Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Marley [film review]

While waiting in line before the Hot Docs screening of the Bob Marley bio doc Marley, it occurred to me how little I knew about the man, despite his iconic status and my having listened to his music for about 20 years. My lack of knowledge really became apparent just five minutes into the film, when I learned that Marley's dad was a white Englishman. I was completely floored and somewhat embarrassed at not having known this, especially considering my own similarities to his background, as my father is also British and my mother is Jamaican (an informal poll of friends and family afterwards indicated the "white father" detail was news to almost all of them as well).
That there's never been a notable feature-length documentary on the reggae superstar until now is hard to believe, although that can be mostly attributed to the tight reins that his estate keeps on the protection his legacy. That all changes with Marley. His family were fully involved in its creation (son Ziggy is an executive producer), from giving interviews, granting director Kevin Macdonald carte blanche to Marley's catalog, opening up the musician's archives, and enabling access to the most important people from Marley's life that are still alive. Macdonald, who's probably best known for directing The Last King Of Scotland, makes the most of a lengthy running time of 145 minutes, constructing an intimate portrait of the reggae superstar that moves briskly.
Marley's impoverished childhood in Trench Town, a development in the community of Jamaica's capital, Kingston, is brought to life with an abundant number of archival photos, vibrant modern-day shots that juxtapose the island's lush beauty with its abject poverty, and remembrances from his family and boyhood friends. A charismatic Neville Livingston (aka Bunny Wailer) recalls a youthful Marley's struggle to fit in due to his lighter skin colour and entertains with stories detailing some early musical experiences the pair shared in the 60s, up until Livingston's departure from The Wailers, Marley's band, in 1973. Many other musical associates of Marley weigh in, including a number of former band members, Wailers artistic director Neville Garrick, and Chris Blackwell, who signed Marley to his Island Records label and opened up a worldwide audience to the musician. Rita Marley, his widow and a backup singer in his band, shares her feelings on their life together and her husband's much-discussed womanizing, which she basically just tolerated and looked the other way on (Marley fathered 11 children with seven different women). Two of those children, Ziggy and daughter Cedella, are interviewed and paint the picture of a loving dad who was also distant. The film also covers Marley's devout Rastafarian faith, his role as a uniting force within Jamaican and African politics, the 1976 attempt on his life, Marley's temporary exile to London in the 70s, and his last days before succumbing to cancer in 1981 at the age of 36.
Macdonald doesn't break the music documentary mold with Marley, adhering to the standard structures of the genre. It's the director's unprecedented access to such a wealth of previously untapped resources, and his judicious use of them, that elevate this film to something truly special. Over 60 people were interviewed for the project and as informative as the contributions are from Marley's fellow musicians, it's the interviews with less obvious figures, such as Peter Marley (his white second cousin), Constance Marley (his half sister), Dudley Sibley (a recording artist and studio janitor who lived with Marley for a couple of years), and Cindy Breakspeare (Miss World 1976 and one of Marley's mistresses) that notably help to humanize someone whose persona has taken on legendary proportions. Add in that obviously great musical catalog from which to draw from and Marley emerges as a veritable treasure trove for fans, as well as an important document of one of the 20th century's most significant musical figures.
Marley is now playing in limited theatrical release and is also available through video-on-demand and streaming (in certain regions only) on Facebook; iTunes and DVD/Blu-ray release scheduled for August.
Rating: A

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Queen Of Versailles [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots
When The Queen Of Versailles director Lauren Greenfield first started filming the family of Florida timeshare billionaire David Siegel (including his wife, Jackie, their seven kids, an adopted niece, and multiple pets), it was to document the building of their colossal 90,000 square foot home that was modelled after France's Palace of Versailles. The mansion, when completed, would be the largest private residence in the U.S. and include the following: 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, a 20 car garage, a two-storey wine cellar, a 7,200 square foot ballroom, a skating rink, a bowling alley, and a full-sized baseball field. After the 2008 economic collapse, the project was put on hold and the Siegels were forced to drastically adjust their opulent lifestyle. The turn of events makes for some fascinating and uncomfortable viewing as the documentary exposes the pitfalls of American excess.
David may be the breadwinner, but Jackie is the film's star. At 43, she's 30 years younger than her husband and seems like a character out of one of those Real Housewives shows, with shopaholic tendencies, a love of the camera, and a conspicuous disconnect from the realities that most of us unprivileged folk face. Examples of the latter are shown in hilarious and cringeworthy scenes that occur after David's financial struggles set in, such as the one where Jackie, now resorting to flying commercial after the family's private jet becomes too expensive, is taken aback when informed that her rental car doesn't come with a driver, as she's accustomed to. Then there's the scene where she's shopping at Walmart with the family, loading up multiple carts with things they don't need. A couple of bicycles are purchased, which beautifully sets up Greenfield's shot of the family arriving home and entering their sizeable house through a garage that's already littered with plenty of perfectly good bikes. Jackie is a fantastically compelling character, filled with idiosyncrasies and contradictions. She comes from very humble beginnings, yet doesn't see the madness of making a trip to McDonald's by herself in a stretch limousine to pick up dinner for the family. The former beauty queen also plays the spacey, buxom blonde role convincingly, but she's clearly no dummy (and even has a computer engineering degree). The garish taste of Jackie and David on display throughout the film is downright stunning - they're the sort of wealthy people who have multiple painted portraits of themselves hanging on the walls that depict the couple as characters from romantic novel covers, or posing regally in a Renaissance period setting.
David's storyline might not be quite as entertaining as Jackie's, but watching his transformation over the course of the three years that Greenfield and her crew shot is still thoroughly absorbing. Early on in the film, he's a mildly cranky, ego-filled business kingpin, someone who takes immense pride in having the brightest sign on the Las Vegas strip, where his timeshare holiday tower is being built. He also cryptically takes credit for single-handedly getting George W. Bush elected in 2000. As events unfold and his fortune dwindles, David is forced to become more humble, his personality becomes noticeably more curmudgeonly (witness the scene where he blows up over unused house lights being left on), and the ongoing struggle to hold onto his business seems to take most of the wind out of his sails.
While I'm willing to bet that Greenfield's original vision would have also produced a great film, her fortuitous timing of being present during the Siegel's financial downfall adds extra layers of tragedy and dark comedy to the story that make The Queen Of Versailles a standout. Resonating almost as deeply as the film's document of the Siegel's American dream on steroids is the amazing honesty and candour Greenfield draws out of her subjects, in both good times and bad (particularly the bad). Although Jackie has a good heart and a fun, larger-than-life personality, it's difficult to feel too much sympathy for the Siegel's plight when you're shown example after example of their reckless spending. It's also worth considering that the same corrupt financial system that aided David in amassing his fortune served to eventually undo him.
Interestingly, David sued Greenfield for defamation after The Queen Of Versailles' world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, taking issue with how he was presented in the film (the lawsuit is ongoing). Jackie, however, attended the premiere and has become good friends with the director.
Rating: A-

