Thursday, April 29, 2010


(Dirs. Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey, 2009)

It was a bit of a surprise that this was nominated by the Academy for Best Animated Feature Film of last year, because in the current computerized cartoon climate it looks distinctly out of place with its old school hand drawn design. THE SECRET OF KELLS concerns a curious kid (voiced by Evan McGuire) in the 9th century living in the Monastery of Kells. His stern uncle, Abbott Callach (Brenden Gleason) fearing Viking attack, forbids him to leave the protective walls enclosing them and venture into the mystic forest. Of course, that's where he's gonna go - especially now inspired by the elderly Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) who requires the boy's help to finish his mighty magical book.

Our intrepid lad journeys into the glowing lush forest to gather berries for ink and meets a playful yet spooky fairy - Aisling (voice of Christen Moony). She guides and aids the boy also adding some cryptic warnings. Moony breathes considerable life into the piece, that is until she starts to sing (thankfully there's just one song). The pace is tight as it winds through its earnest storytelling, but unfortunately the flat look of its animation, and the fact that its chosen style makes it look like The Powerpuff Girls gone green, detract greatly from the earnest sincerity and its otherwise stable sense of wonder. Its admirable nobility is what got it Oscar nominated, but its lack of tension and grip to its tale, elements that the winner UP had in spades, left it deservedly on the sidelines. At least since it has no thematic intensity, it's one you don't have to fear about taking the kids to, unless you fear that they'll fall asleep.

Don't consider this a complete pan though. THE SECRET OF KELLS does contain a lot of pretty imagery and the story is fairly solid, I just wish it had more

Speaking of needing more oomph:

CITY ISLAND (Dir. Raymond De Felitta, 2010)

Nearly every member of the Rizzo family, a working class Bronx family, has a secret. Father and correctional officer (he hates being called a prison guard) Andy Garcia is taking acting classes which he doesn't tell his wife (Julianna Margulies) about, causing her to believe he's having an affair. Their daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is working as a stripper at a sleazy club because she got kicked out of her first year of college. Their wise-cracking son (Ezra Miller) has a fetish for overweight women and is eyeing their next door neighbor (Carrie Baker Reynolds) who just happens to have a website catering to people who, uh, have fetishes for overweight women.

Also add to the mix Steven Strait, Andy Garcia's long-lost-just-out-of-prison son, who, of course, Garcia hasn't told anybody about - not even Strait knows he's Garcia's son. Garcia brings him into their home and then we fret as his wife and daughter are attracted to him - something that could have been avoided if he just told them the situation. This movie is something that could be avoided in one swift family meeting. As it goes each scene is a joke on the scene before it and not a very well timed or funny joke. The addition of Alan Arkin as a crusty acting teacher (at least he's not a quipping grandparent who dies in the last third) just confirms the contrived and quirky nature of this tired material.

At one point, Garcia gets an audition for a Martin Scorsese film (don't worry - Scorsese wisely doesn't appear). Only his acting partner Emily Mortimer, who yes, he didn't tell his family about, knows this and encourages him. These scenes are sort of sweet as Garcia has a believability about him and Mortimer makes the most of an underwritten (and unnecessary) role. If the sitcom sensibility and overreaching comic tone could have been dropped and the characters were given room to be people and not sketch premise devices, CITY ISLAND could've really been something other than just a watchable throwaway.

More later...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Few Random Blu Ray Reviews

BIGGER THAN LIFE (Dir. Nicholas Ray, 1956)

Missing in action from the home video scene, Nicholas Ray's disturbing domestic drama is finally released on Blu ray and DVD. Starring James Mason as a cultured school teacher and family man, it concerns his downward spiral from abusing the prescribed drug cortisone. Mason begins taking the drug because of painful attacks and at first all is peachy - his strength and energy increases as does his intense focus. This escalates into psychosis scaring his wife (Barbara Rush) and son (Christopher Olsen) into submission until they realize it's gotten out of hand.

Mason (who also co-wrote and co-produced) delivers a performance that is a tour de force; it's remarkable work coming from an actor who specializes in suavity - even his iconic flustered Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's LOLITA is more a study in restraint than this character. The film moves with Mason aesthetically evolving from brightly colored small town tranquility into dark shadowy behind closed doors oppression.

Its ending is a bit too pat but BIGGER THAN LIFE is a movie milestone now restored to a proper place in the cinematic canon thanks to the Criterion Collection. Insightful featurettes from author Jonathan Lethem ("Motherless Brooklyn"), the director's widow Suzanne Ray, commentary by critic Geoff Andrew, and a half hour interview with Ray from the 70's (which is mostly about REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) make for a great package for this all too long absent near masterpiece.

