Review: ‘Kandahar’ (2023), starring Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Ali Fazal, Bahador Foladi, Nina Toussaint-White, Vassilis Koukalani and Travis Fimmel

May 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Gerard Butler and Navid Negahban in “Kandahar” (Photo by Hopper Stone, SMPSP/Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Kandahar” (2023)

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Some language in Persian, Arabic and Urdu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the mid-2010s in Iran, Dubai, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States, and the United Kingdom, the action film “Kandahar” features a white and Middle Eastern cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Scottish military-trained operative, on loan from MI6, works undercover with the CIA to stop terrorism in the Middle East, but his cover is blown, and he and an interpreter must find their way to safety at an extraction point in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Culture Audience: “Kandahar” will primarily appeal to people who are fans of star Gerard Butler and formulaic and forgettable action movies about fighting terrorists in the Middle East.

Bahador Foladi and Nina Toussaint-White in “Kandahar” (Photo by Hopper Stone, SMPSP/Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Kandahar” gets awfully convoluted and takes too long to get to the main mission in the story. The film editing is sloppy, while the action scenes are unremarkable. The movie’s worst idea is the secret CIA surveillance room that gets unrealistic footage. It’s yet another violent action flick about stopping terrorists in the Middle East, with a predictable protagonist who’s “rough around the edges” heroic. The problem is that “Kandahar” gets so distracted with subplots, the movie just ends up being a formulaic mush of chase scenes, explosions and fights in Middle Eastern locations.

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Mitchell LaFortune, “Kandahar” seems very impressed with itself in showing all the international locations where the story is supposed to take place, but there’s very little character development in all of this nation-hopping. The movie, which takes place in the mid-2010s, jumps back and forth to scenes that are supposed to take place in Iran, Dubai, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. “Kandahar” was actually filmed in Saudi Arabia.

The first 30 minutes of the two-hour “Kandahar” is like watching a racing car spin its wheels and not getting anywhere. A lot of viewers who watch “Kandahar” without knowing anything about it in advance will be wondering during these first 30 minutes exactly what this movie is going to be about. The movie’s first 30 minutes are a very long setup to show that Tom Harris (played by Gerard Butler), a gruff and tough undercover operative originally from Scotland, is on loan from MI6 to the CIA. He’s embedded as part of a CIA mission to destroy Iran’s nuclear program before Iran has a chance to build a catastrophic bomb.

The opening scene shows Tom and a CIA operative named Oliver Altman (played by Tom Rhys Harries) getting detained by Iranian soldiers in a desert in Qom, Iran. Tom and Oliver are posing as service employees for a company named SIBLIXT Communications, and they have a SIBLIXT Communications van as part of their cover. When Oliver and Tom are questioned by the suspicious soldiers, Tom (who is seen as the bigger threat) and Oliver insist that they were hired by the Iranian government to work on telephone lines so that the city of Qom can have better Internet connectivity.

It all looks so phony, because this setting is in a remote desert area, with no telephone lines in sight. Tom and Oliver being obvious Westerners are also big indications that they’re not who they say they are. They might as well be wearing T-shirts that say “Undercover Operatives From a Western Nation.” Tom shows the interior of the van to the soldiers, in order to prove that Tom and Oliver have no weapons. Tom also shows them some video footage on his cell phone to “prove” that there’s Internet service in the area.

Even though none of this proves that Tom and Oliver are who they say they, the soldiers let Tom and Oliver go anyway. Oliver and Tom drive away with some relief and pride that the soldiers believed their story. The only purpose of this scene is to show viewers that Tom has the skills to talk his way out of tricky situations with dimwitted soldiers.

Meanwhile, a British journalist named Luna Cujai (played by Nina Toussaint-White) is seen getting some photos emailed to her from a U.S. Pentagon contact named James. These photos are irrefutable evidence that the CIA is involved in covert operations that are usually not sanctioned by the government (also known as black ops), and this activity is happening in Iran and other parts of the Middle East. Luna has a phone conversation with a supervisor to tell this boss that she has uncovered some bombshell information.

“It’s a bigger scandal than [Edward] Snowden and WikiLeaks combined,” Luna excitedly tells her supervisor. She then sends the incriminating evidence to her boss, who is never seen on camera. And when a journalist in a movie about fighting terrorism uncovers something that could be an international scandal, it’s easy to predict that the journalist is going to be in some peril at some point in the movie. As already shown in the trailer for “Kandahar,” Luna gets kidnapped.

Tom’s main CIA contact in the Middle East is another undercover operative named Roman Chalmers (played by Travis Fimmel), an American who is mostly seen having secretive phone conversations while dressed in traditional Middle Eastern garb. Roman’s big action scenes don’t come until much later in the movie. What looks very fake about many of Roman’s phone conversation scenes is that he discusses classified information while walking around in public, as if no one else can eavesdrop on these public conversations.

And it wouldn’t be a typical Gerard Butler action movie without part of the plot being about his “hero” character having a race against time to get home safely to a family member. In the case of Tom, he has promised his soon-to-be ex-wife Corrine Harris (played by Rebecca Calder) that he will be back in the United Kingdom in time go to the high-school graduation ceremony of their daughter Ida Harris (played by Olivia-Mai Barrett), who wants to become a doctor.

During a phone conversation between Tom and Corrine, she says that she wants Tom to sign their divorce papers. Corrine tells him that she has a new man in her life but doesn’t go into further details. Corrine suggests that, for Ida’s sake, Tom should find a safer line of work, such as teaching. Tom replies, “I’m not really interested in sitting behind a desk all day.”

Meanwhile, Roman has hired an Iranian interpreter named Mohammad “Mo” Doud (played by Navid Negahban) to work with Tom for their undercover mission. Mo needs the money, but he has another motivation to do this potentially dangerous job. Mo eventually tells Tom that Mo blames the Taliban for the death of his son Amin, who was Mo’s only child. In a movie like “Kandahar,” the odds are very high that Mo will come face-to-face with the man who murdered Amin.

Mo is also looking for the missing sister of his wife Adila Doud (played by Reem AlHabib), who is a typical “worried wife at home” character that’s very common in macho movies like “Kandahar,” where only men are seen in combat. Mo’s search for his missing sister-in-law is yet another subplot that gets thrown into the movie, only to be mishandled and lost in the overall muddled story. Expect to hear Tom give multiple apologies to Mo for various screw-ups and deliberate miscommunications that are in the movie just to create more drama.

“Kandahar” has generic depictions of the CIA and Tom’s opponents. A meeting between the Taliban Shura leadership with Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.) at I.S.I. headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan, is plunked into the movie like a soulless and drab corporate meeting, with characters who are mostly nameless. The movie makes little effort to have memorable antagonists to the “heroes.”

