Every once in awhile, rather than telling you about the big films that everyone else is covering, we like to focus on movies that might otherwise get lost in the hype (especially when one of the big ones — say The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I — doesn’t screen in time for our deadlines). This week there are several indie films on area screens that are worth knowing about.
It makes a certain sense that Jon Stewart’s directing debut, Rosewater, would be a serious drama instead of a wacky political satire. When you make sandwiches for a living, you might want to order something else on vacation. The late-night comedian does have a tangential personal connection to his subject. When the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari visited Iran in 2009, he shot a comedy segment for The Daily Show while reporting on the country’s elections. Afterward, he was arrested in a crackdown by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government and discovered that the segment was being taken at face value and used as evidence that he was a Western spy. To no avail, Bahari pointed out to his captors that a real spy (as his interviewer, Jason Jones, purported to be) would be unlikely to have a national TV show. After he was freed, Bahari reflected that even had he appeared on Sesame Street, it would have been used against him.
Gael García Bernal plays Mazi, a London-based correspondent for Newsweek who promises his concerned, pregnant British wife (Claire Foy) that he’ll leave Iran after the vote but then stays to cover the widespread protests and brutal backlash caused by the resulting rigged victory for Ahmadinejad. For interviewing supporters of the opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi who’ve now been labeled enemies of the state, Mazi is kept for 118 days in solitary confinement and tortured — mostly mentally but occasionally physically as well — by an interrogator (Kim Bodnia) who wants a televised confession that Mazi is a foreign agent sent to spread lies and foment unrest. The real-life Bahari nicknamed his tormentor “Rosewater” for his cologne.
Stewart has picked himself a difficult subject. Not only is the movie about torture, but most of it takes place in one small room. With such a limited setting, a filmmaker can either embrace the monotony and claustrophobia to duplicate the protagonist’s boredom and despair, or he can open things up with fantasy sequences and other nonrealistic devices (like Danny Boyle did in 127 Hours) to relieve the boredom and duplicate the wanderings of the protagonist’s disengaged mind. Stewart never settles on one or the other, and so the movie never soars the way the filmmakers clearly hope. Mazi’s hallucinations of his dead sister (Golshifteh Farahani) are meant to convey divine grace but fall short.
More successful are his hallucinations of his father (Haluk Bilginer), a Communist tortured under the Shah’s government, who appears to coach his son through his captivity. (“I would steal pieces of limestone from the yard and play chess with them. I would spend hours playing these games.”) Mazi’s own mental chess games with Rosewater yield some of the movie’s best material, especially during one point when he senses what the torturer wants to hear and feeds Rosewater perfervid sexual fantasies about loose Western women. Rosewater himself starts to fray as Mazi’s international connections (including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) raise a stink about his treatment, which leads to a hilarious moment when the interrogator angrily orders Mazi to call his wife and tell her to stop lying about Iran: “You have to dial 9 to get out!” There have been better films about maintaining one’s sanity and dignity when the system is trying to take them, but Rosewater has a modest power of its own as Mazi leaves the prison with his head held high and a Farsi message for whoever next occupies his cell.
The mid-1990s saw multiplexes inundated by Pulp Fiction rip-offs seeking to imitate Quentin Tarantino’s self-conscious, wisecracking dialogue and blend of violence and humor. Among these was John Herzfeld’s 2 Days in the Valley, a movie best known for a fight sequence between its two female stars, Teri Hatcher and a then-unknown Charlize Theron. Herzfeld hasn’t directed much since then, and his latest effort, Reach Me, shows why. Apparently, he still thinks it’s 1996.
The movie shares its title with a fictitious, wildly popular self-help book written by an anonymous person with the pen name of Teddy Raymond. The book is the thread that ties together the movie’s various Southern California fringe types, including an ex-convict (Kyra Sedgwick) recently granted her freedom, a Catholic undercover cop (Thomas Jane) who feels guilty about all the people he has killed, two low-level mobsters (Omari Hardwick and David O’Hara) chafing at their boss’ orders, and an obsessive gossip website editor (Sylvester Stallone) who assigns a desperate reporter (Kevin Connolly) to the task of exposing Teddy’s identity.
In the hallowed tradition of Pulp Fiction imitators, this movie slathers on layers of quirk as an inadequate substitute for well-developed characters and comic material. Herzfeld never takes a stand on whether we’re supposed to believe Teddy’s self-help spiel — it seems like a whole lot of crap to me — nor do we ever get a clue about why it becomes popular. The cop’s guilt over his vigilantism is neither funny nor does it make a lick of sense, and when his priest (Danny Aiello) tells him that killing is wrong and he must stop, the man of the cloth comes off as utterly clueless about how police do their work. The strategy the reporter uses to find Teddy is little short of idiotic, and even more idiotically, it actually works. There’s a character named Denise Denise (Rebekah Chaney) and a bizarre cameo by Kelsey Grammer as a mob kingpin. If I’ve just given you the sense that random stuff happens for no reason in Reach Me, then I’ve painted you an accurate portrait of this movie. I would have taken another motel-room brawl between Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron just to liven things up.
Georges Simenon is a household name in the French-speaking world for his detective novels built around the character of Inspector Maigret, but The Blue Room is adapted from one of his “serious” literary efforts, a murder mystery about adultery. It opens this weekend at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and while it certainly isn’t bad, it never seems to reach critical mass.
Mathieu Amalric, the short, pop-eyed actor whom you may have seen in Munich, Quantum of Solace, or The Grand Budapest Hotel, directs, co-writes, and stars in this movie as Julien Gahyde, a John Deere sales rep in southwestern France. A married man with a daughter, Julien is nevertheless carrying on a torrid affair with Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau), a married woman who works at a pharmacy in town. Like the novel, the movie intercuts Julien and Esther’s affair with its aftermath, as Julien is interrogated separately by a judge (Laurent Poitrenaux), police, and a psychologist (played by Blutch, the pseudonym of comic-book artist Christian Hincker). The questioning tells us little at first, only revealing that someone is dead and the local press is calling Julien a monster.
Amalric and Cléau do well in the early scenes to capture the sweaty intensity of the affair and the illicit thrill of getting away with it. (They’re also the screenwriters here, and they look better naked than many other screenwriters would.) However, Julien’s questioning by the authorities eventually reveals a deeper truth about his predicament, but that revelation never achieves the power that it’s supposed to. The late Claude Chabrol’s chillers play this particular game better, and so does Gone Girl, which is as much of a French suspense movie as anything Hollywood has ever put out. The Blue Room doesn’t drag at a scant 75 minutes, and it gets by on its sex appeal and its telling insights into character. Only just, though.
Starring Gael García Bernal and Kim Bodnia. Written and directed by Jon Stewart, based on Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy’s memoir. Rated R.
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Connolly, and Kyra Sedgwick. Written and directed by John Herzfeld. Rated PG-13.
The Blue Room
Starring and written by Mathieu Amalric and Stéphanie Cléau, based on Georges Simenon’s novel. Directed by Mathieu Amalric. Rated R.