Mar 1, 2016

New Beginnings

It's with a bittersweet feeling that I announce this news, but this blog will be permanently closed and not updated again. I'm not going anywhere of course, and have only updated to a better and bigger website, with the name and logo completely intact. Still, this blog was my first foray into writing in English and starting it back in February 2010 has changed my life in ways I definitely did not foresee at the time. I've loved writing in this space and I love every single person who ever read any of my posts and commented and encouraged me along the way. I hope you follow me over to the new venture. Click on the image below to be redirected to the website.

Jan 6, 2016

Best of 2015

Best Film
1. Carol (Haynes)
2. Arabian Nights: Vol. 1-3 (Gomes)
3. The Look of Silence (Oppenheimer)
4. Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller)
5. It Follows (Mitchell)
6. Victoria (Schipper)
7. Timbuktu (Sissako)
8. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Porumboiu)
9. Spotlight (McCarthy)
10. Ex Machina (Garland)
11. Shaun the Sheep (Burton/Starzak)
12. Girlhood (Sciamma)
Honorable Mentions: 45 Years (Haigh), Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Elkabetz/Elkabetz), Mistress America (Baumbach), Junun (Anderson)

Best Unreleased Film
1. What's the Time in Your World? (Yazdanian)
2. 316 (Haghani)
3. The Treasure (Porumboiu)
4. The Club (Larraín)
5. I Want to Be a King (Ganji)
6. Much Loved (Ayouch)

Best Director 
1. Miguel Gomes (Arabian Nights)
2. David Robert Mitchell (It Follows)
3. George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)
4. Todd Haynes (Carol)
5. Jessica Hausner (Amour Fou)
6. Sebastian Schipper (Victoria)

Best Screenplay
1. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism
2. Carol
3. 45 Years 
4. Spotlight
5. Clouds of Sils Maria
6. Wild Canaries

Jan 5, 2016

2015 Complete Screening Log

The past year was quite a strange one for me, marked by drastic, mostly negative changes in my personal life, and drastic, mostly positive changes in my professional life. I never write about my private life on the blog, and I'd like to keep things that way; as for my professional life, the aspects of it that relate to cinema are already known to any of you who still bother to drop by here and read the blog; namely, I worked with TIFF Cinematheque on their "I for Iran: A History of Iranian Cinema" series in multiple capacities, and served as the artistic director of the inaugural edition of the Cine-Iran Festival of Toronto, a position I will continue to hold over the coming years, hopefully.

Scene from Emir Kusturica's Underground (1995)

All these changes had a significant impact on what films I watch and how I watch them. I watched even more Iranian films than before, for a start. I began to watch TV, which I had resisted for as long as I could due my inherent lack of focus and patience for longform storytelling. Yet, the medium is far more forgiving of a depressed mental state   you'd always rather see old friends than new ones, especially when the world has turned on you, wouldn't you?   so Mad Men and Arrested Development and Bob's Burgers and BoJack Horseman and Making a Murderer became a significant chunk of my diet.

Still, I managed to watch 221 films, so I couldn't let the year go by without a final list. The large majority of my screenings were of new releases, but below are the top 15 older films I watched (or re-watched) in 2015 that I cherish most. You'll notice a lot of Iranian films on this list, but I guess that's what happens when you try to reacquaint yourself with your favourite national cinema.

1. Where's the Friend's Home (Kiarostami, 1989)
2. Still Life (Shahid Saless, 1974)
3. Underground (Kusturica, 1995)
4. The Night It Rained (Shirdel, 1967)
5. La Jetée (Marker, 1962)
6. La Strada (Fellini, 1954)
7. The Cow (Mehrjui, 1969)
8. The Tenants (Mehrjui, 1986)
9. Singin' in the Rain (Kelly/Donen, 1952)
10. The Night of the Hunchbank (Ghaffary, 1965)
11. About Elly (Farhadi, 2009)
12. The Runner (Naderi, 1985)
13. Secrets & Lies (Leigh, 1996)
14. Beyond the Fire (Ayari, 1990)
15. The Circle (Panahi, 2000)

Complete list of 2015 screenings

Jan 1, 2016

Screening Log: December

The Revenant (Innaritu, 2015, 4.5)
Innaritu is back to his miserablist worst. This is such a simple-minded exercise in violence and dreariness, it's hard to see past the hype about the authenticity of the whole enterprise.

