Sunday, November 24, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Searching for Sugar ManReading about Searching for Sugar Man, the documentary piqued my interest but it’s the resounding reviews from people who’d seen it that sold me. The story will be especially attractive to music aficionados. The facts about Rodriguez and his trajectory are specific yet possess a broad appeal.

The story is about Sixto Rodriguez, a talented folk singer, guitarist from Detroit. Compared to Bob Dylan for his powerful lyrics, he performed with his back to the audience. A terrific lyricist who put out two records in the 1970s to no financial success. He was dropped from his label and went into obscurity. Except that in South Africa he was a superstar, selling at least half a million records. But what happened to Rodriguez?

Enter Stephen “Sugar” Segerman (whose nickname, we learn comes from the eponymous Rodriguez song “Sugar Man”), a jeweler and later record store owner, who tells us about Rodriguez’s musical prowess in South Africa. That he’d heard that he’d set himself afire on stage during a show—the most disturbing rock suicide of all time. When Segerman writes liner notes for a Rodriguez CD reissue, he adds an inquiry in the liner notes to see if anyone has information on the legend. Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, a music journalist, answers the call and starts his investigation, eventually solving the mystery.

The storytelling in Searching for Sugar Man is excellent, as is the Super 8 footage, rich images, colors, hues. We are taken from the picturesque landscape of South Africa to California to Detroit. We get a fable, complete with myths about Rodriguez. We learn about Apartheid in South Africa and how deeply it cut of the country from the rest of the world. Sanctions and boycotts kept out foreign musicians and bands. Inside the country, the conservative pro-Apartheid regime of PW Botha censored music, including Rodriguez (by scratching the songs on LPs so they were unplayable). Story goes that an American woman visiting her South African boyfriend brought a Rodriguez bootleg and it caught, like fire. According to Segerman, during the ‘70s, most middle-class white households with a turntable owned Abbey Road (Beatles), Bridge Over Troubled Waters (Simon and Garfunkel) and Cold Fact (Rodriguez).

Searching for Sugar Man is juicy story with dead ends, switchbacks and a beautifully uplifting ending. The music, cinematography and rich interviews with music industry folk, a brick layer, a construction worker and a bartender round out a movie, underscoring the importance of dreams and that it’s never too late to make it.

Rodriguez Coming From Reality

Writer/Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Country: Sweden/UK

Genre: Documentary that plays like a mystery

Run time: 83 minutes

Scale: 5

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

It’s the 1980s. Bull-riding Southern boy Ron (Matthew McConaughey) drinks hard, snorts a lot of coke and engages in heaps o’ sex.

After being electrocuted, he lands in the hospital where he’s diagnosed with AIDS. He’s told that his T-cell count is 9 (a healthy range is 150-200) and will be dead in 30 days. Ron doesn’t like gays and the news is too much to bear. He leaves the hospital against doctor’s orders despite his persistent cough, his emaciated frame and dizzy spells.

He delves into research to learn all he can about AIDS, its causes and what drugs have success combating the virus. He learns about AZT but trials won’t start for another year. He treks to Mexico to get drugs. He shares the diagnosis with his best friend and soon, Ron’s friends turn on him, he gets evicted and he loses his job.

Ron’s resourceful and intelligent. He battles the FDA, bamboozles at border crossings, travels to other countries to get supplements and proteins. He starts a drug buyers club where he sells the meds that are helping people with the virus. Early on, Ron’s finesse needs work. With the help of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite he meets in the hospital, they build a very successful business that helps scores of sick people despite the incessant obstacles.

This is a remarkable movie that delves into interesting history about a dark era. The facts are alarming and moving. The resilience of Ron and Rayon is inspiring as are their personal struggles. The movie tells its story without beating us with how we are supposed to feel or respond. We are given insight into information in ways that don’t distract from the main events, such as how Ron contracted AIDS.

The cast bursts with talent. Jennifer Garner as the doctor who supports Ron and Rayon’s mission. Bradford Cox (lead singer of Deerhunter) as Rayon’s boyfriend. A white-haired Griffin Dunne as a doctor exiled from practicing in the US. Steve Zahn has a bit role.

You’ve heard about McConaughey’s physical transformation for this one. He’s difficult to behold, he’s that thin. His acting is his best yet, but it’s Jared Leto that is the pulse of Dallas Buyers Club. He’s unrecognizable: his voice, his walk, his shaved eyebrows. He seizes the role of Rayon.

