hot docs

Hot Docs Review: Danny (2014, Justin Simms, William D. MacGillivray)

Posted on by Jack Derricourt in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


A teary-eyed man stands at a podium and utters these words: “Orson Welles once said, if you want a happy ending, you need to know when to end your story.” Like Citizen Kane, Danny is a story of a political giant that begins at the end. Danny Williams was a rarity in Canadian politics. In a political culture where we often vote away what we don’t want rather than democratically embrace an agenda of action, the fiery former premier is a rare case study.

The guy who outright mutinied against Stephen Harper in the early 2000s? The premier of Newfoundland and Labrador that everyone was talking about on the radio and tv and in the paper? Yep, that was Danny.

The movie does a solid job of addressing the post-Confederation history of Newfoundland, especially the series of bad deals dealt to the province that left what was once a thriving, independent nation a mere pawn in the federal game. The struggles of recent years have been an attempt to negotiate for a fair share of offshore oil profits, a fight that Danny was born for. It’s a familiar story to many Canadians, and one that should interest anyone that has witnessed how oil has become the central economic issue of our country.

The more direct subject of the film is given a familiar, biographical treatment in the midst of this broader provincial story. He is shown wearing a variety of hats: student, hockey player, dutiful son, Rhodes scholar, trial lawyer. His early years in office are explained in painful terms, as dealing with the catastrophic changes to fishing in the province was a constant ordeal for the newly minted politician. Thankfully, along came Paul Martin, a boxing buddy for Danny, someone he could treat to his Newfoundland and Labrador jab-punch of patriotism. We won’t mention Steve here.

Danny has a captivating story, born out of an incredibly charismatic, quotable person. Yet there is something to be said about championing a politician too unabashedly. To be proud of one’s folk heroes is a great thing, but we live in an age that demands more nuanced approaches to its public figures. The premier’s former staff provide a great deal of the commentary throughout the story, something that felt forced and one-sided. If a man is to be judged, his detractors should be given voice, and he should be allowed to stand up to their test. I feel Danny didn’t give its subject the chance to outbully the bullies who would see him cut down.

As a tribute, the documentary is a just approximation of everything that Canadians loved about Danny Williams, and it should be applauded. For a politician with means and determination is the sort of symbol we need in our current political climate. The film asks its viewers to abandon harsh criticism and pessimism, allowing Danny to remain enshrined in a Kubla Khan of newspaper headlines and coffee break stories. Perhaps we should oblige.

Danny screens again on Sunday, May 3 @ 1:15 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre.

Hot Docs Review: Love Between The Covers (2015, Laurie Kahn)

Posted on by jessica in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


The world of romance writing is not just about the fantastical love between two characters, but also the intense pay-it-forward sisterhood of its predominantly female community. In an hour and a half, Love Between the Covers tackles everything under the umbrella, but throughout it shines how empowering writing and reading romance fiction is for women. And that’s what you call an HEA (Happily Ever After).

Hopefully this documentary educates those who scoff at romance titles in grocery stores and libraries. Romance fiction is a multi-billion dollar section of the publishing industry, and underneath it lies practically any other genre – science fiction romance, historical romance, fantasy romance, horror romance, Amish romance, etc. There’s something for everyone. The documentary tackles this issue head on right off the bat – scoffing back at those who scrunch up their noses saying ‘you read that?’ and saying point-blank why it’s so great. To put it lightly, author Beverly Jenkins chuckles, “We are the shit.”

Love Between the Covers gives a boost to so many interesting romance authors – Jenkins, Mary Bly (Eloisa James), Len Barot (Radclyffe), Susan Donovan, Celeste Bradley and Nora Roberts, to name a few – as well as lots of others in the publishing industry. It’s impossible not to be impressed by them. Very few get to make it their day job but it’s clear they do it for the passion. There are a lot of scenes of women writing on their laptops at home in their PJs. Readers hang on to every word, and authors pump out multiple books per year. They show tremendous spirit in their work, compassion for one another and honour for the trade. They know how to craft great love stories and many have found their niches to fill in cracks such as the lack in queer and person of colour areas, which has changed many people’s lives since. This documentary is full of fantastic, hilarious quotes. It’s easy to follow along through the narrative of the work and the industry. These women are sassy, down to earth and incredibly smart. They tackle every hurdle fearlessly, explaining this is one place you’ll find women’s sexuality fairly represented… you can have sex without dying a horrible death… the idea that romance novels are sneered at because they’re written by women, for women and about women… the list goes on.

Above all, love trumps hate.

Love Between The Covers screens on Friday, May 1  @ 9:30 PM at Fox Theatre.

