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Sundance 2014 Documentary Wrap-Up: ‘Whitey,’ ‘Internet’s Own Boy,’ ‘Battered Bastards,’ ‘Electric Sky’ & More

Written by on January 25, 2014 

While much of the attention during Sundance Film Festival seems to go to the dramatic competition and premiere section, there’s also a wealth of notable documentaries. This year at Park City we were able to check out a dozen of the selections and have provided a brief take on each, with topics including baseball (times two), Roger Ebert, the Sandusky scandal, George Takei, Aaron Swartz, and more. Check out our thoughts on all twelve documentaries below and see our complete Sundance 2014 coverage here.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Chapman Way, Maclain Way)

A well-made though thinly told tale about the Portland Mavericks, a minor-league baseball team that operated independent of Major League Baseball’s rules and regulations. Owned by Bonanza star Bing Russell, father of Kurt, the Mavericks found unbridled success in the mid-70s, revitalizing a once-defunct baseball town. Directors Chapman and Maclain Way don’t dig much into the specifics of the story, relying on the memories of those close to Bing (Kurt Russell especially) and not much else. In short, the story exceeds the documentary, which is just enough to entertain. [B] – Dan M.

Happy Valley (Amir Bar-Lev)

Far too sloppy a film considering the touchy subject matter, Happy Valley gets lost in dissecting the slipshod media coverage that occurred as the Jerry Sandusky Scandal was unfolding, instead of offering anything new in the way of evidence or documentation. This is subpar work coming from accomplished documentarian Amir Bar-Lev. If you watch the news, Happy Valley isn’t worth your time. [C-] – Dan M.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (Brian Knappenberger)

If you’ve been on the internet, there’s a chance you’ve used a service that Aaron Swartz has had a hand in. A co-founder of Reddit, a developer on RSS, an organizer of Creative Commons, and countless other services, he had a phenomenal impact on what we call the internet today. Sadly, his life was cut short as he committed suicide last January, presumably due to pressure following the efforts of the government to jail him for up to 35 years and fines in the millions because of harmlessly gathering data to academic journals at MIT. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, the documentary chronicling his life and auxiliary efforts around internet freedom is formally standard, but a powerful testament to Swartz’s effort, properly defining him as a hero. [B] – Jordan R.

Ivory Tower (Andrew Rossi)

Andrew Rossi’s zippy documentary on higher education in the United States suffers a bit of poor timing following Frederick Wiseman’s four-hour masterpiece At Berkeley. Coming from CNN Films, Ivory Tower is clearly structured to fit into a two-hour television slot with room for commercials. The focus here is on student loans and the general dilution of the college degree in comparison to the debt it puts most young people in. Solutions are offered, but nothing concrete. [B] – Dan M.

Life Itself (Steve James)

It’s only fitting that documentary filmmaker Steve James, of Hoop Dreams fame, was able to capture the iconic film critic Roger Ebert during the final months of his life. Ebert was one of the voices who championed Hoop Dreams and helped elevate it to a broader limelight, exposing it to audiences who very likely would have never heard of it — as he did with countless other films. It seems almost impossible for any film critic, filmmaker, or filmgoer not to have been in one way or another influenced by Ebert and his vocal opinions. Based loosely on his autobiography of the same name, Life Itself examines the man who was revered for his frank, direct, and articulate opinions on cinema. [B+] – Raffi A. (full review)

Love Child (Valerie Veatch)

Focusing in on a horrific act of negligence that occurred in South Korea, Love Child yearns to understood the circumstances and societal norms that led to such a tragedy. The crime in question revolves around a poor couple who would spend eight to ten hours a day playing online games in internet cafes, farming digital items for money, accidentally let their baby die of malnutrition while they indulged in their addiction. Equal parts a study of internet obsession as it is a portrait of South Korean culture, the documentary attempts to discover the root of the problem. It’s an alienating portrait of lost souls and blurred reality yet does very little to illuminate the compelling subject matter it hopes to understand, focusing rather on its style than actual content. [C] – Raffi A.

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