The Hateful Eight (Tarantino, 2015, 4.5)
Perhaps the political themes of the film and their modern resonance will become clearer on a second screening, but it's going to be a while before that second screening happens. This was a long, brutal and dull film, without the chutzpah, humor and cleverness with which Tarantino made long, brutal films feel anything but dull in the past.

The Big Short (McKay, 2015, 5.8)
The type of film where the most of everything is on offer   the most acting, the most editing, the most wig, the most fake tan, the most music, the most shrieking, the most machismo   but the least reward is taken away. For all the information delivered Margot Robbie in the bathtub, McKay is clueless about how to make the impact of the financial crisis/fraud be felt in any meaningful way.

Heart of a Dog (Anderson, 2015, 5.5)
A personal essay that surely feels more powerful, intimate and significant to Anderson than it does to the audience.

Straight Outta Compton (Gray, 2015, 7.6)
The inaccuracies in the band's history, and (the deserved) accusations of misogyny aside, Straight Outta Compton is a powerful film. Its ensemble of cast of newcomers all deserve star roles in many films to come, particularly Jason Mitchell, whose turn as Eazy E captures the blend of bitterness and heartbreak that has become the man's legacy. It is also remarkable that the scenes of interaction between band members and the police and the chaotic environment of Compton at the time are still shocking to see on the screen. It's a testament to  Gray's force behind the camera that despite the harrowing news one hears about the treatment of minorities by the police in America on a regular basis, the film never lets us feel desensitized to the injustice.

Results (Bujalski, 2015, 7.9)
Such a delightful oddity! Bujalski's film never moves in the direction one expects it to, be it from shot to shot, or in the overall arc of its story, but it never loses sight of the story's ebbs and flows. Consistently funny and energetic, and surprisingly fresh with its gender politics.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Elkabetz/Elkabetz, 2015, 8.1)
The archaic insanity and misogyny of fundamentalist religion knows no bounds; Gett knows how to perfectly channel the audience's rage through this story of Israel's broken justice system. The vast, rotating ensemble of performers are uniformly strong. 

Blackhat (Mann, 2015, 5.7)
There are individual sequences that are riveting in their intensity and visual construction, but this is a profoundly stupid film.

45 Years (Haigh, 2015, 8.1)
Andrew Haigh's follow-up to his brilliant debut, Weekend, proves that he was no one-hit-wonder. His deep, empathetic understanding of human emotions and relationships is one of a kind. This is a film that, with the aid of two exceptional performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, shows fragile the strongest bonds can be and how complex love truly is. It's an immensely moving film, made even more powerful with its final shot.

The Assassin (Hou, 2015, 7.0)
Gorgeously shot and opulently designed, Hou's latest is a visual feast, but the director's insistence on conveying moods and creating atmospheres in this sparsely plotted film often comes at the expense of his curiosity. The Assassin has a lot of potential for historical and political exploration.

The Mend (Magary, 2015, N/A)
It's entirely possible that on this particular night, my mood wasn't right for this film. Equally, it is possible that The Mend is far more deeply preoccupied with appearing bold and curious than with creating fully realized characters and relationships. I bailed with twenty minutes left on the clock, but nothing suggested that the finale would engage me more than the sluggish, tonally confused build-up.

The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941, 7.6)
An impressive for Huston, though in retrospect that is no surprise, of course. One of film noir's earliest example is a technically complex, thrilling film, with a charming performance from Humphrey Bogart, but it is undermined by the film's loose grasp of tone, often veering suddenly, and needlessly, into comedy. The score is particularly at fault.

