The art and irony of The Salesman

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in The SalesmanOutside of cinephiles who have seen his Oscar-winning A Separation, Asghar Farhadi is not well known among Americans. But his name was thrust into the news over the last few weeks because of President Trump’s executive order banning travel of most anyone, but particularly Muslims, from seven majority Muslim countries. (The list does not include any majority Muslim country where Trump and his family have business dealings. Of course.) Because of the ban, Farhadi, who is from Iran, cannot travel to the United States for the Academy Awards, where his newest film The Salesman is up for Best Foreign Language Film; even if the stay of that order allows his visit, Farhadi is boycotting in protest.

There is a great deal of irony in preventing the director of The Salesman from attending the Oscars. By setting a suspenseful revenge drama among the cast of a Farsi-language production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Farhadi entwines Iranian and American emotional and moral experience. That such a tale comes from Iran, described as part of the Axis of Evil by George W. Bush and repeatedly threatened with destruction by Trump, is situationally ironic in that it is the opposite of what many people expect from our supposed enemy. It’s dramatically ironic in that Trump seems to have no clue whatsoever that Farhadi exists, that our most human complexities are universal or that both Iranians and Muslims are humans. (There are also the weird similarities between Miller’s Willy Loman and Donald Trump, both delusion narcissists, but since Trump doesn’t read, watch anything by Fox News or have the capacity for self-reflection, it’s unlikely he could have made that connection.)

However, even if Farhadi is not attending the Oscars, The Salesman is in theaters across the country. (Trump will probably be unable to ban films made by Muslims, women or scientists, but no one should think he’s not going to try.) Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a high school teacher and actor who is playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman; his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) is playing Linda, Willy’s wife. After their apartment building becomes physically unstable and is evacuated, they move into an apartment owned by one of their fellow actors. The owner neglects to tell them that the previous tenant was a prostitute, and shortly after Emad and Rana have set up house, one of her former clients attacks Rana while she is taking a shower and Emad is out buying groceries. At first Emad thinks she had just fallen, and then the neighbors who took her to the hospital tell him she was attacked. It’s implied but never clear that she was raped, and Rana is too ashamed and traumatized to fully explain everything to Emad. All of this weighs on Emad as he seeks out the perpetrator and tries to keep calm while he is portraying Willy Loman each night.

The film is ingenious in its pacing and its use of Arthur Miller. The tension is slowly increased through misdirection, ambiguities and a smart lack of a score that would indicate what emotion we’re supposed to feel or expect. I had no idea what was about to happen at any point in the film, particularly in the last act when Emad seems to have found Rana’s attacker. In an American film, the revenge would be brutal (see: Prisoners, Kill Bill, Enough), but Farhadi flips the genre on its back and makes the emotions, but not the action, violent.

Taraneh Alidoosti in The SalesmanDeath of Salesman seems to have no clear connection to the film’s plot until the last 20 minutes. Then, Miller’s commentary on obligation, illusion, sacrifice and failure are reimagined through Emad and Rana’s acting out of their moral duties as well as an American play. If there is any justice, publicity over Farhadi’s absence from the Academy Awards will lead American audiences to experience his art and his insight into America’s greatest drama.

The Salesman (original title: Forushande)
Written and Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti and Babak Karimi
Rated PG-13
In Farsi with subtitles

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

A superhero story like no other

Originally published inLGBT Weekly

Ryan Reynolds and Brianna Hildebrand in Deadpool

One of the problems with the takeover of popular culture by Marvel and DC superheroes is how seriously the stories take themselves, how easy the morality is and how family-friendly everything is. Monster-budget films like The Avengers and the upcoming Batman vs Superman, or network dramas like The Flash and Agents of SHIELD, aim to reach the broadest audience possible, which means no swearing, little irony and barely a hint of sex. (The Netflix shows Daredevil and Jessica Jones are the exception, as they are niche shows.) Then there’s Deadpool, the raunchy, hyper and hilariously violent, anti-hero’s tale that exploded a dozen box office records last week. Based on one of the edgiest characters in the Marvel X-Men universe, the film both panders to the basest sensibilities of the young men who make up the lion’s share of comic book fans and mercilessly mocks superhero story conventions.

The film begins with the wise-cracking, red-hooded super soldier laying waste to heavily armed bad guys on a highway overpass. The first two acts use this sequence to set up flashbacks explaining how Deadpool got to this moment. A few years before, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a very handsome and freakishly competent mercenary, goes around shooting and socking random jerks, for or not for payment. He has a truer moral compass than he claims, repeatedly saying he’s not a hero. One day, he meets a similarly witty and confident regular at his local bar for ne’er-do-wells, a prostitute named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). A few minutes after they get engaged, he discovers he has advanced cancer (a weird tone shift for the film that until then is pretty light, even in its violence).

