Thursday, March 15, 2012

...In Which I Review BOTH "A Separation" AND "The Artist"

A Double Dose of Oscar Bait...And For Once, The Academy Might Just Have Gotten Their "Best Picture" Picks Right

Let me tell you about this one girl I know named “Tara.” I met Tara last year, in a shopping center in midtown Atlanta. Admittedly, it was a pretty bizarre locale for a random meeting - nestled between a Publix and a gay bar called, not at all innocuously, BJ. But from the moment I met Tara, I just knew that we would spend the rest of our days together.

Of course, “Tara” isn’t your average Atlanta gal. For one, the average Atlanta lass weighs anywhere from 130 to 160 pounds, whereas my girl Tara weighs an easy dozen or so tons. Also, instead of having blonde locks and piercing blue eyes, my Tara has a skin tone somewhere between faded brick and weathered mortar, with her pale green and pink pupils glistening like…uh, something that’s pale green and pink, that glistens.

The UA Tara Cinemas 4 - affectionately known as the “Tara” after this obscure, quasi-racist movie nobody’s ever heard of - in midtown (or kinda’ close enough to it, I suppose) has been one of my holy grounds for the last year or so, one of the few revered haunts that I perennially look forward to trekking to. Every couple of months, I just have to make way to the theater - probably the premiere locale for pretentious, art house movie crap you’ll find in all of the southeastern US - just to wallow in the glory that is high art, critic-fellated movie majesty.

A few weekends ago, I noted that the Tara was screening both “The Artist” and “A Separation” - the two films that recently walked away the Oscars for “Best Picture” and “Best Foreign Language Film,” in case you have been living on the moon (or as Newt Gingrich calls it, our “51st state”) for the last month and a half. With an unquenchable thirst for some art house cinema (and a more-than-moderate desire for some Pad Thai down the street), I decided to give both films a thorough review - and for once, I really can’t fault the Academy for its decision-making. Well, OK, still, a little, but not as much as I thought. Now, who’s ready to take a big, fat bite out of some Oscar bait (and maybe some red curry noodles) this evening?

“A Separation”
Director: Asghar Faradi 

The movie that proved once and for all that Iranians act just like Italian people.

The only thing I really knew about “A Separation” going into it was that its director had a really, really difficult time saying stuff in English. I pretty much expected the thing to be a hyper-depressing experience from the get-go, but I was shocked - shocked, I say - by just how great this movie actually was. This is the kind of flick that’s destined to be one of those world cinema classics that everybody pretends to have seen, like “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” and all of those Apu movies from India, even if only about two percent of the people that ever talk about how great it is even bothered adding it to their Netflix queue. Needless to say, it’s tremendous, and you need to see it.

The thing that makes the movie work is that it’s just so mundane, and I mean that in the good way (if a good connotation for the word even exists, anyway.) There isn’t a single scene in the movie that feels like it’s impossible movie bullshit (alike the amazing, magical bullet-stopping cape in the “this is a very, very serious movie about race relations, really, it is” Best Picture winner of 2004) and the dialogue and acting is so remarkably normal that, if it wasn‘t for the lighting, you‘d think you were watching a legit documentary. Nobody’s eyes get really wide, and nobody ever covers their mouth in Vaudevillian shock - the “acting” is superbly muted, and everything feels natural, and basic, and largely uncinematic. In a way, it kind of reminded me of Ozu’s work, in the sense that, in the movie, nothing really “cinematic” every happens. There are no moments where the director clearly tries to add suspense or tenseness to the script, and the camera maneuvers about so unobtrusively that you kind of forget there’s that cinematic barrier there at all. Shit, in hindsight, I really don’t recall there being that much music in the movie, either - instead, the film’s soundtrack is an all-too-familiar blur of traffic noises, foot steps, creaky doors and undecipherable TV chatter. You’ve heard of Italian neorealism? Well, this is Iranian neorealism at its finest.

