Mar 21, 2015

Amour Fou

Grade: B/B+

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

“He has a rather melancholic disposition,” says one woman about the young 19th-century poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel) in the opening minutes of Amour Fou. It’s an observation that can only be described as a gross understatement when considering the poet’s deteriorating mental state, as Kleist is morbidly obsessed with taking his own life. In modern parlance, he is clinically depressed, but as doctors tended to call it in Germany in 1811, he suffered from “ailments of a spiritual nature.” Such is the dry humor, paired with rigorous formality, that shapes the tone of Amour Fou, Jessica Hausner’s latest film—a robust, stylish, and acerbically comic take on Heinrich von Kleist’s final days with his lover Henriette Vogel.

The revisionist historical film begins with Heinrich’s search for a romantic partner, one with whom he can commit suicide, not live. His cousin, Marie (Sandra Huller) is fond of Heinrich, but finds the request outrageous. The poet’s affections for Marie never subside, but he resigns himself to seeking a new partner in death, whom he eventually finds in the already-wed Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoink). Married into the upper echelons of German aristocracy, Henriette spends her bleak days practicing music with her daughter and anticipating the return to home of her husband, who is far more occupied with tax regulations and vicious elitism than his family. 

Heinrich and Henriette’s paths converge among the haughty entourage of German high society members whose casual disregard for the working class is cartoonishly outdated and expertly incorporated into Hausner’s rigid aesthetic. This amusingly evil group occupies pink castles and sports grandiose hairdos that wouldn’t be entirely incongruous if they showed up in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Hausner’s humor is deadpan and vitriolic, vacillating between serious ruminations on depression and farcical casualness about the banality of the world.

Mar 13, 2015

Interview: Hamid Naficy on the A to Z of Iranian Cinema

*This interview was originally posted on Hello Cinema

Hamid Naficy’s four volume book, "A Social History of Iranian Cinema", has come to be recognized as the definitive text on Iranian films since its publication four years ago. The collection was more than three decades in the making and its arrival filled a big void in the study of Iranian cinema. We have referenced the books, as well as Mr. Naficy’s other works several times on our podcast, so we were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with him about his work and Iranian cinema. The conversation below took place on March 7th, during TIFF Cinematheque’s “I For Iran: A History of Iranian Cinema by Its Creators” series, where Mr. Naficy was introducing Ovanes Ohanians’s Mr. Haji, Movie Actor (Haji Agha, Actor-e Cinema, 1933) and Sohrab Shahid Saless’s Still Life (Tabiat-e Bijaan, 1974) which we have already discussed on the podcast

Hamid Naficy

Amir: When you started your book, did you think of it as the definitive text that it has become, or did you think it would cover the entire history of Iranian cinema? Tell us a little bit about its evolution.

Hamid: It was very haphazard in a way. It began with an article I wrote on documentary films, which I published in Jump Cut, the radical US leftist film magazine, and then another article on Iranian fiction films for Quarterly Review of Film Studies. It began with those two, but maybe even earlier. It began in 1975 when I was in Iran for a few years between 1973 and 1978, and I was part of the group that created the Free University of Iran – Daneshgaah-e Azad-e Iran. At the time I was working there, I was also teaching a documentary film course at the National Iranian Radio and Television College of Cinema and Television – Madrese-ye Aali-e Cinema va Television. During teaching that year I realized that there was no text on documentary film in Persian, so I began working on that. I produced a two-volume book on the topic, Film-e Mostanad (Documentary Film), which the publishing house of the Free University of Iran published. It contained many pictures, almost all of the ones for the Iranian cinema part of it I had obtained by using physical frame enlargements from the 35mm in our laboratories. They were beautiful. Other publishers wouldn’t publish so many pictures but my university, which had the largest publishing house in the country then did it. It immediately became really popular. It came out during the revolution and by then I’d already left Iran but I heard from everybody who had taken film courses that the book sold out and it was still in use 20 years later. That became the germination of my efforts to do a book in English on Iranian cinema. My contract for this book was for one volume with Duke University Press and I have to hand it to them for rolling with the project. When it became large and I thought it was going to be two volumes or maybe more, they said “well, this is a lifetime’s work and it’s not gonna be repeated easily so we’re going to go with it. We’ll raise funds for it through our own sources and you raise extra funds. We both did. The whole object of it was to have the books be affordable by students, so the idea was that each volume should be less than $30, so all four would be less than $100. They lived up to that and they did a great design.

