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#HotDocs21 Review: Still Max

May 7, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Filmmaker Katherine Knight crafts an engaging portrait of acclaimed Canadian artist Max Dean in her documentary Still Max, which offers an interesting look at his unique response to being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Rather then going for chemotherapy or surgery to have his prostate removed, Dean instead opts to use the diagnosis as inspiration for his art, a process that is captured in Knight’s film.

We watch as Dean works with broken mannequins that he collected from the abandoned Wilderness Adventure Ride at Ontario Place to recreate Thomas Eakins’ classic medical painting “The Gross Clinic” at his waterfront studio nestled in the Toronto Port Lands, staging scenes of himself undergoing invasive surgery. When Dean’s partner, fellow artist Martha Fleury, is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he starts creating a new art project built around a massive tumour, to visually show how cancer overtakes your life.

The film builds towards a nicely edited crescendo, drawing strong visual comparisons between the artist’s work, his declining health, and the redevelopment of the Toronto Port Lands. The result is both a fascinating glimpse into Dean’s unconventional artistic process, as well as a thought-provoking look at a different approach to confronting mortality and dealing with changes in your body. It’s also fitting that Knight directed Still Max, since Dean was a close personal friend of Arnaud Maggs, the subject of her earlier documentary Spring & Arnaud. This film serves as a nice companion piece to that one, which also explored how artists approach death.

Still Max is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: Faceless

May 7, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Shot during the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to fight against the extradition bill being pushed by mainland China, director Jennifer Ngo’s documentary Faceless introduces us to four of the young people who were on the frontlines of the movement.

The subjects, who appear masked and are given nicknames, include The Student, a high schooler who went as a photographer to document the protests with his camera; The Artist, a young queer woman who is using art to protest against government overreach; The Believer, who was in university during the 2014 Occupy Movement and wants to provide spiritual support to the new wave of protesters; and The Daughter, a teen girl whose police officer father doesn’t approve of her taking part in the movement.

Ngo, a reporter who is making her directorial debut with this film, interviews these young activists, who talk about why it is important for them to defend the sovereignty of Hong Kong, as well as the risks they are taking to be involved in the movement and how it is impacting their personal lives. The director mixes these interviews with harrowing, on the ground footage of the protests, including some powerful slow motion shots of running crowds, as police violently crack down on the protestors, and escalate the situation by firing tear gas into the crowd. This is matched by a dramatic soundtrack.

These protests against the extradition bill, a direct threat to the “one country, two systems” promise that was made when Hong Kong was handed over by the British in 1997, spanned hundreds of days and were a watershed moment for ordinary people standing up against the government, even as their efforts seemed increasingly futile. Sadly, Beijing forced through a version of the bill in 2020, with far-reaching consequences that are detailed in a series of postscripts. Playing like a companion piece to last year’s Hot Docs film Hong Kong Moments, Faceless offers a powerful look at four young people risking everything to fight for their freedom.

Faceless is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: It Is Not Over Yet

May 6, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

At Dagmarsminde, a nursing home in Denmark for people with dementia, the staff operate on principles of kindness and compassion, instead of just using medication to subdue the residents. They sit with them, don’t correct them when they talk about their deceased parents still being alive, and allow them to drink alcohol and eat cake.

As a result, the residents are on less than one medication a day, where most homes have them on upwards of ten. The home is run by May Bjerre Eiby, a nurse who started it after becoming distraught over the conditions of the nursing home that she worked in as a teenager, where her father eventually had to go live. She came up with the idea to treat people with dementia as people, striving to meet them where they are at instead of trying to force them back into reality.

This person-focused way of dealing with dementia is explored in director Louise Detlefsen’s highly compassionate documentary It Is Not Over Yet. With an unobtrusive approach to filming inside the home, Detlefsen allows us to patiently observe interactions between the residents and staff. We see how the staff are determined to maintain quality of life for the residents at all times. Moments of confusion or agitation are met with calm understanding, instead of sedatives. When one of the men tries to wander out at night to check on the chickens, the nurses don’t try to stop him, and just makes sure that he has the right coat on instead.

It’s an approach that is seen as radical by some, and revolutionary by others, and Detlefsen’s respectful film, which was shot by her cinematographer husband Per Fredrik Skiold with a very small crew, allows us to see the effects for ourselves. The documentary also raises some deeper ethical questions about end of life care, and how much should be done for someone in their final days, leading to some of the most challenging and heart-wrenching onscreen moments. This is a thought provoking and often touching look at a different approach to caring for people with dementia.

