Actions have consequences. It’s a simple lesson that’s easy to forget. While we stress teaching this concept to children, often we forget to stop and remind ourselves of it. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is a terrific film that explores the choices we make, and the resulting consequences we must live with. While it’s no surprise that this Iranian film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay in the 2012 Academy Awards, it’s still a rare feat for a foreign film to break into such a prestigious and traditionally American category. Farhadi’s script is extremely easy to follow for American audiences (aside from a few cultural idiosyncrasies), while offering psychologically and socially complex moral situations.
In the film, an Iranian couple named Nader and Simin are on the verge of separating. Simin wishes to leave for America and take their 11-year old daughter with her, however Nader wants to stay in Iran to take care of his ailing father and does not want his daughter to leave him. Both of them want the separation, but are divided on how to handle it. Due to the state of disagreement, the Iranian courts prohibit them from separating, deeming their squabble as insufficient grounds for a divorce. Forced to stay together, tensions are high and conflict arises.
What I’ve described above is not a plot summary, but merely a catalyst. I had not heard anything about this movie before seeing it and was therefore much more engrossed in the film as these situations developed naturally and somewhat surprisingly. The script was nominated because of how organically these conflicts present themselves and how nuanced the characters are written. These characters feel like real people and it is hard to pick a side because none of them are wrong or evil, they’re just on opposite sides of a conflict. This was in my top three films of last year, and sadly I only got to see it once (unlike Drive, which I saw four times) But that’s what makes A Separation so profound, everything about it will stay with you long after the credits roll…
[NOTE: I chose not to add the trailer to this page, for I feel it gives away important plot points that don't even occur until halfway through. Watch it at your own risk, but I implore you not to.]
Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog is a Japanese film based on the true story of a Labrador retriever pup, so named because of the unusual marking on his flank that resembles a bird. We first meet and fall in love with him as an adorable puppy, who is chosen as a candidate for guide dog training because of his calm nature and thoughtful demeanor. He spends the first year of his life in a loving foster home, where he is lavished with toys, praise and attention, and given a solid foundation in positive human interaction. At the end of his first year he is sent to school to learn to be a trusted companion for the blind. Not all candidates ever fully realize their potential, and many are culled from the program. Quill, on the other hand, exhibits the kind of temperament that stamps him as an excellent seeing-eye prospect. In order for a guide dog to succeed he must learn to be oblivious to distractions such as food, toys and other dogs. Quill must learn to navigate busy streets and obstacles such as steps and corners. He must learn that he not only needs room to accommodate his body width when traversing busy intersections, but he needs enough room for his human companion as well. (Interestingly, all the audible commands are given in English because the dog needs to distinguish the sound cues from Japanese speakers who surround him on crowded sidewalks.)
Quill shines as a superbly trained seeing-eye companion, and a loveable sidekick, so we’re a bit disappointed when he is paired with the irascible Mr. Watanabe (Kaoru Kobayashi) who informs us that he “would rather stay at home than be dragged around by a mutt.” Predictably, he softens over time, and the two become dependent on each other for practical and spiritual purposes. They nourish each others body and soul.
Quill is a drama that has the feel of a documentary, or perhaps a documentary that feels like a drama, so it’s a bit of a hybrid. Notwithstanding, this is a film that divorces itself from a biased point of view, and simply allows the main character Quill to do what dogs do best and that is to demonstrate unconditional love. How did we humans get so lucky to have these amazing creatures adore us? We can only hope that, like the T-shirt says, “we’re the kind of people that our dogs think we are.”
This film is subtitled “The Life of a Guide Dog,” so we see Quill run the gamut from joyous puppy-hood, to valued service dog, to failing senior, and experience disability, aging and death in the course of a canine lifetime. Don’t say you weren’t forewarned. I give it 3 ½ hankies.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a very flawed film. If one looks too closely at the seams, it will unravel in the blink of an eye. It’s also my favorite film of 2012 so far. This might seem like an insult to this year in film, but with new films from Wes Anderson, PIXAR, Joss Whedon and Ridley Scott, it is anything but. The innate problem with Jeff, Who Lives at Home is rooted in everyone’s own beliefs. It’s a film about fate and destiny, and therefore blurs the line between contrivances and plot mechanics. You’ll either think the film is offensively implausible and totally pretentious, or you’ll think it’s surprisingly sweet and that the “contrivances” are the point of the film. Either way, it’s worth a shot.
