Hot Docs

Hot Docs Review: Strange Powers: Stephin Merrit and the Magnetic Fields [2010, Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara]

Posted on by Allison in Hot Docs, Reviews | 2 Comments

While watching Strange Powers: Stephin Merrit and the Magnetic Fields, I was reminded of the following Seinfeld moment:

RUSSELL: No stories? So, what is it?

GEORGE: What’d you do today?

RUSSELL: I got up and came to work.

GEORGE: There’s a show. That’s a show.

RUSSELL: (Confused) How is that a show?

JERRY: Well, uh, maybe something happens on the way to work.

GEORGE: No, no, no. Nothing happens.

JERRY: Well, something happens.

RUSSELL: Well, why am I watching it?

GEORGE: Because it’s on TV.

http://www.wiretotheear.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/the_magnetic_fields.jpg

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Magnetic Fields. I credit them, and specifically Stephin Merrit, as a legitimate grandfather of this phenomenon sweepingly known as “indie rock”. They were college radio before indie rock was even suckling at its teet. All of the coolest kids I knew in high school were listening to 69 Love Songs back in the mid-late 90’s and the one uberhip friend I had (and am still friends with today) was telling me about them before they were on any music journalist’s radar.

Here is the problem I have with Strange Powers: it is a band documentary for the sake of being a band documentary, and just when you think it starts digging deeper into the more interesting personalities (Merrit himself comes across as dually witty and incredibly boring) and relationships (band manager and co-collaborator Claudia Gonson is Merrit’s surrogate mother slash non-sexual life partner), there is pullback into a stage performance, or a sudden pan to cable-access type staging around collections of the band’s CD’s. I continuously got this overwhelming sense that there were interesting stories to tell that the filmmakers hadn’t fully uncovered.

Best stories that they barely scratched the surface on:

  • Sam Davol (cellist) and John Woo (banjo, guitar) are revealed to be something of the equivalent to session musicians in the band; Sam talks about this honestly for a bit, but ultimately holds back–I felt they didn’t do these gentlemen justice with their interviews.
  • Stephin’s non-existent relationship with his folk singer father, Scott Fagan (whom to this day, he has never even met)

Too much:

  • Claudia and Stephin’s relationship is interesting in that they have been close friends since high school, but unfortunately even their bickering is dull
  • Extraordinarily ordinary concert footage
  • Incorporation of the fact that Merrit is gay – when the only “significant other” featured can only add that “when you’re in a relationship with Stephin you’re in a relationship with Claudia” (cue the Will & Grace theme song), why even feature it?
  • Literal cataloging of the creative musical process — as fun as it sounds to watch brilliant musicians jot down notes and lyrics, I’d rate it as being about as engaging as watching Chia seeds sprout (with the seeds marginally winning)

Overall, I’d say that without a keen eye for creative research, a documentary about someone as private as Merrit is pointless. This is not to say that there weren’t intriguing stories that the filmmakers told, most notably about the accusations against Stephin being a “pretentious racist cracker” and some priceless footage captured on AM Atlanta in which the cheery male host attempts to engage him only to elicit mildly funny one-word answers.

Stephin Merrit may be many things: Brilliant wordsmith, college radio hero, NYC icon, well-read and educated, charmingly depressing, but at the end of the day, a documentary subject who is unwilling to open the doors to a director is better left unprodded.

Hot Docs Review: Dish: Women, Waitressing & The Art of Service [2010, Maya Gallus]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs, Reviews | Leave a comment

Toronto – Whereas March is a time of music festivals and bbqs, April is a time for one thing – documentaries. Once again, for the 17th year in a row, April brings us Hot Docs, a Canadian International Documentary festival that features around 150 documenataries from around the world. It starts on April 29th and runs until May 9th. Tickets are probably on sale now, so get off yo ass and book it. I love documentaries. They often tell me stories about people I either don’t think about or know or care about. I like additional knowledge, you never know when you need it. Maybe in a time of war. I don’t know. I’m rambling.

My first documentary is one called Dish, a Canadian documentary by Maya Gallus that examines waitresses in the service industry. Featuring a variety of waitresses young and old from restaurants all around the world (including Tokyo, Toronto, Montreal and Paris), the documentary examines what it’s like to be a waitress, why some of the women there chose the profession and some challenges they face.

