Film Podcast: Generation VHS, Episode 1 – Space Jam

Welcome to Generation VHS, the new 90s and 00s film podcast hosted by 615 Film’s Cory Woodroof and Sean Atkins. We’ll be aiming each and every week to break down the family films that us millennials grew up with, and determine what they meant to us then, what they mean to us now and, really, if they’re actually any good.

This week, we’ll start out with a classic: Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny.

Be sure to check back each week for new installments, and follow us on Twitter at @GenVHS.

We’ll have additional places to find the podcast and follow along with us on social media soon. Until now, fix that divot, and give the episode a listen.

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‘Jurassic World,’ is a Blockbuster for our Dumb, Greedy Times

Cory lays out his defense of the decision-making in the ‘Jurassic World’ films.

The ‘Jurassic World’ films aren’t stupid; they’re about greedy stupidity.

Note: This article contains spoilers from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Read at your discretion. 

 

In the Fallen Kingdom, man creates dinosaur, man abuses dinosaur, dinosaur breaks loose, dinosaur eats man, man kind of has it coming.

Welcome to Jurassic World.

The fifth film in the series about the precarious relationship between man and his dino creations – some natural, others, uh, not so natural – has been fielding criticisms left and right. Though it’s a movie this writer found great merit and enjoyment in (ah, shucks, I loved it – right up my alley), most criticisms are always fair for any film. That’s how this gig works, and rarely is anyone categorically wrong with how a movie makes them feel, or how they perceive it.

But, there’s a criticism to this series that just doesn’t seem to click, at least with the fingers typing this column.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is not a dumb movie. It’s a terrifying movie about dumb, greedy people who do dumb, greedy things and are made to suffer for their misdeeds and stupidity.

From the time Dr. John Hammond opened the big stone doors to the gaggle of scientists (and that poor lawyer), stupidity reigned free. Jurassic Park (the actual park, not the movie) was a terrible, if earnestly misguided, idea for Hammond. To bring literal dinosaurs back from extinction, his actions, though coming from a good place, got people killed.

About 20 years later, Jurassic World took a lot of heat for, well, its existence. Most of the criticisms lobbied at the film came with the idea that mankind would be stupid enough to reopen the same park that literally killed people in the 90s, a park that, at its recreation, found success, and ran pretty shipshape until, duh, more stupid people did more stupid things with dinosaurs and spoiled the pot. That film wasn’t quite as cautionary as its successor about how dumb people with money and blind ambition in their eyes tend to ruin everything, but in the Fallen Kingdom, the message gets louder.

The Jurassic Park/World films thrive in the mysticism and awe that these creatures give us when we see them. What was so great about World’s perspective of this was the idea that we’d get bored by seeing a literal T-Rex in its natural habitat, so we’d need to genetically create a super killer dinosaur with classified DNA roots to get people back on board, complete with a sponsorship from Verizon.

Of course, that’s a stupid idea, but again, stupidity is kind of the point here.

For the grief that he gets about that film, Colin Trevorrow wanted to say something quite pertinent with these films not many have quite picked up on. When you call what these characters are doing “stupid,” you can almost picture Trevorrow waving his hands in the back of the room, as if to say “Yes! That’s the point! These people are idiots! This is a cautionary tale!”

His installment in 2015 in the series tried to flash the Aurora Borealis of nostalgia for the original film, and then hack it right out of your hands with the Indominous Rex. It’s all at once a lark and a lesson. Sure, it’s roughly the same lesson from the first film: playing God can have the lightening bolt fire right back in your face, but there’s another lesson in there, too. We are dumb enough to make the same mistakes as the people that come before us; stop being those kinds of people. The main takeaway from Jurassic World is that Jurassic World was a terrible idea that was eventually going to fail because the folks that ran it were always going to press the red button. People decried that film’s existence, which is what the film was trying to do to its own creation. It’s a bizarre case where the artist and the critic agreed on all the wrong reasons. But, then again, it also still polled positive on Rotten Tomatoes and set box office records, so, y’know, that film did just fine. It’s still immensely fun on a return viewing.

By first film’s end, nostalgia saves the day at the expense of something more gruesome, hackneyed, lifeless, which makes that film a spirited defense of sometimes returning to things we love in the face of things we create to try and enhance the existing model to satiate ever-ending demands for something new. If it ain’t broke, don’t genetically alter it. But, it’s also a film showing how sometimes, nature will hold on to our butts for us when we fly too close to the sun.

Fallen Kingdom does the exact opposite. This time, nature doesn’t throw us a rope. It chomps us up when we climb up the ladder, running from the disaster of our own making. Trevorrow and company brought in a master of horror to show us the other side of the coin.

A dino says hello

J.A. Bayona (and by extension, Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, the returning scripters) anchors this new installment in the idea that mankind is still going to make the same, dumb mistakes whether we like it or not, sometimes in new dumb, greedy ways. Here, Isla Nublar is about to become toast thanks to an erupting volcano, and part of the citizenry wants the U.S. government to save the dinos before they return to the extinction list. A testimony from Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum with a quick hello to the role that spawned a thousand memes) cements it – we need to let nature run its course on the dinosaurs before we invite nature to run its course on us. The government listens, and says it’s going to let the dinosaur’s owners take care of the matter.

