Category: Courtroom Drama

It’s not uncommon for film snobs (I sadly include myself in that category) to automatically assume that most celebrated foreign cinema is superior to American films receiving the same type of accolades. Other nations (especially the French, Swedish, and Italians) show a thematic and stylistic boundary-pushing drive that are only present in America’s most experimental film-makers (Lynch, Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, etc). 9 times out of 10, American films are only willing to go so close to the edge before they pull back for an adult, honest examination of the way the world really works. An Iranian film would be the first foreign nation I’d choose for a mature and intellectually honest examination of tough moral issues considering the theocratic nature of the country’s regime. If last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner, A Separation, is any indication of Iranian cinema, I clearly haven’t been giving the country the respect it deserves.

Similar to another wonderful (but criminally underlooked) film from 2011, Margaret, director Asghar Farhadi’s film A Separation is a meditation on guilt, responsibility, and family. Strong-willed Iranian wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wishes to divorce her husband Nader (Peyman Noadi). Nader is a relatively progressive man who has never mistreated her. In fact, Simin still loves her husband very much. But, she wants to take her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), out of Iran to have a better life. Her husband wouldn’t mind and would likely go with Simin, but his father is in the terminal stages of Alzheimers, and he won’t leave him behind. Nader won’t force his wife to stay with him (which he would be allowed to do under sharia law which is what Iran has), but he won’t let Simin take their daughter away, and the departure of his wife has unforeseen consequences.

Nader  must work to support himself and his daughter. Since she is in the sixth grade and he believes in her receiving a proper education (as I said, Nader is a fairly modern man for his culture), neither his daughter nor Nader himself can stay at home to look after his father. He hires another Muslim woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to care for his father while he works. Because she wears the full-body hijab (the head scarves but in this case covering the whole body), it is not readily apparent that Razieh is actually several months pregnant. One day, Razieh ties Nader’s father to his bed and runs some errands. Nader returns before she does and finds his father nearly dead as well as some money missing. In a fit of anger, Nader accuses Razieh of theft and throws her out of his home for neglecting his father. However, she falls down the stairs and has a miscarriage, and Nader is brought to trial for the potential murder of Razieh’s unborn child. The court has to determine whether he knew Razieh was pregnant and whether his pushing her was what caused the miscarriage in the first place.

This is one of those films where a simple plot description barely begins to scratch the surface of the various thematic implications of this film. At a basic level, it’s a film about one man’s trial for manslaughter and whether he had a substantive enough role in the death of the fetus to be found guilty of a crime. But as the movie’s events continue to unfurl, it’s quickly apparent that the film has bigger statements to make. I don’t want to spoil any of the major twists in the film because a lot of the joy of the film is watching its various thematic threads unravel til you see the final picture, but it’s a movie about our inability to responsibility for our own actions, whether the rigidity of the criminal justice system (under strict sharia law or more generally) actually serves meaningful justice, and about the rationalizations we make to justify our own actions.

A Separation is a terrifically acted film on all fronts. Although most of the film’s promotional materials seem to give Leila Hatami nearly equal (or front) billing with Peyman Noadi, Nader is the real main character of the film, and it’s his moral struggles over the course of the movie that are we most meant to identify with. I have serious problems with patriarchal societies, and although I appreciate and really like many aspects of Islam, I can’t stand theocratic societies of any religious stripe. So, my ability to sympathize so fully with a man like Nader is a testament both to the writing as well as Noadi’s performance. You see his love for his wife and his daughter clashing with his unwillingness to force her to stay as well as his stubbornness to fight for her (which she wants). You see how well he convinces himself and others that he has no responsibility for Reziah’s unborn child’s death even when it becomes clear that things aren’t that simple.

The supporting performances also dazzle. Shahab Hosseini nearly steals the entire film as Reziah’s quick-tempered husband, Hojjat. It’s not easy playing the villain of a piece (though it would probably be inaccurate to call Hojjat a villain), but if you can cross the cultural barriers and understand the society that would produce a man like Hojjat, Shahab Hosseini’s performance seems to define an entire cross-section of middle eastern masculinity. Sarina Farhadi is great as Termeh, Nader’s daughter who is caught not only in the crossfire of her parents’ disintegrating marriage but also the moral ambiguity of knowing that not everything her father has been telling the court is true. It’s a tough role for a young actress, but Sarina shines. Sareh Bayat also turns in a fine performance as the emotionally damaged Reziah whose whole world is turned upside down even though she has her own secrets to hide.

