Nov 18, 2014

Reza Mirkarimi's Today

Iran's submission for this year's Best Foreign Film at the Academy awards is Reza Mirkarimi's Today. As one of the country's most remarkably consistent filmmakers, his films have twice been submitted for Oscar consideration – though not his best, breakout feature, Under the Moonlight. He had no luck with So Far, So Close and his second chance, A Cube of Sugar, was taken away from him after Iran took back its submission as a result of a boycott. 

Today tells the story of a taxi driver, Younes (played by legendary actor, Parviz Parastuyi), who forms a mysterious relationship with one of his passengers, an injured, pregnant woman. A subtle, slow narrative with a taciturn protagonist typical of Mirkarimi's characters, the film gradually builds momentum toward a richly moving finale that works both within the emotional scope of the film and the grander, allegorical meanings that critics have ascribed to it. It is one of the strongest films of the year. 

I saw the film at TIFF and discussed it on the Hello Cinema Podcast – which, as you already know, I co-host with Tina Hassannia about Iranian cinema. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the director during the festival. I have written about the film twice this week: a transcript of my conversation with Mirkarimi is up at Hello Cinema; a short column about the film's Oscar chances is at The Film Experience. Be sure to give both of them a read!

Nov 12, 2014

Emptying the Skies

Back in 2010, Jonathan Franzen wrote an investigative report for The New Yorker magazine called Emptying the Skies. The subject was a group of environmental activists who put their lives at risk to protect increasingly endangered species of migrant birds that are hunted in Europe for sale at high prices. The piece was a hit and granted renewed attention to an issue that Europe, particularly Cyprus, Italy and Malta, has been dealing with for decades. Douglas and Roger Kass's eponymous new documentary takes it cue from that article and follows the activists on their dangerous trips to the birds' hunting grounds.

The wondrous migrant birds travel thousands of miles every year, often going all the way from Scandinavia to South Africa, resting and refueling around the Mediterranean area. Their energy and migration process is nothing short of a miracle. Some of the birds weigh as little as twenty grams and measure barely two inches in length. They are hunted using cruel methods like limesticks and crushing stone traps. The birds often suffer for hours in pain before they are dead.

These methods of hunting are ostensibly employed for personal use – since sale of these birds for food consumption has been outlawed in most of Europe – or otherwise for "recreation". In one outlandish sequence, a man comically sheds alligator tears, arguing that he needs to hunt the birds because it reminds of the time he spent with his deceased son doing the same. In reality, the birds are sold and served as incredibly expensive delicacy, often eaten whole with the bones.

Nov 9, 2014

The Overnighters

Grade: B-

*This review was originally published at The Film Experience

Jesse Moss spent more than a year in the North Dakotan town of Williston following a news story he had found about mass immigration to the oil rich area. When the practice of fracking began to turn the fortunes of the Midwestern state around after recession, thousands of men flocked there from all the around the U.S. in search of a new life. The sudden, unsustainable upsurge in population caused tensions to grow between the local residents and the itinerant workers, fuelled by reports of theft and sexual abuse that were alleged to be committed by the “overnighters”.

In the midst of this, pastor Jay Reinke of the Concorida Lutheran Church is opening the doors of the church (and its parking lot) to these men and allowing them to sleep there at nights. His congregation feels uneasy about the presence of the nomads. The more reserved church members complain ostensibly about the mess and chaos left over by allowing more people in the small space than it was designed for, or bring up fire hazard issues. The more outspoken members mention the past records of the temporary workers, some with felony charges, others with their names listed on the sex offenders list.

Christianity itself seems to be at stake. Reinke is a smart man, alert to the challenges of the conflicts his decision has created in the community. He questions others’ faith while his own begins to shake, he asks them to redefine their Christianity, but he ignores his own family the more he loves his neighbours. Helping others takes a toll and the community moves no closer to accepting their guests with open arms. One man, afforded the cloak of anonymity by the camera’s placement, calls the nomadic workers “trash.” Reinke understands the steep hill he has to climb to warm the locals' hearts to the misfits. When he asks one worker to cut his long hair short to look better in the eyes of the community, then man asks whether Jesus had to cut his hair in response. Reinke cleverly retorts: “Jesus didn’t have our neighbours.” But it takes more than awareness on Reinke’s part to combat the challenges.

