Friday, February 15, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray, Documentary Edition: BULLY (2012), SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012), THE IMPOSTER (2012), DETROPIA (2012)

(US - 2012)

Lee Hirsch's documentary on school bullying caused a controversy with the MPAA when it was given an R rating, which would've hindered children from seeing it and prevented schools from showing it.  It was eventually given a PG-13 with a few minor edits for profanity.  It's a noble, well-intentioned,  and compassionate look at several victims of bullying, though in the end, it functions more as a public service announcement than a piece of documentary cinema.  A victim of bullying himself during his childhood, there's absolutely no doubt that Hirsch's heart is in the right place with BULLY and he wants his film to make a difference and to provide comfort and support for kids and their families.  That's commendable, but he also intentionally omits important information for the sake of dramatic effect:  that 17-year-old Tyler Long endured years of bullying prior to his 2009 suicide is not in question, but it was revealed after the film's release that the suicide happened after he broke up with his girlfriend.  Of course, we don't know those circumstances, and because Hirsch wants and needs bullying to the sole reason for the suicide, we never know that young Long had a girlfriend in the first place.  Even more frustrating, Hirsch also pulls his punches when it comes to dealing with the bullies themselves.  We see one getting reprimanded by an assistant principal, and you'll undoubtedly find yourself furious with a useless, do-nothing administrator who more or less makes excuses for the bullies on a school bus seen punching, choking, and stabbing 12-year-old Alex Libby with a pencil, and in one scene, is shown breaking up a fight and giving a harder time to the victim than the aggressor, but a hard-hitting documentary would've called her out on that (she's as much of a villain as the bullies, and you'll hope she lost her job after this was released).  A hard-hitting documentary would confront these bullies and their parents and get to the root of the problem.  Bullies are often bullied themselves--why isn't that examined?  Hirsch's film is a less a documentary and more a feature-length promo reel for a grassroots, anti-bullying crusade, and that's great and it's necessary and should be shown in all schools, but does it make for a great film?   (PG-13, 98 mins)

(UK/Sweden/Belgium/Denmark/Finland - 2012)

It's hard not to like this uplifting, Oscar-nominated documentary that gives an obscure American musician the notoriety that eluded him at home for over 40 years.  Detroit singer/songwriter Rodriguez released two socially-and-politically charged albums on A&M subsidiary Sussex Records in the early 1970s.  Both received little critical attention and tanked commercially in the States and he was dropped by the label by the end of 1971.  Meanwhile, unknown to Rodriguez, his music was widely embraced by liberal, anti-establishment whites in Apartheid-era South Africa, where he eventually became a counter-cultural icon and a musical figure more popular than even the Rolling Stones and Elvis.  But Rodriguez was a mystery even to his fervently loyal South African fan base, who believed a widely-spread rumor that he committed suicide on stage in the States sometime around 1973.  Two Cape Town fans--record store owner Steve "Sugar" Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom--decided in the 1990s to get to the bottom of the Rodriguez mystery and eventually found their hero still living in Detroit, doing odd jobs in construction and demolition.  They eventually bring him to South Africa to play in sold-out arenas to adoring fans.

Director Malik Bendjelloul has been criticized by detractors who claim that he selectively reveals information and tailors the story to suit a narrative that Rodriguez has been forgotten by everyone, ignoring the fact that Rodriguez had a strong following in Australia and New Zealand until the early 1980s.  It's simply not the case when you consider that, aside from Australia and New Zealand being mentioned in passing, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN is as much about Apartheid-era South Africa as it is about Rodriguez.  Bendjelloul is telling the story from the perspective of Segerman, Bartholomew-Strydom, and a legion of South African fans who were in their teens and 20s in the 1970s and who lived in an oppressive country where forward-thinking whites would get a three-year jail sentence just for openly criticizing Apartheid and the government.  And this was pre-internet.  The information South Africans received from beyond their borders was controlled and disseminated.  The South African government had a file on Rodriguez and had the more incendiary tracks on his LPs scratched with a knife so radio stations wouldn't play those particular songs.  How would these young people living under such rule be aware that Rodriguez was still relatively big in Australia and New Zealand?  Only in the film's second half does it find and introduce Rodriguez, who had no idea that he'd sold millions of records in South Africa and never saw any money from it.  This brings up another issue when the head of the South African record label says he's been dutifully been paying royalties to the long-defunct Sussex Records (which folded in 1975) and its owner Clarence Avant, who later became the chairman of Motown Records for most of the 1990s.  Avant is interviewed and goes from cordial and sentimental to extremely testy when he's asked about the royalties from Rodriguez's South African record sales.  As Rodriguez's youngest daughter says near the end of the film, "Well, somebody got the money."  But money doesn't seem to matter much to Rodriguez, who appears to walk the walk when it comes to his art and his life.  He's active in the community (including one unsuccessful 1980s mayoral bid), still does manual labor in the downtown Detroit area, and gave most of the money earned from his several subsequent South African tours to family, friends, and charities.  SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN is an emotional and triumphant story of an artist who made a difference...just not where he would've ever expected.  He's a charismatic, magnetic character and the music is terrific.  (PG-13, 86 mins)

