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Recent Movies: 20th Century Women; Paterson; The Salesman; Books: An American Tragedy

March 22, 2017

Recent Movies

20th Century Women

In Santa Barbara, California during the late 1970s, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is an unconventional single mother in her fifties raising a pre-teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a household that seems to contain a makeshift family which includes two single tenants (Great Gerwig and Billy Crudup) and a girl next door (Elle Fanning) who is two years older than Jamie.

It’s rather easy for the viewer to feel comfort around the folks in this commune-like home especially with Bening playing the head of the house. She exudes charm, warmth, and humour – especially in a scene when she is trying to understand the appeal of modern (at the time) punk rock music. The characters also bring us down memory lane when feminism was in its early stages. We see both the fascinating side of this movement and some of the absurd side.

[SPOILER ALERT] The decision to show what happened to each character’s future at the end might not have been necessary with the exception of Dorothea’s. The fate of the other characters seemed ordinary and conventional considering the unique experiences they shared in the 70s.  However, this might be the point. Perhaps, this was a way of expressing grief for a period (the 1970s in this case though it could also be appended with the 1960s) when self-exploration and self-expression were much more attainable than in the decades that followed with mega-greed and less economic freedom for the average person.

“20th Century Women” could have been cut by twenty minutes or so but it was a nostalgia journey well worth traveling.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


Paterson

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a local bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. The viewer witnesses a week in the life of Paterson including his domestic life with his common-law partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their dog; his work-life; and his social life in the evenings as he visits a local bar. He also expresses his creative side writing poetry.

The daily routine, especially the work days, have a similar pattern but they are never repetitious. Within the daily structure, there is always something new and different happening, The various characters are intriguing as well especially a hard-done-by co-worker and various dramas (some of them comical) that take place at the bar.

Most amazing is a plot twist that happens near the end. To most, such an event would be an annoyance in daily domestic life yet here, its context leaves a very strong emotional impact.

The directing by Jim Jarmusch is the movie’s main strength as he pays such kind attention to the daily life of people that might be considered average. Paterson is a soft-spoken introvert and Laura is very tender-hearted though sometimes in a naive way. Driver and Farahani each do a great job in bringing these characters to life. Jarmusch adds to the movie’s sweet charms by emphasizing the town’s beautiful old buildings and its nearby serene waterfalls.

A bonus, at least for folks like me: the main character refuses to own a mobile phone as he believes life was perfectly fine in the past without them. At least in fiction, it’s nice to know there’s someone else who feels this way.

RATING:   * * *


The Salesman

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a couple living in Tehran who work in theatre (currently performing in “Death of a Salesman”). In their newly acquired apartment, Rana is assaulted by a stranger and suffers post-traumatic stress. Emad vows revenge.

A major event in the movie’s first half takes place off-screen. This leaves the viewer in the position of judge rather than witness as we can only surmise events from what others have told. The movie’s first half is good though relatively plain. But, as the viewer learns later, it is a build-up to an unforgettable second half. This is a wonderful contrast to the many films where the opposite is true. When a movie’s second half is the better one, the viewer is given an unofficial extension of the movie as its impact continues well after the ending.

Director/writer Asghar Farhadi brings to “The Salesman” similar themes (and greatness) as he did with “A Separation” (2011) and “The Past” (2013). Among the various characters, we in the audience can understand why some would hate others but, by the end, we have compassion for every single one of them especially after we learn more information about the “villain”. In this way, Farhadi is not just a great storyteller but a fine humanitarian as well. By giving all viewpoints sincerely, he challenges viewers to not only do reconsider anger in our personal lives but possibly in how we look at the world as well. This is noble considering the current state of our world.

Hosseini and Alidoosti are quite good in their performances but the standout performance comes from Farid Sajjadi Hosseini as a character who enters the picture only in the second half and leaves the most impact in the movie.

Like “A Separation” and “The Past”, “The Salesman” is food for the soul and it confirms Farhadi as one of the best movie-makers in the 2010s.

