Take Me Home – 2011 Nashville Film Festival

Take Me Home is simple, delightful and funny.  The film centers around two individuals: Claire (Amber Jaeger) who is desperate to get home and Thom (writer & director, Sam Jaeger), who does everything he can to avoid his.  We begin in Manhattan, where Thom drives a fake cab for extra cash.  He picks up Claire, who has just caught her husband in the midst of an affair and who has also learned that her father just had a heart attack.  Thom and Claire’s paths merge here and they high-tail it to San Diego so that Claire can be with her father. 
In order for a road trip film to work, there are three (probably more) things that have to be executed well.  First, the scenery has to be interesting.  Second, the characters must be developed and we have to care about them.  Finally, the music has to be good, but not too imposing.
As far as the scenery goes, in Take Me Home, it speaks for itself.  We go from the East coast to the West coast with plenty of beautiful countryside in between.  We’re not just seeing America through the cab window, we’re literally “out in it”.  For instance, in Utah, the characters are forced to spend some time outside of the vehicle and the characters get to experience the land first-hand.
Thom and Claire are more than the cliché’ polar opposites destined to end up together that we are used to seeing in romantic comedies.  They are two decent, yet troubled individuals who are trying to find their way.  They end up getting “there” and manage to learn a lot from each other in the process.  Take Me Home avoids progressing heavy-handedly with the idea in mind that these two will eventually get together.  It’s a road trip and on road trips, the passengers suffer, endure and grow.  We see the many flaws of both Claire and Thom and we watch as these flaws come to the surface and are soothed by one another.  Take Me Home doesn’t adhere to any type of formula.  There’s no inevitable misunderstanding where one character pulls away from the other so that there can be a melodramatic reconciliation just before the ending credits role.  The film has a strong script and does well to avoid these cliché pitfalls.  In Take Me Home, our characters are too strongly developed and aren’t likely to fall victim to such silly misunderstandings.  Chalk it up to a thoughtful and well-written script, but Sam and Amber Jaeger’s strong performances also help.
The music in Take Me Home fits its road trip style.  The music is by Jordan Becket, otherwise known as Bootstraps.  Picture our beautiful homeland scenery with an acoustic, Americana style music in the background and a smooth Ray Lamontagne-like voice serenading us as we go along.  The music is just enough to have us think to ourselves, “I’ll need to look this up later” without distracting us from the film.  There are many ways a road trip film can go wrong.  Take Me Home doesn’t fall victim to any of these.  It is a lighthearted romantic comedy, but has an artistic beauty about it.  The cinematography is strong and makes great use of its natural surroundings which is a must in any road trip film.  Take Me Home is mostly about two people in one car.  However, I couldn’t help but thinking that the beautiful American landscape itself is a third character, silent but ever-present.  For a film shot over a three year span with a small budget and an eight-man crew, it exceeds all expectations and turned out to be quite delightful.