Amir: Iranian cinema really evolved as you were in the process of writing and you stuck with it. How frustrating was it to leave the project in 2010?

Hamid: The hardest part and perhaps part of the success of the volumes is that I wanted to have this not just be a chronological retelling of the best films made or the greatest directors. I wanted to have some theoretical and methodological approach that was consistent throughout the volumes. One of these, for example, was the importance of cinema as an agent of modernity and modernization. That line runs through all four volumes, and it also helps to then sift through all the developments that relate to this theory. Or the idea of how cinema brought about individuation amongst the spectators through its narrative style. Or the impact on cinema of the Iranian and Islamic traditions, not just oral, but also other traditions like Ta’ziyeh or Rowzeh-khaani or poetic traditions. All of these are incorporated in the films and the film industry in various ways. I wanted to show how Iranian cinema would be distinguished from Mexican or Arabic cinemas which come from different cultural beddings. I also wanted to show that Iranian cinema was from the beginning multicultural and transnational. That’s a line that goes through all of the history and now we have a huge diaspora of Iranians producing a variety of films. Even the Iranian diaspora itself is multicultural. It isn’t just Muslim, for example. In fact, at one point Iranian ethnoreligious minorities probably dominated in the diaspora.  Islam also had a major impact on cinema, the representation of women, the presence of women in cinema. It was all very complicated; and we see these factors related to women and cinema during the Qajar period and then again in the Islamic period. All of this gave continuity to the book. It was an incredible process.

Tina: What has your experience been seeing people outside of Iran in Western countries delve into Iranian cinema as a point of academic study, both compared to how it’s academically treated inside Iran and also to critics in the West and the way that they interpret and process Iranian cinema. These are three different groups of people all going after the same thing with different access levels and different visions.

Hamid: A study of Iranian cinema is always haunted by the specter of the revolution and the hostage crisis; by that I mean the history of study of Iranian cinema in the West. That revolution and the hostage crisis afterwards unfortunately forever marked Iranians as a certain kind of society; a fundamentalist, irrational, uneducated mass of people with their fists in the air shouting stereotypical things like “Death to America” and “Death to Carter”. That partly coloured how the media in the West and academics thought about Iran. On the one hand, these Westerners were affected by it. On the other hand, the critics and festival curators and academics wanted to see and show the opposite. There was an effort through programming and curating film festivals and through academic writing and film criticism to celebrate Iranian cinema more than it perhaps deserved, because the art cinema went against all the expectations of a political Iran. “If it’s so backward, then look at all the films they’re making, look at how clever and well made they are, how enigmatic and poetic they are.” It’s very hard to separate the quality of Iranian films and the reception of them from that political background.  A nation’s political notoriety beings automatic attention abroad to the works of its artists, especially the works of those who critique the state.

Mar 7, 2015

Dariush Mehrjui's "The Cow" and the Birth of the Iranian New Wave

Ezatollah Entezami in Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow

*This column was originally written for Movie Mezzanine, on the occasion of the traveling Iranian cinema retrospective that is currently ongoing in Toronto. 

While Iranian films have screened at festivals as early as 1958–Samuel Khachikian’s Party in Hell played in competition at the 8th Berlinale–few cinephiles engaged with these films as part of a national cinema. Abbas Kiarostami’s work changed that in the late 1980s, and the films of directors like Jafar Panahi and the Makhmalbaf family followed suit. Yet this newfound prominence on the international scene triggered little interest in the history of this national cinema.

