Jan 28, 2015


Grade: A

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine

Islam is a topic frequently viewed through a limited lens in contemporary cinema, particularly what is produced by and catered to North Americans. Such is not the case with Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako’s first feature film in 7 years. For audiences accustomed to seeing demonized, one-note portrayals of a small, extremist faction of Muslims on screen, Timbuktu’s insight into the religion feels like a momentous breath of fresh air. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in France and Nigeria, the latter of which is still sidelined by mainstream media, it’s hard to think of a moment when conversations about Muslims and their relationship to fundamentalism would have been timelier than now. Sissako has said he was inspired to make Timbuktu a few years ago, when he opined the lack of attention given to the stoning of an unmarried Malian couple, who were charged with adultery. Timbuktu is his attempt at dramatizing their story, along with other paralleling plots, and it’s a rich, politically nuanced, and painterly portrait of life in rural Mali.

Timbuktu‘s kaleidoscopic structure cross-cuts between the unmarried couple and a large cast of characters connected by the virtue of their geographical proximity. A man, his wife, and daughter pass their days in a tent, taking care of their small herd of eight cows. A fisherman sets up his nets in the same lake as the cows drink. Islamic militants force themselves onto public spaces in nearby towns, making announcements about religiously acceptable behaviour. A local imam pleads with the mujahedeen to refrain from violence in the community. Local women fight against fanatical intolerance as kids fight for their passion for football. All these stories are loosely tied by a tenuous link to the decentralized and vigilante local justice system. Timbuktu‘s first half is devoted to running these paralleling narratives in rapidly cut, short segments, but the film never loses its fluidity as the dots begin to connect and the characters inch closer toward one another.

As Sissako traverses between stories, languages, and religions, the tone of the film shifts as well. A sequence in the first half shows a group of young boys playing football without a ball, because having footballs, or any element of earthly joy, is banned by the local militia. The boys play as though they’re unaware of the absence of the ball, passionately tackling and celebrating, thus giving this sequence quite an incantatory feel. This scene is immediately succeeded by one in which the audience witnesses a murder. The gruesome display is shot in a lush, extreme long shot. Its awe-inspiring beauty is at stark odds with the violence at its heart.

Jan 13, 2015

2014 Complete Screening Log

The "recent screenings" icon on the right sidebar is a personal diary of every film I watch. I've had it there since the birth of this space in 2010 but never used it with consistency until this year. The 2014 record is complete starting with Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon on January 2nd and ending with an Iranian film called The Wedlock, which I screened in Esfahan. The index is organized by month below, so you can peruse and see my letter grades and short thoughts on every film. Before that however, here's a quick top ten fifteen list, the best non-2014 films I watched (or rewatched) in 2014:

1. In a Lonely Place (Ray, 50)
2. The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov, 57)
3. The Night It Rained (Shirdel, 67)
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 68)
5. Through the Olive Trees (Kiarostami, 94)
6. Leili Is With Me (Tabrizi, 96)
7. The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 40)
8. Where Is the Friend's Home? (Kiarostami, 87)
9. The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 59)
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 04)
11. Still Life (Shahid Saless, 74)
12. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, 96)
13. Fortress/Women's Prison (Shirdel, 65)
14. Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 87)
15. Hamoun (Mehrjuyi, 90)

Complete list of 2014 screenings

Dec 29, 2014

Screening Log: December

Shahram Mokri's Fish & Cat

The Wedlock (Hejazi, 2014, B-)
Hejazi paints his themes -- women fighting for the status in a patriarchal but increasingly conflicted society -- with screaming bright colours but this gorgeously shot film is elevated by a sensitive performance from one of the best actresses working today, Taraneh Alidoosti.

The Sensitive Level (Tabrizi, 2014, D+)
Once the filmmaker behind sharp, socially conscious comedies -- includes one of the best Iranian films ever made, Leili Is With Me -- Tabrizi is now making the same type of films, but without the sharpness, social consciousness or, in fact, comedy.