RATING:   * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:  Screenplay by Asghar Farhadi


Books

“An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser

******  THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS  ******

Clyde Griffiths is a young ambitious man who grew up in a poor, religious family in Kansas City. Through various mishaps, he ends up working at a rich uncle’s factory in upstate New York. Once there, he becomes involved in a love triangle, firstly with Roberta Alden who is also from a poor family like Clyde (and also his subordinate at work) and later with Sondra Finchley, a glamorous socialite from a wealthy family. The love triangle leads to the tragedy of the book’s title.

“An American Tragedy” was written in 1925 and based on true events in the early 1900s. It was also the source for the 1951 film “A Place in the Sun” starring Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and Elizabeth Taylor.

One of the sidebars of the main story is a wicked social class structure and the attempts of many to climb further in the hierarchy no matter how futile it may seem. It even causes tension for those at the top as they seem obligated to keep their inner social circles as exclusive as possible. Those in the upper-class are also vulnerable as they could lose their status with the slightest association with a scandal even if they themselves have done no harm. This causes them to be as minimally helpful as possible to their relations and others who are less fortunate.

This exposure of class hierarchies is enhanced as the writing gets into the thoughts of all characters including their desires for a better social position.  It also includes thoughts of the despicable, spoiled brats who believe they are superior by luck of birth only. Another highlighted hierarchy is that of physical attractiveness. Clyde, Roberta, and Sondra are all very attractive but only Sondra has the extra advantage of being wealthy as well. She is also one of the very few rich characters who is also beautiful. Clyde happens to resemble his wealthy cousin Gilbert but Clyde, it turns out, is more attractive and taller – a fact that irks Gilbert.

In reading a book written over ninety years old, I expected challenges in the language but thankfully, there were few. The word ‘gay’ was frequently used but not in a way it would have been used in current times. Some expressions were easy to decipher even if not used today. The only time I had to use Google was to understand the term “four-flusher”. The writing is also, for its time, reasonably frank about sex but the word “abortion” was never written even though it was very clear that this was the main subject in a few successive chapters. Words like “procedure” and “help” were often used as substitutes. (This was also the case in the film version “A Place in the Sun”.) Discussions of religion were also quite interesting. At times, religious viewpoints seemed harshly judgmental but at other times, they seemed to be a welcome spiritual relief to the difficulties of living in a harsh world.

The book is divided into three sections. They include Clyde’s childhood and adolescence in Kansas City; his upward mobility in New York state – up to and including the tragedy of the title; and the fallout the follows the tragedy. The transitions between sections were brilliantly written. Each finished with a shocking cliffhanger and the following section began by introducing new and interesting characters well before bringing us back to the main one (Clyde).

At over eight-hundred and fifty pages, “An American Tragedy” certainly provides a great level of detail. For the most part, this works and works very well at that. One highlight is a scene in a death-row prison where a “newcomer” must witness, for the first time, a fellow prisoner walking down a hallway toward the electric chair. After the door is closed, the other prisoners know what is happening when the lights in their unit are getting dimmer. The only times that seemed long were the romance between Clyde and Roberta as well as the trial that takes place in the third section.

Speaking of the trial section, most of it is fascinating at its level of detail including the dirty politicking of both lawyers in how they used the case for personal purposes. The author also seemed to know what to include in detail and what to summarize. But nearing the end of this section, it seemed too long.

During the last part of the second section, the reader is dragged into the mind of someone planning a murder. It is here where Dreiser can be credited for an accuracy that goes to some very nasty places. This is apparent in the extreme discomfort of reading this section. On the one hand, we can be fascinated; on the other, we can hardly wait for it to end as we seem to be in the presence of an evil mind.

By the end, the reader is left with more than a few things to ponder. One character is widely considered by others to be a martyr by the end. The irony is that, had she not met such a tragic fate, she would likely have been considered a pariah by the same people for her life situation that lead to the tragedy. The main issue to ponder is whether another character was truly guilty of a crime. While there is some leeway to consider innocence, guilt seems to be the right verdict overall.

But most readers might come to a similar conclusion regarding another evil: class prejudice. Whether it be in the time and place of this great book, our current times in our “globalized economy” (pardon my language), and all times between, before, and after, “An American Tragedy” exposes the underbelly of this societal repugnance while giving us a damned good story as well.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

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