It Is Not Over Yet is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: Acts of Love

May 6, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

After leaving his older boyfriend in Mexico City, young filmmaker Isidore Bethel returns to Chicago, where he embarks on a new film project. He starts interviewing men that he meets on dating apps, and writing short films around their stories, getting them to star in these reenactments with him. This is the concept behind Acts of Love, a daring and exciting hybrid documentary that Bethel co-directed with French actor Francis Leplay.

The result is a unique film that defies easy categorization, mixing scripted scenes, intimately captured and at times uncomfortable personal moments, photo montages, and reflective voiceover. As Bethel goes through the process, we are left asking, is this is a profound meditation on love, relationships and hook-up culture, or a self-centred vanity project made only for himself as a way to deal with a breakup? For Bethel’s mother, it’s the latter. In some of the film’s most candid moments, he films conversations with his mother on speaker phone, and she isn’t shy about voicing her disapproval of the project.

Along the way, Bethel asks questions and reaches some greater truths about himself and relationships in general, which we find ourself reflecting on as well. What we are left with is a film that is amorphous yet extremely personal and always engaging, straddling the line between modern art project, experimental documentary, and mumblecore indie film. Bethel’s project both does and doesn’t take shape as it goes along, but the film itself becomes surprisingly moving, building towards an incredible final sequence of images that ends this journey on a deeply resonant note.

Acts of Love is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: The Sparks Brothers

May 5, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

British filmmaker Edgar Wright makes his documentary debut with The Sparks Brothers, an ode to the musical stylings of the band Sparks, which is described in the film’s official synopsis as “your favourite band’s favourite band.” In other words, you might not know much about Sparks before watching this exhaustive and incredibly entertaining documentary, but Wright ensures that you will know plenty about them by the end of it.

The band is fronted by the Mael brothers, charismatic lead singer Russell and more socially awkward keyboardist and songwriter Ron, who are front and centre in the film as well. The brothers were born in California and formed a rock band in the late 1960s, partially influenced by seeing the Beatles perform live. The film looks at the ups and downs of their career, which spans five decades and encompasses an impressive discography of 25 albums and hundreds of songs, with evolving musical styles. While they found success in England, the group struggled to make it big in America.

What they gained was a cult following of fans who loved their quirky yet sophisticated and sometimes poignant lyrics, as well as their cheeky antics. Wright, who is himself a fan, does an excellent job of taking us through the band’s entire history, through a mix of new interviews, old footage, and even bits of animation. The filmmaker also appears onscreen to talk about his love of Russell and Ron’s music, alongside a collection of other celebrity admirers, including the likes of Beck, Patton Oswalt, Jason Schwartzman, Mike Myers and “Weird Al” Yankovic, who was clearly influenced by them.

This is not only a comprehensive look at the music and history of Sparks, but also one of the finest music documentaries I have seen. Yes, the film clocks in at a whopping 140 minutes, but it’s maybe the fastest two hours and twenty minutes you will spend watching a documentary. Wright makes it fly by, keeping us engaged with a barrage of colourful performances from over the years. It’s beautifully crafted, too, with the interviews presented in black and white, which makes this archival footage pop even more.

We don’t leave the film feeling like we have only gotten a partial look at the band. It feels like a complete portrait, which is quite exhilarating. It’s a love letter from a fan, sure, but also a fabulous introduction for the less initiated. Even if you aren’t familiar with Sparks beforehand, you will be by the end of this glorious documentary, and will probably become a fan of them, too.

The Sparks Brothers is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: We Are the Thousand

May 5, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Fabio Zaffagnini wanted to attract the attention of the Foo Fighters in hopes that the band would play a show in his hometown of Cesana, Italy. So he came up with the idea to have a thousand musicians and singers perform the band’s song “Learn to Fly” together in a park, in order to create a video, post it on the internet, and hopefully attract the attention of Dave Grohl himself. From here, the Rockin’ 1000 was born, a musical collective that functions as the biggest rock band on the planet.

Directed by Anita Rivaroli, who initially came onboard to help shoot the viral video of the group’s performance, the spirited documentary We Are the Thousand does a wonderful job showing everything that went into this attention-grabbing event. The first section of the film focuses on the basic logistics of getting a thousand people playing together to actually sound good, from physical arrangements of where the drummers, guitarists, bass players and vocalists should be set up, to keeping them in sync through a flashing light system. The second half explores what happened after the video was posted, which is equally inspiring to watch.

