Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1990)

The protagonists of Abbas Kiarostami’s films are in constant motion, both physically and emotionally. In Life, and Nothing More…, A Taste of Cherry, and Ten, Kiarostami’s subjects spend almost every scene in an automobile, providing a solitary form of transit deeply rooted in their own mental framework.

In Close-Up, once again Kiarostami begins his story with a car ride, a reporter and two soldiers en-route to arrest a man posing as the famous Iranian director Moshen Maklmalbaf. The suspect has been accused of defrauding an upper class family into believing he will shoot his next film centered around them. But that’s where the central motifs of those others films become complicated. While deeply concerned with themes of transition, Close-Up differs greatly in style because it’s based on an actual event, and it uses real life trial footage as well as composed reconstructions, using the actual participants as actors in a constructed reality.

Cinematic motion, or story moving at a certain related speed to style, comes crashing down as we piece together more of this man’s reasoning for claiming to be an artist. His uncertainty mirrors Kiarostami’s critique of his own “autuer” tendencies, attempting to control every facet of a medium that often misrepresents it’s subjects. Reality, or the breaking down of realism into a conflicted process, seeps into the foreground. Where most of his other works tend to drift back and forth between the magical and the humane, Close-Up looks unflinchingly at doubt within a structured form of film documentation.

Kiarostami continues to develop with his obsessions of movement, hidden pains, doubtful reconciliations, all bleeding together into a personal need to search…for humanity, for art, for fear, and for peace. His cinema rages against simplistic notions of class, often having the poor attempt to understand and reach out to the rich, or the rich show humility and forgiveness to the poor. Time cannot be counted on to reveal the truths in life. Only experience outside the limitation of stereotype can open the doorway to understanding. Kiarostami’s films, especially Close-Up, generously consider how truth and reality often differ. The movies, as for the subject of Close-Up, offer an answer to the contradictions of real life, with the high hopes of finding a way to reveal the truths of varying perspectives.

A Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997)

With this deeply challenging and beautiful film, director Abbas Kiarostami explores the unspoken moments of pain that undoubtedly reside in each personal human experience. Kiarostami’s protagonist, a middle-aged Iranian man named Mr. Badhi, travels around a desert of industrial activity looking for someone to help him commit suicide. He comes across a Kurdish soldier, an Afghani security guard, and a Turkish taxidermist, all providing varying perspectives on Mr. Badhi’s life-ending decision. The ending, a revelation in terms of thematics, breaks down the film’s structure in order to create a new, complex connection between life and the movies.

A Taste of Cherry is the most difficult Kiarostami I’ve seen, mainly because of it’s experimental tendancies toward character development and the abstract ending. Mr. Badhi’s journey begins and ends with uncertainty, something film viewers don’t often like to feel, myself included. But Kiarostami wants his viewer to embrace the uncertainty we’ve grown to fear, reveling in the opportunities it brings to both life and art. Moments of change rarely come easily, especially in film. An intrinsic need to complete, finish, end, makes up much of what present day art codifies. It’s daring for a filmmaker to attempt a different approach in representing emotional and physical shifts, showing us the moments of panic and worry as well as clarity, which inevitably come few and far between. I have a feeling this film will grow with each time I see it.

Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)

After three views, just gets better and better. One of the greatest all time for sure and not much new to add to the universal love for this classic Noir. Edward G. Robinson (and his “little man”) as Keyes ignites every scene he’s in and Stanwyck is the ultimate femme fatale. Forgot the great Raymond Chandler co-wrote this. Genius dialogue that still feels fresher than anything neo-noir has given us lately.

