Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Days Three & Four

I came home last night late from Durham to a neighborhood without power due to the Tornado sweeping through the area Saturday afternoon. Probably wouldn’t have done much blogging anyway as I was exhausted.

Well, now it’s Sunday night and I’ve got a bunch of notes to unload so here’s my round-up of documentaries from the last 2 days:

Films I saw on Saturday, April 16th:

Reports of the death of the newspaper have been greatly exaggerated this film successfully stresses as we see the staff of the New York Times struggle to adapt in the face of major technological advances and threats like Wikileaks.

With amazing access to the media desk, Rossi follows these key players in print: Executive Editor Bill Keller, blogger turned Times writer Brain Stelter, Media Marketing Editor Bruce Headlam, and media and culture columnist David Carr who steals the movie over and over with his dead on acerbic comments.

As a subscriber to the Times, I loved the inside insights into the newspaper’s ongoing developments, and thoroughly enjoyed how the film handled the history of the iconic newspaper with amusing anecdotes graced by great grainy archival footage.

The film was followed by a Q & A/discussion with director Rossi, producer Kate Novack, Headlam, and Stelter who all got a standing ovation.

TUGS (Dir. Jessica Edwards, 2011) / BEING ELMO (Dir. Constance Marks, 2011) This program of 2 films started with a 10 minute movie about tugboats in the New York City harbor (even including a tugboat race!) that was wonderfully shot and certainly one of the best shorts I’ve seen #fullframe, but it was overwhelmingly overshadowed by the bio doc of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer and voice of the iconic Sesame Street character Elmo.

BEING ELMO is a joyous journey through the life of a man who grew up obsessed with puppets. As a kid he built 85 of them which he perfected operating and developing voices. In 1978 he traveled to New York to meet puppeteer/designer Kermit Love who had worked on many Jim Henson productions, and that opened the door for Clash to apply for Sesame Street.

Clash went on to work on LABYRINTH, Dinosaurs, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, and many many Muppet productions, but his breakthrough, of course, came when puppeteer Richard Hunt frustratingly threw the Elmo puppet across the room to Clash and said: “See if you can come up with a voice for this thing.”

The only fault I had with the film is that it didn’t tell us about Love’s death in 2008. I mean, I can understand why so much time is spent on Henson, but according to the film, Love was Clash’s true mentor.

Anyway, the audience loved the movie, laughing at all the right places and aww-ing at every cute Muppet that popped up on screen, but they went nuts when a man holding what was obviously Elmo ran up and danced in front of the street during the credits. That’s right – Kevin Clash and Elmo were there!

This was great news for everyone in attendance except for TUGS director Jessica Edwards who stood alone on one side of the screen while everybody was wrapped up in Clash, and the BEING ELMO film makers (including director Constance Marks). Edwards only got one question, and looked fairly unfazed, but the Full Frame folks really ought to have given the Elmo doc, which was nearly feature length at 76 minutes, its own slot and programmed TUGS with a different short film – one that doesn’t involve an iconic character loved the world over.

SCENES OF A CRIME (Dirs. Grover Babcock & Blue Hadaegh, 2011) This film, about a man accused of abusing his 4 month old baby, can be unpleasant to sit through, but its a stirring inquiry into wrongful interrogation techniques. Using large portions of a ten hour video made by the detectives of their interrogation of the man (Adrian Thomas) who repeatedly declares his innocence, the film presents viewpoints from psychiatrists, jurors, and the cops themselves about the difficult situation.

There’s also excerpts from a troubling police training video: “The Reid Technique,” which hammers home the scenario in which a man might plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit. SCENES FROM A CRIME is a fascinating thought provoking film, and well deserving of the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award it won on Sunday.

MAGIC TRIP (Dirs. Alison Ellwood & Alex Gibney, 2011)

I’ve found the films of Alex Gibney (ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY) to be fine, but a bit flashy and formulaic at times – sexying up material when it doesn’t need to be sexied up. However, that style works wonders here as he takes rough old film of the infamous Merry Pranksters from their 1964 road trip across America, and shapes it into cohesive invigorating narrative.

It’s a buzz to see color footage of counter culture God Ken Kesey (author of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” if you don’t know) dancing around, talking a mile-a-minute, with Neal Cassady (inspiration for the Character of Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”), and an assorted gang of freaks with monikers such as “Zonker”, “Hardly Visible”, and “Stark Naked” living it up on the eve of the ’60s revolution. Injesting every substance they can find, they make the trip in a school bus painted and re-painted in psychedelia, and dubbed “Further.”

