Review Roundup: Six Must-See Films at Hot Docs

Torontoist

news

Review Roundup: Six Must-See Films at Hot Docs

Toronto's documentary film festival continues until May 7.

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 4.03.47 PM

Tokyo Idols (Magnificent Obsessions, UK/Canada)

Directed by Kyoko Miyake, 88 minutes

Screenings:

Wednesday, May 3, 10:30 a.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sunday, May 7, 10:00 a.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Tokyo Idols is a great example of the kind of rabbit hole one can find oneself suddenly tumbling down during Hot Docs, a look into “Idol” culture in Japan, or at least one strange strain of it that only gets stranger as it continues. According to the opening titles, over 10,000 teenage girls in Japan are Idols, chasing dreams of J-Pop stardom by lip-synching on stage in schoolgirl uniforms in a entertainment circuit targeted at middle-aged, unmarried salarymen, who basically spend everything they have on merchandise and meet-and-greet opportunities with the Idols. These “handshake events” fans are admitted to (with proof of purchase) operate in a societal grey area, explains a Tokyo journalist, because in Japan, handshakes have only recently become acceptable public behaviour—touching is generally forbidden. We can see at these events that the men are getting a forbidden thrill out of the opportunity to touch these teenage girls, which, according to the documentary anyway, is as far as it goes.

“As an Idol, there’s a ‘best-by’ date. I can’t do this forever” says Rio, already aging out of the scene at 19. She looks at her Idol period as a stepping stone towards a real J-Pop career but is aware time is running out. Her life is a whirlwind of lip-sync performances, nightly livestream sessions filmed in her apartment, and packaging her own merchandise sales for her fans in her downtime. Her gang of fans are real sad-sacks, who don’t seem to have much else going on in their lives and are longing for a female connection, even at a transactional level, but a connection that doesn’t quite consider the girls to be human, as if these men live only to briefly experience touching their virtual and ultimately interchangeable fantasy figures. One feels for these men a mixture of queasiness and pity.

“Idol” culture is one of the few industries in Japan immune to the country’s prolonged recession, and the film’s director, Kyoko Miyake, gives the audience a glimpse into why, raising a lot of possibilities (the obsession with “cuteness” as a goal for young women to attain, a manifestation of low self-esteem and introversion that has stunted the emotional growth of men) but not drawing conclusions. The film is thought-provoking enough that one wishes it had opened up the scope of the investigation even more: for instance, if thousands of women a year age out of viability for Idol culture, what happens to them afterwards? One shudders to think, but the film omits this aspect.

At times Tokyo Idols feels like a science fiction idea about a disturbing disconnect between men and women being encouraged within a society, played out in a nightmare scenario of deranged consumerism and social exploitation on a grand scale, and yet for a disturbing number of people caught up in it, all entirely normal.

–JH

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 4.08.45 PM

Becoming Bond (Singular Sensations, USA)

Directed by Josh Greenbaum, 90 minutes

Screenings:

Wednesday, May 3, 8:30 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Thursday, May 4, 3:45 p.m.

Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday, May 5, 7:00 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

The life of George Lazenby seems like a can’t-miss subject matter for a documentary: the unknown Australian who went from selling used cars to male modelling in Swinging London, before being chosen to replace Sean Connery as James Bond (despite having no acting experience) in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (still regarded as one of the key 007 entries) who suddenly, brazenly walked away from it all. Unfortunately, director Josh Greenbaum’s Becoming Bond is a frustrating hybrid of a talking-head documentary and re-enacted dramatizations of Lazenby’s life story played for laughs, an experiment that doesn’t quite gel.

The film’s reliance on re-enactments may have had to do with what Lazenby agreed to discuss in the sit-down interview with him that structures the film. He recalls his pre-fame life in great detail: the girl troubles, the peripatetic career, and a swinging 60s lifestyle. Only the last third of the film covers the 007 period; his fights with the producers (including defiantly showing up with a bushy beard to the film’s royal premiere) and the fateful decision to quit the role after being offended by what he describes as a “slave contract”—a six-picture deal (with a huge signing bonus) that would have locked him into a code of conduct and control. Lazenby’s strange post-Bond movie career (including taking mustachioed villain roles in several Hong Kong action pictures) and finally exile into a real estate career is barely mentioned, perhaps outside the film’s scope, or perhaps Lazenby may have been reticent to delve into that material. In fact, the most effective section of the film is a brief moment where Lazenby’s reserve cracks and he expresses real regret for the longtime love in his life who got away (especially poignant as Lazenby remains the only James Bond who ever cried on screen).

The reliance on comical re-enactments makes this film feel more like a light TV-movie biopic about George Lazenby, one with its subject as narrator. A few celebrity cameos in the cast are more distracting than supportive, including Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin as the one-time (and Canadian) Bond producer Harry Saltzman, and Dana Carvey doing Johnny Carson. Lazenby’s strange pop cultural moment and legacy as the first of the “New Bonds” in the seemingly eternal franchise would have been worthy of a straight-faced, more conventional documentary approach.

–JH

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 4.14.28 PM

78/52 (Nightvision, USA)

Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, 91 minutes

Screenings:

Thursday, May 4, 9:30 p.m.

Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Friday, May 5, 3:00 p.m.

Scotiabank Theatre

It’s impossible to understate how groundbreaking a film Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was on its initial release in 1960, a small black and white horror film from a director who has just made the sweeping widescreen confection North by Northwest, which had the audacity to suddenly kill off the leading lady (Janet Leigh) mid-narrative, and for that onscreen murder to be so (seemingly) explicit and remorseless: “the first modern expression of the female body under assault,” as filmmaker Karyn Kusama perfectly describes it, one of the many notable filmmakers, scholars, and fans collected to take us on a deep dive into Psycho in the documentary 78/52 (named after the 78 camera setups and 52 cuts in the shower scene), which is basically required viewing for film geeks.

