It's sort of ironic that the documentaries are the stars of the Sundance Film Festival but, because there are no real stars in them, they usually go ignored by the public at large. Here is a round up of some of the best that we saw during this year's festival. They probably won't be coming to a theater near you, but all of them are worth hunting down. Here are our picks for the ones you have to watch out for:
Twenty Feet from Stardom: Back Up Singers Finally Get the Spotlight
We all know the oohs and aahs that accompany our favorite songs, but most of us don't give a second thought to the background vocalists who provided them. Finally legends like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer get their due for adding all the flavor on every song from "Gimme Shelter" to "The Monster Mash," and naturally interviews with stars like Mick Jagger and Sting abound. But really this is a brooding take on talent, fame, and the desire to use one to get to the other. Each of their stories is one of struggle, but when they finally get to sing, everything else just falls away. This is a heart-rending crowd pleaser that every music fan should see. – Brian Moylan
After Tiller: Taking the Abortion Debate to a Whole New Level
In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was shot twice in the chest while attending church. Tiller was the leading advocate for third-trimester abortions, a highly protested practice that only a few people in the country — all of whom studied under the late doctor — dare to practice. After Tiller follows these men and women, who struggle with deciding which patients to bring on all while knowing they could be murdered just like their mentor. The documentary thoroughly examines the moral complexity of third-trimester abortions and paints subjects as possessing a unique type of bravery. At screenings, Sundance added extra security after receiving threats from protests groups. This is not an issue that lives only on the movie screen. - Matt Patches
The Summit: A Horrifying Climbing Documentary Comes Out on Top
It's not very often that a documentary makes you so unsettled that you feel like you're not going to be able to make it through to the end, but hat is just what happens in this Irish documentary about the most deadly expedition to climb K2, the world's second tallest mountain. Told with original footage and recreation, the scenes of people falling off the mountain and surviving avalanches is enough to give you vertigo, and the stories of human loss and survival will take an even bigger toll. – Moylan
Valentine Road: A School Slaying Guaranteed to Break Your Heart
Many people know the story of Larry King, the eighth grader who was shot by a classmate for being gay and wearing women's clothing to school. This documentary looks at Larry's life and the life of his killer, Brandon McInerney, as well as their teachers, classmates, lawyers, families, and friends to get a complete picture of what caused the murder and the toll it took on everyone involved. It's the sort of story that will make you cry from start to finish and question everything you thought you knew about justice. – Moylan
Dirty Wars: What Is Our Military Really Up To?
When President Obama announced that we had taken out Osama bin Laden, the Joint Special Operations Command became a well known military entity, praised for their contribution to the War on Terror. Before that, JSOC carried out covert assassinations and drone strikes against world citizens deemed "potentially dangerous." Dirty Wars puts investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill on a high pedestal as he traverses the world, uncovering JSOC's shrouded operations, but only because the facts he finds are so shocking. The documentary doesn't hesitate to point fingers at Obama and military figureheads in its damning examination our loose, post-9/11 rules of doing business in the Middle East. - Patches
The World According to Dick Cheney: Feeling a Little Bad for George H.W. Bush
After his eight-year run as Vice President of the United States alongside Bush Jr., even Dick Cheney's supporters were distancing themselves from the legendary politco. Through a biting one-on-one interview with the former VP, Director R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) constructs a comprehensive talking heads biography that reveals the ups and downs of Cheney's career. From alcoholism to beting booted from Yale to his amazing recruitment into the offices of Nixon and Gerald Ford, Cutler's The World According to Dick Cheney reveals the ambitious, cunning side of Cheney that helped him rise to the top and become the most influential ear-whisperer of the 21st century. Wherever you stand on the two-terms of Bush/Cheney, your opinions will be complicated by Cutler's informative doc. - Patches
Sound City: Dave Grohl's Rock Doc Makes Lots of Noise
Anyone who is anyone with a guitar and a drum kit recorded at Sound City, a famous recording studio on the outskirts of LA. Everyone from Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks to Nirvana and Rick Springfield. This is the story of the studio's rise and eventual closing which is a fascinating slice of rock history. The last act slows down considerably as direct Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, you idiot) talks about saving the recording equipment from the studio and getting together Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney, Nicks, and others to record new songs on the old technology. – Moylan
Stories We Tell: A Heartbreaking Family Saga Like Nothing You've Ever Seen
There isn't really a category for director Sarah Polley's story of her family. Five years in the making, she interviewed her siblings and father about her mother's death from cancer when she was only 10 years old. It seems like it would be some awful narcissistic exploration, but thanks to the secrets her mother left behind, which are deftly revealed to the audience, it's a nail biter about the lies we tell to each other and the stories we tell that shape who we are.