MAGIC TRIP is a colorful, funny, and rockin’ flick that captures its era beautifully and is sure to give audiences a cinematic contact high.

Films I saw on Sunday, April 17th:

TABLOID (Dir. Errol Morris, 2011) This was definitely the craziest film of the fest, and coming after MAGIC TRIP – that’s saying a lot. It comes from an unlikely source – famed documentarian Errol Morris (GATES OF HEAVEN, THE THIN BLUE LINE, THE FOG OF WAR, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE) – and is about a silly subject, which was called the “Mormons sex in chains case.”

Simply stated, the film is about Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen (Ms. Wyoming World), who was charged of kidnapping a Mormon missionary she used to date, after trailing him to England in 1977. Maybe it’s not so simple. McKinney claims repeatedly that they were in love and that her beau had been brainwashed by the Mormon Church, but interviews with the Daily Press’s Peter Tory and the Daily Mirror’s Kevin Gavin tell a different story.

It’s McKinney, herself, as an interview subject that makes this movie roll with her hilarious sing-songy Southern accent, and bubbly demeanor. Whether the film is showing us sordid headlines and photos of her in the ‘Me’ decade, or giving us the twisted tale of her getting involved with cloning her pit bull puppy (that’s right), she’s always got a funny line for the occasion.

At one point, McKinney says: “See if you can get the vision set in your head, Mr. Film Maker!” Morris sure nailed the vision here.

Many documentaries about the “New Hollywood” movement in the ’60s and ’70s have had small segments about the huge influence of director/producer Roger Corman, so it seems time for the man to be the star of his own career appraising bio doc. Fitting that it’s certainly the most star studded film at Full Frame; it’s filled with interviews with Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Robert De Niro, Peter Bogdonavich, and many more A-listers singing Corman’s praises.

CORMAN’S WORLD is a electrifying blast. An incredibly funny ride through drive-in movie schlock, and exploitation mayhem is at hand with a moving message about how much fun movies that don’t take themselves seriously can be.

Before JAWS and STAR WARS came along and co-opted his model with bigger budgets, Corman’s movies were the go-to choice for campy big screen entertainment, and there’s a lot of it here with dozens of clips, film stills, and garrish movie posters.

It’s those interview bits that really had me laughing like when Jack Nicholson said: “By mistake he actually made a good picture every once in a while…I was never in it, but that was as much my fault as it was the next guy’s.”

Nicholson tears up a bit towards the end of the doc when talking about Corman being his sole source of support for many years. With all this mighty evidence of a one-of-a-kind film maker who still goes against the system, I did too.

The next film was a rescreening that was announced after the Awards BBQ:

THE INTERRUPTERS (Dir. Steve James, 2011) As this was my final film of the fest I was a bit weary, but this doc still had my attention from start to finish. James (HOOP DREAMS) presents the passionate mission of the “Violence Interrupters” – members of the Chicago based organizion CeaseFire.

Employing an intervention strategy intended to halt the huge amount of gun violence affecting the community, the project appears to be making strides, although in many instances in this film, the efforts can feel profoundly futile.

It’s a long film (144 minutes), but James makes good use of the time following well meaning members of CeaseFire like the fiercely determined Ameena Matthews, and Cobe Williams who used to be heavily involved in crime. We sit in on meetings, walk the streets, and enter the homes in Chicago danger zones, and it’s all powerfully affecting.

Okay! So that’s another Full Frame Documentary Film Festival done. There were a lot of films I didn’t see so please seek other’s coverage. That’s what I’m going to do right now, because even after seeing 20 docs over the last 4 days I’m still hungry for more.

More later…

CASINO JACK: The Film Babble Blog Review

CASINO JACK (Dir. George Hickenloper, 2011)

In his portrayal of lobbyist/businessman/sleazebag Jack Abramoff, Kevin Spacey busts out a lot of celebrity impressions. He does Walter Matthau, Al Pacino, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton among others, but while his mimicry is dead on, his performance as Abramoff never quite convinces.

Especially if you’ve seen last year’s Alex Gibney directed documentary CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY which this film is based on.

Also since Spacey has played incredibly similar slick-talking salesman types roles in films like SWIMMING WITH SHARKS, THE BIG KAHUNA, and HURLYBURLY, he is unable to capture a distinct characterization here.

