2018 Chattanooga Film Festival
Festival Coverage by Zach and Jack Dennis
For four days in April, the Chattanooga Film Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee brings genre films from around the world to the Scenic City for a schedule filled with world premieres and live events. Zach and his twin brother Jack were able to catch a number of the films shown during the festival. Since this piece is just them talking through their reactions, a general SPOILER warning for all films discussed...
ZACH: Over the past few years, Chattanooga has started to sow some roots in a cinema community that was something we didn’t have while we were living in the city. It probably coincides with the recent emergence of the city as an artistic hub, not to mention the massive growth in population that correlates with the strong turn in the economy and an influx of jobs entering the area. Either way, the Chattanooga Film Festival has carved out a nice niche for itself and it was enlightening speaking with its executive director, Chris Dortch, last week about how he sees the festival moving forward.
JACK: Yes, having lived here for so long without the ability to see any movie outside the realm of big-budget releases was sad for such a cool town.
ZACH: Jack, it is great to finally have you discussing movies on Cinematary after so long. It seems like you’ve kind of been my sounding board (and often detractor) for movies that I see so I’m curious what you made of the films we caught at this year’s festival.
JACK: Quite honestly, I’m the half that is usually correct about most movies. I think the readers will finally notice that and this notion kind of inspired me to work on this with you. It also helps — since we are twins and all — that a lot of these films deal with the struggle to recognize what is real and what isn’t. This is a trait that goes way back in movies, but is also a good throughline as we make our way through the eight releases we watched.
ZACH: Agreed. And on that note, let’s talk about them...
RBG (2018) by Julie Cohen and Betsy West
ZACH: This was our first film of the festival, and while I liked it, I can’t say it fits into the theme that we just established. It is a pretty straightforward doc — it chronicles the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, from her beginnings in school to her more recent célébrité as “The Notorious RBG.” I really enjoyed it. I think Ginsburg is such an interesting figure that we don’t really know much about, in terms of her upbringing and such, which made it fine that it follows a conventional structure.
JACK: I don’t know if I necessarily agree. It is really conventional and it kind of begs the question why this had to be a visual documentary rather instead of being some sort of feature story or written work. Not to say that I didn’t like it, but it just seemed pretty cookie cutter to me and one that I don’t necessarily vividly remember compared to the others we watched.
ZACH: You have such a tendency to be harsh. It is conventional, but I also really enjoyed the point I mentioned before about her recent rise to stardom with people our age and younger. I kind of wish the movie really narrowed in on that aspect because, to me, it seems like young people gravitate to Ginsburg because of her inscrutable attitude and how she sticks to her convictions — no matter the case. I think that resonates with modern political minds that beg for some sort of either transparency or follow through from their political figures, and while Ginsburg isn’t the President or a Senator, she does represent a powerful decision-making force in American politics and having someone who holds to her convictions is admirable to us in the age of Donald Trump.
JACK: I guess I can agree with that. It was a movie though so I was trying to stick to the cinematic elements. It was a nice film and I can say that I would recommend it to others.
GEMINI (2018) by Aaron Katz
JACK: This was a movie that at least made me feel like it had to be a movie. It comes from director Aaron Katz, who directed a really sweet little film called Land Ho! From a few years ago about these two old men visiting Iceland on a "guy’s trip" 40 years too late. Gemini, on the other hand, is about two women — one a movie star named Heather (Zoë Kravitz) and another her assistant, named Jill (Lola Kirke). The two are inseparable best friends — even though one works for the other — and have angered the director of a movie Heather was set to star in because the actress decided at the last minute that she didn’t feel up to doing the part.
After he storms out, the two women come into contact with a rabid fan who bears a resemblance to Heather and asks to hang around for awhile. After snapping a few pictures with the movie star, the three go their separate ways. As they make their way home, the actress asks Jill if she has a gun she can borrow. Jill obliges and the next morning, after Jill stays the night with Heather, the gun is discharged accidentally when Jill is meddling with it — causing some glass to shatter and for Jill to leave the home somewhat frazzled. When she returns, Heather is lying in a puddle of blood, and as you can surmise, has been killed. The police, led by a detective played by John Cho, believe Jill is the culprit (her fingerprints are on the gun, as we know) and she goes on the run to attempt to clear her name and find out who did it.