Claire Dearing has transitioned from being Jurassic World’s overseer to overseeing a campaign to save the dinosaurs from extinction through government intervention. We’re never given an exact idea what, uh, will happen with man-eating beasts from before the dawn of time when saved, but there’s an ethical responsibility driving the cause. We created these things; we’re responsible for them. It’s well-intentioned, if a bit naïve for how to fully resolve the conundrum. They get a solution from Eli Mills, the estate manager for Sir Benjamin Lockwood (Hammond’s old partner-in-crime), who offers to put the dinosaurs on a nice, little oasis to ensure they both survive the volcano and live in peace, away from persnickety humans.

Of course it’s all garbage. Even the nicest, most well-meaning people lunge for the carrot every now and again. That stick always strikes hard.

We learn rather quickly Mills has ulterior motives, motives to sell the animals on the black market and harness more DNA for genetically-engineered dinosaurs who attack on command, which can also be sold. What a dumb idea. Of course this was going to backfire. How could you be so silly? Again, that’s kind of the point. Is this really that foreign an idea?

We live in a world now where rich billionaires pump toxic materials into rivers, blast smokestacks into the ozone layer and torture animals to test the latest form of lipstick. America elected a president that has a list of horrid grievances that run as long as a line to ride the new attraction at Jurassic World. Fake news and media literacy have come into full focus. The world feels stupider. It’s time movies start, y’know, addressing that, and showing us, on the biggest scale possible, what happens when dumb, greedy people do dumb, greedy things. We’ve made our villains far too smart over the years. It’s time to dumb them down a little, so they’re more relatable, and more affecting.

In one scene, the new Indoraptor (this film’s hyper-intelligent killing machine, and a prototype who still has kinks) goes to town on an unsuspecting elevator of rich pricks who are privy to the black-market dealings that Mills runs at Lockwood’s estate. The scene is played for a laugh, and for horror in looking at Toby Jones’ frigid reaction to becoming the side item to an elevator supreme. But, it’s hard to be too sympathetic. They kind of have it coming. After all, these violent delights have violent ends. That monstersaurus is doing exactly what mankind designed it to. It’s a pawn in a grander game, run by dumb, greedy people, who make dumb, greedy decisions.

The Jurassic World films are not dumb, despite what you might hear. They’re about dumb people with dollar sign dallies. Every strange decision and seeming frustration with people never learning their lesson works both ways. We’re supposed to feel like this toward these morons, just like we’re supposed to feel this way to the morons we see in everyday life who are pulling us closer to midnight on the doomsday clock.

In this new film, nature is a bad, greedy mistake, taking its toll on those who wrought it into existence. It’s evening out the balance. Trevorrow isn’t making mistakes in writing his characters; he’s writing characters that make awful mistakes and do awful things. We’re not supposed to find most of these people appealing, or relatable. They remind us of the worst parts of our species – the parts that flood our Twitter feeds on a daily basis, ripping children from parents at the border, making crude noises at the plight of children with Down’s syndrome, running white supremacy rallies, destroying the Earth for a quick buck, driving us further and further to the mountain of madness.

In the Fallen Kingdom, audiences feel the weight of that cruelty in a moment where a lone brontosaurus is left to succumb to the lava. It’s a moment that shows nature’s inherent vice, but also, one that shows man’s decided vice. We brought that thing back; it didn’t want or expect to be here. Nature’s just doing what nature always does. Perhaps it’s taking grim retribution against what man did by bringing the dinosaur back in the first place. It’s still man’s fault that it’s happening, and in this moment, man’s left to rectify with its mistakes.

Later in Fallen Kingdom, nature, via the Indoraptor and other dangerous dino compatriots, take plenty of grim retribution against the dapper ne’er-de-dandies who come to bid on abused animals and use them for war profiteering. No innocents get taken out in this film at the Jurassic claw; only the rotten apples. Sure, the final scene indicates that an innocuous camp in the California Redwoods or your friendly pooch chilling in the backyard might be in for a rude awakening, but still, it’s dumb, greedy people who do us all in.

The Jurassic World films challenge us to be better than what we’re watching – their characters keep making mistakes so that we learn from them. Man keeps going back to the dinosaur because the dinosaur is representative of every bad decision man returns to every day. Put a “Make America Great Again” hat on the T-Rex if that helps these movies make more sense. It’s a larger-than-life example, but that should make it drive home all the more.

Fallen Kingdom ends on a darker note than most blockbusters do. No, Thanos doesn’t snap half the world out of existence, but a young girl changes the course of history in a well-meaning, if monstrously-dangerous move. It’s not a great move, to be honest, but you at least get why she does it. It feels predestined. Though, to be fair, that girl is not of us. She’s cut from the same cloth as the dinos she sets free. She’s representative of nature, in a way, who will act as nature sees fit.