Melbourne (Javidi, 2014, B+)
An intolerably tense film, the only respite being that, despite the film's unrelenting grip, you can always assure yourself this is just a film and it will all be over soon and none of it is happening in real life. The narrative and visual structure borrows very heavily from Asghar Farhadi's About Elly and A Separation -- and not just because it is apartment bound and stars Peiman Moaadi and Mani Haghighi -- but that comparison can be reductive. This is an emotionally involving, finely acted and deftly executed gem.

Fish and Cat (Mokri, 2014, A-)
The temporally and spatially flexible structure allows Fish & Cat to be suspenseful and playful in equal measure. However much one intends to read into the film's sociopolitical subtexts -- there is a lot of room for interpretation but I tend to think that's more a product of the culture that has given birth to the filmmaker than his intent to infuse his work with meaning -- this is essential work. A formally curious and genuinely terrifying film that is on both accounts unique to Iranian cinema.

Gilda (Vidor, 1946, B-)
Gilda features what is without doubt the sexiest performance ever put on the silver screen. If the film didn't even have anything going for it, it'd still be worth watching just for that. Still, the film gender politics and narrative beats feel more than a bit dated.

Ida (Pawlikowski, 2014, B-)
A lot less chilly than I remembered from my original screening during last year's Toronto festival, but I still can't reach the heart of this film. It's exquisitely photographed and intensely powerful in its best moments, but I find it inconsistent and slight in spite of the story's potential.

Inherent Vice (Anderson, 2014, A-)
Anderson captures all the humor, specificity and nostalgia in the original text. Grounded by a tremendous performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice bursts with energy and zips along at rapid fire speed. Its plot is convoluted – as is Pynchon's brilliant novel and as are some of the cinema's best detective stories
 but one need not even follow every subplot to feel the heat of the film, to sense the bitterness of the tipping point where counterculture became uncool and sentimentality became archaic.

Winter Sleep (Ceylan, 2014, B+) (review)
In a career trajectory that has continually taken him in the direction of more expansive, audacious cinema, this is the filmmaker’s most daring and aesthetically ambitious project yet.

Selma (DuVernay, 2014, B)
In its best moments, Selma is sensational, a touching experience with immeasurable emotional force and sociopolitical relevance. There are moments in the film that stand out because of their outlandish characterizations (mostly with the white government officials) or because we see them too often (“statement” moments outside of real statement moments) to make this a truly outstanding film. However, the performances are uniformly strong and the costume design and cinematography are exemplary.

Whiplash (Chazelle, 2014, B+/A-)
Anything that is predictable, lazy or dull about the story pops out of the screen like wildfire in Chazelle's hands. Perhaps the direction and the rhythmically synchronous editing are a bit overzealous, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing when the film is so reliant on those rhythms. This was relentless fun, made all the better by two incredible performances from JK Simmons and Miles Teller.

A Most Wanted Man (Corbijn, 2014, A) (thoughts)
Having now read the original novel on which the film is based, the film has gone even further in my estimation. Corbijn's adaptation shades just the right characters and narrative beats in darker colors and eliminates just the right subplots to make this a smarter take on modern anti-terrorist activity than the book. It is one of the best spy thrillers made in recent years, elevated by an incredibly performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Still Alice (Glatzer/Westmoreland, 2014, B)
The pace of the narrative is intermittently too fast, limiting the impact that the gravity of individual moments can leave on the audience. The dialogue is, at time, overdetermined and obvious as well. Yet, Still Alice is elevated by remarkable performances from the cast, particularly Julianne Moore, whose tender, subtle turn is a revelation; one of the best performances in an extraordinary canon of work. An incredibly moving and personal film.

Dancing in the Dust (Farhadi, 2003, B-)
Farhadi's debut film features interesting ideas about guilt, loss and the male identity in Iran, but it lacks the complexity that we have come to expect of him over the years. There are interesting visual formations at play, but the film bears the marks of a first time director and is at times heavy handed.

