Catching Up With: A Separation – 2011

The title of  “A Separation,” the 2011 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, starts out as a literal description of the plight of Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a middle-class Iranian couple. Simin ,who wants to flee the oppressive rule of Iran to give their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) a better life wants a divorce, since her husband Nader, burdened with taking care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, refuses to leave the country. Nader also won’t give up custody of Termeh unless she actually chooses to leave with Simin.

But this film, written and directed with startling efficiency by Asghar Farhadi, is about much more than a simple divorce case. “A Separation” is a story of barriers not just between husband and wife, but between the rich and the poor, the secular and the devout, the innocent and the guilty, the deceitful and the honest. The result is a fascinating document of a crumbling marriage that is a microcosm of the unfairness and hypocrisy in Iran’s legal system and socioeconomic structure.

The opening scene, a long take where Nader and Simin explain their situation to an unseen judge in a grubby office, sets the tone for the film. Simin thinks Nader should let his father die and flee to America, while Nader thinks Simin is selfish for making their daughter leave the only home she ever knew. Farhadi’s still camera, and his razor-sharp script (more on that later), shows how these two separate arguments devolve into a mess of accusations and old grudges that can bury into a marriage like ticks.

Simin does leave their home to live with her parents and take English classes (Rosetta Stone is not a viable option in Iran, I guess). Meanwhile, Nader hires Razieh (an utterly heartbreaking Sareh Bayat), a financially-strapped pregnant woman to take care of his father while he’s at work. Already stretched thin by her monetary situation, a two-hour commute and a possibly abusive husband (Shahab Hosseini), Razieh struggles with the immense burden of taking care of Nader’s father. In one scene, she must clean him after he wets himself, a situation made more difficult by the law that states a woman can’t disrobe a man who isn’t her husband, something Razieh, who is a devout Muslim, just can’t handle.

Making matters worse is the incident that brings these two threads together. A simple misunderstanding over missing money in Nader’s apartment leads to an accident that brings the legal system back into play in full force, and jeopardizes the future of all the parties involved. “A Separation” is so perfectly paced and written, that Farhadi doesn’t need any stylistic flourishes to tell his story. There is not a wasted shot or line of dialogue in “A Separation.” We always know what is a stake, especially when these two couples go to war with each other in court after the accident, and we are left wondering who is in control of the truth; and how much will pride and class go into what these people, already stretched to their limits, decide to do.

“A Separation” is definitely a morality play, and I hate to keep repeating myself, but it really is astonishing how Farhadi’s screenplay makes such a simple story into something so extraordinary complex. All of these characters, acted to the hilt by everyone involved, are free from being easily judged. There are no heroes and villains, these are flawed people who try to wade through a confusing world to try to make the right decisions, which leads to devastating consequences. Simin is both commendable for wanting to liberate her family from Iran’s oppression, but can also be selfish for refusing to acknowledge the desires of that family. Nader is the same way. After the accident involving Razieh, he is stubborn, hostile, and constantly changes his version of the incident. His prejudice against the poverty Razieh and her husband live in is apparent; yet at the same time he is a loving father and would move heaven and earth to give his ailing father the proper care. Razieh and her husband may also be hiding the truth, being so pressed to pay off creditors breathing down their necks. “A Separation” is completely objective. There are no heroes or villains, just people like you and me, dealing with problems that transcend language and country.

As the 123 minutes of “A Separation” race by, the constant payoffs and revelations of the journeys of these five people are unveiled like the best literature. There is something Dickensian about Farhadi’s approach to the story. But it’s the road that Nader and Simin take, that draws them into a vortex of their own making, that renders their marriage unfixable no matter how much empathy they have for each other. “A Separation” is a legal thriller that grows into a sociological study seamlessly. The final scene, where Simin and Nader’s precocious daughter is given a choice that could change her parents lives forever, shows how decisions based on actions are often left out of our hands. This film is about what falls through the cracks of divisions, both societal and personal.

Grade: A-

Personal Pantheon: The Hurt Locker – 2009

“War is a drug.”

That quote, which is the first thing we see in Kathryne Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker,” establishes the mission statement for the whole movie. In Baghdad, circa 2004, the bomb disposal unit of the Army’s Bravo Company has just lost their by-the-book team leader (Guy Pearce) to a roadside bomb. His replacement is a true wild-card: Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who treats each bomb he encounters as another opportunity to receive the hit of adrenaline that comes with defusing it; it makes him feel more alive than any of this fellow soldiers. It’s his own personal kind of combat high.

