Countdown: Docs for Non-Doc Lovers

It’s Doc Week here in Columbus, that bi-annual festival that caters to the documentary lover in us all. But what of those who don’t care for docs? They’re missing so much! Well, in the interest of sharing the doc love, we’ve put together a list of documentaries bound to entertain even those folks with zero interest in the genre.


5. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Seth Gordon’s doc on old school video game competitions managed to be the best underdog sports comedy of the year. Wisely, the film doesn’t mock its subjects, which would have created a distance between the participants and the audience. The competition is so fierce and yet disarmingly funny. Full of geekdom, mystery, humanity and the quest to maintain one’s own legend, King of Kong is a miraculous little slice of competitive life.

4. Stories We Tell (2012)

Sarah Polley uses an absolutely fascinating and intensely personal investigation to make some universal points about how we frame our own stories when sharing them with others, whether it’s the way we recount a personal tale or the way a filmmaker manipulates the audience to create the desired tone. Her points are all the more powerful because she chooses to open up such a private story to make them.

3. Man On Wire (2008)

Philippe Petit tight rope walked from one World Trade Center to the other. It became known as the artistic crime of the century, and James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary offers endlessly fascinating tidbits about how he pulled it off. The doc is maddeningly suspenseful, and the sight of this exquisite, joyous lunacy literally attached to the site of such profound tragedy somehow makes it all that much more magical.

2. Murderball (2005)

It’s full contact wheelchair rugby for quadriplegics, and you would get your ass kicked. Murderball is a film that shows no mercy because mercy wouldn’t be accepted anyway, as it follows athletes vying for a spot in Paralympic Games. The competition is intense, the action breathtaking, the story sometimes wickedly funny, and the human experience of it all serves as the doc’s escalated heartbeat. Murderball may very well be the best sports documentary ever made.

1. The Imposter (2012)

Not the best doc on the list, but without question the one that will leave you astounded. A young French drifter claims to be the missing son of a grieving Texas family. Director Bart Layton keeps his film exactly one step ahead of you, and the twists are absolutely impossible to see coming. It’s a jaw dropping true crime story that will leave you amazed.

Waiting for a Sunny Day


by Hope Madden

The last time Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel wrote a screenplay together, they came up with the filmmaker’s grandest, most epic misstep, The Fountain. Gorgeous and heady without enough beneath the surface to ground the visual display, it was a film about self-destruction, madness and commitment to the ideal of love.

Well, after two gritty, intimate tales on those same themes (The Wrestler, Black Swan), Aronofsky goes grand again with the biggest tale of human self-destruction, madness, and commitment to an ideal he could find: Noah. Amid the recent flood of Christian themed films (Son of God, God is Not Dead, and the upcoming Heaven is Real), it’s tempting not to take Noah very seriously. Aronofsky is serious.

An IMAX spectacle worthy of its subject matter, the effort is epic in scale and sometimes dizzyingly powerful to look at. And though the approach is 100% earnest and absolutely respectful of the Old Testament tale being told, he’s not only emphasizing parallels between the damned of Noah’s time and our current culture, but slyly asking  whether saving humanity was really the best idea.

It’s an admirable attempt, and though he nearly lost me with the biblical rock monsters (I swear to God), on the whole, the storytelling is as almost strong as the imagery.

He’s not getting the kind of nuanced, career-high performances from this cast that he enjoyed in his previous two efforts, though. Perhaps the reason is that these characters are far more broadly drawn, but their one dimensionality doesn’t help the film generate a lively, resonant quality. It tends instead to feed the film’s feel of a bombastic take on a musty, old story.

Russell Crowe scowls and looks conflicted, as does Jennifer Connelly (veteran not only of Crowe’s onscreen relationships but of Aronofsky films).

Ray Winstone delivers (as always) in the role that animates man’s wickedness, and with him Aronofsky scores the most points in articulating modern society’s connection to the parable without offering a sermon.

It’s a tremendous, impressive feat of cinema, the kind of epic biblical tale not attempted since Charlton Heston had his own hair. Aronofsky has entrenched himself in Noah’s story, considered what it really meant to him as a human, and by extension, what it meant to humanity. He doesn’t entirely pull it off, but it’s a hell of an effort.



Iron Maiden



by George Wolf


Teenagers do the darnedest things.

If they’re not jacking up your phone bill from endless texting, they’re sailing around the world.

Two years ago, 14 year old Laura Dekker boarded her sailboat Guppy, and set out to become the youngest person to sail around the globe alone. Maidentrip is the inspiring documentary of her journey.

