Hot Docs Capsule Reviews: The Imposter, GLOW, Beauty Is Embarrassing, Women With Cows

Dir. Bart Layton

The Imposter

To synopsize The Imposter is to risk spoiling the experience for somebody going into a film that’s probably best seen completely cold. I’ll keep this brief and general: the film starts with the sudden disappearance of a 13 year old boy from San Antonio, Texas. Almost four years later, he mysteriously reappears in Spain. That’s good enough. Fans of the twists and turns in films like Capturing the Friedmans and The Staircase will definitely enjoy The Imposter. Director Bart Layton tells this story with a sense of cinematic awareness that separates this sensational true-life story from your usual news magazine fare. It’s no coincidence that cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson (Submarine, Tyrannosaur) and editor Andrew Hulme (Gangster No. 1, Lucky Number Slevin) have a background in fiction filmmaking as this movie draws on many inspirations from outside the documentary world. I was immediately reminded of the con aspect of Catch Me If You Can, the misguided wish fulfilment of A.I.’s placeholder robot-child David, and of course, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. Like Morris’ film, The Imposter utilizes cinematic recreations to tell its story and play with perception and memory. The audience does some Monday morning quarterbacking — or detecting — as the mystery unravels and slowly transforms into a ‘whodunit’. Outside of the film’s technical strengths and overall sense of craft, it’s the characters — specifically the title character and Charlie Parker, the old school private eye — that really push this story into the realm of the unreal, resembling a quirky, Coen Brothers-esque crime film. The Imposter is a must-see movie at this year’s Hot Docs festival for those who like their documentaries inspired by pure genre cinema.


Dir. Brett Whitcomb

I have no memory of watching Glow (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) when it originally aired, so I went into Brett Whitcomb’s nostalgia drenched documentary with very little nostalgia. Luckily, it’s fairly easy to graft the memories of my own favourite 80’s shows onto this one, getting by on the overall aesthetics of the era rather than the specifics of the content. Glow is representative of the 1980’s through and through, reminding me of a mix between The American Gladiators, Rollergirls, and the WWF. Beyond the “sport” itself, the scripted out-of-the-ring “sketches” reminded me of kids shows like You Can’t Do That on Television and (for my fellow Canadians) The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. The film mixes talking head interviews with footage from the original show, detailing the history of the production and providing some behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Those who’ve seen ‘Not Quite Hollywood’ should know the drill. While I did find the footage from GLOW entertaining, the actual interviews merely act as connective tissue, holding the stock footage together. The anecdotes are mostly trivial, and the fact that two of the show’s main creative forces refused to participate really didn’t help. There seemed to be some conflict between the cast and the creators, but it isn’t really explored in much detail. Mando Guerrero (GLOW trainer and brother of WWE wrestler Eddie Guerrero) gave the most animated and entertaining interview, but unfortunately only has about two minutes of screen time. The final act of the film gets away from the talking head format and focuses on one of GLOW’s most beloved alumnus, Mount Fiji. She was one of the bigger girls (both in popularity and size) that now resides in a nursing home due to her bad knees and diabetes. She thinks back on her days at GLOW with a sense of fondness but also sadness. When one of the original cast members decides to hold a reunion, the film captures some genuinely emotional moments that might have hit me harder if i’d gotten to know the ladies on a more personal, observational level earlier in the film. Still, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling taps into a 1980’s nostalgic sweet spot that’s hard to resist for somebody who grew up in that era.


Dir. Neil Berkeley

If you grew up in the 80’s, you’ve more than likely been exposed to the joyously demented art of Wayne White. His most notable contribution to your/my childhood is his work on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, in which he designed both the sets and the puppets (and won three Emmy’s in the process). He also provided the voices of a few of his puppet creations, including Dirty Dog, Randy and Mr.Kite. Since then, White has made a name for himself in the art wold, known best for his word paintings in which he adds humorously crass phrases on top of thrift shop paintings. In Neil Berkeley’s directorial debut ‘Beauty is Embarrassing’, White gets the full biopic treatment, chronicling his early days struggling as a cartoonist and puppeteer and his gradual progression towards mainstream success. The story is told via one of White’s one-man-shows, in which he projects slides of his work to an audience, accompanied by funny anecdotes. This works wonderfully as a natural framing device for his story. White reflects on the playfulness of his art, continually downplaying the intellectual elements of his work and seemingly intent on taking the piss out of those who take art too seriously. The film reflects his general sense of joy by attempting to match this energy through its structure, animations, and some playful editing. There’s a fun energy inherent in the presentation and the cinematography is appropriately vibrant. There may be some debate on the amount of time spent on Pee Wee’s Playhouse (those who watched the show wishing for more and those who didn’t for less), but I thought the pacing was pretty fair throughout. I always love films that provide a detailed sneak peek into the creative process and Beauty is Embarrassing manages to capture a few great moments as White constructs the film’s signature LBJ cardboard heads along with one of his famous word paintings. The only thing hampering Beauty is Embarrassing is a seemingly niche subject resulting in a potentially narrow target audience. Anyone who goes out of their way to see the film will find White’s passion for creativity and his optimistic views on life infectious and relatable, specifically to those dominantly right brained audience members.


Dir. Peter Gerdehag

Women With Cows

Reminiscent of the Maysles classic Grey Gardens, director Peter Gerdehag chronicles the life and times of two elderly sisters — Britt and Inger — and their struggle to maintain their family dairy farm. Unlike the Maysles film, Gerdehag remains behind the camera, allowing the audience to experience these two feisty Swedish ladies honestly and unfiltered. While Inger has begun to lose interest in helping her sister maintain the farm, Britt has become more obsessed with milking her 12 cows, which she treats like pets. She waddles around the property completely hunched over thanks to a broken back which went untreated years prior. When government agents threaten to take her cows away, Britt desperately needs the help of her sister, who’s more interested in spending time with her two grandchildren. The conditions on the farm have deteriorated over the years, and Britt’s own safety is at risk. In the wrong hands, the film could’ve felt more like an extended episode of Hoarders, but Gerdehag is sure to stay focused on the sister’s relationship and Ingrid’s own struggle between living a real life outside of the dairy farm while still attending to her sister’s obsessive compulsive work ethic and dwindling health. Aesthetically, Women With Cows is quite beautiful at times as Britt seems to provide an endless supply of mesmerizing and compelling imagery as she shuffles around the farm completely hunched over. One standout image contrasts her agonizingly slow and uncomfortable walk with a snail making its way across a tree stump in the foreground. Her stubbornness is at times frustrating, but her commitment towards maintaining the families farm — which was willed to her and is her own responsibility — is truly inspiring. These are two wonderfully charming and memorable characters that manage to entertain while remaining 100% human thanks to the deft hand of director Peter Gerdehag and his obvious affection for their relationship to each other and the world around them.