The Theory of Everything (Marsh, 2014, C)
Everything one expects a generic biopic about the life of a respected but disadvantaged man in Britain in the 1960s to be, The Theory of Everything is. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones do outstanding work, but the whole doesn't have anything new to offer and its characterization of Jane (Jones) becomes increasingly disingenuous and disrespectful as the film progresses.

Dec 18, 2014

Winter Sleep

Grade: B+/A-

*This review was originally published on Movie Mezzanine.

“I’ve never had a spare second to be bored,” exclaims Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), the protagonist of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s dauntingly titled, 197-minute long Palme d’Or winner, Winter Sleep. It’s a sentiment mirroring what one feels about the gargantuan and wordy film, which breezes through its running time without a sluggish moment. The Turkish master’s lush and absorbing latest work is complex and has no easy resolutions, but its multifaceted study of the Turkish society through the prism of its protagonist is richly rewarding.

Aydin is a former actor and current owner of a hotel compound and several other properties on the Anatolian steppe – Ceylan thus returns to the same geographic turf as his last film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Aydin passes his days by writing think pieces for a local publication, while his right-hand man, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), takes care of the business side of things: collecting rents, running the hotel’s errands, and occasionally roughing up anyone whose payments are running behind schedule. Two women live with Aydin: his divorced sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), and his much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sӧzen). Aydin doesn’t spare either of them any of his holier-than-thou, snobby attitude, projecting onto the former his own insecurities and categorically accusing the latter of not knowing the ways of life and condescending to her regarding her financial affairs.

Having mostly locked himself up within the confines of his estate but for semi-regular visits from a friend, Aydin seems so closed off from the rest of the world that his ideas border on delusion. He’s an intellectual whose insistence on devoting an article to the shabbiness of the local imam suggests something about his character, especially as it is juxtaposed to the dire living conditions of his tenants in the nearby neighborhoods. Class division is a major theme of the film, and one that, unlike everything else being argued and philosophized by Aydin and his entourage, is more subtly suggested in the events on screen. Not that Aydin’s disdain for everyone beneath him is concealed at all, even when he’s alone in his study room.

Dec 15, 2014

Adapting le Carré in A Most Wanted Man

*This piece was originally published at The Film Experience as part of the Team FYC Series, in which the website's contributors make a case for an under the radar candidate for Oscar nomination.

Anton Corbijn’s latest film, A Most Wanted Man, is one of the year’s best American films. It’s the type of work that is elevated above the trappings of its overly familiar genre with superb performances and intelligent observations on the real world conditions that give birth to its story. It is arguably the smartest film made about America’s increasingly troubled relationship with, and its definition of, terrorism. Yet, it is surprising to compare the film's screenplay, penned by Andrew Bovell, to its original source, the 2008 novel of the same name by John le Carré, and notice the dramatic improvement that the adaptation has made to the text.

With densely plotted novels, particularly in the espionage genre, one of the biggest challenges of adaptation is the careful omission of narrative threads without disrupting the harmony or logic of the story. Le Carré’s book is one of his lesser works, a straightforward piece about Issa (Gregoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen fugitive in Hamburg, whose history of being tortured in his homeland is sufficient cause for authorities (German and American) to assume ties with terrorist organizations. Issa’s story is intertwined to three other protagonists who are afforded equal attention in the novel: a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Defoe), a lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and a spy named Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Bovell and Corbijn remove almost the entirety of Annabel and Tommy’s back stories and shift the focus of the narrative entirely, tightening the scope of the film but lending it more political resonance. They introduce Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) in the opening scenes instead of the latter half and make several crucial decisions that don’t just improve upon the book, but create thematic subtexts that were absent originally.

Two examples illustrate this best: first, the film eliminates the two most memorable exchanges of dialogue from the book: Bachmann’s Cantata, a long manifesto about the history of Hamburg and how it is interwoven with terrorism in today’s world. In this belligerent speech’s stead, the film relies on the subtlety of Hoffman’s performance and his dejected, knowing gaze, always aware that the anti-terrorist empire is one moment of misjudgement away from complete collapse. One memorable monologue is taken away; a delicate, slow-burner of a performance takes its place to more lingering effect. (Chris Ryan of Grantland has written about this omission at length here.) The second piece of dialogue is the book's finale, a rather explicit definition of extraordinary rendition delivered in lecture form. The film's silent ending is sublime in comparison.

