Movie Diary for the Week of June 11-17, 2017

The movies that I watched this week were so different from each othe this week, I feel like I really went from one universe to the other.  One was an action movie that I re-watched, the second was a movie about a young African-American girl who wants to join a dance troupe, and the third was a psychological drama with post-apocalyptic overtones.  Here are the movies:

 

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John Wick: Chapter 2 – dir. Chad Stahelski

Rating: 86/100

I have already written a full review praising this movie here and I was every bit as pleased with it the second time around.  There has been a surge in quality in action movies recently with the John Wick movies, The Raid movies from Indonesia, and Mad Max: Fury Road with a greater reliance on good old-fashioned stunt work and balletic choreography over CGI.  I hope this signals a trend that will continue.

 

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The Fits (2015) – dir. Anna Rose Holmer

Rating: 87/100

This is one of the most surreally intriguing films I’ve seen in a while and it is one that you have to meet halfway to appreciate.  The movie’s tone and thematic approach require some patience, especially as the first half has hardly any dialogue.  Then you realize it is resolutely capturing the pure, unadulterated perspective of a preteen trying to fit in and belong in her school environment (the characters in focus are all young people in school and the adults’ faces are not seen or kept out of focus).  The main character is a young African-American girl, Toni (a guilelessly captivating Royalty Hightower) who is somewhat of a tomboy and training in boxing.  Then she tries out for a girls’ dance troupe that she gradually becomes enamored with.  Some of the dancers then start having seizure fits.  What The Fits of the title means symbolically is one of the intriguing points to be debated and I think it adds up to a beautiful story about the rite of passage into adolescence and feminine freedom of expression.

 

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It Comes at Night (2017) – dir. Trey Edward Shults

Rating: 75/100

There are many audiences who feel disappointed by a movie after it is not the same as what the previews advertise and I fear that this movie will fall prey to that as well.  The trailer, as trailers often do, is misleadingly marketing this as a horror film with boos and jump scares.  However, while there are subtle elements of horror, this is really a tense psychological family drama about internal fears set against the backdrop of a pervasive surrounding threat.  Paul (Joel Edgerton, who seems to pick one intriguing movie after another) is a father trying to protect his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) with his own strict sense of rules to guard themselves, especially at night.  Then, a man, Will (Christopher Abbott), who also has a wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), suddenly comes in, seeking shelter.  I won’t say too much about the movie, because this is a chamber drama with a small number of characters and the psychological and moral tension crucially depend on character more than plot.  But if you saw a movie called The Trigger Effect from back in 1996, which had the intriguing premise about a domestic environment with no electric power but failed to live up to its potential, this film is the one that realizes the inherent drama better with a similar theme.

Movie Diary for the Week of June 4-10, 2017

Because of personal traveling, I did not get to see many new movies for the first time.  Still, I got to see one somewhat interesting movie and an older movie that was playing on HBO.  Here are the movies that I viewed last week:

 

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The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) – dir. Andre Ovredal

Rating: 63/100

There is a terrific buildup to make half a good horror movie in this 86-minute flick.  Brian Cox and Emilie Hirch play a father-son team of coroners who perform an autopsy of an unidentified female corpse that turns out to harbor many secrets.  The title should already suggest that the film is not for the squeamish, but the first 45 minutes makes good use of the potential morbid humor and jump scares that can happen in the grisly setting of the morgue.  Many have mentioned that the resolution is disappointing (and I agree) and each viewer would have their own opinion about the degree to which it mars what came before.  One reason that it is disappointing is because it invites comparison to another recent horror film (which I won’t name because it may be a spoiler) and the revelation tied to that element seems like a hokey twist to an old historical event.  Also, while I know the leads characters are supposed to be more subdued being people who dissect dead bodies for a living, the tension could have been raised a bit by ratcheting up the characters’ desperation and/or ingenuity (to be closer to a survivalist horror film a la Get Out).  Still, there has been a recent surge of quality in horror films (Personal Shopper being another one) and the first half of this film is indicative of a trend of going back to the more classical tradition of well-timed scares.

