Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Posted By on Sat, Dec 16, 2017 at 12:30 PM

In his May 17, 1999 review of The Phantom Menace, Roger Ebert wrote “The dialogue is pretty flat and straightforward, although seasoned with a little quasi-classical formality, as if the characters had read but not retained "Julius Caesar." I wish the "Star Wars" characters spoke with more elegance and wit (as Gore Vidal's Greeks and Romans do), but dialogue isn't the point, anyway: These movies are about new things to look at.”
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker
  • Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker
Ebert gave The Phantom Menace 3 1/2 stars. Had he been around to review The Last Jedi, he would have had to add several more stars to his scoring system.

In 1999, it had been 16 years since Return of the Jedi, the final installment of George Lucas’ epoch-defining space opera. Those of us who had been fans from the beginning never thought we would see another Star Wars movie, and the anticipation was intense. Ebert, like everyone, was dazzled by the visuals, which heralded the maturation of CGI. But the elemental, mythological storytelling that had made Star Wars a cultural phenomenon in 1977 was missing, the dialog was awful, and the acting ranged into the embarrassing. The prequels were wildly uneven, but there were still hints of what we knew Star Wars could be.

The Last Jedi feels like the fulfillment of that missed potential. It is the most visually stunning of the eight Star Wars films, the characters speak with the elegance and wit that Ebert wanted, and the acting is often outstanding. It is exciting, funny, cute, tense, melancholy, smart, goofy, unexpected, and occasionally profound. The opening night audience at the Paradiso burst into applause four or five times. I cried through two Kleenexes. But most importantly, The Last Jedi is fun. In a year with some astonishing big budget misfires, it represents the pinnacle of twenty first century Hollywood filmmaking.
John Boyega and Gwendoline Christie do battle in The Last Jedi.
  • John Boyega and Gwendoline Christie do battle in The Last Jedi.
The success of this film can be credited to two people. The first is writer/director Rian Johnson, whose 2005 debut film Brick is an indie classic, and who directed one of the greatest hours of television ever produced, “Ozymandias”, the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad. Johnson is clearly a first generation Star Wars geek, but he is skilled and clear-eyed enough to craft a universal story. Johnson’s talent for visual composition is in the same league as Spielberg and Hitchcock. Lucas’ prequels were overloaded riots of color and movement. J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was successful when it aped Lucas’ superior 1970s style. Johnson’s frames are mathematically precise without succumbing to Kubrickian coldness. He’s not afraid to swoop the camera around, but there’s a reason for every movement. From the clarity and acumen of his action scenes, he’s been studying the lessons of Fury Road. But where The Last Jedi exceeds all previous Star Wars movies—and 99% of other movies as well—is the use of color. Deep reds, lustrous golds, inky blacks, and vibrant greens reflect and reinforce the characters’ emotions.
Daisy Ridley faces the Dark Side in The Last Jedi
  • Daisy Ridley faces the Dark Side in The Last Jedi
In the tradition of the Saturday morning sci fi action serials like Zombies of the Stratosphere that inspired Star Wars, Johnson’s screenplay is full of red herrings, hairpin reversals, and betrayal. He was given too large a cast and too complex a situation, and he not only made the most of it, but left the story better and tidier than he found it. Ebert's Phantom Menace review closes with these lines: “I've seen space operas that put their emphasis on human personalities and relationships. They're called Star Trek movies. Give me transparent underwater cities and vast hollow senatorial spheres any day.” The Last Jedi delivers on both fronts in a way the Abrams’ nü-Trek simply doesn’t.

Not only that, but Johnson can work with actors like Lucas never could. One of the miracles of the original Star Wars is that Lucas, preoccupied with the various technical disasters unfolding around him, largely left the actors to their devices. And yet Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill managed great performances. In the prequel era, it became quickly obvious which actors could wing it, like Ewen McGregor, and which ones depended on dialectic with the director, like poor Natalie Portman. Not all actors in The Last Jedi are created equal, but you get the sense that Johnson has set everyone up to give the absolute best performance possible. Daisy Ridley’s physicality carried her through The Force Awakens, but in The Last Jedi she seems more relaxed and playful, even if her default mode is still “scary intensity”. Oscar Issacs stretches out into Poe Dameron, and by the end of the movie his look is echoing Han Solo’s Corellian flyboy, pointing toward the Harrison Ford-shaped hole he’s filling in the cast.
Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega
  • Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega
John Boyega’s Finn is unleashed with a new partner, Rose, played by comedian Kelly Marie Tran. Their chemistry is near perfect, and their subplot bounces them off Benicio Del Toro as DJ, delivering a crackerjack turn as one of the shady underworld figures Star Wars loves. Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Katana makes the most of her extended cameo. I hope we see more of her next time around, but for now it makes me smile that the phrase “Maz flies away in a jetpack” must have appeared in the screenplay.
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren
  • Adam Driver as Kylo Ren
Comic book movies are ascendant right now, but the biggest lesson the Marvel and DC teams can learn from The Last Jedi is that you need quality villains to make epic stories work. Johnson’s excellent script gives Adam Driver, a fantastically talented actor, the juiciest role, and he grabs it with both hands. Caught between Supreme Leader Snoke, Andy Serkis’ preening, snarling big bad, and Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux, the latest in a long line of arrogant Imperial Navy twits, Kylo Ren comes into his own as a complex, conflicted character. In battle, Kylo is a lupine predator, but his eyes are haunted. The Last Jedi is a sprawling ensemble piece, but Driver and Ridley are the real co-leads.
Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa
  • Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa

Most of the audience’s tears are reserved for Carrie Fisher, who died a year ago, shortly after completing her work on The Last Jedi. Perhaps it is hindsight, but Fisher looks frail and vulnerable as General Leia Organa, her physical appearance reflecting the increasingly desperate straights of the Resistance she leads. But there is fire in her eyes and steel in her voice, and the bravado sequence Johnson designed for her where she at long last manifests her Force powers drew gasps and cheers. We can all only hope to go out on such a high note.

