As Above, So Below


Perdita Weeks wonders if there isn't an easier way to make it into Hollywood.

Perdita Weeks wonders if there isn’t an easier way to make it into Hollywood.

(2014) Horror (Universal/Legendary) Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro, Hamid Djavadan, Theo Cholbi, Emy Levy, Roger Van Hool, Olivia Csiky Trnka, Hellyette Bess, Aryan Rahimian, Samuel Aouizerate, Kaya Blocksage. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

Below the streets of Paris there is another city, a city of the dead. The legendary catacombs are where the remains of some say as many as eight million Parisians rest. Bones stacked neatly in ghoulish patterns – this is a real place, an actual tourist attraction in the City of Light. How perfect a setting it would be for a horror movie.

Scarlett (Weeks) is going to oblige us on that score. She believes that the legendary Philosopher’s Stone which European alchemists of the 15th century famously believed could change base metals into gold and allow the possessor to live forever, also rests in a secret chamber off the catacombs. She is a bit nutty on the subject – her dad (Van Hool) searched his entire life for the Stone and was ridiculed by the scientific community for it. His suicide only drove her into further obsession to find the artifact.

After nearly getting buried alive in Iran to photograph an elaborate Rosetta’s stone-like thing that would allow her to translate a map that she believes will lead her to the stone, the determined young scientist – who has several PhDs to her credit despite her youth – heads to Paris to find George (Feldman) who can translate the Aramaic and allow the symbols to be properly read.

George, once abandoned in Turkey by Scarlett so that she could continue her quest, is less than enthusiastic about helping her and her omnipresent cameraman Benji (Hodge) who is documenting the search. However, he agrees to put her in contact with urban spelunkers Papillon (Civil), Souxie (Lambert) and Zed (Marhyar) who agree to lead her to the place on her map even though it appears on no credible maps of the catacombs.

Once they get down there beyond the paths where tourists tread, strange things begin to happen. George, who is forced to join them by circumstances beyond his control, is definitely uneasy and Benji who is a bit claustrophobic is downright ready to turn on his heels and head back to the world above, sense that there is something not quite right and Papillon, who knows the area better than anyone except for La Taupe (Castro), a mole-like spelunker who went down into a forbidden tunnel and never was seen again. Of course, you know which tunnel they’re going to head down into – and where it leads may be the last place anyone rational wants to go.

Right now is a really good time to be a horror film, with an abundance of talented young up-and-coming directors showing immense promise and delivering in some cases some extraordinary horror films. While Dowdle qualifies as the former, his latest effort doesn’t qualify as the latter but don’t be put off – this is a very solid and entertaining horror movie that takes full advantage of its setting.

The cast is largely unknown although Mad Men fans might recognize Feldman but do solid jobs in roles that are fairly rote horror characters. I have to say Marhyar has one of the best “oh, crap!” expressions I’ve seen ever. It does make for occasional comedy relief.

The film is presented in a found footage format, which to my mind was totally unnecessary. We spend large chunks of time wandering down tunnels lit by headlamps and flashlights. Sure, this can be creepy but over the course of an hour and a half it gets old, plus because much of the movie is shot with GoPro devices the image quality is murky in places.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an off-the-charts creepiness factor going on here and Dowdle knows what he’s doing when it comes to ratcheting up the tension to high levels. While there is a lot here that’s unremarkable, overall this is a much better than average movie when it comes to horror and in a year where the bar has been set fairly high for big studio horror pictures this one comes in right in the middle of the pack.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely creepy setting. Some terrific scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Found footage is definitely passé and in this case, unnecessary. Could have shaved about ten minutes off.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of terror and violence, some of it bloody. There’s also pretty much non-stop cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first movie to be released in Legendary’s new deal with Universal after years at Warner Brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Intermedio
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mood Indigo

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Argo


Argo

I just wish Ben Affleck had shed this much light upon his character.

(2012) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Bob Gunton, Titus Welliver. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

In late 1979, a group of Iranian “students,” angered over the United States giving shelter to the dying former Shah (with some justification – the despotic Shah had many, many atrocities committed in his name) had taken over the U.S. Embassy (without justification – this was a violation of International law and was almost universally condemned) and held some 52 Americans for what would turn out to be a total of 444 days, accusing them of being spies rather than diplomats. Depending on your perspective, they had some justification for thinking that as the coup d’état that had placed the Shah in power in the first place had been organized by the British and American espionage agencies and had used the U.S. Embassy as something of a headquarters.

