Monday, October 31, 2011

The Last Gladiators [film review]

Filmmaker Alex Gibney is clearly a very busy man. The Last Gladiators, which takes a peripheral look at the world of National Hockey League pugilists and focusses on the story of one specific figure in former Montreal Canadiens enforcer Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, is his tenth feature film since 2005, an unusually high amount of output for a documentarian. And you can add in a couple of shorter segments he contributed to some other collaborative documentary projects during that period. Gibney has a track record for matching the quantity with quality, as his latest film proves, even if it's a departure from the kind of politically-charged topics he's best known for, such as the downfall of politicians (Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer and Casino Jack And The United States Of Money), corporate malfeasance (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room), and American military torture (Taxi To The Dark Side, which won an Oscar in 2008 for best documentary feature). But as a lifelong hockey fan, Gibney, an American, saw rich source material in examining the sub-culture of one of the most controversial aspect of Canada's game, with Nilan's own intriguing story providing about 75% of the film's content.
Retiring in 1992 after being plagued by injuries (he's undergone 26 surgeries), the most notable achievements from Nilan's 13 year NHL career are over 3,000 penalty minutes, a Stanley Cup win with the Canadiens in 1986, and a selection to Team U.S.A. for the 1987 Canada Cup series. After being drafted by Montreal, he played nine seasons for them before being traded to the New York Rangers and eventually his hometown Boston Bruins, eventually ending up back with Montreal to end his career. Nilan's pride and love for the Canadiens still runs deep and it seems as if he never got over the devastation of first being traded from them. His troubled post-NHL history, which proves to be the most substantive part of the film, could make Nilan the poster child for pro athletes who struggle with their post-playing lives. A toxic combination of substance abuse (alcohol, prescription painkillers, and heroin), employment problems (Nilan hated the insurance job he worked at), and legal trouble (including a 2009 arrest for shoplifting) destroy his relationship with his wife and child and nearly kill him. Nilan, who has a very dark and intense side, may be a rough-around-the-edges character, but he's still a likeable one. Part of his appeal is his blunt honesty, openness, and willingness to take full responsibility for his failings. Interviews with his father who, like his son, projects a hardass demeanour and speaks with that always-fascinating thick Boston accent, add real emotional depth to the film, as the senior Nilan holds little back in conveying the profound heartache and shame he felt (and still feels) over his son's struggles.
The non-Nilan portions of the film find Gibney tracing the evolution of the enforcer's role in the game from its mid 70's heyday with the Philadelphia Flyers' "Broad Street Bullies" through to its greatly diminished need in the current game. Numerous interviews with the most prominent fighters over the past couple of decades provide insight into the enforcer mindset, with players like Marty McSorley, Tony Twist, Donald Brashear, and the late Bob Probert weighing in (Probert's interviews, conducted shortly before his death, are sad to watch). The scenes with Brashear are sad for a different reason, as we see the former fan favourite playing in D-list hockey league games and still itching to drop his gloves.
The Last Gladiators is a timely piece in light of the recent deaths of three NHL enforcers that called into question the possible link between their occupations and its negative residual effects on their lives. Nilan, who I heard give an interview on Toronto's Prime Time Sports radio show the week before The Last Gladiators' TIFF premiere, discounted the connection. Nilan's stance apparently escaped the attention of TV's Hockey Night In Canada neanderthal Don Cherry, who criticized him and two other former fighters (also without basis) on the telecast for supporting the supposed theory.
Gibney, who began filming a general portrait of hockey fighters, chose wisely in deciding to make Nilan the central subject. The Last Gladiators is consistently gripping and only misfires when the director chooses some disappointingly obvious music on the soundtrack (like Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild") and unnecessary scene re-enactments to advance his narrative, which temporarily drag the documentary to cheesy E! True Hollywood Story levels. Being a hockey fan isn't even a necessary component in appreciating the film, as I haven't given a toss about the NHL since the inept Toronto Maple Leafs killed my love for the game in the mid 90's.
Rating: ★★★★

Thursday, October 20, 2011

From The Sky Down [film review]

