Festival Notes

Festival Notes: ‘For the Love of Docs’ 2020

It takes a certain kind of person to imagine a different world than the present one they’re living in.  Such seems to be the running theme found in the line-up of DEADLINE’s recent For the Love of Docs Film Festival—or, at the very least, in the couple of films this writer was able to catch.  An online festival celebrating the art of the documentary which ran from October 13 to December 15, its selection covers a wide-ranging breadth of captivating subjects—from a young teenage girl navigating the world with mentally-challenged parents (Wildflower), to the ever-changing, fast-paced world of artificial intelligence in (iHuman).  Two documentaries, House of Cardin and We Are the Radical Monarchs!, seem at first glance to be of two very disparate milieus: that of the glamorous, international stage of haute couture in the former and that of post-#BlackLivesMatter, intersectional-feminist-activism-by-way-of-Girl-Scout-Honor in the latter; both of which, through an intimate lens, focus on proactive visionaries eager to change the world around them in innovative ways.

House of Cardin (2019)

From the very beginning, the story of Pierre Cardin has been that of a visionary.  With a famous name attached to everything—from eyewear to menswear, to even retro-futuristic fashion and furniture and avant-garde theatre—the French-Italian designer defined modernity in an era that struggled with breaking from its past.  With House of Cardin, filmmakers P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes sought to shed new light on the man behind the once-ubiquitous, eponymously-named brand.  Using a fun and snappy editing style, the film charts Cardin’s career trajectory from his early days at the House of Dior as one of many young up-and-comers learning the trade, to striking out as the creative director and head couturier of his own soon-to-be global brand.  The documentary succeeds not only in peeling back the layers behind the legendary designer’s creative processes, but also provides insight into his personal life, including his famous love affairs with Jeanne Moreau and André Oliver.  Ultimately, his greatest love was that of all kinds of art—that which caught the eye and touched the soul.

We Are The Radical Monarchs (2019)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, a group of young girls from Oakland is making their own mark, enacting social change in their community and beyond.  Dubbing themselves the Radical Monarchs, the titular organization’s mission to educate and galvanize the next generation through activism bursts across the screen with a fervor to rival that of the many protests we see them participate in.  Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, We Are The Radical Monarchs taps into the possibilities of a better and brighter future through the young, hopeful eyes of a new generation.

Images courtesy of IMDb.com and We Are The Radical Monarchs’ official Facebook page.

Festival Notes

Rebel Yell: ‘Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl’ at DOCNYCFest 2019

Over the last decade or so, singer-songwriter-actress Kate Nash has developed a reputation (and obvious penchant) for defying others’ expectations.  Filmed over five years as the British singer moved to Los Angeles and began writing and recording new music,  Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl (which had its Stateside premiere last week at the DOC NYC Festival), chronicles a crucial turning-point in that very career.   Told in a non-linear jumble — with Nash’s music providing commentary along the way, accompanied by brilliantly animated sequences — Underestimate the Girl is a far cry from the uplifting, carefree, punk-rock comeback story filmmaker Amy Goldstein and her subject originally intended, turning instead into a cautionary tale.

When Kate Nash came out with her iconic track “Foundations”over a decade ago, she was one of many that were creating something different within the then-current musical climate.  The mid- to late-2000s and into the early-2010s saw the debuts of what many dubbed the next-gen British Invasion, which featured, as Nash herself once described as “lots of British artists being British”.  Armed with distinctive voices and honest, incisive lyrics set against sounds that were at once experimental and nostalgic, artists such as Adele, Lily Allen, Paloma Faith, Florence and the Machine, Marina and the Diamonds, and even the late Amy Winehouse were all changing the game, despite their seemingly similar female-ness (Nash would later famously state at the Brit Awards: “Female isn’t a genre”). 

Indeed, it was an interesting time for music, and with this new generation of artists also came the advent of the Internet and its intangible power and reach.  Nowadays, in an era where digitally-native artists transitioning onto the Billboard Top 100 and shattering records with what seems the greatest of ease are increasingly becoming the norm, it’s amazing to think that just a decade ago, posting one’s music onto MySpace as many of the above did (Nash included), was considered quite a revolutionary act.

Revolutionary and revelatory it was — particularly for Nash, whose critically-acclaimed 2007 debut album Made of Bricks went to #1 on the UK charts.  She went on to tour the record, and later released her second album, 2010’s My Best Friend is You.  Using money she earned from her initial success, Nash founded a School of Rock-style program for girls (aptly called Kate Nash’s Rock ‘n’ Roll for Girls After-School Music Club), as well as funded a tour for her third release, 2013’s Girl Talk.  For a while, things were going great.

