JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Cartel Land, What Happened Miss Simone?, Listen to Me Marlon (Director: Matthew Heineman, Liz Garbus, Stevan Riley) - January 12, 2016

Cartel Land, What Happened Miss Simone?, Listen to Me Marlon

4.5 4.5

For Your Consideration 2015: Docs

Once again the race is on for dozens of productions to snag a Best Documentary nomination for this year’s Oscars. Here are three hopefuls that have a better-than-even chance of ending up on the list.

Cartel Land
Matthew Heineman
100 min., Four and one-half stars

Let’s try justice my way

Just a few hours after viewing “fictional” Sicario—Denis Villeneuve’s portrait of the long reach of drug cartels in Mexico, Colombia and the United States, cross-reference below—Heineman’s you-are-there documentary on the same subject matter is decidedly sobering as, once again—but more believably—it’s pretty much impossible to separate the good guys from the bad.

The film is bookended by face-covered Mexican “cooks” as they prepare meth for shipment to partyers and addicts alike, working their magic in a remote forest before the fruit of their labours slips near effortlessly across the Mexican-U.S. (Arizona) border. They hide their identities to protect their day jobs: proud members of the Mexican government’s Rural Defense Force. As one of their number unabashedly states: “We will do this as long as God allows it.” Presumably, then, the Devil is on the side of government?

Sandwiched in-between is the rise and fall of Dr. Manuel Moreles’ Autodefensas (a vigilante movement dedicated to ridding the state of Michoacán’s notorious Knights Templar cartel, one “liberated” town after another). The practising surgeon has the gift for speech making and a healthy appetite for a variety of young women, much to the disdain of his wife. Rather than be subject to random atrocities from the cartels, Autodefensas believes that it is far more honourable “to die fighting” than to succumb to systemic bullying.

Meanwhile, Tim “Nailer” Foley (a confessed victim of child abuse from this father) grittily helms the Arizona Border Recon non-governmental organization with a self-imposed mandate of putting a dent in the cartel’s business, by tracking down (well, mostly up in the high hills and mountains) Mexican scouts who liaise with their colleagues much further below to ensure safe passage for both illegal immigrants and drugs.

The Mexican government and its security forces are frequently portrayed as part of the problem (corruption respects no uniforms) rather than the solution.

Not surprisingly, after initial success and support for the systematic cleansing of crooks by Autodefensas, it’s not too long before the “liberated” citizenry complains of looting, kidnapping et cetera from their supposed heroes. As one frustrated, apprehensive man puts it, “What I want is peace—it doesn’t matter who gives it to us.”

Looking at all sides (at least four: cartels, government, rogue vigilantes, sanctioned vigilantes) it is not difficult to understand why the situation is hopeless: disenfranchised, often poor, grown men (and not a few women) find meaning in their lives while participating in the most realistic video game ever. Solving that conundrum makes “winning” the War on Drugs seem like child’s play.

What Happened, Miss Simone?
Liz Garbus
102 min., Four and one-half stars

Rebel with a Cause

To simply answer the movie’s title: life happened (but not in the manner it might have been expected).

Perhaps a better way to explain the extraordinary career of Nina Simone is to quote her own words: “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

And so she did, unafraid to speak her mind, but doing her greatest work when she sang her mind, ranging from universal hits such as “My Baby Just Cares for Me” (if only, given her tumultuous relationship with husband/manager Andrew Stroud and on-again, off-again relationship with only daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly who served as executive producer for the film) to career-threatening, in-your-face civil rights declamations such as “Mississippi Goddam.”

Originally setting her talented sights on becoming the first black, female classical pianist, Simone’s most ardent dream was dashed when the Curtis Institute refused admittance. Hearing and watching Simone’s pianism, the storied institution made a colossal mistake to which jazz aficionados will be eternally grateful. Adding insult to injury, the unique entertainer, provocateur and desperately troubled soul was awarded an honorary degree just two days before dying at the age of 70. Opportunistic, institutional cynicism doesn’t get much worse than that.

Simone had the courage of her convictions, but also lived with inner demons that required—eventually—debilitating, mood controlling drugs in order to keep the music coming and the potential harm to self and others locked away. And so she lived through her art, but couldn’t find a world that was as honest, accepting and truthful. Very few before the public today can claim to use their voice as a vehicle for change rather than a conduit for fame and fortune.

Listen to Me Marlon
Stevan Riley
103 min., Four and one-half stars

Desperate for love

How wonderful indeed to immediately follow the Nina Simone documentary with Riley’s sound portrait of Marlon Brando. Both artists sharing difficult childhoods, eventual fame and fortune, both becoming advocates for disenfranchised Americans (blacks and First Nations, respectively) and both struggling desperately with parenting, the need for love, admiration and respect from those in their immediate circle and their fans.

I learned a long time ago that the best way to truly understand composers is through their music and letters—biographies, necessarily, depict their subjects through the subjective lens of the author.

Fortunately, the hundreds of audio tapes Brando recorded over many years have survived to become the bedrock of this film. The digitization of Brando’s head as he speaks or looks on in quiet thought (most notably reciting Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet: And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries/ And look upon myself, and curse my fate) adds a level of intimacy that no printed biography (or autobiography for that matter—frequently written by or with a “ghost”) ever could.

Of course, Riley and his talented crew have had to select, then order the material (including many clips from Brando’s vast array of roles, which will drive many to Netflix et al to relive these truly fantastic performances), thereby creating their collective image of the actor/activist/father/thinker.

A viewing is heartily recommended for all of those who may also want to make sense out of lives where—one way or another—they are acted out daily, rather than having the courage to be perfectly honest. JWR

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