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.


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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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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Kenneth Lonergan’s new film “Margaret” a rare gem.

Ken­neth Lon­er­gan moved from the the­atre into the cin­e­ma in 2000 with You Can Count On Me. One of the mem­o­rable films of the decade, it seemed to hark back to a bygone era when some of the most thought-pro­vok­ing and chal­leng­ing dra­ma came from inde­pen­dent films pro­duced in the U.S.

But by then, all the inter­est­ing peo­ple work­ing in cin­e­ma had begun mov­ing into tele­vi­sion. Every­one it seems except Lon­er­gan. But as bril­liant a dra­ma as You Can Count On Me is – and it real­ly is – it isn’t actu­al­ly cin­e­ma. It’s essen­tial­ly filmed drama.

The good news is that Lon­er­gan has learnt, and learnt sub­stan­tial­ly from that first effort. What we have in Mar­garet (see the trail­er here) is a big bold and glo­ri­ous piece designed for the sil­ver screen. The bad news is that it was shot it in 2005 and it’s only now that it’s final­ly see­ing the light.

You Can Count On Me.

You Can Count On Me.

Nine times out of ten, when a film is held up like that in post it’s almost always because it reeks to high heav­en. This hap­pi­ly is one of those rare excep­tions. You can read all about what hap­pened here in Joel Lovel­l’s excel­lent piece in the NY Times. But what it seems to boil down to is, Lon­er­gan could­n’t bring him­self to edit it down to a con­ven­tion­al length, and the whole thing end­ed up in court.

Which is huge­ly dis­ap­point­ing, because for its first two hours Mar­garet is flaw­less. And though it does begin to sag some­what in its third and final hour, it’s still one of the best and most mem­o­rable films for many a moon.

Lisa is the pre­co­cious, pret­ty Jew­ish 17 year old ensconced in her priv­i­leged enclave in New York, con­vinced that the world revolves around her — which, of course, in real life it would. Anna Paquin is bril­liant as the intel­lec­tu­al­ly vibrant but con­fused and inchoate lead in a world we’re all famil­iar with from Woody Allen at his prime.

A Separation.

A Sep­a­ra­tion.

Very few of the sto­ry’s ironies though are played for laughs here. There’s even a scene in which a the­atre actress com­plains about how pre­ten­tious peo­ple who go to the opera are, which isn’t meant to be fun­ny. So we find our­selves peer­ing into the lives of legit­i­mate­ly artic­u­late, intro­spec­tive peo­ple prone to exis­ten­tial angst, try­ing to come to terms with the world they live in against the back­drop of a sky­line dev­as­tat­ed by events beyond their control.

The film only los­es it way ever so slight­ly when we leave her class­mates in the final hour to focus on the legal bat­tle that she becomes embroiled in. It’s rea­son­ably obvi­ous where that was all going to end up, and some of those lat­er scenes could com­fort­ably have been pruned. If you want to see how that much sto­ry is han­dled much more fru­gal­ly, you only have to have a look at the won­der­ful A Sep­a­ra­tion (reviewed ear­li­er here)

Anna Paquin and Bennn

Anna Paquin and Matt Damon in Mar­garet.

But this is but a minor quib­ble. This is a seri­ous film and major work from one of the most excit­ing indi­vid­u­als work­ing in the medi­um. If he can mar­ry the dis­ci­pline of his writ­ing from You Can Count On Me (see the trail­er here), which he can and does for most of Mar­garet, with the visu­al panache and son­ic inven­tion of the lat­ter, that will be a sight to behold.

Have a look at the inter­view he gave with Richard Brody in the New York­er here.

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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 mak­ing 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, that lev­i­ty evap­o­rates, and the hope­less­ness of his sit­u­a­tion begins to dawn 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.

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 if unchar­ac­ter­is­tic 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 The 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 ones 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 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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