28 January 2012

Who Will Judge Us? (A Separation)

I'm violently opposed to judging films by their plots. I'm full of obnoxious comments like, "I don't care what the story is, I care how it is." While there is much more to Asghar Farhadi's A Separation than its plot, the storyline is one of the richest I've ever encountered. So I'm providing the summary that I often skip.

It all starts so simply...Nader (a fluctuating, brilliant performance by Peyman Moadi) seeks a divorce from Simin (Leila Hatami, with hair that doesn't want to be under a scarf all the time) because she wishes to use a visa to leave Iran. He cannot countenance abandoning his rapidly declining father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) and, after Simin moves to her mother's house, he must find a daytime nurse for the old man. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat, with eyes that rear back like a horse's) who brings a young daughter and, crucially, an unborn child with her to work. An argument over missing money and shoddy caretaking causes Nader to push Razieh out of the apartment and the implications of those moments fill the rest of the film. Razieh's husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) arrives in a headbutting fury after learning his wife has miscarried but his presence is almost comforting, as his constant rage (at losing a child, at being underemployed, at being powerless) shows on a surface level. Every other character seems somehow more pained, their injuries muffled, too deeply embedded to reveal.

The events of the film, the particulars of the plot's intricate circularity, are weighed by a battery of judges. In the first post-credits shot, the camera sits in the unseen magistrate's chair listening to the bitter testimony of Nader and Simin. A visible but unnamed interrogator later dispenses more rulings, patient with Nader and Hodjat but terribly overworked. These officials are less important to the central couples than two other figures. For Razieh and Hodjat, the ultimate judge is God, and they are constantly swearing on or having others swear on the Koran (the physical book proves to be Razieh's undoing at a moment of truth). For Simin and Nader, the ultimate judge is their daughter, Termeh (the astounding Sarina Farhadi), who observes proceedings behind frameless glasses, quiet and omniscient as a security camera. By the end, Nader is frankly terrified by how little escapes her gaze, how many of his half-truths she's caught.

This is not a picture of life in the public spaces of Iran. It's an intimacy with Nader's apartment, a familiarity with the way the front door handle cuts a small semi circle into the doorjamb, as if we've lived there for years. People come and go through the space, often separated by frames within frames: walls, doorways, frosted glass. Conversations are cut off then restarted in different groups, rejiggered to just the family, just the adults, just the men. The unease at home comes across in an early shot of a print of the painting you think of when you hear the name Andrew Wyeth. Acts in this private space are so definitive that Farhadi cuts directly from a reenactment of Razieh being pushed to official testimony about the same. The film sits on my chest, heavy and dusty as one of the carpets in that vortex of an apartment.

As we're in an epoch of totally laughable Oscar selections, A Separation is one film for which I can root come February.

16 January 2012

Have You Seen...? #4 (Revanche)

The first film to arrive on my resuscitated Netflix account (Christlike, I forgave the company for their 2011 trespasses) was Götz Spielmann's Revanche. The film is all Johannes Krisch's as our protagonist Alex, a man straight of out a Charles Willeford book. Perhaps if Cockfighter had been Woodchopper. In the first act of the film I thought Krisch had an aspect of Robert Carlyle's Begbie in Trainspotting, if a bit less sadistic and recessive. Early in Revanche Alex is employed as a sort of brothel handyman, ill-advisedly in love with a coworker.

But Alex's seemingly straightforward bank robbery getaway story with Ukrainian prostitute Tamara (Irina Potapenko, whose eyes are always expressive of her imminent doom) proves to be a Janet Leigh in Psycho-style MacGuffin. After Tamara exits we're left with two sets of houses out in the Viennese sticks and a story of Alice Munro-level insularity.