Along with beautifully shot footage of the performance itself, the film also features interviews with different members of the Rockin’ 1000, who were brought together through an open call and range in age from adolescents to retired adults. They all have personal reasons for wanting to join, some of them quite touching. The film not only captures the excitement of live music, but will also make you nostalgic for large gatherings and group activities. It’s a delight to watch, and one of the biggest feel-good films of this year’s festival.

We Are the Thousand is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

Blu-ray Review: The Little Things

May 4, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The main draw of The Little Things, an alright if somewhat dated psychological thriller set in the 1990s that offers a mix of rote police procedural and lurid serial killer movie, is the chance to see three Oscar-winning actors going toe-to-toe with each other.

The film’s cast is headlined by the power trio of Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, taking on the juicy roles of two detectives and a potential serial killer (it’s pretty obvious who is playing who), and their performances are what keep the film mostly watchable.

Washington stars as Joe “Deke” Deacon, a former homicide detective with the LAPD who now works as a Deputy Sheriff in Kern County, California. When he gets sent back to Los Angeles to collect evidence that could help catch the suspect in an attempted murder, Deacon gets pulled onto the latest crime scene of an active serial killer who is murdering young women in the city. Deacon begins to suspect these killings are linked to his case up north, and starts poking around his old division, ruffling some feathers.

The lead investigator on the case is a young, hot-shot detective named Jim Baxter (Malek), who initially clashes with Deacon, before accepting his insight. From here, the film settles into being a sort of buddy cop movie as the grizzled veteran and idealistic rookie must work together to catch the killer. Which brings us to Leto’s role in the film. Leto plays a reclusive appliance repairman named Albert Sparma, one of the suspects that they bring in for questioning, who certainly fits the profile of a potential serial killer.

Leto, who received a Golden Globe nomination for the film, does exactly what we think he will do with this role. With his long, stringy hair and overly measured tone, his performance is perched somewhere between being genuinely creepy and feeling like somewhat of an over-performed caricature. While it is unsettling, we have also seen him do versions of similar schtick before, and at times his characterization of Albert Sparma comes across a bit too much like a more grounded version of his Joker portrayal.

The film is directed by John Lee Hancock, who wrote the first draft of the script back in the early 1990s, and finally settled on making it himself after having it passed on by big directors over the years. Hancock does do a fine job of building tension and atmosphere, but The Little Things is undercut by a sense of familiarity and the strong feeling that we have seen better versions of this story in the past. Put simply, it’s no heir to Se7en or Zodiac, despite being tonally similar to those David Fincher films.

The story has some interesting elements to it, but there are problems with the execution, including some shaky editing and a somewhat bloated running time. The film is still mostly engaging to watch, and did hold my attention throughout, but this doesn’t mean that it’s entirely satisfying, either. The ending is sure to divide viewers over whether or not they find it to be a worthwhile resolution to a story that we have invested this much time in. Like the rest of the film, I was somewhat mixed on it.

With that said, The Little Things is still a fairly decent crime drama that crafts a moderately involving mystery. Washington is a steady presence throughout, and his world-weary performance as a cop with a troubled past that gets slowly revealed is key to the film’s modest watchability. Without an actor of his calibre at the centre, the film might not have worked at all, and Malek gets some good moments as well.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with a pair of featurettes. A code for a digital copy is also included in the package.

The Little Things – Four Shades of Blue (9 minutes, 22 seconds): This featurette looks at Washington’s previous roles as police officers in the fellow Warner Bros. films Ricochet, Fallen and Training Day (for which he won an Oscar), and how his role in The Little Things fits into this legacy.

A Contrast in Styles (7 minutes, 54 seconds): This featurette specifically looks at the performances of Washington, Malek and Leto, and how their own acting styles came together in the film.

The Little Things is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 128 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: May 4th, 2021

Blu-ray Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

May 4, 2021

By John Corrado

This is a review of the Blu-ray release. For my full thoughts on the film itself, including my star rating, please read my original review right here.

After previously being released both in theatres and on Premium Video On Demand, the Oscar-winning drama Judas and the Black Messiah is being given a physical release on Blu-ray this week.

The film, which is confidently directed by young filmmaker Shaka King, dramatizes the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), Deputy Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and the betrayal that he faced at the hands of FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield).