Dallas Buyers Club details the strength of a person who transforms from homophobe to tireless supporter of individuals whose dire needs were largely ignored by the slow-to-act medical establishment. The movie stays with you afterwards.

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 117 minutes

Scale: 5

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

En soap (A Soap) (2006)

En SoapEn soap has a black-humored backbone. Think Transamerica’s darker Danish cousin.

Salon owner Charlotte (Trine Dyrholm) absconds from the home she shares with her boyfriend Kristian (Frank Thiel). She gives him no warning and does it while he’s out of town. She brings to her new pad few possessions and little furniture. The voiceover narration tells us she is bored but does Charlotte have deeper issues? (Yes) Is she a sex addict? (Likely) Is she seeking a feeling that eludes her? (Definitely) Has she found it in Veronica? (All signs point to yes.)

Downstairs neighbor Veronica (David Dencik) is a male-to-female trans woman waiting for approval for her sex-change surgery from the health ministry. She leads a solitary life with Miss Daisy, her scruffy Jack Russell mix. She brings in cash turning tricks with men in her apartment. Her mother (Elsebeth Steentoft) stops by regularly but never for very long. She brings Veronica pâtés and pills and refers to her as Ulrik, much to Veronica's chagrin. Their mutual discomfort is palpable; each wants something the other won’t give. The family patriarch (whom we never meet) is the source of distress to Veronica (who wants to reach out and have him acknowledge her) and to Veronica's mother (who lies to her husband/Veronica’s father about having visited Veronica). After an emotionally trying visit with her dismissive and disappointing mother, Veronica attempts suicide.

When Miss Daisy’s barking, whining and whimpering keeps upstairs neighbor Charlotte awake, she charges downstairs and bangs on Veronica's door. It opens and Miss Daisy leads her to Veronica's bed where she is lifeless in her own puke. Veronica is taken to the hospital and Charlotte watches Miss Daisy. When Veronica returns and fetches her dog, she offers to return the favor.

Charlotte is brusque and offensive to Veronica. Charlotte engages in sex with random guys. She’s uninterested in anything steady or long term. Around Veronica, she’s vulnerable and unguarded and then, Charlotte lashes out and backs off. They play cat and mouse as their chemistry intensifies. Charlotte is taken with Veronica; Veronica is curious about Charlotte. Charlotte grapples with her feelings. Her defenses crack open, especially with the impending final chapter of Veronica’s transition.

Neither is filmed outside the two apartments: Charlotte’s is sparse and bright. Veronica’s is dark and cramped. Veronica introduces Charlotte to a soap opera. Through it, Charlotte gains an understanding about Veronica and the love and acceptance she seeks. There’s a great scene where the two declare themselves boozy lightweights and get their drink on. They dance to “You Take My Breath Away” by The Knife. I loved their moves, their expressions, the moment.

En soap is depressing, leaves a lot unturned but offers hope and longing. We watch the two characters journey and grow closer. Most of their intense feelings are conveyed without words, instead using expressions, silent reactions and subtext. Both actors are expressive and possess a sensitivity that makes this movie work.

Co-writer/Director: Pernille Fischer Christensen

Country: Denmark

Genre: Drama

Run time: 104 minutes

Scale: 4

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Springbreakers (2012)

Springbreakers--James Franco as AlienJames Franco as a cornrowed gangster? Young women financing a spring break trip by committing armed robbery? Could it possibly be good?

It is not. It is, in fact, awful. Yet, I can’t discount it altogether.

We meet three party-loving collegiates, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine). I had difficulty telling the three—all blondes—apart early on. They stand around, engage in banal discussions and encourage their wholesome raven-haired friend Faith (Selena Gomez) to let loose.

They’re pumped to head to Florida for spring break but their bank accounts don’t match their enthusiasm. The downtrodden girls hang in the echoing dorm, abandoned by their peers. The blondes have a light-bulb moment. One borrows a professor’s car, they rob a restaurant and thus, finance spring break. You’d think that they’d return the car and be done with it. No, they torch and watch it burn.

They arrive in Florida and debauch with other spring breakers. All is going well until a party they are attending gets busted. They face several days in the clink when they are unexpectedly bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a rapper and drug dealer with an arsenal of weapons. He takes them back to a house party. The blondes are delighted. He takes a liking to Faith, who already uncomfortable in her surroundings, reaches her breaking point. She takes a bus home and that’s the last we see of her. (It’s so early in the movie, you wonder if Gomez decided that her brand could go only that far.)

