Aug 10, 2014

Fifi Howls From Happiness

Grade: B+

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

The history of 20th-century Iran is brimming with fascinating, complex tales of personal and social travails and triumph. The country went through name changes, revolutions, several dynasties, countless heads of state, and the Islamicization of the government after 2,500 years of monarchic rule. This tumultuous atmosphere and the continual shift in powers that presided over the distribution and exhibition of art had a double-edged effect on Iranian artists: the turbulent environment cultivated intelligent and dissenting voices, and hindered their freedom all the same. Many chose to reform themselves, whereas others were forced into exile. Bahman Mohasses, the subject of Mitra Farahani’s stellar new documentary, Fifi Howls From Happiness, chose something in between.

Born in the north of Iran, Mohasses was a painter, sculptor, and translator whose avant-garde works gained him his “Persian Picasso” moniker. He was an eccentric figure, befriending oppositional artists and the royal family at once. He traveled between Italy and Iran, and felt unsettled at either home. He was a fish out of water, as many of his pieces and the film’s opening allegorically suggest. His work – much of it now destroyed either by the Islamic regime or by him– remained consistently powerful and subversive, and Mohasses was as restless and vibrant as ever even in his final days. Yet he became something of an enigma, living in total anonymity in Rome, even thought to be deceased by some.

Director Mitra Farahani is herself a similarly curious figure in a more modern mold. A successful filmmaker and painter who resides in Paris, she has made films like Just a Woman – winner of the Teddy prize at Berlinale – and Tabous, Zohre and Manouchehr, films that deal with sexuality in ways unfamiliar to Iranian audiences, making the latter something of a cult hit. In that light, this is the perfect marriage between the filmmaker and her subject. Farahani doesn’t explain how she first found Mohasses, shrouding his figure in even cloudier mystery. She is nevertheless granted access to his living space, a small hotel room in Rome, decorated with a variety of his art works. But the small space is no obstacle for the film’s edgy energy. Mohasses notes at one point that “a painting is a confined space, but reflects the infinite with limited tools.” The same can be said of Fifi Howls From Happiness.

Aug 9, 2014

The Dog

Grade: C

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine

Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning film Dog Day Afternoon tells the story of Sonny Wortzik, a man who robs a bank in Manhattan to pay for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery. The film is based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, a soldier-turned-criminal who became a local celebrity with his outrageous character, association with the Gay Liberation movement in its nascent stages, and, most importantly, the events of that fateful day depicted superbly by LumetAl Pacino. In The Dog, the new documentary about Wojtowicz by directors Francois Keraudren and Allison Berg, he is gratuitously granted an opportunity to extend his fifteen minutes of fame for another hour and a half.

Following the clichéd trajectory of most biographical documentaries, The Dog combines archival footage of John’s early life with talking-head interviews with himself and those close to him. There’s an unusually large amount of footage available from his pre-fame life that give a fascinating glimpse into his early years. Wojtowicz is a strange character, with oscillating political views that range from war-mongering to anti-war activity, from pacifism to bank robbery. His most defining characteristic, however, is his sexual appetite. He claims to have no other vices and therefore channels all his energy through sexual expression, which really means he will fuck anything that moves. Wojtowicz married several times but had affairs with countless men and women on the side. His first gay encounter occurred in the military, an experience that only served to broaden his sexual horizons. His affiliation with the gay activists of the New York scene in the early 1970s was mostly a result of his desire to sleep with as many men as possible. The clandestine gatherings were a gateway for him to meet new prospective partners. That, in essence, is where the film’s problematic nature stems from.

There is an unshakable sense that The Dog magnifies the significance of Wojtowicz’s story beyond the boundaries of his reality, and comfortably glosses over certain unpleasant facts. There’s never an indication that this film can transcend its protagonist’s oddball personality to arrive at any meaningful conclusions. The majority of the film gives the impression of a slideshow of colorful antics assembled together to give one last hurrah to an obscure cult superstar who does not deserve this reevaluation. His presence in the most monumental events of his time seems almost accidental, not of any fault of The Dog’s, but of Wojtowicz’s own accord. He doesn’t want anything more from the gay scene than abundant options for sex, but he attaches himself to the liberation movement nonetheless. He doesn’t want his partner, Liz Eden, to have the surgery, but he robs a bank purely out of love for her, a proclamation no one seems to fully believe. He was a loud goofball who happened to be at the right place at the right time, denounced by everyone associated with him – including gay activists and Liz – but himself and his mother.