The film follows Jeff during the course of one day as he tries to run one simple errand but gets needlessly distracted by “signs from the universe.” Jeff is a very kind man, and he believes that everything happens for a reason and that the only way to uncover your destiny is to follow the signs the universe lays out for you. He’s also 30-something years old, living in his mother’s basement and has quite a recreational drug habit. His older brother Pat is the antithesis of Jeff. He is materialistic, self-absorbed and very cynical. However Pat also does have a job, a wife and a home of his own. Needless to say, they don’t get along very well.
This is a film that sneaks up on you. It seems aimless and meandering, but the whole time it is building towards something. Whether you call that fate or coincidence, is up to you. It’s one of the most uplifting films I’ve seen in a long time. The opening scene is an important one, as it lays out exactly how the film will unfold, but that’s easy to miss on your first viewing. Jeff, Who Lives at Home has a little bit of everything, so I highly recommend it. As long as you check your reservations at the door.
I wish I could recall the film that really got me hooked on documentaries. It might have been American Harmony, which I saw at a film festival in 2009. (It’s an amazingly interesting film about teams that compete in barbershop quartet competitions! I have included the trailer below.) Documentaries may be slower-paced, but I find the fascinating personal histories and the loving craft of the documentary makers (sometimes the “making of” feature is as good as the film itself) to be an irresistible combination. Here are a few that I have really enjoyed over the past year:
Being Elmo – A charming look at the man behind the famous Muppet.
Leonard Cohen: Bird on Wire – My introduction to the charismatic poet and singer (and not to be confused with the documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man which is still on my “to see” list). This film is based on footage taken while Cohen toured Europe in 1972.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil – I don’t know anyone who has taken me up on my frequent recommendations of this movie, but I stand by it! Sure, it’s about two guys chasing success as a heavy metal band way into middle age, but the heart of the film is their enduring friendship and belief in following your dream.
Louder Than A Bomb – I think this is my “new favorite” documentary! It follows several different high school students/schools from Chicago as they prepare and compete in a poetry slam. The creativity of these young artists blew me away.
One of literature’s oldest and most distinguished characters has received a major revamp, and with a surprisingly fresh outcome. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes, and he breathes new life into him with every quip. The concept is as simple as setting Sherlock Holmes’ adventures within a modern day setting, and seeing how it would translate. The answer is: surprisingly well. The first episode of the miniseries is a little heavy handed in its use of technology (one side character won’t stop texting throughout the entire scene). But it is ingenious in the way that the show uses its source material as a commentary on how some things never change. For instance in the original story, Dr. Watson was a returning Afghanistan war veteran who served as a surgeon in the British Army, and it’s the exact same situation in this version. This version simply expands on that archetype with modern day sensibilities because Dr. Watson (or “John” as he is more commonly referred to as) is possibly suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a psychosomatic limp.
The miniseries is only three episodes long, devoting each episode to a single case. But it’s the quality that counts here, not quantity. There are some remarkable sequences sprinkled throughout the series that fully utilize modern day film-making, as in the pilot when Sherlock is observing a crime scene and the audience becomes privy to his mental process as words flood the screen highlighting exactly what he’s thinking without giving away the deductions. Without spoiling too much, the show has a master plan in mind that ties all three episodes together nicely and will leave the viewer satisfied as well as wanting more. The sense of continuity is wonderful and leads to a more polished series.
The first season (or “series” since it’s a British show) is available now on DVD (check our catalog), and I can not recommend it enough. The second season is coming to American airwaves at the beginning in May as part of the PBS Masterpiece Mysteries series, so now is the perfect time to start this fantastic miniseries. Sherlock takes a premise and cast of characters that was growing stale (mostly thanks to poor choices that recent adaptations have made – I’m looking at you Guy Ritchie), and updates it for the modern world while delivering a Sherlock Holmes adaptation that fans deserve. Whether you’re a diehard Holmes fan who will enjoy picking up on the references to the original stories, or if you’re not as familiar with this undisputed classic as you’d like to admit, Sherlock is a fantastic series that’s worthy on its own merit, source material notwithstanding.