Sunday, February 17, 2013

movie review: Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

Although I think it's best to watch this documentary knowing as little as possible about the subject matter, I can't resist telling you the hook: it's the story of a mysterious American musician named Rodriguez who achieved a tiny amount of exposure in the US in the late 1960s/early 1970s. His sound is similar to Bob Dylan and other singer-songwriters of the time, but he is no imitator or wanna-be; he is clearly a very skilled musician and songwriter in his own right. Unfortunately, Rodriguez never achieved much attention despite this talent, and after a couple of modest albums, he faded away into obscurity... America, anyway. Unbeknownst to him, he was becoming incredibly popular in South Africa, his songs an inspiration to people working in the anti-apartheid movement. He was an influence for many of the prominent anti-apartheid musicians at the time. But despite his popularity, people knew very little about Rodriguez, and he remained a mystery to many of his biggest fans. The film follows the journey that a couple of South African music journalists and fans took to discover who Rodriguez really was and what had happened to him. (Hint: the arrival of the internet helped.)

The movie's cinematography is very well-done: the film is gritty and beautiful at the same time, and manages to incorporate archival footage in a way that feels natural. And although we rarely hear his voice, Bendjelloul is clearly a good interviewer, coaxing out fascinating details and sometimes surprisingly articulate insight from his subjects. And although this is a documentary, the story unfolds like a fictional narrative, with plenty of suspense. The filmmakers have an excellent sense of pacing and structure, and there is not a single wasted minute. Whether we are learning about the censorship and brutality of apartheid in South Africa, or watching Rodriguez' old friends and colleagues talk about his talent, there is a sense that everything fits together into the narrative. It all seems to fall into place as it is meant to. I won't give away any more of what happens, because the movie is such a joy to experience as it unfolds.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes a good mystery, is interested in South Africa of the 1970s, or likes good music. In fact, it's worth watching for Rodriguez' soundtrack alone.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

movie review: Foreign Parts

Foreign Parts (2010)
United States
Directed by Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki

This documentary was shot by two anthropologists, unobtrusively and in ethnographic style. It is clear that they earned the trust of the residents of Willets Point, Queens, over the many months they shot the movie. Willets Point is the site of many junkyards and small shops, home to many marginalized working class and working poor residents, and it is a vibrant, thriving neighbourhood with plenty of community spirit. People look out for each other. However, it is also prime real estate, and at the time of filming, Citi Field had just been built and Michael Bloomberg had his eye on developing the area for tourism and high-end housing. Of course, this would have meant the current residents would have had to be relocated. As one person puts it in the extras, there are a lot of undocumented people living there, including him. (According to the New York Times, there is one legal resident only). Where are they going to go? What will they do for a living? They will lose their jobs and their homes. But they don't have much political sway. The camera frames some beautiful shots; repetition and patterns inside the junkyard and warehouse are especially good for some lovely images. The camera also follows the residents of Willets Point around and allows them to tell their stories. We learn a little, not much, about their backgrounds. I would have liked to learn more about the homeless couple living in their van, unsure at one point during the cold winter months if one of them would wake up to find the other frozen to death. There is a sweet, charming woman who seems to live on the margins begging the auto guys for "a quarter" (she gets turned down frequently), but she is considered their friend, too; they throw her a nice birthday party at one point with music, dancing, and a beautiful cake. At some points the movie is very slow, and there will be viewers who are understandably impatient with the meandering style. But it is well worth a watch for those who can tolerate slower documentaries. Even though the filmmakers refrain from external commentary, we can put together a picture of a community that functions as a tightly knit organism, in danger of being split apart and scattered. It's not a pretty picture, but Paravel and Sniadecki don't need to tell us; instead, they let the people of Willets Point speak for themselves.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

movie review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
United States
directed by Joseph Sargent, based on the novel by John Godey
starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is an excellent example of a classic 1970s action/thriller set in New York City. The story is simple: four heavily armed, middle aged men wearing trilby hats, dark rimmed glasses, and moustaches take over a subway car and hold the passengers hostage. They call each other Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown. (Now you know which movie Quentin Tarantino was paying homage to with Reservoir Dogs.) They are demanding that one million dollars be delivered in an hour, or else, they say, they will start shooting the passengers one by one.

Mr. Blue, the head hostage-taker, is in radio contact with Walter Matthau, who plays Lieutenant Garber, head of the Transit Police. Matthau is gruff, witty, and intelligent; watching his radioed conversations with Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) is one of the film's delights. He is imperfect but very human and warm, a good contrast to Mr. Blue's cold cruelty. Garber knows that the delivery of the money will be late and asks for extra time; Mr. Blue refuses and gets ready to shoot one of the passengers. He's a sociopath who genuinely can't understand why it matters when Mr. Green tentatively asks how he's going to decide which passenger should be shot.

For me, the most interesting part of the movie was seeing just how much North American culture has changed in the last 39 years. There is a fair bit of casual sexism and racism exhibited by the characters--my impression was not that the movie makers condoned it, but rather that they were showing the characters' flaws and unpleasant edges. The movie makes note of the hostility directed at women newly allowed in male-only workplaces; of the condescending dismissal of "foreigners" and discomfited surprise when they are not as stupid as previously thought; of the newness of the idea that a black man could be a high-ranking police official.

It was also interesting to see the attitudes of authorities towards the hostage takers and the whole hostage situation. At first, they are just kind of incredulous. After all, how on earth could someone hold a subway car hostage? Impossible! There is not so much fear of the hostage-takers, or any idea of viewing them as terrorists, mostly just exasperation that the train is being held up. There is the general idea, at first, that agreeing to pay them money is a bit premature because how can we be certain they're actually going to kill the passengers, you know? And besides, everyone knows they'd never be able to get away with it. One gets the idea that they sort of want to call the hostage takers' bluff to see what happens. It's hard to imagine a similar reaction today in this security-and-terrorism-obsessed world.

I recommend this movie to anyone who likes tense, well-paced thrillers with lots of suspense. There is no quick-cut, modern-day action movie feel to this one; instead, it relies on building the tension in a more real-time, naturalistic way. I much prefer it. (Note: Watch for some familiar 1990s sitcom faces in small roles.)