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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Get your texting fingers ready, people, because this is it: The first live show of the season. Well, the first totally live show. In fact, I know it was live because Cat Deeley accidentally referred to Mary Murphy as Mia Michaels while she was introducing the judges. We’re off to a good start in Season 9.
No one went home tonight, but the contestants’ longevity depends the most heavily on this episode, because whoever sucked tonight is going home next week.
That’s right: Four dancers—four!—will be sent home at the end of next week’s show. Whoever couldn’t get America behind them after four minutes of screen time this week will suffer the consequences by getting the ax next week. America would cast its vote after this show, and the night’s laggards will be toast next week.
The top 20 kicked off the telecast with a full-cast, terror-at-the-workplace, Mad Men-y number set to a very sinister, Requiem for a Dream-esque track. After that, Cat introduced them all for the first time, and I spent most of that time wondering how I would spell all of these names correct for the next 10 weeks (Chehon? Dareian? Witney with no H? Clearly, Jef with one F belongs on this show, not on The Bachelorette).
The guest judge for this week was Kenny Ortega, joining “the legend” Mary Murphy and “Lord of the Dance” Nigel Lythgoe. After Nigel reminded us to vote early and often because four people will go home next week, Witney and Chehon—the first couple up—were given nine seconds each to tell America everything it must know about them. Witney with no H told that she’s afraid of crickets and has a big family. Chehon with too many H’s talked too fast about his bilingual brain. Their samba routine was supposed to be super sexy and, as Chubbs Petersen would say, all in the hips, which was clearly meant to favor Witney and force Chehon into a fierce departure from the ballet he’s accustomed to.
Nevertheless, Chehon was really working those hips, even if it was distracting that he was dressed like Marc Anthony in 1985. Witney, as usual, was wearing something that was pink, barely there and a size too small, and her hair was big and her countenance was even bigger. Together, they were cute, animated and exciting, if a bit tacky and over the top. That’s the nature of the samba beast, I suppose.
Nigel told Witney “the firecracker” that she looked and danced like a star—heck, she is a star. Meanwhile, he told Chehon the afterthought that he needs to stop overcompensating for his turnout by turning his feet in and making himself bowlegged; he also needs to have more fun with it and remember that this is not classical. Personally, I don’t see how there was any way that either of them could have been more over the top, but I’ll take Nigel’s word for it. Mary seconded the fact that Chehon had major foot issues, and she still thinks Witney is on the train (vom). Girl is getting the Class-A Lauren Alaina Treatment, and it’s only the first week. Kenny kept his critique totally realistic by telling Witney she was like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, but hotter. Glad we’re keeping our feet on the ground, here. As Cat ran through their phone numbers, I wondered if votes for either of these two still count if their names are spelled wrong.
Next up, Tiffany told us her nickname is T-Mahar-Star and George Lawrence II told us that his dad is George Lawrence I. Thanks for that. And thank God for normal names!!! Sonya choreographed their classical routine about star-crossed lovers who melt into butter when they’re together because she was going for something totally original. In all seriousness, these two had a legitimate genuine connection, even if their routine did look and sound a little bit like Disney On Ice. I dug it. Against all odds, they did somehow accomplish the art of melting into each other. I couldn’t tell if they were making out when the lights down at the end, but I’ll allow it, anyway.
The two of them weren’t quite at train-level for Mary, but regardless, Tiffany and George rendered her breathless by surrendering themselves to the choreography. Mary told George he was one of the best dancers in the competition, and her praise for Tiffany wasn’t quite as effusive, but she was impressed nonetheless. Kenny spent most of his critique kissing Sonya’s booty before going on a tangent about how the routine made him nostalgic for his own youth. Nigel told George and Tiffany they were a wonderful couple of superb dancers, and they performed through the ends of their fingertips.
All around, no complaints here. I worry they were too forgettable, especially on the heels of Witney and Chehon’s firecrackery-ness, but hopefully America appreciated their subtlety.
In her nine seconds, Janaya told us that she hates Chucky and loves Shamu; her partner, Brandon the Stepper, told us he’s allergic to dogs and his brother just broke the world long-jump record for eight-year-olds. I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. Their hip hop routine told a story of a struggle with addiction (glad we were keeping it light this evening!), and in the rehearsal, it came complete with a very dramatic smashing of a beer bottle which was sadly cut for the live show. It was definitely very Save the Last Dance for Me, but unlike George’s and Tiffany’s routine, this one was lively and modern and was set to music that was produced in this century. Technically, was it as impressive as the first two routines? Not at all. Will it get more votes? Most definitely.
