Film Review: The Tiger Next Door (2009)

tiger-next-door_3Long before Tiger King and Joe Exotic were on the minds and lips of Americans from coast to freaking coast, filmmaker Camilla Calamandrei set out to chronicle the inexplicably seamy underbelly of private tiger sanctuaries in her 2009 documentary The Tiger Next Door. Much like the unlikely sensation that Tiger King would eventually become (thanks in large part to the shelter-in-place malaise wrought by COVID-19) The Tiger Next Door features a bizarre antihero as the linchpin of its narrative, albeit one who is nowhere near as flashy — or as interesting, for that matter — as the aforementioned Exotic One. Tiger aficionado Dennis Hill, who ostensibly serves as the protagonist for The Tiger Next Door, takes center stage in Calamandrei’s project, which chronicles Hill’s efforts to hold on to his faltering tiger sanctuary, facing down legal maneuvers from the government and scrutiny from other animal enthusiasts. (Interestingly enough, Hill has his own claim to hating Tiger King villain Carole Baskin, who has accused Hill of threatening to kill her some years ago.)

Truth be told, while The Tiger Next Door is actually a decent documentary, it’s actually quite challenging to comment on the endeavor as a whole without lapsing into a critique of the life choices of the film’s dramatis personae, particularly with regard to Mr. Hill. Looking like an uncanny mash-up of Rip Van Winkle and the Marlboro Man, Hill has a backstory fit for the worst Randy Travis song you’ve never heard. Once living large as a construction magnate, he fell on hard times, losing everything including the love of his life. At the bottom of his pit of despair, he was convicted on federal drug charges and eventually found salvation in… rescuing tigers, of course.  Then again, was Dennis Hill actually rescuing the tigers or was he collecting them for his own enjoyment (and occasional financial benefit, allegedly), while housing them in deplorable conditions and neglecting the needs of these complicated and potentially dangerous creatures?

The answer to the latter question depends on who you ask, as a cavalcade of critics and supporters share their opinions on Hill’s efforts and aspirations. Hill’s admirers, for their part, put forth a healthy amount of American exceptionalism in their support of his private sanctuary, asserting that he has the right to stack and rack apex predators in dirty, ramshackle cages and potentially putting every man, woman, and child in the vicinity in danger because of, well… freedom, bro. And Hill himself seems empowered by both supporters and detractors, declining to take responsibility for every wrong turn in his life, from his years as a meth-slinger to the life-threatening health problems suffered by the big cats in his care. Then again, it’s probably much easier to be a bitter pariah than a trained zookeeper of a licensed veterinarian.

At least Dennis Hill has more freedom than you can shake a stick at. The tigers? Eh, not so much.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to say what exactly The Tiger Next Door aspires to be. At best, it is an eminently watchable documentary. At worst, it’s an episode of Hoarders on steroids, except that the main character hoards giant cats instead of old newspapers and aluminum cans. Either way, it’s an okay enough way to spend about an hour and a half.

Inside Your Head tips our cap to The Tiger Next Door, awarding it three out of five golden tophats.


Film Review: The Social Ones (2019)

socialones-1Legendary pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin supposedly advises rookie grapplers to pick an aspect of their respective personalities and amplify it in order to make a lasting impression with fans. For better or worse, social media personalities and influencers seemed to have applied a similar recipe for success in their chosen occupations, magnifying their own idiosyncrasies and obsessing over nuance, details, and minutiae in an unyielding effort to remain relevant and popular. Seizing upon this Dadaesque sociocultural trend, screenwriter and director Laura Kosann has crafted the comedy film The Social Ones, which purports to offer parody and commentary of social media as both concept and phenomenon.

The Social Ones is something of a documentary-type spoof in the tradition of The Office in which a duo of senior staff at a magazine attempts to bring together the top (fictionalized) influencers and personalities of each social major media platform for a photoshoot for the ages. Along the way, the audience meets each social media luminary, and of course, they all epitomize the worst hyperbolic foibles of real-world Internet sensations. A plot twist of sorts results in one of the most influential ‘net celebs flaking out and leaving the magazine folks and his fellow social media cohorts hanging as he goes on a nonsensical quest for self-realization.