Buck – 2011 Nashville Film Festival

I had the privilege of seeing Buck this weekend at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival.
Buck Brannaman is a horse trainer who travels nine months out of the year and across the continent holding intense four-day horse training clinics on horsemanship.  But Buck Brannaman is so much more than a “horse trainer” as this fantastic documentary shows us.  Buck promotes and teaches a style of horsemanship that seeks to understand the horse in a way that is non-abusive and emphasizes learning about the nature of the horse.  Those that have attended a clinic of Buck’s have come out of it with a whole new perspective on training and, in many cases, their lives.  There is much crossover from Buck’s philosophy of horse training to that of raising children and his book, The Faraway Horses, has been said to be on professors’ reading lists in regards to learning about leadership.
Director Cindy Meehl takes us beyond the clinics and travels of Buck Brannaman and into the tortured and dark childhood that endured as a child trick roper.  His mother died when he was very young leaving him and his brother, Smokey, to live with an incredibly abusive father.  By the age of twelve, Buck and his brother were rescued from their father and put into a foster home.  Buck’s lovely foster mother, Betsy Shirley, is a huge inspiration for her son and shares little anecdotes and tidbits of a young the Buck throughout the film.  However, the emotional peak of the film was Buck recalling the first time he met his foster dad, Forrest Shirley.  Buck remembers the tall and imposing figure that was his new father getting out of a pick-up truck and handing him a brand new pair of buckskin gloves.  Buck, frozen with fear and who had never been given anything that nice, was silent and immobile at first, but due to the kind nature and patience of his new father, Buck gradually warmed up to him as they spent the day together repairing fences.  This touching moment is beautifully paralleled by Buck’s own philosophy and practice of handling a young and untrained horse.  Buck gradually gives the horse that sense of comfort and peace while at the same time gently letting the horse know who is in charge.  “Be gentle in what you do, but firm in how you do it.”, buck says.  This creates a relationship between man and horse stronger than ever before; a friendship.
With perfect pacing, Cindy Meehl and editor Toby Shimin from time to time cut to old photos or video footage of Buck as a young boy.  It’s easy to see that the eyes in the grown man today are the very same in the face of the young Buck who endured so much.  We, the audience, feel like we know Buck at this point.  Buck is inspirational and full of hope.  It is encouraging to see that someone can emerge from such an abusive past and not only become a decent human being, but also learn from this history of abuse and use it to shape a different path with his own family.  Buck’s relationship with of his daughters shown in the film is proof of his loving nature as a father, a complete departure from his experience with his own.  His characteristics as a husband and father go hand in hand with his philosophy of horse training, teaching his students to develop a relationship with their horse built on friendship and mutual respect.
However, Buck’s gentle way doesn’t make him shy away from confrontation.  He is just as strict with the horse owner as he is the horse and can tell a lot by the horse owner based on the behavior of their horses.  “A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems”, says Buck.  Buck Brannaman has a wonderfully dry sense of humor, which is essential to his line of work, constantly being on the road and dealing with animals.  He has a quiet wisdom about him that is contagious and keeps clients coming back to his clinics over and over again
Buck took home the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Best Documentary at the Crossroads Film Festival in Cindy Meehl’s home town of Jackson, Mississippi as well as the Full Frame Audience Award.  Buck is by far the best film I have seen at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival.  One of the great things about this documentary is that it doesn’t divide its audience.  There’s no underlying message or hidden agenda getting pushed behind the scenes.  It’s about humans seeking to understand horses.  It’s passionate.  It’s real.  It is a commentary on life.  It is an underdog story.  It is a road trip.  It is motivational.  But most of all it inspires all of us with the desire to foster more thriving relationships with those we love.
Check back later for my exclusive and enlightening interview with the director, Cindy Meehl.  

13 Assassins – 2011 Nashville Film Festival

13 Assassins was so much fun!  Takashi Miike, who has directed over 80 films, directed this film as well.  13 Assassins takes place in the peaceful mid-1800’s towards the end of the samurai era.  An older samurai has been charged with assassinating an evil lord before he becomes too powerful.  Our 13 assassins are recruited, trained and set out to accomplish their mission to destroy evil.  13 Assassins is very reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and it was fun to see a modern-day version.  This film doesn’t take itself as seriously as Seven Samurai and doesn’t try to seriously attain that type of grandeur.  However, 13 Assassins knows it’s fun.  There are some horrifyingly disturbing parts of the film as well as some humorous ones.  Our 13 warriors set up base in a small town in the pathway that the evil lord has taken.  They setup up many explosives and booby traps and sit and wait.  The over two hour film ends with a final hour of non-stop, intense, exciting and very violent samurai sword fighting.  Our 13 heroes take on over 200 enemy samurai and defeat them handily.  The film is very well directed.  The violence is prevalent and there’s a good bit of realistic style to the filmmaking.  I thoroughly enjoyed this film which was one of the late-night screenings at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival.  The NaFF staff gave a funny and appropriately dramatic introduction to a very excited audience.  This screening was a lot of fun.  Be sure and look out for this film when it gets a theatre or DVD release.  

