Our reviews of the festival's films about cinema and the entertainment industry.
We’re watching our way through the Hot Docs festival roster and telling you which films to see and which you might want to pass on. Today, we round up some of the fest’s most highly anticipated films about…well, film.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism
Directed by Illinca Calugareanu
TIFF Bell Lightbox—Thurs, Apr 30, 4:00 p.m.
In a recent wave of documentaries about the VHS era (Rewind This; Adjust Your Tracking), Gen-X and –Y’ers have waxed rhapsodically about the magic of analog garbage. Chuck Norris vs. Communism plays like an alternate reality version of this genre. Recalling the waning days of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, this HBO production profiles the people who smuggled VHS tapes of American movies into the black market, and the impact they had on the ordinary Romanians who consumed them.
As the gimmicky title suggests, the tough-guy cinema of Norris, Stallone, et al. were particular favourites, but unlikely titles like The King of Comedy, Once Upon a Time in America, and The Color Purple also made the rounds. Romanians who grew up with these films recall being overwhelmed by the cityscapes, fashions, and special effects that American viewers took for granted. We also learn about Irana Nistor, a translator for state television who secretly dubbed some 3,000 movies between 1985 and 1989, and became something close to a Romanian auteur. According to one interviewee, her squeaky voice became “the most well-known voice in Romania after Ceaușescu’s,” and viewers refused to settle for movies dubbed by anyone else. Serious and playful in equal measure, Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a vivid case study of the subjective nature of moviegoing.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Directed by Brett Morgen
We spend a lot of time with Kurt Cobain during the 132 minutes of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and yet as the film progresses, we realize that there is only so much depth to plumb. Even as he stumbled into unimaginable fame as lead singer of Nirvana, and as his music came to articulate the malaise of multiple generations, there is a sense that Cobain never stopped being the sad little boy whose life was ruined when his parents divorced.
What Montage of Heck does well is humanize him. Produced with the participation of Cobain’s estate, the film has extensive access to his notes, letters, diary entries and drawings (many of his gory little sketches have been animated), as well as all of his music (there is a choral version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that, swear to God, works in this context). The authorized nature of the film may also explain why it features the most flattering portrayal of Courtney Love yet seen in a Cobain documentary. The movie is particularly affecting when it shows some of Cobain and Love’s home movies with their daughter Frances Bean (who was an executive producer for this film). Though their relationship remains controversial among Nirvana fans, their chemistry in these moments shows how it might have worked; Cobain’s uncomplicated love for his daughter shows how a family might even have saved him.
Directed by Adam Benzine
TIFF Bell Lightbox 3—Tue, Apr 28, 5:00 p.m.
Innis Town Hall—Fri, May 1, 6:30 p.m.
Cinephiles who still haven’t plunged into Claude Lanzmann’s eight-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah might finally get the push they need from this short, accessible documentary about the film and its maker. After a few minutes of testimonials from Max Ophuls and Richard Brody, things are turned over to an incisive interview with the octogenarian filmmaker, who reflects on his torturous 12-year effort to make the definitive Holocaust documentary. Lanzmann discusses the challenges of interviewing survivors, the deceptive means by which he interviewed former Nazis, the five-year editing process, and his own struggle to recover from the experience after Shoah’s completion.
Lanzmann and Shoah deserve an exhaustive documentary, and this 40-minute primer isn’t that. Still, Lanzmann makes some significant contributions to Holocaust scholarship: director Adam Benzine unearths footage of a young Lanzmann with his lover Simone de Beauvoir, plus some extraordinary Shoah outtake footage, including a violent confrontation between Lanzmann and a former Nazi.
Listen to Me Marlon
Directed by Stevan Riley
Isabel Bader Theatre—Fri, May 1, 10:30 a.m.
The Regent—Sun May 3, 6:45 p.m.
For a few years in the 1950s, Marlon Brando gave a handful of performances that would cement him as the most important film actor of all time. Bringing the “method” style he learned from Stella Adler in New York to Hollywood, his work in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront gave acting a new aesthetic: rawer, less stylized, more informed by the actor’s personal experience. But within a few years, he lost interest in his craft: he devoted himself to civil rights causes, escaped to his Tahitian island, and supported himself with easy roles in bad movies. He re-emerged in 1972 with historic performances in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, but he felt “violated” by his soul-baring work in the latter, and retreated to quick paycheques. In his rare interviews, he flatly refused to discuss acting, and insisted that there were no artists in the movie business.
