Sunday, July 19, 2020


"And when I'm lying in my bed 

I think about life and I think about death 

And neither one particularly appeals to me.”
     - The Smiths, “Nowhere Fast”

People don’t like to talk about suicide. They just don’t. They barely want to talk about death and the afterlife as it is; therefore, you know if you’re bringing up ending your own life, it’s going to get uncomfortable.

So Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) quickly finds in Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 Cannes-winner Taste of Cherry. Hell, he doesn’t even want to talk about it. He doesn’t wish to share his reasons for getting out, he just needs a practical hand to double-check that he’s carried it through. And thus he drives through Tehran looking to hire someone dependable. He tries three men--a rookie soldier (someone who just does the job), a religious scholar (a man of philosophy and ethics), and a taxidermist (the preservation of the deceased)--all of them immigrants--a Kurd, an Afghani, and a Turk--presumably chosen as such to display Kiarostami’s acknowledgement of a universal experience. We are all passengers on Spaceship Earth.

Badii’s proposal is simple. He has picked out a spot and dug a hole to lie down in. As night falls, he will take all the sleeping pills he can swallow and go to sleep in the hole. At dawn, the man he hires shall go there and call his name. If he does not rouse, the fellow just needs to bury him and a good sum of money will be waiting. Seems easy enough, but the proposition causes reactions. The soldier is scared, the scholar concerned, and the older man, the taxidermist, resigned. Through their responses, Kiarostami crafts a debate around the notions of self-determination and our duty to others, both in terms of what Badii’s actions might mean to those around him and  the potential helper’s duty to stop their fellow man from inflicting harm. Ironically, Badii doesn’t recognize the most concrete example of man’s kindness when he drives his truck off the road and nearby workers rush to push him out of danger. Presumably, there could be relief should he choose. Or is his problem truly without solution, as he would suggest?

Though Taste of Cherry is a movie that thrives on conversation, it is also a film of perpetual motion. A vast majority of the picture’s running time takes place in Badii’s truck as he drives around looking for candidates and then pitches them the plan while taking them out to see where his final resting place is intended to be. This, one can assume, is Kiarostami’s metaphor for life, or at least a representation of how Badii feels about it. Life never stops, there is no rest. The closest Badii gets is a poetic scene where he sits down amongst the rubble of a quarry and watches dirt and rock be churned and ground down. Kiarostami stages the sequence as a kind of shadowplay, the dusky image of the rocks covering the shadow of the man, foreshadowing the peace waiting for him in just a few hours. I think it may be the only time we see Badii smile. In truth, he’s kind of a prick, and his secrecy makes it hard to empathize with him; it’s only in these moments, as emotion shows through, that we find an individual we can sympathize with. When roused from this reverie, Badii will not rest again until his deal is made.

Kiarostami has very much crafted a film here. Taste of Cherry is as rich in visual splendor as any other narrative film with a more complicated plot. The story here is small, but the world is expansive, as we are constantly reminded by the camera’s regular positioning outside the truck. We peer down from the mountains, from the godly perch of the audience, and see Badii driving through the hills, see the towns beyond. We aren’t just with him when we are in the truck, but we are observing him as he moves through the day. We are aware of his place in some kind of ecosystem, and privy to his impact on it. When Badii leaves a man, we do not, we get to stop and see their thoughts the moment after he exits their lives. It works just like any other movie, even if its tale is not standard Hollywood fare.

Which almost makes the coda of Taste of Cherry unnecessary. When Kiarostami exposes the crew, shows us the actors and the cameras at work, he reminds us that this is a motion picture, that no one actually lived or died. Which, we are smart people, we know this. Yet, Kiarostami wants us to stop and think about it, to question how and why we engaged. Much like in his experiment with showing reactions and not the movie being reacted to in Shirin [review], the Iranian director refuses to let the audience be passive, or to leave Badii behind when the lights go out...and come back on. 

Sticking to that theme, Criterion has included a short film called The Project that shows Kiarostami’s process, cutting together footage where he acts out scenes with his son followed by clips of him directing those same scenes with his actors. The raw material shows how passionate Kiarostami is about getting to the truth, and is reminiscent of similar films with Ingmar Bergman, particularly The Making of Fanny and Alexander [review]. It’s amazing to see how the auteur finds the spontaneity in repetition. 

A quick note regarding the new Blu-ray of Taste of Cherry: as a Criterion release with a very low spine number, Cherry was overripe for an upgrade. I’m happy to say that the new 4K restoration has done wonders for the picture quality. The image is sharp and vibrant, full of nuance and detail. Viewers in 2020 and beyond can see all the aspects of that wide world Kiarostami is looking to show.

