Sunday, January 24, 2010

About Elly (2009, Farhadi)

Rating: ****

The joy of meddling is first celebrated, then severely chastised in About Elly (2009), a stunning new feature by Asghar Farhadi, which sees the complexity and craftsmanship of his superb Fireworks Wednesday (2006) elevated to a new level.

Over a weekend at the seashore, a group of well-to-do young Teheranians tries to set up their freshly-divorced friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) with an amiable yet aloof kindergarten teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) – whom none of them knows too well. Running into adversities is the theme from the start, when it appears that the house they booked is available for one night only, and all have to switch for a spacious but run-down mansion, devoid of heating and hardly even furnished. As the relaxed time passes (an obligatory game of charades, some white lies told to the landlady), it’s difficult to say if the supposed affair buds or not. Then, all of a sudden, Elly disappears.

The comparison with Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) – a knee-jerk reaction for any cinephile – is actually wrong. Farhadi’s world is too dense with mundane details to become the kind of environment that could dilute a person to the point of disappearance – and that was what the sun-scorched, abstract island did to Lea Massari’s ‘Anna’. In About Elly, the central event is rapid, violent and causes real and widening rupture – whatever happens afterwards, has as much to do with a denouement as it has with an entirely new plot being built from scratch by the ever-lying, self-protective characters. Farhadi shown his interest in deception in Fireworks Wednesday, as well – he’s one of the few directors I can think of that doesn’t relish in it, though. The lies told by his characters are clear to us – we may even find them humorous at times – but we are never encouraged to cheer them or wish for them to pile up. Quite the contrary: at some point, their proliferation makes us queasy.

In About Elly, the plans go bad and the wounds get deeper with each desperate yank any of the multiple character makes. The film’s script is tightly structured and resembles a bedroom farce, almost. (One can easily imagine this material being re-designed as a full-blown comedy). But to fully appreciate Farhadi’s accomplishment is to understand that – however crowded – this movie is really about two people: the benign über-meddler Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), and her main victim, who doesn’t enter the story until very late and whose identity shouldn’t be revealed in a mere note like this one. It is their brief and heart-wrenching conversation at the end (with Sepideh delivering her ultimate, shattering fabrication) that left me in absolute awe of this movie.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Up in the Air (2009, J. Reitman)

Rating: ***

Topical yet solid, the recession comedy Up in the Air (2009) is pretty shameless in exercising its sentimental grip. Thank heavens (or skies), that grip is firm enough. The script is all winks on one hand, and all Capra-sermonizing on the other. Sneers are the padding for the final upbeat message that – once launched – still makes a palpable ideological thud.

This pro-family romantic comedy, flirting heavily with social realism (and even becoming documentary at some points) gets away with its preaching by way of cleverness of characterizations. The central trio of characters – played by George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick – flaunt their technocratic mindsets so unflinchingly that it works as a sort of preemptive strike at the audience. In a movie in which the bar-pick-up-line is “Are you satisfied with your Maestro?”, there are no limits of outrage left to be crossed. Instead, there’s the gradual undermining of outrage and exposing its secret lining (i. e. the characters' derision).

Stylistically speaking, Jason Reitman (the only director to have found his baddie in Jason Bateman) is close to hackdom. Many of the scenes in Up in the Air have the rapidness of habitual card-swipes (in fact, many shots depict just that): their function is pretty much their subject. More often than not, instead of working out a clever choreography for a scene, Reitman relies on editing instead: a sad case of Clooney’s airport ballet, which smoothness is entirely based on cutting, and not on the actor’s movements.

And yet there’s one thing to be said about Reitman, the director: he knows how to relish in the constant flow of dialogue – how to make talk glitter. He’s one of the very few American directors working nowadays who can make inflections and rhythms of speech so exciting. He’s into smooth-talkers, as he’s shown in Thank You for Smoking (2004), and into wisecrackers – no better example for that than Juno (2007). But Up in the Air is a rare case of a movie that has several characters who challenge each other’s wits – and that’s something American  cinema was great at; 70 years ago. Good to see it back; however brief the visit.

PS. Anna Kendrick – a tougher and more angular version of Amy Adams – is especially impressive: hers is the only character who puts helplessness on display in spite of herself (the long scene of firing a guy over Skype is her tour de force).

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Avatar (2009, Cameron)

The opening blockbuster of the 10’s (“A fresh start in a new world”, per its narrator), James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is a creature of whim. This self-congratulatory peacenik PlayStation-is-all extravaganza (deemed „crude and inartistic” by the World Socialist Web Site reviewer), behaves differently in various venues. It breathes well on the IMAX screen, where it more or less envelops the viewer, leaving no space for anything but gasps. Seen the second time in a regular multiplex (still in 3D), it loses much of its impact and plays more like an awesome dream of a hippie recovering from a video-game binge.

Like in many other experiential films, Avatar’s implied mode of viewership is explicitly defined in the dialogue, when Grace (Sigourney Weaver) briefs Jake (Sam Worthington) and tells him to “relax and let your mind go blank”. Those unwilling to do so are in for a bumpy ride along many blunt edges of Cameron’s famously graceless dialogue (“She wrote the book… I mean, actually wrote a book on Na’vi!”, has the ring of a high-school drop-out’s awe at a dork’s achievement; perhaps tellingly so). Those willing, like this viewer, to relish in the wonders of Cameron’s set-pieces, can experience miracles not unlike those enjoyed by paraplegic Jake, who walks in his avatar’s body for the first time in years. Human experience has never before included the sensation of looking into the tube-like depth of a hibernation chamber and watching the freshly awoken bodies float in 3D. Thanks to Cameron, it does now.

