Tag Archives: Asghar Farhadi

The Salesman (2017)

Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) was absent from this year’s Oscars due his protest of the recent immigration ban, but his latest release was very much in the room. He won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for the second time with The Salesman. The film stars many of his regular collaborators with Shahab Hosseini (A Separation) as Emad and Taraneh Alidoosti (About Elly) as Rana, a married couple who are actors currently costarring in a production of Death of a Salesman. After their apartment building is damaged in a construction accident, they move to a recently vacated apartment recommended by another actor. Shortly after moving in, when Emad is out, Rana is assaulted by an intruder while taking a shower. The rest of the film deals with the aftermath of this attack as the couple decides what to do next.

The Salesman brings Farhadi into noticeably darker material. While his films are well known for being morally complicated, his previous works did not feature this kind of deliberate criminality. In addition to a series of well-intentioned but disastrous errors, this movie focuses on crime, punishment, and society. Instead of immediately calling the police, they take Rana to the hospital. The question then becomes: is it worth it to go to the police? Rana would have to relive the trauma she faced and potentially suffer public embarrassment. The desire to reduce the pain she has to go through directly conflicts with what is best for catching the criminal.

Rana’s emotional well-being becomes a focal point of the film.

The issue of justice is even more murky. Emad, using personal items left by the attacker, decides he will find him on his own. But to what end? How will he know who actually committed the crime and even if he is able to find the culprit, what will he do? Take him to the authorities or handle the situation on his own? What punishment will fit the crime and would any punishment actually help Rana? The movie confronts these issues as we see the couple’s opposing ideas. Emad wants retribution for Rana but Rana wants to move on and put this behind her more than anything else. As with all Farhadi films, neither character is favored and each position is shown to be flawed. There are no simple choices here, only alternative trade-offs.

Farhadi’s choice to build his film around the famous play has mixed results. Death of a Salesman is a clear classic, but the parallels the director tries to draw between Emad and Rana and Willy and Linda are too forced and too weak to justify the play’s emphasis. Willy’s self-destruction in the pursuit of money isn’t similar enough to Emad’s need for justice, nor is it different enough to create an insightful comparison. The play itself is also shown far more than it needed to be. Perhaps this was done to introduce some variety into the film’s settings. The stage is well shot and expertly lit, but the additional location doesn’t provide much value. Most of Farhadi’s films take place in one or two middle class apartments and it has never been an issue in the past. His morally ambiguous plotting remains enticing, but Farhadi’s decision to rope in an unnecessary element and give it a substantial amount of screen time causes his latest feature to fall short of its otherwise high potential.

4/5 stars.

Top Films of 2015

Yes, I realize it’s almost halfway through 2016 already, but I wanted to be thorough and make sure I watched as many of 2015’s output before finalizing my list. The year end onslaught of Academy Award-ready films can be difficult to keep up with when you have another full-time job to attend to. Without further ado, here are my favorite films of the previous year.

11. Shaun the Sheep the Movie

Immaculately detailed and expertly choreographed, Shaun the Sheep is yet another great stop-motion film from Aardman Animations, the makers of Chicken Run. The film pulls from the best silent movies to produce an endearing, slapstick comedy with endlessly entertaining visual gags.

10. Predestination

presdestination1“What if I could put him in front you, the man that ruined your life?” Ethan Hawke plays a temporal agent traveling through time with his recruit Sarah Snook to prevent the bombings of a terrorist known as “The Fizzle Bomber”. The plot doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead makes use of the strong performances from its leads to explore the nature of cause and effect. Predestination is fun, twisty sci-fi at its best.

9. The Gift

The directorial debut of actor Joel Edgerton is a psychological thriller masquerading as a horror film. After Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) move to Los Angeles they run into an old friend of Simon, Gordo (Edgerton), who begins making unannounced visits and giving overly generous presents. Slowly the relationship dissolves and the past between Simon and Gordo is brought into question. Edgerton’s film draws heavy influence from Michael Haneke’s Caché in that it focuses on the guilt and repercussions of the past. Does time really heal all wounds? The Gift has a response to that question.

