A light hearted and entertaining look at Canadiana, Being Canadian is the passion project of Robert Cohen, a comedy writer who has written for such shows as Big Bang Theory and Funny or Die. Mystified by the general lack of knowledge about his home country from other people (probably actors), Robert decides to travel from coast to coast in an attempt to really discover what it means to be Canadian.
Featuring slick production and some innovative bits, Being Canadian was a humourous film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Canadians will strongly identify with some of the questions asked and while none of them are hard hitting, it’s nice to see perhaps some existential questions all Canadians have come to light. With celebrities such as Mike Myers, Dan Akroyd, Rush, Russell Peters, Alanis Morrisette among others, the film also serves as a reminder as to just how many Canadians there are in the entertainment world.
Films like being Canadian are essential to festivals like Hot Docs as it provides a nice break from the doom and gloom themes that dominate the rest of the festivals.
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.
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.
Seth has become a prolific face of Canadian comic art; a face that connects a glasses and top hat-donned head to a trench coat-covered body with a tie. The Drawn & Quarterly darling is known for his comics, graphic novels, cardboard city Dominion and recent illustration work with Lemony Snicket.
Seth’s Dominion captures the man’s nostalgic personality from the shots of him discussing himself under a warm golden spotlight, his pretend old-timey video footage of walking along train tracks and through the woods, him acting out handmade puppet-like plays and animated shorts of his stories. Each part is cinematically beautiful, and brings fresh life to his work, but combined it does leave a slight sense that he directed the documentary on himself, not someone else. “There’s something really valuable about doing art for yourself,” he says. Fair enough.
Seth draws lines between his work processes and his inspirations. He’s been fixated on telling his parents’ stories besides his own. His childhood has made a big visual and emotional impact on him. “Memory is a blueprint of sensation,” he says. It’s clear he’s a very sensitive person, which is good for a skilled storyteller. As he’s grown, he’s made his environment his art project – he’s made everything around him into something special, including his wife’s barber shop.
If you haven’t checked out any of Seth’s work yet, you will want to by the end of this documentary.
Seth’s Dominion screens again on Thursday, Apr 30 @ 9:45 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 8