This year’s Hot Docs festival ended a couple of weeks ago, and and only now have we finally managed to purge our thoughts on the many documentaries that we’ve seen this year. Jay put up a much more comprehensive post over on The Documentary Blog, but I have taken a selection of these reviews and reposted them here for your convenience. If you like what you see, be sure to head over there and read the rest.
Also, don’t forget to check out previous reviews of the following films:
- Teenage Paparazzo
- The People vs. George Lucas
- Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage
- American: The Bill Hicks Story
- The Invention of Dr Nakamats
- 12th & Delaware
- The Oath
- Secrets of the Tribe
Capsule reviews for more films including Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything is Going Fine, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s Kings of Pastry, and the David Lynch transcendental meditation doc David Wants to Fly can be found after the jump.
And Everything is Going Fine
In And Everything is Going Fine Steven Soderbergh unsurprisingly has decided to break traditional conventions when it comes to creating a posthumous portrait. Devoid of interviews with friends and family or narration, he allows Spalding Gray to dictate the content himself through the candid monologues he was loved for. The film is entirely built from footage of his shows, interviews and home videos and the real progression in terms of story comes through his changing view points over time in his own words. Having enjoyed Soderbergh’s last documentary-of-sorts on the same man, Gray’s Anatomy I was intrigued as to the direction this film would take, especially considering Gray’s death in 2004. Despite my love of Soderbergh’s consideration when it comes to cinematography and colour within the majority of his films I wasn’t at all disappointed that this film is possibly most devoid of his presence as a director. Given the dominance of Gray’s personality and sheer volume of footage I didn’t feel that a lack of style created anything but a fitting, and respectful, eulogy to his two-time collaborator. I enjoyed that this wasn’t an exploration into Gray’s life, other than the anecdotes he chose to share with the world through his work, which seemed entirely appropriate considering memory was a recurring theme in his monologues. Within no distinct timeline, the viewer is left to decide what was real and what was a distorted recollection and the context of this in his life and work. Death and suicide have always been a huge part of Gray’s work and I was expecting this to have been used as an exploration as to why he took his own life in 2004, but this is completely left out of the story entirely to the point that on leaving I wondered whether I was wrong about his death. I think the omittance of this was the right choice as the film distinctly avoids making any assertions about Gray as a person in context with his life which was refreshing. At times I felt that I really just wanted to see his monologues in their entirety rather than the collage of footage presented but then perhaps that was the ultimate goal so that the film serves as a tool to create an appetite for Gray’s work for years to come, and if so it succeeds. — Charlotte
Nuclear waste disposal is a bitch. With a 100,000 year radioactive lifespan, the problem of dealing with these toxic left-overs raises some interesting questions about the sustainability of nuclear energy and the future of our civilization. Into Eternity explores some mind-bending ideas that I hadn’t even considered. If we’ve decided to solve the problem of toxic nuclear waste by burying it deep within the Earth, how do we warn future generations of its danger? It’s unrealistic to assume mankind will survive the next 100,000 years unchanged (or at all), so how do we communicate with whatever future society might take our place? Will they understand our languages or basic symbols? Will the massive underground tunnels in which we bury our waste be mistaken for religious tombs or hidden treasure? We only have to look at our own fascination with the pyramids to understand the natural curiosity to explore unknown corners of the Earth, especially those that might lead towards answers about past civilizations. All of these questions are handled with a joyfully ominous touch. If The Cove and Man on Wire are the non-fiction nods to the espionage thriller, director Michael Madsen has tipped his hat to dystopian science fiction, taking full advantage of the cold, futuristic imagery of the nuclear waste plants. The film also has an interesting narrative device with images of present day tunnel workers almost doubling for a future society digging for treasure as Madsen provides narration that warns this future society “You should stay away from this place, and then you will be safe.” The film is a cautionary tale that’s beautifully shot and embraces a science fiction angle (watch for the Kubrickian intertitles) that left me thinking about one of my favourite Ed Wood quotes: “And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future!” — Jay
Kings of Pastry
