Review: SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN

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Searching for Sugar Man is one of the most powerful, life-affirming films to come out in a long time. The documentary tells the story of a talented musician who cut a couple of records in the early 70’s that were well received critically yet failed to sell at all in the States. The musician – Rodriguez – disappeared shortly after finishing his second record seemingly fading into oblivion. If this was the whole story then it would be one of the millions of hard luck stories about the music industry.

Except the story doesn’t end there.

Rodriguez was a urban street poet who sang like Dylan and Nick Drake with music reminiscent of Love.  His two records Cold Fact and Coming From Reality made their way in the early 70’s to South Africa via a backpacker, as the legend goes. They were bootlegged relentlessly until the got official releases in South Africa. His first record Cold Fact became a seminal record in the country, especially in the underground music movement there. His music influenced many of the young South African musicians who took to his anti-establishment message as an anti-dote to life under Apartheid.

With scant information and only the enigmatic image of Rodriguez sitting cross-legged like a hippie shaman in shades on the sleeve of the album, the mystery of Rodriguez deepened. Without the ease of access to information that we have today it was near impossible to track down any details on him. Eventually a rumor surfaced that Rodriguez died in a suicide on stage either by shooting himself or lighting himself on fire. The rumor only added to the mystery. That tall tale stuck until two South Afrikaners – Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom – increased their search to find information on whatever happened to Rodriguez. Stephen setup a website while Craig tried to track him down by investigating all of the credited names on the two albums.

After Apartheid finally ended in South Africa, the case of the missing Rodriguez took a huge turn in the late 90’s. That was only the beginning of the story as the film shows. To go any further into this story is to wander into SPOILER territory. To do that would be a huge disservice to this amazing film. What happens in the late 90’s is further proof of the old adage:

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul spent several years working on Searching for Sugar Man. He heard the tale of Rodriguez from Stephen Segerman back in 2006 and he couldn’t quite believe the story. Bendjelloul’s film has a lot of standard talking heads interviews along with a few intriguing animated sequences. The interviews continue to deepen the mystery as Bendjelloul starts in South Africa and works his way back to America to talk with the producers of Rodriguez’s two albums. All of them are still stunned to this day that Rodriguez did not make it back in the early 70’s. You can sense their regret and hurt at the fact that he seemed to slip through the cracks of the music industry only to vanish without much of a trace. The film also serves as something of a nostalgia trip back into the recent past where someone could just disappear and not be found very easily back in the days before the internet and social media.

Searching for Sugar Man has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary this year. It is easily one of the best documentaries of the last twenty-five years. it’s a film that is a gripping mystery story that unfolds into a tale that is heart-breaking and deeply powerful. It is HIGHLY recommended that everyone sees this film. It stands as a testament to the human will while reminding us of the power of cinema.

Here are a Few Recent PLAYS

Circle Mirror Transformation

Circle Mirror Transformation – Annie Baker

Four lost souls enroll in a six-week theater workshop in a community center in Vermont taught by a MARTY, a 55-yr old woman. The entrants are – JAMES, 60, man; SCHULTZ, 48, man; THERESA, 35, woman and LAUREN, 16, girl. Slowly, over the six weeks we learn about each character – even the instructor – as alliances are formed and broken. MARTY uses a wide variety of unique acting exercises which forces the whole quintet to re-examine themselves and their ideas of other people. A poignant and heartbreaking play that has a powerful final scene where we can see that their “acting” in the workshop has affected the “acting” in their real lives. Set in Vermont. It is also part of Baker’s Vermont cycle of plays.

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The Motherfucker With the Hat – Stephen Adly Guirgis

A tale of AA and l’amour fou between drug dealer JACKIE and his girl VERONICA. RALPH D is JACKIE’S AA sponsor who tries to help his troubled sponsee transition back into the real world without relapsing. JACKIE has marital troubles with his put-upon wife VICTORIA. When JACKIE comes home to see a hat on the table in his and VERONICA’S place it sets off the chain of events in the play which will test his sobriety. He seeks advice from his COUSIN JULIO who forces JACKIE to confront some ugly truths about himself and his relationship. Addictions – drugs and relationships – are put under the microscope as the fallout from the hat ripples through their lives. The play is chock full of crackling dialogue and powerful emotions. Set in New York City.