Road to Nowhere – 2011 Nashville Film Festival

Road to Nowhere is directed by Monte Hellman and has been at such film festivals as Venice, where it won the Special Jury Prize, and South by Southwest.  I saw the film on Sunday, April17 at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival.  It is a Romance/Thriller/Mystery about making a movie that’s about a book.  Director (within the film), Mitch, is making a film about a mysterious death and suicide between a troubled couple.  Mitch falls for the woman he has cast as his main star, Velma, and the film itself (within the film) begins to suffer from this relationship because Mitch, immediately in love, spends large amounts of time on her scenes and very little on more important scenes in the film (within the film).  The characters in the film being made seem to be cast by the actual people they are inspired by in the actual.  This would mean that neither the man nor the women that this film is about are actually dead and also that these people are playing themselves in a film about them.  However, this is never referenced so maybe it’s just something weird thing about the movie.  With Lynchian-like style, the audience is made to wonder which we are watching, the film or the film being made, as many of the characters appear in both without explanation.  Road to Nowhere fails to effectively setup the story as it progresses.  The characters seem to be different without any logical reason.  As the film within the film deteriorates because of Mitch’s obsession for Velma, Mitch suddenly starts becoming more and more “out of it”.  The film doesn’t make any effort to explain this, but one must assume that it’s because that Mitch has also become obsessed with the real-life mystery of which he is making the movie(within the movie) about.  This is not really addressed by the film itself so it causes a bit of confusion.  Furthermore, Mitch suddenly gets jealous of his actors while they shoot scenes or practice lines with Velma.  This jealousy seems to be sparked by his own doing when he started showing favoritism to Velma in the making of the film within the film, which is contradictory.
Road to Nowhere also suffers from the weak acting.  It’s got a pretty decent cast, where most of the actors do a fair job (at least in the film itself, not the film being made within this film).  However, Tygh Runyan, the director of the film within this film and the Dominique Swain, author of the book that the film within this film is based on, are disruptive in their poor acting.  The script is nothing spectacular, either.  In fact, the script of both the actual film and the film within the film are both quite mediocre.  Many of the scenes are shot by non-moving cameras and focus on Velma taking 2 minutes to put her shoes on.  This is technique can be effect, but here it’s not.  It’s a classic case of style over substance. 
Road to Nowhere takes great pains to be meta.  It references many other films.  In several scenes Mitch and Velma are laying in bed watching the end of classic films, like The Seventh Seal, to which Mitch calls them all a “masterpiece”.  Throughout the film Mitch also awkwardly quotes from classic films, like Casablanca.  I couldn’t help but think the film was trying to impress me with its knowledge of film, so much so that it detracts from the film itself. 
It’s great to see low-budget, independent and experimental films such as Road to Nowhere at the Nashville Film Festival, but this particular film didn’t work for me.

Submarine – 2011 Nashville Film Festival

Submarine is the first feature film that I saw at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival.  It’s directed by Richard Ayoade and is adapted from the 2008 novel written by Joe Dunthome.  Submarine follows Oliver (as he narrates), played by Craig Roberts, as he deals with the issues and adventures of adolescence. 
The story is told in five parts: a prologue, three parts and an epilogue.  In the Prologue, Oliver introduces himself and fantasizes about the reaction of the kids at school and around the world upon his death.  Like many teenagers, Oliver is a tad self-centered.  In Part One, Oliver joins in on the bullying of a girl at school in order to impress Jordanna, a girl on whom he has a crush.  Oliver and Jordanna strike up a relationship where they spend time together at industrial parks, secluded beaches and abandoned theme parks setting things on fire. 
Part Two focuses more on Oliver’s home life.  His mother, played by Sally Hawkins, and his father are not getting along.  Oliver is on the up-and-up regarding his parents’ relationship and sex life because he regularly searches their bedroom and eavesdrops on their phone conversations.  Oliver fears that his mother is having an affair with their new neighbor, Graham, who is a mystic and motivational speaker.  Oliver thinks he’s a ninja. 
In Part Three, Oliver learns that Jordanna’s mother is sick and has been asked to join the family at the hospital on the same night that he fears that his mother will rendezvous with Graham.  He is forced to choose between being with his girlfriend at the hospital and staying with his depressed father while his mother is out having an affair.  Part Three deals with the aftermath of his decision.  Jordanna is dating someone else and his parents’ relationship has only gotten worse.  Oliver sees his mother and Graham as well as Jordanna and her new boyfriend at a beachside New Year’s Eve party.  Oliver breaks into Graham’s house, drinks his liquor and sets his bed on fire.  Oliver is now the one who is depressed as we see him pick up some of the habits that his father had as well as contemplating suicide.  The Epilogue is all about reconciliation.  Oliver’s parents have reconciled and Jordanna has returned to his arms.
The film is focuses on Oliver and his adolescent mind’s reaction to what’s going on around him.  He is learning what it means to have a girlfriend and also to deal with his parents’ dwindling marriage.  When Oliver learns that Jordanna has issues of her own (in dealing with her sick mother), we see that it’s almost too much for him to take.  He has enough dealing with his own problems so he withdraws when he’s required to be supportive of others.  In many cases, Oliver steps in and intervenes when his parents’ relationship gets to its low points.  He writes letters to his mother from his father and speaks with his parents about very personal things that really shouldn’t be talked about between parent and child.  The effect is that our main character, Oliver, has quite a bit riding on his shoulders…So much so that we see him becoming his dad towards the end.
This is all done with a whole lot of style and humor, but it doesn’t fail to impress upon the audience the seriousness of the issues in Oliver’s life.  At a certain point, Oliver contemplates suicide.  The cinematography is small and quirky.  The acting is great.  I would compare this to the likeness of a Wes Anderson film, without the indulgence.  There are a lot of instances of fireworks and arson in the film which I’m sure represent something like the burning desires of a teenager (or adult for that matter).  There are some really well put together scenes of Oliver and Jordanna that exist in Oliver’s mind as scenes shot in Super 8. The score is overly dramatic, but it works.  It’s beautiful and doesn’t impose too much on the film itself.  All in all it was a great start to the 2011 Nashville Film Festival, which continues through next Thursday, April 21.

