The Circle (Dayereh, Iran-Italy-Switz, 2000) and Offside (Iran, 2006)

We are watching you

Jafar Panahi was fortunate, I think, to be on the jury of this year’s Cannes film festival as it made his incarceration in Iran high profile and newsworthy so probably led to his release. The fact he was also on hunger strike accentuated the situation. His ‘crime’ was, reportedly, planning to make a film about last year’s disputed election in Iran. Was his arrest a tribute to the power of filmmakers or simply a symptom of the insecure feelings of an illegitimate government?

Panahi has anti-Iranian establishment form and these two films portray the ludicrous patriarchal aspects of Iran’s Islamic nation. The Circle starts with a mother worried her daughter will be divorced because the her newly-born grandchild is a girl and not the expected boy. The women are throughout restricted by what they can do because they don’t have a man’s permission. Hypocrisy reigns as – pictured above – a character is asked to make a phone call by a policeman just in case a husband answers the phone and the women are constantly verbally sexually hassled by men on the street.

Panahi’s genius is his use of realism as the camera, at the start, seems to wandering the streets capturing what’s going on. We’re often in the dark as to what’s happening (why were the women imprisoned?) just as we would be as external observers to the events. It’s also tightly structured, it begins and ends – like The Searchers – with an opening and closing of a door.

Not watching a football match

In some ways Offside is more audacious than The Circle as it was shot on location defined by both place and time. The ‘time’ being the day of a crucial World Cup qualifier and much of the film is shot at the stadium where the game took place. Brilliance all round from cast and crew to make this one work. Again the theme’s the subjugation of women – they are not allowed to watch the match as they might hear ‘bad’ language – and their sisterhood as they resist men’s power. While most of the men in The Circle are negatively represented, here we get to know the women’s guards and they are mostly fairly pathetic characters who are simply following orders.

Panahi shot the film hoping that Iran would win the game in order to have an upbeat ending. This contrasts with the bleakness of The Circle and it’s unfortunate that the earlier film seems to be the one that accurately portrays the conditions in Iran at the moment. And as I write this the news tells me that the Israelis are using their usual violent tactics in killing at least 11 people bringing supplies to the Palestinians. Until the Palestinian question is resolved (and I don’t mean Israel’s solution) then the mess to the Middle East will continue to destabilise the world.

Waitress (US, 2007)

Why wait for Mr Right?

There’s nothing particularly brilliant in this mildly comic, mildly romantic film but it’s worth watching and remarking upon Adrienne Shelley (above left) as she also wrote and directed. All power to this female perspective on romance and while it’s normal to see males presented as hapless in romcoms, there’s an underlying edge here that suggests that haplessness is not really forgivable.

Cheryl Hines (above right) is the best of the actors, familiar as Larry David’s wife in Curb Your Enthusiasm she mingles sass with vulnerability beautifully. The male characters are not fully fledged, we never see the protagonist’s husband as anything other than a boring boor (how could she have married him!?), and the doctor-lover is also bereft of motivation for his actions. However, that didn’t particularly matter and I liked the female-empowerment conclusion although, the set design suggests, it is really only a fantasy in this world.

As writer-director-star, Adrienne Shelley might be considered an auteur however it’s three years since her first feature; how about letting her make another one?

[REC] (Spain, 2007)

Naughty girl

While there might be nothing original about this zombie movie – the girl above originates from Night of the Living Dead (1968) – there’s plenty of thrills to be derived from the ‘it’s all being recorded as it happens’; also seen in The Blair Witch Project (1998), Day of the Dead (also 2007) and predating Cloverfield (2008). There’s much to admire about the use of location in this low budget shocker (there’s just enough gore) as it makes a virtue of the restricted locations and is short enough not to outstay its welcome. The audio’s excellent too, never has the sound of panic been so vividly rendered as it has in the film’s climactic scene.

Four Lions (UK, 2010)

Four berks

In the current issue of Sight and Sound Chris Morris explains:

‘A bomb goes off. We tear about like headless chickens. Our dread infests the fabric. We change our laws. We restrict our freedoms. We lash out at strangers. Brilliant. Of course we long to laugh at our fears, but we don’t know how. Where’s the joke? Actually, ‘Four Lions’ demonstrates it’s staring you right in the face. At training camps young jihadis argue about honey, shoot each other’s (sic) feet off and chase snakes. A minute into his martyrdom video, a would-be bomber asks the cameraman, “What was that question again?” Terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed spends two hours looking for a costume that won’t make him look fat on camera. And when 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta was teased for pissing too loudly, he blamed the Jews form making the thin doors.