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Breaking Bad returns in July...

Welcome back, Walter White.
Until yesterday, I missed the news a few days back announcing Breaking Bad's eagerly anticipated return to AMC. The good news: the season five premiere is July 15th. The bad news: as is the annoying trend these days for AMC's dramas, the season will be split and there'll be a loooong wait for new episodes after the first eight air. The back half of the season will air sometime in the summer of 2013, which means viewers will be left waiting for closure for anywhere from 9-11 months. That'll be excruciating, considering how outstanding this show is. Viewers do get a few extra episodes during this final season, a total of 16, whereas seasons two, three, and four ran 13 episodes each (season one had only seven shows due to a writer's strike).
AMC shows are particularly bad at massive gaps between seasons or halves of seasons airing. Breaking Bad had a 13 month hiatus between their third and fourth seasons, while fans of Mad Men had to wait a ridiculous 17 months for its currently airing season to begin.
Read my short review of Breaking Bad from 2009 here.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Detropia [film review]

Much has been written and said about the long, slow decline of Detroit and Detropia, from directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, weighs in with its perspective on this sad story. Shot over a two year period, Ewing brings a personal connection to the material as a native of the city and unsurprisingly, the documentary is a rather depressing viewing experience. The filmmakers present scenes of urban decay with loosely connected observations from residents bloodied but unbowed by the city's deterioration, accompanied by an evocative and understated soundtrack, and some astonishing facts and figures. Once America's fastest-growing metropolis, the Motor City's population has dwindled from 1.8 million in the 50s to only 700,000 today, with an unemployment rate that's officially listed at just under 30% (although it's estimated to actually be closer to 50% by the mayor himself). The average price of a home in Detroit is just $7,100, down from $73,000 three years ago, and the number of abandoned homes and commercial buildings is in the high tens of thousands.
The most interesting character in the film is Tommy Stephens, a retired teacher and the owner of a struggling blues club. Stephens provides easygoing comic relief and a wise, pragmatic outlook on his city's dire state. One scene featuring him wandering the floor of the North American International Auto Show effectively illustrates the shift in economic and industrial power from America to Asia, as Stephens amusingly marvels at how China can produce a hybrid car that has all the features of the newly unveiled Chevy Volt, yet costs significantly less. Scenes covering town hall meetings convey the anger of the weary residents, as they question the near-broke city's drastic cuts to essential services like public transportation. George McGregor, a United Auto Workers chapter head, brings an insider's viewpoint on the fragile state of his once-mighty industry. Other characters introduced and revisited throughout the film are a young blogger who writes about the city's plight, young artists drawn to Detroit by its cheap cost of living, tourists gawking at the woeful condition of the city, and unemployed men who scavenge metal from abandoned buildings to make ends meet. Another storyline involves members and patrons of the Michigan Opera Theatre meeting at the Detroit Opera House to discuss the uncertain future of their organization. It's an inspired choice by the filmmakers to try and show the contrast between affluent citizens concerned about the future of the high art they entertain themselves with alongside people struggling to provide the basics of daily living. The storyline fails to have its intended impact, however, and eats up far too much screen time with interminably long scenes featuring one of the theatre's productions.
Considering how much I enjoyed Ewing and Grady's last couple of feature-length docs, Jesus Camp and 12th & Delaware (read my review of the latter here), as well as my fascination with Detroit's story, I had very high hopes for Detropia. Instead, it turned out be the biggest disappointment of the nine films I watched at Hot Docs, failing to deliver as hard-hitting a portrait as I'd have hoped. The individual characters we meet produced spotty results in terms of engaging my interest level and the directors' visual depictions of Detroit's urban blight, while plentiful, neglected to draw me in and stir my feelings of empathy as much as a subject like this should. Detropia falls short of the quality I've found reporting on the subject from recent stories on 60 Minutes, long-form pieces in publications like Rolling Stone, and Julien Temple's stylish Requiem For Detroit, a 2010 BBC documentary.
Detropia is scheduled to be broadcast later this year on PBS and receives a limited American theatrical release in September.
Rating: C-

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The wacky world of Van Halen...

