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

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A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)


A Separation

Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi react to questions from the press as to whether she's a natural redhead or not.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Marila Zare’i, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Kimia Hosseini, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Sahabanu Zolghadr, Mohammadhassan Asghari. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

Human relationships are very complex and fragile things. They are constantly changing and often confusing. We are all alike in that regard – whether we live in the United States or China or Iran. We are all slaves to our emotions.

Nader (Moaadi) and Simin (Hatami) are in an adjudicator’s office in Teheran. Simin wants a divorce. It’s not that Nader is mistreating her or that they don’t care for each other. It’s just that Nader’s father (Shahbazi) has Alzheimer’s and he’s not willing to leave him to the tender mercies of the Iranian public health system. She wants to move abroad where their daughter Termeh (S. Farhadi)  has a better opportunity to make something of her life. However, since Nader won’t agree to letting Termeh go Simin moves in with her mother (Yazdanbakhsh) instead.

Nader has to work and even if Termeh didn’t have school she is only 11 and far too young to watch over an Alzheimer’s patient so Nader hires Razieh (Bayat) to keep an eye on dad and do a little light housecleaning. Razieh is an extra-devout Muslim whose chador hides a secret. She lives in a dicey part of the city so the commute is nearly two hours long each way.

Her family desperately needs the money. Her husband Hodjat (S. Hosseini) is a cobbler who has been out of work for six months and his creditors are threatening to take him to jail. She brings her young daughter with her but the strain of caring for the old man and the house proves to be too much for her.

One day Nader comes home early from work and finds things in chaos. This leads to a confrontation with Razieh that has unforeseen consequences for both Nader and Razieh as well as both their families. Consequences that might not be entirely predictable.

This was the most recent recipient of the Best Foreign Film Oscar and deservedly so. This is an incredible piece of filmmaking. It isn’t just the story or the setting that grabs your attention, it’s also the way the story is told. Asghar Farhadi is a legitimate talent, one who understands his craft well and is a master at it. He knows which facts to let you know and which to hide so that when the final denouement comes, you are not so much surprised as you are thrilled.

In the hands of a Hollywood studio this would probably have been a by-the-numbers thriller as Nader races to discover the truth about Razieh and he would have ended up with the girl at the end. Instead, this is a slice of life about deeply flawed people interpreting events in their own way with their own self-interest front and center. In other words, they act the way people all over the world would act – including here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

There are going to be some who will be tempted to turn this into an indictment of Iran and Sharia law (I’m looking at you, Bill O’Reilly…Rick Santorum…etc. etc.) but this isn’t really that. Certainly the justice system in Iran is imperfect – but then again, so is our own. Any legal system that has jurisdiction over other human beings is going to be flawed by definition – people are flawed. Whenever you have laws that are inflexible being interpreted inflexibly justice is going to suffer. It isn’t like every case that goes before an American judge winds up exacting justice.

The movie is well-acted with particular kudos going to Hatami who not only resembles a young Susan Sarandon facially but also in her inner strength and conviction. Simin is a formidable woman who wants only the best for her daughter and her family; she understands Nader’s stubborn stance but doesn’t share it. She places more importance on her daughter than on her father-in-law which is at the crux of the divide between Simin and Nader.

Nader doesn’t look at his stance as a choice between two people; the fact that he is taking care of his father who has nobody else to care for him is the right thing to do. His daughter not only understands but supports this – she is given the opportunity on several occasions to leave and go with her mother but never takes it.

On the other side of the fence Razieh is completely devout whose actions are for the most part charted by the Quran until desperation forces her to do something of which she knows her husband will not approve. She is intimidated by Hodjat but when it comes to her faith nothing can dislodge her leading to a crucial scene near the end of the movie. Hodjat is a hothead who believes strongly that his wife has been wronged and is tired of being stepped on by those in positions of power and authority. He is like the man the world over who has been kicked once too often – at some point you have to stand up and say enough, which is exactly what Hodjat does.

All of the characters withhold information from one another, choose to interpret things in their own way and are mulish about what they believe. This isn’t a film about compromise – that never enters the equation here. This is about people caught up in a situation that spirals out of control largely due to their unwillingness to face the reality of their circumstances (and yes I’m being deliberately vague as to not spoil some of the more intense plot points). These particular humans live in Teheran but they could as easily exist in Atlanta, or Rome, or Kyoto. But that is not the heart of the message director Farhadi is trying to deliver; that’s merely a corollary that comes with it.

