Thursday, March 3, 2016

Film Reviews: Jafar Panahi's Taxi, My Night At Maud's & 7th Heaven

"Jafar Panahi's Taxi"  *** (out of ****)

There used to be a program on HBO called "Taxicab Confessions", where passengers were secretly filmed inside a cab and discussed the most private details of their life, usually involving sex. Sitting in a cab, you could imagine, you meet a lot of interesting people, people of all different walks of life. The cab driver must have a pretty good sense of the "mood" of society.

This principle can be applied to the latest Iranian "movie" directed by the acclaimed filmmaker, Jafar Panahi, "Taxi" (2015). Mr. Panahi disguises himself as a cab driver and picks up fares driving people around the streets of Tehran, often not sure of how to get to his fare's destination and sometimes telling the customers they don't have to worry about paying.

In his taxi Mr. Panahi meets an eccentric group of people. Each person that enters his taxi as a story. Some dramatic event going on in their life. Mr. Panahi meets various people of social standing, getting a sense of the "mood" of the country. It is Mr. Panahi's sneaky attempt to make a movie which comments on Iran's social-economic policies and his country's sense of justice.

I initially put the word movie in quotations. That was not a thinly veiled criticism of the movie on my part. You see back in 2010 Mr. Panahi, along with his family and several friends, were arrested. The Iranian government declared Mr. Panahi made films which were propaganda against the government. As a result Mr. Panahi was sentenced to a six year prison sentence and a 20 year ban on making movies was put in place. So, technically, in the eyes of the Iranian government, "Taxi" is not a movie. In fact, the previous "movie" released in America by Mr. Panahi was entitled "This Is Not A Film" (2012), a not so so subtle commentary on the sentence imposed on Mr. Panahi.

In "Taxi" Mr. Panahi presents his movie as a docu-drama. Is what we are watching real or fiction? Is Mr. Panahi so desperate for money he has become a taxi driver? Hardly. Are the fares he picks up real customers or actors? Are their conversations scripted or improvised? That's a lot of questions to ask and in the eyes of Mr. Panahi half the fun to be had watching "Taxi". Mr. Panahi for his part plays it straight. No winking at the camera however several of his passengers recognize him and comment on a hidden camera they see on the dashboard.

Mr. Panahi even goes as far as referencing his previous movies such as "Offside" (2007), "The Mirror" (1997) and "Crimson Gold" (2003). This rises the question, lets assume for the moment what we see in "Taxi" is real and the passengers are in real-life situations which resemble scenarios Mr. Panahi explored in his movies, does that not comment on the relationship art has on society? Movies are a reflection of the world we live in. Movies deal with issues audiences are able to relate to. They present problems society experiences.

Once the audience stops playing the "guessing game" of whether or not "Taxi" is real and start paying attention to what the people are saying we hear them speak of crime and what is the root cause of crime. One passenger says it is poverty. We hear discussions regarding the government's stance on filmmaking and the guidelines artist must abide by. We hear people speak of how Iran is isolated from the world and the lack of culture to be found.

By the end of "Taxi" we have a "movie" which shows us not all Iranians hate America and want to engage in war. There are people in Iran that are against their government. People are angry. The people of Iran have intellectual discussions and debate ideas. Some readers may say, "I already knew that jackass". Maybe you did but that is not how America portrays Iran and its people.

In the end what hurts "Taxi" is it doesn't say enough and the style of the movie will distract too many audiences and they will miss the message of the movie. One wishes for a more concrete linear, a more forceful presentation of ideas. "Taxi" reminds me of a movie made by another Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, called "Ten" (2002) which also took place in a taxi and dealt with the social-economics of Iran and the role of women in particular. "Ten", I believe, is the superior movie. Still, audiences should make an effort to see "Taxi" and while you are at at, track down "Ten". It will make a nice double feature.

"My Night At Maud's"  
**** (out of ****)

I have watched the French movie "My Night At Maud's (1969) directed by Eric Rohmer twice, so far. It was part of Mr. Rohmer's series of films called "Six Moral Tales" and was the fourth film released in America in the series.

I find Mr. Rohmer's film to be about the silly expectations people have when it comes to love and the concept of "the one", a person who matches the image of what we believe our mate must look like and the ideas they must share with us.

Take for example Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant). He is a devote Catholic. He is not perfect, he was a bit of a ladies man in his past, but tries his best to live up to the standards of his Catholic faith. For him a perfect mate must be Catholic. For Jean-Louis this means they would share the same world-view and morals. On paper they would be perfectly suited for each other.

One day, at Sunday mass, Jean-Louis notices an attractive blonde, Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault). They are both attentively listening to the priest. For Jean-Louis this may be a woman he can marry. In fact, he almost instantly makes up his mind that he will.

Life is funny though. Some people have an "ideal" person in their head and go their whole life believing that they must find the person they have created in their head, that they miss the opportunity to meet equally good people who may not look like their "ideal" but are worth getting to know. Of course, one can't force themselves to be attracted to someone.

