Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sha-zam! It's The Great Gomer Pyle Giveaway!

Are you a big fan of the classic '60s sitcom Gomer Pyle? Well, here's your chance to win a copy of a 24-DVD box set of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: The Complete Series,  which was released last month. All you have to do is write a few sentences about your favorite episode. I want the collection to go to a real fan, so I need some details about a particular ep that proves you really love the show and would really appreciate having the whole series.

The factory-sealed box contains all five seasons (150 episodes) of the iconic comedy that starred Jim Nabors as a hapless Marine Corps private who constantly irritates his immediate superior, Sergeant Carter (Frank Sutton). The show occupies a place in folksy old school pop culture that a lot of folks grew up with, or couldn't avoid because it was from a time when there was only three channels.

Bonus Features include audio intros by Nabors on Select Episodes, audio commentaries by Nabors and actor/comic Ronnie Schell on select episodes, the pilot episode “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” from The Andy Griffith Show, a clip from The Lucy Show episode “Lucy Gets Caught In The Draft” in which Nabor made an in character cameo, and a clip from Nabor's variety show The Jim Nabors Hour.

Also included: Jim Nabors' 1972 appearance on The David Frost Show, which is surely as historic and earth shaking as the Frost/Nixon interviews.

Yes, it's quite an extensive collection of Gomer Pyle goodies that should go to a good home. So get to it! Write about an episode and it could be yours.

Send your brief appraisals of your favorite GP ep to:

Deadline for entries is May 5th.

More later...

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Who’s Original Managers Get Their Rock Doc Due

Opening today exclusively in the Triangle area at the Raleigh Grande:

(Dir. James D. Cooper, 2014)

This fascinating documentary focusing on the original managers of The Who arrives in a timely fashion to Raleigh as the iconic British rock band just played a show in town at the PNC Center earlier this week. 

I was among the thousands at the sports arena to see the remaining founding members, singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend, joined by a tight backing band including Ringo’s son Zak Starkey on drums, bash out over 20 of their classics for their “The Who Hits 50!” tour. The Who was an obsession of my youth so songs like “I Can’t Explain,” “Baba O’Riley,” and “I Can See For Miles” (among many, many others) are in my blood. Despite their advancing age and some flubs here and there, The Two, as many fans call them, really brought it.

Over the years there’s been countless docs, books, interviews, and profiles in major music magazines that have told and retold the history of The Who, but a crucial part of their back story, the intracacies of their origin story if you will, usually gets glossed over.

And that’s the story of how Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, two best friend aspiring filmmakers who, despite no management experience, managed, mentored, and helped make famous four blokes who, when they discovered them, went by the name The High Numbers.

Lambert, the son of acclaimed classical composer Constant Lambert, died in 1981, but the 70-year old, still dapper Stamp sat down for extensive interviews for first-time documentarian James D. Cooper, relaying anecdotes about the duo’s schemes and dreams that involved making a movie about a pop band that would establish them as first class filmmakers.

After months of searching through candidates they thought were 
“too clean,” Lambert and Stamp came across the High Numbers at a small London club in the summer of 1964, and were immediately taken by them. Then Lambert and Stamp’s plan to make a film was put on the back burner as they became the band’s managers and went about reshaping their image. This included changing their name to The Who, billed on posters with the tagline: “Maximum R & B.”

Flashy black and white footage, some of the first ever shot of The Who, capture the Mod movement in full swing, while fleeting bits of live shows display how the band’s abrasive energy connected with their small but growing audience. However, one not well versed in the British rock legends, could be forgiven for watching much of this and thinking that the Who’s entire early act consisted of making loud feedbacky noise then smashing their instruments.

Daltrey and Townshend are on hand to give insights from the band’s side, particularly Pete, always a great interview subject, who passionately speaks about long-gone Who members, bassist John Entwistle (“he was a fuckin’ genius!”) and drummer Keith Moon (“he wasn’t a drummer…he did something else”), and laments about overhearing that the two were considering leaving The Who to form Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page (“I felt like a real outsider”).

One of the film’s musical highlights is footage of the young, lanky, slightly nervous Townshend playing a solo acoustic version of a new song, “Glittering Girl,” which would go on to be a beloved outtake from the 1967 album “The Who Sell Out,” in person for the adoring managers. “I do feel like they treated me differently,” Townshend recalls now about their relationship.

After The Who started hitting it big, Lambert and Stamp went on to manage Jimi Hendrix, Thunderclap Newman, Arthur Brown, and Golden Earring. But a falling out, seemingly fueled by booze and drugs, with Townshend over the sessions for “Who’s Next” in 1971 led to the band firing the pair in ‘75. Stamp seems still a bit upset about this, and that he didn’t get to direct TOMMY, the film version of The Who’s 1969 rock opera, when making a movie featuring the band was the whole idea in the first place.

