Mar 6, 2015

Screening Log: February

Kamran Shirdel on the set of The Night It Rained

The Cow (Mehrjui, 1969, A+) (thoughts)
"That the film remains largely undiscovered internationally is disheartening, but its lasting influence on Iranian cinema is a feat unparalleled by any other film. For Mehrjui, that is perhaps the highest reward."

The Night It Rained (Shirdel, 1967, A+)
A timeless examination of the essence of documentary filmmaking; a culturally insightful and prescient look at bureacratic machinations that have stood the test of regime changes to remain as endearingly complicated as Shirdel depicts.

P Like Pelican (Kimiavi, 1972, A-)
A hypnotic work from the godfather of blurring the fiction/documentary boundary in Iranian cinema. Despite the sparseness of its storytelling, it's a film that bears multiple revisits to be fully felt, let alone understood.

Only Image Remains (Akbari, 2014, N/A) (podcast)
Akbari's video essay on the traveling retrospective of Iranian films provides worthy contextulization, not just for this specific series, but also for Iranian cinema as a national and transnational enterprise.

It's Winter (Pitts, 2006, B+)
Pitts has a deft hand at making social critiques without appearing to criticize anything at all. It's Winter doesn't have quite the same thrill of his later film, The Hunter, but it is extremely sharp about the rarely discussed topic of sexual frustration in the conservative outskirts of cities in Iran. The ending is absolutely haunting.

The Mix (Mehrjui, 2000, C+)
It isn't coincidental that the general decline in the quality of Mehrjui's films began right around this time, when he made this technical, occasionally tedious and openly frustrated look at the obstacles Iranian filmmakers face in a still largely artisanal industry under heavy censorship. There are individual riveting moments in the film, but as a whole, The Mix feels more like a diatribe.

Wild Canaries, 2015, B+/A-) (review)
"The stars of the show are Levine and Takal, whose performances not only perfect the comic tempo, but also suggest that their real-life relationship has influenced every frustrated argument and passionate kiss seen in the film. Their effortless chemistry in this screwball throwback is reminiscent of classic screen couples such as William Powell and Myrna Loy. Like The Thin Man, Wild Canaries leaves us impatiently waiting for the couple’s next adventure."

Wild (Vallee, 2014, B)
Wild adds a new dimension to Vallee's intriguingly expanding filmography. The use of sound in this film is particularly exciting, both in the flashback scenes and in the lead character's excursions in the wild. Reese Witherspoon, an actress I had never warmed to before, gives her career best performance. 

Secrets & Lies (Liegh, 1996, A)
Neither Leigh's best film (Topsy Turvy) nor my favourite (Naked) but the most devastatingly moving one he has made. His subtle study of grief, missed connections and lost affections is elevated by three sensational performances from Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan and Timothy Spall.

The Pear Tree (Mehrjui, 1998, B)
It is arguable whether The Pear Tree can completely do without the (lyrical and affecting) voice-over narration that runs over the entire film. Had it removed of this poetic but rather explicit narrative device, would the potentially more contemplative results have been a bigger international hit? As is, this is one of Mehrjui's strongest works, an evocative, tender film that, minus overt politicization near the end, gently prods romanticism in a way that is uniquely sensual for the cultural of Iran in the 1990s.

The Imitation Game (Tyldum, 2014, C+)
As bland and flat as the prestige British biopic gets, with alleged historical liberties that seem to extend beyond simple artistic licenses. It's competently crafted and finely acted but it boggles the mind how films like this can win critical raves and establishment prizes simply for not grossly fucking things up.

The Garden of Stones (Kimiavi, 1976, B+)
Despite its short running time, The Garden of Stones moves at a glacial pace, but its tangy humor, wild fantasies and hilariously shameless criticisms of Iranian culture and religiosity create a memorable and essential piece.

Special Line (Kiayi, 2014, B+)
A tense and exciting thriller about hacking a bank system to swindle a corrupt banker out of money, Kiayi's film is coolly stylized with exceptional, fire-cracking dialogue and an energetic cast. It is two problems short of being a genuinely great film: a romantic subplot that only clutters the plot, and an ending that unnecessarily reinforces the film's already prominent theme.

Pari (Mehrjui, 1995, N/A)
This isn't (or, at least, might not be) the worst film Mehrjui ever made but something about its structure -- Niki Karimi's gross overacting, the overwhelming sense that every line is delivering a statement, and the fact that there is a total absence of subtlety in a story about internal existential turmoil that sorely misses it -- has made me give up on it midway through on three separate occasions. One day I'm certain I will finish this film and it might turn out to be a lot better than I thought.