I have to say, I wasn’t really getting the struggling-alcoholic vibe, but the judges didn’t seem to mind. Kenny stumbled through a critique in which he commended hip hop as a genre for telling a deeper story. Nigel called out Janaya for her “supple back” and told her she needs to get down deeper and dirtier when she’s doing hip hop, then gave Brandon credit for choosing Janaya over vodka. Things got real for a second when he told both of them they need to be much better if they want to avoid getting voted off quickly, and Mary, too, told Janaya she needs to be grittier, then agreed that Brandon did an excellent job of getting into character.
Next up were Alexa and Daniel. Because all we knew about Alexa at this point was that she’s dead inside (thanks, Tyce and Adam!), she spastically informed us that she loves red lipstick and sprinkles, even though they don’t taste like anything. Daniel Baker the Australian told us he is Australian and that he’s related to Crocodile Dundee. Again—is he serious?
Their quirky, sexy number promised to take a lot of stamina and required serious teamwork, given all the twisting and lifting and potential for falling. The two of them, dressed in red satin suits from the Hollie Cavanagh Collection, began their number in a cage and definitely got the most points for teamwork and agility. They weren’t lying—this routine was a B-word. Even without their bright red costumes and their blinding blondeness, these two showed up everyone who came before them. I don’t know if any of the other pairs had the athleticism, concentration or the flat-out talent to pull this one off.
Nigel said the routine was admirably intricate, but given the level of difficulty, it was hard for the two of them to forge a connection with one another—and he told them to be careful of “smiling for the sake of it” instead of finding a genuine emotional connection to the material. Mary said the routine was exciting and red-hot, but agreed that Alexa and Daniel didn’t have much of a connection. Kenny admitted the routine was remarkably difficult and appreciated their ability, but in one of his only cogent critiques of the night, he wasn’t incredibly impressed with their performance itself. Somehow, though, I don’t think the lack of connection is going to hurt them this week. Must be all that red.
NEXT: Amber hates sausage
Next up, Amber told us she used to run track, loves bunnies and hates sausage. Ballroom dancer Nick told us he took 23 course credits (this year? this lifetime?) but, in the most self-congratulatory possible way, doesn’t recommend it to anyone. Nick—who, by the way, isn’t dramatic at all—somehow managed to find a way to feel the pressure crashing down on his shoulders despite the fact that this ballroom routine fell right into his wheelhouse, while Amber merely shrugged and got on with the show.
I was a little distracted by Amber’s pretty white princess dress, but even I could tell that the climax of the routine was perfectly in tune with the climax of their track. It may or may not have given me chills. In terms of a connection, these two had the best one tonight, and it was doubtlessly enhanced by excellent choreography. (Props, Jason.)
Mary said the whole routine was dreamy and floaty and flowy, and Amber’s leg and arm extensions were superb. Kenny went with a word association technique to formulate his own critique: “Fluid. Flowing. Lovely.” Nigel compared Jason to a Dance Mom because he was so hard on poor little Nick during rehearsals, then told the ballroom stud that the tough love brought out the best in him. In the future, however, Nick needs to refrain from grimacing while dancing. Despite the glowing critiques, though, Nigel gave both Amber and Nick the Simon Cowell Kiss of Death by telling them he was crossing his fingers for both of them because he didn’t quite think they inspired the audience enough to earn votes.
Next: Silent Movie Amelia. In her requisite nine seconds, she told us she’s named after Amelia Earhart because her cool tattoo-artist dad likes planes. Will, her partner, told us he sometimes gets confused and thinks he’s Simba from The Lion King. Or something. Tabitha and Napoleon saddled them with a jazz hip hop routine based on “cool cat characters” that takes place in a seedy back alley, then criticized them in rehearsals for not taking it seriously enough.
Apparently, they had no problem getting serious for the live show, because their routine was somehow goofy and gritty and old-timey but still cool and sassy. Maybe it was all the leather they were wearing. This was definitely one of my favorites of the night, and apparently, the audience felt the same way—Amelia and Will two got the loudest applause of the night. The routine was both classic and modern; it was both funny and intimidatingly good.
Kenny told Amelia very creepily that if he had a kitty like her, he’d play with her all day. Clearly, it was past his bedtime. Nigel told Will and Amelia they were one of the best early partnerships and commended them for their personality without having to try too hard. Mary said they were purr-fect—hilarious—then gave Tabitha and Napoleon props for creating the perfect routine for these two dancers. Most importantly, this performance was certainly the most memorable thus far. These two are totally safe.
Janelle the belly-dancer was up next. She likes to cook and likes roller coasters. Her partner, Dareian Kujawa, can do an excellent Donald Duck impression and used to play hockey. They were both saddled with a fast, African dance-inspired routine that was even more difficult than Alexa’s and Daniel’s.