There’s a cold-blooded Iranian government operative leader named Bashar Hamadani (played by Vassilis Koukalani), a Taliban ally, who orders the kidnapping of Luna, when he finds out that she has valuable information about CIA operations in Iran and elsewhere. Farzad Asadi (played by Bahador Foladi), who is Bashar’s loyal subordinate, is the main person who interrogates Luna when she’s in captivity. A ruthless assassin named Kahil (played by Ali Fazal) is supposed to be a rising star in the Taliban, but he comes and goes in the movie with all the personality of a cardboard cutout.

And the CIA officers giving orders and making leadership decisions are equally lacking in distinctive personalities. Mark Lowe (played by Mark Arnold) and Chris Hoyt (played by Corey Johnson) are the bland CIA officials who are given the most screen time. Mark and Chris do a lot of monitoring in a secret CIA room with giant video screens. This secret room has inexplicably perfect aerial views of whatever fight scenes or chases are going with the CIA operatives on the ground, even though there are no drones in the sky during these scenes to explain how the CIA is getting this video footage.

The secret CIA room can also pick up audio with pristine sound levels when people are giving chase or are being chased in the same scene. In other words, the CIA can listen in on what’s being said during these chase scenes. Who knew that the CIA could somehow plant invisible microphones on the Taliban in the middle of a chase scene that’s usually in a remote desert? And it’s all filmed for the CIA from the air and sometimes in the vehicles that are involved in the chase.

Because yes, “Kandahar” wants viewers to believe that the CIA has all this magical surveillance equipment to monitor CIA operatives and opponents, but the CIA can’t figure out how to get Tom and Mo to safety when Tom’s cover is blown because the information that journalist Luna uncovered is leaked to the Taliban. Tom and Mo’s only hope for safety is to reach an extraction point in Kandahar, Afghanistan, but there comes a point in the movie when Tom and Mo are left to figure out how to get there on their own. Somehow, the CIA’s magical surveillance room isn’t going to work to find Tom and Mo, because there would be no “Kandahar” movie if Tom and Mo weren’t left stranded in the desert with Taliban soldiers chasing after them, which is the movie’s main dramatic hook.

The acting performances in “Kandahar” aren’t terrible, but they’re not great either. That’s because almost everyone in the movie is written like a video game character. Negahban’s performance as Mo is the exception, since there’s real depth to his portrayal of the Mo character, who has more at stake in trying to stay alive than making it on time to a child’s graduation ceremony. Hollywood movies almost never have characters like Mo as the central protagonists. The type of suffering that Mo lives with is just too real for make-believe films that want to perpetuate myths about a certain stereotypical character who is almost always the main hero of the story.

Open Road Films and Briarcliff Entertainment released “Kandahar” on U.S. cinemas on May 26, 2023.

Review: ‘The Persian Version,’ starring Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Kamand Shafieisabet, Bella Warda, Chiara Stella, Bijan Daneshmand and Shervin Alenabi

February 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front row: Layla Mohammadi and Niousha Noor in “The Persian Version” (Photo by Andre Jaeger/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Persian Version”

Directed by Maryam Keshavars

Some language in Persian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and in Iran, from the 1960s to the 2000s, the comedy/drama film “The Persian Version” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A free-spirited queer woman, who feels like a misfit in her mostly male family that’s headed by conservative Iranian immigrant parents, comes to terms with her identity and how her parents’ past had an effect on the family.

Culture Audience: “The Persian Version” will primarily appeal to people interested in movies about immigrant experiences and intergenerational relationships of family members.

Bijan Daneshmand (seated third from left), Niousha Noor (seated third from right) and Chiara Stella (seated second from right) in “The Persian Version” (Photo by Yiget Eken/Sony Pictures Classics)

Most of “The Persian Version” is a sharp and witty tale of an Iranian American woman navigating two ethnicities and her family issues. The movie’s last 20 minutes resemble a formulaic TV sitcom. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it lowers the movie’s quality. Even with its flaws, “The Persian Version” is a unique and vibrant story that shows perspectives that are rarely seen in American-made feature films.

Written and directed by Maryam Keshavars, “The Persian Version” is a comedy/drama inspired by Keshavars’ real-life experiences as the lesbian child of Iranian parents who immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. “The Persian Version” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won two prizes: the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. The movie features frequent voiceover narration from the movie’s fast-talking and sarcastic protagonist named Leila Jamshidpour (played by Layla Mohammadi), who is in her 30s when the movie begins in New York City in the 2000s.

“The Persian Version” also has several flashbacks throughout the story, going all the way back to the early 1960s, when Leila’s parents were living in Iran. The family moved to the United States in 1967. The Iranian Revolution (also known as Islamic Revolution) began in 1977, and ended in 1979, with the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty. It ushered in a new era of Iran being a republic but also increased Iran’s political tensions with the U.S., especially when 52 Americans were held as hostages for two months, beginning in November 1979.

The opening scene of “The Persian Version” takes place shortly after Leila has won the prize for Best Costume at a Halloween party, for wearing a burka-bikini combination costume dressed as a fictional character named Miss Burkatini. While still in costume, Leila is hooking up in a bedroom with a British man dressed as transgender female singer Hedwig from the award-winning musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The name of Leila’s sex partner is Maximillian Balthazar (played by Tom Byrne), who identifies as a cisgender heterosexual male. Maximilian is dressed in this costume because he’s an actor, and this is the costume he wears as the star of the Broadway production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

Viewers soon learn that Leila identifies as a queer woman who is mainly attracted to other cisgender women. What is she doing hooking up with Maximillian? She says that men who look like drag queens “turn her on.” She’s also very drunk and horny at the moment. Leila expects that this sexual encounter with Maximilian will be a one-night stand and that they probably won’t see each other again. She’ll find out later that she was wrong about this assumption.

During this hookup, Leila looks up and speaks directly to the camera, as she frequently does throughout the movie. She then gives a monologue which is a quick summary of her life so far, accompanied by a montage of flashbacks. This intriguing monologue will hook viewers right away to find out more about Leila.

In this opening monologue, Leila says: “Obviously, I have some issues with culture. But can you blame me? I come from two countries [Iran and the United States] that used to be madly in love with each other. And like every great romance, it ended in a bitter divorce.

Leila continues, “Like a child of divorce, I was right in the middle, being pulled at it from both sides. Being a girl, I couldn’t be drafted into the Iranian military. So, I was the only child in my family who could travel between the two countries—these two parents who wanted each other dead: Iran and America.”

Leila adds, “I never fit in anywhere. Unresolved childhood trauma: Clearly this neurosis led me to become a writer. Free therapy. Writers and neurosis: What’s more New York than that?” It’s mentioned shortly thereafter that Leila is also an independent filmmaker.

