Cover photo by Allan, used under Creative Commons license

In which I use a brief interlude between flights to contemplate subtle changes in how we use our spare time

Spring is usually a pretty predictable time for us. The sun comes out and so do we: we drive down to Niagara once or twice, we buy a Hot Docs festival pass and invade the patio at the Victory, we clean off our balcony, etc. But this spring? There’s been nothing predictable about this spring.

We were supposed to go to Miami, but we bailed on that when last week’s trip to Berlin and next week’s trip to Turkey came up. We had to abandon an almost-planned trip to Halifax this weekend for the Nova Scotia craft beer festival. We didn’t even buy a Hot Docs pass, marking the first time in…I don’t know, maybe a dozen years that we haven’t seen at least one documentary. We haven’t been to Niagara at all. Our balcony still looks winterized (though, in truth, winter practically just ended) as we haven’t had time to set it up, even on weekends.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I like being busy, and I’ve been lucky that travel and change has found its way into our lives these days, but I do rather miss a few of these things.

Perhaps I should go sit on the balcony now rather than write a blog post.

[UPDATE: shortly after this we walked to Bier Markt, drank some wheat beer, then ate some gelato and sat in St. James Park. So that’s more like it.]


Cover photo by Allan, used under Creative Commons license

“Friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people.”

I spent most of last week at a conference just outside of Phoenix. This was my view each morning:

Not bad, right? But with this trip coming right on the heels of the previous week’s trip to Boston, I was ready to come back to Toronto and have a couple of quiet weekends. Fortunately while I was away the long Toronto winter finally breathed its last. I arrived home Thursday to find runners and cyclists swarming the waterfront, leaves finally breaking out on trees, and the Canadiens playing their first playoff game.

As sure as those are signs of spring, so too is Hot Docs. My travel schedule kept us from seeing our usual five screenings this year, but we did manage to squeak in a few. First, after a bite and a beer at The Oxley followed by a few spectacular glasses of wine (my ’99 Peter Lehmann Shiraz really stood out) at Opus we took in a late screening of Blackfish. I get emotional every time I think about Tilikum or Dawn Brancheau or pretty much any other part of that film so I’m not going to describe it much more here. I’m just going to say this: SeaWorld can go fuck itself. So can MarineLand. So can anyone who goes there.

After our customary pre-Hot Docs stop on the patio at the Victory Café

…we hit our second screening: Which Way Is The Front Line From Here: The Life And Time Of Tim Hetherington. It was directed by the author Sebastien Junger, with whom Hetherington had shadowed an army platoon to create a book called War and a documentary called Restrepo. Not long after the documentary was nominated for an Oscar Hetherington was killed in Libya covering yet another war zone. Junger made the documentary to explain who Tim was, why he was so possessed with telling stories this way, and sharing more of his brilliance than we were likely to ever see otherwise.

After that we needed another drink. We made our way (slowly, happily) down to Bellwoods Brewery, which we’d shamefully not yet tried despite it being named the 3rd-best new brewery in the world last year. We had several tasty pints and ate bread and salumi and rosemary fries, and sat in the perfect inside-but-almost-outside weather.



Photo by Alfred Hermida, used under Creative Commons license

Hot Docs 2012

Every year we buy a Hot Docs festival pass, and every year something gets in the way of us seeing at least one of the films. This time it’s wisdom teeth. But we at least got to see a few:

The Imposter (imdb | flixster | hot docs) was carrying a lot of buzz from an earlier appearance at Sundance, and it didn’t disappoint. I was impressed with all three facets: the story, the style and the shooting. The story was so bizarre that it could only be told in a documentary…it would have seemed ridiculous in a typical film. The style involved a lot of recreations, a la Errol Morris, which Nellie hates but I saw as crucial to the story…with no actual footage, you needed some way to put yourself in these situations being recounted more than ten years later. The shooting itself was pretty remarkable…as the director himself said during the Q&A afterward there were influences like Morris and David Fincher, but I got a lot of The Usual Suspects in the mix as well. Overall, a fantastic start to the festival.