I was mesmerized from beginning to end. This is one of those movies that simply takes you down a path that looks everyday and familiar and gives it a gentle tug until things start to unravel. That’s pretty much the way real life works as well. There are those who are going to avoid this movie just because it comes from Iran. People like that should remember that our grievances are with their government, not the Iranian people – and this movie is very much an insight into those people. We turn away and refuse to learn from it to our discredit.

REASONS TO GO: A powerful film that depicts Iranian life warts and all. Well-directed and well-written, hitting all the right notes.

REASONS TO STAY: Mostly shot with hand-held cameras, creating some dizzy-making shaky cam effects.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes and situations might be a bit too much for all but mature children and teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Termeh is played by the directors daughter. She was one of the recipients of Best Actress (ensemble) at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, one of three Bears won by the film, the first movie ever to accomplish that feat.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100. The reviews are sensational.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Syrian Bride

LAW LOVERS: A fairly intense and dispassionate look at how Sharia law actually operates.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT:Hotel Rwanda

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

No One Knows About Persian Cats


No One Knows About Persian Cats

Even in Iran, rockers know how to pose.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad, Hichkas, Hamed Seyyed Javadi. Directed by Bahman Ghobadi

What if you lived in a place where expressing your deepest feelings could get you arrested? Where making the kind of music you loved was illegal? Sadly, there are a lot of places like that.

Iran is one such place. Negar (Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Koshanejad) are a pair of alternative-type musicians who have just been released from and Iranian jail. Their crime? Performing forbidden music – without a permit. Hardened criminals, these two are.

They have gotten an invitation to play in London and they mean to take it but first they have to put together a full band. And they have to get a permit to leave the country, for which they require the services of a manager, who they find in Nader (Behdad). Nader links them up with a couple of shady businessman who will forge the papers they need.

However, Negar and particularly Ashkan are dead set on performing a final concert in Teheran before they go. That is going to produce some problems of its own – the police in Teheran aren’t particularly forgiving of young people expressing themselves, particularly in a proscribed manner.

Iran is a heavily regulated country with an extremely radical and conservative clergy calling the shots. Even house pets must remain behind closed doors (which is where the title comes from). Women, of course, are second class citizens, forbidden from studying, holding certain kinds of jobs and even of showing their face in public.

That kind of repression is bound to provoke some pushback, and a thriving independent rock scene has flourished in Teheran and other Iranian cities – there are supposedly more than 2,000 bands operating in Iran currently that play music that is against the law.

That the story takes such conditions so matter-of-factly is part of what makes the movie interesting. While they all hope for more freedom, it’s the world they all live in and they just try to get by the best way that they can. That part of the movie is fascinating. There is also a certain amount of charm, particularly in the music community which is extremely tight knit, crossing genre lines (which would never happen in the States or at least to the degree depicted here) in a kind of gallows cameraderie that would have to develop in a situation such as theirs.

What is even more thrilling is that the music in the movie is uniformly good. The band that the lead characters create (and by the way, the screenplay is based on the experiences of Negar and Ashkan, who are actual musicians) makes music that wouldn’t sound out of place in the hippest clubs in San Francisco, Austin or Seattle. The other bands play a variety of styles from rap metal to acoustic anti-folk to grunge, but all of it is uniformly good. For some of them, the film is going to be the only record of their creativity available to them, because recording music is prohibitively difficult in Iran.

With most of the actors being amateurs (Behdad is a notable exception and he is one of the bright spots in the movie), the acting can be a bit on the unrefined side. That does give the movie a greater sense of realism; it’s not quite a documentary in that sense but it’s as close as you come without capturing actual events.

There are some stark images in the film that are balanced out by a gentle sense of humor that shows up in unexpected places. I have to admit, I was captured by the movie’s charm and you can ride that an awfully long way. It doesn’t quite rocket the movie into instant classic territory but it is certainly worth checking out as an alternative to what you usually watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A look into a culture that has received almost no coverage in Western media and none at all in their own homeland. Great music and some gentle humor round out a nice film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is a little bit on the raw side and the production values are a little dicey.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of language and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the bands seen in the movie are actual bands (or were) operating on the Iranian underground scene.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $879,937 on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Rango