Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Salesman, Short Takes on The LEGO Batman Movie

                          It’s a Small-Minded-World After All
Improvement-advocate Mr. Parker also suggested that I accompany
my writings with a nicely-shot photo. That's a useful idea, but until
 such time as I get one I'll remind you of what I look like with a more
characteristic shot of me and my wife, Nina Kindblad, celebrating our
plaques after drinking all of the 100+ beers on tap at San Leandro,
CA's Englander Sports Pub & Restaurant
(no, not all in 1 day)

 In response to some fine suggestions made by Richard Parker (he's been my most frequent reader/contributor along with being virtually my second-Guy-in-the dark—sorry, Pat, but he writes more in one response than you have over these last 5 years [yet, I'll always be optimistically-waiting for that 1st review to arrive from you]), I’ve adjusted the Two Guys analytical-structure into a 3-level offering:  (1) a very brief statement intended to set the situation about this particular post's chosen subject matter for those who only want a quick sense of what’s on screen, (2) a spoiler-free mini-review mostly for those who'll read it but still want to consider seeing whatever’s been chosen for my current investigation without learning too much plot detail, (3) my traditional detailed, spoiler-laden explorations for those who’ve either already seen what I’m writing about or may want to read instead of watching (saving a few bucks in the process). I’ll also continue doing Short Takes reviews as circumstances arise (with a goal of making them shorter than I've often done previously), as well as putting some reader-data at the very end of each posting.  Your opinions on the viability of this structure are always appreciated.
                                    Reviews by Ken Burke
                       The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, 2016)
In Tehran, Iran a married couple starring in a production of Death of a Salesman find themselves involved in their own personal tragedy when the wife is suddenly attacked in their new apartment, sending her husband on a revenge quest to identify the attacker, then make him pay for his crime; some of his mission is resolved but not nearly to his satisfaction.
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): A married couple in Tehran, Iran are the leading actors in a revival of Death of a Salesman, but their personal lives begin to mirror the tragedy on-stage when an earthquake damages their apartment building, forcing them to accept the offer of a fellow thespian to take over an apartment he manages, recently vacated.  What they don’t learn initially from their colleague—after they’ve stacked unclaimed belongings onto the porch outside their entryway—is that the woman who moved out, freeing up the place for them (leaving much of her stuff in a locked room), was apparently a prostitute who brought a sense of shared shame to the neighbors, all too eager to see her leave.  Communal discomfort then turns to personal tragedy when the husband must stay behind in the theatre after a performance one night to discuss some concerning passages with the censors, so when the wife (who’s come home, expecting him to join her later) is about to take a shower she nonchalantly presses the “enter” button on their intercom, assuming she’s opening the door for her mate.  Instead, when he does return later he finds bloody footprints on the stairs leading up to their dwelling, broken glass in the bathroom, his wife not there.

 After he finds out that she’s been taken to the hospital by neighbors to treat her injuries he learns the truth about the former tenant, is incensed with his actor-friend for not having told him about this situational complication, assumes from this new information that his wife was attacked (although we never learn the extent of what happened to her because she won't talk about it) by a previous-client of the mysteriously-elusive-and-promiscuous woman, then sets out to find the attacker on his own because his wife is still very consistent in her adamant refusal to report her assault to the police. The husband then gets an unexpectedly-surprising-development because the intruder apparently left in a rush dropping his car keys, so the husband’s able to locate the vehicle in the street below, but one day it’s gone again because the wife parked it back on the street tired of having to move it in their garage as they have no assigned parking space (she’s also terribly traumatized by the situation, pushing her husband to find them another place to live).  By chance, the husband happens upon this pickup truck later in another part of the city, leading him to track down his wife’s assailant, setting up a lengthy, tense, unexpected set of events concerning this discovered man as the moral complexions escalate.  When this all develops to a resolution (with some parallels to the Miller play) what we’re left with is a gripping story about human frailty, well worth its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

So, curious readers, if you can abide plot spoilers in order to learn much more about the particular cinematic offering under examination this week please feel free to read on for more of the traditional Two Guys in-depth-explorations in our brilliant (!)-but-lengthy review format.

