Rosewater Review – Tears of a Satirist

Director: Jon Stewart

Writers: Jon Stewart (screenplay), Maziar Bahari, Aimee Molloy (book)

Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Haluk Bilginer

Release date: November 14th, 2014

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA

Running time: 103 minutes



Best part: Gael Garcia Bernal.

Worst part: The stylistic flourishes.

Over the past decade, one man – picking apart globe-spanning wars, the global warming debate, social and cultural shifts, and the Global Financial Crisis – has fought tooth-and-nail to speak his mind. Keeping political figures, A-listers, and social icons honest, late-night TV satirist Jon Stewart has raised The Daily Show from middling returns to renowned ratings successes. Known for his groundbreaking monologues and charisma, it’s difficult not to become entranced by his mannerisms and viewpoints.

Gael Garcia Bernal.

Gael Garcia Bernal.

Last year, Stewart stepped away from his hit news-comedy extravaganza to follow his dreams. Handing the reigns over to British Comedian John Oliver, Stewart spent three months (From early June to late August) directing and writing his first feature production. Rosewater, a movie with a title much lighter than its content, is a worthwhile experiment. Stewart places media analysis on a higher pedestal than anything else. The movie chronicles one of the past decade’s most gruelling true stories. Set in 2009, it captures a specific time in Iran’s history. That year, the country’s citizens locked horns over a major question: Who should be leading the country? President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, having driven Iran into multiple crises, was pitted against promising opposition hopefuls Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. We follow London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), an expectant dad tasked with covering the election and civil unrest. Filming interviews with politicians and voters on both sides, his work pulls everyone together as the election reaches breaking point. As the conflict shifts from words to war, our camera-clutching reporter captures and publishes footage of a violent protest. From there, Ahmadinejad-leaning authorities seek to ruin Bahari’s immediate future. Threatened with ridiculous accusations, the government attempts to break our bubbly journalist.

Bernal & Kim Bodnia.

Bernal & Kim Bodnia.

Overshadowing Stewart’s notable ambitions, Rosewater, from first inklings of its creation to release, has suffered major criticism from the Iranian Government and state TV hubs. Accused of consulting the CIA and top-tier Zionists, the media personality proves even his harshest critics wrong here. Certainly, the movie resembles a high-minded vanity project. Sporting his stark wit, watchability, and overwhelming intelligence, his first feature is essentially a two-hour rant against some of the world’s most despicable people. Adapting Bahari and Aimee Mallory’s memoir Then They Came for Me, Stewart has taken notes from Hollywood’s best and brightest. Ironically, having been jokingly accused of plagiarism by Ben Affleck, Stewarts’ feature stands proudly alongside Argo. Similarly to Affleck’s Oscar-winning effort, this political drama revels in its creator’s confidence, verve, and will to succeed. Crafting a highly liberal stance against global injustice and ignorance, the movie’s viewpoints on geo-politics and foreign policy ring true. Unafraid of the facts, Rosewater‘s post-9/11 commentary fits between jingoistic and patronising. Unlike most modern political-drama/thrillers, the movie revels in its smaller moments. The first act, outlining our lead character’s daring mission, crafts several thought-provoking dialogue sequences and enlightening touches. After local driver Davood(Dimitri Leonidas)’s introduction, Rosewater delves enthusiastically  into Bahari’s mindset. Driven by the truth, the movie’s protagonist is worth capturing on camera and sharing with the world. Despite the intentional tonal shifts, this political-drama works as a docudrama/historical account more so than a work of art.

“You have a real weapon and you choose not to use it.” (Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), Rosewater).

Bernal & Dimitri Leonidas.

Bernal & Dimitri Leonidas.

Despite the compelling story and characters, Stewart’s stylistic choices dilute Rosewater‘s potency. Throwing subtitles, news clips, hashtags, and flashbacks across the screen, his erratic flourishes distract from the message. In addition, the supporting characters, despite their emotional and thematic relevance, receive minimal development. Tackling biased news media and government policies erratically, the movie occasionally resembles  an extended Daily Show episode. In fact, show regular Jason Jones – an intrinsic part of the true story – re-lives his experiences here. Before crossing over into self-indulgence, the over-the-top first half gives way to the gripping and electrifying second half. Whilst Bahari is sent to Evin prison for treason, the movie rapidly switches from tepid political-thriller to meaningful prison-drama. Charting Bahari’s behaviour throughout his 118-day incarceration, Stewart’s direction transitions from manic to subdued to gritty. Threatened with life-long imprisonment and execution, Bahari’s story lingers in the consciousness. The opening, beyond describing rosewater’s spiritual powers, outlines Stewart’s agenda. Oddly enough, the title specifically refers to the lead torturer(Kim Bodnia)’s codename. Matching “Rosewater” at every turn, their spirited debates – referring to Bahari’s love of Western culture – are worth the admission cost. Bernal overcomes ethnic obstacles (a Mexican A-lister cast as a real-life Iranian subject) to envelop the role. Boosting his already-impressive resume, the underrated character-actor delivers a grounded and multi-layered turn.

Stewart, transitioning beautifully from late-night satire to political-thriller/docudrama, has his heart in the right place. His style, despite several overblown visual flourishes, matures throughout Rosewater‘s gripping second half. Defined by its raw emotional impact, Bernal’s magnetic performance, and inspiring prison-drama story, the movie makes for a commendable and spirited first effort. Walking the thin line between comedy and drama, its immense intelligence, brawn, and appeal are worth lobbying for.