Sometimes, you can’t put the dinosaur back in the cage. Sometimes, it breaks free, and we’re left to deal with the actions of dumb, greedy people, and the dumb, greedy thing they did.

It’s not dinosaurs for us, though (…so far). It might be the sea levels raising. It might be nuclear war. It might be a Twitter spat that sparks a deadly policy change. It might be this or that. You can imagine what it might be. We spend agonizing time imaging what it might be.

Critique the decisions with the dinos themselves if you wish; heck, I don’t exactly know what would happen if you came face-to-face with a dinosaur every waking second, I’d imagine if you raised one, and were friendly with it, it might be friendly with you back if it recognized you. Harp on why protagonist A did B to accomplish C. How the filmmakers choose to resolve their plot is subjective.

But, instead of chalking this film up to being inherently stupid, try to find the other avenue here. It’s not an inherently stupid film, not by a long shot. It takes fantastical ideas and weaves a dark parable out of them about the dangers of stupidity itself, and of money-chasing.

If we don’t push against the dumb, greedy people who do dumb, greedy things, one of these days, we’re going to find a T-Rex in our own backyard.

And he’ll be hungry.

‘Gotti’ Deserves its 0% Score on Rotten Tomatoes

“He showed the world who’s boss.”* *But not in this John Travolta-led disaster.

“He showed the world who’s boss.”* *But not in this John Travolta-led disaster.

As of the time of this post, Gotti has the rare 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes. After 23 reviews submitted to the film review aggregation site, you’d think someone would give it a positive review. Since the score was still sitting at 0% as of yesterday, and since I have MoviePass I would be risking very little, I figured I’d go see Gotti this weekend and see if it was actually that bad.

Every now and then you come across a movie so bad, you can’t help but laugh out loud and throw up your hands at numerous points during the movie because you don’t understand what went into the scenes you’re watching in said movie. In this case, that movie is Gotti, which is the worst movie I’ve seen in over a year and certainly deserves its 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Gotti follows the rise of the infamous crime boss, John Gotti, as he heads up the Gambino Crime Family in New York City over the span of three decades.

Directed by a cast member of HBO’s Entourage, this crime film feels like a stitched-together version of Goodfellas made for Crackle (Cracklefellas, anyone?). The scenes highlighting the mob boss’s rise are baseless and filled with ludicrous dialogue and felt as if they were written by a high schooler forced to take a script-writing course in order to have enough credits to graduate. John Travolta plays the titular character and mob boss, but he certainly deserved better than this (however, a look at his recent track record of films may say otherwise). On top of that, the film is accompanied by an unbearable score composed by rap star Pitbull, who includes four of his own songs that stand out for all the wrong reasons.

Perhaps the number of producers listed in the opening credits is the clearest indication that this film never should have left the writer’s room. However, it did and if it weren’t for my MoviePass (which, by the way, helped distribute Gotti rather than sending it straight to Video on Demand), I would have been really upset to have paid $17 to see this awful movie.

Recently, critics have spoken out against Rotten Tomatoes as the base for moviegoers to decide whether or not they want to see a movie in the theater. And while there is a strong argument to be made for each side, in the case of Gotti, it earned the score of 0% given how bad it is. Moviegoers (especially those that don’t use MoviePass) should be warned by the 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, which will undoubtedly cause it to draw some support for the Razzies next year.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go cleanse myself of this horrible movie and see something good, like Paddington 2.

Join 615 Film for a Nashville screening of ‘5-25-77’

Join 615 Film for our first installment of our Screening Series!

Join 615 Film for our first installment of our Screening Series!

Hello, 615 Film-ers!

We’re gearing up to host our very first 615 Film Screening Series installment with Nashville’s first (we think) showing of the coming of age dramedy 5-25-77.

The screening will take place at the Regal Hollywood 27 on Thursday, July 19 at 7:30 p.m., but to ensure we’re able to hit the number necessary to host the show, we’ll need YOU (yes, you, you reading this article) to book your ticket now to let the good folks at Gathr know you’re coming!

Writer/director Patrick Read Johnson (Baby’s Day Out, Dragonheart) will join us for the screening to participate in a Q&A and meet-and-greet at a soon-to-be-shared location post-film.

High Five: The Podcast is co-hosting this screening with us!

LINK HERE TO SIGN UP!

A self-autobiographical labor of love from veteran filmmaker Patrick Read Johnson, 5-25-77 tells the tale of an aspiring filmmaker (played by Freaks and Geeks star John Francis Daley) who gets the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be the first person to get a glimpse of a galaxy far, far away, and how this chance encounter affects his future. The film has been in production for years (literally — principle production took place in 2004-06, with extra footage added nearly ten years later), and finally hit theaters last year. But, it’s still to make it’s Nashville debut (…as far as we’re aware).

You can help make that happen! 

For the cost of a typical movie ticket you’d buy on Fandango, come and join the 615 Film team and local film fans for a fun night with door prizes, a special introduction and a post-film discussion.

We’re excited for this event and plan to host more in the future. But, first, we need you! Come out for this exciting opportunity to see a film years in the making with all your fellow 615 film fans!

