‘Separation’ Anxiety: A Tense Iranian Drama Goes For The Gold

(Films discussed in this post: Trespass, Boy Wonder, A Separation, Passion Play, Tuesday After Christmas, The Trip, The Double, The Beaver.)This is my 100th post in this blog, and coincidentally, this post also marks 100 reviews of 2011 films. As you’ll see, I’ve saved some of the most obscure for last.

Every year there are hundreds of films that fly off the radar. There are a number of different levels of visibility for a movie; some, you’d have to be blind, deaf, and dumb to miss hearing about, which covers most major studio releases. Then there are the indies that the majority of mainstream viewers won’t have heard about, but most film-savvy people will — we’re talking the Take Shelters, Martha Marcy May Marlenes, and Bellflowers of this world. There are a couple levels even below that, too — the ones only the really film-savvy will have seen or heard of, like The Arbor and Poetry. And then it keeps going, to films that were screened at festivals but not picked up for distribution, or shot and never released, until it’s a film that only you have heard of, because you made it up in your own mind.

Typically a film is lesser-known due to one of two factors — either it’s great but a tough sell to mainstream audiences — maybe too dark, too esoteric, too foreign — AKA too “good.”

Or? It’s godawful and thus an even tougher sell. Here is a smattering of 2011’s “under the radar” offerings.The Trip stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as actors named Steve and Rob — they’re playing themselves, or at least, an exaggerated version of themselves. (Or maybe not so exaggerated?) Steve is the pompous lothario of the duo, while Rob is a goof, happily devoted to his wife. Steve rather condescendingly asks Rob to come along on a “trip” to try out some restaurants for a magazine article; he does, and that’s the extent of the plot. The rest of the movie is dialogue. Yes, dialogue — that’s when two or more characters speak to each other. In most modern movies these days, it is uncommon to actually have characters speak to each other conversationally, unless it’s exposition or lines like “Get out of here, man, she’s gonna blow!” The Trip is refreshingly old-fashioned that way.

The Trip begins as a comedy, mostly at Coogan’s expense, though there is a running joke about Brydon’s pretty bad celebrity impressions, too. Gradually, though, it becomes a pretty sad meditation on what happens to not-too-famous actors as they get older and their stardust fades a little. There are some very funny moments — mostly in that sly, underhanded way of British humor, rather than the broad strokes of Hollywood movies — but The Trip is also an emotive, surprisingly effective character study directed by Michael Winterbottom. It’s too low-key a film to have made much of a splash at the box office, but it’s absolutely worth checking out (currently streaming on Netflix).A more mixed affair is The Beaver, starring Mel Gibson. “Subtle” and “Mel Gibson” don’t often belong in the same sentence anymore, but The Beaver came and went without much fanfare, raking in under $1 million at the box office. That’s not surprising despite the star power, considering how offbeat and occasionally dark it is. Directed by Jodie Foster, the film was most notable because Gibson plays Walter Black — a self-destructive, depressed alcoholic (sound familiar?) who copes with his downward spiral in a very different method than making bigoted comments to cops and using the most hilarious sexist slur ever: “sugar tits.”

The story is as follows: Walter finds a beaver puppet in a trash dumpster, puts it on, and suddenly his hand takes on a life of its own — known as “The Beaver,” the puppet speaks in an Australian accent (Gibson’s actual accent — brilliant) and orders him to fix his life. He returns to his frustrated wife (Jodie Foster) and teenage son (Anton Yelchin) a changed man, albeit a changed man who has a smart-ass beaver permanently affixed to one of his appendages. His family is willing to go along with this for awhile, and even Gibson’s career (conveniently, at a toy company) improves thanks to the Beaver. But time passes, and Walter shows no signs of returning to his old self. Then the film takes a rather dark turn.

A side story also follows Walter’s son Porter, troubled by his dad’s increasingly erratic behavior, who has been accepting cash in exchange for writing papers for his peers. Then Norah (The Hunger Games‘ Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence), the smartest girl in school, approaches him with the mother of all writing assignments — she needs help with her valedictorian speech. Naturally, this leads to romance and then plenty of drama; it’s a nice, nuanced adolescent love story, better-written than most (and reuniting Yelchin and Lawrence, who were also lovebirds in Like Crazy). Unfortunately, the film spends about half its running time on this subplot, and yet it really has nothing to do with the Beaver. It’s an unfortunate misstep in the screenplay.

