HOT DOCS 2011 REVIEWS: Big Buzz Films

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival starts off shortly with Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold about the quantity and persistence of product placement in television and film all while selling branding rights in order to finance that very film. Also playing tonight is  Michael Tucker & Petra Epperlein’s documentary, Fightville which gets to the heart of the MMA fighting world in which fighters condition not only their bodies but their minds and souls in order to be the very best.

I had a chance to see a lot of the films receiving early buzz including the two films mentioned above. Check out my thoughts below on what’s hot and what’s not.


Rating: ****1/2

Directed By: Cindy Meehl | Country: USA

Runtime: 88 min

Synopsis: The Horse Whisperer may be the stuff of Hollywood legend but the charismatic horseman who inspired the novel and the film is very real. For Buck Brannaman – a true cowboy who is also part guru and part philosopher -horses are a mirror of the human soul.

Review: In this Sundance Audience Award Winner Buck Brannaman, a famed horse whisperer, proves that almost any horse can perform as an extension of oneself if given the proper training. The magnificent thing is that it is not the horses that need the training- it is the humans. Through intermittent discussion of Buck’s own abusive childhood we come to learn what Buck has been through with his own father which in some sense gave him the unique ability to understand a horse’s fears so he could become one of the best horse trainers working today.  Buck is the type of film easy to fall in love with as it gets to the heart of why horses are gentle and soulful creatures by nature; it is man who has the ability to turn a horse wild, like a father with his son. There is no need to be a ‘horse person’ going into this film- Buck’s modesty will charm you into leaving a grand admirer of both horses and Buck Brannaman himself.


Rating: *1/2

Directed By: Billy Corben | Country: USA

Runtime: 101 min

Synopsis: The Limelight was one of New York’s most famous nightclubs, but beneath its glamour and celebrity was an underworld of drugs, betrayal and murder. In Billy Corben’s latest documentary, we follow Limelight creator Peter Gatien through his career and the business of clubbing that nearly destroyed him.

Review: Limelight documents Peter Gatien’s humble beginnings in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada and his meteoric rise to the top with clubs in Atlanta and later ‘Limelight’ in New York City. It just so happens that his rise to the top coincided with the rise of the drug Ecstasy which became popular with the generation of club kids that Peter Gatien worked hard to create and populate throughout his clubs. Now while all of this sounds well and good in terms of entertaining subject matter, think again. This doc is a mess- from story-telling to tacky graphics I don’t know where to start. The first half doesn’t know where it’s going or frankly if there is a story arc to be had. Eventually they get to the point near the middle of the film which is the court case against Peter Gatien accusing him of knowingly turning a blind eye (no pun intended) to the drug culture he created which ultimately led to his deportation to Canada. The worst part is the film is so one-sided it feels like a Pro-Peter Gatien propaganda film. In the end it’s interesting subject matter told atrociously with no new details. I wish I could say it was better.


Rating: *****

Directed By: Michael Tucker & Petra Epperlein | Country:  USA

Runtime: 85 min

Synopsis: In a small gym in Louisiana where competitors mop up their own blood between battles, Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback are two young fighters with potential and a dream. Through their trials, the nuanced tactics and extreme self-discipline of MMA become apparent. This is a brutal sport but there is a surprising grace and spirituality to it.

Review: Fightville follows two fighters who want to be the very best in the MMA fighting world in order to get signed by the UFC. While violence may dissuade some viewers I think that the film is very respectful in what we see on camera and never shows us brutality for entertainment’s sake. I just want to reiterate that this is not a sensationalist telling of a bloodsport. I really appreciated fighter Dustin Poirier’s passion as redemption from his past and the channeling of his energy into what is now a very well managed and regulated sport. We come to see that the most important thing is not just the physical conditioning these men receive in training but the  technical and mental conditioning. This is proven in one of my favourite scenes where Albert is unprepared and coming up short after he lets life get in the way of his goals. In the end you will leave understanding these men, what they do, why they do it and how they’ve come so far in a sport so often misunderstood.