The footage, shot by Dekker and presented by director Jillian Schlesinger, not only lets us ride along on a breathtaking adventure, but gives us a glimpse inside the soul of a unique young woman.

Born in New Zealand and raised in Holland by a seafaring father, Dekker’s wandering spirit could not be denied. Rather than focus on the speed of the trip, Dekker chose to make stops along the way, taking time to experience places she had only read about, such as the Canary Islands, Australia and French Polynesia. It is an education to envy.

Robert Redford’s recent film, All is Lost, effectively used a fictional alone-at-sea adventure to mirror a man’s journey in life, and the regrets he contemplates in his twilight years.

At the opposite pole, Maidentrip ultimately represents all the wonder, excitement and pitfalls of the trip to adulthood. Without braggadocio or pretense, Dekker sets the course for her sailboat and the path for her life.

It is a compelling souvenir of a goal fulfilled, and a wonderful snapshot of a young life in blossom.





He’s Back. Again.


by Hope Madden

At 67-years-old, Arnold Schwarzenegger is having a career resurgence of sorts. Sabotage is his 3rd film to be released in the last 12 months, and he has 5 more in development, including sequels to Expendables, Conan and Terminator. That’s not to say he’s exactly found an audience for his return to the big screen, but he’s certainly trying.

Truth is, neither Escape Plan or The Last Stand – his last two efforts – made at the box office even half of what they cost to produce. You’ve got to hope that his sequels do a little better, or that he’s put away some cash for retirement from somewhere else, because Sabotage is not likely to please a wider audience than his last two flicks.

It’s a darker film that you might expect, with mercifully few jokes about Arnold’s age. As Breacher, a legendary DEA agent whose career has taken an ugly turn, the big Austrian leads a team of unhinged misfits whose last bust corrupted their trust in the team and in Breacher.

Sabotage was co-written and directed by David Ayer, whose resume is littered with ill-conceived, gritty cop dramas (and the first Fast and Furious flick – so thanks for that). It’s a winding tale of double crosses that betray the worst in everybody, but Ayer can’t find a clean path through the story and Arnold can’t begin to shoulder the emotional weight required of his should-be complex character.

Points for a couple of unusual casting decisions. Mireille Enos cuts a sketchy figure as the team’s sole female agent – a role that could easily have fallen to (and seems to have been written for) a shapely babe pretending to be a badass. Instead, Enos looks like someone who could be mistaken for a meth addict (a plus in the world of covert DEA ops). She chews scenery, but at least she’s memorable.

Likewise, Olivia Williams has talent, and her ease with the material allows some genuine chemistry and natural humor to invade an otherwise stiff, by-the-numbers action flick. What she can’t do is handle a southern accent. Ouch.

Some decent red herrings are thrown about as Williams’s good cop works with Breacher to figure out who is picking off his team one by one. This generates decent tension as the investigation leads us through otherwise obvious territory. It’s when Ayer tries to throw an actual curve ball that things get sloppy.

He’s not aided by his lead’s performance, though. The twisty, secret-riddled script required a performance with a modicum of range. And yet, Ayers cast Arnold Schwarzenegger. Curious.



One Good Documentary, No Bullshit

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

by Hope Madden

Having stolen scenes on stage and screen (large and small) for 60+ years, it’s only appropriate that Elaine Stritch would get the chance to hold your attention all on her own in the new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. And for 80 brief minutes, she commands attention and more in a film that attempts to match the old school, ballsy dame’s single most compelling quality: unflinching honesty.

For the uninitiated, Stritch may be best remembered as Jack Donaghy’s irascible mother on 30 Rock – a performance that won Stritch her third Emmy. (She was nominated 5 times for that role alone.) But Stritch is a legend of the stage, and a personality that’s too big to hold in any medium.

Lensed by first time director (longtime producer) Chieme Karasawa, Shoot Me serves the formidable octogenarian well by simply presenting her as she is: brassy, vulnerable and pantsless.

We spend some time with the headstrong entertainer leading up to her 87th birthday and her newest project, the cabaret act Singin’ Sondheim…One Song at a Time. It’s an opportunity to glimpse her whirlwind past as well as her struggles with alcohol and diabetes, not that she’d accept your pity.

As the seasoned pro says, “Everybody’s got a sack of rocks.”

It’s Stritch’s paradoxical qualities that make her so engaging. She’s a prima donna without an ounce of pretense. She’s humble and candid and absolutely addicted to attention. Says her longtime friend Julie Keyes, “She is a molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius.”

