Miss Congeniality

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: When a domestic terrorist threatens mayhem at the Miss United States beauty pageant, the FBI need someone with beauty, poise and natural grace to go undercover. Unfortunately, all they’ve got is Gracie Hart: smart, athletic, and as feminine as a builder’s bum-crack.

Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is in trouble. She’s not a rogue agent, exactly, but her tendency to act before she thinks does tend to get her colleagues shot. With her job on the line, she’s naturally passed over when boss Harry McDonald (Ernie Hudson) chooses an agent to head up an operation to thwart ’The Citizen’, a domestic terrorist who teases the FBI with cryptic poems about his targets. Gracie’s colleague and sometime sparring partner Eric (Benjamin Bratt) gets the job of preventing the next outrage, but Gracie’s smarts still come in useful; and when they discover that the Citizen’s next hit is the Miss USA pageant in San Antonio, Texas, a lack of suitable moles makes her even more valuable.

The only problem is, Gracie’s one of the boys, a hard-fighting, beer-swilling tomboy who believes pageants represent Neanderthal, sexist attitudes. Still, she’s the only candidate, so she’s brought up to snuff with the help of dapper consultant Victor Melling (Michael Caine) and a team of industrial beauticians. However, looking like a lady and acting like a lady are two very different things, and as the pageant progresses Gracie works night and day to both fit in with her fellow contestants and unmask the Citizen, whoever he – or she – may be.

At first glance, there’s very little to separate Miss Congeniality from the crowd. It’s an undercover cop movie played as fish-out-of-water comedy, a mash-up of Kindergarten Cop, My Fair Lady, The Princess Diaries and Legally Blonde, the last particularly acting as a direct opposite for comparison (Elle, blonde, gains smarts: Gracie, Brunette, goes vacuous). It shouldn’t surprise you at all that Gracie learns from the girls she initially dismisses, especially Heather Burns’ ditzy Cheryl/Rhode Island, and vice versa; and it’s entirely predictable that the investigation takes an unexpected turn and she has to hand in her badge, forcing her to solve the crime alone.

This is all well-worn territory, and not all of it is slickly executed; for example, the set-up that throws Gracie into the pageant is clunky (the FBI HR database is cross-referenced with a dress-up dolly website to show employees, including Hudson, in swimwear), and her combative romance with Eric exists solely because the rules, for some reason, demand that this kind of story needs a love interest. Bratt’s not particularly interesting, and doesn’t have any chemistry with Bullock, so why force them together?

So it’s a good job that Miss Congeniality benefits from a potent combination of a snappy script and a range of good acting turns. First amongst these is Bullock, who uses her considerable gifts as a comedian (chief among them an admirable lack of vanity) to constantly coax laughs out of Gracie’s predicament. Her slapstick pratfalls may be comedy basics but she works them magnificently, most memorably during her post-transformation reveal.

Bullock is supported brilliantly by Michael Caine, who barely gets out of neutral but almost steals the film regardless, thanks to his scathing-yet-tender attentions towards his ‘Dirty Harriet.’ Candice Bergen and William Shatner have tremendous fun as (respectively) uptight pageant organiser Miss Morningside and oafish MC Stan Fields, both destined for the chop. The warmth and spark of all these performances compensates for the routine nature of the plot, and the fact that it struggles to balance the business of the beauty show with the operation to catch the Citizen (indeed, the terrorist is captured off-screen and never heard from again).

Also, while it’s entirely correct, politically and otherwise, that Miss Congeniality doesn’t use the pageant setting to leer at the contestants, it’s reluctant to reveal what it thinks of women parading around to be objectified and ranked by (mostly) men. You’d have to watch Drop Dead Gorgeous, flawed though that movie is, for commentary on the thought processes of beauty show contestants; I’d guess their backbiting is more representative of the truth than the supportive sisterhood displayed here. One pro-lesbian outburst apart, the film doesn’t really have an edge to speak of; the observation that contestants all say they want world peace is hardly a shattering revelation.

