NXNE 2014 Preview
As the name implies, North by Northeast can be seen as a sort of partner to Austin, TX’s South by Southwest. The festival takes place in Toronto from June 13-22, and will see plenty of bands, comedians, films, artists and more show off their stuff. Like SXSW, NXNE is expanding its horizons beyond music and into film. Up until now the festival only screened films involving music, but in its 20th year the program has expanded to include non-music related films.
In advance of this year’s festival, we were able to catch 6 films set to play between June 13 and 15 at the gorgeous Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. This is merely a sampling of what’s available, as short films and music videos will also be screening with select titles. By far the most anticipated film in this year’s line-up is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which will have its Canadian premiere on June 14th.
But don’t forget to take a peek at what else is playing at NXNE. And I don’t just mean the films either. There are hundreds of live acts playing the festival, so be sure to spare some time and look at what else is going on at the festival. Read on to see our thoughts on the 6 films playing, along with dates and times. You can find more information, including how to buy passes, at www.nxne.com. If you don’t want to buy a pass, you can buy individual tickets for the films here.
Riot on the Dance Floor
Screens Friday, June 13 at 9:30pm
Riot on the Dance Floor is a documentary about City Gardens, a club in Trenton, NJ that was home to a surprisingly vibrant music scene. Club promoter Randy Now booked a wide variety of acts at the club throughout the 80s and 90s. Bands like Nirvana, Black Flag, R.E.M., Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, Bad Brains, De La Soul and The Ramones are just a few of the bands that played City Gardens over the years. The club was seen by some as a sort of CBGB for suburban kids in New Jersey, and the eclectic bookings by Now (reggae, punk, metal, soul, alternative, etc.) gave the club a legendary status to those who knew it.
Director Steve Tozzi interviews locals, members of bands that played over the years and Now himself to paint a picture of City Gardens as a truly unique, and mostly unheard of piece of music history. Stories of the club helping establish Ween, Butthole Surfers trying to burn down the place, and a notoriously awful show by the band Venom are a few of the more entertaining pieces here. Tozzi constructs a pleasant, nifty documentary, although it might be a little alienating to people without any knowledge of the alternative scene.
For those with some familiarity, watching everyone wax nostalgic about City Gardens from Jello Biafra to Jon Stewart (he was a bartender at City Gardens for several years) is fun to watch. Tozzi gets a little too indulgent, letting his film run close to the 2 hour mark and dedicating too much time to Trenton’s past, but it isn’t long before another crazy anecdote gets the film moving again. And despite all of the focus on the club itself, Tozzi makes sure that Now is the film’s centerpiece. Randy Now may be an unsung hero, but Riot on the Dance Floor makes sure he finally gets his due.
Screens Saturday, June 14 at 12:30pm
Whoops! is pretty nonsensical, but its concept is a fun one. Rose Clements (Elaine Glover) is a caring but clumsy wife and mother of two. Rose is accident prone, but in a very particular way: her mistakes end up inadvertently killing someone. Her first kill happens when she mistakes a man in a parking lot for a stalker trying to attack her. She leaps out and hits him in defense, only to take out one of his eyeballs with her car keys. Rose’s husband Dave (Philip Rowson), fearing how the death will look to the authorities, hides the body. It doesn’t take long before Rose unintentionally kills again, and for the cops to start suspecting the happy couple.
It’s odd how almost all of Rose’s murders happen as a result of her fear of getting attacked by a man. Someone could take it as a kind of commentary on the very real fears women have, and how badly things end up for them when they act on it, but that might be giving Whoops! too much credit. This is primarily a silly, dark comedy, and it’s surprising how much it works. The cast is strong, with Olwen May getting most of the laughs as the hard-headed cop investigating Rose’s killings (also good: Paul Tomblin as one of Dave’s dim-witted co-workers). Dave’s decision to cover up his wife’s crimes is a little far-fetched, along with how May’s character manages to solve the case, but the entire film is so inherently ridiculous it feels silly to complain about implausible behaviour.
