DVD Review: SQUARE GROUPER

SQUARE GROUPER: THE GODFATHERS OF GANJA (Dir. Billy Corben, 2011)

I missed this when it was screened last month at Full Frame so I was happy to get a copy in the mail the day after the Festival.

“Square Grouper” is the “slang term for bales of marijuana thrown overboard or out of airplanes in South Florida in the 1970s and 1980s,” this documentary tells us up front. Then we are gently taken into this exploration of Florida marijuana smuggling during that era, by way of a folksy ballad theme song that serenades the opening credits.

The film is broken into 3 chapters – the first of which, “Part 1: Zion Coptic Church,” deals with a Fundamentalist Christian sect in Florida that believed Ganja to be a sacred herb that brings them closer to God. They smuggled huge amounts of marijuana from Jamaica to their mansion (called a “luxury compound”) in Star Island, Florida.

Through newly shot interviews with former church members, neighbors, reporters, and Federal agents we learn how the sect was the target of a ginormous bust.

The second segment, “Part 2: Black Tuna Gang,” concerns another Miami marijuana operation consisting of Robert Platshorn, who served the longest prison term for a non-violent marijuana offense in US history, his partner in crime Bobby Meinster, and gang accountant Howard Blumn. One of the funniest moments here is former FBI agent Harold Copus talking about getting a subsciption to “High Times” magazine so the agents could better follow the drug trade.

A joint DEA-FBI outfit brought down the Black Tuna Gang, and the principle member’s marriages were put to the test, with Platshorn’s wife Lynne also doing jail-time. This segment has the most emotional power of the three.

The final chapter, “Part 3: Everglades City,” leaves Miami and heads to a small fishing town on Florida’s southwest coast in which “smuggling was a way of life” because the secret bayous and mangrove islands that can conceal transport activity. Just about everyone in town was involved in the operation and became very rich off the “sea weed” until, yep, the FBI and DEA swept in.

This documentary benefits from its soundtrack largely scored by Spam Allstars’ Andrew Yeomanson and the “Square Grouper” band with a few original compositions by director Corben. The music compliments the material perfectly, and fits in nicely with a concluding cover of Jimmy Buffet’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty” that Everglades City resident Lee “Leebo” Noble performs on guitar (Noble: “Even though Jimmy Buffett is a manatee-huggin’ son-of-a-bitch, we still like this song”).

Meticulously crafted from ‘70s and ‘80s TV news footage, period photographs, newspaper headlines, and many recently shot interviews, the film may be slightly overstuffed, but the juiciness of the stories is so rich, and the plain-spoken charm of most of the participants that it makes for supreme info-tainment.

In the words of a stoner: SQUARE GROUPER is killer shit.

SQUARE GROUPER is now available on DVD. According to the Netflix website it will be available streaming soon.

More later…

Advertisements

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…

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Day Two

Another day of nice weather greeted the second day of Full Frame (that may change tomorrow though). I saw a particularly strong group of documentaries today, but it got off to a rough start:

RAW MATERIAL, INDIGESTIBLE – Now, this wasn’t a movie – it was a collection of 10 film bits and fragments selected by writer/archivist Rick Prelinger. It’s part of this year’s thematic program “One Foot in the Archives,” that also included showings of BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME, STRICTLY PROPAGANDA, and THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE.

In RAW MATERIAL, Preliger would show a brief clip of, say, “an actual hobo” then provide a little commentary and take questions. He stressed that this was an exclusive showing of these films, mostly black and white films from the ’40s, because he’s “reluctant to put into the public pool” just yet. Among these “scratch transfers” were such bits as the KKK marching in a Pennsylvania parade, footage from an Illinois asylum, and a heavily-edited-for-our-safety “technique for electro-shock therapy” training film from 1951.

The films were interesting, but the audience participation part dragged with all too few insights into the use or mis-use of archival film in the ethics versus copyright debate. It was cool to see an actual hobo though.

HOW TO PICK BERRIES (Dir. Elina Talvensaari, 2010) / WHEN CHINA MET AFRICA (Dirs. Marc Francis & Nick Francis, 2010) The first of these short films is a 19 minute mediation on the culture clash in Finland due to Thai immigrants coming to co-opt their national crop of Cloudberries. It didn’t really grab me, but its transitions through ethereal imagery is striking. I get a little weary of docs just made up of still shots of nature with a voice saying supposedly profound things on top of it.

