Tag Archives: film reviews

‘Mahagonny’ (1980), a film by Harry Smith

Here’s my cranky old man’s take on the second film Ann and I ever walked out of, but don’t judge the film too harshly by it. I’m sure it’s better than I make it out to be. While watching it, I kept glancing at Ann, and thinking about Alvy Singer dragging Annie Hall into numerous screenings of ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ (1969-4hrs.25min).

There’s a proper review of this art house magnum opus from 2003 in the New York Times, and here, too, an interview from this past week with Rani Singh, director of the Harry Smith Archives in NYC which aired on WFAE, Charlotte Public Radio. Less helpful is the IMDB page.

Anyway, my review emerged in an early morning conversation with my daughter Ellen. Enjoy…

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By the way it’s worth mentioning that the first film Ann and I bailed out of years ago was ‘On Golden Pond’, which won Academy Awards for both Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. So don’t listen to me!

‘Searching for Sugarman’ – a film review

searchingforsugarman1.jpgWe saw a real “feel good” documentary last night, that came highly recommended, and came away wanting to share it with others. ‘Searching for Sugarman’ is a story of validation, both personal and artistic, in a world where one’s seeming insignificance can never be presumed. It’s about a singer/songwriter whose work never caught on with his own countrymen, but contributed to the canon of social change in another land.

“Sugarman” refers to Sixto Rodriguez, or simply ‘Rodriguez’. In his two obscure albums in the early 1970’s, his voice cuts a high, clear path above a simple MoTown combo sound, singing lyrics which are at once sardonic and challenging, but oddly at peace with the rough edges of the society his songs criticize.  His lyrics and vocals suggest a blend of Nick Drake on mood-elevators, with an edge of Dylan to provoke the mind. It is surprising that his songs never caught on in the United States.

The name Sixto may refer to his being the sixth born child to immigrant parents, and it is unclear whether this was self-chosen, or actually used in his childhood Detroit, Michigan. Some of his songs are attributed to ‘Jesus Rodriguez’, others to ‘Sixto’. It doesn’t matter. What does, is that unknown to Rodriguez, his music struck a chord with the people of South Africa during its years of foment. Mandela was in jail,  apartheid was the rule, and that nation was a police state, oppressed. Certain of his songs were banned from air-play, and thus assured brisk sales of his albums, and wide exchange of boot-legged cassettes.

The story of this musician, as brought to film, becomes a kind of George Bailey story, in that even a minor artist may never realize the impact he has beyond his ken. Thematically, that is wonderful to explore, and the core of the movie. Viewed from an innocent perspective, the documentary is wonderful, and deserves its accolades. It’s also pleasing to consider that it can only do good for its subject, whose work does deserve the attention that passed him by when the tracks were new.  Like the documentary ‘Winnebago Man’, it  lifts a life out of a fabled-state, and brings a Lazarus back into the world. It’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’, only these are real people who left a mark, never knew it, and lived to learn that they had touched others.

That there are those who have taken issue with this film for overlooking certain facts in Rodriguez’s touring and performing history matters not a whit to me: Why let the facts stand in the way of a great story? That Rodriguez played as well in Australia and New Zealand doesn’t alter the unique story of how his art was appreciated in and affected the people of South Africa. This story concerns that special perception, and I’ll not quibble with the small minds of nay-sayers who have missed the point.

Hunt up a copy of ‘Searching for Sugarman’, and go find a copy of the film’s compilation album, and bask in the joy of a good musician’s re-discovery!

Holmes for the Holidays…

On Christmas Eve, I took my wife and daughters to go see the new Sherlock Holmes film, ‘A Game of Shadows’, and we all enjoyed its clever re-imagining of the detective as played by Robert Downey, Jr, a rather darkly comic version of the sleuth, with equal parts ninja and omniscient adept. While Ann has a low threshold for weapons that go bang and graphic puncture wounds, despite plenty of those even she pronounced the film a good one. Go see it, and its predecessor, if you enjoy the Holmes cannon on any level. You’ll be glad for it.

This Christmas did have a new release from Laurie R. King for her Mary Russell series with Sherlock Holmes (out last September, actually, but close enough), ‘Pirate King’. Alas, my girls and I are so addicted to those that we read it before October was done, so it had no place in our stockings last week. It’s a larky sort of Mary Russell novel, with distinctly silly bits to it, and so harder for me to warm up to, but sustaining enough, I suppose. It’s my hope that King’s next in the series has harder edges. Even so, if you enjoy Russell and Holmes, it will suffice.

And just this morning, I stumbled upon this review at Tor.com, by Niall Alexander, of a pair of Neil Gaiman stories which have expanded the Holmes canon; magnifying and extending it into unanticipated realms. It is a beautifully written and illustrated homage to Gaiman’s extraordinary skill and finess as a crafter of stories. I mention it here to point my daughters at the link, and at the two Holmes stories it covers: ‘A Study in Emerald’ , and ‘The Case of Death and Honey’.  Alexander has piqued my curiosity, and I’m off straight-away to re-read the first, via the link above.  ‘The Case of Death and Honey’ may be found in the new release on the Poisoned Pen imprint, ‘A Study in Sherlock’, which is a collection of Holmes stories by contemporary writers.

It’s my fervent hope that some deductive skills will have rubbed off on me from all this recent contact with the great detective. Then maybe I could figure out who sent us the gift of a new corkscrew this Christmas!  Ho, ho, ho!

‘True Grit’ ; the Coen brothers ride again!

The “western” in Amercan cinema was never one of my favorite genres in my youth. My father had a taste for “cowboy shows” on television back then, and I never much cared for them. I think the stylization and falseness of the archetypical towns, “good guys”, indians, crooks, cavalry, et al, just added up in my kid’s mind to so much phony dreck.

Since then, there have been a number of western films that have won me over: ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ comes to mind, along with ‘Silverado’, and ‘Jeremiah Johnson’. To those, I can now emphatically add the Coen brothers’ ‘True Grit’. It has a clarity and honesty throughout that just never lapses. The settings, costuming, language, action, story and music are convincing and with a “rightness” that is nearly flawless.

I was surprised to read on wikipedia that it was filmed, edited and brought to market in very short order, with a shooting schedule that started in March of 2010, in time for a “Christmas” release on December 22 that same year. The notes in wikipedia, however, don’t report exactly when set construction or any of the other heavy lifting of other pre-production began. The project was rumored as early as February, 2008.

My admiration for the flick derives almost entirely from the authenticity of these western characters, and, too, how clearly this is a western story told from a young woman’s perspective, or, more accurately, a precocious child pressed into early adulthood through unfortunate circumstances. It is Mattie Ross’ “true grit” which drives the story, not the force of Marshal Rooster Cogburn’s fading “grit”, or the staunch honor of the Texas ranger, LaBoeuf. Mattie is beautifully played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, Cogburn by Jeff Bridges, and LaBoeuf by Matt Damon. While Steinfeld and Bridges both scored Academy nominations (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress), it was Matt Damon who better deserved an honor for transforming himself within his role. He was not recognizably himself, and became the spit and image of the rough but knightly Ranger LaBoeuf.

If an honest “western” is your thing, and you missed this one, or if you, like me, cannot let one of the Coen Bros. films pass you by, be sure to see this one when you can. The dvd/blu-ray disc was released on June 7th. And if you know of other western films you think I might like, please put it in a comment to me below, and I’ll give it a try. Thanks!