Inside TV+Movies with Daniel Fienberg
New Sundance doc takes a funny and humanizing look at Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers of 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work'
Because the media has made a punchline of Joan Rivers and because Joan Rivers has made a punchline of herself, I often find myself predisposed to disliking Joan Rivers. That means that I'm constantly having to reevaluate that predisposition, being reminded that before she was the poster-woman for bad plastic surgery and the brunt of easy jokes tinged with hints of age-ism and sexism, Joan Rivers paved the road for nearly every successful female comic of the past 40 years.
I had to do that kind of reevaluation when Rivers was one of the iconic names paying tribute to George Carlin when he posthumously received the Mark Twain Prize. I had to do that kind of reevaluation when Rivers did a Television Critics Association press tour panel and delivered 30 minutes of off-the-cuff zingers. And there was still more reevaluation that came from watching "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which is playing in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival.
Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" is a surprisingly sympathetic, and unsurprisingly funny, portrait of a woman who needs no introduction but, as I keep being reminded, often requires re-introduction.
[More on "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" after the break...]
Dan Klores' '30 for 30' documentary is one of the franchise's best installments
'Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks'
Reggie Miller is an NBA Hall of Famer. I have no doubt about that. He may not have won a title with the Indiana Pacers, but he won an Olympic gold in 1996 and was one of the greatest pure shooters in league history. However, because of the way the NBA Hall of Fame voting works, it's distinct possibility that Reggie Miller isn't a first ballot Hall of Famer, that he may need to wait a few years before induction in Springfield.
Sportswriters with any doubts about Miller's credentials should check out "Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks," which is playing out-of-competition at the Sundance Film Festival and will air as part of ESPN's landmark "30 For 30" series on March 14.
So why did I take a Sundance evening to watch a short documentary that I'll be able to watch on TV in three months? Well, first of all, I've loved the "30 for 30" series so far. Also, once I wasn't going to be able to get into "The Runaways" -- The line was too long and did HitFix really need one more opinion on Joan Jett and company? -- there was nothing that seemed like more fun than watching Reggie Miller and Spike Lee go head-to-head for 70 minutes.
Fortunately, the Dan Klores-directed documentary didn't let me down at all. It's one of the most purely entertaining films I've seen at Sundance this year and one of the best installments of the "30 for 30" series thus far.
[Fuller review after the break...]
Benazir Bhutto and American lottery winners get the Sundance documentary treatment
Benazir Bhutto of 'Bhutto'
My Sundance Film Festival Monday (Jan. 25) began with a pair of high profile entries from the U.S. Documentary Competition slate.
However, despite fascinating subject matter for "Bhutto" and favored Sundance director Jeffrey Blitz behind "Lucky," neither doc fully engaged me.
Brief reviews for "Bhutto" and "Lucky" after the break...
Think 'Hebrew Jack City' as Hasid Jews smuggle Ecstacy
Jesse Eisenberg of 'Holy Rollers'
Damn you, Joel and Ethan Coen.
Damn you for proving that a semi-mainstream film can be rigorously, intellectually and unapologetically Jewish without fetishizing the religion or sacrificing an iota of humor or drama.
Perhaps if "A Serious Man" hadn't been my favorite film of 2009, I wouldn't have been so disappointed by the hollowness and superficiality of Kevin Asch's "Holy Rollers," which had its premiere on Monday (Jan. 25) at the Sundance Film Festival.
With its easily encapsulated premise -- It's "Jew Jack City"! It's "How Chai"! If you're ultra-Yiddish, it's "Alterclockers"! -- and young stars like Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha and Ari Graynor, "Holy Rollers" may be just different enough to attract distribution and deferential reviews.
Me, I kept thinking that given how unlikely it is that we'll ever be treated to another movie about drug-dealing Hasidic Jews, "Holy Rollers" is a missed opportunity.
[Full review of "Holy Rollers" after the break...]
Writer-director-star Kate Aselton shines opposite Dax Shepard
Kate Aselton and Dax Shepard of 'The Freebie'
You know who's loving this Sundance Film Festival? FX's comedy development team. Not only is Louis C.K. (of the upcoming "Louie") expected to be one of the big stars of the Festival's second week with the documentary "Hilarious," but everywhere you look, another star of "The League" is hovering on the cusp of mainstream success.
First it was Mark Duplass, already a darling of the indie cinema circuit, putting himself in line for a breakout with the well-regarded "Cyrus."
Then, on Sunday (Jan. 24) night, Duplass' "The League" co-star (and real-life wife) Katie Aselton made a big statement with "The Freebie," an ultra-low-budget relationship-comedy she wrote, produced, directed and starred in.
