I think she nails it.

@tonyyoungblood re: Ain’t seen nothing yet: it’s thinking about what it means to age out of one’s prime. At several levels. Not monumental, but a small and modest human pain. Perhaps one performers (i.e., all the icons) feel particularly acutely?

@tonyyoungblood and re: Laurance Anyways–agree that it was too long. But the title character isn’t the juice of the story. His/her situation is incidental. It’s a movie about the Fred character & how her great love changes the terms on her. & her futility.

— eviscerated rabbit (@brownrabbit122) April 21, 2013

Days 4 and 5

I’m back with a few quick blurbs about the films I screened during days 4 and 5 of the 2013 Nashville Film Festival.

Part of the Kurdish cinema series, IN THE LION’S DEN explores the paths of two young men in post-Hussein Iraq. One signs up for the U.S. backed Iraqi National Guard, the other a resistance cell. Both fight out of loyalty to family and country. I really loved this movie. My only quibble is that it seemed a bit too influenced by Hollywood war films in the use of music and editing. 4/5

I really wish I had screened Xavier Dolan’s directorial debut I KILLED MY MOTHER before screening LAURENCE ANYWAYS. It would have primed me for his unique voice. In I KILLED MY MOTHER, the 19 year old Xavier writes, directs, and plays a character based on his high-school self, a gay son living with the mother he despises. This is easily one of my favorites of the fest. I wonder if the film’s economical style was a product of necessity. Perhaps with LAURENCE ANYWAYS, Xavier was given a larger budget that resulted in too many song cues distracting from the drama and an overlong run time. With I KILLED MY MOTHER, I see why people laud him as a young auteur. 5/5.

THIS IS MARTIN BONNER won a Sundance Audience award. I have never in my festival experience loved the film that won the popularity contest. In this case, I can’t say that streak is broken. I enjoyed THIS IS MARTIN BONNER, but I was a little put off by the opening scene, in which a prisoner-rehabilitation counselor tries to sell the program to an inmate who will be released in less than a year. The prisoner sees a picture of Jesus on the back of the brochure and wisely asks if religion is part of the program. The counselor gives him the usual line about “spirituality” being one of the principles but that the inmate doesn’t “have” to believe in God. The inmate recognizes the Trojan horse in the deal and turns down the program. I’m thinking, “Good move.” At this point, the camera follows the counselor to his car, and I think, “Oh man. They picked the wrong protagonist!” True, the film ends up being a very personal story about counselor Martin Bonner’s new life in a new city that never seems to advocate Christianity. And yet it’s hard for me to suspend my extreme dislike for religious prisoner-rehabilitation programs that offer assistance with a catch, effectively turning prisons into proselytizing grounds. They offer a loaded hand to people who are in a very vulnerable place with very few choices. You may argue that has nothing to do with the film, and you’d be right, but nevertheless, it was constantly in the back of mind. 3/5.

I was really looking forward to FLICKER, the Swedish absurdist comedy about employees at a large communications company. The trailer and reviews made me hopeful for something out of  fellow-Swede Roy Andersson’s playbook ala SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR or YOU, THE  LIVING. But I was aiming too high. FLICKER is a fun but forgettable comedy with weirdness that seems too aware of itself. 3/5.

I really enjoyed the American indie film PIT STOP about the separate lives of two gay men struggling to find love. UPSTREAM COLOR’s Amy Seimetz shines as one of the men’s ex-wife. 4/5.

I had to miss the last ten or so minutes of Joe Swanberg’s ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY because it started late and I had another film right after. I enjoyed the character piece about about a mid-life mid-level actor struggling to find connection in southern California. Lead actor Jane Adams wrote the script with Swanberg. There are many touching moments, in particular her conversations with her aspiring actor niece. 4/5.

The documentary PERSISTENCE OF VISION tells the story of animator Richard Williams’ 25+ year quest to complete his masterpiece THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER. Beat down by his compulsive perfectionism, a lack of funds, new technology, and Disney’s similarly-themed Aladdin, THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER was taken over by investors and rushed to completion. The resulting film, which added forgettable musical numbers and scenes that did not match the original animation, is nothing like the film Williams envisioned. PERSISTENCE OF VISION can be heartbreaking to watch, even when you sometimes feel that Williams’ stubborn perfectionism is what did the film in. It should be required viewing for all aspiring artists. 4/5

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Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s documentary STORIES WE TELL is absolutely mesmerizing,  masterfully-constructed, and easily one of the best films of the fest. Polley interviews family members and family friends in order to discover who her real father is. What does it mean to be a “real” father? Is he the one who donated half his genes or the one who raised you? That’s one of the many questions raised in this filmic interrogation. Actor/writer/director Sarah Polley is only 35 and already an auteur. 5/5

Days 6 through 8

After 30+ films in 8 days, I’m glad to say the Nashville Film Festival is officially over. But, boy, was it fun while it lasted! I had a great time, and I rated more films 5 out 5 than any year prior.