The movie loses its nerve a little bit by the end, and while the first 4/5 of the film promise a resolution cloaked in moral ambiguity, the actual delivery seems cheapened through a simpler answer. Don’t let that very minor quibble deter you from watching one of the best films of last year. This film should have been nominated for Best Picture. Lord knows it was better than The Artist and that’s not getting into the trio of films (War Horse, The HelpExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close) that were outright bad. It’s really a shame that the Academy so rarely nominates foreign language films for Best Picture. I may be incorrect but I think the last one was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If you like foreign cinema and can appreciate films with a morally complex web of tales, A Separation is most surely for you.

Final Score: A

I get far too metatextual in my reviews but without explicit posted explanations of the way that I operate sometimes I feel the need to explain things. For example, I don’t have a strictly posted and enforced editorial policy about what my grades for movies/books/TV shows/etc mean. “A+” is pretty obvious. It means that I think the film is practically perfect and one of the best films I’ve ever seen. “A” films are also phenomenal but might have one or two smaller flaws keeping them from perfection (or there’s nothing about it that is “A+” caliber). “A-” are great films with a more significant flaw. “B+” are films that are good on the verge of being great but not quite there. “B” films are simply enjoyable films but there’s not necessarily anything fantastic about them. “B-” movies are good but with serious problems although at the end of the day, I think their good qualities outweigh their bad ones. “C+” and below are a little more amorphous. Generally, this is reserved for films I didn’t enjoy and each step down from “C+” is a comment on how few redeeming factors the film had. However, this doesn’t really mean they’re genuinely bad films. Sometimes, they’re just so mediocre that they leave absolutely zero emotional impact on me. That’s what happened with the 1980s showbiz dramedy, Irreconcilable Differences, which was neither bad nor good (although the acting was pretty awful). It was just completely forgettable.

Nominally centered on the divorce case (though more accurately the “emancipation of a minor” case) between 10 year old Casey Brotsky (Drew Barrymore) and her self-absorbed Hollywood parents Albert (Ryan O’Neal) and Lucy (Cheers‘ Shelley Long) who have long since abandoned any pretense of actually caring about their daughter, Irreconcilable Differences is actually more of the story of the blooming romance between Albert and Lucy and the Hollywood excess and greed that drives them to their current situation. A film history professor at UCLA, Albert met Lucy while hitchhiking across the country to start his new job, and although she was engaged at the time, they fell in love on the trip and were soon married. After being invited to screen a Hollywood producer’s movie, Albert’s encyclopedic insight into cinema lands him a job as a screenwriter in Hollywood and before long, he’s writing and directing (with the help of Lucy) a long-gestating film that becomes a smash hit. However, when it comes time to make their second film, Albert falls in love with the movie’s young starlet (Sharon Stone in her debut role) and leaves Lucy. While Albert becomes incredibly wealthy, Lucy’s life begins to fall apart and neither parents gives any attention to their young daughter Casey who becomes just another fixture in their lives and a pawn in their battles with each other.

Drew Barrymore is not a good actress. I’m sorry but it’s true. She has the emotional range of a professional wrestler. Actually, they can at least fake anger and machismo. All she can do is cloying adorableness. That’s all she has going for her. And that’s grown-up Drew Barrymore I’m talking about. She was ten years old in this film and just a complete wreck to watch. I don’t know how she’s had a thirty year career in Hollywood. It defies the laws of the logic. We’re supposed to sympathize with her plight, but because Barrymore’s acting was so rigid and dull, I just didn’t give a shit. Ryan O’Neal wasn’t much better. His Hollywood royalty status aside, he shamelessly mugged for the camera, and the number of scenes where he was hammishly overacting were innumerable. If he flashed that awful, fake smile  one more time directly at the camera, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the film. Shelley Long was better but not by much. Lucy isn’t nearly as interesting a character as say Diane Chambers from Cheers, and Lucy just tended to swing from neurotic to hysterical. At least Shelley Long was able to nail those emotions.

