The Salesman (Forushande)


Taraneh Alidoosti peers into a room that no longer feels safe to her.

(2016) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, Mina Sadati, Mojtaba Prizadeh, Sam Valipour, Emad Emami, Mehdi Koushki, Maral Bani Adam, Shirin Aghakashi, Ehteram Boroumand, Sahra Asadollahe. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

They say life imitates art, although it is more accurate to say that art imitates life far more often. On the rare occasion when the reverse is true it can be much more devastating than you might think.

Emad Etesami (S. Hosseini) is a teacher of Western literature in an Iranian high school (or its equivalent). Most of his students are practical jokers and a bit on the unruly side. His job is just that – a job. His passion is the stage and his drama club is producing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with Emad in the lead role of Willie Loman and Emad’s wife Rana (Alidoosti) as Linda Loman, Willie’s wife.

When their apartment complex becomes uninhabitable due to structure damage, Babak (Karimi), one of their cast members, offers an apartment in a complex that he owns. He’s a bit reticent to talk about the previous tenant, who left suddenly, other than to say “she had too many visitors.” What that cryptic remark meant soon became apparent when they discover that the woman in question had left some possessions she refused to pick up…and that she might have been entertaining men in the oldest profession sense of the word.

But that thought takes a bad turn when one night while Rana is alone and in the shower she buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Instead, it is someone who leaves her with a concussion and several bruises. Rana denies she was sexually assaulted but she is definitely reacting as if she was. She becomes paranoid, frightened. She becomes less able to leave the apartment even after she is cleared medically to do so. The relationship between Rana and Emad becomes strained. He becomes obsessed with finding out who committed the assault on his wife. He feels guilty for not having protected her. That obsession will lead to a confrontation that will test his basic decency and moral center. In other words, the Tennessee Miller play is being enacted in his life.

This is the most recent (as of this writing) winner for the Foreign Language Film Oscar and the second such award that Farhadi has won (the first was for A Separation). It’s fair to say that he is one of the best film directors in the world at the moment. Like some of his previous films, he takes an ordinary couple and throws something extraordinary into their lives.

It is never fully disclosed whether or not Rana suffered a sexual assault; whatever happened takes place off-screen and we’re left to wonder, as Emad does, whether or not she was raped. Certainly we are led in that direction through most of the film. Emad changes; he becomes obsessed, enraged and occasionally lashes out at Rana. Rana, for her part, becomes paranoid and withdrawn. While our sympathies lie with Emad about midway through the movie (Rana takes out a lot of her anger on him) we watch as our sympathies slowly change sides until Rana becomes the more rational of the two.

We see how bureaucrats in Iran regulate the arts, calling for slight changes in the Miller script that portray the West as decadent and corrupt. We also see how people are careful about expressing what they want to as there are always secret police around. It is the casual fear and paranoia that are part of the daily lives of Iranians that was the most poignant takeaway for me from this film.

Both Alidoosti and Hosseini are big stars in Iran. They are unlikely to ever cross over to American stardom; the current political climate forbids that. They give performances that while not necessarily Oscar-worthy are certainly worth including in that conversation. Alidoosti strikes me as the kind of actress who could easily be headlining major franchise films in a perfect world. This world is not perfect; it was never perfect and Arthur Miller knew that. The imperfect world is what crushed Willie Loman in the first place. Both Rana and Emad are setting themselves up to be crushed by that same world; whether they survive or not is immaterial. What does succeed is that not only do we see the cultural similarities between Iran and the West but we inadvertently become closer to the Iranian people by doing so.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Alidoosti and Hosseini are strong. There’s some insight here into the repressive regime in Iran. The effect of the assault on all involved is realistically depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film moves at something of a slow pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brief bloody image and adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farhadi chose not to travel to Hollywood to participate in the 2017 Academy Awards due to the travel ban that was enacted by the United States against seven Muslim nations including Iran. When the film won, Anousheh Ansari read a statement by the director explaining his absence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Irreversible
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Wilson

Body (2015)


Pretty little liar.

Pretty little liar.

(2015) Thriller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen, Lauren Molina, Larry Fessenden, Adam Cornelius, Dan Brennan, Kimberly Flynn, Ian Robinson, Jack Brenner, Mike Keller. Directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen

Florida Film Festival 2015

We all make mistakes in life but some can’t be taken back. When you make a really awful mistake, sometimes one bad decision can lead to a cascade of them.

