Reviews

Hot Docs Review: Leave Them Laughing [2010, John Zaritsky]

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

After the disappointment of the very cardboard documentary about the Magnetic Fields, I switched gears entirely to Leave Them Laughing, a documentary featuring one-woman entertainment machine (and Canadian) Carla Zilbersmith. A lead singer, comedienne, actress, teacher, and mother, her rapid deterioration to Lou Gehrig’s Disease sucks you in. In the first few minutes of the film I had written her off as a saucier, iller Rita Rudner but there are truly funny and genuine moments in this doc, regardless of how cliched they are.

Again, I reiterate that the reason this film (somewhat) works is because of Zilbersmith’s willingness to bear it all on camera. Her greatest fears seem real, her relationship with her son is unique, and even her most gaggingly “Bucket List” moments engage us. She has a wicked sense of humor throughout, peppered inbetween a horribly long-running routine about her world condom collection.

35% of the film features  nauseating triteness. There’s the bitter divorce routine (her husband left her for a 20-something before she was diagnosed) where she tosses her wedding ring into the ocean with a bunch of girlfriends, the “I need to have sex too” routine (which I admit sounded a little too close to home),  the tender moments with the teenage son who’s taking care of her (“life isn’t fair but don’t let this disappointing moment define you”), and her last bow routine (during her final live musical performance).

There are a couple of moments that surprised me.  Most notably her tongue-in-cheek trek to the Holy Land Experience, where she jokingly wants to present the Jesus performer with a heart shaped box of chocolates and a seasonal teddy bear, only to break down in tears when the Sheppard Girl is so touched by her story she fails to pick up on the joke. There is also her hilarious blog, which her son now updates. It seems Carla is on her last leg, and her ability to laugh at herself while calling herself a dried out cripple is pretty admirable.

Leave Them Laughing is co-presented with ALS Society of Ontario and is showing on:

Thu, May 06 9:15 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre
Sat, May 08 3:15 pm, Bloor Cinema

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