2016 | DIRECTOR: DANIEL GROVE | REVIEW BY ALEX MAYNARD.
I’d never heard of the Tehrangeles district that formed in Los Angeles following Iran’s revolution, yet writer/director Daniel Grove casts it through a lens of excess and opulence that makes sense in light of the context his film provides. Two exceptional opening sequences provide both the factual information surrounding the Iran-Iraq War and a glimpse at its impact on individuals. Subsequently, Grove depicts those lucky enough to survive emigrating to pursue the American Dream, including former child soldier Behrouz (Reza Sixo Safai). While Behrouz has legitimate career aspirations, he’s simultaneously an immigrant who will do whatever it takes to achieve the romanticised notion of a ‘better life’; THE PERSIAN CONNECTION is full of similarly minded people, from real estate moguls to drug kingpins. As alluded to above, the version of Tehranangeles on display here at first appears to reveal the glamorous outcome of this pursuit, indeed, the cinematography in club scenes during the film’s first half is stunning. Yet beneath the fluorescent glow we see danger, addiction, corruption and a sense of entitlement that stems from relying on others’ success. Worldbuilding is particularly crucial for any genre film, and Grove provides it in spades.
Meanwhile, Behrouz’s nadir and efforts at redemption may be archetypal neo-noir story beats, but Safai brings a range of emotions to the role that elevate him to a compelling protagonist. This is most apparent when he is coerced into assassinating Sepehr (Nikolai Kinski), an acquaintance with whom he shares a complicated relationship; despite their history, Behrouz is genuinely reluctant to go through with the task. I adored the following sequence not just for its brilliant directing choices such as emphasising brutality using different framing, but for the changes shown by Behrouz within mere minutes: he is merciful, desperate, ruthless and grief-stricken all at once. Likewise, the romantic relationship between him and Oksana (Helena Mattsson) typically feels like more than a simple genre requisite through Safai’s sincerity, for instance, suggesting that the couple take a holiday together because “that’s what people do” when they care about each other. Nevertheless, while the Oksana subplot connects cleverly to Behrouz’s main arc, it’s unfortunate that it drives so much of THE PERSIAN CONNECTION’s final third, culminating in a predictable and slightly melodramatic conclusion that was saved only by its effects and art direction. In my opinion, the script also could have used a little more polish, given there were several moments throughout where character dialogue felt awkward, especially from Farid (Dominic Rains).
THE PERSIAN CONNECTION’s embrace of neo-noir conventions will undeniably please genre fans, but it arguably deserves even greater recognition for offering a distinct perspective. Ultimately, this film is a consistently engaging and gritty watch that integrates culture and history into its narrative so seamlessly, you might learn something without even realising.
The Persian Connection is now available through Eagle Entertainment.
Schumer plays Renee, a supposedly “average-looking” and overweight woman who works in the basement of a renowned cosmetic company. Considered to be too ugly to work up top, she spends her days daydreaming about a better life. When she suffers a concussion at a spin-cycle class, she wakes up believing that she is insatiably gorgeous and the envy of the world. Her misplaced confidence sees her strutting her imagined “attractive” self from one situation to another, unaware that she actually looks the same.
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Most significantly, Jonathan straddles two storylines that are never reconciled as clearly as writer/director Thomas Baldinger seems to have intended. The eponymous Jenna (Tracey Birdsall) is both Jonathan’s new love interest and his boss’ sister-in-law, yet none of the potential conflicts this could present for all three characters are addressed until well into the film’s second half. In an unexpected decision, the relationship between Jonathan and the boss, Joe (Garry Pastore), receives the most attention; I don’t recall the latter even sharing a scene with Jenna. Although using traits such as outright racism and homophobia to subsequently cast Joe as an antagonist feels unsubtle, there’s no inherent problem with this. However, drawing the audience’s attention to a pre-existing character dynamic and not resolving it is a glaring Chekhov’s gun waiting to be fired. Similarly, there’s a recurring joke about Jenna resembling a famous porn actress which doesn’t pay off despite Baldinger granting it substantial explanation and emphasis. An actual porn actress cameos as herself briefly, and once again WHO’S JENNA? fails to take advantage of its own setup by simply having its title character appearing onscreen with her.