Van Halen is one of my favourite groups, but talk about a head scratching outfit. Their latest blunder occurred last week, when 31 dates on their current tour were postponed. No explanation was given for days, fuelling speculation that lead singer David Lee Roth and guitarist Eddie Van Halen were at each other's throats once again. A story on Rolling Stone's website quoted an unnamed "source with knowledge of the tour" as saying the band members "hate each other" and "are arguing like mad". Almost four days after the announcement, the band finally spoke up via a video statement from Roth (viewable below). He dismissed the infighting speculation, saying "The band is getting along famously, better than we have in quite some time". He goes on to say that the reason for the postponements is because the band is worn down: "As usual, we bit off way more than we could chew when it came to scheduling. The band is winning, but our schedule has been sidelined for unnecessary roughness". His lack of any apology for the massive inconvenience to tens of thousands of fans was deafening, by the way.
The whole thing smells a little fishy and is just the latest mess in a long history of the band sorely testing the goodwill of its fans and making highly questionable decisions. A handful of the postponed dates had been newly announced just a few days before the postponement news and hadn't even gone on sale yet. The timing and handling of it begs the question: does this band even communicate with their management? And why did it take so long to address the issue? In a new interview excerpted here, former bassist Michael Anthony responded to that question by saying, "Maybe that's the three days you take to come up with your story?". As of tonight's show in Denver, Van Halen will have played 34 shows on their tour, which started in February. Aside from 21-year-old current bassist Wolfgang Van Halen, the members of the band aren't exactly spring chickens, but citing fatigue after a relatively small number of shows seems quite curious for a veteran band, although it's certainly plausible. And how do you feel if you're holding tickets for one of the 12 shows occurring before the tour goes on hiatus after their June 26th concert in New Orleans (Roth erroneously says twice in the statement that the band is playing until July 4th)? My enthusiasm and expectations would certainly be dampened. Conspiracy theorists can't blame soft ticket sales - the shows are playing to 95% capacity according to The Hollywood Reporter. Former Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar, never a shrinking violet when it comes to tossing Eddie under a bus, expressed his lack of surprise at his former band's latest misstep in a new interview here.
All of this comes on the heels of the dubiously handled February launch of their latest album, A Different Kind Of Truth (read my review here). Armed with a mostly fantastic collection of songs, they bizarrely picked one of the album's weakest tracks ("Tattoo") as the all-important lead single, which was met with more apathy than enthusiasm. The media-adverse band members did a number of print and online interviews (done mostly by Roth) and also released a handful of their own short interview clips. But talk show appearances or performances, Saturday Night Live, or an appearance or performance on, say, the Grammy Awards, which aired the week the album came out? Nada. Their relative lack of exposure and the public's failure to warm up to "Tattoo" contributed to the album's fairly weak first-week sales numbers of 188,000 in the U.S. (as of last week, it's at 377,000 in U.S. sales, which is also pretty underwhelming). Then there was the decision to add the extremely left-field choice of Kool & The Gang as Van Halen's opening act. They've apparently gone over better with audiences than I would have ever expected, but there's still been plenty of online chatter from fans disgruntled by an r & b group opening a rock show (and it comes after the band went with the even stranger support choice of reggae artist Ky-mani Marley on their 2007-2008 reunion tour). Speaking of that tour, it had two series of postponed concert dates due to Eddie needing to go to rehab and then later also having to deal with an undisclosed illness.
I'm still pissed at the massive disappointment of driving three hours from Toronto to Darien Lake in upstate New York to see a Roth and Hagar double bill (as solo artists), only to find out the concert had been cancelled a few hours before show time...and that was a bloody decade ago. An illness was given as the reason, but it subsequently became clear that the tour imploded due to Hagar and Roth despising each other. I guess this Van Halen/Van Halen-related perpetual flakiness goes with the territory when you're a fan. It's lucky for them that they still bring the goods musically, because the rest of Van Halen's nonsense sure tests a fan's loyalty.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

