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The Salesman

February 3, 2017
The Salesman

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is a master of his craft, despite the constraints put on him by his government. But rather than seek out the cracks, pushing at the boundaries and criticizing them as Jafar Panahi does, Farhadi works within them to craft dramas that aren’t much different from what an American or European director of his caliber might. And with one Academy Award already under his belt for A Separation, he’s a serious contender to win a second for The Salesman.

The obvious reference for the title is Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman. Rana and Emad (Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini) are starring in a production of the play when they find themselves looking for a new apartment. Construction next to their building has rendered it structurally unsound, forcing an evacuation of their now literally broken home.

Their friend and fellow cast-member Babak (Babak Karimi) comes to the rescue with an apartment he was renting to a woman who recently vacated, though she’s left all her stuff there until she can find a new place. But shortly after moving in, another shock. As Rana prepares to take a shower, she hears the intercom buzz. Expecting Emad home soon, she hits the button and cracks the apartment door for him, stepping into the shower. By the time Emad actually arrives, he finds bloody footprints on the stairs, signs of struggle in the apartment, and Rana missing.

Thankfully, Rana isn’t dead. The neighbors heard a commotion and found her. One of the women dressed her, and they took her to the hospital to treat a nasty head wound. It’s not long before the couple start hearing the rumors about the previous tenant. “She had a lot of acquaintances,” they say, carefully talking around the suggestion that she was a prostitute. Unspoken but understood is the question of why Rana would leave the apartment open while doing something as intimate as showering.

Emad is, naturally, incensed. He looks for any clue he can find; there’s a wad of cash on a shelf in the living room, a pair of socks on the floor, and a set of keys and a phone between the cushions of a chair. The phone has already been disconnected, but the keys lead him to a pickup truck parked outside, which he moves in the hopes of at least flushing out the attacker, if not using it as evidence for the police.

But Rana doesn’t want to go to the police. Shame would be understandable enough in a western setting, but it’s doubly a factor in Tehran. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the pickup. She wants to go on with the play, but she freezes up when she sees someone in the audience who reminds her of her attacker. Everything is tainted, and how could Babak not tell them about the previous tenant before they moved in?

The film plays out its tension at a slow boil. Dense and layered, and ironic down to the title, echoing both itself and Miller’s play, Farhadi elicits powerful performances from his leads, as usual. Both Alidoosti and Hosseini are veterans of his films, and they were even paired up in About Elly. They each have a wide emotional range here; Rana goes from hurt and shame to a survivor’s strength, while Emad’s anger fades into despair over his inability to protect his wife, and then a mean, vindictive streak when he senses a chance for vengeance. To this Salesman, attention must be paid.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Chapter & Verse

February 3, 2017
Chapter & Verse

Antoine Fuqua’s main career may be directing Denzel Washington actioners like The Equalizer and last year’s remake of The Magnificent Seven, but he’s evidently got a sideline producing and promoting low-budget, independent Black films. Case in point: Chapter & Verse, co-written by director Jamal Joseph and poet Daniel Beaty, who also plays the lead as an ex-con trying to integrate back into his community after his time in prison.

S. Lance Ingraham — his father wanted to name him “Sir Lancelot” — used to run the streets in Harlem. He went down for twelve, “being stupid,” served eight, and is out on parole in a halfway house. If he can get a job, that is. He hits the streets looking anywhere he can use his two computer repair certificates. Maybe he earned them inside, but he seems to have had the knack for it already. But skills or no, nobody’s hiring. Desperate to get any job, he starts working at a food bank, cleaning the kitchen and delivering meals.

That’s how he meets Ms. Maddy (Loretta Devine), an older woman living in the projects, raising her grandson, Ty (Khadim Diop). Ty, for his part, has started to fall in under local gang leader B-Rock (Marc John Jefferies), and Lance worries the boy is about to make the same mistakes he once did. He sees Ty’s talent for drawing and design, and wants to encourage him to pursue that, not fall into the life of the streets.

Of course it’s hard going. Even an elevator ride to deliver a meal could put Lance next to a delinquent hotboxing the place, and if he fails the next drug test, halfway house manager Mr. Morris (Gary Perez) could violate his parole and send him back to Attica for months at the least. His boss at the food bank, Yolanda (Selenis Leyva) comes on friendly and helpful, but she might want more from Lance than a good day’s work. His closest ally might be his old street buddy, Jomo (Omari Hardwick), who’s already been in and out of the joint and now cuts hair and runs a “workout” crew.