Life According to Sam: A Real Life 'Jack' Won't Let Disease Keep Him Down
Out of the entire world population, approximately 250 people have Progeria. The disease accelerates aging, turning normal 14-year-old kids into 74-year-olds. There is no cure or even a treatment. When Leslie and Scott Berns discovered their son Sam had Progeria, they turned to doctors for help. The medical world came back empty handed. Instead of waiting for their child to die, the two sprung into action, starting the first research and testing initiative to find answers for Progeria. HBO's Life According to Sam manages to inspire in two distinct ways: Leslie's on-going quest to save both her son and the Progeria patients around the world through FDA approved drugs, and Sam's own existence, a battle to ignore his disease and live a normal middle schooler life. Both story lines will bring tears (of joy) to your eyes. - Patches
Who Is Dayani Crystal?: Humanizing America's Immigration Problem
The answer to the question of the title is revealed pretty quickly as co-director Gael García Bernal reenacts the journey that a Hondouran immigrant made through the Arizona desert to try to make it to the U.S. This is spliced together with the American authorities trying to determine the indentity of his body after it is found under a tree in the desert and his family remembering his life and his desire to get to America to make money from his family. Scattered and slow and not quite sure what it wants to be, the documentary sets out to put a face to the immigrants that come to this country and it achieves that goal spectacularly. – Moylan
99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film: They're Not So Aimless After All
We went in depth to the riveting, crowdsourced documentary earlier this week, but the film's shocking imagery and call-to-arms message continues to haunt our memories. Interviewing everyone from OWS members to political analysts to struggling citizens of the United States completely removed from the protest movement, 99% digs to deep to find the true message of Occupy and put naysayers to rest. - Patches
Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer: Russia's Most Famous Band Goes on Trial
Anyone who followed the story of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist activist punk band that was imprisoned for performing in a Moscow church, will know just about everything already in this film. While it delves into the case and the fascinating politics that spurned it more deeply than the average news article, it doesn't offer any synthesis or observation beyond the factual. It's a good story but this documentary doesn't quite achieve greatness. – MoylanKink: A Walk on Porn's Wild Side
If you don't know what it is, don't go searching Kink.com right now. Wait until you're alone or at a computer where no one will mind that you're looking at porn. This look inside the world's leading purveyor of dominant/submissive and sadio/masochistic porn is sexually graphic, but is at its best when it's showing you that it is an average work place just like any other, but with a bunch of absurd problems that no one else would experience at their jobs. It's about 30 minutes too long (and only a 90 minute film) but if it were trimmed down for HBO (after midnight, of course) it would be a thrilling and titillating slice of life that many are curious about but few get to see. – Moylan
[Photo Credit: Cutler Productions]
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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S2E15: All I have to say is, “Aw.” Community was funny as always, but this time around we got a little of that sentimental charm that we know they’ve got under all that snark. It’s Valentine’s Day at Greendale, and unlike last year, everyone’s become comfortable and they’re more like a family which means the episode played heavily on that element, but of course there was plenty of other craziness as well. Need I even mention the girl on girl action towards the end? I bet you dudes are still rejoicing over that early Valentine’s Day present.
“Is she…a friend of Ellen?” –Annie
The cold open treated us to a little rundown of everyone’s issues for the episode; Troy and Abed have the hots for the librarian, Britta is friends with a lesbian, Jeff is heartless but trying to chang(e) and Pierce is becoming addicted to those meds of his. By far the best part of the open was the end. Britta has a lesbian friend and yet there’s no commentary from Pierce; this is of course because he’s prepared a long, written statement (on parchment paper?) for such an occasion. I loved the way they let him prepare himself, change glasses and then cut it off right when he started to speak. The writers are well aware of what the joke was; they know that the prep was what’s funny and they don’t kill it by including Pierce’s commentary, which in turn made the whole exchange that much funnier.
“She holds the key to all our questions like, ‘Will you marry me?’ and ‘Why are there still libraries?’” –Abed
This is cute. Troy and Abed both have a crush on the librarian, so naturally they approach the problem in a head-on, rational nature as to preserve their bromantic relationship. They ask her rationally to choose one of them, but since she doesn’t know either of them, she goes on a three-way date with both at the dance so she can make a more well-informed decision. Besides the fact that she looks a little old for both of them, they both take her to the dance where Abed tries to impress her with his knowledge of the Saw series and Troy tries by doing this dance which I want to watch over and over and over. (Thank you, internet, for capturing it so perfectly in that GIF.)
After it all goes down, Mariah the librarian chooses Troy because she thinks Abed is too weird to date. Ah hellllll no. When Troy immediately burst out of the auditorium yelling, “I hate her, I hate her, I HATE HER,” I actually said “AW!” out loud. This is the type of Valentine’s Day we should be getting from Community. No real mushy, romantic stuff, but the stuff that binds the show together. As cheesy as it sounds, the friendships on the show are strong and I doubt I’m the only one who loves seeing them come together. Besides, how great was the part where Troy is hugging Abed and says, “Just ignore her,” when Mariah walks by with that smug look on her face?