But if The Last Jedi belongs to any one actor, it is Mark Hamill. Luke Skywalker has been both a blessing and burden to Hamill, who at heart seems to be an amiable geek who would be perfectly happy doing cartoon voice acting for the rest of his life. (He is the best Joker ever, and I will fight anyone who disagrees.) Hamill gives the performance of a lifetime as a man who finally broke under the weight of his own legend. The boys who grew up idolizing Luke Skywalker are men now, and Hamill’s performance is full of the regret, hard won wisdom, and grit that age brings. Luke, the focus of the original Hero’s Journey, provided generations with a mythical model of how to grow up. Now, he gives a model of how to pick yourself up and keep going through a life that didn’t turn out quite like you thought it would.
Daisy Ridley and Mark Hammill
  • Daisy Ridley and Mark Hammill
The second person on whom the success of The Last Jedi depends is Kathleen Kennedy. The Lucasfilm honcho is simply the best producer working today. She’s driving the biggest bus in the business, and succeeding spectacularly where so many others fail. Kennedy has practically infinite resources at her disposal, but so did the producers in charge of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Transformers: The Last Knight, The Mummy, X-Men: Apocalypse, and so many other corporate vomitoriums of 2017. The key to producing good movies—and really to any artistic endeavor—is creating a healthy process. This is something that Kennedy, alone in contemporary Hollywood, seems to understand. This year alone, she fired the directors of not one but two Star Wars movies while they were shooting, an unprecedented move that prompted grumbling in both the fan community and the swank brunch spots of Hollywood. But even before The Last Jedi premiered to boffo box office (As of this writing, earning more than $160 million in TWO DAYS), she gave Johnson the deal of a lifetime—a whole Star Wars trilogy to himself. She saw Johnson’s professionalism, knew what she had in the can and wanted more of it. And if you spend 152 minutes in the Star Wars universe in the coming days and weeks, you’ll want more of it, too.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Music Video Monday: Letterman Jacket

Posted By on Mon, Dec 11, 2017 at 8:26 AM

Today's Music Video Monday is a message from outer space!
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Letterman Jacket are smart, poppy Memphis rockers Isaac Erikson, Keegan Linton, Allison Droke, Sarah Gosney, and Michael Galligher. Erikson also shot and directed this video for "Earth Boys Are Easy"—named, presumably, for the 1988 Julien Temple film which featured a memorable interstellar tryst between Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. The video, which shares its namesake's easygoing wit, appeared in this year's Indie Memphis Hometowner Music Video competition.

If you would like to se your music video featured on Music Video Monday, email cmccoy@memphisflyer.com

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Monday, December 4, 2017

Music Video Monday: Kingpin Skinny Pimp

Posted By on Mon, Dec 4, 2017 at 10:52 AM

Music Video Monday is in throwback mode.

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Earlier this year, Memphis rap titan Kingpin Skinny Pimp revisited an entry in his legendary discography. "Nobody Crosses Me" comes from the 1996 album King of Da Playaz Ball. The Kingpin created this video with the help of Memphis Visuals, which includes cameos by Lil Wyte and extensive video samples from the film "Nobody Crosses Me" used audio samples from, the 1983 Brian De Palma/Al Pacino collaboration Scarface. Get crunk!


If you would like to see your music video featured on Music Video Monday, email cmccoy@memphisflyer.com

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Music Video Monday: Amy Black

Posted By on Mon, Nov 27, 2017 at 11:41 AM

As you struggle to readjust to the world after a long Thanksgiving holiday full of gluttony and rest, Music Video Monday knows there's a dark cloud hanging over you.
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As you read here in the Memphis Flyer, Amy Black came to Memphis to record with the Hi Rhythm Section at Scott Bomar's Electra-phonic Recording. "The Blackest Cloud" is a blast of horn-heavy stone cold groove from her 2017 album Memphis. This video by Stacie Huckeba and Scot Sax takes the artist on a tour of Bluff City landmarks. Hopefully this will wake you from your turkey coma.


If you would like to see your music video appear on Music Video Monday, email cmccoy@memphisflyer.com

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted By on Wed, Nov 22, 2017 at 12:27 PM

For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a movie where everything clicks into place with utter perfection. Despite the incredible messiness of the story, situation, and characters’ lives, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of those films.

Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It’s remarkable that a work of art that reaches this deeply into the soul of contemporary America would be written by an Irishman, but maybe it had to be. Maybe we’re too blinded by our own conflicts to see as clearly as Martin McDonagh, the playwright turned filmmaker most famous for the tricky crime comedy In Bruges. Three Billboards is steeped in bitter irony, but it is not by any stretch a comedy.

Come awards season, you’re going to be hearing a lot more about Francis McDormand’s performance as Mildred Hayes, the divorced, working class single mom in this rural outpost in the Ozarks. Mildred used to be a mother of two, but seven months ago her teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered. Now she lives with her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), stewing in guilt for her perceived failure to protect her child and simmering with rage at the police who still haven’t solved the horrific crime. Impulsively, she rents the titular advertising to send a public message to Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), hoping to embarrass him into action.

The easy thing to do for McDonagh would be to make Sheriff Wiloughby a moustache-twirling villain. But he’s not. Harrelson’s Willoughby may not be the most woke person in Missouri, but he is a hard working public servant who takes his oath of office seriously. He’s also working on a deadline, so to speak, having been diagnosed with cancer.