 

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Shaft (2000) – dir. John Singleton

Rating: 54/100

I admit that I have not seen the original 1971 Shaft that was hugely influential in its popularization of the blaxpoitation genre (and I would like to see it at some point).  But this loose remake from 2000 was playing on TV so I decided to stop and watch it.  The remake, on its own terms, really amounts to an uneasy alliance between a serious crime drama and a movie that frivolously wants to celebrate the coolness of its central character. Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the titular cop turned private eye and vigilante, is rock-solid as the central character who takes matters into his own hands to take down a rich tycoon’s racist son (Christian Bale), who has murdered an African-American man in a frenzy.   There is a slew of superb actors including Bale (who played a similarly homicidal rich man in the much better American Psycho), Toni Collette, and Dan Hedaya, who are all typecast to a T.  They, along with the mercurial character actor Jeffrey Wright as a gangster, bring a lot of gravity that would be fitting in a grittier, urban crime drama.  But the seriousness is at odds with the vigilantism the movie celebrates and stretches credibility to do so (Shaft, after he quits the police force, is really a civilian who shoots and kills multiple people in his own personal code of justice).  The result is a movie that is confused in tone where good actors and a good director (Singleton made the great first film, Boyz n the Hood) try to elevate material that is awkwardly unable to be elevated.

Movie Diary for the Week of May 28-June 3, 2017

This was a lighter movie week with two movies driven by strong, defiant women in very different ways.  Here are the movies I watched:

 

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Wonder Woman – dir. Patty Jenkins

Rating: 73/100

I became more hopeful about this DC comics movie when I heard that the director was Patty Jenkins, whose last film was the intense, despairing but empathetic Monster from 2003 (where Charlize Theron won an Oscar).  To say that this is the best DC comic book movie since The Dark Knight trilogy seems like faint praise, but it is a relief that it is a good movie anyway.  I could still do with less Zack Snyder-influenced slow motion in the action scenes (just let the scene play out in real time to have maximum impact) and elements in the climax, including revelations and reversals, will seem familiar and predictable.  However, there are a few places where the film takes chances and the strong and clear characterization of Wonder Woman that is strengthened by Gal Gadot’s performance makes us care anyway.  There is also effortless chemistry between Gadot and Chris Pine as a WWI pilot.

 

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A Quiet Passion – dir. Terence Davies

Rating: 78/100

British director Terence Davies (more of whose work I would like to seek out) directs this biopic of the life of American poet, Emily Dickinson.  Davies brings a literal formalism to the portrayal of the poet (played elegantly by Cynthia Nixon), who found pockets of comfort in the witty camaraderie with some people around her, but was quietly, defiantly working through her emotional introversion and confusion.  The first half has conversations with her sister, Vinny (the always underrated Jennifer Ehle), and especially her friend, Vryling Bufam (Catherine Bailey) and they are some of the funniest scenes I have ever seen in a costume drama.  The second half darkens as her reclusive turmoil grows, reflecting the poetry where she vividly ruminates about her place in the world in the span of eternity (the film is sometimes punctuated with excerpts of her poetry narrated by Nixon).  Some may see Dickinson as a smug and often impossible person who merely speculated about a world that she refused to fully participate in.  However, within her strict Christian upbringing, she was one who stuck to her own values (especially in regards to women’s place in literature in a male-driven society) and was comfortable asking the tougher questions about existential meaning.  The movie captures all of that in a poetic way with stately visual compositions of interiors and lush vistas.

Movie Diary for the Week of May 21-27, 2017

It was a busy movie watching week with a troubled writer, a Hollywood love story, a father looking for his lost son in war, a rocker posing as a teacher, and a children’s book author whose animal creations come to life.  You may already guess a couple of the titles from the descriptions above and it was nice to have an overall gentle week in movie watching.  Here are the movies that I saw:

 

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The Whole Wide World (1996) – dir. Dan Ireland

Rating: 73/100

This is the movie about the tentative courtship between Novalyne Price and pulp fiction author, Robert E. Howard.  I have written a full review for this low-key, effective film that contains some moments that terrifically capture a writer’s imagination and a tender, but tragic romance.