The movie then shows Leila describing her immediate family members. Her retired obstetrician/gynecologist father Ali Reza (played by Bijan Daneshmand) and her mother Shirin (played by Niousha Noor), who is a powerhouse real-estate agent, are strict Muslims who have conservative views of how people should conduct their personal lives. Leila has a particularly rocky relationship with Shirin, who seems to think that Leila is a wayward child who always manages to cause problems for herself.

Leila, who calls herself the “outsider of the family,” has eight brothers. She describes each of them in a few words. Shivaz (played by Samuel Tehrani), the eldest child, is the “disco king.” Vahid (played by Parsa Kaffash) is the “troublemaker.” Majid (played by Arty Froushan), who is a medical doctor, is like “JFK Jr., minus the plane crash.” Hamid (played by Reza Diako) is the “brainiac.” Eman Zaman (played by Andrew Malik) is the “Goth.” Rostam (played by Kamyab Falahati) is the “hippie.” Zal (played by Mahdi Tahmasebi) is the “greaser.” Abbas (played by Jerry Habibi) is the “metrosexual.”

Leila is one of the people in her family who has dual citizenship with Iran and the United States and was educated in both countries as a child in the 1980s. (Chiara Stella portrays Leila at about 10 or 11 years old.) “In America, I learned to put my faith in science. In Iran, I learned to put my faith in politics,” says the child Leila. As an adult, Leila is shown saying, “The only way to survive was to not put my faith in any of the rules—not science, not politics.”

The child Leila then says, “The only thing I could put my faith in was art,” as she holds a Cyndi Lauper cassette tape. Leila then explains that because Western music was banned in Iran, she would smuggle in music by artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Prince. Leila, previously an outcast at her Iranian school, became popular with her classmates when she let them listen to the smuggled music. Lauper’s 1983 breakthrough hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is used in pivotal parts of the movie.

When the Jamshidpour family first moved to the United States, they lived in Brooklyn, New York. Ali Reza and Shirin currently live in New Jersey, while all of their children still live in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. Shirin’s kind and patient mother Mamanjoon (played by Bella Warda) lives with Ali Reza and Shirin. Although this tight-knit clan has had its ups and downs, Leila says she always felt she was treated differently because she is her parents’ only daughter.

Leila’s sexuality has also led to feelings of alienation from her parents (especially her mother), who do not approve of Leila being queer/not heterosexual. Leila is still recovering from a divorce from her ex-wife Elena (played by Mia Foo), who happens to be in a Brooklyn drugstore at the same time as Leila, several months after their divorce. Elena and Leila exchange awkward hellos.

Leila has been holding on to a glimmer of hope that she and Elena will get back together. However, that hope is crushed when Elena tactfully tells Leila to pick up the belongings that she left behind at the home they used to share. Elena also asks Leila to stop calling her and to move on with her life. The reason for their divorce is explained later in the story (Leila frequently put her work above the marriage), but the details are still left purposely vague about other aspects of this relationship.

In addition to feeling heartbroken, Leila will also be dealing with a health crisis in the family. Her father Ali Reza needs a heart transplant, and he doesn’t have enough health insurance to cover all the costs. Because he isn’t a U.S. citizen, Ali Reza is not eligible for full Medicare benefits. (And remember, this is in the 2000s, before the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare existed.) Ali Reza’s most recent hospital bill is $200,000. Shirin is feeling a lot of stress and pressure over how to pay this bill. She’s too proud to ask her children for any financial help.

In the midst of all this family turmoil, Leila is feeling like a failure and a lost soul. Leila always felt closer to her father than to her mother. And the possibility of losing him is overwhelming to her. But then, one day, Leila has a conversation with her beloved grandmother Mamanjoon that will change Leila’s perspectives of her parents, herself and their family history.

“The Persian Version” gets its title from the fact that the Jamshidpour family has two versions of their family history: the American version and the Persian version. The movie skillfully and often candidly shows how immigrant families often have to present two different versions of themselves, in order to survive and assimilate in a new country. Most immigrants move to a new country for a chance at a new life, which often means reinvention. But that doesn’t mean that the past can be completely forgotten, because the past often shapes who people are and how they look at life.

What starts off looking like a movie about a sassy but admittedly flaky divorced filmmaker trying to get her life back on track turns into an emotionally moving story about developing a deeper understanding of family members and what they might have gone through in the past that affects how they interact with family members in the present. Mamanjoon tells stories that are shown in flashbacks, back to the early years of Ali Reza and Shirin’s marriage. Shervin Alenabi has the role of young Ali Reza. Kamand Shafieisabet has the role of young Shirin. Sachli Gholamalizad portrays young Mamanjoon.

A big change unexpectedly happens in Leila’s life, but the movie somewhat mishandles this big change by bringing some wacky sitcom elements to the story that don’t quite fit with the more realistic aspects of the movie. Fortunately, “The Persian Version” has very good acting from all of the cast members, with Mohammadi and Noor as the obvious standouts in portraying Leila and Shirin, who have a tension-filled love/hate relationship.

“The Persian Version” also beautifully shows how three generations of women in a family can connect despite their differences. Leila is on mostly good terms with her brothers (she is especially close to “metrosexual” Abbas), but viewers of this movie will most remember the relationships that Leila has with Shirin and Mamanjoon. “The Persian Version” is the type of charming movie that not only celebrates the multicultural heritages of immigrant families but also has universal relatability that can resonate with people of many different backgrounds and generations.

Sony Pictures Classics will release “The Persian Version” in select U.S. cinemas on October 20, 2023.

Review: ‘A Hero,’ starring Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Sahar Goldoust, Saleh Karimaei, Alireza Jahandideh, Maryam Shahdaei and Farrokh Nourbakht

January 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mohsen Tanabandeh, Saleh Karimai and Amir Jadidi in “A Hero” (Photo by Amir Hossein Shojaei/Amazon Content Services)

“A Hero”

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Persian (Farsi) with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Shiraz, Iran, the dramatic film “A Hero” features an all-Middle-Eastern cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: While on a brief leave of absence from his prison sentence, a man with a history of being a chronic liar returns a lost purse filled with valuable coins, and he’s praised as a hero, but then he finds himself involved in a web of lies and mistrust.

Culture Audience: “A Hero” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of writer/director Asghar Farhadi and movies that have incisive commentaries on how media and public opinions can play influential roles in people’s images and reputations.

Sahar Goldoust in “A Hero” (Photo by Amir Hossein Shojaei/Amazon Content Services)

Can someone with a reputation of being unreliable and dishonest be redeemed by doing a single act of kindness? That’s a question posed throughout the suspenseful drama “A Hero,” which has very realistic depictions of themes exploring how media and public opinions can shape how someone in the public eye can be perceived. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, the movie takes place in Shiraz, Iran, in a culture that places an extremely high value on honor that individuals can bring to themselves and their families. That’s why the stakes are so high for the troubled protagonist who finds his attempt to clean up his reputation go awry after he does what he thinks is a good dead that will redeem him.

