Sunday, May 29, 2011

Love Shines [film review]

Love Shines is a first-rate, depthful portrait of acclaimed Toronto singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, as told by director Douglas Arrowsmith. Arrowsmith, a hardcore Sexsmith devotee, avoids turning his film into a fanboy gushfest, unabashedly presenting the singer with all of his flaws nakedly on display. Sexsmith is a painfully insecure and introverted individual - your classic "tortured artist", as it were - and it's surprising how much access into his life he gives Arrowsmith (who he clearly put a great deal of trust in). Shot over the course of seven years, the documentary was originally conceived to stop filming following the musician's then career high of headlining at Toronto's famed Massey Hall, back in 2006. Instead, Arrowsmith kept shooting, which presented the opportunity to chronicle the recording of Sexsmith's twelfth album, Long Player Late Bloomer. Those recording sessions, which provide some intriguing insight into Sexsmith's creative process, are the centrepiece of Love Shines, and the film is significantly better because of it.
Sexsmith, for those unfamiliar with his career (and I counted myself in that group before watching the documentary), has been a perennial critic's favourite since his debut solo album came out in 1995 (he released an album four years prior as a member of Toronto indie band The Uncool). Peers such as Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Leslie Feist, and Daniel Lanois have been singing his praises for years and do so throughout the film. In fact, Costello, one of Sexsmith's biggest champions, equates his skill for creating melodies to that of Paul McCartney. Despite the accolades, Sexsmith still sells a paltry number of albums, which is a constant source of angst for him. The ongoing struggle with maintaining artistic integrity while seeking mainstream success informs much of the narrative in Love Shines, leading to the enlistment of mega-producer Bob Rock to oversee the recording of Long Player Late Bloomer. Rock is primarily associated as a hard rock/metal producer, based on his earlier work on a number of hugely successful albums from the likes of Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, and The Cult. Most notably, he was Metallica's exclusive producer for 12 years of their career and is more than used to working with an artist and having their every move filmed, as was the case for the fantastic doc on the band, Some Kind Of Monster. In recent years, he's diversified his scope to include acts such as Nina Gordon, The Tragically Hip, and Michael Bublé. Sexsmith hopes the pairing with Rock will raise his profile via the pure name recognition that the producer brings, as well as increase album sales by way of the more commercially palatable and highly polished sound that Rock gets from the artists he works with. Brought on board to play on the album are a stellar group of veteran musicians that include drummer Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails, A Perfect Circle), guitarist Rusty Anderson (Paul McCartney), bassist Paul Bushnell (Elton John, Sugarland), and keyboardist Jamie Edwards (Aimee Mann).
Periodic and introspective glimpses back into Sexsmith's upbringing reveal a shy youngster who struggled with his confidence and endured abuse from bullies while growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario, eventually becoming a father at age 19 after getting his girlfriend pregnant at the same moment he lost his virginity. Certain milestones from Sexsmith's career are shown, including a home movie scene where we see his parents, watching the 2002 Juno Awards on their home television, get ecstatic over his win for Songwriter Of The Year. In it, his mother is seen excitedly taking pictures of the TV screen as her son wins the award, apparently unclear of how a VCR works. It's one of the funniest (and sweetest) moments in the film. "Funny" is not exactly a word anyone would associate with Sexsmith himself. In his interviews with Arrowsmith, he comes across as a fragile, unconfident, and depressed man, which reminded me of a line from Bruce Springsteen's "Better Days": "It's a sad man, my friend, who's livin' in his own skin and can't stand the company". Most of the theatre audience stuck around for the post-screening Q & A session with Sexsmith and Arrowsmith, and I must say that I felt downright horrible that I had to leave about halfway through it to catch my last Hot Docs screening uptown. As I conspicuously descended the stairs and walked across the front of the theatre, past the singer to the exit, I couldn't help but worry that Sexsmith was tapping into his ever-present insecurities and wondering why someone wasn't interested in hearing what he had to say. Does that make me narcissistic or empathetic?
Early indications (it came out in March) suggest that Long Player Late Bloomer won't propel Sexsmith to significantly new heights of commercial success. The album actually turned out to be a hard sell to prospective music labels, with some ironically rejecting it as being too mainstream. Still, it should improve on the sales numbers from his last several albums and this film (which is now airing on HBO Canada) should help him find a new audience. Whether it's the excellent music, financial struggles that one wouldn't expect a "name" musician to face, the strange dichotomy of a guy who hates the spotlight but performs in it for a living, or just the fact that Sexsmith makes for a great underdog story, non-fans will find plenty in Love Shines to hold their interest.
Rating: ★★★★★