Sunday, July 12, 2020


This review was written for in 2011.

Had I seen A Separation just a month before, in its year of original release, it would have been amongst my top films of 2011. And it's good enough that I might have to bend the rules when it comes time to pick my favorites of 2012. The Online Film Critics Society, of which I had been a member, voted it the best non-English film of last year. If I could, I'd definitely throw my weight behind it now, too. It's really that good.

A Separation is a narrative drama by Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi. It begins in a courtroom where an unseen judge officiates divorce proceedings between Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). Simin has secured a visa to leave the country, but her husband does not want to go. He feels he must stay and take care of his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), whose age and Alzheimer's make it impossible for him to travel. He also doesn't want their eleven-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to be uprooted. The girl doesn't want to go either, though Simin suspects she's digging in her heels thinking it will keep her parents together. It works to a degree: Simin doesn't leave the country, but she does leave the house and moves back in with her mother.

To help around the apartment and take care of his father while he's at work, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat). She is a devout religious woman who, despite thinking the pay is too low and the commute brutal, must take the job in order to support her family. Her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), lost his job at a cobbler's and has not been able to find another. He would disapprove of his wife working for a "single" man, so she and their young daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), take the gig in secret.

This is just the tip of Razieh's iceberg-sized problems. She's over four months pregnant and Hodjat's creditors keep putting him in jail. The woman isn't equipped to deal with all these things, and Nader's father proves to be a bigger handful than she expected. When Nader comes home one afternoon to find Razieh gone and his father on the floor, barely alive, he naturally gets upset. When Razieh appears, they argue, and he physically expels her from the apartment. What happens next--and really, how all of this went down--becomes a bone of great contention. Razieh miscarries, and she blames Nader. The baby was far enough along that, under Iranian law, he is charged with murder. Nader countersues for the abuse to his father. A long and heated battle gets underway.

Asghar Farhadi has created a complex and complicated human drama. The length it takes to describe A Separation's central conflict is indicative of just what a tangled mess these people's lives become. Though the split in Nader and Simin's marriage is the inciting incident in this story, it's not the only separation on display. The separation isn't even limited to being between the two families or their religious ideologies, there is at least one additional separation on each side. Neither husband nor wife is on the same page for either family. There is also a severe separation between perception and the truth, between what each person thinks happened and what really went down.

As the arguments grow heated and the contested facts pile on, our own personal take on what is happening becomes as knotted as the emerging explanations--and my stomach became knotted, as well. Farhadi creates an extreme tension by creating realistic characters and putting them in realistic situations. Both Razieh and Nader could go to jail, and maybe Hodjat, as well, and we fear for all of them equally. Though each participant in this mess can be irritating at different times, it's difficult to take any one side. Farhadi avoids creating any clear heroes or villains. These are all essentially good people trying to keep their lives from falling apart. Nader stubbornly clings to his belief that he's not at fault, even when it might harm his daughter's life, because her image of him is more important than an easy solution. Likewise, Razieh has no other way to deal with her loss, nor much option for how else to see her family through the financial crisis that grips them.

In terms of performances, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better ensemble of actors than this one. Each performer, from young to old, and regardless of how many lines they have, is compelling and believable. There is no one overriding emotion that defines their role. Shahab Hosseini as Hodjat, for instance, could have easily been boxed in as a hot-tempered loser, but instead he is shown as a proud man whose life failings have made him vulnerable. On the flipside, we get to see what a good father Nader can be, but that devotion to his family is also responsible for his having to make moral compromises. Or, at least, think he has to. Peyman Maadi portrays him as a man who is losing strength, and the more doubts he allows to be voiced, the harder it is to maintain his self-belief.

As is often the case in life, there is no satisfactory resolution for anyone caught up in A Separation's drama. There is no great victory to be won here, nor any singular, overriding truth. Farhadi stays true to the naturalism of the piece and let's the things that can't be known, that could not be witnessed or proven outright, remain just as ill-defined at the finish as they were at the start of the dispute. These schisms here can't be traversed or closed. This isn't to say A Separation itself is not satisfying, because it is very much the opposite, even if some of the feelings the ending inspires might be mixed. I still can't quite get at what I want to say about it. Is it that there being no winners or losers provides more comfort for the audience because this means that all of these characters that we have become so invested in will be able to carry on somehow? Or is it the universal feeling of disappointment, that regardless of background or philosophy, we all struggle? It could be that it's meant to shake us to our cores, and it's not positive at all. Regardless, one can't leave A Separation without being effected by it. Just as all of the players in its narrative touch one another, the film touches the audience in profound ways that can't be easily resolved.

