Aug 27, 2015

Queen of Earth

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine

Elisabeth Moss’s most famous performance to date, on television as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, is a work of layered complexity and a superb example of gradual character evolution, with Moss growing into the role as Peggy did into her male-dominated world, handling the ever-shifting power dynamics with increasing confidence. Her charismatic presence, however, had not yet been given a role on the big screen that merited her considerable talents. Perhaps the closest was her role in last year’s Listen Up Philip as Ashley, a secondary character turned into the film’s most complete creation by her gravitas. It’s no surprise, then, that the writer-director behind that film, Alex Ross Perry, would elevate Moss to the leading role of his latest film, Queen of Earth, and the result is an earth-shattering performance in a film that solidifies Perry’s place among the most exciting filmmakers working in American cinema today.

Catherine (Moss) is at the bitter end of a romantic relationship when the film begins. In the tour de force opening sequence, a mostly sustained close-up of her face introduces us to a woman on the verge of emotional collapse. Moss’s ferocious energy is bursting at the frame’s seams, but the scene quickly cuts to the serene surroundings of a lakeside villa, where she is retreating with her best friend, Ginny (Katherine Waterston).

As it transpires, Catherine and Ginny spent their vacation together exactly a year previously at the same spot, a minimalist building whose precise architecture contributes significantly to the film’s eeriness. Tensions are high between the two friends, owing as much to Catherine’s post-breakup depression as to Ginny’s inability to deal with her friend’s state of distress. Worse yet, Ginny’s friend Rich (an expertly cast Patrick Fugit) enters the picture too, a sly presence who glides smoothly between being the voice of reason and a predatory creep.

The ensuing chamber drama escalates in tension as Catherine’s anxiety and depression give way to delusion and psychosis. The invasion of Catherine’s space and the breaking of her illusion of intimate safety with Ginny slide her further in a downward spiral, a progression that Moss’s performance captures with astonishing precision. Charting the constantly evolving and declining state of Catherine’s mental health, Moss switches alternatively between childish naiveté, tragic helplessness and dangerously vicious authority. She is scary, frustrating and heartbreaking, often within the space of seconds. The performance is so powerful, the character so thoroughly hers, it’s difficult to remember after the film that we lived with Moss in another skin for more than seven years.

Aug 5, 2015

Screening Log: July


Captain Phillips (Greengrass, 2013, 7.5)
Expertly made and relentlessly tense even after several screenings, Greengrass's film is one of the crowning achievements of Hollywood action filmmaking in recent years. Tom Hanks his career best performance.

Tangerine (Baker, 2015, 7.7)
The iPhone aesthetic has become the talking point for the film in the press, but it's not just a gimmick; the film's character and exuberance is in large part indebted to this stylistic---and financial---decision. Energetic, uproariously funny and written and directed with unparalleled verve, Baker's film is an essential entry in the canon of films about the trans community.

Chappie (Blomkamp, 2015, 5.1)
A total clusterfuck on every level but for the visual effects; yet, strangely endearing. There is no depth whatsoever, but at least it's never boring.

Buzzard (Potrykus, 2015, )
The more distant the memory of Buzzard becomes, the better it gets as a film. This is an incredibly tough sit with a protagonist(?) of unparalleled repulsiveness, and several days of contemplation have not yet convinced me that the film's unobtrusive observations actually add up to much substance. Still, this is a film that demands repeat screenings and looks at the troubled, young, White male psyche in ways few films have done.

A Survivor from Magadan (Mohammadi, 2012, N/A)
Mohammadi's approach to the story isn't particularly adventurous, but the attraction is the remarkable story itself. Tracing the history of communism in Iran and prison camps in the Soviet Union both through the prism of one man's tale of persecution and survival, Mohammadi's film is immensely moving and effortlessly warm, despite itself.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015, 8.8)
The type of filmmaking that all other filmmakers should aspire to.

The Look of Silence (Oppenheimer, 2015, 9.3) (review)
"For Adi, the only source of serenity is the continued search for justice, but his grief remains ever-present. Oppenheimer's subdued but polished style effectively conveys this sense of inescapability in a country where politics has seeped into every pore. The weight of history is crushing, and its haunting shadow is cast over every frame."