Here’s what I saw on days 6 through 8.

IN THE FOG is WW2-era film about a railroad worker accused of being a Nazi collaborator in a German-occupied Russian village. I enjoyed the film, despite a pacing that would make even Tarkovsky fidget. The video transfer was a bit rough, lacking contrast with some overscanning. I can’t help wondering if a film print would have raised my appreciation. 4 out of 5.

AFTER TILLER is a documentary about the 4 remaining doctors in the U.S. who will administer third-trimester abortions. The film was named after Dr. George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was assassinated in Kansas in 2009. I keep hearing people say that this documentary is even-handed, telling all sides of the story. I would respectfully disagree. The doctors and their staff get far more screen time than the anti-abortion protesters, and that’s a GOOD thing. Because the side of the doctors happens to be right. This is a powerful documentary that convincingly argues the anti-abortion activists are not the only ones to blame for intimidating doctors and driving away abortion clinics. Also responsible are the lawmakers and community leaders who foster a climate where it’s ok to be a bigot, ok to hide harassment behind “beliefs.” One of my favorites of the fest. 5 out of 5.

THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK was a big hit at last year’s Fantastic Fest. Because of all the hype, I was a little disappointed in the “quirky” musical comedy about two space aliens who fall in love with music and therefore delay their plans to take over Earth. Any originality in the setup is lost to the trope-filled, by-the-numbers plot structure. And, I hate to say it, but the songs were generic and unmemorable (to me at least). 3 out of 5.

It Felt Like Love

It Felt Like Love

IT FELT LIKE LOVE is the debut feature film of American director Eliza Hittman. Wow. I was really blown away by this story about a 14-year-old girl’s search for intimacy. The visual style is original and poetic; one of Hittman’s most interesting techniques is cutting to a new scene in close-up and then eventually pulling back to reveal the context of the background movement. (This happens once on a carnival ride and again on a merry-go-round.) This is a refreshingly feminist take on coming-of-age stories that makes no attempts to moralize the characters’ actions, and I suspect that’s the heart of why many men in the audience left huffing and puffing. (I overheard one guy say, “Well, I’ll never get that hour and forty five minutes back!”) Perhaps they’re too used to the typical Hollywood coming-of-age stories that conveniently excise all the harsh bits (see: MUD and THE KINGS OF SUMMER). I gave this 5 out of 5, and it’s easily one of my favorites of the fest. Because of her original voice and distinctive style, I predict Eliza Hittman will develop a reputation as an American auteur. She’s a true artist. Keep an eye out for her next project.

Lead actress Gina Piersanti won BEST ACTRESS at the fest. IT FELT LIKE LOVE was eligible for the New Directors award but was beat out by NAIROBI HALF LIFE. I loved both, but I found IT FELT LIKE LOVE to be the superior film.

New Directors award winner NAIROBI HALF LIFE tells the story of an aspiring actor who moves from his village to the big city of Nairobi. On the day he arrives, he’s robbed, arrested, and jailed. He eventually leads a double life as the brains behind a local gang and an actor in rehearsal for an upcoming play. I loved this movie. 5 out of 5.

SIGHTSEERS is a dark comedy from the United Kingdom about a couple going off on their first caravan holiday. I knew next to nothing about this film going in, and that lack of knowledge really enhanced my experience. So I’ll do the same for you and keep mum. Writer and lead Alice Lowe — who has appeared in bit parts on such British comedies as Black Books, The IT Crowd, The Might Boosh, Little Britain, and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place – is destined to be a star. 4 out of 5.

I really admire the Nashville Film Festival for booking challenging works like AFTER TILLER, IT FELT LIKE LOVE, POST TENEBRAS LUX, and the three films next on my schedule: THE PARADISE TRILOGY. Clearly, the Nashville curators aren’t afraid of pissing some people off. A Tuscaloosa reviewer detested the PARADISE TRILOGY, I suspect in part due to the films’ criticism of religion, racism, Western cultural imperialism, sexism, rape-culture, pedophilia, and fat-phobia. Moreso, I’m guessing he was bothered that the films criticize modern Austrian society at large (a criticism easily transferable to modern U.S. society), not just isolated offenders. I think the trigger for any religious person might be the scenes in PARADISE: FAITH where the protagonist kisses, gropes, spits on, and flails a wall-hung crucifix. Since I’m not religious, for me it was no more provocative then her doing the same to any other inanimate object.