Detroit – Lisa D'Amour

Detroit – Lisa D’Amour

Set in a “first-ring suburb” which may be Detroit or any middle-American city. Middle-aged couple BEN and MARY ingratiate themselves into the lives of their new neighbors – an early 30’s couple KENNY and SHARON. MARY has grown tired of living in the burbs and never knowing who any of your neighbors anymore. She gets more than she bargained for as both KENNY and SHARON slowly reveal their wild drug and alcohol fueled past lives to them over a series of backyard gatherings between the couples. BEN has recently been laid off in the shitty economy so he’s learning how to setup a financial planning website. MARY becomes slightly obsessed with the fact that KENNY and SHARON don’t have any furniture or hardly anything in their house. As the two couples become closer, things start to fall apart as details of KENNY and SHARON’s supposedly former lives blur. The play becomes a real examination into the generational gap between Boomers and hard-partying Gen-Xers. Maybe there’s a reason people don’t hangout and become pals with their neighbors anymore, maybe its because we’ve all become a bit boring holed up in our plywood and plastic homes built in the 50’s and gradually falling apart around us. Maybe those house are our former senses of community. Maybe we have lost our way twisting in the winds of late-stage capitalism, alienated from one another, anesthetized through a myriad of things.

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Tribes – Nina Raine

BILLY is the youngest of three. He was born deaf but raised a lip-reading who never learned sign language by his parents CHRISTOPHER and BETH. His older brother DANIEL has just moved back home along with his sister RUTH. Their home is one full of bickering writers and academics whose love for each other is expressed through cutting remarks and verbal sparring. The family tribe is shaken up when BILLY brings home a girl – SYLVIA – who is slowly going deaf. She was raised in a deaf family and encourages BILLY to learn sign. The family tribe is now faced with a fracture it may or may not be prepared to deal with as the notions of communication are turned upside down. The long silent BILLY asserts his new found voice in the contentious family while the others struggle to cope with the impacts. The play focuses with laser precision on the various tribes we form in life, the alliances we form to deal with the world around us. Set in present day – somewhere in England in its original form.

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Maple and Vine – Jordan Harrison
(Currently showing at Curious Theatre – check for SHOWTIMES)

(Read Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy’s review)

RYU and KATHA are increasingly unhappy and frustrated with life in the 21st century. Especially so after RYU had a miscarriage. She hates her job in publishing while her husband carries on as a plastic surgeon just “getting through” each day. KATHA meets DEAN a mysterious man in 50’s clothes who sells them on the idea of joining the “community” he lives in away from the alienating forces of modern life. The “community” is a period-specific recreation of 1955, an SDO – Society of Dynamic Obsolescence. The SDO is part cult, part re-enactment and part utopian social experiment. DEAN’S wife ELLEN helps KATHA transition while RYU gets a job in a box factory working under ROGER. RYU is the most sceptical of the whole idea but since KATHA’S miscarriage he will do almost anything for another shot at a family. They agree to try the SDO for 6 months. Once they get there and start to get the hang off it they find themselves happier, living in the present more. Of course the outside modern world weighs upon them but actually affects DEAN more than anyone as his former lover is ROGER who is fed up with the charade. Just as KATHA and RYU dig into their new lives with a child on the way, DEAN, ROGER and ELLEN have their illusions shattered. An intriguing concept for a play, sadly I had a very similar idea years ago albeit mine blended the two eras together – 50’s cars that were hybrids, that sort of thing. The first act is the strongest with the second act shifting the story more to DEAN and his love affair with ROGER eclipsing most of RYU and KATHA’S story. This is going to be stage at Curious Theater very soon in 2013.

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Clybourne Park – Bruce Norris

(Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama)

A tightly structured and plotted two-act play set in a house in the Clybourne Park neighborhood of Chicago. Act one takes place in 1959 with act two taking place in the same house fifty years later. This Pulitzer Prize winning play examines race, class, economics, military to name just a few of the issues under the lens. The play examines white flight in the late 50’s/60’s and its inverse of white gentrification in the late 90’s/early 00’s. Notions of community and our shared sense of America permeate both acts of this incisive play. A white couple is leaving the neighborhood in 1959 as the father can’t stomach the “community’s” reaction to his son, a returning soldier from the Korean War who was accused of killing innocents in the war. The son eventually hanged himself in the house. His death looms too large for his father who sells the house under market to a black couple. A concerned neighbor wants him to cancel the sale so they can stop the influx of black into the neighborhood. He refuses and tells him what he thinks of them. Fast forward fifty years later and we now have a young white couple moving into the same house who want to raze it and build their dream McMansion. A young black meets with them and a lawyer & architect to ostensibly discuss the zoning violation that their large house violates. This encounter turns into the inverse of the previous act as now the gentrification is the beginning of the turning the neighborhood back into a white enclave from it’s near fifty years of being a black one. There’s a great scene of offensive jokes that leaves out no one – women, gays, black, whites, you name it, like a Don Rickles bit. This part brings up one of the least understood yet deeply important aspects of jokes – what groups do they privilege and at the expense of another group? What values are reinforced by the jokes? Another intriguing take from the play is how far back to we need to go into history to determine who or what group owns that history? 20 years? 50? 100? 500? Who determines the goal posts for this? Fascinating play.