The second example is the addition of Abdullah’s son, Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi), completely absent from the book in the present form. A secret collaborator with Bachmann’s espionage team, Jamal’s character does as much as Issa’s in painting a nuanced portrait of how Muslims as a whole are misunderstood in the West with regards to their views on terrorism. He is less a symbol of tolerance and more a complex figure of conflicted sentiments: peace activist on the one hand, guilt-ridden son on the other. As a smooth, perfectly paced thriller, the screenplay is structurally robust and extremely entertaining, but the sharp commentary on America’s convoluted, haphazard foreign policies – timely as ever in the wake of the release of the torture reports – create a text that is nothing short of outstanding.

Dec 12, 2014

List: Asghar Farhadi's Films Ranked

1. About Elly
2. A Separation
3. Tambourine (screenwriter only)
4. Low Height (screenwriter only)
5. Beautiful City
6. Fireworks Wednesday
7. The Past
8. Dancing in the Dust

Dec 6, 2014

Visual Effects in Under the Skin

*This piece was originally published at The Film Experience as part of the Team FYC Series, in which the website's contributors make a case for an under the radar candidate for Oscar nomination.

"Generally speaking, if you drop the adjective Best and replace it with Most, you come to a better understanding of what the Academy Awards are often about.”
That statement is taken from Nick Davis’ review of The Lives of Others written several years ago, but it’s a sentiment I have not only shared, but have come to recognize as the defining element of my relationship with the Oscars, responsible for the bulk of my disagreements with their choices. Nick called the application of his theory to the visual effects category “self-explanatory” and it’s hard to disagree with him. How often do we find nominees in this category that subtly work their visual effects into the narrative? Filmmakers who employ effects as a storytelling device rather than a show-stopping juggernaut of colors and flying objects? This isn’t to say that some worthy work hasn’t been rewarded in the process. No one can argue with the impressive quality of what is on display in Gravity, but the emphasis is on “on display.” Visual effects in Cuaron’s films are equivalent to an oiled up body in a tight thong, flexing muscles in your face, and that type of “most” visual effects is what the Academy has come to reward repeatedly, even when the results aren’t quite as impressive or innovative, which brings me to this year.

None of the films that are bound to be nominated in this category will have imagery that is as iconic or memorable as the understated work in Under the Skin.  Yet, Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece – his third from three tries – faces two very big hurdles on its road to nomination. First, the film isn’t in the Academy’s wheelhouse or likely to get any other nominations. Second, that the visual effects aren’t showy. In the words of its VFX supervisor, Dominic Parker, the techniques “are supporting the film, not the main event.”

Technically, Under the Skin isn’t doing anything that Kubrick didn’t do fifty years ago; one particular sequence – the disintegration of one of Alien’s preys, which is the only colourful segment in the film – unmistakably mirrors the colored vortex sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the application, completely at the service of the story and actively designed to go unnoticed, is what makes the experience memorable.

The plain black void in which the alien’s victims, lit in blue hues, float endlessly until their moment of implosion is the year’s most terrifying, unshakable imagery. The sense of inescapable horror that these sequences create is precisely due to their sleek emptiness. Similarly, the emotional gravity of the final moment, a literal stripping to bare the soul, or lack thereof, is conveyed with such weight because of the simplicity of the non-obstructive effects. Still, one need not look further than the film’s opening "creation" scene to see the genius of the effects. Glazer and his team trimmed down the concept of this scene from the formation of a full human body to just the eye and ended up with sheer minimalist brilliance. The gradual, shocking revelation of what it is we’re witnessing is the most wondrous sensation in the film, a moment of genuinely awe-inspiring quality. Here’s hoping Academy voters take note.