The same can’t be said for deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), however. Dixon is a lazy, incompetent thug who was destined to be on one side of the carceral state or the other. His version of good police work is throwing the guy who owns the signs (Caleb Landry Jones) out of a second story window. McDonagh doesn’t let the characterization rest there, even though he could. Inside, Dixon is a weak, fearful person trapped in a toxic relationship with his alcoholic mother.


Nothing in Three Billboards is simple. As Mildred’s single minded quest for justice crosses the line into thirst for revenge, she starts to see herself in her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes). McDormand’s performance is one for the ages, a highlight of one of the most distinguished careers in American cinema. Her facial control is at once appropriately stoic for a country woman who has worked every day of her adult life and deeply expressive of inner pain. On the outside, she’s tough as nails and determined as the tides. On the inside, she is wracked with doubt and fear. McDormand hovers in this difficult space the entire movie, even when she’s going on a date with Peter Dinklage, who is having entirely too much fun with his moustache.

The complexity and depth of McDonagh’s script reminded me of the work of Dalton Trumbo, the legendary Spartacus and Roman Holiday screenwriter who was expert at balancing social commentary with real character and down to earth drama. In the theaters as well as in real life, 2017 has been a year of extremes, with the incredible high points like Get Out and Logan Lucky putting the failure of big budget studio tentpoles in stark relief. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a rare and thoughtful masterpiece for our troubled times.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Music Video Monday: Jadewick

Posted By on Mon, Nov 20, 2017 at 11:06 AM

Your Music Video Monday needs a haircut.
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The Memphis band Jadewick are not quite a year old, but they've already got three singles to their name. In their first music video "Lamenting", director Barrett Kutas and AD Sameer Shirazee, with the help of drone operator Harrison Lingo, take actor Chance Clement through a painful introspection that ends in radical tonsorial action. As hairdresser/psychic Sortilege advises Doc in Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, "Can't say it often enough—change your hair, change your life."

If you would like to see your music video on Music Video Monday, email cmccoy@memphisflyer.com

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Indie Memphis' Greatest Hits 5: Lights, Movement, And The Zoo

Posted By on Sat, Nov 18, 2017 at 4:50 AM

Welcome to our final installment of the Indie Memphis Greatest Hits series, which brings our list of the top vote getters in the Best of Indie Memphis poll to the present day. If you need to catch up, here's part one, part two, part three, and part four.

Lights, Camera, Bullshit (2014)

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It's hard out there for a...well, you know.

14 years after starring in The Poor And Hungry, Eric Tate joined director Chad Allen Barton and Piano Man Pictures to cast a satirical eye on the whole indie film thing. Tate stars as a filmmaker who comes to Memphis to make art, but finds himself constantly sidetracked by increasingly absurd obstacles. His boss is a delusional crook who wants to stay in business despite the fact that his business has literally burned to the ground. And he being hunted by a terrorist organization who wear masks of Presidents. Lights, Camera, Bullshit is a maze of jokes and old school indie surrealism that takes on the myth of the self-sufficient auteur. Tate puts himself in the tradition of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd as the last sane man in a world gone nuts.

Comments from voters:

"The irreverence of the story to all things political as a subplot. The main plot was interesting, dealing with a power hungry record producer who hires a young man to work on a film who has his own ideas.... the diversified cast with so many fine performances. The Memphis locations were also a highlight...Also great photography."




Anomolisa
(2014)

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Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation screenwriter Charlie Kaufman used stop motion to adapt his stage play about a man drowning in depression who meets and briefly falls in love with a woman at a conference in an anonymous hotel. It's safe to say that this is not familiar ground for an animation disciple best known for Ray Harryhausen's skeletons battling Jason and the Argonauts. Anomolisa uses its formal tricks to great emotional payoff.


Movement + Location (2014)

Lots of people want to move to the big city, reinvent themselves, and forget their past life. That's Kim Getty's (Bodine Boling) plan when she arrives in Brooklyn. What's different about Kim is that she's from 400 years in the future, a time when the planet is overcrowded, resources are scarce and life is miserable. Who wouldn't want to go back to the luxury of the early 21st century, when there was enough clean water to boil pasta? The problem is the past—which is to say, the future—is not done with Kim yet. Movement + Location is directed by Alexis Boling, and the combination of shadowy tension and Bodine's intense performance made this low-budget sci fi a big Indie Memphis hit.




The Keepers (2015)
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The Keepers won the hearts of the Indie Memphis audiences in 2015 by exploring the relationship between animals and people in a humane and empathetic way. With subjects like the staff of the Memphis Zoo and a skittish teenage giraffe, getting people to care was a matter of patience and editing in this cinéma vérité tour de force. "It was a very tight edit," says Joanne Self Selvidge, who co-directed The Keepers with Sara Kaye Larson. Amy Scott, who was our editor, is a total badass. She started with a 2 1/2 hour cut, and got it down to 70 minutes. I had done all the editing at that point, but Amy was wham bam thank you ma’am done. It was amazing.”

Larson and Selvidge started their festival run with a win at the Nashville Film Festival and made it two for two at Indie Memphis. The director/producers hustled to transform their festival wins into wider success. “We were able to secure national distribution, which was huge. We worked at that. We were approached by a couple of people who thought it seemed like an interesting film...” before signing with Vigil, Selvidge says.

Now on Hulu, the film got a name change to See The Keepers: At The Zoo. Selvidge and Larson were recently approached by Real South to air the film on more than 200 PBS stations across the country, and possibly internationally as well. The pair are currently back in the editing room creating a 56 minute TV version.

The Keepers - Festival Trailer from True Story Pictures on Vimeo.


