How Does a Man Become a Cow in The Salesman and My Cousin Rachel?

“How does a man become a cow?” a student asks in reference to a realistic story with one, odd, fanciful element being analyzed in class.

“Gradually,” Emad, the teacher (Shahab Hosseini) responds in a prescient scene in the beautifully layered, rightfully Oscar-winning Iranian domestic melodrama, The Salesman.

The better animal choice might be a pig…but the answer, crypto-Feminist writer-director Asghar Farhadi implies, is the same.

(SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION)

No man is born a disgusting, sexist pig. You become one…gradually, based on the choices a misogynistic society forces you to make. When you live in a religiously repressed and politically oppressed society that systematically puts value on their women based on what their men do (or don’t do) to them, and in turn puts value on the men based on the value put upon their women, men will often too easily devolve into metaphorical pigs obsessed with shame, dishonor and possessions…even unwittingly sometimes.

Take for instance Emad, the teacher who brings to his students eye-opening Western literature and moonlights (along with his loving, lovely wife, Rana, played by the powerfully emotive About Elly alum Taraneh Alidoosti) as an actor, currently putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” where he is Willy Loman and Rana is Linda Loman. The play, by the way, is being threatened with censorship by the government. I loved how this threat of censorship is presented as a throwaway line, a common, all-too-everyday annoyance in Iranian middle-class society (and don’t think this couldn’t happen here…or anywhere, with the right strongman in place). This couple seems like a liberal bastion in a repressive society, self-aware and quietly trying to bring about enlightenment through education and the arts.

But the world they live in wants to turn women into objects and men into pigs. Continue reading

Brooklyn Bridge to the Past

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Early on in John Crowley’s  Nick Hornby scripted film adaptation of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, the director wisely let’s his camera linger on star Saoirse Ronan’s face while at a neighborhood dance where her BFF Nancy has nabbed a man on the dance floor and Eilis is once again left to ponder whether there will ever be anything or anyone to keep her in Ireland.  Ronan, whose performance would be a revelation if she hadn’t already proven herself as a wee lass in Atonement, completely and subtly commands the camera and the audience, the slight tensing of her neck tendons, the nuanced flint in her eyes, that almost imperceptible sigh.  The whole plight of everyone who has ever wondered what else might be out there is written on her face.  And off to America…and to Brooklyn…Eilis goes.  Brooklyn is blessed by a few of these very smart moments, and also by a lot of clichéd ones.  There’s really not much suspense in guessing our heroine’s fate, but there are moments of sincere heartache and gentle beauty. Continue reading

A Shark Tank of Suitors are Far From the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd Carey Mulligan

The heroine of Thomas Vinterberg’s intoxicating adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s literary classic, Far from the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene (an effervescent and headstrong Carey Mulligan) reminded me of one of those cocksure entrepreneurs on Shark Tank who comes in, lights the sharks on fire, instantly gets an amazing offer from one of them, but then hesitates to close the deal because they want to hear all of the offers from the other sharks.

The filmmakers want you to think modernly about Bathsheba, a woman ensconced in patriarchal 19th-century British countryside social mores but waaaaay ahead of her time in thoughts and actions, because otherwise this would be another run-of-the-mill period romance where a woman is swept off her feet.  Bathsheba is a truly independent woman (she’s inherited a farm from her uncle, runs it herself, and proudly has no need for a husband) and Mulligan plays her with equal parts girlish coyness and womanly confidence, all sly smiles and looks with a twinkle of her nose, her loose impetuous strands of hair filtering the drunken sunlight splashed across the gorgeous Dorset hills.  It’s no wonder every man wants her, and she could command any many she wants. Continue reading

If It Was Never New and It Never Gets Old Then It’s a Coen Brothers Film

Inside Llewyn Davis - Oscar Isaac and Cat

The milieu of Inside Llewyn Davis wraps around the Coen Brothers and their audience like a cozy sweater in the dead of winter.  Watching it is akin to sitting down with an old friend you haven’t seen for years during the holidays, perhaps with hot tea or coffee cupped in your chapped hands, a fireplace hopefully roaring nearby, and listening to them tell a story…maybe one you’ve heard before, maybe one that seems new only to reveal the classic themes of your lives, and you’re held wrapt, comfortable, and full of bittersweet feelings.

The film, which chronicles the ups and – well, let’s be honest – primarily downs of gallows humor-laden folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, perfectly melancholy and full of piss and heartache), is bathed in the soft muted glows and dark greys of wintertime and 1960’s New York City, strung up wall to wall with amazing folk tunes, and filled to the brim with opportunities and love lost.  The Coens, who previously found their hearts tied to music with their blue-grass fueled Southern-fried odyssey O’ Brother Where Art Thou? have never had their love of music tied more closely to their themes – the film (like all of their best films, lest we forget the homespun folksy wisdom of Fargo) is itself a kind of folk song.  There are hints of an odyssey here, too, as Llewyn flounders about from place to place struck with bad luck, bad timing and a perpetual failing when it comes to life’s big decisions, and he finds a bit of a kindred animal spirit in a series of cats who cross his path on their own odysseys through life, and one of the felines is not coincidently named Ulysses. Continue reading

Home is Where the Heart is in 42

42

The true significance of the number 42 has nothing to do with The Shining or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, right?

Well, maybe not.  And maybe as a long-time baseball fan (not just of the game, but of the history and of its impact on American society) I took that for granted.  As the first African-American to play in the major leagues, Jackie Robinson put a dent in segregation in 1947 (and wore the number 42) long before Jim Crow laws were dismantled and the Civil Rights movement caught on years later.  Thanks to Brian Helgeland’s handsomely mounted and wholesome-as-Ma’s-meatloaf biopic, 42, younger generations will now have an entertaining and educational film to watch in history classes for decades to come.