But it simply may be because Spacey is miscast.

An actor doesn’t have to resemble the real life person they are cast as in order to inhabit the part (witness Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, Johnny Depp as Ed Wood, or Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel to name a few), but Spacey is so far off that the whole project never gels.

Incidentally from much of the footage and photos in the documentary, it looks like Bob Saget would’ve been a better match.

CASINO JACK glosses over a lot of juicy information in charting the downfall of the man that Time Magazine called “the man who bought Washington D.C.” Abramoff’s shady dealings involving Chinese chop shops, Native-American casinos, cruise ships, and political fraud on a massive level are best covered by Gibney’s film, as crammed with unnecessary graphics as it is.

Here with Spacey living it up on the way down joined by a wonderfully scummy Jon Lovitz (one of the movie’s highlights) as a disbarred lawyer with mob connections, and Barry Pepper as Spacey’s associate partner-in-crime, there’s a creepy feeling that the film wants us to be on Abramoff’s side.

It’s well known that Abramoff was movie obsessed and often quoted classic films, but when Spacey delivers his impeccable impressions (that you just know that Abramoff could never come close to) it makes the man too likable and distracts from the seriousness of the man’s corrupt actions.

So in conclusion, if you want to see the story of the real Jack Abramoff – see Gibney’s dense yet fascinating doc CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY (available on Netflix Instant by the way).

But if you want a flashy Kevin Spacey showcase that over simplifies the historical record for the sake of cheap laughs then CASINO JACK is the one for you.

More later…

DVD/Blu Ray Review: CLIENT 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer


It’s amazing that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer sat down for Alex Gibney’s (ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY) camera for this probing documentary.

Especially since the tagline for it is: “Money. Sex. Power. Betrayal.”

The scandalized Spitzer, often in extreme close-up, talks at length candidly, though he understandably holds back at times, about his once promising career, and it’s a bit jarring at times.

Jarring because this is no confessional – he takes responsibility for his actions and makes no excuses.

Spitzer’s interview in this detailed portrait of what led to the his downfall in 2008 when he was linked to a high scale prostitution ring is framed by a narrative told through archival stills, campaign ads, and many clips from CNN, MSNBC, and even The Colbert Report.

Gibney gets a number of Spitzer’s cronies and foes as well as journalist and producer Peter Elkind, whose book “Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” this film is based on, to also sit down to relay their stories.

One of the most lively interview subjects is Cecil Suwal – the co-owner of the Emperor’s Club VIP escort service. Her giggly demeanor helps lighten the mood of this somberly told tale saying such things as: “Okay, the governor of New York is using our service, how bad can what we’re doing be? Right?”

There’s also the interesting case of the prostitute, called “Angela” here, who Spitzer employed many times who refused to go on camera or have her voice used so an actress (Wrenn Schmidt) performs the words of the woman’s interview with Gibney.

The film is overlong and the tabloid nature of Spitzer’s scandal has been well covered so there’s not really anything amounting to a surprising revelation here, but “Client 9” is a solid and extremely thorough documentary in the ranks of Charles Ferguson’s also intensely researched INSIDE JOB (which Spitzer was also involved in).

Special features: An audio commentary with writer/director Alex Gibney, extended interviews, deleted scenes, HDNet: A Look At CLIENT 9, and the theatrical trailer.

More later…


FREAKONOMICS: THE MOVIE (Dirs. Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki, and Morgan Spurlock, 2010)

Journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt’s best selling book seems a ripe one to adapt into film, but with its simplified statements, glitzy graphics, and overall glib tone this creaking adaptation more resembles a collection of TV news magazine segments than a hard hitting documentary.

At the beginning Dubner says: “If there’s only one element that I say is there in almost everything we do, is the idea that incentives matter and if you can figure out what people’s incentives are you have a good chance in guessing how they are going to behave.”

With 6 different directors, all noted documentarians, the authors attempt to explore that thesis through contained pieces entitled: “A Roshanda By Any Other Name”, “Pure Corruption”, “It’s Not Always A Wonderful Life”, and “Can A Ninth Grader Be Bribed To Succeed?”

Seth Gordon (THE KING OF KONG) ably and amusingly links the film together with transitional segments narrated by Dubner and Levitt.

Morgan Spurlock (SUPERSIZE ME) handles the first segment (“A Roshanda…”) about whether parents’ name choices affect their path in life, and while there some good points made, the jokey nature, unnecessary employment of actors, and people on the street sound bites overshadow any actual insights. Infomercial type animation doesn’t help either.