It would be a nice gesture to claim that The Social Ones is simply too good at lampooning the most objectionable standouts of present-day pop culture. But the fact of the matter is that if that is indeed the task at hand, then it’s simply too easy to poke fun such types and too difficult to ultimately turn them into redeemable character. Indeed, not a single character in The Social Ones is even slightly likable or relatable and the longer any of them are on screen, it becomes more difficult to tolerate them, much less to empathize with them or to root for them. Perhaps Sheila Berger, played by That 70’s Show alumnus Debra Jo Rupp, emerges as the closest offering to an original and intriguing character here, but even by the end of the film, as each cast learns his or her respective “truth” about the importance of real-world interaction, her novelty wears thin, much like the general concept of the film itself. Even Richard Kind, a veteran of television with a particular flair for comedic endeavors, doesn’t bring much to the table here, as his performance is overshadowed by the positively ridiculous premise of his character.

All told, The Social Ones is not so much of a satire as it is a painful reminder of how predictable and shallow some aspects of popular culture have become over the course of the past decade or so. Granted, The Social Ones might elicit a chuckle or two for folks in the audience who find some kind enjoyment in following the exploits of self-aggrandizing narcissists. But those who find such behavior annoying and contemptible likely won’t find much entertainment in this effort.

Inside Your Head doffs our proverbial cap to The Social Ones with a modicum of regard, giving the movie one out of five golden tophats.


– Mike Bessler, February 2020

Film Review: Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (2019)

owbIn his 2007 book I Am A Strange Loop, scholar Douglas Hofstadter described the memory of an individual as a sort of mosaic comprised of “coarser grain” and like “blurry copies” of that person’s experiences and encounters. While the march of time contributes to the general fuzziness of memories as they become more and more distant, sentimentality might sometimes color the perceptions of reminiscences, as well. So when the opportunity emerges to chronicle the rise and demise of an influential cultural force as The Band, it’s surely a daunting challenge to wade through decades of emotion and influence to assemble a compelling and accurate depiction of the group, both as people and as a phenomenon. Thankfully, Daniel Roher and a team of producers were up for the challenge, as is evident by their 2019 film Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.

The film presents a stirring depiction of the Canadian group The Band, told mostly from the perspective of Robbie Robertson, who served as a guitarist and songwriter for the group. His recollections, told in intimate, confessional-style interviews, are complemented by accounts from his peers and fellow travelers, including blues icon Taj Mahal, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, and celebrated recording artist Bob Dylan. Dylan, who was backed by The Band from 1965 to 1967, is arguably one of the most important presences in the film (perhaps a close second to Robertson himself) as his firsthand accounts of The Band during its formative years provide invaluable texture to the stuff of rock legend. Roher’s use of archival footage in this endeavor is particularly noteworthy, offering candid and somewhat rare glimpses into the process and product of The Band at all stages of their collective and individual endeavors.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is a rock and roll enthusiast’s dream, told in documentary style but infused with the kind of detail and pathos that lend essential credibility to its overarching narrative. Although a certain subgroup of critical viewers may lament the emphasis on Robertson’s role in the story, it is largely his accounts that ensure that the portrait of The Band that emerges through Once Were Brothers is sharp and defined so that its finer points aren’t reduced to just another fuzzy mosaic.

Inside Your Head offers a tip of the cap to Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, awarding the film four out of five golden tophats.


Mike Bessler
February 2020

Film Review: St. Louis Superman

st-louis-supermanThe 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri shook many Americans out of their longstanding complacency and indifference and served as a catalyst for new action and avocacy around the U.S. For many African-Americans, the tragic incident also reinforce the day-to-day reality that present-day conditions are rooted in the inequality, disparity, and violence have been common threads in the social fabric of America since its origin. St. Louis resident Bruce Franks Jr. took the shooting death of Brown as a clarion call of sorts, carrying the mantle of social activism straight into the Missouri House of Representatives and his work as an activist, organizer, and political force is chronicled in the Oscar-nominated short documentary St. Louis Superman.

In St. Louis Superman, Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra share a multi-faceted profile of Bruce Franks Jr., offering insight on the many factors that have forged the 34-year-old’s world view and driven his efforts, from his work in the political arena and in the streets to intimate time spent with family and community. The presentation of the film isn’t particularly flashy or innovative but then again, it doesn’t have to be, as the story itself is thought-provoking and engaging.

Emerging as a common thread in the narrative of St. Louis Superman is the profound loss suffered by Harris at an early age when his older brother was killed in a shooting. In 1991, Christopher Harris was caught in a police shootout when a man used him as a human shield. Christopher was only nine years old when he was killed, just three years older than Frank. Throughout the course of his life, Christopher’s presence has remained at the forefront for Frank and in one particularly emotional scene of the film, St. Louis community honors the memory of his brother by dedicating a statue of Christopher at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.