The much better second short takes a look at China’s expansion into Africa in the Aughts. We follow Chinese businessmen working with Zambian power brokers to develop relations further with farmers and road workers. The access to these people is remarkable, but some scenes seem somewhat staged. It’s a swift professionally made 75 minutes of wheeling and dealing with the scenario of Chinese colonialization compared to the British’s previous entanglement with Africans being brought up in the discussion afterward with director Nick Francis.

THE LOVING STORY (Dir. Nancy Buirski, 2011) Full Frame founder Buirski returns to the festival to premiere her debut doc, and it’s one of the best films on display. Its the emotionally powerful story of Mildred and Richard Loving – the couple involved in overturning the law in Virginia banning interracial marriage in the ’60s in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Lovings were arrested in 1958 right after being wed, and told they had to divorce or leave the state. They spent 9 years fighting the system aided by ACLU lawyers Bernie Cohen and Phillip Hirschkop. An astounding array of previously unseen footage, both black and white and color, makes up the film, along with interviews of the key players decorating the edges.

A post film Q and A moderated by Walter Dellinger featured Buirski, producer Elisabeth Haviland James, Hope Ryden (who filmed the Lovings back in the day), retired lawyer Cohen (who got a standing ovation), and daughter Peggy Loving.

Also a cool piece by local writer Glenn McDonald interviewing Buirski was in yesterday’s Raleigh News & Observer. You can read it here.

GUN FIGHT (Dir. Barbara Kopple, 2011) Kopple’s (HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A., AMERICAN DREAM, SHUT UP AND SING) moving examination on the severe state of current gun laws and gun ownership comes off like a better thought out BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. Production on the film began 4 days after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and it follows one of the students who was shot (Colin Goddard) as he campaigns for the fight to prevent gun violence for one of its fascinating strands.

We also meet former NRA spokesman Robert Feldman, emergency medical physician/gun violence researcher Garen Wintemute, and Temple University’s Dr. Amy Goldberg, all providing probing thoughts into these complicated and often contradictory issues. Kopple’s film is not anti-gun, nor pro-gun in any extreme fashion, it just wants to grasp the heart of the arguments. It left me with the debate going on in my head, and isn’t that what the best documentaries are supposed to do?

A Q & A with Kopple, Feldman, producer Marc Weiss, producer Williams Cole, editor Bob Eisenhardt, Godard, and his parents (Andrew and Anne) followed the film.

CURE FOR PAIN: THE MARK SANDMAN STORY (Dirs. Robert Bralver & David Ferino, 2011) Again, it’s time for the final slot rock doc. I know some of the music of the ’90s alternative Boston band, but never really delved deep into their discography. This film makes me want to as it’s a throbbing mix of concert footage, interviews, and TV appearances that make a convincing case for the genius of front-man Mark Sandman.

I always wondered what really went down when Sandman died during a performance in Italy in 1999, and this film touchingly tells me. CURE FOR PAIN doesn’t break any new ground for music docs, but it’s a excellent portrait of a man who believed he only needed a 2-string bass slide bass guitar, a sultry vocal, drums, and a baritone sax to make incredible music. And he was right.

My only complaint was that a lot of the material used was of fuzzy deteriorated VHS video (like from Late Night With Conan O’Brien and The Jon Stewart Show of which you know better quality versions exist. However, as a friend said “Morphine was always a very lo-fi band.”

There was a Q & A after, but I was fading fast so I left to drive back to Raleigh and write this. Please check back for coverage of days 3 & 4.

More later…

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Day One

Well, it’s that time of year again – time for the 14th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in, and around the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham.

Of course, I’m only gonna be able to see a very small amount of the 100 or so films over the 4-day run of the fest, but I think I’ve made some good choices.

Here’s what I saw today:

EVERYBODY’S NUTS (Dir. Fabian Euresti, 2010) This 14 minute short concerns immigrant farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Oil has contaminated the water supply, and worker’s lives as well as livelihoods are threatened. Over still shots of the terrain, the film’s auteur Euresti, who hails from the Californian area, plainly narrates. His conclusion that tells us that the title doesn’t mean what we think it does is affecting, but the film is too vague to fully engage. It’s spare length is thinking in the right direction though.


