Monday, May 31, 2010

12th & Delaware [movie review]

* The following review from the Hot Docs festival was written for Toronto Screen Shots
12th & Delaware is the latest feature documentary from Oscar-nominated co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the filmmakers behind the excellent Jesus Camp, which took a disturbing look at the religious indoctrination practices at a Pentacostal summer camp for children. Their latest finds them focusing on the abortion/pro-life issue, as told through the events that occur at an abortion clinic called A Woman's World Medical Center, and the church-afilliated Pregnancy Care Center, which just happens to be on the opposite side of the street, at the intersection of 12th Street and Delaware Avenue in Fort Pierce, Florida. The setting is practically ready-made for a re-examining of the ongoing, incendiary American debate, and Ewing and Grady take a decidedly neutral approach in showing both sides of this divisive issue. Slightly more screen time seems to have been given to the Pregnancy Care Center side, but not in a way that slants things in the pro-life direction.
The center is run by a woman named Anne, who appears genuinely invested emotionally in her work and the cause she believes in. Losing patients that decide to opt for an abortion brings her close to tears and "wins" (patients choosing to not terminate their pregnancy) elicit equally emotional responses of joy. Some of the Pregnancy Care Center's methods appear to border on the unethical, or just plainly are. Misinformation is given about the actual abortion process, how reliable condoms are, patients are falsely told that abortions can cause breast cancer, and some patients are informed (as alleged by Candace, the operator of the abortion clinic) that they're not as far along in their pregnancies as they actually are, increasing the chances that by the time they make a decision they'll be too far along to legally obtain an abortion. Then there's those manipulative "Hi Daddy" and "Hi Mommy" "messages" from the fetus that get added by technicians to the ultrasound printouts for the parent or parents.
Life over at A Woman's World Medical Center appears significantly more stressful for Candace and her husband. Threats of violence and vandalism are an everyday worry, and while the clinic hasn't monetarily brought the couple anything more than a modest lifestyle, Candace is also strongly dedicated to her work, believing women need a place like hers that gives them an option. Picketers are a constant presence outside the clinic, many of whom fit your "religious nut" category. They walk around with signs showing gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses, harangue young women (and teenagers) as they exit and leave the clinic, amusingly preach their beliefs while standing outside closed windows of the clinic and speaking loudly, and one particularly scary pro-lifer even stalks/stakes out one of the rendezvous drop-off points where the doctors who perform the abortions get picked up by Candace's husband in a bright yellow Mustang (the doctors follow such a protocol and are brought to the clinic which sheets covering them to protect their identities). The Mustang is effectively used several times by Ewing and Grady, with its ominous starting roar and its slow backing out of the clinic's garage acting as a potent little dramatic enhancement in the movie.
Whenever I see a film or television show that manages to get people to open up on such intensely personal issues I marvel at how brave/stupid/attention-starved they are. I would categorize the women who visited the clinic or center that talked to the Ewing and Grady as more brave than the other two adjectives, but my mind still boggles that the directors got as much insight into these women's minds as they did. Combine this with a well-rounded look at the two medical facilities and their principals, and the result is that the filmmakers have managed to assemble a compelling, thoughtful film about a very tough subject that refrains from taking sides or editorializing, just letting the facts and happenings speak for themselves.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Butch Walker - I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart [music review]

* Released in February
A quick Butch Walker history lesson for the uninitiated: he's a prolific producer and songwriter who has worked with Avril Lavigne, Weezer, Dashboard Confessional, Fall Out Boy, Katy Perry, and Pink...and that list is just scratching the surface of his resume. Most notably (for me at least), he's a talented musical artist who plays several instruments and has amassed a (mostly) impressive catalog of recorded work over the past 20+ years as a solo artist, as frontman for 90's alt-rock trio Marvelous 3, and as lead guitarist in Southgang, a cheesy late 80's hair band (hence the "mostly" designation).
