Inside TV+Movies with Daniel Fienberg

Recap: 'American Idol' Season 12 Live-Blog - Charlotte Auditions

Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj really get into it in North Carolina - sort of

"American Idol"

 "American Idol"

Credit: Fox

So the promos (and the beginning of the show) promise that things are going to get ugly on this episode of "American Idol" as the tensions between Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj reach the boiling point. I'm sure Dan Fienberg would much rather be recapping this than watching movies at Sundance (and he'll be back next week, don't worry), but we can still have fun, right? 

Sundance Review: 'Lovelace' doesn't go deep enough despite Amanda Seyfried's efforts

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's porn-fueled biopic premieres at Sundance

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<p>Amanda Seyfried of &quot;Lovelace&quot;</p>

Amanda Seyfried of "Lovelace"

Credit: Sundance
Under the name Linda Lovelace, Linda Boreman starred in "Deep Throat," the most successful hard-core sex film ever made, as well as a handful of less successful and less legitimate adult ventures. For a brief period in the 1970s, Lovelace was a public figure with a high degree of fame and notoriety.
 
In less than a decade, she had become an aggressive anti-porn advocate, writing multiple books about the evils of the industry that quite literally gave her her name. 
 
For years, Hollywood has tried to tell Lovelace's story, with numerous writers and directors and stars circling and abandoning different projects, perhaps recognizing the difficulties of adequately depicting a woman mostly famous for her aptitude with blowjobs and then her subsequent disgust at said aptitude.
 
It's a tale that finally had its premiere on Tuesday (January 22) night at the Sundance Film Festival with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's "Lovelace."
 
Screenwriter Andy Bellin has solved many of the contradictions in Lovelace's life by ignoring them entirely. "Lovelace" is a flat and superficially arced film that relies on a little linear trickery to create the illusion of complexities that are sorely lacking. The resulting film is superficial and flat and wastes a transformative, gung-ho performance by leading lady Amanda Seyfried and an amusing supporting cast that seems to be appearing in four or five different movies.
 
When Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita" was released in 1962, it drummed up curiosity with the tagline "How did they ever make a movie of 'Lolita'?" I suspect a similar tactic could be used to generate initial interest in "Lovelace" before audiences discover the answer to the question "How did they ever make a movie about Linda Lovelace?" is "As blandly as possible."
 
More after the break...
 

Sundance Review: 'In a World...' is a promising directing debut for Lake Bell

TV veteran also wrote, produced and stars in the voice-over comedy

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<p>Lake Bell of &quot;In a World&quot;</p>

Lake Bell of "In a World"

Credit: Sundance
Although she's worked steadily and bounced freely between comedy and drama, Hollywood has occasionally struggled to figure out how to properly use Lake Bell.
 
Fortunately for Lake Bell, there is a writer-director with the good sense to get the most out of Lake Bell. That writer-director's name? Lake Bell, of course.
 
The "Surface" and "Childrens Hospital" star is making her feature debut as a writer-producer-director-star with the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition entry "In a World..." And the results are encouraging. While Bell definitely shows some first-timer growing pains behind the camera, she's got a snappy ear for dialogue, a smart eye for casting and she's given Lake Bell what may be her best part ever.
 
As a fully realized film, "In a World..." is clever and sweet and while it may not linger permanently in my mind, it has me genuinely intrigued by Bell's potential as a multi-hyphenate. 
 
More after the break...
 

Sundance Review: 'American Promise' is a provocative look at education and more

Lengthy documentary will air on PBS later this year

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<p>&quot;American Promise&quot;</p>

"American Promise"

Credit: PBS
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.
 
"American Promise," 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...]
 

Sundance Review: 'Gideon's Army' advocates for public defenders

Earnest documentary will air on HBO

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<p>&quot;Gideon's Army&quot;</p>

"Gideon's Army"

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...
 

Sundance Review: 'Manhunt' examines the search for Osama Bin Laden

HBO doc features many of the analysts on Bin Laden's tail

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<p>&quot;Manhunt&quot;</p>

"Manhunt"

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.
 
I've already reviewed Evan Leong's "Linsanity," which adds Jeremy Lin's voice to an underdog story most sports fans hear ad nauseaum last spring.
 
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...
 

Sundance Review: 'Linsanity' spreads to Park City with some candidness

Documentary takes Jeremy Lin fans back to last spring

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<p>&quot;Linsanity&quot;</p>

"Linsanity"

Credit: Sundance
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...
 

Brie Larson and James Ponsoldt discuss getting teens right on 'The Spectacular Now'

High school romance premiered at Sundance this weekend

Brie Larson and James Ponsoldt discuss getting teens right on 'The Spectacular Now'
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 Ponsoldt 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.
 

Sundance Review: Robert Reich thrives in the 'Inequality For All' spotlight

It's like 'An Inconvenient Truth' only more entertaining in every way

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<p>&quot;Inequality For All&quot;</p>

"Inequality For All"

Credit: Sundance
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...
 

Sundance Review: 'The Spectacular Now' showcases Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley

'Smashed' helmer and '(500) Days of Summer' scribes deliver teen romance honestly

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<p>Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller of &quot;The Spectacular Now&quot;</p>

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller of "The Spectacular Now"

Credit: Sundance
"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...
 

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