COCOON (Dir. Ron Howard, 1985) A ton of older titles are hitting Blu ray every day it seems which can be a good excuse to revisit forgotten films. However, In the case of this film the pristine picture quality hinders rather than enhances the dated special effects and its other cheesy attributes. Being about a group of seniors who stumble upon a fountain of youth in the form of a swimming pool which happens to have ancient alien cocoons resting in its water, this movie appeared to exist so that there could be at least one sci-fi film in the 80's that you could take your grandparents to.

Don Ameche (who won the Oscar for his role), Hume Cronyn, and Wilford Brimley (who was only 51 at the time) are the old timers who find the inside pool located on property rented by Brian Dennehy as the leader of the visiting aliens disguised as humans. The aliens hire Steve Guttenberg, taking a break from the POLICE ACADEMY series, and his boat to help them move the cocoons. Meanwhile the old folks (including Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton, and Gwen Verdon) show off their new youthful power in a standard era montage - one of many hammy scenes that made me wish this film remained in the dusty VHS section of my mind.

Watching it again after all these years, it looks like Howard too closely followed Spielberg's alien handbook - when revealed as the generic glowing loose-limbed life forms that became the norm after CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, a good deal of the charm and fun is drained from the project. Likewise for big reveal of the alien's mother ship too.

Some of its corny charm is still there, but COCOON is really just a footnote from a period populated by much better fantasy film offerings. It's by no means a classic, shiny Blu ray notwithstanding. Among the ample special features that ignore this, there's a trailer for COCOON: THE RETURN which is more than I want to see of one of the most unnecessary sequels ever again.

WONDERFUL WORLD (Dir. Joshua Goldin, 2009)

Much like John Cusack, the work of Matthew Broderick over much of the last decade has suffered from weak material. So it's great to report that his film is Broderick's strongest film since ELECTION. Broderick plays a former children's folk music star that lives a sorry existence as a cynical divorced man toiling in jobs he believes are beneath him. When his roommate (Michael K. Williams - Omar from
The Wire) falls ill and needs hospitalization, Broderick contacts his family back in Senegal. Sanaa Lathan arrives as Williams' sister and a romance blooms between her and Broderick.

WONDERFUL WORLD could be seen as a more accessible version of THE VISITOR - an over educated socially withdrawn white man meets a foreign woman who re-ignites his spark while they both try to help a brother in need with culture clashes becoming revelations. It may be predictable in parts, but this is a film with a lot of heart and just the right amount of comic edge to make it satisfyingly worthwhile.

More later...

Monday, April 26, 2010

GREENBERG: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2010)

"I'm really trying to do nothing for a while", Robert Greenberg (Ben Stiller) says repeatedly throughout this low key independent film that matches his nothing scene by scene. Stiller's acerbic misanthropic New Yorker title character is house-sitting for his brother (Chris Medina) in LA and starts and stops, and starts and stops again, an awkward romance with Greta Gerwig as his brother's personal assistant.

That's basically it plot wise. It's a series of scenes in which we cringe anticipating how exactly Stiller will socially sabotage every given situation. And that really doesn't make for entertaining movie going.
It seemed so promising at first. The possibilities of tapping into Stiller's talent for comic anger without cheap laughs, a la what PUNCH DRUNK LOVE did for Adam Sandler, could make for a iconic assessment, but the discomfort that supporting cast members Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh (who is credited for the story - a baffling credit since there barely is one) convey is contagious.

Greenberg, the character, is simply not interesting. He was once a musician that botched a record deal for his band that he's never owned up to, and his so called friends barely tolerate him. He writes complaint letters to every commercial institution that he comes across from American Airlines to Starbucks. And now he can't figure out if he wants to pursue a relationship with a 26 year old woman who is also floating through life with no direction. You'd think that she'd see that this guy is just an asshole and move on, but maybe there's some actual realism there.

Realism may be the film's problem. I mean, Greenberg all too well reminds me of former friends who I stopped hanging out with because they were way too negative and boring. Many of Stiller's jerk wad exchanges just brought to mind the many times I disgustedly hung up the phone with such folk. When I realized halfway through that this guy was never going to change and there was no point to this slice of his dull life I want to hang up with the movie.

Underwritten and un-affecting; it's a charmless movie about a charmless man. It has echoes of James L. Brook's AS GOOD AS IT GETS which similarly dealt with a socially inept curmudgeon begrudgingly accepting love. That film though had more witty life to it - GREENBERG just sits there. Oh, I should say that Baumbach tries to combat the underlining nothing with a desperate party sequence with snarky kids, drugs, and loud music in the last third.

I like the work of Noah Baumbach a lot more than say Armond White, but here this particular spotlight on self absorption really needed more going for it than just these bare bones slightly spruced up with James Murphy's (LCD Soundsystem) soundtrack (which isn't bad actually).