An Affair Of The Heart [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots
For most, Rick Springfield is a one-hit wonder 80s footnote, but as An Affair Of The Heart reveals, he still has a surprisingly loyal following. Director Sylvia Caminer eschews the conventional rock doc biographical format and instead makes Springfield's fan base (known as "Rickaholics") her film's focus. His audience appears to consist mostly of middle-aged women, although we do hear from the occasional male fan, including one who proudly says he's seen Springfield over 200 times. As a music junkie myself, I'm more than familiar with the strangeness and complexities of intense fandom, especially when it comes to a musical artist that doesn't garner much respect. I mean, I was a hardcore KISS fan for almost three decades (the objects of my musical obsession have since evolved to Bruce Springsteen and U2). Surprisingly, An Affair Of The Heart failed to win me over, despite my close connection to the film's subject matter.
Amongst the many fans interviewed by Caminer are a handful that get a more in-depth exploration. Two of the most prominent from that group are a pair of ladies who formed a close friendship through their mutual fandom and make numerous trips yearly to attend Springfield's concerts, to varying degrees of exasperation from their husbands. One of the spouses supports that his wife derives so much enjoyment from Springfield, while also grumbling, "She wakes up and it's 'Rick, Rick, Rick' until she goes to bed". The other husband, who gave up a music career to become a surgeon, comes across as extremely jealous over his wife's rabid Springfield devotion, to the point where his petulant and dickish attitude make it too difficult to feel any sympathy towards him. There's also the young Illinois teenager who Springfield first met as a baby, with the pair maintaining a friendship over the years. Although this storyline illustrates the close connection the musician has with his fans, it felt somewhat overlong. Not to knock the kid, but by the time he gets up on stage to hammily play guitar at a Springfield show, I was long past ready for Caminer to put his story to bed. We also meet a couple who married after meeting online and discovering they were both big fans, as well as a minister who used Springfield's music to help her through a traumatic experience. Most affecting are the interview segments with Laurie Bennett, who was greatly comforted by Springfield's music throughout and following the experiences of multiple heart surgeries as a young girl. Bennett's testimonials are powerful and best represent one of the film's goals of portraying the profound effect that music can have on people's lives.
One reason I failed to engage with An Affair Of the Heart is because most of Springfield's music struck me as utterly forgettable. "Jessie's Girl"? Sure, it's pretty catchy and you can see why it was a hit, but nearly every other song heard through the film's abundant amount of live clips left absolutely no impression, when they weren't making me cringe (a shameless "Jessie's Girl" clone called "What's Victoria's Secret?" is the worst offender). Obviously, one of the biggest draws to this film for non-Rickaholics is its curiosity factor - how does a man mostly perceived as being both musically lightweight and irrelevant inspire such passion for his art? I know that was my motivating factor in viewing the doc (to be clear, Caminer is, in fact, a Springfield fan). The skeptic's voice is represented fairly effectively in the interviews with non-fans vacationing on the same ship as attendees participating in the Rick Springfield And Friends Cruise event. Caminer's conversations with Springfield show him to be a nice enough guy who seems genuinely grateful for the fan support and the opportunity to play music for a living. Looking remarkably well-preserved at 62, Springfield strives to put on a dynamic live show, as evidenced by one of the film's better scenes that shows him gutsily winning over a huge audience at the Swedish Rock Festival, which features decidedly heavier acts like Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses as headliners. For every plus the film delivers, however, there's more negatives, such as the end portion that turns the focus to Springfield. His basic biographical information is scattered throughout the documentary, but when Caminer changes direction from telling the story of his fans for almost the entirety of the film to him, the shift feels clumsy. Yes, the film revolves around Springfield, so it might not seem like an illogical creative decision - I just found it jarring and almost like an afterthought on the director's part.
As much as I'm totally baffled by anyone deciding on Rick Springfield as their musical focal point, I can completely respect the fact that he's had a huge positive impact on the lives of the fans featured in An Affair Of The Heart and beyond. And while the film may take a fresh approach to the music documentary and offer an intriguing premise, it feels overstretched and frustratingly failed to sustain my interest.
Rating: D

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Despite The Gods [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots
Australian filmmaker Penny Vozniak had originally signed on to Hisss, a Bollywood production, to shoot content for the movie's DVD extras. Early on in the process, she discovered a creatively richer opportunity in documenting the tribulations of Hisss' director, Jennifer Lynch (daughter of filmmaker David Lynch). Lynch's career story in and of itself is pretty interesting: after the critical evisceration that greeted Boxing Helena, her 1993 debut film, the then 25-year-old retreated from Hollywood until returning 15 years later with the little-seen Surveillance. With work scarce, Lynch agreed to movie to India for three months with her 12-year-old daughter in tow to direct the decidedly undignified story of an Indian snake goddess, starring Bollywood superstar Mallika Sherawat. Hisss bloatedly incorporates aspects of seemingly every film genre, save for the one that Despite The Gods director Vozniak employs to capture Lynch's experience directing it.
The potent combination of Lynch's highly charismatic personality, her comfort with Vozniak's omnipresent camera, an admirable dedication to her craft (even when it's based on bottom-of-the-barrel material), and the numerous instances of adversity encountered by the director throughout the Hisss shoot should make for more compelling viewing than Despite The Gods actually delivers. About halfway through, the documentary seems to lose a bit of steam, unable to draw more from circumstances like Lynch balancing her motherly responsibilities while dealing with unpredictable weather, a meddling assistant director, inexperienced crews, cultural barriers, and Hisss' wearying eight month shoot, which was five months over schedule. These scenarios prove to be more challenging than outright disastrous, resulting in an observational doc that doesn't quite have the engrossing qualities of, say, Lost In La Mancha, which chronicled director Terry Gilliam's doomed film about Don Quixote. Lynch's entertainingly brassy temperament and refreshing candour always keep things watchable, though, and she quickly becomes a protagonist the viewer empathizes with. The documentary's "struggling single working mother" theme should also expand its appeal to more than just buffs of the process of filmmaking.
Lynch ultimately disassociated herself from Hisss after creative differences with producers during the film's post-production. At the Q & A following Despite The Gods' world premiere screening at Hot Docs, she said she still hasn't seen the movie, which came out in October of last year. Considering the small portion of the finished product that we see in the documentary, distancing herself from Hisss (I feel ridiculous typing that extra "s") is undoubtedly a smart move - the acting is terrible and the CGI is downright laughable. Things look to be on the upswing in Lynch's career, as her next project (starring Vincent D'Onofrio) has been completed and another (starring Tim Roth) is in pre-production.
Despite The Gods might labour at times wringing substantial drama from Lynch's film adventure, but it's still a worthwhile viewing experience that presents an interesting fish out of water story, as the director's second-act career arc unfolds.
Rating: B-

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Loud TV ads to be a thing of the past...