Surprisingly, the beginning of the film was actually fairly enjoyable. Watching Albert and Lucy fall in love on the road and experience their entry in the world of Hollywood had some freshness. It’s obvious that the film’s screenwriter is a movie lover, and there are a plethora of little tidbits about Hollywood lore and moviemaking scattered throughout the film. And, I definitely bought the fledgling romance of Albert and Lucy as he was hitchhiking. Then, once you got to the actual dramatic moments of the film where the characters were supposed to change for the worse, much of it felt artificial and forced. I could not buy the drastic change in character these individuals experienced. It seemed incredibly unrealistic. Also, the film is obviously meant to be satirical of Hollywood egos and excess and what not. The film’s not funny… at all. I don’t think I even chuckled once the entire film. The only moments in the entire film to make any sort of emotional response were the romance scenes between Lucy and Albert and once that was abandoned the film became more cliched and trite almost magically. Also, no judge in his right mind would actually grant the emancipation case requested in this film. The lack of legal realism was pretty absurd.

I don’t know what sort of crack the Golden Globes were smoking when they gave Drew Barrymore a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this film (or even Shelley Long for Best Actress in a Comedy) but obviously, they weren’t thinking straight. I honestly can’t think of anyone in 2012 who could really find a film like this especially enjoyable, but I also thought Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a completely joke and others fawned over it so what do I know. Maybe if you’re a really big Drew Barrymore fan (but at this point, you’ve stopped reading my review because of my complete lack of respect for her acting abilities) you should see the film. That’s about the only group I can recommend this movie to. I don’t think there are still big Ryan O’Neal or Shelley Long fans anymore. If there are, they probably aren’t big internet users or reading this blog. Everybody else can pass Irreconcilable Differences over and watch something more worthy of your valuable times.

Final Score: C

This blog is well over a year old now, but I’ve only reviewed three other films from the 1930s (and only The Birth of a Nation from before the 30s). I have sort of a complicated relationship with movies (specifically dramas) that came out before the mid-1960s. They have their own idealistic, nostalgic beauty, but more often than not, it’s their same idealism and simplicity that I found to be terribly boring and overdone in the face of the more mature and sophisticated narrative and cinematic devices that have come to define top-tier dramas since the 1960s. However, when I find dramas from that era that I love, I form an almost instant attachment with them because their ability to transcend time and space. If their story or message or simple style seems relevant and entertaining despite being over 60 years old, that’s a fairly massive achievement and it signifies their deserved place in the canon of film beyond the simple fact of their age. Casablanca fits in this category. The films of Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder are other notable timeless works. Well, I now have another film that despite its almost Aaron Sorkin-esque romanticism speaks across the chasms of decades (the film is over 70 years old) with a story that is as relevant today as when it first came out. While it suffers from some of the flaws inherent to the biopic genre, The Life of Emile Zola is a striking statement on our civic duty to stand up against injustice and government hypocrisy.

In the mid 1800s, French author Emile Zola (Paul Muni) and his closest friend, artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), are starving for their craft in the impoverished streets of Paris. Emile Zola writes by night and works by day as a clerk at a bookstore where his “slanderous” (i.e. true) attacks on the French government and the social injustices inherent in French life mark him as an active enemy of the state and cost him his job. When a random encounter with a French prostitute inspires him to write a novel that also works as an expose on the harsh realities of French working girls, Zola is suddenly thrust into the international literary spotlight and enjoys a truly prolific career as one of France’s most celebrated authors. He is essentially the Dickens of France in the way that he explores the less glamorous side of the exploding Industrial Revolution. However, in his success, Zola becomes content to while away his years in contented satisfaction despite the condemnations of his former best friend Cezanne who continues to pursue art above wealth. Zola finds himself back in the midst of another moral crisis when a Jewish captain in the French army, Albert Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), is falsely accused of being a spy and a massive government conspiracy arises to frame him for the crime rather than face a more politically tumultuous reality of admitting they charged the wrong man. When Zola embarks on his mission to clear the name of Capt. Dreyfus, he risks not only his legacy among the French people but even his own freedom when the French government accuses him of treasonous libel and places him on trial.