I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart, which was written and recorded in five days according to the liner notes, is his fifth solo studio album and though it's an improvement on 2008's disappointing Sycamore Meadows, it's still no match for the strong one-two punch of his first solo discs, 2002's Left Of Self-Centered and 2004's Letters (Walker is like clockwork with the bi-annual album releases...he also dropped The Rise And Fall Of Butch Walker And The Let's-Go-Out-Tonites in 2006). To compare his current work to his earlier music is perhaps unfair, though, as his musical style has matured and grown significantly from the arena rock stylings that mostly inhabited his debut and its follow-up. There's still signs of it there, obviously, but Walker has widened his sonic palette over the past few albums to include more of a country and folk sound, with an additional emphasis on paying musical homage to his favourite 70's artists. That was the most defining thing that was impressed upon me after numerous listens to I Liked It Better..., was just how much further he had waded into the sounds from the 70's that had really begun to emerge on The Rise And Fall... (particularly Ziggy era Bowie). Walker's band, which tends to change names and members quite frequently, is called The Black Widows this time around.
I LIked It Better... kicks off with first single "Trash Day", which is a dead ringer for something Tom Petty would have recorded. Most unusual about the fact that Walker chose such a Petty-sounding song to begin the album is that he did the exact same thing on his previous release with the song "The Weight Of Her", which was almost - almost - a little too close to sounding like Petty for comfort. The fact it was still a great song wiped out any criticisms of lazy songwriting, though. Walker's intent when he treads so close to sounding like someone else is to obviously pay homage, with no basis in anything related to creative bankruptcy. Other examples on this album that do just that are "House Of Cards" (ELO), "She Likes Hair Bands" (Steve Miller and Dr. Hook), and a couple of odes to 50's and 60's Motown ("They Don't Know What We Know" and "Pretty Melody").
Another area in which Walker is stretching out the use of elements he's played with before are with the application of strings and an orchestra (recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios), which permeate the sound throughout I Liked It Better..., to its benefit. "Pretty Melody" and "House Of Cards" are awash in them, while the stripped down "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home" gets a similarly strong effect from just a single violin and a small horn section that accompanies the bass, acoustic guitar, and a spare percussion section. Walker's production and professional songwriting expertise naturally serve him well as a recording artist and he can get memorable results with either a throw-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that takes the listener to headphone heaven, or gutting everything until it's just his own voice with an acoustic guitar, as he does on "Be Good Until Then".
Lyrically, Walker doesn't stray far from the main themes he's covered in the past: Hollywood excess, suburban life, sexual frustration, and pursuing women, along with at least one reference to his Georgia southern roots. Normally, I shy away from artists that inject too much humour into their lyrics (like Barenaked Ladies), but Walker's talent for clever, humourous wordplay is one of his strengths. The best example of it this time around is on the stoned-out "She Likes Hair Bands", including a reference to his own dubious hair band past.
Walker's prolific producing and songwriting career clearly pays his bills, as the following for his own music is fairly tiny. The lack of pressure to ring up significant sales numbers allows him an artistic freedom that really translates through his albums, informing it with a looseness and convivial quality that is altogether lacking with most music you hear these days.
Highlights: "Pretty Melody", "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home", "Stripped Down Version", "Be Good Until Then"
Lowlights: "Canadian Ten", "Days/Months/Years", "House Of Cards"
I also highly recommend Walker's recent cover of Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me" (available at iTunes as a single). His charmingly ramshackle arrangement of it, anchored by a mandolin and banjo, is actually more country sounding than Swift's (who, let's face it, is way more of a pop artist than a country artist). Interestingly, when Swift heard his version she invited Walker to perform with her at the most recent Grammy Awards, where she gave a typically tone deaf vocal performance.
Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Friday, May 28, 2010

Life With Murder [movie review]

* The following review from the Hot Docs festival was written for Toronto Screen Shots
20-year-old Mason Jenkins murdered his 18-year-old sister with multiple shotgun blasts to the head on January 6, 1998. The crime occurred in the home he resided in with his only sibling and parents, in the small town of Chatham, Ontario, and Mason was convicted of first-degree-murder after his shaky alibi was deemed not credible. Mason maintained his innocence until 2007, when he finally relented and provided a strange, irrational reason for having committed the crime on his sister, who he'd apparently always been close to. Despite the hell their son put them through, the parents, Leslie and Brian, still choose to keep him in their lives, making regular visits to Mason at Warkworth Institution, a medium-security correctional facility.
