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#HotDocs15: Second Batch of Reviews

April 24, 2015

By John Corrado

Hot Docs 2015 PosterAfter officially starting last night with the premiere of Tig, we are now entering the first weekend of Hot Docs.  I’ve got a busy week coming up, with two screenings on the docket for today, and plans to do another four tomorrow.

For those following along, below are my thoughts on another six films that I’ve screened in advance, five of which are worth seeing, and Being Canadian, which is my first disappointment of the festival.  Here’s hoping there won’t be more.

My first batch of reviews is right here, and my next set is scheduled for tomorrow, with a ton more coming throughout the festival.  More information on tickets and showtimes can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Drone: The American military’s use of unmanned drones to carry out targeted killings in the Middle East, is one of the most morally challenging and politically pressing issues of our time.  Director Tonje Hessen Schei offers a throughly researched exposé of this controversial phenomenon in Drone, compellingly exploring the effects that the remote controlled aircrafts are having on modern warfare, and how the explosions meant to target suspected terrorists are accidentally killing innocent civilians in the process.  Through interviews with former pilots suffering from PTSD, victims of the attacks, and even the man who initially invented the machines to help tuna fisherman, Drone offers a complex look at the history and current state of drone warfare, as well as the disturbing future that could be in store.  Also fascinating is the telling proof of how the military is intrinsically linked to the entertainment and video game industries.  A real eye opener.

The Sandwich Nazi: The door of Salam Kahil’s Vancouver delicatessen warns customers about coarse language and nudity, both of which are on full display in his shop.  But the man behind the sandwiches and crude jokes also has a kind heart and encourages good manners amongst his customers, despite his own potty mouth, and is frequently seen passing out food free of charge to people living on the streets.  Right from the opening scene, involving a wild story about a candle getting inconveniently stuck, The Sandwich Nazi offers plenty of laughs.  But as Salam confronts his painful past, and opens up about childhood sexual abuse, the film becomes strangely moving.  Full of appropriately inspired profanity and some of the crudest stories imaginable, The Sandwich Nazi is a completely entertaining and unexpectedly emotional portrait of this truly unique character.

Stay Awhile: Named for their 1971 breakout hit, Stay Awhile recounts the story of Canadian pop band The Bells, and how the small singing group from Montreal found international success, before internal conflicts pushed them apart.  Director Jessica Edwards, the daughter of two of the leading members of the group, clearly has great affection for her subjects, and paints them in a lovingly nostalgic light.  At just 75 minutes, this is an engaging and enjoyable look at how the band’s meteoric rise to fame and subsequent fall from the spotlight affected their personal relationships, and a touching portrait of a daughter finally coming to terms with the choices that her parents made.  After premiering at Hot Docs tonight, Stay Awhile is screening across the country as part of Cineplex’s Front Row Centre Events on April 27th, and will be released on demand the following day.

The Cult of JT Leroy: After his first novel was published in 2000, reclusive teenage writer JT LeRoy became a literary sensation and gained a dedicated following of celebrities, captivating readers with his autobiographical stories of sexual abuse and mental illness.  But as details of his supposedly true stories kept changing, and failed to add up when put together, it became evident that everything was not as it seemed.  Because director Marjorie Sturm was involved since the beginning, The Cult of JT Leroy allows us to see exactly how all the pieces fell into place, and it’s quite a fascinating story.  This is an interesting look at a shocking literary scandal, that raises important questions about whether art should be recognized on its own merits, or allowed to be tainted by the nefarious actions of the creator behind it.

Being Canadian: After moving to the United States and working as a sitcom writer, Rob Cohen returns to his native land of Canada after two decades, taking a road trip from Nova Scotia to Vancouver, and interviewing various Canadians in attempts to shine a light on what gives our country its cultural identity.  Although there is validity to this idea, and brief appearances from countless celebrities will ensure Being Canadian finds an audience, it’s just too bad that our country isn’t being represented by a better film.  There are no new insights to be gained here, besides just reiterating and maybe even justifying many of the stereotypes, and any truly interesting moments are overshadowed by the tiring amount of silly antics on display.  Even the Canada Day deadline that drives the narrative feels fake, because some of the footage makes it clear that his journey took longer than nine days to complete.  To offer an appropriately polite critique of Being Canadian, this is essentially just the homegrown version of corny Americana.  It’s completely harmless, but I don’t think anyone was really asking for that.

A Different Drummer: Celebrating Eccentrics: Daniel Suelo lives in a cave in Utah and hasn’t used money for fifteen years, surviving on the perfectly good food that the stores throw out.  Laura-Kay Prophet is better known as Vancouver’s Duck Lady, carrying around her pet ducks in a stroller and giving cookies to the homeless.  Jerry Holloway is a San Francisco tour guide, who wears a friar’s robe and is the founding member of the Martin Van Buren fan club.  John Ward is an inventor of odd but ingenious new things, and Lord Toby Jug is a proud member of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in England.  These are just five of the charming and likeable subjects that director John Zaritsky has assembled in A Different Drummer: Celebrating Eccentrics, a vastly entertaining collage of truly unique stories from various social outsiders and self-professed eccentrics.  Along with all the delightful wackiness on display, there are genuine life insights found here, and A Different Drummer provides wonderfully eccentric viewing for all openminded audiences.

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