It is the holidays and Holly (Rogers), Cali (Turshen) and Mel (Molina) are bored. They’ve been at Mel’s house having a holiday feast and have been playing Scrabble. Like most young college-age women, they want to do something fun and smoking weed with Mel’s younger brother (Robinson) just isn’t it.

Cali then manages to convince her friends to move the party to her Uncle’s house which turns out to be a McMansion of the cavernous sort. The girls continue drinking, play vintage arcade games and horse around. However as Holly explores the house, it becomes clear that the family that lives there is Asian and Cali is most decidedly a blonde and blue-eyed Caucasian. When confronted, Cali admits that the house doesn’t really belong to her Uncle so much as to a family she used to babysit for.

The girls then decide to put an end to their festivities and leave but before they can get out, the groundskeeper (Fessenden) surprises them. A struggle ensues and Holly accidentally sends the hapless man tumbling down the staircase to the bottom where he lands with a sickening crack.

Now the girls have done something that can’t be undone. Cali becomes the alpha female and convinces her friends that while what happened was bad, it need not destroy their lives. They cook up elaborate plans to hide the body but before they do they discover that, in the immortal words of Monty Python, he’s “not quite dead yet.” Now faced with a moral dilemma, they find their moral compass is spinning like a top.

Berk and Olsen, who also co-wrote the movie, have the three girls representing Freud’s concepts of the id, the ego and the superego. Cali is a shoot first and ask questions later kinda gal, whose only instinct is for self-preservation. Holly is the voice of reason, often drowned out by Cali’s hysterics. Mel basically floats in the breeze, going in whichever direction seems to be convenient at the moment. The dynamics between the three change with Holly or Cali asserting dominance and Mel’s support going to whoever seems to be in charge at the moment. It leads to some pretty gruesome acts by the ladies, complete with primal screams in case the Freudian overtones weren’t enough.

The girls are all fine actresses, veterans of a variety of indie projects. They do pretty well here, as does Fessenden who is one of indie cinema’s most recognizable names and faces. Some of the supporting cast doesn’t do as well, with one actor whom I won’t embarrass doing a noticeably awful job.

As thrillers go, the suspense level isn’t super high, but I think that the changing dynamics of the three leads is more the point than creating an edge of your seats thrill ride. This is more of a cerebral thriller although there are visceral elements to it (as when Helen tries to manufacture elements that a sexual assault occurred) which may be squirm inducing for some.

It’s a fairly short film, so the action is compact. The filmmakers do a lot with a little and that’s heartening. As first features go, this isn’t half bad but what bothers me is that there really isn’t anything terribly new or original here, although this kind of movie is generally done with male leads for which I give the filmmakers points. However, the plot is definitely something you’ll have seen before.

REASONS TO GO: Gender roles are a bit different than is the norm for this type of film. Love the Freudian aspects.
REASONS TO STAY: Not all of the acting is stellar. The escalating violence is a bit disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, teen drinking and drug use and a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at this year’s Slamdance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stuck
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Imperial Dreams

Lovely Molly


Lovely Molly

Molly may be lovely but she’s also scary as Hell.

(2012) Psychological Horror (Image) Gretchen Lodge, Johnny Lewis, Alexandra Holden, Ken Arnold, Shane Tunney, Tony Ellis, Katie Foster, Lauren Lakis, Daniel Ross, Brandon Thane Wilson, Dan Franko, Todd Ryan Jones, Tara Garwood. Directed by Eduardo Sanchez

 

Going back home is usually considered a bit of a warm fuzzy; all of our glowing childhood memories of safety and security packed with the joy of childhood. Of course, if your childhood as awful filled with sexual abuse and drug use, going back home carries a whole different connotation.

Molly (Lodge) is a new bride, having married her sweetheart Tim (Lewis). She works as a janitor in a local mall while he drives a truck for a living and is gone for long stretches at a time. The new couple has moved into Molly’s childhood home, which she inherited after her  father passed away. Her sister Hannah (“Franklin and Bash” regular Holden) has serious misgivings about this since in that home Molly was repeatedly molested by her father, which sent her into a downward spiral of drug abuse and psychosis from which she’s only recently recovered.