During the first decades of film production in Iran, cinemas were dominated by song-and-dance action and comedy films that were poor in technique and disposable in content. The screens were filled with showboating tough guys and women who traversed the Madonna-whore spectrum overnight. The Iranian New Wave evolved as the artistic, sophisticated response to the artificiality of this cinema. Some consider the earliest entry in the movement to be Farrokh Ghaffary’s neorealist 1958 film, South of the City, a truthful portrayal of poverty in Tehran. Then, throughout the 1960s, came the films of key figures such as Ebrahim Golestan (Mudbrick and Mirror), Hajir Dariush (Serpent’s Skin) and Parviz Kimiavi (Garden of Stones) and the seminal documentary The House Is Black by modernist poet Forough Farrokhzad.

These directors’ films hailed from the fabric of Iranian culture. Formally ambitious and thematically curious, they depicted the realities of rural life and drew inspiration from Persian poetry and literature. If these filmmakers sowed the seeds of change, their efforts fully blossomed with two films made in 1969: Masoud Kimiayi’s Gheysar and Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow. The latter is most commonly, and rather generously, credited with beginning the New Wave.

Mehrjui has since proved to be one of the industry’s most enduring figures, but his films have rarely traveled outside of Iran, often because their strengths are too firmly tied to their untranslatable cultural specificity. Yet, his mark on Iranian cinema is visible, whether through direct parallels between his work and that of later filmmakers–Farhadi’s A Separation is immensely indebted to Mehrjui’s Hamoun–or broader influences, such as the myriad of comedy TV series that drew inspiration from his social satire The Tenants.

Still, Mehrjui’s crowning achievement, and that of the Iranian New Wave, remains The Cow. So significant was this film that it was reported Ayatollah Khomeini’s admiration for it made him reluctant to impose a ban on cinema after the Islamic revolution, believing that the art form could become an instrument of truth and reach sublimity in the mold of films like The Cow.

Mar 6, 2015

Screening Log: February

Kamran Shirdel on the set of The Night It Rained

The Cow (Mehrjui, 1969, A+) (thoughts)
"That the film remains largely undiscovered internationally is disheartening, but its lasting influence on Iranian cinema is a feat unparalleled by any other film. For Mehrjui, that is perhaps the highest reward."

The Night It Rained (Shirdel, 1967, A)
A timeless examination of the essence of documentary filmmaking; a culturally insightful and prescient look at bureacratic machinations that have stood the test of regime changes to remain as endearingly complicated as Shirdel depicts.

P Like Pelican (Kimiavi, 1972, A-)
A hypnotic work from the godfather of blurring the fiction/documentary boundary in Iranian cinema. Despite the sparseness of its storytelling, it's a film that bears multiple revisits to be fully felt, let alone understood.

Only Image Remains (Akbari, 2014, N/A) (podcast)
Akbari's video essay on the traveling retrospective of Iranian films provides worthy contextulization, not just for this specific series, but also for Iranian cinema as a national and transnational enterprise.

It's Winter (Pitts, 2006, B+)
Pitts has a deft hand at making social critiques without appearing to criticize anything at all. It's Winter doesn't have quite the same thrill of his later film, The Hunter, but it is extremely sharp about the rarely discussed topic of sexual frustration in the conservative outskirts of cities in Iran. The ending is absolutely haunting.

The Mix (Mehrjui, 2000, C+)
It isn't coincidental that the general decline in the quality of Mehrjui's films began right around this time, when he made this technical, occasionally tedious and openly frustrated look at the obstacles Iranian filmmakers face in a still largely artisanal industry under heavy censorship. There are individual riveting moments in the film, but as a whole, The Mix feels more like a diatribe.