There is, however, a high price to pay for such success — one which does not always benefit those so selfless with their talents, as artists often are.  With Best Friend‘s poor sales performance, as well as a change to a punkier, more riot grrrl sound on Girl Talk, Nash would eventually be dropped from her label (via text message, no less).  To add further insult to injury, she would also learn that her then-manager had stolen money from her.  All of this, combined with her self-funded endeavors, would leave the singer bankrupt.

(In some of her lowest points depicted in the film, we see Nash selling some of her most iconic tour costumes to charity shops and working side gigs for famed, now-shuttered Meltdown Comics’ wonderfully geekier version of QVC — Han “Cholo” jewelry, anyone? — just to make the rent.)

To her credit, Kate Nash was never an artist that set out for worldwide domination; for her, it was always about the music.  “This is a matter of life and death for me,” Nash states in the documentary, “because making music keeps me alive.”  But the landscape of music had changed since 2007, and in the years she fell off the radar, Nash had to find other ways to eke out a living.  As an A&R executive friend of Nash states in the film: “What worked ten years ago isn’t relevant now.”

Or, at least, not in the same way it used to.

Back then, the music went directly to the fans; this time, it would be the fans that would give back to the musician who always selflessly did.  In addition to signing a publishing deal to write songs for fellow artists, (as well as for commercial properties and other similar opportunities), Nash began a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2017, where she asked fans to “be [her] record label” and help fund her next album.  With this, other things began to come together, most notably, a SAG-supported role in Netflix’s GLOW — the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for the former theatre student and seemingly the well-deserved culmination of her journey into self-defiance and, perhaps most importantly, self-reliance.

While there are times when its chronology becomes hard to keep track of and therefore slightly distracting (quick-cuts of Nash and her enviably chameleonic hair as she narrates at various sit-downs with the camera certainly don’t help in this regard), Underestimate the Girl still remains a hugely important watch.  At a time where others in the industry are currently struggling for their own voice and artistic rights (Taylor Swift and adultmom, just in the past week alone), this film’s message, much like its subject, is loud and clear, simultaneously unabashed and unrelenting. 

Images courtesy of Span Productions.

If you’re in the UK, you can watch Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl on BBC3 iPlayer (available for only five more weeks!).  Follow the film’s journey along the festival circuit; the next stop is the St. Louis International Film Festival in St. Louis, Missouri!  The filmmakers are also actively on the search for US distribution, so if it’s playing at a theatre or festival near you, let them know how you enjoyed it.  More opportunities for this movie to be screened means more opportunities for this story to be told to a wider audience.

Festival Notes, Review

The Whipped-Up Delights of Daliya Karnofsky’s ‘And She Bakes, Live’ (FringeNYC)

You know you’re literally in for a treat when, as soon as you enter the appropriately-named Celebration of Whimsy Theatre (The C.O.W.), you are greeted by an extremely perky, polka-dot-apron’d Bakeress who immediately bombards you with a detailed description of the kind of baked good you remind her of (for instance, this critic was described reminiscent of “one of those buttery British cookies with a chocolate drizzle on top — a little bit exotic, but still a little bit classic”). The Bakeress in question is Daliya Karnofsky, and the aforementioned “treat” she is serving up is an interactive live performance experience called And She Bakes, Live — in which, as the title suggests, Karnofsky cooks up a ravishing dessert in front of our eyes. Originally written, produced and conceived by Karnofsky in a kitchen, And She Bakes, Live grew into a YouTube web series and eventually developed into the live performance which ran at the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC), in conjunction with terraNOVA Collective.

Once everyone is seated, The Bakeress finally gets down to business, setting out to soothe the aches of our hearts through the aches of our stomachs. Throughout the show, the Bakeress answers fan mail from lovelorn women who email her and ask for advice, prompting the Bakeress to answer by demonstrating each step of the baking process and using it and its corresponding ingredient to signify the steps to a relationship. According to Karnofsky, a relationship always starts off Sweet (honey, the first ingredient), with a generous helping of Comfort (peanut butter — natural, fake or otherwise). Next, you should never forget to add a little bit of Naughty to spice things up (“pure vanilla extract, and accept no substitutes!”), while also fully embracing the little Quirks sprinkled here and there, no matter how annoying they might be (perfectly exemplified by Rice Krispies, of course). Also, you can never have enough Passion (chocolate chips in all its ooey-gooey wonder), with a note of Nuance to balance things out (just a touch of salt). Between every other ingredient or so, while waiting for them to come together nicely, the Bakeress dazzles us with a dance break, ever-so-gracefully prancing around the stove-top centerpiece on the stage in a dizzying whirl of polka-dotted elation. For the show’s final dance break, two dancers who seem to pop out of nowhere (or rather, from under the stove contraption) even join her as she gets her groove on to Ke$ha’s “C’Mon”!