 

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Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015) – dir. Daniel Raim

Rating: 80/100

This charming documentary is about an unsung couple in Hollywood, Harold and Lillian Michelson, who were instrumental in the creation of classic movies for over 50 years since the 1940s.  Harold was a storyboard artist who drew the artwork that gave way to classic moments from movies like Spartacus, The Birds, and The Graduate before he went onto become an Oscar-nominated production designer for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Lillian was a film researcher who found the details to bring famous movies like Scarface to life and worked in famous studios like Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios and Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks.  Harold’s work reminds us moving images require static images to put together and Lillian’s work reminds us of the painstaking research that is required to bring authenticity and credibility to a film from the smallest detail.  Film buffs would be fascinated to learn about this under-recognized duo who gave life to so many classic films while maintaining one of the rare lasting marriages in Hollywood.  Lillian narrates much of the film about her late husband’s and her own work.

 

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Shenandoah (1965) – dir. Andrew V. McLaglen

Rating: 75/100

Jimmy Stewart stars as a Virginia farmer and father of six sons and one daughter who vows to stay out of the Civil War that breaks out near his land in Shenandoah Valley.  The movie carefully displays the family’s stance of neutrality in showing their family being anti-slavery and having a young African-American as a close friend but also having the daughter marry a Confederate soldier.  When the youngest son gets caught as a POW on the Union side while wearing a Confederate soldier cap that he picked up, Stewart sets out with some of his children on a quest to find him.  It is interesting to reflect on this movie’s reception against the backdrop of the Vietnam War but, at its heart, it is a movie about a father looking for his lost son as a shepherd looks for his lost sheep.  Some points in the story are unbelievable as certain actions do not seem to have as serious consequences as they should, but, by the end, I was so moved that I thought that the last hymn played in the church would be “Savior like a Shepherd Lead Us.”  My mind filled in the gap anyway, which suggests the effectiveness of the film.

 

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School of Rock (2003) – dir. Richard Linklater

Rating: 83/100

As it was playing on TV, I re-watched this fun little gem that shows Jack Black in probably his funniest comedic performance.  Director Richard Linklater and writer Mike White fashioned a tailor-made vehicle for Black, who makes his love of rock and roll infectious to the class that he teaches and the audience with ease.  Black plays Dewey Finn, who does con his fifth-grade class and impersonate his roommate as a substitute teacher, but his passion to put on a great rock and roll show winningly brings out the musical talents in his class (who are cast with actors who are convincing musicians first).  The story checks off the familiar points to make a feel-good film but with some quirky details of originality tucked in between including the school principal character played by Joan Cusack.

 

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Miss Potter (2006) – dir. Chris Noonan

Rating: 68/100

This is the second movie that I saw with Renee Zellweger, who often picks good, strong-willed female roles.  Here, she plays the British children’s author, Beatrix Potter, who wrote “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” among other books in the early 1900s.  The movie often fantastically shows the animals in her drawings come to life, which makes it easy to see why Noonan, who directed Babe, would helm this one, too.  As Zellweger plays her, Potter is independent and not willing to settle for any suitor merely on the basis of wealth until she finally falls for her publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor).  While there is a certain amount of serious drama, this is mostly a frothy, straightforward portrait of a woman who was ahead of her time and stuck to her talents despite all the familial and social roadblocks, including her own mother.

Movie Review: The Whole Wide World

When Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger) first drums up the courage to go to the doorstep of his home, she hears the sounds of him feverishly writing out his next piece of pulp fiction.  The sounds include the aggrandized narration of his imagination as he pounds away at his typewriter.  That may be confirming his boorish quality that her friends already warned her about but she remains intrigued and goes ahead to knock on his door.

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The writer is Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio), the pulp writer who became most famous for the creation of Conan the Barbarian among others and proclaimed to be “the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world.”  Price, a schoolteacher aspiring to be a writer, comes to discover that for herself and The Whole Wide World from 1996 is based on her real-life memoir, “One Who Walked Alone” about her brief courtship with Howard in the 1930s.  She is first drawn to her larger than life imagination, even if the racy content of his writings flew in the face of the conservatism of their small-town churchgoing community.