Tangerine (2015)
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The technological revolution that made the digital indie era possible has only accelerated. When Indie Memphis started, submissions were on VHS. Director Sean Baker shot Tangerine with three iPhone 5s, and it is visually beautiful. But it's not the gimmick that makes Tangerine special, but the layered performance of Kitana Kiki Rodrigiez as Sin-Dee Rella, a transgendered sex worker just out of jail who tries to get to the bottom of her boyfriend's alleged infidelity. Indie Memphis was lucky to get one of the defining moments of this film decade.


Carol (2015)
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Indie film hero Todd Haynes brought a Douglas Sirk aesthetic to this period piece of forbidden lesbian love in an America on the verge of a cultural revolution. The list of accolades won by the film is long enough to rate its own Wikipedia page, so if you haven't seen it, you probably should. 

Voter comment: "One of my favorite films of the century so far, from its resplendently photographed Christmas-mode period trappings to its aching expression of unspoken longing to its "Brief Encounter" cribbing structure, "Carol" is my idea of pure heaven. It's a coming-of-age story AND a midlife reckoning in which neither lead is a navel-gazing, dissatisfied man, and one of whom is Cate Blanchett. Need I say more?"

Cameraperson (2016)
Every filmmaker finds out quickly that you have to throw out perfectly good material in order to make the whole film stronger. Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson saved memorable shots and moments that didn't make the cut from her twenty year career shooting all over the world, and then put them all together in this tribute to the emotional power of collage. Cameraperson is one of my personal favorite documentaries ever to screen at Indie Memphis, and I was glad to see I wasn't the only one that felt that way.


Jackson (2016)
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The human cost of the culture wars is front and center in this arresting doc about the relentless assault on women's reproductive rights in Mississippi. Jackson won Best Documentary Feature at Indie Memphis 2016, and it's currently finding a national audience on Showtime.

Voter comment:
"This documentary pissed me off and made me feel hopeless, but it also encouraged me to talk to strangers about these feelings. Our national apathy (veiled contempt?) directed toward women and their bodily agency is unacceptable, particularly when it comes to poor women of color. Jackson didn't flinch."

“On The Sufferings Of The World” (2016)
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Filmmaker (and Memphis Flyer contributor) Ben Siler is one of Memphis' most prolific filmmakers. His work got a lot of votes in the our poll, and unexpectedly "whichever Ben Siler film gets the most votes" was a fairly common response. I'll let his fans speak for themselves:

"Ben Siler was always an unsung hero for me in Memphis movie-making. His strange and unexpectedly poignant short films were always favorites of mine."

"Just everything Ben Siler's done. He's one of the few filmmakers, in Memphis or elsewhere, with a truly unique voice."

"Ben Siler should be at the top of every list. I idolize him as an experimental filmmaker."

"Ben Siler is literally a genius and all of his films should be in the Smithsonian."

The Siler film that closes out our list of Indie Memphis' Greatest Hits is one of the most radical works ever produced in the Bluff City. Funded by IndieGrant, a program begun in 2014 to give competitive grants to Memphis filmmakers, it's a collaboration between directors Siler, Edward Valibus, actresses Jessica Morgan and Alexis Grace that started when Siler wanted to marry images with philosopher Arthur Shopenhaur's essay "On The Sufferings of the World". It's most striking feature, the layers of images that are similar but not quite the same, came about when Valibus and Siler were trying to reconcile different cuts of the film. It's a haunting, beautiful end to our retrospective of the best films of indie Memphis' first twenty years.

On the Sufferings of the World from Edward Valibus on Vimeo.


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Monday, November 13, 2017

Music Video Monday: Tony Manard

Posted By on Mon, Nov 13, 2017 at 11:29 AM

It's a Music Video Monday smackdown!
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It got real when director Libby Brawley created this video for Tony Manard's song "Mississippi (Why You Gotta Be So Mean?)" 

"We shot this at my folks place—that's them at the end in the convertible," says Manard. "I put the word out on Facebook to my friends to create the most bizarre character they could come up with and bring water guns to the family compound in the red clay hills of Northeast Mississippi. I bought hamburgers and hotdogs to grill, built some water balloon cannons and let the chaos unfold. Jada Brisentine-Smith (aka Scary Poppins) actually broke her leg on that jump. Despite the appearance of conflict, Shark and Panda are happily married. So two televisions, and one watermelon were shot, one leg was broken, along with several thousand bug bites and about 2 ponds of dirt in my boots. It was a fine day in the country."

Tony Manard's third album KnowWhy is available right now on his website. Come get some of this brutal music video action:


If you would like to see your music videos on Music Video Monday, email cmccoy@memphisflyer.com

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Indie Memphis' Greatest Hits 4: Football, Swans, and Punks

Posted By on Fri, Nov 10, 2017 at 7:10 AM

After a pause caused by the festival itself, here's the next-to-last installment of Indie Memphis' Greatest Hits, where we count down the winners of the Best of Indie Memphis poll. You can get caught up with part one, part two, and part three.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)
Paradise Lost directors Joe Berlinger (left) and Bruce Sinofsky (right) pose with Jason Baldwin (center).
  • Paradise Lost directors Joe Berlinger (left) and Bruce Sinofsky (right) pose with Jason Baldwin (center).
The West Memphis Three case is one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in American history. But if it weren't for a couple of struggling directors pitching a true crime documentary to HBO in the early 1990s, Damian Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly would still be in jail for a crime they didn't commit. Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger's came to the Mid South asking, how could three normal teenagers commit such a gruesome crime? But once they got here, they quickly became convinced that the accused were innocent. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills would prove to be one of the most consequential documentaries ever, and has influenced a generation of works from Serial to True Detective. Berlinger and Sinofsky followed the case for 18 years, and when new DNA evidence came to light, their cameras were there. In 2011, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory had its second public screening at Indie Memphis weeks after the West Memphis Three walked free. When Jason Baldwin walked onstage unannounced at the Q&A, it was one of the most electric moments in Indie Memphis history. Later that year, the film was nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards.

