HotDocs Film Festival – Day 7: House of Z, Becoming Bond, Hondros

House of Z (USA/Canada, 2016): A problem with documentaries too closely linked to the individual being portrayed on screen is that the outcome may be too soft on the subject. It’s the case with the Zac Posen-centric House of Z, a recount of the rise and plateau of the fashion designer.

Posen, who was barely a teenager when he started making dresses for her friends (Paz de la Huerta, Jemima Kirke and other teen socialites), drafted his entire family and launched a haute-couture business, the aforementioned House of Z. Immediate success translated in growing demand. The stress plus Zac’s enfant-terrible persona caused serious tension within the Posen household, leading to a very public breakup. Continue reading “HotDocs Film Festival – Day 7: House of Z, Becoming Bond, Hondros”

HotDocs Film Festival – Day 6: PACmen, Integral Man, Recruiting for Jihad

PACmen (USA/Australia, 2017): Of the many dramatic threads to emerge from last year’s election in the US, Dr. Ben Carson provided one of the weirdest. On the strength of a single speech, Carson was jettisoned to the Republican presidential race and for a brief moment, the neurosurgeon gave Trump a run for his money… until he opened his mouth. Unsubstantiated claims about his childhood and bizarre statements (the pyramids were built for storage purposes!) quickly derailed his candidature.

PACman focuses on the two super-PACs formed to support his candidacy: “Run Ben Run” and “Extraordinary America”. As a man of faith, Carson attracted a number of Christian-conservatives who struggled to understand how other Republicans could fall for a rube like Trump. As Carson continued to fall on the polls, increasingly desperate supporters could only blame the media and find solace in prayer. Continue reading “HotDocs Film Festival – Day 6: PACmen, Integral Man, Recruiting for Jihad”

HotDocs Film Festival – Day 5: The Workers Cup

The Workers Cup (UK, 2017): Much has been said about the brutal conditions foreign workers must endure while building stadiums for the 2022 Qatar World Cup (high temperatures, excessive hours, disproportionately low wages). Their plight has seldom been documented: Press access to worksites is severely restricted.

Director Adam Sobel takes advantage of a PR move to gain access to the workforce. The embattled contractors have organized a soccer championship to show concern for the wellbeing of their employees: The Workers Cup. The overworked personnel fails to see the tournament as a publicity stunt and happily become involved.

The harsh realities of being a foreign worker in Qatar seep through the supposedly wholesome competition. Unsavory situations like being unable to leave camp at will, or a man getting stabbed by his roommate so he could be sent back home pepper the daily lives of the migrant workforce.

Much to the film’s credit, The Workers Cup treats its subjects as individuals with agency and not as victims, which makes their plight much more relatable. Their story has only started to unfold. 3.5/5 planets.

HotDocs Film Festival – Day 4: The Road Forward

The Road Forward (Canada, 2016): A blend of musical and documentary too ambitious for its own good, The Road Forward attempts to tackle First Nations’ most significant struggles of the last century (the Native Brotherhood, the Constitution Express, residential schools, missing aboriginal women) via information and music. The outcome is so scattered, it’s hard to become fully immersed in the film.

As if recent history wasn’t enough, The Road Forward dedicates a fair amount of time to the performers’ own battles. Their stories are compelling in their own right, but become lost in a bombardment of minutiae, particularly in the top half. Five years ago, the stylistically similar The Art of Killing succeeded by limiting its scope.

The rise of Canada’s first indigenous newspaper -The Native Voice- gives the film a vague framing, but the outcome cries for structure. The music comes close to provide one (“Indian Man” is so catchy it should transcend the film), but the result is far from cohesive. 2/5 planets.

HotDocs Film Festival – Day 3: City of Ghosts, Shiners

City of Ghosts (USA, 2016): Documentaries don’t get any timelier and pressing than director Matthew Heineman’s follow-up to Cartel Land. The filmmaker chronicles the struggle of a group of Syrians who, as a response to ISIS taking over their city, started the site called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently”, which would go on to win the Freedom of the Press Award.

Unless, let’s say, America’s citizen journalism (often an angry white guy with a blog and a lot of venom to spew), the RBSS journos risk their lives even outside Syria. The Islamic State has put a price to their heads and there is no shortage of fanatics willing to go hunting. Continue reading “HotDocs Film Festival – Day 3: City of Ghosts, Shiners”

HotDocs Film Festival – Day 2: Mermaids, Blurred Lines, Brimstone & Glory

Mermaids (Canada, 2016): A fascinating phenomenon per se, women who find personal fulfillment by becoming “mermaids” are a lot more common than expected. Mermaids focuses on three of them, each one going through a challenging journey: A transgender woman, a grieving sister and a bipolar Latina coming to terms with a history of abuse. Each one has discovered that rubber tails free them from all their burdens, however briefly.

Mermaids does a good job humanizing a potentially ludicrous practice: Midway through the film, director Ali Weinstein digs deep on what makes this women tick and finds gold. The documentary could have used some professional insight, but as it stands, it’s quite entertaining. 3/5 planets.  Continue reading “HotDocs Film Festival – Day 2: Mermaids, Blurred Lines, Brimstone & Glory”

HotDocs Film Festival – Day 1: Bee Nation

Bee Nation (Canada, 2017): The definition of a crowd-pleaser to kick off this edition of HotDocs, Bee Nation revolves around an event with tension, drama and personal achievement ingrained in its DNA: The First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee competition. The first ever for aboriginal community.