“The Hurt Locker” is fairly unusual as far as modern war movies go. It doesn’t really have much of a plot, it doesn’t feature grand speeches on the nature of heroism in the face of war and its main characters aren’t exactly the most noble group of guys. I saw first saw this film around the time its Oscar blitz, and I appreciated what it tried to do, but I didn’t fully embrace what the film tried to do. Last night I watched it for the first time since 2010, and after 130 sense-pulverizing minutes, the staggering achievement of Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal came into full fruition. “The Hurt Locker” is a war film that deals with the affects war can have on those in it. Some are consumed by it, and some become addicted to it (hence the opening quote).

Sgt. James, played with a haunted swagger by Renner in his career-making role, lives for his job as a bomb-defusing god. While his comrades’ nerves are on a tightrope, he lives for the threat of going up in flames if just one of the tangle of wires is removed improperly. He is a true daredevil; he turns off his radio, refuses to wear the enormous protective suit and treats any and all safety protocols like a nuisance, much to the chagrin of Sgt. Sanborn (another great performance by Anthony Mackie), who just wants the team to make it through the final 38 days of their rotation in one piece. The third volatile piece of this team is Specialist Owen Eldridge (a surprisingly effective Brian Geraghty), who frequently meets with a counselor to discuss his unease over constantly being confronted with life and death; war electrifies James, but it does the opposite to Eldridge. This trio runs the gamut of perspectives when it comes to war.

The film’s structure, and by extension Boal’s Oscar-winning script, appears to be fairly bare-bones. We see this team going on mission after mission, trying to stay above the Iraq war’s deadly grind. But this episodic structure contains multitudes. “The Hurt Locker” works masterfully as both an action movie and as a character study of these three damaged men, with Boal’s journalistic background and Bigelow’s virtuoso filmmaking technique working perfectly in sync.

Boal’s script specifically wisely avoids the quicksand of sanctimony and easy political judgments that claimed so many of the other films about the Iraq war. “The Hurt Locker” is about a job, not a holy mission. That is personified in Sgt. James, who is about as far removed from typical war movie protagonists, like “Saving Private Ryan’s” Captain Miller, as you can get. Both men have families back home, but James isn’t driven by his estranged wife and newborn son. He lives for the rush of defeating death, not for the comforts of family. He keeps the fuses of the bombs he’s defused under his bed, trophies of his conquests over mortality, to go along with the frag scars that cover his chest. He’s not a hero, he’s a sociopath. This man needs the war, but he’s not completely closed off from humanity. He does try to help Eldridge overcome his fears when they stake out a sniper, and he befriends “Beckham,” a teenage boy who sells bootleg DVDs. His humanity is put on the back burner, replaced by his junkie-like need to play chicken with death.

“The Hurt Locker” is a masterpiece of “show don’t tell.” And with how Bigelow presents the ungodly suspense that comes with defusing bombs, this movie really fucking shows. This is one of the last decades’ most explosive displays of filmmaking artistry. Hand-held cameras are everywhere, but in stark contrast to so many other modern action movies, this film is incredibly coherent. The rattles of gunfire, the sweat-soaked dismantling of the roadside bombs, even the eerily quiet showdown with the desert sniper are all wrung dry of all the suspense they can possibly deliver, as scenes from every conceivable direction are piled on top of each other to knock us senseless. You are right along with the team’s internal and external chaos. Bigelow throws a hand-grenade into the boys club of action movie directors and masters the form, reigniting her stagnant career and reminding everyone that the former Mrs. James Cameron is a great film artist in her own right.

James and his team slowly descend further into their own hell, and when a personal tragedy finally rattles James, his resolve goes haywire, and what each of these men thought about their situation changes drastically. The performances by Mackie and Geraghty, two sides of a conscience that Sgt. James has surpressed, and the brilliant work by Renner as a man who becomes so dependent on the risk of combat that he grows numb to his own family, are extraordinary. They complete the achievement of the film’s goal to present the hell of war in as straightforward a fashion as possible. It all culminates with the film’s coda, with James lost in that endless supermarket, the minutia of domestic life more harrowing than anything in Iraq. He’s a slave to the rush, as exemplified by the smile on his face in the film’s final shot. War is a drug, and there is no detox for him.

