Following a hectic Easter weekend featuring some seriously great documentaries and foreign films, the 2012 World Cinema Showcase wrapped up in Auckland recently. I had an exhaustingly-awesome couple of weeks of viewing, during which I saw 15 films and posted updates on Our Idiot Brother, Alois Nebel and Under African Skies, followed by Coriolanus, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai 3D. You can check out reviews of each film I caught over the final week below, including This is Not a Film, Miss Bala and Chico & Rita, which all rank as highlights. The standout film of the showcase for my money was Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, which I posted a glowing full review of recently. Word of mouth suggests I missed out on some great fun with Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, so I will have to rectify that as soon as the film is next available. Showcase screenings just wrapped up in Wellington, but Dunedin is currently underway and Christchurch is imminent, so if you’re in those areas make sure you head along for an exciting, diverse range of cinema that you’ll be hard pressed to find on any other New Zealand screens this year. I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s programme, which was perhaps the best to date, and I’m now eagerly anticipating the New Zealand International Film Festival which kicks off in Auckland in July.
CHINESE TAKEAWAY (Dir. Sebastián Borensztein)
Chinese Takeaway, aka A Chinese Tale (Un cuento chino), is a sweet, quirky Argentinian comedy starring the country’s greatest living actor, Ricardo Darin. While international audiences are more used to seeing Darin in cool, Bogart-esque roles such as in Nine Queens, The Aura and the Academy Award-winning The Secret in Their Eyes, here he plays against type as the irritable and methodical Roberto, a curmudgeonly hardware store owner who collects unusual clippings from newspapers to reaffirm his sense of life’s absurdity. One day, Roberto sees a distraught Chinese man, Jun (Huang Sheng Huang), being thrown out of a taxi, and against his better judgement he decides to help him out. Jun, who can’t speak a word of Spanish, is looking for an Uncle who will give him work, but their search is fruitless and he ends up staying with Roberto. What follows for the rest of Sebastian Borensztein’s light but enjoyable film details Roberto’s increasingly desperate attempts to get rid of his new housemate and avoid the nagging affections of a lovelorn country girl, Mari (Muriel Santa Ana), whom he was once romantically involved with briefly.
Chinese Takeaway is also peppered with hilarious dramatisations of the absurd human-interest stories from Roberto’s clippings — including the opening scene in which a marriage proposal turns tragic in rural China when a cow falls from the sky — which adds some philosophical musings to the comic proceedings. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles for the Chinese-language parts of Chinese Takeaway, which means Jun is reduced to an inscrutable Chinaman cliché, and the film’s language-barrier-needn’t-hinder-a-relationship message is equally cliché and dubious. However, this is Darin’s film and he is as terrific as always; when the besotted Mari tells Roberto that she sees “nobility and pain” in his eyes, it’s a testament to Darin’s ability that we can see it too, and his performance holds this light and uneven film together.
Watch the trailer for Chinese Takeaway below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.
PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY (Dir. Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky)
Purgatory is the third instalment in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s engrossing and hugely important documentary series Paradise Lost, which has followed the trials, mass hysteria, wrongful imprisonment and continuing developments in the case of the West Memphis 3 over the course of 18 years. For anyone who hasn’t seen the essential 1996 HBO film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, here’s a brief recap: following the 1993 murder of three prepubescent boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, teenagers Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols aka the WM3 were tried and convicted under the assertion that the children were killed as part of a satanic ritual, and these black-clad Metallica fans were convenient scapegoats, easily demonised for standing out from their Evangelical Christian, white trash community. Over the course of the trials (which could be mistaken for a three-ring circus), it became apparent that the confession of Misskelley (who is mentally impaired) was coerced, there was no actual evidence linking the WM3 to the murders, and the West Memphis police (under intense public scrutiny) appeared to be totally inept and possibly corrupt. The three were convicted to life imprisonment — death in Echols’ case — despite more than enough reasonable doubt, and their respective attorney’s have struggled to have new evidence admitted in retrials ever since. Paradise Lost inspired many to speak out and take action against the injustice: the support group Free the West Memphis Three is featured in both sequels and was a key factor in raising awareness and funds for the cause; celebrities such as Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and members of the Dixie Chicks also voiced their support and contributed funds to the WM3’s legal team, and they all appear briefly in Purgatory.
