Sep 16, 2014

Amir Sat on a Branch Reflecting on TIFF

*This column was originally published at The Film Experience.

Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence

You may have noticed that after a few years of covering the festival to various degrees for The Film Experience, I was completely absent from this space for the past ten days, mostly because of a personal decision to enjoy the films without sweating over writing. TIFF is a big festival, maybe the most frantic and hectic in the world, with more choices than one can physically experience over ten days. Nathaniel and I shared so few films from the program’s sprawling lineup, we could have each written about every single thing we saw and you’d never know we attended the same festival. It’s this overwhelming scale that made me want to take a break from reporting, and yet, I feel unsure about how that affected my festival experience.

Writing about films for me is a passion born out of the necessity to articulate my thoughts on the things I watch. Maybe that process of writing makes the films more memorable? Isn’t it so that writing, even about bad films, makes us appreciate good cinema all the more? Without recording my memories, details about this year’s films have fled my mind quicker than ever. My feelings about some of them have been diluted a bit, too. There is something missing, even though I had the best festival experience of my life, meeting more people than ever and watching some terrific films. Maybe this pessimism is just a withdrawal symptom. Let’s stay positive!

As has become something of an unplanned tradition for me – with precedents including Oslo, August 31st and Closed Curtain – my favorite film of the festival came my way on the last day. The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing is a remarkable achievement, one that I dare say, with festival hyperbole now fully behind me, is one of the best documentary films ever made. Where the original film shocked its audience with both the viciousness of the story and the inventiveness of its approach, this sequel of sorts is rather more formally straightforward. Turning his camera 180º to focus on the victims of the Indonesian massacre of the 1960s, Oppenheimer examines unhealed wounds and social and familial fractures that are still silenced decades on. The Look of Silence is no less brutal than its predecessor, yet, its emotional punch comes not by shock, but from the force of personal traumas visible in the victims’ silent looks.

Sep 10, 2014

Screening Log: August

Fifi Howls From Happiness

A Cube of Sugar (Mirkarimi, 2011, A-)
Part slapstick-comedy – new territory for the director – and part a keen study of Yazd’s dynamic local culture, Mirkarimi continues his trend of portraying reticent leads and religious figures with ease. A bitterly enjoyable experience and endlessly rewarding on rewatches.

As Simple as That (Mirkarimi, 2008, B/B+)
As Simple as That could be the title of any Mirkarimi film, but the structure of this one truly embodies the phrase; a sparse narrative of seemingly no propulsion, with one late, low-key but hard hitting revelation. Minimalist storytelling of the highest quality.

So Close, So Far (Mirkarimi, 2005, A-)
Mirkarimi's archetypal silent anti-hero feels lonelier than ever out in the desert. A challenging parent-child relationship made all the more complex by feelings of personal and national guilt. Also, one of the great film endings, to boot.

Under the Moonlight (Mirkarimi, 2001, A)
A rare, revisionist look at Islam and the untouchable concept of doubt amongst clergymen, Mirkarimi's strongest feature reveals more layers of complexity upon every new screening.

Closed Curtain (Panahi, 2014, A) (podcast)
A meta-cinematic experiment that expands the limits of possibility in the medium. Panahi's rich, shape-shifting, formally impressive film is quite possibly his best film and the best of 2014.

The Congress (Folman, 2014, B-) (review)
The Congress oscillates between the good and the head-scratchingly awful, often in a matter of minutes. It appears, quite literally, to be the work of a genius on an acid trip, without an editor.

Canopy (Wilson, 2014, B) (review)
Canopy is a work of minimal, expressionistic storytelling whose unconventional dramatic beats inject fresh blood in a tired genre.

Jealousy (Garrel, 2014, C) (review)
Jealousy is completely occupied with gorgeously packaged, chic Parisian archetypes that remain utterly impenetrable for those looking from the outside into this self-contained, clichéd universe.

The Circle (Panahi, 2000, A-)
Panahi's biggest achievement in narrative cinema, The Circle's smooth and, naturally, circular, navigation of women's issues is structurally impressive, emotionally powerful and an essential piece in the canon of Iranian "social cinema".

A Fire (Golestan, 1961, N/A)
A remarkable visual treat, Golestan's observational documentary about a fire breaking out at an oil refinery in the south of Iran is an outstanding achievement in cinematography and a valuable piece of Iranian history. 

A Most Wanted Man (Corbijn, 2014, A-)
Expert filmmaking on every level. Tense and twitchy in the most unexpected moments, subtle and effective in handling expositions, and incredibly intelligent in challenging vague notions such terrorism and international safety. 

The Mirror (Panahi, 1997, B)
Although a lesser film than Panahi's directing debut, The Mirror is an indicator of the filmmaker's evolving voice taking a more persona shape and gradually departing from Kiarostami's towering influence on him.