Catching Up With: Looper – 2012

Time travel has always been an interesting concept to me, especially when it is an integral part of the story, using the brain-twisting logic and possibility of paradoxes that come with it to great effect. But the flipside of that is when stories become so obsessed with how time travel could conceivably work that they get lost in an ocean of minutia and half-baked science, leaving the story lost without a life jacket.

Which is why “Looper,” the surprisingly poignant and thoughtful sci-fi noir from Rian Johnson, the mastermind behind the Raymond Chandler high school rewrite “Brick,”  is such a breath of fresh air. The film definitely does have its fair-share of time-travel mythology, but this movie goes in directions you may not expect, creating a stylish, entertaining action movie, that morphs into a low-key human drama when you least expect it.

It’s 2044. America, at least Kansas for the sake of this movie, is a worn-down wasteland, the flashes of new technology, such as hover cars and the phenomenon of having 10 percent of the population being telekenetic, are lost in the broken-down, eroded landscape (the set design owes a heavy debt to “Blade Runner”). Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “looper” a hitman who wields an old-school blunderbuss rifle to kill people sent back in time from 2074. In the future, time travel is possible but highly illegal and bodies are impossible to dispose of, so the mob sends victims to the past, thus erasing them from existence. Joe is charming and confident on the surface, but underneath he’s a drug-addicted wreck, only caring about his own self-preservation and trying desperately for a relationship with a caring stripper (Piper Perabo).  He saves the bars of silver he receives with every hit, hoping to run away to France and fix his life.

That self-preservation is tested when the future’s mysterious crime boss The Rainmaker decides to close all the loops by sending loopers’ future selves back for the requisite blunderbuss blast to the head (that’s still the rifle, not the Jack White solo album). This results in a major pay day and a release from their contracts, but there’s also the little thing with knowing the exact day and time you will meet your demise, which is hell on your psyche, just ask Paul Dano.

So when it’s Joe’s turn to dispose of his future self (Bruce Willis), Older Joe gets the drop on him, and now Young Joe is being chased by his underworld employers, led by the future exile Abe (Jeff Daniels), and he must chase his older self and keep him from killing the child who may or may not grow up to be The Rainmaker, thus changing everyone’s destiny.

The trailers made this look like a standard sci-fi chase, but Johnson throws a major monkey wrench into the second half of “Looper,” which takes place on a farm owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), who’s son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) is on Old Joe’s target list for Rainmaker possibilities. There are the requisite shootouts, and a fantastic scene between the two Joes where they lay out their diverging life goals, using their shared experiences against each other. But Johnson, as he showed in “Brick” and to a lesser extent in the slightly underwhelming “The Brothers Bloom”, has a gift for unusual worlds with crazy-quilt plots, but his work never loses its soul, even with his dazzling visual style on display.

“Looper” has a unique, humorous approach to the conundrums of time travel, acknowledging the paradoxes and brain-frying logic required to parse through all of it. It’s impossible to tell a time-travel story that doesn’t have paradoxes or gaps in logic, and “Looper acknowledges the mysteries that go with time travel. This makes the film more of a character piece because it isn’t saddled with such jargon.

The second half of this film, with Young Joe hiding out on Sara’s farm, trying to protect Sara and Cid, is such a refreshing change of pace because so many modern movies are on such an attention-deficit bent that they keep throwing explosions and incident on the screen until the life has been sucked out of the story. Rian Johnson deserves a lot of credit for following through on his narrative thread the top priority. Old Joe’s story, told in a flashback to an alternate timeline, is like a short silent film, as we see Joe dive deeper in the abyss of drug abuse until he is saved by a Chinese woman who becomes his savior until she is killed by the Rainmaker. Willis, who was also excellent in “Moonrise Kingdom” earlier this year, does some of his most subtle, affecting work in years, showing how true love can drive a man to selling his soul and changing the course of history to make himself feel better.

Young Joe, given grit and an understated presence by Gordon-Levitt, who wears prosthetics and fake contacts to look like a young Bruce Willis and even adopts some of his mannerisms but never takes the turn toward parody (he’s the most reliable American actor right now), develops his own relationship with Sara, played by a surprisingly effective Blunt (the woman knows how to swing that ax), a weary single mother who tries to raise Cid the best she can, but without diving into spoilers, is harder than it sounds, because Cid is a highly unusual (and potentially dangerous) five-year-old. It’s hard to gauge performances from actors that young, but Gagnon is a terrifying young screen presence. He becomes the lynch pin in the fates of everyone involved as the final denouement brings everything together in an immensely satisfying final confrontation that closes all of the film’s narrative loops, while still leaving room for mystery and speculation.