Joseph Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film despite the fact that he was only in the movie for at most fifteen minutes or so of actual screen time. Despite the briefness of his presence on camera, he gave a deeply emotional performance that was certainly helped with the effective close-ups of his subtly emotive face. Emile Zola is without question the main character of the film, but the trials of Capt. Dreyfus propel the film’s second half and it’s very important that we care deeply about this unjustly accused man, and Schildkraut aptly garnered my sympathy with his characterization of heartbroken betrayal. However, Paul Muni was the real star of the film, and while I haven’t seen Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (who beat out Muni for the Best Actor Oscar that year), I can say that Paul Muni gave an all-star performance as the titular Emile Zola. It may have had some of the over-the-topness and emoting that characterized the big screen in the decade following the transition from silent films to “talkies,” but there was a genuine passion and intelligence in his role and Muni captured the moral outrage that any rational and ethical man in those circumstances would feel. I haven’t enjoyed watching a character give speech after speech in a movie like this since the last time I watched To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch. Muni’s version of Zola might seem very old-fashioned by modern standards, but even though I knew his acting didn’t really jibe with the more naturalistic modern conventions, I still enjoyed the theatrics and fire he brought to the role.

For the reasons laid out earlier, I was actually dreading putting this in my DVD player. It sounded terribly boring and the plot description on Netflix made me fear that this was going to be a film with an era-relevant theme that wasn’t going to translate well to the modern era. I was completely wrong. Whether it was Emile Zola’s position as a 19th century Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Julian Assange or the way that justice and truth were being railroaded in the vague name of the state, this film is perfectly relevant in the post-Bush era of endless government secrecy. There was a scene during one of the trials where Zola’s lawyer requested the presence of a string of high-ranking army officials to testify, and they all used some imaginary government immunity to not participate. It was like a scene right out of the investigations into torture and inethical spying against the Bush administration. I could just hear Alberto Gonzalez and the rest of the Bush administration saying “I do not recall” over and over again. Similarly, while the film didn’t outright make Dreyfus’ Jewish ancestry the reason why he was being chosen as the scapegoat, the film definitely maintained that subtext (very subtly), and in an era where our government and our nation like to blame one ethnic group or another for our nation woes rather than face harsher truths, it all rang amazingly true. Yes, the script took some liberties with history (though I don’t know how many), and there was a lot of speechifying in this film, but as a product of a day when movies were nearly synonymous with the stage, I thought it was all entertaining and illuminating.

If you’re a fan of classic dramas, The Life of Emile Zola is an obvious pick considering its place as one of the most acclaimed biopics of the early days of cinema. However, if you’re like me and think film noir was the only consistently watchable non-comedy genre from that day, The Life of Emile Zola deserves your attention because of the renewed sense of urgency and relevancy it holds in the modern political climate. The film may paint Zola in the most romantic light possible without exploring any of his potential flaws and so it paints its hero in a very favorable light, but even without getting an entire picture, it’s a fascinating look at a page of history that hasn’t been done time and time again. The acting is excellent (by the standards of theatre anyways) and it was a surprisingly well-shot and well-edited film from this era. If you’ve ever found yourself in a liberal uproar because of social inequality or the government sacrificing justice in the name of a “greater good” that only really profits them, The Life of Emile Zola is an astounding artifact of the dawning of the silver screen to show how some issues have never really gone away.