Who biographer Richard Barnes, Daltrey’s second wife Heather, original Mod Irish Jack (considered to be the inspiration for The Who’s “Quadrophenia”), and actor Terence Stamp, Chris’ older brother, are also on hand to flesh out the film with sometimes witty, sometimes sad anecdotes about the bombastic band and their two eccentric managers.

Folks interested in the music scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the mechanics of making a band in that era should enjoy LAMBERT & STAMP, but really it’s a doc that the millions of people that cheer and pump their fists to the band’s 50th Anniversary tour should really seek out. Both casual and hardcore fans alike owe it to themselves to learn about who really made The Who happen.

More later...

Friday, April 17, 2015

TRUE STORY Is Oblivious To How Obvious It is

Opening today at both art houses and multiplexes:

TRUE STORY (Dir. Rupert, Goold, 2015)

Maybe the tag-line for this film should be “James Franco and Jonah Hill together again, but this time you won’t be laughing.”

In this adaptation of Michael Finkel’s 2006 bestseller “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa,” Franco and Hill ditch the stoner shenanigans (and their stoner buddy ensemble) of their previous movie, THIS IS THE END, and play it dead serious.

Hill steps into the shoes of Finkel, who we first meet as a star New York Times reporter working on a story in Africa about the modern-day slave trade. In short order we are also introduced to Franco as fugitive Christian Longo on the lam in Cancún, Mexico using Finkel’s name as an alias.

Finkel is fired by the Times for fabricating large portions of his article, while Longo is apprehended by the FBI for the murder of his wife and three children in Oregon. After learning that Longo used his name, the disgraced and desperate Finkel arranges to meet with him in prison.

Longo, graced with Franco charm, tells Finkel that he’s a big fan, and before you know it, they’re collaborating on a book about the murders together. Longo agrees to give Finkel exclusive access on the condition that the journalist teaches the suspected killer how to write.

So it’s got a SHATTERED GLASS meets CAPOTE vibe, with Hill’s Finkel and Franco’s Longo developing a creepy relationship as Longo’s trial looms closer. It’s obvious that Longo is manipulating Finkel from their initial encounter, but the film trudges onward continuously trying to make a point that it had already made in the first 10 minutes.

That point is that these two guys are alike. They are both characters with deplorable moral ethics; every action they make can be seen as self serving. And, of course, they’re both using each other – we get it.

The rest of the cast seems to know this. Felicity Jones, as Finkel’s girlfriend Jill (the archetypal worrying woman on the side), even goes to confront Longo to tell him she’s got his number in one of the film’s most contrived scenes. Even if this really happened, and I bet it didn’t, it’s a horribly handled plot point that adds nothing. Well, except that it gives Jones something to do.

Scripted by first time filmmaker Rupert Goold and suspense scribe David Kajganich (THE INVASION, BLOOD CREEK), TRUE STORY has neither the depth nor thrills (or even attempts at thrills) required to be considered a psychological thriller. It’s more a tense drama with transparently artsy ambition.

The storytelling, whether true or not, gets pretty muddled and strained towards the end. I got annoyed at Finkel for falling for Longo’s shtick, which at times reminded me of Franco’s breakout Freaks and Geeks role, Daniel Desario, but with a brain.

This whole overly calculated, and bleedingly obvious, exercise will most likely be jokingly dismissed by Franco and Hill someday in another meta-minded project with their fellow graduates of Apatow University. Probably like this: “Remember when we did that TRUE STORY shit? We were all so serious ‘n shit? Remember that? Yeah, me either.”

More later...

MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: Only Two Thirds Of A Must See Doc

Opening today at a indie art house near me:

(Dir. Robert Kenner, 2015)

Robert Kenner’s follow-up to FOOD, INC., the new documentary MERCHANTS OF DOUBT opening today at an indie art house near me, opens aptly with an illusionist displaying his impeccable slight-of-hand card trick skills to a rapt audience.

The master magician is Jamy Ian Swiss, an associate of Penn & Teller, who identifies himself as an “honest liar.” Swiss gets the theme of the film’s ball rolling when he explains that “it offends me when someone takes the skills of my honest living, if you will, and uses it to twist, and distort, and manipulate people and their sense of realist, and how the world works.”

From there we jump right into a credit sequence montage, set to Frank Sinatra’s “That Old Black Magic,” and decorated with sound bites like “Global Warming is a hoax,” “there is no consensus - this is a myth,” “asbestos is designed to last forever,” and “it is not known whether cigarette smoking causes cancer.”

Inspired by the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Keller and co-writer Kim Roberts take us into the world of phony punditry, in which a small group of so-called experts can have an enormous impact on public opinion.

The roots of what Oreskes and Conway called a “history of manufactured ignorance” can be traced to the 1950s when the tobacco companies, aware of undeniable evidence that smoking was hazardous and highly addictive, hired a public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, to cast doubt on the scientific facts.

