The Past (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Having not seen each other for four years, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) comes to pick up Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport. But it is not exactly a happy reunion. They have business to finalize and it involves making their divorce official so that Marie can legally marry her boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir has a young son (Elyes Aguis) and a wife who is in a coma. Marie’s daughter from another man, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), disapproves of the relationship because she is convinced she knows a certain truth about how and why Samir’s wife has ended up in her current state.
There is a great movie hidden inside “The Past,” written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, but it is nowhere in sight during the first hour. While part of the mystery involves a subtle shift in perspective, much of the exposition and rising action are just above standard marriage drama material that is occasionally interesting because there the plot proves fluid. Just when one expects that the screenplay has settled and is ready to explore its current track, it gets derailed and the subject is an entirely different beast.
Such an approach is not always effective. Part of the problem is this: just when the material is about hit on a particular insight about Marie’s relationship with the two men, it moves on and so we are deprived of the intricacies of human drama. It is a shame because Ahmad, Samir, and Marie are all hurting in some way. They tend to hang onto delusions and hope that when enough time passes, somehow the problems will be less severe or end up working themselves out. This breeds a lot of frustration inside them. Notice how Marie and Samir deal with the children when they do something wrong. It is as if some of the words the parents use to chastise their children are supposed to be aimed at themselves.
I enjoyed how the kids are written. Instead of functioning as mere background characters or relying on cute, it shows that they are capable of real thoughts. They hear the ugly fights between the adults. Afterwards, they think about the words thrown around. The scene involving Fouad talking about a machine keeping his mother alive has real gravity. He seems to have a lot of anger and a part of it is a lack of closure. We get the sense that neither Marie nor Samir has really talked to him about what being in a coma means and what it might entail.
The drama comes into focus—finally—during the latter half where the search for the truth is vigorous and intense. No easy answer or solution is offered. The closer we look at the characters, their exhaustion is all the more apparent. At some point I wondered if they even really cared about the truth anymore. Did they just want to fight because it is a state they have gotten accustomed to? Is it the easier alternative? But then the camera focuses on Samir and the way he deals with the information that faces him. The final scene is memorable but it is without a shadow of doubt that it could have been a lot more meaningful if the rest of the picture had been as astutely written and executed.
Despite a handful of highly engaging scenes, “Le passé” still feels too long. This can be attributed to the tease that is the first half, peeling off layers and getting us to think it will move forward a certain way only to dispose of it. It gets exhausting—and annoying—after a while and so when the strong second half comes around we spend some our time and energy being doubtful instead of fully engrossed.
The Debt (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
In 1965, three Mossad agents, Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), and David Peretz (Sam Worthington), were assigned to abduct Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), also known as the Surgeon of Birkenau, and send the captive, with the help of other spies, to Israel to stand trial for his crimes. Vogel, although a certified doctor, was a proud member of the Nazi party. One of his sick experiments involved attempting to change children’s eye colors which inevitably blinded them. In 1997, Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) stumbled upon critical information surrounding their last assignment and he felt it was his duty to inform his former partners. David (Ciarán Hinds) jumped in front of a truck. Rachel (Helen Mirren) stood trembling in her shoes. The information must not be made public. What really happened during their last mission? Directed by John Madden, “The Debt” contained a number of juicy secrets shared among the characters, whether it be about the kidnapping in East Berlin, how they felt toward one another as government agents as well as people who occupied one apartment for a considerable amount of time, and the great lengths they were willing to go for the minute details of past to remain comfortably in the shadows. Unfortunately, the writing and direction seemed largely disconnected. As a result, the picture felt and looked as if it was performing a juggling act and was rather inept at it. For example, when Mirren’s character was about to do something that could potentially change the game or reveal certain pieces of the puzzle that would make the lightbulbs in our heads to go off, I caught myself looking closely at the screen and getting excited for what was about to happen. But the film failed to deliver the promise by suddenly cutting to the past. I understood what the filmmakers were trying to do. After all, unfinished business was a recurring theme. Jumping between two vastly different times and places could have a big dramatic impact if the past was as interesting as what was about to happen in the present. But it wasn’t. I felt almost cheated that the tease led to a dead end–at least for the time being. The past involved a little bit of romance, a little bit of mystery, and a little bit of action. Though it was clear what the trio were trying to accomplish, and some of the scenes were quite well-done, especially the ones set in the doctor’s office, I was more interested in how the older Rachel and Stephan tried to extricate themselves away from the mess they created for themselves. The thing is, when we know we did something bad, we’re more concerned about the consequences than the actual bad thing we did. There’s something so primal about the fear of getting caught. That’s what “The Debt,” based on the screenplay by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, seemed to miss completely so the emotional peaks were seldom. Although the details of the “bad thing” needed to be addressed, the film should not have been mired in it.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Five teenagers (Kyle Gallner, Rooney Mara, Thomas Dekker, Katie Cassidy and Kellan Lutz) with a mysterious past tried the best they could to not fall asleep because a killer named Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley) wanted to murder them in their dreams causing the teenagers to die in actuality. Being a big fan of the original, I’m happy with this reimagining (falsely labeled as a remake) of 1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” What I liked about it was the fact that it was more story-driven but the jump-out-of-your-seats scares were still there. While the acting from the teenagers was nothing special (and I am a fan of Gallner and Dekker), I did enjoy Haley’s interpretation of the infamous dream killer. The playful personality was still there but I felt like this version of Freddy had more darkness in him. I thought it was creepy how he would let a teenager escape for kicks only to kill the person without remorse once he had this fun. Out of the series, I think this installment had the best visual effects and such were used in an interesting way. (Although I also very much enjoyed Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare.”) For instance, when a character was in a dream and he or she was on the verge of waking up, the images of the dream world and reality would mix. So in a way, the visual effects weren’t just used for kicks. They were used to enhance the experience. However, I did wish that the writers would have had more fun with the characters in terms of finding ways to stay awake. Other than taking stimulating drugs or slapping themselves silly, I wish that a character decided to watch happy movies to get rid of his bad thoughts, hoping that if negative feelings are out of his system, he wouldn’t have nightmares. I’m sure we all know people who take that approach and it would have been nice if that movie acknowledged those people and scared them a bit (or even more). Another issue I had with the film was its use of laughably bad one-liners especially from Freddy. Without the silly lines, I think I would have taken him more seriously. I’m aware that this version wants to pay some sort of homage to its predecessors but the movie could have done it by simply taking all the positive things from them and taking it to the next level. They should have left the bad qualities out the door. Maybe the silly one-liners worked back then because there were a plethora of horror movies coming out at the time but they just don’t work nowadays because we are currently experiencing a drought of exemplary horror pictures. Nevertheless, “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” directed by Samuel Bayer, managed to hit some high points especially with its creative ways of killing. I was very happy with the body bag scene (my favorite scene in the original–every time I think about it, I get goosebumps) but it could have been scarier without the corny lines.