If you’re a fan of Ace of Cakes or any similar TLC shows, you might have an inkling of the kinds of beautiful art that can be created with sugar and icing in the hands of a master. Kings of Pastry goes after the best of the best, the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a 3-day competition held every four years where pastry chefs compete to earn the ultimate title of recognition in their profession. Acclaimed documentarians Chris Hegedus (The War Room) and D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) follow a number of hopefuls as they prepare in the months leading up to the competition. It may not sound like particularly thrilling subject matter, but as we slowly come to understand the painstaking amount of sacrifice and hard work that goes into their craft, the stakes become quite high. It all culminates with the competition itself, which is incredibly tense and emotional. Four years of work are riding on delicate sculptures that can shatter at a moment’s notice. The cinematography is a little bland, but the artistic creations and the human drama contained in this film are anything but. — Sean
David Wants to Fly
The idea of meeting one’s hero is a dangerous one that could result in complete disillusionment and disappointment. With sites like TMZ simultaneously elevating and tearing down the concept of celebrity, the veil mystery and intrigue that once surrounded Hollywood has now been lifted, revealing a not-so-magical interior. I wonder how many 14 year old girls have approached a wasted Lindsay Lohan for an autograph? This is why idol worship via organized public relations events and fan conventions is the most sustainable and profitable form of celebrity. This idea of disillusionment is explored on multiple levels in director David Sieveking’s David Wants to Fly; be it on a fan level (meeting David Lynch), a spiritual level (transcendental meditation), or a personal level (his relationship with his girlfriend). I will say the first half hour of the film had me rolling my eyes a bit. It seemed as though Sieveking’s motivation to seek out David Lynch was a bit forced and purely plot driven, but the result was actually quite interesting. As a casual Lynch fan, it was interesting seeing such a respected and subversive artist acting as a mindless puppet for transcendental meditation. Sieveking initially takes everything Lynch says to heart, but after some investigating of his own, it’s fairly clear that the entire movement has lost its way. Words like ‘cult’ and ‘corporation’ are thrown around in multiple interviews and once Lynch’s publicist catches wind of Sieveking’s change of heart, his access is denied. All of this adds up to a very entertaining film that was much funnier than I’d expected.
In honour of David Lynch’s participation in this film, I suggest you go out of your way to watch David Wants to Fly on your iPhone. — Jay
Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn
Shadowplay is one of those films that succeeds within its little niche territory but may not translate to anyone who hasn’t heard of or isn’t interested in the work of photographer/filmmaker Anton Corbijn. Director Josh Whiteman assembles and impressive cast of interview subjects including Bono (who also provides some narration), Kurt Cobain (post-humous of course), Chris Martin, Michael Stipe and Tony Wilson (before he died I believe) amongst others. I thought it was interesting hearing these folks talk about Corbijn’s work informing a group’s art direction and single-handedly shaping the identity of a band based on his photos. It’s completely true; when I think of bands like Joy Division and U2, it’s Corbijn’s work that comes to mind. Outside of the discussion of Corbijn’s work, Whiteman does attempt to graft a loose narrative structure on to what is otherwise a fairly loose talking heads retrospective. We get a look at the production of the Ian Curtis biopic Control, Corbijn’s first feature film. There’s some interesting behind the scenes footage — including the actors rehearsing the details of Joy Division’s on stage personalities — but this story thread is pretty sparsely weaved in and out of the film. Either way, Corbijn’s work is worthy of this sort of retrospective and in that regard, Shadowplay succeeds. — Jay
Anne Perry: Interiors
With an incredibly slow and evasive pace, Anne Perry – Interiors is a masterclass in creating a story around the elephant in the room. Set largely around Perry’s Scottish home we are introduced to her tight-knit team of friends and family who go to great lengths to support her professionally and emotionally. Now a successful crime writer this glimpse into her life shows how her past is ever present despite huge attempts on her part to ignore it. If you were hoping for a look into the psyche of a murderer you will be hugely disappointed, and I was extremely glad to find out this wasn’t the case. It’s a film that looks at the repercussions of childhood mistakes and how you try and mend something which can’t be fixed. The kindness and extreme patience of her friends, most notably her closest friend who lives opposite her, is incredibly touching. Everyone in her life rallies around and supports her while desperately wanting to talk to her about the murder. Anne is a charismatic and formidable character who easily holds your attention and as you see the pain and desperation for her to finally talk about her experience you begin to urge her to do so, which creates incredible tension and suspense. I found this film fascinating on many levels, and the different relationships she has are as telling as her own testimony. Through one on one interviews Anne lets snippets of her previous life come through but it’s always apparent what she is not saying. Using the film as a platform to finally confront Anne we join the desperate need of to find out what actually happened. — Charlotte