* Written for Toronto Screen Shots
When asked to choose the best two albums in U2's catalog, most fans and music critics will pick 1987's The Joshua Tree and 1991's Achtung Baby. That the band's strongest work is on albums that sound so radically different from one another is, even two decades later, fairly astounding, and points emphatically to the group's renowned reluctance for creative passivity. As frontman Bono has famously said, Achtung Baby was "the sound of four men cutting down The Joshua Tree", as U2 struggled to cope with superstardom and needed to "go away and dream it all up again". That hard-fought musical and personal journey for the band forms the foundation of From The Sky Down, directed by Davis Guggenheim (best known for helming An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting For "Superman"). Guggenheim, who had previously directed U2 guitarist The Edge in his underseen 2008 film It Might Get Loud, was approached by the group to put together some sort of visual document to tie in with the upcoming 20th anniversary reissue of Achtung Baby.
From The Sky Down takes a surprisingly brief glimpse of the band's overall history and I was also somewhat taken aback by the complete absence of any mention of what they might have up their sleeve for the future. No, the focus here is almost entirely on the late 80's-early 90's era of the group, a refreshing approach from a rock documentary format that traditionally only offers a quickly moving biographical summary, with little allowance for a truly in-depth examination of specific periods or albums in an artist's career. Perhaps the band were inspired by The Promise: The Making Of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, another high profile doc that played at the previous year's fest that deconstructed the making of the classic album from their friend and peer, Bruce Springsteen. From The Sky Down features extensive one-on-one interviews with each member (they're rounded out by drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton) that provide a comprehensive revisiting of a period that began just after the band's explosion in popularity with the release of The Joshua Tree, through to the beginning of their landmark Zoo TV Tour in 1992. Not surprisingly, the interviews with the sharp-witted Bono are the most revelatory and entertaining. Special attention gets paid to 1988's Rattle And Hum, the much-derided and misunderstood documentary (with a companion album) that chronicled U2's burgeoning interest with American roots music. Personally, I'm a huge fan of the film, but the band admits their message was misinterpreted and only reinforced many people's opinion of the Irish quartet as self-important, insufferable personalities. Guggenheim makes good use of some previously unseen Rattle And Hum outtakes, including one that shows an irate Bono ripping on some incompetent stage workers.
Achtung Baby's difficult recording sessions comprise the heart of the film, with additional perspective provided by the album's producers (Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno), engineer (Flood), and longtime photographer (Anton Corbijn). Guggenheim reconvenes the group at Berlin's Hansa Studio, where recording began, but produced little results due to creative friction and roadblocks. Bono and The Edge wanted to take U2's sound in a more electronic, experimental direction, which Mullen Jr. and Clayton couldn't come to terms with. The occasional animation sequences that Guggenheim employs (accompanied by band member voiceovers taken from their interviews) are used to best effect here, with one sequence showing metaphorical walls being erected between the four bandmates. The visual takes on even more symbolic meaning, considering they were in the city during the fall of the Berlin Wall. Old demos are dug out of the archives and reflected upon, and the group talks about their songwriting process, which frequently features Bono using gibberish (dubbed "Bongolese") in place of unwritten lyrics. Two songs get the most attention: "Mysterious Ways" and "One". The former, originally titled "Sick Puppy", helped the band turn a corner from their creative difficulties and eventually led to the creation of "One", which sprang from an idea used in the original bridge in "Mysterious Ways". The two tracks were the only ones from the album that were completed in Berlin, with the rest finished back home in Dublin.
Guggenheim's decision to bookend the film with scenes from the group's much-hyped appearance at this past summer's Glastonbury Festival is only moderately effective, but he captures some great footage of the band rehearsing various Achtung Baby songs in preparation for the big gig (one of the filming locations is Winnipeg's Burton Cummings Theatre during a tour stop in the city this past spring). The standouts include a rough run-through of "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses", which really jumped out of the speakers of the Ryerson Theatre's sound system, and a rare solo vocal performance from The Edge of the haunting closing song on Achtung Baby, "Love Is Blindness". U2 has always been a band that has been quite protective of their creative process, and judging by the looseness and candour demonstrated by the band as we see them revisit old songs and experiment with their arrangements (we see Bono yelling out upcoming chord changes to the rest of the group), it's clear that Guggenheim successfully cultivated an intimate level of trust with his subjects.
Shot over the course of six months earlier this year and completed just a week before it's world premiere last month at TIFF, Guggenheim's documentary digs deep down into the inner workings of a band at a pivotal and tumultuous phase in their career. My only complaint about From The Sky Down would be that the director doesn't quite dig deep enough when it comes to looking at the whole of Achtung Baby, an album that Bono says in the film "is the reason we're still here now". An inordinate amount of attention is paid to the creation of "Mysterious Ways" and "One" (which are important songs, to be sure), while other notable tracks such as "The Fly", "Even Better Than The Real Thing", "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses", and "Until The End Of The World" are included only as performances or over the soundtrack, with little to no detail or insight into their origins. One of the album's best songs, "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)", isn't mentioned and I can't recall even hearing a snippet of it in the film. Despite this relatively minor negative, From The Sky Down is loaded with positives that make it essential viewing for any U2 fan.
Rating: ★★★★

