Archives for April 2012

Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”, Comfortably the Film of the Year.

Farhadi's "A Separation"

Iran’s A Separation has just cleaned up at this year’s Asian Film Awards. Before which it had won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best foreign-language film. And last year it similarly triumphed at the Berlin Film Festival where it first surfaced. So there you are then. Sometimes good guys do come first.

This is Farhadi’s fifth film, but his first to break through internationally. Before which he’d worked extensively in theatre. So it’s unsurprising to hear him site Ingmar Bergman as a key influence in the interview he gives on the dvd extras, and to hear him alluding to Scenes From A Marriage from 1973. Impressively, it’s a comparison that A Separation comfortably merits.

According to Jan Fleischer, the National Film School’s script guru in London, a well told story needs to move through five distinct phases: Exposition, where we are introduced to the various elements of the story, Conflict, Crisis, Catastrophe, and finally Catharsis, as the story is brought to a definitive end.

This film illustrates that dynamic progression brilliantly. Indeed, it’s a long time since I’ve seen quite so much plot shoehorned into to a single story.

Practically every scene turns, as yet more twists are revealed and yet another surprise is unveiled. Which might have proved problematic, were it not all handled so very deftly, and in such a subtle, nuanced and all too believable way.

This is what Strindberg meant in his famous introduction to Miss Julie, where he wrote of his longing to see drama performed as if in front of a fourth wall. So seamless and confident are the performances and the direction here that you find yourself perched forever on the edge of your seat, watching as two families descend into all too avoidable tragedy.

Robert McKee maintains that the reason that Bergman is one of the most important film makers of the 20th century is because he was one of its greatest scriptwriters. If A Separation is anything to go by, Asghar Farhadi might very well be heading down a similar path.

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Alabama Shakes, the Sound of Summer, But Don’t Hold That Against Them.

In 2010 it was Sleigh Bells, last year it was Odd yawn Future (reviewed earlier here). And this year, the breakthrough act to emerge from SXSW was, by all accounts, Alabama Shakes. And already you can hear the backlash to the release of their debut album Boys & Girls beginning to build.

Much the same thing happened after Amy Winehouse released what was her second and, as it turned out, her final album, Back to Black. One minute, all the right people were smiling approvingly stroking their beards and nodding their heads to the silky new sound. The following morning, it was everywhere.

They never really forgave her. Which is most unfair. It’s hardly her fault if everyone else is desperately trying to latch on to the next big thing. And you can detect that same sense of faint resentment seeping out between the lines in the admiring reviews that Boys & Girls has been provoking.

Yes they’ve paid their dues, and Brittany Howard plainly means everything she sings. And the energy and passion of their live shows has mostly been faithfully reproduced here in the recording studio. And there’s no mistaking that aura of authenticity, and the sense that here’s a band who go to bed with the Phil Spector box set Back to Mono by their bedside.

And yes, after they’ve finished touring with him this year, their next album is certain to be produced by Jack White, who’s sure to even further fine-tune their impeccable musical instincts. But you just know that come the summer, this album’s going to be all over the place.

On ads, movie soundtracks, jet-set catwalks, and, finally, as background muzak in all the lazy retro women’s retail discount clothing boutique stores in every shopping mall in the western world, and eventually beyond.

But you can only really hold that against them if they’re the kind of band who are actively courting that sort of attention. And goodness knows, there are enough bands out there that are. But this plainly isn’t one of them.

But what are you going to do? The fact of the matter is, Alabama Shakes sounds like a latter-day Janis Joplin has joined the stage at a private party hosted by Prince to briefly take the mike and lead his band. And nobody can believe what they’re hearing, least of all the host. You’ve been warned.

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Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not A Film”, Yet Another Iranian Triumph, Not.

This Is Not A FilmIn late 2010 the gifted Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail and forbidden from make films for 20 years.

Films of his such as The Circle from 2000 and Offside from 2006 had suggested that here was yet another Iranian film maker who seemed to have successfully found a way to gently critique the land of his birth, especially its attitude to women, but to do so in such a way that the authorities were begrudgingly prepared to put up with. Not any more, alas.

Under house arrest, and forbidden from in any way being seen to make films, he invited a film maker friend of his around to record a day in his life. Lightheartedly at first, he begins to act out the film that he’d hoped to be making. It’s a story of a girl imprisoned in her own home, forbidden by her traditional parents from leaving to pursue her studies at university.

But as he tries to tell the film, all levity suddenly evaporates, and the hopelessness of his situation finally dawns on him. You can’t tell a film, that’s not what a film is. And suddenly, the title’s no longer funny or mischievous, but quietly tragic. He might never make a film ever again. And he’s probably on his way to gaol, for years.

Something quite remarkable happened to Iranian cinema about 20 years ago. Its natural mode had always been that of neorealism. So when we see the boy impatiently asking an elder for directions in Kiarostami’s Where Is The Friend’s Home from 1987, the old man continues preparing his pipe before stirring himself to reply.