Wild Canaries, 2015, B+/A-) (review)
"The stars of the show are Levine and Takal, whose performances not only perfect the comic tempo, but also suggest that their real-life relationship has influenced every frustrated argument and passionate kiss seen in the film. Their effortless chemistry in this screwball throwback is reminiscent of classic screen couples such as William Powell and Myrna Loy. Like The Thin Man, Wild Canaries leaves us impatiently waiting for the couple’s next adventure."

Wild (Vallee, 2014, B)
Wild adds a new dimension to Vallee's intriguingly expanding filmography. The use of sound in this film is particularly exciting, both in the flashback scenes and in the lead character's excursions in the wild. Reese Witherspoon, an actress I had never warmed to before, gives her career best performance. 

Secrets & Lies (Liegh, 1996, A)
Neither Leigh's best film (Topsy Turvy) nor my favourite (Naked) but the most devastatingly moving one he has made. His subtle study of grief, missed connections and lost affections is elevated by three sensational performances from Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan and Timothy Spall.

The Pear Tree (Mehrjui, 1998, )
It is arguable whether The Pear Tree can completely do without the (lyrical and affecting) voice-over narration that runs over the entire film. Had it removed of this poetic but rather explicit narrative device, would the potentially more contemplative results have been a bigger international hit? As is, this is one of Mehrjui's strongest works, an evocative, tender film that, minus overt politicization near the end, gently prods romanticism in a way that is uniquely sensual for the cultural of Iran in the 1990s.

The Imitation Game (Tyldum, 2014, C+)
As bland and flat as the prestige British biopic gets, with alleged historical liberties that seem to extend beyond simple artistic licenses. It's competently crafted and finely acted but it boggles the mind how films like this can win critical raves and establishment prizes simply for not grossly fucking things up.

The Garden of Stones (Kimiavi, 1976, B+)
Despite its short running time, The Garden of Stones moves at a glacial pace, but its tangy humor, wild fantasies and hilariously shameless criticisms of Iranian culture and religiosity create a memorable and essential piece.

Special Line (Kiayi, 2014, B+)
A tense and exciting thriller about hacking a bank system to swindle a corrupt banker out of money, Kiayi's film is coolly stylized with exceptional, fire-cracking dialogue and an energetic cast. It is two problems short of being a genuinely great film: a romantic subplot that only clutters the plot, and an ending that unnecessarily reinforces the film's already prominent theme.

Pari (Mehrjui, 1995, N/A)
This isn't (or, at least, might not be) the worst film Mehrjui ever made but something about its structure -- Niki Karimi's gross overacting, the overwhelming sense that every line is delivering a statement, and the fact that there is a total absence of subtlety in a story about internal existential turmoil that sorely misses it -- has made me give up on it midway through on three separate occasions. One day I'm certain I will finish this film and it might turn out to be a lot better than I thought.

Sara (Mehrjui, 1993, B+)
Mehrjui's feminist manifesto -- about a woman who borrows money to save her dying husband but is in turn chastised for her efforts to pay the money back -- is bold, powerful and ahead of its time for Iranian cinema; a film that discusses issues of personal agency and sociocultural oppression of women with remarkable frankness. As a piece of filmmaking, it isn't quite at the same level as Hamoun or The Tenants, but its thematic audacity makes this a valuable milestone of 90s Iranian cinema. Legendary actor, Khosrow Shakibaei, gives one of his best performances as a mischievous, conniving man with an inferiority complex toward women.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, 2014, A)
Darker and more nostalgic on repeat viewings, this is Anderson's most meticulously crafted, most joyful and most heart-wrenching film at once. Ralph Fiennes's M. Gustave is a comic creation (with an ocean of melancholy in his eyes) for the ages.

The Lady (Mehrjui, 1991, C-)
One of the weaker efforts of Mehrjui's career, this tonally confused maybe-thriller-maybe-drama is a failed attempt to recapture the magic of Hamoun with the same three actors is neither a character study of the titular character, whose despair is only superficially justified, nor a film that can build on the potential of its suspense.