The plot is pretty typical noir and Katz shoots it with a stylish hue of purple and pink that seems like he must have really been enamored by the color palette of Moonlight from a couple years ago. Regardless, the plot moves so dreamily. It kind of reminds you of Humphrey Bogart movies of the same ilk because, while you know what has to happen by the end, it certainly takes its time getting to its end point and makes you question each character’s motivation as Jill goes to them looking for information about Heather’s death. I kinda dug it. What about you?
ZACH: I did not.
JACK: Wow. That’s definitive.
ZACH: I think you described it perfectly — a dreamy neo-noir with two great performances by its two leads — but it felt like something we’ve seen before and I never bought into its attempt to engage with this idea of modern celebrity. By the end, it wants us to empathize with Heather and the suffocating lifestyle that comes with being a well-known figure and I don’t think Katz’s script was sharp enough to really cut into that notion. This is also the first film that plays into our theme of distorted reality, both for us as the audience and the characters within the film, and I just didn’t feel moved by Jill or any of the others in the film. You mentioned Bogart and I agree that it has remnants of his most notable films (The Maltese Falcon for one), but there was something much more sinister that was ruminating below the surface either from Bogart’s character or the ones he was suspicious of and I’m not sure Gemini ever got to that point. Everyone seemed more annoyed or dejected than sinister, which I’m sure goes back to this concept of modern celebrity, but again, I echo that it wasn’t something that was effective.
JACK: I guess I can agree to an extent with that. I loved both Kirke and Kravitz though and felt like they gave really strong performances. Kirke has led things before (Mozart in the Jungle and Mistress America in both TV and film), but I’m not sure we have seen a real top-billed starring turn by Kravitz yet and I felt like she warranted seeing her front and center more often.
THE LAST MOVIE STAR (2018) by Adam Rifkin
ZACH: Next is the film that Cinematary’s hometown of Knoxville plays a role in — The Last Movie Star, which features Burt Reynolds reminiscing on his career and resonance in popular culture over the course of a weekend in “Nashville.” (I put the name in quotes because most of the movie was filmed in Knoxville.)
Reynolds plays Vic Edwards, practically a pseudonym for himself, who is an aging movie star picked to be the recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the International Nashville Film Festival. Previous recipients include Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood, but of course the thought never entered their heads that they would actually attend the festival — a fact that Edwards doesn’t learn until he is inside the dive bar the festival is being hosted in. If that doesn’t give it away, the festival is not the more prestigious film festival in Nashville that garners much bigger named stars, instead, it is a more fan worship hang-out thrown by Doug (Clark Duke) and Shane (Ellar Coltrane). Joining Edwards is Lil (Ariel Winter), Doug’s brother and the person with a car who is lucky enough to chauffeur the former bandit around town. Edwards becomes angry and tired of the mistake he made in coming to Nashville so he coerces Lil into taking him to Knoxville, his hometown. There, he thinks back onto who he was prior to his jump to fame and what life would’ve been like if he had stayed there. He also tries to help Lil straighten out her path as she struggles with a dependence on a flaky and deceitful boyfriend. Naturally, Edwards warms to the entire endeavor and his trip to the Scruffy City turns this scruff into a putz.
This movie is interesting only based on the fact that Reynolds is looking back at his career and trying to come to grips with the changes in movies, his place in that shift, etc., but this film just isn’t all that compelling. It felt like he was too involved in the process, and was trying to work things out by his own hand, which is fair but not always as stimulating as it can be. Personally, I feel like having some distance from a personality’s ruminations on their lasting legacy provides more context and perspective. Also, Reynolds doesn’t feel like someone who truly wants to engage with his past but would rather do it on his own terms (see Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and their hand in the making of Straight Outta Compton). What did you think?