Aug 7, 2014

Screening Log: July

Parviz Parastui in Leili Is With Me

Leili Is With Me (Tabrizi, 1996, A+)
Without a doubt the greatest Iranian comedy of all time. A film of indescribable wit and compassion, and an unrivaled social study of war time Iran, featuring one of the best comic performances ever put to screen by Parviz Parastui. 

Day For Night (Truffaut, 1973, A) (thoughts)
"What the experience adds up to is a film about cinema made with immeasurable love for the medium. Truffaut’s infectious energy pierces through the screen. His penchant for subtle, affecting comedy, so expertly utilized in the Antoine Doinel series, is at its sharpest."

South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut (Parker/Stone, 1999, C+)
Each revisit drives the film further and further toward intolerability. Occasionally funny but consistently loud and crass and increasingly soft-edged.

Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, B+)
An incredibly difficult film to write about.

Still Life (Shahid Saless, 1974, A+) (podcast discussion)
A masterpiece of lyrical beauty, indebted to and influenced by the "translucent reality" of Sohrab Sepehri's majestic poetry, and as powerfully effective in its simplicity.

Snowpiercer (Bong, 2014, B-)
An unholy mess of superbly staged action sequences, visionary stylistic flourishes and shallow socio-political insight reduced to hokey metaphors. Snowpiercer is worth watching inasmuch as it is uniquely different from similarly scaled Hollywood genre fare.

22 Jump Street (Lord and Miller, 2014, B)
Consistently hilarious, which is more than can be said about any studio sequel. There is no significant improvement on the original, but Hill and Tatum prove themselves again as genuine stars with great chemistry, while Lord and Miller - following the success of The LEGO Movie - prove themselves as irreverent, fresh voices in Hollywood comedy.

Borgman (van Warmerdam, 2013, B-) (review)
A furiously energetic opening sequence sets the tone for an eerie and hypnotically strange ride. The obviousness of the oft-revisited sociopolitical allegory is grating at times, but the film never loses its sense of mystery.

Jul 27, 2014

The End of the New Wave, the Beginning of My Cinephilia

Francois Truffaut's Day for Night
*This article was originally published at The Film Experience.

Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were the poster boys of the French New Wave, its most recognizable faces. Their friendship that had begun in the 1940s had carried them through all their years at Cahiers and into their directing careers, was evidenced by Godard’s adoration of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and the latter’s providing the story for his friend’s first film, Breathless. Their early writings manifest the division they had from the beginning about their outlook on the mechanics and politics of cinema. Nonetheless, their friendship continued even through the fraught days of political disagreement in 1968; but no further than 1973. Truffaut’s Day for Night (La Nuit Americaine) was an unforgivable crime in Godard’s eyes, and the latter’s disapproval of the film was a massive act of hypocrisy in Truffaut’s.  They were to never see each other again, and only after Truffaut’s death did Godard find nice words to say about his old friend.

It’s easy to see why Day for Night made Godard’s blood boil. It’s as conventionally constructed a film as one can expect from a nouevelle vague filmmaker, an unashamed love letter to Hollywood and cinema itself – and with an Oscar in its cap, no less. By this time in his career, Truffaut had already been branded a sellout by some and would continue to be called as such. He had, in the opinion of some of the New Wave’s proponent’s, become the very cinema he criticized in his youth. There was no political edge to Day for Night; no radical revision of how the medium operates. It was “a lie,” thought Godard. Some of those accusations might be true, but there is another truth that isn’t mentioned as often: this is an incredible film.

When I first watched Day for Night, I was 19. It was in the days when Toronto’s Bloor Cinema wasn’t yet devoted to screening documentaries. It was a cheap, dingy but friendly gathering place for the neighborhood’s elderly and University of Toronto’s students. The repertory screenings weren’t of rare, obscure directors but mostly of the films a young cinephile knows are must-watches. It was an ideal way to see the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Vertigo on the big screen for the first time. It was a perfect way to be introduced to François Truffaut as well, the man who would go on to become my favorite filmmaker, give or take Abbas Kiarostami.

Jul 4, 2014


Grade: B-

Alex van Warmerdam's Borgman opens with a disorienting, enthralling sequence in which three men, led by a priest, raid on hidden lairs in a forest where three other men, shabby and unkempt, have hoarded a treasure trove of weaponry. The motives of neither group are clear, but the sheer force that propels the scene promises a wild ride. The entirety of the film can't quite match the energy of this scene, but maintains its fresh air of ambiguity.

