The Salesman (2016) directed by Asghar Farhadi

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Actress Taraneh Alidoosti and director Asghar Farhadi

For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hardliners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals.

However, I believe that the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.

-Excerpt from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s official statement re: not attending the 2017 Oscars (where this film has been nominated Best Foreign Language Film of the Year)

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

The film is openly an allegory about social, urban and marital decay. But way beyond it, it is about the costs of masculine pride. …this is a superb statement about the unbearable consequences of trying to live up to codes of honour that centre on the female body.

-Excerpt from IMDB review

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Shahab Hosseini in A Separation

This is the new film from the famed/respected Iranian director who brought us A Separation. I went to see it two weeks ago (it was a sold-out screening) at AFI in Silver Spring, MD. This movie is NOT as interesting as A Separation (which also co-stars Shahab Hosseini), BUT it’s worth a look (esp. if you like naturalistic cinema). It would’ve been more effective if had been shorter; the running time is a BIT over 2 hrs. There is a much left unsaid (b/c of censors); the limits put on artists are referred to also in the play (A Death of A Salesman) w/in the film.

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Raana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) in The Salesman

A married couple in Tehran, Emad (Hosseini- an engineer turned actor) and Raana (Taraneh Alidoosti), recently moved into a new apt (thanks to their older friend, Babak). They are irritated to discover that one room is locked b/c the previous tenant (“a woman who had many male visitors”) hasn’t come to get her stuff. Babak’s calls go unanswered by the former tenant, so Emad’s friends pry open the door and empty out her stuff. We learn that this woman (no one ever mentions the word “prostitute”) had a young son; his drawings are in one corner of the room.

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Shahab Hosseini at the Cannes Film Festival

WHAT exactly happened to Raana the night she was mistaken for this prostitute and assaulted? It’s left up to the audience to decide, b/c we don’t hear SVU-style details. Hosseini (winner of the Best Actor award at Cannes Film Festival) is in almost every scene; he characterizes an Everyman who slowly breaks down. He can’t communicate well w/ Raana, get help from the law (she wants to forget about it), so gets obsessed w/ finding the attacker (revenge).

…words of truth are spoken not in the real life, but on a theater stage while playing roles.

-Excerpt from IMDB review

Now, this is NOT the type of man you’d expect to act irrationally, being a mild-mannered teacher at a boy’s high school (day job) and actor (in the theater after work). Raana is also acting alongside him and their friends. One of the actresses in the troupe is a divorced single mom w/ an adorable young son. Though Raana and Emad don’t have kids, they are good w/ this boy when they babysit him one evening.

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Emad (Shahab Hosseini) gets his makeup done before the play.

How does Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman relate to their lives? Sorry, I can’t answer that, b/c I haven’t read/seen that play yet. Farhadi said in an interview that the play is VERY popular in Iran, where modern audiences have embraced it.

The last twenty minutes of film are really breathtaking and the spectators associate with Emad more than anytime and I think they regularly ask themselves “if I were him, what would I do?”

-Excerpt from IMDB review

If you’re looking for suspense and tension, then wait until the last quarter of this film. There are intense moments, for sure! By then, Emad is VERY on edge, and getting close to becoming the villain in his own story. Maybe he’s NOT that far from the domineering, volatile, working-class man he played in A Separation? Raana, who has been in a fog of depression, is shocked when she sees his behavior. We wonder: What will happen w/ their marriage?

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Hidden Figures (2017) starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, & Janelle Monae

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A poster for the movie Hidden Figures

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

This is a crowd-pleasing Hollywood movie (which I saw w/ my mom 2 wks ago), BUT about a subject we’ve NEVER heard about- three professional African-American (then referred to as “Negro”) women at NASA in the ’60s. ALL the ladies give strong performances here; they have strong chemistry that makes their long-time friendship seem real. At the center is Katherine Coleman (Taraji P. Henson of Empire)- a former child prodigy, widow, mom of 3 young daughters, and mathematician. Her mind works fast, BUT working w/ the team of engineers (under Al Harrison- Kevin Costner in a low-key performance) prepping for the first manned rocket launch IS a challenge. Katherine grows in her job, gaining confidence and respect (even from racist senior engineer Paul Stafford- Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory).

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Katherine works out the math for a future rocket launch.

In some ways, the film is traditional, esp. how the problems are wrapped up quite nicely. We get the feeling that MAYBE Mary Jackson’s (Janelle Monae) hubby, Levi (Aldis Hodge- star of Underground), is NOT all in for his wife working such long hours and becoming an engineer. However, there are moments where you want to cheer, b/c these ladies are succeeding w/ SO much stacked against them (in a segregated South- Langley, VA). Even going to the bathroom is a hassle, since the “colored” restroom is located on the other side of the large campus!

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Katherine surrounded by her coworkers (all white and male) engineers.

This story would NOT have been told w/o the 2014 book upon which it’s based by Margot Lee Shetterly. She is the daughter of a NASA engineer (her dad); she also grew up in the same town as these “human computers.” As a youngster, Shetterley knew these ladies as neighbors and fellow churchgoers. Yes, we are in the time before IBM was a household name, though eventually Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) learns FORTRAN to program the new computer.  