Before his life was cut short at the age of 30 by his own hands, Howard wrote stories for pulp magazines, most often about manly men going on larger than life battles and adventures, perhaps rescuing a beautiful woman in the process (he says, “When women felt those tree-trunks around their waists, they melted like butter”).  Some of the best scenes in the film show the process of his writer’s imagination when Robert narrates to Novalyne about his next writing.  In one scene, as he narrates about his hero’s swashbuckling, the sounds of swords and shields whooshing and clanging play in the background with a rising musical score.  In another, as he is shadow boxing in the street imagining his next character, sounds of the boxing ring and crowds cheering play in the background.  It is hard to make the imagination of a writer cinematic, but this clever use of the soundtrack is a skillful touch to get us into the writer’s mind.

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The first half shows their tentative, affectionate courtship.  He makes compromises to make himself more presentable (she is at first disappointed about not wear a tie to a formal date and so he does to the next one, making her blush).  They discuss about writing, although he laughs at her when she describes one of the stories she is working on.  Part of that may be because he only cares for excitement and grandeur in his writings, but she cares for him anyway as her writer’s mind is attracted to that excitement.

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However, there are small harbingers to the problems that will hinder their relationship and they become clearer in the second half.  One is his ailing mother (Anne Edgeworth), who has had tuberculosis all her life, and, as his father (Harve Presnell) observes, he may dote on her in a possibly dysfunctional way.  Later, when she suggests the idea of marriage to him, he replies that he cannot be tied down and needs his freedom (as he wrote once, “The road I walk, I walk alone”).  This cripples the relationship from developing above the level of dating into a serious one and she starts seeing one of Robert’s friends, even as Robert has second thoughts about the need for his freedom.

A movie like this depends above all on the performances of the actors and the way that Zellweger and D’Onofrio play their characters feel like they could have been real versions of the people they portray.  Zellweger was already becoming a star in 1996 for Jerry Maguire, which probably eclipsed this film, but this film shows, in a quieter way, the same charming spunk and pluck that will match up to a man’s struggle to prove his masculinity or the worthiness of his own values.  As for D’Onofrio, who is one of my favorite character actors for the versatility he displays, this movie makes an interesting companion piece to 2000’s Happy Accidents, where he fell for Marisa Tomei while trying to convince her that he was from 400 years in the future.  He can play crazy as in his most famous role, Full Metal Jacket, and when he plays a romantic character (as he also did in the Netflix show, Daredevil), he is able to convey an unusual sense of sincerity amidst the emotional baggage he portrays.

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In his first film, the director, Dan Ireland uses his actors well, and I wish that he trusted them more and restrained the use of the musical score by Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams.  Zimmer and Gregson-Williams are accomplished composers in Hollywood but their scores sometimes have a way of standing out too much in a movie.  Their scoring during the aforementioned writer’s imagination scenes is very effective and another scene, showing an anguished Howard plowing through a field of grass, nicely uses similar musical notes to suggest that his pain may be a fuel to his sword-wielding imagination.  However, other scenes that show the couple’s courtship (whether it is their first kiss or their increasingly bitter arguments) get distracted by a swelling score that tries to underscore the emotions we already feel from the characters.

Thankfully, that is not enough to undermine the effect of the film though, especially in a subtle scene towards the end when Howard brings Price to a log cabin.  He asks her to imagine characters and a story with him, but we see that she cannot move beyond the characters that he has already described.  This perhaps suggests that, aside from his emotional problems, her inability to follow his imagination is also a cause for their relationship not to be.  Later, she would be able to write about her story with Howard, which is about how two people thought there was a “whole wide world” they could share but recognized that it really stood between them.

Rating: 73/100

USA.  1996.  Directed by Dan Ireland.  Screenplay by Michael Scott Myers.  Based on the memoir, “One Who Walked Alone” by Novalyne Price Ellis.  Starring: Renee Zellweger, Vincent D’Onofrio, Anne Wedgeworth, Harve Presnell, Benjamin Mouton, Helen Cates, Leslie Buesing, and Chris Shearer.

