Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi blends personal and political drama suffused with metaphoric commentary in his intricately constructed The Salesman. The Tehran theater group for which Rana and Emad perform is staging Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. As Farhadi says in an NPR interview, Willy Loman's dreams turned to nightmare parallels what will follow for Rana and Emad. 

In the opening scene, the partial collapse of Rana's and Emad's apartment building suggests their physical and emotional trouble to come. The heretofore happy couple must find another place to live, and thus begins their tragedy. Unaware of the previous female tenant's sexual activity and thinking her husband returns home, Rana buzzes in an unknown man, leading to head injuries for her after an incident in the shower never fully explained. It is clear that the ripple effects reach to neighbors, colleagues, and, with staggering impact, Rana and Emad whose desire for revenge drives his actions. 

Except for the theater scenes, cinematographer Hossein Jafarian shot this superbly constructed film almost entirely on location, handheld, lending an unstable feel to events. He used cooler lighting in the abandoned apartment, while for the theater he relied on reds and blues since, as he says in January's American Cinematographer, "I thought they were very American colors" for Miller's play. 

This mesmerizing, two-hour film subtly but surely indicts what Farhadi calls Iranian theocracy, that is, the government prescribes behavior replete with oppressive gender and class inequities. It is clear why Emad dismisses involving the police as a bad idea, and, adding education as an area for implicit indictment, Emad teaches teenagers, all male. A song was taken out by censors, since that's forbidden. Further, in its staging and lighting, a long concluding scene blends real life with stage performance, expanding social criticism by suggesting that in such a society everyone performs all the time.

The Salesman is nominated for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. But in his own political statement, the Iranian Farhadi, whose A Separation won 2012's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, refuses to attend the ceremony even if granted the waiver he'd require. In Persian with English subtitles, showing in an exclusive engagement at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.

 

 

In Toni Erdmann, Ines enjoys a relatively successful career as a German management consultant based in Bucharest, Romania. Her demanding job, to which Ines commits her time and energy, leaves no room for her father Winfried who repeatedly shows up unexpectedly and weasels his way into meetings and receptions, formal and informal, to Ines' dismay.

He clearly doesn't conform with his ugly black wig, false buck teeth, and embarrassing antics that surprisingly win over some colleagues with their honesty. Adopting Toni Erdmann as his fictitious identity, Winfried means well -- to jolt Ines from her capitalist treadmill existence to a more joyful, childish, if not childlike, exuberance. By film's end, Ines has, quite predictably, become sympathetic, if reluctantly so. A reception Ines hosts late in the film for company team building spectacularly signals her evolution as it becomes a party au natural, no clothes allowed with full nudity.

German writer/director Maren Ade's droll and at times challenging sense of humor won't appeal to everyone nor will the film's two hour 42-minute running time. In press notes, Ade says that in fact Winfried must resort to humor as his only weapon to reach Ines who is, to quote, "a tough cookie herself" in this "conflict between generations."  

Anchored in this father-daughter interaction between Ines and Toni, a great deal of the film's appeal and credit for its success go to Sandra Hüller as Ines and Peter Simonischek as Toni. They flawlessly and unselfconsciously register a diverse range of emotions from amusement to irritation, resentment to appreciation, even within the same extended scene. Moreover, her fragile, petite presence contrasts humorously just visually with Toni's bulky bearing, heightening their conflicting emotional postures. They're a bit Laurel and Hardy. 

Toni Erdmann is a film that surprises with its offbeat approach and its refusal to conform in its subject matter, its length, or its style. It won over critics at Cannes, the Golden Globes, the European Film Awards, appears on several prestigious top-10 lists, and is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Feature Film Oscar. Full female and male nudity make this for mature audiences only. In German and Romanian with English subtitles with some English as well. At Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

 

 

In the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck dramatizes writings by James Baldwin that interrogate the assassination (1963, 1965 and 1968 respectively), of dear friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Beginning his project "Remember This House" in June 1979, Baldwin wrote, "I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other."

Through this powerful, poetic piece, Baldwin aimed to describe and expose the true history of America which is that of race, as he asserts. The thirty pages of notes Baldwin completed before his death in 1987 also indict class and religion from his astute perspective. Baldwin explains why he did not join the N.A.A.C.P., the Black Panthers, Muslim or Christian groups, and Baldwin's striking insights are as valid today as they were over three decades ago. 