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Col. John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets Katherine Johnson.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a math/science/history nerd to LOVE this film. (I personally liked the historical elements, esp. the clothes and cars.) One of my fave elements was the slow burn romance between Katherine and a National Guardsman, Major Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali- also in Moonlight). “It’s very rare to see a black man pursuing a black woman” (as was discussed on the JAN 25th Slate Culture Gabfest). Henson and Ali have great chemistry. The surprise proposal/family dinner scene had me in tears!

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The “computers” gather around the TV to watch Col. Glenn’s historic launch.

Films like this are important, esp. today when certain world leaders are trying to close-up borders, restrict (legal) immigration, and creating unease (in anyone who isn’t straight/ white/Republican/ male). Why NOT take the example of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) in this film?  According to historians (and his contemporaries), Glenn was considered “ahead of his time” when it came to race relations. Though one of the white women supervisors tried to rush him inside, Glenn (who later became an Ohio senator) walked over to where the black computers were standing in the welcome line; they shook hands and chatted briefly. Without the combined work on dozens of black women, he would never have gone into space! 

Lion (2017) starring Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar & Nicole Kidman

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the movie.

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A poster for the film Lion.

I went to see this MUST-SEE film 3 weeks ago (w/ the NetSAP book club); I had read a FEW chapters of the book upon which its based (A Long Way Home) by Saroo Brierley. The theater (Landmark E St in DC) was packed that SUN afternoon- like nothing I’d seen before! I heard that MANY people has been coming to see La La Land; however, the Oscar buzz had been strong re: several other recent films (incl. Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight). Last year, #OscarsSoWhite was a VERY popular hashtag on Twitter (and other social media); this year, there are diverse movies in the mainstream theaters… AND they’re making money, too.

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Five year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) with his eldest brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate)

As soon as I saw him, he just felt like the kid that I’d been imagining and feeling, and then we got him into the rehearsal space and I put a camera on him. I just felt like we were watching our movie. -Garth Davis, director (on Sunny Pawar)

The MAIN reason to see this film is Sunny Pawar, the unknown child actor who plays Young Saroo. He had never acted before and didn’t speak English. The ONLY other performance I can compare it to is that of the tween Anna Paquin in The Piano. Unlike Paquin, Pawar doesn’t have a LOT of dialogue; he expresses himself mainly through his eyes and actions. At the start of the film, Saroo is living with his siblings and mother (played by Priyanka Bose) in the village of Ganesh Talai in the Khandwa District of Central India. He and his older brother, Guddu, go out each morning in the hopes of getting some change, fruit, or (if they’re lucky) milk. His mother works in a quarry, hauling rocks; her husband left her for another woman in a different town (this is discussed a BIT in the book). They are a happy family, though VERY poor and uneducated.

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Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) in the homeless children’s center in Calcutta.

One night, after Guddu goes off to work (telling him to wait), Young Saroo goes to sleep at the nearby train station. When he wakes up, he doesn’t see ANYONE around, so he gets on an empty train to explore… and it takes off! He ends up in the busy city of Calcutta and somehow survives on the streets for 2 mos. (though he doesn’t know the language, Bengali). One day, a seemingly kind woman, Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee- star of Brick Lane), living near the train tracks takes him to her apartment. She feeds him, gives him a bath, and asks about his life. Young Saroo suspects something is wrong when Noor’s male friend (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui- one of India’s BEST character actors) visits and checks him out. In no time, the quick-witted (and fast-running) kid is out the door! 

After some time at a crowded homeless center (more like a prison) for kids, Saroo gets the news from Mrs. Sood (a kind social worker) that an Australian couple- Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley- want to adopt him. He wonders if everything possible was done to try and find his mother, and Mrs. Sood confidently says “yes.” The local police had interviewed him, ads had been put in the newspapers, BUT his family was a LONG way from Calcutta (which is located in West Bengal). 

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Sue (Nicole Kidman) and Saroo (Sunny Pawar) meet for the first time.

When Saroo reaches Australia (Tasmania to be exact), he easily takes to his new life w/ the Brierleys, who are solidly middle-class and run a charter boat business. He is a comfort to Sue after the family faces challenges w/ his younger brother, Mantosh, who suffered much before he was adopted (also from India). John instills in Saroo a love of the outdoors. 

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The adult Saroo (Dev Patel) uses Google Earth to find his way home.

Dev Patel does a good job as the grown-up Saroo (incl. accent), a young man who loves his adopted family, but feels compelled to find his birth mother. She “could be out there suffering,” wondering where he is, he tells long-time girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara). Some friends in his graduate certificate program think that w/ modern technology (Google Earth) he could try and find his old hometown. 

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Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel at the BFI London Film Festival

Nicole Kidman (an Aussie), has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar; she does a fine job as a kind, understanding, and VERY emotionally strong mother. Saroo and Mantosh are “not blank slates” as her own children would’ve been, Saroo explains in one of my favorite scenes. Sue could’ve had her own (natural) children, she admits, BUT she and John chose to adopt knowing there are already MANY kids out in the world that need good homes. (Kidman, in real life, has adopted children.) 

Another element that makes this SUCH a compelling film is it’s superb editing; the life of the adult Saroo is intercut (at times) w/ that of his younger self. Seeing the plate of jalebi at his Indian friends’ house takes Saroo back to when he saw that sweet treat being fried in the marketplace. The music is very good (never over the top), which is quite suited for the film. This story has a big pay-off in the end, which is true to life!   

 

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