Down From the Shelf ~ Searching for Sugar Man

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock ‘n’ roller, Rodriguez.

Stars: Rodriguez, Steve Segerman, Dennis Coffey

Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  For me, I’m a fan of the documentaries that play fair.  I’m totally fine with seeing films that take a stance I don’t agree with or that feature a subject I wouldn’t normally be interested in.  They need to play fair though and that’s a message I think the makers of Searching for Sugar Man should be called out on the carpet for.  Though it’s favored to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, I was left a little cold by this film which deliberately manipulates its audience with some fancy footwork about its title subject. 

What’s so bothersome is that the subject of the film is interesting enough as is without director Malik Bendjelloul trying to make something appear that isn’t really there.  I’m doing my best to steer clear of any spoilers that may detract from your experience seeing the film but let’s just say that there are more than a few embellishments of the facts and there are details purposely kept from us that would severely change the first half of the movie.

If you can get over that bit of trickery (and for the most part, I could), you’ll be able to enjoy the documentary as it offers up interviews from many music industry insiders who sketch the early days of the short-lived career of musician Rodriguez.  With his haunting melodies and unique voice, the man carried himself with a mystery that fascinated fans…though they didn’t even live on the same continent. 

I kept being reminded of how popular David Hasselhoff was in Germany as various musicians detailed how Rodriguez struck out with US audiences but became wildly popular in South Africa in the heat of apartheid.  Now, I wouldn’t dream of comparing Rodriguez and The Hoff but it shows how tastes in music can differ once you cross an ocean. 

The tales of the demise of Rodriguez were legendary, becoming a semi Urban Legend to music geeks.  When all the information is gathered up, just what became of the musician…and where are all his royalty checks going to?

That question and more are eventually answered, but it’s not without some unnecessary subterfuge first.  Had Bendjelloul just been honest from the start he may have had an even better movie on his hands.  As far as Best Documentary of the year, I’m not sold that it’s this film though you may want to put some money on it if you are entering your office Oscar pool.

Down From the Shelf ~ How to Survive a Plague

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

Stars: Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Iris Long

Director: David France

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  This passionate documentary about how the AIDS crisis gave birth to a new form of activism isn’t the first film about the impact that HIV has had on our world to garner Oscar attention but it’s a strong addition to the historical record of how a disease labeled ‘Gay Cancer’ became a global issue that hit close to home for nearly everyone.

Using invaluable video records, documentarian David France brings the audience into the world of the early responders who demanded more information from a government that didn’t respond as fast or as well as they should.  From local politicians all the way up through the highest level of government, the call to action wasn’t heard until many people had died.

Two activist groups were front and center during these years and where the film really fires on all cylinders is charting the coming together of like-minded individuals and the eventual fracture that happened amongst them thanks to in-fighting and differences of approach taken to get the message out.  Both sides are impassioned in seeking answers and neither are wrong…the strength of the film lies in its middle of the road approach that lets the audience decide for themselves where they would figure into the mix.

As is typical of documentaries that deal with illness, many of the faces that we meet during the course of the film are no longer with us but they live on in the archive footage of their speeches at memorials, rallies, and backyard parties.  These men and women were ready to shout and scream until someone heard our cries for help.

Activism about the AIDS crisis continues even today and the film feels very current in its information – a new generation has grown up knowing what AIDS is and its effects on families and loved ones.  While the dark days of no information may be behind us, there’s still more work to do until a cure is found…and it’s inspiring to know that so many people fought so hard to educate the public.

A film with many moving moments, How to Survive a Plague gets to the heart of the matter early on and is perhaps just a little longer than it has to be.  Length is of little concern though since the subjects are so frustrating yet watchable.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Invisible War

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An investigative documentary about the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the US military.

Stars: Kori Cioca, Jessica Hinves, Ariana Klay, Trina McDonald, Elle Helmer, Hannah Sewell, Myla Haider, Paula Coughlin, Claudia Kennedy, Wilma L. Vaught, Loree Sutton, Dennis Laich, Susan Burke, Amy Herdy, Helen Benedict

Director: Kirby Dick

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Director Kirby Dick isn’t afraid to tackle a hot-button topic and his filmography proves it.  From exposing the movie ratings board in This Film is Not Yet Rated to digging into hypocrisy of closeted politicians lobbying for anti-gay legislation in Outrage, he consistently turns his lens on subjects that may not have a direct impact on the day-to-day lives of everyday Americans.  After being nominated back in 2005 for his child-abuse documentary Twist of Faith, he’s received another nomination for The Invisible War which looks at the growing number of rape cases reported within the US military.

Uncovering any military dirty laundry is always risky for any filmmaker but Dick was the right person to tell the stories of the women and men who were violated while serving their country.  Some of the stories are brief, all are horrific because you can see the weight these victims carry…victims that believed in the military service that ultimately failed to protect them.

It’s frustrating to listen to stories where the victim was called into question while the accused continued to rise up the ranks in their division.  Even with hard evidence very few of these attackers had any serious disciplinary action against them, often being allowed to continue working alongside the individual they raped.  While male victims are thrown into the mix the majority of interviewees are female – strong women who signed up for service to protect us that often found themselves put on trial for speaking up against their attackers. 

The courage of those willing to tell their stories makes this a worthy nominee and will hopefully bring about change in how these cases are handled in the future.