The Beaver is an interesting movie with strong dialogue, engaging characters, and an off-kilter premise that actually works. You can see how it might have become a more mainstream-friendly comedy, with the Beaver teaching Walter valuable life lessons and perhaps becoming part of the family. Instead, this film raises some more disturbing questions in our minds about mental illness — the Beaver may be instructing Walter to turn his life around, but is it also destroying the actual human being he used to be? (You could look at it as a metaphor for pharmaceuticals, but it doesn’t quite run with that.) Eventually the Beaver becomes a “thing” as Walter appears on talk shows and his toy beaver catches on in consumer America, and that’s when the film loses its grip on the real story. The Beaver is hit or miss, but admirable for its novel premise.“Novel premise” isn’t an accusation you’ll throw at Trespass, however. You wouldn’t expect a movie directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage to be “under the radar.” But alas, Trespass is. Do you remember seeing the trailers? Billboards? TV spots? Nic and Nicole on Leno touting this thriller? No? Well, good — ’cause it didn’t happen. The film was dumped in theaters for a mere two weeks, where it earned less than $25,000 — not too good on a budget that adds three zeroes to that figure ($35 million). You have to try really hard to make a movie that fails that abysmally. But Joel Schumacher has had a lot of practice leading up to this.

The film is a home invasion thriller in the vein of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, except it’s actually funny (unintentionally). It stars Kidman and Cage as Kyle and Sarah, a couple whose marriage is apparently on the rocks for undisclosed reasons. They live in a big, beautiful house; Kyle works too much (something to do with diamonds) and Sarah is the sort of wife who puts on a sexy black dress and new underwear to make dinner. Their daughter Avery (Liana Libreto) is that typical movie teenager who really wants to go to a party, but can’t, because it interferes with dinner. That’s the first of many implausible events in Trespass — what self-respecting teenager throws a wild party that begins before dinner time? It’s still daylight when Avery gets to this party. (She sneaks out, of course.)That’s about when a crack team of four masked robbers storms in waving guns, demanding access to a safe that presumably contains a bunch of diamonds. To explain all the twists and turns that happen thereafter would be impossible, since Trespass constantly, ludicrously lurches from one “surprise” to the next by basically adding a “just kidding!” to all the information we learned before. We are teased with the possibility that Sarah may have had an affair with one of the bad guys (oopsie!), until — “just kidding!” — it turns out that he’s just a crazy home security employee who hasn’t taken his medication today. That thief is played by Cam Gigandet, whose mask is more see-through than the others. After all, the only reason to cast Cam Gigandet in a movie is that he’s pretty. If he’s wearing a mask, you can’t tell that he’s pretty. Also, it makes it easier for Sarah to recognize him through the mask, which makes us wonder what is the point of the mask at all?

Never mind such minor questions of logic. Trespass has far greater problems to contend with. Let’s start with the casting. Gigandet makes a highly unlikely sociopath, but this character undergoes such a complete 180 that he probably wouldn’t have made any sense no matter who was playing the role. Kidman does what she can, which means convincingly freak out each and every time someone grabs her by the hair and points a gun in her face (probably upwards of a dozen). The real gaffe is our leading man, Nicolas Cage, who is meant to be playing the Everyman. But these days, casting Nicolas Cage as a normal person is an egregious mistake. Here are some  movies Nicolas Cage has starred in lately — Kick-Ass, Ghost Rider, Drive Angry, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans. These are not films which required him to be subdued or relatable. In fact, partway through shooting Cage forced production to shut down because he changed his mind and wanted to play the villain; that didn’t happen, of course, but Cage seems to have decided to play the villain anyway based on how loud and insane Kyle gets.Meanwhile, Ben Mendelsohn — so good as a ruthless sociopath in Animal Kingdom — here is given the unforgiving task of playing a criminal who essentially is Nicolas Cage. We already have Nicolas Cage doing his manic Nicolas Cage-isms even though he’s supposed to be playing a mild-mannered businessman, so now poor Mendelsohn playing the criminal has to out-Nic-Cage Nicolas Cage — which only seems to push Nicolas Cage to go even further over the top. They’re constantly one-upping each other, and it isn’t pretty. (It is pretty funny, however.)

Oh, if only I had the hours required to write about each and every senseless moment in Trespass. Why does the female thief Petal wander off, strip to her underwear, and watch the family’s home movies? Why does the screenplay constantly waste time getting daughter Avery away from the house if she’s only going to get captured again? Why bother with that silliness about Jonah being obsessed with Sarah, and apparently telling his brother they slept together? So many questions! Trespass is easily one of the worst movies of 2011, and not coincidentally, also one of the most entertaining. It’s very nearly in the same class as Showgirls and Catwoman — movies you can’t help but laugh at for their ineptitude. It’s streaming on Netflix, and I can’t recommend it more highly.Another 2011 needlessly dumped into theaters is The Double, featuring the unlikely (and not terribly appealing) teaming of Richard Gere with Topher Grace. The elder is Paul, a retired CIA operative and the world’s foremost expert on a Soviet assassin named Cassius; the younger is Ben, an FBI agent who wrote his thesis about said killer. Yikes. The fact that this movie is about the Cold War and not Iraq or Afghanistan already signals that the script has probably been kicking around since, I dunno, 1985? And there is no attempt to make it feel any more relevant to 2011 than one of those Tom Clancy movies from the 90’s. (In a flashback to 1988, both Richard Gere and Martin Sheen look exactly the same as in 2011 — even the makeup people were too lazy to bother with chronology!)