At first things are lovely and idyllic in the bucolic Maryland countryside house that goes back to the Colonial era. Then, Tim gets called away for a long haul just before Molly’s birthday. She begins to hear noises in the night – terrifying footsteps, and doors slamming on their own accord. She hears voices, male voices whispering unintelligibly in the night. Molly carries around a digital video camera around with her but can’t seem to get more on film than things that can be explained away.

She starts to see shadowy but hideous demonic forms out of the corner of her eye. The noises and unexplained phenomena are beginning to get more intense and threatening. She talks to a pastor (Arnold) about her fears but he can’t really help her – and she can’t afford health care in order to see a therapist or psychiatrist.

Tim has been supportive but even he is wondering what’s going on with his bride. Is she having some kind of psychotic break, or perhaps relapsing into drug use again? Or is the truth that she is legitimately being haunted, perhaps by the ghost of her father – or something more insidious, sinister and ancient?

Sanchez, whose first movie was the legendary Blair Witch Project, has made a career out of creating atmospheric horror films in which the audience is never 100% positive about what they’re seeing. One of the things I liked most about this film – and in fact of all of Sanchez’ films – is that he casts doubt on the evidence of your senses. Is that really ghostly whispers or the minds of the protagonists playing tricks on them?

It helps having an unknown actress throwing down a powerful performance in the lead. Gretchen Lodge doesn’t have a lot of on-screen experience but she makes up for it with a nuanced performance that captures her fragile psyche as well as her dangerous and unpredictable aspect. If Molly isn’t genuinely beset by supernatural forces then she is surely psychotic and maybe even schizophrenic. That you cannot be certain which is both a tribute to the writers and to Lodge herself.

The problems here are also in the writing; there are some logical leaps of faith that are a little bit too much to ask of the audience, particularly when it comes to how other characters react to Molly. For example, if Molly were truly having so many problems in the house, why not go stay with her sister who evidently lives close enough by to make regular visits? Also, there’s a sense that some of the elements have been seen before, like the horny pastor. That little subplot doesn’t really work and could easily have been excised from the film to the movie’s benefit.

Da Queen didn’t like this movie at all when we saw it at the Florida Film Festival, but then again these are the types of movies she really doesn’t care for at all so that must be taken with a grain of salt. There are a good deal of things that work here, particularly in regards to keeping the audience guessing about Molly’s veracity. That makes this the kind of movie that is a candidate for repeated viewings as audiences will want to see it again with a different point of view in mind. This isn’t a remarkable film – it’s too cliché for that – but it is genuinely spooky and innovative in its own way. If Sanchez could have tightened up a few things here and there he’d have made a genuine classic.

REASONS TO GO: Creepiness factor through the roof. Lodge performs well in a demanding role.

REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic. A bit too vague in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic violence and sexuality, some disturbing images, nudity, drug use and let’s throw in some bad language for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gretchen Lodge’s first feature film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.The reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent House

COLONIAL LOVERS: The home in the film is an actual Colonial dwelling in Maryland not far from where The Blair Witch Project was shot.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dark Shadows

Midnight Meat Train


Midnight Meat Train

Bradley Cooper demonstrates the wrong way to get on a subway train.

(2008) Horror (Lionsgate) Bradley Cooper, Brooke Shields, Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, Roger Bart, Peter Jacobson, Barbara Eve Harris, Ted Raimi, Stephanie Mace, Tony Curran, NorA, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Dan Callahan. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura

 

Big cities hide their secrets zealously. The bigger the city, the more difficult it can be to pry those secrets loose. In a city the size of New York City, it can be well-nigh impossible – and quite deadly to those who even try.

Leon (Cooper) is a photographer who specializes in crime scenes and fairly dark subjects. His girlfriend Maya (Bibb) through her friend Jurgis (Bart) gets Leon an audience with well-known art dealer Susan Hoff (Shields). She likes some of his work but needs Leon to go deeper – get at the truth. Go somewhere dangerous.

And what could be more dangerous than the New York subway after midnight? Certainly model Erika Sakaki (NorA) finds this out first-hand when a group of young toughs surround her, threatening to sexually assault her. Only the timely intervention of Leon pointing out that their whole tete-a-tete is being caught on security camera saves her. She shows her gratitude by allowing him to take a few pictures of her, then plants a kiss on him before getting on her train and heading off into the night.