While the second film, Revelations, documented frustrating and flailing missteps in the WM3’s case — wrongfully pointing the finger at one of the victim’s suspicious stepfathers, Mark Byers, and investigating “bite marks” on the bodies — Purgatory finds the case for freeing the WM3 growing stronger with fresh allegations of jury misconduct, new DNA evidence analysed by forensic experts, and previously unheard witness statements which implicate the increasingly suspicious Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the murdered boys with a history of violence. Hobbs is shown on the defensive here (while maintaining his belief in the WM3’s guilt), courtesy of a deposition he was required to attend in 2009 following his defamation suit against the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines. Berlinger and Sinofsky also turn their gaze toward appeal-killer Judge David Burnett and the original trial’s self-appointed Satanism expert Dale Griffis, returning to them years later and implying they own up to their roles in such evil stupidity. While Purgatory is more informational and fact-heavy than the more narrative and resonant first film, it manages to build well on everything we learned in the two previous films and has a powerful cumulative effect, although followers of the series will find the re-use of old footage repetitive. The soundtrack once again is suitably made up of the music of Metallica, who the filmmakers documented back in 2003 in Metallica – Some Kind of Monster, and this fits well aside from in a couple of instances when it becomes an overwhelming distraction from the dialogue.
Purgatory ends abruptly in August 2011 with the press conference announcing that the WM3 will be controversially set free after accepting a rare (and absurd) Alford Plea from the prosecutors. After serving 18 years and 78 days in prison for crimes they did not commit, the three are finally free, but justice has not been served and the real murderer still goes unpunished. There are plenty of unanswered questions and enough loose ends to justify a rumoured fourth film, although no doubt some of those will be covered in the Peter Jackson-produced West of Memphis which is due later this year. As Echols’ points out, “if you guys weren’t there at the beginning, getting it all on tape,” the state of Arkansas would have killed him by now, which makes Paradise Lost the only documentary other than Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line to actually rescue an innocent man from death row. That feat alone ranks these films as one of the major achievements in documentary history, and one could make the case that Berlinger and Sinofsky should be recognised as American heroes. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is obviously a must-see film for followers of the series and those passionate about injustice and advocacy, but it also makes an effort to be accessible to audiences with only a cursory knowledge of the events and as such comes recommended to anyone interested in seeing one of the most outrageous stories in recent American history.
Watch the trailer for Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.
THE DEEP BLUE SEA (Dir. Terrence Davies)
Terrence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea (not to be confused with the Samuel L. Jackson-starring shark movie Deep Blue Sea) stars Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer, a woman whose overwhelming love threatens her well-being and alienates the men in her life. Hester feels trapped in a passionless marriage with an upper-class judge (Simon Russell Beale), and an affair with a troubled former Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hiddleston) throws her life into turmoil as she is torn between her romantic obsession and societal expectations. The film is an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, which was previously adapted in 1955 with Vivien Leigh in the coveted role, and is set “around 1950”. Terrence Davies is no stranger to post-World War II England (see: Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes), and his visually lush film recreates the depressing period perfectly, right down to the smokey pub singalongs and the bombed-out sets.
Weisz is in fine form here, delivering an understated performance which has to be one of her best to date, and the supporting cast also impress. However, no matter how well executed this adaptation is, I struggled to connect with the dated, often dull material, and Hester’s suicidal tendencies seemed wildly overdramatic and unsympathetic. While I applaud the performances and Davies’ achievement in recreating the period, I can’t imagine this film finding much of an audience outside of those seeking some nostalgic drama.
Watch the trailer for The Deep Blue Sea below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.