Of course, all that might be forgivable if the movie were entertaining, but no one, including the director and stars, seems to have any interest in the material whatsoever. The score works overtime to create a mood of suspense that no one else attempts to match. Worse, the film’s trailer gives away the big twist, normally saved for the end of the movie — perhaps they figured we would have seen it coming anyway — so we get the big reveal before the half-hour mark, killing any and all suspense The Double might have built otherwise. (Which is probably none, to be honest.) Paul is Cassius! Cue gasps from the audience — or are those snores? The Double tries to throw in one more twist before the end credits roll, but by this point, there is no point in caring who is on what side or why. Only True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer looks like he’s having even a little fun as a sneering, incarcerated Soviet — but he dies early, and then the fun’s over. As a thriller, The Double is also easily one of the worst of 2011’s theatrical offerings, minus the camp value of Trespass.

For campy fun and ineptitude combined, look no further than Mitch Glazer’s romantic crime drama Passion Play. It’s a love story between Mickey Rourke and Megan Fox — hilarious already, right? But oh, it gets better.(See?)

Passion Play is the story of jazz musician Nate, a recovering heroin junkie, who gets into some trouble for having inadvertently screwed gangster Happy Shannon’s wife. Now Happy wants Nate dead. Fortunately for Nate, he happens upon a circus freak named Lily Luster. She has wings. Yes, wings. Bird-like, angel-like, take your pick. These wings fold down to a conveniently small size in the many shots of Lily that don’t involve bad CGI effects, but there’s also plenty of hottie-with-wings action. Anyway, Nate and Lily fall for each other — because apparently a winged Megan Fox has standards low enough to go for a busted junkie like Mickey Rourke — but Nate is using her to try to cut a deal with Happy Shannon, trading her unique talents for his life. I guess. Oh, by the way, Happy is played by Bill Murray, who probably agreed to do this movie because he thought it was an outrageous comedy.

With a story like that, Passion Play is too ridiculous to not be at least a little entertaining. The “outdoor” locations rarely look real, let alone the magic wings. Not surprisingly, Passion Play grossed less than $4,000 in a very limited release in theaters and now finds its home on Netflix Watch Instantly, where it can be observed and mocked for free. Don’t get me wrong — Passion Play is not necessarily an advisable cinematic undertaking. Unlike big-budget shlock like Trespass and the lifeless The Double, it actually does feel like someone here was trying very hard to make a gritty, hard-hitting film (there’s sex, drug use, heavy profanity, and nudity — and wings!). And that’s a little sad, really. Who in their right mind thought this was a viable idea for a serious adult drama? Well, you could ask pointless questions, or you could go along on this side, strange ride. Whichever you choose, I won’t judge you.The little-seen Boy Wonder is more competently executed, well enough to get a glowing recommendation from Roger Ebert, for one. Written and directed by Michael Morrissey, it’s the story of Sean Donovan (Caleb Steinmeyer), who loses his mother in a violent crime as a child and then grows up with a thirst for vengeance. In other words, it’s a lot like the stories of Batman or Spider-Man, only without the inherited millions or radioactive spider.

Actually, Boy Wonder is a more down-to-earth tale about an average guy attempting to play hero, which we’ve seen a lot of in movies lately, but it’s not so cartoonish as Kick-Ass. It’s more like Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster, except here we aren’t quite as sympathetic to Sean’s plight. The Brave One allowed us to root for the comeuppance of New York City’s low-life thugs, and there’s some of that in Boy Wonder, too, but mostly Sean just seems too messed up for us to take any pleasure in his pain infliction. It might be interesting for a movie to examine the mental health of a wannabe vigilante, but Boy Wonder doesn’t quite go there. It saddles Sean with a bland foil in homicide detective Teresa Ames (Zulay Henao), who pieces together clues as bodies of bad guys start piling up. Steinmeyer’s performance is strong and the story does hold our interest, but Boy Wonder comes up a bit short in the end, without really pushing the boundaries of what we’ve seen before.Many of the above were rightfully panned by critics and ignored by audiences, while The Trip‘s cult-size appeal didn’t exactly make it a blockbuster. So what does it take to get an “under the radar” film seen by the masses? (Besides a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, that is?) Well, the Romanian film Tuesday, After Christmas wouldn’t know, even if, on the surface, it shares a lot with the Oscar-nominated A Separation.

