Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rob Zombie - Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor [album review]

Released in April

Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor, Rob Zombie's fifth solo studio album, continues the B-horror movie-themed metal/punk/industrial/electronica hybrid musical style that he began with White Zombie in the late 80s. Recorded right after work was finished on The Lords Of Salem, his newest feature directorial effort released last month, Venomous... is on par with the return to form that was 2010's Hellbilly Deluxe 2 (which I reviewed here).

Throw out the rather pointless minute-long instrumental titled "Theme From The Rat Vendor" and most of the tracks from Venomous... are very good to excellent. In the latter category, we have the high energy "Dead City Radio And The New Gods Of Supertown", which features a killer guitar riff from John 5 and a unique song structure that delivers the verse sections in two different ways (check out the bizarre video below), the forceful "Lucifer Rising", and album closer "Trade In Your Guns For A Coffin", a standout that packs its assault into a concise two minute and eleven second-long running time. In the "very good" category we have "The Girl Who Loved The Monsters", a damn fine cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American Band", "White Trash Freaks", "Behold, The Pretty Filthy Pretty Creatures!", "Revelation Revolution", and "Rock And Roll (In A Black Hole)", which utilizes an effective quiet-loud dynamic. Venomous... is a loosely conceived concept album whose theme only Zombie knows, although I suspect that even if Zombie did lay things out more clearly about the concept, it'd still be impossible to figure out, given the man's penchant for highly inscrutable lyrics. Take, for example, the title of one of the albums less stellar songs: "Ging Gang Gong De Do Gong De Laga Raga". 

Like Hellbilly Deluxe 2, Venomous... finds Zombie regurgitating his past and displaying little musical growth, but still producing a very respectable number of memorable tracks steeped in strangeness, camp, and the macabre. A worthy addition to the demented musician's catalogue. 

Rating: B

Friday, May 24, 2013

TINY: A Story About Living Small [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots

Tiny home: a living structure that can range anywhere from 60 to 500 square feet and is typically in the 120 to 200 square foot range. Tiny homes are usually built on flatbed trailers, which makes them both easily mobile and qualifies them as "temporary structures", allowing for compliance with zoning laws and building codes.

Tiny home living is a growing movement embraced by people wishing to make a smaller environmental impact, for financial reasons, and because they generally just want to simplify their lives. Christopher Smith aspired to such a lifestyle, so shortly before his 30th birthday, he purchased a five acre plot of land in Colorado and subsequently set about building his own tiny home, with the assistance of his girlfriend, Merete Mueller. The pair decided to document their experience for a short film, but further explorations into the tiny home movement saw the project, aided by a successful Kickstarter campaign, expand to TINY: A Story About Living Small's now 62 minute running time.

The co-directors, neither of whom had any building experience, soon come to find that even extra small-scale house construction is more challenging and time-consuming than they expected. Most of the construction work is actually done by Smith, who frequently relies on instructional YouTube videos to guide him and doesn't come close to completing the project in the four month period originally estimated. Very few of the construction-related obstacles encountered are shown, to the film's slight detriment (Smith admitted in the post-screening Q & A that they were mostly edited out). There's a lot of people out there who, like me, possess less-than-stellar handyman skills and showing more of those kinds of trials and tribulations would have made Smith's building experience a little more relatable, as well as added an extra bit of small intrigue to the proceedings. Even still, by the time the project is completed, the tremendous sense of accomplishment felt by the amiable twosome of Smith and Mueller makes for a satisfying payoff for the viewer as well. An interesting side story also develops as the home takes shape involving the couple's questionable future together, due to Mueller's desire to pursue her writing career in New York City.

Interspersed with the scenes showing the couple's building project are interviews with other tiny home dwellers and tours (very short tours, naturally) of their diminutive abodes. There are repeated testimonials about how much happier they all are with their downsized manner of living and the freedom it allows them, financially and in other ways (such as maintaining a clutter-free existence that relies just on essentials). A couple of different tiny home residents talk about working for years at white collar jobs that took up most of their lives and left them unfulfilled, leading them to reexamine their priorities and make the big change to living small.