When asked how he's doing early on, Stiller quips: "Fair to middling, Leonard Maltin would give me 2 and 1/2 stars." If I used a star rating I'd be way less generous.

More later...

Thursday, April 22, 2010


(Dir. Niels Arden Oplev, 2009)

Now making its way through the states, this stylish Swedish thriller based on the bestselling novel by Stieg Larsson, was the top grossing European film of last year. With its effective and engrossing pacing, it's easy to see why. Michael Nyqvist stars as a financial magazine reporter who accepts an intriguing job offer to investigate a 40 year old disappearance right after he loses a libel suit against a corrupt industrial magnate (Stefan Sauk).

The missing person is a young girl - the great niece of Henrik Vanger played by the contrite Sven-Bertil Taube, a wealthy businessman highly suspicious of the dark ties in his family to the Nazi party.

"Who do you suspect?" Nyqvist asks Taube on a walk through his island estate. "Nobody. And everybody. That's where you come into the picture." Taube replies in an appropriately hushed tone.

Meanwhile, the title's namesake - a punk attired woman in her early 20's, Noomi Rapace, has been hacking into Nyqvist's computer doing her own parallel investigation. She is able to break down a code in the missing girl's journal and she emails it to him. He tracks her down and before you know they are working together on the case - studying photographs, going through old records, and bit by bit piecing together the sordid murder puzzle that leads down more than one twisted path.

Rapace has a mysterious unspoken past involving crimes and mental institutions that have obviously toughened her up - her revenge against a sexually abusive appointed guardian (Peter Andersson) shows us this in disturbing detail. The elaborate dragon tattoo on her back isn't really significant except as an identifier; indeed the film's international title is MILLENIUM: PART I - MEN WHO HATE WOMEN.

Though the serial killer procedural threatens to drag the film down a bit, it's tightly wound and crisply presented with gorgeous cinematography and a spare gently chilling soundtrack. Don't expect a Swedish SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (it has a much higher plausibility factor as thrillers go) and don't fret over subtitles -
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is great gripping, albeit a bit violent, cinema that deserves your attention.

More later...

Monday, April 19, 2010

KICK-ASS: The Film Babble Blog Review

KICK-ASS (Dir. Matthew Vaughn, 2010)

Aaron Johnson, as geeky high school student Dave Lizewski, wonders in a world where millions love comic book and movie superheroes, why don't more people actually try to become real-life superheroes? His mother has just died, he's invisible to girls, and chronic masturbating is his biggest hobby (yeah, I know - TMI) so we can see why he fantasizes so vividly about being a superhero. Not letting the fact that he possesses no special powers get in his way he orders a green wetsuit online, dubs himself "Kick-Ass", and sets about fighting crime on the streets of New York City.

Kick-Ass gets his ass horribly kicked by a couple of petty thugs on his first outing enough to put him in the hospital. He's not deterred from his superhero pursuits though, because he's now reconstructed with metal grafts and with his deadened nerve endings he can fight without pain. So when another brawl is captured by camera phones he becomes an internet sensation via YouTube and a household name.

A girl he has a crush on (Lyndsy Fonseca) suddenly takes an interest in him, but as his snarky friends (Clark Duke and Evan Peters) suggest it's because she thinks he's gay. Fonseca has no inkling of Johnson's infamous alter ego when she emails Kick-Ass's MySpace account (the only aspect of the film that feels out of date) asking for help. A dangerous drug dealer is harassing her at the needle exchange clinic she works at and immediately Kick-Ass is on the case.

However, the pile of bodies that results in a ghetto showdown comes not from Kick-Ass, but from the surprise appearance of "Hit-Girl" (Chloe Moretz). The foul mouthed and fast acting Hit-Girl (who's 11 by the way) takes no prisoners, killing every attacking lowlife and leaving Kick-Ass stunned. She's the real deal he sees, and she's the protégé of another real deal - her father Nicholas Cage as "Big Daddy" whose shiny black costume makes him look like Batman's brother and he has lethal weaponry out the wazoo to match.

From here out Hit-Girl and Big Daddy steal the movie from Kick-Ass and he never quite gets it back. The villains they all go up against are big time mob boss Mark Strong and his son, McLovin himself - Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who has his own mock superhero guise: Red Mist.

Kick-Ass calls it quits now that shit just got real (not a line from the film but it just as well could be) and comes out as straight to Fonseca - the old pretending he's gay in order to get closer to her premise you see. Of course, he's gonna have to get back in the game and join Hit-Girl for the inevitable action movie climax.

KICK-ASS has so many successful sequences going for it that I can overlook the myriad of problems I have with it, but for the record here they are. The satirical nature of the material replaced with predictable noisy bombastic mechanics in the last third, with the laughs sadly fading with the satire. And in the words of Grandpa Simpson: "The romantic subplot felt tacked on."

