Saturday, October 27, 2012
Stars: Sixto Rodriguez and friends
Director: Malik Bendjellout
He had a Roy Orbison-like affectation, (never took off his sunglasses) a Dylan-esque musical style and sound, and looked a bit like Jose Feliciano. Mexican-American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez (who went by "Rodriguez" professionally) was discovered by two record producers who caught his act in a Detroit bar during the late sixties. They signed him to a record contract, figuring the guy would take off like gangbusters. But the two albums Rodriguez put out flopped in the United States.
Curiously, his music--which paid homage to the common man, with anti-establishment political overtones--caught fire with opponents of apartheid in South Africa. And was promptly banned--which is always going to make something seem more enticing for people to seek out. (And yes, South Africa's racial policies were disgraceful, but as you nod your head in agreement, don't forget about our own appalling segregationist laws which prevailed in America prior to 1964.) That Rodriguez was not aware that he had become more popular than Elvis on this other continent seems incredible in this day of instantaneous communication via the internet. Here, he faded back into obscurity--which wasn't hard for him to do--working manual labor construction jobs, and occasionally doing some singing gigs in Detroit bars.
Searching For Sugar Man is the documentary that begins with the compelling mystery of Rodriguez. Rumors can take on a life of their own, and sometimes become legend. Many believed that he had committed suicide by setting himself afire onstage. Through interviews with friends, family, and former record producers, we discover what really happened to the man. Interspersed are songs from his albums Cold Fact--1970, and Coming From Reality--1971.
While listening, you will wonder why Rodriguez--whose songs were plaintive and poignant, and whose voice was as distinctive and mellifluous as any you will ever hear, didn't catch on in the states. Such is the fickle finger of fate. Though now, since the release of Searching For Sugar Man--a compelling, inspirational film that will make your spirit soar--perhaps he will.
P.S. My movie-going friend thinks Searching For Sugar Man is surefire Oscar nomination material. But then, she predicted the Edsel would be the most popular car on the market.
Saturday, October 20, 2012
Stars: Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, Mae Whitman
Director: Steven Chbosky
Steven Chbosky brings his coming-of-age novel to the screen as writer and director of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. The central character is Charlie, (Logan Lerman) a high school freshman with some unspecified mental problems (the bulk of which are revealed near the end) that cause him to be so shy that he won't raise his hand in class when he is the only one with the right answer to the teacher's question.
The story is set in an unspecified time, but we see Charlie, who wants to be a writer, pecking away on a manual typewriter, so we know the era is pre-internet. (In fact, it is the early nineties.)
As an incoming freshman, Charlie doesn't know where he fits in, but step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam, (Emma Watson) a couple of other misfits, come to his rescue and befriend him. Patrick is gay and still in the closet. Sam has been around the block some for her age, and her thing is that she picks the wrong guys to get attached to. But they are both good dancers, and much of the process of learning to navigate one's way through the perils and the pitfalls of high school is played out at teenage house parties where Charlie eventually gets his back up off the wall and ventures onto the dance floor. Then, being the total innocent he is, unwittingly consumes a pot brownie and becomes a much more interesting conversationalist. (While the energy kicks into gear with some great eighties tunes like "Come On Eileen" and "Don't Dream It's Over.")
Charlie is developing a thing for Sam, but it's that unrequited love of the painfully shy, who always seem to end up with someone less appealing but more accessible, as when he gets involved in an awkward pairing with punk rocker Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman).
Ezra Miller gets a "A" on his report card for his work in this one.
But there are things about The Perks Of Being A Wallflower that feel slightly off-kilter. Maybe it has something to do with the age of the actors. At this writing, Logan Lerman is 20, Ezra Miller is 20, Emma Watson is 22, and Mae Whitman is 24. All just a bit past their sell-by dates to be totally believable as high-schoolers.
But I really think it's because The Perks Of Being A Wallflower wants so terribly to be precious and poignant, and tries too hard to convince us that it is, and as a result its affectation is showing. Sort of like a figure skater with a lot of potential who hasn't quite mastered the art of making it look effortless.
The movie wants to be in the same class with similar themed classics like The Breakfast Club and American Graffiti. But it isn't.
Monday, October 15, 2012
Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Director: Ben Affleck
Argo is a real film and a fake film. The fake film is what the real film is about. Ben Affleck does a masterful job of directing the real film, including himself in the pivotal role. (It must have been weird to see him do his split-second switch from actor to director, yelling "CUT" right after delivering his own lines.)
The fake film Argo is a cover story to spirit six American diplomats out of Iran during the infamous hostage crisis that began in late 1979 and continued on into 1981. Having overthrown the corrupt Shah, Islamic militants are hungry to have his head on a platter, but he has been given asylum in the U.S. The American embassy has been stormed and fifty-two Americans have been taken hostage. But six others have managed to evade capture and are given shelter in the home of the Canadian ambassador. However, it's only a matter of time before they are sniffed out and meet a truly unpleasant fate.
Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is a CIA guy who heads to Iran with the hair-brained scheme (but the best one they have) of turning the six fugitives into Canadian crew members of the nonexistent movie--supposedly to be filmed in Iran--to get them out of where they are holed up and on a plane to freedom.
Affleck and company--with special kudos to the editing and music score--deftly ratchet up the tension and suspense throughout Argo, keeping us on the edge of our gooey gummy seats (don't reach underneath there) from start to finish.
With any film that is "based upon a true story," as is this one, you can expect a certain amount of embellishment of the truth and dramatic license to be taken, and there is a goodly amount of that in Argo. But when you look into how the real events of this joint Canadian-CIA operation unfolded, (which weren't revealed publicly until years after the fact) you will see where a little tinkering with the truth was necessary to end up with a film as compelling as Argo.
Now, let me pander a little to the conspiracy theorist lurking somewhere in all of us. Is it just coincidence, or just COULD it be the timing of this movie's release is designed to coincide with the stirring up of anti-Iranian paranoia over that country's impending nuclear capabilities, and with Israel ostensibly on the brink of making a preemptive strike? Ya gotta sell it to the public, ya know, just like some people think the "unthinkable"--that 9/11 was staged to provide our government a rationale for the invasion of Iraq.
Well, I'll leave that kind of speculation up to you. But as they say in the world of comedy: Timing is everything.
Grade: A -