Director/writer/producer John Kastner, a three time Emmy winner, has a veritable goldmine of bizarre, intriguing details to work with in Life With Murder (no official site or IMDB page), with a fairly equal balance given to both a dissection of the crime, and the consequences and aftermath from it. Neither side is easy to watch, especially the latter. Kastner presents a thorough probing of the case, having gained access to police interrogation videos, the 9-1-1 call, crime scene documentation, and interviews with detectives from the case. The interrogation videos are quite fascinating to watch, but the interviews with the grieving parents, some from just mere hours after the murder occurred, are disturbing and uncomfortable viewing. The fact that the mother herself made repeated requests to the Chatham police to release the tapes for inclusion in the film doesn't make the experience of watching them feel any less invasive or wrong.
Credit Kastner with digging deep to uncover previously unheard details about the case, including an exploration of Mason's belated confession, not to mention a blindsiding bombshell about the crime that ratchets up the creep factor by several notches. Despite the rich ingredients with which to work, Kastner's movie left me feeling unfulfilled and empty, like it should have had much more of an impact. Leslie's statement that "you don't throw a kid away" and the unconditional love she and Brian have for Mason, even after what he did (and especially after that bombshell, which I won't spoil) just seem totally at odds with logic and reason, and only added to my frustration with the movie. Another mystery: the parents never moved out of the home where the murder took place. The film also ends up playing as something less cinematic and more suited to television, like an extended version of the CBC's The Fifth Estate (which isn't a knock on that program, as they do a lot of excellent work).
Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage [movie review]

Toronto directors Sam Dunn and Scot McFayden's previous efforts Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Global Metal, and Iron Maiden: Flight 666 (read my review of the latter here) were solid, if unspectacular, examinations into various aspects of the world of heavy music. With Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage, they've taken their game to a new level, presenting a fascinating portrait of the Canadian rock icons that will please fans and non-fans alike.
Fresh off winning the audience appreciation award at the previous week's Tribeca Film Festival, Rush: BTLS made its Canadian debut at Hot Docs, which only seemed appropriate considering the amount of Toronto and Southern Ontario references and footage used in the film. Dunn and McFayden were granted unprecedented access to the band and their archives, unearthing previously unseen pictorial gems and old videotaped performances of some of the band's earliest performances, including one showing them playing a high school gig with original drummer, John Rutsey.
Extensive interviews with bassist/lead vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and notoriously press-shy drummer Neil Peart (pronounced "peert", not the commonly mispronounced "pert") are spread throughout the film, providing a revealing glimpse into what makes the band tick and how they've managed to stay together for over 40 years and achieve a level of success that sees them sit third behind The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the most consecutive number of gold or platinum albums. Chew on that fact for a few seconds. The early history of the band is nicely chronicled, laying out how Lee and Lifeson, childhood friends, bonded over their misfit statuses and love of music, which eventually made Peart a perfect fit for the duo. Interviews with the band member's parents add additional insight, including one particularly fortuitous clip taken from Allan King's 1973 documentary, Come On Children, where Lifeson (then in his late teens and known as Alex Zivojinovich) is shown arguing with his parents over the pointlessness of finishing high school, which he asserts will have no impact on his career goal of being a musician. It's a compelling moment in the film, not for it's unique viewpoint (how many times have we heard some variation of this story from artists?), but for the fact it was actually captured indirectly by one of these artists for posterity.