Except that she never gets off that train. Leon finds out a few days later that she has turned up missing and Leon realizes he may well have been the last person to see her alive. He takes his pictures to the police who are indifferent, so he decides to investigate on his own. While checking out the subway station he sees a hulking, well-dressed man who appeared in his last photo of the missing girl – he was on board the same train as she was when she disappeared. Figuring this can’t be a coincidence, he begins to follow the man.

The man, who we later find out is known as Mahogany (Jones), shows up at a butcher’s shop. He is apparently mute (until the very end of the film when he speaks the only three words of dialogue he has in the movie) and imposing. However, Leon proves to be an inept investigator in one sense; Mahogany soon realizes he’s being stalked. However, Leon does manage to discover that Mahogany is brutally murdering people on the late night trains with a misshapen butcher’s hammer, and then hanging them on portable meat hooks while the subway train goes off on a silent siding.

Now the cat and mouse game gets deadly as both Maya and Jurgis get sucked into Leon’s obsession. Still, there’s an even more terrible secret lurking on that forgotten side track; one which only one of them will walk away from.

This is based on a short story by horror master Clive Barker – in fact it is the very first story in the first volume of his 8-book Books of Blood series. The movie version was announced with great fanfare in 2007 and 2008 as horror fans anticipated what the trailers promised was a taut, mesmerizing gorefest. However, a regime change at Lionsgate saw the film thrown into a series of delaying actions before finally getting about 100 screens, all in dollar theaters rather than in first-run houses before moving quickly to home video.

Horror fans (and Barker) howled in protest at the mistreatment of the film. They have a pretty good case – as horror movies go, this is better than average. It is far from perfect – for one thing, this would have made a pretty good hour-long short on some cable anthology series but the overall story doesn’t really support a full-length feature. It feels sometimes stretched out a bit too thin, particularly the portions where Maya and Jurgis are doing their own investigating.

In addition, Cooper who would find stardom with The Hangover just a year later, was miscast here. He is stiff and somewhat flat; I don’t get the sense that he ever really got a handle on the part. My take is that while Kitamura speaks pretty good English, he might not have necessarily been able to communicate what he wanted precisely to Cooper but that’s just conjecture. It does bring the film down a notch.

Some of the kills use obvious CGI for the blood and gore. Remember the good old days when all that was done with practical effects, make-up and puppets? Some of the CGI gore looks it and when you notice it, it takes you  right out of the environment of the film and it’s much like being awakened from a dream by someone throwing a bucket full of cold water into your face.

That said, there is plenty to like about the film as well. Kitamura is a more than capable director. He takes Barker’s story and translates it beautifully to the screen, combining elements of his own background in J-horror along with Dario Argento-esque Italian horror and throws in Big Apple ‘tude on top of it all, from the haughty snobbery of Shield’s West Village art cognoscenti, the indifference of the cops and media to a series of disappearances going on right under their noses and the cocksure tough guys haunting the streets and subways after dark. It’s a heady mix.

So yes this is flawed but overall there’s much more right with it than not. For one thing, Jones makes an intimidating villain, such a presence here that you wonder if he hasn’t been underutilized in his other films. Bibb, who like Cooper has mostly done comedies to this point, makes a fine scream queen and gets her sexy on in a couple of scenes here. This was one that the studio messed up on – it deserved more than a token contractual obligation release and might have made a good deal more coin than it did had the new regime shown a little more faith in the product but sadly, it seems like the Lionsgate brass has turned their back on the horror genre that essentially built the studio (the Saw and Tyler Perry franchises the twin pedestals that the studio was built on) which makes it all the more ironic that they had gotten into such financial difficulties that they had to merge with Summit earlier this year. Sometimes poetic justice just…happens.

WHY RENT THIS: Combines J-horror with giallo and meets it in the middle with a New York attitude. Jones is at his brooding best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cooper is unconvincing as the horror hero. Over-reliance on CGI gore does occasionally jolt one violently out of the mood.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence and gore, quite a bit in fact; nudity (most of it grisly), some sex and of course plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of Clive Barker’s paintings are seen hanging in Susan Hoff’s art gallery.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on author Clive Barker and actor Vinnie Jones.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might have made money but then again it might not have.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:High Fidelity

Trucker


Trucker

Michelle Monaghan discovers the joys of motherhood.

