13 items from 2016
Cable and network news organizations have been trying their best this week to report on the awful events in Dallas, St. Paul and Baton Rouge, but that kind of 24/7 coverage — which has been occasionally less timely than what emerges from various social media channels — has come to have a numbing, awful kind of familiarity. The same talking heads emerge, the same voices try to make sense of devastating events that just keep coming.
It hasn’t even been a month since the mass shooting on Orlando, yet here we are.
It’s as if we are stuck in a devastating feedback loop and keep seeing the same reruns again and again — but these heartbreaking, chaotic reruns aren’t scripted, they’re real. (And it’s worth pointing out that, as gripping as following developments on social media can be, tweets and posts can be wrong, as they were in the case of a person of interest in »
- Maureen Ryan
Chicago – In the final chapter of a three-part interview, Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films desires to evolve forward, soon after the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the iconic Chicago documentary house have past.
The “studio” Quinn co-founded has kept their integrity intact, and strives to keep cinematically exploring human drama that promotes understanding between all levels of contemporary society.
There have been several high profile documentaries that have expressed that understanding, and have forged a pathway that “Hoop Dreams” opened up for them. “Vietnam, Long Time Coming” (1998), “The New Americans” (2004) series on PBS, “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson” for Espn, “The Interrupters” (2011), “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” (2013) and “Life Itself” (2014) stand proudly alongside the best of the last 50 years, with three more films in post production awaiting release.
Director Steve James Composes ‘The Interrupters’ (2011)
Photo credit: Kartemquin Films
In Part Three, Kartemquin filmmaker Gordon Quinn reflects on the post “Hoops” year, »
- firstname.lastname@example.org (Adam Fendelman)
Spliced together from interviews, establishing shots, and dramatic reenactments, its subjects’ homegrown aphorisms set against the forceful tinkling of the score, “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” might’ve been made by Errol Morris himself.
Inspired by “The Thin Blue Line,” the fourth episode of IFC’s inventive, erudite “Documentary Now!” — from the frenzied imaginations of director Rhys Thomas and “Saturday Night Live” alumni Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers — mimics the filmmaker’s work so precisely that it comes to resemble an X-ray, showing the bone structure of his distinctive style while (gently) poking fun at it. In this sense, to describe “Documentary Now!” as a parody is to undersell: It’s a wildly funny act of criticism, deconstructing the mechanics of nonfiction in an age defined by the slippage between “reality” and the real.
Starring Armisen and Hader in an ever-changing series of roles—in a pungent send-up of Vice Media, they even play three indistinguishable pairs of plaid-clad, ne’er-do-well correspondents on the trail of a Mexican drug kingpin — “Documentary Now!” is designed with an in-depth knowledge of the form, down to the title sequence. A clever nod to public television, replete with evolving logo, synthesized theme music, and Helen Mirren’s refined introductions, the homage to the likes of “Pov,” “Frontline,” and “Independent Lens” is telling. Though tough, at times, on the familiar tropes of Morris and the Maysles, the creators’ treatment of documentaries is affectionate; their approach is closer to Christopher Guest’s warm, playful comedies, from “Waiting for Guffman” to “For Your Consideration,” than to the sharp satire of “Drop Dead Gorgeous” or “Tanner ’88.”
This is born, it seems, of their interest in the power of nonfiction narratives, and in the process by which such stories take shape. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, “Documentary Now!” is lavish in its praise — Hader’s version of Little Edie Beale, in the series’ tribute to “Grey Gardens,” replicates several memorable moments in the film almost exactly — but it’s when the series turns toward exaggeration and hyperbole that its understanding of the form’s fakery is on fullest display. Against the “direct cinema” aesthetic of the Maysles, “Documentary Now!” depicts the siblings, here known as the Feins, eliciting performances from their subjects, searching the shadows of “Sandy Passage” for the most compelling variant of the truth. (It comes back to bite them, in a way that acknowledges the elements of Gothic horror in “Grey Gardens” by blowing the original to bits.)
Understanding documentaries as a set of narrative techniques, and not simply as a reflection of “the facts,” “Documentary Now!” is at its most astute in the first season’s “Kunuk Uncovered.” Based on 1988’s “Nanook Revisited,” itself an investigation of the stagecraft in Robert Flaherty’s 1922 silent, “Nanook of the North,” “Kunuk” renders explicit the series’ animating principle: “Was the first documentary a documentary at all,” the narrator intones, “or was it something else?” As William H. Sebastian (John Slattery) attempts to mold his subject, Pipilok (Armisen), into the “Eskimo” of his ethnocentric assumptions, mounting dog sledding and spear fishing scenes, he loses control of the project to its central figure. “Kunuk” becomes an artful farce, part Hollywood excess and part careful craft.