Mid to later periods of the band's history are also given impressively in-depth exploration, with specific subjects and time periods fit neatly into the thirteen chapters the film employs to tell its story. Two of the more notable ones look back at the band's 80's deviation into more of a synth-heavy sound, which alienated many fans and lead to creative tension between Lee and Lifeson, as well as the dark years that nearly saw the band pack it in, brought on by the dual tragedies that befell Peart in 1997 and 1998 (Peart's daughter died in a car accident and his wife succumbed to cancer just ten months later). Peart's willingness to address the period and even just his participation in the film is a testament to the directors' seeming ability to put their subjects at ease, given his reluctance to do interviews, especially on-camera sit-downs. The drummer, easily among the most legendary in the annals of rock and roll history, comes across as pleasant, shy, and a little guarded. He discusses his history of walking softly and carrying a big stick (or two) which, along with additional enlightening input from Lifeson and Lee on the subject, turns out is the result of being extremely introverted and having a major aversion to the concept of fan worship. An interesting aside: for someone so reluctant to be in the spotlight it's fascinating to me that Peart has put so much of himself out there via his lyrics (he writes all of the band's words) and numerous books, including Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road, which was a remarkably honest journaling of his struggles following his daughter and wife's deaths.
Lee and Lifeson similarly come across as very humble, nice people. The film also does a good job at showing the closeness of the band, which is as much attributable to their fiercely loyal friendships as it is their comfort on a musical level. One doesn't get the sense that there's any trace of the jealousies and grievances that plague many long-time band members that results in separate plane or bus journeys and zero verbal contact until the moment they hit the stage. Another quality with the trio that might surprise non-fans is their sense of humour, which certainly doesn't come across in their music. For anyone who has seen or read any number of interviews with Lee or Lifeson over the years this won't be a surprise, though. And don't forget: Lee sang with Bob and Doug McKenzie, and appeared on SCTV, almost 30 years ago. Some of the more questionable fashion styles the band has adopted over the years (particularly the unfortunate kimono period) become comic fodder for the group to have a laugh at their own expense.
Fan testimonials get a surprisingly spare amount of screen time, which was a wise decision by the filmmakers. Too many band docs that include such content rarely deviate from the uninteresting "man, this is my 79th time seeing them!" variety, although the conservative usage of it here still didn't disappoint someone a few rows in front of me, who let out a huge "whoo!" when either himself or a fan he knew was interviewed on screen. What elevates the film even more are the wealth of entertaining testimonials from the band's peers and celebrity fans. Jack Black gets the biggest laugh with his description of Rush as "a band with a deep reservoir of rocket sauce". Sebastian Bach also delivers some comic relief with recollections of how, as a 13-year-old metalhead, he felt obligated to read the work of Ayn Rand because it was a large influence on Rush's 2112 album, and how he was further confused by what the hell this band was doing when they released some songs in French. Gene Simmons weighs in with his bewilderment at the band's lack of interest in groupies when KISS took them out on an early tour. Some of the other notable names who talk about Rush's influence on their careers are Metallica's Kirk Hammet, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, and Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, who staunchly praises the band's influence on music and their place in its history, and bristles at their lack of respect from the music establishment. The inclusion of CNN anchor John Roberts, connected to the band through his Toronto music journalist past as "J.D." Roberts, is a nice touch.
Dunn and McFayden continue to demonstrate an admirable talent for taking a subject they're clearly passionate about and skirting around the margins of fanboy adulation to deliver a substantive, insightful work that also manages to entertain. In this case, they've shown clear growth in their craft, producing an engrossing biography of Canada's biggest musical export.
Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage will receive a limited theatrical release on June 10th, make its television premiere on VH1 on June 26th, and receive a DVD release on June 29th
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Shadow Play: The Making Of Anton Corbijn [movie review]

* The following review from the Hot Docs festival was written for Toronto Screen Shots
"Having your picture taken is like intimacy, it's like having sex...I've been having sex with Anton for nearly 20 years now, since I was a boy".