Karasawa and her film are appropriately in awe of this truly remarkable talent, but she’s also wisely clear-eyed in her efforts. The film lacks any hint of nostalgia or romanticism – the kind of gimmicks you might find in other biographical docs. It’s a bit more like the 2010 film Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work in that it marvels at the star’s seemingly boundless energy and phenomenal work ethic without clouding the image of a flawed but fascinating cultural icon.

One element that sets Stritch apart from other performers of her generation or any other is her immediate and amazing connection to the audience. Perhaps that’s why her story and personality prove such compelling fodder for a documentary.



Two New Foreign Gems For Your Queue

We normally like to use For Your Queue to champion an underseen new release and pair that with an older film you may have missed. This week, however, there are two wonderful films coming out on DVD that you should check out. Both are foreign language titles – one that went sorely underseen, while the other won the Oscar.

The Past is the newest film from Asghar Farhadi, whose magnificent A Separation took home the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2012. Another intimate examination of rocky family bonds, The Past winds through one man’s journey into his estranged family’s crisis. Centered on a volatile and brilliant performance from Berenice Bejo, the film is another exceptional family drama from one of modern cinema’s most promising filmmakers.


Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar winner The Great Beauty also drops today. A visual wonder, combining satire, silliness and social commentary with a loose narrative and the brilliant performance of veteran Italian actor Toni Servillo, the film lives up to not only its Oscar, but perhaps more impressively, to its “Fellini-esque” label.

Countdown: 2013’s Bounty of Foreign Films

The Academy did a nice job this year in honoring foreign language films. Each candidate was wonderful, and we were especially pleased to see The Hunt and The Broken Circle Breakdown get attention. But the fact is, there were so many exceptional foreign language titles released this year, a lot of really wonderful movies didn’t get the nod. And that’s too bad, because without the Academy stamp, they went largely unnoticed in theaters. So, we decided to honor them ourselves. Please enjoy our list of the best foreign language films that did not get an Oscar nomination this year.

1. Gloria

If there’s one thing the films on our list have in common, it’s the strength of their female leads. Nowhere is this more the case than with the Chilean import Gloria. Paulina Garcia owns the title role with a performance that is raw emotion in action. With nary a false note, Garcia takes us on whirlwind coming-of-middle-age tale that never ceases to surprise.

2. Blue is the Warmest Color

Moving at its own pace, the French film packs an emotional wallop as it follows young Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) through her first affair of the heart. Anchored by Exarchopoulos’s powerhouse performance, and her touching chemistry with co-star Lea Seydoux, Blue is a beautifully human, wildly compelling love story.

3. The Past

Available today on DVD is a poignantly complicated, beautifully told tale of family dysfunction and the constant presence of our past. Blessed with unflinching performances – particularly from a magnificent Berenice Bejo – the wonderfully textured The Past keeps your attention as its mystery slowly unravels before your eyes.

4. Beyond the Hills

A Romanian story of forbidden love, progress and superstition, Beyond the Hills offers an understated and unhurried picture that leaves you shaken. A tale of survival and a displaced generation’s quest for security, the film makes for a beautiful examination of the weird, counter-productive, even dangerous relationship between primitive and modern Romania.

5. A Touch of Sin

That same tug of progress against a backdrop of old world creates the dehumanizing and corrupt environment for Zhangke Jia’s A Touch of Sin. The film dips a toe in four interweaving stories of individuals torn by the too-rapid cultural shift in China. Amid bullet and arterial spray, four beautifully developed characters struggle against their own bleak futures.



Words With Enemies


Bad Words


by George Wolf

Is it amusing to watch a 40 year old man act like a total S.O.B. to everyone around him, frequently unleashing crude verbal assaults on kids and parents alike?

When that man is Jason Bateman..yes, yes it is.

Bateman not only stars, but makes his big screen directorial debut in Bad Words, and he delivers a darkly funny romp through the cutthroat world of spelling bees. Think Best in Show meets Bad Santa and you’ll be in the right-but-way-wrong neighborhood.

Smarmy Guy Trilby (Bateman) crashes the spelling regionals in his hometown of Columbus, informing the judges that through a loophole in the rules, he is eligible to compete. With no legal grounds to deny him, they relent and find out Guy is not only a great speller, but a nasty douchebag who will stop at nothing to humiliate his opponents.

Why would a grown man do such a thing?

Reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) reflects our curiosity, and she travels with Guy on his journey to the national finals, hoping to discover his motives and land a story.

The screenplay, a debut for Andrew Dodge, has apparently been floating around for years, scaring off potential filmmakers with its down and dirty edges. Bateman, who’s been elevating projects since his days as a child actor, proves a natural at fleshing it out.