It’s pretty difficult to describe the “plotline” for the film without spoiling most of the movie, so, yeah, get ready to have the movie super-duper spoiled here in a minute. Essentially, the film is about two families, who end up crossing paths in court over a miscarriage suit. And the spoilers, a-here they come en masse:

So, there’s this family. Fairly well-to-do, urbanized types, ostensibly. The movie begins with the two main characters having a divorce hearing in a small court - so, yeah, if you ever wondered how the Iranian judicial system differs from ours, there you go. For the most part, the two want a separation (hence, the namesake of the film…or is it?), because the mother wants to take their daughter away as she leaves Iran (it’s never really explicitly stated in the text, but come on, folks) and the dad wants to keep her with him. Ultimately, the judge leaves it up to the daughter to decide which parent she wants to stay with, but for the time being, she’s stuck with dad in his apartment. Complicating things is that the dad’s father is old, senile and in dire need of care, and since the wife is out of the picture, a new caretaker, thusly, is needed. Enter a friend of the wife, who has a kid of her own - and by the way, she’s kind of pregnant, but not everybody in the movie is aware of it…or are they? So, we have a new caretaker, who is devoutly religious (for example, she won’t even clean the grandpa’s pee-pee drenched sheets without getting advice from a cleric), which is TOTALLY NOT AT ALL going to be a vital plot component later in the movie. Well, one day, she starts experiencing stomach cramps, so she leaves grandpa in his room…oh, and tied to a dresser, you know, because that’s all sanitary and convenient and stuff. So, the recently divorced dad gets back, finds his dad half-dead on the floor, and what do you know? Some money’s missing out of the drawer. The caretaker returns, the dad accuses of her stealing and abandoning her father, things get a little rough, and next thing you know, the caretaker is waddling down the stairs, holding her stomach in pain. And from there, let’s just say things get a little contentious and complex, and more than a few windows get broken in the aftermath.

There is one scene, towards the end of the film, that I am convinced is one of the most amazingly tense experiences I have ever had in a movie theater. You know that scene in John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” where everybody’s tied up and Kurt Russell is poking everybody’s blood in a Petri dish to see which one of them is secretly an alien from Antarctica? Well, forget that, because the scene - OH MY GOD, THERE IS SO MUCH SPOILER RIGHT HERE: in which the main character of the film asks the caretaker to swear on a Quran that she knows for a fact that he was responsible for her miscarriage - is the kind of moment that will have you doubling over in knots out of sheer antsiness.

What this movie manages to do well remaining so relatively staid is one of the most amazing cinematic feats I’ve seen in a long time - whatever high drama the newfangled Batman and Spiderman movies may offer you, it’s pretty much a given that neither of them will be able to encompass one inkling of one iota of one smidge of the genuine human drama you will find in this movie. All in all, I really can’t recommend this one highly enough - if you have the time or the resources (and if you’re not a part of the Israeli parliament, most definitely), “A Separation” is a flick you really, really ought to check out.


Pictured: What hobbits probably eat.

With a good two or so hours in between movies, I reckon then would be as good a time as ever to amble across the parking lot to “Rain,” which is a Japanese-Thai fusion place in the same shopping complex as the Tara.

You know, with my fondness for foodstuffs that are simultaneously gastrointestinal challenges as well as affronts to all religions known to man, you probably wonder if I have a fondness - or even a desire to digest - foods that could be considered actually decent. Well, let me tell you folks, “good food” doesn’t get much “gooder” or “fooder” than what you will find at “Rain,” which I would consider one of the absolute best eateries in all of A-Town.

If you’ve never tried Thai before, get up off your ass right now and try it, because it’s pretty much what would happen if Italian and Mexican food had a baby that wasn’t shaped like “The Elephant Man” or something. I’ve had about three or four of their curry dishes, and every last one of them have been utterly delicious, filling, and reason enough to forgive the totality of Japan for Pearl Harbor. That, and if you’ve never tried fired tofu with orange sauce and pumpkin before, you really haven’t even begun to live yet, man. You really, really haven’t.