(Monterey Media) Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, Benjamin Bratt, Joey Lauren Adams, Jimmy Bennett, Bryce Johnson, Brandon Hanson, Maya McLaughlin. Directed by James Mottern

For everything in life there is a cost. Even freedom to do what you like doesn’t come without a price. That price can be more than you might be willing to bear, but it’s nearly always too late by the time you figure that out.

For Diane Ford (Monaghan), she has lived by her own rules her entire life. As a big rig driver, she competes as a woman in what is very much a man’s world. She has to be twice as tough as any man to survive and she knows it; what’s more, she’s okay with it. She drinks to excess, uses caffeine and cigarettes far too much and sleeps around.

One of the few guys she won’t sleep with is her neighbor Runner (Fillion), who is married. The two are best friends and drinking buddies and Runner has surely got a thing for Diane. Most men do, as a matter of fact, but she wants or needs no man. She had a kid eleven years earlier during the one tryst that lasted more than a night, but that relationship couldn’t stand up to the call of the open road.

One afternoon there’s a knock on the door of her small southern California home. It’s Jenny (Adams), the girlfriend of Len (Bratt) who was the man she had her son with. It turns out that Len is very ill, colon cancer. Jenny is no longer able to care for his son – Diane’s son – and care for Len. She needs Diane to care for Peter (Bennett) – that’s her son’s name – for a short while.

Diane takes to this like a cat takes to platform diving. It would be bad enough to take on a roommate after years of taking care of herself, but a kid? The thing is, Peter is a pretty sharp tack. He understands that his mom really doesn’t want anything to do with him, and he can see pretty clearly just how messed up the situation is, but rather than whine about it he just deals with it. It’s a pretty mature performance, and also very nice to see a kid who’s not precocious in a sickly sweet way.

Diane is forced to take Peter along with her on the road, something which crimps her style more than she’d like but as it turns out, the company is kind of a welcome thing in a twisted way. The two are like a couple of caged bantam roosters warily circling one another. Bonding is certainly not going to be very easy. Is it even possible?

First-time director Mottern should be applauded for delivering a slice-of-life type of movie that pulls no punches and isn’t afraid to show the warts. The characters aren’t heroic; these are real people just trying to make their way through day by day, just like the rest of us. They aren’t especially brave, nor smart nor particularly talented; they just do what they do.

Monaghan is impressive here, giving the kind of performance that can only come from deep down inside of a very talented actress. Although she didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for her work, she surely could have been – and maybe should have been. Unfortunately, this was distributed by a small company rather than one of the major studio affiliates; I’m pretty sure the performance didn’t get the kind of publicizing that other actresses got.

Bennett is also worthy of mention; most twelve-year-old actors come off as stiff and mannered; you see it all the time on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon or ABC Family. Bennett instead is natural and raw; he doesn’t hold anything back. It’s one of the better juvenile performances I’ve seen in a very long time.

Fillion, Bratt and Adams deliver solid backing performances in roles that have more depth to them than most supporting roles, and the three of them known what to do with characters who have some meat on their bones.

There are times that the movie gets overly raw; some of the emotions that come to the surface are painful, even. However, there is a sexual assault that occurs nearly two thirds of the movie that just left me going “huh?” with a bit of a slack jaw. It didn’t really need to be in there, other than to highlight the vulnerability of a single woman and that’s kind of a given.

Short of that one misstep, this is solid work elevated by a scintillating performance by Monaghan. I have never had an ambition to drive a rig, but I do understand the siren song of the open road. I also understand the pain of living exactly the way you want to. Sometimes it’s getting what we want that causes us the most pain.

WHY RENT THIS: Michelle Monaghan gives the performance of her career. Her supporting cast gets kudos for fleshing out roles that for the most part are layered and deep. A great example of a “slice of life” film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie can be a little too raw in places. The sexual assault scene comes out like it’s almost part of a completely different movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of swearing (hey, it’s about truckers) and some sexuality, including a scene depicting a sexual assault. There’s also significant amounts of drinking and a little drug use, some of it involving minors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Monaghan learned to drive a big rig for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Education of Charlie Banks