A Separation(2/4/2012)

2-4-2012ASeparation

A Separation begins with a static POV shot of a judge talking to an Iranian married couple who are seeking a divorce.  The woman, Simin (Leila Hatami), says that her husband does not beat her, does not neglect her, and is supportive of her and her children financially.  She likes him and doesn’t particularly want to leave him, but that she wants to leave the country and because he refuses to go along she sees no option but to divorce him.   The husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), says that it is unfair for her to demand that he leaves the country; firstly because he needs to take care of his Alzheimer’s-ridden father, and secondly because he sees the desire to leave behind Iran as a disgraceful cop-out.  Nader is willing to let his Simin go if she wants to leave, but given that their daughter has said she wants to stay with him he does not want Simin to take her along as she emigrates.  The judge says that these are not sufficient grounds for divorce and denies the petition.  Simin then decides to separate from Nader and live with her family for the time being.  The film that follows tells the story of what happens during this period of separation, and believe me, it only gets more interesting from there.

Almost all of that information is delivered in the first five minutes of A Separation and I hesitate to give a more detailed plot synopsis.  This isn’t a movie filled with earth shattering The Usual Suspects style twists or anything like that, but a lot of the pleasure in seeing the movie comes from seeing its plot unfold in front of you without having any preconceived notions about where it’s going.  Still, any serious analysis of a film is going to need to talk about a lot more than the first five minutes of a film and for that reason I will begin revealing more plot details from here on and those who want the experience of a blind viewing should read no fewer.  That said, I don’t intend to reveal the film’s ending or any other details that would be considered a major spoiler in an average film.

While the film’s first scene (correctly) establishes the film as a story to two people, it takes a pretty sharp turn early on when the wife from the first scene largely disappears from the narrative for a long stretch in the first act.  It’s here where the film sets up a second conflict which is every bit as complicated and ambiguous as the first.  The husband hires a housekeeper named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to replace his wife as a housekeeper and caretaker for his father, and she quickly becomes overwhelmed.  After Nader comes home one day to find his father neglected and lying on the floor and some money missing he fires Razieh, and when she refuses to leave he pushes her out the door.  Seemingly unbeknownst to Nader, Razieh was pregnant and his shove seems to have caused her to miscarry.  Her husband Houjat (Shahab Hosseini) blames Nader for the miscarriage and demands that he be charged with murder.

This case, like the divorce case, is filled with gray areas and complexities.  Did Nader really not know that Razieh was pregnant?  If he did does that really matter?  Was his reaction fair to begin with and if so should he still be held responsible to begin with?  Furthermore, the film does not shy away much from examining the effect of class differences on the case.  It’s clear that there’s a rift between the educated, middle class, secular Nader and the lower class, more religious, and more impulsive Houjat.  The fact that Houjet is less articulate and more impulsive than Nader gives Nader a clear advantage in court.  Is this advantage deserved even if the facts of justice might be on his side? Houjat stands to make a lot of money if they settle this conflict out of court (the Iranian justice system apparently allows for such settlements even in criminal cases), is that really all he wants and does his desire for a pay off make the fact that he seems to deserve justice any less valid?  We also see the effect of Razieh’s devout religious convictions on the proceedings and how they contrast with Nader’s more secular worldview.

What’s even more fascinating about this second case is how the film uses it to explore the central divorce.  Nader’s dealings with Houjat and Razieh paint a decent portrait of the character’s troublesome, if somewhat admirable, refusal to run away from his problems.  You can admire that he refuses to let Houjat shake him down, but you can also see how this same quality would make him difficult to live with.  We also get a better idea of why it is unreasonable for Simin to ask Nader to leave behind his father given how much trouble comes out of just trying to find someone who will watch his father while he’s at work.  At the same time we get an idea of Simin’s more pragmatic world view as well as her resourcefulness which seems wasted within a patriarchal Iranian society.  The politics of making a film in Iran seems to have muted this aspect slightly, but the viewer quickly gets an idea of Simin’s ambitions in life and how she would be much happier if she emigrates.  The case also gives the viewer a good idea of how their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) is torn apart by all of this and the compromises she needs to make in order to please both of her parents.

Clearly A Separation has a lot to say about relationships and about society, but I don’t want to underplay how well it works simply as a drama and as a court-room thriller of sorts.  The various perspectives of the characters are effectively argued in front of a judge and the conflicting feelings the audience has about the case make these debates seem interesting rather than manipulative.  The dialogue also seems quite strong throughout, though this is admittedly hard to judge from a subtitle translation.  The film also expertly brings evidence to the table at just the right time to keep things interesting throughout and also finds the perfect details to be ambiguous about in regards to exactly what happens at certain points and how much certain characters know about them.  The film also avoids the use of non-actors, a hit-or-miss technique that is often employed in films of the developing world, in its major roles.  Leila Hatami and Shahab Hosseini are both experienced film actors and while Sareh Bayat and Peyman Maadi don’t have as many film credits it’s clear that the theatrical experience of the former and the writing abilities of the later have paid off.  I don’t know that I’d give Oscars out for any of these performances, but they all very effectively convey their characters emotional states in some rather charged scenes.

