For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Monday, March 26, 2012

Wanderlust


2.5/5

We can all celebrate! Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston have finally reunited many years after that one 90’s romcom nobody remembers. You know, the one where he played the gay guy she was in love with. Oh, and I think she was pregnant, or something. Anyway, this is Wanderlust! A don’t-drink-the-Kool-Aid satire about a couple cash-strapped bohemians who join a commune of hippy-dippy cartoon characters, this Apatow-esque comedy from writer/director David Wain (Role Models) has its share of goofy gags and look-at-the-weirdoes comedic bright spots. But the pairing of two likable stars and the assembly of several uproarious supporting loons can’t help this Trip from feeling like all jokes and no movie.

George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) are New Yorkers whose efforts to purchase a high-status, if smallish, Manhattan bungalow are shot down by bad luck in the workplace. They swing down to Atlanta to stay with George’s rich, but materialistic and shamelessly foul brother, Rick (Ken Marino). On the way, they spend a night at the Elysium, a backwoods cult of neo-hippies and flower children supported by an off-the-map gem of a B & B. George and Linda are lured in by the hospitality and tranquility of the colorful characters they encounter: Seth (Justin Theroux) is the community’s free-love obsessed “charismatic leader”; Carvin (Alan Alda) is its old-coot founder who can’t stop rattling off the names of his long-deceased co-founders; Karen (Kathryn Hahn) is an overblown version of the quintessential no-nonsense hippy-chick; and Wayne Davidson (Joe Lo Truglio) is the resident nudist with a penchant for writing sordid political thrillers.

After just one night of drum circles and good vibes the couple walk away elated. When 20 minutes at Rick’s seriously harshes their buzz, they return to the Elysium to become permanent members. But can peace, love, hemp clothes, and homegrown weed really live up to the hype? Aniston and Rudd have both come a long way since their last big-screen adventure together (by the way, it was called The Object of My Affection). They retain an adequate level of girl-and-boy-next-door chemistry. Though, Aniston, who’s been pigeonholed into playing spin-offs of Rachel Green in various scenarios, makes Linda nothing more than a one-note free spirit floating transparently through. Rudd has a bit more range as an actor, and can play outlandish and weird as easily as he can play his typical 21st century, cynical nice-guy. As George, he gets a chance to showcase his own inner nutcase. In one scene, he preps for his first go at “free-love” with the local beauty Eva (Malin Akerman) by staring into a mirror and spouting an extended monologue of nonsensical and surreal pep-talk ramblings.

By the time he gets to the bedroom, he can’t stop acting moronic long enough to get on with the show, a symptom of his idiotic-impotency. Wanderlust itself shares a similar pathology—this ribald comedy is more concerned with reveling in its caricaturist’s portrait of silly earth-lovers than it is with establishing strong central characters then evolving them and their relationships. With really funny support, enough winning jokes, and a good director, the ground is fertile for something tasty (and organic!), but unfortunately a worthy movie never really sprouts from it.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Separation


5/5

Sometimes a film’s characters are so complex and realistic they don’t feel like fictional characters at all, but actual human beings. The superb Iranian drama A Separation is one of the top five best films of 2011, it just won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s populated by figures that feel more authentic than any other movie’s in recent memory, short of documentary subjects.

Actually, director Asghar Farhadi, working from his own excellent screenplay, does display an aesthetic that has documentary-like realism and intimacy. With a grainier, dustier film stock and a shaky camera, the film all but drops the viewer down into Tehran’s arid and hoary urban landscape. In the city’s local courthouse, where the movie’s extraordinary opening scene takes place, a man-and-wife, Nader and Simin, sit pleading for a divorce that the courts refuse to grant them. Simin, a stronger-than-your-average-stereotype Iranian woman, recognizes the hardships and lack of opportunities that come with living in Iran. She wants to take her pre-teen daughter, Termeh, and leave. However, her father-in-law is afflicted with Alzheimer’s and there is no way her husband will leave his sickly father destitute and alone. Without a court-authorized divorce, Simin cannot get custody of her daughter, and the two can never leave the country for a better life.