A story on The last week caught my interest, reporting that television broadcasters have been mandated by the CRTC, Canada's broadcast regulator, to ensure that the volume of the ads being run is no louder than the volume of the accompanying programming. Broadcasters have until September 1st to comply (a similar law went into effect in the U.S. last year). As an apartment dweller, I've had to make it a habit to always have my remote close at hand in order to not piss off my neighbours due to the annoyingly louder volume of TV commercials, so this is welcome news.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, is a terminal disease with no known cure. Most people afflicted with it only live 3-5 years after symptoms are first detected, with only 5% of ALS patients surviving for 20 years after being diagnosed - Jason Becker is among that 5%. 22 years after the guitar prodigy's seemingly charmed life imploded with his diagnosis, Becker continues to not just survive and defy the odds, but have an amazingly upbeat attitude towards life. His extraordinary story provides the subject for Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, the first feature-length documentary from director Jesse Vile, who raised funds for the film from online donations.
Becker and his story is probably unknown to most. I was familiar with him through my regular readership of guitar magazines in the 80s, which frequently featured stories on the teenage guitarist and his virtuoso skills. His neo-classical "shred" guitar style wasn't really my thing, but you couldn't help but be in awe of the young man's talent. Becker released a couple of albums as part of Cacophony (a duo with future Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman), along with a solo album before getting his biggest break in 1990 at the age of 20 as the lead guitarist in David Lee Roth's band. At the time, that was the most coveted rock guitar gig, considering that it meant following in the footsteps of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, Roth's previous guitarists and two of the most skilled and respected guitar players on the planet. Just a week after landing the job in Roth's band, Becker began to notice muscular pain in his legs, which doctors soon told him was ALS. Undeterred and battling against the physical difficulties presented by the rapid onset of the disease, he continued to work, laying down tracks on Roth's A Little Ain't Enough album. As his condition worsened, Becker and Roth mutually agreed that he wouldn't be able to participate in the album's supporting tour. By a few years later, Becker was on a life support system and aside from being able to move his eyes, completely paralyzed.
Vile, a guitar player himself and a fan of Cacophony, first contacted Becker about making a documentary over a decade ago while he was still in film school, but the film never happened due to his inexperience. A couple of years ago, he approached Becker and his family again and they signed on, albeit warily (other filmmakers had started docs on the musician in the past decade that were never fully seen through). Vile makes liberal use of the Becker family's ample supply of home video footage of the musician, displaying moments from his childhood, during his mid-teen "cusp of stardom" phase, after his diagnosis (footage from that period is understandably limited), and the years following as Becker comes to cope with the challenges of living with ALS. One of the most heartbreaking clips shows Jason as a young boy being pushed in a wheelbarrow by his father, an eerie foreshadowing of the caregiver/patient dynamic their relationship would take on. Vile conducts interviews with Becker's guitarist peers, including Friedman, Vai, Richie Kotzen, and Joe Satriani; unfortunately, Roth, the one musical voice that most would want to hear from, is absent. After the screening, Vile said that he'd only gotten as far as contacting Roth's manager and he didn't know if the interview request had even gotten to the singer. Vile's discussions with Becker's family and friends reveal a remarkable support base, especially his father, who designed a system that allows his son to communicate via eye movement that picks out letters on a board. His dad also aids Becker in the creation of music by using a computer setup that allows the musician to place notes on a screen, again directed through eye movement. That Becker still has the determination to compose new music (and still at the same prolific level as when he was able-bodied) seems fairly amazing, although perhaps not altogether surprising when you consider that this is someone who loved the guitar so much he'd bring one to the dinner table with him, and even bought a mini guitar so he could take it in the car and get a few seconds of playing time in at red lights. Interestingly, Becker's disease also hasn't held him back from having relationships with some attractive ladies, as interviews with a couple of his former partners and his current girlfriend demonstrate.
The documentary's only misstep is a very confusing scene at the end that shows Becker and some family members attending an Indian religious ceremony, without providing any context or much of an explanation about it. While doing some research for this review, I learned about Becker's embracement of Eastern religions, which he explains in-depth here on his website. Considering that his deep religious beliefs must have played a key role in strengthening his resilience and throughout his arduous journey, I think the topic deserved more than the mere gloss over treatment it receives. Despite that momentary wobble, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet packs an emotional wallop and serves as an uplifting testament to the strength of the human spirit.
Rating: A

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why Ticketmaster sucks...

