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#HotDocs17: Third Batch of Reviews

May 4, 2017

By John Corrado

The 24th edition of Hot Docs is running until May 7th, and below are my thoughts on the six films I have seen over the last few days of the festival.  You can find more information on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Libera Nos – ★★★ (out of 4) With claims of Satanic possession on the rise, Father Cataldo is one of only a handful of priests performing exorcisms for the Catholic Church in Sicily, with people travelling to see him in hopes they will be cured of personal demons.  Even he will admit that some of his clientele merely have “human disorders” and should seek actual psychiatric help, but there are also the cases where people have already been to doctors and have no diagnosable conditions, yet fly into bizarre rages whenever they are faced with religious symbolism, leaving them cursing, spitting, growling and writhing around on the floor.  It’s these people that Father Cataldo aims to help, and filmmaker Frederica Di Giacomo follows him through an observational lens, allowing us to watch him at work in Libera Nos.  The film doesn’t pass judgement or try to diagnose its subjects, instead allowing audiences to bring whatever beliefs they have to the film and judge for themselves, which is precisely what makes it so haunting and impactful to watch.  This is a fascinating and unsettling look at real life exorcisms, that leaves us questioning if it’s possible that the people we see onscreen are actually suffering from demonic possession.  And the film gets extra points for ending with a song from Ryan Gosling’s delightfully macabre band Dead Man’s Bones.

Chasing Coral – ★★★ (out of 4) Following his excellent 2012 documentary Chasing Ice, which took home that year’s audience award at Hot Docs, filmmaker Jeff Orlowski turns his attention from melting sea ice to the mass bleaching of coral reefs in the equally important Chasing Coral.  Teaming up with former ad executive Richard Vevers and the self-professed “coral nerd” Zack Rago, who becomes the unlikely hero of this story, Jeff Orlowski’s goal is to capture time-lapse photography of the coral reefs turning white, a process that happens when the ocean warms up by even a few degrees, and is being sped up by the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.  Like in Chasing Ice, the film also shows the immense technical challenges they face in order to set up the cameras and actually capture the footage, and it becomes almost like an adventure movie as they go on deep dives and face tight time crunches, with the ultimate hope being that bringing back evidence will be enough to raise awareness of the threat that climate change poses to this entire ecosystem.  The underwater images that we see are breathtaking, which just makes the process of watching the coral reefs essentially die right before our eyes all the more heartbreaking.  Showing the very real effects that climate change is having on our oceans in indisputable detail, Chasing Coral is a moving environmental call to action, that is perhaps even more successful at delivering its message because of the fact that the film is kept accessible to a wide audience.

Gilbert – ★★★½ (out of 4) With his squinting eyes and high-pitched voice, Gilbert Gottfried is nothing short of an iconic standup comic, known both for his fearlessly raunchy jokes and for voicing the parrot Iago in Disney’s Aladdin, but he’s always been extremely shy when it comes to revealing stuff about his personal life.  This changes with the documentary Gilbert, a film that intimately takes us into the New York apartment that he shares with his wife of ten years and their two young kids, and the result is an absolutely wonderful portrait of a multifaceted comedian who has found a way to balance his brash onstage persona with his quiet personal life.  Directed by Neil Berkeley, following up his previous festival hits Beauty is Embarrassing and Harmontown, the film provides a wildly entertaining opportunity to find out more about this unique and inimitable comic talent, who is a joy to hang out with for the duration of the film.  We get delightful anecdotes about how he is extremely thrifty and cheap, travelling by Megabus and always taking the free shampoos and soaps from hotel rooms, and are also treated to some hilarious performance footage that proves he is still very much at the top of his game.

