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.


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…

Classic Films On The Big Screen In The Triangle Area

Prenote: This post is extremely localized about theaters in my area that show old movies so it might not appeal to some of my readers. However, I think it’s possible that out-of-towners will find some interest and may be inspired to comment about revival showings at theaters near them.

The summer season is overflowing with movie choices, but many in the Triangle may not know that there is a welcome antidote to the mind numbing “event movies” arriving weekly at the multiplexes. Favorite films from years past, both classic and cult, are being shown at a number of theaters and venues in the area alongside current releases. These screenings give moviegoers a chance to see on the big screen films they’ve loved before on television or DVD, or heard about but never seen, in all their 35 millimeter glory. Plus, they’re typically not as expensive as first run films.

Built in 1926, The Carolina Theater in Durham has a great reputation for revival shows with their popular weekend series of horror movies: “Retrofantasma” and a summer series that this year includes double features of Robert De Niro (“Taxi Driver”, “The Untouchables”), Alfred Hitchcock (“Rear Window” and “Vertigo”, Steven Spielberg (“Jaws and “Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom”)and John Belushi (“Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers”) features. “Retrofantasma”, billed as “a joyful jolt of terror and nostalgia”, has a dedicated audience for a roster ranging from “Silent Night, Bloody Night” to the tongue in cheek “Clue”. They may be scratchy old prints for the most part, but there’s no denying the thrill of seeing famous film history writ large.

Located in North Raleigh, The Colony Theater caters to the cult crowd; the kids who grew up on Lucas and Spielberg but leaned towards Tarentino and Lynch as they matured. “Cool Classics @ The Colony” has showcased a multitude of films with fanatic followings such as “Purple Rain”, “Eraserhead”, “Pulp Fiction” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. After 3 successful years they are starting a new series: “Cinema Overdrive” which will feature far out and obscure oddities like “Death Race 2000” (starring the recently deceased David Carradine) and Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels”.

Colony Theater General Manager Denver Hill, a film buff and 35 MM film collector, said that the “Cool Classics” often “do a lot better than the usual films” as it’s been “slow for indie films lately.” Hill, who has worked for the theater since 2002, also remarked that he expected the June 16th and 17th showings of the late 90’s Coen Brothers cult classic “The Big Lebowski” to make more money than the current well reviewed Broadway documentary “Every Little Step.” “Lebowski”, is a repeat performance as Hill explains: “90% of the films have been customer requests.”

The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh offerings may be a bit more highbrow, but they are just as crowd pleasing. Over the fast few decades there have been many film festival of such icons as Woody Allen and such noted genres as “film noir”. It should be noted that they could benefit from having more than one screening in the winter when movies are shown in their auditorium; multiple times when I tried to attend showings they were sold out or only single seats remained. This is a non-issue in the summer season as they have outdoor screenings that can accommodate more people (of course, those can get rained out). This year the highlights will be a Watergate revisited weekend with “All The President’s Men” and “Frost/Nixon”, a tribute to Paul Newman with a showing of “The Sting”, and at the end of August a 70th anniversary showing of “Gone With The Wind” with an accompanying documentary “The Making Of A Legend.”

The Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, in their “Movies By Mooonlight” Summer series shows mostly movies from the last year (“Twilight”, “Kug Fu Panda”, “Iron Man”, etc.) but does offer a few older titles: “Moonstruck” and “Wait Until Dark” are showing this Summer. Be forewarned: Koka booth rarely shows 35 MM prints (the last one was 3 years ago: the legendary “The Creature From The Black Lagoon”) – the films are projected from a DVD. Still, it’s a beautiful venue and a fine evening be had with the right companion, lawn-chairs and beverages.

The Galaxy Theater in Cary often screens older films, in the last year they’ve presented an overlooked beautifully restored Charlie Chaplin film – “Monsieur Verdoux” as well as “Lawrence Of Arabia” and “Double Indemnity.” The theater, which is something of an art-house multiplex, has several popular series such as the “Undiscovered Gem Series”, the “Silver Screen Spring Series”, and like a number of local theaters, a “Kids Summer Movie Series” that runs on weekday mornings.

And for almost 20 years there’s been the Friday midnight showing of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” * at The Rialto. Via email, Ambassador Entertainment owner Bill Peeples said that “attendance is high and consistent” for the long running late show that has played “every Friday at midnight since December, 1989.” Peeples, who with the Rialto owns the Colony, Six Forks, and Mission Valley Theaters hosts “Cinema, Inc”, billed as Raleigh’s oldest and finest non-profit film society offering classic film presentations once a month on Sunday night.

With the possible closing of the Varsity and Chelsea Theaters in Chapel Hill, one might wonder if more revival screenings might have changed their fate. This spring at the Chelsea, a retrospective of director Mark Rydell (including “On Golden Pond” and “The Rose”) drew respectable crowds so it shows that there is definitely an audience for vintage cinema in this area. If the historic Varsity and Chelsea theaters are to continue operation I hope they embrace the past as they look to the future.

Post note: For more information like show-times and directions and please click on the theater’s names in the article.

* I just blogged about seeing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for the first time – read the post here.

More Later…