HOT DOCS: CANADIAN INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL opens Friday (April 22) and runs to May 1, various locations. Single screening $10, festival pass (10 tickets) $60, dayrunner pass (to all screenings before 6 pm) $60, stu/srs free at daytime screenings, screenings after 11 pm free. 416-530-8105, www.hotdocs.ca. For complete Hot Docs schedule, see Indie & Rep Film, page 109. Rating: NNNNN
Murderball (Dana Adam Shapiro, Henry Alex Rubin, USA). 86 min. Friday (April 22), 9:30 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNN
So much for Million Dollar Baby! This slick, accomplished sports doc demonstrates that jocks will be jocks, with or without the full use of all four limbs. It follows the U.S. quad rugby team as they battle their nemeses, team Canada, who are, dramatically enough, coached by a former U.S. champion driven by a desire for vengeance after being cut from his own country's team. Heavy on backstory and chest-pounding, light on sentimental piety, Murderball deftly combines thrill-a-minute sports action with a lively and detailed look at the way people adapt to life after paralysis.
Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, USA/Canada). 100 min. Saturday (April 23), 1:30 pm, and April 29, 7 pm, Bloor. Rating: NNNN
Timothy Treadwell was a failed actor who gained notoriety by camping out in grizzly territory and videotaping foxes and bears at close quarters for 13 summers until he was eaten. In the footage shown here, he talks like a children's TV presenter, films multiple takes of grandiose dramatic monologues and appears to combine suicidal impulses with a deliberately feeble grip on reality. Remarkably, nearly everyone else in the film is the same, from Treadwell's ex-girlfriend right down to the coroner. It's as though they're mugging for the camera - even when they're in tears. Werner Herzog comments blandly and agreeably in voice-over about finding meaning in tragedy, while his merciless camera takes it all down. It's not instructive, despite Herzog's proclamations. It's like watching a train wreck - but a perversely beautiful one.
The Cross and Bones (Paul Carrière, Canada). 69 min. Saturday (April 23), 7 pm, Bloor; Monday (April 25), 4 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNN
The Canadian Spectrum program opens with an ensemble of unusual characters in a uniquely Canadian setting. Paul Carrière 's romp involves dinosaur bones, Christian actors and partying bikers in the badlands of Drumheller, Alberta. The central figures are part-time amateur acting couple D'Arcy and Theresa . He's a Remax "hall of fame" real estate agent who plays Jesus to his Bible-thumping wife's Mary. The oddball mix draws you in, but eccentricity is replaced by a rather static science-vs-religion debate that feels forced. Those in the foreground become tiresome, while the more interesting partying bikers and one-of-a-kind Drumhellerians disappear almost entirely.
Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate (Kirby Dick, USA). 75 min. Sunday (April 24), 2 pm, Bloor. Rating: NNN
This account of the working life of sex surrogate Maureen Sullivan inspires an uneasy feeling of voyeurism that has nothing to do with its moderate sexual explicitness and everything to do with the raw, painful emotion her clients display, framed in the language of therapy circa 1985. This movie was presumably made to boost the legitimacy of surrogacy. It does, after a fashion, while paradoxically pointing out that sex is seldom really the problem. Saddening.
Between Midnight and The Rooster's Crow (Nadja Drost, Canada). 66 min. Subtitled. Sunday (April 24), 9:45 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNNN This look at the connection between the building of an environmentally hazardous oil pipeline in Ecuador and Canadian oil giant EnCana might seem like more finger-wagging at corporate imperialism, but doc newcomer Nadja Drost is a feisty, intelligent storyteller with a good eye and ear. She mucks through covered-up oil spills, tries to peer into EnCana's operations and finds terrific on-camera subjects - grizzled men and fierce, defiant women - to humanize this story of corruption and destruction. Drost occasionally gets bogged down in bureaucratic details, but her voice-over narration is clear and concise, and the ending is emotionally moving and politically rousing.
