Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Asghar Farhadi Files: Fireworks Wednesday

Set during the celebration of the Persian New Year, Asghar Farhadi's fourth narrative feature is an allegorical title that not only leaves room for plenty of disconcerting bangs and pops off-screen, but lays bare the fragile framework of crackling human emotions as well. So far, each of my reviews of a Farhadi film has, irrevocably, compared it to his worldwide art house break out film "A Separation". While each film has been a stepping stone towards the formalism and themes of that Oscar winner, "Fireworks Wednesday" is clearly the culmination of those works. Yes, its a terrific film in its own right, but one that succinctly looks forward to the dynamism of his characters as one marriage falls apart and many others are caught up in the maelstrom. 

Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti) is a young girl who arrives at an apartment house to clean for owner Mozdeh (Hediyeh Tehrani). Mozdeh is in the middle of an argument with husband Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad). After the husband leaves, the jealous wife employs Rouhi to spy on her next door neighbor whom she suspects in having an affair with her husband. Rouhi, about to be a young bride herself, finds herself caught up even deeper in the relationship between husband and wife as she first lies in defense of the husband, then later becomes involved with the husband's duplicitous actions.

The intimations toward Farhadi's respect of the cinema of John Cassavetes seem most prevalent when it comes to "Fireworks Wednesday". Rouhi is, seemingly, an innocent bystander forced to observe the stressful arguments and jealous thoughts that swirl around both husband and wife. In one sensational set piece, Farhadi's tracking camera charts a verbal argument in and around the apartment for several unbroken minutes, shifting from person to person and room to room, heightening the tension as we struggle to understand exactly whom is telling the truth. In the jealous wife, Tehrani is a trembling, nervous screen presence, even resorting to following her husband to work... a covert act that ends up with him slapping her on the street as the camera observes from a closing elevator door. Juxtaposed against her vibrating energy is Taraneh Alidoosti as Rouhmi. Her wide, beautiful eyes and exuberance about young love serve as the perfect antidote for her employer's poisonous marriage. We root for Rouhi, even though her character is a pawn in the ever shifting game. This is exemplified later in the film when husband Mozdeh offers to give her a ride home. We soon discover the long sequence is just an excuse for her to watch his son as he conducts other business. Like the best films of Cassavetes, "Fireworks Wednesday" settles into that supremely uncomfortable space where people use each other for duplicitous acts and psychological warfare. And like "A Woman Under the Influence" or "Minnie and Moskowitz", it also features a strong woman blurring the line between the real and the suggested. "Fireworks Wednesday" is a bracing example of the complicated, adult problems that not only made Cassavetes one of the giants, but seems to be propelling Farhadi as well.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Trailers I Love

The Past


Dallas Buyers Club- a film I have seen that ranks as one of the finest of the year, completely devoid of overt sentimentality and directed with precision from Jean Marc Valee. Also, both Jared Leto and Matthew McCaughney deserve all the accolades they (hopefully) receive.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cinema Obscura: Dream City (Traumstadt)

One never quite knows what they're getting themselves into when they venture into the outsider 70's cinema of Eastern Europe. Films by the likes of Krystoff Zanussi or Miklos Jansco can be quite maddening, adventurous efforts. Well, the same can be said for Johannes Schaaf's "Dream City". Part horror movie, part apocalypse film but mostly just an angry allegory of man's inherent ability to destroy everything he touches, "Dream City" stars Per Oscarrson as a writer who receives an invitation from an old school friend to travel to his city where everyone lives in peace. The writer and his wife make the trip and end up in the dilapidated city where not everything is as peaceful as it seems.

"Dream City", released in 1973, is one of those wild films whose ideas are swirling in every frame. After arriving in the city, the writer and his wife become pawns in an ever-shifting game of human chess. The writer's attempts to visit Patera, his old friend and seeming sole oligarch of the city, is met with bureaucratic blindness and ineptitude. In fact, the civil servant the writer goes to see for his "audience pass" makes him come into his office not once but twice just so he can repeat his practiced lines several times.... since he interacts with so few people. The writer's wife, played to shrill perfection by long time actress Rosemarie Fendel, meets an even odder fate.... first, caught as the unwitting victim in a massive theatrical performance where everyone in the city seems to be play-acting their own fantasies (and featured as the film's crazy centerpiece of sound, camera movement and chaos) then secondly slowly becoming he voice of reason to her husband that this paradise is far from normal. Added to her misery is the fact the the writer has become infatuated with a deaf-mute beauty (named Olimpia, whose only screen credit is this film) who wanders around the city, sometimes involved with a man named Hercules Bell, a revolutionary intent on bringing violence to the people. In fact, it's this vague reference to a coup de tat as well as the shocking unmasking of the real Patera that gives "Dream City" its subversive impetus. It's as if a Grimm fairy tale were updated to the swinging 60' with a violent anarchic bent. As one can tell, this brief synopsis barely scratches the surface of Schaaf's weird allegory, but one that demands to be seen by anyone searching out the undiscovered, dark efforts of European cinema. .

