No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), Iranian musicians recently released from jail, shared a similar passion in music. They wanted put their passion into action so they formed an indie rock band and, with Nader’s (Hamed Behdad) help, obtained visas and passports so they could play internationally. But since their government had a strict policy toward pop music, the three had to go through an underground culture in which getting caught by the authorities meant spending a long time in jail. “I can’t live without music” is a common phrase among teens and young adults and this film gave that saying a certain importance. It showed what great lengths Negar and Ashkan were willing to go through to live a less tethered existence and be immersed in something they simply loved doing. By observing the duo and the various underground bands they encountered, we could appreciate the freedoms most of us take for granted. Placing the cameras in the narrow alleys and not bothering to sharpen blurred images, the picture had an authentic feel. The roughness worked to its advantage because there were times when it felt like a bootleg copy, the same bootlegs that drove forward the underground movement. Although I have a penchant for indie rock, I was glad that it wasn’t the only type of music featured in the film. In order to make sure its message was universal, it showcased other genres like jazz, hard rock, pop, hip-hop, rap, and even world music. As each genre took center stage, the images shown and the style in which they were presented adapted a different energy not dissimilar to watching a music video. Like the film’s subject matter, it felt progressive because the boundary between music and film was challenged. The genres were different from one another but the messages within the songs shared certain themes: The oppression the young adults felt from their government, their love for their friends and families, and the anger that resulted from the marginalization of women and the poor. While the danger of getting caught was always prevalent, it still had a great sense of humor. For instance, Negar and Ashkan visited a farm where a group rehearsed their aggressive hard rock. One of the workers claimed that ever since they started rehearsing there, the cows stopped eating, giving milk, and bothering to get up and move around. I thought it was very amusing because when I hear aggressive hard rock, metal, or screamo, it’s like listening to hyperactive children banging on pots and pans as they screamed to the top of their lungs. “Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh” or “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” directed by Bahman Ghobadi, felt small but revolutionary. But all revolutions start out small.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
I heard about Justin Bieber in 2009, on YouTube, and thought he was some eleven-year-old kid who could sing really well. After a couple of months, he became an international sensation thanks to rabid pre-teen and teenage girls. Directed by John Chu, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” documented the events that led up to Bieber’s performance in the coveted Madison Square Garden. Performing on that stage in a sold-out show established the peak of his career. The film started off strong because it gave me information I didn’t already know. It showed us personal videos before he was discovered by Scooter Braun. As a kid, he had a natural talent for playing drums, guitar, and he could sing songs from various genres with relative ease. There were also some interesting moments when Bieber revisited places in his hometown where he used to perform to get noticed. Where he used to play guitar now stood a little girl playing violin. We learned that he was very close with his grandparents, especially his grandfather, and he was just like a regular kid when he returned home. However, the documentary lost its fast-paced energy as the performance in Madison Square Garden got closer. A stand-out scene was when the film actually showed us the famous Bieber hair flip in slow motion. It was cheeky and I was glad the material wasn’t above that because the hair, arguably, was one of the reasons why the pop star reached superstardom. While the picture cited some of his struggles like contracting an infection in his throat, I didn’t understand why the director failed to isolate his subject and interview him. Instead, the adults around him did the talking. It was obvious that they were hardworking people and they cared about the business but I wanted to hear what Justin had to say. The adults spoke of having a plethora of record labels refusing to be in business with Bieber but the more interesting information was how Justin felt at the time. After traveling across the country which led to so many dead-ends, did he feel frustrated, angry, or disappointed? We didn’t know. The documentary was supposed to be about Bieber so I found it strange and somewhat maddening that he was never asked questions about how he felt, for instance, about having to do over a hundred shows per year and rarely taking a break. He claimed he wanted to make it to every single show. If he was a robot, I would believe him. Instead, I had a sneaky suspicion there was something more to his story. When he was given a chance to speak, it was always somewhere along the lines of, “Go after your dreams!” I just couldn’t help but feel restless. Perhaps the managers were concerned about Bieber saying something he would regret later on. But, in my opinion, if they did have such reservations, why make the movie at all? The most likely answer is money. I’m afraid Beliebers would see this film and retain the idea that celebrity happens overnight. I enjoyed the first forty-five minutes but the rest felt too idealistic, too superficial.
Pirate Radio (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
British rock and pop music had very little exposure on the airwaves despite their undeniable popularily so the colorful crew members (Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris O’Dowd, Nick Frost, Tom Brooke, Tom Wisdom, Rhys Darby, Katherine Parkinson) on a ship decided to broadcast songs every hour of every day. Back in the mainland, England’s minister (Kenneth Branagh), along with his minions, tried to come up with ways to make such broadcasts illegal. Watching this movie was strange because I thought the plot was somewhat weak and unfocused. However, I couldn’t help but love it because the characters were interesting even though some of them were more like caricatures, the humor had a healthy dose of rudeness and crudeness but was never truly offensive, it consistently inspired me to guess what random event would transpire next and, best of all, it showcased my favorite type of music. Essentially, the picture made me want to live in 1960s England so I could be around wicked fashion, freewheeling individuals willing to experiment, and great music that fully defined a generation. Since I felt like the movie was a tribute to people who grew up in the 60s and younger generations who wished they lived in the 60s, I hoped that, despite the movie simply wanting to have fun, the film focused more on Tom Sturridge’s character. He was a rebel (he got kicked out of school for drugs) yet we could not help but love him (he’s still a virgin but lacking experience with girls since he attended an all-boys school) because he was more sensitive and reserved than he let on. I wanted more scenes of him interacting with his neglectful mother (played brilliantly by Emma Thompson) and his supposed to love interest (Talulah Riley). Furthermore, I wanted to see more of his struggles concerning a lack of a father figure. The elements that could contribute to being alienated–and therefore turning to rock and roll–were present but the movie failed to look beneath the surface and offer insight that could surprise or even us. I believe that if “Pirate Radio,” written and directed by Richard Curtis, had a more defined emotional core, it would have been stronger because the risks it had taken would have had stronger payoffs. A movie about sex, drugs and music will fail to grow beyond the obvious if it does not have the heart and the energy to construct three-dimensional characters and storylines. It is particularly difficult for ensemble films but Curtis managed to be successful in “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Nevertheless, I’m giving “Pirate Radio” a recommendation because I appreciated its gesture to fans of British pop and rock and roll. The film was a nice escape because nowadays I can’t even turn on the radio without wanting to bash my head against the wall.