At the World Cinema Showcase, BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM on the West Memphis Three and Woody Allen; TIM WONG on Alex Ross Perry’s double act.
Most activist films struggle to make the kind of difference that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s trilogy on the West Memphis Three has made. Essentially responsible for drawing attention to a gross miscarriage of justice, the documentaries examine the aftermath of terrible murders in the small Arkansas town of West Memphis. Three teenagers were charged and convicted of the killing of three young boys back in 1994—a ‘closed case’ driven in part by dubious police tactics (including interrogating a borderline intellectually-disabled teenager for 12 hours without a lawyer), prejudice and moral panics (Satanism, goths etc.), and media and community pressure to find the killers behind such an horrific crime. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory reveals new evidence: support drummed up from the first two movies paid for expert determination of some of the ‘evidence’ used to convict the Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin. And it’s clear from how the film progresses that the trio’s innocence isn’t in any doubt. It remains to be seen whether those familiar with the documentaries will find this third chapter in the story old hat—but as someone who’s yet to see the first two films, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory certainly works as both a standalone piece and an introduction to the case. Berlinger and Sinofsky’s arm’s length documentary style is insightful without being manipulative, and the film carries a real emotional charge in highlighting a justice system that, as far as the three defendants were concerned, kept on getting it wrong. Compelling and powerful stuff, it’s hard not to rank this film alongside Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line as an example of what activist cinema ought to do.
Woody Allen arguably remains a pioneer in American cinema; few filmmakers in the Hollywood machine have had the longevity and sheer single-mindedness of his oeuvre. And while his films are frequently flawed and unfulfilling, it’s hard to deny that his cinema is, at the very least, incredibly idiosyncratic. Woody Allen—A Documentary is a fairly straightforward account of Allen’s career, centred on talking head accounts of his importance and influence as a filmmaker. Also, for someone who has maintained a fairly healthy distance from the majority of public pronouncements on his work, Robert B. Weide’s documentary interestingly features a fair bit of the man himself. If a little too generous towards Allen—certain aspects are either too lightly drawn or overly one-sided—an altogether illuminating perspective on Allen’s impressive career.
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The dichotomy and fraught intimacy of brother-sister relations are taken to their logical extreme in Alex Ross Perry’s coarse lo-fi comedy The Color Wheel, a cantankerous double act of wham-bam banter and combustible sibling friction. Couched in a deceptively familiar slacker milieu, Perry’s snarky screenplay—co-written with on-screen offsider Carlen Altman—actually paints a more dejected (and distant) picture of post-graduation angst, one that’s subsequently more insightful than your average American indie about ennui and uncertainty as a fledgling adult. Witness, for instance, the excruciating party that siblings Colin and J.R. find themselves negotiating their way through following an already eventful road trip: a drunken reunion of classmates, old crushes, and former bullies, all of whom are now settled into obnoxiously credible jobs, and have abandoned any sense of artistic or intellectual ambition as a result. Meanwhile, approaching their thirties, Colin and J.R. remain would-be writer and news anchor respectively; their apparent developmental issues in fact a rather telling illustration of how pragmatism so often stifles idealism in the adult phase of one’s life. Although these characters are openly embarrassed by their situation in front of peers, and perhaps deep down even crave the dignity of a professional career, there’s something oddly endearing about their postponement of adulthood in pursuit of big dreams. On another level entirely, the film is a brilliantly honed two-hander whose script is loaded with creative zingers and put-downs; argumentative dialogue that is delivered by Perry and Altman as if were simply off-the-cuff, or the universal language of bickering siblings. As Colin, Perry is your cynical, fast-talking “neurotic East Coast Jew,” as he has described the comic persona, however it is Altman as J.R. who steals nearly every scene: her manly, low-hanging, sarcastic drawl a hilarious B-side studded with declarations that land somewhere between the sardonic humour of 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and the ditzy desperation of Jenna Maroney.