Nov 5, 2014

Honouring Jean-Claude Carrière

*A version of this piece was originally publish at The Film Experience, to commemorate Jean-Claude Carrière's receiving of an honorary Academy Award.

Generally speaking, I am opposed to the idea of past winners receiving honorary Oscars. This, after all, is an honor bestowed on a recipient whose career not only merits the attention, but also lacks it. When there are so many giants of the medium that the Academy hasn't recognized, why double dip with already rewarded names? But there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing three time nominee and one time winner, Jean-Claude Carrière, receive an honorary Oscar this year. His is one of the most fascinating careers in film history, and one that has lasted six decades and spanned several countries and languages.

Carrière started as a novelist, his first work published in 1957, five years prior to winning an Oscar in the best short film category for Heaureux Anniversaire. In the intervening fifty-three years between his two golden statues, he's worked with filmmakers as varied as Jean-Luc Godard, Andrzej Wajda, Louis Malle, Jonathan Glazer and, most recently, Abbas Kiarostami who penned him a short but memorable role in Certified Copy.

His most fruitful collaboration, one that still arguably defines his career still today, was cultivated in the 1960s. When Luis Buñuel asked producer Serge Silberman to find him a young French writer with whom he could collaborate on an adaptation of Diary of a Chambermaid, he was introduced to several screenwriters at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. Carrière was the one who hit it off and went on to co-write the film with Buñuel. They partnered up together five more times after that: Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and the surrealist master's final film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Quite a streak!

Nov 2, 2014

Screening Log: October

In a Lonely Place

King Lear (Godard, 1987, C)
I truly envy fellow cinephiles who connect with Godard's "late period." This, as I expected, was not for me.

Force Majeure (Ostlund, 2014, A) (review)
"Only in the hands of an extremely confident director like Ostlund can such storytelling succeed. After a couple of minor festival hits, Force Majeurehas now entered him among the world’s most exciting filmmakers."

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Amirpour, 2014, B) (podcast)
An impressive debut feature by Ana Lily Amirpour, this vampire western horror film is aesthetically and politically unique and injects some much needed fresh blood into "Iranian" cinema's veins.

Fury (Ayer, 2014, B-)
The production values are top notch, but what starts as an intriguing, morally complex study of the concept of masculinity gives way to a fetishistic show of non-stop violence and video game shooting.

Two Days, One Night (Dardenne Brothers, 2014, A-)
Structurally and aesthetically, the Dardennes are working in familiar territory but, give or take Abbas Kiarostami, there are no other filmmakers in the world that deliver high quality work with such remarklable consistency. This one is both a portrait of marriage on the brink, an intimate drama about recovering from depression and a snapshot of lower-class life in Belgium as it recovers from economic crisis. The stakes are incrementally increased as Marion Cotillard's character faces new moral challenges that complicate her struggle beyond black and white. It's moving, graceful and tense, a worthy companion piece to Rosetta, with a central performance from Cotillard that rival Emilie Dequenne's masterwork.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao, 2014, A-)
The best crime film since Neighboring Sounds. Devilishly gorgeous cinematography and haunted performances create an atmosphere of bleak terror, an inanimate milieu in which signs of life are either absurdly comic for their incongruity - that dance scene! - or beget horror. The devastating and unforeseen finale brings violence full circle. Expert filmmaking.

Maps to the Stars (Cronenberg, 2014, F)
Neither the idea - did you know that the glossy sheen of Hollywood is only facade, covering a decadent, lifeless soul? It's almost as Hollywood itself had never told us that before - nor Cronenberg's execution are fresh or sophisticated enough to warrant this shrill exercise.