Nonetheless, Miss Congeniality gets the important bit right: it’s funny. Bullock and Caine have a field day, but the laughs are spread out nicely between the cast (when Gracie jumps on a crowd member because he’s packing a weapon, Miss Morningside responds ’This is Texas. Everybody has a gun. My florist has a gun.’) You won’t know anything coming out of the movie that you didn’t know going in, but chances are you’ll have a pretty good time anyway.


Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Bosom buddies Romy and Michele hear that their school is having a 10-year reunion, but come to the conclusion that their lives aren’t up to scratch. When plan A – suddenly becoming successful, svelte and attached – doesn’t work, the girls hit on a much easier plan B: just lie. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

School days at Sagebrush High, Tucson, Arizona weren’t exactly a blast for lifelong friends Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow). Romy couldn’t get over her crush on the athletic Billy (Vincent Ventresca), leaving her ripe for humiliation at the hands of Billy’s girlfriend Christy (Julia Campbell) and her mean girlfriends. While Michele was also a victim of Christy’s spitefulness, she was more troubled by the unwanted attentions of awkward geek Sandy Frink (Alan Cumming), Sandy being an unlikely (and unreciprocated) object of desire for aggressive loner Heather (Janeane Garofalo).

Ten years later, Romy and Michele are flatmates and have an outwardly sunny life in Los Angeles, partying by night and, in Michele’s case, doing nothing in the daytime. However, when Heather lets slip that Sagebrush is holding a reunion, the ladies are suddenly forced to assess how successful they really are. In the face of potential fresh humiliation, they try to improve their lives quickly by slimming down and snagging blokes, while Michele half-heartedly looks for a job.

When all that proves too much hard work, Romy makes another suggestion: if they act like they’re successful businesswomen, who’s to say they’re not? Romy comes up with the brilliant wheeze that they invented Post-Its, while Michele runs up a couple of natty suits; unfortunately, an argument over their relative cuteness causes the girls to fall out, depriving them of mutual support when they face their former tormentors.

Let’s start with the good things about Romy and Michele…, which more or less boils down to Romy and Michele. Anyone who has seen Friends (the early seasons, anyway) will know that Kudrow is a very capable comic actress, and her Michele is marvellously dippy whilst never feeling like a clone of Phoebe Buffay. Alongside Kudrow, Sorvino is quite lovely as Romy, and it’s a pity that she hasn’t done more comedy (or perhaps she has, in which case it’s a pity I’ve not seen it).

Together they make a believably featherbrained and eminently watchable duo. Actually, the acting’s generally pretty good: Garofalo’s trademark surly demeanour helps her steal every scene she’s in, Cumming has fun in a smallish role, and so does Camryn Manheim as always-enthusiastic organiser Toby. The film also gets a point for the evocative 80s soundtrack and at least one more for the strange delights of Romy, Michele and Sandy’s freestyle dance.

Sadly, that’s more or less where the good things end. I’m neutral about the overall storyline, since this isn’t the first film to point out that blondes from Los Angeles have a reputation for being vacuous – Earth Girls are Easy and Clueless predate Romy and Michele, Legally Blonde came after – and won’t be the last. What’s more destructive is the inelegant nature of Robin Schiff’s screenplay and David Mirkin’s direction. For example, the film repeatedly zooms in and out of a yearbook to establish, in flashback, what the characters were like at eighteen; the device works once but becomes tiresome the third time around. Another example is the inconsistency of Heather’s motivation: having been in love with Frink, like, forever, she goes off him because he’s become rich and self-confident?

Or take Michele’s dream, which takes up a considerable chunk of the middle act. The whole point of a comedy dream sequence is that we initially accept it as the ‘real’ story, are taken aback when things go a bit strange, then cotton on just as the game’s given away (Exhibit A: Baldrick turning into an Alsatian in Blackadder the Third). Romy and Michele extends its dream sequence well past the point that the audience twigs what’s going on, yet persists anyway, indulging in a 70-year flash-forward to pay off a weak joke about The Mary Tyler Moore Show that’ll mean nothing to 99% of those viewing. Anybody would think there was some padding going on.