8. Meet the Patels

Meet the Patels is a heartfelt, often hilarious, documentary about the issues faced by 1st generation Americans caught between the culture they experience every day and that of their heritage. Co-directed by brother and sister Ravi and Gita Patel, the film shows Ravi as he takes the plunge into finding a spouse through an arranged marriage. Instead of making this overly serious, Meet the Patels affectionately focuses on the importance of bonds between this charismatic family.

7. 99 Homes

Centered on the 2008 housing crisis, 99 Homes looks at the human cost of financial disaster. Andrew Garfield plays a young construction worker kicked out of his family home by Michael Shannon. What ensues is an unexpectedly tense exploration of both the winners and losers of the collapse. It shows what greed, desperation, and even success can do to the relationships we value most.

6. Spotlight

Spotlight features news reporters tackling a deep rooted problem deliberately hidden by the powers that be. The year’s best ensemble cast featuring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo deal with the struggle of not only finding the truth but clashing with the culture of a city and a religion. Always somber and honest, Spotlight treats its serious subject matter with the respect and attention to detail it deserves.

5. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

This film follows a boy and his friend as they begin a relationship with a girl who has just been diagnosed with cancer. While it falls into many of the standard Sundance tropes, it elevates above these with the gravity of its subject matter. The main character has to come to terms with his friend’s condition as well as his own changing life. Part coming of age story and part tribute to cinema (the film features “sweded” parody versions of classics a la Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind), Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is an expertly directed film about dealing with loss during adolescence.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller revives his classic franchise with some of the best vehicular combat ever shown on screen. The film is a 2 hour long car chase that uses incredible practical stunts that put the standard CG effects to shame. With breakneck pacing and surprisingly poignant quiet moments, Mad Max: Fury Road is the automobile action movie we’ve been waiting 30 years for.

3. The Tribe

Filmed using only deaf actors signing and lacking any subtitles, The Tribe is an experiment in visual storytelling. At first, the decision seems troublesome as it immediately alienates the audience, but as the film continues the subtleties of each scene begin to tell the story. The gait of a character, the way they stand next to others, or the speed at which they sign all convey the actions taking place. As The Tribe explores an underground crime ring at a school for the deaf, it uses its purely visual approach to wordlessly express complex emotions.

[BS Note: NSFW. Extremely explicit and not for everyone]

2. Wild Tales

Composed of six unrelated humorous revenge stories, Wild Tales showcases scenarios exaggerated just slightly beyond the realm of reality but not out of its reach. The characters, while seemingly normal, always overreact to their situations leading to ridiculous outcomes. The film is bursting with manic energy and earns its laughs through creative set ups. Easily the funniest film of the year.

1. Love

When Gaspar Noé announced his next movie was going to be called Love, I thought the title must be ironic. Surely the man who directed Irreversible and is often accused of nihilism wasn’t actually covering that territory. Yet, that is exactly what he did. Love is simultaneously Noé’s most personal and most indulgent work. There are characters named both Gaspar and Noé with the latter played by him and some scenes are exercises in unnecessary exhibitionism. Most of the news covering the film has focused on the details of its production and its explicit nature, but that is missing the point of the movie. Love, flaws included, is exactly the film Noé wanted to make. It’s a film that explores all aspects of the titular emotion. The spark of a new relationship, the heartbreak that can follow, and, unlike other films, physical desires. In other movies, intimate scenes between characters are unnecessary and voyeuristic, almost like a requirement needed to show how “adult” a film is. Here, Noé builds the entire film around these scenes. The physical contact is an extension of the emotions felt by the characters. With only a few exceptions, they are meaningful scenes that develop the characters and build their relationships. Combined with Benoît Debie’s beautiful visuals and an entrancing soundtrack, the film casts a hypnotic spell, pulling the viewer into the feelings – both physical and emotional – that love brings.

