Inside TV+Movies with Daniel Fienberg
Lengthy documentary will air on PBS later this year
For the most part, the proper length for a Sundance Film Festival documentary is between 80 and 95 minutes. There is almost literally no subject matter that I don't have an hour-and-a-half of interest in. I just watched "The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear," a 97-minute documentary from Georgia -- the former Soviet republic, not the home of the Falcons -- in which nothing at all happened, but it was still worthy, because it offered a series of vignettes from a national and a culture that are totally foreign to me. The same is equally true of docs about cows, killer whales and several variations on economic inequality themes.
," already set to air on PBS' "POV," has a running time of just over 140 minutes. It isn't just the longest documentary in either the US or World competition, but it's the only doc in either competition to top two hours.
"American Promise" has many lessons -- It runs an intellectual gamut -- but its biggest lesson is probably that there actually isn't a "proper" length for any documentary. Spanning over a decade in the lives of two kids and two families, "American Promise" is substantive and emotionally epic, one of the most thoughtful and nourishing films I've seen for this year's Festival.
Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson's documentary breaks the peculiar B-range grading logjam I've been in since hitting Sundance. It's a film that should have people talking, both in Park City and, in a few months, in living rooms and classrooms.
[More after the break...]
Earnest documentary will air on HBO
Credit: HBO Films
Few documentary subgenres are more enticing than the "Fact is stranger than fiction" model that was embodied at last year's Sundance Film Festival by Bart Layton's terrific "The Imposter." That film had more than a few viewers walking out going, "I wouldn't believe a second of that, except that it was all true."
Another parallel subgenre, though, is the "Yeah, it's true, but if we just sexy-ed things up with a little fiction, this might be terrific" documentary. HBO, for example, bought the 2011 Sundance doc "Knuckle" with the intention of turning the Irish gypsy boxing saga into a scripted series.
The 2013 Sundance competition doc "Gideon's Army
" falls into the latter category. Director Dawn Porter has made a worthy and aspirational documentary populated by interesting characters and if somebody could just get this film to Shonda Rhimes, I'm betting that she could have a lot of fun with this backdrop and these people on a weekly TV series.
That shouldn't be taken as a slam against "Gideon's Army," which is nourishing and right-minded, but I think we can all agree that sometimes real life needs just a little more sizzle.
Already headed for HBO, "Gideon's Army" is guaranteed to get exposure, which will be a boon for its important subject matter. And if Shonda Rhimes just happens to watch it? All the better...
More after the break...
HBO doc features many of the analysts on Bin Laden's tail
Credit: HBO Films
It was Saturation Sunday at Sundance's MARC Theater as the film festival saw the premieres of a pair of documentaries with the potential to have viewers shrugging at oft-repeated stories.
Before seeing "Linsanity," I caught Greg Barker's US Documentary Competition entry "Manhunt
," which follows the Oscar nominated hit "Zero Dark Thirty" (my favorite theatrical release of 2012) and the NatGeo telefilm "Seal Team Six" among recent depictions of the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden.
Both feature-length projects have been preceded by disagreements and controversy, which is a logical factor of a story in which some of the facts are classified, some of the facts are open to interpretation and many of the facts are coming courtesy of variably reliable sources. It's an informational quagmire out there and it's hard to get much consistency.
While "Manhunt," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Seal Team Six" have some overlap, they have somewhat different main focuses, which has prevented Osama bin Laden fatigue from fully settling in. "Seal Team Six," which I'm not actually suggesting you watch, is mostly about the raid on Abbottabad that got Bin Laden. "Zero Dark Thirty" is about the raid, but also the intelligence gathering that led to the raid. And "Manhunt" is about the process that led to the intelligence gathering that led to the raid, but it only gets up to the "Zero Dark Thirty" intelligence gathering in its last quarter and it never gets to the raid at all.
That's my way of saying that while "Manhunt" is, indeed, the latest incarnation of a narrative you've heard before, Barker has a different angle on the story and a different set of sources. That angle and those sources caused me to be simultaneously appreciative and wary of "Manhunt," though I was never uninterested.
More after the break...
Documentary takes Jeremy Lin fans back to last spring
Merely living under a rock last February wouldn't have sheltered you from the pervasive ubiquity of Linsanity
Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin
was all anybody wanted to discuss on sports talk radio. ESPN practically rebranded in his image. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover in consecutive weeks. He was on the cover of Time. He became the most beloved figure in one of the biggest media markets in the world.