The real issue, of course, is that the film is just not funny enough. Were the laughs bigger, you wouldn’t notice the mechanics of the script; as it is, it often misfires, so the movie judders along like the Jaguar Romy (ahem) procures from the dealership where she works (there’s some other clunking product placement too). It doesn’t surprise me at all that while this film is adapted from a Robin Schiff play, she’s essentially a TV writer: the jokes are TV-sized and, without the response from a live audience to fill the gaps, often fall flat. Romy and Michele would have benefited greatly from a sharper edge, like Heathers, or a chunkier story – I kept waiting for something exciting to happen, before realising that the reunion film I really wanted to be watching was Grosse Pointe Blank.

Regarded in a cold light, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion doesn’t stack up, doing poorly by two good actresses and two zeitgeisty (in 1997) characters by sending them on a sitcom journey without enough jokes in the trunk. But for all the movie’s faults, there’s something undeniably sunny and ultimately uplifting about Romy and Michele themselves – and hey, it’s a damn sight better than Mirkin’s awful Heartbreakers.

Muppets from Space

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Great though he may be, Gonzo tires of being one of a kind in the world. He discovers – via his cereal – that he’s an alien sought after by his race, and his response brings him to the attention of government agency COVNET. When the agency’s head Edgar Singer turns out to be a lot less affable than he first appears, it’s up to Kermit, Fozzie and the rest of the Muppets to stage a rescue, Miss Piggy hoping a close encounter will boost her TV career.

Gonzo the Great (Dave Goelz) is one of the big Muppet family, sharing a house with long-time friends Kermit (Steve Whitmire), Miss Piggy (Frank Oz), Fozzie Bear (Oz again), Rizzo the rat (Whitmire again) and hundreds of others. But in another sense he’s alone, and it weighs heavily on his heart. When Gonzo’s alphabet shapes tell him to watch the skies, the other Muppets put it down as typical Gonzoid craziness, Rizzo and Pepe the prawn (Bill Barretta) taking advantage by getting him to build a Jacuzzi.

However, Gonzo is convinced that his extra-terrestrial kind are trying to reach him and he goes on a TV show, helmed at short notice by Piggy, to say as much. While Gonzo looks forward to meeting his family, COVNET chief Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor) sees Gonzo as proof of an imminent alien invasion and takes him in for interrogation, Rizzo becoming an unwilling lab rat at the same time. Kermit and pals, backed up by Dr Honeydew and Beaker’s inventions, make plans to bust their friends out of COVNET and make sure Gonzo makes his date with destiny at the beach location negotiated via the medium of a talking sandwich: this is the Muppets, after all.

This probably isn’t much help if you’ve not seen The Muppet Christmas Carol, especially since I haven’t reviewed it yet, but the best way to review Muppets from Space is as a sort of compare and contrast with the 1992 film. Christmas Carol had great charm, a number of serviceable songs, intelligent use of the Muppets themselves, a brilliant star turn from Michael Caine and – most important of all – the cast-iron Charles Dickens story keeping everything firmly on course. From Space, basically, doesn’t.

I’ll deal with each of the above in turn. Charm is, of course, an ineffable quality, but it boils down to being made to feel as warm and fuzzy as the Muppets themselves. Unfortunately, Muppets from Space feels for the most part like treading water, a product churned out to keep the puppets in the public eye at the least possible expense. Cheap visual effects are often worse than no effects at all, and this is definitely the case here, since they often distract from the touching story of Gonzo’s loneliness. That said, you’re already likely to be distracted by the incessant sound of funk stamped all over the soundtrack. I like funk, in small doses, but to splash it across an entire film aimed primarily at kids born in or around 1990 seems like madness.

And the Muppets? Well, Gonzo’s the star of the show and good value for it, though Rizzo and his murine friends run him close. Animal has his usual, chaotic fun, and Piggy, as ever, gets to show off, though I’m not sure punching a government suit in the groin is really her style. However, Fozzie and square old Kermit are pushed slightly out of the picture by the diverse new characters who emanate from the 90s Muppets Tonight TV show – Bobo the bear, Clifford the catfish, Pepe the prawn. You can’t blame Henson studios for wanting to push these characters forward, and Pepe in particular is funny, but they lack the charm of Jim Henson’s original creations (Rowlf is barely seen or heard).