Alex moves in with Grandpa Hausner (Johannes Thanheiser, the Max von Sydow of Austria) a man who is very attached indeed to his haus, saying on more than one occasion: "they'll carry me out." Through the woods live Robert (Andreas Lust), a tense policeman entangled in Alex's botched robbery escape and his wide-of-bosom wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss) who takes Hausner to church on Sundays and is having some problems getting pregnant...

The tale unfolds with a sense of inevitability that I've always enjoyed. The simple plot allows Spielmann to give us an incredible intimacy with Hausner's farm. We see two spaces (the woodshed and the kitchen table) from an almost scientific variety of angles--progressive woodcutting and breadbreaking are captured by a camera shifted about 70 degrees clockwise with each shot. If it's the back of Alex's head for lunch in shot A, it's Alex's face in profile for breakfast in shot B. The pattern of the still life table and shrill table saw give the film a lulling, timeless quality, with Susanne's Sunday visits the only indication that there are individual days.

One unforgettable cut in Revanche: a shot of Susanne's legs scissoring as she walks away segues into a matched frame of block of wood chopped in two. The woman and the kindling spread out in to the light while Alex pounds away in the darkness of the barn. He's such a devoted lumberjack that it made me want to put on work gloves to keep the sap off my own hands (he did not, as I did this weekend, get his first mani-pedi).

The film's soundtrack is spare with emphasis on the haunting. The lakeside cry of the loon and the moan of Hausner's accordion intertwine in a quiet, elegiac frenzy. And then there's Alex's iced-over voice asking Susanne, with a tiny cross on her chest, "what does your god have to say?" In Revanche, not much.

03 January 2012

Best of 2011

My 2011 began on a miserable February morning but I came out of a fog at precisely the 2:35 mark here. I responded to "All of the Lights" not with an epileptic seizure but with joy. For the rest of the year, I sought out films as unmistakably well made as Rihanna's sideboob.

Best Acting

I enjoyed the deadpan friction between Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle in The Guard, their triumph over the inherent 48 Hours-ness of the film's scenario. John Hawkes continued his reign of indie chilliness in Martha Marcy May Marlene, singing "She's Just a Picture" just to make sure you can still feel the hairs on the back of your neck. God knows I need to nominate Ryan Gosling for something in his fast cars/shooting stars year, so I'll give a shout here to having my dream haircut in Crazy. Stupid. Love. As Emma Stone bitterly exclaimed, in one of the great lines for our age, "it's like you're Photoshopped!" It's my sad duty to bid adieu to fat Jonah Hill in Moneyball, where he's excellent as Brad Pitt's assistant, crunching numbers and patiently showing Billy Beane and a nationwide audience what a metaphor is.

Best Actressing

In an otherwise forgettable picture, I adored Anna Kendrick's young shrink in 50/50, particularly the scenes in which she tried, with tenderly awkward earnestness, to comfort cancerous Joseph Gordon-Levitt by putting her hand on his arm. Rooney Mara, and her escalator-sliding Lisbeth Salander, beats out Hanna's Saoirse Ronan for most athletic performance I saw by young women growing up in that ghetto university. Midnight in Paris's Marion Cotillard was worth going back in time for, though Rachel McAdams' Inez would have made anyone want to jump into a vortex.

The Good Pictures

Three and half stars is easily the most bestowed WTT rating. If I see a film, it's probably supposed to be good and I probably won't like it quite as much as its most ardent fans. Take the list from the last two weeks of the year: The Artist, Shame, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. All handsomely made and well-acted but with too many flat patches and without the I-want-to-study-that-again-right-now factor I get from my favorite pictures. Because I want you to see everything, here are some more good but not great picks: The Descendants, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball and The Names of Love. And don't neglect the solid documentaries Bill Cunningham New York, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Interrupters and Senna.