By contrast, the film dedicates time to providing detail where it isn’t necessary. For instance, the opening sequence depicts Jonathan’s parents en route to the hospital for his birth, as well as revealing that their neighbours are expecting a child at the same time. While the dialogue and interactions between the two couples are hilarious, they don’t complement the main plot enough to justify the sequence’s existence. The neighbours’ son Andy (Joseph D’Onofrio) grows up to be Jonathan’s best friend, yet the fact that they share a birthday or even were childhood neighbours is never mentioned; likewise, their parents are never seen nor heard from during the present-day scenes. Meanwhile, after Joe blackmails Jonathan into closing their company’s account for a client named Kevin Steele (Michael Tota), the otherwise insignificant Steele is essentially given his own subplot. Thankfully, he’s an irreverent porn actor, which does offer some variety to the film’s humour, including an absurd sight gag that I won’t spoil.
There are at least three plot threads from WHO’S JENNA? that were engaging enough to warrant a more sustained focus, and it’s a testament to the acting that I believe doing so would be entertaining with any combination of the major characters. A tendency to mismanage time throughout the film limits each of these ideas’ scopes and resembles a proof of concept, but nevertheless, the strengths largely outweigh the weaknesses.
And the film makes the choice easy for audiences. If you liked the first Super Troopers then you will want to see this long-awaited sequel, and if you didn’t like it, then why would you bother? And so, stepping back into my [none of your business] year-old shoes from 2001, I came to part 2 with nostalgia on my mind and a grin on my face. And what a great time I had.
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Given that Landis is directing his own script, it should come as no surprise that ME HIM HER’s greatest strength is its writing. I loved that its central premise targeted Hollywood’s attitudes towards gay actors, an ongoing and complex issue to which the film smartly doesn’t try to offer an easy resolution. The decision to give Brendan (Luke Bracey)’s storyline a happy ending is important for affirming the script’s LGBT-positive message, but as a recent Indiewire article pointed out, there remains systemic pressure for relative unknowns in film and television to suppress parts of their identity to receive more job opportunities. Indeed, Brendan’s PR team cynically suggest in an early scene that when and how to come out is more important than the announcement itself, which he even follows outside of professional settings.
This mounting pressure and uncertainty is why both Brendan and the film need Cory (Dustin Milligan) to provide levity. Although his storyline is more predictable and unfortunately steals the focus away from Brendan’s, in my opinion it was necessary to achieve Landis’s desired tone. Cory at times feels like a character from a cartoon or comic, particularly during a Scott Pilgrim-esque swordfight sequence, and his outright wackiness is where ME HIM HER’s direction borrows most heavily from John Landis-era comedy. I found this was most enjoyable when Cory and Brendan were given the chance to play off each other such as in a brilliant scene reuniting with the latter’s parents; Bracey and Milligan have a dynamic that feels like the believable product of a long friendship, and typically led to strong one-liners. Nevertheless, Cory’s plot thread ultimately amounts to his attempts to get closer to Gabbi (Emily Meade) after a one-night stand, which was simply unengaging beyond leading to some of his zanier behaviour and as previously mentioned was given too much runtime.
My issues with the Cory-Gabbi plot are closely linked to ME HIM HER’s most glaring issue: strange and occasionally ill-advised directing choices. I felt that a dream sequence featuring the duo was shot so confusingly that it brought the pacing to a halt, and throughout the film lines of dialogue would be given subtitles or appear printed onscreen in huge letters seemingly at random and without any explanation. Meanwhile, Gabbi’s realisation of her bisexuality could’ve been explicitly paralleled with Brendan’s coming out, yet Meade seemed to become more passive and mumbled her dialogue during the second half outside of a single scene. As writer-director, Landis should have facilitated a greater consistency between the ostensible motivations from his script and the actors’ interpretations.
Overall, ME HIM HER reveals plenty of potential from Max Landis as a comedic auteur, and he should continue working within the genre so that the role of director feels more intuitive. With a script that manages to stay optimistic and funny while giving a nuanced take on a contemporary issue, it makes for a charming and easy watch.