LINK AGAIN TO SIGN UP!

Cory’s 2018 Nashville Film Festival Diary: Part Two

Read Cory’s conclusion to his diaries of NaFF titles.

615 Film’s Cory Woodroof was on the ground for the 2018 Nashville Film Festival, and well, saw a lot of movies in a week’s time. Here’s the second rundown of the films he saw at the festival.

Every now and then, a film will fall from the sky and beam you right in the noggin, and you’ll never want to get rid of the bump it leaves on your forehead. For me in 2018, that film is Thunder Road, the feature debut from relative newcomer Jim Cummings. Cummings stars, writes, directs, co-edits and provides some of the music for this self-effacingly humane dramedy about good-hearted police officer Jim Arnaud, who breaks down in spectacular fashion at his mother’s funeral, and sees the plight of Job ascend on his slightly-nebbish, slightly-agitated, always-well-meaning person. A teary-eyed Arnaud goes from silently miming failed dance moves to honor his mom to fighting to keep his daughter in a nasty custody battle in snap fashion, and Cummings maneuvers the rickety bridge that connects tragic comedy to not-so-funny tragedy with an explorer’s confidence.

For stretches, Thunder Road hits you like an oxygen mask after a surprise one-hundred-yard dash. The swells of bracing action after moments of lull, backed by goosebump-ready musical cues and smash-bang edits into the fervor, cement Cummings’ explosive filmmaking talents. And the lulls, oh the lulls, the little moments of life in crisis, the dead-on depictions of depression and grief. Don’t forget the bombastic monologues and awkward encounters that mark Arnaud’s life notching further and further down the rabbit hole of unfair and self-inflicted strokes of rotten chance….in no short order, this is the power of film on rudimentary, open-hearted display. Cummings’ performance, writing, direction, editing and musical decisions are all as good as anything you’ll see in 2018. It’s overwhelmingly great.

Thunde Road
Jim Cummings in the film “Thunder Road”

Cummings follows in the line of guys like Richard Linklater (a fellow Austinian), Sean Baker (of with Thunder Road shares similarities to his 2017 masterpiece The Florida Project), Kenneth Lonergan and James L. Brooks in that tragicomic blend of humanity that is seen too infrequently in dramatic storytelling. Cummings, one film in, already stands shoulder to shoulder with those guys, and has given 2018 one of its definitive works. This, bizarrely, doesn’t have a distributor yet, but here’s to hoping it’s just a matter of time. It’s the best indie debut I’ve seen since Destin Daniel Cretton’s towering Short Term 12, and one of the decade’s great human dramas. So, it’s pretty firmly the best thing to come out of the festival.

Someone needs to pick this bad boy up, distribute it, and rank in the Indie Spirit nominations (and more, if you play your cards right!). You can read staff writer Grant Townsend Moore’s detailed review here.

Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap (pictured up top) joins Thunder Road in being the other best thing I saw at this year’s fest, and one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in years. It’s hyperbole, but when you see something that represents the best of what documentaries can do, the word begin to fade into grand gestures.

Liu’s film is part autobiographical and is totally immersed in intimate, revealing perspectives. Liu and his childhood Zack and Keire all share a love of skateboarding, and have all gained community from the likeminded skaters in town. The three also share in the absence of strong familial structures. None of them had particularly loving upbringings, and found the understanding and care they so desperately yearned for on the half-pipes with folks of similar benediction. It’s so moving to see these guys just spend time together, throwing care into the wind of a downhill skate or in a backyard get-together. Liu wants you to get to know he and his friends, and empathize with them, before really digging down to the brokenness that lies beyond the surface.

But, once you acclimate, it’s time to get real. Liu’s journey into his own story and into his friends’ reveal hidden pockets of frustration, of self-loathing, of fear for the future, of long roads ahead. For one of them, you’re forced to rectify with disturbing tendencies anchored by alcohol use, for another, the sobering reality of coming to terms with who your father really was, and how he raised you. For Liu, the documentary morphs into a tale of forgiving his mother for years of mistreatment from a stepfather, and into a tale of better understanding his friends.

I’ve never been as heartened to see stills from a red carpet as I was when I googled the young men in the film after seeing the doc to try and find out how they were doing. All three young men stood, smiling with Liu on the red carpet. They look like they’ve been doing well, and it’s been some time since the film shot. Perhaps they’re all in much better places than they were when the filming took place. I sure damn hope so. What power the documentary has – to make your heart hurt and celebrate all at once for strangers on a screen. Film can be the ultimate machine for empathy, with the doc its knuckle-ball.

Edwin
Sgt. Edwin Raymond in the documentary “Crime + Punishment”

Stephen Maing’s explosive look at the NYPD, Crime + Punishment, feels like something ripped from the world of David Simon or James Mangold. It’s a film about duty and honor, and what happens when the body you serve no longer wishes to uphold the laurels it’s built on. What do you do? For the NYPD 12, they put their careers and well-beings on the line to reveal the malpractice that was a work in a New York City’s police department that supposedly had outlawed quotas on arrests and citations. He also follows a determined private investigator, who spends the film’s runtime trying to exonerate a young man accused of a shooting and spends his life exposing quota-driven arrests of young minority men, who can rack up seven or eight unlawful arrests at a time that make money for the city and damn the innocent young person into splotched records.