It was set to a rousing drumline and involved lots of crawling, writhing, pulling and pushing on the floor, and it was definitely the most impressive performance of the night: Both Janelle and Dareian were both perfectly in sync, and neither of them missed a single step, which was a major blessing—the routine was so fast that if either of them had, it would have been totally over. It was immediately evident that these are, technically speaking, two of the top dancers in the competition.
Nigel loved the routine and said that, unlike Alexa and Daniel, these parnters were truly connected to one another. He insured Janelle’s place in the competition by running through Janelle’s abundant injuries and giving her major props for still managing to stand upright, then he gave Dareian some credit for his opening-number pirouettes (quite impressive, I must say). Mary called the routine a “jungle dance-off” in which both competitors finished dead even, and Kenny said they set the place on fire. None of the judges were remotely worried that either Janelle or Dameian would be in trouble next week, and they’re probably right.
Next up was what I’d been waiting for all night: Cyrus! Oh, and Eliana the ballet dancer. He is a Pisces and loves basketball, and she loves True Blood. Well, she’s my new favorite! Their Hairspray-inspired Broadway routine, choreographed by Tyce, was quite a departure for our resident animator, particularly because he’s never done choreography. Oh God.
This was much more the Eliana show than the Cyrus show, but he seemed pretty content to kind of hide behind his partner’s talent. It wasn’t a bad performance, but he didn’t really … do much. As Nigel might say, there weren’t really enough moves. Overall, the whole thing relied a bit too much on the acting and not enough on the dancing, but judging by Tyce’s excessive clapping and mugging and jumping up and down, he wasn’t all that disappointed.
Mary raved that Cyrus and Eliana brought more than enough personality and heart to the stage, and I have to agree. Aside from Amelia and Will, this was the only other couple that seemed semi-alive during the performance, and honestly, that’s what a Broadway routine is all about. Kenny said he felt like he was in New York, watching in a Broadway house. Nigel kept it real and told Cyrus he’s not yet a great dancer, but he still immerses himself 100 percent, which helps him get away with it. He told Eliana the routine didn’t really show off her full skill set, but she’s still the benchmark against which all the other females will be measured this year.
NEXT: Audrey and Matt Unchained
Next up, Audrey told us she can fart with her neck. We already know that. Her partner Matt is a cat person with six tattoos. Travis Wall choreographed their routine, based on Titanic—the centerpiece, of course, was the infamous nudey-Kate Winslet couch. Well, not that exact couch, but one that was supposed to look exactly like it.
I’m pretty sure “Unchained Melody” didn’t exist when the Titanic set sail, but I’ll let it go. This was a little corny and angsty for me, but it was one of the few classical routines of the night and really showed off both Audrey’s and Matt’s skill sets, unlike too many of the night’s routines. A lot of the choreography revolved around Matt tossing tiny Audrey all over the place, but it worked because he managed to do it rhythmically, in perfect time with the music. They were cute together, and they got the first standing O of the night.
Nigel enjoyed the routine more than anything else of the night because the choreography was so well-coordinated with the music, and because the dancers’ technique was perfect. Mary seconded the fact that Travis hit the jackpot when he drew these two dancers because it was so easy to choreograph for them, and she commended Matt for his emotional maturity and called Audrey perfect.
Last but not least was The Other Broadway Girl, Lindsay, who really likes food and really hates spiders. Her partner, “Karate Kid Cole,” calls himself a walking cliché because he’s an Asian male ninja. I love him for that comment. Jason gave them a fiery, dramatic paso doble in which Lindsay was supposed to be an evil poison that infected Cole.
The routine began with Lindsay wrapped around Cole’s back—literally, she looked like she was a bug poised to bite him—and I don’t know whether it was the ultra-dramatic music or the ultra-dramatic costumes, but I dug this routine. Talk about getting into character—these two did it, and for me, it was particularly impressive given the age discrepancy between them. Lindsay is 18 and Cole is 26, but they gelled and got another standing O.
Kenny called this one of the most fantastic performances he’s ever seen on this show, and Mary shrilly insisted that this was the best paso Jason has ever choreographed. Nigel agreed that it was the best paso doble he’s ever seen from a male on this show, and he commended Lindsay for refusing to let Cole overshadow her. Perfect way to end the show! Two thumbs up!
When all was said and done, here’s how I’d rank the top 20 ranked on the first live show:
10. Amber and Nick
9. Janaya and Brandon
8. Tiffany and George
7. Alexa and Daniel
6. Eliana and Cyrus
5. Witney and Chehon
4. Janelle and Dameian
3. Lindsay and Cole
2. Amelia and Will
1. Audrey and Matt
What did you think? Who are you voting for? Who was overrated and who didn’t get enough credit from the judges? Most importantly, who has you worried heading into the first elimination week?
[Photo Credit: Fox]
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