“I never thought you were cool. I just thought you were a lesbian.” –Paige
Of course, Britta’s friend is actually her match in every way. No, she’s not actually a lesbian. She’s just as douchey as Britta; they both think the other is a lesbian, and are friends because they think they’re challenging stereotypes. This of course leads to them making out at the Valentine’s Day dance (go ahead and keep celebrating, dudes) and then the secret comes out. I thought this was an interesting twist on the usual sitcom “Oh wait, you’re a lesbian?” storyline and I liked how much it played on Britta’s elitism. There’s also the fact that Britta’s daring make-out move kind of inspired Annie (here comes that dual personality again) to try and make out with Britta. Sorry guys. You’re not that lucky.
“In England, fanny means vagina, right?” –Chang
“In England, everything means vagina.” –Professor Duncan
After Jeff blows up at the study group and insults the “godly” Bare-Naked Ladies to the group’s severe disappointment, he storms off because he declares that they’re fighting. Here’s the main romantic conflict, the fated relationship of the show, Jeff and the Study Group, are having a tiff, but will they fix things in time to have a happy Valentine’s Day? It’s a typical sitcom Valentine plot, but played out with the group instead of a smultzy couple.
Because Jeff is a stylish American who’s forced himself to like soccer, he and Duncan watch the Manchester United game in his bare, cement, sad (but oh-so stylish) apartment. Of course, Chang is around to overhear their plans and shows up donning Man.U. colors but looking more like an Asian Where’s Waldo. He starts wreaking havoc on Jeff’s apartment before inviting Starburns and friends over for a rager so that he can crash on Jeff’s couch. Apparently, the Shirley thing pissed off his wife (oh yeah, he’s married!) and he’s homeless now. Jeff kicks him out but eventually changes his mind because he’s realizing that as much as he’s resisted, he really belongs at Greendale now and Chang is like that annoying kid in elementary school who had no friends but meant well. He really just needs someone to take him under their wing and help him out, so Jeff does. Aw. This chang(e) of heart convinces Jeff to end the fight and confess his love to the study group. Double aw.
“Bon appetit.” –Pierce
Wow. That was a graphic comment for Britta and her new friend, but probably the most perfect thing Pierce could have said. I’m really starting to like him again. This week, he was getting way too into those painkillers he’s been using post-trampoline accident and mini-Andy Dick who was the imaginary tiny pilot in his remote control plane during the trampoline episode is back. He was a bit annoying, personifying the effect of the drugs and demanding that Pierce keep taking them to escape. “Intervention, intervention, intervention?” Thanks, Annie. Jeff squashes that and this is the factor that rips the group apart in the first place. Though the group eventually recovers, Pierce does not. The episode ends with him lying unconscious on a park bench. Yikes, Community’s getting a bit dark.
“Be mine.” –Abed
Aw, Valentine’s Day cuteness. This was a little old school and not as creative as more recent tags, but it was true to the bromance, so what the hell. Happy Valentine’s Day!
S2E14: Ah, another Modern Family Valentine’s Day episode. I guess its a little unfair to say that considering there has been only one other - ah forget it. IMAGINE ME NAAAAAAKED!
This was a fantastic episode, but the reappearance of Dylan on the flatbed truck, with full band in tow and a new song dedicated to Haley? Icing on the cake, my friends. Combine that with Phil and Claire getting it on, Jay and Gloria riding wild on their new bike, and Cam and Mitchell celebrating a quiet evening all at the same time? Glorious.
What made it so perfect, besides being hilarious, was that each family represented a different aspect of the same theme. As we’ve seen, when every family is connected (even by the smallest thread) it makes the episode better as a whole. The theme this week, at least for me, was what makes being in a relationship awesome: Dylan showing Haley romance through theatrics, Phil and Claire showing it by getting it on, Jay and Gloria by trying to make the other happy, and Cam and Phil by just being content with each other. It was sweet, totally unnecessary, flamboyant, heartwarming, and funny. Basically what Valentines Day is really all about.
Before getting into the individual story lines - I just have to point out the reservation at Ibiza’s. Each couple used the SAME reservation, all at different times, and each for different reasons. And if we think the coda where Cam and Mitchell order take out is from Valentine’s night, then no family actually ate at the restaurant. It's a little thing, but it separates Modern Family from the rest.