Franco jumps into the role of Alien and is so over the top, you forget it’s him. The girls are smitten with the bad boy. Alien gets into his past and how he got to his heights of gangster-dom. His former best friend, Big Arch, also a gangster, warns Alien to stay out of his turf.

The movie rambles, meanders and takes a long time to get no where. We don’t find out what drives any of the characters besides basic hedonistic urges. It escalates to an unbelievable anti-climactic conclusion. Candy and Brit stay with Alien, cavorting and robbing. The lame dialogue, the annoying Hudgens and Benson and the empty plot plod along. It does possess elements perfect for cult-classic standing. It has stylized bits and cinematography that work really well. Pink ski masks, black light effects, slow-motion action and James Franco, especially James Franco, keep Springbreakers from being a zero. Alien deserves his own movie.

I can’t recommend Springbreakers to anyone who wants a plotted story with three-dimensional characters. It does have its moments, and under some conditions, like a midnight movie, bring it on.

Director: Harmony Korine

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 94 minutes

Scale: 3

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Crazy Heart (2009)

Crazy HeartPerhaps it’s the influence of my favorite not-so-new show Nashville, but I loved Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges can go from The Dude to Bad Blake and make an oft-told story shine.

Alcoholic country crooner Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is playing gigs across the Southwest at unknown saloons, tiny bars and even a bowling alley. With no new songs in years and his unpredictability due to his drinking, washed up Bad is living in the shadow of his former protégé Tommy Sweet, a huge star in the new wave of young Nashville.

Bad grants his first interview in years to a young, unknown writer Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). During their interview, the chemistry is electric. Their banter is easy. They possess a comfort level unique between strangers. When Jean asks him about his four marriages and kids, the spell is broken and the interview is over. They agree to meet again the next night. The unlikely pair can’t fight the attraction. With his addiction to whiskey and her affliction for bad boys, can they forge a future?

His agent Jack (Paul Herman) presses him to write songs again and make his way back up. Jack secures him a gig headlining for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). It bring a crushing blow to Bad’s ego. He wants the big bucks but he can’t stand to be an opener and for the star who has surpassed him. Bad balances his life with Jean and her son Buddy, his life on the road and his drinking. He’s even inspired to write until he hits a series of snags that lead to a life-altering rock-bottom.

We don’t meet Tommy Sweet until 42 minutes in but we have heard about him so much, he deserves a drumroll advancing into the shot. The cast is an eclectic delight. The friendship between Wayne (Robert Duvall) and Bad give us perspective into the two men. Bridges as Bad comes alive on stage and provides glimpses into Bad’s past glory. (Bridges and Farrell contributed their own singing.)

Based on the eponymous novel by Thomas Cobb, the movie scored Bridges a Best Actor Oscar, Golden Globe and several other awards. Crazy Heart isn’t a new story but the writing and cast make it a worthwhile viewing. Several folks told me they liked the it despite the country music. I loved the music. If you don’t like the music, you can blame Nashville.

Co-writer/Director: Scott Cooper

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 106 minutes

Scale: 4

Hævnen (In a Better World) (2010)

Elias and ChristianDanish director Susanne Bier starts Hævnen with a father and son in mourning, following the death of the family matriarch.

Following the funeral, pre-teen Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) and his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) relocate to Denmark from London. Claus will commute to London while Claus’s mother watches Christian.

On his first day at school, Christian witnesses a peer being bullied by a group of much bigger boys. The bullied boy Elias (Markus Rygaard) ends up in Christian’s class. The two learn they share a birthday, sit together and begin a friendship. After school, the bullies await Elias. Christian calmly comes to his rescue, gets a basketball pummeled at his face and ends up with a bloody mess of a nose. He goes home, escapes into his shoot-‘em-up video game. He tells his father nothing as their fractured relationship continues to worsen.

Christian returns to wield revenge and send a message to his opportunistic bullies. The school calls in Christian’s dad and Elias’s mother Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) who is upset; the school hasn’t done anything to keep her son safe from bullying and now they are accusing him of conspiring against the bully. Elias’s father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) works abroad in Africa as a doctor in a refugee camp and is gone for long periods. He’s a pacifist and it has rubbed off on Elias who until Christian’s intervention took the violence.

On one of Anton’s visits back, he takes Elias and Christian into town. Anton gets into an altercation with a man at a park. The man lashes out at Anton. Christian seethes at the injustice and disrespect. He urges Anton to exact revenge. Anton explains that remaining calm is the right way; that peace wins in the face of violence, much the way he conducts himself against the barbarity he witnesses in Africa.

