2 films disappoint in 2019

Everybody Knows

Apart from the obvious (see my review of Joker here), the two most disappointing films of the year just gone were Everybody Knows and Sunset. The former directed by the Iranian Asghar Farhadi, the latter by the Hungarian László Nemes.

Farhadi came to international prominence with his devastating fifth feature A Separation, reviewed by me earlier here. And there are a lot of superficial similarities between that film and the one that was released this year. 

Or rather, it would be more accurate to say that Farhadi has developed a very particular way of telling a story, and in that regard at least, Everybody Knows is very much cut from the same cloth.

He focuses on intimate, personal dramas centred on an apparently simple dilemma. But as the story unfolds, he drip-feeds you details that complicate it incrementally. So that by its end, you’re left quietly devastated. 

A Separation.

It’s not fair to expect every film to be a masterpiece of course. After A Separation (‘11), About Elly (’09 – actually made before, but released after) was an intriguingly enigmatic film. The Past (’13) was powerful for three of its quarters but fizzled out thereafter. While The Salesman (’16) was something of a return to form.

But unlike any of those, the twists and turns of the plot in Everybody Knows feel quietly calculated and hence contrived. Where previously, those gradual developments felt organic, here they seem forced.

Which is a shame, as Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are, as ever, magnetic. But how odd that Farhadi managed so successfully to completely dampen any sexual chemistry between the two. It ought to have been there in the script, as it was in their past. And he clearly could have had it, had he wanted to, on screen.

Son of Saul.

Son of Saul was the feature debut for Nemes, and won the Grand Prix at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best foreign film in 2015 and 2016 respectively. So we were all hoping to be similarly wowed by his follow up. Unfortunately, Sunset quietly disappointed. 

It’s not a bad film (neither for that matter is Everybody Knows), it’s just a bit of a mess, story-wise. Stylistically, it’s told in much the same way as Son of Saul. Unusually long, claustrophobic shots are rendered all the more menacing because of what they don’t show us. We can hear what’s going on, but by focusing on him and on how he reacts to those events, it becomes all the more threatening.

The same technique is employed here. But the stakes aren’t quite so high, so you have more time to concentrate on the details of the story unfolding. And, simply put, there’s not enough care invested in that aspect of the film.

Sunset.

In many ways, it’s the mirror image of Everybody Knows. Almost the same, and at once its exact opposite. Where Farhadi’s film becomes formulaic in the way that it structures its story, Nemes uses the same visual techniques in Sunset as he had in Son of Saul. So that what were previously stylistic innovations become instead merely formulaic.

Neither are bad films, and neither film maker has suddenly become uninteresting. It’s just that, for two of the most exciting film makers working anywhere in the world, Everybody Knows and Sunset were something of a disappointment. 

You can see the trailer for A Separation here

And the trailer for Son of Saul here.

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“Omar” a Return to Form for Star Palestinian Film Maker.

Hany Abu-Assad's "Omar".

Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar”.

Hany Abu-Assad’s third film Paradise Now (’06) was one of the films of the last decade. Detailing the lives of a pair of suicide bombers from Nablus as they prepare for their mission on Tel Aviv, it managed to be impassioned and yet somehow relatively impartial.

Or at the very least, as impartial as it can ever be for a Palestinian film maker born in Israel to make a film about what life is like for those condemned to live in the Levant.

He was lured to the States for The Courier in 2012, which went straight to video, but he is back on home ground for this his fifth film, Omar.

Adam Bakri and Leem Lubani in Omar.

Adam Bakri and Leem Lubani in Omar.

Omar is one of a trio of young men, friends since childhood, whose sole aim is their opposition to Israel. But they do what they do un-thinkingly, automatically, in much the same way that monks attend to their daily prayers. It’s just what they do. And in between, they live their lives as anybody else does.

Except of course, that what they do radically colours and irrevocably transforms every other element of those lives that they are trying to live. Family, careers, planning for the future and most of all love, are all given a hopelessly dramatic edge because of the backdrop against which they must all be enacted.