Like A Separation, Tuesday, After Christmas is a foreign film dealing with marital strife using a natural, un-self conscious style of filmmaking. Unlike A Separation, it is deathly boring. The protagonist, Paul, is cheating on his wife Adriana with a dental hygienist named Raluca. Eventually, he decides to tell his wife. She’s upset. That’s all. Not to be too dismissive of the film — there are a few well-acted and tense dramatic scenes, particularly toward the end of the film. But along the way, we are subjected to interminable scenes depicting everyday life. Do we really need to hear lengthy debates about what every character is getting every other character for Christmas? Do we really need to sit through an entire dentist appointment? Do we really need to meet a bunch of supporting characters we never hear from again? Like many recent Romanian films, Tuesday, After Christmas takes a neo-realistic approach to its subject matter, using long takes that are impressively well-acted. But still boring.

Tuesday, After Christmas is about 20 minutes of great movie, leaving about 70 minutes that are expendable (it feels more like three hours). Many critics have praised the film and even compared it to a “thriller,” which is the most ridiculous and pretentious claim I’ve ever heard. Tuesday, After Christmas is as much of a thriller as watching a pot, waiting for it to boil. Yes, the film is “realistic,” but why is that such a virtue? The story has been told a thousand times, without anything new added here, and the characters generate little reason to care what happens either way. You could film a leaky faucet for two hours and it’d be “realistic,” but it wouldn’t be very good. It makes you wish the gang of thieves from Trespass would barge in and show everyone what conflict is. (Or maybe the husband could just don a beaver hand puppet.)In comparison to the lifeless Tuesday, After ChristmasA Separation comes as a delightful surprise — or at least it would have been, if it wasn’t already one of 2011’s most acclaimed films before I saw it. A Separation is nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards — and it may very well win — as well as a more surprising achievement as Best Original Screenplay nominee. (It’s pretty uncommon for any stark, low-key drama to get a nod here, let alone one in a foreign language.) There is little consensus in the critical community this year on what 2011’s best offerings are, but A Separation is the one film that everyone seems to agree on. Myself included.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, it is not so much the story of a husband and wife’s separation as it is the story of what happens, in part, as a result of it — a tragic event in which nobody is truly at fault, yet everybody is quick to point a finger. Peyman Maadi plays Nader, the husband, who is dutifully caring for his elderly father even though he can’t remember his own son (or anything else, for that matter). Nader’s wife Simin (Leila Hatami) seeks a divorce because she wishes to take her daughter out of Iran, somewhere that’s a bit less restrictive in its values. Nader wants to stay —and the judge sides with him. Thus, a separation. (Nader will soon find himself unexpectedly agreeing with his wife’s frustrations, however.)A third key character is Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who takes a job as housekeeper when Simin moves out. Her duties include taking care of Nader’s father, a task she finds overwhelming for a variety of reasons. Before the story is over, Razieh’s hot-headed husband (Shahab Hosseini) will also have a large role to play, as will Simin and Nader’s unhappy 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter). I won’t spoil what happens, but these five people find themselves pitted against one another in a complex he said/she said scenario that has potentially devastating consequences for multiple parties.

Now, all this might be reasonably interesting in an American film, but what really makes A Separation worth watching is the access it allows us into Iranian customs, particularly regarding their justice system. These characters are as easy to relate to as any in a American film, their lives not very different from ours, and yet there are differences between cultures that raise the stakes in this story higher than they would be if it were set in the western world. A Seperation is no thriller, either, but it knows how to ratchet up suspense in measured doses; it knows when to reveal something, and when to save it for later. The third act in particular is spellbinding, and yet it is absolutely always 100% grounded in reality. The flesh-and-blood characters linger in the mind long after it’s over.

So kudos to A Separation for its deserved acclaim. For rising out of the cinematic trenches and capturing the Academy’s attention, when so many other quality films could not (and yet, The Help and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close could).

And kudos to me, for wrapping up my series of 100 movie reviews for the year 2011!

A Separation: See it, and be separate from this film no longer.

The Trip: Worth the trip.

The Beaver: Just weird enough to be watchable.

Boy Wonder: Like a second-rate sidekick to better vigilante movies — but in a pinch, it’ll do.

Tuesday, After Christmas: Ho-ho-ho-hum.

Trespass: Cinematic schadenfreude at its finest.

Passion Play: Megan Fox with wings. Need I say more?

The Double: Twice as lame as any other movie I saw this year.


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