Corruption and government sadly go hand in hand, and Maing’s film will exhaust you with a righteous blitz of undercover footage, first-hand accounts and slice-of-life examples to patch together an image of the courage of the NYPD 12 and of the investigator, who must power through a system not too big on self-correction. It’s a story that’s got all the drama and intrigue of the best crime stories, but also pulls the audience down to the street level to see what happens when punishment goes awry, and grabs hold of innocent bystanders. It’s a sobering watch, and one that’s vital in our ongoing discussion of police conduct, and police practice. It’s no surprise Sgt. Edwin Raymond pops up on Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas each episode to provide his insights into policing in America – he’s a fascinating subject, and a firm example of what happens when good cops push against bad systems.

Speaking of government corruption, Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money follows the trail of anonymous contributions into often-dishonest campaign efforts that usurp government regulation, but don’t skip past the watchful eye of Montanans and diligent members of the press. In a time where Citizens United allows for corporations to donate to political campaigns, and the federal government doesn’t limit their efforts to anonymously fund attacks on various politician’s through dummy companies, Dark Money serves as a well-researched, dire warning to all who overlook campaign finance issues as major threats to the democratic process.

It’s as compelling as it is frustrating, but it gives you hope in the collective of Americans who still believe in the basic tenants of the democratic process. Here, journalists work with lawful government representatives as professionally as possible to uncover the dark web of who funds what for what politicians. The documentary can crackle along with the best journalism capers, but also carries a pang of regret for the decline of traditional media.

Journalist John S. Adams is the primary fixed point for tracking down the dark money, and his story is as important as any told on a screen this year. Even when nefarious actors try to backhand the process, watchdogs in journalism, government life and in the citizenry still stand up to the dishonesty. You’ll all at once get the grim wakeup call to a little-known slice of democratic decadence, and a good reminder that there are good people who still care to hunt it down and call it out.

Brian Welch
From the documentary “Loud Krazy Love”

Rounding out the better documentaries I saw at the festival is the strong doc Loud Krazy Love, a heartening redemption story about KoRn guitarist Brian “Head” Welch and his daughter Jennea. The rock-to-redemption narrative can be as tired as a neighborhood band covering “Freebird,” and one can only hear so many times of how rocker X used to trash hotel rooms and drink too much beer before changing his or her path for the better.

It’s not that it’s not inherently good to know people have turned their lives around, but buzzwords and repetitive imagery can only do so much good, particularly when trying to tell a compelling story. The switch to a life in faith will bring one much peace and joy, but it’s by no means the cakewalk and finished task that many likeminded stories try to portray it as being.

Loud Krazy Love shows that the healing process doesn’t finish with a dunk in the water and a good feeling. Welch refuses to gloss over the real scars and dark moments that can encapsulate the lifestyle of a global celebrity, particularly when the person involved clearly might not be ready for the attention, and for the opportunity for malevolent practice with no immediate consequence. He’s open and frank about his conversion to Christianity, what it took to leave his addictive tendencies behind from his early KoRn days, and how he worked to learn what being a Christian, and, by turn, a father, is really all about.

Directors Trey Hill and Scott Mayo bring enough visual flourish to the film to give it a spark, but it’s all about Brian, as good as a subject for a film like this as you can find, and Jennea, and their embracing of new norms as both learn truly what a redemptive tail encapsulates. It’s a work of responsible, reflective Christianity, and of immense goodwill.

Leave No Trace
Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in “Leave No Trace”

Also Screened:

