DURHAM, N.C. - During lunch a filmmaker tells me that of all the festivals he’s attended with his movies, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is the only one he wants to attend as a spectator. He enjoys how the various screens and activities aren’t spread all over the city. There’s a relaxed atmosphere as the festival-goers aren’t hustling hard to get tickets to sold out screenings. It’s a sweet Southern festival in the middle of Tobacco Road. Even the world’s biggest superstar just hangs out with the festival goers inside of hiding behind a wall of security.
Who is the superstar? Elmo! And we have an exclusive chat with him at the end of this column.
The film selection was once more top notch. An ample number of documentaries received their world debut in Durham. There were a few films that had built a buzz at Sundance, but the four days of Full Frame cost less than one day in Park City. Plus there’s little chance of frostbite. Although this year there was a harsh weather reality during the weekend. On Saturday tornados swept through the region although they missed the area around the Carolina Theater. Inside it was just a whirlwind of screenings.
The Bengali Detective appears to be the documentary bound to become a TV series. It’s about Rajesh Ji and his friends who spend their time investigating unsolved crimes when the Kolkata, India police don’t care. That sounds normal enough. But the detectives are also Bollywood actors so they solve cases and go to auditions. It’s a real life Cop Rock. Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi needs to turn this into his next film.
Buck is about the real man Robert Redford played in The Horse Whisperer except it’s so much better than the fiction. Buck Brannaman allows the cameras to join him as he hosts a clinic for riders with troubled horses. We quickly learn how messed up Buck’s childhood was. He was a trick roper that went on numerous TV shows to give off that wholesome gleam. But it wasn’t so. He connects with the horses as kindred spirits. The movie has quite a few fearful moments. Ever see a horse bite a guy’s head? Buck has the ability to calm down the wildest of horses. These aren’t the cute horses in the posters around a seven year old girl’s bedroom. The film rightfully won the audience award. The real Buck is so much more compelling than Redford playing a role. Buck completely eclipses The Horse Whisperer. This film is for more than horse fanatics although it shall be the perfect Christmas gift DVD for anyone with a saddle.
A good documentary makes us remember elements of our pop culture past such as Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story. When I saw this title, I pondered if Mark and his band Morphine would make a surprise appearance. I quickly remembered that Mark had died in 1999. Had it been so long? His low voice and bass driven sound made Morphine a great band for foreplay. It was pure libido. The documentary has a low-fi look since so much of his legacy was saved on VHS tape. It’s amazing how much Mark looked like Jon Stewart. The two appeared on Jon’s pre-Daily Show talkshow. Mark did a lot to make Jon Stewart appear sexy in the ’90s. Plenty of his bass peers lend their voice to the oral history including Les Claypool of Primus and Mike Watt of Minutemen, fIREHOSE and the Stooges. Watt’s the man. Mark’s short and mysterious life gets probed. A lot of it remains a mystery. He died of a heart attack at the start of a concert in the countryside outside Rome. While it sounds tragic, in the context of the film, it’s a great way to go. He wasn’t in a nasty plane crash, found with his head blown off or forced to be a celeb-burnout with a wife obsessed with Hello Kitty on VH1. He departed in a divine bliss moment.
Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is the perfect introduction to America’s greatest filmmaker. He’s made hundreds of films over half a century. He’s still producing monster movies for SyFy channel including Dinoshark which is featured in the documentary. Many of the Oscar winning directors that graduated from Corman University contribute to the film except for Francis Ford Coppola. He was probably too buy doing the commentary track for the Jack: Director’s Cut Blu-ray. The film is far from a complete view of Corman. But his impact is so huge, it would need an 9 hour mini-series on TCM. The weird element is how they suggest Roger lost his steam in the mid-70s with the release of Jaws and Star Wars. This two films inspired dozens of similar themed low budget flicks from Corman including Dinoshark. If you’ve been eagerly grabbing Shout! Factory’s Roger Corman’s Cult Classics DVD series, this movie is required viewing. They even give us the night Corman received his Oscar honor. The biggest shock of the film comes from Jack Nicholson’s final testimony about Roger. I won’t spoil it.
