POSTED ON FEBRUARY 15, 2012:
Life Encounters and Alien Mishaps
Iran makes movies and George Lucas star whores again
You probably didn't know there was a French-inspired, Iranian New Wave, sociopolitical film movement whose artistic merits gave rise to modern, internationally renowned Iranian masters like Abbas Kiarostami (A Taste of Cherry) and now, apparently, Asghar Farhadi with the A Separation. Seriously high caliber filmmaking that earns every bit of its nouveau cinema cred.
And A Separation is the kind of movie that brilliantly embodies something I love about any foreign film, particularly when it's a somewhat slice-of-life and dramatic experience done artfully. They're a window into an utterly different yet completely accustomed world. They make familiar the alien. They might even get someone to think twice about civilian death tolls when they hear the war drums all-too-familiar rumble on the news.
It starts simply enough. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are getting a divorce. Like all things in the strangely tribal Iranian legal system, they have to present their causes. Simin wants the divorce because Nader won't leave the country with her and their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi); while Nader has no desire to divorce, but refuses to leave his Alzhiemer's ridden father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) behind in order to escape the -- what is hinted at -- aftermath of the failed Green Revolution.
Given a separation (yeah, that title is a little on the nose) because the judge isn't convinced that Simin's grievance is valid enough for an all out divorce, Nader is forced to hire a care-taker for his father after Simin moves back in with her parents. The care-taker, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), is a pregnant, waifish woman of a lower class, with an unemployed husband, and proves to be a little less than prepared to deal with an elderly Alzheimer's patient.
But when Nader's reaction to Razieh's more or less blatant abdication of her job results in tragedy, Nader is forced to lie to himself and his family and hope that his caste in Iranian society shields the truth from the law, and those he loves.
The collisions of life, the frailty and fallibility and essence of truth are at the core of A Separation. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi deftly weaves a Rashomon-like narrative, as the classist motivations of his characters and their recollections -- shaped by a near feudal system of justice -- are grippingly and masterfully unfurled.
The depiction of the patriarchal court itself is compelling, as the magistrate (Babak Karimi) hears the arguments of Nader and Razieh and her hot-headed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), all of whom have the ability to bolster their cases by getting others to vouch for them -- though only Nader has the option to pay blood money to Hodjat in order to avoid a (weirdly brief) jail sentence for what might be a murder.
As a legal system -- and narrative tool -- it's not bad since almost anyone can bring in what amounts to character witnesses to defend them; though if you're a woman your fate can pretty much be determined by men who might work out some deal amongst themselves, whose fairness is all up to one -- presumably impartial and really annoyed -- judge, to determine (within a legal framework as chaotic as a Tehran rush hour).
Had I seen A Separation a bit earlier it would have made my Top 10 of 2011. The performances from Peyman Moaadi and Sareh Bayat anchor a film whose adept storytelling and effortless technical execution are as affecting in Persian as they would be in any other language. The syntax of great cinematically rendered and human films transcend the expectations of culture and the ancient limitations of Babel.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D
Star Wars is the reason I write about movies.
Seeing the original in May of 1977 brought me online to the wonder of film -- a stream of cinematic consciousness that continues to this day. Over those years the Star Wars films bloomed in the cultural consciousness and George Lucas' mythology became three of the most beloved films ever to be released.
And they ended. Or they should have. But instead, 13 years ago, came The Prequels. Lucas always said he had a backstory for the films that gave rise to his empire and everyone was stoked to see what he had envisioned since technology had finally advanced enough to make possible. The hype at the time was palpable with months spent in anticipation as tidbits and details trickled out over the then, kind of new Internet. I once paid the admission to The Waterboy just to be among the first to see the trailer.
And the result was Jar Jar Binks.
It's hard to express the amount of denial that went into making one think that The Phantom Menace was good. The disappointment of Jar Jar Binks, Anakin Skywalker as a little kid, the bad CG, stilted performances and clumsy direction took a bit of time to sink in after the years of waiting for new adventures in the Star Wars universe. But they did sink in. Which makes The Phantom Menace's rerelease in 3D that much more absurd. An object lesson that adding an extra visual dimension will do nothing for a film that's flat to begin with.
By now you know the story. Two Jedi, Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) come to the remote world of Naboo to settle a dispute with the Trade Federation. Unbeknownst to them an evil Sith lord (Ian McDiarmid) is using the Federation to propel himself from Senator to Supreme Chancellor, usurping the Galactic Republic and eventually giving rise to the Empire. What he doesn't count on is the Jedi finding Anakin Skywalker, an annoying little kid whose inherent abilities with the Force lead him to become the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy.
And by now you know it sucks.
Where to start? The awful performance by Jake Lloyd as the young Darth Vader? The borderline racist Jar Jar? The extensive use of over obvious CG? Crappy dialogue? Ham-fisted direction? All wrapped in a patina of the greatness that infected so many young film fans' DNA.
Looking back, the bomb Lucas dropped with The Phantom Menace was providential. Many fans whose disappointment with the films stemmed from an unhealthy obsession needed to be set straight. They were the ones that enabled Lucas to re-release his original films and make tinkering with them his own unhealthy (if lucrative) obsession -- in this new version he's replaced the practical Yoda with (of course) a CG version. They bought the endless home video incarnations, spent on the merchandise and were the loudest voices of excitement when Lucas returned to his universe with the Prequels. And when the cold reality of The Phantom Menace's crappiness hit them in the face they were those in the deepest denial. They needed to grow up and move on.
And so does George Lucas.
So please. Don't go see The Phantom Menace in 3D. It's pandering of the worst sort.
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