THIS IS NOT A FILM (Dir. Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
This is Not a Film is a “video essay” from Iranian new wave director Jafar Panahi (The Circle), which assumes audiences have some familiarity with his recent plight. Panahi was arrested in March of 2010 for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” in support of those protesting the contentious re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and subsequently sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban from directing, screenwriting, interviews and leaving the country. He currently resides under house arrest in his high-rise Tehran apartment while awaiting appeals, which is where we find him in this not-a-film. In March of last year, Panahi decided to test his luck and turn the camera on himself, inviting his documentary filmmaker friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb over to film what at first appears to be a mundane day-in-the-life exercise (it was actually shot over the course of ten days). Careful to obey the letter of the law, Panahi restricts himself to talking about the screenplay he was not allowed to make — attempting to reenact a scene before becoming discouraged and frustrated (“If we could tell a film, then why make a film?”) — and commenting on the collaborative process of filmmaking which he so obviously misses, referencing DVDs of some his earlier films such as Crimson Gold. He also takes phone calls from his lawyer and filmmaker friends (who discuss the slim chances of his appeal), watches news of the Japanese tsunami, shoots footage on his iPhone, and takes care of his daughter’s pet iguana. At one point, he finishes a sentence with “cut”, and Mirtahmasb is quick to remind him that he better not be seen directing.
Panahi is fascinating company and his ramblings make for an interesting insight into filmmaking. This is Not a Film gets really fascinating, however, when Mirtahmasb leaves toward the end and Panahi picks up the camera himself to follow an affable college student who is collecting rubbish throughout the building. The two share an elevator ride, and the young man is quizzed on his life and aspirations (he remembers the day they came to arrest Panahi). As the pair reach the ground floor the risk of Panahi’s bold move becomes increasingly apparent. Illegal fireworks are exploding directly outside to celebrate the Persian New Year, and as Panahi is warned by the young man to stay inside, the mood grows ominous and tense at the close. This is Not a Film was famously smuggled into the Cannes film festival last year on a USB drive inside a cake, and the fact that it even exists is incredible; without delving directly into politics or officially breaking the law, Panahi has made a bold, defiant statement against draconian censorship. This is Not a Film may not be much of a “film”, strictly speaking, in that it has no real narrative or significant events (Panahi labels it “an effort” in the credits), but it is a highly relevant and necessary document of an irrepressible artist living under the veil of tyranny.
Watch the trailer for This is Not a Film below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.
MISS BALA (Dir. Gerardo Naranjo)
Next-gen Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo (I’m Gonna Explode) establishes himself as one of his country’s must-watch talents with his terrific art-house thriller Miss Bala. The film follows the story of Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a naive 23-year-old woman from the outskirts of Tijuana whose aspirations of becoming a beauty queen turn against her, delivering her into the hands of a drug cartel which is terrorising northern Mexico. Miss Bala belongs to that tradition of film noir where an ordinary person takes one step off the straight and narrow and winds up on the highway to hell. By being in the wrong club at the wrong time, Laura becomes a captive of the cartel’s numero uno, Lino — played brilliantly by Noe Hernández, delivering a realistic, working-class character whose business just happens to involve lots of murders. Laura wins the rigged Miss Baja pageant (the film’s title is a play on words, as “Bala” is Spanish for “bullet”), in a heartbreaking scene, but is forced to become an unwilling participant in the cartel’s war against Mexico’s corrupt law enforcement.
If Miss Bala feels unflinchingly real, that’s because its events are loosely based on a real incident in which 2008’s Miss Sinaloa, Laura Zúñiga, was arrested with suspected gang members in a truck filled with munitions outside Guadalajara, Jalisco. Naranjo delivers a blistering, non-stop thrill-ride which manages to feel exhilarating while exposing corruption and violence at every level of Mexican society and soberly reminding us that the War on Drugs is still claiming lives every day south of the US border. His virtuoso filmmaking, juxtaposed with the everyday banality of this tragedy, recalls Matteo Garrone’s 2008 mafia drama Gomorrah. While Miss Bala might not be quite the masterpiece Garrone’s film was (it lacks that film’s unnerving authenticity), it comes pretty damn close and announces Naranjo as one of Mexico’s most exciting young talents.