JACK: It is tough to argue with you about that. This movie is pretty basic and follows the beats you’s expect it to. One thing you forgot to mention, that was quite interesting to me, were the inclusion of these flashback/fantasies/whatever you’d like to call them, which features Reynolds as he is now speaking with his character from Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance while a scene plays out from each respective movie. This meta-commentary seems in line with what you were saying about Reynolds not being willing to go the extra step to engage with his legacy, but at the same time, doesn’t necessarily rebuke your point. It feels more like we’re watching the visual representation of Neil Young’s “Old Man” where the character is looking in the mirror and asking where the years have gone for nearly two hours. That’s not necessarily a bad narrative, but this just doesn’t do enough to reckon with legacy. To me, it seemed to wrap up with Reynolds being satisfied with his decision to come to Nashville and deciding to keep moving forward in life rather than coming to any reconciliation about his past. Maybe that’s the point. We aren’t ever able to make sense of where we came from, we can only learn and move forward.
ZACH: That’s wonderful for a Hallmark card, but we were at a film festival.
JACK: You’re evil.
A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN (2018) by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
ZACH: This was our final film for the first day of the festival and one, that like others we’ve talked about so far, was pretty conventionally molded. It follows the true story of Billy Moore (Joe Cole), an English boxer who is incarcerated in one of the most notorious prisons in Thailand. He is brought to the brink of his life before finding a cause in a Muay Thai boxing tournament that gives him purpose.
I’m a sucker for a good boxing movie, but I must admit, I went back and forth with this one. It feels very close to some of Steve McQueen’s work — namely Hunger and Shame — in that it drops you into this space with a character and brutalizes you without any sort of respite to take a breath and process what’s happening. After awhile, you gather that this is done in order to give the audience the feeling of what Moore must’ve been enduring while in this prison. You feel battered by the time the hour mark hits and honestly, I wasn’t sure I felt like it was for a purpose. It felt like one of those movies that was brutal for the sake of being brutal and who has time for that? Once Moore begins to gain a sense of progress inside the prison, specifically when he begins his training for the tournament, I feel like the movie hit those boxing beats you’re familiar with but there was something different that at least allowed this movie to not feel like a retread.
JACK: I gotta disagree on this one. I’m all for a good boxing movie, but your point about it being brutal just to be brutal is true. Why are we being asked to endure this trauma for over an hour? It takes so long to get to the actual point of the movie, and by that time, I was so beaten and annoyed at the exploitation of this agony that I couldn’t get into the actual tournament.
ZACH: I understand that, but one of the things I was thinking of while watching this movie was the recycling of plot beats for not only boxing movies, but film in general. I think we love to get outraged or upset when a movie is too similar to something either we cherish or view as a more superior product, hell, I did that not two entries ago about Gemini. But, I think we have to remember that pure originality in art is not true. I like to think of the criticisms people made about Middle Ages art following the periods of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Hellenistic, etc. because they were like “this isn’t as good as that” or “this is just a retread!” Believing that art always has to be original is a silly thought and I think every piece has elements of what came before it and its role now is to attempt to breath a new freshness into a familiar format.
TLDR: I think A Prayer Before Dawn does that.
JACK: I understand that point, and agree for the most part with it (even if you are contradicting yourself with your reading of Gemini), but I just again go back to the fact that the actual narrative of boxing doesn’t come about until there is like 40 minutes left in the movie. Up until that point, we are lost as to why Billy is even in Thailand, which would’ve helped with the lack of coherency early on, and then are given this super strange cameo by the actual Billy Moore at the very end as the film version’s father coming to get his son. There’s some weird fracturing of narrative conventions happening there, but at that point, I was (pardon my pun) tapped out.
ZACH: I guess we just disagree here. I was surprised how much this film worked for me by the end and felt the lead performance by Cole was great. The rawness seems to lead to a relief and maybe that’s why it clicked with me.