Much the same is true of the non-Muppet cast; although Tambor is commendably committed to his part, he’s a one-dimensional, shouty bad guy who can’t hope to have the same impact as Caine. Predictably, a host of cameos from Ray Liotta, David Arquette, Andie MacDowell, Rob Schneider and so on don’t really redress the balance.

Finally, there’s the story. Very few narratives can compete with Dickens’ tale, which is why it’s been filmed so many times, but this cross between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a cut-price Men In Black doesn’t come close, blunting the feel-good message of Gonzo belonging on Earth all along. The script is fundamentally lazy: given the action-movie staples ‘How do we get past the guards?’, ‘How do we avoid being seen?’ and ‘How do we escape?’, Muppets from Space’s answer each time is a magic potion cooked up by Honeydew and Beaker. Besides, the script lacks comic instincts: for example, Andie MacDowell had to come back to the beach at some point – even after the credits – with several thousand cups of coffee; sadly, the pay-off never came.

Muppets from Space is a perfectly adequate, if not very cinematic, outing for the fuzzy fellas, and by no means so awful that you’d predict the Muppets’ decade-long (more or less) disappearance, before acknowledging how forgotten they’d become in The Muppets. That said, there’s not much about it that’s memorable either, so unless you’re a big fan of the crew – or funk! – there’s no real reason to seek it out.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: Eerie lights in the night sky and unexpected phenomena around the world start alarm bells ringing in the scientific community. At the same time, in Muncie, Indiana little Barry Guiler is separated from his mother Jillian, while utility worker Roy Neary is driven out of his wits by an encounter with an unknown force. Roy and Jillian are compelled to create reproductions of an imposing tower, little knowing that it is a real location – and a meeting place.

Something is definitely ‘up’ with the world. In a Mexican desert, WWII-era fighter planes appear out of nowhere, the locals telling of the sun coming out at night and singing to them; a long-lost ship appears in another desert, while in India the locals chant a simple five-note melody sent from the sky. While French scientist Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and his cartographer-turned-interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) investigate these bizarre events, and Indianapolis Air Traffic Control is dealing with near misses nobody wants to report, things are also afoot in the quiet town of Muncie. Woken by his toys taking on lives of their own, young Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) runs away from home, and though mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) initially catches up with him, he is eventually taken by unknown hands.

Meanwhile, power line worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) experiences a very close shave with a UFO, burning half of his face and traumatising him. While fretful wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) urges Roy to forget about his drama, he becomes increasingly obsessed with sculpting a mound of some sort out of whatever he has to hand. Roy loses his job and his family at the same time as he appears to lose his mind; but Jillian has been drawing an identical monument, and when Roy discovers that the monument is actually Devils Tower in Wyoming, they both head straight for it. Strangely, the US Army have just declared the area unsafe following the release (they say) of a toxic gas; if that’s the case, why are Lacombe and Loughlin on its ‘dark side’, making preparations for (they hope) First Contact?

There’s an instructive little story that I wasn’t aware of until recently, namely that George Lucas visited Spielberg on the set of Close Encounters and was so convinced that his friend’s film would be the bigger hit, he traded two-and-a-half percent of the film’s profits for those of his little project, Star Wars. A nice deal for Spielberg, as it turned out, and instructive because Lucas obviously felt that Close Encounters was shaping up to be more of a winner than his own Space Western.

Lucas was wrong, of course, since Star Wars has passed into Box Office legend; but he was also right, because Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the better, smarter film*. While Star Wars portrays alien races but imposes desperately routine (if occasionally exciting) cinematic adventures on them, Close Encounters is a thrillingly plausible prediction of what our first experience of alien life might be like. Spielberg cuts through the crazies and the conspiracy theorists that bedevil serious assessment of the search for extra-terrestrial life to present a clean, simple version of events as they could occur.

It helps, too, that Spielberg is also a master of technique, and he creates atmosphere here with both Douglas Trumbull’s beautiful, big-scale effects and smaller but equally magical ones. The way Barry’s toys, and Jillian’s vacuum cleaner, come to life is as mesmerising as it is unsettling, while the combination of lights and sound effects – which is all it is – to show the aliens scanning the Guiler household is nonetheless incredibly effective.