My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears, 1986, 7.9) (video of my lecture on the film in Persian)

The Suicide Theory (Brown, 2015, 5.0) (review)
"Although The Suicide Theory is rarely dull, it lacks the emotional precision required to elevate it above merely an amusing concept."

Amy (Kapadia, 2015, 8.9)
What a voice! What a woman! What a story! Another masterwork by Kapadia, woven together from archival footage with heartbreaking honesty and superb precision. Amy is a sensational film, but Kapadia's true genius is in elevating Amy Winehouse's sublime music to the level of transcendence.

The Grifters (Frears, 1990, 6.4)
The Grifters is the type of film I wish to see a lot more of, even though it isn't an entirely successful effort on its own. Bening and Huston deliver outstanding performances, making this somewhat mannered and uneven film worthwhile on their own.

The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, 2012, 7.0)
That the antagonists can so nonchalantly recreate their past monstrosities and remain more or less unaffected by the experience is so shocking, so inhumane, it would have been nearly impossible to stomach the film had it not been presented as “re-creation.” A unique experiment, if not quite as emotionally effective as the experience beckons.

Dangerous Liaisons (Frears, 1988, 6.9)
It's no secret to long time readers of this blog that costume dramas are my least favourite genre. Bearing that in mind, Dangerous Liaisons is one the less underwhelming canonical titles in the genre for me. An energetic, slyly funny and irreverent   in the aforementioned context   film with three sensational central performances. How did Malkovich end up being the one left out of the Oscar party?

Jul 25, 2015

The Look of Silence

*This review was originally written for The Film Experience

Midway through The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to the 2013 Best Documentary Nominee The Act of Killing, there is a seemingly innocuous moment that sends chills down the spine. The film’s protagonist, Adi, and a male companion are trudging through the forest as they discuss their assassinated family members. Slowly reciting the “Ashhad,” Muslim prayer for the departed, they arrive at a river that runs through the trees. The camera stops as they exit the frame. The forest’s natural humming and buzzing, and the slow movement of the water in dusk’s light lend the moment a haunting eeriness. The weight of their wounds lingers above the water; the emptiness of the space is terrifying.

This sequence is not unique to the structure of the film, a documentary whose emotional impact and, frequently, its thematic development, hinges on small, quiet moments; a shot of a motorcycle riding away toward the forests, a woman sitting still at the doorway of her house, a long gaze that captures the gravity of decades of history.  Every miniscule gesture is effective, and the cumulative impact of these small wonders adds up to a film that is, without hyperbole, one of the best documentaries ever made.

In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer told the story of the Indonesian genocide through the prism of politics. Focusing on the executioners who have lived as heroes for nearly five decades, the first film studied the repercussions of corruption, theocracy and abuse of power on a socio-political level. The emotional punch of the film was predicated on disbelief and disgust. That its antagonists could so nonchalantly recreate their past monstrosities and remain more or less unaffected by the experience was so shocking, so inhumane, it would have been nearly impossible to stomach the film had it not been presented as “re-creation.”

Jul 14, 2015

The Suicide Theory

*This review was originally written for Movie Mezzanine.

What does one do when life has become so miserable that the only option is to say goodbye to the world? What if even that ability, to take one’s own life, is taken away? That’s the answer director Dru Brown is trying to find in his second feature film, The Suicide Theory. The question is interesting in, well, theory. In practice, it isn’t only left unanswered, but the thought process behind finding a solution for it is so muddled and confused, one wonders why the director pursued it to begin with.

Steven Ray (Steve Mouzakis) is a troubled man who, in the film’s shocking opening sequence, kills a man because he cuts in line at a supermarket line. The source of his violent instincts never becomes clear, apart from the vague notion that aggression is his coping mechanism with grief. The source for this unhappiness is revealed to be a wife who died in a car crash, leaving him permanently scarred and terrified of crossing roads, what with the bitter memory of the accident constantly flashing across his mind.

Three years after her death, Steven has become a professional killer. It is in this capacity that he meets Percival, a man who demands Steven to shoot him in exchange for cash. The reason? Percival’s attempted suicides have all failed, no matter how drastic the measure taken, including jumping off a bridge. Literally bruised and battered, his only option is to hand the proceedings over to an expert. Steven agrees, but on repeated encounters with Percival, the two men begin to have a connection, even as they continue their efforts toward the impending murder.