What Happens: In modern-day Tehran, Iran a married couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are the lead actors in a revival of Arthur Miller’s famous play, Death of a Salesman (1949), but there are tensions and inadequacies among the cast which we observe during rehearsals, only to become minor problems compared to what our protagonists must deal with in their private lives.  Suddenly one day, the couple’s apartment building is shaken by an earthquake caused by construction next door; while everyone escapes unharmed there’s just too much structural damage to continue living there so they end up accepting an offer from one of their thespian colleagues, Babak (Babak Karimi), to move into a flat in a building he manages (or maybe owns; when taking notes in the dark on a film where the dialogue’s all in Farsi [I hope that doesn’t prevent you from seeing this masterful work] I tend to miss some details as I’m scribbling while the subtitles are slipping away from me on screen), which is a bit rundown but Babak doesn’t intend to charge them any rent (Emad’s not sold on that offer yet, despite their strained finances helped only a bit by his other job teaching literature at a local high school [his students could be lower-classmen college undergrads; to my approaching-70-eyes it’s getting harder to make such distinctions]).  As they move in, though, they find a room locked by the previous tenant, whom Babak’s in infrequent-touch with, as she’s also trying to find a new address.  They break down the door, put the woman’s belongings on the large, open breezeway outside of their entryway, then try to go on with their lives.

 The play finally opens to warm response but Emad has to stay after the performance to discuss  3 potentially-questionable-passages with the local sensors so Rana goes on home, prepares to take a shower just when the intercom buzzer rings.  Assuming it’s Emad, she simply buzzes the lower gate open without picking up the telephone receiver to verify who it is.  Later, when Emad does return he becomes increasingly troubled as he encounters bloody footprints on the public stairs (their flat is several floors up), their door open, broken glass and more blood in the bathroom, but no Rana.  Neighbors tell him she’s been taken to the hospital so he goes to find her not too damaged physically (bandages on her head) but horribly emotionally shaken; from the neighbors he learns that the former tenant was a prostitute (she’s never directly called such, as I imagine there are a lot of sensitive topics Farhadi had to carefully work around with his real-life-censors, but the context makes it clear this woman was more than just promiscuous [although I assume that’s a deadly-enough-lifestyle today in this extremely-restrictive-country]) so Emad assumes Rana’s assailant was a client of this (never-seen) former-tenant, making him  angry at Babak for allowing them into this situation (although distraught Rana admits later she should have answered the intercom, not just casually opened the gate).  She’s shaken to the core—can’t sleep, suffers memory lapses, is desperate to move elsewhere—but an attempt to resume her Death of a Salesman role also goes badly as she breaks down in the middle of a scene, requiring the show to be cancelled until another woman in the cast can take on the role.  Emad’s furious at the situation, especially about Rana's refusal to let him go to the police.

 Then he gets new hope for furthering his personal revenge quest by finding that the intruder left some money on one of their bookshelves (which he angrily puts into a drawer) along with a set of keys, leading Emad to locate the intruder’s truck on the nearby-street, after which he moves the vehicle into the apartment building’s big  underground garage, even though he has to shift it around frequently with the cooperation of their helpful neighbors because his flat doesn’t come with an assigned parking space; now Emad assumes that he’ll be able to find or even catch the assailant using the truck as bait, but this plan fails because during a Death ... performance one night Rana takes a cast member’s young son to their flat to watch over him, puts the truck back on the street because she’s tired of moving it, then uses the money she’s found to buy a nice dinner for all 3 of them when Emad returns.  When he realizes what money she used to buy the food he throws it into the garbage, then finds the truck is gone, so this marriage is now mired in frustrated-anger up against emotional-dysfunction.  However, one day in another part of town he stumbles upon the truck again, finds out the deliveryman-driver’s identity, then tries to con the young man into meeting him at his old, condemned apartment to help move some items.  However, when the day arrives it’s the driver’s father who comes, an old man with heart problems who barely makes it up the stairs for the supposed task.  Through some questioning, though, Emad eventually learns from The Man (Farid Sajadhosseini; we’re never given a character name) that he often uses his son's truck in the evenings to make deliveries, was a client of that elusive woman, arrived that night to help move her 
abandoned stuff to a new location, came into the apartment thinking that Rana was his clandestine lover, swears he never entered the bathroom, yet can’t explain how he cut his foot.  Under duress from Emad's constant, harsh interrogation, he ambiguously yet sincerely begs for the angry man's forgiveness only to find himself locked in when Emad rushes off for the impending performance of Death of a Salesman.  Right after the end of the play (with Rana as Linda Loman weeping over the body of her tragically-dead-husband, the failed Willy [played by Emad]), the distracted star of the show foregoes applause to just rush away again (followed close behind by Rana) to where The Man’s held captive, only to find him in serious medical trouble; while Rana comforts the old guy, Emad finds his needed pills in the man’s car, gets him revived again, calls his family to come retrieve him, even as Rana tells her husband not to tell the truth of The Man's circumstances with either her or the whore to his family or she’ll leave Emad.  When the wife, son, etc. arrive, they thank Emad and Rana for their help with Dad, but before they leave Emad takes The Man aside, gives back the money he left, then slaps him hard.  As his family’s slowly walking him down the building’s long staircase he has another heart attack, seemingly dies even as they attempt to rush him off to a hospital.  In the film’s final scene, Emad and Rana are in makeup preparation for another night of Death …, either looking distracted or him staring at her in quiet fury.

