The Hot Docs Film Festival kicks off this weekend, so it’s time to start putting your schedules together and packing in as many quality documentary screenings as humanly possible. I’ve got mine put together and I’m really excited by the variety of subjects/films that I’ve got to look forward to. Luckily, I had a chance to check out a few of my most anticipated films in advance, including the Ross Bros. Tchoupitoulas, Indie Game: The Movie, Jeff, and James Franco’s Francophrenia. Here’s what I thought!
This might seem a bit premature, but the Ross Brothers Tchoupitoulas will likely end up being one of my favourite films of the festival (and maybe, the year). This nostalgic adventure follows a group of three kids (and their trusty dog Buttercup) as they explore the French Quarter in New Orleans. The sights and sounds of the nightlife weave in and out of the narrative, piquing the curiosity of the boys and exposing them to the rich cultures and traditions the city is known for. When the group misses their midnight ferry home, they’re face with an unexpected adventure that had me absolutely captivated. The feeling I got while watching Tchoupitoulas is most recently comparable to my experience with Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life. In particular, the ‘endless summer’ section of the film in which Malick allows the boys to be boys. While I certainly didn’t grow up in New Orleans (I’ve never even been there), the film manages to tap into and awaken dormant childhood memories and images that are truly universal. A moment that stood out the most for me was in the final act, in which the boys come upon a seemingly abandoned ferry. They decide to sneak on board and explore its creepy, dark hallways, letting their imaginations (and the audiences) take over. This sense of curiosity and adventure says more to me about the human experience (and the cinema-going experience) than any graphs-and-charts social issue doc could ever dream to achieve. Tchoupitoulas is a vicarious and engaging cinematic adventure and a welcome reminder of why I love the movies.
Having worked for a game developer for a few years, I was naturally intrigued by the premise of Indie Game: The Movie. I’m not much of a gamer myself, but I’m aware of the amount of work that goes into making a video game, and the thought of all of that content being created and managed by only a couple of guys is really mind-blowing. Without the support of a major studio or a fleet of employees, these indie game developers take on all of the responsibilities when delivering a game. If the product fails, they’re the only ones to blame. If it succeeds, they could become instant millionaires. Canadian filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot chronicle the drama and insurmountable levels of stress behind the making of two games; Super Meat Boy and Fez. Both teams face their share of problems in delivering their product, but a passion for their art — enhanced by a regressive sense of childhood nostalgia — pushes them towards making a game that they themselves would’ve loved when they were kids. It would’ve been nice to see what all of this work adds up to for those toiling in obscurity, but I suppose the film is more interested in showcasing indie games as a credible art form and their developers as worthy competitors within the industry. Still, the fragility of success versus failure is palpable, especially within the over-saturated, uber-competitive world of game development. The film is well shot and features some vibrant representations of modern and classic video games sprinkled throughout. Visually, I was reminded of the aesthetic cleanliness of Gary Hustwit’s design trilogy. Indie Game: The Movie is a must-see for video game fans and should resonate with anyone with a passion for creativity.
I went into Jeff with unusually high (and probably unfair) expectations due to my love of character driven docs and the promise of some cinematic recreations. Part of me was wondering what could possibly be left to say about Jeffery Dahmer that hasn’t already been said? The story experienced some serious over-saturation when it was first reported and there have been countless movies and TV shows since. Luckily, director Chris James Thompson finds some new angles to explore, building a sense of dread as we watch Jeff, a covert madman, wandering the streets of Milwaukee in search for his next victim. This “killers-eye view” is presented by recreations (shot on film) featuring an actor in the role of Jeff. I was immediately reminded of Robinson Devor’s Zoo, which utilizes beautifully realized recreations to recount its gruesome story. Unfortunately, Jeff never quite achieves that level of cinematic intrigue, as most of the filmed sequences take place in rather plain environments and focus on fairly mundane activities. On one hand, they work at heightening Dahmer’s creepiness by reinforcing the idea that on the outside, he seemed to be a regular guy. On the other, these broad illustrations serve merely as accompaniment to the dominant talking heads, missing the emotional or visceral impact I was hoping for. With only three on-screen interviewees (a medical examiner, a neighbour, and a police detective), the overall picture is drawn from a somewhat limited perspective. Fortunately, detective Patrick Kennedy stands out as an interesting character, discussing his unusual relationship with Dahmer and how the high profile case affected his personal life. In a way, it’s almost his film as his on-screen presence is most dominant and his involvement in the story is the most interesting. We do get occasional images of the real Dahmer via home videos or news footage, but the film is mostly concerned with telling the story from the outsider’s perspective. In the end, Jeff does more to add to the mythology surrounding Jeffery Dahmer rather than provide much insight into the man himself, but I kind of like that.
FRANCOPHRENIA (OR: DON’T KILL ME, I KNOW WHERE THE BABY IS)
Dir. James Franco
Saturday Night Live documentary ‘SNL’, I thought this look at his time on the set of General Hospital might temporarily hold me over. Francophrenia (Or: Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is) takes place over one day/night, focusing on a complex shoot in which James Franco’s recurring character ‘Franco’ makes his return to daytime TV, staging a murderous plot during an art exhibition at an LA museum. Apparently the episode never aired, but we never learn why. Initially, the film seems to focus on the cult of celebrity, following Franco as he goes through hair and make up, poses for photos with press, and meets with his adoring fans. I could watch James Franco sign autographs and pose for pictures with General Hospital fans all day long. In fact, about 1/7th of the run time of Francophrenia is just that but still, I wanted more. Instead, an unusual narrative emerges as the real James Franco and his alter ego “Franco” cross wires. He grows increasingly paranoid and schizophrenic, questioning the intentions of the people around him and blurring the line between reality and fiction. The film turns into something resembling an art school/film school project, complete with cerebral narration, a talking men’s room door sign, ‘artsy’ after effects filters, and footage played in reverse. Co-director and editor Ian Olds’ urge to experiment with the already interesting footage seemed to reveal an insecurity rather than any sort of profundity. A little more confidence in the raw material and initial concept might have helped avoid such experimental urges. James Franco slumming it on General Hospital is strange and interesting enough to hold its own. Any additional artistic or experimental tinkering seems a bit redundant and somewhat undermines the simple brilliance of ‘Franco’. Having said all of that, the film has some genuinely funny moments, and I’m sure that the pretension on display is intended to be taken as satire. Still, I would’ve preferred a more straight forward treatment of this material as I think it could have been more entertaining and might have better complimented – and enhanced — the already surreal nature of ‘Franco’ and the strange atmosphere of the daytime soap set.