Joseph may have cribbed from his own experiences, serving time in Leavenworth for his part in an armored car robbery, though his previous trial as part of the “Panther 21” might have added a political dimension to his case. Be that as it may, he wrote his first play in prison, and after leaving he started teaching theater and film, eventually becoming chair of Columbia University’s graduate film program. Beaty got his B.A. from Yale, and his M.F.A. from the American Conservatory Theater, winning awards for his composition and poetry along the way.

Between the two of them, they’ve got more creative credits than most filmmakers ever dream of. Producers should be throwing themselves at this movie, but after a few festivals in 2015 it’s only now getting a small theatrical and streaming release, in February, naturally.

It’s a shame that so few people are likely to see Chapter & Verse. Scene after scene is infused with a poetry that lives and breathes the real streets the movie was shot on. Even the small-scale riot that breaks out against a young boy’s arrest wasn’t scripted; it just happened as the crew were filming, and they incorporated it more naturally than most verité documentarians. It’s a movie from a community telling a story about that community, and it exudes an honesty that can’t be denied.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Comedian

February 3, 2017
The Comedian

An aging stand-up comic in New York City with a checkered romantic past struggles to maintain his career. He’s best known for a toothless, lowbrow sitcom decades in his past, which he desperately wants to leave behind, but his fans won’t let him be anyone else. No, it’s not Louie or Bojack Horseman, both of which are infinitely more nuanced and insightful than anything to be found in The Comedian.

This stand-up is Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro), born Jacob Berkowitz, and famous as Eddie from Eddie’s Home, a seeming mashup of The Honeymooners and All In the Family, produced either in the ’70s or ’80s. His manager, known only by her last name Miller (Edie Falco), is the daughter of his first manager, the guy who got him the TV gig and was promptly dumped. And most of the gigs she can get him are TV nostalgia bits, like the one hosted by Jimmie “Dy-no-mite!” Walker where his set followed Brett Butler. No, the actress, not the baseball player.

That’s the show where a couple professional hecklers — O brave new world that has such YouTubers in it — get under his skin and he gives one of them the mike straight into his nose. After thirty days in jail he has a hundred hours of community service to work off, and that’s where he meets Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), who has her own deep-seated issues.

If this were Louie or Bojack Horseman, the movie would admit that this is a train-wreck, and maybe tease out some sort of insight into the human condition of existing and going on with our broken lives. But Art Linson, who also wrote the inside-showbiz movie What Just Happened that starred De Niro as a blatant author-insert, isn’t remotely equipped to plumb such depths. And while Linson may have been able to draw on his experiences as a producer to write that screenplay, he’s evidently not a stand-up comedian, leading to punch-up credits for Comedy Central roastmaster Jeff Ross, veteran screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and Lewis Friedman, whose writing credits are dominated by awards-show patter.

De Niro isn’t much of a stand-up himself. He can run with a bit fine, but all the laughs come from the pros around him. It’s never clearer than when he gets into a live patter with Jessica Kirson at the Comedy Cellar and she runs rings around him. It’s hard to imagine him getting unscripted laughs, even with professionally-written material.

Which material isn’t exactly funny either, at least to me. I understand the idea that pro comedians build up a resistance to tamer jokes — movie critics get bored of unimaginative schtick too — but Jackie aims at Don Rickles and lands with about as much bite as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. If that’s your thing, great, but it doesn’t do much for me.

And yet everywhere he goes, people love him. He holds up the line at the soup kitchen doing his bits, and nobody complains. His niece (Lucy DeVito) begs him to speak at her wedding, and only old sticks-in-the-mud like his brother (Danny DeVito) and sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) have a problem with him going blue. It’s hard to buy him having career trouble with the universally positive response he gets from every single crowd.

Maybe if the movie stuck to this romp through one clump of Comedy Central stars and Friar’s Club members after another, it might be a neat little medley. It could even bear the eyebrow-raising May-December romance between Mann and De Niro. Maybe it would work better as a series: one episode he takes her to Brittany’s wedding; the next she takes him to meet her father (Harvey Keitel) the Eddie’s Home fan; the next he tries to get a spot at the roast of a grand dame comedienne (Cloris Leachman). It still wouldn’t measure up to Louie or Bojack, but it might be entertaining.

