Monday, September 30, 2013

The Asghar Farhadi Files: Beautiful City

Asghar Farhadi's second feature, while remaining true to his local worldview of the ever-shifting moral dilemmas that arise between people in crisis, also carries an extremely ironic title. "Beautiful City" derives its name from the small juvenile prison where we first meet Ala (Babak Ansari) as he helps celebrate the birthday of fellow inmate and best friend Akbar (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh). Akbar is none too happy, because due to this being his eighteenth birthday, he'll soon be transported to the adult prison where he'll serve out his sentence. Upon release, due to a more minor crime, Ala makes it his mission to free his friend by soliciting his release through the father of the girl he murdered. What follows in "Beautiful City" is the relentless and confusing dynamics that arise between Ala, Akbar's sister Firoozeh (Taraneh Alidoosti) and the father (Faramarz Gharibian) as questions of guilt, forgiveness and the convoluted bureaucratic process of Islamic law.

As a sophomore film, "Beautiful City" is a huge leap forward for Farhadi, both visually and thematically. Not only does the film make wonderful use of the city's arching doorways and shadows, but the slum where Ala meets (and eventually falls for) Firoozeh juts up against a set of railroad tracks that serve as the metaphor for the desire to escape. The film's final scene, ending on a wonderfully ambiguous note, also emphasizes the dreamy atmosphere of two worlds colliding. Taking as its theme the idea of redemption- even though we barely meet or gain any semblance of empathy for Akbar- will also become a founding principle in later Farhadi films. The commerce of ideas and words over action, as Ala and Firoozeh navigate the careful circumference of human emotions with a murdered girl's family, trying to reason with them and save his friend's life, expertly displays Farhadi's prerogative. In one brave scene, Ala and Firoozeh have a conversation in a restaurant, where Firoozeh promplty lights up and begins smoking a cigarette. It may be a commonplace image in 99% of our movies today, but I can't recall a single moment in any Iranian film that defies the subjugative structure of a society so plainly. While Farhadi (and for that matter the whole new wave of Iranian filmmakers) owe a debt of gratitude to Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Farhadi is also one of the few dragging Iranina cinema into the modern.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Posters I Love


Friday, September 20, 2013

Musical Interlude

One of the best songs from one of the year's very best albums.... Volcano Choir's "Repave". And if you love you some weird, antique found footage videos performed to the best electro-pop and chill wave bands, then daviddeanburkhart's you tube channel is the best.

Just hooked on the new Zola Jesus offering.....

a bit trippier than I usually like, but damn this band just puts me in a groove.....

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Last Few Films I've Seen, August Edition

1. Playing With Fire (1975)- Oh Godard, what hath you wrought? But seriously, director-writer Alain Robbe Grillet was doing this type of cinematic playfulness long before Godard. As the renowned writer of "Last Year At Marienbad", Robbe-Grillet's directorial output is quite.... risky. I've been able to track down several of his films lately (hardly released on home video, surviving in scratchy VHS prints), and "Playing With Fire" seemed about as good as any a place to start. Starring Phillipe Noiret as a rich man who has his daughter (possibly?) kidnapped, Jean Louis Trintignant shows up as the detective who tries to track her down. No one can be trusted, though, as actors appear as one character, then re-appear as someone else later. This theater of doubles becomes increasingly confusing.... people speak directly to the camera analyzing the screenplay so far.... sounds and screeching tires serve as cuts and no one is ever really in any danger. It's all mildly amusing and recommended for surreal 70's French avant gardism.

2. Wild Rovers (1971)- Strong comedy/western from Blake Edwards that tries to reinvent the genre through two no name cowhands (Ryan O Neal and William Holden) who suddenly decide to escape their boring life by robbing a bank. How they go about it in unassuming fashion sticks to the light heartedness of Edwards' obsessions. There is an especially gruesome and shocking outburst of violence towards the end that magnifies the ruthlessness of the Old West... just so we don't forget.

3. Closed Circuit (2013)- Eric Bana and the lovely, delicious Rebecca Hall are two lawyers caught up in British terrorism and government conspiracies. Filmmaker John Crowley, who previously directed the wonderful indie "Boy A", generates zero intensity in this placid, paint-by-numbers thriller. It honestly feels like a film that's been sitting on the shelf for 8-9 years.

4. Antiviral (2012)- Yes, Brandon Cronenberg could easily be mistaken for his father in this, his debut film. So many of the themes are prevalent, yet "Antiviral" lacks the oomph of papa's work. I honestly have to ask... has the charge to satirize and dive bomb our nauseating obsession with reality and reality-driven television become a lame obsession of its own? Here, a young doctor (played by Caeb Landry Jones) works at the mysterious Lucas Clinic where people pay to have the illnesses of their favorite stars injected into their own bodies. Black marketeering, shady guys in all black suits and lots of spit-up blood become the economy. Brandon Cronenberg frames all of this against solid white interiors or non-descript Canadian streets (again making daddy proud) but I found the whole effort a colossal bore. And as the lead, Landy Jones is such an alienating, weaselly character I was never rooting for him. If that was Cronenberg's intention, then kudos.

5. Sapphire (1959)- Basil Dearden loves him some controversy. Sometimes it works- as in his thriller about homosexuality with "Victim"- but other times it doesn't. Sadly, "Sapphire" is one of those. A young girl is murdered and the film tracks the investigation as two detectives learns she was half-black and the sticky subject of racism comes into play. Unlike his previous films, Dearden allows too much stiff upper British lip to come into play, effectively watering down the spicy aspects of his story. I still give him and his production company credit for tackling taboo subjects in the late 50's and early 60's.

6. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2010)- Utterly fascinating documentary about this urban mystery. Like a great mystery novel, this documentary doggedly pursues all aspects of it, raises some debatable suspects and sheds light on the unmistakable possibilities that exist in the obsessive human mind when we latch onto something so strongly. There's some discussion on whether this whole film is made up or not, and it only reinforces the rabbit holes of the mystery. Just great stuff.

7. A Band Called Death (2013)- Another highly compulsive documentary that also, could be, the documentation of an urban myth... this time the idea that three African American brothers in Detroit during the early 70's may be the first and most unknown influential punk band ever. Just watching this film floods one with emotions, first as it shows how something so good could get lost so easily, and then secondly as the brothers music is discovered in an attic and resurrected on adoring modern day crowds. One of the best viewing moments of the year for me.

8. The World's End (2013)- With all the hype of Edgar Wright's third collaboration with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, there had to be some let down. "The World's End" tries to do for weird space invasion films what their other efforts did for genre films like zombies and 70's buddy cops, but doesn't come close. Sadly, the first half drags quite a bit and the character's various transformations from start to finish aren't believable. The tendency has always been there, and director Wright seems to be conforming to the straight-on fanboy filmmaker rather than the go-for-broke agitator that created such honest humor in "Hot Fuzz" and "Shaun of the Dead".

Sunday, September 08, 2013

70's Bonanza: Diary of a Mad Housewife

Filmed and released in 1970, Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife" sits comfortably in the middle of his two other films that devote themselves to the mid life crisis of their protagonists. First there was Burt Lancaster and his allegorical swim home (or swim away, depending how you look at it) in "The Swimmer", perhaps Perry's most overlooked but strongest effort of the 60's. Five years later, in 1972, Tuesday Weld literally melts away on-screen as the wife of a Hollywood filmmaker floating despondently through her sunny L.A. days in "Play It As It Lays". In "Diary of a Mad Housewife", Carrie Snodgress not only seethes with hatred for her husband (an excellently devilish Richard Benjamin), but this hatred drives her into the arms of young, handsome writer Frank Langella. This smoldering trilogy not only exemplifies Perry's penchant for moral confusion and emotional disconnectivity in his films, but it paints a marvelously vivid snapshot of America's growing disillusionment during that time period.

Opening and closing on the face of Carrie Snodgress in drastically different ways, everything in between is especially violent, metaphysically speaking. As Tina (Snodgress), her hum-drum upper middle class life is quickly documented through the endless preening of her husband and his ludicrous demands for social status and child rearing. Never speaking a dissatisfying tone towards him, instead resorting to passive indifference, her break with her life comes in the form of novelist George (Frank Langella) when they meet at a party. An affair begins, but even that extra-marital scream doesn't fulfill Tina. Perry and screenwriter Eleanor Perry color George in much the same light as Tina's husband.... dashing and handsome, yes, but just as self-involved and nasty as the person she lives with and puts up with day in and day out. Like Tuesday Weld in "Play It As It Lays", we sort of root for her just because everyone around her is so terrible. It's only during the final scene does the film's title come into clarification,and even that supposedly cathartic moment is clouded by the selfishness of everyone involved.

If all of this sounds dismal, it's not. Perry and wife Eleanor are masters of scraping the surface and revealing the hollowness behind people... its just always sad there's one clear-eyed woman (or man) to observe this. Snodgress does seem to eventually liberate herself. It's an obvious but astute metaphor, but the mention of a deadly plant virus that wipes out the vineyard Tina's husband invests in is apt. "Diary of a Mad Housewife" explores the rottenness that bubbles up slowly not only via the wonderful performance of Carrie Snodgress, but the re-growth that's always possible.

"Diary of a Mad Housewife" isn't available on DVD, only on OOP VHS sources, which is a shame.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

On "The Grandmaster"

While I was one of the very few championing filmmaker Wong Kar Wai's last film (and his first completely American production) "My Blueberry Nights", if nothing else that implied failure must have soured him on the movie business for several years. To add insult to injury, the early buzz on his new film "The Grandmaster" was that producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein assisted Wai in making cuts to the final product... a fact that seems to suggest there are 3 possible versions floating around out there. Still, with all that hoopla and diversion settled, "The Grandmaster" emerges as a ravishing film and a buoyant entry into the woozy, dream-like canon of Wong Kar Wai.

Vaguely about the life of legendary martial arts teacher Ip Man (Tony Leung), "The Grandmaster" is a sensual and aural feast, timed to Kar Wai's penchant for several things including the slow motion pan, unrequited love, and life observed through the window pane. This is probably the most mainstream art film ever released, as judged by the groaning at my screening when subtitles went unrelenting after the first scene. Audiences are expecting a Jet Li-like actioner, and they're getting something altogether different (and better).Yet beyond the action (which is supreme... one wondrous set piece after another), "The Grandmaster" hones in on the relationship of Ip Man and Gong Er, played by Zhang Yiyi and their relationship through the years of civil war and Japanese invasion. In fact, "The Grandmaster" basically deserts Ip Man himself during the final third of the film, revealing the turmoils of Gong Er and her battle to retain her family's good name. At one point, I begin to imagine the film's title didn't belong to Ip Man but Gong Er herself. Like all of Wong Kar Wai's films, the central idea eventually boils down to a man and a woman navigating their hearts through the travails of time and life.
"The Grandmaster" is the reason I love going to the cinema. From start to finish, this is a masterpiece of sight, sound and heart.