  • Legendary filmmaker Paul Schrader returns to the world of dogmatic dissections of men in crisis with First Reformed, a holier art Taxi Driver with a scorching performance from the always stalwart Ethan Hawke and as generous and frank a read on the faithful life that has been screened this decade. It joins the pantheon of essential religious cinema and can’t be missed. Look for further thoughts on this one elsewhere from me when it opens in Nashville next month. You can peep Grant’s review for 615 Film now.
  • The Timothée Chalamet Experience rolls through town with A24’s moody 90s teen drama Hot Summer Nights, or, Kewl Largo, where Goodfellas meets The Sandlot, and a wayward New England youth throws himself into the world of dazed and confused drug dealings and falling in love in preppy neon shirts with a gnarly hurricane barrowing on the horizon. The Life Chalablazed, if you will. Everyone’s new boyfriend brings in his patented, brooding curiosity, but it’s Alex Roe as Chalamet’s bruised and broken partner in crime and Maika Monroe as Timmy’s world-weary summer fling that give the text its depth. Newcomer Elijah Bynum lets his obvious cinematic influences guide the narrative and style, but the buzzed sense of self and mood feel exciting, if a bit too relaxed. All involved can, and will, go on to do better things, but many debuts have fallen for more traps, and have shown less promise, than this one. Also, Emory Cohen needs more to do in everything he’s in. It’s a perennial problem for such a great, young actor for him to consistently get such little to do with such striking characters. Look for this one to roll in on VOD later in the summer.
  • Debra Granik’s return to feature directing, Leave No Trace, is a humble, carefully observed look the importance of a supportive community in the life of a child. No man is an island, though family can be found in the forest. Promising up-and-comer Thomasin McKenzie and sure-bet character actor Ben Foster rummage around the woods of the West Coast in search for a new home after the government seizes their national park hideaway. Foster is a veteran with severe PTSD and inhabits the role with grace and hidden turmoil. McKenzie calmly goes through the various pratfalls and stops on the road as the loving, whip-smart daughter who’s growing tired of roaming. She’s going places for her career, even if her character would rather settle down. Granik’s has the patience to let a story like this tell itself without a lot of manufactured flair, and the trust that her actors can sound the toll for the film’s heart. We don’t get a lot of films like this, which underscores how important it is when we fall in our laps. This one should be out in Nashville around late summer.
  • Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA flows with the same haunting grace that latches itself on to one of Sakamoto’s iconic scores or compositions. The virtuoso Japanese composer stares down his own mortality as he recovers from a cancer diagnosis while working on the score for the 2015 film The Revenant and his next solo effort, an homage to Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. He also stares down the devastation of the Japanese tsunami from earlier in the decade that laid waste to parts of the country. The best artists feel their environment and carry the weight of society’s ailments into their work. Sakamoto is a gentle giant in his world, and Stephen Schible takes just enough time to follow Sakamoto around through a day in his fascinating life, where walks in the woods and gentle taps on a symbol morph into sonic masterpieces about possibility and consequence. It’s one of the finer looks at the creative process to come along in some time, and serves as a dutiful ode to an overlooked master of music.
  • hillbilly, the festival’s closing selection, is a first-hand look at a stereotype often overlooked in the conversation of accurate media representation – that of the Appalachian. Through damning examples of media misuse and illuminating portraits of Appalachia’s finest, Sally Rubin and Ashley York take viewers on a path of soul searching about one of America’s ignored, put-upon regions. It’s an instructive view, and one that might make you feel a bit uncomfortable in your seat for the times you’ve played into the ugly renderings of the people in the mountains. There’s more, complex conversations to be had about the region’s genuine flaws and points of commendation, and a tougher talk to be had as to why the folks in the country flocked to Donald Trump so fervently in the 2016 election, that the film just doesn’t have time for. But, as a start to a larger conversation, hillbilly’s a pretty great place to start, to listen and to learn.

That wraps up my quite-lengthy rundown of the films I saw at the Nashville Film Festival in 2018. Here’s to whatever’s on the horizon for next year’s festivities.

Cory’s 2018 Nashville Film Festival Diary: Part One

Cory recaps the first block of films he saw at this year’s NaFF.

Cory recaps the first block of films he saw at this year’s NaFF.

Film festivals are kind of like one of those stair machines at the gym you do to make yourself feel better about the rigor of your workout. They can be a continuous grind and pose no end in sight, and make your feet burn like a summertime campfire. Then again, film festivals are also not like stair machines, because they are also very enjoyable, and replace climbing M.C. Exercise’s never-ending staircases with a barrage of wonderful films. The feet-burning still applies, though, well, at least for me, I have flat feet, and Sperry’s, like the Honey Badger, don’t care.

I guess the two don’t really have all that much in common then. Oh, you stop. I’m tired. I’ve been at a film festival all week.

The 49th annual Nashville Film Festival concluded yesterday and I, your faithful and true 615 Film correspondent, trudged along the cinematic spectrum since last Friday, and as of this plastic letter-pecking, have seen 14 titles (also managed to sneak in a non-festival quick watch of the Gabrielle Union home invasion thriller Breaking In, which is like Home Alone, but serious, but still manages to pop in a bumbling Gerard Way-lookalike burglar who fumbles about his assignment like Don Knotts walking through a field of mouse traps. It’s not bad!).

Film festivals in the late spring mix together the buzzed-about indie darlings that first grace Sundance and SXSW, socially-urgent documentaries that demand attention and those weird little flicks that grace blocks like NaFF’s Graveyard Shift.

Out of Sundance, the fest gave this intrigued patron an early look at Bo Burnham’s charming, apt middle school dramedy Eighth Grade, which cuts deep into the pitfalls of having to be a kid in the worst possible time in life. The exact nature of the script and tone make you almost wonder if Burnham is actually just one of those 15-year-old kids that looks very old for his age. New kid on the block Elsie Fisher breathes an awkward command into her Kayla, a teen trying to tie together the closing moments of her eighth-grade year with regrets of not being who she wants to be then, and fears of not being who she wants to be when the first class of high school begins.