Omar is a less political and a much more personal drama than Paradise Now was. But it is every bit as powerful. And what it does demonstrate, is that Abu-Assad has learnt to parcel out his dramatic twists and turns almost as impressively as the modern master of personal drama, Iran’s Asghar Farhadi (reviewed earlier here). The ways in which Omar’s life, both his private and his public ones, unravel is painful to behold.

The Levant is a wonderful corner of the world to have to go digging for drama in. But it’s almost inconceivable that that drama should be found on the surface of real people’s actual lives. And not in the fiendishly depraved depths of an unholily imagined Hell.

You can see the Omar trailer here. And the Paradise Now trailer here.

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Farhadi’s “The Past” Boasts Immaculate Performances from Young and Old.

The Past.

The Past.

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few genuinely exciting film makers working anywhere in the world. The Past is his sixth film and the first he’s made outside of his native Iran.

After the huge and entirely merited success of his previous film A Separation, reviewed here, The Past was one of the most keenly awaited films at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. But it only ended up getting the consolation prize of Best Actress for Bérénice Bejo. Quite correctly Blue Is The Warmest Colour won the Palm D’Or, and was reviewed here

The good news is, The Past is a lot better than that would suggest. Bejo has asked her estranged husband to come back to France to sign the papers on their divorce, without filling him in on the details as to why she now needs it.  And over the course of the next few days he and we slowly learn of why it is that Bejo’s teenage daughter is so unhappy with her mother, her new man, and how they came together.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

As with About Elly and A Separation, Farhadi’s ability to carefully tell his story, slowly revealing its meticulously positioned plot points is unrivalled. And all the performances are outstanding. Bejo, who shot to fame in 2011 in the inexplicably lauded The Artist reviewed here, is a revelation. Ali Mossafa is superb as her former husband, but most remarkable of all is Alyes Aguis who plays the 5 year old son of her new man.

All three children – the two children plus the teenage Lucy – give the kind of extraordinary performances that French cinema somehow excels at. And The Past is part of that proud tradition of films from the likes of Francois Truffaut and Louis Malle which explore the world of adults through the eyes of children, rendering their vistas all the more moving  because of the performances they manage miraculously to coach from them.

Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

But it would be disingenuous to pretend that The Past weren’t ever so slightly disappointing. The momentum dissipates in in its final quarter as the focus shifts from the former husband to the new man. And instead of building to some sort of conclusion, it quietly comes to a halt.

By any other standards though, this is a must see. Even if in years to come it’ll be looked back at as a minor Farhadi, rather than one of his key works.

You can see the trailer for The Past here.

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“About Elly”, Yet Another Superb Iranian Film.

2009_about_elly_0011After the huge success of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), viewers in the West have now been given a chance to catch up with the film he made before it, About Elly (’09).

A Separation was Farhadi’s fifth film, and was quietly brilliant. Unsurprisingly it swept the boards, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 2011 as well a Berlin’s prestigious Golden Bear, and was reviewed by me earlier here.

About Elly is yet further confirmation that Iran is one of the most exciting centres for cinema in the world – you can see the trailer here. Film makers like Farhadi and Jafar Panahi are spearheading a second wave who have now arrived to supplement what was going on there in the 80s and 90s. You can read about that in my review of Panahi’s This Is Not A Film here. Who by the way is presumably still under house arrest there.

This Is Not A FilmAbout Elly‘s opening 20 minutes or so meander along in an apparently sleepy fashion. Three or four pairs of middle class Iranians have travelled to the coast for a holiday break. But then out of the blue, something happens. And then we and they spend the rest of the film trying to piece together what it was.

It’s not a thriller though. It’s a small, personal drama, in which the tension arises from the little lies that the friends begin telling each other as a result of the event that they are all trying to unravel.

FRENCH211-2Not a million miles from the terrain covered by Antonioni in L’Avventura, though without the latter’s formal rigour and austere beauty. Rather, as with A Separation, it’s closer in tone to Bergman. Farhadi is less interested in form and space, and choses instead to immerse himself in the world of his characters and the stories that enfold them.

And once again, those kind of comparisons are fully merited. About Elly is a riveting, engrossing and at once beguiling story. And Farhadi’s ability to reel you in by withholding story points until the very last moment makes him one of the most exciting film makers in world cinema.

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