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#apps4TO Kicks Off + the week in TO innovation and biz:
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June 18, 2015
Amy Schumer, and a long winter nap.
October 30, 2014
Vice and Rogers are partnering to bring a Vice TV network to Canada
John Tory gets a parody Twitter account
Film Thursday: Hot Docs Edition
Scott MacDonald on some of the fest's best and worst offerings

Our Nixon

Pieced together from a massive, forgotten trove of home movies shot by Richard Nixon’s top aides–the notorious Watergate conspirators H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin–Our Nixon is a revelatory, darkly funny look at the insular nature of power. First-time feature filmmaker Penny Lane cleverly chooses not to add any modern-day context, forcing us to see the Nixon White House solely as the three men saw it: as a big boy scout jamboree. These aren’t the shadowy, sinister figures of All the President’s Men; they’re a trio of squares who think they’ve boarded the Good Ship Lollipop. The threesome appear so caught up in their own gee-whiz excitement–gala receptions! easter egg hunts on the White House lawn! trips to China!–as to be barely cognizant of reality. Their daily conversations with Nixon, meanwhile, are a joke: they consist mostly of soothing his frayed nerves, mindlessly praising his abilities, and verifying his every little delusion. In de-emphasizing the men’s criminal chicanery, Lane helps us understand how, decades later, they could be so gosh-darned confused at how history treated them. Our Nixon isn’t a drama about how power corrupts; it’s a comedy about power turning people into blinkered boobs. ★★★★

The Kill Team

So many atrocities have been committed by American soldiers in the Middle East over the past few years that we’ve become almost numb to them. This very well-made doc by Dan Krauss (cinematographer on the recent We Are Legion and The Most Dangerous Man in America) will horrify you afresh. It’s about a platoon that got bored out in the deserts of Kandahar and began killing Afghani civilians for sport. The sociopathic ringleader, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, taught his subordinates to plant grenades or firearms next to the corpses so the murders would look like self-defense. Krauss focuses on the young, meek Adam Winfield, the only man on the platoon who tried to get word to the military brass, but who ended up on trial for the killings himself upon his return home. The first half of the film is a sort of moral thriller: Winfield can either prove his loyalty by going along with the killings, or he can speak out and have his throat slit in the middle of the night. The second half is an emotional legal procedural, with Winfield’s distraught parents trying desperately to keep him out of prison for a crime he wanted no part in. Prepare to be dismayed and disturbed. ★★★★

Northern Light

Though the Hot Docs catalogue makes Northern Light sound like a fun, fast-paced account of a snowmobiling race, there isn’t much racing in it; director Nick Bentgen is more interested in the dreary private lives of the racers, most of whom are working-class men looking for an escape from their wives and kids. The movie is beautifully shot, but the handsome, purely observational images–there’s no narration, and the subjects never acknowledge the camera–come at the expense of coherence. Bentgen does absolutely nothing to help us sort out the vast array of characters, and it doesn’t help that many of his chief subjects are inarticulate or uncommunicative. As the film goes on, Bentgen desperately turns to more camera-friendly subjects, like a young, scarily driven wife obsessed with cardio and weightlifting. Worth seeing, but frustrating. ★★

Interior. Leather Bar.

James Franco’s latest art stunt is unsatisfying on every conceivable level. It’s also one of the most tiresome bits of self-promotion ever devised. The basic idea is this: Franco and co-director Travis Matthews “re-imagine” 40 minutes of fabled, censored footage from William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 film Cruising, which starred Al Pacino as a cop working undercover in the gay S&M scene. What we actually get, however, is a documentary on the making of the re-imagining. So the first scene, for instance, is of Franco and Matthews talking to their lead actor about the project and getting his thoughts on it. Franco isn’t even onscreen all that much (and he is not–repeat, not–in any of the S&M footage); most of the one-hour running time is dedicated to eavesdropping on the actors as they guess at the absent Franco’s artistic intentions. (They talk about him like he’s some unfathomable divinity.) Then, as if this wasn’t all bad enough, Franco gives up the game at the end, outlining exactly why he’s making the film. It’s like listening to the school jock talk gender studies. ★

Big Men

Roughly six years in the making, Big Men is one of those rare, magnificent docs that burrow so deeply into a subject that you feel like an expert on the material yourself by the end. It’s about the discovery, six years ago, of a massive oil field off the coast of Ghana, and the conflict that erupted between the Ghanian government and the smallish American oil firm contracted to drill it. That might sound like your typical enviro-doc, but director Rachel Boynton, who made the excellent Our Brand is Crisis, has too large a vision for easy lefty outrage. Above all else, Boynton is a master of access–she gets in-depth interviews with the sort of people who normally hide from documentary filmmakers: presidents, CEOs, terrorist leaders. They’re all open to Boynton, presumably because she doesn’t set out to villainize anybody. Accordingly, nobody comes off as a villain, which is pretty much how it is in the real world, no? Big Men is a true eye-opener: it makes you realize how willfully reductive most other environmental docs are. ★★★★

The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear

This unlikely Sundance prize-winner (for best directing) is maybe a little too well made–the longer it went on, the more suspicious I became of its authenticity. For her film-school graduation project, director Tinatin Gurchiani invited fellow Georgians between the ages of 15—25 to audition for a movie. We watch those auditions, and also get to see some of the home lives of the more interesting participants. Gurchiani’s approach will ring bells for anyone familiar with ’90s Iranian cinema–Through the Olive Trees, A Moment of Innocence, etc.–and to an extent it results in a compelling, quietly affecting look at Georgian society. But Gurchiani’s cinematic forbears made semi-staged works–meta-fictions; this film, we are given to believe, is a straight documentary. So how to account for the perfectly poetic nature of most of the interviews? It would help if Gurchiani ever made it clear what kind of movie these people think they’re auditioning for–fiction or non-fiction. If the former, the actor-y quality of many of the auditioners could be explained away. But what, then, would be the point of the film? If all we wanted was a parade of affectation we’d watch American Idol. ★★

Sick Birds Die Easy

In a nutshell, three American arsebags–a misanthropic conspiracy theorist who drinks his own urine, an entitled trust-fund twit, and an enabling, air-headed yuppy-hippy (the director)–head into the jungles of Gabon, Africa, in search of the sacred, hallucinogenic Iboga plant, which they believe (or pretend to believe) will make them one with the cosmos. The movie is both inept and inane, but the moronic antics are hard to look away from, at least in the first half. Then, however, some authentically serious things happen–most notably the death of one of their Gabonese guides–and the antics become deeply offensive. At one point, the trust-fund twit throws a massive wad of cash onto a bonfire to prove his integrity or something, but he does it right in front of the guides–men whose villages are poverty-stricken and desperately in need of educational tools and medical supplies. I almost want to attend the screening just to boo the cast. ★


Scott MacDonald writes about cinema for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @scottpmac. He just started tweeting, so be gentle with him.

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