Jul 1, 2015

Screening Log: June

Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks in Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain)

Guide to Numerical Grades

The Hit (Frears, 1984, 6.0)
Frears's conception of each scene is immaculate; The Hit makes the best of the smallest changes in framing or otherwise unimportant sound cues to create tension and affect mood. Yet, the overall arc of the film is rather unexciting and the progression of the plot is so deliberately slow, it's impossible to check the watch every now and then.

Paternal House (Ayari, 2015, 7.5)
One of the most compelling films to come out of mainstream Iranian cinema in recent years. I felt more mixed after the second viewing but later discussing the film for the Hello Cinema podcast, I felt I liked it more. This is problematic film, both structurally   the repetitions in storytelling pattern can be felt, though it's never boring   and tonally   the eccentric humor, a trademark of Ayari's cinema, isn't for everyone, and it certainly isn't for every minute in this otherwise brutal, crushing film. Nevertheless, this is essential stuff.

Inside Out (Docter, 2015, 7.5)
Certainly Pixar's best film since Brave, an entertaining, thoughtful experience that continues Pete Docter's fascination with children's mental development. Deceptively simplistic in presentation and scope, but more though-provoking the more I live with the film.

The Algerian (Zelko, 2015, 0.5) (review)
"The Algerian is not offensive because it doesn’t abide by rules of political correctness, but because of its sheer incompetence on every level. This is a film in which story and plot are both mistaken for relentless exposition; political nuance is forgone in favour of the simple rule of thumb that America is superior to the rest of the world; the ambiguity of race and gender relations convey the filmmaker’s misunderstanding of both; and performances are delivered with all the grace and poise of a corporate sexual harassment video. It is hard to encounter a film that lacks even a single redeeming quality; that The Algerian achieves that is probably its biggest accomplishment."

Paternal House (Ayari, 2015, 7.9)
The film's episodic structure suffers from the sheer force of the opening chapter; it is virtually impossible to keep the tension and power of this violently brilliant start. One of the most compelling and strident films about women's rights in Iran in recent years   hence the lengthy ban on the film's public release in its home country; the film was produced in 2010 and only released for two days this year   and a film that, despite its several limitations, is essential and merits discussion (and repeat viewings).

To Be or Not to Be (Ayari, 1998, 8.3)
Not a particularly adventurous film on a formal level   though particular scenes in the film would beg to differ   but an emotional tour de force. One of those films that pull moments of magic out of seemingly nothing, in small conversations, in a single glance, or in the way a character utters a specific line, or in tender moments of normal, genuine human interaction. To Be or Not to Be's story of two young women looking for a heart transplant from a brain-dead man studies small tensions between people of different ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds and the human spirit that rises above it all.

Wet Hot American Summer (Wain, 2001, 8.4)
Although the film has mostly achieved cult status because of the future careers of its stars, and remains somewhat inconsistent on repeat visits, its highs are so far above the clouds that the lows can be forgiven. Paul Rudd's performance   brimming with Falconetti-level iconic facial expressions   is the highlight of a film which also includes one of the best comic line readings of all time: "Can you get me some lube? For my pussy."

Jurassic World (Trevorrow, 2015, 3.6)
The lowest common denominator of Hollywood blockbusters. For a film based on a narrative about nostalgia, about people's interest in mechanical and old-school charms, it's frustrating how completely the computer generated animation sucks the soul out of the spectacle. This is a film of incomprehensible storytelling and stylistic choices, with no emotional justification for its chaotic, noisy narrative propulsion.

The Face of an Angel (Winterbottom, 2015, 3.9) (review)
"A fictionalized account of Amanda Knox’s story, the film is contrived, confusing, and, despite dense plotting, severely lacking in emotional or thematic depth."

The Bull's Horn (Ayari, 1995, 5.9)
Adapted from Erich Kastner's "Emil and the Detectives," Ayari's children's film is indicative of the range of his thematic interests and his capabilities as a director. Yet, given the topic   children banding together to retrieve money a thief stole from one of them   The Bull's Horn is neither entertaining nor exciting enough for the first two thirds of the film. The finale, however, is both touching and engaging. 