The titular Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) is a bearded, mysterious wanderer who settles on an affluent house in which Marina (Hadewych Minis) and Richard (Jeroen Perceval) live with their three children and their young, Danish maid. When Richard firmly rejects Borgman’s request to take a bath in their house and viciously beats him, Marina takes pity on the vagrant and hides him in a backyard bunkhouse. The audience is alerted both to the underlying sense of unease that begins with this game of hide and seek, and to van Warmerdam’s overarching allegory about a Dutch society scarred by class divisions and racial tension.

Borgman charms Marina and enchants the children with his story, yet remains inexplicably hidden from Richard’s sight. Borgman’s comfort at the residence, where his presence has brought others nothing but discomfort, has a comic absurdity to it. He prances around the house, takes long baths as he watches television and sips red wine, and tells the children horror stories about a sea monster. Marina is increasingly attached to this intruder whose mysterious, naked presence above her as she sleeps at nights induces in her nightmares in which she sees herself in violent conflict with her husband. Borgman succumbs to Marina's request to stay with the family, eventually plotting a plan to replace the estate’s gardener. With the plan in place, Borgman brings his accomplices, four other lair people who assist him in his progressively ruthless takeover of the house.

Jul 1, 2014

Screening Log: June

Monty Python's Life of Brian

(This month's screenings were limited to a measly seven, partly due to a rigorous reading schedule for a research project and partly because of the Football World Cup.)

Johnny Stecchino (Benigni, 1991, B)
Parodying the conventions of film noir, Benigni's tale of mistaken identities is cliched, mildly inappropriate and slightly dated but it nevertheless doesn't fail to make the audience laugh out loud. Nicoletta Braschi is divine as the film's femme fatale.

Me and You (Bertolucci, 2012, B-) (review)
A surprisingly intimate film from one of the most provocative directors of the twentieth century, Me and You is an empathetic, if slight, look at teenage awkwardness. There is delightful chemistry between the film's two young leads.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (DeBlois, 2014, C)
Devoid of the sort of character-driven storytelling that made the film one of Dreamworks's few special outings, this sequel is a relentlessly action-packed riot that offers little beyond the beautiful animation.

A Simple Event (Shahid Saless, 1973, B)
One of the most influential films in Iranian history, a work that directly impacted the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami and Amir Naderi, A Simple Event lives up to its title. There is very little in the way of plot, but the final moments of the film are moving and a testament to its lasting impact. A restoration and quality home video release is way overdue.

Venus in Fur (Polanski, 2014, B-) (review)
An amusing exercise featuring two perfectly calibrated performances, Polanski's gleefully kinky adaptation of the Masoch-inspired play is entertaining but doesn't leave much to think about in its wake.  

The Edge of Tomorrow (Liman, 2014, B)
Certain pitfalls of the modern Hollywood action film persist in Liman's otherwise inventive, pleasingly original take on the alien invasion. The Edge of Tomorrow is a whole lot of fun to watch from start to finish, which is a quality few blockbusters possess.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Jones, 1979, A-)
Thirty five years after its release, Life of Brian remains a refreshingly outrageous and sheepishly funny and insightful romp, excelling at creating a coherent structure from sketch-based comedy and providing sharp commentary on religious and political issues.

Jun 27, 2014

Me and You

Grade: B-

*This review was originally posted at The Film Experience.

There was a time when the release of every new film from Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci would cause some level of controversy. Consider that in a career that spans more than five decades, he has directed films like The Conformist. Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers. His latest film, Me and You, was made almost a decade after The Dreamers. It premiered at Cannes more than two years ago but is being released only now, almost as if the publicity for his films has gotten as quiet as the man himself, now sitting (and directing) permanently in wheel chairs.

The opening of Me and You promises more of the director’s provocative thematic interests. Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) is a troubled looking teenager finishing a conversation with his psychiatrist. He is reclusive and detached, and his misbehaviours are confirmed when we overhear a conversation between his separated parents on the phone. An early scene in which Lorenzo and his mother dine at a restaurant shows the most prominent touch of Bertolucci’s perversions as the young boy incessantly asks his mother what she would do to repopulate the world if they were the only two people left on the planet.