From A24’s “Eighth Grade”

Burnham’s observant, humane touch reminds you of a young Jason Reitman (Juno is a good comparison piece, though this film prefers keen quiet to rat-a-tat dialogue), and if that’s going to be the comedian’s niche, then we’re all better for it. Patience is a hard thing to find in a film like this, as is humility to let the era tell the story. Reitman’s great at that, and in Eighth Grade, so is Burnham. Here, the kids are alright, even if they aren’t quite all ready. Burnham challenges us to look back on our own pasts and give those meme-ready phone surfers a big break. And, hey, maybe even a hug and an encouraging word. After all, the future is in their Instagramming hands…but, thankfully, not, like, immediately. Staff writer Kevin Allen wrote a longer piece that echoes a lot of my feelings. Also, long live the great Josh Hamilton, who has given me the blunt vision of what I will look like when in a paternal role.

Sundance standout Blindspotting (pictured at the top), birthed from the creative firework stand of Hamilton actor Daveed Diggs and his dramatic partner Rafael Casal, takes us into gentrified Oakland, where the weekend warriors of flannel and purveyors of edamame lunches (so, hipsters) are settling in to the long diversified city. One that stands home to great artists (i.e. N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar) and the legendary Raiders (well, for now), as well as a difficult history of racial discrimination and police misconduct. Diggs and Casal walk a tightrope of weaving in long stretches of fiery spoken poetry into the narrative of Diggs’ Collin, who is just days away from his prohibition ending. Things aren’t helped when on a late-night drive, Collin stands witness to the shooting of an unarmed black man by an Oakland cop. From there, Colin must navigate the perils of seeing such a horrendous act, and his own struggles to stay out of trouble’s way, particularly when best friend Miles (Casal) is such an unpredictable and emotional live wire. For a film dealing with such striking subject matter, it’s got a brisk sense of humor, with Diggs and particularly Casal doling out creative spoken word routines on their day, where their city is headed and other things good friends observe when they kick the can around. But, they also use this form to address the tougher themes as well — ones of racial identity, of a city in transition, of pent-up frustrations and fears — the ones that give the piece its foundation. Music video director Carlos López Estrada splices in visual flair and almost a surrealist sense of creativity in telling this story, which brings in the electricity, wit and narrative possibility of live theater with the emotion and presentation that’s unique to film.

It’s an explosive debut for all involved, with Diggs and Casal delivering layered, fleet-footed performances, and turning in an inflammatory script that makes sure to nail its central thesis home in the most lasting fashion. Diggs gets the grand charge at the end, and wallops with a left hook monologue that’ll leave you dizzy, but it’s Casal’s performance that will spark and haunt you. If take the dark energy and looming eyes of Al Pacino’s work in The Godfather Part II and Joe Pesci’s playful-yet-dangerous charm in Goodfellas, and add on a layer of Broadway-ready bravado, you get what Casal channels here. It’s the supporting performance of the year, and brushes shoulders with some of the greats to support a cast. I’m unsure I’ve seen a commanding acting debut like this since Christoph Waltz’s historic turn in Inglorious Bastards. If Casal isn’t least considered for an Oscar this fall, it’ll be a embarrassing omission for one of the year’s landmark feats of acting.

Circles
From the documentary “Circles.”

We stay in Oakland for our documentaries with Circles, a challenging-yet-uplifting look at restorative justice through the eyes of the man trying to bring it to the city’s youth. Director Cassidy Friedman does what all the best documentarians do – he stays out of the way of his compelling subject, Eric Butler, an ex-Colts practice squad member who, after being displaced from his home in Hurricane Katrina, found himself working to bring restorative justice to at-risk Oakland youths. There’s a common misconception with the principle Butler mounts his work on. Restorative justice is not just an encouraging word and a friendly hug – it’s a laborious, hard-as-concrete process that requires for a lot of patience and emotional truth to surface for the youth in question and those that care for them. Butler works with kids who are skipping class, are academically underachieving and are, in general, paving rough paths for themselves post-education. But, instead of trying to just slap the wrist and walk away, the work requires intensive bonding and circles of trust to help the youths in question realize the error of their ways and come to grips with the pain and turmoil that so often lies under the skin. And, go figure, correction with an eye toward empathy and change tends to work better than simple suspension.

The film takes a difficult turn when Butler’s son Tre gets caught in the belly of Oakland’s criminal justice system after an unbelievable misunderstanding sends him to jail. Here, Butler tries to juggle the work he’s doing at his school of employment – where the institution is working to help pull one particular young lady out of a difficult family and social situation – with his efforts to keep his own son from succumbing to the traps he works to keep school kids out of every day. It’s in this journey the film takes a new life. It was already an instructive look at how powerful restorative justice can be when implemented and maintained properly, but when systemic oppression hits home, the subject becomes not only a laudable public servant, but a portrait of firm grace in the face of adversity. There will be plenty of imaginary heroes that will grace movie screens this summer, but Circles shows us what a real hero looks like, and what real heroism takes. Films like this don’t leave you; nor should they.