Abadani-ha (Ayari, 1994, 6.7)
Ayari's faithful remake of The Bicycle Thieves, relocated to war-time Tehran, is a competently made, keenly studied and emotionally powerful experience, but falls short at every turn in comparison to its predecessor. Still, De Sica's film is one of the greatest films ever made, so the comparison isn't exactly a fair one.

Two Halves of an Apple (Ayari, 1992, 4.2)
Two Halves of an Apple tells the story of twin sisters, long lost, who find each other and decide to swap places for a few days at a critical juncture in both their lives. Ayari's execution of this intriguing   though somewhat cliched   story is rather heavy-handed, with socio-political allegories confusingly forced in. Although there are individual moments of excellence in the film   such as the wordless flashback sequence in which the two sisters' family history is told   the film as a whole is undermined by the shrill acting of the two actresses who did not go on to have careers beyond this film. It's all the more disheartening for the fact that my mother and aunt were approached on the street by Kianoush Ayari to play the lead roles. No, really!

Beyond the Fire (Ayari, 1990, 8.5)
The absurd and raucous finale of this film, set to Johann Strauss' The Blue Danube, is its most memorably enduring moment, but it shouldn't overshadow everything that comes before it. The barren deserts of the Iranian southwest, and the architecture of fiery oil rigs have provided visual spectacles for several Iranian directors across the decades, from Ebrahim Golestan to Amir Naderi; Ayari's film is one of the most astonishing inclusions in that company. Making the best of the region's minimalist architecture, and the juxtaposition between the rapidly developing oil industry and the wretched infrastructure of poverty and destitution, Ayari's visual language highlights social and personal tensions more than any words could. This is a film for the ages, and one that I only wish I had the opportunity to see on the big screen at some point.

Spy (Feig, 2015, 7.0)
Restlessly hilarious, and that seems to be about the film's only aim, which it achieves quite comfortably. Feig and McCarthy have a perfect understanding of each other's gifts and expectations, creating a chemistry that has so far resulted in a three slam dunk successes. The real star of this all-star show, though, is Rose Byrne. Her comic gifts, subtler than her co-stars here, are paralleled by no one in Hollywood today.

The Grand Day (Ayari, 1989, 5.9)
Ayari's spoof of the Shah's incompetence in dealing with rural problems isn't the brave proposition it would have been had it been made before the Iranian Revolution. It isn't consistently funny, either. The visual language is interesting, however, both because of comic coding   the costumes and signifiers that mark government agents   and political coding   the first and last scenes of the film are poignant mirror images that concisely captures the reasons for the monarchy's fall. Alireza Khamseh's physical attributes, as is often the case with him, give the film a lot of comic mileage.   

Spectre of Scorpion (Ayari, 1986, 4.4)
Ayari has made one of the more innovative entries in the vast collection of films about the difficulties of working in Iranian cinema. Ironically, for a film about a director whose main preoccupation is with producing "naturalistic" atmospheres, Spectre of Scorpion is contrived and over the top. The heist around which the film pivots beggars belief and the intensity of the film-making    evident both in the highly angular cinematography and the heightened energy of the performances    leave much to be desired. The finale is incongruously superb. 

Dust Devil (Ayari, 1985, 5.8)
Produced during the years of war between Iran and Iraq, following the Iranian Revolution, Dust Devil is a product of the highly politicized cultural environment of the time. Paradoxically, the film is both naturalistic in its depiction of rough and dry terrain of Iranian deserts and symbolic in conveying the ideological warfare of the era. It is telling that the resource over which the character fight is not oil, artillery or money, but water, symbolizing the very livelihood that was at stake in the tumultuous atmosphere of war time Iran. The metaphors eventually become overbearing, but as a debut film, this is very promising.

Total: 17 films

Jun 27, 2015

The Algerian

*This review was originally written for Movie Mezzanine.

“Why would a man like you help a woman like me?” says Lana (Candice Coke) to Ali (Ben Youcef) when he comes to her rescue after Lana’s abusive date punches her in public. It’s a baffling question, and not just because it is despairingly clichéd. The situation doesn’t merit this question at all. A man like what? A woman like whom? What does Lana know about Ali that we don’t? As it turns out, none of this information matters to Giovanni Zelko, the debut filmmaker behind the asinine The Algerian, and, even though the exchange only happens a quarter of an hour into the film, it doesn’t matter to the viewer either. Even by that early point, it’d have to be a miracle to find a viewer who hasn’t checked out of the film yet.