Hot Docs Review: It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise (2015, Matt Wolf)

Posted on by jessica in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


Though it’s cute and wise-cracking, It’s Me, Hilary is a messy documentary that couldn’t find its purpose in thirty minutes. There’s the obvious: the documentary’s executive producer Lena Dunham has always loved Eloise, the fictional little girl who lived in the Plaza Hotel, so much that she has a tattoo of the character on her back. The artist who drew Eloise, Hilary Knight, is still alive and uppity, and the two formed a friendship. There’s the rest: the history of how Eloise came to be, the drama behind the franchise, Hilary’s characteristics and art, what Hilary is doing now, how much Eloise meant to other famous women (seconds-long quotes given to Tavi Gevinson, Fran Lebowitz and Mindy Kaling), etc. Each topic is interesting enough, but thrown together made for a lack in flow. If the documentary was more focused, it would be easier and more enjoyable to digest.

It seems Lena and Hilary were drawn to each other for their similar personalities of embracing the inner child, much like the way Hilary was drawn to Kay Thompson, the famous actress who wrote Eloise’s story. Lena and Hilary giggle about their friendship, but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone else except them. Underneath all the cramped topics lies a self-serving feeling that’s hard to shake. Lena herself has a generous amount of screen time talking about what this all means to her. (This surprises no one.)

Hilary is an odd duck, and he’s funny. He’s a great artist, and as he admits to the camera, “I’m excellent at fucking off.” He creates what he can and has fun with it. A funny scene unfolds as he makes a home video of his friends dressed as a mermaid and a frog. Lena’s there. He generally seems to be an interesting person to be around. But trying to make him seem like this epic person in that tone of voice you use in documentary interviews falls a little flat. It ends up mirroring how discombobulated he is.

You won’t be cursing losing a half hour of your life or anything, and you may feel intrigued to do your own research on Hilary, Kay and Eloise. Personally, I found the history of the franchise to be more interesting. If anything, the documentary could’ve been a lot better if it had more time. It just took on too much when it should’ve focused on some core elements – rather than feeling like a report on a person you’d do for school, it could’ve unpacked more importance. We want to know why we should be interested, not why Lena is.

It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise screens again at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 on Wed, Apr 29 @ 4:15 PM and Fri, May 1 @ 4:15 PM.

Hot Docs Review: Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck (2015, Brett Morgan)

Posted on by Melody Lamb in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


I was one year old when Kurt Cobain commanded a nation to “entertain us.” Being born in 1990, I had missed grunge rock’s entry into the mainstream, the rise of flannel and fuzzed-out guitars all voiced by a scraggly-haired man named Kurt Cobain. By the time I began discovering music on my own at the age of six or seven, Cobain was no longer with us. What remained were heavy rotations of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio and television, black and yellow happy face posters in stores everywhere and a mythological creature bigger than Michael Jackson. I never grew up with Nirvana; I grew up with the legend of Nirvana.

In the two decades since Cobain committed suicide, I have admittedly learned a little more about him, his music and his life, but much of what I’ve read or seen, be it in retrospectives, books or films, is often highly romanticized. Even though Cobain clearly struggled with drugs and depression, his early demise has transformed him into a musical god (among many who met similar fates) and one of the most notable things about the new documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is that the most defining moment in his life, his suicide, is practically nonexistent. In fact, it’s a mere footnote at the very end.

Instead of focusing on Cobain’s death, as many might be tempted to do, Montage of Heck shines a refreshing new light on the life of Cobain. As the first “authorized” documentary on Cobain, writer and director Brett Morgan was given full access to Cobain’s personal belongings including handwritten notes and drawings which are animated in the film as well as his cassette tapes that revealed narratives documented like diary entries or confessionals of Cobain’s.

This creates the foundation of which Cobain’s story is told, through his own words, and further illustrated by graphic novel-like segments where he retells stories like trying to lose his virginity and discovering weed. The documentary also draws from interviews with some of Cobain’s closest friends and family including wife Courtney Love, his mother and sister, and his bandmate Krist Novoselic (though curiously, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl’s interview was left on the cutting room floor).

The end result is a very thorough profile of a human being, not a god. Footage of Cobain as a child is heartbreakingly endearing as he proclaims in an early clip: “I’m Kurt Cobain!” while in his years with Love, we see plenty of raw video recordings of the two madly in love, cracking jokes at each other and, in his last months, taking care of daughter Frances Bean Cobain. In one of the most jarring scenes, Cobain is seen holding his daughter as she gets her first haircut looking lethargic as he assures, “I’m not on drugs, I’m tired.” It’s just as heartbreaking to watch that scene because, two hours after seeing a smiling doe-eyed child full of life, we are seeing a man denying an addiction to drugs, almost entirely drained of that energy and life seen earlier.

Montage of Heck doesn’t hide the fame and celebrity of Cobain either. We see the meteoric rise of Nirvana, the magazine covers and the Beatles-like fandom, but it never felt like the main story at hand. Rather, it was just a part of the complex story of Cobain’s hectic life and the overall montage was well-balanced, realistic and the most grounded depiction of Cobain I’ve ever seen. Whether you’re a fan of Nirvana or you just grew up with the image of Kurt Cobain plastered on college dorm rooms everywhere, Montage of Heck is a clear and direct representation of the man behind the legend, the man who thoroughly entertained us.

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