Addendum added May 11th: This post has been edited since I originally posted it in late April. It was sparked by an extremely frustrating experience on April 20th trying to get tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert in Toronto this August; I later learned that a dumb oversight on my part contributed to that frustration, which necessitated a few changes to what I'd written...that doesn't negate the fact that Ticketmaster is still rubbish, though. And thanks to the kindly Kathie from Newfoundland for hooking me up with good tickets for the show!
There are few companies I despise more on this planet than Ticketmaster and I'm not alone. Amplicate, a social media analytics service that compiles public opinion data, has Ticketmaster tagged at a comically high 95% "hated" level, from a sampling of 9,000+ consumers. Established in 1976, the company has consistently demonstrated toxic business policies, with nearly all consumers of live entertainment held hostage.
Here's the scenario I encountered: somewhere between five to ten minutes before Ticketmaster goes "live" with their sale for the Springsteen show, I'm on the event sale page (which is telling me tickets aren't available yet) and constantly refreshing my browser until the sale starts. It's one of the small tricks that allows you a bit of an edge in getting a better spot in the online queue - timing (and luck) is everything when it comes to scoring good seats. So, the sale page eventually comes up and I choose the option for a pair of the non-seating general admission floor tickets at $130 each (these tickets are for a section directly in front of the stage and not the entire floor section, as I originally believed). After selecting the tickets I want, Ticketmaster takes me to one of those security check pages, where I have to enter a couple of words that appear in wavy formation on screen (called a "captcha"). This step is to ensure that I'm a human and not a highly sophisticated automated "bot" program that scalpers use to snap up a concert's best tickets. After entering the words, I'm taken to the next screen that shows I'll have a wait time of about thirteen minutes to determine if the tickets I wanted are available (lengthy wait times right when a show goes on sale are normal, as the system is experiencing the heaviest user traffic). After an agonizing period of approximately fifteen minutes, the "wait page" goes to a new page informing me that none of the tickets I wanted are available and that I should try again, which really surprised me. Immediately after the words "Oh, shit..." had passed through my mind, I tried for the same tickets again, only to be denied one more time after about a ten minute wait. Now dejected, I gave it one more shot and came up empty about eight minutes later. At that point (and still mistakenly thinking all the floor tickets were general admission and now all gone),I figured that I'd have to lower my expectations if I wanted to attend the show at all, opting for the next best available seats in the stadium's second level. Naturally, a pair of those bastards came up almost immediately, only they were way off to the side and inexplicably priced at the same amount as the floor tickets. Completely gutted at this point, I resigned myself to the fact that my brother and I wouldn't be going to this concert. When you've had good-to-phenomenal spots for Springsteen shows as I have over the years, paying through the nose for crappy seating at one more is simply too disheartening, especially at a domed venue where the sound is notoriously dodgy the further you are off the floor.
Lest I come across as seeming overly entitled when it comes to getting primo concert tickets, my main beef with Ticketmaster is the fact that within a mere number of seconds after they put this event on sale, I tried to buy a couple of tickets from the sizeable number available and struck out (and this is far from the first time I've experienced this). Yes, Springsteen is a huge act and Toronto is a massive market, but I was pretty confident that between the fact I tried for tickets as early as was humanly possible and that The Boss was playing at the large Rogers Centre (meaning there would be significantly more floor tickets available), well, I was almost assured of landing the pair of tickets I wanted. Clearly, my over-confidence was misguided.
I suspect that these scalper "bots" are the main reason for the lack of good tickets and as much as I also despise these scumbag "ticket brokers", Ticketmaster doesn't curry any sympathy from me. They've lived high off the hog from decades of exorbitant service charges and operating as a monopoly, so there's no excuses as to why their tech infrastructure isn't better able to accommodate both high customer volume and have better security measures, as well as increase the system's stability (I've had a number of experiences over the years where errors and glitches booted me out in the middle of ticket purchasing transactions). I realize that's easier said than done, but that's their problem, not mine. Springsteen-related Ticketmaster issues are nothing new, mind you. When some of his U.S. east coast shows went on sale in 2009, many fans on Ticketmaster's site were greeted with error messages and automatically redirected to the TicketsNow site, which is a Ticketmaster subsidiary that specializes in selling hugely marked up tickets (the eBay-owned StubHub is another popular ticket resell site). That fiasco prompted Springsteen's personal ire and a massive public outcry, along with a class-action lawsuit, an investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, and newly proposed laws to better protect consumers. Earlier this year, fans were again up in arms when tickets for Springsteen shows in New York and New Jersey were mysteriously unavailable for many, a problem Ticketmaster attributed to "abnormal traffic patterns on our site" from "highly suspicious sources" (that'd be those pesky bots).
Ticketmaster's infamously excessive fees are the number one customer complaint, as this breakdown from a recent ticket purchase I made for an upcoming concert by Garbage illustrates: $28.50 for the ticket (which includes provincial sales tax), a $1 "facility charge", and a "convenience charge" (whatever the hell that is) of $9.25. How do you add an additional charge amounting to almost one third the face value of the ticket price and get away with it? Incredible. Then again, this is a company that has the cojones to actually charge $2.50 per ticket with their TicketFast option, which lets customers print tickets on their own printer. You read that right - $2.50 to use your own paper and ink.
One of the most discouraging things about the whole situation is there's absolutely no indication any of this nonsense of being stuck with one ticketing option will change in the foreseeable future. Ticketmaster is such a behemoth that getting the ticket business to a more level playing field with serious competition simply isn't a financially viable option for anyone. If a band as high profile and powerful as Pearl Jam was in 1994 couldn't even put a dent in these gluttonous swines when they took on the company for unscrupulous and monopolistic practices, then there's little hope...and Ticketmaster has only gotten stronger since then. In a transcript of the U.S. Congress testimony from a couple of band members, I thought it was quite telling that one of the grievances listed against Ticketmaster was their lack of ethics (not that I look for that quality in any big company, mind you). One cited example involved the company apparently trying to back out of an agreement to donate a portion of their profits from a Pearl Jam show to charity. After obvious objection from the band and a tense standoff, the testimony states that Ticketmaster ultimately failed to make the charitable donation that had been mutually agreed upon. Considering Pearl Jam's level of integrity, that this was Congressional testimony, and that Ticketmaster never sued the band for defamation or slander (if that was even possible), I have no reason to suspect the story isn't true.
Ticketmaster - screwing fans (and occasionally charities) since 1976.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

GLOW: The Story Of The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling [film review]