Thieves By Law
Over the last few years we’ve seen the Russian mafia start to steal the spotlight away from The Corleones and The Sopranos in popular culture, with appearances in movies like Eastern Promises, We Own the Night, and yes, even Iron Man 2. In Thieves By Law, director Alexander Gentelev takes a look at the stories behind three supposedly retired real-life mobsters, and the history of the Russian underworld in general, which grew out of Stalin’s labor camps in the 1930s. Although the film is comprised almost entirely of interviews with the three subjects, their stories are compelling and the personalities are varied yet unsettling in their own way. They reveal that the influence of the mob has found its way into almost every facet of Russian society today, and former NHL star Pavel Bure even pops by for a surprise cameo. The one big problem with the movie is that the subjects are never really proven to be fully reliable, and they seem to be using the film as a P.R. move to prove that all of their business dealings are now 100% legit. — Sean
Life With Murder
The murder mystery/courtroom drama is one sub-genre that truly shines in the documentary format. Director John Kastner’s Life With Murder is a bold, cinematic example of a totally riveting real-life drama that might otherwise have fallen victim to a bland, news magazine segment or a sensational movie-of-the-week. The story is heart breaking; a man, Mason Jenkins, is accused of murder when his 20 year old sister is found shot in the family rec room. He maintains his innocence, but a number of unanswered questions have police thinking otherwise. With his parents support, his case goes to trial but the evidence against him leads to a conviction. Even still, his Mother and Father believe that their son has been wrongly convicted. The opening scene of the film is a great red herring, showing us what looks to be a typical family barbecue, but a wide shot reveals 12 foot fences and barbed wire. Jenkins is allowed weekend visitations by his parents at an unsupervised on-site prison-house; something I’ve never seen before. The filmmakers are granted access to these get togethers as we watch some fairly uncomfortable conversations unfold as Mason’s parents try and figure out the truth behind the death of their daughter. A number of on-camera revelations add up to a fairly tense and dramatic piece of filmmaking. Kastner approaches the material with a stylish but sensitive eye, walking a cinematic and journalistic line that results in one of the best films at this years Hot Docs film festival. — Jay
The Kids Grow Up
The Kids Grow Up takes us on Doug Block’s highly personal experience of coping with his only daughter leaving home for college. Finding the sheer thought of it incredibly difficult we follow Doug’s experience over the preceding year as he tries to come to terms with an empty nest. Having a filmmaker as a father appears to have been a unique experience for Lucy as an enormous amount of her life has been documented and, although very happy on camera as a child, this project seems to be the final straw. The camera itself is as much a character as those of his family as it serves as a coping mechanism as well as an excuse for exploration. It’s an incredibly brave thing to bring a camera into your home, let alone having your own family as subject matter, but Doug avoids taking this too far, creating a story entirely born out of love. The archive of Lucy is beautifully woven throughout and you essentially see her grow up before your eyes, but the most touching scenes are her and Doug’s one on one chats over time. As you see her opinions and thoughts evolve you understand her feelings towards leaving even if she’s progressively reluctant to appear on camera as the film unfolds. There is wonderful comic relief in the form of Lucy’s french boyfriend, and the excruciatingly awkward interviews with the two of them will make any daughter squirm in reminiscence. — Charlotte
Candyman: The David Klein Story
The story is not an unfamiliar one: brilliant inventor gets taken for a ride by greedy businessmen and ends up losing out on a fortune. David Klein’s life may be one filled with regret and sadness, but his accomplishments still speak for themselves. After all, he introduced the world to Jelly Belly jellybeans… what’s not to appreciate? New Zealand filmmaker Costa Botes (Forgotten Silver) attempts to recognize the man’s brilliance and creativity after he was erased from the Jelly Belly history books with Candyman: The David Klein Story. Together they revisit his past, and in doing so explore the nature of the candy business in the late ’70s. Although the story is fairly straightforward and not as quirky or offbeat as one might hope, there is an unexpected emotional pull from Klein’s strained relationship with his son Bert, who must also come to terms with his dad’s victories and disappointments. — Sean
Read even more Hot Docs reviews over on The Documentary Blog!