As a comic actor, Bateman’s timing is always flawless, a trait which translates well to his direction. He keeps the story lean and mean, with a quick pace and plenty of funny moments that never feel forced. Best of all, the heartwarming life lessons are kept to a minimum.

If you guessed that Guy and reporter Jenny find love, while a cute young speller teaches Guy the meaning of friendship, no one could blame you. Bateman’s not following that tired formula, and bless him for that.

That’s not to say that Jenny and Guy don’t share some hilariously awkward moments, or that precocious spelling champ Chaitanya (young Rohan Chand in a charming performance) doesn’t want to be friends, but Bateman never lets any of it become overly saccharine. He sets his tone and, for the most part, sees it through.

If you don’t like nasty funny, stay far away from Bad Words.

But if you do, come sit next to me.





Who Wants a Cocktail?

The Face of Love

by Hope Madden

We owe a lot to alcohol. Just one example of the gifts booze gives graces our multiplexes and independent cinemas weekly, because nearly every movie theater now contains a bar. This means that audiences who would not spend money on traditional concessions – that is, an older crowd – are more apt to spend their leisure time at the movies. This, in turn, creates more demand for grown up fare onscreen. Not just more character driven or dramatic storytelling, either. Older crowds want to see stories that relate to them, performed by grown-ups, and the financial success of films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel only guarantees the trend will continue.

This isn’t always a good thing. For every Amour there’s a Grudge Match, but at least we get to see an extension on the careers of really talented actors, like Annette Bening and Ed Harris, portraying star-crossed lovers in The Face of Love.

Bening plays Nikki, five years widowed from her beloved husband Garrett (Harris). Her needy, also-widowed neighbor Roger (Robin Williams) hopes to woo her, but she only has eyes for Garrett. Luckily enough, she runs into his doppelganger at an art gallery.

Yes, Garrett’s exact duplicate also lives in LA, visits the same museum, is single and lonely, and falls for Nikki.

The love of your life dies and you meet an exact replica. What do you do?

Is it a universal question or a ridiculous contrivance?

The latter, it turns out, but thanks to the sheer force of talent both Harris and Bening bring to the project, it is hard to turn away.

Harris breaks your heart as the good guy who falls for this mysterious new lady in his life. He’s lucky, though, because his character – a nice guy in for a heartache – is a little easier to play.

Bening’s drawn the shorter straw, but she handles the entire task quite well regardless of the lacking character development on the page. Her uneasy joy, repressed emotion, and fragile calm all help to make the character and her actions feel almost real.

What’s utterly and irredeemably unreal is the plot, co-written by director Arie Posin, along with Matthew McDuffie. But if you drink enough while you’re at the theater, you’ll hardly notice.





Killer Performance


Grand Piano


by George Wolf

A man with a very particular set of skills is lured into a deadly cat and mouse game by an unseen tormentor…

If you’re thinking Liam Neeson, think a little smaller.

Elijah Wood is the star of Grand Piano, as stage-fright prone master pianist Tom Selznick.  Returning to the stage after a five-year hiatus, Tom finds an unexpected piece of music inserted into his planned repertoire. It is an “unplayable” piece, and one that he botched big-time in a previous try.

A hand-written message on the sheet music, coupled with a sudden laser target on his chest, give Tom extra motivation: play it perfectly, without missing one single note, or die.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s request hour!

Much like Neeson’s recent thriller Non-Stop, Grand Piano does a fine job setting up an engaging premise, only to stumble trying to find a worthy way out.

Screenwriter Damien Chazelle invents clever twists to keep the tension going, providing multiple Hitchcock homages that are able to toe an entertaining line between cheesy fun and pretentious contrivance.

Chazelle has the perfect partner in director Eugenio Mira, who seems almost gleeful in the way he sets the pace. Multiple perspectives are blended with skill, precision and timing, not the least of which are impressive concert sequences of Wood appearing to be a virtuoso.

The unplayable piece and the deadly situation escalate in delightful symmetry, and Wood deftly conveys the persona of a man pushed to the edge of both his nerve, and his talent.

In case you don’t already know who plays the baddie, I won’t spoil it, but his battle of wits with Wood is all fiendish fun until everyone involved must deal with that pesky conclusion. After the buildup, it smacks of a give-up, or something lifted from an old episode of Magnum, P.I.

Sure, there are a couple leaps in logic and classical music fans will likely nitpick the concert details, but until that last sour note, Grand Piano stays in tune.