And hey, speaking of things that’ll keep you in muted awe for a few minutes or so…

“The Artist” 
Director: Michel Hazanavicius

"Don't you just hate it when people talk at the movies?"
Admittedly, my tastes and the tastes of them Oscar folks don’t necessarily gel - this, of course, coming from a guy that STILL thinks Bruce Campbell should have gotten a “Best Actor“ nod for “Bubba Ho-Tep.” That said, I’ve got to say that I really, really enjoyed “The Artist,” even if I don’t think it’s the best overall picture of 2011 (or for that matter, even the best movie of 2011 being screened in the theater that afternoon.)

The movie, thematically, is pretty similar to “Singing in the Rain,” with the primary difference being that the filmmakers here decided to go all out and make the entire goddamn movie black and white and mostly silent. Of course, it’s not a totally silent picture - as if the Weinstein Brothers had the sack to bankroll something like that, anyway - but on the whole, it’s a fairly faithful replica of Hollywood’s silent era fare.

So, it’s 1927, and there’s this guy named George Valentin, who is the pimpingest silent action movie hero of them all. Well, one day, he literally bumps into a fan, who he inadvertently turns into the production company’s next big screen idol. Two years later, and the same company decides to do nothing but talkies, and Valentin, the purist he is, says eff that, leaves the company, and finances his own movie - basically, putting himself into bankruptcy in the process. And then…here comes the Great Depression. Oops.

From hereon out, yeah, the movie is pretty predictable, with Valentin sliding farther and farther into insolvency while his “discovery” becomes the Meg Ryan of the flapper set. I guess you really can’t fault the filmmakers for getting a little formulaic here and there, because the movie is pretty much emulating a formulaic premise to begin with. And spoilers? Yeah, I’ve got a handful of them for you.
I suppose the filmmakers could have gone all out and made this a riches to rags depress-a-thon, but I reckon they made the right call and at least attempted to paint a happy ending to this one. The climax of the film involves George getting good and sauced and attempting to set his entire filmography on fire, only to get indirectly rescued by the same starlet he unwittingly created. Before he decides to blow his brains out, he’s much more directly rescued by said starlet, who signs him up for a “comeback” dance number that concludes the film - a segue that breaks the “silent” façade of the film and the filmmaking process, and also the only scene in the entire movie where the main character is audible.

So, there’s definitely a lot of good things to say about “The Artist,” from its catchy-as-all-hell musical score to the performance of that screen-mugging pooch (who already displays more versatility as an actor than Kristen Stewart, in case you were wondering.) That said, there are some moments where things start to drag, and a couple of scenes are really on-the-nose and serve no real purpose as far as expositional tools. Primarily, I’m thinking of the “auction scene,” and the “revelation” that, wouldn’t you know it, the starlet was the mysterious purchaser that snatched up all of George’s possessions. You know, because up until that point, we had no idea that she sort of like him. Like, at all.

So, all in all, I thought “The Artist” was a really, really enjoyable and entertaining movie, although I still wouldn’t recognize it as the year’s absolute best by any stretch. It’s good - it’s really, really, really good, actually - but I think it’s just a notch or two shy of achieving true greatness as a cinematic experience. Even so, it’s probably worth your time and effort - pending you can make it through ninety minutes of dialogue-less storytelling, anyway.


Well, there you have it: the year’s Best Picture winner and the year’s Best Foreign Language picture screened, recapped and reviewed, all on one day, by yours truly - with some additional nonsense about Thai cuisine and midtown Atlanta shopping centers thrown in for good measure.

As stated earlier, I thought both films were downright terrific, with “A Separation” probably being the best in-theater experience I’ve had since “Toy Story 3,” and “The Artist” being a solid, well-worth-the-price-of-admission feature that, if nothing else, is worlds better than the other stuff that got nominated for “Best Picture” this year. Your results may vary, but if you have a pretty broad cinematic palette, I don’t really see you being disappointed by either flick.

Huh…so I find myself in the incredibly unfamiliar territory of not really having anything to criticize, condemn or complain about. Maybe I should give that new Madonna movie a look-see, just to counterbalance all of this positivity stuff…

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