His face seems to say, empires rise and empires fall, but nothing ever really changes, so I might as well enjoy my smoke before eventually addressing your question – which by the way, and unsurprisingly, I’ll not be able to help you with.

But in 1990 Kiarostami made a completely different kind of film, with the brilliant Close Up. It follows a man who impersonates another major Iranian film maker, Mohsan Makhmalbaf. But as you watch what appears to be a documentary, you realize that a lot of what you’re seeing must in fact have been re-enacted. And the film’s subject, truth and lies, is mirrored by the form it takes to tell its story, as it becomes increasingly difficult to untangle fact from fiction.

The following year in ’91 he made a documentary cum feature film about the actors from Where Is My Friend’s Home called Life And Nothing More. And in ’94 he made Through The Olive Trees, which was a film about the actors in that film and the tension between how they treated one another on and off set. In other words, he made a film, about a film, about a film.

Then in ’96, Makhmalbaf, he of Close Up, made a remarkable film about a film maker making a film about an incident in his youth, when he’d stabbed a policeman. But the film, provocatively titled A Moment of Innocence, starred the actual policeman playing his older self, advising the actor who was cast as his younger self!

Most remarkably of all, Makhmalbaf’s 18 year old daughter Samira then made a stunning film called The Apple in ’98, about which I’ll say nothing other than I defy anyone to unpick which scenes were fictionalized and which bits actually happened.

So when we see the forlorn Panahi pointing his iPhone at his friend, as his friend films him in his apartment in This Is Not A Film, it’s a particularly poignant image. Here are two Iranian film makers engaged in a yet another fascinating exploration of artifice and the film making process, and how it can impinge on the every day lives of ordinary people. It’s an artistic conversation that we in the rest of the world have been hypnotized by and have watched and listened to in awe and wonder.

What an amazing country, to have produced so many serous film makers producing such an extraordinary variety of films. A Separation for instance, is a completely different kind of film (reviewed here). And yet here is yet another major film maker quietly questioning the country he loves and lives in.

But what was once a source of domestic pride has been transformed into one of national shame. The authorities in Iran appear to be incapable of seeing the wood from the trees. And instead of celebrating one of their many, brilliant film makers, they’re sending one of them to gaol. Shame on you.

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Weather Forecasts, and What We Now Know in the BBC’s Superb “Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey”.

Orbit: Earth's extraordinary journeyLast autumn, Kate Humble presented a one-off programme on BBC2 called Will It Snow? The question it asked was, is it possible to make long-range weather forecasts? And the answer was an emphatic No.

Weather patterns are subject to what chaos theory dubbed the butterfly effect. A butterfly beats its wings off the coast of Tokyo and six months later there’s a hurricane in Florida.

The problem is, every time you try to make a set of predictions you need to factor in about a dozen variables. If any one of those variables behaves slightly differently than expected, then that will have a knock-on effect on half a dozen other variables.

And each of those will affect half a dozen other variables, each. Any number of which will eventually come back to radically affect many of those original variables a few weeks or months later.

Any mid to long-range predictions therefore will have been rendered completely useless. And that’s assuming there’s only a slight variation in one of the original twelve. Invariably, there are innumerable small variations across the board.

So whilst it is possible to make accurate predictions over a four or five day period, because you can allow for those slight variations, over anything more than a few weeks those small changes will come to have huge and completely unpredictable ramifications.

This topic was treated in a much more measured way when Humble teamed up with Helen Czerski for their three part series, Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey. During which, they followed our planet as it made one of its annual orbits around the Sun.

Using various exotic locations across the globe to illustrate the different phenomena they were exploring, they combined exactly the right mix of glossy, travelogue locations and fascinating, sober scientific explanations.

We learnt and were shown how the Earth’s tilt is responsible for the annual seasons, and discovered how it, the tilt, is one of three elements that determine when and why our planet experiences sporadic Ice Ages. Crucially, they kept the science accessible without in any way becoming patronizing.

For not withstanding our inability to ever be in a position to make long-range weather forecasts, for the first time in our history we can provide a scientific explanation for a huge range of the weather phenomena that govern life on this planet.

Though the Earth’s tilt has long been guessed at, it is only now that we understand definitively that it has a 41,000 year cycle, during which it moves from an angle of 24.5 degrees to 22 and back again, and that currently it’s at 23.5°. Likewise, whilst tornadoes and monsoons have long since been marveled at, today we can provide a scientific explanation as to how and why they take place. And although we’re never going to able to say exactly when and where they are going to happen, discovering what we can and can’t predict is the most valuable gift of all that science had given us.

Once again, the BBC took us on a guided tour of what we now know, and how it is that we know it. It’s an area they’ve become increasingly impressive in, and there’s a distinct sense that, as far as scientific programmes on television are concerned, we’re living in something of a golden era.

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