Anti-smoking activist Stanton Glantz lays out that “the playbook that they developed to attack science worked for them for 50 years,” and “so other businesses that were faced with regulatory challenges had to look at this and say ‘boy, if this worked for tobacco, we ought to be able to use that playbook too.’”

This is confirmed by the next segment on the Chicago Tribune’s investigation on flame retardants involving journalists Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe, who appear as interviewees; but this is just a prelude to the film’s central focus, the fossil fuel industry’s war on climate science and scientists.

Old cold warriors/climate change deniers Fred Seitz, S. Fred Singer, and William Nierenberg join the growing cast of collected con artist characters the film profiles, as does the slick, slimy Marc Morano, a frequent Fox News regular, and a former Rush Limbaugh producer. Morano casually discusses going after scientists via underground newsletter take-down pieces (later on his blog Climate Depot), and sending vulgar, death threat emails to them.

On the good guy side of the debate, the film gives us prominent climate scientist James Hansen, Skeptic Society Director Michael Shermer (key quote: “Data trumps politics”), earnest environmentalist (his words, not mine) John Passacantando, and the aforementioned co-author of the book, Oreskes, identified here only as “Science Historian,” whose commentary is certainly the most insightful.

However, despite all these fascinating factors, the film peters out roughly an hour into its 96 minute running time as all the major points have been made and what’s left gets pretty tedious in its repetition.

In addition to that grievance - a lengthy ending thread involving former Republican South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis going on a right-wing talk radio show feels tacked on, interviewees throughout are indentified so fleetingly that it’s easy to forget their credentials, and, as much as I love them, the film really doesn’t need pop song punctuation like David Bowie’s “Changes,” and Big Star’s “Don’t Lie To Me.”

Also, the magician stuff is fine in the intro, but, as charismatic as Swiss is, it’s a weak linking device that made me wince every time they return to it.

With a little more time in the editing bay, MERCHANTS OF DOUBT could’ve been the year’s first must-see documentary. As it stands, it’s only two thirds of that.

More later...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Full Frame 2015: Days 3 & 4

The 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was, as usual, quite a feast of non-fiction, and after four days I am very stuffed. So before I crash, I'll get right to the docs I attended out of the dozens screened on Saturday, April 11th, and Sunday, April 12th. (Oh, yeah – please visit my recaps of Day 1, and Day 2):

First up, Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson's PEACE OFFICER, the story of former Sheriff William “Dub” Lawrence's investigation into the 2008 homicide of his son-in-law by the SWAT team Lawrence originally created. Other similar cases involving inappropriate uses of force by the police are touched on in this calmly delivered treatise on what many call the militarization of law enforcement. Disturbing crime scene photos, news reports, and raw footage of SWAT raids capture the eye, but it's Lawrence's softly spoken dissection of the matter that is most compelling.

Next, I thoroughly enjoyed MAVIS!, Jessica Edwards’ biodoc of gospel/soul singer Mavis Staples. Sure, it's got the expected mix of interviews, concert footage, archival TV appearances, but its warmth and affection for its legendary subject elavates it greatly above the standard music doc formula. Staples dicusses her history with the Staples Singers who had a string of hits in the '60s and '70s, her solo career, her collaboration with Prince, her recent comeback which included winning her first Grammy for her produced 2011 album You Are Not Alone, which was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and, most importantly her close relationship with her father, gospel R & B icon Pops Staples.

One of many highlights deals with Bob Dylan's marriage proposal to Ms. Staples in the '60s (he ran it by Pops first). She says she “didn't take it to heart,” however “we may have have smooched.” Edwards' exceedingly endearing portrait also offers plenty of powerful live performances. In one clip, Staples promises her audience that she and her band have come to bring some joy, some happiness, inspiration, and some positive vibrations.” I felt all of those things while watching this wonderful portrait.

Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman's LAST DAY OF FREEDOM moved me more than I thought an animated short doc with starkly spare imagery could. The 30-minute film illustrates the visage and memories of Bill Babbitt, whose Vietnam vet brother Manny was executed in 1999 for the murder of a 78-year old woman in 1980. Babbitt, still shaken after all these years, tells how he feels his brother has been done wrong by the system, which didn't take into account that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I can totally see this emotionally impactful short getting an Oscar nom. *

Now, I’ve heard about the revolutionary nationalist organization, the Black Panther Party my whole life, getting bits and pieces of their story here and there, but I never got the full picture until veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson (WOUNDED KNEE, JONESTOWN, FREEDOM RIDERS) schooled me, and a full Fletcher Hall house, on the subject Saturday night. It was via Fletcher's newest historical doc, THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION, the third Center Frame screening at the fest this year, a vital, electric, and sadly timely history lesson that everyone should be taught. 