The Algerian tells the story of Ali, an immigrant to the United States who, as a child, witnessed the death of his mother in a bomb explosion—or what the film assumes we will perceive as an explosion despite the risibly poor visual effects. He arrives in America with an un-American dream: to carry out a vague mission against The Great Satan. He’s a member of a terrorist cell disguised a student. Within the first few minutes, it’s clear that Zelko is going to waste a rare golden opportunity to carve a three-dimensional character from a Middle Eastern lead, but if you stick with the film, characterizations only get more disappointing. Ali meets only a handful of people in America, each a poorly sketched archetype to convey one of Zelko’s shallow ideas. Writing about these characters grants them much more legitimacy than they deserve, but two of them stick out like particularly sore thumbs.

Aside from Lana, who reveals herself to be the Hooker with a Heart of Gold, there’s Suleyman (Harry Lennix), an American Muslim inelegantly worked into the film to offset any accusation of Islamophobia—did you know there are Muslims who smile and will not give you unsolicited lectures on Middle Eastern history? There’s also Sara (Tara Holt), an attractive Jewish classmate. Ali briefly has a fling with her, only to violently push her back when he learns of her religion. This relationship provides the film’s most consistent source of unintentional laughs, what with Holt’s horrid performance—her flirting would be more subtle if she walked into every scene stark naked—and the film’s careless (and somewhat anti-Semitic) resolution to their break-up. It’s hard to imagine who is offended more at the implications of this relationship: Muslims, Jews, men, women, or blondes (who, in the opinion of the film, are definitely dumb).

The Algerian is not offensive because it doesn’t abide by rules of political correctness, but because of its sheer incompetence on every level. This is a film in which story and plot are both mistaken for relentless exposition; political nuance is forgone in favour of the simple rule of thumb that America is superior to the rest of the world; the ambiguity of race and gender relations convey the filmmaker’s misunderstanding of both; and performances are delivered with all the grace and poise of a corporate sexual harassment video. It is hard to encounter a film that lacks even a single redeeming quality; that The Algerian achieves that is probably its biggest accomplishment.

Jun 24, 2015

The Face of an Angel

*This review was originally written for Movie Mezzanine.

Humdrum thrillers are hardly in short supply in Hollywood. But when this kind of formulaic and intellectually vapid genre piece is directed by one of the most irreverent directors of the past two decades, the result is particularly disheartening—as is the case with Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Face of An Angel. A fictionalized account of Amanda Knox’s story, the film is contrived, confusing, and, despite dense plotting, severely lacking in emotional or thematic depth.

Thomas (Daniel Brühl) is a filmmaker whose life is on a personal and professional downward spiral. Having traveled to Italy in the midst of the trial of an American girl—Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt) is accused of murdering a fellow exchange student, Elizabeth (Sai Bennett), with whom she shared an apartment—Thomas finds the story he craves for his next project. His first contact in the city of Siena is British freelance journalist Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale) who is one of several English-language journalists covering the mayhem. Thomas’ interest is further piqued when international attention on the story has turned the gruesome murder into a sensationalized endless feeder for the tabloids. Disappointed with the lack of reality and integrity in the coverage of the story, the director decides that fiction might be the way to reach the truth. The film-to-be within the film thus becomes a meta-textual commentary on Winterbottom’s own misgivings about the media.

Winterbottom, whose career has been a roller-coaster ride of excellent highs such as The Trip and dreadful lows like 9 Songs, tries to cram as much as possible into the film, thematically and stylistically. The plotting is so long-winded that the story is virtually forgotten; the sole purpose of every scene is to advance the plot one step further instead of actually serving insights into media manipulation. There is more than one romantic subplot in a film that barely register yet each is worked in so forcefully, like some Hollywood gesture that merely needed to be checked off Winterbottom’s list of cinematic obligations. It is never clear, for example, why the audience is shown Simone’s failing marriage in the background when it is immediately rendered irrelevant within the first half.