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  • Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s masterful new film, A War, is an exceptionally intelligent and sensitive depiction of the War in Afghanistan, both the complicated moral issues faced by occupying troops and the toll on their families back home. That’s not to say that this Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film isn’t gripping or that its action sequences lack punch – one battle sequence is particularly pulse-pounding and stomach-churning. Shot in a straightforward style, the movie is never spectacular or overblown; Lindholm largely lets the situation’s drama speak for itself. A War follows CO Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk, who previously starred in Lindholm’s A Hijacking) and his unit – who are trying to weed the Taliban out of an Afghan province while protecting civilians – as well as Pedersen’s family in Denmark.

    The tense vibe of the film is set early on when Claus’s unit is out on patrol. Sure enough, a young gunner is suddenly caught in a mine explosion, a horrific scene that brings home the unpredictability of the unit’s every mission as well as its close camaraderie. The CO – a tough but decent sort – is sympathetic to one soldier (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) who is badly shaken up by the incident, putting him on camp duty for a few weeks. Claus himself will replace both men on patrols, though it is not his usual role.

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    Meanwhile in Denmark, his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is dealing with their three young children, one of whom is having disruptive behavioral issues. She’s upbeat, but clearly feeling the strain. The family’s days are scheduled around phone calls from Claus, who can’t always call when expected.

    Back in Afghanistan, while patrolling a civilian compound, Claus’s unit comes upon a hysterical man who asks them to help his injured daughter. Later the man and his family show up at the soldiers’ camp seeking refuge. We see the tough decisions the troops must make when dealing with civilians, as well as the desperation and frustration of Afghans who are caught between the Taliban and occupying soldiers who are alternately friendly and roughly suspicious.

    The next day, as Claus’s unit attempts to secure the family’s compound, it is attacked and the scene suddenly becomes frantic and chaotic; though we’ve seen similar depictions of soldiers under fire, it’s still shocking, their panic palpable. One soldier is hit and in an attempt to save him and prevent further devastation, Claus orders the bombing of the compound.  The rest of the film deals with the consequences of Claus’s action on himself and his family, as he must make another major decision when he is called to testify in court.  Thanks to a fine, sympathetic portrayal by Asbæk, we feel his ordeal.

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    During the course of  A War, we’re pulled by different, sometimes conflicting, emotions – sympathy, disgust, unease – which seems to be the point. Several issues come to the fore: the ease with which we (civilians) judge military actions; the complicated responsibility of being a military presence in another nation; the difficulty of protecting helpless civilians while trying to protect oneself and one’s comrades. There’s also the interesting matter of watching European troops, rather than the Americans we’re generally used to seeing, in this situation. It allows for more objective viewing, in a way, without feelings of national responsibility/pride/shame, etc., getting in the way, so it can be better appreciated as pure drama. Still very disturbing, of course, but not specifically to us as Americans.

    A War is a realistic, clear-headed picture of a morally complex issue that has no clear-cut answers, though it certainly will encourage discussion. The film is tough but also tender, powerful and poignant, without the macho bluster of many war movies. That’s refreshing in itself.

    A War opens on Friday at Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

    Marina Zogbi

     

     

  • Forget this year’s Oscars! The 2016 Screen Actors Guild Awards offers a wildly gorgeous array of surprisingly fresh looks that will surely influence future fashion to come. (It also showed that 69-year-old Susan Sarandon is still too legit to quit.)

    The January 30th telecast, featured television and film luminaries wearing unpredictably dope designs from up-and-comers including Erdem and Peter Pilotto.

    To use two-time 2016 SAG Award winner Idris Elba words to best summarize the gowns seen at last night’s SAG Awards: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to diverse TV.”

    Check out five stand-out progressive styles that’s definitely pushing awards show fashion forward.

    Read More

  • I came across Katy Grannan‘s photographs at Salon 94 after visiting the New Museum next door. While individually they remain striking portraits, albeit not vastly unique in the photographic spectrum, what makes her work important lies in her documentary approach to the sleepiness, strangeness, and pathos of Modesto, California.

    Also the setting of her upcoming documentary, The Nine, the pieces ranged from large-scale individual portraits, to landscapes, and video clips. The portraits are blazing in their preciseness and their size allows for the individuals to tower over the viewers, commanding the most space and attention in the room they are in. The men are shirtless, and the women sport outfits that look like they’re from the 80’s. A look of disillusionment permeates through their faces, however, and in the case of the women, it betrays the vibrancy of their clothing.

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    What’s really at the heart of Grannan’s work is a commentary on the American class system – ripe in the media these days thanks to shows like Making a Murderer – and “the other side of the American Dream.” Modesto was the location in The Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange’s photograph Migrant Mother, both gripping portrayals of The Great Depression’s physical and emotional effects on the psyche and physicality. And essentially, Grannan’s work from Modesto serves as the setting of our contemporary depression. And the photographs speak for themselves in this regard – the subjects are present but not fully. People bathe in lakes, lounge in trees, and wait along the roadside. And in most, the glaring light of the sun literally and metaphorically shines light on the destitute landscape. And whereas Lange’s photograph is of a woman doing what she can to make it work, Grannan’s series rather shows our modern depression as individuals who have plateaued.