That mystery is why I can’t wait to watch “Looper” again, to figure out how Johnson dug his rabbit hole. It touches on themes of loyalty, nature vs. nurture (bringing up the old scenario: if you could kill Hitler as a baby, would you?) and self-sacrifice, creating moments of poignancy not often seen in this most clinical of genres (as Adam Kempenaar, the host of the Filmspotting podcast pointed out, this movie does have one of the best booty calls in the history of time involving two electronic frogs). Nobody gets away clean whether they are outrunning their destiny, or trying to understand that destiny before it comes to pass. There are shades of crime noir and even the legendary 1988 anime “Akira,” but Johnson has his own voice, and “Looper” is a major step forward. This is a kinetic puzzle-box that never loses its humanity or its cool.

Grade: A-

New Arrivals: Django Unchained

Well it looks like  Quentin Tarantino and I have one thing in common: I think he hates “Gone With The Wind” as much as  I do.

“Django Unchained” is a movie that defies any easy, glib description a cinephile like myself can throw at it. But I will say that no movie in 2012 pummeled me as much as this one. When I walked out of the theater I wasn’t yet able to articulate in my mind what I felt about Tarantino’s odyssey of the titular freed slave (Jamie Foxx) and his quest for vengeance and his beloved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), which left the preconceived notions of blaxploitation movies, Westerns and Civil War-epics like “Gone With the Wind,” along with dozens of bodies, in the bloody wake of Django’s drive for retribution and freedom.

But now I can say this: “Django Unchained” is a bold, outrageously violent, wildly funny, explosively provocative destruction and corrective of cinema’s old notions of the portrayal the toxic, dehumanizing industry of slavery, all in the guise of a spaghetti Western that owes a heavy debt to Sergio Leone and countless other reference points in the  grindhouse collage of Tarantino’s mind. The man is a lunatic that has a mastery of his own craft.

Tarantino has always been criticized for being nothing more than a thief, a sort of DJ who takes pieces of the obscure genre films he treats like holy writ and mashes them together in a hollow, showoff-y manner. I never bought that criticism. Sure, Tarantino borrows from other movies and directors, but he puts them together in a way that makes his films accessible to people who don’t know Sonny Chiba from Sonny Bono and also leaves something for everyone to chew on. “Reservoir Dogs” looked at honor amongst men amid a failed heist. “Pulp Fiction” dealt with criminal low-lifes slowly coming to terms with their individual relationships with morality and decency. “Jackie Brown” used an Elmore Leonard story to explore racism and old age and “Kill Bill” and “Death Proof” literally turn gender roles on their head, with empowered women gleefully emasculating the cliched macho icons that dominated midnight theaters in the early ‘7os. These films are reverential, but they aren’t afraid to flip the script on their predecessors, to create a new perspective. It’s what makes one of Tarantino one of our most fascinating and unpredictable auteurs.

“Django Unchained” continues this tradition. The film opens in 1858, when Django is freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter who recruits Django to help him find the Brittle Brothers and bring them to justice. In return, Schultz promised to grant Django his freedom. Django slowly morphs from a man stripped of his dignity into a confident gunslinger, as the two do battle with the Brittles and a dapper plantation owner named Big Daddy (Don Johnson), leading to a gunfight with Daddy and his legion of pre-Klansmen, whose impaired visibility from their poorly made masks leads to an insanely funny scene that I would put against any comedy released this year. Django convinces Schultz to travel with him to Mississippi to rescue his beloved Broomhilda from the  Candieland plantation, whose ruthless owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) trains his slaves for Mandingo fighting, which entails bare-knuckle brawls to the death. In a convoluted plan that has Django and Schultz pretending to be slave owners looking to purchase Mandingo fighters, they infiltrate the plantation.

“Django Unchained” is unusual in how it is entertaining and horrifying at the same time. The first half of the film glides on the effortless charisma and chemistry between Waltz and Foxx. Waltz, just like he did as the inhuman Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds,” goes through the English language like an overly enthusiastic gymnast, twisting Tarantino’s peerless dialogue into fantastic shapes, creating a character just as indelible as Landa, but on the other side of the humanity spectrum. It’s not by accident that his name is Dr. King, but Schultz does not share Martin Luther’s affinity for non-violence. He trains the uneducated Django not just how to read and dress himself, but how to become a trained killer. In his best performance since “Collateral,” Foxx subtly shows Django’s transformation from a broken slave into an avenging badass worthy of comparison to a Shaft or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name,  becoming the Siegfried destined to save his beloved Broomhilda from the fiery dungeon in the German folktale Schultz shares with him.