Unfortunately Whoops! falls into the usual horror/comedy trap of going for a sentimental climax. This is a film more about getting laughs at Rose and Dave’s deathly incompetence, not about their loving relationship. Still, Whoops! is a gory little romp that, despite its copious amounts of blood, is pretty harmless.
Luck’s Hard – Ron Hawkins and the Do Good Assassins
Screens Saturday, June 14 at 10pm
The winner of the most Canadian film in the NXNE line-up will probably go to this film, a profile of Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Hawkins (probably known most from the band Lowest of the Low) and the new direction he’s taking his solo career: touring with a backing band and recording a double album with them. Directors David Brown and Daniel Williams spend some time on the music, but prefer to profile Hawkins along with the members of The Do Good Assassins.
Fans of Hawkins’ music, seen as a small but fiercely dedicated group in the film, will definitely have a good time with Luck’s Hard. The doc operates more as a puff piece than a serious work, something that would probably work best as a bonus feature on the band’s double album, but for the most part Hawkins and his band get by on their inoffensive charm. Brown and Williams admirably try to expand the scope of their work, using Hawkins as a symbol for a standard DIY indie artist and exploring how these kinds of artists can hack it in today’s music scene. A few choice moments, like the band’s bassist explaining why Toronto is one of the best music scenes in the world, are tailor-made for the NXNE crowd but the film’s appeal will still be limited. If you’re a fan of Hawkins, or interested in his music (some of which you can sample here) Luck’s Hard is worth catching during NXNE.
Well now you’re Here, There’s No Way Back – The Quiet Riot Movie
Screens Sunday, June 15 at 9:45pm
Regina Russell’s film finally answers the question “What would a 110 minute documentary about Quiet Riot be like?” The answer is, somewhat unsurprisingly, a bit of a mixed bag. The first 45 minutes are engaging and thorough, as Russell culls together her own interviews along with archival footage to give a brief history of the 80s rock band’s heyday. Vocalist Kevin Dubrow and drummer Frankie Banali made up the nucleus of the band, as one interview subject puts it, and their album “Metal Health” ushered in the glam metal era. “Metal Health” actually dethroned “Thriller” on the charts, and bands like Poison and Twisted Sister probably wouldn’t have been as successful if Quiet Riot didn’t pave the way for them.
The band’s story ends on a tragic note in 2007 when Dubrow died of a drug overdose, but the doc’s second (and weaker) half dedicates itself to following Banali’s attempts to restart the band with a new vocalist. Banali is clearly resentful of Dubrow’s death, looking at it as an act of selfishness that took away his career, and the doc’s look at Banali’s coping is one of the strongest part of the film, but it’s all too brief. Unfortunately it’s bogged down by an overindulgent runtime and stale touring segments, the kind of material with no appeal to anyone who might not be a fan of the band. Russell also proves to be pretty weak as a director, with several blatantly staged sequences that have more in common with a Bravo reality series than a piece of documentary filmmaking (also of note: a title card at the end reveals Banali and Russell got engaged after she finished filming). Those issues in the second half aside, Russell still crafts a decent “rock doc” any fan of the band or metal music will find fulfilling.
Voice of the Voiceless
Screens Friday, June 13 at 6pm
Give credit where it’s due: Writer/director Maximón Monihan clearly has a strong vision for his debut feature. The Voice of the Voiceless takes the point of view of Olga (Janeva Adena Calderon Zentz), a Central American deaf girl, and the film’s audio mix replicates Olga’s hearing. That means no audible dialogue, just low frequencies and dull thuds for anything especially loud. It’s a bold choice for a first-time filmmaker, but it doesn’t necessarily constitute a successful one.
Olga is lured to New York City under false pretenses of joining a sign language school. In reality, an international crime syndicate tricks her into becoming their slave. Day after day Olga gets on subway trains handing out “I am deaf” cards asking for donations, all of which go to her captors. Monihan spends a considerable chunk of his film repeating Olga’s daily routine to show off its mundane horrors, but this constant repetition does more to induce boredom than emphasize Olga’s horrifically banal routine.
