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Apr 6, 2014

Introducing Hello Cinema

Roohangiz Saminejad in The Lor Girl (1933)

Long time readers of this space are aware of my passion for Iranian cinema. When I started this blog, one of my main goals was to cover this national cinema in a way that had not been done in the English language blogosphere before. Although there has been plenty of writing on Iranian cinema in the academia since the 90s, mainstream criticism has largely ignored the Iranian film industry and I wanted to change that. Hence, it's with immense that I announce my newest venture, Hello Cinema.

Named after Mohsen Makhmalbaf's seminal film, Hello Cinema is a website entirely dedicated to Iranian cinema, co-published by myself and Toronto critic and author, Tina Hassannia. Our website hosts a podcast broadcast on the last Thursday of every month and features plenty of reviews, essays and news items throughout the month.

For more information about this project, please check out the 'About Page' here. You can also subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, like our page on Facebook and follow our account on Twitter.

Apr 5, 2014

Baduk


*This review was originally published at Hello Cinema.

When Majid Majidi’s Baduk (1992) begins, we meet Jafar (Mehrolah Mazazehi) and Jamal (Maryam Tahan), a young brother and sister waiting for their father to return from the depths of a water well in the dry desert of Southeast Iran. Following their short conversation with a group of elderly men which conveys the recent death of the children’s mother, they watch as the soil begins to fall inward on the well, and their father, trapped beneath heaps of sand, loses his short, helpless battle with nature. Left without parental and financial support, Jafar and Jamal leave their small village in search of a better future. In a matter of hours, they’re lured by a man whose ulterior motive is to sell them for profit. Jafar is sold into slavery and trained to become a drug smuggler at the Iran-Pakistan border. Jamal is sold into an underage prostitution ring operated by Saudis in Pakistan. Jafar begins to learn the tricks of the trade, but all he has on his mind is finding his way across the border to rescue his sister.

The opening of Majid Majidi’s debut feature is perhaps the most definitive scene in his career, from a director who would go on to nab Iran’s first ever Oscar nomination with Children of Heaven (Bache-haye Asemaan, 1997). The scene serves as a reference point to which many of the director’s favorite motifs can be connected. In Majidi’s next feature, The Father (Pedar, 1996), the plot is again initiated by the premature death of the protagonist’s father. The intimate relationship between siblings is the thematic fulcrum in Children of Heaven. Humanist explorations of poverty continued to be Majidi’s focus in his work, as did multiethnic tensions and examinations of life in rural Iran. On the surface and the basis of their plots, Children of Heaven is the film with the closest parallels to Baduk. One could even argue that the former tells an innocent, milder version of the same story, in which the stakes have been significantly lowered. Both narratives follow a young boy and the lengths to which he must go to save his sister. Jafar is thrown into the adult world and must sneak across national borders to liberate Jamal from her captors. The burden on Ali’s shoulders in Children of Heaven doesn’t weigh quite as much—he is given the financial responsibility to find Zahra a new pair of shoes—but the thematic foundation is the same. Both films tell stories of young boys who have to punch above their weight in order to provide for their family, yet Baduk is the bolder, more politically daring film.

Baduk navigates, literally and figuratively, the dangerous waters of child slavery, prostitution and the tumultuous politics of Iran’s most underrepresented province in cinema, Sistan and Baluchestan, with poise and subtlety. Very few Iranian films have tackled these issues since. Was it the trouble Majidi faced with censors over Baduk that pushed him into more conservative territory in his later works? Is that why the brutal murder of a young child so openly depicted in this film gave way to the portrayal of death in Color of Paradise, in which “the boy’s soul departed like a fading light” so gracefully?* This is no slight on Majidi’s later films; his oeuvre exhibits remarkable consistency in quality. Plus, provocation alone does not make for a good film and its absence not for a bad one. However, it is intriguing in retrospect that the flag-bearer of humanist cinema in Iran started his directorial career by holding a knife to his audience’s throats. Would Majidi’s career have turned out differently if his first film was celebrated, rather than slashed, by authorities for its critical but compassionate look at Iran’s neglected southeast?

There is no romanticization in Baduk. Majidi plunges so deep into the Baluch milieu, with its long history of social troubles, that the realities of Jafar’s severe circumstances speak volumes without any need for melodrama. The young man’s acts of valor are not consequences of a need for dramatic beats; they are rugged, thorny truths from a part of the country that has barely been recognized for its destitution. The depiction of a child sold into slavery and taught to smuggle drugs from one country to another, climbing across barbed wire in search of his sister is Majidi’s indictment of a reality close to home yet almost seemingly foreign in a national cinema centered in Tehran and populated by films about the city and its residents. Though Majidi’s later works took him on a journey to other distant reaches of rural Iran, none expressed as much ideological audacity as Baduk.

* Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Vol. 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984-2010, pg. 221.

Apr 4, 2014

Hellboy


*This review was originally published at The Film Experience

Writing a piece for the anniversary of a superhero film is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the rate at which we get new entries to the pantheon of the genre seems ever increasing to the point of complete satiation – this year alone, we have Captain America, Spider-man and X-Men films awaiting release. These films have become narrower in variety than films of any other genre, perhaps as a result of the culture and industry that cultivates them. Each film gets multiple sequels and reboots, with streamlined, thematically “universal” narratives that maximize profitability across the globe and minimize cinematic character. Hence, a mere ten-year distance from the release date doesn’t appear to warrant any sense of nostalgia.

On the other hand, the frequency of these superhero treats means that their place in the cultural landscape has dramatically changed since 2004. The range of filmmakers and actors who have tackled the superhero universe has expanded, so novelties like the involvement of a lesser known Del Toro and Ron Perlman, Hollywood’s unlikeliest superhero are rarities.

The rapid advance in visual effects technology also means that certain blockbusters from the aughts already have an outdated charm to them. Most importantly, Hollywood has undergone an unfortunate process that a friend succinctly called “epic-ification.” Superhero films – despite borrowing the basic elements of their plots from their original source – are among the biggest culprits. The bar has been significantly raised and shows no sign of becoming touchable any time soon. A superhero can’t save a person, or a group of people; the fate of the universe must rest in his hands. Notice how Christopher Nolan upped the ante from The Dark Knight to The Dark Knight Rises, or what was at stake in The Avengers, or worse yet, the abhorrent Man of Steel.

Apr 3, 2014

March Screening Log

Tahereh Ladanian and Hossein Rezaei in Through the Olive Trees


Through the Olive Trees (Kiarostami, 1994, A+)
A testament to the sheer emotional force of cinema and a reflection of Kiarostami's keen eye for the humanity in tragedy. Through the Olive Trees tells two parallel stories — the film within the film, and the making of the film within the film — that accentuate the boundaries between form and content, and simultaneously stake a claim to their cinematic inseparability. A masterpiece.

Finding Vivian Maier (Siskel/Maloof, 2014, B-) (review)
The story of Maier’s life is so fascinating that it overcomes the film’s shortcomings. Maloof’s vibrancy and wide-eyed curiosity for Vivian’s work is incredibly affecting and pierces through the screen.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, 2014, A-)
As delicious a treat as Mendl's bakery. Anderson's eccentric humor and bright, dioramic aesthetics feel more at home in his construction of a world than they ever did in his recreations of the world. Funny, poetic, soulful and thoroughly enjoyable.

The White Balloon (Panahi, 1995, A)

A remnant of Kiarostami's pre-90s concerns with socially conscious children's stories, The White Balloon is rich and delightful. A beautiful combination of Kiarostami sparse, observational writing and Panahi's verve in his first try behind the camera; and one of the most memorable films about the Iranian Nowruz celebration, too.

The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940, B+) (review)
"This being one of the crowning achievements of slapstick comedies of the Classic Hollywood period, the text is all humor and wit with no fat to trim, but the fulcrum of The Philadelphia Story's screenplay is the meticulously rendered characterization of its ensemble."

Arabian Nights (Pasolini, 1974, B+)
Daring to go where Middle Eastern cinema never does, Pasolini embraces the famous folklore in all its anachronistic glory, accentuating both the brilliant and the ridiculous in equal measure.

Baduk (Majidi, 1992, B) (review)
A bold picture; Majidi's astonishingly assured debut feature explores taboo subjects such as child slavery and underage prostitution with a frank, compassionate voice.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004, A+) (favorite shot)
Multiple screenings have only enriched my experience with this film. A genuine treasure.

The Missing Picture (Panh, 2013, A-) (review)
A modest but meticulously produced gem, The Missing Picture carries the weight of so much personal pain and national suffering across the screen, gently inviting the audience into a world of melancholic wonder.

Salaam Cinema (Makhmalbaf, 1995, B+) (review)
"A timeless rumination on the process of filmmaking and, paradoxically, a time capsule for the director himself, a bewilderingly unique persona caught at his artistic peak, immediately following the end of his religiopolitical sermons and a short while before beginning a process of rebellious emancipation."