Stirring and inspirational, St. Louis Superman offers a stark reminder that there are many pressing issues and tasks ahead in order to fundamentally change American society for the benefit of future generations. To be sure, the rigors of struggle and survival have already been significant for Frank, who has decided to take a break from public life to cope with mounting depression and anxiety. With so much left to be done, America needs many more people with his spirit and vision.

St. Louis Superman is a powerful documentary with an important message. Inside Your Head offers props to the film and those behind it, awarding it four and a half out of five golden top hats.


Film Review: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl)

LearningToSkateInAWarzoneFor the better part of the twenty-first century, Westerners – and perhaps much of the rest of the world – have come to regard Afghanistan as an unforgiving seedbed of misery and suffering. But long before the terror attacks of September 11 put the name of the Taliban on the minds and lips of people around the globe, the people of Afghanistan endured a lonely struggle under the yoke of Political Islam. Indeed, under the Taliban rule, women were subject to some of the most draconian repressions imaginable. Vestiges of this era remain in Afghanistan to the present day, necessitating unorthodox and innovative efforts to protect and nurture the young women and girls of a new generation. Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl), a 2019 film by Director Carol Dysinger and Producer Elena Andreicheva, offers a candid look into one such endeavor, a unique program for girls known as Skateistan.

Established in 2007 by Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich, Skateistan (which means “The Land of Skate”) provides a safe place for girls in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul to attend school and also to learn how to skateboard. In this program, skateboarding is used as both an incentive to foster classroom involvement and as a method of teaching the importance of determination and perseverance. Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone takes audiences inside the classroom to witness girls enjoying newfound forums for knowledge and self-expression and subsequently follows the same students into the large, indoor skate facility for their on-board lessons.

Students and their teachers also sit down with Dysinger and her crew for interviews, sharing their personal experiences of life before Skateistan, including tales of isolation and victimization. But it is optimism that ultimately prevails through their narratives, as women and girls candidly discuss the opportunities that the school has afforded them and their aspirations for the future. So determined are the women who run this endeavor that they evoke memories of the revered anti-Taliban resistance group The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who have shared their struggles in such books as With All Our Strength (2004) and Zoya’s Story (2002).

While the subject matter of Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone is compelling in and of itself, the content is complemented by outstanding cinematography and a simple yet poignant musical score.

Although the threats of terror and oppression loom large in the background of this film, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone is ultimately a story of hope. As the courageous women and girls of Afghanistan continue to emerge from decades in the shadows, they will do so with newfound knowledge and determination thanks to the encouragement and support of programs like Skateistan.

Inside Your Head doffs our proverbial caps to Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl), awarding this film five out of five golden tophats.


Film Review: In the Absence

in-the-absencePopular expectations often compel filmmakers to portray large-scale disasters – whether fictional or dramatized accounts of actual events – with considerable bombast and sensationalism. And while the present era is one in which skewed, muddled, and opinion-based reporting dominate all forms of media, there remain people who regard stark, unembellished truth-telling as both art and necessity, including Director Seung-jun Yi, whose Academy Award film In the Absence offers a concise but harrowing chronicle of the Sewol ferry disaster.

The MV Sewol capsized in the Yellow Sea off the coast of South Korea on April 16, 2014, ultimately sinking and claiming the lives of 304 passengers in the process. Among the deceased were 250 high school students, many of whom made efforts to contact family and friends as they helplessly awaited their demise. In the Absence chronicles the tragedy in heart-wrenching detail, melding together harrowing video of the incident at every stage with audio of government dispatches and conversations and messages sent by trapped and helpless passengers. In a decidedly cruel irony, the story unfolds amidst the scenery of shimmering waters and distant mountains, transforming an otherwise breathtaking panorama into a hellscape stained by human suffering.

What emerges through Yi’s masterfully edited montage of primary source material, is a sobering reminder of the high cost of bureaucracy, malfeasance, and incompetence, especially when innocent lives hang in the balance. Indeed, the sinking of the Sewol set into motion a scandal that rocked South Korean society and government, eventually resulting in civil and criminal penalties against many individuals and instructions, including South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was ultimately expelled from office for her lack of leadership and action in the early, critical hours of the tragedy.

Seung-jun Yi’s In the Absence presents the story of the Sewol disaster with simplicity and sensitivity, providing a respectful platform for the tragedy’s underrepresented victims and those who have carried on without them while quietly suffering and searching for answers. In the Absence is not a lighthearted cinematic experience, but it is a necessary one that reminds audiences that the chaos and uncertainty of life is often compounded by the disconnect between those of power and influence and the everyday people.

Inside Your Head offers a tip of the proverbial cap to In the Absence, awarding this film four and a half out of five golden top hats.


Mike Bessler, January 2020