Friday, October 7, 2011

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope [film review]

* Written for Toronto Screen Shots
Considering the treasure trove of weirdness and fascinating material that a massive event like San Diego's annual Comic-Con offers up, it's surprising the convention hasn't received the feature-length documentary treatment until now. Director Morgan Spurlock's Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope revolves around the 2010 convention, exploring the evolution of Comic-Con from its origin as an event for hardcore comic book enthusiasts to one that now relegates the actual comic book aspect to the background, with much more of an emphasis put on general pop culture content such as movies, TV, books, toys, and video games. Along with some of the film's high profile producers (Joss Whedon, Harry Knowles, and the unfailingly cheerful Stan Lee), numerous other celebs and artists like Frank Miller, Matt Groening, Seth Rogen, Kevin Smith, and Kenneth Branagh weigh in with their take on the convention. The documentary had a companion coffee table book released in July and is Spurlock's second feature this year after The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
Incorporated into the probing of the convention's history and relevance are the individual stories of a handful of Comic-Con attendees. There's the two amateur comic book artists looking for their big break into the business, who are willing to endure harsh criticisms of their portfolios from professionals and the sting of rejection. Then there's the couple who met at the previous year's convention, with the boyfriend hilariously attempting to break free from the clingy grip of his girlfriend in order to pick up the engagement ring (Lord Of The Rings themed, naturally) he'll present to her when he proposes during the convention panel featuring filmmaker Kevin Smith. Chuck, the crusty owner of America's largest comics retailer, Mile High Comics, struggles with a decision to sell one of his ultra-rare issues to pay off some debts and generally frets about how his sales at the convention are going. Another man seeks his Holy Grail of toys for his collection, a limited edition figure of Marvel Comics' Galactus character. Finally, there's Holly, an aspiring costume designer for whom a two minute appearance on stage at the Comic-Con masquerade event is the biggest moment of the year. Her and a small group of friends dress up as characters from the Mass Effect video game.
Clearly, with so many examples of arrested development from these folks, there's plenty of opportunity for ridicule here. I mean, what's not to laugh at in a scenario involving a grown, married man who pursues a toy with unwavering conviction? Laughing at, and not with, these people is an inevitable by-product of such fanatical behaviour, but the viewer also can't help but develop some level of respect for the passion and focus the characters demonstrate towards their obsessions, despite the pummelling their individual levels of cool take. As a hardcore fan of U2 and Bruce Springsteen who has, on a number of occasions, spent anywhere from twelve to sixteen hours at a time waiting in general admission lineups at their concerts and gotten puzzled looks from most people when I tell them about it, let me just say that on some level I can relate to these Comic-Con eccentrics.
Despite the interesting subject matter, Spurlock's documentary feels flat and just never achieves liftoff. He has a lot of balls to juggle with the numerous paths the film follows, but many of them lead to unfulfilling conclusions and an uneven movie. I've seen nearly all of his previous film and television work and thoroughly enjoyed all of it and Spurlock, like fellow documentarians Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield, has always taken an active on-screen and narrative role in his projects. Here, the charismatic filmmaker barely appears in the film and provides no narration. Perhaps there's a connection, perhaps not.
Rating: ★★★★