Michael Uslan & Batman

My 2011 Nashville Film Festival experience kicked off with the panel, Batman & Other Tales: An Evening with Michael Uslan.  I couldn’t spend hours listening to him speak.  He’s responsible for taking Batman away from Zap!, Wham! and Pow! and bringing it to the hero we’ve known since 1989.
Michael Uslan excitedly walks into the room with a trendy, light, black jacket on and a white Yankees hat.  He’s toting a bottle of water and a bag of popcorn and sits down at the table beside Jim Ridley (The Nashville Scene), who wears a black Suspiria T-shirt and equally as giddy at the opportunity to be talking to the man solely responsible for Batman as we know him today.  Michael Uslan dives right in to a quick summation of his life with comics.
Back then, there was no internet and comics weren’t cool.  Comic book collecting was an isolated hobby and by the time one turns 15, you don’t bring up the fact that you collect them.  Today things are much different.  Comics are the basis for blockbuster movies, videogames & fashion.  Uslan tells of his first exposure to comics at the age of 5 in barbershops and candy-store excursions with his older brother.  Since age 8, Uslan’s goal was to write Batman comics.  Uslan goes on to talk about how he created the very first college accredited comic book course at Indiana University, which led to phone calls from Stan Lee (Marvel) and Saul Harrison (DC). 
Michael Uslan oozes success and for the first 45 minutes of the discussion he gives account after account of getting his “foot in the door” every time he saw a crack.  He didn’t take the criticism to heart and he didn’t listen when his praises were sung.  Uslan seized new opportunities when he saw them and created opportunities when there were none.
Time has flown by and there’s when we get to Batman.  Uslan recalls his contrasted feelings of both thrill and horror at seeing the 1960’s Batman TV show.  He was thrilled about the color, the car and the obvious amount of money spent on the show, but horrified that the whole world was laughing at Batman.  He was determined to follow his dream and save this dying franchise.  Amidst the voices of the masses pleading with him not to waste money on a dead franchise, Uslan bought the rights to Batman with partner Ben Melniker in 1979.  10 years of development later, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was finally made, resurrecting an abandoned franchise. 
Uslan had wanted Jack Nicholson to play the Joker from the very beginning.  He took a newspaper that had the “Here’s Johnny” shot from The Shining in it and put white-out on Nicholson’s face and painted his lips red.  Using this as his pitch prop, his campaign was successful in casting Nicholson the Joker.  He admits that he was not as thrilled regarding the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman.  He quickly saw the light and attributes this casting decision to the genius of Tim Burton. 
1989’s Batman was the first dark and serious comic book movie ever made and Uslan discusses the thought process of resurrecting this franchise successfully.  The audience had to believe that someone could dress up and fight crime yet keep a fantastical element to it.  This film was more about Bruce Wayne than Batman.  However, before they believed in Batman, they had to believe in Gotham City, which according to the script had to be like “hell on Earth.”
Uslan moves on to The Dark Knight and sings Christopher Nolan’s praises, claiming Nolan raised the bar.  A movie about a super-hero can now be considered a great film and not just a great comic book movie.  Nolan took the opposite approach than Burton.  With the new films, they wanted to convince audience that this whole Batman thing is real and believable.  Making Gotham City real was also very important to the success of this reboot.  They needed to make it completely real, but not recognizable as an actual city in our world.  This made the decision to shoot in Chicago a stroke of brilliance.  Uslan comments on Nolan’s genius of casting Heath Ledger as the Joker, who is more of an uncontrollable terrorist in The Dark Knight.  Everything about this film had to be real from the hero, the city, the villain and the technology.  Batman (’89) is about Good vs. Evil.  The Dark Knight is about Order vs. Chaos.
There’s no way I could put everything down on paper that Michael Uslan discussed, but I do know that he has an autobiography coming out later this year and am willing to bet he will share many of his great stories in his book.  Michael Uslan seemed thrilled to be sharing is life story with us at the panel.  He humbly discussed his achievements and was careful not to overly criticize other people, films, directors, etc.  I could have easily listened to him speak for another 2 hours.
Also, Uslan mentioned a future project in the works regarding The Shadow and Sam Raimi.  I can’t wait!