I found this documentary to be fascinating. As someone who often eats out, it was interesting to see what it’s like from the waitresses point of view. It’s amazing to see how many different types of waitresses there are, from the comfortable homey types at truck stops, to the big tittied flirty types at Hooters to the crazy weird maid/servant types in Japan. Every waitress reveals some insight into their work – how you deal with aggressive males, how to deal with couples, how to deal with colleagues.. all the things you never think about when going to a restaurant. I’d list some, but I don’t really want to give anything away – I’ll just say some of the information revealed makes you go ‘hmm, never thought about that…’. It’s interesting.

As a documentary focusing solely on women in the service industry, I found this documentary to be excellent. The interest level never drops, the stories are well balanced and never drags and you get many different point of views. Also, if you are in Toronto, then you’ll be wondering where the hell the George Street Diner is. Go watch it.

* It’s probably best to not see this film on an empty stomach, you will get hungry.

World Premiere at Hot Docs
April 30 – The Bloor – 9:15pm – 506 Bloor St. W.
May 8 – The Royal – 1:30pm – 608 College St.

Running Time: 70 Minutes

Review: Love At the Twilight Motel [2009, Alison Rose]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

Toronto – Formally known as Love at the Starlite Motel, Love at the Twilight Motel is Alison Rose’s journey in the seemingly dark world of the people who frequent hourly motels. The setting of the documentary takes place in Miami, and the Twilight Motel is one of the city’s busiest (especially the hours of 12:00 – 2:00). Here, many people arrive shrouded in secrecy to do whatever they have to do. The documentary follows the lives of an escort, a (dirty) massage therapist, a hooker, a junkie and a cheating housewife among others.

The Miami setting lends itself to a host of colorful characters that speak both English and Spanish. The subjects give out very intimate details about what they do at these motels and why they do/justify it. I found it extremely interesting, if not a bit depressing, as most of the characters seem to be stuck in a vicious cycle that seems to be having a negative impact on their lives. However, as messed up as you might think these people are, you are also surprised at how normal they are in the interviews and sometimes the justifications for their actions seem to make sense. You can kinda see it from their perspective, which is always a sign of a good documentary.

The documentary is nicely shot, and careful angles are used to ensure the subjects anonymity although anyone with lets say..okay voice recognition would probably be able to pick out who these people are right away if they knew them.

A compelling look into at the inhabitants of what most people would assume is a seedy underbelly of any city.

Love at the Twilight Motel plays at

The Royal April 10 & 11, 2010 at 7pm
The Revue on April 14 & 15, 2010 at 7pm

Hot Docs Review – Broke [Rosie Dransfeld, 2009]

Posted on by Wade in Everything, Hot Docs, Movies | Leave a comment


A few things about being broke that I have noticed over the past few months

1. You will eat a three-year-old box of Kraft Dinner and you will enjoy it.
2. You will always find money for alcohol.
3. Being home beats the shit out of getting up and going to work.

This movie, BROKE, was really good. It is a Canadian doc about an Edmonton pawnshop owner and the daily running of his business. They filmed it basically by putting a camera and sound guy in the pawnshop and filming what went down.

I found myself laughing out loud several times. The arrogant, rude, yet innocent things that come out of the pawnshop owners’ mouth are priceless. It was enjoyable for several reasons. First, you are interested in the clientele that come into pawnshop. Their stories, their haggling, their various states of intoxication. Priceless. Second, I was interested in the relationship between the Jewish pawnshop owner and his helper friend. Third, there was a narrative arc that brought us full circle. Yes, this movie was pretty spectacular. Great editing and a killer concept will leave you thinking ‘why didn’t I think of this?’

I am giving it a 4.5 out of 5. Why not a 5? Well, because the music was horrible. Imagine a bible thumping after school special from the 1980’s, then imagine music worse than that. Although the music was used sparingly, when it did come on, all I could think was “Who the crap chose this?”

You have one more chance to see Broke. It scored a repeat screening this Sunday night. I suggest you get your ass out and see it.

9:45 Sunday, May 10th – Innis Town Hall *plays with The Man Behind The Log