Unknown White Male (Murray, 2005)

Critics have called into question whether the story of Doug Bruce, an 35 year old English man who woke up one day on a subway in New York with no past memory, is a fake, mainly because the filmmaker is a close friend and first time director and an unconvincing amount of evidence to support Bruce’s story. To me, it’s a moot point since we have no way of knowing. However, what should be critiqued is the film’s lack of creativity, both visually and narratively. Director Rupert Murray, charts Doug’s progress of getting used to having no memory of past relationships with family and friends; a perfect foundation for an edgy, disturbing portait of a man lost. But Murray’s film deviates back and forth between uninteresting ramblings of pyschology experts and the uncaring musings of his subject. We learn that Doug doesn’t want to reclaim his past, happy with his new found freedom and innocence. This makes his meetings with his closest old confidants feel toneless and uninteresting, moments that should feel dynamic and mysterious.Unknown White Male comes across as a piece of juvenile yellow journalism, exploiting a situation through overly dramatic music cues and annoying, incesant voice over narration by director Murray. His heightened sense of purpose outweighs his own subject’s need to tell his story. We get the sense that Doug Bruce wants everyone to go away, leaving him be to live his new existence, bringing up a question of why this film was even made. Whether or not Doug’s snickering at pulling the wool over his friend’s and families eyes remains to be seen. It doesn’t matter anyways, because Murray’s cliched vision of Doug’s supposed confusion and moral conflict isn’t worth being taken seriously as a cinematic document.

Flags of Our Fathers (Eastwood, 2006)

There’s a brilliant moment at the beginning Clint Eastwood’s conflicted and sometimes masterful Flags of Our Fathers when three soldiers move swiftly up a mountain side, the darkness illuminated only by tracer flares shooting high into the sky. Instead of a war zone, Eastwood pans up to reveal a large stadium of cheering fans, the three soldiers, John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), plant a small flag atop a fake Mt. Suribachi, reenacting the famous photographed moment on Iwo Jima for countless American’s. Simulated heroism at it’s scariest. These soldiers are the surviving members of the original six who lifted the flag (the second one it turns out) five days into the forty day battle which turned out to be the bloodiest of the Pacific campaign. They are on a bond tour and we later find out how conflcited they feel about leaving their buddies, both dead and alive, behind while they travel around the U.S. raising money.

This inherant conflict makes Flags of Our Fathers a must see, simply because it complicates history by revealing the fissues in a familiar narrative timeline. Told in two parallel structures, the landing of American Marines on Iwo Jima in early 1945 and the Bond tour after the battle, Eastwood seemlessly cuts back and forth in time, creating a vista of high intensity battle sequences equally matched with scenes of heartache back home, the protagonists whithered by the media attention and change in duty pressed upon them by their superiors. Gagnon, a runner for higher military brass during the conflict, takes to this change, a slick, attractive man better suited as a politician than a soldier. Bradley and Hayes, infantrymen, lived the carnage, saw the consequences of a brutal conflict, and are understandably binded together through experience, maybe unfairly to Gagnon. Eastwood sees Hayes, the Pima Indian who turns to booze to ease his pain, as the devastating core of a media machine bent on creating larger than life heroes for a specific purpose, then disposing such images as fast as they were created. All three performances are good, Beach and Phillippe with obviously more to work with, excel in their scenes together.

Clint Eastwood has been on quite a roll lately with Mystic River (which I think is the heir to Unforgiven, not Flags as many critics have noted) and Million Dollar Baby. However, Flags of Our Fathers offers a surprising and worrisome shift in Eastwood’s approach to story. The first hour and half of Flags of Our Fathers is some of the best work he’s ever done; crisp, brutal, immersed in deconstructing history and coming out the other side with a better understanding of who these men were. But there’s a moment when the film morphs in tone, bent on revelling in fluffy and redundant scenes (an overuse of voiceover narration kills these final moments), amplifying obvious thematics and frustrating character exposes.

Eastwood seems to suffer from what many people who dislike Steven Spielberg call the tacked on melodramatic ending. I personally love Speilberg, but the ending for Flags did remind me of his s tendency to clean everything up for the audience. The gripping and heartfelt moments of conflict gradually vanish into the background, replaced with a lead hammer of unneeded sentimental exposition pandering to the the doorsteps of Academy voters. Clint’s better than that and I hope he realizes his audience wants a challenging film, not a puff piece. Lean, thought-provoking situations are what make The Outlaw Josey Whales, White Hunter, Black Heart, and Unforgiven true American masterpieces. Flags comes close, but opts for simplicity when it should be rallying around the complex story of heroism it starts to tell, but ultimately doesn’t have the guts to see through.