We all applaud when a film or television show holds a mirror to a past era and criticizes its faults (i.e. MAD MEN), but we’re outraged when artists hold a mirror to our own time (as in the PARADISE TRILOGY, IT FELT LIKE LOVE, or THESE BIRDS WALK). Hold a mirror to now and suddenly the directors are “just trying to be provocative,” “too sensitive,” “over-estimating the problem,” or “just hate [men, white people, Christians, etc].” Pardon my cynicism, but Hollywood has a well-documented history of  supporting social change only when it doesn’t affect the bottom line. So it’s not surprising that a film like MUD attempts a realistic portrayal of the South while sanitizing the racism and sexism still prevalent. That’s the rule, and films such as the PARADISE TRILOGY are the rare and refreshing exception.

Each film in the trilogy follows a member of the same family during vacation time. In PARADISE: LOVE, 50-year old Teresa travels to Kenya as a sex-tourist. In PARADISE: FAITH, Teresa’s sister Annamaria proselytizes door to door, leaves plastic Virgin Mary statues in her wake, and prays for strength as her disabled Muslim husband demands his “God-given husbandly rights.” In PARADISE: HOPE, Annamaria drops off Teresa’s 13-year-old daughter Melanie at a weight loss camp, where the teen is preyed upon by the camp doctor. I loved all three films, but I found the first to be the most biting. I gave them 5, 4 and 4 respectively (out of 5).

This was an exceptional year for documentaries at NaFF. A RIVER CHANGES COURSE is the directorial debut of Inside Job’s cinematographer Kalyanee Mam. It’s about a Cambodian family struggling to survive in a time when forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, farming is being mechanized, and fishing stocks are dying out due to fishing concessions and illegal fishing. This is an masterful documentary with remarkable characters, rare access, and beautiful cinematography. 5 out of 5.

Another exceptional documentary, and perhaps my favorite doc at  NaFF, is THESE BIRDS WALK, the story of runaway child Omar in Karachi, Pakistan. Directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq used portable and versatile Canon 5D cameras to create a level of freedom never before possible. The small Canon 5D, which is used primarily as a still camera, diffused many situations when the directors could claim to be just taking stills photographs. The small footprint also allowed them to literally run with the kids, resulting in one of the most striking images I’ve ever seen in a film: the moment when Omar dodges police officers and legions of people up the steps to a mosque. I mean it. Michael Tully from Hammer To Nail called the film, “A STRIKING WORK OF POETIC REAL­ISM,” and I couldn’t agree more. 5 out of 5.

PIETA is the new film by South Korea’s Kim Ki Duk. I enjoyed the story about a mafia debt collector’s budding relationship with his long lost mother, but it’s not anywhere near the level of Kim Ki Duk’s masterpiece SPRING SUMMER FALL WINTER AND SPRING. 3 out of 5.

THE KINGS OF SUMMER is a coming-of-age (yes, another one) comedy about three teen boys who build a house in the woods to escape their parents’ rule. It’s a high-profile picture starring recognizable names like Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, and Megan Mullally. The audience at NaFF seemed to love it, and it’s been drawing lots of positive reviews. I just couldn’t get behind it. I found the jokes stale and the plot formulaic. (Because cis white male coming-of-age stories are something we clearly need more of.) The comic-relief-creepy-outcast trope comes courtesy of a character named Biaggio, and he feels like a caricature of a caricature. It’s another example of Hollywood exploiting mental illness for zingers and cheap laughs. (In this case, I suspect the writers were going for Asperger syndrome.) 2 out of 5.

RHINO SEASON is the new film from TURTLES CAN FLY director Bahman Ghobadi, his first shot outside Iran. (He was exiled from Iran in 2009.) The film tells the story of a famous Iranian poet’s release from 30 years in prison and his search for his wife and children. I really enjoyed the film, different in style from anything Ghobadi’s ever done, but I wouldn’t put it in the company of TURTLES CAN FLY or A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES. Ghobadi said in an interview that he’s finding a new lease on life in his new residency in Turkey and that he can finally make movies without looking over his shoulder. Here’s hoping to a long run of unrestricted creativity from one of the world’s finest directors. 3.5 out of 5.

Top 10

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Post Tenebras Lux

Here are my 10 favorite films from the 2013 Nashville Film Festival. I’m not including the retrospective screenings, otherwise I KILLED MY MOTHERSAFETY LAST, and KICK OFF would appear high on my list.