With a running time of under 80 minutes, "The Freebie" is a small movie, but there's no aspect of this gem that isn't a triumph for Aselton, who shot her feature directing debut in only 11 days.
[Full review of "The Freebie" after the break...]
Rose Byrne and Glenn Close return, with a little help from Martin Short
"Damages" returns to FX on Monday (Jan. 25) and fans of the show will be pleased to know that within the first 44 minutes, the linear chronology becomes an utter freak-show, several characters who seemed to be good guys have become bad (or vice versa) and the series has dropped a massive bombshell sure to leave some viewers disappointed or sad. Within that first episode, I became reinvested in the drama and the characters and then instantly became frustrated and disassociated due to the show's structure trickery, which has become an unnecessary encumbrance by this point. But the great thing about "Damages" is always that I can tune the show out and become re-obsessed at a rate of two or three flip-flops per episode.
"Damages" continues to exhaust me with its frequent changes of course, but it's not like I'd ever miss an hour, even if you happen to hear me grumbling.
[Some thoughts on the start of the third season of "Damages" after the break...]
Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his directing debut in a low-key romantic dramedy
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan of 'Jack Goes Boating'
Credit: Overture Films
"Jack Goes Boating" marks an unexciting, but sturdy directing debut for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also stars and executive produces.
The intimate four-hander is a Sundance-standard ensemble about two New York City couples talking about love, friendship and whether or not it's possible to change your life. Although Bob Glaudini has opened up his play only slightly, the dramedy is a not-unwelcome reminder that when you put a technically adept actor in charge of a group of technically adept actors, the results will usually at least be emotionally authentic and well-played.
Hoffman's Oscar-winning stature is sufficient that "Jack Goes Boating" already has distribution through Overture, though it stands to reason that the company will hold off on releasing the film until the fall when it wouldn't be surprising to see Hoffman get his usual token mention in the Oscar race.
[A brief review of "Jack Goes Boating" after the break...]
Whether you call it Hillbilly Noir or Ozark Gothic, it's an early Sundance standout
Jennifer Lawrence of 'Winter's Bone'
Even if I spent the day trudging around in wet, slushy shoes and even if I didn't have a single real meal, experiences like catching "Winter's Bone" on Saturday (Jan. 23) evening are the reason you go to festivals like Sundance.
I'd heard nothing at all about "Winter's Bone" and was mostly interested in it because of supporting players John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt and because writer-director Debra Granik showed significant skill working with actors on "Down to the Bone," her feature debut.
But "Winter's Bone" was one of two or three early evening screening possibilities and it was only my choice because a desired early afternoon screening was over-booked, forcing me into a different movie and causing me to exit the theater at exactly the right time to get into the line for "Winter's Bone." That's why, like so much that goes down at Sundance, my screening decision was based more on pure convenience than artistic imperative.
Whatever, the cause, it was fortuitous. "Winter's Bone" is the best film I've seen this Festival and also one of the best films I've seen in the past year, a drama I appreciated more as I became increasingly immersed in its unique world.
[Full review of "Winter's Bone" after the break...]
Jose Padilha observes the academics who have been observing the Yanomami people
The title of the HBO Films documentary "Secrets of the Tribe" is a bit of a trick.
The feature, premiering as part of Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Competition, is set against the backdrop of the popular field of Yanomami Indian studies, but that isn't the tribe in question. No, Jose Padilha's doc is actually focused on the intellectual tribe of anthropologists and academics who have built their careers and expanded their livelihoods by studying, exploiting and possibly even harming the Yanomami.
Napoleon Chagnon, one of the doc's central figures, called his then-groundbreaking study "Yanomamo: The Fierce People," but as somebody who grew up in a family of academics, I can vouch for the fierceness of professors and researchers as well. Even those uninitiated in the publish-or-perish world or in the jungle of the tenure system won't have much doubt on its brutality after watching "Secrets of the Tribe."
But "Secrets of the Tribe" isn't just about a group of eggheads calling each other names (though there's a lot of that), it's an often provocative interrogation of how all ambitious people impact the world around them and how difficult (or impossible) it is to be a mere observer.
[More on "Secrets of the Tribe" after the break...]
A Bolivian family lives a life of entitlement in a changing La Paz
"Southern District," playing as part of Sundance's World Cinema Narrative Competition, is very likely the best Bolivian film this critic has ever seen.
Sure, that speaks to my personal limitations in the field of South American cinema, but it's not entirely faint praise. Juan Carlos Valdivia's drama is a formal stunner, taking a premise that could have become boring and claustrophobic and yielding something that's frequently engrossing and always technically compelling, even for viewers lacking in more than a rudimentary Bolivian socio-historical context.
[My review of "Southern District" -- a short-ish review, probably -- after the break.]