The scene plays out in an unbroken, static two-shot, in which the couple sit facing the camera and stare directly down its barrel. In a touch lifted from Kurosawa’s Rashomon, we never see the judge at all. With the actor’s looking desperately in our eyes as they beg for a way out, we become the judge, and the rest of the film’s intricate narrative unravels as a series of lies, deceits, misunderstandings, colliding perspectives, and contradictory stories that leaves it to each individual viewer to seek out their own comprehension of truth and justice.

Simin and Nader agree to a trial separation, but with Simin gone, Nader needs to find someone else to care for his father everyday. Along comes the highly incompetent—and highly pregnant—Razieh who only takes the job because her hotheaded husband, Hodjat, is stuck in debtor’s prison. An incident occurs between Razieh and Nader that initially seems mundane, but escalates into a criminal investigation with disastrous potential. As we watch these people’s lives go from bad to worse, it’s our job to prune through the film’s more compounded entanglements and characterizations to form our own opinion about what really happened and who’s responsible for the consequences. The task is complicated, however, as Farhadi uses a semi-omniscient narrative style that picks and chooses, very carefully, what information to divulge and what to keep hidden from view.

Brilliantly, A Separation avoids easy archetypes and clich├ęs at every turn. Each character is highly sympathetic, but not completely in the right either. It’s a film without any traditional villains—one whose four central characters are all guilty of making bad decisions, yet somehow those decisions remain understandable and identifiable. Simin wants to leave Iran, which to Western eyes seems like a pretty good realization, but her callousness towards her father-in-law is hardly graceful. In fact, her abandonment of her family in the film’s first minutes—a choice she makes out of what seems like stubbornness and spite—kicks off the entire spiral of mishaps and pitfalls. Nader is no saint, either. He’s loyal and loving to his father and daughter, and even agrees to the divorce, but becomes perhaps the most dishonest and remorseless character in the film.

While the picture is obviously a condemnation of Iran’s draconian criminal justice system, it also provides a lens into the state of the rest of Iranian society. Since Nader and Simin are middle class while Razieh and Hodjat are struggling and impoverished, their fight becomes one of class distinctions. Both couples have young daughters that watch with open and impressionable eyes as their parents sink down rabbit holes of petty malice and feuding vindictiveness. The condition of Nader’s father, and the way he’s treated by those around him, helps the viewer understand the culture’s traditional familial obligations, but also the insensitivity regarding the undesirability of the nation’s old and infirm. Razieh’s Achilles Heal is her piousness, which keeps her from swearing to anything she cannot be 100 percent certain of. While Nader’s more secular nature gives him an advantage in court, as his only responsibility is to his own wellbeing and that of his kin.

Working out of a theocracy notorious for its cinematic censorship, Farhardi has braved the courts himself to make a film that has all the trademarks of a conventional melodrama, but its verisimilitude and copious complexities make it a film that far transcends its genre to become something provocative, accusatory and moralistically ambivalent. His approach achieves a universal relate-ability coupled with a more cultural specificity that gives Westerners a fly-on-the-wall view into a world that couldn’t be more similar and different.

The most extensive and essential dichotomy A Separation explores is that of gender. The bitter and resentful man and wife whose stubborn rivalry causes a world of harm: it’s a tale as old as time. But A Separation gives it an international flavor that makes the whole discourse feel fresher and more vital. As multi-dimensional as its title, this slyly transgressive Iranian masterpiece depicts its nation’s greatest schisms and introduces Westerners to a world on the edge of transition, caught between customs and modernization, between liberty and oppression, all perfectly realized in the movie’s ambiguous final tableau. Back in the courthouse, we observe another two-shot of man and wife. The battle continues. The woman, now boxed in by a frame within a frame, is separated from her husband by a pane of glass. In Farhardi’s world, her desperate protestations have vilified and entrapped her. Maybe she was foolish for thinking they could have ever set her free.