Appropriate Behavior (Akhavan, 2015, D+)
Akhavan's intentions are earnest enough, given the film's autobiographical nature, but Appropriate Behavior plays out like an extended episode of "Shit Lesbians Say". Aside from the missed opportunity to offer insight into the lives of Iranian LGBT community in diaspora -- a vast minority given the intolerance against the community at home -- which is restricted to a few sarcastic jokes only, the script's irritatingly forced humor and the now cliched narrative beats about Brooklyn youth cripple this film. Akhavan is not emotive enough as a performer to convey the personality of this story. As always, I am thrilled for Iranian filmmakers succeeding abroad; suffice to say that I'll be looking forward to her next film, hoping it is a significant improvement.

The Tenants (Mehrjui, 1986, A+)
What an exhilarating experience this film is! Nearly thirty years after its production, Mehrjui's vibrant, rambunctious comedy has not lost an ounce of it humor or insight into middle class Tehrani lifestyle. In bringing together the landlords, the estate agents, the tenants and the laborers of a single building, Mehrjui gives himself the platform to paint a complete picture of an intersection of the society in a single location. With its fiery, ever-quotable dialogue and an ensemble of breathtaking performances, The Tenants is one of the best Iranian films ever made and an influential template from which many significant future comedies -- among them Asghar Farhadi and Parisa Bakhtavar's Tambourine, Mehrjui's own Mum's Guest and, most importantly, several of Mehran Modiri's TV series -- gained inspiration.

Sexy Beast (Glazer, 2001, B+)
Miraculously assured for a feature film debut, Glazer's stylish romantic crime thriller brings together his cool aesthetic from previous visual work and a group of remarkable performances to shape a film that is at once tensely unpredictable and soulfully nostalgic.

Calvary (McDonagh, 2014, B-)
Calvary feels somewhat limited in scope, never quite exploring the full potential for spiritual discovery in the story, but it is anchored by a riveting performance from the understated -- and underrated -- Brendan Gleeson, who plays Father's James inner turmoils with remarkable vulnerability.

American Sniper (Eastwood, 2014, B+)
It is unclear, on one screening, whether the film respects Chris Kyle's targets any more than he does, and there is no denying what a comparison between Kyle's biography and the film reveals: Eastwood's extremely generous portrayal of Kyle tones down much of his viciousness and immorality. Bradley Cooper's performance does all the hard work in shading this character in greys, complicating him and showing internal conflicts that do not exist on paper. The action sequences -- barring the final, critical moment which is hokey and over-directed -- are exceptionally tense.

The Cycle (Mehrjui, 1979, B+)
A controversial, harrowing look at the shady business of illegal blood dealing in the medical system in Iran in the years leading up to the revolution. Mehrjui's formal control really matures in this film, although the pacing problems with his previous films still persist on some level. The Cycle is extremely confrontational, and consequently an intensely powerful experience. One can practically feel physical pain every time a needle penetrates an arm. 

Lovesick (Matheny, 2015, D-) (review)
As disposable as the generic Hollywood romantic comedy gets.

Mar 2, 2015

Tecnicos y Rudos

*This post is in support of a Kickstarter campaign for "Tecnicos y Rudos", a new film by Canadian filmmaker Milad Alamkhany.

Do you remember that fragile sense of acceptance and triumph we helplessly longed for during our youth? What about how easily it could reduce to failure and tragedy? Well a local filmmaker is currently in pursuit of sharing such a story that he's funding through Kickstarter.

A story about identity, longing, and figuring out one's place in a culture that's constantly dictating the good and the bad. In fact, that's exactly what the title of his film suggests. "Tecnicos" are the heroes in Mexican wrestling, and "Rudos" are the villains.

His film tackles the adolescent journey of an 8 year old boy who's fighting for his unique place in a society that hinges on extremely rigid social ideals. The conflict ensues when the main character's value system begins to fall apart and his sense of 'order' transforms into 'chaos'.