HARVEST/LA COSECHA (Dir. U. Roberto Romano, 2011) Also about immigrant workers, this close to full length feature (80 minutes) has the opposite problem – it’s overlong, repetitive, and a bit strained. Still, its story of 3 child laborers who spend more time in the fields picking crops than in their classrooms, is expertly filmed with a lot of genuine heart. The film makers including Romano, and EVERYBODY’S NUTS director Euresti were on hand at a Q & A following. An audience member made a great point about photos and text that appeared in the end credits of HARVEST of former child laborers who’ve gone on to have successful lives. The film maker interestingly agreed that it sent the wrong message and wants that element removed.

HOW TO DIE IN OREGON (Dir. Peter Richardson, 2011)

A truly great documentary about an extremely painful and controversial subject – Oregon’s “Death With Dignity Act” which allows physician assisted suicide. Richardson, who appeared at an after film Q & A, aims his lenses at several patients dealing with disease who’ve made the decision to take their lives.

The film is dominated by Cody Curtis, a 54-year old mother of two, who is suffering from liver cancer. Curtis’s aplomb, and her intense yet sharp questioning of her situation leads to some heavy philosophical moments, but more to heavy tears. I’ve never heard more people sob at a movie before, and I have to admit my eyes weren’t dry either.

There are times that it felt like maybe Richardson’s camera was being too intrusive, but the director touched upon that in his comments afterwards, and his handling of the heartbreaking conclusion is admirable. Look for this when it airs on HBO this summer.

GUILTY PLEASURES (Dir. Julie Moggan, 2010) A light fluffy, but very funny film that revels in the world of romance novels. It focuses on a British author (Roger Sanderson) who writes under the name Gill Anderson, book cover model Stephen Muzzonigro, a woman in India (Shumita Didi Singh), a Japanese woman (Hiroko Honmo), and a Warrington woman (Shirley Davies) who all may be too immersed in the fantasies they read.

It’s amusingly edited with a lot of great quotes such as Sanderson’s “marriage is the price men pay for sex, and sex is the price women pay for marriage.” The audience appeared to love model Muzzonigro the most – his new age speak, the foodgasms he has everytime he eats, and the air-headed way he carries himself, all went over endearingly. When the man appeared with director Moggan for the following Q & A, moderated by “Big Fish” author Daniel Wallace, the applause was deafening.

WHO TOOK THE BOMP? LE TIGRE ON TOUR (Dir. Kerthy Fix, 2010)

The final slot of the night is a great one for a rock documentary (or rockumentary, if you will), and this is a great one.


Kerthy Fix, who last year presented the festival with the excellent STRANGE POWERS: STEPHIN MERRITT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS, molded this tight 72 minute film out of 60 hours of concert footage filmed by the band’s lighting designer Carmine Covelli. Not knowing much about Le Tigre, I was fascinated by their energy and politics – founder Kathleen Hanna describes them as “a self consciously feminist band” – and loved how full songs were included albeit edited together from different concerts. Fix did Q & A duty after the movie.

WHO TOOK THE BOMP? is going to have an outdoor encore presentation at Durham Central Park, Saturday, April 16th at 8:30 PM. No ticket is required as it’s free admission.

Okay! Well, that’s all for now. It was a fine opening day of documentaries – the only complaint I have is that they need a new animated film to play before the features. They’ve been using the same one the last few years and I’m tired of it.

More later…

DO IT AGAIN: The Film Babble Blog Review

DO IT AGAIN: ONE MAN’S QUEST TO REUNITE THE KINKS
(Dir. Robert Patton-Spruill, 2010)

I wrote about this film briefly before in my coverage of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last month, but I thought that it deserved more blogspace because #1: it is currently making the film fest rounds in hopes of finding a buyer, and #2 because it’s truly a wonderful film. Boston Globe reporter and writer of a few children’s books, Geoff Edgers, turns what could’ve been another conversational throwaway – “hey, wouldn’t it be great if I could personally get my favorite band back together?” – into a funny visual diary of his said crazy yet understandable quest.

Director Robert Patton-Spruill follows Edgers around as he makes phone calls, takes interviews, and neurotically obsesses over whether this is a worthwhile project. The object of his obsession is the rock band The Kinks, a band thought to be in the third tier after the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in terms of the 60’s British Invasion. The Kinks haven’t recorded or toured since the mid 90’s with infamous tales of sibling rivalry between the brothers Ray and Dave Davies being the suspected cause of their split after 32 years together.

