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#HotDocs14: First Batch of Reviews

April 24, 2014

By John Corrado

Hot Docs Poster

The 21st edition of Hot Docs launches tonight with the Canadian premiere of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.  The festival will be going strong over the next eleven days in Toronto, screening precisely 197 nonfiction films from 43 different countries.

I have been busy screening films over the last few weeks, and have already seen over twenty.  There is lots of great stuff coming up, and below are my thoughts on five standouts that should all be added to your list, including the opening night selection.  I can also safely say that The Case Against 8, Super Duper Alice Cooper, Hotline, Art and Craft and Advanced Style are all excellent, and my full thoughts on those ones and many others will be coming over the next little while.

I already have plans to see even more during the festival, so please come back tomorrow and over the next eleven days for more capsule reviews, and follow on Twitter for thoughts on films as I see them.  You can get more information on Hot Docs and purchase tickets right here.  Enjoy!

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz: From the time he was young, Aaron Swartz was a programming genius and early adopter of the internet, using his coding skills to launch numerous platforms including RSS and Reddit.  But he wasn’t looking to profit from his work, and instead turned his attention to fighting for the freedom of information, downloading thousands of files from corporately run archive sites and uploading them for free, which led to his arrest.  Aaron Swartz was a true visionary and inspiring advocate, but he ultimately fell victim to the same corrupt systems he was trying to expose, taking his own life at the age of 26 with the pressures of the court case and potential jail time finally taking their toll on him.  Raising fascinating questions about how much control should be put on public information, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is all the more powerful for never losing sight of the heartbreaking human story at hand.  This is one of the most thought provoking and important films at the festival.

Thursday, April 24th – 10:00 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Friday, April 25th – 2:00 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Wednesday, April 30th – 6:30 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (Scotiabank Big Ideas)

The Overnighters: Pastor Jay Reinke graciously opens the doors of his Lutheran Church in North Dakota as a shelter for the hundreds of unemployed men passing through town looking for work in the oil fields.  But what on the surface seems like a simple act of charity, turns into a nuanced story with surprising layers that keep being peeled back right up to the haunting final scene.  At this point, The Overnighters becomes a heartbreaking portrait of poverty that asks if past sins can ever truly be forgiven, as the town starts to fear the men their pastor is trying to help.  Director Jesse Moss gains shockingly intimate access to his subjects, capturing devastatingly raw moments throughout this complex and emotionally involving film.  There are no easy answers here, just a fascinating conversation to be had about the prices we pay for trying to help the people that society has rejected.

Friday, April 25th – 9:00 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Saturday, April 26th – 1:00 PM @ ROM Theatre
Friday, May 2nd – 7:00 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Harmontown: After being fired from Community, the show he created, Dan Harmon went on tour across the United States to record a live podcast at various local venues.  But what starts as a way for him to let loose in front of sold out crowds, becomes an emotional journey for the often self destructive writer, realizing the profound impact of his work on outsiders who have found their own community through his show.  Director Neil Berkeley paints a fascinating psychological portrait of Dan Harmon, who often speaks candidly to the audience about his personal struggles, and Harmontown is just as entertaining as you would expect from the subject.  But it’s also surprisingly moving, with a genuinely touching message about accepting yourself for who you are.  The result is a festival standout that is hilarious, heartfelt and wonderfully inspirational for anyone who has ever felt like a social misfit.

Friday, April 25th – 11:59 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Sunday, April 27th – 3:15 PM @ Hart House Theatre
Thursday, May 1st – 9:00 PM @ Burwash Quad (Free!)

Kung Fu Elliot: Elliot Scott dreams of being Canada’s first action hero, making amateurish and super low budget martial arts films with his long suffering girlfriend Linda Lum, and aspiring method actor friend Blake Zwicker.  With an ironically appropriate operatic soundtrack, Kung Fu Elliot starts as a sort of behind the scenes look at the production of his third independent feature, Blood Fight.  But directors Jaret Belliveau and Matthew Bauckman have ultimately captured a very different type of documentary, as surprising layers are revealed during the stunning and fearless last act.  Playing almost like a surreal cross between Napoleon Dynamite and Canada’s answer to American Movie, Kung Fu Elliot is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  This is a shocking and wildly entertaining documentary that morphs into something entirely different before our eyes, masterfully changing our perception of the story that the filmmakers set out to tell.  This is brilliant and exhilarating stuff.

Wednesday, April 30th – 6:30 PM @ Scotiabank Theatre
Thursday, May 1st – 3:30 PM @ Scotiabank Theatre
Friday, May 2nd – 9:30 PM @ Scotiabank Theatre

An Honest Liar: Known to audiences as “The Amazing Randi,” James Randi is a magician and escape artist who has never made any secret of the illusions behind his tricks, and he has devoted his life and career to exposing the lies of other performers who claim to have supernatural powers.  Famously going up against “faith healer” Peter Popoff and “psychic” Uri Geller, An Honest Liar uses the story of James Randi as a way to explore bigger themes of belief, and how some people are willing to believe pretty much anything when presented in the form of being true.  With enough twists to fill out a fiction film, directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom help prove this point with a brilliantly structured narrative that holds surprises of its own, leading up to a shocking reveal.  A fascinating and entertaining film that compellingly questions our perception of what we believe as truth, see An Honest Liar knowing as little about the story as possible.

Wednesday, April 30th – 9:15 PM @ Hart House Theatre
Thursday, May 1st – 7:00 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Saturday, May 3rd – 6:30 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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