Robinson is played with heart and panache by newcomer Chadwick Boseman while Nicole Beharie makes a nice splash as his devoted and strong-willed wife, Rachel.  Their love story forms the backstop of the story while Harrison Ford relishes in a playful scenery chewing turn as the moral trailblazing GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey. Continue reading

They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara

Director Christian Petzold has Nina Hoss go "into the woods" in BARBARA.

Director Christian Petzold has Nina Hoss go “into the woods” in BARBARA.

In 1980 in East Germany a Berlin doctor (Nina Hoss in the titular role) is banished to a provincial village in the latest from auteur Christian Petzold, who again uses Hoss as his muse as he did so well in earlier films like Yella and Jerichow.  Barabara plays it cold as ice in her new locale, while her West German lover hatches a plan to get her out by way of the sea and Denmark.  Meanwhile, she can’t help but get sucked into tragic cases involving local teens while a provincial officer subjects her to humiliating and routine searches of her apartment and body.  In a police state, even in a rural paradise, everyone is under suspicion.

In some ways Petzold’s Barbara plays like a pastoral version of The Lives of Others, but it’s more mellow drama than melodrama.  Petzold holds back almost everything, his directorial style perhaps meant to mirror the psyche of those who lived under the Iron Curtain in East Germany and had to watch their every move while being monitored by the State.  Details of Barbara’s past, as well as the pasts of others are sparse.  Petzold mostly shows, rarely tells.  Classical music, a famous Rembrandt painting and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are woven effortlessly into the story to add layers and fill in pieces of character development.  Most things are to be inferred, and he’s blessed with Hoss’s controlled performance where she reveals little outwardly but speaks volumes with her eyes and restrained body language.  Continue reading

Film within a Film in Seven Psychopaths and Argo

Currently in cinemas across the nation two films take on the old “film within a film” schtick – one going absurd while the other playing it straight.  Both have garnered critical acclaim but only one has seen box office success and is being bandied about with awards buzz.  Seven Psychopaths and Argo couldn’t be more different in style, substance and intent – yet they both hang (and in one case, hang themself) on the central conceit of a film within a film.

First up is Seven Psychopaths.  Boring title and lousy marketing aside, I had high hopes for award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh’s second feature film as his first, In Bruges, is one of my favorite films from the past five years.  The plot of Seven Psychopaths sounded darkly madcap enough – a hapless bunch of dog thieves (Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell) kidnap the dog of a gangster (Woody Harrelson) and hilarious melee ensues.  Sadly, what might have made a good short-story is trapped amongst other not-so-good stories as one of the friends of these dog-nappers is a struggling, alcoholic writer (Colin Farrell) working on a terrible screenplay called Seven Psychopaths that he intends to use to eschew the typical psychopathic thriller.  We get introduced to these psychopaths as he makes them up and some are more interesting than the rest, though as Walken’s character puts it so succinctly at one point, “It all gets a little tiresome after a while.”  Continue reading

Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

Why, yes, Mr. Hitler, I do object.

Character driven historical dramas used as vehicles for acting showcases have long been the bread and butter of many an Oscar campaign.  The King’s Speech is one such throw-back picture, harkening to a simpler time when entertainment was good and pure.  It’s 100% by-the-numbers bread and butter…but it’s that really good bread, you know the kind that is crusty on the outside and warm and tender inside, and the butter, it’s like that really fancy kind infused with garlic and stuff. 

It’s the dawn of WWII in England, and the royals are still reeling from the Wallis Simpson scandal.  After his brother abdicates the throne, King George VI (Colin Firth – not looking, but certainly acting the hell out of the part) reluctantly takes charge while cowering in fear of a life-long stutter.  With the help of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, still damn good when not stuck in Tim Burton films) he finds an unlikely speech therapist in the Australian Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush in his wheelhouse) to help him overcome his stammering.  Continue reading

Get Low and Out of Tune

Aaron Schneider’s feature film debut, Get Low, opens compellingly enough with an image of a house ablaze in the night accompanied by some brooding music that makes you feel like you’re in for something really good because somebody did something really bad.  It’s seems the tone has been set. 

Robert Duvall, grizzled as all heck, commands the next few scenes as we get glimpses of his hermit life.  But then Bill Murray, deadpan to the point of inertia, shows up as a funeral director lamenting that nobody seems to be dying in this Depression-Era Tennessee town, and everything goes out of tune.  Continue reading

The Coen Brothers Didn’t Do Anything

I wish my confirmation had been as fun as this kids bar mitzvah!

I wish my confirmation had been as fun as this kid's bar mitzvah!

We’re Very Serious Men

They had made it quite clear, hadn’t they, these Coen Brothers, that they didn’t much care about their audience’s expectations.  Hell, spare for Marge Gunderson in Fargo, they had never much cared for their characters either.  While they looked down on their subjects, they often looked right through those who watched…those faithful who tolerated the abominations that were Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers only left to be confounded by the philosophical nonsense wrapped in the ultra-slick throwback genre packaging of No Country for Old Men.  Sure, we laughed at the hatchet job that was their star-studded Burn After Reading…but where had that magic gone?  Where were those brothers who had brought us Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink and Fargo?  Had they really sold themselves out to those who had embraced The Big Lebowski as their magnum opus?  Oh, why had you forsaken us, Coen Brothers?  Where had you gone?  What did we do to deserve this?  We didn’t do anything!

Where were the Coen Brothers? Continue reading