Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

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Malik Bendjelloul’s 2012 Academy Award winning documentary about the South African love of the beyond obscure early 70s American songwriter Rodriguez is certainly a feel-good documentary. Rodriguez produced 2 albums in Detroit and was done by 1973. He received no popular success and ended up working as a laborer and raising his kids for the rest of the next 25 years. Unbeknownst to him, white rebellious South Africans found his records and it spread like wildfire through that isolated country. He became a hero on the level of The Beatles, or so the documentary claims. Of course he has no idea and the South Africans know nothing about him. After the end of apartheid, they track him down in Detroit and bring him to South Africa for a serious of enormously popular concerts. He still worked as a laborer, giving away the money he made from his South African tours (he is quite the space cadet really).

And that’s about all. What the film barely states but what is obvious from the concert footage is that Rodriguez was popular almost strictly with white South Africans, and in fact while apartheid is a major theme in the film, black people are not. This is a real white South Africa. Again, it’s a feel good documentary but doesn’t challenge or investigate much of anything. It follows his popularity, the search to find him, his reaction, and his South African tour. It’s the kind of documentary that wins the Oscar because it’s totally nonpolitical. Unfortunately, it’s also not all that revealing about the music either. OK, but overrated.

6/10

Damsels in Distress (2011)

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I really wanted to like Damsels in Distress. Like Woody Allen, Whit Stillman usually makes films about people who would annoy me a lot in real life, i.e., privileged rich people. As usual, Stillman points his camera to young women, this time 4 women at an elite liberal arts school. Or maybe I shouldn’t say “as usual,” since this was Stillman’s first film in 14 years. 3 of them, Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore, and Megalyn Echikunwoke are friends who set out to improve the idiot men on campus, run a suicide prevention center, and are basically snobbish do-gooders who are pretty annoying but perhaps not ill-meaning. Looking for a roommate at the beginning of the year, they quickly pick out Analeigh Tipton, who is game but skeptical of the busybodyness and arrogance of her new friends, especially Gerwig. When Gerwig, who believes in dating dumb, fairly unattractive men because they aren’t heartbreakers, has her heart broken, she goes into a tailspin that makes her nearly suicidal. But her friends are there for her and she gets back on the wagon. It’s amusing enough, at least at first. Gerwig is a good comedic actor, even if her schtick can be a bit annoying sometimes. She’s certainly moved on to much better material of late than the mumblecore garbage at the beginning of her career.

Unfortunately, Stillman has half a script here. The jokes about how the stupidity of most of the men are kind of amusing at first, but really, really broad and feel like they come out of a dumb comedy than a witty satire. I like the occasional song and dance scene in a frothy fun film, but these, especially the one at the end of the film, don’t even make sense because it’s totally unclear how we’ve gotten from here to there. Like many films with script problems, the first half is fairly cohesive and enjoyable and it just completely collapses into incoherency in the last 45 minutes.

Disappointing. Not terrible, but disappointing.

5/10

Blue Jasmine (2013)

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Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine

I have to say that I didn’t have particularly high expectations for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. I figured, like most of the recent Allen films that have been well-received, it would be a slightly overrated film relying on people desperately wishing for the Allen of old for its reputation. But this was genuinely a fine film. Cate Blanchett plays the title character, a woman married to a Bernie Madoff-like figure (Alec Baldwin). She’s living the high life but it all blows up after his financial improprieties (and affairs) are discovered. When he kills himself in prison, she goes borderline insane, starts talking to herself, and gets picked up. In lieu of an institution, she goes to San Francisco to live with her working-class sister (Sally Hawkins) who is somewhat resentful of her older sister’s snobbery, not to mention the marriage-wrecking investment she and her ex (Andrew Dice Clay) made with Baldwin. Blanchett thinks she can do better but when she briefly leaves her new boyfriend (Bobby Canavale) for Louis C.K., disaster happens. Disaster happens again for a desperate Blanchett too, leading to no happy ending.

Some have pointed that this is kind of a warmed over Streetcar Named Desire and others have noted that everything outside of Blanchett is bad. On the first charge, true I suppose, but who cares since it’s such an obvious homage to begin with; on the second, given that she is in almost every scene, it’s hard to say what the film would be like without her. But this was a fairly compelling a story about a fast-rising woman who had it all stripped away. It’s sympathetic without really making us feel all that sorry for her since she clearly looked away just enough so that she wouldn’t really know what Baldwin was up to, but she knew and she reveled in it.

