Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review -- Eleanor Friedberger, Hospitality @ The Garrison, Toronto (May 4, 2012)

Eleanor Friedbierger
  Eleanor Friedbierger: photo by Michael Ligon

Brooklyn came to Toronto at the beginning of May when Brooklyn-based artist Eleanor Friedbierger and opening band Hospitality played the Garrison. In fact the first time I'd seen both artists live was during a show at the Bowery Ballroom last year during CMJ when they comprised 2/3 of a bill headlined by indie rock supergroup Wild Flag. Given my fascination and love for NYC which I've only had the pleasure of visiting twice so far over the last few years, this second opportunity to see these artists live here at home would at the very least serve as a good reminder of my time in NYC last year.

Since I'd saw Hospitality live in NYC during CMJ last October the band have signed with Merge Records and released their debut self-titled full-length. As well, since CMJ last year the four-piece have played a few shows (as an opener) in Toronto which I did not make it to, but finally this time around I was able to make it. The band's sound is reminiscent of the breezy indie pop of which I'd so loved in the 90's, centering on the attractive vocals of Amber Papini. It was also the bass-guitar playing of Brian Betancourt which I noticed, less of a low-end rhythmic tool but more melodic and providing some interplay with the more dexterous guitar arrangements. As airy as Papini's vocals could be, she did flex her vocal muscles on a few songs, displaying a bit of grit and yelp, a punk influence perhaps which is not too surprising given this was the same lady wearing a Beastie Boys "Check Your Head" t-shirt during last year's show at the Bowery Ballroom. There was a definite appreciation for the band (even a song request) by the early crowd, as sparse as it was.

As this was an all-Brooklyn bill, I must also mention it was an all-Merge Records bill as well. After having been one half of The Fiery Furnaces for many years, Miss Friedberger quietly released her debut full-length entitled Last Summer on Merge in July of last year. I remembered loving her set at the Bowery Ballroom last year and had only picked up the vinyl album late last year and the buzz around her since last year has I've perceived been generally on the low-end. Although not elbow-to-elbow at the Garrison, it was a healthy turnout for Miss Friedberger, and by the vocal response there were some definite die-hards in the audience.

Eleanor's hipster, vintage retro-threads notwithstanding, her songs came off as a sincere homage to that late 70's / early 80's NYC music scene, flexing a pop sensibility with an edginess, whether musically or lyrically. Like a faded photograph, Friedberger's songs were imbued with a nostalgic quality. However simplistic a description, I imagined Patti Smith fronting Blondie with the grittiness of Television and Lou Reed thrown in for good measure. Shedding the idiosyncrasies of her work in The Fiery Furnaces which made them difficult listening at times, Friedberger has wholly embraced pop song craftsmanship. She and her band played a set that included selections off Last Summer plus a bunch of new songs. My favourite songs of the set included the bouncy "My Mistakes", the sparkling "Heaven" and the funkafied pop of "Roosevelt Island". Coming back for a three song encore, Eleanor played a few songs solo [even revising her lyrics on the spot to acknowledge a segment of the crowd to stop talking], and ended with her and the band playing a cover of Bob Dylan's "True Love Tends To Forget". So true love may tend to forget but I assure you a good show, as this was, you won't.

Photos: Eleanor Friedberger, Hospitality @ The Garrison, Toronto (May 4, 2012)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

School Of Seven Bells @ The Hoxton, Toronto (May 2, 2012)

School Of Seven Bells: photo by Michael Ligon
  School Of Seven Bells: photo by Michael Ligon

Several weeks back during Hot Docs (which I was hitting pretty hardcore), I'd also realized that two shows which I'd purchased advance tickets for were taking place during the same week, the first being by New York City group School Of Seven Bells at The Hoxton. The first and only time I'd seen the band live was in October 2010 in their hometown of New York City during the CMJ festival for a headlining bill at Santos Party House. Their set of rhythmic, shoegaze-y, dream-pop was fantastic and the hometown crowd was really enamored with them. That was my last night of CMJ during that year and it was a great way to end the festival. Fast-forward about a year and a half, and here the band were in Toronto promoting their recently released third full-length entitled Ghostory.