Movie Diary for the Week of May 14-20, 2017

Perhaps because the movies I saw last week inadvertently had a common theme that was none too happy, this week I was determined to see movies that were more varied from each other.  The four movies that I saw could be paired loosely into two pairs (two of them being drama and two of them being science-fiction) as I ended up staggering between the two genres.  Here are the movies that I saw this past week:

 

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A United Kingdom (2016) – dir. Amma Assante

Rating: 81/100

I had been looking forward to this film, as I really liked Amma Assante’s 2013 film, Belle.  This film tells the remarkable true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), who was the heir to inherit the kingdom of Botswana, and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the British Caucasian woman Khama fell in love with, married, and brought back to his homeland.  As with Belle (which was about a mixed race woman adopted into British aristocracy), the movie comprehensibly lays out the details of the political climate and vicissitudes that the couple had to face.  These include not only the obvious disapproval of interracial marriage in the 1940s (including that of Seretse’s uncle) but also the devious machinations of British diplomats who threaten to give up Botswana as a protectorate against South Africa, a neighboring country practicing apartheid.   Some may see the movie’s portrayal of the lead characters as too noble (and the beginning romance does seem a little too rosy even if the couple bonds over swing dancing, which I always enjoy).  However, I admire Assante’s strengths as a filmmaker to portray characters that are decent yet recognizably human.  She is one of the few filmmakers making stately political films in the classical tradition with lush cinematography and romantic flourishes.

 

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Alien: Covenant (2017) – dir. Ridley Scott

Rating: 62/100

This second prequel to Alien and follow-up to Prometheus (which I liked) moves closer to the sci-fi horror tradition of the original 1979 classic.  This one, however, leaves me more conflicted about whether I was satisfied.  On the good side, there is a fantastic dual performance by Michael Fassbender playing two androids (David, from Prometheus, and a new one, Walter aboard the ship, the Covenant).  Katherine Waterston also continues the tradition of a strong female heroine leading the series (although her character is not as well defined as her predecessors).  There are some effective (and gory) sci-fi horror scenes and some visuals that I could admire with sheer pleasure.  However, perhaps in response to the complaints about Prometheus leaving too many unanswered questions, this one just settles for straight-up horror instead of actually exploring some of the deeper questions posed by the earlier film.  It also leaves a lot of inconsistencies that I will leave to discussions in spoiler reviews or message boards (and I may weigh in some of my own thoughts for that).  I think director Ridley Scott, rather than simply caving in to audience expectations, should have pursued the ideas from Prometheus in a more streamlined fashion, as many elements established from that one are ignored.

 

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An Education (2009) – dir. Lone Scherfig

Rating: 78/100

I went back to see this movie not only to see Carey Mulligan’s star-making performance but also see more films starring Rosamund Pike that show her accomplished range (and it speaks to her versatility that she did not make me think at all about her most famous diabolical role in Gone Girl when watching A United Kingdom).  Mulligan received comparisons to Audrey Hepburn for this role and her alacrity and instant likability play a great part in setting the proper tone to Lone Scherfig’s movie that deals with dicey subject matter.  She is a 16-year old girl growing up in early 1960s Britain who is drawn into the pleasures of high-class society by an older man, David (Peter Sarsgaard) in his 30s.  Her frequenting of jazz clubs and traveling to Paris distract her from her pursuit of going to Oxford (via the studies she finds boring) and are all obviously part of the elaborate, unsavory seduction.  The movie could have been too depressing or unsettling but the movie maintains a tone that is not soft or exploitative but level-headed in the eyes of a teenager who learns an object lesson (and Mulligan’s performance prevents her character from seeming like a victim).  Pike plays the crucial role of one of David’s friends who becomes something of an older sister figure to Mulligan in the “high class” society that she ultimately does not want to partake in.  It is also a pleasure to watch several accomplished British actresses like Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, and Sally Hawkins fill small but important roles.