Saturday, July 4, 2020


This review was originally written for in 2011.

Man, I'm like...what?

There are times when this job is just a pain. When I probably would have stopped a movie before it was done and just walked away. When I can't, and so I have to instead come into my office and try to figure out something to say, and it's just not there.

The Future has inspired one of those times. It's the new film from performance artist/author Miranda July, who made half a good movie back in 2005 called Me and You and Everyone We Know. That movie chronicled the twee romance between two average people and the growing pains of a pair of children, and it had moments of true insight (the kids) and other moments of contrived oddness (the romance). But it was all right, nothing too baffling, nothing too unctuous.

July's sophomore effort is a whole other matter. The ratio of what works to what doesn't has gotten a lot more lopsided, and though I wouldn't call The Future bad, it does lack focus and seasoning.

The script portrays a couple in their mid-30s who have decided to adopt a stray cat they have found. They named it Paw Paw and took it to an animal shelter where it is being treated for its hurt front paw (I guess that's where they got the name) and other health problems. At first they were told that Paw Paw would only live six months, but now the vet says it could be several years if they take care of it. So, instead of six months of adult responsibility followed by a lifetime of freedom, the couple sees the thirty days they have to wait for Paw Paw to be healed enough to come home as their last month to live. Jason (Hamish Linklater from The New Adventures of Old Christine) decides that they need to go nuts now and sow any remaining wild oats before they become parents, so he quits his tech-support job answering distress calls in their apartment and encourages Sophie (July) to give notice at the dance school where she's an instructor. Having loosed the shackles of employment, they can do anything they can dream up.

Except they don't dream big. Jason volunteers for an environmental initiative selling trees door to door; Sophie decides to record a dance a day for the full thirty and upload them to YouTube. As it turns out, Jason isn't cut out for sales and Sophie isn't very creative. So, he pretends to go to work and instead spends the day with an old man (Joe Putterlik) who turns out to be himself from the future while she sneaks out and has an affair with a single dad (David Warshofksy) they randomly met at the vet.

Yeah, you read that right. Jason meets himself from the future. There are funny things with time in this movie. There are also scenes where the cat Paw Paw speaks to the audience, explaining his (her?) changing life, anticipations, and disappointments. Surprisingly, these are the best parts of The Future. The tricks Jason pulls make for a neat pay-off, bringing up questions about fate and how much of our lives we waste and what it might take to wrest control back from the universe. Even the talking cat is endearing, despite the voice Miranda July gives Paw Paw being pretty damn terrible. You can forgive her lack of vocal chops because it's kind of cute and, somehow, the cat ends up being the most emotionally honest character in the whole film.

The rest of The Future, however, is pretty underwhelming and tainted with a forced oddness. July seems desperate to maintain a labored indie cool, which maybe she could do if she were a better actress. The writing is fairly sharp, but her affected screen presence is tiresome. Hamish Linklater spends the entire movie outclassing her, and it gets embarrassing. He is so natural and heartfelt in front of the camera, you can't help but wish he were in a different movie. It's like July keeps trying to push The Future one way and no matter how much her lead actor points her the other way, she refuses to listen. Even the music by Jon Brion (Magnolia, I Heart Huckabees) is overly contrived, nearly spoiling the movie's most surprising scene by spreading a sickly organ underneath.

There's a Pet Shop Boys song called "Being Boring" where, essentially, they play with the old phrase that if you're never boring, you won't be bored. It came to mind a lot while watching The Future. Sophie and Jason are people who don't really do anything because they aren't very interested in what they set out to do. I suppose this is Miranda July's point: they don't know what they want, and the movie represents a divide between their purposeless younger lives and what may possibly be a new beginning. Or not. She goes back to bed, he sits and reads a book, that's not very interesting either. It's ironic, but ennui needs more flair than this. The Future lacks any pronounced style, and its magical moments have the same drab look of the everyday life that makes up the rest of the picture. If you're going to be weird, Ms. July, be weird, don't settle on quirky; if you're going to track your characters crawling out of their boredom, shoot it like you care. Or are at least trying.

Because it makes it hard for me to care or try when you don't. And it makes it not just hard to start reviewing your film, but also hard to finish. I've come up with a lot to say, but no clever way to wrap it up, no cohesion. Call it "giving as good as you get."