It only got better with Brooklyn Castle (imdb | hot docs) on Sunday. Focused on a middle school in Brooklyn that focuses on cranking out amazing chess players, but extending into their personal lives and struggles at school and the state education budget sword of Damocles, it was engaging and worrisome and funny and encouraging all at once. The crowd applauded several times during the film; I rarely stopped smiling for the last half hour. Also: there’s a certain kind of subject that documentary filmmakers must just flip out when they stumble on; in this film his name was Pobo. Once you watch the film — and you really must watch it, just as soon as you can — you won’t forget him, or the other kids, or the teachers, or the stories. This won the audience prize at SxSW, and I’d have to think it’s a favourite to win the audience award at Hot Docs as well.

Unfortunately, with that screening still fresh in my mind, it was inevitable that Fists Of Pride (imdb | hot docs) would be a letdown. The subject matter — Burmese kids living in a boxing camp along the Burmese/Thai border, trying to fight their way out of poverty — sounded compelling, but we never really got to identify with them, or see them fight for more than a few moments each, or find out what happened. It was like a story that just couldn’t find a conclusion. Not bad, but nowhere near the league of the two we’d seen to date.

We already know we’re missing scheduled documentary #4 (The World Before Her) on Wednesday; if we’re lucky we’ll get to see Sexy Baby on Friday. Even if we can’t, our first weekend of the festival was worth the price of five admissions.


Photo by Alfred Hermida, used under Creative Commons license

"When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Unless you don't have any water or sugar. And then you just eat the lemons, and the rind will give you diarrhea."

Aided by a pair of 5-hour flights and some rainy weather, I have watched seven movies in the last seven days.

The Hollywood Complex (imdb | hot docs) was our final Hot Docs screening. I expected a movie about the desperate lives of aspiring child actors and the parents who push them to evoke a little more emotion, but it felt flat to me. Not bad, but a let-down compared to others we’ve seen at Hot Docs, this year included. I gave it a 3 out of 5 in audience voting.

TRON: Legacy (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was an in-flight movie, watched somewhere between Toronto and San Francisco. I watched it mainly because I have vague memories of both the original TRON movie and the video game, because I will watch Jeff Bridges in anything and because I am mesmerized by Olivia Wilde. And light cycles. It was rubbish, but that’s what I expected, and it served its purpose — to kill two hours. But what was with Michael Sheen channeling David Bowie?

The Green Hornet (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was another in-flight movie, and not a good one. Maybe the worst one. It just felt scattered and random and several steps below what I’ve come to expect from comic/superhero revivals in recent years.

The Next Three Days (imdb | rotten tomatoes) seemed like a good way to kill some time on a plane, given that it was over two hours. That was about the best that could be said for it, unfortunately. I just have no time for Russell Crowe playing anyone other than Jeffrey Wigand, and they did a poor job making us care about the plight of the characters, rather just jumping right in to the action-y parts of the plot. Elizabeth Banks was, as she often us, the only good part of the film.

Dinner For Schmucks (imdb | rotten tomatoes) should have been so, SO much better. I mean, with a cast that included Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, David Walliams, Ron Livingston, Larry Wilmore and Kristen Schaal, I expected something so much better than the bizarre, faux-zany mess that turned up. On the other hand, I suspect this movie would be HIIIIIII-LARIOUS if watched when stoned and/or not on a plane.

Bridesmaids (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was more like it. I was off the plane now, obviously, and seeing this one in the theatre. A very cramped theatre, by the way, full of people who would laugh at every single thing which happened in the movie. Which was kind of annoying. But still, it was a funny movie, and sweet too. That formula has worked for under-appreciated comedians before, and there’s no doubt this was Judd Apatow’s attempt to give Kristen Wiig her own 40-Year-Old Virgin. There were parts that made me laugh very hard, and parts that made me smile for other reasons entirely. Like I said, it’s just a funny, sweet movie…at least, as sweet as a prolonged scatological scene would let it be.

The Fighter (imdb | rotten tomatoes) accomplished the amazing feat of making me hate — not dislike, hate — several of the central characters. I suppose credit is due to the actors (especially Melissa Leo and Christian Bale) for that, but I fear it will have a halo effect and make me hate Toni tonight when I watch Treme. The movie itself was fine…typical Oscar bait where you know exactly what will happen, but the actors were all so good (especially Bale and Amy Adams) that you found yourself caring even if you weren’t emotionally invested.