“A Hero” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix Prize. The movie was selected as Iran’s entry for the Best International Feature Film category for the 2022 Academy Awards. “A Hero,” which clocks in at 127 minutes, starts off a little slowly, but then it picks up its pace and becomes more intriguing about 45 minutes into the movie. It goes from being a drama about a prisoner in a family feud into a mystery thriller involving several members of the community.

The movie’s protagonist is Rahim Soltani (played by Amir Jadidi), a divorced father who’s been sentenced to prison for an unpaid debt of 150,000 tomans, which would be about $17,000 in U.S. dollars in the early 2020s, when this story takes place. Rahim owes the money to a businessman named Bahram (played by Mohsen Tanabandeh), who happens to be the brother-in-law of Rahim’s ex-wife. The ex-wife is never seen in the movie, and her name is never mentioned, although she is occasionally talked about by the people in the story.

Rahim, who has lived in Shiraz his entire life, has a prison sentence that allows him to leave the facility for a few days at a time, as long as he reports back to the prison to complete his sentence. The movie opens with Rahim going on an authorized two-day leave from the prison. What happens during those two days causes a chain of events that creates even more chaos in his life.

At first, Rahim seems to be in good spirits when he leaves the prison. He carries himself with the air of a good-looking charmer, who’s quick to dazzle people with his friendly ways and charismatic smile. But as time goes on, there are signs that Rahim has a dark side that’s he’s been trying to leave behind—or at least make people think he’s turned his life around into being a responsible and honest person.

The first person whom Rahim visits during this prison leave is Hossein (played by Alireza Jahandideh), Rahim’s friendly brother-in-law, who is married to Rahim’s sister Malileh (played by Maryam Shahdaei), a nurturing homemaker who has some health problems, such as neck pain and arthritis. Hossein works at a construction site that is renovating the Tomb of Xerxes. Rahim has enlisted Hossein’s help in trying to work out a payment plan with Bahram to erase the debt.

Rahim’s occupation before he went to prison and why he owes 150,000 tomans aren’t revealed until nearly halfway through the movie. He used to be a sign painter and a calligrapher, but business in those areas declined with the rise of do-it-yourself online graphic design. Rahim borrowed the money from Bahram to start his own business.

Rahim confidently tells Hossein how he can start paying off the debt, “I can have 75,000 tomans. Someone will give it to me. It’s not a loan.” Rahim will only say that he’s getting the money from “a friend,” but he won’t say who that friend is.

That’s where Rahim’s very loyal girlfriend Farkhondeh (played by Sahar Goldoust) comes into the picture. After leaving the construction site, Rahim goes to pick up Farkhondeh in his truck. Farkhondeh, who is elated to see Rahim, has a black purse containing some gold coins, which she and Rahim try to sell at a pawn shop. However, the shop dealer makes a calculation offer that Rahim and Farkhondeh know is too low for the types of coins that they have, so they leave the shop without making a sale.

Before Rahim and Hossein discuss this possible payment plan with Bahram, they stop off at the home of Hossein and Malileh, where Rahim will be staying before he goes back to prison. Malileh and Hossein live in the home with their two children—daughter Negar (who’s about 10 or 11 years old) and son Nima (who’s about 7 or 8 years old)—and Rahim’s son Siavesh (played by Saleh Karimaei), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. The movie doesn’t clearly explain the custody arrangement that Rahim has with his ex-wife for Siavesh, who is Rahim’s only child. However, the movie implies that the ex-wife still has contact with Siavesh, because he told Negar that his mother recently accepted a marriage proposal.

In the beginning of the movie, Rahim’s relationship with Siavesh is strained and distant. Siavesh is the only one in the household who doesn’t seem happy to see Rahim during this brief visit. Siavesh has a speech impediment that causes him to stutter and makes it difficult for him to articulate words. It’s also mentioned that Siavesh has recently gotten into a fight at school. It’s easy to speculate that Siavesh, who is quiet and emotionally withdrawn, could be bullied at school because of his speech impediment.

The lack of good communication between Rahim and Siavesh isn’t really about Siavesh’s speech impediment. It has more to do with Siavesh’s lack of trust in Rahim. Through various conversations, it’s revealed that Rahim has constantly let down the people who are closest to him. Later in the movie, when Rahim is asked about why he got divorced, he’s purposely vague and says that he and his ex-wife just didn’t get along with each other. However, Rahim’s unpaid debt to Bahram certainly didn’t help matters, since it’s caused bad blood between Rahim and his ex-wife’s side of the family.

Rahim says he’s trying to make things right by paying off the debt, which is why he wants to work out a payment plan with Bahram, who was the one who pressed charges to have Rahim arrested for non-payment of the debt. Bahram owns a copy/print shop in the area that is managed by his bachelorette daughter Nazanin (played by Sarina Farhadi), who doesn’t look pleased to see Rahim and Hossein when they show up unannounced to try to talk to Bahram. At one point in the movie, Bahram bitterly says that he had to use Nazanin’s dowry to cover the money he lost in the loan to Rahim.

Bahram isn’t at the shop, so Hossein (who acts as a mediator) insists that Nazanin get Bahram on the phone. During this phone conversation, Hossein tells Bahram that Rahim is willing to immediately pay 70,000 tomans as down payment for the debt. Bahram is extremely skeptical that Rahim has the money. “The jerk is lying,” Bahram angrily says. “Why should you expect me to trust him? He let down his family. He deserves no favor.”

After some arguing back and forth, Bahram reluctantly agrees to a tentative payment plan where Hossein will give Bahram bond checks, and Rahim will then play 7,500 tomans a month until the debt is paid off. Rahim insists he really can get about 70,000 tomans in cash. Where is he going to get the money?

It’s eventually revealed that Farkhondeh doesn’t actually own the purse with the gold coins. Farkhondeh found the purse and coins on the street, she told Rahim about this discovery, and Rahim concocted a plan to sell the coins to get some easy cash to start paying off his debt. Farkhondeh and Rahim are very much in love, and he plans to marry her someday. But for now, Rahim will be unemployed and without his own place to live when he gets out of prison. He seems to want to turn his life around and prove that he can be a responsible provider before he commits to another marriage.

With a failed attempt to sell the coins and time running out before he has to report back to prison, Rahim then comes up with the idea to come forward and report that the purse was found, with the hope that the owner will offer a reward. He goes to the bank that is near where Farkhondeh found the purse, to ask if anyone was looking for the purse at the bank. However, the bank officials say that no one inquired about the purse, but they suggest they he make flyers advertising the found purse.