 

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Colossal (2016) – dir. Nacho Vigalondo

Rating: 72/100

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a jobless party girl who drinks too much but then finds that her actions may be connected to a giant monster that is attacking Seoul, South Korea. That is the weird, wacky conceit of this movie that ultimately does not quite maintain the level of credibility to pull it off but manages to be mostly satisfying anyway thanks to a decent emotional thru line.  After Gloria is thrown out by her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens) in NYC, she moves back to her hometown in Connecticut and reconnects with an old childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis).  When she enters a park in her neighborhood, she finds that the monster in Seoul actually mirrors her actions exactly.  The first half treats the idea comically, but the story turns more serious to become a character study on the destructive nature of rage and alcoholism.  We can go along with the conceit without a scientific explanation but what strains the credibility are some character shifts that seem abrupt without a proper buildup.  However, Hathaway’s performance holds it together for us to forgive those gaps, and the movie symbolically conveys how we should be more aware of the consequences and the potential monstrosity of our own actions.

Movie Diary for the Week of May 7-13, 2017

It certainly wasn’t planned this way but the movies that I watched this past week turned out to carry a common theme of marriages under pressure or at the breaking point.  I am not a cynic but, as you may see from my least favorite of the week, the bond of marriage and the fissures that can happen in it should be treated with proper gravity and not be trivialized.  Here are the movies that I saw this past week:

 

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Innocence (2000) – dir. Paul Cox

Rating: 33/100

This is the first movie that I have seen by the late Australian filmmaker, Paul Cox, whom I have read has dealt with romance in interesting ways.  I would like to check out more of his films, but this film of his from 2000 leaves me utterly unmoved.  The movie tells the story of two people in their 60s, one a widower, Andreas (Charles Tingwell) and still married Claire (Julia Blake), who decide to rekindle the passionate and reckless romance they shared five decades ago.  The story tries really hard to convey that sense of unbridled passion in their relationship (and based on the IMDb rating that is 7.5/10, many people seem to be moved by it) and how it is meant to be an emotional reawakening for all characters (even the cheated on husband played by Terry Norris).  To me, however, the film is not only a trivialization but a thoughtless idealization of Claire’s adultery that has hardly any reason or foundation to stand on.  Even with years of emotional paralysis, would Claire throw away her decades-long marriage on a distant memory of a young and possibly foolish romance?  The romance is not “innocence” as the title suggests but a mere illusion of it.  The scene when Andreas and Claire try to confront why they parted ways is completely unconvincing and, if you really stop to think about it, Andreas is really a jerk who contacts Claire simply because he is lonely.  A movie like Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County also dealt with adultery but at least that movie took seriously the weight of familial loyalty and responsibility against the prospect of recapturing romantic idealism.  In this one, even Claire’s adult son is supportive of his mother’s affair from the very beginning, which seems hardly realistic.

 

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The Past (2013) – dir. Asghar Farhadi

Rating: 88/100

This is the first of two movies by acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi that I saw this week and it is his follow-up to the Oscar®-winning A Separation, which I absolutely loved.  Farhadi moves his milieu to France where a French woman, Marie (Berenice Bejo) is finalizing a divorce with Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mossafa). Ahmad left her returning to his home country four years ago and she has started a new relationship with another man, Samir (Tahar Rahim).  Much like A Separation, Farhadi shows his storytelling gift for creating an emotional puzzle out of a decidedly tangled scenario.  In depicting the reactions of all involved including the consequences of the situation on the domestic front, the story spins out revelations based on who is aware of what information surrounding a pivotal event.  In doing so, Farhadi ensures that we empathize with all characters with rare concentration.

 

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The Salesman (2016) – dir. Asghar Farhadi

Rating: 86/100

Farhadi won his second Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® this past year for this movie (though he intentionally did not attend the Oscar® ceremony in protest of the travel ban).  This time, Farhadi places Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as the backdrop for his story.  Emad (Shahab Hosseini), who is playing The Salesman in a production of Miller’s play, contemplates on what to do when his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) is attacked in the new apartment that they have just moved into.  As with his previous works, Farhadi frames his story around a crucial dire event and, in dealing with its ramifications, he subtly conveys details about cultural values in middle-class Iran.  The emotional intensity is driven by these subtle details that the story leaves us to intuit (such as the reasons for why Rana does not want Emad to act on anything).  By putting us in the position of intense observer of human behavior, the movie builds a moral and emotional quagmire where we can only identify and sympathize before starting to place blame.