Smith and Mueller's delightful documentary provides an insightful look into the fascinating tiny home movement, with thought-provoking discussions on the meaning of "home" and how that concept fits into the context of the ever-changing American Dream.

Rating: A-

Maidentrip [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots

The idea of a 13 year old girl nautically circumnavigating the globe alone would sound nutty and ill-advised to nearly anyone. Those were the circumstances that garnered worldwide media attention and touched off a contentious debate and court battle in 2009 when Dutch teen Laura Dekker announced her intentions to carry out the plan, and which set the stage for director Jillian Schlesinger's Maidentrip. After 10 months of legal proceedings, which included Dutch authorities verifying the soundness of both her sailing skills and mental capacity, Dekker eventually unofficially began her epic expedition by setting sail alone (which also means without a support team on a follow boat) from Gibraltar in August 2010, a month before her 15th birthday. Successful completion of the 27,000 nautical mile journey would make Dekker the youngest person to sail around the globe solo. The record attempt officially began in January 2011, as Dekker departs St. Martin on her 38 foot sailboat named Guppy. 366 days later, Dekker arrived back in St. Martin.    

After spending a short amount of time onscreen with the sailor, it's clear that Dekker is mature far beyond her age and instilled with an unflagging drive to challenge herself, a fearless temperament, and little patience for those that question her abilities and decisions. The teenager was born on a boat and has spent much of her life on the water, even choosing to live with her father when her parents split up because it would mean more opportunities to sail. Because her dad had to work so much, Dekker was often left to look after herself and that independence serves her quite well during the solo excursion. 

Armed with a video camera, Dekker contributes video diaries that detail various aspects of her experience like cooking disasters, the welcome companionship of a roosting bird or a pod of dolphins swimming alongside her ship, and some of the trip's weather-related challenges (at one point, there's been virtually no wind for a stretch of several days). Much of that might sound rather dull - it's anything but, however. Dekker's funny and thoughtful observations make for highly enjoyable viewing and the absence of very many dramatic moments in the film (largely because Dekker was unable to film them) isn't a major negative. The adventure, in and of itself, is drama enough. The hairiest things get in Maidentrip occurs during some dreadful weather off the coast of South Africa that results in waves as high as 60 feet. The weather is so severe that a South African newspaper referred to the conditions as some that "even the bravest skipper wouldn't attempt" to navigate, but Dekker makes her way through the storm safely, offering little indication of fear in her narration as her camera captures the raging sea surrounding Guppy. The same poise is shown at another moment in the documentary as Dekker casually mentions that her route had to be planned to avoid pirates on the Indian Ocean. Dekker's video diaries also fascinatingly chronicle the teenager coming of age on the water and increasingly feeling more connected to the sea than to people, even saying at one point that she no longer feels reliant on anybody. One of my biggest shocks with Maidentrip came at the post-screening Q & A when it was revealed that Dekker only shot a total of 10 hours of video for the project. Kudos to the filmmakers (notably editor Penelope Falk) for making the most of the relatively little on-ship footage that was available to them. The pleasing score from Ben Sollee also merits a mention.  

Throughout Dekker's trip, helpfully tracked with effective use of some amusing graphics, Schlesinger meets up with her seven times to film at the many exotic ports the sailor stopped in, such as in the Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia, and Panama. We see Dekker soaking in the local cultures, participating in activities like bike rides and scuba diving, dealing with a customs official who struggles to grasp the spontaneous nature of her travels, and also bonding closely with a nice American couple who are on their own worldwide sailing expedition. There's also a scene where Dekker's wariness of the press is illustrated, as she snaps at questions from a journalist who has covered the teenager's story for a number of years.