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Superheroes [film review]

Superheroes do exist, even if they come up a little light in the "super" department (by way of an obvious lack of superpowers). My first exposure to real life superheroes (referred to as "RLSH") was a fascinating 2008 article in Rolling Stone magazine that took a look inside the subculture, which is estimated to be comprised of 700 individuals worldwide who dress up in costumes and attempt to affect some manner of positive change in their respective communities. Director Michael Barnett turns his camera on the subject in Superheroes, zeroing in on different pockets of RLSH in a number of major American cities.

Master Legend, with his pudgy frame packed into a tight silver and black costume partly made up of spray painted protective hockey equipment and baseball catcher shin guards, heads up the Orlando, Florida chapter of the Team Justice network. He was prominently featured in the Rolling Stone piece and gets plenty of camera time here as well, due to his colourful personality that includes an occasional holy roller speech, proclamations that he actually possesses super powers, frequent stops for beer breaks, and a habit of trying to pick up women (all while dressed in his costume). It's a reality TV series waiting to happen. Mr. Extreme, from San Diego, also has a most unsuperhero-like physique and draws inspiration partly from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, who he seems to have a fascination with on a level that just isn't healthy for a grown man. Zimmer, a gay RLSH from Brooklyn, refuses to wear a mask, equating it with someone who is trapped in the closet. The unimaginatively named Super Hero, from Florida, takes a little too much pride in his sweet crime fighting ride, a flashy red Corvette Stingray. New York City's Life takes his costume cues from The Green Hornet and his moral code from a Hasidic Jewish upbringing that instilled in him strong altruistic values. These are just a few of the numerous RLSH we meet during the film.

Make no mistake, these people take what they're doing very seriously, even if there's an unavoidable comedic element to adults patrolling big city streets while wearing costumes, some of which are, shall we say, of the highly amateurish variety (I believe I saw duct tape on one costume and the outfit of a RLSH named The Vigilante Spider looked like something straight out of grade school play). The common thread with all of the RLSH is that they're passionate about trying to make a difference in the world, despite the personal risks of bodily harm, social ridicule, and some financial burden. Mr. Extreme even moves out of the dumpy rented house he inhabits and into his van, just so he can put more money into his cause, which includes offering rewards out of his own pocket for tips that lead to solving crimes. This begs the question: are these people of sound mind? Clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg, an expert on the psychology of superheroes, provides helpful insight into the topic from time to time throughout the film. Also interviewed is superhero creator-icon Stan Lee, who admires the RLSH chutzpah, but worries for their safety.

Where the film falters is in its lack of action and interesting scenarios where the RLSH do, in fact, fight actual crime. We see one stand up to an intimidating drug dealer peddling his wares out in the open in a park, while another New York collective of RLSH takes a few more risks. On different occasions we see them carrying out "bait patrol" operations, which entails having one of the female members dressing up in provocative clothing and walking the street, trying to lure potential criminals into committing a sexual assault, or dressing Zimmer up in a flamboyant outfit in hopes of attracting the attention of a potential gay basher or two (the rest of the group is always close by to provide quick backup). It’s an ethically dubious way of "fighting crime" and, as a police lieutenant informs us, borderline entrapment. The most excitement that we see this group get into is taking the keys from a drunk driver who is seen sideswiping other parked vehicles (and telling him they’ll mail them back the next day), and also assisting a man who gets his foot run over by a passing car. Not exactly edge-of-your-seat adventure, is it?