But as absurd and fun as Django and Schultz’s journey to Candieland is, the dark side that always works on the fringes of Tarantino’s work until it explodes with profound repercussions, sets in in the film’s depiction of slavery. I have never seen any film that depicted America’s greatest shame in such clear-eyed and brutal fashion. We see the mazes of scars formed by whippings. Hot boxes that suck the oxygen from already withered bodies. Full-face masks that look like they belong on Hannibal Lecter, that are equipped with spear-tipped metal collars, treating these men and women like feral beasts.  The N-word gets spewed out of everyone’s mouth like cannon fire. “Roots” is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s frustrating that it took 97 years after the release of D.W. Griffin’s KKK-supporting “Birth of a Nation” for an American film to present slavery in such a manner. In an age where Hollywood movies such as “The Blind Side” and “The Help” soft-pedal the conversation of race in favor of sentimental tear-jerking, “Django” pummels us with our nation’s past.

While still keeping with the darkly funny, irreverent tone, the film also shows how slavery is thought of as a business, and those who partake are desensitized to it. Django bristles at having to pretend to be a black “slaver” looking for fighters in order to buy his wife her freedom, and that he is forced to watch and even dole out abuse to other slaves to stay in the good graces Calvin Candie, an antebellum demon played with sadistic relish by DiCaprio in the performance of his career, is thrilled by the sight of two slaves beating each other to death in these brawls. With the wave of his hand he has a runaway torn apart by dogs. He may have sexual desires for his sister, and he shows how generations of white superiority can suppress any and all empathy for these black victims. In the lengthy dinner-table scene, where Tarantino showcases his stone-cold mastery of building suspense around the conflicting motivations of his characters and his unmistakable dialogue that is so good it’s almost like a form of music, DiCaprio’s monologue detailing the anatomy of a black man’s skull shows how Candie himself doesn’t even fully understand why he is the way he is; slavery and subjugation are part of the air he breathes, rotting his soul along with his tobacco-stained teeth.

But the movie’s gutsiest, most troubling creation is not Calvin who is not even the most villainous character in “Django.” That would be his head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackson, buried under prosthetics that make him look like the worst Uncle Ben-esque, minstrel show caricature, plays the epitome of an Uncle Tom who lives to kiss the ass of his master and belittle the other slaves. At first you pity Stephen, but pity is replaced by disgust, as his willingness to be subserviant masks a Machiavellian soullessness. Jackson is extraordinary in showing how the horrors of slavery warp the oppressors and the oppressed, symbolizing Tarantino’s unflinching eye for holding everyone involved in the prosperity of slavery accountable. Making the villain of a movie about slavery another slave? That, ladies and gentlemen, is ballsy as hell.

“Django Unchained” is the farthest thing from a smooth ride. At 165 minutes it does feel bloated at times, especially in a totally unnecessary scene involving Django and a bunch of Australian miners, one of which is played by Tarantino himself, who really needs to stop operating under the delusion that he is an actor. Also, it was an interesting choice in presenting the relationship between Django and Broomhilda in a series of wordless fantasies, and Washington is very effective as an almost silent victim of slavery, but it’s disappointing that a writer who is in a class by himself when it comes to creating well-developed female characters, at least among male filmmakers, gives Broomhilda such little to do.

But “Django Unchained” more than pays off in the end, despite the occasional lapses in narrative discipline. There is something deeply thrilling in watching Django tear through the institution of slavery, set to a fire-breathing mashup of James Brown and 2Pac, along with original music from John Legend and even the immortal Ennio Morricone. Years of oppression lie on the floor, soaking in blood. Some may be troubled by the film’s romantic view of revenge, and the unsatiated bloodlust that overtakes Django as his transformation is complete. But for everyone else who has followed Quentin Tarantino into the wild blue yonder over the past twenty years as he flips the script on how we view cinematic temples. In the film’s final sequence, which is a direct homage to the ending of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” years of turning a blind eye over this country’s greatest sin, literally goes up in flames. With “Django Unchained,” as wild as ungainly as it may be, Tarantino once again wants us to feel the burn.

Grade: A-