A fable about belonging, desire and coming of age, I'm excited to watch his film and hope his story translates to the screen. For his Kickstarter page evokes nothing less of interest and promise.

What's more exciting is that prolific filmmaker John Greyson has signed on as a producer. Yes that's the same John Greyson that was detained in a prison last year in Egypt with Canadian doctor Tarek Loubani. One of the most influential figures in the Canadian film industry primarily with his focus on Queer Cinema, he has been endorsing the film and is one of the many contributors backing the project.

His campaign is live for another eight days, which means there's still time to sign on as a contributor. Link is here.

Feb 25, 2015

Wild Canaries

Grade: B+/A-

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

The opening two scenes of Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries set the absurdist tone for the wry suspense and hilarity to come. In the first, a glove-clad man mysteriously enters the apartment of an old lady and eerily caresses her face; the setting portends violence, only for the woman to wake up and smile at his familiar face, which remains hidden to us. In the following scene, Noah (Levine) enters his own apartment, calling for his fiancée, Barri (Sophia Takal, Levine’s real-life partner) without a response. The setting again suggests a bloody discovery just around the corner until the fiancée jumps out and yells “I got you” repeatedly. This dichotomy between mystery and slapstick comedy pervades the Brooklyn-based hipster neo-noir.

Although the young and engaged Barri and Noah put a ring on it, they lack the financial means or the emotional will to get married, and still share an apartment with Jean (Alia Shawkat), their lesbian friend. Barri is jobless and Noah is a filmmaker with a never-ending series of rejected pitches. He works closely with his former girlfriend, Eleanor (Annie Parisse), who left him for another woman, and is now being set up with Jean by Barri and Noah. Their neighbor, Sylvia (Marylouise Burke), is an old lady whose age—at least 80—is a matter of dispute, a disagreement that becomes rather significant after she’s found dead in her apartment. When her son, Anthony (Kevin Corrigan), begins to act strangely, Barri becomes suspicious of foul play, leading to a rapid conversation with Jean, who concocts various scenarios for his possible motives. Noah is unimpressed, but the plot only thickens further when Damien (Jason Ritter), the womanizing artist who owns their building, gets involved. He thereby becomes a secondary suspect to Jean and Barri and the object of Anthony’s separate photographic investigation.

Feb 20, 2015

2014 Oscar Predictions

The Oscars played a significant part in my obsession with the medium of cinema in my formative years. I think the experience is more or less similar for a lot of people in my generation, particularly those who live outside of major film markets, where awards can look like a real barometer of quality at a distance, to people of a certain age. The Oscars also played an equally important part in my becoming a blogger and in gaining some of the opportunities that I did. But I've moved on, not because I'm looking at such awards from above or because I condescend to those who care about them -- I'd be the first defend the importance and influence of the Oscars -- but because my taste and the Academy's has been so drastically different over the years that I've grown weary of caring and thinking about them. I take no joy in writing about the machinations of "awards season" if I don't find the films or the discourse surrounding them appealing, and frankly that discourse has become aggressive and toxic to the point of complete alienation. I used to feel that the shenanigans about awards were the tasty, spicy side dish to the cinema's delicious main course, but that side dish is rotten now and tastes bitter. I've stopped mulling it over.

Under the Skin, my favourite English-language film of the year, was completely shut out.

Still, one Oscar column a year is something I can handle, and because I'm a betting man, I'll make this one post about predictions. Either this is an uncharacteristically tight year in too many races, or my obliviousness to the whole charade has kept me in the dark about what pundits are feeling confident about. Either way, put your money on these predictions at your own peril! If you're interested in knowing what I would have voted for were I given a ballot, your answer is here. If you're interested in knowing how well I did on my predictions last year, I went 17/21, having not made predictions in the three short categories. Without further ado...