So it turns out that the most significant impact these people make is simply by being good samaritans and doing charitable things like handing out care packages to the homeless, and organizing Christmas toy drives for underprivileged kids. It may not be flashy (other than the costumes they wear), but it’s still highly admirable and more than most of us can say we do to help our fellow man.

Superheroes will be airing on HBO this summer before receiving a theatrical release later this year. More information on RLSH can be found at The Real Life Superhero Project.

Rating: ★★★★★

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Inside Lara Roxx [film review]

Lara Roxx became semi-famous back in 2004, but not for the reason she had intended when she moved to L.A. from Montreal at the age of 21 to work in the adult film industry. Roxx was named as one of three female performers who had contracted HIV from male co-star Darren James, which resulted in a temporary shutdown of the porn industry that garnered international headlines. The virus is believed to have been transmitted during the filming of literally Roxx's first movie scene, which involved double penetration. Inside Lara Roxx examines the aftermath of the physical and emotional carnage inflicted from the experience on its subject.
The film was shot over a five year period by first time director Mia Donovan, a photographer who used to work as a stripper in Montreal. Donovan follows Roxx as she makes her way back to L.A. to revisit some central figures from her brief foray in adult films, including the person who informed Roxx of her HIV status, former porn star Sharon Mitchell. Mitchell ran the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, which regularly tested performers (and, incidentally, just shut down a couple of weeks ago). Also interviewed are some dodgy characters like one of Roxx's former managers and the creepy Bob Margold, a former performer also known as "Papa Bear", who is now an advocate for the welfare of porn actors. Speaking of creepy, the ubiquitous (in porn circles anyway) Ron Jeremy also weighs in on her plight during an interview at an industry convention in Las Vegas, where Roxx makes an appearance to raise awareness of the dangers of unprotected sex in the business. That this is a subject still requiring education in 2011 is a fairly ridiculous notion, yet apparently justified, judging by the disturbing apathy and hollow sympathy to Roxx's message and story elicited from the convention attendees. Unfortunately (but understandably), Darren James declined to be interviewed for the documentary. Clips from both Roxx's films and her appearances on various U.S. television shows after the scandal broke (including one ludicrous guest spot on the bottom-feeding Maury Povich Show) provide helpful context.
Additional interviews with Roxx's family and counsellors from a juvenile detention centre where she stayed paint a picture of an extremely troubled young woman consumed by rebellion, which lead to Roxx working as stripper and escort before her move into porn. Extensive interviews with Roxx herself reveal a mildly sympathetic character who is incredibly naive and prone to making one bad decision after another (one of her boyfriends who appears briefly in the film, who is a crack addict like her, has "trouble" clearly written all over him). Her poor choices are further complicated by being afflicted with bi-polar disorder.
Donovan developed a close friendship with Roxx during shooting, resulting in scenes that show the documentary's subject at her most vulnerable and fragile. The movie opens with Roxx being interviewed while in treatment at a hospital psychiatric ward, and between her mental health issues and HIV-related health complications she looks like she's barely hanging on. Donovan actually exercises admirable restraint in choosing not to belabour their exchange, opting to shut the cameras off until Roxx is healthier. A similar wiser judgement might have been used in excising one scene (or at least providing greater clarity) that occurs in Roxx's apartment involving a fracas with a neighbour, which is jarringly confusing.
It's because of the trust gained by Donovan that the end results of the film are so disappointing; despite the intimate access gained by the director, I was left with a curious and frustrating arm's length feeling towards the film's subject. There's a compelling film somewhere involving this woman's sad, tragic life, but Inside Lara Roxx is not it.
Rating: ★★★★