With rare archival footage, new interviews with surviving former members, vintage news reports and the like, Nelson takes us through the brief but explosive period in the late ‘60s, in which the Panthers, headed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, rose to power in the black community. Fighting against police brutality and for more freedoms for their people, the Panthers made many enemies including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

In the film’s most striking sequence, one of the movement’s leaders, Fred Thompson (who has a cameo in another film at the fest, HERE COMES THE VIDEOFREEX), is murdered in a raid by Chicago police in conjunction with the FBI. This was mainly because, as the Bureau’s documents later revealed, they wanted “to prevent the rise of a black messiah.”

But this blurb barely scratches the surface of the wealth of information and insight into the world of the Panthers Stanley’s film powerfully provides. THE BLACK PANTHERS is set for limited release in September, so keep an eye out for it.

As I've said before many times, the last slot of the evening on Saturday night at Full Frame is a perfect one for a rock doc, and this year Tom Berninger's MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS really hit the spot. The filmmaker is the brother of Matt Berninger, the frontman for the indie rock band The National, and his film concerns Tom's disastrous stint working as a roadie on the band's 2010-11 European tour. 

Sloppily shot, yet infused with an undeniably crude sharm, this project amusingly deals with Tom having to cope with having a famous rock star sibling, while coming to terms that he has to get his life together. It's a funny, shabby, and fussy doc, much like its maker, and I enjoyed the flashy live footage despite its choppiness (i.e. don't go to this film expecting much in the way of full musical performances).

There have been many Brando documentaries before, but Steven Riley’s LISTEN TO ME MARLON distinguishes itself by being largely narrated by the man himself. With access to hundreds of hours of audio tapes Brando had recorded throughout his career, Riley and co. have taken the most telling excerpts, supplemented them with an engrossing collage of film clips, screen tests, production stills, and many never before seen photos, and constructed the most intimate Brando biodoc to date.

It starts off weirdly with a digitally animated 3D image based on facial scans Brando made not long before his death in 2004, but settles into a thankfully more conventional groove. It’s fascinating to hear Brando discussing his method acting approach (including much praise his acting teacher Stella Adler), his failed marriages, his son Christian’s murder conviction, and resolving his issues with his father.

Of course, film fans will relish hearing him dish on such films as ON THE WATERFRONT, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, CANDY (“worst movie I ever made in my life”), THE GODFATHER (“I wasn’t sure I could play that part either”), and especially APOCALYPSE NOW (“I read the script and it was stupid, it was awful. I told Francis, ‘you’re making an enormous error’”). LISTEN TO ME MARLON should satisfy long-time fans, newbies, and folks who are curious to get a glimpse behind the curtain. 

Lastly, for sure, the funniest doc of the fest this year, but with a title like DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON it really had to be. 

Director Doug Tirola (ALL IN: THE POKER MOVIE, HEY BARTENDER) has done a great job here of depicting the history of how the legendary humor magazine became a comedy institution that produced live shows like “Lemmings” (launching the careers of John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest), classic records like “That’s Not Funny, It’s Sick,” and, most importantly for the masses, smash hit movies like ANIMAL HOUSE and VACATION.

The story of National Lampoon is largely the story of co-founder Doug Kenney, considered by many to be the heart of the original publication. Kenney, who you may know as Stork in ANIMAL HOUSE (which he co-wrote), was the charismatic comic genius behind much of the Lampoon’s most popular parodies in the ‘70s, but he would disappear for long periods of time, and his death in 1980 falling from a cliff in Hawaii has his friends and colleagues still scratching their heads as whether it was suicide or an accident.

Chase has been well documented as being an asshole, but in his interview segments here he’s actually charming and funnier than I’ve seen in years; it’s touching to see him a little choked up when he says Kenney was his best friend. Also worth mentioning is Tirola’s clever linking device of using hundreds, maybe thousands, of images of vintage cartoons, graphics, and art from the magazine with the word bubbles changed to echo the relevant quotes spoken onscreen.

Being a comedy nerd from way back, I really dug DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD. Those in attendance Fletcher Hall that Sunday afternoon appeared to too as they laughed so hard at some bits that it was hard to hear the next thing said onscreen. That’s something I bet Tirola, who told the crowd at the Q & A after, that they were “the best audience,” took as a very good sign.

Okay! So that's another Full Frame. Thanks for reading and stay tuned to this space for more Film Babble Blog Fun.

* LAST DAY OF FREEDOM won The Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short at the Awards Barbecue on Sunday. Click here to see the full list of winners.

More later...

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Full Frame 2015: Day 2

The second day of this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was as overcast as the first, but to all of us film fans stuffed into the Carolina Theatre and a few adjoining venues in downtown Durham, N.C. it really didn't matter. As usual, Friday brought a lot more people to the event, all lining up for helpings of primo infotainment. I was happy to be among them to take four fascinating films.