The film touches on the controversies he has faced, including telling a “too soon” 9/11 joke in New York mere weeks after it happened at a roast for Hugh Hefner, and admirably digging himself out of the hole by going into a hilariously filthy take on The Aristocrats joke, as well as being fired from his gig voicing the Aflac duck for jokes he posted on Twitter about the Japanese tsunami.  But Gilbert also becomes surprisingly moving when exploring the relationship he has with his two sisters and their background growing up as part of a working class Jewish family in Brooklyn, with his parents never really approving of his career choice as a comedian.  When we get to a beautifully edited and emotionally devastating sequence where he performs at a fundraiser for the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, the film becomes about nothing less than the the importance of using comedy to break through from the other side of tragedy, even when humour seems unlikely or conventionally inappropriate.  This film made me laugh out loud many times, but it also made me tear up, and that’s the best kind of experience.

Bill Nye: Science Guy – ★★★ (out of 4) When we first see Bill Nye in Bill Nye: Science Guy, he is backstage in a dressing room putting on his iconic bowtie, as crowds of people fill up the stadium where he is about to speak.  And when he runs out onto the stage, they greet him like a rockstar.  This is a fitting opening to a film about the former star of Bill Nye the Science Guy, a children’s show that catapulted him to being the hero of many school kids back in the 1990s, who has now devoted his life to spreading his infectious enthusiasm for science and discovery to people of all ages.  Directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg follow along as Bill Nye goes on tour, raising awareness of the threats posed by climate change and battling the growing anti-science movement that is spreading across the United States and around the world, by taking on the side of evolution in a debate with notorious creationist Ken Ham and going up against climate change denier Joe Bastardi on Fox News.  The film is equally engaging in moments when Bill Nye opens up about his personal life, including his relationship with his siblings and his choice not to get married or have kids.  Despite some arguments over whether or not he is a “real” scientist because he doesn’t have a doctorate, he has gained respect for the way that he is able to share his love of science with people of all ages and educational backgrounds.  Bill Nye makes for a charismatic and likeable subject, and Bill Nye: Science Guy is an inspiring and also highly enjoyable look at the admirable mission he is on to spread knowledge and maybe even save the world.

The Departure – ★★★ (out of 4) A former punk rocker who answered a “monk wanted” ad and became a Buddhist priest, Ittetsu Nemoto has devoted his life to counselling people who are suicidal, spurred on by the high suicide rates in Japan.  But he isn’t in the best health, with the high stress of his work taking its toll on his body, and also leaving him struggling to be a better father to his son.  Director Lana Wilson follows him in The Departure, and the result is a contemplative look at the life of a complex subject, who is both quiet and deeply spiritual yet also enjoys drinking and staying out all night clubbing, and the inspiring work he is doing.  With no formal therapy training, Nemoto takes a laid-back and conversational approach to talking to people who are thinking about taking their own lives, never relying on false inspiration, but instead engaging them in philosophical talk about what they would be leaving behind if they die.  His retreats include taking them through a funeral ritual for themselves, after asking them to write down nine things they would miss about this world on bits of paper, and crumpling them up one by one.  It’s emotionally affecting to watch him at work, and through the process the film also allows us to reflect on how the questions he asks of those in crisis relate to our own lives.

Becoming Bond – ★★★½ (out of 4) Along with his claim to fame of being the sole actor to play James Bond only once, George Lazenby also has one hell of a story to tell about how he landed the role of 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, through a mix of circumstance, sheer luck and a whole lot of bullshit.  George Lazenby started out as a dirt poor used car salesman in Australia who loved sex and didn’t graduate high school, but then followed a girl to England, became a male model, caught the eye of talent agents who sent him out to audition for James Bond, and landed the role by lying about the fact that he had never acted a day in his life.  And then after the success of the film made him an instant celebrity, he infamously turned down the six film contract being offered to him along with a million dollar signing bonus, ending his acting career.  Directed by Josh Greenbaum, Becoming Bond is built around an extended interview with George Lazenby, as the stories he tells are comically recreated using actors.  Josh Lawson charmingly stands in for him as a younger man, Kassandra Clementi does nice work as his love interest, and the cast is rounded out by spot-on appearances from Jane Seymour as the agent, Jeff Garlin as the producer, Dana Carvey as Johnny Carson, and a hilarious cameo by Jake Johnson.  The result is a film that is an absolute blast to watch, a hybrid of documentary and narrative reenactment that is extremely entertaining, frequently hilarious and also oddly inspirational.

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