New York City is known for creating stars in short order, but with Jeremy Lin, the duration between cult stardom (and mainstream anonymity) and global omnipresence was literally less than a week.
The Grand Narrative of Jeremy Lin was oft-repeated gospel before he had started five games in the NBA. We knew about his Harvard and going undrafted. We knew about his multiple stints in the NBA Development League and about his being waived first by the Warriors and then by the Rockets. We knew he was moments from his third cutting of the season when he blew up in the second half of a game against the Nets. We knew that even as the Knicks went on a long winning streak, he was sleeping on a couch. We knew about his religious devotion, we knew exactly how many puns you could do on his last name and we knew that if you give the media enough time to talk about an Asian-American athlete stupid people who slip into intended and unintended racism before the passing of a single moon.
I sat down for Sunday's (January 20) world premiere of Evan Jackson Leong's predictably titled documentary "Linsanity" with some measure of trepidation, since the last thing I (or Sundance) needed was a hastily turned around Lin documentary regurgitating the same underdog narrative.
It's a relief to report that while Leong's "Linsanity" is a relatively familiar hagiography, the director had begun his focus on Lin before the madness and he was working with Lin's candid cooperation. That means that while none of the facts or linear details in "Linsanity" count as a revelation, Lin's personality is able to shine through. There are some very strange choices and problematic missteps in the storytelling here, but it turns out that I like Jeremy Lin and in a brisk documentary that goes a long way.
More on "Linsanity" after the break...
High school romance premiered at Sundance this weekend
PARK CITY - The Sundance
Film Festival offers the opportunity for interview backdrops that you can't get anywhere else. It also offers the chance to conduct an interview under the coldest conditions imaginable.
Case in point: On Saturday (January 19) afternoon, after the sun had dipped and temperatures had plummeted into the single digits, I chatted with "The Spectacular Now
" director James Ponsold
t and co-star Brie Larson
about premiering their new teen drama at Sundance. It was frigid, but since "The Spectacular Now" is a film I quite like -- Check out my review
-- I was grateful that Ponsoldt and Larson were willing to shiver at the base of the Main Street ski lift to talk about the project and how they want to define it, or maybe not-define it.
"They are teenagers, but I think it transcends the usual tropes of a quote-unquote teen film," Ponsoldt says.
And when I asked Larson what normal "teen movie" script get wrong, she quickly responded, "The whole thing. Generally, just the whole thing."
In the video, Larson and Ponsoldt talk about what they hope their film gets right and the challenges of balancing comedy, earnestness and romance under the same cinematic roof.
Enjoy the interview some place warm.
It's like 'An Inconvenient Truth' only more entertaining in every way
There will be a knee-jerk desire to compare Jacob Kornbluth's "Inequality For All
" to Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth."
Both Sundance-launched documentaries feature members of the Clinton Administration giving illustrated lectures that attempt to expand issues of vital importance beyond dry liberal talking points.
So far be it for me to break from the expected pack: What "An Inconvenient Truth" was for environmental science, "Inequality For All" absolutely is for economic inequality.
For whoever ends up acquiring and distributing "Inequality For All," there are empirical advantages to that comparison. "An Inconvenient Truth" took in nearly $50 million worldwide, making it the most lucrative PowerPoint presentation in history. It also won a Documentary Oscar in a year that featured Amy Berg's "Deliver Us From Evil," as well as "Jesus Camp" and "Iraq in Fragments."
That's high achievement for a documentary which, if we're being honest, was admirably persuasive, but fell short of any high level of filmmaking.
"An Inconvenient Truth" was a filmed position paper and it will probably be a valuable classroom aid for years to come, but it's not a good movie.
So while "Inequality For All" may deserve its easy linkages to "An Inconvenient Truth," that may also be selling the new documentary short. I'm not going to get into the relative political values of their arguments, but when it comes to artistic values, this isn't a close one.
Kornbluth's documentary is provocative and smart. It's also energetic and fun. It's "An Inconvenient Truth" for economics, but it's also much better. I may with that "Inequality For All" did a bit more, but what it does, it does well.
More after the break...
'Smashed' helmer and '(500) Days of Summer' scribes deliver teen romance honestly
Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller of "The Spectacular Now"
"The Spectacular Now," showing as part of the US Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is a high school movie.
The signpost events are all there.
There are booze-filled parties, a prom, a graduation, college applications, generational conflicts and budding love.