#10. NAIROBI HALF LIFE

#9. FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY

#8. PARADISE: LOVE

#7. A LETTER TO MOMO

#6. AFTER TILLER

#5. A RIVER CHANGES COURSE

#4. STORIES WE TELL

#3. THESE BIRDS WALK

#2. IT FELT LIKE LOVE

#1. POST TENEBRAS LUX

Honorable mentions: IN THE LION’S DENPIT STOPPERSISTENCE OF VISIONIN THE FOGSIGHTSEERSPARADISE: FAITHPARADISE: HOPERHINO SEASON

Acclaimed films that I did not get to screen: THE GUERRILLA SON, I AM DIVINE, ICEBERG SLIM: PORTRAIT OF A PIMP, MCCULLIN, PLIMPTON! STARRING GEORGE PLIMPTON AS HIMSELF, THE RAMBLER, IL FUTURO, I USED TO BE DARKER, THE LAND OF EB, THE SUNSHINE BOYS, TEY, DIE THOMANER – A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF THE ST. THOMAS BOYS CHOIR OF LEIPZIG, FOLK, MUSCLE SHOALS, VERY EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, WE ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS, THE BALLAD OF THE WEEPING SPRING, A BAND CALLED DEATH, THE ISLAND PRESIDENT, MEKONG HOTEL, WHERE IS THE LAND?

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’sThe 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 in April 2013.

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

 

Sucker Punch, Certified Copy, and the 2011 Nashville Film Festival

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

Sucker Punch, Certified Copy, and the 2011 Nashville Film Festival

After an exhausting week of a Disney World vacation and NOT riding the new Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios because the park closed one hour earlier than we expected, I’m back for quick reviews of Sucker Punch, Certified Copy, and the 2011 Nashville Film Festival. The Belcourt’s game-changing series Visions of the South has finished, and I’ll be back next week with a review of the second half. Check out my review of the first half here. (Offline. I’ll repost that one soon.)

I’m incredibly excited about this year’s Nashville Film Festival. The lineup is the strongest of the last 5 years I’ve attended. I’m most looking forward to the Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Livesthe newest edition to the Romanian New Wave, Tuesday, After Christmas; Monte Hellman’s new film Road to Nowhereand Nicolas Philibert’s Nenette. I’ll be posting my impressions each night after the screenings. My first film on the roster tonight is Takashi Miike’s 13 Assasins.

You can check out my reviews for The Sleeping Beauty, The Red Chapel, and more in this week’s print and online edition of The Nashville Scene. Out of all the films I pre-screened, The Red Chapel is the best. By all means, see it.

I’m almost reluctant to review Sucker Punch — Zack Snyder’s new assault of the senses — because doing so would feel like poking fun at an easy target: the equivalent to reviewing any Nickelback or Brittany Spears album. The film is a many-layered onion of fantasy and dream; and on the rare occasions when the outer layer shows, you still feel like you’re in a dream thanks to Snyder’s trademark slow-fast ramp, hyper color, blaring style. The soundtrack serves as a metaphor for the film’s badness. Snyder takes really good music — The Pixies, Iggy Pop, etc — and filters it through mind-numbing modern artists — leaving the words and notes but removing every bit of soul. The same can be said for every other aspect of the picture. I will say this though: If you love bad films, you won’t be bored. This one is glorious in its total ineptitude.

Certified Copy

Certified Copy

You can tell in the very first minute of Abbas Kiarostami’s new film Certified Copy that you’re watching the work of a master. I’ve mentioned in the past that his film The Wind Will Carry Us is one of my favorite movies of all time.  My main issue with Certified Copy is that it feels as if Kiarostami is driving his point with a 20 pound mallet. There are too many examples of fake things imitating real things. In one scene, there’s a bride-to-be applying fake tears in preparation for a wedding photo. The act is not the focus of our intention — in fact the bride is out-of-focus in the background of the shot — but my eyes were drawn to it; and here I felt a victim of Kiarostami’s calculated precision. I was immediately taken out of the movie. Nevertheless, Certified Copy is a (minor) masterwork by one of the greatest living directors and should not be missed.

Tony Youngblood is a film and music snob and producer of the experimental improv music blog and podcast Theatre Intangible. His favoritefilms 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 posted on Friday, April 15th, 2011 at 1:15 pm.

2010 Nashville Film Festival Reviews

The following blog entry is an article I wrote for TheFilmTalk.com in 2010. That site removed all of their content, so I am reposting my articles here.

2010 Nashville Film Festival Reviews

On opening night, I was treated to Nowhere Boy, a biopic about a seventeen-year-old John Lennon and his relationship with his bi-polar mother. The film sold out two large theaters and spilled over into a third. I myself was caught up in the hype, believing that it may break the opening film curse (that being, high-profile low-quality films traditionally open the fest. Last year’s passable 500 Days of Summer the only recent exception.) Unfortunately, Nowhere Boy was clumsy, slow, and overwrought, coasting on the fumes of a legend. The film was introduced by the festival organizers after some crowd-working about Nashville being the best music town in the world (sorry, it’s not).  2 out of 5.