My Friday kicked off with Frederick Gertten's BIKES VS CARS.

It's really not that much of a spoiler to say that Gertten's film is rooting for bikes. With stunning statistics and factoids like “In Toronto, a pedestrian is hit by a car every three hours, a cyclist is hit by a car every seven hours,” Gertten's globe-trotting doc contrasts how different cities are more bike-friendly than others (Copenhagen and Amsterdam are voted the bike capitals of the world), and examines how traffic congestion is going to get way worse (with 2 billion cars projected to be on the planet by 2020) unless we embrace alternatives. 

A few of the threads the film depicts involve bicycle activists fighting for safer bike lanes in São Paulo, Brazil, while in Toronto, Canada, Mayor Rob Ford (yeah, that guy) battles what he calls a “war on cars” by having bike lanes removed. BIKES VS CARS is a smart, concerned film that makes a lot of good points, but in the face of taking on the politically powerful auto industry sadly it's gonna make a lot of people say “Yeah, but what are you gonna do?”

Now onto a very different kind of cycling film:

People of a certain age remember how much of a sensation motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel was in the '70s, but the ups and downs of his unique career have mostly been forgotten. Daniel Junge's exciting biopic BEING EVEL puts it all in perspective by sorting all the publicity stunts, rocky relationships, and ego-trips that made the man into a fiery narrative that made the Full Frame audience gasp throughout. 

Interviewee Johnny Knoxville, one of the film's producers, seemingly an Evel Knievel expert, breaks down how Knievel's death-defying feats paved the way for his own Jackass, and the whole extreme sports culture, while friends and family add their remembrances. But the best part is the archival footage of the stunts themselves including the Snake River Canyon jump in Idaho, and his unsuccessful attempt to jump 13 buses in London (he followed this up by successfully jumping 14 buses back in Ohio). A beautifully constructed blast from the past (loved seeing those Evel Knievel toy commercials again), BEING EVEL is the most fun of the films I've seen so far at the fest.

A subject I hadn't heard of before is explored in Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin's HERE COME THE VIDEOFREEX, a profile of a collective of counter culture artists and activists armed with newly invented portable video cameras, who were intent on providing an alternate history of the late '60s and early '70s to what was being broadcast on the major TV networks. Despite having a pilot rejected by CBS - a program that included interviews with Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Fred Hampton - the Videofreex went on to launch the first pirate TV station, Lanesville TV, and produce thousands of hours of material. 

It can be a bit wearying to make it through all the old grainy black and white clips excerpted here, but the insightful interviews with founding members David Cort, Parry Teasdale, and Mary Curtis Ratcliff keep it from lagging. Neolon and Raskin's portrait of these ragtag pioneers will, with hope, keep their story from being just a footnote in the history of guerilla television.

Ratcliff perhaps sums it up best: “A lot of people said in the early days that the Videofreex could be one of the signposts toward a future in which we all have video cameras. Which at the time meant nothing to me, but now I see it came true. We’re all Videofreex.” We certainly are.

Lastly, I attended the best documentary of the fest so far: Marc Silver's 3 AND 1/2 MINUTESPart procedural, part courtroom thriller, it breaks down what the media labeled the “Loud Music” Trial, in which a black teenager was shot and killed by a middle aged white man over an argument at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida in 2012. Michael Dunn, a 45-year old software developer, had asked 17-year old Jordan Davis and his three friends to turn down their music, and their tense exchange escalated when Dunn pulled out a gun and started shooting at their car. Davis was killed by one of the 10 bullets fired, and Dunn sped away with his fiancée.

Yes, it's another angering instance of a white man murdering an unarmed black youth, and Silver's extremely well constructed film takes us into the aftermath with compelling clarity. It's a heart-wrenching experience to see Davis's parents, Ron and Lucia, fight for justice and for stricter gun control laws, and it's incredibly angering to hear audio of Dunn's prison phone calls to his fiancée, in which he claims he's the real victim. After the screening, Jordon's father, Ron Davis spoke (after a huge round of applause) and participated in a Q & A, and had many powerful, and undeniably righteous things to say especially about embracing racial differences. I walked away very moved by the entire experience.

Stay tuned for coverage of days 3 & 4 of Full Frame.

More later...

Friday, April 10, 2015

Full Frame 2015: Day 1

Looking back on my coverage of years past, it looks like the first day of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is usually an overcast, gray day. This year was no exception for the annual event, now in its 18th year.

But, of course, the downbeat weather didn’t deter film fans from filling up the screening rooms at the Carolina Theatre and the Marriott Convention Center in downtown Durham, N.C., to see what they could out of the 49 new docs, including 12 World Premieres, 13 North American Premieres, and two U.S. Premieres, which will be showing Thursday through Sunday.