The Lobster (Lanthimos, 2015, 7.9)
Darkly, absurdly comic in the fashion we've come to expect of Lanthimos in the first half of the film, unexpectedly, tenderly romantic in the second half. It's satirical, but also deeply honest and heartbreaking, aided by two wonderful turns from Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz.

Mistress America (Baumbach, 2015, 8.0)
Like a less emotionally complex follow-up to Frances Ha, but equally endearing and entertaining. This is a sharp and astute look at the confusions of youth and one of the year's funniest films.

Carol (Haynes, 2015, 9.4)
Haynes's sturdy formalism and the meticulousness of his storytelling is such that when the emotional blows are delivered, one truly wonders how and when so much deep, personal engagement with the film came to be. Haynes remarkably depicts every specific emotion and memory associated with love, the small, insignificant moments that linger when one is truly in love, and most films skip over, become moments of majestic grandeur in Carol. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are a dream. 

Creed (Coogler, 2015, 8.1)
The death of an American myth, the birth of an American dream. Bombastic, sensational directing from Coogler; measured and careful performances from Jordan, Thompson and Stallone. Creed deftly handles the literal and figurative passing of the baton from the old guard to today's generation.

Arabian Nights: Volume 3, The Enchanted One (Gomes, 2015, 9.4) (review)
"Arabian Nights is a work of grand ambition, a film that is at once heartbreaking and confrontational, transcendent but grounded in the mundane realities of living with poverty. Gomes has made what will quite possibly be regarded as the definitive film about the global economic crisis."

James White (Mond, 2015, 7.3)
One of the strangest films of the year, and desperately begging for repeated viewings to works its way into the audience's mind. Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon deliver stellar performances as a mother and son in dire straights. James White is a powerful, intense and overwhelming experience.

Room (Abrahamson, 2015, 7.0)
The wheels fall off the film in the final third, but it's tender, powerful and tense in the lead-up. Brie Larson is magnetic, as expected, but the true revelation here is Jacob Tremblay, who delivers what has to be one of the best child performances of all time.

Brooklyn (Crowley, 2015, 7.7)
Saoirse Ronan is searing in her role as a new Irish immigrant to New York City in this charming, beautifully executed story. Brooklyn is the type of film that could have been cheesy and ordinary in lesser hands but is incredibly moving and powerful, even if it's not a particularly inventive artistic accomplishment.

Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One (Gomes, 2015, 9.4) (review)
"The longing voice of the narrator and Gomes’s romanticist touch paint a wistful, heartbreaking picture of the sorrow that has taken root in the community. Aided by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s tactile photography and the director’s unparalleled knack for using pop tracks effectively, “The Owners of Dixie” contains the most heartfelt and emotionally resonant moments in the Arabian Nights epic, a majestic chapter that highlights the director’s humanist sensibilities."

Total: 21

Dec 17, 2015

Arabian Nights: Vol. 3, The Enchanted One

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine

The first two volumes of Miguel Gomes’s latest film, Arabian Nights, explore the crippling effects of economic mismanagement in Portugal, ostensibly through the magical lens of Princess Scheherazade, who narrates the tales to her husband, King Shahryar. The themes that Gomes is exploring in both volumes are similar—the causes of the financial meltdown as well as the human and emotional toll it has taken on Portuguese people—but stylistically, the volumes are drastically different. The omnibus films thus far have treated the audience to a medley of genres and tones, from an observational documentary about decaying shipyards in Viana do Castelo to the absurdist setting of a courthouse in the “Tears of the Judge” chapter. The third volume is comprised of fewer segments, but further expands the spectrum of Gomes’ experiment.

