REVIEW: “Le PassĂ©” (“The Past”)

PAST poster

Asghar Farhadi is without question one of my favorite working filmmakers. Watching a Farhadi film is unique. He doesn’t make movies intended as escapes. He offers intense examinations filled with truth and reality. Farhadi possesses a sensibility towards the human experience that you rarely sense from other filmmakers. He features a bold and unbridled approach to storytelling that focuses on complex relationships and deep personal narratives.

While his brilliant 2009 picture “About Elly” opened in the United States last year, technically Farhadi hasn’t made a film since 2013’s “The Past”. Like his previous work, “The Past” is a dialogue-rich, plot-driven film focused on the secrets and inner turmoil of its connected characters. The film marked Farhadi’s first cinematic venture outside of Iran. The French language film was shot in Paris but it intentionally strips away any glamorous or romantic view of the city. It is said Farhadi directed through an interpreter since he didn’t speak French. It’s also said that he lived in Paris for two years prior to filming in order to get a better gauge of the French life and the flow of the language.

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The story begins with an Iranian man Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving in Paris after a four-year absence to finalize the divorce with his wife Marie (BĂ©rĂ©nice Bejo). Marie has two daughters from a prior marriage including the embittered Lucie (Pauline Burlet). Marie and Lucie have a strained relationship mainly due to Marie’s live-in boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir struggles to balance running a cleaning business with raising his discouraged pre-teen son (played with stinging authenticity by young Elyes Aguis). Even more, Samir’s legal wife has been in a coma for eight months following a failed suicide attempt.

Each of these interconnected characters are effected in different ways by ‘the past’. Each are damaged either by their own poor choices or, in the case of the young children, the choices of others. Each are also carrying their own burdensome secrets which Farhadi reveals in small and strategic doses. This great approach allows for the characters to slowing unfold for us over time. And in doing so, the script (written by Farhadi) causes our sympathies to change as we get more information.

Farhadi’s labyrinthine story gives us a lot to navigate and process. It is rich with heavy dialogue and plot that is constantly building upon itself. It takes no ‘feel good’ shortcuts. The piercing reality of its topics and themes leaves an ever-growing cloud of depression and sadness over the characters. But every ounce of it feels earned and natural. Farhadi has a knack for drawing us in and wrapping us up in his characters, their situations, and their moral complexities.

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“The Past” features several other Farhadi signatures. His use of reaction and expression sometimes tell as much as his dialogue. Also there may be no director as adept and effective at shooting in tight, confined spaces. Farhadi forces his characters together and places us among them. He forces them to deal with each other on a close personal and emotional level. It offers up a unique intimacy but also a boiling intensity. So many scenes in the film employ this technique but not without a point or reason.

As with his other films, Farhadi allows “The Past” to show a social conscience that speaks to greater ills in modern society. At the same time this is a very ground-level story between several damaged yet culpable characters and the young innocent casualties caught in the crossfire. In the beginning everyone is a mystery. Over time we learn alarming secrets. We witness emotionally toxic exchanges. We see one bad decision after another. All of it is linked to the brutal consequences of the past. This is the where the film takes us, and it pulls no punches and gives us no passes. I appreciate that.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Thieves”

OSS 117 Poster

It may surprise some but the Oscar-winning juggernaut “The Artist” wasn’t the first collaboration between director Michel Hazanavicius and stars Jean Dujardin and BĂ©rĂ©nice Bejo. In 2006 the three came together to make the spy thriller spoof “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies”. These two films couldn’t be any more different yet there is an interesting similarity. “The Artist” was a silent movie that paid tribute to an often forgotten era of moviemaking. “OSS 117” is a parody of the old 1950s and 1960s spy pictures particularly the early James Bond films. While quite different in production and intent, both have sharp eyes when it comes to the era of filmmaking they take place in.

Jean Dujardin plays OSS 117, a French secret agent who is a cross between Bond and Inspector Clouseau. He’s sent to Egypt to investigation the death and disappearance of fellow agent and friend Jack Jefferson, to stop all fighting between the Americans and Russians, and bring complete and total peace to the Middle East. To this ridiculously unreasonable task he simply replies “No problem”. In the first few scenes you get a good idea what kind of movie this is and what kind of character OSS 117 is. He has the suave and debonaire looks of Bond but the intelligence and deductive skills of Clouseau. As he was getting his assignment from his superior, I couldn’t figure out who the film was spoofing more, a nitwit secret agent or the French government for actually sending this guy. Perhaps a little of both I think.

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He lands in Egypt and meets with his contact, a beautiful local named Larmina (Bejo). It doesn’t take him any time to show her and us his utter stupidity as he tries to impress with his incorrect knowledge of the country and his offensive comments about it. That gets to one of my favorite things about this movie – it’s definitely politically incorrect. OSS 117 manages to unknowingly yet repeatedly put down the country, its people, and even its religion. Some of these scenes are hysterical and this is when his buffoonery stands out the most. We also quickly learn that he couldn’t recognize a clue if it were parked right behind him. There are so many leads and bits of evidence in plain sight that anyone other than our bumbling protagonist could see.