Undefeated (2011)

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The same film beat Paradise Lost 3 at both  the Oscars and Indie Memphis' documentary category that year. Undefeated was directed by Daniel Lindsey and T.J. Martin told the story of the Manassas High School Tigers and their coach Bill Courtney as they attempt to turn around their school's historic losing streak on the football field. Today, Undefeated remains a sports movie staple.



Antenna (2012)
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The Memphis punk scene started in January 1978, when the Sex Pistols played at the Taliesyn Ballroom—now the site of the Taco Bell on Union Avenue. A bunch of kids who thought they were the only ones listening to punk rock in Memphis found each other that night. Months later, some of them descended on The Well, a down-on-its-luck country western bar a few blocks from the Taliesyn, on Madison Avenue. In 1981, The Well became Antenna, the most radical music venue in the south. For the next fourteen years, Antenna was a haven for freaks and the home of new music in Memphis. National bands like R.E.M., Black Flag, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Green Day played at Antenna years before they were filling arenas. It was ground zero for Memphis' alternative creative explosion that flew under the national radar while spawning groups like Panther Burns, Pezz, The Oblivians, The Grifters, and Jay Reatard—just to name a few.

When I was approached by Ross Johnson and John Floyd about making a documentary about Antenna and the music scene that thrived there, I knew it was something the Memphis community sorely needed. But I balked at the opportunity. I worried about the availability of archival footage. Antenna existed before the age when everyone had a cameraphone in their pockets. Would there be tape of bands like The Modifiers playing at Antenna? Turns out, I needn't have worried. Antenna owner Steve McGehee knows everybody. By the time Antenna premiered at Indie Memphis in 2012, we had amassed more than 100 hours of vintage video, hundreds of still images, and 88 interviews, some of which were three hours long.

It's difficult for me to talk about Antenna today. After winning the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize at Indie Memphis 2012, we have tried in vain for years to find finishing funds to pay for the music licensing fees. I am extremely grateful that enough people remembered Antenna to vote it onto the list. Hopefully one day, everyone can see it. Until then, this is the only bit of untold Memphis music history I can share with you:


Very Extremely Dangerous (2012)

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One of the highlights of Indie Memphis 2017 was Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell proclaiming Friday, November 3 Best of Enemies Day. Director Robert Gordon, who helped originate the project he co-directed with Morgan Neville, has had a long and distinguished career as a writer and director before winning an Emmy for Best of Enemies. In 2012, a film he produced with Irish director Paul Duane made waves at Indie Memphis. Very Extremely Dangerous opens with Gordon and Duane almost getting in a car wreck with their subject Jerry McGill, a 70 year old junkie, criminal, and Memphis musician. McGill had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he brought along Duane and Gordon's camera to record his final comeback performance/crime spree. To call Very Extremely Dangerous a harrowing watch is a dramatic understatement, but somehow, McGill comes out of it as a sympathetic character.



Keep The Lights On (2012)
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Memphis-born Ira Sachs has long been one of the most intimate and truthful directors of the indie era. He got his start in the Bluff City before Indie Memphis got rolling with The Delta, an autobiographical coming-of-age story. In 2005, when Hustle & Flow won the audience award at Sundance, Sachs' film Forty Shades of Blue won the Grand Jury Prize. Keep The Lights On is the story of an extremely dysfunctional relationship between Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth), a filmmaker and lawyer living in Sach's adopted home of New York who can't help but bring out the worst in each other. Sachs keeps the audience's expectations vacillating between "I hope these two kids can get it together in the end" and "They need to stay the hell away from each other." It's a story about the joys and limits of romantic love.

Keep The Lights On was the first film in a trilogy of sorts from Sachs about trying to stay human while living in New York. 2014's Love Is Strange stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a pair of longtime partners whose love is finally legal, but who are unexpectedly ripped apart after they finally tie the knot. 2016's Little Men is a story Sach says was inspired by his Memphis childhood about friendship between kids from different social classes who find their lives disrupted by the creeping gentrification of Brooklyn. Sachs' work is humane, beautiful to a fault, and absolutely required viewing for Memphis film fans.



What I Love About Concrete (2013)
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Remember when you were in high school and thought, "We should make a movie about our crazy lives!" Well, Alanna Stewart and Katherine Dohan actually did it, and their film is probably much better than yours would have been. The two White Station High Schoolers, with the help of Brett Hanover, created a home grown, magical realist masterpiece—imagine if Pretty In Pink had been written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Morgan Rose Stewart (sister of the director) stars as Molly, a woman who finds herself growing very-not-metaphorical wings in her senior year, just as she is preparing for college and the big essay contest. The practical special effects and handmade animation sequences carry considerable visual punch, but it's the unmannered acting and wild expanse of it all that elevates What I Love About Concrete to the level of the sublime. The film won at Indie Memphis, and has the distinction of being Commercial Appeal movie writer John Beifuss' only acting credit.



“I Wanted To Make A Movie About A Beautiful and Tragic Memphis” (2013)

"I sometimes find it easier to reveal intimate details about myself through art. This is prime example" says Laura Jean Hocking. After spending years locked in a small dark room with me editing Antenna, Hocking wanted to do something completely different. She wrote, produced, and directed this Midtown memoir completely by herself. It is at once a celebration of place, a confession, and a series of visual experiments. Hocking collaborated transatlantically with Memphis expat musician Jimi Enck, who scored the film while living in London.

At the 2017 Indie Memphis festival, Hocking and her co-director Melissa Anderson Sweazy won Best Hometowner Feature and the Audience Award for their documentary Good Grief about kids who have experienced tragedy and the counsellors who help them at the Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief in Collierville.

