Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Grade: C+ | 1st Viewing
Last year’s Academy Award winner for best documentary was no structural pioneer or galvanizing message film, but what has been called a feel-good, inspirational tale of a mysteriously lost musical icon. Mexican-American singer-songwriter Rodriguez, whose anonymity in America belied his counterculture superstar status in South Africa, is “rediscovered” in this film that traces the disconnect between one nation’s legend and another’s disregard.
While I found the mystery of the first half of the film compelling (it begins with the sensational rumor that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage during a show) it over-sells the difficulty with which they tracked down the subject as well as the long lonely years he toiled in obscurity, reduced to working construction jobs (when in fact he performed quite regularly throughout that time and also had, and was aware of, a huge following in Australia). The film glazes over more than Rodriguez’s own history by suggesting his songs became anthems of the anti-apartheid movement – for white Afrikaaners, anyway, in a country in which 80% of the population is black African (none of whom were interviewed in the film). It feels like a lazy invocation employed only to hoist up the movie’s myth-making, one which demands far more context to have any kind of relevance.
Likewise with Rodriguez himself – Sugar Man is so concerned with convincing us of the incredible lost-and-found trajectory of a second-chance star that it gives very little insight into the man himself, preferring to merely build upon the legend. Perhaps it’s Rodriguez’s own reticence to share much insight about himself or his music that holds the viewer at a distance, but the film also relies overmuch on hearsay and anecdotal evidence and could have benefitted from more substantive research. For example, Sugar Man‘s teasing interest in where all the money went from the explosive record sales of Rodriguez’s albums in South Africa – a point which is hammered in with the grilling of Sussex Records’ Clarence Avant during an interview – is left largely unaddressed in favor of a more tidy conclusion.
As someone with a limited interest in – and experience with – music documentaries, I may be less impressed with Searching for Sugar Man‘s achievements in the genre than a more familiar viewer. Though it failed to thoroughly follow through on its investigative promises, it nevertheless introduced me and countless others to a stunning voice that America overlooked. I even have a new Pandora station to show for it.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Grade: B- | 1st Viewing
Guillermo del Toro’s giant robots vs. giant aliens summer flick was exactly what I’d hoped it would be: dumb, fun, and strongly reminiscent of childhood. As someone who spent her share of time with those mighty, morphin’ rangers of power, I found myself delighted by a film whose mindless action and sense of scale I was actually able to enjoy without my typical, progressive-walks-into-a-movie-theater disappointment and umbrage.
The film’s sense of camp is essential to its success, and the absence of actual carnage beyond a gleefully chaotic destruction of property allowed me to remain blissfully divorced from any kind of affecting reality for its 131 minutes. Of course, the stakes in the movie maintain apocalyptic levels for the duration, but any emotional connection one might feel obligated to form with Pacific Rim‘s thinly-drawn characters is easily dispatched with a corny line of dialogue (“We’ve got to do this! Together!) or deliberately inane plot point (initializing: SWORD!)
Despite the physical scale of its battle scenes, Pacific Rim feels like an appropriately small movie. It tells a simple story with just enough backstory to motivate its main players, following the fun with minimal pretension. Its characters are almost Brechtian in their utility, though Burn Gorman’s exorbitantly British Gottlieb manages to out-ham Charlie Day in what feels like a false turn. And while it fails the Bechdel test, Pacific Rim resists sexualizing its female lead, which is an unfortunately frequent crutch of the genre. (…Most genres.) In fact, the film’s restraint in allowing the main protagonists’ relationship to remain an unromantic one (despite some glances and tension) is, in a word, surprising.
Now if only Ron Perlman and Charlie Hunnam could have had a scene where they rode Jaeger-sized motorcycles into the sunset…
Orange is the New Black (2013)
Grade: A- | 2nd Viewing
That’s right. I’ve watched the 13-episode Netflix original series twice through since it debuted on July 11th (though the re-watch was mostly due to catching up my husband after an initial two-day solo binge). The series, which was renewed for a second season before it even aired, has sparked conversations about the changing nature of television viewing, the deep talent pool of underrepresented identities on screen, and American prison policy and reform.
The series’ writer/producer Jenji Kohan (former creator and showrunner of Weeds) has spoken to what is one of the show’s greatest strengths: a diverse ensemble cast. “Piper was our gateway drug,” she said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “We wanted to write stories about all sorts of women and their experiences. But it’s very hard to sell a show about women of different colors and different ages and different socioeconomic backgrounds. This way, we almost get to sneak in these amazing characters and amazing stories through this white girl going to prison.”
Orange is also bitingly funny and moving, and like Weeds is not afraid to let its main protagonist be pretty insufferable sometimes. Though it hits a few false notes for me in how it centers every character’s incarceration around identifiable and personal choices she made (so far without much commentary on how the class system and structural racism often remove “choice” from the equation) it gives its atypical-for-broadcast-television cast of characters – a black transgender woman played by a trans actor, for example – real agency and humanity. And perhaps that’s the point Netflix is making with the choice to follow the high praise of House of Cards and publicity frenzy of Arrested Development with a show about women inmates: this isn’t broadcast television.
Netflix is poised to change the game of the small screen, and with their recently-announced 14 Emmy Award nominations including outstanding drama series and acting honors (the first of their kind for a digital platform), the Internet’s biggest video-streaming site is already receiving critical validation. I can only hope the series’ builds on its early success and treads more subversive ground in its second season.