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Wrapping Sundance. 3. Documentary Competitions

"Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is a love letter to the influential hip-hop group, directed by actor and Tribe superfan Michael Rapaport," blogs David Fear for Time Out New York. "It does offer a lot for diehards: an origin story; a timeline; famous folks gushing about ATCQ's 1991 masterpiece, The Low End Theory; concert footage; and some fly-on-the-wall moments. But don't mistake a mash note for a penetrating look at a collective that changed the course of an art form. And even when it gets personal, delving into member Malki 'Phife Dog' Taylor's health problems and the bad blood between him and founding member/childhood friend Kamaal 'Q-Tip' Fareed, the doc still skims the surface of a deeper story."

For the AV Club's Nathan Rabin, though, Beats is "the most penetrating psychological study of a creative partnership in perpetual peril since Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Why is it that the sunniest groups often have the darkest, most fucked up intra-group dynamics?" Grade: A-. More from Christopher Campbell (Cinematical), John DeFore (Hollywood Reporter), Katie Hasty (HitFix, where she also talks with Rapaport) and Brandon Kim (IFC).

"A personal yet universal story about the Internet Age, Tiffany Shlain's Connected: An Autobiography about Love, Death and Technology is a highly energized romp through a myriad of ideas about where the human race is headed," writes James Greenberg in the Hollywood Reporter. "At a time when news is depressing and most films are grim, Shlain presents an upbeat and playful vision of the world based on what she sees as the interconnectedness of things." Sundance has a "Meet the Artists" interview (2'37").


David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter on Crime After Crime: "The shocking statistic at the core of Yoav Potash's gripping documentary is that 80% of women in American prisons are survivors of some form of domestic violence, rape or abuse. Focusing on the case of Deborah Peagler, the film targets the justice system's blinkered vision in that area, reflected through a staggering ordeal that spans more than 20 years." Pamela Cohn at Hammer to Nail: "There are plenty of built-in dramatic twists and turns to keep a viewer on the edge. There are straight-out heroes. There are dastardly villains. Thankfully, by not getting fancy about any of it, Potash creates a riveting, expertly edited piece that clips along to its triumphant (and devastating) conclusion." Interviews with Potash: Filmmaker and indieWIRE.

"No political season is complete without politicians taking up the case of tort reform," writes Mary Anderson Casavant, introducing her interview for Filmmaker (and indieWIRE has another). "Greedy litigants are blamed for everything from clogging up our justice system to running up our medical bills as tort reform advocates take advantage of the fact that everyone hates a lawyer until they need one. With so much misinformation out there, what's a lawyer to do? Well, if you're Susan Saladoff, longtime lawyer, first-time filmmaker, you pick up a camera. Using the infamous 'McDonald's coffee case' as her prime example, her debut feature, Hot Coffee, investigates how and why corporations spend millions of dollars drumming up support for tort reform — and how the media completely mishandles the story." Duane Byrge advises that the film will "stir up your blood pressure faster than a triple espresso." Sundance: the "Meet the Artists" interview (2'46").

Miss Representation is "an overdue exploration of the fierce backlash against strong women in our society that's hobbled by the distracting presence of director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, an actress, athlete, and all-around renaissance woman married to famously handsome politician Gavin Newsom." Nathan Rabin at the AV Club: "Newsom at least has a thematic reason to be in the film. As she drones in her dishwater-dull narration, she's having a daughter of her own and is worried about the avalanche of destructive and dehumanizing depictions of women she'll be inundated with her entire life. For better but mostly worse, Newsom only occasionally floats into the film to deliver vague platitudes in a spacey monotone, when the film is much better served by indignant, righteous, and fascinating anecdotes from Jane Fonda, Rachel Maddow, Gloria Steinem, Katie Couric, Geena Davis, and many more." More from Daniel Fienberg (HitFix), Justin Lowe (THR) and keelsetter (TCM).

"Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times sounds like a pretty authoritative title for a documentary, but Andrew Rossi's scattershot study of the 'Grey Lady' never really breaks the surface," finds the Guardian's Damon Wise.

