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.

Oct 13, 2014

Watchers of the Sky

Grade: B

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

“We’ve run the numbers here and have decided that each American life is worth about 80,000 Rwandan lives.”

There is no context under which this sentence is not completely outrageous, much less so when you realize that real foreign policy decisions that cost the lives of thousands of innocent civilians were made according to that line of thinking by the U.S. government. Referenced by Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the UN, regarding the Rwandan genocide, that concept is one of many absurd and absurdly terrifying revelations in Edet Belzberg’s informative and perversely entertaining documentary, Watchers of the Sky.

Following the lives of four political activists who’ve been inspired by the iconic activist Raphael Lemkin in different ways, the film traces common links between several crimes against humanity during the 20th century, from Armenian genocide to the carnage in Syria today, to redefine how we, as a global community, deal with these mass atrocities. Lemkin’s family were killed during World War II, igniting his lifelong passion and exhausting efforts to reshape the worldwide legal landscape for punishing state crimes. Lemkin, who coined the term genocide, argued that crimes committed by states against their own people should not be observed and ignored by other states, but that perpetrators must be brought to justice in international courts.

The difficulty of uniting the global community against crimes most countries felt distant to without any personal stakes presented a hill too steep for Lemkin to climb alone. He was worn down by increasing illness and poverty, but became an inspiration for activists who picked up the baton. Samantha Power was one of them. Another is Luis Moreno Ocampo of the International Criminal Court, responsible for efforts to sentence the Sudanese president for his crimes in Darfur. Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide currently helping victims in Darfur, is another, as is Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials who is now a human rights lobbyist at the UN.

Oct 2, 2014

Screening Log: September

Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence

My thoughts on TIFF14, where most of September's screenings took place, have been posted here. Some of the films below are discussed.

20,000 Days on Earth (Forsyth/Pollard, 2014, B) (review)
"All of this adds up to a rapturous finale, a staggering, endlessly energetic live performance that brings all the contextualized elements behind the music together and leaves the audience with 20,000 goosebumps on their arms."

The Call (Anderson, 2013, C+)
Sure, little sophistication and a whole lot of suspension of disbelief is required, but this would actually have been great popcorn entertainment had it not been for the blatantly redundant final two minutes. 

Stop the Pounding Heart (Minervini, 2014, B) (review)
top the Pounding Heart is at once restrained and tactile, the work of a silently observant filmmaker who is as compassionate as he is critical. The likes of this subtle religious study are all too rare in modern American cinema.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, 2014, B+)
A romantic fable steeped in Japanese tradition elevated to enchanting, graceful bliss on screen.

The Look of Silence (Oppenheimer, 2014, A)
An intimate, complex portrait of personal traumas and social, familial fractures still unhealed. Oppenheimer turns The Act of Killing's camera 180° to observe the victims in The Look of Silence. The result is even richer and more resonant.

99 Homes (Bahrani, 2014, B+)
Overwrought, overdirected and overcooked, with screaming bright colors for emotional beats. Also, pretty darn great.

Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait (Mohammed/Bedrixan, 2014, A-) (thoughts)
Pushing the limits of cinematic possibility in the digital age to paint a harrowing picture of the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, and a testament to the resilience of its people.

Far From Men (Oelhoffen, 2014, B+)
An old-school Western, transplanted to colonial Algeria. A muscular film with an equally muscular turn from Viggo Mortensen.

Jauja (Alonso, 2014, B/B+)
Hypnotic, strange and gorgeous. The first half isn't for everyone, but final payoff is immensely handsome. Viggo Mortensen and cinematographer Timo Salminen (Aki Kaurismaki's regular collaborator) are standouts.

Maidan (Loznitsa, 2014, B+)
Loznitsa's raw look at the Ukrainian protests feels vital, with none of the urgency of the events lost in translation.

Girlhood (Sciamma, 2014, A-)
As keen an observational study on growing up as we've come to expect of the director. A vibrant and joyous film, with a wondrous debut performance by Kadija Toure.

Horse Money (Costa, 2014, C-)
Akin to reciting one line from a beautiful, resonant poem over and over and over again.

Tales (Bani-etemad, 2014, B)
Bites off more social issues than it can chew, but some segments are near masterpieces as self-contained works.

Goodbye to Language (Godard, 2014, D+)
If you look carefully, you can see Godard's smirk as he cums on your 3D glasses.

Timbuktu (Sissako, 2014, A) (thoughts)
Timbuktu is a powerful film, with formal ambitions that well exceed the requirements of its narrative. Gorgeously shot and finely acted, Sissako offers a compassionate look at the struggles of Malian people without ever resorting to schmaltzy humanism.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Andersson, 2014, B+)
Alternates between uproariously funny and regrettably (though purposefully) dull. Warm, perceptive and typically articulate for the director.