Spielberg is also aided by Dreyfuss, on top form as a man failing to understand what his mind is telling him to do; Garr is equally good as the wife failing to understand her husband, and Guffey awfully cute as the adventurous Barry. It almost goes without saying that John Williams’ score is a brilliant accompaniment to the visuals, the playful music of the mothership working in a lovely Jaws reference.

Not everything works, however, the main problem being that Spielberg (credited as sole writer, though thereby hangs a tale) is telling three different stories: Lacombe and Laughlin’s global quest for evidence of extra-terrestrial interference; Roy’s quest for sanity and, ultimately, self-validation; and his and Jillian’s escape from the authorities to get where the action is on Devils Tower. Although the stories are clearly interdependent, they don’t always mesh together as seamlessly as you might wish – for example, Army Security is very lax where it matters most, and Ronnie and the children fall out of the picture (and Roy’s thoughts) rather quickly once Roy starts climbing the tower (he’s concentrating on becoming a real boy: Spielberg would come back to Pinocchio in A.I.)

Too much of the screenplay is taken up with translations between languages, which is ultimately absurd because Lacombe can speak English perfectly well when he needs to, and I didn’t know what purpose was served by the signed version of the aliens’ five-note, pentatonic calling card. Other gripes are more niggly, and less fair: the effects are of their time, so while they are incredibly good, the ships are sometimes ever so slightly transparent. Also, the aliens themselves, whether it be the big-headed children or the one with the nice smile, are easy to make fun of in this age of virtual wizardry – Spielberg and recently-departed artist Carlo Rambaldi would refine the look by the time they re-visited the territory even more successfully in E.T..

Although the thematic, musical and occasional visual nods to Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey are inescapable, Close Encounters of the Third Kind stands on its own as a robust, blue-collar depiction of meeting the unknown, with images and sounds every bit as memorable as Stanley’s high-art pretensions. And if it’s not as much fun as Star Wars, deep in his heart George Lucas must not only wish he’d not made his bet, he must wish he’d made this film instead.

NOTES: This review is based on the 131-minute ‘Collectors’ Edition, seemingly a compromise between the original, rushed theatrical release and the ‘Special’ edition with the unsatisfactory ‘inside the mothership’ conclusion. Just so you know.

*Just compare the titles. Star Wars leaves nothing to the imagination, while Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains ambiguous, not explaining the ‘kinds’ of Close Encounter at any point in the film (though the posters spelt everything out).

The Young Victoria

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Thrust upon the throne at a tender age, Princess Victoria fights off the self-serving attentions of her mother and her mother’s secretary to prove she is a woman with her own mind. However, juggling affairs of state and affairs of the heart is a far from simple task, especially when it’s difficult to know which suitors are genuine and which are only out for career advancement.

The United Kingdom is at a crossroads. King William IV (Jim Broadbent) is ailing and has no legitimate children to succeed him, leaving seventeen-year-old niece Princess Victoria (Emily Blunt) first in line to the throne. But Victoria herself is unwell, unable to walk downstairs without her hand being held and barely able to reject the passionate demands of her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her financial comptroller Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) that she submits to a Regency in the event of the King’s death.

What’s more, Victoria’s Uncle Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann), King of Belgium, has designs to strengthen his position in Europe by marrying her off to Saxe-Coburg Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). On the other hand, Victoria has lived most of her life in the knowledge that she is due to become Queen, so when Albert comes calling with rehearsed pleasantries she is more than ready for them, although they develop a friendship and agree to write to one another.

Alongside royal intrigues – William cannot abide his sister-in-law’s abuse of power at Kensington Palace – come political matters, where Victoria is willing to take advice from charming Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), though this comes at the expense of relationships with the Tories under Sir Robert Peel (Michael Maloney). The inevitable happens and Victoria becomes Queen, moving into Buckingham Palace; yet she remains alone, leaning on Melbourne for guidance, as Albert hears without pleasure in Victoria’s letters. He returns to England to try to press his cause, but as someone once said, the path of true love never did run smooth; and Victoria’s apparent favouring of Melbourne causes a constitutional crisis that brings a braying populace to the Palace gates.