So What? Opening in a haunting manner with shots of the empty stage where the Death ... (irony intended) rehearsals will soon enough occur, this film progresses through a very specific set of circumstances about human tragedy, opening itself up for speculations, interpretations, contemplations by offering us no easy answers for the characters' motivations or even full clarifications of plot events.  While it’s clear that something happened that fateful night between Rana and The Man (despite the offer of his failed-excuse: he says he never went into the bathroom where she was showering, seemingly after leaving his money on the shelf for what he expected to happen before he hauled away any of the mystery woman’s stored belongings, implying that Rana somehow became aware of his entry into the apartment, panicked, broke the shower glass, injuring herself—although that gives no credence to how he cut his foot, seemingly on a piece of glass big enough to penetrate his shoe) all we learn from Rana is that he touched her hair from behind in the shower, her thinking it was Emad, him thinking it was his lover; however, we never find out exactly what occurred between them (even writer-director Farhadi claims he doesn’t know; see the 3rd item in the Related Links below about this film for an extensive interview with him), just as we’re not resolved (or, at least, I’m not) about that final shot in terms of whether both of our protagonists are just shell-shocked over the events that led both to Rana’s assault and the death of The Man or is Rana alienated from her husband because of his vengeance intentions (his plan was to force The Man to reveal his extramarital affair and its aftermath to his family in order to shame him forever) even though they were designed to avenge her honor (Or where they?  Was he defending his wife’s dignity or his own sense of self-worth?) or is the mantle of unneeded-tragedy being willed upon Rana by Emad because she refused to report the crime, thereby forcing him (in his opinion) to take matters into his own hands.

 Farhadi may not know what happened between Rana and The Man on that awful night, but he certainly knows how to structure a tremendously-effective, slowly-building, swiftly-exploding morality tale that leaves all of the main characters caught in the mode of questioning their own motivations, their level of responsibility for both what occurred and continues to occur, all of this set against the sad backdrop of Miller’s equally-tragic-play about a man who's so lost in the failure of his own unrealized-ambitions (and the “poisoning” of his son Biff’s life when the boy accidently catches his traveling-salesman-father involved in a scandalous affair, thereby undermining any hope the old man had of inspiring his son to find the respect and financial stability that had eluded Willy) that he’s willing to commit suicide to provide the material support he can no longer earn.  It’s clear from Farhadi’s comments in that aforementioned-interview he equates The Man with Willy, at least in allusory-fashion, in terms of the tragedy of a lost life, even though other details of these 2 stories are only very loosely related.  What connects them, though, as well as complicating things by putting the film’s focus on Emad and his obsessive quest for vindication (at what level he’s not even sure, given he doesn’t fully know what happened to his wife beyond something traumatic resulting in a head injury [mostly healed by the time we get to this story’s confrontational-climax]), is the implication this younger man’s life is also headed in Willy’s deadly-direction as he struggles to find financial, emotional, relationship stability, all seemingly being undone by the forces around him that have no personal investment in his put-upon-existence.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: 
If for nothing else (but there’s plenty else, so much so that even as I’d hoped to stick with what I originally chose for my Top 10 for 2016 releases I find that I must add The Salesman to my list in place of 20th Century Women [Mike Mills]—not an easy choice, but none of them are), The Salesman deserves to find our attention because it allows us to look beyond the depiction of Iran’s citizens as just being the political enemies they’re so often shown as in our national news media and governmental statements where they can easily be interpreted as just a rabid mob of anti-American hatred, fierce supporters of international terrorism.  I’m not saying that the hardliners who run their country wouldn’t love to nuke Israel out of existence, just as those same decision-makers contribute enormous financial and weaponry support to violent-destabilization throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, but that reality shouldn’t lead to the assumption that—despite antagonist images of rowdy crowds burning American flags, calling Westerners agents of the Great Satan—Iranians as a whole are part of some inhuman culture where everyone spends their days studying some bastardized, radicalized version of Islam, intent on bringing ruin to every society outside their ideology.*  Farhadi shows us that even within a society so separated from, so denounced by the West (and vice-versa, where Iranian official protocols or radicals are concerned) that average citizens of this country are mostly just normal people dealing with the same financial difficulties, duplicitous friends, emotional crises, and deep, frustrated anger that troubles anyone, no matter their location.  Emad and Rana could just as easily be Iranian-Americans in a production of Rent (play: Jonathan Larson, 1994; film adaptation: Christ Columbus, 2005) in Chicago, where they’d find equal opportunities here to court misery, confusion, and heartbreak on- and off-stage.

