Last week, my beloved and loyal reader Joel complained that I was not writing in this space anymore. Alas!
I have been writing lots about movies, but now I do double duty at the estimable Manero.com, where they entrust me to write about films, many with a strong Latino bent, and, what's more, they pay me to do it.
I shall never abandon you, but while I recover from a Tribeca Film Festival marathon in the warmth of Mexico City, here are some of the nuggets I've been posting on Manero lately:
Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi is one of the most accomplished filmmakers in the world today. You may have seen his best-known movie, A Separation, which was nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Film Academy Awards in 2012. About Elly is from 2009, but only now comes to the US.
As in A Separation, the complexity of human behavior is multilayered and staggering. Farhadi makes movies about family issues, but he builds them like thrillers. I do not want to give too much away, because this movie unspools like a mystery and the revelations will keep you on the edge of your seat. Yet, it is almost impossible to write about his films without grappling with his elaborate plots. Anything you say, you already said too much. I can't think of any other writer-director who crams so much irony, so much character and such intricate plots in movies about personal issues like marriage, divorce and family. An individual makes a choice that may slightly deviate from the norm, and the ramifications are infinite.
You would think that we are talking about a thriller where something goes horribly wrong for either criminal or mysterious reasons. But About Elly is about good intentions that become a nightmare. A weekend camping trip turns to horror because the almost innocent, well-intentioned choices of individuals are antithetical to absolute, and absolutely enforced, values in Iranian society. The two main female characters have to resort to subterfuge because in such a society women are not expected to make all of their own choices. Farhadi's films are about the tension between individual freedom and the pull of family and society. In a place like Iran, this tension can be unbearable.
Farhadi introduces us to a trio of nice young couples going on a weekend holiday. Sepideh has invited Elly, her daughter's teacher, to join them. She wants to introduce her to Ahmed, who recently divorced his German wife. He seems like a great catch, and so does she. The first act is a leisurely romp through the warmth of family and friendship. We don't know exactly how these people are related. We find out who is married to whom during the course of the movie. All we know is that Elly is the only one who is uncomfortable, even if they are sweet to her. Imagine the stress induced by a weekend-long blind date surrounded by a group of people you don't know. Poor girl.
Elly wants to return to Teheran, but Sepideh insists she must stay. Only as the truth unfolds later do we learn the real reasons for Elly's discomfort and her almost rude insistence to leave. A mother asks another woman to keep an eye on the kids at the beach. She leaves that responsibility to Elly, the one person who doesn't want to be there. A long, breathtaking sequence of the rescue of a boy drowning in the ocean is panicked, chaotic, urgent, and as real as the air we breathe. Then Elly is nowhere to be found. The reasons can be many; Farhadi loves to leave mysteries unexplained. I question the honesty of such a degree of audience manipulation, in which the director chooses not to show us everything that is happening while we struggle to figure it out. But what really matters to Farhadi is the relationship between the characters and the social rules they must abide by. My favorite scene, and a testament to Farhadi's enormous capacity for empathy, is Sepideh opening her eyes to a terrible waking nightmare, one of which she is in part guilty, tragically, for all the best reasons.
This remarkable Hungarian film should come with a disclaimer for those who are sensitive to the plight of animals: it is an intense, sometimes harrowing experience starring Hagen, a handsome mutt who is abandoned and left to his own devices in a society that is callous towards animals.
A new law states that mutts that are not pure Hungarian breeds must be reported to the authorities or taken to the pound. The parable about a fascist, racist state is quite transparent, but director Kornél Mundruczó transcends the political metaphor by embracing the power of genre, and creates an action-adventure film starring a most charismatic canine hero, played by two handsome dogs, Luke and Body.
Lili, an elfin teenager who plays the trumpet in a youth orchestra, loves Hagen and wants to keep him, but her father, with whom she is staying while her mother decamps for Switzerland with her new beau, doesn't want to have anything to do with the dog. A nasty neighbor claims Hagen bit her, and the dad abandons the dog in the middle of a freeway. Soon, Hagen finds a bunch of street dogs who band together and elude the police that wants to round them up and take them to the pound. Meanwhile, Lili desperately looks for Hagen, but as a teenager, she has limited resources and after a while she gets used to life without him.
His fate is terrible. Rescued by a homeless man, he is sold to a trainer for dog fights. The trainer reminded me of the nazis: so much effort and ingenuity for such useless, destructive purposes. These scenes will make you sick to your stomach. But it's a matter of time until Hagen finds his way to Lili again. Yet before he goes back to her, he and his buddies have plenty of scores to settle. And do they ever. This is a revenge fantasy for dogs.
Body and Luke, who play Hagen, and the two dogs who play his sweet sidekick Marlene, are incredibly trained animal actors. Their fellow canine colleagues, 250 of them, are all real dogs from a pound in Budapest, and are extremely photogenic as well. Astonishingly, Mundruczó does not use computer graphics or animatronics in the powerful scenes with the dogs, which are extraordinary precisely because of the lack of digital effects. Cinematographer Marcell Rév shoots the dogs beautifully and they, in turn, naturally chew the scenery. The movie is extremely well crafted, considering its unreliable actors.
Alas, Mundruczó embraces the action genre contrivances far too fervently. I wish he hadn't strained the story to manipulate the audience. Once the dogs rebel, and the sequence of feral dogs running amok over Budapest is spectacular, it would have been more honest not to let it drag on. Lily plays trumpet at a concert as the dogs roam the city. The artificial back and forth distracts the audience out of this magnificently staged illusion and reminds us that someone is pulling the strings with quite a heavy hand. There are big plot holes and too much reliance on genre cliches, but the director redeems himself with a powerful ending, and with the fact that all the pound dogs were placed in homes after their work in the film. Even with its flaws, it is a unique and spectacular film.