[BS Note: NSFW. Extremely explicit and not for everyone]

Honorable Mentions:

  • Sicario
  • Brooklyn
  • About Elly
  • Steve Jobs

Fireworks Wednesday (2016)

In 2011, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with A Separation. Despite being his 5th feature film, it was his first to play in the United States. Since then, distributors have been releasing his back catalog starting with About Elly last year and now Fireworks Wednesday, originally released in 2006. As with his previous films, this is a domestic drama. A young woman, Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti; About Elly), working as a maid through a temp agency goes to the apartment of a couple about to leave for vacation. Their home is a mess with broken glass from an argument the previous night. During the course of the day, Roohi becomes increasingly entangled in the potential infidelity that led to the fight and plays a vital role in alternatingly fanning and dousing the flames.

Fireworks Wednesday uses minute details to drive its tension. Farhadi’s other films also rely on this technique, but it is noticeably less effective here. The film has a much slower start because, unlike the movies that would follow, the main character is not central to the conflict – she is an outsider. The source of the central conflict is not revealed soon enough making the beginning of the film largely irrelevant as it only serves to introduce Roohi to the scenario. This breaks the sympathy found in Farhadi’s later works. Roohi does not need to be involved in the situation so the drama seems forced and avoidable. Her actions seem like the work of a well-intentioned busybody rather than the tragic, but understandable mistakes of the heartbreakingly human characters we have come to expect from the director.

Roohi becomes embedded in this couple’s troubles.

The film lacks the mystery needed to entice the viewer. Roohi’s actions are all shown on screen so instead of the startling revelations of Farhadi’s newest releases, the limited suspense can only be derived from waiting to see how other characters respond which is rarely a surprise. Furthermore, the key details that lead to conflicts are more blatantly telegraphed. Fireworks Wednesday was only the 3rd film from Farhadi so it is likely that he was still honing his craft here. It is also the last film of his to have a co-writer, which may have contributed to the lack of subtlety in the script.

The performances, however, are consistently strong. Even when the story approaches melodrama, the actors are always believable in their desperation. Characters can swing from innocent to guilty and back again without jarring shifts in tone. The young son of the couple is particularly effective during his brief screen time. Farhadi has had a trend of using children as the voice of reason during chaos. While the adults bend facts and focus on the drama from their perspective, the boy clearly articulates the situation in a sweet and tearful explanation to his confused uncle. The director’s strengths with actors are evident even early in his career.

It’s almost unfair to compare this film, or any other for that matter, to the high bar set by Farhadi’s last three projects. Most movies released would come up short because there are few filmmakers working today that can match his intricate plots and subtly escalating tension. Fireworks Wednesday does not have the precision of its successors, but it is a promising rough draft of the template Farhadi would later perfect.

3/5 stars.

Top 10 Films of 2013

[BS Note: This list was originally written in early 2014]

With the Golden Globes behind us and the Oscars coming up this weekend, it is a great time to celebrate some of the year’s best films. 2013 was a great year for film-making it was difficult to bring this list down to ten entries, but these are the films that resonated.

10. In a World…

Lake Bell (No Strings Attached) makes her feature writing and directing debut with In a World…, a comedy about a vocal coach, Carol (Bell), failing to find a place in the male dominated voice-over industry. Bell smartly mixes humor with the realities of attempting to break the glass ceiling, elevating the film from lighthearted comedy to sharp societal commentary.

9. Gravity

Gravity, like other films on this list, is about survival. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) plays a medical engineer on her first trip to space when a catastrophe occurs. Enough cannot be said about the way this film looks. The computer generated visual effects are stunning and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s (The Tree of Life) long takes with precise direction from Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) make the Gravity a gripping thrill ride in space.

8. 12 Years a Slave

It would be easy to look at the story of 12 Years a Slave and think that it is Oscar bait. A film based on a true story about a free man kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery in the South? The Academy should love that. But the movie is directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and he has no interest in the sentimental. The films depicts the horrific realities of life as a slave. What is most frightening is how common these acts were. Each brutality is accepted as a part of the natural order. The film’s traumatic imagery ensures that this period of US history and the film itself will not be forgotten.