GLOW: The Story Of The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling tells the story of the characters and inner workings of the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling (GLOW), a syndicated television program that aired in North America from 1986 until 1990. Like the WWF, the all-female wrestling organization peddled entertainment over actual credible sporting competition, combining predetermined matches with musical interludes, reality television segments, and cornball skits ("Hee Haw with wrestling", as former GLOW wrestler "Godiva" described it at the post-screening Q & A). I'm a child of the 80s who grew up regularly watching the WWF, yet I'd never heard of GLOW; my best friend, who was a bigger wrestling geek than I was, told me that he'd also never heard of the program. Perhaps GLOW just had a lower profile in Canada. Regardless, millions of others were apparently watching, although I still found myself feeling at odds with director Brett Whitcomb's generously elevated status of the Las Vegas-based show's cultural impact.
Whitcomb delivers an informative background of GLOW for the uninitiated through an extensive number of interviews with former wrestlers who adopted flamboyant personas, assuming either hero or villain roles. To name just a few, there was the American-hating Russian "Ninotchka", the 6'4 and 300 pound "Matilda The Hun", "Sally The Farmer's Daughter", "Mt. Fiji", and "Big Bad Mama". Just about all of the women interviewed come across as quite likeable and their stories recalling the surreal experiences of virtually overnight minor fame, being strongly encouraged to maintain their characters' personas around the clock, their sisterly bond, the physical rigours, and their profound disappointment when the show unexpectedly ended, make for engaging viewing. Unfortunately, there's no perspective available from GLOW creators David McLane or Matt Cimber - they declined to be interviewed by Whitcomb, to the documentary's detriment (Cimber does appear briefly on camera at the film's end). The wealth of archival clips are a fun nostalgia trip back to garish day-glo colours, ridiculously huge hair styles, and some the worst rapping you've ever heard (that the rap performances were inspired by the "Super Bowl Shuffle" says all you need to know), along with skimpy outfits, ultra-campy comedy, and poorly wrestled matches. There's also some seat-squirming footage of one of the wrestlers suffering an absolutely horrific arm injury.
I do wish Whitcomb had dug a little deeper into some of the uncomfortable racial stereotypes and imagery that are demonstrated in a couple of the GLOW clips. In one quick scene, we see the "Big Bad Mama" character, which is little more than a borderline offensive "big and loud" black caricature, in the ring with two other people wearing crude white masks that I assume were a Klan reference, while another scene depicts a group of villains in Nazi-like attire and delivering a familiar salute. I understand that the show was about as low-brow as entertainment gets and that the mid-to-late 80s were a less PC era, but the fact that these scenes are shown within about a minute of a reference to GLOW being wholesome, family entertainment begs a further exploration.
Where the film really excels is towards its back end, which leads up to a reunion involving many of the former wrestlers. Most of them haven't been in contact with each other since the show went off the air and the women, who almost unanimously look back fondly on their GLOW experience, touchingly reconnect with old friends and co-workers with whom they share a unique bond. The documentary resonates strongest emotionally, however, during the portions featuring Emily Dole, who played the "Mt. Fiji" character. Now confined to a nursing home due to diabetes and severe knee problems exacerbated by her excessive weight, Dole appears to have been hardest hit by GLOW's abrupt cancellation. Clearly, she feels like her time on the show, during which she was one of its most popular characters, were the best years of her life. I won't give too much away - suffice it to say, there's some scenes at the film's end with her that are sure to tug at the viewer's heart.
Rating: B-

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Invisible War [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots
The Invisible War director Coby Dick (best known for This Film Is Not Yet Rated,Twist Of Faith, and Outrage) turns his investigative lens on the surprisingly underreported subject of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in the U.S. military. "Military Sexual Trauma" (MST), as the U.S. Department of Defense labels it, occurs with such disturbing frequency that it's impossible to argue with Dick's usage of "epidemic" in describing the problem, which he backs up with plenty of statistics. Among the most sobering numbers (all pertaining to the U.S. military): approximately 20% of women serving have been the victim of MST, 80% of victims don't report the crime, the sexual assault rate in the military is approximately double the rate in the civilian world, and less than 10% of MST cases are prosecuted. That last stat forms the basis for one of The Invisible War's main focusses, which is exposing such an appallingly ineffectual track record by the military in dealing with the problem that it makes the Catholic church look positively proactive in their handling of pedophile priest accusations.
The wealth of powerfully affecting victim interviews conducted by Dick and producing partner Amy Ziering reveal a disturbingly similar pattern: following their traumatic experiences (many suffered multiple assaults,) the victims' complaints aren't taken seriously and they receive no justice, leading to the end of their military careers, relationship problems, depression and other medical issues, and eventual suicide attempts. MST is an issue that also affects males, as we learn through the story of one rape survivor who kept his secret for 30 years before telling his wife. Dick wisely picks one subject to spend a little more time on in former U.S. Coast Guard seaman Kori Cioca. She suffered irreparable damage to her jaw while fighting off her rapist and is shown going up against governmental bureaucracy as she tries to get disability benefits, dealing with a frustratingly incompetent medical system (the amount of pain medication shown that she's been prescribed is staggering), and struggling to be a good wife and mother while dealing with the emotional toll from her ordeal. One of the film's most gut-wrenching interviews comes from the father of one of the victims, as he breaks down while recalling the phone call from his daughter about her rape. Additional helpful perspective is contributed by retired military captain Anu Bhagwati, who heads a support service for females affected by MST.
Almost as disturbing as the horror stories from the victims are a revelation of how the military fostered such an unsafe environment with their apathy, cover-ups, and inadequate MST preventative measures and education. A couple of interviews with Kaye Whitley, the former director of the defense department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, point to some of the problems concerning the latter of those. Whitley delivers uninformed, textbook examples of government talking head responses to her questions, defending her office's educational policies that promote ad campaigns such as the one that actually said "Don't risk it - ask her when she's sober", as well as others that seem to place an unsettling emphasis of blame on the victims (one instructional video scenario shows male soldiers mildly chastising a female soldier for walking around the military base at night without a safety buddy). It's certainly not reassuring that the culture will change when we hear Whitley's successor, Mary Kay Hertog, praising the work of her predecessor. Tough questions are also posed to members of Congress and powerful military officials, who regurgitate the institution's official policy of "zero tolerance" on MST incidents. That policy is shown to be toothless, however, with assault complaints frequently getting reviewed by the accused rapists' colleagues and friends, and filed grievances a proven fast-track to career implosion for the complainant. Two victims reveal that they were charged by the military with adultery because their rapists were married, and one of them adds that she was also charged with public intoxication and conduct unbecoming after the ordeal.
The Invisible War is an extremely compelling and important piece of filmmaking that will evoke anger, shock, compassion, and hope from its viewers. Not content to take a passive role in the discussion of its subject, the documentary concludes by extending its reach and assuming the role of anti-MST advocate, providing information on support services and encouraging participation and discussion on the topic. Dick proudly announced at the post screening Q & A session that it appears the film has already had an impact since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and also started making the rounds in Washington - the Pentagon recently announced new initiatives to address the MST problem, including the significant step of having assault investigations placed further up the chain of command to assure impartiality.
Rating: A