Cross cutting between snippets of speeches by King and Malcolm highlights a virtual debate between their ideologies along with Baldwin's comments on Malcolm's appeal and his own dissent. Peck expands this presentation of Baldwin's ideas by interweaving archival footage of Baldwin holding forth on the Dick Cavett Show, speaking at a 1965 Cambridge debate, traveling with Evers, and targeted by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. He juxtaposes photographs of demonstrations connecting civil rights protests to tragic, 21st century black killings, especially Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Further documenting Baldwin's thoughts and time are notes to his literary agent Jay Acton, his comments on Attorney General Bobby Kennedy's disappointing meeting with Raisin in the Sun author Lorraine Hansberry, and some elegant shots that bring Manhattan and other locales to life. Clips from and comments on racist Hollywood films and advertisements add further content and context to this impressive overview of black history and these momentous individuals. Interspersed throughout the film, Samuel L. Jackson eloquently reads Baldwin's words. A most fitting tribute, especially in black history month, I Am Not Your Negro screens in an exclusive engagement at Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

 

 

This is a vital time for director Fred Peabody's documentary All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone. This preeminent investigative journalist spoke truth to power, that is, he refused to channel mainstream media, practicing instead adversarial, fearless journalism. Most notably, his newsletter, I.F. Stone's Weekly, gleaned information from his own research not from press releases. 

I.F. Stone (1907 to 1989) published his Weekly from 1953 to 1971, typed with two fingers on his typewriter. Throughout his work, ranked as second in importance for all-time among print journalism, he scrutinized and challenged prevailing policy and ideas. While I.F. Stone is the touchstone, Peabody throws his net much wider. Michael Moore, who speaks several times in the documentary, says he can draw a straight line from I.F. Stone to himself. Other esteemed individuals who speak include Amy Goodman, John Carlos Frey, Matt Taibbi, Noam Chomsky, and Sharif Abdel Kouddous, among others. Their comments enliven the loosely stitched together patchwork quilt of stories largely ignored by the mainstream media. The refugee camps, the mass graves of unidentified migrants crossing the U.S. southern border, the weapons of mass destruction, and the Vietnam bombings: all needed much sharper coverage to reveal the lies and erroneous presentations by those in power.

Peabody takes Stone's iconoclastic approach and highlights the exceptional reporters and programs still keeping the faith, so to speak. Democracy, Now!, Rolling Stone contributor Taibbi, The Intercept co-founders Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras, Tom Engelhardt's TomDispatch blog, Mother Jones, and more: all receive their due, with archival footage providing historical records. As Peabody touches on diverse topics over decades in a loosely organized presentation, what emerges is how much a healthy society needs reporters following the model of I.F. Stone. 

All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, February 10 through Sunday, February 12 at 7:30 each evening. 

 

  

Receiving composer Nico Mulhy's music June 2015, with a premiere date of September 24, newly appointed dance director and choreographer Benjamin Millepied creates a new thirty-three-minute ballet for the elite Paris Opera Ballet. Documentarians Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai follow Benjamin, as he's usually called, every step of the way beginning thirty-nine days before the performance.

For those who love behind-the-scenes analyses, especially of creative work, Reset offers a rich and detailed overview at almost two hours running time. Using the countdown of the days as the chapter headings, suspense builds as Benjamin works with the sixteen young dancers he's chosen from the 154-member company, the costume designer, administrators and assistants, the stage manager and the lighting designer, the orchestra and the composer, and the threat of a technicians' strike. What emerges is the critical importance of Benjamin's personality to set the mood, to offer guidance, and he is remarkable.

A principal dancer himself for twenty years in the NYC Ballet, he gracefully models the moves he wants. Benjamin makes clear that he values, above all, the dancers enjoying making music with their bodies, not feeling oppressed by a military atmosphere, and letting their personalities shine through. Ben also explicitly confronts racism, determined, he says, to shatter it, asking, "If art can't be an example for society, where are we heading?" For their part, dancers express their fear of judgment, their need to please, and the struggle to "be your own person." 

The camera is a fly on the wall watching Ben work in offices and rehearsal rooms up to the premiere as he interprets Nico Mulhy's Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward, the title of his project. Intercutting moments from the performance with rehearsals makes striking connections of the ballet's evolution in this insightful inspection of the creative process.

Reset screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, February 3 through Sunday, February 5 at 7:30 each evening.

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