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#HotDocs15: Sixth Batch of Reviews

April 30, 2015

By John Corrado

Hot Docs 2015 PosterNow that we are exactly a week into Hot Docs, I’m just trying to rearrange my schedule to pack as much as I can into the last four days of the festival, and I’ve got some very promising films coming up.

Below are my thoughts on the five that I’ve seen over the past few days, including Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, Listen to Me Marlon and Chuck Norris vs Communism, which are all really great.

My previous batch of reviews can be found right here, with a few more sets coming throughout the final weekend of the festival.  As usual, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Chuck Norris vs Communism: Back in 1985, during the height of communist reign in Romania, people found unlikely escape from their oppressive government through bootlegged VHS tapes of popular American blockbusters and cheesy action flicks.  Because all outside media was illegal, the films had to be smuggled into the country through an underground black market, where they were secretly dubbed by Mirna Istor who was also working for the strict censorship committee at the time, before being sold to locals who risked imprisonment to set up community screenings in their apartments.  Told through touching interviews with the people involved and beautifully done reenactments, at times Chuck Norris vs Communism plays like an exciting thriller in its own right, and the production is impressively mounted throughout.  Director Ilinca Calugareanu’s personal connection to the subject matter is clearly felt, and this is an entertaining and surprisingly poignant look at the power of cinema to not only provide an escape, but also to provoke social change.

Listen to Me Marlon: Assembled from old audio recordings of the actor talking candidly about his life, playing over archival footage and film clips, Listen to Me Marlon gives us a rare and illuminating glimpse inside the mind of Marlon Brando.  We hear him talk openly about his performances and acting techniques, including his thoughts on that famous scene in On The Waterfront, and also listen to the self hypnosis tapes that he recorded in attempts to calm his complex mind.  Director Stevan Riley does an impressive job of editing this all together into a pretty seamless narrative, providing a captivating and often meditative experience, that allows us to see one of the greatest actors of all time in a new light.

Thank You for Playing: When their son was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer just after his first birthday, Amy and Ryan Green started working on an independent video game to help them through the pain, about a young boy battling a dragon named cancer.  Their story is told through a mix of somewhat standard verite footage and animated sequences taken from the game in Thank You for Playing.  The bravery and openheartedness of this family’s choice to share their story is touching and commendable, and they make for emotionally engaging subjects.  But it’s just such an intensely sad story that the film is almost uncomfortable to watch at times, and because of that I can only really recommend it if you have a personal connection to the subject matter, and are looking for a cathartic release.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon:  Through interviews and archival footage, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon charts the promising rise and often tragic fall of the popular humour magazine throughout the 1970s and ’80s, giving overdue recognition to the brilliantly twisted comic minds behind the crude and satirical publication.  The magazine branched off into popular radio and stage shows that helped launch the careers of comic greats like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Jim Belushi, before Saturday Night Live snatched them up, and also paved the way for cinematic classics like Animal House, Caddyshack and Vacation.  Although some of the humour seems sexist or politically incorrect by current standards, it’s crucial to the story and very representative of the times.  Director Doug Tirola has put together a smoothly edited package that transports us back to this drug-fuelled era, filled with great stories and some genuinely hilarious moments, underscored by a surprisingly touching sense of nostalgia.  Because of this, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is not only one of the most wildly entertaining films at the festival, it’s also among the absolute best.

The Visit: Through talking head interviews with different officials and philosophers, matched with slow motion imagery of people running and preparing for disaster, The Visit explores the measures and precautions that the United Nations has in place in the event of an alien encounter.  Setting itself up as a sort of real life thriller, this all sounds so much more exciting than it really is, and the film is ultimately a disappointment.  Yes, there are many beautifully captured widescreen images here and some thought provoking ideas, but as a whole, The Visit is just too unfocused and slow moving to be overly engaging, past a certain point.  Aside from a few interesting moments, what we are left with is a pretentious theoretical documentary, that you will either find meaningful or just self indulgent.

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