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“Louder Than a Bomb,” Reviewed

“Louder Than a Bomb,” Reviewed (photo)

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I own hundreds of books and not a single one of or about poetry. I have no favorite poets or poems. I can’t and don’t write poetry. Basically, there are few things I enjoy less in this world than poetry, something that will probably come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the assortment of poop jokes, “Seinfeld” references, and comic book-isms that I call writing. I am such a Philistine, I may as well be from Philistia. I say this not to boast (I’m frankly a little ashamed), but so you understand my approach to the documentary “Louder Than a Bomb,” a film about high school poets. And that approach was this: an open mind and complete and total disinterest. So if this movie can win me over, it can win anyone over.

This movie won me over.

And, yes, much of these kids’ poetry is good; some of it very good, some of it transcendently good. But even before I connected with their words, I connected to their struggle, which is a universal one for kids of a certain affliction, namely awkwardness, sensitivity, empathy, a love of art, and all the assorted other characteristics that make certain kids outsiders. Some of the teenagers in the film come from privilege, others from poverty. But they all share the same passion to find their voice and their place in the world. I could relate to that. I never wrote poetry in high school — other than that really awkward one about Spider-Man written from the perspective of his identical clone — but I could relate to that.

The film’s structure will look familiar to anyone who’s seen “Spellbound,” “Wordplay,” or any of the other recent documentaries about the fascinating and sometimes eccentric personalities that coalesce around unusual intellectual competitions. In this case that competition is Louder Than a Bomb, the world’s largest high school poetry slam contest. Directors Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs focus on four students from four different high schools battling for top prize, exploring their lives and motivations and then follow their journey through said competition. I don’t know how they found this topic or selected their subjects, but they did a phenomenal job. These kids are brilliant, charming wordsmiths, passionate performers and wise beyond their years.

My favorite was Nate Marshall, who truly embodies LTAB’s philosophy that “the point is not the points; the point is the poetry.” Marshall, from “as South as you can possibly be” in South Chicago, in a neighborhood where he can stand in one place and point out the places where he’s been jumped, has spent six years competing in poetry slams, not for the adulation or thrill of victory, but for the sheer love of the art form. Now in his senior year of high school, Marshall worries less about his chance to finally win Louder Than a Bomb than instilling his passion for and knowledge of slam in the next generation of poets at his school, Whitney Young Magnet High. In the way that he generously gives to others, cares for his family, acts as surrogate father or big brother or uncle for whoever needs him, and expresses himself with beauty and clarity, Marshall is an mensch. I’ve got maybe a dozen years on this kid and sat watching him in this film, jaw dropped, eyes moist, thinking to myself, “I want to be Nate Marshall when I grow up.”

I would bet that most people who see this film will feel a similar way. My only critique of Siskel and Jacobs’ work would be their time management. Any slam poet knows pacing is key, and Siskel and Jacobs’ isn’t always ideal. They follow four high schools, but they lose a couple of them for long stretches of the film. Their clear favorites are Lamar Jordan and the rest of the team from Steinmetz High, who channel their experiences living in a rough neighborhood into poems of startling ferocity. I suppose the Steinmetz team is the most cinematic — they suffer from the worst bouts of writers’ block and have the most intense battles with their coach — but they also seem to unbalance what begins as an ensemble film. The young men and women of Steinmetz are fantastic, but I would have liked to have seen more of Nate Marshall, Nova Venerable from Oak Park and River High (who uses poetry to release all of her rage about her alcoholic father and to share all of her love about her diabetic, autistic brother), and Adam Gottlieb from Northside Prep (an ebullient personality with another wise-beyond-his-years perspective on life).

A full half of this 100 minute movie takes place during the various rounds of Louder Than a Bomb. Siskel and Jacobs’ approach isn’t overtly cinematic — there aren’t tons of angles or quick cuts or elaborate camera movements — but the poets and poems themselves are. As I listened to these teenagers express themselves, I realized how rarely you get to hear a poet read their own work outside the world of poetry slams. Even for someone as allergic to poetry as I am, it felt like a privilege to get to witness that, and to see young people take the disadvantages they’ve been handed by life and flip them into advantages.

That’s what Nate and the rest of his peers do. And they do it not to win, but to inspire and be inspired. Some of the characters are more obsessed with winning than others, but by the end they all realize the friendships they’ve made and art they’ve witnessed transcends where they placed in the competition. Remember, at Louder Than a Bomb the point is not the points, the point is the poems. In “Louder Than a Bomb,” poems aren’t the point either. The point is the poets.

“Louder Than a Bomb” opens Wednesday in New York City.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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