Fifi Howls From Happiness (Farahani, 2014, B+) (review)
A dialogue between two artists, one behind and one in front of the camera, that is clever, funny, heartbreaking and outrageous. This rumination on the work of avant-garde painter and sculptor, Bahman Mohasses, is a succinct snapshot of the tumultuous and dynamic environment of the world of Iranian contemporary art.

The Dog (Keraudren, Berg, 2013, C) (review)
At times entertaining, but also consistently meaningless.

Sep 1, 2014


Grade: B

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

Aaron Wilson’s debut feature film, Canopy, begins with a splendid but ominous shot of the lush forests of Singapore. From a place beyond several shades of densely packed greenery, thick clouds of smoke slowly rise to the sky. A caption informs us of the date: February 9th, 1942, when the Japanese powers defeated the Allied forces to occupy the island. As the island slowly reveals itself, the stillness begins to convey a sense of ghostliness lurking beneath the beauty of nature. This opening sets the tone for the rest of the film, a work of minimal, expressionistic storytelling whose unconventional dramatic beats inject fresh blood in the tired genre.

The serenity of the atmosphere is broken when a soldier (Khan Chittenden) drops down on a tree with a parachute, bloodied and in a state of shock. We soon learn he is Australian, though further personal details are never openly explained. Trapped on the island, he’s on the run from the menace of Japanese soldiers whose conquests are visible throughout the land, and from the forest itself. Although he’s figuratively on the run, Canopy is devoid of conventional instruments of thrill, instead creating an atmosphere of suggestive threats with lights, shadows, and sounds. The hissing and rattling of insects and the dappled darkness of the night create what tension there is.

Canopy and its protagonist meander their way through the Singaporean forest during the first half-hour. Our eyes adjust to the environment as the soldier does to its dangers. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio does a brilliant job of highlighting the atmosphere’s splendor. At certain times, the imagery feels overwhelming, shot in a way that attracts attention to the grandiosity of the photography rather than creating tension.

Aug 31, 2014

The Congress

Grade: B-

*This review was originally posted at The Film Experience

The Congress, Ari Folman’s follow-up to his brilliant debut feature, the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, starts rather normally. The opening shot is a staggeringly beautiful close-up of a tearful Robin Wright (playing an imaginary version of herself) as her agent Al’s (Harvey Keitel) voiceover informs us that her career is in tatters. Robin has hit the film industry’s glass ceiling age of 45 and with an already troubled reputation as a difficult actress to work with, her options are quickly dwindling. Al is trying to convince her to sell her digital image rights to the Miramount studio headed by Jeff (a remarkably greasy Danny Houston). This would mean that the studio will use her scanned image to create characters in future films in exchange for a fat paycheque and her right to ever act again.

Everything about this opening setup is promising, signifying a film that is aware of the fears and tensions within the entertainment industry. The Congress is ripe with smart ideas and astute observations about the challenges that technology presents to the men and women active in cinema. It also knows the industry’s inherent sexism and the possibilities that the medium present to its practitioners in the modern age. Unfortunately, Folman doesn’t prove as adept at creating fantasies as he was at recreating realities in Waltz with Bashir, leaving with a wild, messy film filled to the brim with missed opportunities.

Digital scanning isn’t the only revolutionary change in acting. Twenty years later, when Robin (or her image) has become the world’s most famous action star, Miramount introduces another futuristic technology: a small liquid that transforms anyone who takes it into anybody they want to be in the form of an animated avatar. The idea is advertised as an equal opportunity revolution, a serum to eliminate egos and give everyone the chance to be a star. The Congress showcases these avatars in a hallucinatory, animated world that Robin describes as “designed by a genius on an acid trip.”

Aug 25, 2014


Grade: C

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy (La Jalousie) opens with a static medium shot of Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant). The young, blond woman’s lips begin to tremble and tears gradually stream down her face. It’s a stunning composition and one that instantly throws us in the emotional whirlwind she is experiencing. Despite the complete absence of background information about her at this point, there’s an immediacy and punch to the scene that sweeps us up. It’s as powerful an opening as one can expect, upon whose promise the film unfortunately never quite delivers.

Jealousy tells the story of Louis – though the concept of “telling a story” is used very loosely here – a young man who is revealed to be the reason behind Clothilde’s tears, breaking up with her in a conversation we witness through the keyhole from the perspective of their bubbly daughter, Charlotte (Olga Milstein). Louis is played by the director’s son, the eponymous Louis Garrel, in his fifth outing with Garrel Sr. Louis is a struggling actor, a fact that Jealousy emphasizes via many clichéd visual hints: the perfectly imperfect coiffure, the absent gazes, and his general gloomy, confused look. All that and there are still wistful musical cues, too.