Christian cannot accept it. Already struggling with his mother’s death and feelings about his father’s behavior during her illness, his rage explodes and pushes him toward irreparable violence.

The movie examines the effects of bullying on friendships, relationships between fathers and sons, the expectations of men in society and interplay between bullies and victims. Bier is a master of digging deeply into the messy swamp of people’s compulsions, fears and desires. The acting is terrific, especially from the two young leads. Elias displays the emotive side of fear and confusion, while Christian portrays the middle-aged seething at life’s injustices from the perspective of a young man.

Director: Susanne Bier

Country: Denmark

Genre: Drama

Run time: 118 minutes

Scale: 4

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Flight (2012)

FlightDenzel Washington brings new meaning to drunk driving while portraying boozy pilot Whip Whitaker. The opening scene depicts among the most terrifying plane-going-down sequences in recent memory.

Whip lands the plane in what his peers, superiors, the public call a miracle. He’s hailed a hero because only four of 106 die in the crash landing, but Whip isn’t off the hook. When admitted to the hospital, his blood was drawn and tested and his hair was snipped and examined for drugs and alcohol. The results cause Whip professional and personal problems that put him under the watchful public eye. Two empty airline-size bottles of vodka are found in the a bin only Whip and the crew had access to. Because of turbulence, beverage service had been suspended on the flight, making the empty bottles even more mysterious. Will Whip reveal what he knows or will he throw his dead friend under the metaphorical bus?

Whip has to face other issues he’s veiled himself from behind a wall of drugs and anger: his ex-wife only contacts him when she wants money. His son doesn’t get in touch at all. Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) his partying friend is dead. Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), an addict in recovery after an accidental OD, at the hospital and the two form an unlikely friendship. While this relationship gave some insight to the depth of Whip’s disease, the character of Nicole doesn’t anchor strongly in the plot. There isn’t investigation as to why Whip turned to drugs and alcohol, which would have given his character more insight but it didn’t occur to me until afterwards.

Flight is compelling. You see the scheming that goes on behind the scenes when big business stands to lose a lot of money and how deep pockets can erase medical records, skew evidence and disprove facts. Washington delivers an honest portrayal for which he was deservingly nominated for an Oscar. He may not have taken that prize but he does Flight right.

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 138 minutes

Scale: 4

Smashed (2012)

SmashedI gravitated to Smashed because it co-stars Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame. I also wondered if a movie called Smashed would deliver a serious or ironic portrayal of addiction. Would it overpromise and under-deliver?

Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) oversleeps and wakes up, hung over and soaked in urine. She and husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) realize Kate has peed herself as they awake in the wet spot. Kate readies herself for work, taking a swig of beer as she showers and nipping whiskey before entering school to teach her grade schoolers, who are equally cute and aggressively nosy. When Kate suddenly pukes, missing the trash bin, her students are disturbed and horrified. They pummel her with questions, including whether she’s pregnant. To move along quickly, she affirms them but this white lie is the first complication in a series of events that stand to separate Kate from the two things she loves—her husband and drinking.

Kate and Charlie go out. They drink to excess. Kate wakes up on the street the morning after offering a stranger a ride, drunk driving and smoking crack. After another one of these nights, Kate tells Charlie she wants to slow down. This is not music to Charlie’s ears—drinking is what bonds them. She takes the advice of a fellow teacher and pal Dave Davies (Nick Offerman) and attends an AA meeting. She attempts sobriety and enlists the help of Jenny (Octavia Spencer), another AAer, who becomes her sponsor, but can she get clean and keep her husband?

I loved Smashed. I sought it out for Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame but the movie belongs to Winstead (a nearly unrecognizable Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim). Smashed is honest, funny, sad, hopeful and sad again. Charlie and Kate’s relationship isn’t maudlin or sentimental. Megan Mullally, as Principal Barnes, in a non-comedic role takes some getting used to. For Parks & Recreation fans, we also get Offerman in a very un-Ron Swanson-like role (no whittling).

Smashed is the indie film for the addiction section of your DVD collection. It deserves a watch, two, even three. I was riveted watching a couple who are so in love with one another until one of them ends the relationship with the bottle.

Co-writer/Director: James Ponsoldt

Country: US

Genre: Drama with funny moments

Run time: 82 minutes

Scale: 4