Nathan For You Season 1, Episodes 1-3 (Fielder/Koman, 2013, D)
There is never a sense that the humor isn't forced and predictable. The conceit wears off before the first episode is over. It frankly never convinced me that if I proceed any further, I will find something fresh.

Bob's Burgers Season 2 (Bouchard, 2012, A)
This season keeps the momentum from the debut one and while it is impossibly even funnier than its predecessors, it also builds on the characters enough to convince the viewers they won't become caricatures of themselves. A true achievement.

Bob's Burgers Season 1 (Bouchard, 2011, A)
Outrageously funny and remarkably consistent, with well written and continuously surprising characters across the board.

Mommy (Dolan, 2014, B+)
Five films into his young career, Dolan has finally successfully kept his ostentatious stylistic predilections in check, channeling them in the service of his narrative. Like most of his previous films, Mommy could be tightened a bit, some of its unnecessary subplots cut, but it is otherwise as gritty as it is pretty. And Suzanne Clement gives one of the performances of the year, always suggesting something deeply painful and unsettled about herself beyond the external intensity.

Camp X-Ray (Sattler, 2014, B-) (review)
Much like in Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s festival hit, Tales, Moaadi is easily the best thing about this film. One only wishes the film could match the nuance and energy of his performance.

Watchers of the Sky (Belzberg, 2014, B) (review)
"Belzberg offers both a sharp reminder of how primitive our coexistence as a global community remains and a compassionate look at the efforts of those paving the arduous road to justice."

Gone Girl (Fincher, 2014, B)
Tonally confused first half oscillates between exaggerated comedy and cartoonish procedural thriller, but everything settles after the midway reveal, gaining considerable momentum toward the thrilling finale. Pike (and everyone else in the cast) ace in a film that exhibits the bravura stylistic touch that we've come to expect of Fincher and his team.

The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983, A-)
Scorsese brilliantly reflects on the curiosities of American culture, bureaucracy and its reactionary news machine. Could the whole film be a dream sequence, or is it a real account of diseased fascination with celebrity (with elevating celebrity to the skies and shattering them back down to the ground), of the chaotic solitude that comes with fame, of success as a mirage, of American dreamers as failures?

In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950, A+)
A thrillingly stylized film noir, a heartbreaking romance and a perceptive observation on Hollywood's culture of celebrity that still resonates seven decades later; still elevated by the unparalleled complexity and subtlety in Bogart and Grahame's performances. One of the greatest films of all time.

Nov 1, 2014

Force Majeure

Grade: A

*This review was originally published at The Film Experience.

The opening sequence of Ruben Ostlund’s fourth feature, Force Majeure, has an ominous aura to it. On the surface, there is nothing strange about a happy, wealthy Swedish family stopping for a family portrait during their vacation at a posh French ski resort. Yet, as their unseen photographer becomes more assertive with his commands, ordering them to get closer together and forces the corners of their lips upward, something seems amiss. No sign of trouble is yet to be found though, as Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their white-as-snow children spend the first couple of days skiing together. It is during lunch at the high-end restaurant on the balcony of their hotel that everything falls apart at the seams, revealing the tenuous links that keep this family – or is it every family? – together.

Tomas insists that the loud bang and the ensuing avalanche are controlled by resort patrols, but when panic strikes all diners, it is he who abandons ship first, opting for his own survival as he runs away from his family. When this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pivotal moment in the narrative is over and the snow powder settles, Tomas is overcome with shame but returns to the table as though nothing out the ordinary has happened. For Ebba and the children, however, the gravity of the mistake makes it unforgivable. As the vacation progresses and the story of that fateful moment is repeated between Tomas, Ebba and their friends, perceptions change, stakes are raised and bonds are severed and mended again. The avalanche has hit the family like, well, an avalanche; though the analogy only feels forced when articulated by the reviewer, not when the director slyly works it into the film.