Felix and Meira (Giroux, 2014, B-)
A deceptively simple look at the complexities of challenging Orthodox beliefs in secular societies and inter-faith relationships. Hadas Yaron is the real deal.

Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014, C+)
(Very polished) turd.

Red Rose (Farsi, 2014, B)
Suffers from age old pitfalls of Iranian political cinema, but is otherwise frank and incisive, particularly with its sexual politics.

Miss Julie (Ullman, 2014, D+)
"I'm so tremendously tired" says Chastain at one point. Well, so are we, Jessica.

Today (Mirkarimi, 2014, B+)
Mirkarimi does as Mirkarimi always does, building momentum from seemingly nothing to an unforgettable emotional punch. Parastui's performance as the director's archetypal reticent hero is a thing of compassion and beauty.

Heaven Knows What (Safdie Brothers, 2014, B+)
A never ending rush of emotions. Visceral, truthful, disturbing and alive.

Mardan (Ghobadi, 2014, D-)
A film about the struggle for Kurdish independence, which will surely be achieved before this insufferable film is over.

Phoenix (Petzold, 2014, C-)
Production values and performances are solid, but it's impossible to escape such an agonizingly daft premise. Phoenix is at once hokey and flat.

The Princess of France (Pineiro, 2014, B+)
Mesmerizing, majestic opening sequence and only slightly less impressive after that. Pineiro's latest jewel-cut Shakespearean adaptation is an intricate marvel.

Eden (Hansen-Løve, 2014, C)
Curiously joyless and monotone for a film about such thrilling music. The procession of club scenes, only interrupted by miserable conversations with interchangeable girlfriends leave the film with virtually no hook.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, 2014, B+)
Assayas as complex, versatile and warm as ever. Unsure about the boldfaced epilogue but everything that precedes it is superb, most particularly the pas de deux between Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart.

Sep 26, 2014

20,000 Days on Earth

Grade: B+

"What performance is to me is finding a way to tempt the monster to come to the surface."

The above words, quoted by Australian musician and writer Nick Cave, come near the end of 20,000 Days on Earth, but they rather succinctly express the essence of the film and Nick Cave’s artistic career. There is an elusive quality to the wild, emotionally unhinged music of this eccentric artist that feels akin to a dormant monster coming to life upon every encounter. The energy of the performances devours the audience. Directors Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard’s uncategorizable film looks beyond that energy, beyond the surface, to find the monster.

20,000 Days on Earth is a kind of a documentary film, clearly transferring elements of Cave’s life directly to the screen, but its hyper-stylized aesthetic and fictionalized recreations of scenes from his life make the film as hypnotic an experience as listening to the music that inspired it. Covering a short span of time during the recording of Cave’s latest album, 2013’s “Push the Sky Away”, the film begins with a dialogue by the singer that immediately suggests something deeper and more peculiar that the run of the mill music documentary. The disturbing imagery produced with a simple concave mirror in Cave’s bathroom is reminiscent of the best of body horror cinema, reflecting the intensity of his music.

Cave is no stranger to cinema, of course, having composed music for films like Andrew Dominic’s The Assassination of Jesse James and penned the screenplay for John Hillcoat’s Lawless. Co-incidentally, a conversation with a former bandmate is filmed with such heightened stylization that it wouldn’t be completely out of place in a crime film like Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. His cinematic sensibility lends a visual quality to his live shows that elevate it beyond theatricality.

Sep 21, 2014

Stop the Pounding Heart

Grade: B

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine

Stop the Pounding Heart, the latest feature by independent director Roberto Minervini, focuses on Sara, a 14-year old girl living in the heart of America, where bull riding is the pastime of choice and the Confederate flag can still be freely waved. She’s one of twelve children in a devoutly Christian family. The parents, goat farmers, home-school their kids, teaching them passages from the Bible. Sara and her family are all real people, playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves in this loosely constructed story of their lives, where fact and fiction blend not to tell the story of her life, but rather to allow the audience to spend some time in her house. Short on expositions and heavily reliant on conveying the atmosphere through its vérité style, pale color palette, and a shaking, roving camera, Heart is a keen study of this teenage girl’s gradual, quiet grappling with doubt and her struggle to come to terms with her womanhood despite her religion.

Sep 16, 2014

Amir Sat on a Branch Reflecting on TIFF

*This column was originally published at The Film Experience.

Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence

You may have noticed that after a few years of covering the festival to various degrees for The Film Experience, I was completely absent from this space for the past ten days, mostly because of a personal decision to enjoy the films without sweating over writing. TIFF is a big festival, maybe the most frantic and hectic in the world, with more choices than one can physically experience over ten days. Nathaniel and I shared so few films from the program’s sprawling lineup, we could have each written about every single thing we saw and you’d never know we attended the same festival. It’s this overwhelming scale that made me want to take a break from reporting, and yet, I feel unsure about how that affected my festival experience.

