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.

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.

Review: ‘First Reformed’ is a Chilling Cautionary Tale of a Radical Isolationist Mind

A chilling self examination of mankind and its influence on God’s creation.

A chilling self examination of mankind and its influence on God’s creation.

RATING: ★★★1/2 (out of four stars)

Every few years or so, a film comes around that shocks audiences to their core.  Taxi Driver pulled this off in 70s and launched itself into cultural landmark status.  Now the writer of Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader, is back with a spiritual film that puts humanity under the lens with razor sharp focus.

First Reformed tells the story of Reverend Toller (played by Ethan Hawke), who is the minister of small tourist church outside New York, and his congregation is all but non existent.  One of the few members of his flock, Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried), asks him to personally speak with her husband who is a former environmental activist and his radical actions landed him in prison.  This conversation sparks something inside Toller that ignites his frustrations with the world and calls his faith into question.

In one of the most daring films in recent years, Schrader puts humanity on blast.  It is difficult to recall of a spiritual film that so adequately examines the minutia of the human condition.  We are a fickle species.  We have an innate desire to do what we think is right, but we also want to conform to the world in which we live.  Schrader has crafted characters that exemplify these traits.  Toller is a man who, through much pain and loss, understands what it means to be overcome with despair yet hope for me.  Mary understands what it means to want to a normal life for her family, even if it means sacrificing her passions.  The minister of the nearby megachurch (played by Cedric The Entertainer) understand what it means to be a part of the real world

The first two third of the film feel like a window in Anytown, USA.  Every scene feels like a conversation between real people.  The drama feels genuine and nothing feels too extraordinary for the sake of being a movie.  Everything is expertly paced to slowly draw out the tension till everything comes to a head in the final act.  Much like Taxi Driver, the final act is where things get a bit too grandiose for the tone of the rest of the film.  Not to say that is a bad thing, as viewers are drawn to the edge of their seat with each passing moment in anticipation for the final moments of the film.

The performances are what breathe live into the film.  Ethan Hawke gives a career defining performance, flawlessly transitioning from the everyday man to a man crippled by the despair of loneliness from scene to scene.  Cedric the Entertainer is a surprising delight, as he is typically not a dramatic actor.  He brings with him a likable air that is so quintessential for a minister, one that lets you know this is a man of god and you know you’re supposed to like him.

Schrader is a calculated filmmaker; everything is done with purpose.  The minimalist soundscape pulls the ever growing tension throughout the film.  The lack of over the shoulder shots during dialogue scenes forces viewers to damn near make eye contact with the actor in the claustrophobic 4:3 ratio.  Every subtle tick and mannerism an actor emotes is visible and serves Schrader’s vision.  First Reformed is one of the most carefully crafted films of the year, and its philosophies will linger with audiences for days after the credits finish rolling.