That said, KICK-ASS has a great cast - Johnson, Mintz-Plasse, and Strong are all solid and it's great to see a porn-stached Cage chew up the scenery with Moretz whose Hit-Girl poise, presence and power, as I said before, really steals the show. That is, if you don't mind the extreme profanity and ultra violence that she brings.

Don't bring the kids, or even the kid inside you to see this movie; it's an dark adult shoot-em up with a high body count packaged as a teenage superhero comedy - it's SKY HIGH as directed by Quentin Tarentino. It might not kick ass as much as I thought it could, but, as it's the first major movie to use the internet popularized phrase that something or someone "owns", for the most part it does indeed own.

More later...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

DATE NIGHT: The Film Babble Blog Review

DATE NIGHT (Dir. Shawn Levy, 2010)

Steve Carrell and Tina Fey are 2 of the most likable and funny people currently on network television in their NBC sitcoms The Office and 30 Rock respectively. That reputation hasn't changed in their transition to the big screen even if some of their previous choices of projects have faltered a bit. Pairing them up as a bored, and purposely boring, married couple from New Jersey who find themselves caught up in a wild and violent night from Hell in manic Manhattan isn't the most inspired concept in the world, but on the strength of their comic charm alone it's still very likable and funny.

After learning that a couple of their friends are splitting up (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig in an all too brief appearance), Carrell decides to try to re-ignite the spark of their marriage by abandoning their routine date night plans and heading into the city for a meal at a posh upscale restaurant that they don't have reservations for. A dolled-up Fey is hesitant at first, but is soon game - same goes for when Carrell, not able to get a table, steals somebody else's reservations which, of course, leads to a case of mistaken identity with gunshots and frantic chases galore.

The MacGuffin here is a flashdrive, or "computer sticky thingie" as Fey calls it, that 2 thugs (Jimmi Simpson and Common) insist Carrell and Fey possess. Our not quite heroic duo elude their pursuers, find out that the thugs are cops on the take, and call upon one of Fey's real estate clients, a shirtless Mark Wahlberg, for help. It really doesn't matter where the plot goes from here - it's just an excuse for Carrell and Fey to run around and spout out one-liners, many of which are just funny enough to keep the enterprise rolling.

Cameos from James Franco and Mila Kunis as a trashy couple who amusingly share some of the same relationship issues as do our protagonists work better than they should, and Ray Liotta as an angry mobster (once again resurrecting Henry Hill from GOODFELLAS) also adds nicely to the mayhem, as contrived as it is. It's as predictable as its fabricated THE OUT OF TOWNERS meets AFTER HOURS formula would suggest, but if you like Carrell and Fey (I can't imagine somebody liking one and not liking the other) you'll most likely like this.

More later...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

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:


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...

Friday, April 9, 2010

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...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

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...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

DVD Review: THE T.A.M.I SHOW (1964)

THE T.A.M.I. SHOW (Dir. Steve Binder, 1964)

This time capsule of a concert film finally gets a proper DVD release and that's a great thing because it's a joy from start to finish. If you happen to like '60s rock, pop, and soul that is. The Teenage Awards Music International show featured a mighty roster of the days biggest acts including Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Lesley Gore, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and The Rolling Stones filmed live in glorious black and white at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1964. Era heart throbs Jan and Dean hosted the event and also performed.

It's major proof that the teens at the time screamed at more than just The Beatles. The fact that they scream throughout the entirety of this concert can be as endearing as often as it's annoying. They even scream at the third tier bands: Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Barbarians and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. But the music, most of it instantly recognizable if you've ever listened to oldies radio, shines through the squealing as well as the cheesy presentation featuring TV variety show style sets and go-go dancers constantly bopping behind most of the acts.

Most amusingly, one of those go-go dancers was a 17 year old Teri Garr (pictured above between the Supremes) who can be seen dancing her ass off almost the whole show. She's given plenty to shake to when James Brown hits the stage. Backed by the Famous Flames, Brown steals the show out from everybody with a ferocious 5 song set in which an incendiary "Please Please Please" featuring his patented cape routine is the shows undeniable highlight.

The Rolling Stones almost backed out after learning they were going to follow Brown. Maybe they should have; their set is fine but a bit lacking in fire. The band responsible for the classic album "Aftermath" come off a bit like an afterthought here. However by the time they get to "It's All Over Now" a good deal of their power gets restored. It's all the same to the shrieking audience though, they scream as loud as ever right to the end.

Bonus Features:
This digitally remastered film comes with a smattering of extras including several radio spots and an informative commentary by director Steve Binder assisted by music historian Don Waller. Director John Landis (ANIMAL HOUSE, THE BLUES BROTHERS, THREE AMIGOS), who attended the show as a teenager and said that the Rolling Stones were boring following Brown, also puts in a sprightly commentary on the trailer.

More later...