The next two films were much more engaging, yet they drew much-smaller crowds. First up was Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard, a retelling of the fairy tale about a young girl who is wed to an infamous lord. The film interweaves two modern day girls reading the story.  Breillat succeeds again in defying our expectations and doing exactly the opposite of what we expect. She’s one of the few real auteurs working today, and I’m quite pleased NaFF chose to book her new film. 4 out of 5.

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Next was the Korean film Vegetarian.  A a housewife suddenly develops an obsessive distaste for meat and finds solace in body paint. Yes, really. I’m still processing this engagingly ineffable film, and I don’t quite know what to make of it. But I enjoyed myself throughout the screening, and the images are still in my mind. My rating may change as I get a sense of the aftertaste, but for now: 3.5 out of 5.

Knowing the subject matter, I felt for sure that Michael Nash’s Climate Refugees about the very real effects of climate change was a shoe-in for the Reel Current Al Gore award. The film didn’t win (at least it wasn’t announced at the first screening), and when I finally viewed the film, it was easy to see why. (Update: There was no Reel Current award this year.) The film deals with very serious issues, and I don’t mean to downplay their implications. My problems are with the snail’s-pacing, the choice of interviewees, and the generally educational-film production. I wonder why they would choose to interview Newt Gingrich who acted as if he never tried to downplay global warming (are our memories really that bad?). Why would they choose 911-truther Ed Begley Jr. as a responsible social advocate? And why is the phrase “global warming” never once used in the film? PR moves?  You bet. I also wonder why they go through a list of things you can do to help combat climate change without mentioning the two most important: eat less meat and use condoms. I definitely feel they were tailoring the message for their target audience, and indeed in the Q & A they said they were going to screen the film in churches throughout the country. 2.5 out of 5

The Complete Works of Jamie Travis — As the title suggests, this is a collection of shorts by the young Canadian filmmaker Jamie Travis. Comprised of the films Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come to Dinner, The Saddest Boy in the World, the Patterns trilogy, and The Armoire, the collection is an artfully-designed business card of a director with a big future. Someone in the audience compared him to David Lynch and Guy Madin, and he does occupy the same universe of quirky ineffability; but I see more of Stanley Kubrick in his obsessive-compulsive eye for details. The rooms seem bigger stars than their inhabitants with every detail meticulously designed (Travis also did the production design) from the colorful wallpaper to the knick knacks on the shelves. There’s a lot to wonder about in these movies, but I get the sense that we aren’t meant to cloy for meaning. Rather, like looking at an expressionist painting, we should enjoy without cross examining. Travis himself admitted that he didn’t know why he made one character say a particularly nonsensical line. It just sounded right. And the films feel right. Watch for Travis in the near future. 4 out of 5.

A much prettier-to-look-at documentary than Climate Refugees, Queen of the Sun explores the global bee crisis that threatens extinction of a multitude of species. I enjoyed myself throughout the film, but I grew irritated at the director’s tendency to let a bunch of people give theories and solutions without sorting out the real causes. (To be fair, the causes are not entirely understood.) We’re told about the very likely causes of Varroa mites and migratory beekeeping, but the directors also give air time to Vandana Shiva, who seems hell bent on blaming everything on genetically modified crops. (There is no evidence that GM crops are causing bees to disappear.) The film goes off the rails in the end and stops being about the global bee crisis and becomes a diatribe against big business and GM foods. Mild recommendation. 3 out of 5.

Saturday Night is James Franco’s inside look at the making of an episode of Saturday Night Live, this one hosted by John Malkovich. I enjoyed the film in the same way I would enjoy a backstage pass, but the direction didn’t lift it above anything more than satiated curiosity. I was intrigued at the way extremely funny sketches get progressively less funny as they go from the reading to the taping. 3.5 out of 5.

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My first film of day 4 may very well be my favorite thus far: Lourdes, a story about a woman in a wheelchair making a pilgrimage to Lourdes in the Pyrenees Mountains. The filmmakers take no religious position here but simply let the characters speak for themselves. When something possibly-miraculous happens, things get very interesting. Lourdes is an unsentimental film about desire and limitations, hope and reality. 5 out of 5.

The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy. I won’t upstage my review in the Nashville Scene but instead will direct your attention to it. 5 out of 5.

Steve James, co-director of Hoop Dreams and director of Stevie (one of my favorite films of all time), appeared on day 5′s The Film Talk. I was able to keep my composure without geeking out too much. We talked a bit about both being graduates of Southern Illinois University. On the show, James talked about his new film No Crossover: Allen Iverson on Trial.