I’m willing to forgive Avatar much of its silliness; even its deflated last 50 minutes don’t bother me much. While watching it, I had a feeling of dealing with something momentous and yet transient – I doubt if the movie will age well, or indeed launch a cult, as Roger Ebert predicts (forgetting how endlessly thicker Star Wars [1977] was in its structure). Avatar wears out easily (like The Thief of Baghdad [1940]) but while it lasts it’s truly transporting and mouth-watering – it’s a sneak preview of what the 10’s spectacles will be like, and the perspective is mind-blowing.

And its discreet blood tie to Rene Clair’s Beauties of the Night (1952) – which was also built on a premise of a life lived fuller while asleep – doesn’t hurt either.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy (2008, Liechti)

Rating: ***1/2

A thematic cousin to Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), the experimental semi-documentary essay The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy (2008) is Peter Liechti’s journey away from the filmic depiction of a body’s end. While the off-screen narration (based on a novel by Masahiko Shimada) details a self-inflicted death by starvation of a cryptic recluse, we never get to see the narrator – save for a brief long shot of a cloth-covered stretcher at the beginning of the film. What we see are almost entirely unpopulated shots of the woods, the inside of the shack the narrator built for himself, and other seemingly unassociated footage of nature and cities. Rarely does a human figure enter the frame, and if they do they remain unidentified (vaguely remembered?) by the narrator.

Liechti drains his images from narrative cohesion and significance almost entirely, save for the recurring image of the plastic-foil coverage of the shack’s makeshift rooftop, which gets more and more specked with insects, foliage and mud as the narration proceeds. These shots, specific yet verging on the abstract, are the most striking images in the film – in fact, the only images that indicate any kind of shared perspective between the unseen central character and the ultra-detached, free-flowing camera.

As the narrator’s body withers down (or so we believe), what keeps undermining our sympathy are the small inconsistencies within the eponymous record (a mirror is never mentioned and yet facial changes are described in detail), and the unexplained motive behind the extremely painful form of death chosen by the man. We never get any specifics about his life or profession, and thus in the end his motives seem purely philosophical, if not religious (on the day 40 of his fast, he likens himself to Buddha and Jesus and expects to share their experience of a divine visitation).

Ultimately, the film feels less an ordeal than a meditation, and Liechti’s understated editing strategies, as well as his apt use of distorted sound, play into the idea of not really meeting a character, but sharing a state of mind. It’s one of doubt, curiosity and fear of total spiritual self-obliteration that may or may not follow the willed demise of a body.

Crimen Ferpecto (2004, Iglesia)

Rating: ***

The 2004 black comedy, Crimen Ferpecto - merely my second exposure to the formidable talents of Álex de la Iglesia – struck me as a slightly lesser work than The Day of the Beast (1995). With a story not nearly as outrageous as the one used there (no cosmic importance to any of the characters’ actions in Crimen Ferpecto), the level of cartoon violence and wild slapstick simply had to go many-a-notch down – and I missed it.

While Iglesia invests a lot of skill into the presentation of his central character, Rafael (Gillermo Toledo), the long narrative build-up seems perfunctory and hollow, especially once measured against the sheer banality and faux-uplift of the final resolution (capitalism gets caned for perpetuating iconic stereotypes of beauty).

Rafael is a sex-emperor, ruling his small but glossy domain as a manager of a female-populated garment section at a Madrid department store. It is in presenting his ways with women-employees where the movie fails most: and in Iglesia, by “failure” I mean his going mild. His great ease with controlled cartoon cruelty (both physical and verbal) is subdued in those parts, even though the comic-routine prologue makes you hungry for it. It’s not until the last act, when frustrated Rafael connives an epic scheme to get rid of his presented-as-ugly wife, Lourdes (Mónica Cervera), that the film’s pulse starts pounding away.

Iglesia, while sharing many aesthetic affinities with Almdóvar (they both love glossy surfaces, highly saturated colors and outrageous, all-out dialogue), is very much his own guy. Leaning toward the spectacular, the macabre and the lurid, he nevertheless is a perfect coming-timing machine – and it’s the comedy that dominates all the other layers of his films.

I only wish Crimen Ferpecto felt less muzzled; what’s to blame is the structure, though, and not the filmmaker’s inability to bite.


Welcome in 2010! Hope y’all are ready for another awesome movie-going year.

Here’s one major change I want to apply to „Last Seat on the Right” this year: a star-system (not unlike the one used by Roger Ebert) will be used to evaluate each reviewed film. The system goes as follows:


***1/2 [VERY GOOD]

*** [GOOD]

**1/2 [AVERAGE]

** [WEAK]

*1/2 [BAD]


I hope you’ll keep visiting. Meanwhile, let’s listen to a Harry Connick Jr. version of “Hey There” from Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ 1954 show, The Pajama Game. There’s only one reference to stars (at 0:26-0:29: „You with the stars in your eyes…”), but what the heck.