That provocative line comes courtesy of Bono, who has worked with famed Dutch visualist Anton Corbijn numerous times over the years and is featured prominently in Shadow Play: The Making Of Anton Corbijn. Aside from providing some voiceovers, the U2 vocalist also gives several interviews and is featured in a clever riff on Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video. The documentary flips the camera around 180 degrees to present a portrait of the photographer/film director/music video director and his work, motivation, inspiration, and background. Director Josh Whiteman has assembled an impressive roster of celebrities to sing Corbijn's praises - along with Bono, we also get testimonials from Michael Stipe, Kurt Cobain, Dave Gahan (Depeche Mode), Brandon Flowers (The Killers), Chris Martin (Coldplay), writer William Gibson, actress Samantha Morton, and model Helena Christensen. These names represent only a fraction of the talent Corbijn has collaborated with over his career, though. Others include Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Miles Davis, Metallica, Stephen Hawking, Robert De Niro, and The Rolling Stones.
Much of the acclaim in Shadow Play from Corbijn's subjects centralizes on his ability to "go to that dark area that most other lensers can't reach", or that "he truly captures one's soul" with his work, to paraphrase their words. Such platitudes get repetitive and overstated if, like me, you feel Corbijn's still photograph work is highly overrated. I've seen more than enough of it over the years, especially as a devout U2 fan, and the accolades and critical reinforcement he receives have always eluded me. The common criticism, with which I concur, is a propensity for dark, murky shots that succeed in alienating the viewer as much as captivating them. Flowers talks about this very issue, in an interesting anecdote about his record company's reluctance to have Corbijn work with the band. Stipe mentions the fact that Metallica employed Corbijn to assist in their image rebranding after a lengthy hiatus (in 1996 to shoot the CD and promotional photos for their Load album). What Stipe fails to mention is that the rebranding was not received well at all by the media and, especially, their fans.
Corbijn's work, expectedly, gets the bulk of the screen time in Shadow Play - what Whiteman fails to uncover, however, are the layers to him that exist outside of that work. Several interviews with him reveal little about his upbringing and virtually no mention of his private life is made. Corbijn isn't exactly a dynamic interview subject, either. Whiteman also errs in spending so much time focusing on Corbijn's feature film debut Control, a biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. Control distractingly becomes a running narrative throughout Shadow Play, with seemingly little rhyme or reason as to why we're getting yet another look at an interview with the cast, behind-the-scenes footage, or coverage of the Cannes film festival premiere, none of which would even stand out as noteworthy DVD extras.
If Corbijn's supposed stock-in-trade is visually getting to the soul of his subjects then this film, ironically, fails to do just that.
Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Casino Jack And The United States Of Money [movie review]

* The following review from the Hot Docs festival was written for Toronto Screen Shots
If you like your political intrigue mired in a cesspool of corruption and governmental incompetence then look no further than Casino Jack And The United States Of Money, the latest documentary from director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and Taxi To The Dark Side). Casino Jack... examines the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff, the Washington super-lobbyist who is now finishing up a four-year prison sentence after being convicted of tax evasion, fraud, and conspiracy charges. Abramoff and his crooked dealings are the focus, but Gibney also takes a peripheral view of the strange world of high-powered lobbying.
The film lays out a fairly dense landscape of quickly paced political facts and figures, with a whirlwind of interviews involving former Abramoff associates, outsiders, and journalists who exposed his abuses of power. The central figure himself is conspicuously absent (for the most part), aside from the numerous archival clips and photographs shown. Extensive interviews with Abramoff were, in fact, conducted for the film, but prison rules prohibited him from being recorded. The film doesn't suffer greatly from his relative absence, and his side of things are given through a voice-over from actor Stanley Tucci (actor Paul Rudd also contributes a voice-over for Michael Scanlon, a former Abramoff associate).