Six Americans escaped the embassy takeover – a fact that I’d forgotten and I consider myself a student of history – and hid in the residences of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and immigration officer John Shearsdown (although Shearsdown’s part in the affair is left out completely in the movie). Their ordeal is captured here.

The six Americans – Robert Anders (Donovan), Joe Stafford (McNairy), his wife Kathy (Bishe), Mark Lijek (Denham), his wife Cora (DuVall) and Lee Schatz (Cochrane) see the writing on the wall as the angry mob chants for blood outside the doors of the Embassy. Because they are in a side office with direct access to the street and lacking any sort of directive, they make a run for it. They wind up at Taylor’s (Garber) home after being refused safe harbor at the British and New Zealand embassies which in fact was untrue – that was a bit of license taken by the filmmakers to give a sense that the Americans had nowhere else to go to.

Back in the United States, the State Department is in an uproar over the hostage crisis. They feel, correctly, that the 52 hostages in the embassy are reasonably safe as they are in the public eye but the six who have been separated are in far more danger, and their presence is putting Canada in an awkward diplomatic position. CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Cranston) has brought in exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) into a meeting in which the State Department is exploring ways to get the six out safely but the ideas they come up with are ludicrous to say the least.

While watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on television, he hits upon the idea of giving the six cover stories as being part of a Canadian film crew doing a cheesy Star Wars rip-off movie using Iran as an exotic location. In order to add plausibility to the story, he enlists Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) to help create a production company. To lend credibility, producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) is also brought aboard. They stage a publicity event in which actors perform a reading of the script which gets enough press coverage that give credence to this being a “real” film.

Mendez enters Iran posing as a producer for the film and makes contact with the refugees. At first, there is some skepticism that this idea will even work – and Joe Stafford in particular has some trust issues for Mendez. Still, all of them realize that it is only a matter of time before the Iranian authorities realize that there are Americans missing from the embassy and once that happens, only a matter of time before they are found and that once they are found, their deaths will be extraordinarily bad.

As I said earlier, I’d let this incident – known as the Canadian Caper – fall into the recesses of my mind and I suspect most people my age are going to find the same effect. Younger audiences may not have any recollection of the incident at all and may know the hostage crisis as something they read about in modern American history or saw on the Discovery channel.

Affleck has really come into his own as a director; while The Town served notice of his skills both as a lead actor and director, Argo is likely to net him some serious Oscar consideration in the latter category. This is a movie that has you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end and even if you remember the incident in question, you’ll still be right there. He also captures not only the look of the United States and Iran circa 1980 but also the feel of both; it is an era when disco still reigns and America is beginning to grow bloated and ineffectual. Still reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and a moribund economy, there is a feeling that our country had lost its relevance and in fact, its cojones.

There are some strong performances here. Garber always carries himself with a certain grace and as the courageous Canadian ambassador that’s in evidence a ‘plenty here. The Emmy-winning Cranston continues to make his presence felt in supporting roles in films; now that his “Breaking Bad” run is over he no doubt will be getting lots of feature roles thrown at him and here he has some really good moments. On the Hollywood side, Arkin and Goodman are pros that can be relied upon to deliver solid at worst and spectacular at best performances and both are more towards their best here.

Strangely, the one performance I found less than compelling was Affleck’s. There is a little distance in him; Mendez clearly cares very much about the fate of the six and this spurs him to actions he might ordinarily not have taken. Still, Affleck doesn’t show us very much about the man Tony Mendez is/was and that’s puzzling since the real Mendez was available for him to study from; it’s possible that Mendez himself is this hard to know as well.

Still, this is likely to wind up on some end of the year lists and quite deservedly so. This is one of the Fall’s must-see films and if you haven’t already caught it, you really should before it gets pushed out by all the Thanksgiving blockbusters that are already making their way into the multiplex. Even if you’re not old enough to remember the hostage crisis, you’ll appreciate one of the great thrillers of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the era perfectly. Puts you on the edge of the seat even if you know how the affair concluded.

REASONS TO STAY: Affleck’s performance is a bit distant; I left the movie wondering who Tony Mendez was. Plays fast and loose with the facts.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language is pretty rough in places and there are some disturbing images, as well as some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, and Kyle Chandler who played him in the movie were both graduates of the University of Georgia.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

JIMMY CARTER LOVERS: The former President makes several appearances in the movie via archival footage.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Imposter

Dog Sweat


Dog Sweat

Sunset in Teheran.

(2010) Ensemble Drama (Indiepix) Ahmad Akbarzadeh, Tahareh Esfahani, Bagher Forohar, Sharokh Taslimi, Rahim Zamani. Directed by Hossein Keshavarz

Since the revolution in Iran deposed the Shah and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, Iran has existed as an Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, its laws deriving from the Sharia law of the Koran. Moral police enforce the laws, harassing women who are wearing lipstick, or young men for wearing t-shirts that display messages friendly to the West.