The failure of Louis’s marriage is partially due to a passionate affair with another struggling actor, the posh, raspy-voiced Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), whose mere introduction in the film portends another failing relationship. This unfortunate predictability isn’t entirely Claudia’s fault; instead, the film’s heavily New Wave-inspired mood is so familiar that little is left to the imagination. The triangular path of this romantic entanglement is well trodden and outdated, and Garrel adds nothing to the formula that has been in practice since the era of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Without that element of friction, a romantic unpredictability, Jealousy waltzes through its compact running time, offering glimpses of men and women whose lives in which we are inexplicably asked to be invested.

Aug 10, 2014

Fifi Howls From Happiness

Grade: B+

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

The history of 20th-century Iran is brimming with fascinating, complex tales of personal and social travails and triumph. The country went through name changes, revolutions, several dynasties, countless heads of state, and the Islamicization of the government after 2,500 years of monarchic rule. This tumultuous atmosphere and the continual shift in powers that presided over the distribution and exhibition of art had a double-edged effect on Iranian artists: the turbulent environment cultivated intelligent and dissenting voices, and hindered their freedom all the same. Many chose to reform themselves, whereas others were forced into exile. Bahman Mohasses, the subject of Mitra Farahani’s stellar new documentary, Fifi Howls From Happiness, chose something in between.

Born in the north of Iran, Mohasses was a painter, sculptor, and translator whose avant-garde works gained him his “Persian Picasso” moniker. He was an eccentric figure, befriending oppositional artists and the royal family at once. He traveled between Italy and Iran, and felt unsettled at either home. He was a fish out of water, as many of his pieces and the film’s opening allegorically suggest. His work – much of it now destroyed either by the Islamic regime or by him– remained consistently powerful and subversive, and Mohasses was as restless and vibrant as ever even in his final days. Yet he became something of an enigma, living in total anonymity in Rome, even thought to be deceased by some.

Director Mitra Farahani is herself a similarly curious figure in a more modern mold. A successful filmmaker and painter who resides in Paris, she has made films like Just a Woman – winner of the Teddy prize at Berlinale – and Tabous, Zohre and Manouchehr, films that deal with sexuality in ways unfamiliar to Iranian audiences, making the latter something of a cult hit. In that light, this is the perfect marriage between the filmmaker and her subject. Farahani doesn’t explain how she first found Mohasses, shrouding his figure in even cloudier mystery. She is nevertheless granted access to his living space, a small hotel room in Rome, decorated with a variety of his art works. But the small space is no obstacle for the film’s edgy energy. Mohasses notes at one point that “a painting is a confined space, but reflects the infinite with limited tools.” The same can be said of Fifi Howls From Happiness.

Aug 9, 2014

The Dog

Grade: C

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine

Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning film Dog Day Afternoon tells the story of Sonny Wortzik, a man who robs a bank in Manhattan to pay for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery. The film is based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, a soldier-turned-criminal who became a local celebrity with his outrageous character, association with the Gay Liberation movement in its nascent stages, and, most importantly, the events of that fateful day depicted superbly by LumetAl Pacino. In The Dog, the new documentary about Wojtowicz by directors Francois Keraudren and Allison Berg, he is gratuitously granted an opportunity to extend his fifteen minutes of fame for another hour and a half.

Following the clichéd trajectory of most biographical documentaries, The Dog combines archival footage of John’s early life with talking-head interviews with himself and those close to him. There’s an unusually large amount of footage available from his pre-fame life that give a fascinating glimpse into his early years. Wojtowicz is a strange character, with oscillating political views that range from war-mongering to anti-war activity, from pacifism to bank robbery. His most defining characteristic, however, is his sexual appetite. He claims to have no other vices and therefore channels all his energy through sexual expression, which really means he will fuck anything that moves. Wojtowicz married several times but had affairs with countless men and women on the side. His first gay encounter occurred in the military, an experience that only served to broaden his sexual horizons. His affiliation with the gay activists of the New York scene in the early 1970s was mostly a result of his desire to sleep with as many men as possible. The clandestine gatherings were a gateway for him to meet new prospective partners. That, in essence, is where the film’s problematic nature stems from.

There is an unshakable sense that The Dog magnifies the significance of Wojtowicz’s story beyond the boundaries of his reality, and comfortably glosses over certain unpleasant facts. There’s never an indication that this film can transcend its protagonist’s oddball personality to arrive at any meaningful conclusions. The majority of the film gives the impression of a slideshow of colorful antics assembled together to give one last hurrah to an obscure cult superstar who does not deserve this reevaluation. His presence in the most monumental events of his time seems almost accidental, not of any fault of The Dog’s, but of Wojtowicz’s own accord. He doesn’t want anything more from the gay scene than abundant options for sex, but he attaches himself to the liberation movement nonetheless. He doesn’t want his partner, Liz Eden, to have the surgery, but he robs a bank purely out of love for her, a proclamation no one seems to fully believe. He was a loud goofball who happened to be at the right place at the right time, denounced by everyone associated with him – including gay activists and Liz – but himself and his mother.