Alex Gibney’s (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE) lengthy contribution (“Pure Corruption”) concentrating on cheating in the world of Sumo wrestling fares much better. With well edited footage, insightful interviews, and stirring statistical info, “Pure Corruption” makes a fascinating case study.

However when journalist Yorimasa Takeda in the segment opines: “I read Freakonomics and thought it gave numerical evidence of something very difficult to prove” he could be stating the problem with the entire project.

Eugene Jarecki (CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, ALL GOOD THINGS) takes on what is posited as one of the most crucial sequences of the film – “It’s Not Always A Wonderful Life” – which deals with data that ostensibly indicates that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s is one of the primary reasons that crime rates were down in the 1990s.

Jarecki’s segment makes a convincing argument, but its flashy use of cartoon framed footage just highlights that the bottom line theory just isn’t that compelling.

Likewise for Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s (JESUS CAMP) concluding segment “Can A Ninth Grader Be Bribed To Succeed”. It looks very interesting at first – the experiment of rewarding students with money for higher grades, but it doesn’t give us results that mean anything. Some kids are pushed to work harder, some aren’t. So what?

I haven’t read the book yet, but I suspect its really where to go for the detailed and engaging lowdown on this material. As a film FREAKONOMICS is an mostly unappealing stylistic mishmash with precious little educational takeaway.

Bonus Features: Additional interviews with Levitt and Dubner, directors’ commentary, producers’ commentary, and HDNet: A Look at FREAKONOMICS

More later…

Full Frame Documentary Film Fest 2010: Day Two

After blogging about the first day of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival I crashed into a deep slumber last night. So much so that I forgot to recharge both my cellphone and my camera’s batteries. Turns out that the only thing that really got recharged was me. Good thing too, because I had a particularly strong day of documentaries to take in. So let’s get to them:

CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY (Dir. Alex Gibney, 2010) The twisted path that led lobbyist/businessman/sleazebag Jack Abramoff to his current incarceration is laid out thoroughly here by noted documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON).

It’s a compelling story from Abramoff’s days as the Chairman of the College Republican National Committee, through his late 80’s production of the Dolph Lundgren action cheapie RED SCORPION (one of the funniest bits in the film) on to his tangled dealings with Chinese chop shops, Native American casinos, and cruise ships. We’re talking political corruption of the higest, er, lowest order.

Unfortunately this strong narrative is packaged in wrapping that makes it resemble a Michael Moore movie. Segments are punctuated with pop songs, scenes from classic films like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON are too obviously interspersed throughout, and unnecessary computer animation polishes up photographs. It’s a shame because Gibney has used these types of embellishments sparingly, and successfully, before, but it’s as if he thought the material needed sexing up when it really doesn’t. However there’s enough pure infotainment here to justify its 2 hour running time (most of the docs I’ve seen at the fest clock in at 90 minutes).

NO CROSSOVER: THE TRIAL OF ALLEN IVERSON (Dir. Steve James, 2010) Not being a sports fan I didn’t know anything about this film going in, but I’m really glad I picked it. HOOP DREAMS director Steve James again turns to basketball with this exploration of the racial strife surrounding professional basketball player Allen Iverson. As a fan of Iverson, James is his opening narration asks the question: “Was he an icon who stayed true to his roots, or a thug in basketball shorts?”

Produced by ESPN for their 30 For 30 series, NO CROSSOVER gives us, via brief grainy indecipherable videotape, the tale of the 1993 bowling alley altercation that made Iverson a hugely divisive figure in the communities of Hampton, Virginia then shortly the rest of the country. Former coaches, team mates, family, and friends testify about the astounding skills and sometimes brutal attitude of the budding star creating fascinating contrasts of his character. After spending four months of a 15 year sentence in a cushy country club prison, Iverson returned to the game, but his transition has been heavily stunted by past demons as he’s gone from team to team.

James’ film asks the right questions, and even if it doesn’t come up with definitive answers it’s a pointed discussion starter of an engaging documentary.


I’ll never again think the same way about the concept of “clean coal” after this globe-trotting poli doc written, produced and directed by Peter Bull and narrated by writer Jeff Goodell. Just as scarily credible as AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, this film has a good balance of opposing point of views and a calm unpretentious tone.