The turbulent lives of royalty have been dramatic staples going all the way back to the birth of drama, from the Greeks through to Shakespeare; and in the cinema, British monarchs have rarely been more fashionable, whether it’s Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth and its sequel, The Oscar-laden King’s Speech or Madonna’s distinctly less successful W.E. Even with embellishment, Victoria’s life doesn’t lend itself to an epic scale; so instead – and quite wisely – The Young Victoria aims for Jane Austen-style romance with a smidgen of politics on top, Victoria’s position mirroring contemporary British issues concerning the monarch’s constitutional position and variable popularity (see The Queen and The King’s Speech).

The good news is that for the most part, the film works quite nicely, thanks to a thoroughly assured performance by Blunt in the title role and a dependable supporting turn from Friend as her suitor. Both reveal determined streaks that belie their outward youth and delicacy, enabling them to withstand pressure from all quarters; if the villains are slightly pantomimic, it’s more a problem with the script than the acting, since Miranda Richardson and Mark Strong are both very good.

The less good news is that the film frequently looks and sounds like a glossy TV movie. Surprisingly for a script by Julian Downton Abbey Fellowes, a number of unfortunate modernisms creep in – I’m not sure ‘It’s like this endless examination’ is an idiom 19th Century royalty would have used much; and the shot at the Coronation ball in which Victoria feels the full rush of love, the background receding and her dress fluttering in the sudden breeze, is silly, inappropriate and naïve. Harriet Walter also overdoes the Teutonic accent, though this may be historically accurate.

Then there’s the already-mentioned embellishment of the facts which helps to create the requisite conflicts in our characters’ minds. Believe it or not, Lord Melbourne wasn’t really as dashing, charming and Wickham-like as Paul Bettany makes him here (as in Wimbledon, he fills in as an ersatz Hugh Grant); he was actually forty years Victoria’s senior, and in any case the notion of a romantic attraction between monarch and Prime Minister is fanciful in the extreme.

Also, Albert wasn’t actually at the Coronation, and he wasn’t actually shot, though an attempt was made on Victoria’s life. Nonetheless, the film doesn’t play too fast and loose with the truth as I understand it, and you can see why the facts have been tinkered with to better suit the flow of the plot. Incidentally, if the mentions of Flora Hastings seem to go nowhere, it’s because her scandal was cut from the theatrical release.

The Young Victoria is not a film which delves deep into the true history, politics or psychology of the characters it shows us, and is perhaps a soppier and more sanitised tale than it might have been under a less involved producer than Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York. However, whilst it’s easy to sneer at the project and some of its sillier moments – is it me, or does Leopold spend all his time walking round his gardens? – the film also contains some lovely performances and is definitely worth catching, even if it’s just to see Blunt catching her reflection in the mirror.

Searching for Sugarman

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: The amazing true story of Rodriguez, Detroit-based singer-songwriter who never hit the big time, resulting in his apparent suicide without ever knowing of his immense popularity in South Africa; and what happened when two fans from that country went looking for his legend.

The vagaries of the music business are many, and there’s often no logical reason why some incredibly ordinary acts make the big time while more obvious talents never get the recognition they appear to deserve. One such act was Rodriguez, a musician from Detroit whose facility for writing popular Dylan-like songs on albums Cold Fact and Coming from Reality excited producers in the early 1970s, but failed to make any impact with the listening public in America. Rodriguez slipped into the murky obscurity from whence he came, eventually – according to some rumours – taking his own life on stage at the end of a disastrous concert.

In South Africa, however, the slightly edgy tone of Cold Fact strikes a chord with youngsters struggling to understand their government’s oppressive Apartheid policies, and the albums rack up hundreds of thousands of sales. Fan Stephen Segerman, called “Sugar” in reference to one of Rodriguez’ songs, queries what became of the singer in notes for a CD re-release, a question journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom takes up with enthusiasm. A certain Eva Rodriguez gets in touch on an internet forum to say that her father is alive, well and completely oblivious of his popularity in South Africa, and the rest – as they say – is history.

A friend recommended that I watch Searching for Sugar Man, and I’m rather glad that he did. Partly because the story sounds so unlikely – can a man really be, simultaneously, so anonymous as to be presumed dead and a cult hero? – but mainly because Rodriguez’ music, of which we hear a good selection, is so damn good.