Edgers, with his easy going charisma, breaks this down for us with clips, photos, and song snippets, but the title makes it clear that this is no band bio doc. That’s just background for Edgers’ quasi adventure that would definitely be a lot shorter if he was able to get Ray Davies on the phone right off the bat. Instead he goes to visit with Kinks influenced musicians including Robyn Hitchcock, Paul Weller (The Jam), and Peter Buck (R.E.M.). There’s a side gimmick to Edger’s premise, he tries to get these participants to sing a Kinks song with him.

Winding in and out of these interviews are bits of Edgers in mind numbing proof reading sessions at his newspaper gig and sulking as he discusses finances with his wife. Maybe, as some have said, these are the motions of a mid life crisis, but Edgers appears to know this and his enthusiasm and sense of humor overcomes this concern. Filmed on a ladder as he’s cleaning the gutters of his roof, Edgers complains about subpar bands that have reunited: “Styx, Flock of Seagulls, the fucking Eagles!” His disgust is amusing, yet moving – who hasn’t been pissed off at overflowing mediocrity while quality art is often hiding in obscurity. “Man, the Eagles!” Edgers says again, still cleaning out the rooting leaves from his roof’s gutter.

The film is packed with Kinks songs so if you don’t know them going in, you’re sure to have somewhat of an appreciation for them when you leave. Several of the interviewees refuse to sing along with Edgers, but Zooey Deschanel, Robyn Hitchcock, and Sting are game so loose charming versions of such classics as “You Really Got Me”, “Set Me Free”, “David Watts, and “Waterloo Sunset” are performed.

In a moment of desperation, when Ray Davies proves grandly elusive, Edgers flies to England to attend a Kinks convention at which the front man has been known to make surprise appearances. To go on further would be a Spoiler! – don’t get me wrong, one should know going in that Edgers doesn’t reunite the Kinks, but he does score an incredibly touching interview with a key player that puts his quest into perspective.

Edgers may go down in pop culture history as the biggest Kinks fan ever for this effort, which I bet he’d love, but there’s a lot more going on here. There’s an inspiring lesson about abandoning fear and focusing on one dream – no matter how impossible or stupid others may tell you it is. DO IT AGAIN is a delicious documentary that usurps the Michael Moore model of a one man mission movie to make something more personal and then rock out with it. It’s also the one documentary I demand to see a sequel to – I mean, the quest has just begun – right, Geoff?

Postnote: I should say that I’m a huge Kinks fan which makes me a bit biased here, but still think many will get a lot out of this film. Also, unlike writer and star Geoff Edgers, I actually saw the Kinks live back in 1993 at Rocky’s – a sports bar in Charlotte N.C. (!) Edgers told me he had a recording of this show in his collection – with hope one day he’ll make me a copy.

More later…

Full Frame Documentary Film Fest 2010: Days Three & Four

I believe that for this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival at the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham, NC (in case you haven’t tuned in lately) I made much better picks of what to see than in previous years – all of the movies I saw out of the available 101 were worthwhile. Some, of course, more than others as this round-up of films from the last 2 days should tell you.

Oh yeah – please visit my recaps of Day One and Day Two.

Films I Saw On Saturday – Day Three:

WASTE LAND (Dirs. Lucy Walker with Co-Directors Karen Harley & João Jardim)


The old saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is taken to new limits with the art of Vik Muniz. Muniz, a Brazilian sculptor and photographer, is captured by the film makers as he embarks upon a new project involving Jardim Gramacho – the world’s largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. His plan is to create massive portraits of the individual pickers who work at the landfill out of the recyclable materials they gather.

Muniz’s subjects appear to be lifted, albeit briefly, out of the squalor they live in through the process. It would be tempting to say that this film roots around in the garbage too much, but it’s actually a very measured and inspiring break-down of unique artistic methods rounded out by the moving stories of the “catadores.” The moments of creation are enhanced by absorbing time-lapse shots and a pulsating soundtrack mostly composed of Moby tracks.

STONEWALL UPRISING (Dirs. Kate Davis & David Heilbroner, 2010) Despite having no footage and only 6 photos of the incident, one gets a good sense of the 1969 Stonewall riots’ vast importance to the gay rights movement. As one of the interviewees posits, it was actually more of an uprising than a riot when a large group of patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York, fought back against police raids.