Rating: *****

Directed By: Constance Marks | Country: USA

Runtime: 76 min

Synopsis: This Sundance Special Jury Prize winner is heart-warming and fun for the whole family. Being Elmo is the inspiring story of how a shy nine-year-old Kevin Clash pursued his dream of becoming a puppeteer on Sesame Street. Raised in a low-income community, Clash’s talents were evident in his homemade prototypes and the puppet shows he staged for his mother’s daycare kids. But it was after his first gig on a local children’s TV show that he was truly on his path.

Review: Being Elmo is the story about the man behind the muppet. We meet Kevin Clash, a.k.a ‘Elmo’ who shows us his humble beginnings in a low income black community and how he stumbled upon puppeteering at a very young age. He saw his dreams come true so quickly he could barely believe his  luck. What becomes very apparent during the film is that this wasn’t just luck, it was single-minded determination and supportive parents not to mention the puppeteering pioneers such as Jim Henson who took him under their wing and nurtured his innate talent for bringing these characters to life. The film also reminds us that every success has its price and certainly Kevin has had to sacrifice his relationships and his time in order to allow Elmo to ‘love’ the masses. However if you’re looking for a feel good doc to make you feel all warm and fuzzy this is most definitely the documentary for you.


Rating: *****

Directed By: Lee Hirsch | Country: USA

Runtime: 94 min

Synopsis: The Bully Project follows five kids and families over the course of a school year. Stories include two families who have lost children to suicide and a mother who awaits the fate of her 14-year-old daughter who has been incarcerated after bringing a gun on her school bus. With rare access to the Sioux City Community School District, the film gives an intimate glimpse into school buses, classrooms, cafeterias and principle’s offices- offering insight into the often cruel world of children.

Review: The Bully Project stands up for every kid whose ever been bullied and brings their story to the forefront in a heart-wrenching and beautifully weaved portrait of the bullying crisis in America… and YES- it is a crisis. The filmmakers go in from all sides including child suicides due to bullying. It continues to show us what is and isn’t going on between teachers, principals, students and most importantly their parents. Among the case studies, we meet Alex, age 12, who is picked on and abused almost daily but when his parents finally find out and talk to the principal they are treated with general ambivalence. What’s frustrating is that the teachers, counselors, principals and parents are trying but it takes the parents of the offending child to also appropriately take action. We are made witness to the fact that there are no easy answers,  but also understanding that the ‘boys will be boys’ excuse is not an acceptable response and open dialogue in communities will help to create solutions. From the end of the film: Text ‘BULLYPROJECT’ to ‘30644’ to help make a difference.


Rating: ****

Directed By: Morgan Spurlock | Country: USA

Runtime: 90 min

Synopsis: How can a documentary become a blockbuster? Observing that all big Hollywood movies rely on product placements to generate mass awareness, Morgan Spurlock and producing/writing partner Jeremy Chilnick set their sights on the advertising world for their new project, a doc-buster built on branding. Spurlock buys into marketing mania to tease out the myriad methods by which products are woven into the fabric of corporate entertainment.

Review: Morgan Spurlock does it again with a documentary as entertaining as it is informative. Morgan’s goal as he starts out on his journey is to make a film funded by product placement about product placement. Along the way we the audience learn about brand collateral and brand personality and how the film and TV industry sell out daily in order to market their films better and get their project to the masses. While all of this may sound dry and boring the film is largely a comedy about a man on a mission to get a film made come hell or high water while remaining completely transparent as he ‘sells out’. By the end of the film, as we become inundated with advertisements, even Morgan starts to wonder, “Have I sold out?” By trying to exploit big brands (in a matter of speaking) has he gone to the dark side? I will say that working in the art department, this film gave me unique insight into how I myself am affecting the viewer every time I pick up the phone to add product placement to a project. I will think twice.

Will you be seeing anything at Hot Docs? Do any of these look or sound particularly enticing?

Rose Lagace | @artdepartmental

Posted by Rose Lagacé

Rose Lagacé is a production designer for film & television by day and an emerging filmmaker by night. Rose is also the creator and editor of Art Departmental where she celebrates the art and craft of production design.

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