Those signposts, though, are purely structural. They're load-bearing plotpoints that are used to support what is actually a revealing and emotional character study and an intense romantic relationship, in which the characters not-coincidentally happen to be teens.
When I walked out of "Spectacular Now," I tweeted that in recent Sundance terms, "The Spectacular Now" is "The First Time" meets "Smashed," a compliment that made a lot more sense when I remembered that "The Spectacular Now" was helmed by "Smashed" director James Ponsoldt.
In consecutive years, Ponsoldt has now showcased a confident ability to balance humor with emotional pain, which happens to also be a specialty of screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who broke out here a couple years back with "(500) Days of Summer." [Full disclosure requires me to mention that Neustadter and I served as arts section editors together at the University of Pennsylvania student newspaper back in the day.] That combination of amusement and anguish, of genre formula and freshness will leave some people scratching their heads, but it's equally likely to strike an uncomfortable [in a good way], honest chord.
More after the break...
Documentary avoids sensationalism in looking at late-term procedures
In one of those only-at-Sundance double-bills, my Friday (January 18) afternoon featured the back-to-back premieres of Andy Heathcote's "The Moo Man," a World Documentary competition entry about British dairy farmer Stephen Hooks, and Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's "After Tiller
," a US Documentary competition entry about the last four doctors in America performing third-trimester abortions.
These two films have nothing in common.
"The Moo Man" is an understated and simple film about a man and his cows and it ends up being a surprisingly moving story -- or, if you prefer for blurbing purposes, "a surprisingly moo-ving story" -- given that when it comes to subject matter, few viewers will enter the theater with a deep, pre-determined emotional investment. Whether you're a lover of organic, raw milk or you're lactose intolerant, "The Moo Man" probably won't have to work around any prodigious baggage. [I'm going to try to write a fuller review, but time is hard to come by.]
The same definitively cannot be said of "After Tiller."
[More after the break...]
A terrifying mountain-climbing story becomes a jumbled film
Grad school degree and decade-plus of entertainment journalism aside, there are many film industry jobs that I must confess I don't completely understand.
I can tell a gaffer from a grip from a best boy, but I'm not sure I could explicate the role of the "writer" on a documentary film. In some cases, it's simple, I suppose. If there's a voice-over or on-screen text, I get that somebody writes that. I don't know, though, if a writer on a documentary has a role in shaping the storytelling approach. I don't know how a documentary writer comes to be associated with multiple films that aren't connected in subject matter, production or filmmaking team. What makes somebody a good "writer" on a documentary? And what makes somebody a bad writer on a documentary?
I suspect it varies and that sometimes a documentary writer is just the guy providing the text that isn't coming from talking heads and that sometimes it's a more involved role.
The nature of the documentary writer is one that I'm musing on today, because I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've ever noticed the same documentary writer's name recurring in a short span.
Mark Monroe wrote Marc Silver's "Who Is Dayani Cristal?," which I reviewed after its world premiere on Thursday (January 17) night at the Sundance Film Festival. And there was Mark Monroe's name on Nick Ryan's "The Summit
," which is also in the World Documentary Competition here at Sundance.
Again: I don't know what Mark Monroe actually did on either "The Summit" or "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" Both documentaries are examples of fantastic stories at least somewhat undermined by the storytelling approach, though neither film is undone by voiceover or on-screen text, per se. So I'm guessing that Mark Monroe isn't to blame for anything I disliked in either film, but I still wanted to think out loud on this one, since it's not something I usually notice. [Monroe also was the credited writer on "The Cove," "The Tillman Story" and "Chasing Ice," all docs I put in the "Good story, well told" category. Whatever a writer on a documentary is, Monroe appears to be successful at it.]
But anyway... "The Summit." Full review after the break...
New BBC America drama premieres on Saturday night
Matthew Macfadyen of "Ripper Street"
Credit: BBC America
Like many a British thespian, Matthew Macfadyen has reliably bounced back and forth between the big screen and television, whether wooing Elizabeth Bennett in "Pride & Prejudice" or battling international intrigue in "MI-5."
Fresh off a well-received supporting turn as Oblonsky in Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina
" this winter, Macfadyen is back on TV on Saturday (January 19) night fighting crime in Victorian England in BBC America's "Ripper Street
During the Television Critics Association press tour this month, I sat down with MacFadyen to talk about his role as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid on "Ripper Street," which was created by Richard Warlow and co-stars Jerome Flynn and Adam Rothenberg. We also talked a bit about Wright's highly theatrical Tolstoy adaptation, as well as his creative process.