I WANTED TO MAKE A MOVIE ABOUT A BEAUTIFUL AND TRAGIC MEMPHIS from oddly buoyant productions on Vimeo.

Short Term 12 (2013)
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By 2013, Indie Memphis' profile had risen high enough to land the biggest films on the festival circuit. Destin Daniel Cretton's film Short Term 12, loosely inspired by his time as a counsellor in a group home for troubled teens, swept the Independent Spirit Awards and launched the career of Brie Larson. As one of the biggest vote-getters in the poll, it remains a favorite of Indie Memphis audiences.

It Felt Like Love (2013)
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Here's a little story that tells you what film festival life is like. In 2013, I was on the screening committee for Indie Memphis. We were tasked with finding the eight best features out of the hundreds of applicants that flood into Indie Memphis every year. Late in the season, we had whittled the list down to about a dozen when we noticed that no female directors were represented on the short list. Since it was pretty inconceivable that, in 2013, no women had made and submitted a decent movie, we dug back into the pile of DVDs. At the bottom was It Felt Like Love by Eliza Hitman, and when we popped it into the player, we were absolutely riveted. It was clear that this coming of age film was by far the best thing we had seen that year, and we almost lost it in the shuffle. Later, at the festival, the judges (who are not members of the screening committee) agreed, and It Felt Like Love won 2013's Best Narrative Feature award.


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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Indie Memphis Wraps 20th Anniversary Film Festival With Record Attendance

Posted By on Tue, Nov 7, 2017 at 4:28 PM

In Thom Pain, the film which opened the 2017 Indie Memphis Film Festival last Wednesday, Rainn Wilson repeatedly teases the audience with the prospect of a raffle for valuable prizes, but never delivers. On Monday, after more than 200 film screenings at the Halloran Centre, Studio on the Square, Hattiloo Theater, Circuit Playhouse, Playhouse on the Square, and the Malco Ridgeway Cinema Grill, the closing night Memphis Grizzlies Grizz Grant screening finally delivered on the promise of a raffle.

Indie Memphis' Executive Director Ryan Watt says that the twentieth anniversary festival set a record for attendance by attracting more than 12,000 filmgoers during the past week. A program of encore screenings, technically still part of the festival, at the Malco Collierville Towne Cinema this weekend will push that number even higher.

Good Grief directors Melissa Anderson Sweazy (left) and Laura Jean Hocking (right) pose on the red carpet with Indie Memphis Film Festival Executive Director Ryan Watt.
  • Good Grief directors Melissa Anderson Sweazy (left) and Laura Jean Hocking (right) pose on the red carpet with Indie Memphis Film Festival Executive Director Ryan Watt.

At the Audience Awards, presented at the closing night reception, the Memphis-made documentary Good Grief completed a rare sweep of Hometowner feature awards. The film, directed by Melissa Anderson Sweazy and Laura Jean Hocking, was previously awarded Best Hometowner Feature on Saturday night at a raucous awards ceremony at Circuit Playhouse, as well as the Audience Choice for the Poster Contest. Previous films that have won both audience and jury awards include Phoebe Driscoll's Pharaohs Of Memphis in 2014 and G.B. Shannon's "Fresh Skweezed" in 2011. The record for most prizes won at Indie Memphis by a single film belongs to Morgan Jon Fox's OMG/HAHAHA, which won five trophies in 2009.

The other big winner to emerge from this year's festival is Matteo Servente. The Memphis director won two short film prizes for two different short films: "An Accidental Drowning" won the MLK 50 prize for Civil Rights-related films, and "We Go On" won the Hometowner Short Film competition. "We Go On", with a screenplay by Memphis writer and Burke's Books owner Corey Mesler, had previously won top honors at the Memphis Film Prize. Servente who came to Memphis from Italy ten years ago, dedicated his wins to the cause of immigrant's rights, saying "This is what happens when you don't build that wall!" 

Hometowner Narrative Short Audience Award Winner Nathan Ross Murphy receives his trophy from Indie Memphis' Ryan Watt.
  • Hometowner Narrative Short Audience Award Winner Nathan Ross Murphy receives his trophy from Indie Memphis' Ryan Watt.

The Narrative Feature award went to Cold November by Karl Jacob, and directors Landen Van Soest and Jeremy Levine took home the Documentary Feature award with For Akheem. The Hometowner Documentary Short award was won by "Blackout Day" by director Graham Uhelski.

Audience Award for Narrative Feature went to Mark Webber's Flesh and Blood, while the audience chose Sideman by Scott Rosenbaum for Documentary Feature. The audience's favorite Hometowner Narrative Feature was Nathan Ross Murphy's "Muddy Water" and Lauren Squires Ready won the Documentary Short audience nod with "Bike Lee. Katori Hall's "Arkabutla" was the audience choice among the MLK 50 films.

Good Grief and the award-winning short films will be on the program this Saturday at the Malco Collierville Towne Cinema. For more information visit the Indie Memphis website.




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Monday, November 6, 2017

Music Video Monday Special: Telisu, Don Lifted, soniamiki win at Indie Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Nov 6, 2017 at 10:42 AM

Music Video Monday salutes the winners of the Indie Memphis music video competition.
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Last Friday night at the outdoor street party in Overton Square, 29 Hometowner videos and 18 videos from artists outside the Memphis area competed for trophies, prize money, and bragging rights. The winner of the national competition, announced at the awards show on Saturday night, was director Marcin Starzecki's video for "BWA" by soniamiki.


The Hometowner music video award went to director Quintin Lamb's "I'M A GOD" video for TELISU.

I'M A GOD (내가) by TELISU on VEVO.

The music video jury awarded a special jury prize to Lawrence Matthews, aka Don Lifted, for "Harbor Hall"—which, not coincidentally, was also the 2016 Music Video Monday video of the year.