There are also several other hilarious running gags the go on throughout the film. There is his infatuation with a light switch and the effects it has in a chicken house (I’ll leave it at that), a reappearing spy who constantly calls in 117’s locations, and one gag that specifically focuses on 117’s always perfect hair. All of these worked for me. But there are scenes where the film goes a little over the top. For example, there’s an intense shootout later in the movie but not with guns and bullets. The weapons of choice? Chickens! Now I’ll be honest, I did chuckle a bit at that, but overall it felt a little too outlandish.

With the exception of the parody, this film looks and feels like it could have been made by the filmmakers of the late 1950s. It’s set in 1955 and Hazanavicius goes to great lengths to recreate that. He does so not just with the cars, clothing, and interior designs, but also by using the same style of special effects. I particular loved the driving sequences with the obvious rolling video screen behind them. There are also a couple of fight sequences that feel yanked right out of that period.

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Another highlight was Dujardin. He really impressed me with his sharp sense for comedy. He’s completely believable and brings out the silly shallowness of this character who’s more interested in opportunities to wear his tuxedo and learning to smoke cigarettes. Dujardin’s wacky array of postures and facial expressions work perfectly and Bejo is a wonderful compliment. There are also several other side characters that bring in some really good laughs.

Considering the absence of good quality comedies, “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” was a great find. I have to admit that Hazanavicius, Dujardin, and Bejo became known to me through “The Artist”. But because of the impression they made, I was immediately interested in this film just by seeing their names attached. It didn’t let me down. Now obviously this isn’t the type of comedy that everybody will respond to. But I loved the mix of subtle humor and over the top absurdity. And now I find out that Hazanavicius and Dujardin did a sequel? Sign me up!

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Artist”

Many modern moviegoers may be tempted to skip a new black and white silent movie. That’s a shame because to do so would be to miss a near motion picture masterpiece that is one part celebration of cinema and another part exercise in masterful storytelling. Michel Hazanavicius wrote and directed this gorgeous film that exudes nostalgia and imagination in every scene. His willingness to tackle the handicaps that accompany a black and white silent picture is admirable but I must admit I was a little worried. Could Hazanavicius recreate a believable bygone era of filmmaking or would the results be a well-intended mess? A large grin spread across my face after seeing the classic-styled opening credits and I immediately knew I was in for something special.

“The Artist” reminds us of everything that is magical about movies. It reminds us of a time when creativity trumped huge elaborate effects and million dollar set pieces. It uses black and white to it’s advantage and even though there are times that you can tell it’s intentionally being nostalgic, I never doubted it’s sincerity or integrity. Making this a silent picture was a risky approach but it works perfectly here. From Harold Lloyd to Nosferatu, I’ve been a fan of silent cinema and “The Artist” could blend right in with the best of those films. It may be a flashback to an earlier style of filmmaking but this silent movie speaks louder and says more than most of what we see coming out of Hollywood.

One of the key ingredients to the success of “The Artist” can be found in the brilliant performance of Jean Dujardin. He plays George Valentin, a popular silent movie star with the world in his hands. He revels in the attention and limelight that he gets from the starry-eyed public, an obsessed media, and the head of Kinograph Studios, Al Zimmer (John Goodman). But when the studio makes the shift from silent pictures to talkies, George finds himself pushed out and replaced by younger, fresher faces, most notably an energetic and beautiful actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). George’s world crumbles around him but it’s his pride that may be his ultimate undoing. Dujardin loses himself in his character and captures the essence of a silent movie performance. But as the film progresses he draws you in with his crushing and deeply moving work. Expression is essential to his performance and Dujardin nails every grin, wink, head tilt, or mannerism. It’s beautifully expressive and his charm and command of every scene makes it unforgettable.

Bejo’s performance lives up to her character’s name. She’s spirited and lively and while it could be said that she over does it in a few scenes, she encapsulates what you would expect from a young aspiring actress from that era. And her chemistry with Dujardin is magnetic. It’s also fun to see such a wonderful supporting cast many of which have small roles. The great James Cromwell, Ed Lauter, and Malcolm McDowell each have small but entertaining roles in the film. Hazanavicius uses them perfectly. And how could I not mention one of the best animal performance in movie history from Uggie the dog?

“The Artist” is a phenomenal cinematic accomplishment and Hazanavicius’ vision is rendered brilliantly through sparkling black and white and sharp direction of his incredible cast. I genuinely felt that I had traveled back in time to a more authentic and purer period of movie making. But “The Artist” isn’t all about nostalgia. At it’s core it’s a simple but beautiful drama laced with humor and romance. “The Artist” is a wonderful package from it’s visual style to it’s perfect score, from it’s razor sharp direction to it’s captivating leading man. In a year of love letters to cinema, none are better than this and it’s certainly worth all of the awards it’s sure to get.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M