The film is shot in a low-tech and matter of fact way, but it’s clear that the people making it are far from amateurs.  The film has a sort of docudrama realism that feels all the more real because it was probably the result of necessity rather than artifice.  It’s interesting that The Artist has been celebrated for doing “so much with so little” this year, when there are other movies like this which seem much more disadvantaged and manage to do much more ambitious things in spite of it.  Its amazing how much food for thought writer/director Asghar Farhadi was able to find in such a seemingly simple and dialogue driven story, this is a film that will have you thinking about its content for days after you see it.  It’s also amazing in how completely even handed it was in its depiction of a situation that gets out of hand fast.  There are no good guys or bad guys in A Separation, nor are there any simple morals to take away from it.  It’s simply an honest depiction of what happens when good people who depend on one another are divided by differences.

**** out of Four

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DVD Catch-Up: Weekend(1/22/2012)

1-22-2012Weekend

I’m not sure if there’s any group in society that can be casually stereotyped quite as easily as the homosexual community.  In the media gays are broadly depicted as effeminate, fashion-savvy, high voiced caricatures, and part of the problem is that many in the gay community seem more than happy to play into this stereotype, possibly because it seems like a way to be provocative toward homophobes or non-threatening towards those who are prone to be friendly toward their community.  Still, one wonders if it’s a good idea to allow images like that to go unchallenged.  I’ve always wondered if T.V. programs like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” are a sort of modern homosexual minstrel show, or if people in the future will someday look back at “Will & Grace” the way we now look back at “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” With that as the predominant image of the gay man in the media, it’s left up to independent cinema to take homosexual characters and their relationships seriously.  The micro-budgeted British film Weekend is just such a film.

As the title implies, the action of the film takes place over the course of a weekend, beginning on a Friday night when a man named Russell (Tom Cullen) meets another man named Glen (Chris New) at a gay bar and the two have a one night stand.  At least it seemed like a one night stand at the time, but the two seem to have a connection, albeit one that will likely be cut short, because at the end of the weekend Glen is going to be leaving on a two year trip he had planned.  The two are in some ways opposites; Russell is a very laid back and apolitical character with someone “traditional” values, while Glen is a bit angrier and more opinionated about issues of sexual orientation.  While Russell has a number of close heterosexual friends, Glen believes that gays and straights occupy different worlds and are ultimately separated by their differences.  Over the course of the film the two share a bond while they discuss various issues and previous experiences.

Weekend is not a movie that had a lot going for it from the outset.  It was made by an unknown director with unknown actors on a shoestring budget and without any kind high concept to lean on, and yet it manages to come together in a really compelling way.  Tom Cullen and Chris New both rise to the occasion in their respective roles, they make Russell and Glen into very real and well rounded characters.  The film’s camera work, which is by the book hand held digital photography, will not be winning the film any awards but it gets the job done.  The film never feels amateurish, and it almost reminded me of the low budget charm of the 2007 Irish romance/musical Once.  In a world where multi-million dollar projects like The Artist are seen as low-budget underdogs, it’s nice to see a real indie that works as well as this.

The film’s “two lovers discuss issues over a limited time” format is of course reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and the film suffers from being released the same year as Certified Copy, a film which uses a similar format but does more to add to the formula.  That film functioned largely on an intellectual level, and while Weekend has plenty of food for the intellect, it’s ultimately more about the feelings at its center.  It doesn’t turn their relationship into a joke and it doesn’t pity them for being in a persecuted class, it simply shows a pair of well rounded and intelligent characters and chronicles a simple bond between them over a short period and lets the audience empathize.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: The Help(2/1/2012)