The camera swoops over charred landscapes of once proud mountains blasted away by major coal companies, activists fight for limitations on greenhouse gasses, and several times from different voices comes the powerful argument that the secret long term costs will severely offset the cheapness of coal that corporations wish to still exploit. Not light viewing by any means, DIRTY BUSINESS is a sharply sobering and essential experience.

Okay! After hours of political corruption, racism, and the environment I was ready for a good ole rock doc. But wait, this is no ordinary ole rock doc at all!

(Dir. Robert Patton-Spruill, 2010) Being a huge fan of the The Kinks I’ve been anxiously awaiting this film for a while. The film focuses on Geoff Edgers – a Boston Globe reporter and author of a few children’s books -who decides to shake up his life and career by trying to get his favorite band back together.

Why? Because it’s needed he tells us more than once.

He sinks his life savings into the project and comes up with a hook for each interview he conducts on his way towards the seminal British band: he asks almost everybody he encounters to sing a Kinks song with him. Some like Sting, Zooey Deschanel, and Robyn Hitchcock go along with this resulting in enjoyable covers of such classics as “You Really Got Me”, “David Watts, and “Waterloo Sunset” (which most folks say is their favorite of their catalog).

It’s a crazy concept, but it works. It’s padded with great Kinks songs, footage, and video and Edgers has a nervy edge in attempting to reconcile his heroes (the estranged brothers Ray and Dave Davies) and at times he hilariously owns up to the possible shortcomings of his endeavor in a endearing manner. It’s not really a Spoiler! to say he doesn’t succeed in his quest, but it would be to tell you how close he actually gets. I can’t say if this movie would mean anything to folks unaware of The Kinks, yet I’ll guess that as a chronicle of a musical obsession, there’s plenty of relatable passion for anybody to chew on. Everybody’s a fan of something, but how many would go to these lengths? Nice to know there’s at least this guy.

After the movie a Kinks cover band from the Triangle area, The Kinksmen, played a sweet set of their best loved material including “Picture Book”, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”, and “Low Budget”. They were accompanied for a few songs by Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple (The dB’s). Mitch Easter (Let’s Active, too many production credits to list) also joined in for a rousing rendition of “Til The End Of The Day”. It was such a cool thing to see this day of docs morph into a full throttle rock concert. Great way to end out the evening – which is what I got to do now. Another day of docs awaits tomorrow so sleep awaits momentarily. I bet I’ll sleep well tonight since I’m sure this time that all my devices are recharging.

More later…

The Film Babble Blog Top Ten Movies Of 2005

What with the Oscar nominations being announced last week, the Golden Globes, and all them magazine lists I figured it was high time I get off my ass and update this blog and list :

Film Babble Blog’s Top Ten Movies Of 2005

01 PALINDROMES (Dir. Todd Solondz) Though ignored when first released and completely forgotten this awards season I believe this film will leave more of a mark on movie lover’s psyches in years to come than crap like CRASH. Although not a sequel to WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE Solondz sets this in the same world with Weiner family values, white trash ethics, and plenty of good ole character assassination fun!

02 MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (Dir. Luc Jacquet) Yes it’s a documentary that could play any night on PBS with little fanfare and it’s a simple premise and all. but what a film-matic treat any way you look at it! And yes I just simply love penguins. It’s about time they had a movie. Okay?!!?

03 CAPOTE (Dir. Bennett Miller) One of the few deserving Oscars this year went to Philip Seymour Hoffman for his dead-on portrayal in this moving movie – respectful to the times and the crime yet unforgiving and brutal to the man in the spotlight.

04 THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (Dir. Noah Baumbach) Divorce 80’s style with parents played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney and their troubled offspring (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) – harsh but sharp with a great soundtrack (Loudon Wainwright III, Bert Jansch, and the plagiarized Pink Floyd).

05 NO DIRECTION HOME (Dir. Martin Scorsese) It was only given a small theatrical release in LA and NY but this long awaited Dylan at his prime powerhouse may be the finest rock doc ever. Period.

06 SARABAND (Dir. Igmar Bergman) Made for Swedish TV in 2003 this updating of SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (again, not a sequel) finds Johann (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullman) re-uniting after 30 years to look back over their tortured existence. Johann : “I’ve ransacked My past now that I have the answer sheet”. Heavy, man.

07 ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (Dir. Miranda July) Quirky but not cloying…and funny too.


HEAD ON (Dir. Fatih Akin)

10 ENRON (Dir. Alex Gibney) Another damn documentary but such a damn neccessary one.

More later…