It's a week to be serious. Most of the films I review today are from the two documentary festivals: Toronto's Hot Docs (, which started yesterday and Vancouver's DOXA ( which opens Thursday.

Both are streaming many of their films to anywhere in Canada. I look at each festival's opening film today, plus a few that are playing in both. Not all were available to preview.

And of the two films today that are not from those festivals (see below) one might as well be a documentary. It's a true story, told like one.

Here's the list:


Into the Weeds: 4 ½ stars

Fire of Love: 4

We Feed People: 4

Images of a Nordic Drama 3 ½

Terra Femme: 3


The Survivor: 3 ½

Memory: 2

INTO THE WEEDS: Jennifer Baichwal has made a number of films about the damage people have done to the earth. This one is about what they've done to themselves and it's grim, detailed and in a way hopeful. The villain is once again Monsanto, the company that sells the weedkiller Roundup and, as we learn here, its more powerful version called Ranger Pro. A school groundskeeper in California applied it for years, developed cancer and became the center of a mammoth lawsuit. He claimed the product caused it, he's got lesions on his body to show it and there was no warning on the container about it.

Much of the film shows the arguments in court. His lawyers argued the company knew it caused cancer but didn't warn the users. The company disagreed, as you'd expect. The Environmental Protection Agency was not-vigilant and in fact helped to cover up, it was said. Remarkably, because of a different legal case, a batch of internal memos, e-mails and other documents were opened up and the lawyers found bits of evidence saying otherwise. One explains in detail how they did that, basically by finding words that seem to conflict but if they appear close enough to each other can reveal hints to the truth. Investigative journalists are sure to be interested. Baichwal doesn't abridge the facts. She gives the facts and process in detail and that makes this a very satisfying document. (It opened Hot Docs yesterday, plays again today and next Friday, is streaming for five days starting today and airing on CBC in the fall). 4 ½ out of 5

FIRE OF LOVE: No it's not a rom com. It's a thrilling documentary about two people who study volcanos, and are incidentally married and in love. It's how they go about it that's remarkable. The visuals here are amazing.

Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Katia and Maurice Krafft were a couple from the Alsace region of France who got together at Viet Nam war protests and tuned to their common interest in volcanos because they became "disappointed in humanity". We see them at Etna, Stromboli, Mount St. Helens, and many others as they're erupting, or as soon as they do get there. The film from each is stunning. They get close as lava is flowing or fiery sparks fly overhead and debris falls around them. They climb down into the crater because, as he says: "I always like to do what people forbid me to do." Or how about this: "Curiosity is stronger than fear." The film is full of philosophical kernels like that. The narrations by Miranda July is somewhat twee ("to these mysteries they long to get closer") but the information is excellent. (Hot Docs today and next Friday, and DOXA May 7 + 15. Also streaming) 4 out of 5

WE FEED PEOPLE: Ron Howard ventures out from mainstream Hollywood and directs this encouraging example of helping out. His subject, José Andrés, is a celebrity chef who found fault with disaster relief efforts. The first need, before infrastructure, buildings and utilities, he argues, is food. People are hungry. So he created World Central Kitchen which sends chefs to stricken areas to cook up huge batches of food and serve it right there or deliver to people who can't get there. Apparently official relief agencies don't do it in that order or with that speed.

Courtesy of DOXA

We hear Andrés expound over and over about what needs to be done. "Food is very simple. People are hungry. You cook. You feed them." His enthusiasm is infectious. He runs 30 restaurants but zips off to cook where there's a disaster. Haiti (earthquake), Philippines (volcano), Guatemala (volcano), Bahamas (hurricane), New Orleans (hurricane). There are many more and his attitude is clear: "Food is an agent of change." This doc has the zip of a Hollywood product and shows how it can be done. (At both Hot Docs and DOXA, several times, starting Sunday and also streaming) 4 out of 5

IMAGES OF A NORDIC DRAMA: Here's a story from the art world that plays like a drama, or a movie script. An art collector in Norway comes across a stash of paintings (in a barn, no less) by an unknown artist who he thought should be known. He'd be second only to the country's favorite, Edvard Munch. But Aksel Waldemar Johannessen? He was a cabinet maker; his friends didn't even know he painted. He had one brief show and after he died his wife put the paintings away.