Sara (Mehrjui, 1993, B+)
Mehrjui's feminist manifesto -- about a woman who borrows money to save her dying husband but is in turn chastised for her efforts to pay the money back -- is bold, powerful and ahead of its time for Iranian cinema; a film that discusses issues of personal agency and sociocultural oppression of women with remarkable frankness. As a piece of filmmaking, it isn't quite at the same level as Hamoun or The Tenants, but its thematic audacity makes this a valuable milestone of 90s Iranian cinema. Legendary actor, Khosrow Shakibaei, gives one of his best performances as a mischievous, conniving man with an inferiority complex toward women.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, 2014, A)
Darker and more nostalgic on repeat viewings, this is Anderson's most meticulously crafted, most joyful and most heart-wrenching film at once. Ralph Fiennes's M. Gustave is a comic creation (with an ocean of melancholy in his eyes) for the ages.

The Lady (Mehrjui, 1991, C-)
One of the weaker efforts of Mehrjui's career, this tonally confused maybe-thriller-maybe-drama is a failed attempt to recapture the magic of Hamoun with the same three actors is neither a character study of the titular character, whose despair is only superficially justified, nor a film that can build on the potential of its suspense.

Appropriate Behavior (Akhavan, 2015, D+)
Akhavan's intentions are earnest enough, given the film's autobiographical nature, but Appropriate Behavior plays out like an extended episode of "Shit Lesbians Say". Aside from the missed opportunity to offer insight into the lives of Iranian LGBT community in diaspora -- a vast minority given the intolerance against the community at home -- which is restricted to a few sarcastic jokes only, the script's irritatingly forced humor and the now cliched narrative beats about Brooklyn youth cripple this film. Akhavan is not emotive enough as a performer to convey the personality of this story. As always, I am thrilled for Iranian filmmakers succeeding abroad; suffice to say that I'll be looking forward to her next film, hoping it is a significant improvement.

The Tenants (Mehrjui, 1986, A+)
What an exhilarating experience this film is! Nearly thirty years after its production, Mehrjui's vibrant, rambunctious comedy has not lost an ounce of it humor or insight into middle class Tehrani lifestyle. In bringing together the landlords, the estate agents, the tenants and the laborers of a single building, Mehrjui gives himself the platform to paint a complete picture of an intersection of the society in a single location. With its fiery, ever-quotable dialogue and an ensemble of breathtaking performances, The Tenants is one of the best Iranian films ever made and an influential template from which many significant future comedies -- among them Asghar Farhadi and Parisa Bakhtavar's Tambourine, Mehrjui's own Mum's Guest and, most importantly, several of Mehran Modiri's TV series -- gained inspiration.

Sexy Beast (Glazer, 2001, B+)
Miraculously assured for a feature film debut, Glazer's stylish romantic crime thriller brings together his cool aesthetic from previous visual work and a group of remarkable performances to shape a film that is at once tensely unpredictable and soulfully nostalgic.

Calvary (McDonagh, 2014, B-)
Calvary feels somewhat limited in scope, never quite exploring the full potential for spiritual discovery in the story, but it is anchored by a riveting performance from the understated -- and underrated -- Brendan Gleeson, who plays Father's James inner turmoils with remarkable vulnerability.

American Sniper (Eastwood, 2014, B+)
It is unclear, on one screening, whether the film respects Chris Kyle's targets any more than he does, and there is no denying what a comparison between Kyle's biography and the film reveals: Eastwood's extremely generous portrayal of Kyle tones down much of his viciousness and immorality. Bradley Cooper's performance does all the hard work in shading this character in greys, complicating him and showing internal conflicts that do not exist on paper. The action sequences -- barring the final, critical moment which is hokey and over-directed -- are exceptionally tense.

The Cycle (Mehrjui, 1979, B+)
A controversial, harrowing look at the shady business of illegal blood dealing in the medical system in Iran in the years leading up to the revolution. Mehrjui's formal control really matures in this film, although the pacing problems with his previous films still persist on some level. The Cycle is extremely confrontational, and consequently an intensely powerful experience. One can practically feel physical pain every time a needle penetrates an arm. 

Lovesick (Matheny, 2015, D-) (review)
As disposable as the generic Hollywood romantic comedy gets.

Total: 24 films

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