With founding member vocalist/keyboardist Claudia Deheza having left the band in 2010, members guitarist Benjamin Curtis and and singer Alejandra Deheza performed as a trio with a drummer during CMJ that year. But as apparent this time around, a fourth member on keyboards and background vocals had been added back into the fold, with the added background vocals melding seamlessly with Alejandra's dreamy vocals. What started out in some ways as a bit mundane, soon picked up steam. I'd only had the pleasure previously of hearing their second album Disconnect From Desire so hearing songs like the ethereal, dream-pop of "Windstorm" were real treats. A respectable-sized crowd was on hand, although not as large as one would hope, but one gets the impression that the band's popularity in Toronto is strictly within cult status. On the contrary, I was thinking the band were more popular than they are, but then in conversation with Chromewaves who was also in attendance, he revealed that the last show he attended back in September 2010 at The Mod Club was quite under-attended. Running through a set and encore in about an hour and change, it was a good set overall. It kind of felt in some ways like the band was running through the motions, but I guess it's a bit discouraging when they still can't fill venues in Toronto.

Chromewaves also has a review of the show.

Photos: School Of Seven Bells @ The Hoxton, Toronto (May 2, 2012)
MySpace: School Of Seven Bells

Monday, May 14, 2012

Hot Docs -- Reviews (May 1-3, 2012)

  Shut Up And Play The Hits

We Are Legion: The Story Of The Hacktivists [Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, May 1, 6:15 pm]

"The geeks shall inherit the earth" may be a phrase you may have perhaps heard of. On one hand, Microsoft's Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs of Apple have proven this well from a corporate standpoint. But from a political standpoint it's grassroots protest groups such as Anonymous, the subject of this documentary, who've proven to be conduits for change and influence against political oppression and repressive behaviors from other groups. We Are Legion traces the evolution of a subculture of online misfits whose perceived juvenile behaviours were but a reflection of a shared mentality that information online should not be repressed nor censored by anyone. The documentary illustrates through news footage, interviews with individuals connected to Anonymous, and other figures, how through a series of key events this subculture organized into the movement we see today, most recently aligning itself with the Occupy movement that had sprouted up in many North American metropolitan cities. As a liberal-minded person myself I can sympathize with some of what Anonymous has tried to accomplish and the documentary takes a sympathetic view of the group, but I can see how this documentary might infuriate some. Like a Michael Moore documentary, We Are Legion is definitely one-sided.

The Queen of Versailles [TIFF Bell Lightbox, May 2, 7 pm]

One wonders what director Lauren Greenfield 's intentions were when she picked buxom trophy wife and mother Jackie Siegel, her eight children and her real estate /time-share mogul husband David Siegel as the subject of her documentary. The beginning of the documentary shows the family, super wealthy but relatively down to earth embarking on building what would have been the largest private residence(inspired by the Palace of Versailles in France, hence the documentary's title) in the United States. I wonder how compelling a documentary this might have been just focusing on this aspect of the family and I could imagine this could have been a superficial mess. But when the economic downturn of 2008 hits, and even the Spiegels aren't immune, this is where the meat and potatoes of the documentary establishes itself. No the Spiegels aren't thrown into poverty but from their own exaggerated perspective they're having to cutback like everyone else and even their dream home remains a dream because of it. Greenfield has a sympathetic subject in Jackie, choosing to show her as an educated, and loving mother, which I have no doubt she is. She and her family were living the American dream and in these economic times will hopefully not be another victim in the pursuit of it.