I'm someone who couldn't have cared less about the activity of sailing prior to watching the charming Maidentrip, but it was impossible not be deeply drawn in by the film's improbable scenario, and mostly, its engaging subject and her amazingly pure love for the water and adventurous spirit. Laura Dekker's story practically demands a dramatic feature version from Hollywood.

Rating: A 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fatal Assistance [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots

Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck's Fatal Assistance spends two years documenting the ineffectual international relief efforts that followed the January 2010 earthquake that devastated his country with an estimated 250,000 deaths and left approximately 1.2 million people homeless. It's a thoroughly discouraging examination of wide-scale political bureaucracy and self-interest, masked as philanthropy, by many of the more than 4,000 aid organizations that became involved.

Peck's deconstruction of the boondoggle casts most of the blame on the fact that the foreign humanitarian agencies weren't inclusive enough with Haitian officials in determining where both financial and manpower resources should have been allocated, resulting in distrust and massive disorganization from both sides. It should be noted that the biggest reason for the lack of trust from outside agencies is Haiti's long history of political corruption, an angle that Peck's otherwise comprehensive film doesn't seem to probe deeply enough. There's stories about most of the rebuilding work going to foreign contractors and companies at the expense of much-needed employment opportunities for Haitians, the unwillingness of relief organizations to allot enough attention to the dire requirement of debris removal because it wasn't a "sexy" enough area of the relief effort (building housing and schools carries a lot more cachet), and supplies such as water and food being shipped in from donor countries at a much higher cost than if the same resources from Haiti had been used. Other exasperating examples of waste include details of some rebuilding jobs unnecessarily being worked on by multiple agencies, large amounts of relief funds mysteriously vanishing, and small wooden housing units being poorly constructed and lacking electricity, kitchens, or bathrooms.

Highly visible figures from the relief effort seen (but not interviewed) include Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and Sean Penn, while former President Bill Clinton really draws Peck's disdain as the co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). The director frames Clinton's involvement as rather disingenuous, as the former leader takes on numerous lofty titles and is surrounded by a young and inexperienced support staff. Peck, Haiti's former Minister of Culture, also gets interview access to top tier Haitian government officials, such as former Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Usage throughout the film of poetic correspondence between a male and female relief worker effectively adds a more intimate perspective to the frustrations over the incompetent handling of the relief effort, acting as a sorely needed personal touch to offset the extensive number of statistics and many acronymed organizations to keep track of. 

Although it can move quite slowly at times, Fatal Assistance will definitely fuel your cynicism for the effectiveness of the international community's emergency aid process.

Rating: C+

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Downloaded [film review]

Written for Toronto Screen Shots

Downloaded, which made its international premiere at Hot Docs, looks at the rise, fall, and legacy of Napster, the peer-to-peer file sharing service that forever changed the music industry. Originally conceived as a dramatic feature by director Alex Winter (probably best known as the Bill character from the Bill & Ted movies), it evolved into a documentary over the ten year period that Winter was involved on and off with the project.

Winter thoroughly explores all aspects of his subject, incorporating an extensive number of archival clips with new interviews from Napster opponents that include music industry executives and artists like Beastie Boy Mike D, Henry Rollins, and Public Enemy's Chuck D, along with the Napster side via interviews with the service's legal representatives and the main figures behind it, notably co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. The affable pair evoke more sympathy than you'd expect, discussing the idealistic origins of the service that "came from a very pure place", as Fanning puts it, and them coping with the enormous scope of what they'd created, which included contending with numerous nasty legal battles with the music business over their enabling of wide-scale copyright infringement. It's easy to forget over a decade later that Napster's impact was incredibly swift - the service's "heyday" lasted less than two years before it was effectively shut down in 2001, later being acquired by other companies as a means of legal music distribution.

Downloaded presents the most balanced and definitive summation of the Napster saga that I've ever seen or read, with a compelling David vs. Goliath dynamic and an abundance of thoughtful discussion on the divisive issue of file sharing. 

Rating: B