The Indie Memphis Film Festival concludes 6:00 PM tonight at the Orpheum Theatre's Halloran Centre with a screening of short films made with funds from  the 2016 Grizz Grant competition. These works by Memphis filmmakers celebrate the Memphis Grizzlies' female fan experience. The festival's closing film is Tip of My Tongue by Lynne Sachs, a longtime favorite director at Indie Memphis. Sachs' experimental documentary examines the nature of memory as a group of friends gather at her New York apartment to piece together the last five decades of their lives. For more information visit the Indie Memphis website.

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Trans*Cend Lets Transgender Memphians Tell Their Own Stories At Indie Memphis

Posted By on Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 1:46 PM

Sometimes, the best way to make a documentary is to pick a subject you know nothing about and take the viewer along for the ride while you learn. That was the approach Shelby Fuller Elwood adopted for her film Trans*Cend, which explores the lives of transgender and nonbinary people in Memphis. “I foolishly approached this as a short doc. I didn’t get very far in before I realized, there’s way more here than I can tell in 21 minutes.”
Trans*Cend
  • Trans*Cend
Elwood began by enlisting a friend who curated story sharing events in the Memphis area. “I wanted to work with Elaine Blanchard. She said a transgenered woman, Victoria, had asked her to do a story circle in Memphis…I started filming not knowing what the story was. I am a cisgender woman of a certain age. I wasn’t even a tomboy when I was a kid. What do I know about being transgender? My takeaway after week two was, we’re more alike than we’re different. That resonated through all of the stories, all of the pain. Everyone had a shared trajectory. There were thirteen different stories in the group, but I saw the pattern.”

But the road to Trans*Cend was not without bumps. The Memphis native was communitng to her new home in Arizona while filming. “I had two camera crews refuse to work with me when they found out the topic,” she says. “I felt like the topic was so radioactive that I couldn’t get a crew in Memphis. That’s why I took it to Phoenix to edit.”

Elwood says making the film took on a new urgency after last November’s election, and she rushed to finish it before Indie Memphis. It was a deep learning experience for her that she hopes translates into learning for the audience. “I grew up in the bible belt, and it was an easy excuse to say, ‘they’re doing this for attention. No. All of these people have known since they were preschoolers that they were different. I see this as a civil rights issue, a human rights issue. All the people in the group were asking for is the right to be. This can strike a chord with cisgender audiences who have never thought about it. I admit, I’m guilty. I had never thought about it before, but now I can’t quit thinking about it.”

Trans*Cend screens at 11:20 AM on Sunday, November 5 at Studio On The Square. For tickets and more information, go to the Indie Memphis website.

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Director Anwar Jamison Tackles Prescription Drug Abuse in A Bitter Pill To Swallow at Indie Memphis

Posted By on Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Anwar Jamison grew up in Racine, Wisconsin. he thought he knew everything about drugs. “We were an hour from Chicago, so everything Chicago had, we had. I saw a lot of crack cocaine,” he says. “People smoke, they drink, they do hard drugs. You knew what that was.”
Anwar Jamison, director of A Bitter Pill To Swallow.
  • Anwar Jamison, director of A Bitter Pill To Swallow.
What he didn’t see coming was the growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse—until it affected his own family. At first, he heard one of his young adult cousins had been caught stealing. “That blew my mind. I had only ever associated that behavior with someone who smokes crack,” he says. “Then it was another family member, and another. Then I heard, ‘It’s because of those pills.’ I started doing my own research, and it scared me.”

Warning poeple—particularly college and high school kids he taught at Arkansas State University Mid-South—became something of an obsession for the filmmaker, whose previous work Five Steps To A Conversation appeared at Indie Memphis. “Every time I would talk to a class about it, you could see the guilt come across a couple of faces. ‘It’s that serious?’ Young people think, a doctor proscribed this. How can it be bad?”
One of an artist’s greatest assets is the ability to put himself in other people’s shoes. “If I was sixteen, seventeen, and all my friends were doing it, and all my favorite rap artists were talking about it, I don’t know that I wouldn’t start popping pills, too,” he says.

Jamison decided to use his gifts to spread the news of prescription drug abuse. A Bitter Pill To Swallow would be his first documentary. He interviewed addiction doctors, addicts, and the families of overdose victims. On a whim, he decided to take his camera to Beale Street and ask people what they knew about the topic. To his shock, the very first person he picked had been in rehab, and had lost custody of his children as a result of prescription drug abuse.“Opiods are a hot button topic on the news right now, but that’s only one group. There opiods, benzos, and the stimulants. I run across a lot more Xanax, and I don’t hear anything about that. I’ve seen the affects on people over time on people in my family. I’ve seen the star student who you would hold up as an example turn into someone who you would have thought he had a learning disability. It erodes people’s minds over time.”

The film professor says he learned a lot from his first documentary experience. “With narrative, it was already hard to edit your own stuff. You like almost everything you did! Then when you come back two or three months later with fresh eyes, you see what you can cut. Why was I thinking I couldn’t do without that? But with documentary, it was like, wow. all of these hours! This is crazy! You have HOURS of interviews with people. There’s all this great stuff. And I have to put all of this into a little more than an hour? I learned to really be selective. I didn’t agonize over it as much as I thought I would.”