But the doc's made a greater impression on Vanity Fair's John Lopez: "Rossi examines the Times media desk as it endures tectonic shifts in the news industry and deals with everyone's favorite info anarchist/hacker pixie, Julian Assange. Adding an Entourage-like, Ari 'Fuck You' Gold feel to the mix is footage of David Carr, the Times's cantankerously charming media reporter (and ex-addict, which Rossi doesn't let you forget), who appears as a human symbol of the paper's fight to stay alive in an online world. The most intriguing part of the documentary is watching the Page One meetings, where editors jockey for story position while Bill Keller chews it all over, furrowing his friendly, news-making Muppet eyebrows. On a sadder note, the film also showcases tragic-comic footage of Sam Zell, the billionaire who (per the Times) drove the Tribune Company into the ground. The chaos happening throughout the publishing industry makes Page One relevant on many levels, although the film could maybe have used a little more probing in going after that whole Judith Miller/leading-the-country-into-war episode. Rossi doesn't gloss it over, and the Times will certainly never lack for detractors despite a hidden iceberg's worth of work behind that first page."

More from Christopher Campbell (Cinematical), John DeFore (THR), David Fear (TONY), Daniel Fienberg (HitFix), Eric Kohn (iW), Noel Murray (AV Club, B) and Nathan Rabin (AV Club, B-). Interviews with Rossi: IndieWIRE and Filmmaker. Video interviews with both Rossi and David Carr: David Poland (31'37") and Jamie Stuart (3'04").

"Given the Sundance mission of promoting socially conscious 'stories' (a big buzzword here this year), it was entirely fitting that Susanne Rostock's Sing Your Song, a documentary on the truly extraordinary life of performer-activist Harry Belafonte, now 83, should open the 2011 festival." Damon Smith for Reverse Shot: "Stories of courage and uplift are de rigueur for opening-night festivities at such tent-pole events, for sure. But Rostock's congenial film, in empathic allegiance with her larger-than-life subject, also has a fierce fighting spirit."

"The film is less a true documentary that examines a noteworthy life than a call to action for viewers to emulate Belafonte's example of engaging with the world's problems and searching for solutions no matter how long-range they may be," writes the Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt. "Belafonte put his considerable weight behind the project, his daughter is among the producers, and he is the source for many of its rich anecdotes so the film teeters on the brink of hagiography. What rescues it from self-aggrandizement is how the film functions as an extension of the Belafonte himself: The film catches a man who has spent a lifetime practicing what he preaches. He has put his butt on the line in Ethiopia and Haiti as well as Alabama and Mississippi."

More from Melinda Newman at HitFix, where she also interviews Belafonte. IndieWIRE talks with Rostock. And then there's Sundance's "Meet the Artists" interview.


"In We Were Here, director David Weissman (The Cockettes) tells the story of how AIDS devastated San Francisco's gay population, particularly on Castro Street, during the late 70s and 80s through the firsthand accounts of men who saw the city morph from a paradise of sexual freedom and experimentation into the epicenter of a nightmarish epidemic." Nathan Rabin at the AV Club: "It's history as told not through the stories of legends like Harvey Milk but rather through the heartbreaking anecdotes of everyday men faced with an apocalyptic force almost beyond their comprehension. We Were Here is powerful in its elegant, stripped-down simplicity." More from Stephen Farber (THR) and Andy Motz (Alternative Chronicle). Interviews with Weissman: IndieWIRE and Filmmaker.



"Among the many politically charged documentaries showcased at this year's Sundance Film Festival, one of the most gripping is An African Election, which provides an inside look at the presidential elections in Ghana in December 2008," writes Stephen Farber in the Hollywood Reporter. "Director Jarreth Merz spent part of his childhood in Ghana, so he had a personal motivation for tackling the film. He sought to see if democracy could take hold in a continent prey to many oppressive dictators. Merz's access to both candidates in the election and to many other political insiders lends the film credibility and immediacy." IndieWIRE and Filmmaker each get a few words with Merz.

"The Bengali Detective is the story of a private detective who chases criminals… and when he has the time, he pursues stardom." David D'Arcy for Screen: "This portrait of a working cop with dreams is an absolute delight  and a vivid look at crime-fighting in a big city." Interviews with director Philip Cox: IndieWIRE and Filmmaker. The film's also slated to screen in the Berlinale's Panorama program.