2-1-2012TheHelp

European films and literature, especially British films and literature, have long been obsessed with the relationship between domestic workers and their employers.  American films on the other hand… well, Americans aren’t that used to the notion of having domestic workers in the first place.  We’ve never had our version of “Upstairs, Downstairs” or The Rules of the Game or The Remains of the Day,  and that might be because America’s legacy of domestic work (and class distinction in general) is heavily intertwined with America’s even messier legacy of racial strife.  It’s because of this that there was some real potential to be found in exploring the lives of African American maids in the Deep South during the late 60s.  That said, I kind of doubted that any major insights would be found in The Help, a film based on an Oprah-approved novel that was noted more for its ability to fly off the shelf than for its literary or political merit.   From its inception this property has been loved only by groups whose taste I have little respect for, namely Oprah viewers and Academy voters, and I can’t say I had a lot of enthusiasm about seeing it.  Still, I felt it had earned enough of a following that it was worth investigating, so I finally rented it (not an easy task) and gave it a watch.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the late 60s, the film primarily follows Eugenia Phelan (Emma Stone), who is known as Skeeter to her friends and family.  Skeeter has just returned from college and is trying to establish herself as a journalist.  The only writing job she can find in Jackson involves writing a newspaper advice column giving cleaning advice for housewives.  Skeeter is of course ill-equipped to give cleaning advice, so she decides to ask her friend’s maid/babysitter Aibileen (Viola Davis) for some advice.  After talking to Aibileen for a short while Skeeter begins thinking hard about the condition of these women who are responsible for raising the children in every upper-class family in the South.  Skeeter approaches Aibileen about writing a book about the condition of black maids, which Aibileen agrees to take part in after much hesitation.  This project will also lead her to interview other maids including Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a “troublemaker” who had recently been fired by the domineering racist ringleader Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has been at the forefront of a movement to require separate bathrooms for African American hired help.

I’ve long noticed that whenever race comes up in Hollywood produced period films the main character is almost always enlightened beyond their time.  Even if the film is set in a time and place where 99% of white people were card-carrying racists, the main character will always have thoroughly modern ideas about race and will happily defend and befriend whatever oppressed class is being depicted.  That’s partly just because writers desperately want their main characters to be as likable as possible, but I feel like it also taps into this white-person fantasy that if they were around back then, they’d be one of the enlightened 1%, that they would have never been swept up in the hateful ideology that they would surely have been indoctrinated into.  This is, of course, bullshit.  Racism is a social construction, it’s not something you’re born resistant to, and people generally conform to the norms of society regardless of how repugnant they may seem in retrospect.

Even within the long history of unrealistically tolerant, Skeeter is a particularly unbelievable character.  Skeeter was supposedly born and raised in the same environment as Hilly, and yet she hardly seems like a Southern woman from the sixties.  Hell, she doesn’t even seem like a Northern woman from the sixties.  She seems like a time traveler from Southern California circa 2011, who is inexplicably naïve about the way things work in the nation’s most racist state during a time of incredible racial conflict.  Everything about her from her speech patterns to her hairstyle seems out of place in Jackson and we’re given nothing aside from her time at Ole Miss to explain why she’s so much more enlightened than the people around her.  Even movies like Dances With Wolves, that deal with similar “tolerant white person in intolerant times” themes at least give their characters an arc in which they start out intolerant and become tolerant because of their experiences.

To be fair to the film, there are some decent production values to be found and some very good acting as well.  Viola Davis does a great of being both long-suffering and internally strong in the role of Aibileen.  Octavia Spencer, whose previous roles include such roles as Bank Co-Worker #1, Neighbor in Alley, and Check-In Girl comes out of nowhere to really impress in her role as a younger and more confrontational woman in a similar situation.  The white side of the cast has some standout performers as well, particularly Bryce Dallas Howard who is deliciously evil in the film, and Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother.  I wasn’t so enamored with Emma Stone, who does nothing to address the problems with her character and who just seems out of place in the film, and I also didn’t think much of Jessica Chastain’s Oscar nominated turn as the generally irritating Celia Foote.

Had the film been written and/or directed by a more adventurous filmmaker we might have seen a more invigorating and insightful film made out of this material.  Instead the film was made by Tate Taylor, a man who seems to have gotten the job because he was a close friend of author Kathryn Stockett.  Taylor seems to have done nothing to try to elevate the book and seems to have slavishly followed it from beginning to end.  In particular I suspect that someone like Spike Lee would have known better than to have included a horrendously misguided sub-plot about the woman who raised Skeeter, but would (spoiler warning, I guess) eventually die of a “broken heart” because she is deprived of the privilege of serving white people late into her life.  This piece, which serves little purpose other than to be a corny emotional moment late in the film, completely goes against pretty much everything that the film purports to be about.  This is emblematic of the film’s overall problem: it’s a sugary “tear-jerker” first and a study of racism second.

When all is said though, The Help wasn’t as intolerable as I expected it to be, but then again I expected it to be pretty damn intolerable.  As far as questionable Oscar nominees about racial issues, this certainly isn’t anywhere near as bad as The Blind Side, which was a film that Hilly Holbrook may well have enjoyed.  This film at least mostly seems to have its heart in the right place; it’s just that, like Driving Miss Daisy before it, it’s far from being cutting edge.  this   Its depiction of racism in the South might be enlightening to a class of middle school students, but I think it takes a little more than this in order to really bring something to the table for an educated adult audience.  Within the continuum of movies about race in America, this simply feels rather regressive even when compared to debatably problematic films like Crash and American History X.  As a simple drama, the movie is mostly acceptable, but when you deal with material like this there are certain high standards that I expect movies to live up to, and this doesn’t.

**1/2 out of Four