The collector found them, thought they had a “glow and intensity” and lobbied the National Museum to take them. The director called them “rubbish.” A later director called them “enormously powerful” but couldn't overrule a committee that found them depressing. The paintings were of the under class, the common people; including drunks and sex workers, not the bourgeois tastes of the art market. The collector pressed on, got some shown in Italy and Vienna to great acclaim but found Berlin turn them down under pressure from Norway. There's more and the film is a strong example of persistence, obsession perhaps, and official obstruction. (Hot Docs tomorrow--the world premiere--and Wednesday) 3 ½ out of 5

TERRA FEMME: This is an odd little film, but quite entertaining. American director Courtney Stephens got access to an archive of travel films made by women back as early as the 1920s and 30s and ruminates on what they mean. Apparently home movie cameras first appeared in 1923 and by the 30s there were home cinema clubs to show these films. I suspect it was only the well-off who had them but there's a wealth here of what they filmed. There's a trip to the Arctic in search of Franklin's ship. There are scenes from the Raj in India, films of a woman known as Aloha "the world's most widely traveled girl" and much more.

With a feminist eye, Stephens thinks she has found a difference between these films and ones that men made. She doesn't have evidence; just a feeling that women photograph details while men catch "generalities". The clips she shows are fascinating but not proof as I see them. They're a bit lulling though, a feeling that researchers report is common when they screen archival film. (Hot Docs today and Thurs, DOXA May 8 and 11) 3 out of 5

THE SURVIVOR: Don't dismiss this one. Yes it's yet another Holocaust story but such an unusual one you're bound to be interested. Its skillfully directed by Barry Levinson who is still most famous for big hits of 25-35 years ago like Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam and my favorite Wag the Dog. And best of all, Ben Foster does a tremendous job in the lead as a concentration camp survivor on an emotional search for the girlfriend he was separated from by the Nazis. He conveys survivor guilt most effectively and also goes through a huge physical transformation in two ways: down to scrawny in the camps to paunchy later on in America.

Courtesy of HBO and Crave

Foster is Harry Haft, a Polish Jew who was recruited by a camp officer (Billy Magnussen) into boxing matches against other prisoners to entertain the guards. Those bouts are brutal on screen (the loser would be shot right there) and flash back to him often through the rest of the film. In the U.S., he keeps boxing and lobbies for a match against Rocky Marciano hoping that if his girlfriend is still alive she'll read about him and find him. A woman at the Displaced Persons Service (Vicky Krieps) can't find her but marries him while John Leguizamo and Danny DeVito as boxing types and Peter Sarsgaard as a sports reporter help in other ways. Three timelines are a bit unwieldy but the search for redemption is very moving thanks to Foster's performance. Haft's son wrote the book it's based on and Bron Studios, headquartered in Burnaby, B.C. Is one of the producers. (Streaming on CRAVE. It started Wednesday on Holocaust Remembrance Day) 3 ½ out of 5

MEMORY: Liam Neeson is back again on one of his revenge rampages driven by a major grievance. He's been on them since Taken 14 years ago and frankly this is one of the worst. It's a re-make of a Belgian film, set in Texas and is so cluttered with story that it's hard to follow at times. Also, its main distinguishing plot element doesn't have much of an impact, and really only very late at that. So, missed opportunities, I'd say.

Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Neeson plays a hitman hired for a kill by some drug cartel types in Mexico. The location is a bit unclear because the movie starts in Mexico, moves to El Paso, Texas for some reason but seems to keep up the cross-border ties. Why or how, I don't know for sure. What is true is that he's ordered to kill a teen girl, refuses to do so (“She's a child”) and finds both the bad guys, the FBI and local police after him. That sounds like a good clean story but look at the complications. A real estate mogul who sponsors a “Redemption Center” for homeless teens is one he does kill. The guy's wife (Monica Bellucci) seems to be in control. A local cop acts suspiciously. Another is shot and a police unit helping in-danger youth has been shut down. And there's more, including a flash drive with incriminating evidence and Neeson's character's weakness. He's got early Alzheimer's, about which there's only one big incidence of any significance but does bring FBI guy, Guy Pearce, on his trail. The film is violent and convoluted. Maybe they did it better in Belgium. (Playing widely in theaters) 2 out of 5