Thursday, November 10, 2016

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
July 2016

Taxi (Tehran)

Jafar Panahi is one of Iran's most talented filmmakers whose viewpoint so worries his government that he has spent time in prison and has been banned for 20 years (most of his productive life) from making films. Happily for us, he has managed to continue to make films with no help from the Ministry of Culture by shooting them in his apartment, using a secret private home, or in this latest case, driving a taxi around Tehran, picking up an assortment of passengers (amateur actors).
In Tehran, the kind of taxi that picks up multiple passengers at a time is called a Jafari (jitnie). I had many rides in jitnie myself during the years I lived in Tehran, and they were always fascinating; the passengers talked and argued among themselves and with the driver. Iranians love to debate.
In one scene, panahi picks up a religious conservative, fulminating against thieves whom he would have executed. “That would teach them!” he said. Another passenger, a woman, disagreed; “They must be needy! You have no heart.” The conservative huffs and gets out of the car.
He picks up a woman with a bouquet of roses, that she is taking to a friend whose child was just released from prison. She is obviously a friend of Panahi, and we learn that she is the well known defense attorney, Nasrin Sotoudeh. She tells him that there are more people in prison in Iran than anywhere in the world except China!

A couple of quarrelsome older women carrying a huge goldfish bowl get into the cab demanding to go to a particular spring so that they can release the goldfish at exactly noon! They believe that their lives depend on it (nonsensical superstition). Traffic in Tehran doesn't allow anyone to be anywhere on time, and besides, he doesn't know where the spring is.  He flags down another cab and gets rid of them.

A street vendor tempts him with black market videos of American movies that they cannot see in Iran. Woody Allen is a particular favorite. Anything is available in Iran for the right price.
His most entertaining passenger is his young niece, whom he picks up at her school (late, of course). She is a little sarcastic motor-mouth armed with a camera. She is taking a film-making class in school, and tries to understand her teacher's instructions. Her teacher says that the film project must be true to life, except no women without headscarves, no male  characters called by their real Persian names (they must have Muslim names), no violence, no political opinions, no conflicts-----yet realistic. She cannot understand how to do this.

She has already shot one documentary in her neighborhood: a young man courting a girl was thrown out of her house by her father when he learned he was Afghan, not Iranian. The suitor kept coming back. Her brothers beat him up. But the niece knows that the teacher will not accept it. Panahi smiles.

Any Iranian films that make it into the west deserve to be seen. They are always wonderful. Stupid opposition makes them stronger.

Our Little Sister
This Japanese film will probably not be seen by many of you; it was in one of our art cinemas for a short time only.  But I do hope that you will order it on Netflix. It is like having a trip to Japan where you can spend a couple of hours with middle class people in Japan's smaller cities.
In this story, we meet three sisters who live together in a lovely old house in a seaside town. The eldest sister has been playing mother to her younger siblings when the children were deserted by their father, who has since married and divorced two more times, fathering other children. Their mother deserted them because she just did not want the burden of rearing children on her own.
Despite being deserted, the eldest sister does an admirable job of mothering, giving her siblings stability, transmitting Japanese cultural norms, and providing joy: all things they should have had from their irresponsible parents.

When they receive news that their father has died after a long illness, they travel some distance to attend the funeral. We see here the wonderful discipline of Japanese culture: absolute courtesy to their third stepmother, and she to them. They meet their little half-sister, a solemn 15-year-old who is the product of their father's second marriage. The sisters see that the young girl is not happy living with her stepmother, so they invite her to come live with them.

During the course of this film, we see what a Japanese high school is like, how the Japanese worship, how they celebrate the beauties of their country (cherry blossoms, vistas, fireworks, and foods), and how they deal with the pent-up resentments and disappointments of human behavior.
I felt almost envious to see people who, unlike some of my fellow Americans, behave beautifully, with kindness, with care for one another, with exquisite manners, and with a superb sense of responsibility. This is a lovely film!