The Enchanted One begins with what appears to be the most faithful adaptation of the Middle Eastern folkloric tale that lends the film its title. Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) imagines escaping the grip of her husband to explore the sun-soaked sceneries of Baghdad and the world beyond. In a moment that encapsulates Gomes’ consistently exceptional use of pop music, an image of Scheherazade’s tearful face, as she ponders the places she’ll never live to see, cuts to images from the serene depths of the ocean, to the tune of Glenn Miller’s rendition of “Perfidia.” Music plays an even more prominent role in this opening chapter than the rest of the film; one particularly memorable sequence superimposes the lives of Bohemian Persian nomads with a black and white video of a Bahian rock band.

Scheherazade’s sorrowful rumination on her life mirrors the hopelessness of European youth today. The wistful, romantic mood of this chapter doesn’t quite prepare the audience for the remainder of the film: an 80-minute documentary about bird-trapping that, juxtaposed with the non-fiction opening of Vol. 1, neatly bookends the film. “The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches” tells the story of bird-song specialists, men who train chaffinches to sing in competitions held in a suburb of Lisbon, near the southern coast of Portugal. The contests are socially and historically significant, and date back to the post-WWI era, when the country was recovering from another period of decline.

This finale is a remarkably quiet way to close off what has thus far been a rollercoaster of stories and emotions, though Gomes’s penchant for formal and narrative experimentation is still evident. There are elements of self-referentiality that connects this episode to the previous volumes—Chapas, one of the leading bird song specialists, turns out to be the man who played the role of Simao without Bowels in The Desolate One—and his exceptional use of music culminates in the film’s bravura ending, set to the tune of The Langley School Project’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.”

Yet, the closing chapter imposes tremendous emotional weight on the audience precisely because it is somber and, on the surface, unassuming. The plight of his countrymen is profoundly felt by Gomes, and he is aware of his obligation to bring their pain to light. Consequently, this three-part epic is as much about the enduring tragedy of Portugal’s decline as it is about Gomes’ struggle to tell this necessary but inherently unglamorous story. Arabian Nights is a work of grand ambition, a film that is at once heartbreaking and confrontational, transcendent but grounded in the mundane realities of living with poverty. Gomes has made what will quite possibly be regarded as the definitive film about the global economic crisis.

Dec 11, 2015

Arabian Nights: Vol. 2, The Desolate One

*This review was originally written for Movie Mezzanine

The first volume of Miguel Gomes’s sprawling epic, Arabian Nights, has the unenviable task of bringing the audience on board with the filmmaker’s wild vision and convince them to remain on board for another four hours. Establishing his perspective alongside Princess Scheherazade’s–the storyteller within the story–the episodes contained in the first volume vary significantly in tone, mode, and genre. In comparison, the second volume, The Desolate One, is relatively straightforward. Consisting only of three episodes, the middle film continues Gomes’s critique of Portugal’s economic policies and his study of the social and moral implications of poverty.

In “The Chronicle of the Escape of Simao Without Bowels,” the titular protagonist is an old, hardened criminal on the run from the police. Having murdered his wife and two kids, the man—who is given the nickname because of his lean physique—wanders in rural pastures as he evades arrest, but when he eventually succumbs to authorities, the villagers gather to applaud him as a hero. The acerbic humor of this chapter is pointed, damning at once of the failures of Portugal’s judicial and police systems, and of the state’s lack of popularity among the Portuguese people. Monsters aren’t just forgiven; they’re idolized if they stand up to the government.

The second chapter is thematically similar, if drastically different in tone. The setting of “Tears of the Judge” is an outdoor courthouse, in which a small crime—theft of household items by a tenant—is being adjudicated. The hilariously convoluted plot moves around the courtroom and incriminates everyone present as the maze created by the theft and its background gets increasingly complex. Gomes’s finger is pointed at the deep-rooted corruption and the needlessly complex bureaucracy of his country. The austerity measures imposed on the Portuguese by greedy politicians and foreign investors are blatantly, though with tongue firmly in cheek, incriminated; and further yet, the broad scope of this absurdist chapter allows the filmmaker to poke fun at entrenched sexism and racism within Portuguese society.