As luck would have it, No Crossover was day 5′s first screening. The documentary explored James and Iverson’s hometown of Hampton, Virginia and it’s reaction to the court case which put the future NBA star behind bars. The sentiments fell largely along racial lines in the town where slave ships first landed on American soil. James reflected on his own possible bias, recalling his own high school basketball days when he fraternized with black players on the court but never invited them into his home. The film is a part of a 30 film series ESPN sponsored to celebrate it’s 30th anniversary. Leave it to James to take an assignment that was supposed to be about profiling a sports icon and turn it into a treatise on bias and identity. 4.5 out of 5.

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In the Hong Kong action/crime spectacle Bad Blood, we have all the ingredients of a “must-see.”  IMDB’s synopsis states: “When the boss of a ruling Hong Kong triad is arrested and executed in China for counterfeiting money, mayhem ensues as the mob’s leading contenders circle the throne.” Sadly, the enthusiasm disappears when the projector rolls. I found the narrative confusing, the direction clunky, and the entire affair lacking. During the selection process, NaFF might have taken this as an opportunity: “Bad Blood is adequate, but can we do better?” Why not try for the newest Johnnie To film, for instance? (It’s worth noting that the newest Johnnie To picture Fuk Sau stars Sylvie Testud, the enigmatic star of NaFF highlight Lourdes.) Instead, we get brain-dead schedule filler. 2 out of 5.

My first film of day 6 was the Peruvian film Undertow (Contracorriente), which won the audience award for World Cinema Dramatic at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. I usually walk into audience-award winning films with some suspicion: no film I’ve ever voted for won any festival’s audience award. More often than not, the films that win are just slightly better than ok crowd pleasers with a positive message than inexplicably make fest-goers mark 5′s on their cards.  IMDB describes Undertow as, “An unusual ghost story set on the Peruvian seaside; a married fisherman struggles to reconcile his devotion to his male lover within his town’s rigid traditions.” That pretty much says it all, although “ghost story” makes it sound scary or even mildly haunting. Rather, the male lover exists only in the head of the fisherman after he suddenly disappears in the first quarter of the film. Undertow reaffirmed my suspicions of the audience award, and I give it a decent 3 out of 5

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It was 8:15pm on day 6, and Gaia was already 30 minutes late for it’s 7:45 show time. The projectionist was having problems with the HD elements — problems which seemed to have cursed Gaia’s first 5 screenings. However, when the film finally began, all bad vibes went away. Photographed on two Red cameras, Gaia is a stunningly-shot meditation on sexual abuse, marginalized cultures, and the fearlessness one acquires when there’s nothing left to lose. Director Jason Lehel offers this synopsis: “A group of Native Americans discover a young woman, left for dead, in the Arizona desert and take her to their reservation. Through her relationship with American Natives she manages to re-connect with her own innocence, but is forced to make a choice between being reborn out of the chaos of her past or dying in the grips of her darkness.” Having gone through some of the tribes’ rituals himself, Jason was able to gain rare access to highly-protective indigenous communities in Southern Arizona. He captured never-before-seen tribal rituals and a disturbing ritual slaughter of a hog that would feed the entire real-life tribe. There is a poetry in Jason’s camera-work that is reminiscent of Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky. He gleans performances out of his mostly non-professional cast that rivals the direction of Robert Bresson and Roberto Rossellini. Newcomer Emily Lape is absolutely explosive in her first feature performance. She’ll be a star if there is any justice in the world. My only real quibble (and it is a minor one) is that Jason uses too many flashbacks of Emily’s abuse-laden childhood. The point would have been much more effective if 90 percent of the flashback scenes were taken out. Even still, Gaia is a near-masterpiece that marks the arrival of its director and lead actress. 4.7 out of 5.

Because Gaia ended late and because the director invited us out for drinks after the screening, I missed Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl. I hear it’s everything I had hoped Bad Blood to be, and in spades.

An Italian drama starring Tilda Swinton about the love lives of the bourgeoisie offspring of a wealthy textile manufacturer, I Am Love (Lo Sono L’Amore) was the surest, most elegantly composed, most masterful film I saw at NaFF. I’m still thinking about the densely layered plot, involving class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, power, and the forbidden. 5 out of 5.

bape-symbol-hitoshi-matsumoto-3

Hitoshi Matsumoto’s Big Man Japan was the outrageously-entertaining-if-bum-fuddling monster romp of NaFF 2008. I was a little worried that his new film Symbol would succeed and fail in the same ways. Worry not. Symbol is certainly innovative and at times bum-fuddling, but it satisfies; and the ending is thoughtful, touching, and prescient. The film juxtaposes the stories of a Mexican luchador who never takes his mask off and a man (played by the director) trapped in a white room. You’ll wonder what the two stories have to do with each other until a slow-wound punchline intersects them near the end of the film. The man in the white room has to touch levers in the shape of . . . erm . . . cherub penises and testicles . . . in order to activate various deployments, including toothbrushes, sushi, cherub farts, momentary-on doors, etc. The plot could very well be the level design for a video game. I was constantly reminded of Valve’s masterpiece Portal and half-expected a companion cube to drop in. The man subsequently reaches further levels until he faces. . . well, I won’t spoil it for you. Is the cake a lie? You’ll have to watch and see for yourself. 4.5 out of 5.