*As reported here there are even those in Iran who object to the flag-burning, although it’s still a popular activity on the anniversary each February 10 of the 1979 revolution that brought the mullahs to power; you can also read sources such as this one that give even greater details on continuing bitter hostility among much of the Iranian populace toward current U.S. policy toward their country.

Given that this story gets a bit into meta-narrative itself, I'll do
some of the same by showing Hosseini in makeup to portray
his character, Emad, who's then shown getting in makeup for
the performance of Death of a Salesman within Harhadi's film.
 However, the harsh reality of geopolitical conflicts enter into our larger awareness of The Salesman anyway, as we begin with the recent Trump administration's ban on travelers coming from 7 Middle-Eastern/ North-African, Muslim- dominant countries into the U.S. which would have prevented Iranian director Farhadi from attending the upcoming Oscar ceremonies in support of his work’s earned nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (an honor he won for A Separation [2011], the 1st film from his country to get this major award), soon followed by Farhadi’s decision not to travel to the Oscar event anyway, in protest of the broad-stroke (many say racist) concept behind this hastily-executed-Executive Order, even when the ban was suspended by U.S. court action (with huge demonstrations against this decree possibly swaying Oscar voters in their support for The Salesman—yes, a misappropriation of voter responsibility, but these award results have often been questioned for decades for being influenced by such extraneous factors).  So even though I’d be pleased to see this film take its category's Oscar (you’ll find my predictions and preferences in the next Two Guys blog posting, available roughly February 22, 2017) I’ll put more trust in awards already given by critics’ groups and festivals where The Salesman’s been nominated by many for Best Film or Best Foreign Language Film, winning that latter honor from the National Board of Review as well as getting Best Actor (Hosseini) and Best Screenplay at Cannes.  No matter what its
fate may be at the Oscars, critical response for The Salesman has been very strong (98% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, an 86% average score at Metacritic; more details in the links farther below), although after 3 weeks in domestic (U.S.-Canada) release it’s playing in only 65 theaters, bringing in a mere $705,239 so unless it does win Hollywood’s prestigious statue I’ll advise you to seek it out (which I do) most likely in some form of video access.  My regular readers (more details on that at the very end of this posting) know I finish off each review with a Musical Metaphor, offering a perspective on the subject matter under analysis from the realm of another art form; however, that proved difficult in finding an appropriate song for the penetrating-human-situations in The Salesman so I finally decided to choose The Beatles’ “Within You Without You” (from the 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album), presented here in 2 versions at (in which you get a performance explaining a bit about the Indian instruments used for the album) along with yet another option at com/watch?v=n74ojUIp2jg (from a video game that uses [I think] the original recording with added psychedelic visuals to more fully get you into the mood of the music) because, ultimately, this film addresses “the space between us all And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion” so that “When you’ve seen beyond yourself you may find Peace of mind is waiting there [… while] life flows on within you and without you,” as this song tried to tell us so many decades ago.
SHORT TAKES (spoilers appear here also)
                   The LEGO Batman Movie (Chris McKay)
Building on the success of the previous The LEGO Movie, this one focuses on Batman, Robin, the Joker, and many other familiar characters from Gotham City and the DC Comics universe as presented in plastic-blocks-construction running into a high-energy story with a serious message of not isolating yourself from those around you even if you’re a famous superhero.