Dragonslayer reflects the dangers of not turning off the autofocus on the camcorder. It can hurt an audience’s eyes. Although it is nearly impossible to hurt the star of this film. Josh “Skreech” Sandoval is a skateboarder that made a name with chaotic ways in the bowl. He had sponsors that let him live the dream life. Then he messed up and lost his sponsors. He’s a walking disaster zone who attacks an empty swimming pool without any care for consequences. His comeback starts out right when he gets a cute girlfriend, but there seems to be no big plan on how to reclaim his glory. He lives in a tent behind the house of the guy making the movie. This is a wise move to make sure he’s around for shooting times. From this poverty moment, he rides in a limo to guest on a cable sports show. It’s kinda sad when he has to settle for a strange straight job. The movie is a stunning mix of irritation editing techniques yet remains compelling to watch. This is a good warning to kids who think that being a famous skateboarder means being as rich as Tony Hawk. You can be famous and living in a tent.
Windfall turned out to be the most controversial film of the weekend. While for the past few years we’ve been inundated with the message that green energy will save the world from big oil and gas. However it turns out that wind energy has quite a few draw backs and unmentioned costs to the environment and humanity. The quaint hilly area of Meredith, New York finds itself over run by prospectors wanting to buy claims. But it’s not oil, gas or gold that flows through the dairy land. It’s the wind. Various residents find themselves signing up to allow wind turbines to be erected on their land. What’s wrong with that? Turns out that each windmill is 400 feet high with massive propellers. Just imagine finding out your neighbor wants to construct a 40 story edifice that might block the sun from your house. Expect a little tension will develop? There’s a lot of tension in Meredith as neighbors turn on each other as they fear what will become of their sleepy area when it’s covered in windmills. The movie takes us to a nearby community that went from a dozen wind turbines to nearly 200. The mountains look like they’ve been taken over by alien overlords. The noise is annoying. The propeller blades mess with the sun light coming into people’s houses. It’s not a place Al Gore would want to live. The town fights over this becoming their future. What’s creepy is how nobody from the various wind turbine concerns are willing to show up at the town meetings to calm fears. Here we were thinking they were the good guys in the world of energy, but they come off as secretive and slimy as the guys who want to frack your backyard. This is the above ground version of Gasland. Besides building the windmills, they have to string up major transmission lines to get the energy onto the national power grid. That’s even more land that has to be taken over for the green energy. It would be easy to attack Windfall as propaganda if it was made by a right wing hit squad out to puncture Al Gore’s dreams. After talking with Laura Israel over the weekend, I feel safe in knowing she’s not a tool of the right or big oil and gas. This movie ultimately reminds us that harvesting energy has a major cost. While wind power might be a solution in remote regions, it’s not that great where people live. This is not that small windmill your hippie neighbors set up next to their chicken coop. After the film I spoke with a filmmaker who made a documentary about how the coal mining industry destroys mountain tops. There are people in West Virginia that wouldn’t mind wind turbines on the peaks instead of having them blasted away. That’s a good alternative.
Square Grouper is another installment of the Florida drug lore from director Billy Corben and his Cocaine Cowboys crew. This gives us three tales of marijuana smugglers including a religious cult, small businessmen and a fishing town. Who knew the big weed smugglers out of Jamaica were a bunch of white guys who swore the only way you could pray was getting high on weed? The most shocking part of their story is discovering they bought a mansion on Miami’s Star Island for $250,000 in 1975. A cheap house there now goes for about $10 million. You better be dealing drugs to afford that mark up. The notorious Black Tuna Gang get exposed as square businessmen that came up with an efficient way to distribute weed. The final story is about the tiny town of Everglades City that lived up to its smuggling heritage. When the DEA raided the town, nearly all the male population was arrested. What sets Square Grouper apart from the Cocaine Cowboys films is the lack of bloodshed. Seems that weed really doesn’t make you nearly as violent as the white powder trade. The DVD has just been released by Magnolia so you can have to have your own film festival at home.
Interrupters explores how Chicago’s CeaseFire organization looks to defuse violence in the rougher sections of the city. Many of the members have come from troubled backgrounds and are still dealing with issues. It’s not a pack of naive suburbanites. It’s a rough view of how anger can build. Director Steve James returns to the area of Chicago from his Hoop Dreams days except this is a much harder game. There is a little lightness in the serious film including a birthday party at a roller skating rink that includes Ameena and her family. Her husband does quite a few amazing moves on wheels. After the screening, I asked him how long he’d been a skater. Turns out he didn’t hang out at the rink when he was a kid. He only took it up after hurting his back. He saw it as a good therapy to build up his torso strength. It worked.