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Beware Of Mr. Baker [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots
Beware Of Mr. Baker opens with the unlikely scenario of its subject, drummer Ginger Baker, breaking the nose of the film's director with a well-placed shot from his walking cane. Beware of Mr. Baker indeed. It's a perfect table-setter for first-time director Jay Bulger's biographical film on the crusty, unpredictable musician, considered by many to be the originator of modern rock and roll drumming. His reclusive tendencies and a fairly obscure musical output over the past three decades (save for a high profile live reunion in 2005 with Cream, the band he's most associated with) have only increased the sense of mystery and legend surrounding the notorious wild man. Bulger first brought the updated Baker story to the public in "The Devil And Ginger Baker", his revealing 2009 written piece (viewable here), which Rolling Stone magazine printed despite the fact that Bulger had misrepresented himself as a writer for the publication in order to gain access to the musician. I vividly remember reading that story and thinking what a great doc subject Baker would make, but figured that would never happen due to his mercurial temperament. Bulger somehow ingratiated himself enough to Baker to end up staying with him for three months on the drummer's fortified South African compound while working on the Rolling Stone piece, with the hours of filmed interviews from that experience laying the foundation for the documentary. As excellent as "The Devil And Ginger Baker" was, Beware Of Mr. Baker does it one better - his tumultuous life story is so intriguing that it virtually demands the full-length doc treatment.
Bulger assembles a who's who of rock drummers singing Baker's praises, including Stewart Copeland, Lars Ulrich, Neil Peart, Chad Smith, Charlie Watts, Nick Mason, and Bill Ward. Also weighing in is Johnny Rotten in a couple of amusing scenes that bookend the film. It's worth noting that Baker despised much of the music that Cream influenced - he says punk "should have been aborted", cringes that he had an influence on heavy metal, and mocks the talents of John Bonham and Keith Moon. Cream bandmates Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce provide some fascinating insight into the difficulties of working with a loose cannon drummer who was well into the throes of heroin addiction during the supergroup's short two year span. Clapton's conversations reveal a love/hate relationship with the drummer and he makes the interesting observation that although he's known him much longer, perhaps Bulger knows the enigmatic Baker better than he does due to the fact that unlike himself, the director has now spent so much time in close proximity with Baker. Bulger's career retrospective portion of the film demonstrates Baker's propensity for short-lived group stints and burned bridges, resulting in an increasingly shrinking pool of musicians willing to work with him and fuelling the drummer's feelings of alienation. Baker's love of jazz is a key focal point of the documentary - he began as a jazz drummer and worshipped the genre's biggest percussionists, even boldly organizing a televised drum-off with some of them as an excuse to both play with the jazz drumming elite and earn their respect. Another focal point is Baker's time spent in Africa in the 70s, where he explores his passion for the continent's music and works with Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti, before eventually being forced out of Nigeria due to political unrest.
Nearly all of Bulger's fiery interviews with Baker feature the drummer chain smoking while propped in a recliner; at one point, Bulger asks his subject to remove his ever-present sunglasses and, after some reluctance, Baker agrees. His eyes appear sad and rather dead-looking, showing the effects of seven decades of self-destructive behaviour and the steady helping of morphine being used to help ease his various health ailments ("God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can. I wasn't planning on living this long", he says). Some of the other fallout from his lifetime of selfish and reckless behaviour: four marriages (he's currently married to a 29-year-old woman from Zimbabwe that he met on the internet), estranged relationships with his kids (he once introduced his 15-year-old son to cocaine), and persistent money issues (he blew through an estimated $5 million earned from the Cream reunion and spent it on donations to animal causes and his hobby of collecting polo ponies).
Bulger applies the stylistic flourish of animated artwork to subtly advance and supplement the film's narrative, as well as add a comedic touch in places. The German Expressionist-style art is dazzling, but the director tends to overuse the device, plus the same technique using the same art style was seen last year in the U2 documentary From The Sky Down (read my review here; to be fair, Bulger's film was likely finished by the time the U2 doc came out). Aside from that, my only quibble with Beware Of Mr. Baker is that it feels somewhat incomplete at 92 minutes. That's actually a testament to how engrossing Bulger's portrait of the irascible and uncompromising Baker is, but slightly more content would have been welcome from a documentary offering such rare access to one of rock history's most colourful characters.
Rating: A-
* May 4th addendum: Thanks to Toronto Screen Shots head honcho James McNally for passing along comments on my review from director Jay Bulger, who said via Twitter "Directors cut is 20 longer. Commercial viability. Thanks! Although, I think our animation is infinitely better than U2's."