Pipilok first demands compensation, securing the managerial services of a local pimp, and then displaces Sebastian altogether, transforming into a tortured auteur. (At one point, he curses out the cast in his native tongue, a true diva of the directing chair.) His aesthetic innovations — recording sound, building sets, developing “point of view” and new forms of movement — are those, roughly speaking, of realism, and “Kunuk” is, in essence, a reminder that the style that doesn’t seem like a style is no less fabricated for convincing us otherwise. In “Documentary Now!” nonfiction is always “something else”: A performance, a manipulation, a construction, adjacent to “the real” but not a mirror image of it.
In fashioning a new short film for each installment—with the exception of the two-part “Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee” — the series is an outlier in the Emmys’ nascent Variety Sketch category. Last year’s inaugural field featured five nominees on the traditional “sketch” model, including “Saturday Night Live” and winner “Inside Amy Schumer,” and all, including the final season of the excellent “Key & Peele,” are among this year’s twenty eligible series (up from 17). But given the TV Academy’s tendency to settle into firm patterns, to the point that one might call them ruts, it would behoove voters to honor the heterodox, learned, distinctly non-topical comedy of “Documentary Now!” while the contours of the category are still in flux.
If there’s one aspect of the series we know Academy members can appreciate, it’s the brilliant impression: Schumer and Ryan McFaul were nominated last year for directing the dead solid perfect satire “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” as if inhabited by the spirit of Sidney Lumet, a feat “Documentary Now!” manages many times over, and in myriad registers. Its sketches succeed, in the end, because they’re not sketchy at all, but rather fully realized, remarkably savvy reconsiderations of their subject, which is the creative, sometimes-deceptive act of documentary filmmaking itself.
“The Eye Doesn’t Lie” recalls not only “The Thin Blue Line,” then, but also, by dint of its title, the filmmaker’s examination of visible evidence in “Standard Operating Procedure.” “The pictures spoke a thousand words,” as Army Special Agent Brent Pack says in the latter of photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, launching into the kind of Morris-esque paradox that IFC’s series so beautifully distills. “But unless you know what day and time they were taken, you wouldn’t know what story they were telling.” The eye does lie, of course, and the brilliant “Documentary Now!” is always catching it red-handed.
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- Matt Brennan
The 75th annual Peabody Awards are underway in New York, with stars and showrunners of “Mr. Robot,” “Unreal,” “Transparent,” “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” and other programs on hand to accept their kudos. David Letterman and Jon Stewart are also in the house to receive special achievement honors.
Follow Variety‘s live coverage from Cipriani Wall Street here as the winners take the stage.
7:17: Key notes the high level of diversity among the honorees. He calls out Jada Pinkett-Smith as being in the crowd, noting her vocal protest regarding the Oscar nominees this year. When he’s told that she’s not here, he exclaims: “This would have been the one for Jada to come to!”
- Cynthia Littleton
Marcel Mettelsiefen followed the children of a captured Syrian rebel for two years. His film shows the intangible agonies behind their journey from Aleppo to central Germany. Plus – a dismal return for the Hairy Bikers
In 2014, photojournalist Marcel Mettelsiefen made his longform documentary debut with the extraordinary, heartbreaking Children on the Frontline: Syria, a film focused on the extraordinary, heartbreaking children of Abu Ali, a leader of the Free Syrian Army fighting against Assad in Aleppo. Towards the end of filming, he was captured by Isis. His last words on screen were a reflection on how much of a sacrifice his commitment to the cause had required of his family. “My children,” he concluded, “have been greatly wronged.”
- Lucy Mangan
At a loss for what to watch this week? From new DVDs and Blu-rays, to what's new on Netflix and TV, we've got you covered.
TV Worth Watching
"The Good Wife" (Sunday on CBS at 9 p.m.)
This is it. The end of an era. After seven seasons of heartbreak (she'll always love you, Will!), headaches, incredibly sharp writing, and powerful performances from Julianna Margulies down to the many amazing guest stars, Alicia Florrick's story is coming to an end on May 8. The series finale, appropriately titled "End," was written by showrunners Robert and Michelle King, and directed by Robert King. Margulies told Entertainment Weekly the finale will be "satisfying, uplifting and sad." The showrunners have Not shot down that Josh Charles return rumor, so here's hoping for some kind of flashback/vision/cameo/thing. Also, here's hoping for more of this, from Alicia and Jason:
- Gina Carbone
HBO’s documentaries scored high marks from the annual Peabody Awards, winning nods for four of its efforts: the Scientology expose “Going Clear”; an intimate exploration of autism, “How to Dance in Ohio”; “Night Will Fall,” about the making of a Holocaust film; and the true crime phenomenon “The Jinx,” about Robert Durst.