Social justice is a common thread at the festival, and few stories spark the ire and demand for change that the ill-fated traffic stop of young black woman Sandra Bland did in 2015. Say Her Name: The Life of Death of Sandra Bland follows the real-time search for answers in Bland’s suspicious detainment and eventual death in a Texas holding cell. The situation was a defining moment in the Black Lives Matter movement, one where the lack of understanding and frustrations surrounding her treatment in custody sparked nationwide protests and particular unrest in the area of Texas where Bland died. Considering the horrid history of policing against minority groups, Bland’s story slots into a sickening history of police misconduct, racial profiling and systemic ineptitude. The documentarians keep the film at an even hand, offering the city’s sheriff and district attorney opportunities to explain their side of deliberations at the same wavelength with Bland’s family, friends and legal team. That’s vital for understanding from the state’s side of things for how they feel this process might’ve gone differently and comes with dispiriting admissions from the sheriff’s office in the case’s operational failures.

The film tries to dig to the truth of what might’ve happened with Bland’s situation, though, the answers aren’t as clear-cut as anyone would hope. Though, it’s apparent Bland is a victim of a system that failed her, and the film openly tries to advocate for changes to happen to prevent acts like this happen again. As a work of in-depth research into Bland’s story, and a testament to her character (the film is inter-spliced with personal vlogs on her social messages that offer glimpses into her personality – aspects often lost in the conversation), it’s an important watch. It slots in appropriately with HBO’s new series Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, which is taking a season-long look at policing in America. Here, you begin to understand the dangers of racial profiling, systemic breakdowns in jailing work, and the maddening inability for de-escalation tactics to take a forefront in the conversation on police conduct. Look for it to reach the station later this year.

zerzura
From the film “Zerzura.”

Also screened:

  • Mickey Reese’s Alien, a B-movie sci-fi fever dream that looks at Elvis through the lens of his immense, almost, cough cough, otherworldy status. It’s an odd duck of a project and follows in the footsteps of those David Lynchian Adult Swim short films that the network stashes in its lineup at 2AM for unsuspecting night owls. It’s a film that doesn’t entirely work, which only increases the creepy charm, and enhances the parts that do (the last shot is bombastic). Elvis might’ve left the building many years ago, but it’s nice that weird little DIY ditties like this still can find a place in the grander spectrum of festival programming. Someone needs to get writer/director Mickey Reese on the phone with folks on Williams Street, stat.
  • Zerzura is the Sergio Leone homage no one was expecting. Best described as a Saharan acid fantasy western, the film is an electric curveball for independent cinema, and a must for anyone who misses the character-and-scope-driven westerns that Leone made his mark with. The western isn’t dying – it’s just gone international. Director Christopher Kirkley delved into Tuareg cinema before, and his understanding of the area and its visual strengths really make this a spectacle as much as an exact journey. Though, its strongest element has to be Ahmoudou Madassane, the star and composer. He carries the film with his cadence of screen presence and melodious soundscapes, plucking away at one of 2018’s best scores. No film will be a singularly fascinating as Zerzura this year, so seek it out if you can.
  • Triumph: The Untold Story of Perry Wallace tells a Nashville story that deserves national attention in the sports world – the one of former Vanderbilt star Perry Wallace, the first black collegiate athlete to fully integrate into the SEC. Wallace’s tale is indeed one of triumph, as he bravely stood against harassment from racist white southerners to make sporting history, but also one of collective shame for those that stayed silent during Wallace’s time on the team. He was voted a captain his senior year, but never got strong showings of support at the time from the very teammates he played with. It’s a delicate balance to tell a story like Wallace’s, one that aims to inspire but also condemn. It took Vanderbilt until the year 2004 to properly acknowledge Wallace for his accomplishments after a scorching-but-righteous interview Wallace gave post-graduation painted Vanderbilt as lacking in doing all they could to make someone like the basketball star feel welcome and supported. The school actually funded the documentary, a further step in trying to rectify its spotty past with one of its most important athletes and alumni. Wallace passed in 2017, and it’s a shame we’re just now beginning to see him get the attention he so richly deserves. But, director Rich Gentile does his story justice, delivering a full, compelling tribute to who Wallace was, what he did, what he endured and what he stood for.

Our second part of Cory’s recap will be published soon, with opinions on films like Minding the Gap, First Reformed, Leave No Trace, Loud Krazy Love, Thunder Road, Hot Summer Nights, Dark Money, Crime + Punishment, hillbilly and more.

New Trailer: ‘Under the Silver Lake’ Looks Exhilarating and Quirky

A24 might have another classic on their hands.

A24 might have another classic on their hands.

Ever since Director/Writer David Robert Mitchell blessed the big screen with It Follows in 2014, we’ve all been waiting to see what he does next. Yesterday, the first trailer for his crime thriller Under the Silver Lake hit the internet and, needless to say, it looks very original and entertaining (just like It Follows).

This trailer doesn’t feel anything like It Follows, so it’ll be interesting to see what director David Robert Mitchell does with a film outside of the horror genre. Under the Silver Lake feels a lot more upbeat and possibly funny mixed with a thrilling undertone. There’s also a very good chance it could have several twists and turns that’ll make for an edge of your seat experience too.

With Academy Award nominee Andrew Garfield as the lead actor, the talent on both sides of the camera is very much exciting. Between this and Hereditary, a summer of two promising A24 releases can’t get here soon enough.