 Given the enormous global success of (computer-animated-imaged-content, implying stupendous-stop-motion-animation-with-plastic-toys) The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014; review in our February 24, 2014 posting [with horribly-overlong-paragraphs, a layout fault in our earlier offerings I’ve tried—and am still tryingto correct in more recent times])—$469.2 million worldwide—it’s inevitable there’d be a sequel (as to whether these titles should be … Lego or … LEGO seems to be up to whoever puts it in a sentence or an Internet link, but with the latter option being used at the official website I’ll go with that), this movie’s focused on just 1 of the enormous number of characters in the LEGO original, Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), although the new story carries its own huge cast, likely familiar to diehard-Batman-fans but maybe a bit overwhelming in their sheer numbers for those of us who haven’t followed every Caped Crusader-manifestation over the decades since this superhero debuted in Detective Comics back in 1939.The showing I attended was packed with small kids (who enjoyed the zippy-action and colorful images [although muted from the hues of The LEGO Movie to match the persona of the more-contemporary Dark Knight, just as his original costume of bluish-purple and black cloth has evolved into the black-and-grey-light-body-armor of more recent decades]), but the script’s packed with DC Comics (and their moving-image-offshoots)-themed audiovisual gags made to register with a much-older-audience.  

*To fully appreciate what’s going on in The LEGO Batman Movie you might need to brush up on (or discover if need be) the mountain of Easter Eggs/Batman references contained therein; you can start with the 8:57 video (3rd one in the Related Links for this title below) but if you want to really get into the details you might also watch this one (17:02, an exploration presented at a breakneck pace that can wear you out listening to it) and an even-longer-one (22:28, 107 facts about this silly movie)—taken together you’ll find lots of repeated citations, but if you can afford the time to watch them all you’ll be fully-prepared (as I was not) for what’s going on in this frantic … Batman Movie.

 Essentially, the storyline here presents Batman as an egotistic-loner (with an eerily-familiar “I alone can fix it” attitude) who constantly saves Gotham City from the nefarious plans of the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) but refuses to acknowledge that this nemesis is his primary enemy (claiming none of his adversaries are that important) just like he refutes the challenging charge from his long-time-butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) that alter-ego Bruce Wayne’s secret, nocturnal life exists only to avoid the challenge of familial-connections that still haunt him since the murder of his parents; Bruce also clearly is attracted to the spunky new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) but insists she’s just a friend, even as he accidently adopts Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) at a gala event while distractedly-leering at Gordon but does encourage the kid to create his secret identity of Robin to aid Batman with crime fighting.  The Joker allows himself to be captured (seemingly supporting Gordon’s idea that Batman should work actively with the police, a concept much to the Bat’s disgust) but it’s all part of a complex plan to have Batman zap him into Superman’s Phantom Zone (after he steals the transportation device from Supe’s secret Fortress of 
Solitude) so that he can round up a crew of ultra-villains (including Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort, The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, King Kong, etc.) to unleash on Gotham City, proving The Joker’s super-villain-superiority.  Batman finally admits he needs help to stop this invading stampede so by him agreeing to work with Robin and Commissioner 
Gordon (as Batgirl), Alfred (in a 1960s TV Batman costume), plus a gang of villains from the Arkham Asylum the monsters are defeated, Gotham City’s saved from ripping apart by Batman and the Joker working together as a unit, followed by Bruce's acceptance of the Bat Team continuing to be a joint-operation as he at last acknowledges them as his new family, so everything’s made right again in this corner of LEGOLAND (and the DC multiverse).  Overall critical response has generally been stronger than my 3½ stars (RT 91%, MC 75%, to go with a very healthy $53 million domestic haul on opening weekend), but I found The LEGO Batman Movie to be just a pleasant-bargain-matinee-diversion, not the fantastic experience many others claim, yet I was impressed by the effort put into it.  Inspired by its sarcastic digs at movie-clichés, though, when considering a Musical Metaphor for this hyperactive-experience what else could I reasonably offer but Batman theme songs, so here’s a cluster: the original TV show opening/closing credits (1:24), along with Danny Elfman’s composition for Tim Burton's 1989 Batman (8:26) and Hans Zimmer’s version for Christopher Nolan's 2008 The Dark Knight (4:50).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:

We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2016’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 26, 2017 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2016 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards 
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2016 along with the Oscar nominees for 2016 films.

Here’s more information about The Salesman: (52:30 press conference at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival with director Asghar Farhadi, producer Alexandre Mallet-Guy, and actors Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajadhosseini)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*

*Please note that YouTube keeps taking down various versions of this majestic Eagles performance at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so I have to keep putting in newer links (of the same damn material) to retrieve it; this “Hotel California” link was active when I did this posting but the song won’t be available in all of our previous ones done before 2/16/2017.  Sorry, but there are too many postings to go back and re-link every one.  The corporate overlords triumph again.

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were  23,000; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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