The first film I attended was Albert Maysles’ IRIS, the recently deceased documentarian legend’s last completed film (Maysles died on March 5, 2015 at age 80). 

In Programming director Sadie Tillery’s introduction, she spoke of having the filmmaker in her thoughts since his death, and missing his presence at the festival. It was a sentiment that was felt throughout the fine, very funny film, a biopic of fashion and interior design innovator Iris Apfel. 

IRIS feels like it was shot over the course of a few weeks or months with Maysles following around the now 93-year old Apfel as she tries on flamboyant outfits, attends high profile events, and putters around her and her husband Carl’s Park Avenue apartment filled with scores of eye-catching antiques, but co-producer Rebekah Maysles, daughter of the late director, said in the Q & A after the screening that it was filmed over the course of three years.

In between the modern day visits with the Apfels, we get bursts of back story via vintage photos, many magazine covers, and insightful interviews that trace how the style maven went from working at Women’s Wear Daily to working on White House Restoration projects for nine administrations (“We had a problem with Jackie,” Carl says, but Iris doesn’t let him explain), to founding her own company, Old World Weavers.

Just about everything the “geriatric starlet,” as she calls herself, is pricelessly witty, like when she quips that she’s “very much alive and just walking around to save funeral expenses,” and the film pops with every cut – largely due to Apfel’s many crazy wardrobe changes. The much missed Maysles, who can be seen a few times onscreen, has made a portrait as vibrant, colorful and funny as its still thriving subject. Oh, and I loved seeing how many pairs, in different styles and colors, she has of her trademark over-sized, thick framed, cartoonishly round eyeglasses.

Next up, I was pretty taken by TIGER TIGER, the new doc by George Butler (PUMPING IRON, GOING UPRIVER). The film follows Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, co-founder of Panthera (a non-profit big cat conservation organization), who tells us that he’s been “tracking and studying tigers and convincing governments to save those tigers for at least the last 25 years,” as he travels to the Sundarbans to do what he can for the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger population. 

There is extra weight added to the mission as Rabinowitz reveals he has Leukemia, and that this may be his last expedition. Rabinowitz's calm and soft spoken manner entertainingly educates us on the dangers the tigers face (especially when it comes to the Chinese medicine trade), the close-up video footage of the tigers in the wild is stunning, and the film is lushly shot by cinematographer Tom Hurwitz (THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES). TIGER TIGER is a real winner of a wildlife doc.

The film that followed for me, Betzabé García's KINGS OF NOWHERE (Spanish title: LOS REYES DEL PUEBLO QUE NO EXISTE) was way less engrossing. With no narrator, or narrative really, the film focuses on three families who live in a flooded village in Northwestern Mexico. Everybody else has moved away so we get to hear their stories of what used to be, and how they get along daily. That is, in between long stationary shots of the ruins and the rivers that run through them. The serene shots of the crumbling buildings and tortured terrain are well composed, and there's a few fascinating anecdotes here and there, but the film drags so much that it feels a half hour longer than its 83 minute running time.

Finally, the last film for me of the day was the highly anticipated, much buzzed out rock doc, Brett Morgen's KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK (horrible title, but it was the name of a mixtape Cobain made so there's that).

Morgen and editor Joe Beshenkovsky have sifted through tons of photos, drawings, notebook scribblings, fliers, crude audiotapes, home movie footage, TV appearances, and fuzzy live footage to tell the story of the long gone Nirvana frontman, and its a dizzying and often senses-assaulting blend, or more accurately, mess. 

The bloated biodoc, which will premiere on HBO on May 4th, was definitely the loudest doc I saw all day (enough to make some old couples leave). The effect can be jarring when cutting to the quieter interview segments which feature family members, bandmate Krist Novelselic, widow Courtney Love, and most interesting, Cobain's ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander. But for some reason, no Dave Grohl!

At 132 minutes, this is an everything but the kitchen sink doc that really should've been gutted. The animated scenes are gratuitous, there's way too much poorly shot video of Kurt and (an often topless) Courtney goofing off, and there's no reason to have two almost full songs from Nirvana's MTV Unplugged set, as legendary a landmark as it was, when that material is so well known, and arguably overplayed already.

The hodge podgy MONTAGE OF HECK has a lot of intriquing stuff in it, but its all over the place as its trying to be in your face at the same time, and that took away from what could've been a more essential, and more emotional experience. Still, hardcore fans should dig how much of it has never been seen before.

Okay! So that wraps up day 1 of Full Frame 2015. Check back tomorrow for coverage of Day Two, and for live tweeting of the event follow @filmbabble

More later...

WHILE WE'RE YOUNG: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today at an indie art house near me:

(Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2015)

“We were just 25. I mean, we weren’t, but you know,” 44-year old Josh (Ben Stiller) says to his 43-year old wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) when she asks why he suddenly wants to hang out with a couple of 25-year olds.