For Jean-Louis, he is introduced to Maud (Francoise Fabian) by an old school friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez) he has not seen in many years but has had a relationship with Maud. The three gets together on Christmas and talk. Maud is not the kind of woman Jean-Louis would ever think of marrying because she is not Catholic. But eventually the two of them talk the entire night about dating, life, religion. Soon there is an attraction in the air between them. But, how can this be? Maud was not his ideal. Should Jean-Louis give into his temptation or stick to the path he has established for himself?

One of the major criticisms which followed the career of the brilliant filmmaker Eric Rohmer was all his movies are about characters talking. Some have described his movies as "as entertaining as watching paint dry". I personally have never come across an Eric Rohmer I have not liked. In fact I have rated the majority of his movies four stars. The reason is because I find his intelligent. "My Night At Maud's" may remind some viewers of another movie made by a French filmmaker, Louis Malle, and the English language movie "My Dinner with Andre" (1981).

Both movies are about conversations. And that is what makes them pleasurable to watch. How often do we get to hear intelligent characters speak in a thoughtful manner and clearly express themselves? There is no foul language. No nudity. No fart jokes. Just people talking engaging one another in an exchange of ideas. Having a meaningful conversation that we as the audience wish we can have with someone or perhaps have had.

The interesting thing to ask yourself while watching "My Night At Maud's" is what are the characters intentions. Jean-Louis clearly expressive his beliefs on religion or marriage. So why does Maud invite him to spend the night and lie about a second bedroom? Is she purposely trying to seduce him, to test his belief system? If so, why? What does she gain? Simply to call him out as a hypocrite? What is Jean-Louis' intentions? Is he aware of what Maud is doing? Does he plan to use Maud to get to Francoise? Is there anything genuine about Jean-Louis? Are people simply chess pieces on a board that he must maneuver to reach his objective?

This demonstrates the games people play when it comes to love. Does anyone say what they mean? There is also a commentary on "chance". By simply believing something to be true will we reach our goal? This is a theme you will find in other films by Mr. Rohmer.

"My Night At Maud's" is insightful and observant. It understands people and their motives. This is a unique movie about adults for adults. For me, it remains one of Mr. Rohmer's best movies.

It was nominated for two Academy Awards. One for best foreign language film and the other for its screenplay.

"7th Heaven"  *** (out of ****)

"7th Heaven" (1927) is a silent dramatic romance directed by Frank Borzage, which like "My Night At Maud's" also deals with love, marriage and religion.

Director Frank Borzage is a forgotten name and today's movie fans may not only not be familiar with his name but they probably never saw any of the movies Mr. Borzage directed.

In the 1920s and into the early 1930s Mr. Borzage was a respected filmmaker that twice won a best director Academy Award. The first time he won the award was for his directing "7th Heaven", which was also nominated for best picture at the first Academy Award ceremony.

Mr. Borzage was known for directing films which were meant to have a romantic realism but dealt with the harsh realities of life. He was also not afraid to tackle subjects most Hollywood movies dare not approach.

"Seventh Heaven" nicely fits into the cannon of films directed by Mr. Borzage. The movie stars one of Mr. Borzage's frequent muses Janet Gaynor, who won an Academy Award for her performance, as Diane, a timid woman who is bossed around by her sister, Nana (Gladys Brockwell), who is presented as addicted to absinthe and is given to on occasion to using a whip on Diane, when she does not obey her.

One night Nana is fed up with Diane and chases her out of their apartment onto a street corner and whips Diane until she is unconscious and protected by a sewer worker, Chico (Charles Farrell). Chico takes pity on Diane and allows her to stay with him for a few days. In typical Hollywood-romance fashion the two end up falling in love.

Chico we learn is  self-assured young man. He has big ideas and repeatedly refers to himself as "a very remarkable fellow". He dreams of one day getting out of the sewers and becoming a street cleaner, which in his eyes carries more prestige. Since this has not happened for him yet he considers himself an atheist. He engages in a long conversation with a priest informing him of his beliefs.

Chico will end up having an influence on Diane. She will gain more confidence in herself and will learn the need to face her fears.

World War I will unfortunately come between the two lovers as Chico must enlist, leaving Diane on her own.

For some of today's viewers "7th Heaven" will be a bit too melodramatic. It will try too hard to pull at your heartstrings. I can't deny the charge however you must keep in mind the time period this movie was made. "Seventh Heaven" has something to say about love, faith and religion. Its ideas may seem simplistic to today's movie fans but again we must put things into perspective. There were not many Hollywood movie which would star an atheist character. Years later when the production code would be enforced, such a thing would have been prohibited. You also would not see such extreme violence, as one person using a whip on someone, especially a woman, in a movie.

"Seventh Heaven" lacks the naturalistic quality found in "Bad Girl" (1931) and the likeable characters but I was much more involved on an emotional level watching this movie than Mr. Borzage's "Street Angel" (1928) or his Will Rogers comedy "They Had To See Paris" (1929).

The movie, which was based on a 1922 play of the same title, was remade a decade later in a movie starring James Stewart and Simone Simon.

"Seventh Heaven" is worth younger movie fans seeking out. They may not be "wowed" by the movie but you will see quality filmmaking and acting, mostly for the time period, displayed.