A Bitter Pill To Swallow debuts at Indie Memphis on Sunday, November 5 at 9:20 PM. For more information and tickets, go to the Indie Memphis website.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Posted By on Fri, Nov 3, 2017 at 10:44 AM

Biopics, with their vaguely cancerous-sounding name, are the scourge of the entertainment industry. They make the fussy details of life programmatic. Characters must always state their intentions in declarative sentences. Orchestral soundtracks must always manhandle viewers into scheduled emotions. What is it about actual lives, especially British period ones, that are so resistant to movies?
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One reason is that they have predetermined ends before a screenwriter ever sits down. Another is that you've already experienced the most interesting aspect: the acts or accomplishments the story buttresses. In the case of Goodbye Christopher Robin, that accomplishment is beloved children's series Winnie the Pooh, about a bear and his friends who live in the woods. Goodbye is about the emotional neglect author A.A. Milne visited upon his son while making him the star of his books. It hits the note of parental abandonment well, but the staid tones of early twentieth-century Britain flood it and preserve the thing in amber.

There are points for trying, though. Some attempts to enliven—a croquet ball turning into a hand grenade in a pre-credits sequence, or Christopher Robin A-Ha video-ing his way through illustrations from the books—fall flat. Others work, from smart editing bluntly cutting off the ends of cookie cutter scenes, or the emphasis on the less-than-ideal qualities of A.A. (Domhnall Gleeson) and wife Daphne (Margot Robbie). They pretty much give the raising of their child over to his nanny (Kelly MacDonald). Child actor Will Tilston as Christopher Robin is good at beaming a wide smile—his constant reaction to Ashdown Forest/Hundred Acre Wood— but is a little more blank with other emotions. Gleeson is good with the arch cynicism of a World War I vet, but less solid at portraying gruffness and shellshock.

Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie as A.A. and Daphne Millne in Goodbye Christopher Robin.
  • Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie as A.A. and Daphne Millne in Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Milne moves the family to the English countryside to write a book arguing against the notion of war. His PTSD comes in the form of fright at champagne corks and balloon pops. He heals and bonds with his son while making up stories about his stuffed animals. Moments dedicated to naming them —Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore— play like the Star Wars prequels ("Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi Wan Kenobi") in their reliance on previous work for impact. But the movie gets childhood play right, like when Christopher Robin later accuses Milne of only playing with him in order to write a book.

Some lines have the feeling of compression of life for drama, like "Childhood was wonderful, it's growing up that was hard," or "I've had enough of making people laugh, I want to make them see." Director Simon Curtis’ earlier My Week With Marilyn had a good Michelle Williams performance as Marilyn Monroe, but neutered the other half of her love affair, making him an innocent when the source material promised a more interesting cad. In Goodbye the only emotions that worked for me had to do with abandonment. Those that had to do with war or whimsy seemed puffed up to sell their importance. Next to the wars that bookend the movie, the annoyance of fame to Christopher Robin, his motivation for joining the army, seems minor.
Will Tilson (left) as Christopher Robin, along with the stuffed  inspiration for Winnie the Pooh and friends.
  • Will Tilson (left) as Christopher Robin, along with the stuffed inspiration for Winnie the Pooh and friends.


Films like My Boy Jack, about Rudyard Kipling and his son, and Ken Burns' documentary The Roosevelts, which dealt with Theodore and his son Quentin, covered similar material with a super-masculine historical father enthusiastically sending his boy off to World War I. Here, the Milnes prophesize they can't keep their child out of war before he’s born, and feel doomed as World War II gets closer. A.A. has no machismo like Kipling or Roosevelt to hurl his son into violence; his flaw is his coldness (or, living in a world where there will be more fighting).

Cinematically, World War I is World War II's shadow. Instead of a worthwhile fight against evil it's a meaningless slaughterhouse. That's actually more modern, and appropriate, as film portrayals of organized group murder go. WWII is the exception that proves the rule, and undergirds our military-industrial-entertainment complex. We see it much more often on our screens, though Inglourious Basterds' post-modern take might mark the end of its reign.

The Winnie the Pooh books and television show seemed to encourage emulation of its gentle main character. It's exciting for Goodbye to resituate that call for gentleness between two wars, as the message of a veteran father to his affection-starved son. But reaching for such honey it gets stuck.

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Gonzo Auteur John Pickle's "Return of the Flesh Eating Film Reels" Brings Classic Special Effects to Indie Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Nov 3, 2017 at 8:39 AM

Halloween’s over, but there’s no bad time for good monster movies. With a running time of just over 8-minutes, and a creature that’s part Blob, part deconstructed mummy, "Return of the Flesh Eating Film Reels", director John Pickle’s fun, funny homage to a 1975 student film by Tremors director S.S. Wilson, pushes all the right buttons.
Director John Pickle
  • Director John Pickle

HBO was a weirder place in the 1980’s when the spaces between films were filled with music videos, and “HBO Short Takes,” a showcase for micro-movies and curiosities. That’s where Pickle first encountered Wilson’s silly, but still somehow creepy short about a man who’s invited to a spooky old house where he’s  attacked, chased, cornered, ensnared, and finally eaten by an enormous tangle of animated celluloid. The image stuck and 47 years later Pickle made a loving homage, mixing modern technology, timeless camera tricks, and plenty of cheap theatrics. Though it’s a talkie, the bouncy piano score, oversized acting, and handwritten signs infuse Wilson’s original, and Pickle’s master-copy with qualities of a comedy from the silent film era—think Mack Sennett meets MTV’s Liquid Television.

Aside from the handcrafted, in-camera special effects, there’s not a lot of complexity here. What you see is what you get, and that’s not a complaint. "Return of the Flesh Eating Film Reels" is a storyboard lesson in economy, visually-driven narrative, and the unbridled joys of stop-motion and wrapping somebody up in a whole wad of video tape.

"Return of the Flesh Eating Film Reels" screens at Studio on the Square on Saturday, November 4 at 11:15 PM. The short film proceeds the 40th anniversary screening of Dario Argento's 1977 horror classic Suspiria, which has been remastered in 4K digital video. For tickets and more information, visit the Indie Memphis website.

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