Starring John C. Riley, Johah Hill, and Marisa Tomei, the Duplas brothers’ Cyrus was by far the comedy highlight of NaFF. Of course, it was the only comedy I saw at NaFF. IMDB plots it as thus: “A down on his luck divorcée finally meets the woman of his dreams, only to discover she has another man in her life – her son. Before long, the two are locked in a battle of wits for the woman they both love-and it appears only one man can be left standing when it’s over.” The film was quite hilarious, but things resolved a little too easily at the end. 3 out of 5.

So there you have it, the 2010 Nashville Film Festival. If you want to read more of my reviews, check out the Nashville Scene’s NaFF guide. Stay tuned next week for “Emerging Genres: The Vital Force Behind Cinema Anima.”

Tony Youngblood is a pretentious film and music snob who produces 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 Wednesday, June 16th, 2010 at 7:06 am.

Film Talk Archives: 7 Reasons You’re Irrationally Clinging to Your DVD Collection

I purchased the tonyyoungblood.com domain over two years ago, and for months, I kept telling myself, “I’ll write on it soon.” Then I just forgot about it. Then, last month, I discovered that a film blog I once wrote for shut down and removed all of their old content. Without informing its contributors to make backups.

Luckily, I had backups of (most of) my articles there. And so, now I’ll be posting them from time to time here. So I guess that’s one positive thing: it motivated me to get off my ass and do something with this domain.

Of course, I’ll be posting new content as well, such as my first post Pictures from the 2014 Nashville Mini Maker Faire. And when I do post old film blogs from time to time, I’ll always mention they are archives.

This first archived blog, which is about entreating people to sell their DVD collections, comes from July 27th, 2010, when Netflix streaming was still a nascent enterprise. In the four years since, the home video market has experienced a revolution. I think it’s safe to say I was right about DVDs going the way of the dodo. But I got a few things wrong. For one, the streaming and digital markets still have nowhere near the content library of DVDs. Even if you subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, the selection is still spotty. For example, I wanted to watch Disney’s Frozen a few months after it was released on home video, and I had a hell of a time finding a digital copy I could rent, not own. I eventually found it on the Playstation Network. (By the way, CanIStreamIt.com is an invaluable resource.)  When I wrote my article, I did not anticipate all the media companies hoarding their content for their own services.

The second thing I did not anticipate was the value of certain DVDs rising. While I maintain that most DVDs are worth less now than they were four years ago, some that have yet to be released on Blu-ray or digital are now fetching high prices on Ebay. But the fact remains that if you were to sell your entire collection, you would get less overall in 2014 than in 2010.

Here’s the article. I edited a few sentences for reasons of style, but I did not alter the arguments. What do you think?

Not my collection. Can we agree this is out of control?

Not my collection. Can we agree this is out of control?

Originally posted on TheFilmTalk.com, July 27th, 2010. 

Over the past year, I’ve been gradually selling off my DVD collection on Ebay. Last Sunday, I listed the final stragglers. Once the auctions are paid for and shipped, I will be, in effect, DVD-less for the first time in 10 years.

And that fills me with a mixture of loss and freedom. I had built up an impressive collection of oeuvres: the near complete works of Bresson, Kurosawa, Rohmer, and more; delicacies hard fought and won through online DVD stores, brick and mortars, and internet auction sites; items from every region code, PAL and NTSC; editions rare and out of print; artifacts enshrined in special collector’s tins, lunchboxes, and vacuum-molded plastic. Many of the DVDs — not the movies themselves but the actual physical containers — were embedded with memories: where I was when I purchased it or whatever emotional state I was in when I first or last popped the DVD into the player. And while I made sure to “back up” all of the DVDs on hard drives anticipating a future home media computer, I felt like I lost a little bit of myself with every auction listed.

And then I smacked myself out of that sentimental fantasy world.

When you make a DVD purchase, you think you’re refining your collection, gaining grounds on a better definition of you. But in reality, you are slowly encasing yourself in a cocoon of junk. DVDs become closet-fillers, bookcase-hoggers, table decoration, and step-around stacks.

“But not me!” you say. “My collection gives me meaning and value.”

Bullshit.