The Prestige (Nolan, 2006)

A lifeless and punchless thriller, surprising since it comes from one of the more interesting genre filmmakers working today. The Prestige is first and foremost a revenge film, namely between two rival magicians in late 19th century England. Christian Bale as Alfred Borden (dangerous, risk taker, yada yada yada) and Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier (conservative, great showman, yada yada yada) rage back and forth, passive aggressively I might add for most of the film, sabotaging each other’s acts, trying to one up each other at the cost of everyone involved, including Borden’s family and Angier’s assistant/love interest Olivia, played quite well by Scarlet Johanson.

The setup is tired and the magic never overwhelms, even some of the tricks are downright bad. Neither main actor plays their character’s with any dangerous force. I never believed Jackman as a magician and Bale pulls it off simply because he’s got a intensity inherant in his features. Nolan once again uses ellipses to attempt some sort of uniqueness to the otherwise tired story, all bent on a twist ending which isn’t necessarilly a twist at all, more of a lame explanation of character that attempts to create dual layers of subtext. If only I cared that much after over two hours of redudancy in tone and motivation.

Nolan, who made the masterful Batman Begins and struck gold earlier with Memento, obviously has talent to spare. His shooting style and sets impress a great desire to seduce. Unfortunately, the lack of tension in the story and the familiar character traits don’t compliment the fantastic visual sensibility. The Prestige feels like a complete non-entity, a film that will be forgotten in no time. I can’t call this a complete disaster, but from the pedigree of people involved, I wish they hadn’t taken the easy way out in making a standard and completely uninteresting picture. For a greater story and fulfilling experience, see Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, a period piece unafraid of developing and challenging traditional storytelling. The Prestige simply plays with old tricks.

Where is the Friend’s House? (Kiarostami, 1987)

The cinema of Abbas Kiarostami will be my main focus over the course of the next month. Having only seen a few of his films before my recent viewing of Life, and Nothing More…, I now feel it essential to see as much of his work as possible, mainly due to viewing his brilliant companion piece to Life…, Where is the Friend’s House? Made five years earlier, Where is… tells the story of a Ahmed, an eight year old who mistakenly takes his friend’s notebook home with him after school. Understanding that his friend Mohammed will get expelled if he doesn’t do his homework, Ahmed sets out to deliver the notebook personally, traveling to a neighboring town to find his friend’s home. The set-up is deceivingly simple, but Ahmed’s quest to help his friend represents the most basic principles of humanity, helping out those in need even when they don’t realize help is needed. Ignorance is not bliss.Where is the Friend’s House? parallels Ahmed’s search with a number of adult confidants he meets along the way, namely his Grandfather, a blacksmith, and most poignantly an elderly carpenter. Each represents a mode of changing tradition; the grandfather musing about how Ahmed should be disciplined by beatings every ten days, the blacksmith stealing a sheet of paper from the notebook to write up a business agreement, and the carpenter impressing upon Ahmed his beautiful woodwork done some forty years before. Amazingly, Ahmed’s headstrong diligence stays the course, these teachings and social critiques washing over him with little affect. Ahmed’s mission never falters; he must get Mohammed his notebook. Friendship reigns supreme over these seemingly tedious adult matters, and his simplicity of purpose never becomes simpleminded or selfish. This film makes Life, and Nothing More…, (recap: the fictional tale of the film director from Where is the Friend’s House? looking for the boy who played Ahmed after the Guilan earthquake) even more resounding. I’m almost disappointed I didn’t see them in the reverse order. Both films display a sense of timeless devotion and loyalty often ignored in Western cinema, Where is… giving us a window into a child’s vision of these traits, Life… taking it a step further into the adult world. Seen side by side, these two films celebrate the glories of lifelong selflessness, something rare in our “shoot first, ask questions later” world.