Recreations and era period pictures help get us there visually, but it’s the anecdotal evidence given by people who were there, surprisingly including former NYC Mayor Ed Koch (then a congressman), that makes the thing tick. It’s an essential educational experience – from the disturbing yet funny anti-homosexual propaganda films of the 50’s that set the suppressed scene to the first gay pride parades that stemmed from Stonewall, there is much to take home from this well crafted documentary.

AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2010)

Another highly anticipated film of the festival featuring the work of Spalding Gray – an actor, monologist, and performance artist who committed suicide in 2004. Gray tells his own story here in this collection made up largely of transferred videotape recordings edited together expertly in the stream of consciousness style of his acclaimed spoken word pieces.

Eschewing celebrity interview testimonials and time-line conventions, an arc nonetheless forms as the clips are presented chronologically as Gray verbally illustrates his upbringing through to his years on stage. Gray often spoke of suicide in his performances giving the film an underlining context that is not betrayed by easy denotations. In other words, you want to know the biographical facts go to Wikipedia; you want to see excellent examples of his talent – see this very funny and emotionally engrossing movie.

STRANGE POWERS: STEVEN MERRIT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS (Dirs. Kerthy Fix & Gail O’Hara, 2010) Like Arcade Fire’s MIROIR NOIR filled the same slot last year, it seems that the Saturday night 10 PM shift of the Festival is a great space for an indie rock doc. Oh, sorry – in his introduction of the film, Merge Records co-founder and Superchunk front-man Mac McCaughan spoke of Steven Merritt’s fervent dislike of the term “indie rock” so let’s just say, uh, art pop?

Well, whatever you call it you get a good sampling of it along with the zippily told tale of Merritt and collaborator Claudia Gonson’s rise in the ranks of hipster approval. This bio doc does contain celebrity praises interspersed – best of which is author Neil Gaiman’s description of Merrit’s demeanor (based on a magazine interview he read): “He made Lou Reed look like Lil Orphan Annie.” Merritt’s ornery acidic aura gives the film, especially the concert scenes, an edge many rock docs would envy. And by the way, if you don’t own any Magnetic Fields your record collection is severely lacking.

Films I Saw On Sunday – Day Four:

THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS (Dirs. Judith Ehrich & Rick Goldsmith, 2009)

This was a complete eye opener – I’d heard of Daniel Ellsberg and his leaking of classified documents pertaining to the Vietnam war many times before, but I had no inkling of the full idealogical and controversial impact of the man’s actions. In the 1960’s Ellsberg was a military analyst despondent about the direction of the war in Vietnam.

After much deliberation he made copies of the vast files and floated them to a contact at the New Yorks Times after failing to spark the interest of several Senators. The infamous Oval Office tapes reveal President Nixon’s profane displeasure at the situation and attempts to halt publication. When Ellsberg was revealed to be the source of the Papers, a reporter asked if he was willing to to jail for what he had done. “Wouldn’t you go to jail to stop a war?” was his reply. A film of startling conscience and gripping resolve,
THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN… (a phrase that came from Henry Kissinger) is one of the best poli-docs I’ve ever seen. The audience around me seemed to think so too with cheers and many audible emotional responses throughout.

One of the directors, Rick Goldsmith, was on hand for a insightful Q & A. He was greeted with a standing ovation – the first he said he’s gotten for a screening at which Daniel Ellsberg himself didn’t attend.

A FILM UNFINISHED (Dir. Yael Hersonski, 2009) A harrowing display of a recently found reel of film taken of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. The film was shot by producers of Nazi propaganda (sort of like in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS but without the glamour).

The stark images can be difficult to view – corpses lie in the street, emaciated children dressed in rags, overcrowded tenement houses, and terrified eyes fill every frame. It’s all structured around color segues of a re-enacted interrogation of one of the original cameramen.

A documentary to appreciate instead of enjoy as per Festival Director of Programming Sadie Tillery’s introduction of the film, it’s a vital piece of celluloid connective tissue that brings already thoroughly covered history once again into sharper view.