His music is undoubtedly coloured by Bob Dylan, but Sixto – to my ear, at least – is the stronger singer, more sonorous and clearer in his diction. The songs range from the angry (Establishment Blues) to the poppy (I Wonder), from the trippy (Sugar Man) to the plaintively poetic (Cause, Crucify Your Mind), and Searching for Sugar Man presents them all with attractive visuals: these alone make the film more than watchable.

But what of that question? Well, there’s no doubt that Rodriguez’ journey is extraordinary, and the film makes a persuasive case that any stories of fame or, more to the point, money from South Africa never got further than Sussex Records’ Clarence Avant until the triumphant concerts – and there’s plenty of concert footage to prove the musician’s popularity. However, while the storytelling is compelling, Rodriguez isn’t quite the miracle man Bendjelloul suggests he is.

You’d never guess, for example, that he toured Australia in the late 70s, clearly scotching the suicide rumours; furthermore, anyone who runs for public office (as Rodriguez has done on several occasions) can’t be that reclusive. And it’s something of a surprise to find that the story isn’t exactly hot off the press, with the ‘comeback’ concert taking place all the way back in 1998. Searching for Sugar Man cleverly plays up the mystery of Segerman and Strydom’s investigations, but it’s obvious that had they started looking in earnest earlier, and in the right places, they would have found their man without too much trouble. Rather like Senna or any of Michael Moore’s documentaries, while this film doesn’t lie, it leaves an awful lot unsaid in order to shape the narrative to intriguing effect.

There’s also the issue of the object of the movie’s search, Sixto or Jesus Rodriguez. His music is described as a catalyst for change in South Africa and this is an apt description for the man himself; because whatever his songs did or didn’t achieve in South Africa, he remains somewhat unknowable in the film’s interview (most of the details come from his daughter Eva). Of course, the fact that he’s lived in the same Detroit house forever and gives away most of his money is entirely laudable – and only helps to boost his shamanic status.

Manipulative and partial it may be, but Searching for Sugar Man has a bigger picture up its sleeve*. Whether by accident or design, the story of Cold Fact’s popularity and notoriety (some of the edgier tracks were censored) in South Africa effectively explores the vile regime that was controlling and segregating the country’s population just as the rest of the world (slowly) came to accept the moral imperative of racial equality. The testimony of musician Willem Möller and others helps to tell another story that too few people have heard, and a more important one: while the country deservedly had a terrible reputation for many years, some white South Africans were making and listening to the right noises.

Searching for Sugar Man is undoubtedly a documentary that’s very careful about what it chooses to document and what it chooses to overlook. Nevertheless, I’m prepared to forgive a film a lot of things if it introduces me – and, from what I can tell, thousands of others – to a distinctive and interesting voice, rediscovered for a new generation. Its authentic triumph, however, might be its depiction of a disgraced nation rediscovering itself through the power of music.

NOTES: God bless mixed metaphors.


WFTB Score: 5/20

The plot: Fading British tennis star Peter Colt is invited to play at Wimbledon one last time. No-one – himself included – expects Peter to get anywhere, but a chance meeting and romance with rising American star Lizzie Bradbury sees him go on a winning streak which threatens to take him all the way to the final. The love match proves more of a distraction to Lizzie’s game, however, much to the annoyance of her father.

I have a scene in my mind, not from Wimbledon but about how the film came into being: a group of pals in the bar of a tennis club in the south of England have just been on a jaunt to see Notting Hill and are discussing the film over a jug or two of Pimms. One of the ladies suddenly says, ‘I say! Wouldn’t it be awfully exciting if there was a film about the All-England Championships at Wimbledon? Both men and women play, there could be a lovely romance just like Hugh and Julia had!’ There’s an enthusiastic buzz and someone else says, ‘You know, I have a cousin who works for some film company, Working Title it’s called, or something. You knock some sort of a script up, old girl, and I’ll give them a ring. Dashed good job we’ve all got money to finance it, eh?’