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    Though the show is closed now, I think it’s important to keep Grannan’s works in mind due to their aesthetic qualities but even more so as she uses her craft to meld art with socio-economic issues many in the art world are to keen to forget/ignore.

     

    -Sabeena Khosla-

  • Enter Ziggy Stardust.

    Bowie’s beloved persona began with the release of 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Stardust starred as the record’s fictional alien rock star who arrived on Earth just as it received the news that the world would end in five years. In the album’s opening track, which is aptly titled “Five Years”, Stardust laments about the planet’s fate while walking amongst it’s doomed species. He resembled them in shape, but is extreme in all other aspects. He had wild hair, outlandish outfits, and an overall zeal that made him an eccentric, especially compared to the cop, soldier, priest, mother and newscaster that populate the rest of the song.

    In a 1974 interview with “Beat Godfather” William S. Burroughs, Bowie described the scene:

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    Courtesy of Big World Pictures

    Courtesy of Big World Pictures

    Romania’s official 2016 Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Language Film, Aferim! is an unconventional and beautifully shot black-and-white movie that is both reminiscent of an American Western and exotic in its depiction of a bygone (and perhaps not so bygone) foreign culture. The episodic tale, which takes place in 1835 Wallachia (a region in Romania), follows a lawman and his son as they traverse a desolate landscape in search of an escaped gypsy slave.

    Directed by Radu Jude and co-written by novelist Florin Lazarescu, Aferim! (which means “Bravo!”) is based on actual accounts of gypsy slavery. Though often comedic (the dialogue is full of crudely funny banter), it serves as a semi-historical commentary on Romania’s anti-Roma sentiment, which is still very much in evidence today. It also starkly depicts the ridiculous prejudices that people of one nationality or religion have for others, in addition to other forms of bigotry.

    Constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) and his teenage son Ionitā (Mihai Comānoiu) first come upon an abbey on their travels, where they cross themselves and light candles like good Catholics, though Costandin has already cruelly berated an old woman and threatened a bunch of local gypsies. He’s a scrappy, equal-opportunity offender, who hurls insults at almost everyone he comes across – especially poor “crows” (gypsies) – or denigrates them behind their backs. In contrast, Ionitā is more reserved and thoughtful. The two carry a mandate for the capture of Carfin, a slave who has stolen money and run away from his master, a boyar.

    Courtesy of Big World Pictures

    Courtesy of Big World Pictures

    When they help a stranded priest, Costandin asks him, “Gypsies: are they people or Satan’s spawn,” which leads the holy man to expound happily on the flaws of various nationalities (except for Romanians, who “love, honor and suffer”). “Lovely thoughts, father,” says Costandin, who himself seems no better. “You’re not a sodomite, are you,” he asks his son at one point. “Because if you are, I’ll drown you with my own hands.”

    They encounter various individuals as they navigate the rugged terrain, including a rival lawman who is bribed to reveal the fugitive’s hiding place. There they find both Carfin (Cuzin Toma) and an escaped child slave, both of whom beg not to be returned to their owners. It turns out that Carfin had an affair with the boyar’s wife and believes he will be killed; the child was beaten by his owner. But Costandin pays them no heed.

    He and Ionitā take both Carfin and the boy, the former shackled and slung over Costandin’s horse. The group comes across Turks in a carriage and Costandin politely gives them wrong directions (“I hate the Ottomans, nothing but beasts”). Carfin, who has travelled and seen something of the world, tell his story, which amuses Costandin, but “We have no concern for your life,” declares the constable, trying to remain detached.

    Courtesy of Big World Pictures

    Courtesy of Big World Pictures

    In one surreal scene, they come upon a ragged carnival/slave auction that includes a crude ferris wheel and a violent Punch and Judy show. Starving slaves beg to be bought, and the young boy is ultimately sold by Costandin to a priest. The constable gets drunk at the village inn, waxes philosophical and gets sentimental; he gives Carfin food and wine, and arranges a prostitute for his son and himself. Amid the drunken singing and general merriment, Carfin begs again to be released and Ionitā asks if they can let him go. Costandin refuses, but agrees to defend the slave to his boyar when they get back.

    The trio return home and bring Carfin to the boyar’s house; at this point the movie sobers up and becomes tense as we await the slave’s fate. True to his word, Costandin first talks to the owner’s wife and hears her unhappy story, then finally speaks to the wealthy boyar and asks him to spare the slave. But things take a horrific turn, all the more appalling after all the comic banter.

    A combination road-trip farce and dark historical account, Aferim! is an unusual and affecting film that uniquely addresses the kind of ages-old prejudices that continue to devastate the world.

    Aferim! is playing at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

    Marina Zogbi