The third chapter ends the film in stark contrast with the previous two. In “The Owners of Dixie,” Gomes enters an apartment complex where the inhabitants are suffering from the effects of the financial crisis. Structured as several small vignettes about different residents in the building, our perspective is mostly that of a poodle named Dixie, at first owned by an elderly couple, then passed around to new owners who turn to another woman for help with the animal. In the process, these working-class characters open up with their heartbreaking stories.

This finale is similar in tone to the second chapter of Gomes’s previous film, Tabu. It’s tinged with a bitter sense of nostalgia for better times gone by, when the neighbours would gather for New Year parties, and Brazilian nudists would camp on the rooftop of the building. The longing voice of the narrator and Gomes’s romanticist touch paint a wistful, heartbreaking picture of the sorrow that has taken root in the community. Aided by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s tactile photography and the director’s unparalleled knack for using pop tracks effectively, “The Owners of Dixie” contains the most heartfelt and emotionally resonant moments in the Arabian Nights epic, a majestic chapter that highlights the director’s humanist sensibilities.

Dec 4, 2015

Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine

The Restless One, the first of three volumes that comprise Miguel Gomes’ ambitious six-hour long omnibus Arabian Nights, begins at a shipyard in Viana do Castelo, Portugal. The decaying infrastructure of the port and the frank, solemn tenor of the narrators’ voices as they describe the decline of the shipyard convey the gloomy mood of a country that has fallen victim to economic misery. The sense of aimlessness and desperation is palpably captured in extreme long shots that capture hundreds of men wandering around the harbor.

Of course, nothing can prepare the audience for what turn the man behind films like Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu might take and, true to form, Gomes subverts the expectations set by the opening few minutes by breaking down the fourth wall and entering his film. The fictional Gomes is a director on the run, and is eventually punished for the extravagance and reverie of his filmic ambitions in a country where strict economic pressures are imposed. This hilarious storytelling detour shows a level of self-awareness that runs through the entire Arabian Night opus. Gomes’s wildest, most auspicious and gloriously messy film to date borrows the structure of the eponymous Middle Eastern collection of folkloric tales, but appropriated to modern Portugal under the government’s extreme austerity measures.

Commercial requirements have forced the film to be marketed as a trilogy—a fate that the film’s director doesn’t necessarily view as a hindrance—but the coherence in the structure of Arabian Nights only becomes clear over the course of the three films. Each volume can be studied as a separate entity and because of the episodic nature of the narrative each feels like a self-contained feature. But it is in conjunction with one another that the films reveal their thematic resonance and stylistic grandeur. The Restless One provides the underlying context of Portugal’s financial crisis and introduces us to Princess Scheherazade, the Persian wife of King Shahryar, who narrated stories to her husband over one thousand and one nights. The framing device and the poverty—economic, moral, and, consequently, emotional—felt in Portugal today establishes the audience’s grasp on the film’s continuously varying perspectives and tonal shifts.

In Scheherazade’s first tale, The Men with Hard-ons, Gomes farcically criticizes the political corruption that has led to economic disparity in Portugal. During a meeting between Portuguese ministers, European politicians, and a banker, the men are given a potion by an African magician that gives them powerful and lasting boners. The metaphor for greed among the elite is evident. That the sequence’s blunt satire is so lacking in subtlety is further emphasized as the film progresses, but Gomes’s capability to draw in the audience to stories that are individually so magnetic is such that the tonal shifts feel seamless.

The final chapter in this volume, The Swim of the Magnificents, returns the film to the form of docu-fiction again. Structured around three interviews with men and women who have lost their jobs, the conversations are raw, confrontational and painfully heartfelt. Gomes finds the depth of agony amongst his people and observantly studies the drastic effects of poverty on relationships and mental health. But the chapter, and consequently the volume, ends with a celebratory ritual—a coming together of downtrodden people on a beach for a collective moment of festivities. It’s a spiritual experience that transcends material concerns and a cinematic closure that is quite fitting. The moment of respite from the troubles of the real world is fleeting, only until Scheherazade returns with another tale.