For someone who was once such a believer in “truth” in acting, Brando became obsessed with his privacy. The biggest value of Listen to Me Marlon is that it finally gives us a chance to get to know him. Derived from dozens of hours of Brando’s private audiotapes, the film includes some of Brando’s invaluable reflections on his craft (his account of discovering Don Vito Corleone is particularly exciting) and his collaborators (much is made of the importance of Adler). The film also gets into Brando’s untidy private life—the compulsive womanizing; the son who was convicted of manslaughter; the daughter who committed suicide—and draws a connection between Brando’s shoddy parenting and his broken relationship with his father (we see a clip of the two being interviewed together, and it is cringe-inducing). Above all, the film is rich with footage from Brando’s films, both good and bad, and helps renew interest an artist who runs the risk of becoming ossified.
Directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen
Hart House Theatre–Sun, Apr 26, 9:30 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1–Tue, Apr 28, 4:00 p.m.
Revue Cinema–Sat, May 2, 6:30 p.m.
When Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos were 12 and 11 years old, respectively, they decided the only way to express their love for Indiana Jones was to recreate the quintessential Spielberg action flick Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot, using only their parents’ homes as the set, school friends as the cast, and clunky 1980s video equipment. Their summer project for the next seven years eventually tore them apart, but when filmmaker Eli Roth discovered the VHS tape it gained a cult following and reunited the filmmakers. Raiders! tracks Zala and Strompolos as they finish the one scene they couldn’t do as kids—involving a plane, intricate fight scenes, and a lot of pyrotechnics—as adults with families and jobs and mortgages. Directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen depict Zala and Strompolos in a somewhat one-sided fashion, as heroes who revive their childhood dream instead of looking at them as man-children resisting the responsibilities of adulthood and amateurishly managing a very volatile film set that proves to be much more dangerous than anyone expected. But the underdog story of these kids and their love of film is undeniable, and so are the universal subplots that underscore the struggles in completing the movie: an undervalued special effects “sidekick” Jayson Lamb, divorce and family trauma, competitiveness and ego, romance and broken hearts, addiction, and selling out. There’s a lot of heart in Raiders!, even when it seems silly and overblown, and it’ll pull on the heartstrings of any movie fan, young or old.
A Woman Like Me
Directed by Alex Sichel and Elizabeth Giamatti
Scotiabank Theatre 3–Sat, Apr 25, 7:30 p.m.
Isabel Bader Theatre–Mon, Apr 27, 1:00 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1–Sun, May 3, 3:15 p.m.
We all hope we’ll have the perfect death—if we imagine or even think about it at all. So when filmmaker Alex Sichel started reacting negatively to her diagnosis of terminal breast cancer, becoming stressed and depressed instead of open and optimistic, she created a character that was almost exactly like her except for their disposition about dying. Lily Tomlin plays Anna in Sichel’s semi-biographical movie, and A Woman Like Me is the documentary about the making of that movie, incorporating footage from that film intersected with home videos and testimonials from Sichel’s private life. Ultimately, it’s a moving portrait of a dying woman who wishes that everything about her situation was different—that her outlook would be more positive, her instinct could be to relax instead of to make another film, her husband might understand her desire for homeopathic treatments, she could explain what’s happening to her young daughter, and it wasn’t her with terminal cancer. Sichel’s ability to self-reflect and this hybrid style of film manage to capture a lot of complex emotions about the big topics of death, but ends with a hopeful tone. Sichel died in June of 2014; the film was finished by co-director Elizabeth Giamatti, giving the impression that its subject finally had the kind of death she was seeking.
Directed by Crystal Moselle
TIFF Bell Lightbox 2–Fri, Apr 24, 6:30 p.m.
Scotiabank Theatre 4–Sun, Apr 26, 4:00 p.m.
Located right in one of the busiest urban centres in the world, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one family of nine people hardly ever leave their high-rise apartment. This is mostly the wish of the father Oscar Angulo, whose fear of the city and distrust of society means he prefers his family to stay at home; their sole income comes from the city, which pays his wife Susanne to homeschool their children. Though Oscar is the main reason for the family’s hermit-like existence, this is rightfully not his story. The six brothers, who call themselves the wolfpack, are starting to break free of their father’s control, aided by their obsession with movies such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Not only do those films provide hours of entertainment (in watching them, but also in their incredibly detailed recreations), but the films’ attitudes boost the Angulo brothers’ confidence as they begin to explore the city they were taught to be afraid of. For a family steeped in fear, the access they give Moselle is extraordinary. And, most importantly, she tells their story with respect. While Oscar and Suzanne are both given due diligence, it is their sons who are ultimately the heroes of the story and eloquent, if reserved, in their interviews—just like in the movies.
This article identified Lili Taylor as the actor who plays Anna in A Woman Like Me, when the actor is in fact Lily Tomlin. We regret the error.