The bank officials let Rahim use their copy supplies to make the flyers, which he posts in various locations around the area. Rahim doesn’t have his own cell phone. Instead of putting his sister’s phone number on the flyers, he puts the phone number of the prison. It’s a decision that he will later regret.

When his leave time ends, Rahim reports back to prison, where he and some other prisoners are given the task of wallpapering a room. His supervisor on the job is Mrs. Marvasti (played by Parisa Khajehdehi), who gets a call from a woman claiming to be the owner of the purse, and the woman asks to speak to Rahim. Rahim explains to Mrs. Marvasti what happened and that he put the prison phone number on the flyers. Mrs. Marvasti is very annoyed and tells him never to give out the prison phone number to anyone again.

Rahim is allowed to take the call from the mystery woman, who correctly answers his questions about the contents of the purse. Rahim explains that he’s in prison but that he left the purse and its contents with his sister and brother-in-law. He gives the woman the address and his sister’s phone number.

The woman (played by Fatemeh Tavakoli) who shows up to claim the purse and coins is tearful and expresses gratitude that her purse was found and that all its contents returned to her. Her visit is during the day, when Malileh and Siavesh are the only ones at home. (It’s implied that Siavesh isn’t in school because of his recent fight.)

The woman explains that she found out she lost the purse in between bus stops, and that she doesn’t want her husband to know that she lost the coins. The woman insists on giving a small cash reward for the return of the purse and coins. Malileh repeatedly declines the offer and finally accepts it when the woman says she’s giving the reward money to Siavesh.

The prison officials find out from Mrs. Marvasti about Rahim’s act of kindness in having the purse and gold coins returned to the woman who came forward and claimed these items. They ask Rahim for more information, and it’s enough for them to want to take the story to the media. Two prison officials in particular—prison warden Mr. Salehpoor (played by Mohammad Aghebati) and prison chief of cultural activities Salehi Taheri (played by Farrokh Nourbakht)—immediately arrange for a newspaper and a national TV network to interview Rahim.

Salehi has a closer relationship to Rahim than Mr. Salehpoor does, so Rahim confides in Salehi that he didn’t actually find the purse and coins but his girlfriend did. Rahim also says that, for personal reasons, he would rather not reveal his girlfriend’s identity because some people in his family don’t know yet that he’s dating her. Salehi says it doesn’t matter who found the purse and coins because Rahim was the one who distributed the flyers and arranged for the purse and coins to be returned to the rightful owner. Salehi tells Rahim that it will be okay for Rahim to take all the credit without mentioning his girlfriend.

It isn’t long before Rahim becomes a local celebrity because of the media coverage. He’s praised for being a hero and treated like a hero by many people, ranging from his immediate family to complete strangers. In his interviews, he admits that he originally planned to sell the coins, but he changed his mind when he prayed about it. He says that the botched sale attempt was a sign from God that selling the coins wasn’t the right thing to do.

A local woman named Mrs. Radmehr (played by Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy) heads the Mehrpooyan Charity Association, a religious group that helps prisoners in need. She arranges a ceremony where Rahim is honored and where she announces that a local council has offered Rahim a job in its administration when his prison sentence ends. In addition, the charity launches a fundraising initiative to help Rahim pay off his debt. The fundraising immediately gets about 30,000 tomans in donations, with more money pouring in from the public.

Not everyone is impressed with Rahim’s new “hero” status. A hostile prisoner (played by Amir Amiri) outright accuses Rahim of colluding with prison officials to fabricate the story, so that the prison could get some good publicity after the recent scandal of a prisoner committing suicide. Rahim denies that the story is a lie, and he refuses the other prisoner’s challenge to get in a physical fight over it. However, the prison is so pleased with all the good PR that the story has generated, Rahim is allowed another prison leave so that he can arrange to pay off his debt with the money that was raised for him, as well as interview for the job that was offered to him.

Bahram is very skeptical that Rahim’s story is true, and he openly expresses his doubt in a meeting with Rahim, Hossein, Mrs. Radmehr and other charity officials, who try to get Bahram to accept the fundraising money to pay off Rahim’s debt. Bahram tells everyone who will listen that Rahim is a habitual liar. Bahram thinks that Rahim doesn’t deserve the charity money that was raised for Rahim because Bahram says that Rahim shouldn’t be rewarded with money for doing what any decent human being would do.

But the biggest stumbling block for Rahim in his road to redemption is when he goes to interview for the job at the local council. The human resources director Mr. Nadeali (played by Ehsan Goodarzi) says the job won’t be offered until Rahim’s story checks out as true. He asks Rahim to have the woman who claimed the purse and coins to come to the office to verify that she’s the rightful owner. The problem is that Rahim doesn’t know her name, and neither does Malileh or Siavish, who didn’t ask for the woman’s name or contact information when she went to the home.

Meanwhile, rumors are being spread on social media that Rahim made up the entire story. The rest of the movie is a rollercoaster ride as Rahim tries to find the mystery woman and prove that he’s not involved in a con game. Rahim ends up having to be his own private investigator in a race against time before he has to spend his last few days in prison. He gets some help from Farkhondeh, his family members and other members of the community, but will that be enough? Not all of the questions posed in the movie are answered.

Although “A Hero” has plenty of tension and very good acting performances, the movie does suffer a bit from some plot holes. First, with all the media coverage of Rahim’s story, it’s highly unlikely that journalists wouldn’t first try to find the woman who claimed to be the owner of the purse and coins, before making Rahim into a hero. Most journalists covering the story would at least need her name, in order for the story to check out and be reported accurately. In other words, the movie kind of gets it wrong about the fact checking needed before a story like this could be reported as real by legitimate media.

Second, during his investigation, Rahim is able to obtain a surveillance camera photo of the mystery woman, but he doesn’t use any media coverage (on social media or traditional media) to try and find her. He just shows the picture to some people in the area, who say they don’t recognize her. It’s a pretty big plot hole, considering that media coverage is a major part of the movie, in terms of how Rahim’s reputation is being handled.

Third, everyone puts the burden and blame on Rahim for not getting this woman’s name, when he wasn’t the one who gave the items back to her, and he wasn’t the one who sought media attention for this good deed. The media failed to do due diligence in checking out the story, and so did the prison officials who eagerly took the story to the media. The pile-on of shame that Rahim gets in the movie seems overly contrived for the sake of drama, when any viewer can see he didn’t plan the media coverage that he ended up getting.

Still, there are some aspects about the story that make the movie very compelling to watch. Because of the clues that Rahim uncovers, he starts to believe that this mystery woman was involved in some kind of set-ap against Rahim, and she doesn’t want to be found. For example, there was no ID in the purse, and she purposely used strangers’ cell phones to make her calls about the purse.