THE BIG BAD FOX AND OTHER TALES... (2017) by Patrick Imbert and Benjamin Renner
ZACH: Oh my god did I love this film. This was our opener for the second day at the festival and there is just such an effortless charm to both works by director Benjamin Renner (who also directed the supremely underrated Ernest & Celestine). This time he is joined by Patrick Imbert for The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales…, a collection of three “plays” in which various woodland and farm creatures interact in a series of stories. The first features a pig, rabbit and duck working together to bring a human baby to its family after the stork cons them into thinking he has suffered an injured wing. The second follows a fox, who is trying his best to live up to the film’s title, but ends up becoming a foster parent to a trio of chicks that a wolf has tasked him to raise and then eat. The final story follows the pig, rabbit and duck from the first story as the latter two characters try to save Christmas after believing that they killed Santa Claus when a plastic version of the famed holiday figure breaks into pieces when they attempt to save him.
The first story in this set was my favorite as it felt like it carried elements of the Marx Brothers or Laurel & Hardy shorts within it. The comedy was both visual and verbal with the sincere lack of awareness by the rabbit and duck being endlessly funny.
JACK: I agree. There was something so simple about these stories, and really the animation at large, but I think it also works on a more complex, intelligent scale. This film doesn’t have the audacious aspirations in terms of plot that Ernest & Celestine had, but there’s something warm about the sweet nature of these three stories that come together almost like Biblical parables.
ZACH: I wish more American studios would give movies like this a chance on a large scale. There’s zero reason why a movie like this wouldn’t work for a wide audience as it is incredibly family friendly and will make the parents laugh as much as the kids due in part to the imagination and wit of the different characters and the way they ebb and flow. We applaud Pixar for its great emotional leaps, Ghibli for its ambition in scale and character and LAIKA for its technical wizardry with a heart of gold, but I also think we should take notice of these French animators that are crafting sincere, sweet and warm stories that don’t talk down to you. Quite honestly, this may be my favorite from the entire festival.
JACK: And that was just the first movie of the day!
GHOST STORIES (2017) by Adam Nyman and Jeremy Dyson
JACK: Coming from the minds of Adam Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, Ghost Stories kind of felt like they wanted to make a satire of the Ghost Adventure/Paranormal Activity real world ghost hunting shows, but then it became much more serious. Based on a play of the same name, the film follows Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman), a psychic and ghost debunker who has a show of his own exposing these phenomenons as frauds. This is until a hero from his past resurfaces after being thought dead for years and challenges him to debunk three cases that have caused him to seek a reclusive lifestyle as his life work went up in flames. The first is a nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse) who encounters a paranormal phenomenon while on the job one night, the second follows a teenager (Alex Lawther) who comes in contact with a demon while driving home and the third follows a banker (Martin Freeman) who is disrupted by a poltergeist while waiting for his wife to return from the hospital after a complication with childbirth.
Like I mentioned before, it almost felt like this was almost going to be a spoof of those kinds of paranormal exploration shows that you see on the History Channel at 1 a.m. on a Thursday night, but the longer it went on, the more it became more ambitious and serious. I can’t quite say it worked though. The stories themselves, which are acted out as the characters retell them to Professor Goodman, are entertaining as small, spooky tales akin to like a Twilight Zone episode or an addition in the Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark? collection, but the way the story goes didn’t work for me. What did you make of it?
ZACH: Try not worked at all. The way the narrative unravels is the stories being told to Professor Goodman begin to relate more and more to his own past with it later being revealed that Freeman’s character is a sort of ringmaster who conned him into seeking out his former hero. Then it unravels into this psychological mind-melter that ends with the whole ordeal being revealed as the dream of the comatose professor and I had a literal eye roll when that happened. Like, seriously? It was all a dream!
JACK: Yeah, I heard that eye roll occur when the final moments happened and I can’t say I disagreed. I’m not sure the ways in which they tried to connect all of the stories to this professor made much sense. They allude to his father and his Jewish faith playing a role in his decision to debunk the paranormal but that kind of falls to the wayside once the Freeman twist happens near the end.