I doubt very much that this is actually what happened, but is the only way I can imagine this film ever got made. As it happens, Hugh Grant is not in Wimbledon (not available? Too old? Read the script?), so Paul Bettany plays Peter Colt, one-hundred-and-somethingth in the world rankings, ready to throw in the towel and accept a job coaching old dears as soon as he departs from Wimbledon; an early departure is so inevitable that his mother (Eleanor Bron) refuses to watch, leaving Dad (Bernard Hill) viewing an old black and white TV up a treehouse; and his chippy brother Carl (James McAvoy) is so convinced Peter’s a loser, he bets against him!

They have all, however, reckoned without Peter accidentally coming across Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst); they share a drink, fish and chips, and a bed, and Peter’s inner demons are suddenly silenced. Peter starts playing tennis ‘from the heart’ whilst fooling around with Lizzie in the evenings, and this delights Peter’s agent Ron (Jon Favreau), but Mr Bradbury (Sam Neill) is far from happy as his daughter is destined for great things.

Wimbledon has potential for great things too: romance, conflict, top-level sporting drama, set in the real Wimbledon and sunny Brighton (where the Colts have a flat), an attractive lead couple bridging the Atlantic – what could go wrong? Unfortunately, almost everything. Wimbledon begins with the premise that professional sportsmen and women benefit from greasy food, alcohol and sex before a match, and goes downhill from there.

The tennis is patchily represented: what play there is is okay, but commentators fill in a lot of the details as Bettany flings himself around the court, muttering to himself; John McEnroe and Chris Evert are fine but are lumbered with some dreadful dialogue to hold the hands of non-tennis-following viewers (‘Peter Colt is now three points away from winning Wimbledon’). For people who do watch tennis, some of the details will be risible: Colt plays his semi-final on an outside court, and the Wimbledon locker room lets Lizzie amble in and out as she chooses.

The tennis, however, is secondary to the love story which sees Peter scaling the outside of a building on the night before his semi-final and follows a predictable off-again on-again pattern (just as all of Peter’s tennis matches follow the same pattern: he’s two sets down, definitely going out – no, hang on, he’s clawing it back!). There is some chemistry between the leads, but this is thanks to the actors and not the awful, sub-Curtis script. Bettany is tasked to combine a clumsy, Grant-like upper-class charm with a steely sportsman’s grit, whilst Dunst is – well, Dunst isn’t given much personality at all; there’s not much to Lizzie except her willingness to sleep with Colt and go against her father’s wishes, and in her most profound moments say stuff like ‘Love is zero in tennis.’

Elsewhere, characterisation is equally woeful. Ron the agent is a nothing role (except to further some hideous product placement), Peter’s parents serve no purpose except to spout some guff about the Colt family not being as close and unconditionally loving as they might be, and McAvoy is totally wasted as the slacker brother.

More than anyone, Carl demonstrates how far the writers are from any kind of recognisable reality; in his world, there’s a bookmakers not only showing tennis but crowded with punters who give a fig about it. Carl picks up a working-class (Cockernee) girl and parties until Peter and Lizzie interrupt the gathering (they escape from London in the middle of the night but only arrive in Brighton – 50 miles away? – mid-morning the next day). The pros hang out and play pretend tennis before their games the following day; but hey, that’s only Wimbledon – we’re in love and there’s a comet passing by!

As you might imagine from such facile storytelling, with inspiration from a brave ballboy and instruction on his snotty opponent’s game from Lizzie (her father, suddenly thinking only of her happiness, having let her run from the airport), Peter lifts both the trophy and the love of his life, and the film suddenly jumps about six years to Lizzie having won four Grand Slam tournaments and Peter and Lizzie having two children – yet the pair look no different! It’s nit-picking, I know, but bad films invite nit-picking because there are so many nits to pick.

Wimbledon deserves the criticism, too, because it actually undermines what I assume it set out to do, namely to show professional tennis players in a human light; what it actually does is show the English ones to be bumbling toffs, most of the rest to be bratty kids, and insults the profession by suggesting you can win tournaments whilst eating and drinking what you like and having as much fun as you want.

All of which might be excusable if there were sufficient comedy whilst all this was happening, but instead there is merely swearing (I must have become immune to the humour inherent in hearing Englishmen saying ‘bollocks’ through over-familiarity). If you love tennis, give this a miss: there may be an interesting film out there, or yet to be made, about the sport, but if there is Wimbledon is not it.