FREEDOM RIDERS (Dir. Stanley Nelson, 2010)

A chapter of the Civil Rights Era that has gone oddly unsung is lovingly recreated via black and white footage, photographs, newspaper headlines, and scores of interviews with the core participants. The Freedom Riders were determined to challenge the Jim Crow laws of the deep South by taking 2 interstate buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans.

That the violent resistance they encountered in Alabama, then later Mississippi, doesn’t deter them is astounding. With stirring storytelling, from especially Robert F. Kennedy’s assistant at the time, John Seigenthaler, and perfectly crafted structure, this, like STONEWALL UPRISING, is another essential educational experience that everybody must see.

Alright! Another Full Frame Documentary Film Festival over with. The films I saw were just a small percentage of what was shown so I urge you to seek out other coverage. Especially since I missed a number of highly touted offerings like PELADA, ROADS TO MEMPHIS, and HOW TO FOLD A FLAG. Now I’m off for a Vegas vacation – will try to keep posting though, so please check back in.

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.

DIRTY BUSINESS: CLEAN COAL AND THE BATTLE FOR OUR ENERGY FUTURE (Dir. Peter Bull, 2009)

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!

DO IT AGAIN: ONE MAN’S QUEST TO REUNITE THE KINKS
(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…

Full Frame Documentary Film Fest 2010: Day One


“4 days, 6 screens, 101 films”, that’s how Director of Programming Sadie Tillery sums up the 13th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival which commenced today at the Carolina Theater in Durham. I just returned home after the first day of the event and am pretty exhausted, but not too tired to tell you a little about the movies I attended. Here they are:

THE WOBBLIES (Dirs. Stewart Bird & Deborah Shaffer, 1979) This older title concerning the story of a radical labor union in the early 20th century seemed like a good way for me to kick off the festival. Their official title was “The Industrial Workers of the World” (IWW) but they gained the nickname “the Wobblies” because an Asian worker was quoted as saying he belonged to the “I. Wobble. Wobble.” Adopting socialist platforms and employing many members of minority groups, “the Wobblies” were extremely controversial, but fondly remembered by the elderly participants interviewed in this film. There are many great quotes and funny examples of era propaganda but the documentary, as heavily researched as it is, feels not completely fleshed out. Its goal of showing that these folks were never as dangerous as their mug shots made them look is admirable but a bit simplistic. Still, it’s a fairly fine and informative film.

LAST TRAIN HOME (Dir. Lixin Fan, 2009)


The directorial debut of Lixin Fan, the associative producers of UP THE YANGTZE which this film stylistically resembles, this is far from a conventional documentary. It’s shot more like a drama with no narration and the subjects rarely acknowledging the camera. The opening titles tell us the about the largest migration of humans on earth: the millions of workers returning home for Chinese New Year celebrations every year. Centered on a family struggling to get train tickets for the journey while dealing with their fractured family ties. Qin Zhang, their sullen teenage daughter, is particularly caught in the middle as she drops out of school in order to work – a decision that doesn’t wear well with her parents. Lushiously shot and well crafted, LAST TRAIN HOME is an absorbing viewing that only suffers from one too many slow whistful shots of Qin starring out over the landscape.

THUNDER SOUL (Dir. Mark Landsman, 2010)

A real winner – a marvelous musical entry about the Kashmere Stage Band, formed by a large group of Houston, Texas high school students in their band class in the early 70’s. Led by their charismatic music teacher, Conrad “the Prof” Johnson, the all black band wins awards, records, and tours across the country and overseas before disbanding in 1978 basically because they graduated. Fast paced editing takes us inside a dizzying collage of footage, photographs, and most importantly beat after beat of primo funk music. We see the scattered members come together after 30 years to dust off their instruments to pay tribute to their beloved leader, which might make it sound like a rhythm and soul version of MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS but it’s got too much of its own groove for that. Rousing, touching, and often hilarious, THUNDER SOUL is definitely one to seek out.

Director Landsman was on hand for a Q & A after the screening, giving a few extra insights into the film and to inform us that the Kashmere Stage Band are still out there lining up future gigs.

THE KINGS OF PASTRY (Dirs. Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker, 2009)


Documentary God D.A. Pennebaker (DON’T LOOK BACK, MONTEREY POP, THE WAR ROOM) is a festival regular who helped put Full Frame on the map, so it’s ideal for he and his longtime collaborator Chris Hegedus’s newest film to make it’s US premiere here, especially on opening night. It’s a elegantly quirky examination of a pastry competition -the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman in France) in which 16 chefs try to outdo one another constructing elaborate cake creations. Jacquy Pfeiffer, who appeared after the film to answer questions with Pennebaker and Hegedus, its the film’s main focus as he flies from his home in Chicago obsessing the whole way about winning.