These documentary and education winners, including Netflix’s riveting “What Happened, Miss Simone” round out the Peabody 30, the coveted annual awards which are administered by the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass CommunicationPead
The entertainment and children’s winners, including ABC’s “Black-ish” and USA’s “Mr. Robot,” and the news, radio and web winners, which included “This American Life” and HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” were previously announced. A full list of winners is available at peabodyawards.com.
The awards will be handed out on May 21 at a ceremony »
- Debra Birnbaum
With the Academy Awards fast approaching, the Writers Guild of America handed out its 2016 honours last night, with Spotlight claiming the WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay, and The Big Short received the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief was award Best Documentary Screenplay, while on the TV side of things there were successes for Mad Men (Drama Series), Veep (Comedy Series), Mr. Robot (New Series), Better Call Saul (Episodic Drama) and Silicon Valley (Episodic Comedy).
Check out a full list of the winners here…
- Gary Collinson
Two PBS stalwarts offer excellent back-to-back documentaries Feb. 9 – one extremely timely, the other a still-relevant dip into the way-back machine. Produced with the New York Times, “Frontline’s” “The Fantasy Sports Gamble” delves into betting sites like FanDuel and DraftKings, which have coyly operated at the fringes of gambling, enlisting entertainment companies and professional leagues as partners, while virtually buying off media with their ostentatious advertising budgets. That follows “The Perfect Crime,” a look back at the infamous 1924 murder case of Leopold and Loeb, a reminder that sensational “crimes of the century” predated O.J. Simpson.
Drawing from the Times’ extensive reporting on online sports wagering, “Frontline” had the good fortune to assemble its report – produced and directed by Frank Koughan, who wrote it with Times reporter-correspondent Walt Bogdanich – as the industry was threatening to implode. That included revelations that FanDuel and DraftKings employees had potentially gamed the system by winning »
- Brian Lowry
PBS and NPR are teaming up for programming centering around the 2016 presidential election, dubbed “PBS Election 2016.” The partnership was announced Monday at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif.
“PBS Election 2016” will include new and returning series, specials, documentaries and digital content with a mix of investigative reports, educational opportunities and local and national stories. With PBS and NPR joining forces, the programming will result in shared digital, video and audio content between the two organizations, covering everything from the primary debates to election night and beyond.
As part of the collaboration, PBS will launch an election-focused digital platform on PBS.org in February that will include content from NPR. Likewise, NPR will integrate PBS content into its politics section on NPR.org with both companies cross-promoting.
“In this election year, PBS promises viewers extensive, in-depth and thoughtful coverage across all platforms,” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive »
- Elizabeth Wagmeister
The Writers Guild of America has just announced the nominations for their annual awards for Best Screenplays (by writers who are guild signatories). That’s right, before you get nervous thinking that your favorite may have been left off the list, you must remember that the WGA is the group that is not all-inclusive and leaves out several of the top contenders each year due to them not being part of the guild or not following their very specific rules. For this reason, you won’t see Inside Out, The Hateful Eight, and Ex Machina in the Original Screenplay category or Room, Brooklyn, or Anomalisa in the Adapted screenplay category.
Taking a look at what’s left over for the nominations, we find many that were expected to make a showing, including Spotlight and Bridge of Spies for Original Screenplay, though they apparently had to sink to really low depths »
- Jeff Beck
Given the historic ties between the United States and Israel, watching the fraying relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who essentially campaigned for his defeat in 2012 – has been a source of considerable fascination. And leave it to Frontline to encapsulate those events, as well as the Israeli leader’s confrontational style, in “Netanyahu at War,” which begins and ends with the Israeli leader’s 2015 speech to Congress advocating against the Iran deal, and deftly putties in all sorts of biographical details, slights and controversies in between.
For many in the U.S., Netanyahu became a fixture as a forceful U.S.-based spokesman for Israel during the ’80s (at times, the former U.N. ambassador felt like a de facto co-host of “Nightline”), before returning home to pursue his political ambitions. That included bitter criticism of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords with »
- Brian Lowry
At a loss for what to watch this week? From new DVDs and Blu-rays, to what's streaming on Netflix, we've got you covered.
New on DVD and Blu-ray
Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, and Victor Garber star in this sharp, critically acclaimed (93 percent certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!) drug war thriller, which is out on Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand on January 5. Blu-ray bonus featurettes include "Stepping into Darkness: The Visual Design of Sicario," "Blunt, Brolin & Benicio: Portraying the Characters of Sicario," "Battle Zone: The Origins of Sicario," and "A Pulse from the Desert: The Score of Sicario."
Watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Philippe Petit take a wild walk on a wire between the Twin Towers. The bio-drama from director Robert Zemeckis co-stars Sir Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, and Ben Schwartz. The Blu-ray and DVD both include the "Pillars of Support" featurette, »
- Gina Carbone
13 items from 2016
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