I don't know how I missed seeing this 2015 Canadian-German thriller when it was first playing, but I was very happy to see it on Netflix. We don't often (if ever) see films about very old people, but those we see are generally full of  regret and are depressing. This one was not!  It was a genuine thriller with two very unlikely protagonists: a 90-year-old, cultured gentleman with growing dementia (Zev Guttman, played by Christopher Plummer) and his equally old, wheel-chair bound but still sharp fellow Holocaust survivor (Max, played by Martin Landau).

The two men have become friends recently when Zev is moved into a Jewish senior residence by his family. Max sends his sometimes befuddled friend on a cross-country trek to find and murder the Nazi concentration camp officer responsible for the death of their families. Max knows that the Nazi had assumed the identity of a dead Jewish inmate, so that he could avoid punishment and escape to America (or Canada) as a Jew. On Internet, he learns that there are four men with this same name, and sends Zev to visit each until he finds the right one and kills him. Because Zev has dementia, Max writes out complete instructions in a letter, arranges and pre-pays taxis and gives Max money so that he will not have to use credit cards.

The movie takes the initially fragile Zev from hesitant to increasingly competent as he goes across the continent. He buys a glock pistol, navigates buying more changes of clothes when his trip is longer than planned, and is helped along the way by many people who are very kind to this elegant old man.

The plot is marvelous.  This is not the first story to take up the theme of how some very evil Nazis assumed Jewish identity in camps and then lived out their lives in comfort, obviously suppressing their personal guilt. This one is a dilly!

Hell and High Water

I only saw this film because nothing else was playing that seemed interesting. To my great surprise, this was excellent: the story, the character studies, and the acting of every single character in the story. It is a real summer sleeper hit.

The story is about two brothers, Texans, who carry out a series of bank robberies against the Midland Banks in dreary west Texas small towns. They are clever enough to take only loose money (no packets that might have dye that would betray them). The heists are not large enough to get the feds engaged. But one Texas Ranger, a very smart fellow who is just a few weeks from enforced retirement (which he dreads), decides to catch these robbers.

What makes this film so timely is the dreary west Texas region, once part of the oil boom, but now in the bust cycle. Money is scarce. Everybody has had bitter dealings with the Midlands Banks so that few sympathize when these banks are robbed. These are the kind of people who believe that the country is going to the dogs and who just might support a political demagogue's vision of America.

The brothers are cut out of very different cloth. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a divorced father of two boys. He cannot find work and is desperate to save the ranch of his mother, who just died. Oil has been found on the land and the bank is eager to take it back.

Toby's brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) is a wild ex-convict who loves to raise hell. He is the creator of the heists to help his brother pay the bank before the ranch is lost. He loves being a hell-raiser. The whole caper is right up his alley. Foster plays this character with glee; he is obviously enjoying the danger.

Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, the soon-to-retire ranger: a wise-cracking, Texas-talking good-old-boy who hides his intelligence behind the banter.

The film offers excitement, a sharp dose of dismal reality in parts of our country, and characters who are more than their faults. Even Tanner feels love----love for his brother. He is not just a thief and killer.

This is a very, very good movie.  You will be entertained----and informed.

Florence Foster Jenkins
This British-French biographical comedy-drama film is marginally worth seeing because of the amazing skill of Meryl Streep, she of the uncanny ear for languages.  In this film, she used that talent to learn a number of coloratura areas, and then learn to sing them really badly.

The film is about Florence Foster Jenkins, an ageing heiress in New York in 1944 who is obsessed with becoming a great opera singer. Unlike Meryl Streep herself, Jenkins had no ear at all. She was utterly unaware of how terrible her singing was, but because of her generosity as a patron of the musical arts and a coterie of elderly friends who were oblivious to her ear-shattering unmusicality, her delusions continued.  She was also aided and abetted by her younger husband, a British aristocrat (without money) who protected her by bribing people to attend her concerts and critics (with one exception) to write praises in the newspapers.

I found this film sad and painful to watch, despite the mockery of this poor woman. I don't see why this should have been a film at all.

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