Here are 7 reasons you’re irrationally clinging to your DVD collection:

1. I only buy films I watch on a regular basis.

That’s how it always begins. But as your collection increases, the time to watch decreases. With a steady stream of incoming Netlflix rentals, instant ques, Xbox live, video-on-demand, Tivo, Hulu, and torrents; the items you own always drop down a peg on your to-do list. You own them after all; you can watch them anytime.

You are an evolved animal, replete with cognitive biases. Your well-meaning buying strategy gets exploited by the dopamine rush of the hunt.  “It makes economic sense for me to purchase this.” “Owning this product will give my life meaning and value.” But really, they’re all just excuses. The reality is it’s fun to shop. Even if you DO watch most of your collection at least once a year (which you DON’T), economically, it just doesn’t add up. You’ll still save money by renting instead of buying.

2. I like being able to pull any title on a whim and watch.

A few years ago, this argument made sense. If you wanted to watch something not in your collection, you had to go out and rent it or wait for your Netflix to arrive in the mail. But with the advent of instant streaming, you can watch titles you don’t own on a whim. And while the streaming selection is far from complete and the quality isn’t yet on par, both get better every day. Digital songs killed CDs. Xbox Live, the Wi Virtual Store, Valve’s Steam, and the Playstation Network will one day kill physical video games. Kindle and iPad are already taking a chunk out of physical book sales. This is something you can champion or lament, but it is happening. The cold hard fact is that physical media is dying, and the sooner you make peace with that, the sooner you will regain your guest bedroom.

3. I’m waiting for the values to rise.

. . . because that worked SO well with CDs. With very few exceptions, DVDs will never increase in price above their retail value. Most will in fact plummet; and the longer you hold onto them, the less they will be worth. With instant streaming gaining more ground, prices are dropping even more rapidly. When you hold out for a higher worth, you are like the loss averse investor who irrationally clings to a withering stock in hopes that it will regain its value. Forget about recouping your DVD investment. But you will earn more overall by selling today than you will by selling in a year.

4. I can’t stop until I’ve collected the entire series.

“Just one more Warner Film Noir box set!” Maybe you’ve spent years collecting a particular director or series, and you can’t let all your hard work, dollars, and emotional investment go to waste. Besides, your collection would look silly without the 6th and final season of Lost sitting beside the first 5. But there’s another way: sell now and cut your losses. Humans are wired against cognitive dissonance. Instead of correcting a past error and admitting we were wrong, we’ll continue making the error. Some wars should be pulled out of, and some Dr. Who collections should be dismantled.

5. I like the texture, smell, and tangibility of the physical medium.

This is the one plausible argument in the list. No matter how great the quality of digital media, we can’t thumb the pages of an e-book. I believe the resurgence of vinyl records is due more to the tangibility of the medium than any perceived difference in quality. But we have to weigh the benefits of each medium, and digital media has many compelling advantages. For one, digital frees us from the anchors of space-hogs. It’s nice to be able to walk into a clean room without having to brush past stacks of CDs, records, and DVDs; nice to be able to move to a new house without devoting an entire U-Haul trip to your preciouses. The accumulation of things can weigh you down. Shedding excess junk will set you free and help divert focus to the few items that are actually worth cherishing. And in an increasingly overpopulated world, your physical footprint may mean everything.

6.  My DVDs are who I am.

Oh please. Wait until you’re over 30 and then get back with me on that.

7. I keep my DVDs for the sentimental value.

As humans, we tend to see in ordinary objects almost-supernatural underpinnings. This happens when we covet an autograph or a golden age comic book. In his book The Science of SuperstitionBruce Hood calls this our SuperSense. We evolved it to help make sense of a world we couldn’t fully understand. It rained after we danced, so we imbue dancing with the essence of rainmaking. Similarly, we attribute a sacred quality to the objects we collect. DVDs are more than just paper, plastic, and silicone. Perhaps by owning a physical copy of our favorite film, we feel an intimate connection with the filmmakers or that we can better absorb the film’s meaning. I would argue this is an urge we must curtail. Many a family has been broken up because of a collector’s obsession. I’m not advocating selling all of your worldly possessions or decoupling the sacredness from the objects you most covet (because, let’s admit it: it’s fun); just be aware of what you’re doing and recognize when your brain is talking you into a bad buying decision.

Sometimes we forget why we began buying DVDs in the first place: our love of movies. NOT gimmicky cases, limited pressings, or collectible booklets. And today, we have at our fingertips access to more films than ever before. And THAT is what we should be embrace. Don’t let your collection obfuscate the pleasure of watching a great film. Casablanca can hold a special place in your heart whether you own the Ultimate Edition or not.

8. I AM getting rid of my DVDs . . . to replace them with Blu-ray!

Ummm. . .