3-D Printing is THE FUTURE

makers book

Recently read Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson. It delves into the burgeoning tech-world of 3-d printing.

It blew my mind a little.

This article The Shape of Shaping Things to Come by Adam Rothstein @ Rhizome blew said mind a lot more.

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The FUTURE is coming.

3-D printing is that future.

MakerBot is trying to get an affordable 3-d printer for home inventors.

How it will shape the world…that is another story.

It’s funny but the things we want technology to do are not necessarily the things they end up doing.

#irony

#3Dprinting

ZERO DARK THIRTY Thoughts

Here are some of my thoughts after seeing Zero Dark Thirty yesterday on the big screen

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Bigelow’s LATimes Op-Ed

“As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.”

Curious to make a pro-torture film then if you are really a pacifist. She could’ve easily made an anti-torture film, it would not have won her many accolades though.

“Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement.”

This is NOT exactly true in this case as the film’s central tenet was that the detainee program and it’s use of torture DID provide the intelligence that was used 7 years later to find bin laden. It’s not like the film’s plot is open-ended. It’s casualty-driven, every single scene builds upon and leads to the next one. The movie becomes a tautology just like Jason Clarke’s character says when he makes his Cheney-esque ‘unknown unknowns’ comment.

“On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.”

I could believe this statement is she made ANY ATTEMPT at all to show the blowback of torture on America. That is not easy to do since it’s complex and riddled with externalities we, as a country, are not ready to admit or accept. She makes a stand that she’s showing what GOOD the torture did (i.e. catch bin laden) but she makes ZERO effort to show any negatives. This is propaganda, pure and simple. Calling Leni Refienstahl…

Read her op-ed and judge for yourself what she means.

Rugged Individuals = American Exceptionalism at it’s BEST!

Maya = Carrie from hit Showtime show HOMELAND.

How is it that both of these redhead, OCD CIA agents were able to defy their superiors for so long? What jobs let you get away with that for so LONG? No job I ever had put up with the amount of insubordination that both perform on a daily basis. Ever boss I worked for would NOT allow them to be verbally dressed down in front of subordinates either.

What exactly did Maya do in the seven years between getting the tortured intel and finally linking it to bin laden’s courier?

We are a Crime Scene Country Now

Why is American pop culture – movies and television especially – obsessed with crime-scene and CIA-type investigation shows? Are we trying to make sense of the national malaise by reverse-engineering crime shows? ZDT treads the sticky propaganda line of absolving the country of its sins for torture. Plain and simple. It lead – how many years and how many trillions of dollars later – to bin Laden’s death. A death which violated all kinds of international laws, took justice into our own hands (Judge Dredd-style) and then to have him buried at sea? Does that make America any better than the terrorists we are fighting against? Put yourself into the shoes of the children in bin laden’s compound who saw their parents and other adults murdered in cold blood right in front of them. Are 3-4 murders OK while 3,000 is not? Is murder justified on the scale?

Probability

There was a scene late in the movie Nate Silver would love. James Gandolfini as the CIA Director asks for probabilities as to whether or not bin laden is in the compound. Maya says 100%, a sign of strength since she’s so sure! The rest, even Clarke’s character put it around 60%  Bayes would not approve of Maya and she knows it which is why she revises her number to 95% sure.

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Individualism over Collective Action

Final shot of Maya like the final shot of Redford in The Candidate. Now what? Indeed America, now what? You spent trillions to get revenge on bin laden and al Qaeda – now what do we have to show for it? A wrecked economy and a government that is spiraling out of control. Let’s celebrate the ONE person who figured out where bin laden was hidden all of these years. Bigelow can say what she wants but this film celebrates Maya’s character over everything else in the whole film.

What about the Pakistan government’s role on all of this? This is a perplexing foreign olicy question that NO ONE wants to ever discuss.

Why not?