Ostlund tells this story with a remarkable panache for minimalist style and minimalist storytelling. The snow-covered background affords him the possibility to concoct some of the most memorable images and sounds of any film this year, but more impressive is how he replicates the same clean, sparse atmosphere in his storytelling. With a keen eye for small interactions between characters, Ostlund manages to say quite a lot while saying very little. Note one particular instance, where an uncomfortable Brady Corbet (unexpectedly brilliant in a tiny role) is asked to adjudicate between Tomas and Ebba. Ostlund has been similarly preoccupied with awkward group encounters in his previous films, and here, holding the camera as a taciturn Corbet nervously fidgets around in his seat to avoid delivering responses, he proves his knack for capturing truthfully these small but crucial interactions.

Oct 15, 2014

Camp X-Ray

Grade: B-

*A version of this review was originally posted at Movie Mezzanine.

Putting aside Prince of Persia, in which Jake Gyllenhaal, one of America’s whitest actors, played Persian royalty, Hollywood has rarely ever shown us a Middle Eastern man who is not an imminent threat. When it does, there is so much self-conscious winking involved that the audience is constantly made aware of the filmmakers’ efforts to create believable Middle Eastern characters who are normal people. Still, that modicum of character development causes much shock and chagrin to the American Right Wing – recall the hyperbolic, panic-stricken reaction to the Taqiyah-wearing medical doctor in Non-Stop. Within that context, Peter Sattler’s first feature film, Camp X-Ray, is such a breath of fresh air that one—at least, this one, Iranian viewer—can almost forgive its abundance of flaws.

The film opens with a stellar sequence in which Ali (Peiman Moaadi) is kidnapped as he prays in the privacy of his home, beaten ruthlessly, and taken away with a black bag over his head to Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay. He is taken to a solitary cell in a block that houses other suspects of terrorism who have been arrested without trial. A few years into his detention, the annual rotation of guards brings him the inexperienced but tough presence of Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart). Amy is drawn to the educated, artistically inclined prisoner—officially called a detainee for reasons of political shadiness on the US government’s behalf—but the obvious limitations of their relationship leaves it as tenuously as budding attraction can be.

Before too much credit is given to the film as some sort of ideal of representation, it needs to be underlined that Camp X-Ray isn’t entirely free of Hollywood’s problematic relationship with the Middle East. Complications remain. The necessity for the lead character to be a prisoner so his story can be told is irksome, though we can’t blame Sattler for choosing to tell this story and not a romantic comedy starring Moaadi instead. What Sattler can be blamed for is the stark difference his screenplay creates between Ali and the largely silent but evidently violent company of detainees he enjoys in the camp. Though Sattler’s heart is in the right place, the feeling that the film is making an extra effort to convince the audience of the humanity of its subject is inescapable. Perhaps it is the unaccustomed audience that needs convincing, but the presumption on the film’s part is nevertheless obvious. Worse yet, the classic signifiers that treat Middle Eastern people of diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds as a monolith are regrettably on show. At one point, an Arab prisoner inexplicably speaks fluent Persian, for example, when he’s meant to be speaking Arabic; a lazy, “surely no one will notice” attitude that has lamentably become a staple since Michael Mann deployed it in the otherwise precise The Insider.

The relationship between Ali and Cole develops gradually over the course of a year. Ali begins this period by throwing a cup of his faeces on her in an act of revolt and ends by sharing one of the most intimate moments of his life with her through the barrier of a small glass window in his cell’s door. In between, there are several conversations about Harry Potter, the seventh book of which Ali desperately wants but cannot find in the camp library. Most of their interactions are written and directed with a heavy touch, with one particular conversation about a caged lion Amy once saw in a zoo especially worthy of an eye roll. Yet, Moaadi and Stewart paint such stellar portraits with the limited palette they are offered that they elevate the film well above its text. Moaadi, in particular, who is getting a rare chance for an Iranian actor to shine in a prominent role in an American film, brings a level of grace and humor to the role that frees it from its spatial and thematic limitations. Much like in Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s festival hit, Tales, Moaadi is easily the best thing about this film. One only wishes the film could match the nuance and energy of his performance.