Showgirls (Verhoeven, 1995, B+)
Written, acted, directed, designed, scored and, crucially, edited for maximum camp factor. This is the ultimate B-movie, but so incredibly enjoyable that an additional + is a must.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, 1964, A-)
The unaltered complexity of the text and the rugged atmosphere are captured fluidly and married to an operatic sound scape. Only the tactile touch of a poet can concoct such magic from history's most oft-repeated tale. 

A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, 1996, A)
Almost an 180 degree turn from his politically motivated films of the 1980s, A Moment of Innocence is possibly Makhmalbaf's pinnacle, at which he beautifully, subtly and poetically revisits his earlier self and the sociopolitical ideologies that thrust him into public life.

The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 1940, A+)
One of Lubitsch's very best comedies, and that's saying quite a lot. The characterization is complex and the social context is subtly worked in despite the simplicity of the narrative. An elegantly composed, superbly performed gem.

Selected Images from the Qajar Dynasty (Makhmalbaf, 1993, C)
Makhmalbaf's collection of archival images and videos look enchanting, but his editing and soundtrack expose him as an ideologue and obscure the film into irrelevance.

Once Upon a Time, Cinema (Makhmalbaf, 1991, B+)
Though the gimmick begins to run out of steam before the end of the film, Makhmalbaf's love letter to cinema and Iranian film history through the perspective of the Qajar shahs who became obsessed with the cinematograph machine is inventive, entertaining, illuminating, nostalgic and absolutely hilarious.

Marriage of the Blessed (Makhmalbaf, 1989, D-)
Overwrought, overdirected, overcooked and overstuffed with ideas that never coalesce, this film is emblematic of Makhmalbaf's worst tendencies as a director. Marriage never achieves any form of coherence or dramatic gravitas, instead suffocating the audience with sociopolitical messages and black and white, archetypal, grand-scale characterizations.

Croesus's Treasure (Yasami, 1965, D-)
Mildly amusing since, as the most popular B-movie in Iranian film history, it provides insight into the interests of the movie-going public at the time, but otherwise atrocious on every single level: illogical absence of any causality, inconsistent pacing, offensive politics and a botched amalgam of imitated Hollywood and Bollywood styles. 

The Night It Rained (Shirdel, 1967, A+)
Shirdel's most experimental work taps into the Iranian psyche, the nature of truth and the shortcomings of the Iranian regime by examining from multiple perspectives the story of a village boy who tried to save a train from an accident. Hypnotic, perceptive and complex in both construction and reach.

Mar 30, 2014

Finding Vivian Maier

Grade: B-

*This review was originally published at The Movie Mezzanine.

There is a conundrum that film critics often face while writing about documentary cinema: although form and content are perhaps more easily separable in documentary films, they are also significantly easier to conflate in criticism. Meaning fiction films are regularly dismissed for unassuming presentation of content, but documentaries get a free pass if their subject matter is moving or important or fascinating as a separate entity from the film itself. Clich├ęd formal practices are often forgiven if the material piques our interest.

Finding Vivian Maier is the most recent case of a documentary film that coasts purely on the force of its enigmatic subject, rendering it in effect impossible to judge the film on any merit beyond the power of the mysterious woman it tries to solve. The titular artist, a New York-born woman of European heritage, spent nearly four decades of her life as a nanny in Chicago and New York.

To the families she lives with, she was known for her obsessive interest in street photography and the enormous number of boxes she hid in her room. Yet, no one had ever had the opportunity to glance at any of these photographs. Vivian’s massive collection of boxes – in which she kept everything from pawnshop receipts to small earrings to newspapers, was rediscovered when John Maloof, a Chicago historian happened to buy one of them for an art project at an auction.

Mar 29, 2014

The Missing Picture

*This review was originally published on Movie Mezzanine

Grade: A-

In the mid-1970s, the forces of Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took over Cambodia. Their vicious, autocratic reign initiated a four-year national genocide that exterminated about a quarter of the country’s entire population. In the regime’s Utopia, no Cambodian would be distinguishable from another. Personalities would be eradicated. A human life was either brutally taken away or reduced to a lifetime of hardship spent in anonymity. Famine, mass executions, forced labor camps and withholding of medical supplies in favor of locally produced, natural medicines were only some of the atrocities committed.

