May 1, 2015

Hot Docs: Best of Enemies; The Nightmare; The Dictator's Hotel

*This column was originally posted at The Film Experience as part of the coverage of Hot Docs 2015.

It is hard to imagine today that there was once an America where political debates in the media were sensational, not just sensationalized. Harder yet is to envision a time when conservative political commentators weren’t complete buffoons, but rather eloquent, smart thinkers. That is exactly the time that Best of Enemies transports us to, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s film about the televised debates leading up to the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions. ABC, then trailing as America’s third network and in search of a ratings boost, decided to pit two of the country’s most famous commentators against one another: the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. The two were known to dislike each other and their pairing on live TV was sure to cause a stir.
Their prediction proved to be correct when on the 8th night of a series of incendiary discussions, Buckley reacted to Vidal’s name-calling and being labeled a “crypto-Nazi” with a momentary burst of anger...
Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Buckley regretted this lapse of judgment for the rest of his life and was haunted by memories of that night. Vidal, the more outrageous of the two characters, carried the memory with a triumphant smirk. Best of Enemies creates an energetically paced, consistently entertaining narrative out of these debates. It is formally trapped in the familiar structure of similar documentaries, with several talking head interviews that contextualize the significance of the debates and the ramifications of it for American TV and the two. Not all of these inserts seem necessary, though most of them – such as conversations with Buckley’s brother and TV executives who knew both commentators – are exciting. Still, the best parts of the films are excerpts from the original debates. The vicious and hilarious cat-fighting leaves one pining for that golden age of TV.

A more unconventional structure is at play in The Nightmare, Rodney Ascher’s follow-up to the acclaimed Room 237. Based on the lives of eight people who suffer from sleep paralysis, the condition that was the inspiration behind Nightmare on Elm Street, the film explores the world of this strange and, literally, unbelievable disease. Those who suffer see all kinds of monsters and ghosts in their sleep, and they fall into paralysis at once, unable to move or talk at all as these demons infiltrate their bodies. Employing animated sequences and visual effects to show the nightmares of these eight people, Ascher’s film is the rare documentary that doubles as a horror film. As the subjects delve deeper into their nightly terrors, the film also raises the stakes, faithfully recreating the claustrophobic sense of indefensibility against these creatures.

The most intriguing aspect of these horrific experiences is how much their share in common, not just in their nature, but in the specifics of the violent imagery. The Nightmare traces the origins of these visions and arrives not just at recent pop culture icons, but even classical art in which shared elements of sleep paralysis – demons with red eyes, black cats sitting on a dormant person’s chest – appear across works that were produced in different countries in different era. Whether it is the familiar imagery that feeds the nightmares of the subjects or whether it is artists who have brought to life visions that terrified them is the most interesting question the film raises. But beyond the curiosity of this rare condition, Ascher doesn’t know how to deal with the material. The film touches on a superficial level the medical, religious and personal reasons behind each subject’s condition, but never fully engages with them on a deeper level. While the oddity of the topic and the horror scenes are intermittently interesting, they are not enough to keep the film from falling into a repetitive cycle of tedium from which it can never escape.

The Dictator’s Hotel proves a much more rewarding experience, despite its concise, 15-minute running time. Directed by Florian Hoffman, this one visits a newly built but completely abandoned hotel in the Central African Republic, owned by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi before his death. Still supervised by its diligent staff, the hotel’s equipment and furniture have never been touched, but it remains ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The building’s ostentatious structure and vast landscape is splendid and at utter odds with the poverty that surrounds it, though rather cleverly, we are only exposed to the surroundings through the iron gates of the hotel and the few words spoken by one of the employees. This brief visit of the building, during which a North African hotel manager acts as tour guide, is haunting, serving as a reminder of the atrocities committed by political leaders in the region and the sense of entitlement that at once secludes and protectes them from the abject destitution of people in their countries. That the film does this with so few references, and no visual depictions, of political or economic turmoil, and remains entirely within the confines of a single building, is truly extraordinary. The Dictator’s Hotel might not travel outside of specialized festival circuits, but it’s a sharp, humorous and unique film that deserves a much bigger audience.

Apr 26, 2015

Listen to Me Marlon

Grade: A-

*This review was originally published at The Film Experience.

The best film of last year’s Hot Docs festival was Robert Greene’s Actress, a rich and moving film about the life of The Wire’s Brandy Burre. It went on to become one of the most praised films of the year; and it’s easy to imagine the same level of acclaim for this year’s buzziest title at the festival, the similarly actor- centric Listen to Me Marlon. As the title suggests, British director Stevan Riley’s film is about Marlon Brando, and it defies any expectation one might have going into a documentary about a deceased actor. That this film has been made is something of a miracle to begin with. Brando apparently recorded more than 200 hours of audiotapes about himself, of which none has been available to the public heretofore. Riley has been granted access to these by Brando’s estate and has assembled and edited them for the voice-over narration of his film. There is no new footage and no interviews shot for this film, only archival material from Brando’s performances, his television interviews and some behind the scenes footage and rare videos of his personal life. The result, a raw and immensely personal look at the actor’s life, is absolutely mesmerizing.