This is not the most compelling look at the thin edge of morality of Allen’s career. That would be Crimes and Misdemeanors. On the other hand, it’s probably better than Match Point, which a less compelling and believable morality play but was widely loved because a) Allen’s previous 5 films really had been terrible and b) Scarlett Johnanssen’s burning sexuality so well directed by Woody. Overall, a very solid and above mid-level film in Allen’s legendary canon.

8/10

It Happened in Hualfin (1965)

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Jorge Preloran’s and Reymundo Gleyzer’s 1965 film It Happened in Hualfin is a significant step ahead from the latter’s film of the previous year La Tierra Quema. This 3-part film follows the rural poverty of 3 people, all related, as they struggle to survive in this small town in the Argentine desert not far from the Chile and Bolivia borders. Far away from the happening life of Buenos Aires was deep, horrifying poverty. One part tells of an older man who went away to the sugar harvests as a young man. Unlike many, he came back home, but eventually went blind and is dependent upon others for survival. The second part follows an elderly potter, the first man’s sister-in-law, who has lost most of her family to migration to Buenos Aires, but continues to survive making her pots. The third, the old man’s daughter, is trying to keep things going as a weaver, but it’s tough. Her husband disappeared five years earlier after going to work elsewhere, leaving her with the children. She hopes he will come back and even turns down a proposal from another man (no morally compromised working class here!). But her grown children have all gone to Buenos Aires and she figures her last one will too. She hopes to weave nice enough cloth from llama wool to buy some sheep of her own and rise in the world. But when she goes to sell it, the store won’t give her enough and notes that she is far in debt to them anyway. Like the rest of the rural poor, there’s nowhere for them to go if they want to stay on the land and in their rural communities. As a film, this the most effective of the 3 Gleyzer films I’ve seen. Coherent and powerful, if not brilliant.

7/10

La Tierra Quema (1964)

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This Raymundo Gleyzer short documentary again focuses on the rural poor, this time a drought-stricken family in Brazil. There really isn’t too much going on here–entrenched poverty and drought forces a family to abandon their land and move to the city where they probably will have nothing but continued poverty and homelessness. The political intent is as clear as usual, but the brevity of the film (12 minutes) and a slow pace means that there’s not too much that he can really say in this short time. It’s of course possible that the people seeing this film, presumably in his home country of Argentina, would not have really known about rural poverty and this itself could have spurred them to activism. Overall, it’s a respectable early attempt in Gleyzer’s sadly shortened political film career.

5/10

Mexico: The Frozen Revolution (1973)

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Raymundo Gleyzer’s documentary savaging the corrupt failure of the Mexican Revolution to fulfill its promises to the rural poor is something of a landmark of leftist Latin American film making, although I feel it falls closer to important than good. Gleyzer, an Argentine disappeared in 1976 after the coup in his home country, committed himself to showing the devastating poverty of the region’s campesinos and how government and the wealthy constantly failed him. Here he focuses primarily on indigenous peoples in the Yucatan and Chiapas, some of Mexico’s poorest people, to demonstrate how the PRI, despite its rhetoric about the legacy of the revolution, had completely failed them. While the PRI may have created at least some ejidos and engaged in some land distribution, not only did the pre-revolutionary rich remain pretty rich, but the PRI itself became so invested in the economic status quo that the poor continued to suffer. The PRI shows up in these communities at election time but otherwise does nothing. Gleyzer includes much footage from Luis Echeverria’s presidential campaign in 1970, a campaign and candidate with truly no soul or commitment to the original principles of the revolution. But as the director points out in a history of the Mexican Revolution early in the film, the various revolutionary groups lacked a common ideology to begin with, so there was little to unite the country after it ended.

This story is not exactly revelatory in 2014, but this was made shortly after the 1968 student massacre by the PRI before the Mexico City Olympics. Where Gleyzer falls somewhat short is connecting the treatment of the peasantry to the student massacre. We know the PRI is corrupt and awful, but according to Gleyzer it’s the rural landed poor it is failing. The jump to the students is abrupt. Horrifying, yes, but at least some background on the student movement would have made a more cohesive film.

