When you get half-way through a festival and find yourself liking every film, you begin to wonder if you're not being critical enough. Were they all really that good? Did excitement cloud the picky nature of judgment? It can happen. How many times do we go see a movie with a crowd who loves it, then watch it on our own and hate it? As much as we can gripe and moan about the foibles of Hollywood, it's not entirely difficult to get swept up in excitement. (Or, for that matter, distaste.)
Inevitably, a film will pop up into the mix and you'll realize: no, you're not being too kind. Some are bad, and some fail. Hitting the half-way mark at HotDocs, I got the balancing slap of failed promise, some more worthy picks, and only one true stinker. Read on for docs about the one-and-only Thelonious Monk, living in the public eye, and more.
The Jazz Baroness
This is the sort of doc that seems to have it all -- letters read by the wonderful Helen Mirren, a personal look into an icon, an unlikely partnership, and the sweet sounds of jazz. Yet this journey into the world of Thelonius Monk and Jewish heiress Pannonica Rothschild fails to live up to figures it focuses on.
Baroness follows filmmaker Hannah Rothschild's quest to learn about her great-aunt, and try to understand the undying passion Pannonica had for jazz. It delves into Rothschild's opulent upbringing, struggles during the second world war, and her steadfast patronage of jazz greats like Monk and Charlie Parker. Mixing in interviews with the likes of T.S. Monk, Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, and rare footage, one would imagine a captivating world and story. In reality, however, it feels removed, fragmented, and at times, superficial. This is likely due to Hannah Rothschild's own failure to understand her aunt's love of jazz, which she admits in the film. Without that passion, or at least appreciation, The Jazz Baroness never hits the levels that would make it thrive.
We Live in Public
Where Baroness fails to reach true understanding, and crumbles because of it, Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public hits the root and bare essence of its subject, making for a well-rounded and rich treatment of a flailing internet icon.
Public follows the rise and fall of Josh Harris, a social visionary incredibly ahead of his time. To put it simply -- this is the guy who dreams up something that seems unfeasible, tries to make it happen, fails, and then the world finally catches up with him years down the road. But even more captivating is how this passion for the Internet and technology started mingling with artistic desire, making him a "Warhol of the Web." Think the Factory meets 1984, with 100 people locked in a building, manipulated, and their every move -- from showers, to eating, to sex -- recorded.
Of course, Harris is an engaging subject, but the documentary thrives because Timoner understands him, and puts together all of the pieces into a finely weaved tale. She found the connections between his life, his business, and the world at large, and even how events 10-years-old are so prevalent today.
Also check out our full review from Sundance.
About a Face: The Story of Gwendellin Bradshaw
I'm always curious about people willing to bare their souls to a camera -- not for fame, but for truth. Gwendellin Bradshaw is a struggling young woman who can't find her place and sets out to find the answers she yearns for. But this isn't simply the story of a girl on a journey. As a child, her mother threw her in a fire, leaving parts of her body terribly scarred. As an adult, she's estranged from her father, trying to recover from a suicide attempt, and wants to find her mother and not only get answers, but also move on and find her place in the world.
As a film, About a Face is unobtrusive, passively following Gwendellin as she bravely bares her soul. But the film's true value is how applicable it is to every life. We might not have the same struggles as Gwendellin, but many of her obstacles are familiar -- the quest to find a family and support system, the quest for love, the quest for answers that most likely can never be answered. And since this is an on-going struggle, and not some heroic tale of rising from the ashes, the film feels more real, and more valuable, a perk only amplified by Gwendellin herself.
Prom Night in Mississippi
This is the story of a school that threw its first interracial prom in 2008. Need I say more?
Morgan Freeman's hometown, Charleston, Mississippi, is an area still clutching to bigoted, antiquated ideas about segregation and race. So he approaches the school in 1997 and offers to pay for an integrated prom. The offer was refused. A decade later, he tries again with director Paul Saltzman, and succeeds. But of course, the change is not that easy -- some students quarrel over the idea, white parents insist on still throwing their own white prom, and bigoted ideas continue to face off against more enlightened attitudes.
It's easy for us to say equality is here, and we've all come so far, and we have, but Prom Night is the perfect example of how the fight isn't over. It's inspiring, fun, and well worth the 90 minutes.
Bloody Mondays & Strawberry Pies
Hearing about a film that focuses on boredom, that merges stories of a former female spy, a stockbroker, a food factory worker, and the girl who shot 11 people because she didn't like Mondays, and has John Malkovich narrating by reading passages from Dostoyevsky and Bret Easton Ellis -- I immediately thought: Protagonist! Merging wildly different stories with surprising art forms was pure beauty in the hands of Jessica Yu, but any similarities this film might have to that triumph lay only in the above description.
Bloody Mondays is a meditative film that doesn't inspire meditation so much as boredom -- and considering the number of boring films out there -- that's no feat of cinema.
When the film was introduced, the presenter said that director Coco Schrijber said it was ok to sleep and pop back into the story as we saw fit. Perhaps she didn't mean this as a gripping feature to watch in one sitting; or, perhaps that joke hit way too close to the truth.
The Tiger Next Door
In order to capture the seriously unregulated world of big cats, director Camilla Calamandrei was lucky to happen upon a former meth addict and big cat keeper as the government strives to stop his operation and take his many cats -- tigers, mountain lions, and bears. It runs a bit long (although a shortened version is set to appear on TV), but is a quite interesting balance of the dire need for regulation and the true passion. It soon becomes obvious that Dennis loves his animals, but there is also no doubt that they shouldn't be kept as they are.