Final Score: A-

Occasionally, one comes across a film that is simply so quirky and its characters so eccentric, the audience is unable to suspend its disbelief and fully embrace the fiction of the film’s universe. I am unable to enjoy Napoleon Dynamite because despite my love of quirky, eccentric films, it crosses that invisible line between unique and enters the world of pretentiously self-aware. I have a similar problem with the overly idiosyncratic dialogue of Juno which tries to come off as cute and fresh but instead comes off as forced and insincere. If one were to watch Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of John Berendt’s true crime novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and not know it were a true story, they might be forgiven for thinking this film was simply trying too hard to come off as weird and eccentric with its seeming overflow of strange characters inhabiting an almost mystical world. Yet, the reality that this is a true story (mostly since several details from the novel were changed) adds an authentic oddity to this film that allows it to be a preservation of an especially strange chapter of our American story. While it is far from Clint Eastwood’s best work and the addition of a romantic subplot not present in the novel did nothing to help the film, this was still an incredibly intriguing film which keeps its hooks in you for its entire 2 and half hour length.

Loosely based around actual events in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1980’s, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil recounts the sprawling saga of a complex and scandalous murder trial of one of the town’s most celebrated figures as well as providing an extraordinarily strange portrait of high society in the deep south. John Kelso (John Cusack) is a journalist from the North who has been sent to Savannah to write a magazine piece on a Christmas party being thrown by noted antiques collector and closeted homosexual Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). After witnessing a fight between Jim and Jim’s live-in lover Billy Hanson (Jude Law), John is woken in the middle of night to the sound of police cars and discovers that Jim shot Billy to death. Jim claims it was self-defense but some unconvincing evidence sways the police to charge Jim with murder, and John finds himself drawn into the murder trial of Jim, the experiences from which he is hoping to use to write a book. Along the way, John finds himself interviewing every aspect of Savannah society, from old, past their primes southern Belles to the drag queen, Lady Chablis (playing herself), to the height of debutante society to a voodoo witch doctor all to find out the truth behind this vexing mystery.

As the film runs for over two and a half hours, you’d expect that an attention to detail would be key and you would be right. Clint Eastwood and his camera (as well as the script itself) revel in the delight of capturing every minute detail of this microcosm of Southern society. Using the Northern John Kelso as the audience stand-in, we are dropped in a world that is practically alien in its strangeness. Everyone, including old women, carry loaded guns and are able to laugh and tell charming anecdotes about their dead husbands’ suicides. No one even suspects that the incredibly masculine looking Lady Chablis was a drag queen because homosexuality is just ignored in these circles (even though they all “knew” that Jim was gay). A man walks a non-existent dog on a leash every day because it was a job he was paid to do a long time ago and no one ever took him off the books when the dog died. A man walks around with flies tethered to his body on strings and carries around poison that he consistently threatens to use on the town, but no one really bats an eye. The details never stop even after the film is over, and it’s a delight to lose yourself in this strange antebellum world.

Outside of his early role in Say Anything, I’ve never considered John Cusack a top-shelf actor, and nothing about this performance does anything to change my mind. It wasn’t bad. It’s just the most boring role in the film and he didn’t do anything to freshen the part up. Kevin Spacey bears what can only be called a frightening physical resemblance to the real-life Jim Williams, and while this isn’t a The Usual Suspects or American Beauty caliber performance, he definitely plays the restrained southern genteel aristocracy quite well. If Lady Chablis weren’t playing herself, I would have said that she had stole the entire film. Out of a cast full of memorable characters and distinct personalities, she tops the list and then some. She is perhaps the most open and honest person in the entire film, and since she is herself in this role, the authenticity of her performance is staggering. She also adds the film some darkly comic moments whenever things begin to get too serious with the trial and John’s investigations. Needless to say, she was a star in a cast with established stars.

Even at two and a half hours, this film moved at the perfect pace as fans of other true crime novels like Helter Skelter or the movie Zodiac will love getting lost in the investigation and trial that John Berendt documented for his book (although in the book, there were four trials as compared to the single trial in the film). My only complaint about the film was the unnecessary love story involving John Kelso and one of the local women who was played by director Clint Eastwood’s daughter, Alison. I would never accuse Clint Eastwood of nepotism but I can’t think of any other reason for why that part of the movie is in the film. Once again, Alison Eastwood did fine in her role, but it didn’t contribute anything productive to the film. For fans of true crime books and movies as well as for those who love scathing deconstructions of the so called perfect societies as done in Blue Velvet and here, this is a must watch.

Final Score: B+