Writing about films for me is a passion born out of the necessity to articulate my thoughts on the things I watch. Maybe that process of writing makes the films more memorable? Isn’t it so that writing, even about bad films, makes us appreciate good cinema all the more? Without recording my memories, details about this year’s films have fled my mind quicker than ever. My feelings about some of them have been diluted a bit, too. There is something missing, even though I had the best festival experience of my life, meeting more people than ever and watching some terrific films. Maybe this pessimism is just a withdrawal symptom. Let’s stay positive!

As has become something of an unplanned tradition for me – with precedents including Oslo, August 31st and Closed Curtain – my favorite film of the festival came my way on the last day. The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing is a remarkable achievement, one that I dare say, with festival hyperbole now fully behind me, is one of the best documentary films ever made. Where the original film shocked its audience with both the viciousness of the story and the inventiveness of its approach, this sequel of sorts is rather more formally straightforward. Turning his camera 180º to focus on the victims of the Indonesian massacre of the 1960s, Oppenheimer examines unhealed wounds and social and familial fractures that are still silenced decades on. The Look of Silence is no less brutal than its predecessor, yet, its emotional punch comes not by shock, but from the force of personal traumas visible in the victims’ silent looks.

Sep 10, 2014

Screening Log: August

Fifi Howls From Happiness

A Cube of Sugar (Mirkarimi, 2011, A-)
Part slapstick-comedy – new territory for the director – and part a keen study of Yazd’s dynamic local culture, Mirkarimi continues his trend of portraying reticent leads and religious figures with ease. A bitterly enjoyable experience and endlessly rewarding on rewatches.

As Simple as That (Mirkarimi, 2008, B/B+)
As Simple as That could be the title of any Mirkarimi film, but the structure of this one truly embodies the phrase; a sparse narrative of seemingly no propulsion, with one late, low-key but hard hitting revelation. Minimalist storytelling of the highest quality.

So Close, So Far (Mirkarimi, 2005, A-)
Mirkarimi's archetypal silent anti-hero feels lonelier than ever out in the desert. A challenging parent-child relationship made all the more complex by feelings of personal and national guilt. Also, one of the great film endings, to boot.

Under the Moonlight (Mirkarimi, 2001, A)
A rare, revisionist look at Islam and the untouchable concept of doubt amongst clergymen, Mirkarimi's strongest feature reveals more layers of complexity upon every new screening.

Closed Curtain (Panahi, 2014, A) (podcast)
A meta-cinematic experiment that expands the limits of possibility in the medium. Panahi's rich, shape-shifting, formally impressive film is quite possibly his best film and the best of 2014.

The Congress (Folman, 2014, B-) (review)
The Congress oscillates between the good and the head-scratchingly awful, often in a matter of minutes. It appears, quite literally, to be the work of a genius on an acid trip, without an editor.

Canopy (Wilson, 2014, B) (review)
Canopy is a work of minimal, expressionistic storytelling whose unconventional dramatic beats inject fresh blood in a tired genre.

Jealousy (Garrel, 2014, C) (review)
Jealousy is completely occupied with gorgeously packaged, chic Parisian archetypes that remain utterly impenetrable for those looking from the outside into this self-contained, clichéd universe.

The Circle (Panahi, 2000, A-)
Panahi's biggest achievement in narrative cinema, The Circle's smooth and, naturally, circular, navigation of women's issues is structurally impressive, emotionally powerful and an essential piece in the canon of Iranian "social cinema".

A Fire (Golestan, 1961, N/A)
A remarkable visual treat, Golestan's observational documentary about a fire breaking out at an oil refinery in the south of Iran is an outstanding achievement in cinematography and a valuable piece of Iranian history. 

A Most Wanted Man (Corbijn, 2014, A-)
Expert filmmaking on every level. Tense and twitchy in the most unexpected moments, subtle and effective in handling expositions, and incredibly intelligent in challenging vague notions such terrorism and international safety. 

The Mirror (Panahi, 1997, B)
Although a lesser film than Panahi's directing debut, The Mirror is an indicator of the filmmaker's evolving voice taking a more persona shape and gradually departing from Kiarostami's towering influence on him.

Fifi Howls From Happiness (Farahani, 2014, B+) (review)
A dialogue between two artists, one behind and one in front of the camera, that is clever, funny, heartbreaking and outrageous. This rumination on the work of avant-garde painter and sculptor, Bahman Mohasses, is a succinct snapshot of the tumultuous and dynamic environment of the world of Iranian contemporary art.

The Dog (Keraudren, Berg, 2013, C) (review)
At times entertaining, but also consistently meaningless.