Shortly thereafter, a mysterious man in a suit (Hugh Scott) tells Wade his organization can cure and make him superhuman. At first Wade refuses, but then, out of guilt for possibly leaving Vanessa alone, he agrees and sneaks off in the middle of night. It turns out that this organization actually creates mutant slaves for especially evil criminals, and its chief scientist Ajax (Ed Skrein), a sociopath without the ability to feel pain, delights in torturing his patients. Ajax says it’s the only way to activate their latent powers. Eventually, Wade’s powers are activated, and he escapes. But while these powers give him the ability to heal from anything – he can even grow back an amputated hand – they rather horribly disfigure his skin and face: “Whatever they did to me made me totally indestructible… and completely unf@#*able.” Thinking that Vanessa will never want to see him again, Wade dons the moniker Deadpool and lays waste to the underworld looking for Ajax in order to force him to fix what he’s done.

Throughout the film, Wade makes filthy, twisted and obscure jokes; they happen so quickly and so often, I’m looking forward to the DVD so I can catch them all. Very few of them are printable, and I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun of you hearing them fresh. Wade also repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, commenting on the film’s plot directly to the audience, who no one else in the film understands is watching. This works better in the comics, where no characters in the Marvel Universe do this, but it still sets up good jokes and brings the audience into the action. Reynolds, who is an exceptionally winning and charismatic comedian, is as perfectly cast as Deadpool as anyone has been cast as a superhero (more so than Patrick Stewart as Professor X). After being at the center of one of the worst superhero bombs (Green Lantern), Deadpool redeems Reynolds as major star who can carry a franchise.

The other, less visible, winner is Tim Miller, the first-time director who presided over Reynold’s epic performance and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s witty, giddy script.


Directed by Tim Miller

Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein

Rated R

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“I want to go on adventures, I think.”

I think I may love Moonrise Kingdom more than any other Wes Anderson film.

Sam Shakusky, the hero of Moonrise Kingdom, is an awkward 12-year-old boy. An orphan living in a foster home for troubled boys in 1965, he is the only one who doesn’t look like an extra in Rebel Without A Cause. Tough guys, the other boys are all in white T-shirts and blue jeans and their hair is greased into a perfect sheen. But Sam has a mop of black curls and a tiny frame and is as weird and precocious as the other boys are conforming. He’s the sort of kid who, when asked what he wants to do when he grows up, says, “I want to go on adventures, I think.” This makes him endearing to me, but to others he’s just off; when Sam’s scout leader calls the foster home to say that he’s run away from camp, Sam’s foster father says that he doesn’t want Sam to return.

In the incredibly arch Moonrise Kingdom, where writer-director Wes Anderson laces most intense emotions with irony, this moment is so awful, the audience laughs in discomfort, but the three adults listening to the foster father – Scoutmaster Randy Ward (Ed Norton), local cop Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and the phone operator – are visibly, indelibly saddened. Like in Roald Dahl’s children’s stories, in Moonrise Kingdom both humor and pain, and irony and sincerity exist side-by-side. The result is a profoundly entertaining and also profound film that matches and perhaps surpasses Anderson’s best achievements, which include the minor classics Rushmore, The Royal Tanenbaums, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was based on a Dahl story. Continue…


So, I laughed my ass off at 21 Jump Street, but the fear-of-gay-sex jokes got under my skin as I started writing the review. I don’t think I would have used the headline that LGBT Weekly ran with the review — “Excessive homophobia dulls this absurd comedy” — but it’s accurate. The version that ran here is a bit truncated, so here’s the unabridged version.

There seems to be two ways to turn a TV series into a movie. One way is to take the original show seriously and try to replicate the good stuff while making it grittier and widening the scope. This worked for The Untouchables and The Fugitive, while it was abject failure for The Mod Squad and The Last Airbender. The other way is to admit that the original show was cheesy or updating it would be impossible, so you make a wacky, preferably filthy comedy doused in enough irony to make John Waters smirk. The few times this was successful was in The Addams Family movies and, to a lesser extent, Starsky & Hutch and Charlie’s Angels. The movie based on the pretty lame 1980s cops-undercover-as-high-school-kids show 21 Jump Street (only remembered for giving Johnny Depp his start) takes the second tact, and – what a relief – it works. Okay, it more than works. It’s really, really funny – as long as you ignore the homophobia.