The movie drops some big hints over who could have been behind this set-up. But does this conspiracy theory turn out to be true, and does anyone get caught for it? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out. “A Hero” doesn’t portray Rahim as a totally innocent victim, because he makes decisions that are foolish, dishonest and self-destructive. Even though he has a charming side, Rahim also has a nasty temper that can turn violent.

One of the things that’s very noticeable about “A Hero” is that this “hero” actually needs rescuing more than a few times by his girlfriend. Without going into too many details, it’s enough to say that Farkhondeh does whatever it takes to help Rahim, whom she describes as the love of her life and the only person who makes her happy. And exactly who is Farkhondeh?

The movie gives some context over why Farkhondeh, who is 37, is willing to risk everything in her life for Rahim. In a patriarchal nation where a never-married, 37-year-old woman with no kids is considered a hopeless “old maid,” Farkhondeh is living with this societal stigma. She doesn’t have a home of her own. If she has a job, it’s never mentioned in the movie. The only times that Farkhondeh is shown in the movie is in the context of her relationship with Rahim.

Farkhondeh lives with her very domineering brother Morteza (played by Mohammad Jamalledini) and his wife. Farkhondeh has to ask for Morteza’s permission for Rahim to meet Morteza, who doesn’t approve of Rahim being a divorced, unemployed father with a prison record. Morteza changes his mind about Rahim being a loser when he sees the media coverage of Rahim’s “good deed.”

Still, Morteza warns Farkhondeh not to come crying to him when Rahim breaks her heart. And when Rahim’s credibility about the “good deed” begins to be publicly doubted, Morteza begins to think that his first thoughts about Rahim being a con artist just might be true. Despite getting a lot of criticism from Morteza about her choice in Rahim as a partner, Farkhondeh has a feisty streak that doesn’t put up with any insults that Morteza throws her way.

Another interesting aspect of “A Hero” is how the relationship evolves between Rahim and his son Siavesh. In the beginning of the movie, Rahim almost treats Saivesh like an embarrassment to the family, while Siavesh treats Rahim like a deadbeat dad. When Rahim becomes a public “hero,” Siavesh begins to respect Rahim, and they become closer.

But the true test of their relationship is when Rahim gets some public backlash after his story is doubted. That’s when Rahim begins to understand what Siavesh must feel like to be treated like a misunderstood outsider. In the last third of the movie, there’s a very powerful scene where Rahim’s protective side as a father comes out when he sees how Siavesh is being mistreated by someone.

The relationships that Rahim has with Siavesh and with Farkhondeh are the emotional centers of the movie. And that’s why, as riveting as Jadidi’s performance is as Rahim, it’s made all the more poignant because of the convincing performances of Karimaei as Siavesh and Goldoust as Farkhondeh. Without them, Rahim’s motives would appear to be entirely selfish in fighting for his integrity and reputation.

“A Hero” also has some nuanced storytelling about society’s tendency to make people sudden stars and then want to tear them down just as quickly. There’s a level of unrealistic “perfection” that many people in the public eye are expected to have. Any signs of flaws or mistakes made as a “celebrity” can result in public shaming and attempts to “cancel” the person and relegate that person back to obscurity.

The movie leaves open-ended questions for audiences to ponder, such as: “Who is worthy of this type of accelerated vaulting into ‘hero’ status? How should they be vetted? And what types of mistakes or misdeeds of these public heroes should be forgiven and when?” Despite some flaws in the plot of “A Hero,” writer/director Farhadi skillfully weaves these questions into the story in a way that will have audiences thinking about these questions long after the movie is over.

Amazon Studios released “A Hero” in select U.S. cinemas on January 7, 2022. Prime Video will premiere the movie on January 21, 2022.

Review: ‘American Fighter,’ starring George Kosturos, Tommy Flanagan and Sean Patrick Flanery

July 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tommy Flanagan and George Kosturos in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter”

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1981, primarily in California and briefly in Iran, the dramatic film “American Fighter” features a predominanlty white cast of characters (with some Middle Eastern and African American people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college wrestler, who has immigrated to California from Iran, gets involved in underground fighting to raise enough money to bring his ailing mother to the United States. 

Culture Audience: “American Fighter” will appeal primarily to people who like watching predictable fight movies.

George Kosturos and Sean Patrick Flanery in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter” uses every possible movie cliché about an “underdog” fighter who has to beat the odds and surpass people’s low expectations to reach a certain goal. There’s nothing creative or imaginative about this film. The only angle that makes “American Fighter” different from similar movies is that the protagonist is an Iranian immigrant in the United States. However, the fight scenes and the protagonist’s quest for a big payoff achievement is as formulaic and stereotypical as can be, regardless of the protagonist’s ethnicity.

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino, “American Fighter” takes place in 1981, when Iran was in political upheaval and numerous Iranians fled the country to seek asylum elsewhere. One family of refugees is the Jahani family: patriarch Farhad Jahani (played by Tony Panterra), his wife Goli Jahani (played by Salome Azizi) and their son Ali (played by George Kosturos, also known as George Thomas), who is about 18 or 19 years old. Ali has already been sent to the United States ahead of his parents, who plan to join Ali later. In the meantime, Ali is a college student who lives on campus when he’s not living with his uncle Hafez Tabad (played by Ali Afshar), who is Goli’s brother.

“American Fighter” is the sequel to the 2017 sports drama “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” with both movies starring Kosturos and produced by Ali Afshar, who plays Ali Jahani’s uncle Hafez in both movies. “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” which also had Ali Jahani as the protagonist, is based on Ali Afshar’s real-life experiences as an Iranian immigrant who was on his California high school’s wrestling team. “American Fighter” continues Ali Jahani’s story as a college student.

In the beginning of “American Fighter,” Ali is shown as a first-year student at the fictional North East Cal University in California. He’s on the school’s male wrestling team (called the Bulldogs), and he’s one of the more talented people on the team. However, Ali isn’t living up to his wrestler potential. And he experiences xenophobia and racism from people who are part of the team.

The Bulldogs’ Coach Jenkins (played by Kevin Porter) tells Ali, “I don’t want another foreign scholarship on my roster. You want to stay? You’ve got to show me something.” Meanwhile, in every movie about a student athlete involved in team sports, there always seems to be a jealous rival on the same team. In Ali’s case, it’s a bully named Chet Mueller (played by Vince Hill-Bedford), who frequently hurls racist insults at Ali during the team’s practice sessions. You can almost do a countdown to the inevitable fist fight that Chet and Ali will have.