Project Nim should forget about being nominated for a documentary Oscar. It rightfully deserves to be considered for Best Picture. It’s a Dickens epic about a chimp. A Columbia University professor wants to see if a chimp taught sign language and raised with a human family could fully communicate like a person. Thus Nim the chimp is torn away from his mother and dropped on a large family outside New York City. The family doesn’t know anything about raising an ape or sign language. Why were they chosen? Turns out the professor slept with the mother when she was his student. The vanity of the professor keeps yanking Nim around. There are dark moments for the poor chimp including him ending up in what can only be called Ape Hell. There’s a creepy scientist who comes off as Slugworth, but redeems himself in the end. Watching Nim’s plight on the big screen emotionally exhausted me. James Marsh’s Man on Wire was great, but his Nim is an emotional step above. This is a great movie. Don’t waste your money on that crappy upcoming Planet of the Apes retread with James Franco. You want to know about the consequences of man attempting to turn an Ape into an “equal,” Project Nim is what to watch. Be alerted that there are scenes of Nim smoking weed. Who wouldn’t want to get high with an ape? Just don’t bogart the joint cause he’ll still rip your arms off.
Gun Fight explores the gun issues of our day. Lately state legislatures have gone out of their way to want people carrying guns in classrooms, tanning beds and kiddie pools. Are we safer or more paranoid when strapped down with fully loaded concealed weapons? Director Barbara Kopple looks at the issue from all the various factions including a student injured at Virginia Tech that’s now a lobbyist. There are NRA members saying their peace. What’s amazing is that a decade after Bowling For Columbine Kopple isn’t rehashing Michael Moore’s movie. She’s got a bunch of new incidents with Virginia Tech taking over for the Columbine High School. The most grizzly moment is when a mother takes her son to a gun range. Seems like a sweet bonding moment. Without much explanation, the mother stands behind the kid and unloads her pistol into the back of his head. The security camera moment ends before the carnage, but it is so chilling. This is currently airing on HBO. After watching the film, I had a chance to chat with former NRA member Richard Feldman. Besides his involvement with gun ownership, he’s part of an indoor shrimp farm. Who doesn’t like shrimp besides those critically allergic to them like Maya Angelou?
The pure highlight of the festival for me was Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. Not merely seeing the movie, but the thrill of Kevin Clash and Elmo attending the festival. It was Sesame Street rush. The film might still be under a review embargo. Would it be wrong to say that the movie reinforces my belief that the folks that work with Muppets are the coolest people on Earth? It’s not a job, but a calling like the priesthood. They understand their role in the community as educators, entertainers and spiritual healers. During the question and answer session, a woman mentions how much her teenage brother with cerebral palsy loves Elmo. Without being asked, Clash wanted to call her brother and leave him a message from Elmo. After the screening, Elmo and Clash stood in the hallway and posed for camera phone pics with everyone who politely asked. Martin Scorsese didn’t do this. Everyone seemed to just want their pic between Elmo and Clash and not get an autograph. This probably why the duo don’t suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. I had a chance to talk to Phillip Shane and Justin Weinstein about their numerous roles in the making of Being Elmo while Elmo posed nearby.
And now we come to the highlight of my weekend: An exclusive interview with Elmo. We finally find out what Ernie and Bert do for a living. We also talk about Taxi Driver references on Sesame Street.
I deeply thank Being Elmo’s James Miller for taking over the cinematography duties. The peculiar thought is that in a year, my daughter will hate my guts for meeting Elmo without bringing her along.
TWISTS OF FATE
Diary was a short film by photojournalist Tim Hetherington about his time between warzones and life at home. He was the co-director of last year’s Restrepo. I wanted to talk to him. I wrote a nice note to leave in his box, but he didn’t make it to the festival. He was too busy working. War calls. A few days after the festival, the shocking news came out that Hetherington was killed when Khadaffy’s forces unleashed a mortar attack at his position. What made this incident strange for me was the other photographer that died from the attack was Chris Hondros. Chris and I worked together at NC State’s Technician newspaper. I was an editor when he started his career in newsprint. What are the odds that a person I wanted to know and another I knew would meet their end in Libya’s violent revolution. People do take risks with their lives to show us what’s really happening. They didn’t hang out at the hotel’s breakfast bar between doing live remotes back to their cable news network using third hand information passed off as reporting.
GIVE MY REGARDS
Most bizarre piece of news during Full Frame was finding out that the documentary that lists me as an associate producer is being transformed into a Broadway musical. Moving Midway shall be the toast of the town. Seems a hedgefund manager craves Grey Gardens green. My role will be played in the orchestra pit. I only hope more people get injured in this production than U2’s Spider-Man: Turn Off Your Brain.
After seeing Corman’s World, I was overjoyed to get two double feature DVDs with his production wizardry from Shout! Factory.
Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Double Feature - The Ron Howard Action Pack gives us the two movies most responsible for Opie winning the Oscar. Eat My Dust reminded America that Ron Howard wasn’t trapped in the ’50s on Happy Days. He plays the son of a sheriff that takes a major risk to impress the hot girl from school. At the race track, he steals the stock car belonging to Dave Madden (The Partridge Family) and takes the girl for the ride of her life. It’s cross country auto mayhem. This is much more exciting than when he was driving around in American Graffiti. He also gets to team up with his brother Clint Howard for part of the ride.
Grand Theft Auto was Ron Howard’s cinematic debut as a director. He co-wrote the script with his dad Rance Howard. Because of the success of Eat My Dust and a good script, Roger Corman offered Ron the director chair. He’s the poor kid engaged to a rich girl. Her father disapproves. He wants her to marry a dopey rich guy. She swipes the old man’s Rolls Royce and tells Ron that they’re going to Las Vegas to get hitched This leads to a cross country chase when a reward is offered during Don Steele’s radio show. Ron makes one of his finest films with thrilling stunts involving a Rolls Royce going airborne.
The bonus features on this two disc set explore every aspect of these car chase films. Rance admits he wrote Grand Theft Auto for Burt Reynolds. There’s a featurette on the artist who painted the posters for New World that classed up the productions. The big thing is how Ron Howard appreciates that Corman was willing to take him seriously as a director. Odds are if it wasn’t for these two films, Ron wouldn’t have won an Oscar. He’d probably be selling reverse mortgages on TV if he hadn’t put the peddle to the metal.
Fighting Mad & Moving Violation: The Action-Packed Double Feature are two films made by Roger Corman yet distributed by Fox. He wasn’t against working with a major studio. These are two high octane films about conspiracies engineered by fat cats. Fighting Mad is Jonathan Demme’s third directorial effort with Roger Corman producing. This time he has Peter Fonda in the lead as a man pushed to edge. Fonda returns home to discover the coal company is taking over the farms so they can ravage the lands and tear down the mountains. They sell the concept that after the strip mining they’ll build a city of the future. Peter knows they’d going to dump and run. The coal company hates taking no for an answer to the point that they’ll stage lethal accidents to get land. Fonda can’t use legal means to stop his land from being taken. He breaks out his bow and arrow to bring his own form of justice to the coal company. The major excitement comes when Fonda gets chased on his motorcycle by the goons. While it seems natural for the star of Easy Rider to be on a bike, he also has a child actor sitting on his handle bars. This is a stunt that could have gone seriously wrong, but didn’t. Fonda feels like his father as a man who can’t stand injustice in his world. The audio commentary includes Demme, Corman and Fonda chatting away. Demme needs to work with Fonda again.
Moving Violation lets a drifter take the blame for the murder of a deputy. At first it seems like a cute tale of the drifter (Stephen McHattie) getting lucky with the server (The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday’s Kay Lenz) at a fast food joint. He tempts her to go skinny dippy in the pool of a mansion. However they picked the wrong mansion. Turns out it was owned by Will Geer, the town’s Boss Hogg character. A plucky deputy wants to boost his under the table bribe from fat cat or he’ll blab. Geer has the sheriff shoot his own deputy. The only witnesses are McHattie and Lenz. Where can they go when the law wants them framed hard? They get a little help from Eddie Albert (Green Acres). Their only real salvation appears to be in fast cars and serious stunts. McHattie might be recognizable to audiences as Old Nite Owl from The Watchman or Dr. Reston from Seinfeld. His taking the role seems to be an off shoot of him just playing James Dean in a biopic. He uses those Dean charms on Lenz until the chase scenes go into overdrive. The bonus features include a commentary track with McHattie, Roger, his wife Julie and director Charles S. Durbin.
Fighting Mad and Moving Violation are a well balanced double feature about the filthy rich don’t mind getting dirty when things don’t go their way. Although they allow hired goons to finish the jobs. What’s the good of money if you can’t hire goons with it?
