The World Cinema Showcase is a wonderfully diverse little film festival which delivers a much-needed helping of essential world cinema, documentaries, and indie releases to New Zealand audiences who might otherwise miss out on seeing them on the big screen. The 2012 showcase, which serves as a welcome reprieve from the exhausting blockbuster season (as well as an exciting lead-up to the mighty NZ International Film Festival), kicked off in Auckland on Thursday night and will run for two weeks before making its way down to Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch. I will be posting updates and reviews throughout the Auckland showcase, starting with a round-up of three films which screened this week: indie comedy Our Idiot Brother, Czech animation Alois Nebel, and Paul Simon documentary Under African Skies.
OUR IDIOT BROTHER (Dir. Jesse Peretz)
Paul Rudd leads a terrific ensemble cast in the charming indie comedy Our Idiot Brother, which opened the World Cinema Showcase in Auckland last night. The film tells the story of the perennially upbeat Ned (Rudd), a bearded, long-haired, hippie man-child who is far too naive for his own good, but not quite the idiot the title suggests. His overly trusting nature leads him to a brief prison stint after selling marijuana to a police officer in uniform, and when he is released on parole he discovers his erstwhile lady friend, Janet (Kathryn Hahn), has taken up with someone else on their upstate New York organic farm. Not only that, but she refuses to give up custody of Willie Nelson, Ned’s beloved retriever. Homeless and dejected, Ned journeys to Brooklyn to alternately crash with his three stressed out sisters: unhappy housewife Liz (Emily Mortimer), ruthless entertainment journalist Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and ditzy free spirit/aspiring stand-up comedian Natalie (Zooey Deschanel). His unfailing commitment to honesty wreaks havoc in their comfortable yet dishonest routines, exposing cracks and infidelities in each of their relationships. The sisters love interests are played by Steve Coogan (who seems to exclusively play creeps in American films), Adam Scott, and Rashida Jones, respectively. Jones is especially great as Cindy, a high-powered attorney who is considerably more fascinating and fun to watch than most of the supporting characters here.
While Our Idiot Brother has it’s share of flaws — the predictable, uneven story lacks depth and its lessons aren’t exactly profound — the film remains an entertaining watch thanks to a witty, insightful script from Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall, a talented and likeable supporting cast, and a charming, irresistible lead performance from Paul Rudd, who brings warmth and depth to a character who otherwise could have been an unbearable cliché. For those tired of the nasty and immature comedy of The Hangover Part II, The Inbetweeners, etc., the sweet charms of Our Idiot Brother should provide welcome relief.
Watch the trailer for Our Idiot Brother below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.
ALOIS NEBEL (Dir. Tomás Lunák)
Alois Nebel is an animated adaptation of the Czech graphic novel trilogy by Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99. The film tells the story of Alois Nebel (Miroslav Krobot), a train dispatcher on an isolated station in the mountainous region along the Czechoslovakian border with Germany and Poland. Set in 1989 just as the Berlin wall falls, Alois begins to suffer from hallucinations where the present converges with dark childhood memories from the end of the Second World War involving a shooting and an orphaned child. He ends up in an asylum, but following his release, finds he no longer has a job and can’t quite adjust to the new social and political realities. Tomás Lunák, a music video director who makes his feature début here, uses the rotoscoping technique previously used to great effect by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The black-and-white animation is stunning, evoking a dreamlike atmosphere which serves the malaise of the story well.
Unfortunately, Alois Nebel is not very well paced and confusingly executed, which makes its brief 80-minute runtime feel much longer and left me wondering if something was lost in translation. I was sold on the look of the film right from the dramatic first scene, but the story lost me soon after, giving me little reason to care about the downbeat protagonist, which leaves only the wonderful animation to marvel at. The film’s look is certainly an achievement, and filmgoers who prefer style and atmosphere over substance will find the imagery of Alois Nebel a pure wonder.
Watch the trailer for Alois Nebel below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.
UNDER AFRICAN SKIES (Dir. Joe Berlinger)
Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 album Graceland, considered by many (including Simon himself) to be his greatest work, celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. The hugely successful album produced the hit single ‘You Can Call Me Al’, was partly responsible for the popularisation of world music, influenced countless artists (including Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, who appears briefly), and was mired in such controversy it helped shine a spotlight on the issue of apartheid in South Africa. Joe Berlinger’s documentary Under African Skies follows Simon on his 2011 return to South Africa to soberly reflect on the making of one of the great albums of the 1980s, which took place during a terrible era in human history. Simon is reunited for an anniversary concert with many of the South African musicians who inspired Graceland and played on the album, and in between rehearsals for the show, musicians such as guitarist Ray Phiri and Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo share their memories of the recording sessions and discuss the effect the LP’s huge success had on them. The film is made up of splendid performance footage from both the mid-80s recording sessions and the 2011 rehearsal, as well as the Graceland tour to an extent (featuring the legendary Miriam Makeba), which is an absolute joy to behold. Fans will be enthralled, and the uninitiated will likely be converted.
Much of Under African Skies is a first-person account of the making of the album told by Simon himself. Following the failure of Hearts and Bones, Simon was at a loss until he stumbled upon a recording by South African artist Boyoyo Boys. He was so inspired he wrote English-language lyrics to ‘Gumboots’, and it would eventually become the fourth track on Graceland. Simon then decided, perhaps arrogantly, to travel to Johannesburg to record with a range of local musicians, ignoring the United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa under apartheid. He also refused to notify the African National Congress, who condemned him for it. A significant portion of the film features Simon’s first sit down with Dali Tambo, the co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid, who discusses the group’s grievance and reflects on the politics of the time. The two disagree over whether artists have social and political responsibilities, and it makes for an engaging and fascinating conversation. There are also a number of appearances from peers and celebrities who discuss the album’s influence, appropriation of black music by white artists, and their memories of the controversy, including Harry Belafonte, David Byrne, Philip Glass, Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou and Peter Gabriel.
As a celebration of Paul Simon’s greatest album, Under African Skies works on every level, and the music still holds up remarkably well. Joe Berlinger, no stranger to music documentaries (Metallica – Some Kind of Monster) or controversy (Paradise Lost), delivers a thoughtful, even-handed account of a very touchy subject. However, the film does get some points off for excluding Los Lobos, who have accused Simon of taking full credit for their work on the song ‘All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints’, as well as for occasionally straying into The Help territory and almost becoming the story of how a white guy got black musicians to record an album that stopped apartheid. Otherwise, it’s a wonderful, uplifting and insightful documentary brimming with excitement and terrific performances, and obviously enhanced tenfold if you have any kind of familiarity with the music. Under African Skies is dedicated to the late South African singer Miriam Makeba and to all victims of apartheid.
Watch the trailer for Under African Skies below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.