It is unprofessional of me to rely on internet acronyms, however LOL... Hollywood have been celebrating retro storytelling for aeons, and it is simply a shift in perception that determines what qualifies as “retro”. A reliable measurement is generally 30-years, as proven by filmmakers in the 60s and 70's telling stories from the 30's and 40's (The Sting, Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown), and filmmakers from the 80's and 90's celebrating the 50's and 60's (Stand By Me, A Christmas Story, The Outsiders) etc. And so we arrive at contemporary Hollywood, where the children of the 80's and 90's are the filmmakers of today, and they are telling stories that reflect their own upbringing. Suffice to say that “retro” is an ever-shifting perimeter that has always permeated cinema.
As for Spielberg's age (sorry) … LOL. The guy IS retro, not to mention being responsible for the majority of homages being paid today. He created some of cinema's most iconic characters and has watched the creation and evolution of videos games from an entirely adult perspective. From Atari's “Computer Space” ('71) to Ubisoft's “Farcry 5” ('18), he has witnessed the rise of the video game industry and has even contributed to it with games like “ET”, “The Dig” and “Medal of Honor”. And considering his precision with technologically sophisticated filmmaking (Minority Report, War of the Worlds, The Adventures of Tin Tin etc) I can't think of a more qualified candidate to direct the theatrical adaptation of Ernest Cline's cult novel READY PLAYER ONE!
Set in 2045 the film depicts a dystopian future where society is crippled by poverty, over population and corporate greed. To escape the wretchedness of their deprived existence, the citizens of the world spend most of their time inside a virtual utopia known as The Oasis. It is an online game universe where people can socialise, profit and indulge. There are no rules and the virtual world is populated with pop cultural references from the previous decades. When the creator of The Oasis died, he left behind an easter egg; a secret treasure buried deep within the game, and whosoever should discover it would, in turn, inherit his wealth and ownership of the entire Oasis. And so for several years the world has been invested in the quest for The Oasis, and giant corporations pour endless resources into acquiring the game's enormous value. To put it bluntly, READY PLAYER ONE is a science fiction adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The film itself is a treasure trove of pop cultural references and demands multiple viewings. It is so chocked with famous characters and references that no one viewer could possibly identify all that the film has to offer. From the obvious nods to Back to the Future, Godzilla and The Iron Giant, to more subtle treats from Say Anything, Tomb Raider, Christine and Knight Rider. The density of references is overwhelming and gamers and movie-goers alike have been treated to the biggest scavenger hunt cinema has ever seen.
Such is the nature of the story and its concept that there isn't any time for those pesky things like character development and subtext... and who needs 'em? READY PLAYER ONE doesn't need that level of depth, and its strength lies within its adventure. Much like Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, or The Goonies (which he wrote) the film is a methodical point-to-point structure, with each advancement relying on the solving of a riddle. We know of our character only what we need to, and rather than adding extra convolution to the story, their personal motivations are simple. Hardship and oppression are the forces which drive all of these people, and delving into their own personal back stories would be a disservice to the narrative.
Spielberg embraces the intricacies of the READ PLAYER ONE universe with the skill and finesse that we should expect from him, and rather than being an out of touch codger (as many predicted) he proves to be an articulate and astute practitioner, blending his contemporary proficiency with his love of nostalgia. Of course he would not have made the film without the reliance of the source material and a stable of nerdish advisors... but hey, no captain steers their ship without deckhands.
While there's little room for stand-out performances, the cast is made up of a reliable ensemble. Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cook and Ben Mendelsohn lead the film and portray their live action characters as well as their online avatar counterparts. They all offer an appealing on-screen presence, with Mendelsohn indulging in a particularly maniacal villainous persona. They are supported by players such as TJ Miller, Lena Whaithe, Simon Pegg and an exceptionally dynamic Mark Rylance. Rylance has become Spielberg's unofficial muse, having previously given outstanding performances in The BFG and Bridge of Spies. He gives a fantastic turn as the meek and geeky video game developer who created The Oasis, and he taps into the nerd-like nuances to perfection.
Steven Spielberg has outdone himself with READY PLAYER ONE, and delivered a film that cannot be fully surmised with one viewing. It is richly textured, methodically detailed, and above all else.... incredibly fun. See it once at the cinema.... see it again at the cinema.... and then watch it over and over again in HD at home. I suspect it will continue to reveal its secrets for some time to come.