Verdict: A heartening and worthwhile first feature.

Whiplash Review – Symphonic Psychopathy

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle

Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser

Release date: October 10th, 2014

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Country: USA

Running time: 106 minutes



Best part: Teller and Simmons.

Worst part: The relationship sub-plot.

Even the most cynical person on Earth will admit that music is a valuable art form. As a universal language, the medium can bring people together and tear others apart. From the first note to the last, a track can turn sombre morsels into happy-go-lucky specimens. From gospel to blues ‘n’ roots to rock, music genres – like movie genres – rise and fall depending on the surrounding pop-cultural landscape. Whiplash, a small-scale drama with big aspirations, meticulously examines the miasmic world of jazz.

Miles Teller.

The idea for Whiplash, similarly to a classic album, simmered for several years before seeing the green light. Based on writer/director Damien Chazelle’s horrific music school experiences, his 85-page screenplay treatment hit Hollywood’s notorious Black-list. After gaining interest, he adapted 15 pages of his original effort into an 18-minute short film. Boosted by Hollywood’s occasional-stroke-of-genius methods, this first-feature – a $3.3 million/19-day-shoot production – lands smoother than Miles Davis’ silk threads. The story, like the scintillating tunes blaring throughout, flows with as much intensity, prowess, and class as humanly possible. In fact, it takes this ‘humanly possible’ idea, and re-moulds it into something truly extraordinary. Spirited twenty-something Andrew (Miles Teller) studies the jazz drums morning noon, and night. Hitting his strides at America’s top music school, the Schaffer Conservatory of Music, the ambitious youngster’s life couldn’t be better. Dating candy-bar girl Nicole (Melissa Benoist), he yields vivid dreams about his immediate future. Picked by renowned studio jazz band conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is unaware of what’s about to happen. In their first practice session together, Fletcher throws a chair at Andrew before slapping him repeatedly and screaming profanities. From there, Andrew is in it for the long haul.

J. K. Simmons.

J.K. Simmons.

Fletcher, to motivate terrified students, tells a hearty story about influential musician Charlie Parker. In 1936, at Kansas City’s Reno Club, a 16-year-old Parker got up on stage to perform ‘I Got Rhythm’ on the saxophone. Whilst bombing spectacularly, the drummer, Jo Jones, lobbed a cymbal at his head to the crowd’s approval. Parker, after a year of intensive practice, returned to the venue and made history. If this tale interests you, then Whiplash will suit your tastes perfectly. Following up Inside Llewyn Davis, this psychological-drama delivers an equally impressive ode to a specific genre. Jumping back to a better time, the movie’s infatuation with soulful hits and inspirational artists hits its audience with bass-drum-like momentum. From the opening scene – depicting Andrew and Fletcher’s first interaction – onwards, the movie crafts a spirited dynamic between two enthralling professionals. Going Full Metal Jacket within the first half-hour, Whiplash‘s student/mentor relationship turns up the heat, stakes, and emotional resonance. Delivering some of cinema’s most brutal insults, Chazelle’s screenplay echoes Aaron Sorkin’s more focused works. Like The Social Network, egos, personalities, and tempers clash like warring, blood-thirsty factions. Switching from Brassed Off to The Master to Black Swan, Whiplash conducts a seasoned and visceral performance throughout its taut run-time. Chazelle’s style – defined by quick cuts, whip-pans, close-ups, and a saturated colour palette – elevates each set piece. The heart-thumping climax, set at New York’s Carnegie Hall, delivers actioner-like thrills and sports-drama bravado.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'”. (Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Whiplash).

Teller & Simmons.

Teller & Simmons.

Despite the overworked premise, Whiplash never walks to the beat of its own drum. The central conflict, beyond the trauma and rage, delivers blackly comedic moments. “Are you one of those…single tear people”, Fletcher asks Andrew as his reputation and defences crumble. Throughout this fear-and-potential-driven experience, Andrew and Fletcher’s feud sends characters and film-goers into a tailspin. Andrew – praising music religiously – treats each sound, music page, and instrument with greater affection than most. Seeing his father (Paul Reiser) and girlfriend as mindless distractions, his anti-social behaviour wrestles with Fletcher’s sociopathic teaching methods. Fletcher, looking for the next big jazz talent, switches gears every few seconds. One second, he’s chatting heartily with old friends. The next, he’s berating his pupils over physical features, wrong notes, and slight mishaps. Despite the shocking behaviour, his intentions become clear and, to a certain extent, believable. Obliterating the “good job” approach, his style births classic hits and memorable musicians. Teller and Simmons bolster the movie’s relentless tempo. Adapting to the blood-sweat-and-tears role, Teller delivers his most commendable performance yet. Drumming with immense power, the Spectacular Now leads improves upon his skills here. Simmons, known for the Spider-Man trilogy and Juno, excels as the mighty mentor ruling his rhythmically sound version of hell.

Boiling Whiplash down to its most salient conceits, Chazelle teaches us a valuable lesson: don’t meet your heroes. More importantly, if you do meet them, don’t work for them. This drama-thriller is a cautionary tale about the dangers of ambition and expectations. Driven by our leads’ momentous conflict, the movie’s cynicism and snarky wit might prove too much for some. However, the compelling story and fun performances deliver a beat worth tapping to.

Verdict: A rhythmic and sumptuous drama.