An Affair of The Heart [Cumberland, May 3, 6:30 pm]

As a preteen of the early 80's who hadn't yet established his musical tastes, I vaguely recall the hysteria of pop artist Rick Springfield. I had older cousins who liked him, and thought he had a wacky stage presence. "Jessie's Girl" may have been the big hit but for some reason I gravitated towards "Don't Talk To Strangers" (I think because it sound like a Hall and Oates songs and I liked Hall and Oates.) Back then he was considered light-weight pop music, and I thought so as well, and as the mid to late eighties came my musical tastes soon gravitated towards "cool" music (eg. The Smiths, The Cure, New Order) and I soon forgot about Rick. Little did I know that his fans never really went away, and while may Rick may have been out of the musical spotlight for a time, especially in the nineties, his career and fan-dom, as this documentary shows, is perhaps stronger than ever. Director Sylvia Caminer takes a well-balanced look at the man and his fans. The documentary is not merely a comeback story of a 80's pop idol, but also one of survival of a man's ongoing bouts with depression that have plagued his life. The documentary also doesn't merely focus on the undying fandom(and the positive effect he's had on his fans) of his mostly female audience but it also chooses to question the rationality of his cult-like fan-base. The camera follows Rick on tour as he meets fans(as well as some of their jealous husbands) and performs and the documentary also splices in various interview footage with Rick as he promotes his memoir "Late, Late at Night". The cynic might take the documentary as a ingenious promotion tool for his book but taken on it's own merits I thought it was pretty decent. And I swear if you weren't a fan before, you will at the very least come out of it humming "Jessie's Girl".

Shut Up and Play The Hits [TIFF Bell Lightbox, May 3, 9:30 pm]

I remember watching the webcast of LCD Soundsystem's final show at Madison Square Gardens in April 2011 and being drawn to both to the music of a band that I wasn't really that familiar with and the euphoric energy of the show itself. It's one of those times I discovered a band too late and felt more than an ounce of regret because of it. This documentary is far from just being a concert film but also shows quiet moments of personal reflection on the part of the band's leader James Murphy in the days after the show is done as he ponders what he's accomplished and what the future holds for him. Murphy's personal reflection is given further clarity with his interview session with author Chuck Klosterman which is spliced in throughout the film in between concert footage. The brief history of LCD Soundsystem is that he started the group when he was 31 years of age, made three albums and then decided to call it quits almost ten years later. There's the factor of Murphy's age which is part of the reason for quitting as he wants to pursue other things as well, especially now that he's in his 40's. And as Klosterman interviews Murphy, Klosterman says he thinks bands are remembered for their successes, but are defined mostly by their biggest failure and Murphy ultimately answers that maybe his biggest failure is “Stopping.” You get the feeling that Murphy's decision to quit was a deeply conflicted one. Such responses from Murphy are deeply insightful. A scene in which Murphy himself is in a storage locker containing all his band's gear where he breaks down in tears are just heartbreaking. The title of the film was a humourous phrase expressed by Arcade Fire's Win Butler (him and his bandmates being special guests during LCD Soundsystem's final show) and musically the song choice focuses on the band's best known ones with "Dance Yourself Clean" (from the band's debut) kicking off the musical segment, with sublime and to me extremely emotional favourites like "Something Great" and "All Your Friends" (focusing on the euphoric energy of the crowd) also being included and the the deeply poignant "New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" ending off the night. The documentary takes place over the span of a few days, and is a document of a moment in time. Deeply entertaining, deeply moving, and and frankly one of the best music documentaries I've seen.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hot Docs -- Reviews (April 29-30, 2012)


The Job [Cumberland, Sunday April 29, 1:30 pm]

The primary scene of this documentary is a French corporate boardroom of a job recruitment agency that pits a panel of headhunters against a ten job-seekers of varying ages and job experience.  As the perspective changes between four static, strategically-placed cameras, the viewer gets to observe the often-tense situations the job candidates go through over the course of two days. With the two days entailing entailing role-playing, mock debates and intimidating panel discussions, candidates are often confused with the techniques and at times even feels border-line demeaning. But there is a method to the madness and the successful candidates that last stand will be the ones that can exemplify the soft skills that the recruiters are looking for. The 2-day recruitment session is interspersed with interviews with most of the candidates a few weeks after, with some honest and sometimes humorous insight each of the candidates had of their experience. I haven't gone through any recent job changes myself, but if what was displayed in this film is what, I have to look forward during a job recruitment process, God help me.