"I’m usually good at catching things from women in bars." -Phil
Phil and Claire start off this year’s Valentine’s Day doing the opposite of what they did last year, i.e. trying to keep the passion going. They make reservations at a swanky place but when they’re surrounded by old people (and Phil takes off in a Jazzy) Claire decides to rekindle the spark. So once again out comes Julianna and Clive Bixby. And once again, Phil messes everything up. He doesn’t understand the subtleties of Claire’s ruse but in Phil’s defense, I wouldn’t want to upset Claire either so his actions are sorta justifiable. But he grabs the wrong key and ends up in some lady’s hotel room. Hijinks ensued.
"It defeats the purpose of Valentine’s Day if you make it into some silly competition." -Jay
"Shut up, I win." -Gloria
Jay and Gloria started off the weaker story this week (turns out there weren’t any weak stories this week), but by the end it redeemed itself. Jay wanted to trick Gloria into thinking he had forgotten and flubbed up Valentine’s Day when he had actually catered a fancy dinner back at the house. The reservation screw up was just a red herring. But when they get back, the dinner and show weren’t set up. Turns out Gloria had turned one on him and set up the dinner in the garage. And also bought him a motorcycle. Take that, Gloria’s dress, and her line “Shut up, I win” and we have one of the stronger Jay and Gloria stories this season.
"‘Well pick out china and move to Vermont." -Mitchell
Cam and Mitchell was another surprisingly good story this week. Cam is initially jealous of Mitchell’s new assistant who Cam thinks has a crush on Mitchell. Mitchell denies it but secretly enjoys it. But then Cam comes to the office one day and realizes that the assistant actually has a thing for him. Or so he thinks. They get into a petty argument (again) about who is recipient of the crush and they’re about to drive over to the dude’s house when he texts Mitchell his resignation. Of course, he doesn’t make it clear who he had the hots for but it was a sweet ending. Also, the return of Cam’s bike shorts? Still one of the best dick jokes on network television.
"She’s had the romantic. She’s had the intelligent. Now how about all that in one little brown package?" -Manny
Then we come to the kids. I’ve just about come to the conclusion that each week will have one kid missing and probably for child labor law reasons, but this week we actually see every kid but Luke doesn’t say anything! HOW CAN YOU TEASE US LIKE THIS MODERN FAMILY? NOT COOL, BRO.
Anyway, Haley breaks up with her latest BF, the nerd. She’s feeling unsure about this but luckily the doctor of love himself, Manny, is there to swoop in and sweep her off her feet. Haley is apprehensive at first but eventually listens to his advice, but then Dylan shows up with the flatbed and she runs right back into his arms. Awwwwww. Then a very odd thought popped into my head. I know Manny’s relationship to Haley is supposed to be like a boyhood crush, but Manny is Haley’s uncle. Step uncle, but uncle still. Which makes Manny a well articulated creepy uncle. You’re welcome for that thought.
Firing a rather tepid opening salvo in Hollywood’s annual Valentine’s Day rom-com blitz is When in Rome starring Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall TV’s Veronica Mars) and Josh Duhamel (Turistas the Transformers flicks) and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider Daredevil). You read that correctly: Johnson a guy who gave us two critically-reviled comic book flicks was tapped by Disney to direct a movie entirely devoid of acrobatic fight sequences or computerized visual effects the only filmmaking skills for which he’s received consistent praise. Hmmm ... maybe this is why Dick Cook was fired.
Bell plays Beth a high-strung New York City museum curator whose frustration over her barren love life spills over at her sister’s wedding in Rome where she winds up drunkenly splashing around in the city’s fictional “Fontana D’Amore.” The embarrassing but harmless episode takes a momentous turn however when Beth absentmindedly steals a handful of coins from the fountain unknowingly triggering an ancient Italian curse. Soon she’s romantically besieged by a diverse and highly aggressive group of oddballs played by Danny DeVito Dax Shepard Will Arnett and Jon Heder — the very men whose coins she plucked from the fabled fountain.
The concept isn’t entirely without potential but When in Rome’s script takes the quartet of previously funny actors and comedically castrates them forcing them to survive this creative Dust Bowl on precisely one joke apiece. DeVito playing a sausage magnate emits only meat-related quips; Shepard’s self-obsessed model explores the comic possibilities of his washboard stomach; hapless street artist Arnett plasters the city with nude portraits of his unrequited love; and Heder’s wannabe magician mounts a series of botched magic tricks. (In a gag that might have been funny back in 2004 Efren Ramirez Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro enjoys a cameo as Heder’s videographer. He’s this week’s winner of the Jeff Zucker “How Does This Guy Have a Job?” Award.)
All of which serves to delay the inevitable coupling of Bell and Duhamel two likable leads who gamely trudge through material so inane so bland — and so safe — that it could fit comfortably in one of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s increasingly soporific family comedies. In fact I’m not even sure if When in Rome made use of the standard PG-13 allotment of one F-word (used in a non-sexual manner of course). Expect to hear it used liberally however by fellow audience members as the credits roll on this middling debacle.