Nashville Film Festival 2011 Preview

This Thursday, April 14 marks the beginning of the 42nd annual Nashville Film Festival. The NAFF will take place for the most part at the Regal Green Hills and will be screening dozens of films multiple times throughout the week starting this Thursday, the 14th and ending next Thursday, the 21rst.  You can check out the full list of films and panels at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival HERE.  I will be doing my best to see as many films as I possible over the next week.  As of right now, here is a list of the screenings and panels that I hope to attend:
Batman & Other Tales: An Evening with Michael Uslan
– this is a panel with executive producer of the Batman franchise (including The Dark Knight Rises), Michael Uslan.  He will be interviewed by Jim Ridley, editor of the Nashville Scene.
            – Directed by Richard Ayoade and stars Sally Hawkins
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
            – 2010 critically acclaimed Thai film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
– directed by Shane Dax and based on the novel, Provinces of Light by William Gay.  The film stars Kris Kristofferson, Val Kilmer & Hillary Duff.
A Conversation with Vince Gill
            – this is a panel that is free to the public lead by recording artist Vince Gil.
Better Than Something
– documentary covering the now deceased punk rock phenom, Jay Reatard, and his touring before his death.  This is free to the public and will be screened at Grimey’s on Saturday at 4:00 pm.
– documentary directed by Cindy Meehl and based on Buck Brannaman who was the inspiration for the film, The Horse Whisperer.  This film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance.
13 Assassins
– Japanese director, Takashi Miike, has made over 80 films and his most recent,13 Assassins, is playing at NAFF.
Road To Nowhere
– Monte Hellman directs this romance/thriller that received a Golden Lion nomination at the Venice Film Festival.
Ain’t In It For My Health
– This is one of my most anticipated films that NAFF this year.  It’s a documentary about The Band’s lead singer and drummer, Levon Helm directed by Jacob Hatley.
My Joy
– Ukrainian directed by Serhiy Loznytsya about a Russian truck driver and a few days of his journey.
Take Me Home
            – The world premiere of Sam Jaeger’s (Parenthood) directorial debut.
The Last Circus
– Another film I am excited to see.  The Last Circus is directed by Alex de la Iglesia and is a violent/war/comedy film with clowns. 
            – directed by Azazel Jacobs and stars John C. Reilly.
I hope to catch a few more films and conduct some interviews with the filmmakers during the down-time between screenings.  You can bet that I will be blogging my reviews of the films and documenting any other crazy experiences and/or adventures that crop up throughout the duration of the festival.  The Nashville Film Festival is always a lot of fun to attend.  You never know what little gems you will discover.
I will also be live tweeting all week from the festival.

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