In writer/director Noah Baumbach’s (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, FRANCES HA) eighth film, WHILE WE'RE YOUNG, these aging Brooklynites find themselves attracted to the hipster lifestyles of Jamie (Adam Driver from the HBO show Girls), and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). This is after it’s been well established that Josh and Cornelia’s decision not to have children alienates them from their new-parent friends Fletcher (Adam Horowitz aka Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys) and Marina (Maria Dizzia).

Josh, a documentary filmmaker of little renown, is initially approached by Jamie and Darby after a class Josh teaches on filmmaking for a continuing education program. Jamie, an aspiring documentarian himself, tells Josh he loves his work (he bought an obscure VHS copy of Josh’s only film on eBay), and before you know it, Jamie and Darby are schmoozing it up with Josh and Cornelia.

An amusing montage displays how the older couple depends on their modern devices (iPhones, iPods, laptops, etc,) while the young ones revel in the retro (vinyl, VHS, typewriters, etc.). We also see Josh shopping for vintage threads with Jamie, while Cornelia bonds with Darby, whose thing is making organic artisanal ice-cream, over a hip hop dance class.

Dining with Fletcher and Marina, Josh and Cornelia rave about their new friends. Cornelia describes Jamie and Darby’s apartment as being filled with “everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it.” Josh enthusiastically adds: “you should see this guy’s record collection. It’s Jay-Z, it’s Thin Lizzy, it’s Mozart. His taste is democratic - it’s THE GOONIES and it’s CITIZEN KANE. They don't distinguish between high and low. It’s wonderful.”

Fletcher responds, “When did THE GOONIES become a good movie?” I myself have been wondering that for years.

Conflict comes when Jamie starts cozying up with Cornelia’s father, famous filmmaker Leslie Breitbart (the great, grumpy Charles Grodin), who used to mentor Josh. This makes Josh realize that his new young friend’s motivations may be questionable, as is the content of his project when it’s revealed that Jamie fudged the timeline and the Facebook angle that led to his documentary’s subject, a suicidal war veteran played by Brady Corbet.

Unfortunately this development comes off a bit contrived making the confrontational conclusion at Leslie’s memorial ceremony at Lincoln Center a bit clunky, but the overall gist of the observational humor, and drama, here is dead on.

In 2010’s GREENBURG, Baumbach and Stiller less successfully approached similar themes, but here they largely nail the unsettling feeling that fortysomething folks have coming to terms with the fact that, as Springsteen famously sang, “we ain’t so young anymore.”

Stiller, who is closer to 50 than his screen counterpart, has made a career of playing uptight characters challenged to break out of their shells, but his Josh may be the actor’s most fleshed out, and vulnerable performance. It beats the pants off of WALTER MITTY, that's for sure.

Co-stars Watts, Grodin, and Seyfried also shine, but Driver, building upon the artsy inclinations of his character on Girls, really stands out. His Jamie sharply captures the soullessness of a guy who’s spent his entire existence faking sincerity.

Such meddling millennials sure can make members of Generation X like me feel old, but Baumbach’s smart and dryly funny take on the situation in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG, helps to ease the blow.

More later...

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Gearing Up For Full Frame 2015

Tomorrow, the 18th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival will kick off at the Carolina Theatre, and the Marriott Convention Center, in downtown Durham, N.C., so I’m gearing up for the next four days of non-fiction fun.
Click here for schedule and ticket info.

This year’s roster includes a Tribute to New Jersey film maker, and POV alum, Marshall Curry; and a thematic program, involving the ethics of representation in documentary filmmaking, curated by director/producer, Jennifer Baichwal, but I’m sensing a different kind of theme happening in that docs about the long-running political magazine “The Nation,” the Ohio indie rock band The National, and the comedy publication and production company National Lampoon will be shown. Yay, nationality! I guess.

As a preview, I thought I’d highlight several of the docs I’m looking forward to this festival:

IRIS (Dir. Albert Maysles)

This profile of fashion icon Iris Apfel is the last completed film by the late, great Albert Maysles, who passed away last month at the age of 88. It screens on Thursday morning at 10:30 am, at Fletcher Hall.

(Dir. Brett Morgen)

With hope, this authorized and much buzzed about film rock doc will be the definitive biodoc of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. The trailer does look promising, but I'm not sure how I feel about the animated bits. Screens at 10 pm, Thursday, February 9th, at Cinema 1.

Master documentarian Stanley Nelson, who has made many solid docs focusing on the modern history of African Americans for PBS's “American Experience” series, may have his most incendiary subject yet in this film examing the radical Black Panther Party. Screening at 7:30 pm, Saturday, February 11th, at Fletcher Hall.

MAVIS! (Dir. Jessica Edwards)

This biodoc of the gospel legend Mavis Staples looks like a winner as well. It screens at 1:30 pm, Satuday, February 11th, at Fletcher Hall.