As a performer, Karnofsky is one that revels in the awkward moments, using it to fuel improvisation without batting a sparkly eyelash. Indeed, even as we take our seats at the beginning of the show, she ever-so-considerately asks each of us whether we are allergic to peanuts, to which a lone member of the audience answers with a resounding “YES!” At this moment, Karnofsky fully takes advantage, delighting in playfully panning over to said audience member at every mere mention of legumes over the course of the night (“You might ask, ‘well, why bend over backwards for people who have dietary restrictions by choice, rather than people who can’t do anything about it and have suffered and been left out their whole lives?’ I can’t answer this.”). Her hilarious stream-of-consciousness dialogue and onstage antics had our bellies full of laughter long before those gluten-free peanut butter vegan treats (which turned out to be really good, too) reached our hands. Just as with the act of baking itself, Karnofsky’s own act has all the right ingredients, resulting in something just as unexpectedly delicious. 

Images courtesy of Justin Onna.And She Bakes Live’ ran from August 9-22nd, 2014 at Celebration of Whimsy (21 Clinton Street) and was presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC).

Festival Notes, Review

A Not-So-Royal Family: Everyone’s Favorite Dysfunctional Family Celebrates its 10th Anniversary at NYFF49

For my Film Theory class this past semester, we were required to see a film at the 49th New York Film Festival and review it―you can only guess how excited I was at this assignment.  I had originally planned on seeing Martha Marcy May Marlene, but due to rapid word-of-mouth about Elizabeth Olsen’s performance, tickets were hard to get.  I eventually was able to see a film―a special 10th Anniversary screening of The Royal Tenenbaums, with a special introduction by Wes Anderson himself, as well as a Q&A session with members of the cast (Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston, and Bill Murray were in attendance) and crew (director Anderson and his brother, who did many of the illustrations seen in the film, as well as many of his other ones).

The following review/analysis is the paper that resulted from that night, which definitely goes down as one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  Hope you enjoy it, and if you were in town and caught a film at NYFF49, please feel free to tell me about your experience in the comments, too!  

“How old do you think those are?”

“I’d say about 10 years.”

Hearing these words at the New York Film Festival‘s screening of Wes Anderson’s modern classic The Royal Tenenbaums (on October 13th), struck a different chord this time around.  The cult favorite, which originally debuted at the festival ten years ago, marked this milestone with a special screening at the place where it all began.  The night started out interestingly enough, with yours truly chancing on a single ticket entry in a line filled with either couples or groups.  I couldn’t quite believe my chances — so much so that even after I’d paid the NYFF usher, I froze in place, not knowing what to do (even though the most logical thing to do was to, well, go in).  The couple in front of me was encouraging enough: “You got into the party―get in there, girl!”

And oh, what a party it was.

Once the Alice Tully Hall auditorium was filled to capacity, the “party” started with the introduction of someone named Ally Tenenbaum, dressed―interestingly enough―very similarly to Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum, complete with curly-top hair and a red Adidas jumpsuit (move over, Sue Sylvester).  As a kind of self-professed “lost” Tenenbaum, Ally recounted how the family that “put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional'” affected her life; which, as she tells it, mostly involved people asking if Anjelica Huston was her mother.  She then brought Anderson on to the stage, who said a few things about the film’s history with the festival before the house lights finally dimmed and it was showtime.

Wes Anderson’s opus, narrated by a gruff-voiced Alec Baldwin, focuses on three scions of renowned litigator, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and archaeologist Etheline (Huston), and the lives they lead in a fantasy New York City in the early 2000s.  It starts off with a cold open, as Baldwin’s narration chronicles the early years of the Tenenbaum children, who are widely thought to be geniuses from a young age: there’s financial whiz Chaz (Ben Stiller); tennis champ and dabbling artist Richie (Luke Wilson); and Fulbright Scholar and budding playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Rounding out the ensemble are: Owen Wilson, as Richie’s childhood best friend, Margot’s part-time paramour, and aspiring historical novelist Eli Cash; Bill Murray as Margot’s husband, psychologist Raleigh St. Clair; Danny Glover as Etheline’s accountant and bumbling new love interest Howard Sherman; and Kumar Pallana as house servant and Royal’s reluctant partner-in-crime, Pagoda. 

As the opening credits fade (to a cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” by Mutato Muzika Orchestra, no less), we jump ahead to the present-day, where we now find the formerly accomplished Tenenbaums living separate lives, all of whom have not seen nearly the same amount of success as they had as children.  When Royal, whom upon his separation with Etheline went to live at a hotel, finds out he is bankrupt and on the verge of being evicted, he decides to turn up at his old homestead.  However, once Pagoda informs him of Howard’s intentions of marrying Etheline, things really start to get rolling when Royal plots to come back to his family with news that he has contracted a terminal illness.  As soon as each of the three Tenenbaum children gets wind of this, they―one-by-one―find themselves thrown back together and living in the same house again after seven years of not speaking.