Abramoff is a very colourful character - it's no surprise to learn that a feature film about him is due later this year, starring Kevin Spacey. The title being used, Casino Jack, has become a matter of dispute between its filmmakers and Gibney. At age 12, after watching Fiddler On The Roof, Abramoff converted to Orthodox Judaism. Later years saw him obtain a law degree, become chairman of the radical College Republican National Committee (a group of "free market extremists" united by the Reagan Revolution that also included future Republican heavyweights Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed, who all espoused the belief of minimal government and unregulated capitalism), and eventual ascension to becoming the right hand man to prominent Republican and one-time House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay, after his own fall from grace, could most recently be seen eviscerating what little remained of his reputation by appearing on Dancing With The Stars. Abramoff's political career arc is interrupted by a ten year stint as a Hollywood writer and producer - his most, uh, noteworthy credit is Red Scorpion, the schlocky 1989 Dolph Lundgren vehicle. His Hollywood past is humourously alluded to in an email shown at the beginning of Casino Jack..., where Abramoff writes to Gibney, "No one watches documentaries. You should make an action movie!".
The lobbyist's downfall is carefully dissected, providing an impressive examination into Abramoff's biggest blunder: the systematic bilking of American Indian tribes who got into the casino business and needed his influence-peddling to sustain their operations. Incriminating emails point to the callous greed at the heart of his motivation, including one where he laughs at their oblivious to his fraudulent billings by stating "stupid people get wiped out". Other morally dubious political dealings involve Abramoff's lobbying on behalf of sweatshop owners in the Northern Marianas Islands (a U.S. territory), a misguided attempt to convert the Islands into a land of flourishing capitalism, and a shady business deal involving a floating casino operation known as SunCruz Casinos that involved the former owner being murdered. Abramoff's ability to carry on the way he did, for as long as he did, is perfectly summed up by a quote from a former disgraced associate: "Jack Abramoff could sweet-talk a dog off a meat truck".

It can be a challenge to absorb everything coming at you and not be overwhelmed by the story's wide scope, especially with a running time of two hours. Gibney wisely inserts some clever graphics, film clips (including Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Patton), and recognizable songs (including "Enter Sandman", "Watching The Detectives", and "Burning Down The House") to dilute some of the heavy politi-speak hitting the viewer and alleviate the oppressive seriousness of the film's subject matter. Getting through Casino Jack... may be daunting for some, but it is a sobering eye-opener into the world of lobbying and the profound influence it has on American politics.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The People Vs. George Lucas [movie review]

* The following review from the Hot Docs festival was written for Toronto Screen Shots
The concept of The People Vs. George Lucas is succinctly summed up in its title, presenting the case of the contentious relationship that has formed over the past decade or so between the Star Wars creator and his numerous alienating missteps with the franchise, and said franchise's diehard fans. Lucas apologists get into the mix as well, but for the most part it's the pissed off fanboys who are granted the most screen time.
The filmmakers launched a website in 2007 asking for input from the public on the topic, which garnered over 600 hours of raw footage from 700+ submissions. The wealth of material involved webcam rants, stop motion movies and skits, drawings, computer animation, and "fan edits" (where someone re-edits one of the movies in the Star Wars series to their own liking). Director Alexandre Phillippe refers to the finished product as "a fully participatory documentary". A handful of notable figures from the Star Wars universe (including Lucas biographer Dale Pollock and Lucas' former producing partner Gary Kurtz) are also interviewed, providing a nice counterbalance to the occasionally over-enthusiastic viewpoints from the rabid fans (are these people still arguing about whether Greedo shot first?). One of the most interesting interviews in the film is with director Francis Ford Coppola, who does little to sugarcoat his belief that Lucas squandered his talent by succumbing to the dark side of franchise and merchandising riches. Like many, I thought the newer prequel trilogy was stunningly bad and even his involvement (as a co-writer and executive producer) in the recent disappointing Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull film did Lucas no favours. When you stop to think about it, it truly is mystifying how someone with the vision and creativity he once possessed can manage to lose it so emphatically.
