Saturday, April 05, 2014

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2014: Day Two

Like with yesterday's weather and thematic content, the second day of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival held at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, N.C. and a few adjoining venues started out all serious and grim, but ended up on the sunny side.

I kicked off my Friday at the fest with EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL, the first full length feature doc by NYU-grad Darius Clark Monroe. I found it to be a stirringly emotional experience as it deals with Monroe coming completely clean about a bank robbery in Houston he took part in when he was 16 (he's in his 30s now).

The very personal film retraces the steps that led to the crime, via confessional interviews with Monroe, family members, and witnesses/victims, and detailed recreations that are full of momentum and appear to be dry runs for the director to make a full-out drama. EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL is a straight forward, honest film about owning your past mistakes, and it's a damn fine debut too.

This year, award-winning filmmaker Steve James (HOOP DREAMS, THE INTERRUPTERS) is getting the Full Frame Tribute with screenings of a selection of his acclaimed work. I usually skip older docs at this fest that I can easily see streaming or on disc in favor of the new exclusives, but I decided to check out one of James' works I hadn't gotten around to yet: 2005's REEL PARADISE. This one had me right from the get go because I was familiar with its protagonist, John Pierson (I read his book: “Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema” back in the '90s), and I loved the premise of a film lover relocating his family to Fiji so that he can run free movies in a crumbling old theater in the jungle. Shots of Pierson's audiences at the at the 288-seat 180 Meridian Cinema, mostly children, laughing like crazy at broad commercial fare like BRINGIN' DOWN THE HOUSE prove that's there's at least something redeeming about that movie.

The debate between Pierson and his son Wyatt over whether APOCALYPSE NOW or JACKASS will connect with the movie-going kids is amusing, but at times it feels like disjointed episodes of a reality TV show that gets caught up in less interesting story-lines than its original premise. Still, Pierson and his family's year-long adventure hosting one of the most remote cinemas ever mostly makes for some wonderfully watchable stuff.

The following doc, Salvo Cuccia's SUMMER '82 WHEN ZAPPA CAME TO SICILY, making its North American premiere, was of particular interest to me because I was a big Frank Zappa fan when I was younger. I drifted away from the eclectic musician's weird sprawling oeuvre over the years, but retained a certain respect that was confirmed watching this excellent examination of both a controversial concert in Palermo, Italy in 1982 and the Zappa family connections to that region of the country.

Archival footage of the show, which escalated quickly into a riot, is at the center of the doc, but the newer material concerning Zappa's widow Gale, his offspring Dweezil, Moon Unit, and Diva joining one of Frank's best friends, Massimo Bassoli, to meet some of their Sicilian relatives is what makes this maybe the most moving doc I've seen so far this year. Bassoli and director Cuccia were on hand for a Q & A after the screening that was more unintentionally funny than it was insightful, due to how little English that Cuccia spoke.

The final film for my Friday at Full Frame was a doozy: SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON, the directorial debut doc of Mike Myers (yes, Mike SNL/WAYNE'S WORLD/AUSTIN POWERS Myers). Myers gives charismatic manager Shep Gordon his biodoc due in a poppy portrait that covers the man hyping Alice Cooper into a star, out-partying Teddy Pendergrass, dating Sharon Stone, and creating the cult of the celebrity chef, all the while maintaining some sort of Zen nonchalance.

Scores of hilarious anecdotes told by dozens of stars (Myers even chimes in but sparingly), along with period footage, and a smidgeon of comic recreations, all add up to a heartfelt love letter of a movie. Afterward, Gordon was there to answer questions, moderated by Full Frame Director of Programming Sadie Tillery, and the guy came off even more affably easygoing than in the film, especially for a guy who used to wear a t-shirt that said: “No head no backstage pass. Gordon even told one of the questioners who said he lived near him in Maui to come by for dinner somtime - he always has an open-door policy.

That's all for now, I'm getting a little verklempt.

More later...

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