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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5 Worst Films To Win The Oscar For Best Film.

5. Million Dollar Baby (2004). For its first 90 minutes or so (most films’ actual length), Clint Eastwood’s boxer chick flick shuffles along as a poor man’s Rocky. But then, with what’s laughably described as a plot “twist”, it suddenly veers off into the final scene of Betty Blue, which it manages to drag out for a further ¾ of an hour.

Neither one thing nor the other, it manages to be dull and tedious twice over. Incredibly, it triumphed at the expense of the rightly lauded Sideways, the charming Finding Neverland, and Scorsese’s underrated The Aviator.

Having to write Million Dollar Baby was obviously the price that Paul Haggis had to pay for being allowed to direct Crash, which quite correctly won the following year.

4. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003). The final installment of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus affords a third opportunity to spend yet another three hours (3 hours and 20 minutes actually…) watching one set of computer generated characters in a series of increasingly noisome battles with A N Other set. Which, inexplicably, they occasionally do with subtitles.

Watching a video game without being able to participate is the cinematic equivalent of being treated to a lap dance without being allowed to touch. For hours and hours. Oh and it beat Lost In Translation and Clint Eastwood’s superb Mystic River.

3. How Green Was My Valley (1941). Is John Ford the worst film maker of all time? Or is that Kurosawa? They are, as they say, well met.

Either way, just in case you thought that getting it monumentally wrong on Oscar night was a modern phenomenon, Ford’s oh so dull and typically leaden tale of, yawn, a Welsh mining town was duly awarded the gong in 1941. And at whose expense?

Well, for one there was a certain Citizen Kane. Then there was John Huston’s enigmatic and genuinely quirky noir classic, The Maltese Falcon. And William Wyler’s ice-cold but razor-sharp Bette Davis vehicle, The Little Foxes (which, like Kane, was shot by Gregg Toland). As well as Hitchcock’s Suspicion, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine.

2. Titanic (1997). Our very own Ford and Kurosawa rolled into one (see above), the first thing you want to do with James Cameron’s mesmerically tedious  3 hours and 17 minute film is to take each and every one of its shots and chop off their opening and closing 25%. That would bring it down to just over an hour and a half.

You’d lose nothing. You would however see even more clearly that it’s little more than a shot by shot remake of the 1958 film A Night To Remember, but without any of the latter’s charm, social graces or understanding of etiquette. And as for those special effects. Well, they’re certainly special all right.

1. The Artist (2012). Anyone who’s ever done any of those Hollywood screenwriting courses will know that there are a certain number of archetypal plots. One of which is the Ironic Plot, a classic example of which goes as follows; he does something to avoid being caught, and hide his true identity, only to discover that what he does is precisely the thing that leads to him being unmasked.

The one thing that Hollywood is obsessed with, is proving to the rest of the world that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not in fact peopled by philistines. So they fell over themselves in their haste to lavish The Artist (reviewed by me here earlier) with ill-considered praise on the grounds that a) it’s French, b) it’s in black and white, and c) it’s silent.

But by failing to spot its complete absence of drama, or to notice that it’s made up of one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, albethey beautifully drawn ones, whose narrative arc could be comfortably predicted by most below-averagely intelligent 9 year olds, they have, needless to say, confirmed all our worst suspicions. So there you are then, QED.

Appropriately enough I  suppose, Hollywood itself has become a classic example of one of its own genres.

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“The Artist”- Michel Hazanavicius

This year’s smash hit at Cannes… Silent and in black and white… Classically French…  Charming performances… And the dog…! Hmmn, what? Oh I’m sorry, I think I might have dozed off there.

There have of course been some genuinely wonderful films about Hollywood. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (’50), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful (’52), Robert Altman’s The Player (’92) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (’01) being the four most memorable.

All depict a pitch black world bereft of a moral compass, where blindly driven characters devote their lives to sacrificing their talent on the altar to personal ambition. The result is a landscape where anything can happen, and everyone’s careful calculations are forever undermined by the whims of the non-existent but mischievous Gods. They are all in other words European films, that just happen to use Hollywood as their backdrop.

They reek of the Old World, with its ironic insouciance and casual cynicism, and are free entirely of that unshakable certainty and boundless optimism that make the New World so appealing and give it its veneer of invincibility.

Mulholland Drive might look like Hollywood, but its correct title, as David Thompson so perceptively pointed out is Mulholland Dr., and the that Dr stands for “dream”, as in nightmare. The powers that be that govern this world are nebulous, nefarious and hopelessly inscrutable. This might be the dream factory, but these are the wrong kinds of dreams.

The Artist is the exact opposite. It’s an all too conventional Hollywood film clumsily dressed in European art-house chic. Sure, if you’ve never seen, say, a Madonna video (it’s in black and white!!) or a foreign film (what, subtitles!!! (well, titles actually)), then you might but briefly mistake it for something mildly un-conventional. But you’ll very quickly tire of the film’s un-rippled progress, as all the characters dutifully make their way down all too well worn paths.

The fact of the matter is, The Artist isn’t a pastiche of those early Hollywood films, it’s one of them. And it’s every bit as dull, dreary and predictable as those kinds of films have always been. That’s why, both then and now, we gravitate towards the likes of Méliès and Eisenstein, Lang, Murnau and Chaplin. Their constant invention and dazzling brilliance are a glorious corrective to the barrage of endless tedium we’re forever forced to put up with from mainstream Hollywood.

Still. There is of course one part of the world where they’ll see The Artist as a fantastically courageous attempt to buck the prevailing trend of drowning everything in a cacophony of wide screen, surround sound 3D Technicolor noise. Roll on the Academy Awards.

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