7. Her

Set in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles, Her follows Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) playing Theodore Twombly, a man who writes heartfelt letters on behalf of strangers unable to do so. He is separated and lonely until he falls in love with an artificial intelligence named Samantha played by Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers). Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation) uses Samantha’s lack of a body to emphasize the emotional connection craved by Theodore. He lives in a crowded city but feels isolated from the people around him. The film shows each phase of their relationship and how Theodore changes as it progresses. Her succeeds by making a romance with a disembodied voice feel remarkably human.

6. The Hunt

The Hunt is probably the most aggravating film of the year. In a good way. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) plays a kind, well-liked preschool teacher falsely accused of a terrible crime. The film follows him as he is ostracized out of every part of his small town. Because of the nature of the accusation his former friends and colleagues immediately abandon him. Innocent until proven guilty? Not for this crime. His descent continues as the film shows just how easily even the strongest relationships can shatter when someone cries wolf.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines is really a triptych: three stories linked by one key event. The first story is about a stunt motorcyclist turned bank robber played by Ryan Gosling (Drive). The second is about the cop that tries to catch him played by Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) and the third is about the sons of the two. Directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), the film is at its best during small moments. The character interactions have a raw intensity that make them feel honest and real. The film shows that each action has its consequences and how each generation deals with the aftermath of the pervious.

4. The Past

The Past is a companion piece to Asghar Farhadi’s previous Oscar-winning film A Separation. Both films are about a divorce, but The Past is about characters dealing with the ramifications of their previous actions. It is a film that presents a relatively simple situation, a long separated couple finally filing the paperwork for divorce so the woman can marry her new boyfriend, and peels back layer after layer revealing the complicated, morally ambiguous chaos underneath. Farhadi manages to do this without creating “good” or “bad” characters. Everyone acts in a realistic, understandable way but also commit tragic mistakes that make the situation even thornier and his even-handed direction causes your sympathies to shift with each new revelation.

3. All is Lost

All is Lost is a demonstration of how great acting can carry a film. Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) plays a nameless man on a solo voyage through the Indian Ocean whose boat springs a leak. His performance, under the direction of J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), expresses feeling through subtle actions. A grimace or sigh conveys the struggles of the protagonist more than most voiceovers in other films. Despite containing no dialogue and only a few spoken words, it commands attention. The continued determination and resourcefulness of an elderly, but experienced sailor in the face of possible death make the film a tense and affecting adventure.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, True Grit) have made yet another excellent film containing their signature dark humor and sardonic wit. Starring Oscar Isaac (Drive), the film has something unusual for the Coens: sincerity. The film is about a folk singer, Llewyn Davis, who wanders from gig to gig trying to find a record deal. He is mean to most of his friends and dismissive of other singers as sell-outs, but his quest for artistic purity gives the film an earnestness that elevates it above most of the Coen brothers’ works. Despite him being more or less detestable, the film creates empathy for the character because he is unwilling to compromise his beliefs even if that means he is never successful.

1. Before Midnight

The experience of watching Before Midnight is like reconnecting with two friends you have known for decades. Friends that will squabble, joke, and ramble about anything and everything. But that’s the best part: listening to them talk. Set 9 years after Before Sunset and 18 years after Before Sunrise, the Before series continues its tradition of charmingly garrulous dialogue, yet it surpasses its—already excellent—predecessors by confronting the struggles of long term relationships. The warmth of a perfect connection from the previous films is still present but so are the cracks of reality that affect even the best relationships. This allows the film to continue to feel new and fresh while retaining the affection built up in earlier installments. The series, like love at its best, has grown stronger over time. Before Sunrise is great, Before Sunset is even better, and Before Midnight is incredible. It is, in my opinion, the best example of a sequel done right and easily the best film of the year.

 

Honorable Mentions: Enough Said, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street.