Ping Pong [Isabel Bader Theatre,  Sunday April 29, 4:00 pm]

The competitive spirit knows no limits even age as Ping Pong follows eight over-80 years of age Ping Pong players from the US,  Germany, Australia, China and the UK going to Mongolia for the over-80's table tennis championships. Director Hugh Hartford, shown in a Hot Docs promo video clip for his documentary expresses it's major themes as "morality, friendship, rivalry". It was interesting to see the various back-stories of each competitor, some of it being a bit sad and painful, but overall there is a funny and light-hearted tone to the documentary that strongly illustrates the tenacity of the elderly. 

The Record Breaker [Isabel Bader Theatre, Sunday April 29, 4:00 pm]

Within the span of 28 minutes, Danish director Brian McGinn tells the story of Ashrita Furman of Queens, New York who holds the record of most Guinness World Records held by an individual. Is this driven by the immutable spirit of a perpetual man-child, by a higher spiritual calling, or perhaps one man's quest to give his life meaning? It may be a little of all of these things. As the film focuses on his most recent record-breaking quest to climb Macchu Picchu on stilts, one thing is for sure - Furman is one zany dude, and an immediatedly likable one at that. He chases these records because it makes him happy, and chasing what makes us happy may be the most important lesson The Record Breaker has taught us. Recommended.

Laura [ROM, Sunday April 29, 7:00 pm]

Somewhere within this documentary, there may be a story to tell but overall this feels incomplete and unresolved.  Shot in a very free form, cinema-verite style,  director Fellipe Gamarano follows Laura who lives a dichotomous life, living in a cramped / cram-filled apartment on one hand, and charming her way into the New York socialite-scene on the other. The first half of the documentary feels very superficial as it follows Laura attending socialite events, shopping and going to fancy restaurants with Laura, while not a boring person, doesn't feel like an intriguing enough of a character to hold the audience's attention. And indeed I did observe small groups of people walk out. Even as I was pondering what the point of this documentary was, Laura herself expresses criticism to the director that the footage that he's been shooting of her hasn't been that interesting. It's the second half of the film in which it partially redeems itself as the director himself interjects himself into the story to address Laura's hoarding issue. It feels a little to late by the time this happens, and there are more questions than answers by the end. An overall frustrating experience, all the more surprising given Gamaran's articulate responses during the Q & A afterwards.

The Quiet One [TIFF Bell Lightbox, Monday April 30, 6:30 pm]

Childhood, as does life, alternates between happiness and sadness and this documentary short illustrates this beautifully. Focusing on Maryam, an Irani refugee having to adjust to her school life in Sweden, she not only needs to learn Swedish but also has to deal with the tribulations of making friends and fitting in - it's not easy, and often leads to outbursts and acting up on Maryam's part to express herself.  Equal parts heartbreaking and victorious, this is a lovely, lovely film. 