ZACH: Horror movies have this way of working as explorations into trauma or grief or depression. We’ve talked numerous times on Cinematary about films, even recent ones like The Babadook, that are effective in that sense, but this just came out of left field and seemed like a random and poor lost episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents rather than a feature film. You mentioned the whole father subplot at the beginning, but there were a number of moments that cropped up and then led to nothing. I just didn’t understand why the movie shifted the way it did when nothing leading up to that point in the very least insinuated that more was going on. It kind of felt like they just wanted to make it unnecessarily sad.
JACK: Ouch. But Martin Freeman was great.
ZACH: Oh, yes. Very good. Why was he in this again?
MOHAWK (2018) by Ted Geoghegan
ZACH: Going from an actual dream to we wish it were a dream, Mohawk follows a woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) in the Mohawk tribe during the War of 1812. Her family has been murdered by a group of American soldiers who hunting through the woods for Native Americans to recruit for the war. Along with her two male suitors, she enacts revenge on the group of soldiers in bloody fashion.
The film was preceded by a Q&A by the director, Ted Geoghegan, and co-writer Grady Hendrix, and I gotta say I kind of liked this one. It didn’t necessarily work for me at first. Geoghegan told us prior to the film’s start that they elected to film the movie using natural lighting and it brings this amateurish quality to the film’s early sequences. At times, it kind of reminded me of those re-enactments of American history on the History Channel, but instead of the members falling over in death, these figures were dismembered and hacked apart with a tomahawk.
JACK: This is definitely not a movie for the faint of heart and I have to agree with you about the amateurish quality that follows the film due to the selection to go with natural lighting. Geoghegan made a good point in the Q&A about the fact that it would require a lot more work to lug the amount of lighting you would need so deep into the New York wilderness and that does make sense.
ZACH: Yeah, I understand that. And I don’t want that comment to seem dismissive about the film overall. Like I said, this one kind of grew on me. While it didn’t necessarily work at first, the amateurish quality of the natural lighting for the first two acts of the movie evolved into this hypnotic and fever dream-like third act where the lighting choices became much more stylized because of the nature of the story and I kind of came around to having the lighting looking so normal and unassuming at the beginning because it led to this nightmarish black and yellow that engulfed the film’s climax.
JACK: Yes, true. I will say though that this movie didn’t work as well for me as it did for you. I found the acting to be as amateurish as the lighting choice and felt like the story never really came together fully.
ZACH: I disagree. While the story takes awhile to get going, I loved how it turned into this revenge fantasy that also works as a commentary on the treatment of indigenous people by the American settlers not only during this war, but overall. The American characters carry this sense of arrogance that feels very in line with the current wave of thinking in politics, culture, etc. and while you kind of know the avenue it is going towards, there’s something so gratifying when it finally does culminate in the death of that final asshole American soldier at the hands of the Mohawk woman. Again, this is in part due to the way Geoghegan changes the lighting and style in the final act to feel much more psychotic, causing the characters to become disoriented and in a way, you as the viewer get that way as well.
JACK: I just felt like it was a little heavy-handed with that message. Geoghegan mentioned after the movie that it was “a horror movie in the same way I’ve woken up to for the past two years,” alluding to modern politics and I could feel that attempt to rectify the wrongs within this story. It wasn’t as opaque as something from Quentin Tarantino, but still very in your face.
ZACH: I don’t know. I kinda disagree. One of the things I kept thinking about with this movie was the relationship between metal (such as the rifle or tomahawk, which is an artifact not crafted by the Native Americans, but by the settlers as the co-writer said in the Q&A) and the earth. There was always a friction between Oak, our lead character, and the men she was fighting off — culminating in the final blow to the final soldier where instead of getting hit with a tomahawk or shot with a gun, he is impaled by wooden rods. This tension between the metal (symbolizing the settlers) and the wood (the Mohawk and other Native American tribes) added some context to the issues I was wrestling with concerning the movie.
JACK: That’s a good point, but I just didn’t like the movie as much as you did. At the end of the day, it felt too close to an unfinished product or one that lacked the authority of a feature film, and that left me cold towards anything related to it.
THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH (2018) by William Friedkin
JACK: Our final movie of the festival was another documentary. This one was directed by horror legend William Friedkin and chronicled his observation of a real-life exorcism by Father Amorth, a priest who has been the lead exorcist at the Vatican since the mid 1980s. Of course, Friedkin directed The Exorcist and he discusses in the film how he had actually never seen an actual exorcism until shooting this film, which Father Amorth only allowed him to do if it was just Friedkin and a single camera.
I’m torn on this one as well. On one hand, I like Friedkin’s work and like the concept of him — the director of the movie most people associate with exorcisms — seeing an exorcism live and comparing it to what he researched for the film. On the other hand, the movie feels more like a travel documentary than an actual movie, and there’s a lot to say about the actual exorcism but I’ll turn it over to you, Zach.
ZACH: I can’t argue that it does have this pastiche of low-quality, but like I said with Mohawk, there’s something compelling about it. In a weird way, it feels more real than having professional lighting, sound and everything else to make it feel like a production. There’s something rogue about Friedkin being in the room with all these people during the exorcism — which is of an Italian woman who says she is possessed by the Devil and has been exorcised eight times prior to this one by Father Amorth.
JACK: I guess this is as good a time as ever to get into the exorcism itself. I feel like this is where you have to come to terms with whether or not you buy that exorcisms are real or not because for the majority of the act, which lasts around 10 minutes, you just see the woman writhing and yelling at the priest in this ghoulish tone. It feels very reminiscent to what you would expect it to be like — turning head and projectile vomit excluded.
ZACH: I’ll agree that the actual exorcism is a bit of a letdown. You kind of want something to happen and it never really does. I liked though how Friedkin examined the whole event by seeking out neurosurgeons, psychiatrists and even an archbishop in Los Angeles to discuss what took place and what they could make of it, but at the end of the day, I kind of wanted to hear what he made of the whole thing.
JACK: Yeah, me too. I also didn’t buy the sequence that takes place following the exorcism when Father Amorth, who kind of warrants his own documentary focusing on just his life, has taken ill and Friedkin says he went to Rome to speak with the woman and was attacked in this church by her and her boyfriend while she was allegedly having a demonic episode. Friedkin says he wasn’t able to record the footage and just recounts the incident with cuts and color patterns that seem more similar to an episode of Ghost Adventures rather than from the director of Sorcerer and The Exorcist.
ZACH: I agree that the episode he details is incredibly fishy. That seemed like the interesting moment we all wanted to see and it happened “off camera.” But I think what is compelling about this documentary is the concept of faith and belief, and what putting your belief in something truly means. All of the doctors couldn’t say for certain whether or not this woman suffered from brain damage or a mental illness. It engages with the calming factor of religion and how we cling to our faith to make sense of the unexplained. In a way, Friedkin’s work in this film akins back to the beginnings of film, namely Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, which was a movie I kept thinking about after this one. The camera is this conduit into the surreal, and even though this was a documentary, there was this surrealist element to it. The way this woman thrashes and rages, and the way her family fully puts their faith and belief in Father Amorth and his work seem to work hand-in-hand with how we put our faith in the person with the movie camera to show us something that we may not see anywhere else. I think in a way, the cinema is a religion all its own, and we fall under its allure and its comfort in the face of the uncertainty of life much like these people cling to their religion. That’s just where this movie spoke to me.
JACK: It spoke to you much more eloquently than the possessed woman did.
ZACH: Funny. But in all seriousness, I enjoyed (for the most part) the slate of films that showed at this year’s Chattanooga Film Festival. At the beginning, we mentioned that the theme that we felt ran through most of the films was this idea of distorted reality and after watching all of them, I thought a lot about the role movies play and how they influence our perception of the world around us. It’s curious that this seems to happen most in genre films so that’s probably why we saw so many movies that seemed to fit this mold in a festival filled with an eclectic genre offering.
JACK: Agreed. I didn’t love every movie that we saw, but like you said at the beginning, it is nice to know there’s this specific event in Chattanooga happening and bringing attention to movies that the people there wouldn’t see otherwise.