Breakin' In - The Making of a Hip Hop Dancer (Elizabeth St. Philip, Canada). 57 min. Screened w/ webcam girls . Monday (April 25), 9:15 pm, Bloor; April 30, 9 pm, ROM. Rating: NNN
Near-naked female dance extras in a Toronto hiphop video might decide to work for free, hoping it'll lead to a feature role and big bucks. Spunky Linda lives on Kraft Dinner to buy costumes to show off her self-proclaimed best asset (her ass). Michelle compromises her medical education to keep dancing, while Tracy hustles to New York on Amtrak and beats out 1,000 hopefuls looking to tour with Missy Elliott. Sadly, the camera isn't privy to what must have been a mind-blowing audition, but the film still celebrates the outcome.
Stroke (Katarina Peters, Germany). 111 min. Subtitled. Monday (April 25), 9:45 pm, Isabel Bader; Tuesday (April 26), 1 pm, ROM. Rating: NNNN
After her 30-something musician husband ( Boris Baberkoff ) suffers a stroke in Manhattan, experimental German filmmaker Katarina Peters finds herself with $350,000 in medical bills and plenty of ambivalent feelings for her now debilitated partner. Peters is ruthless in her cold camera work. She captures the exuberant, passionate Baberkoff at his most vulnerable and occasionally turns the camera on her own impassive self, too. An abrupt ending lets us down, but not before Peters has made us think about the line between life and art, the power of music, the mysteries of the brain and shifting relationship dynamics. Brilliant.
Bearing Witness (Barbara Kopple, USA). 112 min. April 28, 7 pm, Bloor; April 29, 1:30 pm, ROM. Rating: NNNN
Life in Iraq is anything but routine for five extraordinary female war correspondents, photographers, producers and cinematographers who take calculated risks at the front lines of bombings, gunfire and human loss. May Ying Welsh , Mary Rogers , Molly Bingham , Marie Colvin and Janine di Giovanni repeatedly put their lives in danger, and each has narrowly escaped death at least once. Their passion to make a difference motivates them to move into the range of gunfire to get the stories. Double Academy Award-winning doc vet Barbara Kopple handles these experiences expertly, bringing in ace cinematographers like Joan Churchill to shoot the high-risk war verité and capture the emotional subtleties. No stranger to dramatic real-life events, Kopple again delivers a powerful human story free of didactic voice-overs or annoying filmmaker's presence.
Zero Degrees of Separation (Elle Flanders, Canada/Israel/Palestine). 87 min. Subtitled. April 28, 9:30 pm, Bloor. Rating: NN
Elle Flanders ambitiously focuses on two same-sex Israeli-Palestinian couples to navigate the complex history of the Arab-Jew situation in Israel, but what she offers is unsatisfying: lots of obvious anti-occupation rants, too little insight into how these ethnically mixed queer couples have survived. She makes generous use of recently discovered home movies showing her Zionist grandparents travelling through Israel and places first-person-singular titles throughout. But the film is devoid of any real, unrehearsed emotion, and Flanders fails to deliver on the personal connection or insight hinted at in the catchy title.
Miracle of Candeal (Fernando Trueba, Spain). Subtitled. 124 min. April 30, 9:30 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNNN
Spanish filmmaker and Latin jazz advocate Fernando Trueba (Calle 54) has built a successful career devising music documentary vehicles for legendary Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés (father of Irakere founder Chucho Valdés) in various collaborative settings. Here, Trueba follows Valdés on a trip to Brazil for a what appears to be another premise for some impromptu jams between Valdés and Bahia-based musicians. So it's no big surprise when Valdes wanders over to Caetano Veloso 's place for a seaside serenade, pals around with Gilberto Gil and sits in with a jazz ensemble led by the conga-slapping Carlinhos Brown . But while wandering around the community of Candeal, Valdés learns more about his historical and spiritual connection to Brazil and its people. So what begins as an innocuous holiday travelogue slowly, subversively turns into a compelling argument for grassroots social activism. A neat trick.
Odessa Odessa (Michale Boganim, Israel/France). Subtitled. 96 min. May 1, 4 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNNN
This slow, dreamy love letter to the Black Sea city of Odessa and the elderly Jews who live in exile from it in Brighton Beach and Jerusalem is like a collection of ephemeral outtakes from an Emir Kusturica film, or a cache of source materials for Ben Katchor's comics. Funny, understated, surreal and moving, it lingers on details - samovars, newspapers, hairstyles, wallpaper patterns - that evoke the deep, almost sensual yearning of expatriates for a long-lost home.