The main draws of Judas and the Black Messiah are the brilliant performances from its co-leads. Kaluuya just took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his electrifying portrayal of Hampton, and Stanfield receiving a nomination in the same category for his performance as O’Neal.

The film was nominated for a total of six Oscars, Best Picture among them, and it won two, including Best Original Song for H.E.R.’s end credits tune “Fight For You.” I do think the script has a few character development problems, but Judas and the Black Messiah is still a well crafted film on a technical level, and it gets by on the strength of its central performances. Kaluuya and Stanfield make it frequently gripping to watch, and the Blu-ray is worth picking up for those who want a physical copy.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray comes with a pair of featurettes. A code for a digital copy is also included in the package.

Fred Hampton for the People (9 minutes, 19 seconds): This informative piece features the cast and crew discussing the legacy of the real life Hampton, and how the themes of the film connect to what is happening today in regards to police brutality.

Unexpected Betrayal (7 minutes, 47 seconds): This featurette looks at the real life William O’Neal, and the toll that it took on Stanfield, a long time admirer of Hampton’s, to play him.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 126 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: May 4th, 2021

#HotDocs21 Review: WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn

May 3, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Adam Neumann, the founder and former CEO of WeWork, essentially got rich off of selling office space to millennials. But it was more the idea behind the company that convinced so many to buy in, with his business model built around the concept of turning “me into we” through creating shared work environments. Neumann is the main subject in director Jed Rothstein’s informative and entertaining documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, which looks at the rise and fall of the company.

Neumann, who grew up in a kibbutz in Israel, wanted to bring a capitalistic approach to the principles of a commune. From here, the idea for WeWork was born, a working collective providing office space to entrepreneurs. Neumann started buying up properties in New York and renting out desk space, in what many argued was essentially a real estate business masquerading as a tech startup in order to avoid stricter regulations.

Rothstein’s film is largely centred around Neumann himself, a natural salesman whose charismatic personality caused many to buy what he was selling. His tall, slim frame and long hair made him a magnetic figure, and he is described as having a Jesus complex by one of the subjects. The corporate culture at WeWork was also a big draw, with shiny, open concept offices and an annual adult summer camp that employees were required to attend, an event that footage shows was somewhere between a rowdy corporate retreat, self-help seminar and boozy music festival.

But, as Neumann kept expanding his reach, including opening WeLive, an apartment building that served as more of a social experiment in communal living and could have easily been the subject of its own documentary, his grandiosity became apparent and cracks started to appear in the company’s financial foundation. The story of Neumann’s rise and fall is told through interviews with former employees, co-workers and journalists who explain where it all went wrong.

Rothstein gets into the complex finances behind the company, charting how it started to come apart as Neumann went after international funding and tried to take it public, causing its $47 billion valuation to drop suddenly. But the director also ensures that this well-edited financial documentary is kept both accessible and entertaining, thanks to its fast pace and slick graphics.

WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

The film is part of Scotia Wealth Management’s Big Ideas series, and there will be a live Q&A on May 4th at 7:00 PM with director Jed Rothstein and other guests.

#HotDocs21 Review: Misha and the Wolves

May 3, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

The title subject of the documentary Misha and the Wolves is Misha Defonseca, a Belgian Holocaust survivor who settled in Massachusetts, where her incredible story about escaping the Nazis on foot as a child, and surviving in the woods with a pack of wolves as World War II raged around her, attracted the attention of her community and then the world.

The story became the source of a popular memoir when one of her neighbours, Jane Daniel, who ran a small publishing company, approached her about writing a book in the 1990s. The book attracted the attention of Disney, who wanted the movie rights, and became a sensation in Europe, sending Defonseca on an international press tour. But a bitter lawsuit accompanied the book’s publication, which led Daniel to start asking some serious and potentially inflammatory questions about Misha’s story.

I don’t want to spoil what happened next, but I will say that Misha and the Wolves is one of those stranger than fiction documentaries that delivers some twists and turns in its true story. Director Sam Hobkinson does a fine job of unravelling the narrative. He employs a number of techniques to give his film a cinematic flair, including reenacted scenes of a young Misha wandering through the woods.

We know something is fishy right from the start, and this is one of those films that, as we’re watching it, we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even if you already have some idea of where the story is going, or can basically figure it out, Hobkinson has enough filmmaking tricks up his sleeve to keep it engaging and unpredictable. If you like stranger than fiction docs, Misha and the Wolves is a good one, becoming a rumination on truth, and why we automatically choose to believe certain things.

Misha and the Wolves is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

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