Like most other dictatorships, little record remains of the government’s brutalities. The officially sponsored filmmakers would be subjected to torture and execution if their films showed any evidence of poverty or hardship among Cambodians and their negatives would be burned. Hence, what footage remains is either hidden and rusted, if not fully solidified, stock, or official films depicting a unified and hard working but satisfied people. The absence of truthful records of the era means stories like Rithy Panh’s are not easy subjects for a documentary film. Panh, a director whose filmography has dealt extensively with his personal family history in Cambodia, was a child when Phnom Penh was taken over by the Khmer Rouge forces. He was moved away from his hometown and lost his family and community to deaths or otherwise unknown circumstances.

It’s an intensely personal story for Panh, and one he cannot tell with the aid of real life footage for the aforementioned reasons. So, claiming that “it doesn’t take much but will” and hence grossly downplaying the painstaking process of his film’s making, Panh recreates the entirety of the events using hundreds of meticulously rendered clay figurines and their complete natural and architectural landscape.  The digression from the traditional mode of political documentary filmmaking, which is necessitated by historical circumstances, has been seen in recent years in the likes of the animated Waltz with Bashir and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, which coincidentally also tackles issues of genocide in another country in South East Asia. The production of The Missing Picture is unquestionably more elaborate than both and arguably more emotionally effective.

Enjoying a creative freedom that real footage usually does not afford documentarians, Panh bends the environment of his story to his vision, recreating –  though not dramatizing –  entire narratives in ways impossible in live action storytelling. Hence, the clay creations have a twofold effect: first, they artfully temper the overt, graphic violence of the real events and, in the process, immerse the audience in that world without exhausting their patience; second, the figurines are products of physical labor that inspire a genuine sense of pathos in the audience that intensifies the film’s dramatic beats. The Missing Picture gradually accumulates affection in the audience for these figurines, slowly diminishing any sense of artifice. Subtle shifts in the appearance of the clay figures – from noticeable loss of weight to gut-wrenching, miraculously real changes of facial expressions – imply more than can be suggested on paper. The director has instilled each one of them with personality and the immense weight of his own struggle.

Panh notes in his voiceover narration that thoughts, unlike pictures and documents, can never be taken away. His reimagining of a lost childhood, and a nation’s lost generation, in this artfully rendered form is a testament to the truth of his claim, to the sheer force of memory and to the timelessness of the impact of living under such intense oppression. In his deft hands, the film becomes not just a recreation of a reality long gone, but an indication of ever-present melancholia for an entire people. “I wish to be rid of this picture of hunger and suffering so I show it to you” says Panh. The therapeutic effects of this experience may only be known to him; the pain, however, is immediately palpable to us.

Mar 28, 2014

The Philadelphia Story


*This review is a contribution to Ryan McNeil's Blind Spots series.

You can see the other entries for this episode here. C. K. Dexter Haven has lost his wife to his alcoholism and has not yet recovered from the loss two years on. Who can blame him? Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), a wealthy Philadelphia socialite, appears intimidatingly unattainable even for a suave gentleman of Dexter's standing and yet, so disarmingly lovable. When we first meet them, they are just about to separate; or rather, Tracy is just about to throw Dexter out of her mansion. When we next meet them, Tracy is about to marry another man, George Kittredge (John Howard). It is a mismatch made in hell: Tracy is vivacious and commanding, George lacks character and humor. He claims to be a self-made man but the only evidence of anything made is money.

Dexter, in a last-ditch attempt to save Tracy from a marriage inked in boredom and to save himself from his misery, hires two journalists from Spy Magazine to report on the wedding — to ostensibly prevent it from happening. Mike Connor (James Stewart) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) make an auspicious arrival and, although warmly welcomed by Tracy's mother and sister, are known by everyone to be up to no good from the start. Yet, Mike, despite taking on the assignment apprehensively, begins to warm to the environment after a chance meeting with Tracy at the library — who is, on her wedding day, there to read Mike's published book. Gradually Mark is added to the already convoluted romantic triangle.

This being one of the crowning achievements of slapstick comedies of the Classic Hollywood period, the text is all humor and wit with no fat to trim, but the fulcrum of The Philadelphia Story's screenplay is the meticulously rendered characterization of its ensemble. They are written to gel together seamlessly in what Stanley Cavell's dubbed a comedy of remarriage, each serving a purpose but strictly avoiding archetypal generalizations. The structure of these characterizations is twofold: what we learn about each character on the first impression and what we learn the same character as their vulnerabilities come to the fore to alter or affirm that first impression; and while that is true of a vast number of films, the extent to which The Philadelphia Story follows this order for all of its five principal characters is significant.