Finally, one of the few docs I've seen already that will be showcased this weekend at Full Frame:

HARRY & SNOWMAN (Dir. Ron Davis)

This is the incredibly touching tale of how Harry de Leyer, a Long Island, New York, riding instructor trained a horse he bought for $80 to become a world famous Champion show jumper in the late '50s and early '60s. Ultimately a story of a great friendship between man and animal, the narrative is a neatly put together essay of photos, new interviews, and, best of all, footage of Snowman's jaw-dropping jumps. Highly recommended. Screens at 4:30 pm, Saturday afternoon at Fletcher Hall.

There are lots more that I'd like to highlight, but many don't have trailers yet. Please visit back over the next several days for my coverage of the films above and many more at Full Frame 2015.

Again, click here for ticket info.

More later...

Friday, April 03, 2015

FURIOUS 7: Stunningly Stupid Stunts Frame A Fitting Farewell

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

FURIOUS 7 (Dir. James Wan 2015)

Up until recently, I hadn’t seen any of the FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies. So, not wanting to go in cold, I watched the previous six entries to catch up with the adventures of FBI agent turned outlaw Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker) and his ex-con BFF Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) before catching a screening of the latest, FURIOUS 7, which opens today. 

I really wasn’t into the series at first – after the third one, TOYKO DRIFT (a stand-alone installment with different characters than the rest), I was wondering ‘when do these start getting good?’

But then I found four through six to be enjoyably stupid formula action films filled with ridiculous over-the-top stunts, of course involving cars but also planes, trains, tanks, etc., that are somehow ridiculously in-your-face effective.

Walker, perhaps the lead protagonist of the series, was killed in a tragic automobile accident halfway through filming, but he had completed enough that it’s barely noticeable that they helped flesh out his performance with his brothers (Caleb and Cody) acting as stand-ins with Walker’s face grafted on them via CGI.

As teased, Marvel-style in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS 6, this time Walker, Diesel, and their trusty team made up of Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster face off against Jason Statham as the brother of the previous film’s villain, something they borrowed from the DIE HARD franchise I guess.

Despite the fact that he hosted Saturday Night Live last weekend to promote this movie, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sits most of this one out as Statham puts him in the hospital after a brutal fight at the Diplomatic Security Service offices.

Statham also blows up Diesel’s house (yay - explosions!), and the two almost get into an epic brawl, but it's interrupted by a smug, Belgian beer-loving Kurt Russell as a government agent, pretty much the equivalent of the role Harrison Ford played in EXPENDABLES 3.

Russell introduces the film's McGuffin: a program called “God's Eye,” which can simultaneously access every surveillance camera on the planet. The device was developed by a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who's been kidnapped by a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou), and Russell, who calls himself “Mr. Nobody,” wants Diesel to get the gang back together to rescue Ramsey, and retrieve “God's Eye,” which will lead them to the sinister Statham.

This involves the movie's biggest money shot, in which our fearless (well, except for Gibson - he shows fear) team skydive five cars out of a cargo plane in order to hijack a convoy in Azerbaijan. This jaw-dropping sequence climaxes with Walker scrambling to escape a bus before it falls off a cliff, very ITALIAN JOB-esque.

After that we get another scorching set piece that has Walker and Diesel jumping a car between the Etihad Towers complex in Abu Dhabi. Shades of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL and, unfortunately, TOWER HEIST, are inescapable, but the scene is exciting and funny enough to transcend them.

The big finale comes down to Diesel and Statham, who is simply the best villain the series has ever had (take that, Braga!) in brutal one on one combat in a collapsing parking deck, with cutaways to the other characters' own action dilemmas in a chaotic orgy of cars, grenades, drones, and helicopters. Yep, stuff gets blown up real good.

Working from a screenplay by Chris Morgan, who scripted the bulk of the F & F series, James Wan (SAW, THE CONJURING) confidently takes over from Justin Lin (director of installments 3-6), and shows that he's as suited for slick formula action tropes as he is for horror.

FURIOUS 7 is an above average assembly line action movie (especially compared to THE EXPENDABLES 3), and will delight fans of the franchise, though the biggest fans of the franchise appear to be Diesel, who co-produced, and his crew themselves. Diesel obviously genuinely means it when he says such lines like “I don't have friends, I got family,” and the concluding tribute montage to Walker reflects that sweetly.

If I didn't know he had died I don't think I would've noticed that the work they did to cover Walker's absence. Whether CGI or his brothers as body doubles, the results are solidly convincing, and the movie stands as a fitting, heartfelt farewell in full.

And yes, I teared up a bit during that closing memorial montage. To steal a line from Phil Hartman's Bill McNeil from the great '90s sitcom Newsradio: “You would have to be a robot not to cry at that movie!”

More later...