As in the original show, 21 Jump Street refers to the address of the headquarters of a squad of cops who go undercover as high school students to bust drug rings, chop shops, and so on. A slimmed down Jonah Hill plays Schmidt, a smart, but pudgy and awkward cop, partnered with Jenko (Channing Tatum), a dumb, but absurdly studly cop. In high school, they were nemeses, but in the police academy they realized their strengths and weaknesses were complementary, and they became best friends. After they make a series of ridiculous errors trying to arrest members of a drug gang, they are transferred to 21 Jump Street, which is run by self-proclaimed Angry Black Man Captain Dickson, played with great irony by Ice Cube. He assigns them to root out a drug dealing operation that may or may not have caused the death of a student. In the last seven years since they graduated, what is cool has changed, and suddenly Schmidt makes friends and Jenko is the nerd, and their attempts at fitting in reaches a level of vulgar absurdity that would never be allowed on TV.

As with most broad comedies, the plot is secondary to the jokes. Much of the humor in 21 Jump Street is physical, and Jonah Hill is shameless and expert at using his body as a punching bag, both actual and metaphorical. He also does comically outraged quite well, too. Channing Tatum is playing dumb, which means he was perfectly cast, but he also does a fine job lobbing one-liners and reacting to the ever-increasing absurdity of the case. Hill and Tatum are as mismatched as Laurel and Hardy, and their friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly fights are gleeful fun to watch.

The supporting cast is roundly great. As Schmidt’s love interest Molly, Brie Larson plays the same wise-beyond-her-years character as she did so expertly in The United States of Tara. James Franco’s brother Dave does a great job being beautiful, arrogant, and outmatched as the high school drug dealer. Rob Riggle, as the track coach, is as crass as The Office’s Ellie Kemper, playing the chemistry teacher hot for Jenko, is horny.

But an abnormally high – even for a vulgar, hard R comedy – percentage of the jokes in 21 Jump Street involve fear of gay sex, from anal sex as humiliating punishment to male-on-male oral sex as torture. While Schmidt and Jenko state clearly that they don’t dislike gay people, their and the film’s extensive use of gay sexuality as something to mock and fear belies a homophobic subtext that isn’t very funny at all. The film is ultimately about male friendship, and it’s sad that the filmmakers, including the screenwriter of the wonderful and progressive Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, felt the need to basically scream “no homo!” throughout the movie to make such a theme palatable to their target audience.

21 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Written by Michael Bacall
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Brie Larson
Rated R
Opens March 16
At your local multiplex

“Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted.”

[youtube:]At last! I finally saw “Southland Tales,” Richard Kelly’s much-maligned, barely released, long-awaited follow-up to “Donnie Darko” (which is one of my favorite movies ever). I had been a bit desperate to see the movie, but, alas, it wasn’t even released in San Diego during the week or so that 18 theaters were allowed to show it. So, I spent a weekend or two back in December trying to BitTorrent pirated versions, hoping someone had stuck an Academy screener DVD on the Interweb. But, alas, all that was available was a pretty shitty shot-in-the-theater-with-a-handicam version. (I guess there weren’t any Academy screeners. Natch.) Still, I downloaded it. And watched about 15 minutes. And I couldn’t stand how bad the video quality was. It was like watching a 20-year-old VHS tape during an earthquake. So, I chucked the file and waited. I was wasting some time (procrastinating like a mo-fo) on Netflix, and I saw that the DVD was coming out on the 18th. I had it in my mailbox on the 19th. How many ways I can say that I love Netflix? Anyhoo, after I finally finished writing my first qual paper (Woohoo! And more on that later…) I set about to watch the film that made all of $227,365 and Richard Roeper called “one of the most confusing, ridiculous, pretentious and disastrous cinematic train wrecks I’ve ever seen.” (For more critics trying to out-nasty each other, check out the Rotten Tomatoes site here.)

I think this would be a perfect moment to cite, in a Fisk-y but not really Fisk-y way, the wonderful essay by Joe Queenen in last week’s Guardian about what really makes a truly terrible movie:

To qualify as one of the worst films of all time, several strict requirements must be met.

Agreed. Too many people will simply state, as Queenen complains, that such-and-such is one of the all-time worst movies without thinking deeply about what really makes some awful.

For starters, a truly awful movie must have started out with some expectation of not being awful. That is why making a horrific, cheapo motion picture that stars Hilton or Jessica Simpson is not really much of an accomplishment. Did anyone seriously expect a film called The Hottie and The Nottie not to suck?

Totes! That’s why, say, “Bad Love,” a Jenny McCarthy vehicle for Chrissake, which scored all those Razzies a couple years ago, doesn’t count for me. Neither, really, does “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” which was God-awful, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be any much better than the first movie, which was pretty near-God-awful. But, yes, after making “Donnie Darko,” Richard Kelly was expected to make another truly great film. He had a cast of thousands, and he had a lot of money, and he had heaps and heaps of ambition. It seems as if he wanted to make something like a cross between “Nashville” and “Dr. Strangelove,” which is pretty ambitious.