It’s extremely amusing that there’s so much pure tension, so much so that the audience gasped loudly several times, in a movie about pastry presentation. It’s a very pleasing platter of a documentary – the only thing that I disliked was that I hadn’t eaten before seeing it. With all the delicious looking treats on display throughout the film that wasn’t a good idea. Then I remember that earlier in the day they had given out a nice little sampling of chocolates from Pfeiffer’s French Pastry School to the press! Gotta rate the film a bit higher now come to think of it.

Please tune in tomorrow for Day Two of my coverage of Full Frame. Now I better go rest up for it.

More later…

Stomaching The Provocative Doc FOOD INC.

FOOD INC. (Dir. Robert Kenner, 2008)

I was sad to miss this film at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival earlier this year so I’m glad to see it get distribution and play in my area. As an examination in three parts of American agricultural food production, it’s an eye opening and insightful look into the disturbing conditions under which animals are bred by factories while genetically engineered produce is the grocery store norm. Much of this material is familiar; Richard Linklater’s FAST FOOD NATION (2006), a comedy drama featuring Greg Kinnear and based on Eric Schlosser’s best selling 2000 book, covered the dark side of the fast food industry with a number of the same bullet points made. Schlosser produces and co-narrates FOOD INC. with author and activist Michael Pollan and they give us a much fuller picture than FAST FOOD NATION with the direct concise expert breakdown this subject requires.

Despite many disgusting shots with nauseating descriptions of inhuman practices, this film isn’t about grossing you out. Many folks will avoid it with that fear, but FOOD INC. is overwhelmingly concerned with the politics behind our food choices. Schlosser states: “When you go through the supermarket there is a illusion of diversity. So much of our industrial food turns out to be rearrangements of corn.” That’s just one of many valuable lessons to be found as we see hidden camera footage that was shot by actual employees at the world’s largest slaughterhouse and see cows being fed corn while standing in their own manure at the biggest cattle yards in the country.

Again, a lot of folks want to be the dark about where their food comes from so an audience may be hard to come by for this fierce film. Sure ignorance may be bliss, but an education on the politics of the food we eat that should not be ignored. It’s not an anti-meat movie either – the end credits are filled, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH-style, with suggestions for better healthy eating and “become a vegetarian” isn’t one of the tips so rest assured carnivores! Maybe the question isn’t of an audience, but the ‘right’ audience for this film – a special showing at the Colony Theater last weekend raised over $2,250 for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle which will bring wholesome food and essential kitchen equipment to needy families in the area. As it continues its theatrical run with other fundraisers and events planned to promote it, it’s sure to build the right audience. And that audience probably won’t be buying a large, buttered popcorn to go with it.

More later…

Taking In Yet Another New Doc But For A Crucial Cause

After the Full Frame Documentary Film Fest earlier this month, one might think I’d be documentaried out but I found myself just a few days later again in a theater in the morning about to watch, yep, another documentary. This was a different deal though – a friend who works for Ipas, an international organization working to protect women’s health and reproductive rights, invited me to the Lumina theater for a screening of their new 20 minute film NOT YET RAIN (Dir. Lisa Russell, 2009).

The title comes from an African proverb: “Thunder is not yet rain”, with the focus being on the trials of pregnant Ethiopian women in 2006 despite that a law was just passed that expanded the conditions under which they can seek safe abortions. Interviews, village footage, as well as some almost too close for comfort film explaining procedures, offer many insights into the conditions and ex periences of these troubled women. Russell, who previously made a short film in 2005 about Nigerian AIDS activists (WE WILL NOT DIE LIKE DOGS), effectively portrays these people’s plight – especially Aster’s (seen below with director Russell), an older woman who lost her daughter because of an abortion done by an unskilled provider.
NOT YET RAIN, which premiered in Washington D.C.on April 7th, is a very well made and compelling film that only has the fault of being too short. A feature length film could be made of this material and I hear that may happen, but until then I urge folks to seek it out. You can view it or order a DVD on the official website here.

More later…