Lucas' questionable franchise decisions provide ample fodder for disgruntled fans to voice their dissent and it's hard to defend him on most of them. A clip shows the director testifying before Congress about the dangers and artistic criminality of colourizing black and white films, yet he had no problems "tweaking" Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi for their own "special editions", adding CGI effects shots and restoring the original master copies (with the revisions added) for a theatrical re-release and VHS/DVD transfer. That a cleaned up version of the original movies (without the newer bells and whistles) isn't available is a major source of controversy within the fan community. Lucas' company, Lucasfilm, even refuses to rent old prints of the originals to theatres who want to do retrospectives. This, and some related issues that are covered, fall under the umbrella of one compelling question: how do you measure the rights of someone who created a certain piece of art versus the audience's rights to that art? Especially when it's something as big as the Star Wars phenomenon? The question doesn't get a nice, tidy answer in the film, which is okay, since that's not what The People Vs. George Lucas set out to do. What isn't okay is the repetitive nature of the interviews, which tends to recycle similar viewpoints from different interviewees.
One need not be a Star Wars geek to appreciate the documentary - I'm certainly not, though all of the films from the original trilogy still rank among my favourite movies. Even if you're not a fan, there's no escaping the respect due to a cultural piece that has so unprecedentedly managed to transcend its original form and take on a life of its own. The doc ably captures this aspect of the Star Wars subculture, but fails to provide a sustained, gripping piece on its titular topic, which feels well past its due date at this point. The Phantom Menace, the first movie in the prequel trilogy, came out over 11 years ago and the last, Revenge Of The Sith, was released in 2005. Anyone who has seen all six movies in the series has no doubt already had a conversation or debate about aspects of this topic with their friends a long, long time ago.
Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Parking Lot Movie [movie review]

* The following review from the Hot Docs festival was written for Toronto Screen Shots
The Corner Parking Lot is located in Charlottesville, Virginia and, over the years, it's developed into somewhat of a local legend, based on the oddball cast of characters who have inhabited its employment ranks. The 2-acre plot of land comprised of little more than asphalt and a run-down, comically small parking attendant booth, surrounded by railroad tracks and the unsightly backs of buildings, becomes the unlikely site for examinations into class struggle, capitalism, human interaction, and consumer culture.
Such ruminations in The Parking Lot Movie come courtesy of the fringes-of-society, overqualified workers who man the booth. "Man" is the appropriate verb, too, as there isn't a single woman to be found among the almost two dozen current and former employees that were interviewed. As first-time director Meghan Eckman explains in the film's press kit, this was a reflection of the fact that so few women have worked at the lot since it opened in 1986. A female perspective would have been welcome, if only to possibly break up the constant stream of bitter, self-righteous, smug viewpoints from the male interviewees, which tends to blend together into a thick fog of negativity that, frankly, just wore me down.
Most of the employees interviewed are university graduates and undergraduates who majored in fields like philosophy, religion, and anthropology, and the nature of the job affords them plenty of down time to reflect on how the parking lot is really a microcosm of society. Their theories and observations are highly intellectual, but balanced with hostile humour usually rooted in barbs aimed at the lot's more annoying clientele. The intended laughs from the screening audience were delivered regularly, but I must admit to sitting in my seat stone-faced for most of the movie.
Working a lowly service sector job like theirs has enabled the lot attendants to see human behaviour operating at exasperatingly deficient levels, which are recalled with numerous examples involving boorish drunken frat boys and sorority girls, SUV drivers, Prius owners, and a steady supply of condescending (and occasionally law-breaking) customers. I have no doubt it must be a frustrating job to do, but the attendants' vitriol is delivered with such an elitist, snarky tone that it wasn't difficult to quickly find most of them as annoying as the easy targets they were criticizing. Also, consider the numerous statements in regards to being "gatekeepers" such as these: "In the parking lot we were dynamos. Whirlwinds. We were rulers. We had complete autonomy", as well as "Did we play God in the parking lot? I guess we did play God". And the film's tagline is "It's not just a parking lot, it's a battle with humanity". Despite the tongue-in-cheek delivery, it all becomes just a little much.
Eckman shot the movie with a 4:3 aspect ratio to mimic the claustrophobic conditions of sitting in the cramped attendant booth, which adds to the low-budget look of the movie and makes it feel even more like a real life Clerks (with a little less existential philosophizing). She might also want to revisit her decision to end the documentary with a painful five minute rap video involving some of the attendants - it feels amateurish and jarringly out-of-step with the rest of the movie.
Rating: ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