Watch the trailer for Miss Bala below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.
AUTOLUMINESCENT (Dir. Lynn-Maree Milburn, Richard Lowenstein)
Australian filmmakers Lynn-Maree Milburn (John Safran’s Race Relations) and Richard Lowenstein (He Died with a Felafel in His Hand) have crafted a fascinating account of the life and music of Rowland S. Howard with Autoluminescent, which also serves as a loving tribute to the gifted and flawed artist who passed away in 2009. Best known as the gaunt, fiery lead guitarist of the seminal post-punk outfit The Birthday Party, Howard’s gothic aristocrat image, discordant guitar style and obvious songwriting ability are revealed to be evident even in his youth, notably as a member of Melbourne group The Young Charlatans. Friends and collaborators such as Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, and long-time girlfriend Genevieve McGuckin all discuss Howard’s exciting formative years, and the filmmakers have dug up some terrific archival footage of The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party performing. Howard is shown to be a sensitive soul and hopeless romantic, as well as a crucial contributor to The Birthday Party’s revolutionary sound. One of the unexpected surprises of the film is when Cave expresses regret over appropriating Howard’s terrific song ‘Shivers’. Despite the pair’s bitter falling out at the end of The Birthday Party’s run, Cave’s obvious sense of loss is moving.
An impressive roster of artists who were inspired and influenced by Howard also appear in Autoluminescent to share their memories, including Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream), Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), frequent collaborator Lydia Lunch, and German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who featured Howard’s post-Birthday Party group Crime and the City Solution in his 1987 film Wings of Desire. Howard himself appears throughout in both archival and recent interviews which make up the best and most insightful parts of the film, revealing a passionate man whose artistic integrity was never compromised. He also helps fill in the gaps in his rather infrequent discography, admitting his nearly life-long heroin addiction was a key reason for his intermittent releases and subsequent health problems, and expressing remorse at one point over the time he wasted not being with loved ones or working on music. The narrative is mostly chronological here, covering each of his major releases with These Immortal Souls and his late emergence as a respected solo artist, and combines the talking-head interviews and archival footage with readings from Howard’s unfinished novel and odd Tim Burton-esque animation sequences (which were largely unnecessary). Milburn and Lowenstein are careful not to dwell on Howard’s heartbreaking health problems (which took a turn for the worse just as things were starting look up for him), deciding instead to focus on the wonderful musical contributions he gave to us, as well as capturing intimate and personal moments from his life. With its fantastic performance footage and insightful interviews, Autoluminescent will no doubt please fans of The Birthday Party, Rowland S. Howard and Nick Cave, but it should also hopefully serve as a welcome introduction to an under-appreciated artist for the uninitiated.
For more on Rowland S. Howard, follow the link below:
Watch the trailer for Autoluminescent below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.
CHICO & RITA (Dir. Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal)
Nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, Chico & Rita is an immensely satisfying Spanish-language animated musical for grown-ups. Beginning in Cuba, 1948, the film follows a talented pianist, Chico, and a beautiful singer, Rita, as they chase their dreams and each other from Havana to New York to Paris, Hollywood and Las Vegas. While we follow the fictional story of these star-crossed lovers, the film lovingly documents the evolution of jazz, and features the music of (and animated cameos by) such jazz greats as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Cole Porter, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Tito Puente and Chano Pozo. Grammy-winning Cuban pianist/composer Bebo Valdés (whom Chico was likely based on) supplies a joyous, finger-snapping soundtrack (with Idania Valdés sharing lead vocal duties), and the visual universe created by co-director Javier Mariscal is stylish, passionate and wholly unique.
The only criticisms I have of this otherwise wonderful film are the occasionally clichéd nature of the story and the rather bland way the characters faces were drawn. For anyone with an interest in animation with sophistication (this explicit film is not for kids), an appreciation for jazz history, or if you’re simply sold on a glorious celebration of love, music and Cuba, I wholeheartedly recommend Chico & Rita.
Watch the trailer for Chico & Rita below. Check out its WCS screening dates here.