Psycho, like The Shining, is a film that so many people have obsessed over in different ways that you can make an obsessively constructed documentary like Room 237 that will find an audience, but 78/52 is about a work that had a deep and lasting impact on culture at large, not on just a cult audience. The film does start talking about Psycho in general as a phenomenon, but as the film continues, it circles like blood down the drain into the granular details of the shower sequence, which was filmed separately from the rest of the film and was precisely designed by Hitchcock and his direct collaborators (film designer Saul Bass, composer Bernard Herrmann) to be a shock to the system.

It’s a pleasure to bask in a film that pours forward a deluge of ideas about Psycho’s deeper meanings and craftwork from a well-chosen selection of interviewees, with everyone from Guillermo del Toro to Eli Roth to Peter Bogdanovich to Janet Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis. Who knew that Hitchcock had knives slashed through dozens of varieties of melon in search of the perfect sound of a stabbing death (a sequence where in fact you never see a knife cutting into a body)? The attention to detail documenting the making of this most obsessive of films makes 78/52 highly rewarding viewing, but must be avoided if you’ve never seen the original.

–JH

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 4.11.05 PM

Maison du Bonheur (World Showcase, Canada)

Directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz, 64 minutes

Screenings:

Wednesday, May 3, 8:45 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Thursday, May 4, 10:15 a.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Friday, May 5, 3:45 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz makes her non-fiction feature debut with Maison du Bonheur, a beguiling multi-angle portrait of longtime Montmarte resident and astrologer Juliane Sellam, as well as a record of the film’s making. Bohdanowicz’s rich and evocative 16mm photography examines the 77-year-old Sellam across 30 different vignettes, breaking her present life and memories of the past down into segments on her morning coffee, makeup routine, personal style, and her bread-making. In the course of capturing something ineffable about her across these disparate interests and objects that make up her life, Bohdanowicz discloses her own effort to shape her material into something perceptive and true to her subject. Interspersing her profile of her subject with soft-spoken production diaries about her trip to Paris—underwhelming eclairs and all—and light moments of conversation with Sellam, Bohdanowicz opens the film up into a charming and affable duet.

Though it evokes films as disparate as Chantal Akerman’s rigorous observations of women at work and Wes Anderson’s recent European-bound social comedies about outsiders abroad, Maison du Bonheur is an impeccably observed and delicately crafted thing in its own right. Bohdanowicz’s lightly ambivalent closing narration about whether she’s offered up a story, travelogue, portrait, or an experience in the end also gets at the heart of the nonfiction endeavour in ways that should prove thought-provoking for audiences halfway through a documentary festival.

–AM

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 4.16.49 PM

Photon (Nightvision, Poland)

Directed by Norman Leto, 107 minutes

Screenings:

Saturday, May 6, 1:00 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

It’s hard to think of a recent non-fiction debut as ambitious and bewildering as Photon, Polish artist Norman Leto’s meta essay about the origins of the universe and the potential dystopia (albeit with flying cars) to come. Leto pairs his sublime and often incalculably strange extreme close-ups of particles and waves, illustrating abstract scientific concepts like the Higgs field through impeccable 3D models and subtle practical effects, with a self-consciously droning, schoolmarm-like British voiceover, ironically undercutting his frequently astonishing visuals with the most ordinary sounds you’d expect from a high school science documentary. The effect is jarring but bold, and the viewer is constantly thrown off-kilter—forced to decide whether to take what they’re seeing at face value, as a lost educational doc from a bygone era, or as a provocation. 

Photon’s big ideas and sublime imagery don’t quite justify the swollen running time, and Leto’s grave musings about a future where there is “no need for colour, as there are no eyes” are perhaps a bit prosaic, and certainly a step down from the awe and terror of the film’s initial tour through the cosmos. Still, these are images you don’t see every day, and Photon, perhaps because of its generic and tonal inscrutability as much as in spite of it, has the potential to become a cult classic among those who like to get blasted and learn about the God particle.

–AM

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 4.21.30 PM

Secondo Me (World Showcase, Austria)

Directed by Pavel Cuzuioc, 79 minutes

Screenings:

Thursday, May 4, 6:45 p.m.

Scotiabank Theatre

Friday, May 5, 7:00 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sunday, May 7, 3:45 p.m.

Scotiabank Theatre

Pavel Cuzuioc’s camera ditches the opera hall for the coatroom in Secondo Me, a deeply engaging triptych about the compelling but minor lives of cloakroom attendants at prestigious European opera houses in Vienna, Milan, and Odessa. While the music swells and cascades just past the double doors opposite their elegant desks, Cuzuioc never films the stage. He attends instead to the quiet, personal chamber dramas of his subjects—Nadezhda Sokhatskaya, a stylish grandmother anxious about her grandson’s studies abroad, Flavio Fornasa, a history buff and anti-fascist agitator well into middle age, and Ronald Zwanziger, who holds a day job as a university librarian.

Though its economical and hushed style lacks the stateliness of the opera houses in which much of the film is set, the film is nicely attuned to the alternative rhythms of its subjects’ lives, capturing everything from motorcycle rides to work, exhausting after-work gym sessions, and impassioned arguments about the memorialization of political deaths. That last one is courtesy of Fornasa, whose opinionated argument with a man in a town square about the way fascist regimes erase the history of the minor labourers they stomp on with impunity gives the film its title—roughly translated from Italian as “As I see it”—as well as a neat expression of its purpose: to consider the unheard perspectives of the unsung people who make celebrated institutions like the opera run.

–AM

Comments