But the only emotional depth here is centered on Jackie and Harmony’s relationship, which takes sudden swerves into territory the movie has not remotely laid the groundwork to support. They come up out of nowhere, drastically changing the tone, and with no commitment to follow-through on the issues they raise. From his producing career, Linson knows that comedic movies and television can be used to come at painful subject matter in a different way, but he hasn’t the slightest clue of why or how they do it.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Space Between Us

February 3, 2017
The Space Between Us

During the February dump season, it’s usually a safe bet that if it’s not an awards contender in the long tail of its national rollout, any new releases are probably not very good. But wait, The Space Between Us is a teen romance, and coming out just ahead of Valentine’s Day makes sense, doesn’t it? True enough, but the fact that this is the fifth scheduled release date for the movie undercuts that a bit. And indeed, the result is a love story that only indiscriminating teenagers will love.

The setup does offer some promise. Shortly after the first manned mission to Mars takes off, one of the astronauts discovers she’s pregnant. The Powers That Be decide that it’s somehow a public relations risk to admit that this happened at all, so when she dies in childbirth they hide the existence of Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) from the rest of the world.

Raised by the rest of the crew, and particularly by Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino), Gardner — what kind of name is “Gardner Elliot”? — is a sharp kid, but lonely with a robot as the closest thing he has to a friend. But he does use near-future-Skype over the near-future-internet to chat with a girl during her study hall period, with no explanation given to how they actually met. Tulsa (Britt Robertson) — no last name needed, I guess — is an orphan who wants to escape her neglectful foster home, so he senses a kindred spirit, but he still can’t tell her who he really is.

And it seems he never will. Nathaniel Shepherd, the now-reclusive CEO of the company that launched the mission (Gary Oldman), is adamant that Gardner — I swear it sounds like they got his name backwards — must stay on Mars. Since he was born and grew up there, his body is acclimated to the local conditions. “His heart can’t handle our gravity!” Shepherd insists, which conveniently also reads as an adult’s dismissal of teen romances as less valid than grown-up relationships. By pure coincidence, I’m sure.

But of course he does make it to Earth and then escapes the hospital area the company sticks him in to monitor his response to the new environment. He immediately goes looking for Tulsa, which brings us to the one actually interesting thing going on in the movie.

On his travels, this boy from Mars asks the people he meets what they like best about Earth. And since he’s traveling by bus with no preconceptions about American society, he meets a wide cross-section of them. A better movie than Collateral Beauty scribe Allan Loeb could turn this into a thoughtful meditation on the human condition. Director Peter Chelsom came closer to the mark in Hector and the Search for Happiness. But it’s hard to pull off without falling into mere glurge, and even at its best this movie is nowhere near up to the task.

And then that interlude is over. Gardner — seriously, who was responsible for this name? — meets Tulsa and the two of them go on the run. Their escape from Nathaniel’s search is interleaved with scenes of his shock and surprise at horses and other things that seem totally normal to the rest of us. But ultimately things end as they must, with the romantically-different boy a decade younger than his co-star taking the dissatisfied but otherwise featureless girl out of her horrible life and romantically spiriting her up to the wonderful and romantically unique life she never even thought to dream. There is also romance.

I’m sure this will sell like gangbusters to girls — and sure, some boys — too young to have any real concept of life or love yet. Nathaniel may be a caricature, but the idea that kids are dumb about relationships isn’t wrong. Still, if Loeb is good at anything, it’s giving gullible viewers exactly the treacle they want.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Toni Erdmann

January 27, 2017
Toni Erdmann

It’s bad enough to grow up with a “cool” parent, but what if your dad’s the cool teacher? You know, the one who’s game to dress up and play along with just about anything to keep the kids engaged. The one who carries fake snaggle-teeth at all times, just so he can pull a gag whenever he feels like it. Maren Ade at least had a sense of humor about it, since she gave her father the mouthpiece as a gag, but she must have some sympathy with people who get tired of the constant goofing around, or else she couldn’t have written and directed Toni Erdmann.

Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) grew up with that guy as her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek). They must have had some fun when she was little, but she’s grown up and it seems like he never will. She’s scrabbling towards a foothold in the upper strata of a new, business-dominated Europe, while he’s a divorced middle-class teacher back in Germany. Her rare visit home is one solid eye-roll. But shortly after she leaves, Winfried’s dog dies, and he decides it would be nice to visit her in Bucharest, where her multinational oil company has sent her to draw up cost-cutting proposals for the local drilling operations.

Ines is naturally mortified when her father shows up. She’s making business contacts with Russian diplomats at American embassy parties, and he’s clumping around like a tourist from the sticks, making jokes about having hired a replacement daughter since his own is too busy to spend time with him. Thankfully, he gets the picture and heads home soon. Except he doesn’t.

That’s when Ines starts running into “Toni Erdmann”, her father wearing his gag teeth and an unkempt Prince Valiant wig, claiming to be a “life coach” and consultant. But, surprisingly, she finds that she can actually deal with Toni in a way she never could with Winfried, at least since she grew up. Through him, she recaptures some sense of wonder and fun that she’d lost in her attempts to join the masters of the modern world.

Simonischek steals most of the scenes; his bizarre behavior is meant to draw attention, after all, and introverts are sure to find his shameless extraversion especially cringeworthy. But Hüller’s performance, while usually subtler, is every big as fantastic and daring. She’s the one who walks the audience through Ines’ change of heart, and it’s far from a straightforward path. Scene by scene her demeanor changes, and just when she seems to make a breakthrough she recoils just as suddenly.

Ade takes her time to walk through this journey. At 162 minutes it’s one of the longest features to hit screens in the last year, but it doesn’t drag along the way. Still, this might be one to watch at home where you can pause and stretch before deep vein thrombosis sets in. But however you see it, you’ll be richly rewarded by the experience.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Gold

January 27, 2017
Gold

Sometimes to understand what a movie gets right, you have to see another movie get it wrong. Take the true story of a scrappy upstart who hits it rich through dogged persistence and turns out to be a terrible person who rides on everyone else’s efforts. I found it okay when I saw it in The Founder, but I gained a whole new appreciation of that film after watching Gold.

This time it’s no slowly-dawning secret that Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) is sleazy. If the casting doesn’t make it clear, the combover should. It’s the late ’80s and the commodities market has turned against Washoe Mining, the prospecting company his grandfather founded. The remaining hangers-on work out of a bar, attempting to push their penny-stock over the phone to unsuspecting investors — shades of The Wolf of Wall Street. The only problem is they have no mining operations to speak of.

But Kenny is convinced that he can still make a big strike. He remembers meeting Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez), a geologist who picked the site of an enormous copper strike in Indonesia, and who pushed his “Ring of Fire” theory of mineral sites despite its disregard by mainstream geologists. Wells thinks Acosta might be onto something with his theory of a gold mine in Borneo, and he promises to get supply the capital if Acosta just tells them where to dig.

Of course, the site is out in the jungle, which means hiring guides and native workers, not to mention getting the permits which means bribing officials. Prospecting in Suharto’s Indonesia is a lot different than back home in Nevada. And that’s all before Wells gets laid up with malaria for a few weeks. But when his fever breaks, Acosta has news: the assays report an eighth-ounce of gold per ton of rock, which is evidently quite a rich vein, or so the characters seem to think.

And of course that’s where the trouble really starts, with Wall Street bankers (Corey Stoll) lining up to take the company public and then steer it towards a lucrative buyout by gold magnate Mark Hancock (Bruce Greenwood), who I guess by his accent is meant to be South African? it all gets kind of muddled in the middle there. But of course Wells has his pride and won’t take a giant check if his name doesn’t stay attached to the mine.

But to understand exactly why that’s such a terrible idea, we have to venture into spoiler territory. That said, on the one hand this is based on a true story, so if you remember it — I didn’t, going in — you already know the twist. And on the other hand the movie actually spoils itself for you, in one of the single worst structural flubs I’ve ever seen in an otherwise pretty okay movie.

So, fairly warned.

At about the halfway point, Wells and Acosta are sitting down with the bankers to convince them to invest. Wells starts to ramp up his pride already, not wanting to bring in an operational partner, which leads to a whole other subplot where the bankers try to wrest control from him using some underhanded tactics. But Acosta interrupts the argument by proposing a junket to illustrate the value of the site.