Brando was notorious for being difficult to work with, a fact not lost on a film that never smoothes the rough edges of his personality to offer a hagiographic picture. Rather, like the revolutionary actor himself, Listen to Me Marlon revitalizes the agonizingly tired subgenre of biographical documentaries about artists. Whereas another film might have fallen for the clich├ęs of such films – such as augmenting the existing material with interviews or contextualizing Brando’s significance through external perspectives – Riley gives us Marlon the way he saw himself.

Brando was an outspoken activist, about the entertainment industry and about his political beliefs. He was at the forefront of different social movements, lending his voice and charisma to causes that were personally important to him, but this film offers a much more intimate image of the man. Given the privacy of the tapes, Marlon is unusually candid and open, with a unique perspective and a sense of emotional warmth that is truly remarkable.

Brando’s observations on his own acting, his frustration with the repetitions and predictability of acting styles in cinema at the time and his insecurities about the directions in which his career took him over the years are fascinating to watch. He is refreshingly self-aware and honest about his own artistry and the politics of selecting roles, expressing disappointment and even embarrassment about certain film choices. Equally absorbing are Brando’s poetic ruminations on his troubled childhood and his elegiac reminiscences about his parents, with whom he never fully come to terms. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that the man who was known as a method actor who immersed himself completely into his performances, brought so much of himself and his wounds into the characters he portrayed.

The distance between the Brando we’ve seen on screen and the man as he introduces himself here becomes progressively smaller, a process that leads to the audience’s total, heartbreaking identification with the actor in the latter stages of the film. It is virtually impossible to watch Brando endure the troubles of his children – his son Christian’s imprisonment for murder and his daughter Cheyenne’s suicide – and stop the tears from rolling down. Such insight and poignancy have only been made possible because Riley affords Brando complete freedom to tell his own story. That the actor has been deceased for many years further lends the film a sense of novelty; yet, the truly astonishing feat is that the director – who also edited the film– accomplishes the gargantuan task of shaping a coherent narrative from the massive treasure trove of information at his disposal so seamlessly that it appears as though we spend two hours with Brando’s stream of consciousness without the presence of a mediator. Listen to Me Marlon sets a new gold standard for documentary biopics and is a film that we will surely hear about a lot at the year's end.   

Apr 18, 2015

Alex of Venice

Grade: C-

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.  

Alex of Venice, actor-turned-director Chris Messina’s first feature film, begins with something of a tour de force moment when George (Messina) abruptly leaves his wife, the titular Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and their son, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner). The series of events that follow this sudden change lead to increasingly difficult circumstances for Alex in a somewhat predictable narrative arc that is at once populated with underdeveloped characters and overwritten dramatic beats. Messina’s film is an admirable effort, one that feels personal and intimate but bears the mark of its director’s and writers’ inexperience.

Alex is a workaholic attorney whose father Roger (Don Johnson) lives with them in their small house. George is a house husband, an occasional painter and surfer who is frustrated by his restraint to his domestic duties. Roger is an increasingly irritating presence, though his smarminess and the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease foreshadow his redemption by film’s end. Upon George’s departure, Alex is forced to juggle her job–defending a case of environmental damage against a constructor–and home life, which proves increasingly difficult, even with the help of Lily (Katie Nehra), her carefree, sparkling sister.

Apr 1, 2015

Screening Log: March

Mean Girls

Ed Wood (Burton, 1994, B+)
A remnant of a time when Burton was still capable of making films that expressed human emotions, full of nostalgia for the simpler times of the past -- the perennial state of Hollywood in any era -- and, like Wood himself, genuine love for the medium. Depp's performance is all pizzazz but it's Martin Landau's heartbreaking performance that elevates this stylized romp to something sublime. No wonder that the film's final minutes falter so roughly in his absence.

Hamoun (Mehrjui, 1990, A)
What a glorious mess! Mehrjui's divorce drama -- made as he was going through divorce himself -- is incoherent, full of unnecessary subplots and characters, and with a butchered ending that the censors forced on him. Yet, it remains one of the most entertaining, rewatchable films that Mehrjui directed. As a groundbreaking film that became a box office sensation, as a time capsule for the Iranian upper middle of that era, and as the film solidified Khosrow Shakibai's status as Iran's biggest post-revolutionary star, Hamoun is an essential film for any fan of Iranian cinema. The socio-cultural significance of this film cannot be overstated.

Close-up (Kiarostami, 1990, A)
The perfect marriage between Kiarostami's realist storytelling and the roots of his filmmaking in documentary cinema. That such a simple event can be turned into an enduring and complicated tale that challenges ideas of morality, identity, artistry and cinematic creation is a testament to the director's genius.

Where Is the Friend's Home? (Kiarostami, 1989, A)
This is a masterclass is creating the cinematic where seemingly nothing exists. Kiarostami is at his most playful and humorous here, and not in the formal sense: Friend is genuinely funny and, in non-critical lingo, incredibly adorable.