"Centered on a Ukrainian family in which one husbandless woman has raised dozens of orphaned children, Family Portrait in Black and White, its name notwithstanding, paints its picture in many shades of gray," writes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. "Sensitive but sluggish and lacking a single compelling narrative thread, its theatrical prospects are dim and small-screen potential is just a bit better." Interviews with director Julia Ivanova: Filmmaker and indieWIRE.


"Not nearly as flashy or concrete as this year's Inside Job, The Flaw nonetheless has the benefits of a more philosophical examination of the foundational causes of America's financial decline," writes John Lopez for Vanity Fair. "Inside Job is like a great heist movie filled with the minute details of process and the juice of human drama. The Flaw is an academic take with charts that demonstrate the fundamental imbalances and deeper structural reasons for the events you see in Inside Job. As [director David] Sington told us in a Park City café, while the bankers he interviewed could narrate what happened, why was less clear: 'It was surprising to me that the people deeply involved in Wall Street had little insight into their own dilemma — my view of Wall Street is they're not evil, but they're also not geniuses. It becomes clear to me that the story was being told — that money was being lent to people it shouldn't be lent to — was really not the cause of the crisis. It wasn't that there were new borrowers of lower credit quality; it was that the borrowers' credit quality had declined.' While it may provide less human high drama, The Flaw offers a feeling of scientific examination and tantalizing hypotheses, namely that the current credit crisis resulted from the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth after the 1970s — precisely the period when Ronald Reagan's presidency renewed a sense of hope in America." More from Mark Adams (Screen) and James Greenberg (THR). Interviews: Filmmaker and indieWIRE.

"Family feuds have fascinated dramatists for centuries," writes Stephen Farber in the Hollywood Reporter, "and an intriguing modern-day variation of the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys is told in the Irish documentary, KNUCKLE. Director Ian Palmer spent 12 years chronicling the bare-knuckle fistfights held within the Travelers community in Ireland to try to resolve long-simmering antagonisms." More from Daniel Fienberg (HitFix). IndieWIRE interviews Palmer.

"If you need something new to be incensed about, The Last Mountain, a documentary directed by Bill Haney (of 2007's The Price of Sugar), will do the trick nicely," advises Alison Willmore at "Its outrage of choice is mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, the considerably controversial practice of deforesting and then dynamiting mountain ridges to extract coal seams, then piling everything back up in roughly the same shape — except nothing ever seems to grow there again. MTR is closely associated with Appalachia, and the film's primary battleground is Coal River Valley, WV, where locals and activists gather to try to prevent Massey Energy, the country's fourth largest producer of coal, from mining Coal River Mountain… The film finds communities cut through with high occurrences of brain tumors, an elementary school coated in silica dust from a nearby facility, families whose homes are destroyed by flooding caused by the rearranged landscape, towns emptied out by broken unions and a changing industry able to up its output while cutting its labor, politicians who are quick to pronounce themselves a 'friend of coal' despite what coal extraction is doing to their constituents." More from Kirk Honeycutt (THR). Filmmaker and indieWIRE interview Haney.


"Kids," begins Noel Murray at the AV Club, "in the years before everybody had the internet, anyone interested in keeping up with underground phenomena relied on 'zines' and 'cassette tapes' and 'mail order.' One of the biggest sub-popular trends of the late 80s and 90s was found audio, like outtakes of ranting celebrities, or prank calls, or in the case of the Shut Up Little Man series, neighbors having loud, drunken arguments. Matthew Bate's documentary Shut Up Little Man! tells the whole story of the series: how two guys in their early 20s started putting snippets of their hollering neighbors on mixtapes that they sent to friends, and how those friends started demanding more of the arguments, until there was a thriving mail-order market and interest from movie producers; and how the subsequent squabbles over money and rights both ended friendships and raised some troubling ethical questions."

"Call Matthew Bate's Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure a sort of punk rock Errol Morris picture and you're not too far off the mark," suggests Twitch's Todd Brown. "Bates shows the same loving fascination with the peculiar and outcast combined with the same ability to humanize those on the outskirts that has marked so much of Morris's best work but he also brings in a sort of nervous, raw energy entirely appropriate to the subject matter here. The end result is a film sure to be one of the more insightful and entertaining docs to hit screens this year."

Twitch also has a batch of clips; Filmmaker has a question for Bate.

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