Throughout the film, the theme of the family reliving the past and being stuck in the glory of their heyday pervades.  From a visual perspective, Anderson seems to intentionally―and successfully―weave this particular theme in everything from the usage of the Helvetica font in the credits to the actor’s costumes, to the color palette of the film itself.  Many of the characters, as adults, still wear the same clothes: Chaz, with his tracksuit; Richie, with his Izod shirts and sweatbands; Margot with her Izod dresses and signature fur coat.  The theme of the past also plays out through the songs chosen for the score, all of which are from the 1970s; some examples include Nico’s “These Days,” The Ramones’ “Judy is a Punk,” and the Peanuts’ “Christmastime is Here” as Margot’s theme.  (Indeed, even the choice of Ari and Uzi’s dog, Buckley, as a beagle is Anderson’s self-professed tribute to Snoopy.) Anderson himself has stated that much of his inspiration stemmed from his own experiences growing up in the 1970s, and this is evident in the various references he makes, such as in the case of E.L. Konigsburg’s popular novel, The Mixed-Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, wherein two children run away to live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (In the film, Richie and Margot spend the night camp out at the National Archives.)  Nico also influenced the styling of Margot’s character — her dark eyeliner, as well as the fact that her hair matched her fur coat, was taken from the German Velvet Underground singer’s look.  

I have to admit, I did not see the film until earlier this year (I know: shock!), so this was the first time I’ve ever experienced seeing Tenenbaums on a big screen and with an audience.  Having never seen any of Anderson’s works beforehand, I can only provide other films I’ve seen, which fall into the same genre, as a basis for comparison.  Upon initial viewing, the offbeat vibe immediately called to mind films like I Huckabees, especially with the whole ’70s look and feel.  The Tenenbaums universe takes place, as previously mentioned, in a fictitious New York City where privileged families, such as the eponymous ones in the film, take gypsy cabs and addresses like “100 N. 30th Avenue” exist (which, of course, they don’t).  The usage of Green Line buses, which are no longer in use today, are in keeping with the theme.    

Tonally speaking, Anderson’s film has a dark comedy feel about it and this is also heavily evident in the writing.  Baldwin’s omniscient narration also lends itself a morose overtone, which sets off quite nicely against all the quirky humor laden throughout.  Much of the dialogue is humorous without being overly obvious, and this is successfully pulled off with the cast’s often deadpan delivery.  Indeed, both films are peppered with witty one-liners which require careful listening in order to truly be appreciated.  I was glad that everyone seemed to laugh at all the right parts, especially on the lines I found particularly funny, but personally had felt went over a lot of people’s heads most of the time. For instance, the part when Eli is reading an excerpt from his book out loud, some lines of which are hilarious, there is a part shortly afterward when he says, “Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn.  What this book presupposes is…maybe he didn’t?”  Another part I love that received a big laugh is Young Chaz’s line at Margot’s birthday party early on in the film, referring to a play in which the children played wild animals: “Did you at least think the characters were well developed?”  As a theatre lover, it remains among my favorite lines, mainly because of the serious manner in which Aram Aslanian-Persico had delivered it.

The similarities between the two films don’t stop there.  By story’s end, all the different characters — each with their own unique set of idiosyncracies―find themselves coming together in a mishmash of events which finally culminate in a “happy” ending.  Resolutions are made, and ends are tied.  In Tenenbaums, during Howard and Etheline’s nuptuals, Eli―after having been confronted by Richie and Royal about his drug addiction — decides to crash the party, which leads to a car crash and a subsequent chase scene between he and Chaz.  In Huckabees, the now-shunned Albert Markovsky (played by Jason Schwartzman, who also previously starred in another Anderson classic, Rushmore) has a confrontation of his own with Jude Law’s Brad Stand, who had taken over his Open Spaces Coalition, which then ends with a silly fight in an elevator.  The ridiculousness of both of the climaxes of these films seems to only further add to the humor that is key to the indie dark comedy genre.  

After the film, the whole theatre erupted with applause and was met with Anderson and some of the original cast taking their bows in the top right balcony.  Shortly thereafter, a Q&A session followed, with two representatives of the NYFF moderating, if a little bit awkwardly so.  Anderson himself seemed quite perturbed at some of the questions asked, some of which were admittedly ridiculous (one choice question: “You seem to do a lot of the last scenes in your film in slow motion.”  Anderson: “Yeah.  What are you asking, exactly?”).  Much of the comic relief that helped to dissipate the awkward tension was due, of course, to Murray, who kept up a running joke about Hackman being hard to work with (“He’s weak, he’s just weak.”).  Huston and Paltrow, who were also in attendance along with Anderson’s brother (who does much of the artwork seen in his films), also provided some interesting stories from the set.  While I wish better questions had been asked, therefore culling more insight from the actors and directors, it was still clear that everyone had a great time making the movie.

Well, maybe except Gene Hackman.

  All images courtesy of themoviedb.org