(UK/US - 2012)

Bart Layton draws obvious comparisons to the technique of Errol Morris with this riveting chronicle of a missing San Antonio teenager and a French con man.  Layton not only utilizes dramatic recreations in the vein of THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988), but he also conducts this "documentary" in as manipulative a fashion as Frederic Bourdin played a grieving Texas family.  14-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his San Antonio neighborhood in 1994 after a fight with his family.  In Linares, Spain in 1997, someone claiming to be Nicholas Barclay is found.  Layton allows Bourdin to explain himself and the improbable chain of events that led to the then-23-year-old Frenchman assuming the identity of a missing Texas teenager.  It makes for a fascinating story, but Bourdin is, at best, an unreliable narrator.  Luck and circumstance get Bourdin-as-"Nicholas" reunited with his family, and even though he looks nothing like Nicholas, speaks with a French accent, and is foggy on past events and the names of friends and relatives, they welcome "Nicholas" home with open arms and a loving heart as Bourdin spins a wild tale about being abducted by US military personnel, chloroformed, and taken overseas to be brainwashed, beaten, and raped for three years.  Bourdin is so convincing that he even fools the US Embassy in Spain and FBI agents back home.  His ruse gradually unravels after a medical exam and the dogged persistence of Charlie Wilson, a San Antonio private eye with the folksy demeanor of Matlock.  Wilson becomes obsessed with proving "Nicholas" isn't Nicholas, certain that he's a spy or a terrorist, and even after Bourdin's ruse is exposed, the FBI can't convince the family that this person living with them isn't Nicholas.

Layton, an executive producer of the SyFy reality series PARANORMAL WITNESS, pulls a Frederic Bourdin-level juggling act in his presentation of this story.  He films it as a thriller with frequent interview snippets, and like a thriller, THE IMPOSTER plays its cards close to the vest, revealing the whole story in bits and pieces in ways that probably disqualify it as a "pure" documentary, and leaving out key elements of the story (what's the deal with the mysterious older brother who hasn't been interviewed?) until it can provide a shocking twist in the tale.  It's outstanding entertainment at any rate--often as shocking and thrilling as watching THE USUAL SUSPECTS for the first time, and Layton keeps the audience on its toes by constantly making you shift your alliances.  You'll believe both Bourdin and the family and berate them in equal doses.  A fascinating film.  (R, 99 mins)

(US - 2012)

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the documentary filmmakers behind JESUS CAMP, helmed this visually fascinating but often frustrating look at the decline of Detroit, MI.  The city, once the epicenter of American manufacturing and the middle class, has lost half of its population over the last 50 years and is now at approximately 50% unemployment as entire blocks of homes have been abandoned (Mayor Dave Bing even admits "Even when people get a job, they'll eventually get the hell out of town").  Ewing and Grady stay out of the camera view and are never heard, so the information that's dispensed comes from average, everyday Detroit residents like a local video blogger or a blues club owner or the head of a local auto union.  This ground-level, man-on-the-street approach works some of the time, but it soon gives way to far too much repetition of information you've not only heard earlier in the film, but elsewhere on TV, in newspapers, online, etc.  It does offer some good moments, like the blues club owner confronting a GM rep at the Detroit Auto Show, asking why Chinese automakers have made a better electric car at half the price, but too many of the points are obvious, like Detroit representing the decline of American exceptionalism, and the notion that America had it so good for so long that it simply put its feet up and did nothing while other competing countries matched and have now surpassed it.  Where DETROPIA fares best is in its quieter moments when Ewing and Grady focus on some truly haunting images of urban decay that say infinitely more than the repetitious speechifying and opining observations of the talking heads.  Not without its powerful elements, but even at just 86 minutes, it feels padded and not unlike a college journalism/media course project rather than the work of the team who gave us the excellent JESUS CAMP.  (Unrated, 86 mins)

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