Conclusion

I tweeted early that Zero Dark Thirty is the same as Triumph of the Will – brilliant visual filmmaking hiding it’s slick nationalistic propaganda. I stand by that statement. ZDT is an engaging, fast-paced film even at its 2.5 hour running time. I think people NEED to see this film in the hopes that it can restart a dialogue about the War on Terror, torture and American foreign policy above everything else. That is a conversation we as a country seem awfully reluctant to have in peaceful times much less troubled times like today.

Reading through a lot of the posts and criticisms of the film makes me want to reiterate this – we can’t treat Zero Dark Thirty just like it’s a regular ol’ film. It is more than that as its subject alone has yet to have been dramatized for the big screen so like it or not this film might just be the definitve account for people uninterested in reading detailed articles and books about the raid & killing.

Can we judge this film for what it’s not showing or are we philistines for that as Glenn Kenny notes in his piece on the film? I would strongly disagree with Glenn on this point due to the fact I can’t just treat this as a “film” since it clearly aspires to be more than that as evidence in it’s opening title card “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” Sure, movies pull off that trick all of the time but they don’t due it for a “story” that has gripped the nation for almost a decade, glorifies torture, promotes the standard foreign policy line and obscures attempts at any rational counter-argument.

I don’t feel compelled to getting into arguing other film critics or people’s hypothesis on the film, that always feels a bit like tilting at windmills. I feel some of the issues I have outline are important and should be seeds for further investigations into the many questions this film opens up. That being said, I found Ignatiy Vishnvetsky’s piece at MUBI to be very informative.

P.S. – If you have not seen Triumph of the Will do it. It’s a fascinating  film for many of the same reasons as ZDT.

Seven SUNDANCE Movies to Get Excited About for 2013

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For years I have had a love/hate relationship with the Sundance Film Festival. The fest has delivered some truly amazing films recently (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Winter’s Bone ) while also seeming to promulgate it’s own brand of zany, quirky bullshit movies (Nobody Walks, Smart People, Sunshine Cleaning, Anything w/Brit Marling).

For the 2013 fest (Jan 17-27, 2013), I’d like to highlight seven films which seem worthy of getting excited over. Why seven? No reason other than a nice alliteration. There are more than seven which will be good films but you can trawl through other websites for more exhaustive lists.

1. Upstream Color

Long-anticipated follow-up from writer/director Shane Carruth (Primer). I don’t want to know much of what it’s about, I will go see it since Primer was so damn good.

2. Sightseers

New film from ace English director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Down Terrace) that follows a new couple on a journey through the English countryside that’s…eventful.

Great German Poster for the film:

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3. I Used To Be Darker

Matthew Porterfield (Putty Hill) directs a movie about a gal fleeing Northern Ireland to end up with relatives in Baltimore who are in the midst of their own familial troubles.

4. Don Jon’s Addiction

Joseph Gordon-Levitt steps behind the camera to direct his first movie, so why not make it a film about a sex-addict (played by Joe) and cast Scarlett Johansson opposite you? Why not indeed.

DonJonsAddictionScarlett-Johansson_Joseph-GordonLevitt-first-look

5. Prince Avalanche

David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls) returns to his roots after slumming in the Apatow Comedy Ghetto. The film pairs Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as two highway workers circa 1988. It’s a remake of Either Way, an Icelandic film.

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6. The Way, Way Back

A coming-of-age tale of a 14-yr old working at a water park. Co-written & directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (writers of The Descendants and actors in their own right). It stars  Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, AnnaSophia Robb, Amanda Peet, Toni Collette, and Faxon & Rash.

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7. The Spectacular Now

A hard-drinking high schooler is lured in by an outcast. It’s got a great Sundance pedigree as it’s written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500) Days of Summer) and directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed). It stars Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole) and  Shailene Woodley (scene-stealing older daughter in The Descendants).

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FANDOR has a great post with a comprehensive list of the films playing in all of the competition categories.

New 80’s/90’s Action Hero Movies COMING SOON

A few upcoming releases has me feeling like I am back behind the counter at the video store in the late 80’s.

The Governator’s return to Hollywood kicks off this Friday with The Last Stand. It looks intriguing due to the fact it was directed by South Korean filmmaker

A Good Day to Die Hard or (Die Hard 5). Bruce Willis. Nuff said.

And one I missed on the big screen that is coming to DVD on January 22nd.

Universal Soldier: Day or Reckoning  or (Universal Soldier 4 “official releases” ) Van Damme. Dolph. OK, I am in.