Inocente [TIFF Bell Lightbox, Monday April 30, 6:30 pm]

Inspiring, emotional, and visually spectacular, this documentary focuses on the story of 15-year old Inocente who while experiencing much pain in her life, from physical abuse from her father, to her subsequent homelessness after she, her mother and siblings left their home, has found hope and optimism through her art work. The documentary  acts as subtle paen to the arts & arts funding as the story focuses on Inocente's preparation for her own art show(for which she needs to create thirty pieces), sponsored by a program at her local youth centre. The camera cuts between an observer's perspective and intimate close-ups of Inocente, and also interviews with people in Inocente's life like the youth centre art program co-ordinator but also perhaps the most  heartbreaking being with her mother's painful confession. Overall,  Inocente is a well-edited, interesting-told story of a an impressive young person.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Hot Docs -- Reviews (April 27-28, 2012)

  Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet

Beware of Mr. Baker [Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Friday April 27, 6:15 pm]

Within the annals of rock n' roll history, Mr. Ginger Baker may not be quite as well known as others but director Jay Bulger successfully makes a case with his documentary why Mr. Baker should be more highly regarded. To some he's most well-known as the drummer in the influential yet short-lived British hard rock group Cream and is highly regarded as the inventor of rock n' roll drumming. The documentary is a funny, insightful look at a man who seems all piss and vinegar and has led his life the way he's wanted to live it (even if it meant alienating friends and family), in more recent years dealing with money and health issues. But as the documentary illustrates through interviews with family, band mates and other musicians as well as through a wealth of fantastic video footage and photographs, Mr. Baker has travelled a unique musical path without ever having planned it through the 60's right up to present day that firmly establishes his contribution to popular music.

Black Block [TIFF Bell Lightbox, Friday April 27, 9:45 pm]

With the horror of the G20 protests of 2010 in Toronto still fresh in memory, I was tempted to check out Black Black which focuses on the protests and even more horrific police brutality of the G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy in 2001. Interspersing raw video footage with present-day interviews with a group of the protesters, director Carlo A. Bachschmidt has created a well-meaning although ultimately flawed documentary. Focusing primarily on individual interviews with each protester, each gives detailed accounts of police brutality that they'd experienced, the culmination of which was the police raid at the Diaz School which protesters had used as a crash pad during the Summit. It's the traumatizing experiences and ultimately the healing and motivations for each to continue to stand up for their individual beliefs in their present lives (even if they're no longer on the front lines) which is the main point of the documentary. It's unfortunate that most of the docmentary's 76 minutes was devoted to the protesters individually talking into the camera about their traumatizing experiences with little insight given to anything else.

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet [Isabel Bader Theatre, Saturday April 28, 4:30 pm]

Jason Becker's story is a sad but ultimately inspiring one. As a young boy, Jason's introduction to the guitar, a Christmas gift given to him by his father was, initially a failed effort due to Jason's boredom. But Jason would overcome that and would eventually gain a true love and talent for the instrument. It's Jason's prodigious talent and hard work that gets him his foot in the music industry even before he graduates high school. The culmination is when Jason lands a gig with David Lee Roth's band in the early 90's which at the time was the most sought after gig for any heavy metal / hard rock guitarist. Jason was able to record an album with Roth but before embarking on a tour, Jason was tragically diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. Director Jesse Vile has accumulated a wealth of video footage and photographs and combined with interviews with family and friends tells a revealing story of a would-have-been rock star who through the support of mostly his family as well as his own determination and perseverance has continued to beat the odds of his disease, stay healthy enough and perhaps most important to himself, make music. The closet metal fan in me highly recommends this.

Los Angeles Plays Itself [Innis Town Hall, Saturday April 28, 7:00 pm]

Directed by Thom Anderson his 2003 effort Los Angeles plays itself is not so much a documentary as what he's described as a video essay. With the dry delivery of its narrator (not Anderson), the socio-cultural commentary is spoken against the back drop of a steady stream of Hollywood film clips dating back to Hollywood's earliest years with most recent clips being from films around 1999. Like an essay, Anderson breaks up the film in chapters, displaying titles such as "Los Angeles as subject". Like the city it discusses, at 169 minutes it is sprawling in length, interesting on many occasions but also a bit too academic in its thoughts at times. It really did feel like something I should be watching as part of a university course. The man criticism I overheard from other audience members was the film's length but on a related-note it also cut in to the start times of all the other films starting between 9 and 10 pm that night. Shucks.