6/10

The Trial (1962)

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I know people talk highly of Orson Welles’ The Trial but this film is a real mess. I think a lot of the praise comes from the combination of Kafka and Welles–like peanut butter and jelly these are two tastes that taste great together!. But I think there’s a good bit of projection here as this film doesn’t hold together at all. The script has some pretty significant problems. The scene with the painter is supposed to project claustrophobia, but while people defend it as a nightmarish sequence, and maybe it is, it’s not at all clear why it in fact makes K. freak out. It’s not that I can’t believe a character careening from arrogant privilege to hysterical panic, but I don’t think the film really does enough work to help us understand K’s psychology. To use a contemporary example, Mad Men does a very good job showing how swagger can often cover up for terror through the character of Don Draper, but it seems more assumed here, which I don’t think is very often a good idea. Welles more interprets Kafka than follows it closely and that’s fine. And Anthony Perkins is pretty good in the role. Welles’ direction is sometimes on good display here, especially the cinematography. Not sure what I think of the jazz soundtrack since this story is not exactly “jazzy” nor does K. seem like the kind of person would who care about jazz. Probably not the best choice. Welles himself called it his best film. So I don’t know, maybe I am a heathen. But the relationships between Perkins and the women (including Romy Schneider and Jeanne Moreau) who increasingly throw themselves at him make little sense. But all of this is just beating around the bush to a problem I have trouble articulating, which is that at its core, there is just no life to this film. And so despite the technical brilliance of the film and some good acting, I just don’t like it very much.

4/10

Psychiatry in Russia (1955)

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I don’t know anything much of anything about psychiatry. But I am really interested in American films about life in the Soviet Union and Albert Maysles’ Psychiatry in Russia is a pretty good entry in that genre. Maysles notes the relatively relaxed psychiatric wards of the Soviet Union, hardly the hellholes that an American viewer might expect. He talks about differences in theory used by Soviet doctors (no Freudianism in practice here). He shows how children are dealt with, how women who suffer from syphilis are demonized like in the U.S. (this is sad stuff), how more difficult patients are dealt with (no electric shock for one thing). There’s nothing particularly profound in this little 13 minute film except for the relative normalcy of everything. Which for 1955 was fairly profound. Interesting film and key moment in the career of the great documentarian.

7/10

To the Shores of Iwo Jima (1945)

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During World War II, the U.S. military hired cameramen and famous directors to film as much of the war as they could, hoping to document the experience and tell stories to build morale at home. The bravery of the cameramen, long forgotten people who often died in filming these battles, is incredible. As for the films themselves, they are a mixed bag. At their best, they look like John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro, a true work of art. At their worst, they are like Milton Sperling’s To the Shores of Iwo Jima, which is a pretty racist film that’s not all that well put together and is just kind of cheap propaganda. There’s still plenty of reason to watch this movie–the footage is incredible. And not being a war guy, I always had the sense that the climb up Mt. Siribachi that led to the famous photograph/footage (shown here) of the marines raising the flag was the end of the battle, but no, there was a lot of brutal fighting to come. But as a film, it’s not that great.

4/10

Trinity and Beyond (1995)

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Peter Kuran’s 1995 documentary about the United States’ above-ground nuclear weapons testing program shows us a lot of good footage on nuclear tests. In slow motion. In full color. In all their horrifying beauty. And that’s pretty much the point of the film. It avoids any kind of political discussion. William Shatner narrates which is a bit distracting but not inappropriate. The big aggressive score performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra is a bit more problematic. There are a couple of interviews, including with Edward Teller. There is a single talking head who gives some technical information about the various programs and detonations. But mostly we are watching the creation of a new nature essentially, one of extreme destruction yet one that is certainly beautiful and awe-inspiring in its own way. Yet the lack of much context does hurt the film. We know at the end that people are worried about nuclear pollution and that helps lead to the end of the above-ground testing program but we don’t get enough a sense of why people are concerned. I don’t need a political film here per se or an ironic film like Atomic Cafe, but I do think this film gains more value with a few less pictures of detonations and a little more context.

6/10

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