The Most Disappointing Picture

I closed last year's list by saying 2011 looked like a good year simply because Terrence Malick would release a new film. One could argue I was setting expectations just a touch too high but The Tree of Life is my least favorite Malick. It garnered the same three and a half star rating as The Other Guys after I saw the films back to back this summer. I watch The Thin Red Line over and over for flourishes like the blue butterfly floating through the battlefield; I defend Malick's right to put something so blatantly artistic in the midst of Guadalcanal. But the reason the butterfly moment (or the face buried in earth moment, or any of a dozen other moments) works is that it beautifully interrupts and expands upon the propulsion of a story. I feel like The Tree of Life flips this balance; it's at least 80% moments of flourish, with a less motivated butterfly scene and less story (or cohesive episodes) than even A New World, which rests close to the outer edge of my patience for Malick's wandering eye. 

The Best Pictures

5. Drive - If I go by the I-want-to-see-it-again test, perhaps this should have been #1. Sitting third-row-close to an enormous XD screen I could feel the smog through my hair as Ryan Gosling drove into cool guy immortality (he's even prescient about the Clippers being relevant!). Nicholas Winding Refn realized that sometimes you don't need more than pulpy bad guys, awesome jackets and an ephemeral pop soundtrack. In fact, it's time to crank up "A Real Hero" rightnow. (Anyone pointing to the shallowness of this picture would do well to remember how deeply the author of this post loves Miami Vice.)

4. Mysteries of Lisbon - Dearly departed Raoul Ruiz went out with a sprawling masterpiece in the best Masterpiece Theater sense of the word. To me this is the defining still life, set piece epic that Barry Lyndon is supposed to be. The film isn't strictly chronological, unfurling instead forwards and backwards with a bit of magic--much like one's memory. Silky camerawork follows each coutured step of the impossibly handsome cast, from Ricardo Pereira and Clotilde Hesme to Lea Seydoux and Melvil Poupaud. Beguiling, beguiling--a friend to WTT on many future gloomy Sunday afternoons.

3. Certified Copy - The most mysterious film of the year. Abbas Kiarostami offers us the extreme pleasure of not knowing exactly what's happening but also not caring, soaked in the Tuscan sun and startling, true dialogue. The topics here are the two that matter most: love and art. I'm not sure if Juliet Binoche and William Shimmel have just met or have known each other forever but I'm going to spend a lot more time trying to figure it out.

2. Take Shelter - This is the film 2011 deserved and it ought to win every domestic award. An immense performance by Michael Shannon as a man with storms in his head all the time. Great supporting acting by Jessica Chastain and Shea Whigham as his bewildered wife and his best friend. Superficially, this is the story of a man battling the onset of schizophrenia but it's the best depiction I've seen of life in America today. We don't have enough money to maintain our lifestyles, our children need special care, we're isolated in our own communities and, oh yeah, the incidences of superstorms are increasing exponentially and it's all just fucking scary. Jeff Nichols (who also directed the must-see Shotgun Stories) dispassionately raises the pressure by degrees to the point where average, middle class life becomes unbearable.

1. Melancholia - Speaking of catastrophes...Lars von Trier, the director responsible for some of the best films in the last 20 years and maybe the worst, recovered from his Cannazi fiasco because this film is so damn good. His the kind of art I seek out: 100% and 0% on Metacritic. It's all or nothing and Melancholia is all. I've read that this is just a film about self-involved Lars comparing his mental illness to the end of the world. I've read that Kirsten Dunst's performance is an overly-exaggerated portrait of depression. Oh, no. Lars and I know there's no hyperbole in Justine--she'll leave Alexander Skarsgard's apple orchard wedding night dream crumpled on the couch, she'll be unable to bathe even if Charlotte Gainsbourg drags her all the way to the tub. So, after sheer terror of discovering that Melancholia is returning on crash course with Earth, Justine absorbs its blue energy and reflects it back. Shots lose the frenetic energy of the first act; the end of the world is stately; we're going all the way this time. After the protagonists and their small teepee of sticks evaporated and Wagner crashed once more into my ears, I walked out of the theatre giddy.

And just remember this: if you want it you can get it for the rest of your life.