REVIEW: Fireworks Wednesday

20 02 2017

fireworks-wednesdayAs I noted when reviewing Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly,” the release of the director’s prior films after his latest work achieves such success proves disorienting. I usually seek out the past filmography of a major filmmaker before seeing their new releases. After all, if one assumes that directors always sharpen and hone their craft over time, why watch those skills digress?

Fireworks Wednesday” arrived in America about a decade after its initial release, a period in which Farhadi directed four additional films and won an Oscar. For the uninitiated, like myself, the writer/director’s masterful command of human behavior in “A Separation” seemed effortless. This 2006 feature shows that Farhadi did not reach those heights without some hard work and gradual yet significant improvements. (Encouraging for those of us who feel on the cusp of greatness!)

That’s not to say “Fireworks Wednesday” is belabored or undercooked – and certainly not bad by any stretch of the imagination. Farhadi sets up a complex plot involving three Iranian women around the time of the Persian New Year. Soon-to-be-bride Rouhi tries to grab some extra cash for the wedding in Tehran by doing odd jobs, yet one housekeeping job finds her in the middle of a collapsing marriage and burgeoning affair. The jealous wife, the lecherous other woman and their unsuspecting middlewoman find themselves caught in a death spiral of deceit. When the dust settles, the film retains about a layer less of depth than Farhadi’s “The Past,” though that’s still plenty to work with for a compelling human drama. B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Salesman

19 02 2017

the-salesmanEver since his film “A Separation” shook the globe earlier this decade, I’ve believed that we will study the work of Asghar Farhadi like a great dramatist. His multi-layered, internalized character studies recall Shakespeare, Ibsen or Williams more than any cinema director. “The Salesman,” Farhadi’s latest feature, crystallizes this connection by foregrounding the film’s moral dilemmas against a stage production of Arthur Miller’s renowned “Death of a Salesman.”

The film does not draw upon this weighty source to provide gravity for the narrative, nor does it require the audience to possess an 11th-grade English class working knowledge of the play to fully appreciate the film. (Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother,” poignant as it is, closes off meaning to a segment of the audience unfamiliar with “A Streetcar Named Desire.”) In fact, “The Salesman” feels like Farhadi’s least proscenium-ready work to date, particularly in its final act. More than anything, the film shares a kinship with the cinema of Michael Haneke where seemingly random violence strikes and its aftershocks tremble throughout all aspects of the psyche and milieu.

After their apartment building collapses in the film’s opening scene, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) take temporary shelter in a space they later find out belonged to a lady of the night. This revelation comes too late after Rana buzzes in a client of the former tenant … and winds up brutally wounded once he leaves. Farhadi does not depict what transpires in the domicile, instead opting to show us something much more frightening: the ramifications. Both deal with shame, Rana for receiving the injury and Emad for being unable to prevent it. Unlike Farhadi’s previous films, which envelop communities and involve multiple characters, “The Salesman” dwells primarily in their private humiliation like a chamber drama.

All the while, Farhadi sneaks up on us with the power of his observations on how anger clouds out our compassion for other people. His films have long existed at the intersection of miscommunication and misdeeds, but “The Salesman” lingers longer at this juncture. In a contained, single-location finale, he methodically unfurls a claustrophobic exploration of how disgrace can drive our darkest, cruelest impulses. Farhadi may narrow his scope, though not for a second does he sacrifice the depth of his understanding about human nature.

The final shot of the film features makeup artists drawing lines of old age on Rana and Emad before going out on stage in “Death of a Salesman.” Damned if that doesn’t feel fittingly redundant by the end of “The Salesman” after all they’ve experienced. B+3stars

REVIEW: About Elly

30 05 2016

About EllyThe strange case of Asghar Farhadi’s quick rise to stateside prominence means that his previously unreleased ’00s films are only just being dusted off and released in America. If one believes that directors get better over time (as I do), then the more of Farhadi’s work that we see, the less impressive he looks.

Such is the somewhat awkward experience of watching his “About Elly,” which premiered in 2009 but did not wash up ashore in the U.S. until 2015. It’s still an impressive achievement, to be clear, and one can easily see how the film is cut from the same cloth as his later masterpieces “A Separation” and “The Past.” But here, he has yet to fine-tune the approach that would make him a vital force of the world cinematic stage.

There has always been an element of dramaturgy to Farhadi’s work, though “About Elly” shows far greater roots in the stage tradition. The events begin with a contrivance – a group of friendly couples headed to a beachside escape together. It feels less of a natural occurrence and more like a clearly plotted setup for dramatic events to happen.

And yes, things do happen, both dramatic and revealing. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) makes a controversial decision to bring along the unmarried Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) in the hopes of playing matchmaker and pairing her off with their recently divorced friend (Shahab Hosseini). Of course, in Farhadi’s worlds, a calculated risk – no matter how small – always ends up opening a massive can of worms. Choices come to not only reflect an individual’s will but rather their very role in society and how it confines them on narrow demographic categories – gender, class or relationship status.

Eventually, “About Elly” does yield the kind of deep insights and raw emotion that audiences come to expect from Farhadi. It might not feel as naturally occuring, but it is there nonetheless. And if this is the rough draft necessary for the writer/director to eventually craft a magnum opus … well, this is the one of the smoothest roughs to date. B+3stars

REVIEW: A Separation

4 03 2012

It’s interesting to see the parallels between the last two movies awarded the Best Foreign Language Film prize at the Academy Awards, last year’s “In a Better World” and the most recent winner, “A Separation.”  Both are very broad, universal tales that provide a richly humanistic exploration of important themes.  The former took on revenge, and the latter tackled honesty.

But the wonder of “A Separation” is that it manages to simultaneously tell a rich tale grounded in common experience and one that is distinctly Iranian.  By exploring how his culture could very well be a microcosm for the entire world, writer/director Asghar Farhadi probably could not have come at a better moment.  In his acceptance speech, he relished the moment as it promoted an image of the country beyond their crazy leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The Iranians battle their society but also themselves, just as we all do; Farhadi remarked, “I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”

Really, that’s the core of his movie, too.  All the characters know the way to be a better person, but there are personal and social forces holding them back from doing the right thing.  Whether it’s their pride, their zeal, their lifestyle, or their religion, “A Separation” is an excellent chronicle of people consciously missing the mark.

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