Mad Max (Miller, 1979, B+)
Tonally jagged, but powerful within individual scenes. Mad Max's storyline is tired -- though that might be unfair to the film, given the time of its release and the number of films it has inspired -- but Miller is an expert at staging action sequences.

Hamoun (Mehrjui, 1990, A) (event)
A breath of fresh air in the post-war atmosphere.

About Elly (Farhadi, 2009, A+)
This is Farhadi's best film, and the best Iranian film of this century so far. Riveting and endlessly rewatchable.

Amour Fou (Hausner, 2015, B/B+) (review)
"In Hausner’s deft hands, the comedy makes the existential exercise even more challenging, forcing the audience to ponder awkward truths beneath the chilly humor."

Downpour (Beyzaei, 1971, A-)
Several rounds of censorship have left the film with truncated rhythms and some confusing subplots, but Beyzaei's groundbreaking romance possesses timeless tenderness and superb performances, and remains one of the only pre-revolutionary mainstream films in which the middle class protagonist was a realistic portrayal of his real life counterparts.

A Simple Event (Saless, 1974, A)
Amir Naderi has dubbed Sohrab Shahid Saless the Godfather of Iranian cinema and A Simple Event the most important Iranian film ever made; there's good reason for that. The blueprint for sparse, richly detailed, child-centric, socially critical and formally rigorous storytelling that has now become synonymous with Iranian cinema was drawn by Saless here; and its monumental influence aside, A Simple Event is an incredibly moving experience on its own terms.

Water, Wind, Dust (Naderi, 1989, B+)
Naderi yet again composes a finale of sheer force, but much of what comes before it is an exercise in patience. Water, Wind, Dust was a staggeringly difficult film to make as it takes place entirely in a sandstorm but it's production mirrors the resilience of its character.

The Runner (Naderi, 1985, A)
Although regularly selected among the greatest Iranian films ever made, The Runner's appeal had eluded me upon several visits. Watching the film's 35mm print on the big screen for the first, I have finally given in to its brilliance. It is overwhelmingly powerful and visually stunning, with a central performances that is heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure. The visceral force of the film's finale overcomes the stuttering pace of the second act, leaving us with a feeling of utter elation in the end. A truly cinematic experience.

Mean Girls (Waters, 2004, A)
Not a single shred of its wit, sharp humour or shrewd politics has been taken away with the passage of time. Lindsay Lohan's performance is one of the best in American high school films, all young promise but mature control, lending of the film a human warmth. This is one of the most rewatchable and quotable films of the century.

Still Life (Shahid Saless, 1974, A+) (podcast)
Saless's film is a delicate, poetic, bitter and powerfully real masterpiece. One can watch and rewatch this film, speak and write about it endlessly and still not fully convey or grasp the sensation of watching its lyrical, absorbing splendor. A truly marvelous experience on the 35mm print, too.

The Night of the Hunchback (Ghaffari, 1965, A-)
What a wild ride! Totally bananas! Ghaffari's screwball inspired comedy about a hunchback actor, whose body after he is accidentally killed by his fellow performers becomes a major dilemma in passing hands, is surprisingly funny and sharp. A classic case of a McGuffin crime mystery, The Night of the Hunchback provides an incredible window into Tehran's upper society. It's a must watch for audiences who are only familiar with arthouse Iranian films.

Haji Agha, The Movie Actor (Ohanians, 1933, B+)
Accompanied by the improvised live music at TIFF Bell Lightbox, this oldest surviving Iranian film was quite an experience. It's a film about cinema and its relationship to Iranian society, which makes this an extremely prescient work both formally and thematically. Ohanians's film suffers from poor production values in certain parts, to which the passage of time has not been kind. Yet, its swift narrative beats and still resonant story make it a film far more accessible and enjoyable than its billing might suggest.

The Cow (Mehrjui, 1969, A+) (thoughts)
Dariush Mehrjui's film, one of the most significant, influential films made before the revolution in Iran, is an experience that only improves over time and with each repeated screening. The National Archive's new restoration of the film is a gorgeous print that brought out previously unnoticed details to the fore.

P Like Pelican (Kimiavi, 1972, A-)
Kimiavi's films are early examples of the brand of fiction/documentary fiction for which Iranian cinema went on to be globally recognized. By tapping into the psyche of an old man who's created an alternative universe in his mind, Kimiavi has made a documentary film -- or has he? -- that is in and of itself a figment of its character's imagination. Harsh, delicate and liberating, often all at once within the same frame.

The Night It Rained (Shirdel, 1967, A+)
What a senstaion it is to see an all time favourite film on the big screen for the first time. Shirdel's energetic, riveting and hilarious look at a sensationalized media frenzy in a small village in northern Iran is one of the best documentary films ever made. It challenges the flexible definitions of truth in journalism and documentary filmmaking, and slyly observes tendencies of self-aggrandisement, deceit and heroism in Iranian culture.

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

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.