Melrose Place: Sixth Season, Volume 1 bids farewell to Doug Savant’s Matt. He was the gay resident in the happening apartment complex. Although sometimes it was hard to tell since the network wanted him to just be unsexual. This wasn’t Queer As Folk. He splits without saying many goodbyes since a majority of his friends had been written out of the show. Luckily Savant would say hello to America on Desperate Housewives. At this point Melrose Place seems like a game of musical chairs. Who lives where appears to be a random act of casting. Alyssa Milano is a fresh face around the pool. Lisa Rinnea still has her old lips. The big star remains Heather Locklear. She’s backstabbing anyone who isn’t about to die. One fab addition to the cast is Megan Ward’s Connie. She causes friction upon impact. She was also recently interviewed in the Party Favors for her work on Dark Skies. Not to mention that the legendary Anson Williams directs on this collection. Potsie Weber from Happy Days calls the torrid motion. The season opens with the Sydney dead from the great wedding disaster. Her husband blames others for her death. But he never fingers agents and producers. Of course the cast can now complain about the demise of Soapnet, Melrose Place fans will have to depend on their DVDs for their retro prime time soap fix. Volume 1 has the first 13 episodes. Volume 2 is slated to be released on July 19. That leaves only the final season remaining. So much tawdry action remains.
Penn & Teller Bullshit! The Complete Eighth Season appears to be the final season of the insightful Showtime series. The magicians Penn & Teller give sardonic and insightful investigation to another 10 current events and popular beliefs. Unlike your normal news magazine show, Penn & Teller figure out how to work in some topless action. They are on Showtime. The opening show is about Cheerleders. Why exactly is this school activity not considered a sport since it’s turned into outlandish gymnastics. Safety is secondary because certain uptight academics and well paid bigwigs in the cheerleading industry want your rah-rah child to risk their lives for Bring It On fame. Parents do need to question why their kids are more likely to end up on crutches as a cheerleader instead of as a player. Martial Arts are exposed as not quite a good cure for safety. Does seem you rarely hear about a robber being asskicked by a black belt. Area 51 gets a probe. Does the place really exist or is it just a good moneymaker from people that want to dress like Star Trek characters? Vaccinations pits Penn against Jenny McCarthy. I wish the show could have gone on longer, but after 89 episodes, what topics would they have touched? Do have to thank the show for letting me know about tasty monkfish as a good faux lobster.
The Unknown War - World War II and the Epic Battles of the Russian Front gives the view from the Western front. In the wake of the epic The World At War, the folks at the USSR wanted to tell more of their story from when they battled Hitler and the Nazis. They went into their vast film archive to give even more Burt Lancaster and Rod McKuen joined forced with Soviet historians to create a 20 part series that first tried to air in 1978. The show didn’t go over too well in America thanks to it being aired at the height of the Cold War when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. It also didn’t help that numerous historians pointed out how facts were white washed. Luckily on this DVD set features Willard Sunderland mentioning key omissions like how the Soviet pact with the Nazis secretly divided up the Eastern European countries with a bad invader, good invader strategy. Hitler invaded half of Poland and Stalin rushed in to “rescue” the other half. Rod McKuen explains how the series was created as free programming for indie TV stations in order to sell the commercial time. While there is a bit of propaganda in the presentation, the footage of the Soviets fighting back the Nazis is captivating. This compliments The World At War boxset with more information about the siege of Leningrad, Stalingrad and Moscow.
Lemonade Mouth: Extended Edition is the latest big musical craze from Disney TV. Five kids stuck in detention at Mesa High School unite to become international sensations. These kids are much more productive than those losers in The Breakfast Club. The kids are lucky because their detention teacher isn’t out to bust their balls. She wants them to do a little music since they’ve pretty much eliminated those programs from the school. The kids unite over their love of a Lemonade machine that’s getting removed for a sports drink that has exclusive rights to the kids. It’s almost like an Idiocracy moment. Eventually they become major superstars. It’s a classic tale of how slightly misunderstood kids can rock out and strike it rich after they overcome an evil principal played by Christopher McDonald (Happy Gilmore). Expect Lemonade Mouth to come to your local arena this summer. Along with a DVD, Disney has included a digital copy of the film so the kids can watch it on your iPhone or iPad during long trips. The DVD has extended Music Scene scene.
Deadly Shooter puts country star Randy Travis in the Wild West. The country star has been having a career resurgence thanks to his mentoring on American Idol. He’s the inspiration for finalist Scott McCreery. Now one of Randy’s acting highlights is coming out on DVD. The real star of the film is Michael Dudikoff (American Ninja series). He plays the Clint Eastwood character that arrives in a remote town after finding prostitute being beaten by local goons. he won’t be putting up with that business. Turns out the goons are part of an outlaw gang that runs the town. When the pain comes down, Dudikoff needs the help of Randy Travis to beat back the goons. It’s a low budget homage to The Unforgiven. Travis makes the film. Fans of Cinemax After Dark will get a treat when Andrew Stevens arrives. As a strange treat, here’s the trailer from the German release of the film.
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