That’s when it happens: the action cuts to a hotel room where Wells is seated across from an FBI agent (Toby Kebbell), who asks him to verify that it was Acosta who proposed the junket. This is the first time we’ve seen anything about the FBI being involved, but now when we cut back to the junket itself we know to be suspicious. When one of the rank-and-file bankers who get sent along to report (Timothy Simons) finds gold in the river, we know it’s faked.

And so when the movie reveals the fraud, it comes as no surprise. When it honestly introduces the FBI investigators to the action, there’s no sense that the stakes are ramping up for Wells. Just one shard of a scene, cut in for no discernible reason, that totally deflates the second half of the movie. It’s the clearest example I’ve ever seen of a cinematic own-goal.

Still, it’s not like this one was headed for greatness even before it tripped over its feet along the way. It’s the same McConaughey character as ever, rehashing character dynamics we’ve seen before. Don’t buy in to this fool’s Gold.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

The Founder

January 20, 2017
The Founder

Michael Keaton has been on a hot streak in this latest phase of his career. While The Founder might not be up there with back-to-back Oscar winners Birdman and Spotlight, it’s certainly a strong choice to present a hit-piece on McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc in the same admiringly gauzy biopic style that director John Lee Hancock applied to Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side.

For all the bronze bas-relief plaques I used to see back when I went to restaurants like McDonald’s, Kroc’s “founding” of the chain was mostly his own self-mythologizing. The actual chain was started by — not surprisingly — Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) in San Bernadino, California. The two of them worked out the “Speedee system” that arranged an assembly-line kitchen devoted to hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french fries, and soft drinks, all in a space that would fit within one side of a tennis court. Inside the singles lines.

At the same time in 1954, Kroc was a traveling salesman using a supply-side model to hawk a five-spindled milkshake blender to midwestern drive-ins that didn’t seem to care about getting the order right, let alone fast. But who cares when your clientele is mostly bored juvenile delinquents making out in their cars? It was the latest of Kroc’s get-rich-eventually schemes, and it wasn’t going well. But then he gets an order from a place out in — wait for it — San Bernadino, asking for six of them. Who could want to make thirty milkshakes at a time when he was having trouble convincing anyone they might want to make five? When he calls to verify the order, Mac answers, too busy to really listen, and says six might have been a mistake; better make it eight.

So Kroc heads out to meet the McDonald brothers and hears their story. Obviously there’s only one thing to do: franchise the operation. Except they already tried that, and it didn’t work. Dick can enforce exacting quality control at his own store, but it goes to hell when someone else is in charge. But Kroc is insistent; they draw up a contract giving the McDonalds the final say in any and all changes, and Kroc is off to the races.

Except for all the glamor of opening restaurant after restaurant he’s still only just scraping by on his share of the revenue. And in the meantime he’s alienating his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), and flirting with the Joan (Linda Cardinelli), the wife of a St. Paul franchisee (Patrick Wilson). Joan comes up with the idea to cut costs by using powdered milkshakes, but Kroc can’t make the change without the McDonalds’ approval.

Keaton knows just how to play this pretender to the McDonald throne. He has to be just the sort of striving, eager, go-getter that Kroc wants to appear to be, but he also has to let the conniver show through that lies inside that sort of person as well. And Offerman and Lynch offer the perfect foils. Offerman’s no-nonsense shop teacher persona adapts nicely to Dick’s systems engineer role, while Lynch is a big teddy bear who always wants to see the good in people, even if they don’t exactly merit that sort of grace.

The Founder upends the usual Great Man story of American innovation. At no point does Kroc come up with an idea on his own. The McDonalds created the assembly-line system that allowed fast-food to work. They even had the idea to franchise, and correctly saw that it was incompatible with their desire for quality. The cost-saving measures he couldn’t use came from other people, and when he finally hits on the secret that actually makes McDonald’s run, right up to the present day, it’s someone else’s idea as well.

The only thing that Ray Kroc can be rightly said to have brought to his table was the persistence in hanging on to the McDonald’s franchise idea long enough to run into someone who could actually make it work. And even that he stole from someone else and tried to pass off as his own.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.