Monihan’s choice to go for a pseudo-silent film is admirable, but the execution is seriously lacking. Eventually subtitles come into the picture, and information is relayed in ways that are either too vague to understand (I had to refer to the film’s official synopsis in order to understand that Olga was lured under the pretense of joining a school) or so blatantly defined it’s hard not to laugh (a box of rat poison saying POISON FOR RATS in massive lettering). The result is a tonal mess, a film that carelessly veers between broad, possibly unintentional comedy and cheap, miserablist drama.
Still, Monihan deserves some credit for trying something so unorthodox with a fact-based drama (Monihan was inspired by an article about a racket similar to the one in the film that went on in NYC for years). Ultimately it’s an interesting but failed experiment.
Lies I Told My Little Sister
Screens Sunday, June 15 at 3pm
Written by a woman in her 60s with no screenwriting experience and directed by a 21 year old NYU student, Lies I Told My Little Sister is one of the more torturous films I’ve had to sit through in a long time. Cory (Lucy Walters) and Jane (Michelle Petterson) are getting over the recent loss of their older sister Sarah (Alicia Minshew) when Jane suggests the entire family go on a weekend getaway to Cape Cod. Jane is an overly protective wife and mother who resents Cory’s free spirited lifestyle working as a nature photographer, so naturally they’re bound to clash once they spend time together. Will Jane and Cory be able to get along? Will everyone learn to move on from their recent tragedy? Will Cory happen to find love during her short getaway? The answer to all of those is yes.
Lies I Told My Little Sister is a twee indie hellscape, the sort of Sundance bottom feeder that feels more like a parody than an attempt at something sincere. Writers Jonathan Weisbrod and Judy White infuse their script with false profundities and metaphors so bad (“The past is the past, and you can’t wear it around your neck like a garlic clove”) even Zach Braff would cringe at them. Every conversation and dramatic moment ends with characters laughing together or hugging because feel-good movies do that, I guess. It’s all meant to be realistic or relatable, when the exact opposite is true. Lies I Told My Little Sister looks like aliens came down to earth and tried to make their own version of a heartwarming family dramedy. I didn’t think there could be a more inhuman film this year than Under the Skin, but here we are.
On the (very minor) plus side, the cinematography and cast are surprisingly good, but that’s kind of it. If you love montages scored with ukulele, glockenspiel and pounding piano riffs sounding like rejected Spoon songs, you might enjoy yourself. For me, the cloying non-stop attempts at ‘snappy dialogue’ and cutesy moments were insufferable. The film ends with Jane’s precocious son gathering his family around a campfire, making them hold hands and say “Om” together. “Are we Buddhists now?” Jane’s husband asks. “No,” Cory says, looking up at the stars. “We’re just alive.”If that doesn’t make you want to claw your face off, Lies I Told My Little Sister might be right up your alley.
Let’s Ruin it With Babies
Screens Sunday, June 15 at 6:30pm
Way Too Indie was able to see Let’s Ruin it With Babies earlier this year at the San Francisco Indiefest. In our review herewe said it was an “über-cute road flick with real drama and savvy, hard-hitting humor.” Be sure to read our review, as well as our interview with director/writer/star Kestrin Pantera.
Other films screening at the festival:
Born to Ruin (screens Saturday, June 14 at 3pm) – This music documentary follows Toronto-based band The Wildlife over 3 months as they record their sophomore album. The doc promises it will “inevitably change the common perception of life in a music studio.”
Boyhood (screens Saturday, June 14 at 6pm) – Do I need to say anything more? Richard Linklater’s coming of age tale is unprecedented in that it filmed its main character’s coming of age in real time; Linklater began shooting in 2002, periodically filming more scenes over the years until finally wrapping in 2013. The film has been a massive hit at Sundance, Berlin and SXSW, and now NXNE is happy to host its Canadian premiere. For those who can’t wait until July, this is your chance to catch one of 2014’s most-anticipated films.
Vann “Piano Man” Walls – The Spirit of R&B (screens Sunday, June 15 at 12:30pm) – Vann “Piano Man” Walls might not be well-known, but his influence sure is. The piano player worked as a musician at Atlantic Records, helping record some of R&B’s biggest songs (including Joe Turner’s “Chains of Love”). The documentary follows Walls’ history in the music business along with the recording of his final album.