Documentaries in Competition at RiverRun

March 31, 2012

There are nine documentaries competing for the award for Best Documentary at the RiverRun International Film Festival.

There was not a screener available for me to preview The Queen of Versailles. a riches to rags story about a couple building the biggest house in America, but I have seen the other eight.  Overall, it’s a very strong program of films; here are my picks in order:

Ethel.  One of my favorites is Ethel, a film about Ethel Kennedy directed by Rory Kennedy, the daughter Ethel was carrying when her husband Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.  The documentary makes great use of archival materials – it’s a good thing rich people used to shoot home movies on 16mm film – and it is polished and interesting.  I do wish a little more attention was paid to Ethel’s life after her husband’s death, but the film still presents a vivid portrait of her as a strong individual.

Chasing Ice.  I particularly like one of the two environmental films in the mix.  Chasing Ice documents one man’s incredible photographic quest to document the shrinking of glaciers in different countries.  Amazing visuals and a strong story to go along with them.

Love Free or Die.  This film covers the skirmishes in the Episcopalian church over ordaining gay bishops and sanctifying gay marriages in states where they are legal.  I didn’t learn much from the film because I have heard coverage on NPR and in major newspapers, but for people who are not familiar with the work of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, it’s a good primer on the issue.

The Boy Who Was a King.  I thought The Boy Who Was a King was the most beautifully photographed of the films along with Chasing IceThe Boy Who Was a King is about the last king of Bulgaria, who is displaced at age 9 then returned as Prime Minister after decades in exile.  Let’s just say he has a bumpy ride as an elected official.

Indie Game:  The Movie.  I didn’t know about independently produced video games for XBOX live, games like Super Meat Boy and Braid and Fez, until I saw Indie Game:  The Movie.  The first half hour drags a little, but the final hour sails along at an engaging clip.  That’s the problem with a number of docs, really, the story is often established in less than 90 minutes, but filmmakers feel compelled to extend the film to what they consider feature length.

Jiro Dreams of Suchi.  This film is about an 85-year old man who runs a ten-seat restaurant inside a bland-looking office building in Tokyo that has the best sushi in the world and three Michelin stars to prove it.  Lunch there costs something like $360 and must be booked weeks in advance.  At little uneven at times but fun to watch.

The Island President. This is the second environmental film in the group and covers efforts of the president of the Maldives to fight rising tides of global warming that threaten his island nation.  Unfortunately, the film focuses a little too much on international meetings to develop a stronger storyline that connects viewers to daily lives of the island citizens and challenges they already face.

Detropia.  This is the latest film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, and it looks at the challenges facing Detroit after the collapse of the automobile industry.  I loved their film Jesus Camp and think this latest work suffers a bit from not having indelible characters and the striking context that marked the earlier film.  It feels a bit underdeveloped.




March 28, 2012

Why are there so many great shows on Sunday nights?  I can’t DVR more than two at a time.  Fortunately, some of them are available on demand, but still…I resent this.

Spread the programming wealth (and there is some) across the week.

More on Morgan and THE HUNGER GAMES

March 27, 2012

How nice to meet someone whose work you admire and find that he is grounded, gracious, and immensely entertaining.

Morgan Spurlock spoke for about an hour and a half at the Reynolda Film Festival (engaging the audience the entire time) then answered lots of questions.  Afterward, he interacted with the festival organizers and invited guests at a private reception.

What a great guy.

Big switch now (get ready!) to The Hunger Games.  The film is a faithful adaptation of the book that downplays the violence a bit to get the PG-13 rating, but it’s pretty solid as a film.

Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is softer than the heroine in the book, but that’s probably to be expected in this type of film.  Would I have preferred the harder edge?  Yes.  Does the adaptation diminish the book?  No.  The film moves along at a brisk clip, and the central ideas of the novel are intact on screen.

All in all, I liked it.  After all, books and movies are different things and should be considered that way.

I went to the movie with my niece, a discerning viewer who had not read the book.  She “got it” in terms of the major story elements (I’ve heard some devotees of the book complain that certain ideas and characters are minimized in the film) and seemed to enjoy the movie a lot.

In fact, now she plans to download the book!

Morgan Spurlock

March 23, 2012

I’m really looking forward to Morgan Spurlock’s keynote address tonight at the Reynolda Film Festival (for information, check out

His latest doc was one of my favorite films of last year (see text of previous post below), and I remember the life-changing effect his film Supersize Me had on my son:  he stopped drinking soft drinks and eating fast food for years.  He’s still off the soft drinks, but I think he does occasionally to go McDonald’s now for coffee.

Previous Post:

I loved Morgan Spurlock’s new film, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.  Spurlock, who burst on the scene in 2004 with Supersize Me, has created a polished, mature, and very important film that looks at the role product placement plays in the entertainment business. 

This is a funny but very smart film that deserves to be widely seen.  You won’t regret searching it out!


The Hunger Games

March 22, 2012

This morning I appeared on the WGHP Morning News to talk about The Hunger Games with Cindy Farmer.  She’s pretty enthusiastic about the series of books and plans to see the film tonight at midnight.

Though I won’t to see the movie until Sunday, I’m kind of excited, too, thanks to my students.

At the beginning of the semester, I asked students enrolled in Film Theory and Criticism if there was anything in particular they wanted to learn more about; I didn’t make any promises but felt there was a little room in the syllabus to respond to their interests.

Several suggested talking about book-to-screen adaptations and, specifically, The Hunger Games.  Despite the fact that the film was shot in North Carolina (more on that later), I had never warmed to the storyline.  Two kids from twelve national districts selected at random to fight to the death?  On television?  Not appealing.

But, I agreed because some of them seemed so enthusiastic about the series.

Good thing I did because the book is actually quite the page-turner, and now I’m excited about seeing the movie, too.   An additional inducement for me is that Jennifer Lawrence is the lead.  She was terrific in my favorite film year before last, Winter’s Bone.

As for the North Carolina angle, this is an economic development success story.  I serve on the Piedmont Triad Film Commission, which is an entity geared to bringing film production to the Triad area, helping productions with logistical matters while on location, and helping connect the local crew base to the jobs.

Though not shot in the Triad, The Hunger Games was shot exclusively on location in North Carolina (mostly in the western part of the state around Asheville but also in Concord, Shelby, and Charlotte) and pumped over 60 million dollars into the state economy.  There were over 600 positions for our well-trained, local crew base and 5,000 jobs that were connected to the production in some less direct way (this might include food service and hotel jobs, for example).

North Carolina offers a 25% tax credit incentive program for productions over a certain budget, and that has helped bring new business into the state.  Last year was the biggest year to date for film production in North Carolina with 40 feature film projects bringing in 220 million dollars in revenue.  That doesn’t include all of the commercials, educational projects, and promotional films shot here.

There are hopes that the film (which is projected to be wildly successful) will not just spur more film production but will also give tourism a boost.  This is a potential win-win-win:  good movie, good employment for North Carolina crew, and tourism growth in western North Carolina.

More reasons to go see The Hunger Games.

Tim Tebow Redux

March 21, 2012

Uh…Tim Tebow is not going to know what hit him in NY.  But, I still say, Tebowing is best done in private.

Tim Tebow

March 20, 2012

No, this is not a sports post.  Not really.

I’m happy, though, that Peyton Manning is going to the Broncos and hope that sooner rather than later the hoopla about Tim Tebow will die out.

The problem for me is not that he can’t throw.  The problem for me is that the fanatics who follow him lower the national discourse on faith.  I’m just sayin’.