Monday, April 29, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 - Dragon Girls

Dragon Girls by Inigo Westmeier, 2012

Dragon Girls opens with an incredible shot of thousands of children running in perfect formation towards the camera, stopping precisely in perfect unison. The militaristic style of this movement is a perfect representation of the strict ideology the film is about. Dragon Girls follows the trials and triumphs of three Chinese girls studying Kung Fu at a school of over 35,000 in China's Shaolin Monastery. The documentary captures the incredible artistry and athleticism of these children, leaving the audience in awe at their accomplishments. Their regimen is incredibly disciplined, which doesn't leave much of a family or social life for any of them. Dragon Girls does a wonderful job displaying the struggles these girls go through during their studies, but it also lacks any sort of real drama. Talks of competitions and student run-aways lead up to moments that, in the end, don't add up to much. Yes these girls are amazing and you feel for them, but without much of a narrative arc, the emotional payoff is minimal.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 26, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 - The Expedition to the End of the World

The Expedition to the End of the World by Daniel Dencik, 2013

Not to be confused with the fantastic Werner Herzog film Encounters at the End of the World, this Danish documentary follows a mix-mash group of voyagers setting off to North-Eastern Greenland for a once-a-year trip to explore temporarily accessible fjords before they freeze over. A selling-point for me to see this film happened to be Herzog's 2007 portrait of people in a similar landscape (in his case, Antarctica). There is a beauty in these desolate places; their starkness is otherworldly and the extreme lack of human life makes for a compelling look into isolation and solitude. Director Daniel Dencik provides nothing short of magnificent images for the entire 90 minute running time, and the cast of characters, whose backgrounds range from art to archeology to marine biology, provide insights and comedy along the way. The film falls a little short when certain narratives and sequences aren't fully explained, but for the most part, The Expedition to the End of the World is a great companion piece to its Antarctic predecessor.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - Planet of Snail

Planet of Snail by Yi Seung-jun, 2011

A touching love story, Planet of Snail documents the daily lives of Young-Chan and Soon-Ho. A young couple, they live their daily lives with extra concern and patience. Young-Chan is both deaf and blind, while his wife, Soon-Ho, has a spinal deformity that makes her stand at about the height of his elbow. Footage of the couple performing tasks such as changing a lightbulb and exercising is really quite lovely, showing the extra mile Young-Chan and Soon-Ho need to go in order to do something that is so easy for most other people. Yet there are distracting interludes edited between these real-life moments where Young-Chan recites an essay in voiceover with what feels like an inappropriate score of sad, electronic music. At 90 minutes long, the film also felt like it dragged, certain scenes going on much too long and others that might not have been needed altogether. As a portrait, Planet of Snail succeeds in showing us a humane, deeply felt love story, but it did not need the extra gimmicks.

3 out of 5

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - Vivan las Antipodas!

Vivan las Antipodas! by Victor Kossakovsky, 2011

Antipodes are communities which have diametrically opposite communities on the other side of the Earth. These occurrences are very rare due to the amount of water on the Earth's surface. In Kossakovsky's documentary, he explores the sites of four pairs of these antipodal communities. Taking a more observational, direct cinema approach, Vivan las Antipodas! is visually stunning. Watching the sun set over rural Argentina, a butterfly skipper over rainwater in Spain and lava creep slowly in Hawaii, all make for beautiful scenes. But what the film achieves visually, it lacks cinematically. There are no real insights into the similarities and differences between the antipodes (other than the ones the audience may make themselves - which personally amounted to very little), and many of the visuals feel tedious and pointless. I am all for quiet, meditative films (The Robinsons of Mantsinsaari is one of my favourite documentaries), but when the idea amounts to more than the outcome, I feel let down.

2 out of 5

Hot Docs 2012 - The Queen of Versailles (2012)

The Queen of Versailles by Lauren Greenfield, 2012

Jackie and David Siegel are building a house. The largest house in America, that is, and its design is based on the French palace of Versailles, yet being constructed in Florida. Lauren Greenfield's film is a portrait of excess and when that excess is at stake. The Siegels are wonderful subjects - interesting, hilarious and dramatic, they offer a hugely entertaining spectacle that you cannot keep your eyes off of. Jackie is Greenfield's main character and we learn much about her, from her humble past to her completely opposite lifestyle today, with Jackie offering up a wealth of access and allowance that is undeniably captivating. The Queen of Versailles is a fascinating, often jaw-dropping ride through the halls of the wealthy, with dramatic twists and turns that keep the story, and the Siegels themselves, evolving in front of your eyes.

4 out of 5

Friday, May 4, 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - Indie Game: The Movie

Indie Game: The Movie by Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky, 2011

In the Q & A after the film, directors Pajot and Swirsky said they wanted to turn the tables on the video game documentary. Stating that for such a hugely lucrative industry, there are surprisingly few documentaries about video games, and the ones that do exist are mostly about the gamer. With Indie Game: The Movie, they set out to learn more about the world behind the makers of video games, specifically the currently popular indie genre, where one or two people are often responsible for creating entire games. The film is hilarious and often fascinating, focusing on the creation of two highly-anticipated (and wonderful-looking) titles and all of the sweat, stress, and sleepless nights that go into making them. The subjects are highly engaging (the audience was lucky to also have one of the gamemakers present for questions after the screening), making Indie Game: The Movie a wonderful experience for any viewer, gamer or not. As an avid gamer myself, it made me want to take a shot at development as well.

5 out of 5

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - Dreams of a Life

Dreams of a Life by Carol Morley, 2012

The skeleton of a woman is found in a London apartment, three years after she had died. Even though the television was still on, no one came looking. Dreams of a Life is a film looking for answers to this mystery. How did something as sad as this happen? Through testimony from her various acquaintances, we hear stories and speculations, with the unfortunate realization that there are no answers. As heartbreaking as the central story is, Morley's documentary is a slog to sit through. I saw various members of the audience rubbing their eyes, checking their watches and even walking out during the film. Dreams of a Life lacks a real dramatic hook, and a visual timeline organizing different events in her life is confusing and poorly realized. Various reenactments and artistic dramatizations are peppered around the interviews, but watching the actress sing to herself, look depressed and watch said interviews on a tv in her apartment on what is supposed to be the last day of her life, make for an absolute bore. Definitely a disappointment.

2 out of 5