The Iranian population is the youngest on the average on Earth, with two thirds of the population under thirty. These young people have grown up indoctrinated by the mullahs and ayatollahs as to the rightness of Islamic law. They have also grown up seeing American television on clandestine broadcasts, showing them the freedoms available elsewhere and many yearn for the same thing for themselves.

Massoud (Taslimi) copes with this yearning by drinking himself into a stupor day after day on black market liquor (alcohol is forbidden in Islam), often imported from America or the notorious home brewed “Dog Sweat.” His indolent life comes to a screeching halt when his mother is seriously injured in a car accident, her neck broken as well as other terrible injuries. She is brought to a hospital which is overcrowded and by our standards, primitive. She gradually slips away and Massoud becomes enraged with what he sees his country’s decline.

Hooshang (Akbarzadeh) and Homan (Zamani) are the best of friends, inseparable. They work out at the gym together, horseplay in their swimming pool and hang out at cafes. And while it is never stated overtly, it seems pretty likely they are gay which is also forbidden – in fact, it is so forbidden it doesn’t legally “exist” in Iran. Their parents are most eager to get them married off. Many gay men in Iran are faced with similar choices – to exist as “bachelors,” unwed and severely limited in their activities, or to have some freedoms as married men and fathers. When Hooshang is paired with a bride, the relationship with Homan is put into doubt.

His bride is Mahsa (actress uncredited), who yearns to be a pop singer which is also forbidden in Iran – women cannot sing solo. Still, she cuts a demo in a friend’s studio and proves to be quite talented. She gets some interest but now a respectable married woman she must decide whether to risk her standing or pursue her dream.

Kate (actress uncredited) is a self-proclaimed feminist who is having an affair with a married man – a man who happens to be married to her cousin. Her brother Dawood (Forohar) is recently returned from studying at an American university and he becomes enamored with Kate’s friend Katherine (actress uncredited). The two decide they want to take their relationship farther but finding a place to do it is difficult at best so they walk the streets of Teheran endlessly, waiting for their chance for privacy and intimacy.

In the meantime Kate is also being pursued by Bijan (actor uncredited) in a creepy stalker-like way. She is left with the choice of a life of sexual encounters with a man she loves but cannot have, or the freedom of being a married woman with a man she doesn’t love.

Such is life in Iran. I found the glimpse fascinating. Much like life in any totalitarian regime, people find a way to live their lives, looking for back alley ways to get the things they want and need to bypass the authorities. There is the ever-present specter of the harsh punishment for violators, including imprisonment and execution for certain offenses.

The filmmakers had to shoot this guerilla style, sometimes without the knowledge of authorities and sometimes with forged permits. The result gives us a look at the everyday Iranian, free of government propaganda about how moral the society is. Some might find it more moral than our own in many ways, but people have their own moralities; some find drinking, smoking, dancing and fornicating to be perfectly acceptable by their own moral compass. All right, most do.

There were plenty of logistical difficulties in making this film. For one thing, they could only make it in small doses, forcing some actors to drop out as they became more nervous about their involvement in it being discovered. This leads to some storylines feeling hurried and ending abruptly.

There’s a great scene when Kate and Dawood’s mother finds a condom on the floor. She assumes it’s Dawood’s and asks him when he’s going to bring his girlfriend home, and seems pleased that her son is interested in someone. When he responds that the condom isn’t his, she goes into Kate’s room and has a screaming match, calling her daughter all sorts of names and slapping her face until Dawood intervenes and says he was mistaken, that the condom is really his. It seems that some things aren’t so different in their society as ours, eh?

While this is an ensemble-style drama, the storylines for the most part don’t intersect. While Keshavarz does an admirable job of giving all of the stories equal time and attention, some are more successfully told than others – an occupational hazard for this kind of storytelling. Still, this is worth checking out if for no other reason to see how the other half lives – and how things could easily be here were fundamentalist religious sorts in charge.

REASONS TO GO: A rare glimpse of everyday life in Teheran and the challenges that face the people living in a fundamentalist theocracy.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the story lines meander a bit and end abruptly.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of sexuality (although nothing overt), smoking and drinking, some violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in Teheran, usually clandestinely and often with forged permits. The actresses mainly wore wigs when filming scenes without their shawls in order to keep their heads covered per Islamic tradition and Iranian law.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the images of Teheran deserve a big screen viewing.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Happy Poet