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Hot Docs Reviews: Exit Music, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Love, Gilda, Gurrumul, The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid

April 30, 2018

By John Corrado

The 25th edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival is on until May 6th in Toronto.  More information on tickets and showtimes can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Exit Music –★★★ (out of 4) Formerly titled How Do You Feel About Dying, Exit Music follows Ethan Rice, a 28-year-old man who was born with cystic fibrosis, and now has to come to terms with dying at such a young age.  Although Ethan is suffering and wants to go out on his own terms as much as possible, he is also reluctant to leave his family behind and especially worries about how his death will affect his stay at home father, a Vietnam War veteran who has had to deal with the deaths of many of the people closest to him over the years, and is now struggling to go through the same thing with his son.

First time director Cameron Mullenneaux follows Ethan over the last few months of his life, with the camera unflinchingly showing him right up to his final moments.  The footage is edited together with old home movies shot by his father, as well as the imaginative stop-motion films that Ethan had made as a respite from his situation, and it also features his original musical compositions.  This is an example of a film that is obviously very hard to watch on an emotional level, but it’s also quite moving, as it forces us to confront death in a direct and very real way.

Friday, April 27th – 6:15 M at Scotiabank Theatre 7
Sunday, April 29th – 1:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4
Saturday, May 5th – 5:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – ★★★★ (out of 4) Directed by Morgan Neville, following his Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom and the excellent Best of Enemies, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? looks at the life and career of Fred Rogers, the unlikely star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  With his soft voice and gentle way of speaking, Fred Rogers had a knack for understanding children that allowed him to really connect with his young viewers, and he was able to touch many adults as well with his message of treating others with kindness.  Beginning in 1968, his show was also much more sophisticated than a lot of people realize, as he tackled topics like racial discrimination, death, and divorce, helping children understand their feelings and subtly changing the way people talked about complex social issues.

An ordained minister and lifelong Republican, Fred Rogers also made no secret of his Christian beliefs and core values, and saw his program as a way to counter a lot of the other stuff that was being put out for kids on TV at the time.  I used to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a kid, so this obviously made me very emotional.  Through interviews with many of the surviving people who worked on his show, including François Clemmons whose story adds an even deeper layer of meaning to it, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? serves as a touching and very powerful portrait of what Fred Rogers stood for as a person, and the call for love and kindness that he exuded through his work.  It’s wonderful.

Saturday, April 28th – 6:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (Scotiabank Big Ideas)
Sunday, April 29th – 1:00 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Sunday, May 6th – 12:45 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Love, Gilda – ★★★½ (out of 4) An excellent portrait of the late comic superstar Gilda Radner, Love, Gilda is a documentary that strikes the right balance between being funny and moving.  The film takes us through the entirety of her career, from her early start in the star-studded Toronto production of Godspell, to her big break on Saturday Night Live, the failed relationships that she had with many of her co-stars, and finally her marriage to Gene Wilder.  The footage that we see of her material is still just as hilarious all these years later, but the film also doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker elements of her life, including her struggles with eating disorders and finally ovarian cancer.  The most interesting thing about Love, Gilda is that most of the film unfolds through her own words, with old audio recordings serving as narration and passages from her diaries being read aloud by several modern SNL stars who were heavily inspired by her work, including Amy Poehler and Bill Hader.  The result is a wonderful and ultimately heartbreaking portrait of a brilliant comic whose life and career ended far too soon, and the fact that it features appearances from some of my favourite funny people is an added bonus.

Saturday, April 28th – 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Sunday, April 29th – 1:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Thursday, May 3rd – 4:15 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Saturday, May 5th – 9:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Gurrumul –★★★ (out of 4) An Indigenous Australian musician who was born blind, and got his start as a background member of a band, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu gained international acclaim when he teamed up with producer Michael Hohnen and went solo.  Performing both traditional Indigenous music as well as his own compositions, people were enraptured by Gurrumul’s angelic singing voice and soulful guitar playing.  But he was also an unlikely candidate for fame.  A man of few words, despite speaking several languages, and living a traditional life with his family on Elcho Island, Gurrumul was not motivated by the promise of money, which made it hard when they tried to bring him on tour to really launch his career.  Directed by Paul Damien Williams, Gurrumul offers a touching look at the life and career of the late Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who sadly passed away last year, but has left behind an incredible legacy.  He’s a fascinating subject, and the music is exceptional.

Saturday, April 28th – 8:15 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4
Sunday, April 29th – 3:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Saturday, May 5th – 6:15 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 13

The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid –★★★ (out of 4) Thomas Reid is an older farmer in Ireland, who lives on an old farm property that has been in his family for over a century.  He spends his days tending to his animals and listening to the radio, but his peaceful existence is threatened when Intel tries to take over his land to build a factory.  The film starts off as a relaxed look at his day to day life on the farm, and it takes on an interesting David and Goliath quality as he becomes embroiled in an arduous legal battle against this giant tech company, trying desperately to save his land.  Because filming is not allowed inside courtrooms in Ireland, director Feargal Ward makes the clever and affective cinematic choice to shoot reenactments of the court proceedings with actors on his farm, based on the actual transcripts.  Although the film moves at a slow pace, The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid plays with an almost meditative quality at times, showing how Reid’s traditional way of life is threatened by the encroachment of modern advancements.  I quite enjoyed this one.

Sunday, April 29th – 5:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4
Monday, April 30th – 3:45 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3
Sunday, May 6th – 8:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 7

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