It’s Documentary 101: Director Lana Slezic pics a handful of kids from different First Nations communities in Saskatchewan and shows their lives and how they prepare for the event. The approach allows some distressing information to seep through, like the fact schools in reserves receive considerable less money per student and, forcing administrators to make some hard decisions regarding their curriculum.

The children Slezic picks as main subjects are all overachievers, but they have a personality of their own (for William, failure is devastating; Savannah is a model of personal drive). In each case, their parental figures see education as a way out, a chance to see a world beyond the reserve. Heartbreak is unavoidable (the winners of the provincial chapter head to Toronto to compete against private school kids with tutors), but makes for great cinema.

Bee Nation is a bit stately (it’s presented under the CBC Docs banner), but is worth your attention.

3/5 planets. Bee Nation will premiere on CBC in September.

REVIEW: The Growing Pains of Born in China

Snow leopards steal the movie in Born in China.

Disneynature’s seventh feature, Born in China, doesn’t stray from the formula (anthropomorphizing, cuteness galore), but next to previous entries, it inches closer to the darkness of the animal kingdom.

Narrated competently by John Krasinski (he is no Samuel L. Jackson, but who is it?), Born in China has plenty of leads: A family of snow leopards; an overprotective mama panda and her free-spirited cub; a golden snub-nosed monkey with abandonment issues; and a number of personality-free cranes and antelopes.

The heart of the movie lies with the snow leopards, a female and her two cubs. Through the course of the film, the felines go from ruling the mountain to fighting to survive. Historically, Disneynature has avoided showing animal violence. This particular storyline is not the exception, but certain information voids in the narrative are somehow more unsettling.

The cinematography is extraordinary even for Disneynature’s high standards. The snow leopard hunting sequences (involving sharp cliffs and pugnacious would-be pray) are spectacular. The making-of snippets during the credits are particularly enlightening this time around.

While I understand the series targets younger audiences, the narrative arcs are feeling repetitive (this series appeals more to family than The Fast and the Furious) and the editing stitches are showing. It’s undoubtedly a pickle moving forward, but it’s an interesting one. 3/5 planets.

Born in China opens tomorrow Friday, April 21st, everywhere.

REVIEW: Koneline Registers a Slow-Moving Disaster

A slow-burning documentary by Nettie Wild, Koneline: Our Land Beautiful depicts the simmering tensions in northern British Columbia between a population in a symbiotic relationship with nature and the disruptive force of mining companies.

While the impending conflict is a great motivator, Nettie Wild takes her time to show how mine construction upsets every activity in Tahltan territory. Even something supposedly benign as the power grid reaching further up the northwest is seen as harbinger of doom. “When people comes, wildlife disappears”, assess a hunting impresario accurately.

Most of Koneline’s interviewees are part of the community. In most cases, their livelihoods are at stake. Tahltan’s elders have organized a blockage, but there is dissension in the ranks and the strategy is not sustainable in time. The area is believed a world class gold deposit and mining startups are already punching holes all around.

The director makes two smart decisions in approaching the subject: Finds a sturdy narrative and allows it to unfold organically, even at expense of a traditional ending (to this day, the situation remains in flux). Also, the fact documentaries are visual constructs is never far from Nettie Wild’s mind. Eye-popping sequences like horses crossing a treacherous river populate the film and drive the message home.

It’s never in doubt on whose side the film is on. The government of British Columbia and Imperial Metals don’t do themselves any favors, the former by being noncommittal and the latter by showing an off-putting sense of entitlement (“we paid a significant amount of money” says an executive on camera, annoyed by the blockage). Without a decisive victory for one or the other side, it seems the conflict will go on, nature losing ground one transmission tower at the time. 3.5/5 planets.

Koneline: Our Land Beautiful opens this Friday 6th at the Roxy Theatre. On Wednesday the 12th, Nettie Wild will be doing a Q&A via Skype following the 7 pm screening.

REVIEW: Prevenge, or What You Don’t Expect When You Are Expecting

British filmmaker Ben Wheatley is making his mark not only through his nihilistic movies, but by influencing some of his collaborators. Chief of them all is Alice Lowe. The female lead in Wheatley’s most “accessible” film, Sightseers, Lowe does it all -writes, directs, stars- in Prevenge, a pitch black comedy that pushes the envelope further than you could possibly imagine.

Lowe is Ruth, a pregnant woman on her third trimester who goes on a killing spree. The targets are very specific (we slowly learn why), and Ruth is more or less methodical in her approach. She seems to be getting orders from her unborn baby, who despite having been surrounded by amniotic fluid since her conception, is very judgemental.

Prevenge moves at brisk pace, and allows plenty of humor among the carnage, mostly from the contrast between the presumably vulnerable Ruth and her actions. In spite of her doings, the protagonist remains sympathetic, as if her life wasn’t her own. Repeatedly, we get back to Ruth’s doctor who -unaware of her patient’s homicidal tendencies- pushes her to wrestle control back from the unborn baby.

While there is a clear method to the madness, Prevenge resolution is a notch underwhelming. That said, Lowe dots her I’s and crosses her T’s. The overall thoughtfulness indicates there is a future for the multi-hyphenate artist behind the camera. Three prairie dogs.

Prevenge starts streaming in Shudder on March 24th.