Thursday, July 28, 2011

Traverse City Film Festival Dispatch #1


Being Elmo (d. Constance Marks)
            Kevin Clash has voiced and performed the popular Sesame Street Muppet Elmo for over twenty-five years. During that time, the little red monster that exudes childlike wonder and unconditional love has become a household name, a character beloved the world over. But despite his fame (and height) most would never recognize Clash walking down the street, let alone connect him with his most famous character. Even when he’s operating the puppet on the end of his arm, both he and the character are fully alive, fully present, even though it’s still only Elmo that receives the attention. Being Elmo is a lovable showbiz biography that charts his rise to success from his early childhood days building puppets for backyard puppet shows through his initial break into children’s television, to his life today. It not only appealingly peeks behind the process of creating Muppet magic, but also provides a look at a man who has found himself living his dream performing and creating, bringing joy into the world through his art. This is a feel-good documentary that feels like a labor of love and earns every bit of its earnest uplift.

Exporting Raymond (d. Phil Rosenthal)
            When Phil Rosenthal, creator of the popular CBS sitcom of the late-90’s to early-2000’s Everybody Loves Raymond, was asked to help adapt his series for Russian television he brought a camera crew along. The end result is a small documentary that feels like reality edited into sitcom artifice. There’s an intriguing culture clash happening, as well as plenty of potential to look into the very core of what makes comedy tick, but it comes with cumbersome doses of Rosenthal’s befuddled looks into the camera, his dry reaction shots. When he meets the head of comedy for the Russian network and finds that the man is also an expert in lasers, that’s a factoid I wanted to see explored. When he finds that the writers are living their dream of “writing funny scripts,” even though it means punishing hours, I wanted him to explore further. Both moments are presented then dropped as quickly as they arrived. Rosenthal clearly knows what makes Raymond such a successful show in America, has interesting insights into his craft, and, though he certainly has interesting things to say about his time abroad, hasn’t found quite the right way to communicate them.

Hot Coffee (d. Susan Saladoff)
            In 1994, some lady sued McDonald’s because hot coffee burned her lap. It quickly became a source of laughter and derision around the country, but to this day few know the full story. In Hot Coffee, Susan Saladoff has graphic pictures of the burns to use as a shock tactic to begin setting the record straight. The woman was a 79-year-old who was severely burned by coffee that was held in the restaurant between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. When a corporate representative was asked at trial what it would be like to drink something that hot he responded that he hoped no one would do such a thing. Saladoff starts by telling this story as a way of sliding into a larger argument set on providing clarity to the murky political debate over tort reform. She argues, often persuasively, that corporate interests use the specter of frivolous lawsuits and millions of dollars worth of lobbyists and campaign contributions to greatly diminish the chances of average citizens receiving financial compensation after finding themselves a victim of neglectful activity. Though the film often succeeds at laying out its case, it’s less compelling as cinema. She has some very good footage, but it follows fairly standard issue-driven documentary procedure, and no matter how important the subject, it can’t help but take on the faint air of hopeless preaching to the choir, no matter how many under informed people-on-the-street are interviewed.

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