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.


Battle Royale: Jose Perez IV’s Fight Theatre Has a Snow Day

The company of Snowball Battlefield.
(Press Photos by Jose Perez IV and Kevin C. Gall)

When I got an invitation from Jose Perez IV a few months ago about a new project he was doing involving stage combat, MP3s, and running around the streets of NYC, I didn’t hesitate to RSVP with a resounding HELL YES (Okay, I didn’t exactly say it like that, but the sentiment was there)!  For those unfamiliar with Mr. Perez and his ilk (also known as Fight Theatre), they’re the force behind recent Organs of State production Fighter, a high-flying action-adventure about a kid learning his warrior roots and what it truly means to be a fighter (which I had the privilege of seeing back in October).  I loved Fighter, and with this new project sounding a lot like a mix between Improv Everywhere‘s MP3 Experiments and Fighter Theater’s aforementioned work, I couldn’t help but get excited at the prospect of witnessing something cool and interactive.

This time around, Perez and Fight Theatre want to take it with you…outside.  Sounds serious, huh?  Well, it sure is, ’cause the premise behind Snowball Battlefield is that of a team of covert tactical agents called the Blue Team, who are on a mission to stop rival agents — the Red Team, naturally — from not only getting rid of the Winter Season for good, but also making it so that the temperatures don’t drop ALL YEAR ‘ROUND!  (While this may seem like a good thing, it may also be wise to add that the Reds want this to happen so that they can turn the world into Baggy-T-Shirt-and-Technicolor-Leggings-Wearing hipsters — oh, the horror!)

Which is where we, the audience, come in — literally.  As this is an outdoor MP3 Experiment, those who agreed to come see the show are instructed to download 2 tracks onto their iPods, Zunes (R.I.P.) —  and any other mp3 device they may have — prior to meeting up at the starting location on 103rd and Broadway.  I have to admit, as I got off the 1 train, I almost panicked, as no one had seemed to gather together at a corner or anything just yet.  I caught glimpses of people who looked like they may be part of the show walking around, but was unsure about who was who.  It definitely felt like I was summoned by an omniscient agency for a top-secret meeting or hand-over of some sort!


The actors eventually did end up convening at a corner, and once everyone was there and we were all properly sync’d up, we were ready to go!  The first few minutes had us meeting the members of the Blue Team (Darius Homayoun, Giuseppe Maione, Jenny Carlson, Jack de Sanz and Rose Humphrey), led by Agent 1 (Jose Perez IV), a jaded but talented member of the force who reluctantly becomes their leader…and our hero (yes, that’s a bit dramatic, but just go with it okay).  Before we ventured down to the park, we were told the long and sordid history of their rivalry with the Red Team (Alex Romania, Jared Wernick, Jon Garrity, Keiran Mulroy, Melanie Glickman and Sam Ogilvie), whose Evil Ways have contributed to every major disaster in history (including sinking the Titanic, apparently).  Luckily for us, we’ve got the Blue Team to help end their tyrannical reign over the weather through this mission.

As Agent 1 leads us on down 103rd, dodging bullets from (invisible) snipers and sword-weilding baddies, eventually parting ways with his teammates.  I was amused at the quizzical looks a few passersby threw at us, and while following Agent 1 as he rolled, aimed, and ducked his way down to the Riverside Park entrance, I started to feel a creeping sense of anxiety.  Where was the Red Team?  I looked up above the buildings where Agent 1 was “aiming” his guns at, but there were no Reddies in sight.  Admittedly, this frustrated me, and this led me to wonder where this performance was headed.

The “baddies.”

In terms of geography, the performance itself was obviously, as previously mentioned, headed towards Riverside Park, where Agent 1 reunited with his teammates…and enemies. Yes, the Red Team (comprised of Alex Romania, Jared Wernick, Jon Garrity, Kieran Mulroy, Melody Glickman and Sam Ogilvie) finally pop up, led by leader and Agent 1 nemesis Calamity, also known as Trish (Katie Polin).  The Reds eventually reveal the reason behind all their evil-doing, which somehow involves seasonal weather and technicolored tights. From there, the mission hits it’s climax, as the Red Team challenge our guys to an all-out battle in the park — set to some epic music that only we can hear, of course. Ultimately, with clever quick-thinking by Agent 1, the bad guys are duped and the good guys survive — and complete — their mission, saving the day as only one can hope.

Jose Perez’s brand of theater is part experimental performance art and part action-comedy parody. As with Fighter , the choreography seemed at one with the music, making it hard to tell if it was the music that inspired the choreography or vice versa. Either way, it made for effective spectacle, whether or not you had your iPod. An enjoyable send-up of anime, Kung-Fu and action films, Snowball Battlefield felt like going on an adventure with your friends around the city.

___Snowball Battlefield ran on Saturdays from March 10th-31st, 2012 at 103rd & Broadway and Riverside Park.  For more information about this production and others like it, click here.

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