Wylie Writes @ Hot Docs 2014: Fittingly Framed

Crime often features some prime subjects for documentarians. The stories sometimes serve up a ruthless criminal, unbelievable twisty pasts, and layers upon layers of aggressive activity with hopes that justice will prevail. The docs are even more riveting because none of this is fiction.

This year’s festival isn’t without a few crime docs. Let’s take a look at a couple of them.

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (DIR. Joe Berlinger)


By: Addison Wylie

The trial of Boston’s infamous mobster James J. Bulger has reeled in documentarian Joe Berlinger.  It’s easy to see why since the details in Bulger’s criminal almanac share slight similarities to the crime he’s covered in his Paradise Lost trilogy.

Berlinger has a known knack for being able to describe defendants and properly dig up provoking materials that pin the audience with queries.  Those who are fans of the filmmaker’s crime work can get ready to chalk Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger as another success.

The doc covers those moments that would be covered by title cards at the end of a nonfictional crime flick.  The relatives of those who were killed by Bulger and his boys are brought together to testify.  Meanwhile, Berlinger goes back to the early days to figure out if Bulger was, in fact, an informant for the FBI.  Bulger swears this is untrue and that he would always keep his mouth shut.

Cameras weren’t admitted into the court room, but Berlinger (with the help of editors Joshua L. Pearson and Alex Horwitz) finds a way to involve the audience amongst the testimonials.  This style has pep to it, and has no trouble fitting in the doc.

The retracing through Bulger’s past is done respectfully, but doesn’t take away from how much hurt he’s caused.  We never sympathize with Bulger, but we comprehend why he feels strongly against allegations that state he was a rat.

Whitey is a documentary with many mysteries and blown covers, yet still remains grounded albeit a couple of moments of disjointed transitions.  It’s a documentary that’s very much alive during every second of its duration with striking tension.

It’ll be a difficult watch for some, but Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger is one of the best crime docs I’ve seen in recent memory.

Catch Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger at Toronto’s Hot Docs International Film Festival on:

Sunday, April 27 at 9:00 p.m. @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Monday, April 28 at 1:00 p.m. @ TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sunday, May 4 at 9:30 p.m. @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Click here for more details and to buy tickets.


Mugshot (DIR. Dennis Mohr)


By: Addison Wylie

Mugshot is nimble with its pacing and covers a lot of fascinating content.  However, I can see some people thinking Dennis Mohr’s doc is a bit too scattershot for their liking.  I would agree, except Mohr knows how to keep his flick grounded.

Mugshot is a fluent documentary.  It’s able to transition from one opinion to the next without dropping the ball or taking a breath.  Some stories may stay longer than you expect them to, but the diversity in the detailed explanations is appreciated.

The doc takes the topic of criminal mugshots taken for archival use and shows us each door these sights open.

Some find the photographs to be trivial tidbits used for a good laugh.  The Slammer, a publication showcasing dingy mugshots, fills their pages without a sign of guilt.  What ends up happening is a straight-down-the-middle split of readers who are morbidly entertained by the digest and others who find the act to be exploitive.

Audiences are introduced to crime experts who find mugshots to be strange and provocative, but don’t see any use for them beyond their initial use to document a dark past.  Meanwhile, authors and artists have found themselves transfixed with the stories behind each photo.  They explain what they find so captivating about each portrait in ways that avoid being ostentatious.  It’s easy to see both sides of the doc’s subject.

Mohr doesn’t settle on a side, and appropriately leaves final thoughts up to the movie goer.  We’re left to think what we want regarding how artistic one of these artifacts can be.

Watching numerous mugshots fly across the screen can become a bit tiresome, but you will leave the theatre feeling enlightened.  In fact, some of these photos will have a hard time leaving your thoughts.  I, for one, will be continuously curious about those mugshots featuring lawless children.

Catch Mugshot at Toronto’s Hot Docs International Film Festival on:

Monday, April 28 at 7:00 p.m. @ Isabel Bader Theatre

Tuesday, April 29 at 4:00 p.m. @ Isabel Bader Theatre

Saturday, May 3 at 1:00 p.m. @ Scotiabank Theatre

Click here for more details and to buy tickets.

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