‘In three years of research, I have spoken to terrorism experts, imams, police, secret services and hundreds of Muslims. Even those who have fought jihad report the frequency of farce. On millennium eve, five jihadis planned to ram a US warship with a launch full of bombs. In the dead of night they slipped their boat into the water. They stacked it with explosives. They stepped in. It sank.

‘Terrorist cells have the same group dynamics as stag parties and five-a-side football teams. There is conflict, friendship, misunderstanding and rivalry. Terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks.’

It’s no surprise that Morris should cast a berk’s eye view on the world as he’s always thrived on doing so. Four Lions is a brilliant comedy on the absurdity of both jihad and the ‘war on terror’. It doesn’t look at the causes of either but shows the effect of being in a world where western imperialism resisted by eastern religion. So don’t go and see this film for analysis, go for the (often uncomfortable) laughs. It portrays British Muslims as everyday (if not quite normal) people and, I think, wins our sympathies for them; they are, after all, just everyday berks (as we all often are).

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (US, 2006)

Girls on top?

This could have been good; this could have been very good. Mocking male sexual anxiety is always good and letting the girls (women?) be on top; that’s good. Female super heroes: excellent. What’s not to like? It’s funny too: having a shark thrown at you by an ex-lover, brilliant!

Then it dawned on me that the film was actually about female hysteria. It’s meant to be hysterical that we laugh at a spurned woman’s tantrums. And sexual harassment at work? Well, that’s funny too!

Then we get a ‘bitch fight’: genius. That’s so funny. What could be funnier than girls fighting! It’s just not natural; they’re no good at it!

So this is a funny film; it’s also a misogynist film.

My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo, S.Korea, 2001, and US, 2008)

Anarchy rules

Tamar Jeffers McDonald (Romantic Comedy, Wallflower, 2007) suggests that, in the screwball comedy, affection is expressed through aggression and that the protagonist is often female; an anarchic force that disrupts the stuffy male. Katharine Hepburn is the archetype – so brilliant is she that that word is correct – in the classic Bringing Up Baby (1938) and ‘The Girl’, of the original S.Korean My Sassy Girl, is in direct lineage to Hepburn’s character. In the US remake the character is named (Jordan Roark) and comes from a rich family; also like Hepburn’s character in Baby.

Not sweet enough?

I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the American version having enjoyed the original, however it is interesting to see how the narrative is adapted for the US audience. The main differences are in the Hollywood version:

  • at the beginning we are introduced to the boy’s family, an all American small town which I suppose is meant to explain his passivity in the face of the sassy girl
  • in S.Korean version, the girl throws up over a passenger in the commuter train; in the American version her outrageous behaviour – which brings them together – isn’t outrageous at all
  • he doesn’t take her back to a hotel; due to prudishness? In the S.Korean version it’s entirely chaste anyway
  • she’s rich; we learn nothing of the S.Korean girl’s background
  • her anarchic role more obvious in her comment about it’s sad that he wants a corporate future. Though that’s a bit rich from her, holding him in contempt for wanting a materially secure life, when she’s got daddy’s money
  • he has a mate that explains what’s going on (a generic trope)
  • there are fast motion bits in the American version, presumably to make it look more interesting
  • the ending adds syrup to schmaltz (‘Destiny is building a bridge to the one you love’)

I’m not sure what conclusions we can draw. Obviously in adapting a film for a different culture (market) there will be changes and, using the imdb’s audience ratings, the changes were not successful. The original is 8 whilst the remake scores a pathetic 5. It was badly done.

Drag Me to Hell (US, 2009)

Looney horror

Sam Raimi goes back to his Evil Dead (1981, 1987) roots with this film that owes as much to Looney Tunes as it does to the Gothic. I would have preferred the banks to have been the evil Other, rather than eastern European gypsies, however the loan officer protagonist is a sympathetic character as she weaves her way through the genre’s tropes to become (maybe) the Final Girl.

I’m finding CGI as a representational mode increasingly boring: ‘Yeah, yeah it’s the devil coming out of the ground’. However Raimi, and his co-script writer brother, use CGI as much for the gags as the spectacle and the eye-popping special effects are often just that: eyes popping. Undoubtedly this is the funniest horror movie I’ve seen mingling the ‘gross out’ (how many times does the weird old woman vomit into the protagonist’s mouth?!) with the cartoon set ups beloved off Looney Tunes; an anvil (yes, an anvil!) lands on the evil woman’s head.

There are also some great action sequences, such as the fight in the car, and unsettling use of shadows; the film also boasts great sound design that I’m sure was extremely effective in the cinema.