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Hot Docs 2011: 7 midpoint capsule reviews

May 3, 2011

By John C.

The 18th annual Hot Docs Film Festival is currently going strong in Toronto, with 199 films being screened.  When the festival opened last Thursday, I published my thoughts on 5 films including POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, The National Parks Project, Buck, The Bully Project and Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.  Today we are at the exact mid-point of the documentary festival, and it’s time for another set of capsule reviews.

Below are my brief thoughts on 7 films that I’ve had the privilege of seeing over the last few days, 3 of which still have another screening coming up.  Please check back on Friday for my third and final set of capsule reviews, and next Monday for a complete wrap-up of events.  Students and seniors are able to attend daytime screenings before 6:00 PM for free, so please get more information and purchase tickets here.  Once again, I hope you all find something to see over the next few days.  Enjoy!

At the Edge of Russia:  Hundreds of miles from the nearest civilization, 6 diverse men live at the edge of Russia patrolling an invisible border in the Arctic.  Director Michal Marczak’s admirably unflinching documentary, At the Edge of Russia, offers a visually arresting glimpse into a world most of us would otherwise not be familiar, as it quietly shows us the daily interactions between the men living together in solitude.  But audiences may not find it entirely engaging past initial curiosity, as nothing much actually happens over the ideal running time of 72-minutes.

Saturday, April 30 – 6:30 PM @ Cumberland 2

Tuesday, May 3 – 1:15 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Friday, May 6 – 7:00 PM @ Cumberland 2

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop:  After his fallout as host of The Tonight Show, stand-up comedian Conan O’Brien went on a forty city tour, with director Rodman Flender there to document the events.  What we get is Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, a usually entertaining fusion of footage from on the road and stage, giving us an insightful look into the non-stop mind of O’Brien.  Most surprising is the genuinely nasty way that he treats his assistant and a young backstage fan.  Although it certainly won’t convert any new fans to “Team Coco” and isn’t really much more than a shaky-cam backstage diary, at it’s best the documentary provides some funny entertainment.

Saturday, April 30 – 9:00 PM @ Bloor Cinema

Sunday, May 1 – 11:45 PM @ Bloor Cinema

Monday, May 2 – 11:00 AM @ The ROM Theatre

Becoming Santa:  Directed by Jeff Myers, Becoming Santa lovingly shows us the history of Santa as well as the story of Los Angeles-born Jack Sanderson.  After the death of his parents, Sanderson spent an inspiring year attending “Santa School” so he could don the red suit come Christmas.  Having met Sanderson during Hot Docs, his friendly personality is the same in person as it is on-screen.  Becoming Santa strikes a satisfying balance between interviews and footage, making it a thoroughly enjoyable film for older kids and adults that will be best enjoyed over the holidays with a cup of hot chocolate.  Here’s hoping the film finds a distributor so it can be released closer to Christmas.

Saturday, April 30 – 9:00 PM @ The ROM Theatre

Monday, May 2 – 4:30 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Sunday, May 8 – 9:15 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Magic Trip:  In 1964, author Ken Kesey and his team of Merry Pranksters set out on an LSD-fueled bus trip, en route to the New York World’s Fair.  With cameras on board to film their trip and constant tripping, for years their footage has been disconnected from the sound.  Filmmakers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have combined their inventive talents to piece together selections from the numerous footage shot by Kesey, combining it with new narration.  Magic Trip is always trippy and at its best manages to offer an entertaining time capsule of an era long gone right down to the groovy musical choices, but at over 100-minutes feels far too long long for those of us that didn’t live through the drug-fueled 1960’s.

Saturday, April 30 – 9:45 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre

Monday, May 2 – 3:30 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre

Bobby Fischer Against the World:  Growing up in Brooklyn, Bobby Fischer was obsessed with chess from the age of 6.  In 1972, Fischer played against Russian champion Boris Spassky, becoming a legendary worldwide sensation and one of the greatest chess players who ever lived.  His rise to fame and tragic fall are extensively researched in Liz Garbus’s documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, and the film is particularly engaging as a psychological portrait of a tortured soul.  Brilliantly depicting the fine line between genius and madness, this is a fascinating look at a paranoid recluse, as set against the social unease of the Cold War.

Sunday, May 1st – 1:30 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre

Tuesday, May 3rd – 7:00 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Somewhere Between:  After adopting a daughter from China, director Linda Goldstein-Knowlten set out to make a documentary about interracial adoption in America.  Following four teenage girls who were adopted from the country with a “one child” policy at a young age, Somewhere Between offers a deeply personal look into the fairly ordinary lives of these kids.  Although it will have great emotional resonance for certain audiences and there are some touching moments, I personally found the mix of talking heads and unpolished home video footage to be uneven and simply not as compelling as it could have been.

Sunday, May 1 – 6:30 PM @ Cumberland 2

Tuesday, May 3 – 10:30 AM @ The ROM Theatre

The Hollywood Complex:  Every spring, thousands of families flock to the Oakwood apartment complex in Hollywood, to give their kids a shot at auditioning for upcoming TV pilots.  Directors Dan Sturman and Dylan Nelson follow the lives of  several of these kids and their parents, in this thoroughly entertaining documentary.  Offering biting insight into the business of young actors trying to live their dream of being cast, there are several shockingly hilarious scenes in The Hollywood Complex, as well as an underlying sadness of near-constant rejection.  If you’re interested in the world of entertainment, then this is a must-see.

Sunday, May 1 – 9:45 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre

Tuesday, May 3 – 3:45 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Sunday, May 8 – 1:00 PM @ Cumberland 2

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