Hot Docs: How To Die In Oregon

Due to a short but bad-ass cold I wasn’t able to see either The Bully Project (hot docs) or If A Tree Falls: A Story Of The Earth Liberation Front (hot docs), but there was no way I was going to miss How To Die In Oregon (imdb | hot docs). It had won the jury grand prize at Sundance, and it was about what I consider one of the most interesting societal debates: doctor-assisted suicide.

The filmmaker interviews several people, but has the most access to one woman (and family) in particular, a cancer patient who has only months to live. She’s smart and funny and formidable and vulnerable and loving and utterly charming, and the audience knows from the second they see her that they will witness her decision to die. It’s an extraordinarily raw and honest bit of life put to video, and thoroughly gut-wrenching to watch, but was never exploitative or saccharine. It was simply — maybe perfectly — a snippet of the beauty and ugliness of life, and of death.

If you ever find the opportunity to watch it, I cannot recommend it enough. Be forewarned, though: when the credits rolled, dry eyes in the theatre were few and far between.

Hot Docs: Better This World

Earlier tonight we kicked off our 2011 Hot Docs festival by seeing Better This World (imdb | hot docs) in our first visit to the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The story about two young Texas men arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota, it reveals little-understood (by me, at least) nuances of the changes in certain laws since September 11 2001. I don’t want to say much more than that, as the film will go to wider release in September of this year. I’ll only suggest enthusiastically that you see it if you can.

Our string of harsh/depressing docs continues

We have made our picks for the upcoming Hot Docs documentary festival:

  1. Better This World
  2. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
  3. The Bully Project
  4. How to Die in Oregon
  5. The Hollywood Complex

Just to recap, then, that’s:

  • domestic terrorism and government entrapment;
  • arson and (more) domestic terrorism;
  • bullying;
  • euthanasia;
  • fame-whoring of children.

La la la springtime happiness la la!

Better This World

I smell Oscar

The Cove, my favourite film at this year’s Hot Docs, has won the audience prize, just as it did at Sundance. Hopefully that gives it some momentum heading into more festivals and then wide(ish) release this summer.

Cinematical has more coverage, as does the CBC. The latter’s comment thread, predictably, has descended into a debate about the seal hunt. It actually came up in the form of a question to the filmmaker’s at the screening last week, but none of them knew anything about it and so didn’t comment. Or maybe they just didn’t want to divide the crowd and hurt their chances at the audience prize…

The Cove

Tuesday night Nellie and I went to see a Hot Docs screening that I’d been both looking forward to and dreading. The Cove (hot docs | imdb) has been on my radar since it won the audience award at Sundance and Scott Weinberg at Cinematical wrote this review. I knew any documentary about saving dolphins would be right my up alley, but this line from his review gave me pause:

“I’ve seen hundreds of horror movies in my time, and I’ve never seen anything quite as disturbing as the final sequences of The Cove.”

Here’s the thing: I don’t deal well with scenes, even staged/acted ones, of animals being hurt or killed. The video for Mogwai‘s “Hunted By A Freak”, even though it was animated, haunted me for days because it featured a crazy man dropping pets off a rooftop. So I was worried that The Cove would give me nightmares or something. But it won’t. Make no mistake, there were some incredibly disturbing scenes of violence perpetrated against dolphins in this film, and as Weinberg said the final scenes were the worst. They weren’t quite as graphic as I thought they might be based on his description, but I think my mouth dropped open at the sheer scale of the carnage. Hundreds of dolphins slaughtered at a time, more than twenty thousand a year, all in this tiny cove…and all so pointlessly.

I won’t get into it all here, I’ll just tell you to go see the film. It might not sound appealing from my description, but that’s just because I’m still a little freaked out by it. It really was a great documentary — the only 5/5 I’ve given this week — with lots of suspense, stunning underwater shots, political intrigue, interesting character stories…even a mild car chase or two. Please, go see it when it comes to theatres this summer. Or rent it. Or if you can’t do either of those things, here’s one simple way to make a difference: stop going to fucking Seaworld.