Director Schaaf, judging from his profile on IMDB, could be an interesting experiment if more his films were available. See the description for a 1986 film called "Momo" with John Huston?! "Dream City", although encumbered with a lack of focus at times, it's still a highly watchable effort that will most likely improve with viewings as its dense themes and busy visual scheme hide certain elements on initial viewings. If nothing else, the image of a bald, naked woman wearing some sort of gold 3D glasses (a motif hinted at in the film, yet never really explained) is enough to make one seek out answers from this truly original work.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Produced and Abandoned #16

A few more titles deserving a region 1 DVD release:

1. Arcane Sorcerer (1996)- Pupi Avati's 90's cult film has been a gray market floater for years now, perhaps becoming even more sought after when filmmaker Guillermo del Toro named it one of his favorites in this book last year. Regarded as a major influence for his terrific kids chiller "The Devil's Backbone", the film has never been released on home video. Even del Toro admits to seeing the film as a bootleg copy. The film itself deals with a plot that sees a young priest meeting an old priest supposedly involved in black magic.

2. Ailsa (1994)- I remember reading about this film in the early 90's in "Film Comment". It even made a few best of lists that year, then promptly vanished. The description of the film sounds very Hitchcockian, as a young man becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman who moves in next door. Starring no one of much consequence, "Ailsa" seems to be one of those indie films that made small waves at film festivals.

3. This Sweet Sickness (1977)- French filmmaker Claude Miller's bloody and disturbing psychological thriller stars a young Gerard Depardieu as a man obsessed with creating an imaginary life with the woman he loves. No one does passive-aggressive violence quite like the French, so this late 70's film has been on my list to track down for a while now. VHS copies do exist out there.

4. Man Facing Southeast (1986)- Directed by Eliseo Subelia, "Man Facing Southeast" is about a man who walks into a psychiatrist's office and claims to be from another planet. One of those films that seemed to be in heavy rotation back in the day on either IFC or Sundance, and now totally gone. It's also said to be the inspiration for "K-Pax" with Kevin Spacey... and possibly an outright remake of it. There are region 2 Mexican DVD versions out there, but that's it.

5. Three For the Road (1987)- One of my very favorite 80's movies, starring Charlie Sheen and Alan Ruck as two men assigned to deliver a politician's daughter (Kerri Green) from a mental institution. It's been years since I've seen this one, and I don't know if it holds up, but having grown up watching it, I'd love the opportunity to see it again.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Current Cinema 25

12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” is a mixed beast. Building up enormous critical praise for his unnerving long shots and previous career as a visual artist boldly invading the cinema landscape, “12 Years A Slave” looks ravishing even if its topic of slavery is nauseating. Like he did in “Hunger” and “Shame”, McQueen has taken a tough subject and created a lyrical exploration, both in the mournful eyes of star Chiwetel Eijofor and his bracing use of foreground and background- such as a partial lynching that goes on for an uncomfortable amount of time and a whipping, full of swish pans and a roving steadicam that ignites the pain in excruciating real time. But the brilliantly attuned technical stuff aside, I still came away with the feeling that nothing new, introspective or especially interesting had been revealed in this true life tale of a New York black man kidnapped and sold into slavery. I know that sounds harsh, but “12 Years A Slave” is one of those ‘important’ films whose reach feels aimed at embracing that importance rather than an organic experience. A solid film, but one that I’m just not doing cartwheels over.

The Counselor

The second Michael Fassbender film in a week is Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor”. Written by novelist Cormac McCarthy, “The Counselor” is my pick for screenplay of the year. Bleak, black and utterly cruel, “The Counselor” offers no escape for its characters- Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz- to escape the sun stained borders of Texas and Mexico as a drug deal goes terribly wrong. Rambling scenes of dialogue between characters that espouse the nature of guilt and sorrow, huge plot points that seem to be avoided for the sake of avoidance, and an ever shifting alliance between everyone are just a few of the tricks in McCarthy’s hellish void. “The Counselor” has been called misogynistic, nasty and just plain bad…. But I ask what did anyone expect from the creator of such works as “The Road”, “Blood Meridan” and “No Country For Old Men”?


Thinking back to the awfulness of “Bobby”- in which a parade of stars moonlighted in 60’s wardrobe and waded in melodramatic moments- I went into Peter Landesman’s “Parkland” with a bit of apprehension. Though the film does suffer from some of the same moments of grandstanding, “Parkland” still succeeds due to its treatment of marginalized events in the JFK assassination as well as some resonant performances. Based on a script by Landesman, “Parkland” tracks the three days in Dallas, November 1963 from the intimate (James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey Oswald's brother) to the generic. There are fascinating moments sprinkled throughout, such as the heartbreaking scene with the Secret Service literally breaking apart Air Force One in order to fit JFK’s casket onto the plane and the reaction of a Dallas cop opening a car door for the First Lady. There are also cringe-worthy moments…. And its this episodic nature that holds “Parkland” back from being something truly spectacular. It also features the ever annoying herky-jerky handheld camera technique that feels like an overcompensation.