At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, 40 entries are split between the U.S. and World Cinema Documentary categories and Doc Premieres. I readily admit that I don’t have a fondness for documentary cinema and usually don’t see very many; if all year. This year’s festival was no exception: I saw two. Thankfully, they were both well worth my time. I’ve included a mockumentary as well, because it’s basically the same format.
The better of the two is unsurprisingly Life Itself. A Doc Premiere about the one and only Roger Ebert. Director Steve James bases the documentary on Ebert’s same-titled book. James covers a lot of ground, which is no surprise considering how long Ebert has been in the spotlight. From his early days as a sports reporter, being handed film critic duties at the Chicago Sun-Times, a bout with alcoholism, the TV show with Gene Siskel, his marriage to Chaz Ebert, and finally, his battle with cancer, the life of Roger Ebert is definitely one for the books.
Considering he wrote the book himself, and never wants to keep anything a secret from the public, we even get treated to the one thing people never see in a rehab situation: suction. There’s not much anyone can say about Ebert that hasn’t already been said. The man is a legend, and, without a doubt, the main inspiration for anyone within the realm of film criticism. Life Itself is both hilarious (just wait till you see the Siskel & Ebert outtakes) and heart wrenching, throwing a final spotlight on a man in only the most fitting fashion.
Ivory Tower is from CNN Films and brings up two questions: is college overpriced, and is it worth the cost anymore? Of course, director Andrew Rossi never delivers a definitive answer, because, let’s face it, there really isn’t one, but he also fails to pick a side as well. Featuring interviews with Andrew Delbanco (Director of American Studies at Columbia University), Anya Kamenetz (author of Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young), and Daphne Koller (cofounder of Coursera), Ivory Tower works best as an elongated news program but also features a few fascinating subjects.
The student occupancy at Cooper Union in New York builds tension without any resolve — they edit the circumstances to feel like a boiling thriller, but as often happens in real life, there has yet to be any final resolve. The students fight to keep their education free, but before the credits roll we are told that the class of 2018 will be the first to pay tuition in more than 150 years. They also shed light on schools such as Deep Springs College and online courses like Coursera, Udacity, and the MOOC (massive open online course) EdX founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The information provided is very eye-opening, but is a lot to take in at once.
What We Do in the Shadows is a hilarious vampire mockumentary from Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi. Both are no strangers to Sundance — after Eagle vs. Shark and Boy — and have returned with a Midnight selection that is literally a bloody good time. A true crowd-pleaser, Shadows follows a group of filmmakers granted access to a Wellington flat of vamps consisting of Viago (Waititi), 379 years old; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), 183 years old; Vladislav (Clement), 862 years old; Nosferatu-lookalike Peter (Ben Fransham), 8,000 years old.
We follow the hilarious bloodsuckers over the course of a few months as they prepare for the annual “Unholy Masquerade” and hear about the ins and outs that come with being creatures of the night. We also witness the birth of their newest member, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), whose pal Stu (Stuart Rutherford) is always hanging around, and get treated to the everyday servitude of Deacon’s servant Jackie (Jackie van Beek), who is dying to be granted her promise of immortality.
Waititi and Clement hold back nothing as they spoof the living daylight out of the vampire genre, and things get even funnier whenever they run into a pack of werewolves led by Ryhs Darby. He even steals the movie with the funniest line: “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves.” That is exactly the kind of hilarious brilliance delivered through most of the scant runtime. While almost runing out of steam with a few jokes lingering far longer than they should, some stretches consist most of chuckles while we wait for something laugh-out-loud to happen, and almost always does. Expect to see this one in theaters at some point — it’s worth the wait.
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