When the day comes for Ali’s parents to travel to America, tragedy strikes. Before the plane takes off, a group of Iranian terrorists invade the plane where Ali’s parents are and take some hostages, including Ali’s parents. Ali’s father Farhad is shot and killed, while Ali’s mother Goli has gone missing. And making matters more stressful, Goli is sick with an unnamed ailment. She needs life-saving surgery and treatment, which is one of the main reasons why Ali’s parents wanted to immigrate to the United States.

Ali and his uncle Hafez are devastated by the news that Farhad is dead and Goli is missing. Ali and Hafez go to the local chapter of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services and are told that there’s nothing this government agency can do for them because it doesn’t get involved in terrorist kidnappings. However, Ali and Hafez find out about a mysterious Iranian operative named Mr. V (played by Parviz Sayyad), who lives nearby and who can give them “private” help.

Ali and Hafez meet with Mr. V, who tells them that Goli is probably being held hostage somewhere in Iran, but Mr. V’s team can find her and bring her to the United States, for a fee of $30,000. Hafez only has $5,000, while Ali sells many of his possessions (including his family jewelry and his car) and comes up with $9,000. Of course, that’s still not enough to pay the fee, and time is running out for Goli to get her life-saving surgery.

Ali’s best friend at school is Ryan Calder (played by Bryan Craig), who is on the same wrestling team. Ali confides in Ryan about his family and money problems. One night, Ryan takes Ali to an underground fight club, where Ali is shocked to see what’s going on. Ryan tells Ali that in the past, he sometimes participated in these underground fights to make extra money. Ryan stopped doing underground fights because he’s on the wrestling team and doesn’t want to risk getting expelled from the team.

Ryan introduces Ali to a Scottish man named McClellan (played by Tommy Flanagan), the tough and greedy chief of the fight club. McClellan’s right-hand man is Benjamin Duke (played by Sean Patrick Flanery), who goes by the name Duke and who mainly gives medical assistance to the fight club participants. Duke is a former boxing champ who’s now down on his luck and has a tragedy in his past because of his alcoholism. In other words, in a stereotypical movie like this one, Duke is going to end up training Ali to be an underground fighter.

During Ali’s first visit to the fight club, he has such culture shock that he ends up saying the wrong things. He asks McClellan about the possibility of participating in the fights: “So, you just pay us to beat each other up? Is that even legal?” Just as Ali is about to be thrown out for being an insulting dimwit, a thug assaults Ali, and they start brawling. Ali capably defends himself, and McClellan is so impressed with Ali’s fighting skills that he invites Ali to participate in the fight club.

Ryan warns Ali not to do it, but Ali is desperate for money, and he eagerly accepts McClellan’s invitation. Ali easily wins his first fight, of course. And the money he gets motivates him to continue participating in the fight club, with increasingly dangerous risks. Not everything goes smoothly for Ali, because a movie like this has to have a “major obstacle” that he has to overcome before the movie’s climactic scene.

Meanwhile, Ali ends up having a romance with a sorority member named Heidi (played by Allison Page), who made the first move on Ali by inviting him to a party thrown by her sorority. It should come as no surprise that Chet seems interested in Heidi, but she rejects Chet’s advances and makes it clear that she wants to be with Ali. And so, it’s another reason for racist Chet to hate Ali.

Ali doesn’t tell Heidi about his family problems or about being involved in an underground fight club. Ali and Heidi’s romance is presented in this movie as very chaste. They go to a skating rink on their first date. And although Heidi and Ali eventually kiss, there’s no sex in the movie. Ali is depicted as someone who’s very shy and inexperienced when it comes to dating, while Heidi is the confident, extroverted partner in the relationship.

“American Fighter” director Piccinino co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Brian Rudnick and Carl Morris. The entire movie borrows from many other movies about teenage athletes who are underestimated, who train for a “long shot” dream, and the training is supposed to teach them about life. The fight scenes have some level of suspense, but they look overly staged and aren’t that exciting, compared to other movies about underground fight clubs.

Ali’s refugee immigrant experiences are used as a gimmicky plot device rather than being organic to his character. The closest that the movie comes to showing Ali sharing his connection to Iranian culture with Heidi is when he brings Iranian food to a picnic date with Heidi. The movie tries to make it look like Ali and Heidi are falling in love, but their conversations are very superficial.

That’s because this movie is really about the fight scenes, which aren’t very special. Ali’s mother Goli is shown occasionally while she’s being held captive in a room, to remind people why Ali is going through with these risky fights. Ali finds a way to get a letter to her, which is supposed to be the movie’s first big tearjerking moment, but the way it’s written is very hokey and melodramatic.

“American Fighter” makes some effort to be an authentic period movie that takes place in 1981. At an on-campus party, someone is shown breakdancing. And the movie’s soundtrack includes Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.” Ali and Hafez also anxiously follow the media’s news about what’s going on in Iran. However, these touches of realism aren’t enough to overcome the overall medicority of the film’s writing, directing and acting.

Kosturos does his best to show some emotional range, but it’s diluted by the hackneyed dialogue that he has to say in the movie. Flanagan and Flanery have played many characters involved in illegal activities, so they’re doing nothing new in this movie, while Craig’s Ryan character and Paige’s Heidi character are utterly generic. The appeal of underground fighting is how edgy and unpredictable it’s supposed to be, but there’s nothing edgy or unpredictable about “American Fighter.”

Lionsgate released “American Fighter” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 21, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on May 25, 2021.

Review: ‘Ballad of a White Cow,’ starring Maryam Moghadam, Alireza Sani Far, Avin Poor Raoufi, Farid Ghobadi, Lili Farhadpour and Pouria Rahimi

July 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Avin Poor Raoufi and Maryam Moghadam in “Ballad of a White Cow” (Photo courtesy of Totem FIlms)

“Ballad of a White Cow”

Directed by Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha

Persian (Farsi) with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in in Tehran, Iran, the dramatic film “Ballad of a White Cow” features an all-Middle-Eastern cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and upper-middle class.

Culture Clash: A widowed mother, whose wrongly imprisoned husband was executed for murder, gets unexpected financial help from a man whom the widow does not know was directly involved in the outcome of her husband’s murder case.

Culture Audience: “Ballad of a White Cow” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about Iranian culture, injustice in a criminal court system and the toll that big secrets can take on a relationship.

Alireza Sani Far in “Ballad of a White Cow” (Photo courtesy of Totem FIlms)

“Ballad of a White Cow” delivers a quietly devastating portrait of what happens in the aftermath of a wrongly convicted prisoner’s execution and how good intentions can be poisonous if they’re based in deceit. Maryam Moghadam is the star, co-director and co-writer of this impactful drama that takes place in Iran, but its themes are universal and have no national boundaries. It’s far from an upbeat film, but it has glimmers of hope that the people in this tragic story might one day find a way to heal.

Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha directed “Ballad of a White Cow,” whose screenplay was written by Moghadam, Sanaeeha and Mehrdad Kouroshniya. The movie had its European premiere at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Viewers of this movie get glimpses into the Iranian criminal justice system and how it shrouds in secrecy from the public the identities of judges who decide the fates of defendants.

“Ballad of a White Cow” opens with a distraught Mina Parsa (played by Moghadam) spending time with her imprisoned husband Eghbali “Babak” Parsa for the last time before he’s executed for murdering a man during a fight. Babak confessed to the murder, but it was a false confession because, unbeknownst to Babak, the victim (whose name was Rashedi) was still alive when Barak ran away, and another man came along and murdered Rashedi. (There are no flashbacks to the crime.) Mina has always believed that Babak was innocent.

After the execution (which is not shown in the movie), Mina is so grief-stricken that she seems somewhat detached from reality. She still goes to her job working on an assembly line at a milk bottling factory, but her demeanor is of someone whose emotions are numb and her mind is elsewhere. She’s still able to take care of her loving 7-year-old daughter Bita (played by Avin Poor Raoufi), who happens to be deaf. But Mina doesn’t have the energy to do things (such as go to the movies) with her daughter that Mina used to have before Babak died.

Babak’s imprisonment and execution has brought such shame on Mina that she can’t bring herself to tell Bita the truth. Instead, Mina lies and tells Bita that Babak is on a trip somewhere far away and she doesn’t know when Babak will come back home. Bita can sense her mother’s sadness and asks her one day, “Why are you frowning?” Mina tells Bita, “I’m just tired.”

Meanwhile, Bita has been struggling in school. She tells her mother that she doesn’t like the people there, and Bita says that her teacher is mean to her. Bita doesn’t want to go back to school and doesn’t want to do any schoolwork. It’s later revealed that Bita’s problems in school mostly have to do with people at the school knowing what happened to her father, but Bita (because she was lied to) insists to everyone that her father is still alive and traveling somewhere.

A year after Babak’s death, Mina is in dire financial straits because Babak had no pension or life insurance, and her factory job doesn’t pay enough to cover all of her expenses. Mina applies for government assistance and is told that she’s entitled to 200,000 tomans a month (which is about $47.50 in 2021 U.S. dollars), including any benefits because Bita is a special-needs child. Mina’s apartment manager (played by Lili Farhadpour) is understanding about Mina being late with the rent, because she feels sympathy for Mina being a widow with a young child to raise on her own.

One person who doesn’t believe that Mina is financially struggling is Babak’s aggressive brother (played by Pouria Rahimi, also known as Pouria Rahimi Sam), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. Babak’s brother visits Mina one day and tells her that Babak’s father believes that Babak secretly left a stash of money for Mina and Bita. Mina vehemently denies it. Babak’s brother has power of attorney over his father, who is in ill health, and so Babak wants this imaginary stash of money to take control of it.

While Mina is grieving over the loss of her husband, something unexpected happens. The real murderer confesses to the crime, and it’s proven that he was the real culprit. A government official meets with Mina and makes a private apology to Mina about Babak’s execution. The government gives Mina a settlement of 270 million tomas (or a little more than $64,000 in 2021 U.S. dollars) for the execution mistake.

But that’s not enough for Mina. After she reacts with shock and horror that her husband was wrongfully executed, she gets angry. She tries to find a way to get the government to make a public apology, but she encounters many roadblocks. She also wants some type of justice for slander, because she believes the government ruined Babak’s reputation.

It’s during this time that Mina gets a surprise visit at home from a stranger, who identifies himself as Reza Esfandiari (played by Alireza Sani Far) and who says that he was a friend of Babak’s. Reza tells Mina that he owed 10 million tomans (or about $2,375 in 2021 U.S. dollars) to Babak. Mina says she doesn’t want the money, but Reza insists on writing her a check for that amount. Reza also tells Mina that if there’s anything else she might need, she shouldn’t hesitate to ask for his help.

Shortly after Reza’s visit, Mina’s apartment manager tells Mina that Mina has been evicted, because the manager saw this male stranger visit Reza in her home. In Muslim culture, it’s taboo for a single woman to have an unrelated man in her home. Mina has a limited amount of time to find a new place for herself and Bita to live before the eviction goes into effect. And it’s very difficult for Mina to find a new place to live because many apartment buildings will not rent to widows or other unmarried women.

Just when it looks like Mina and Bita will become homeless, Reza comes to the rescue. He happens to own an apartment that he isn’t using. And he offers to let Mina and Bita live there rent-free, as long as they keep the apartment in good shape. Why is Reza being so generous to Mina and Bita?

It’s because his real name is Reza Shallal, and he was on the judging panel that decided that Babak would be sentenced to death. It’s a panel of judges whose identities are kept secret from the public, out of concerns that the judges will be retaliated against. Reza feels an enormous amount of guilt over the wrongful execution of Babak, so he wants to make amends. However, Reza is afraid of telling Mina his true identity. Reza’s secret isn’t spoiler information to viewers, because it’s in the movie trailer for “Ballad of a White Cow.”

Reza’s first experience in judging a death-sentence case was Babak’s case. It’s revealed in the movie that Reza had previously worked in the civil courts system and had recently transferred to the criminal courts system when Babak’s case came his way. Reza deeply regrets becoming a criminal court judge, and he wants to quit. “Ballad of a White Cow” has tension-filled scenes of Reza discussing his disillusionment with a colleague (played by Farid Ghobadi), who advises Reza not to resign from his position.

Adding to Reza’s personal turmoil, he has a son in his late teens or early 20s (Reza’s only child) named Maysam, who despises Reza. Maysam has been living with Reza, who is either divorced or widowed. Reza and Maysam’s scenes together have a lot of unspoken backstory, but based on what they say to each other, it seems as if Maysam has a lot of resentment toward Reza because Maysam feels that Reza was a neglectful father. It’s implied that Reza was a workaholic for most of Maysam’s life, and now Reza regrets it, especially when Maysam abruptly tells Reza one day that he’s moving away to join the military.

There’s more tragedy in this story, which will keep viewers guessing on how long Reza can keep his secret from Mina and how long Mina can keep her secret from Bita. Over time, Reza befriends Mina, who thinks it’s a little odd that Reza is going out of her way to help her. She takes his word for it that Reza was a friend of Babak. When she asks Reza questions about Babak to see how how well Reza knew him, Reza is able to give vague answers that sound convincing.

Mina is also a little suspicious of Reza at first because she thinks he might have ulterior sexual motives for being so generous to her. But when she sees that he really wants nothing in return, she relaxes around him and even lets Reza get close to Bita, almost as if he’s a surrogate uncle to Bita. Because Mina trusts Reza to be around her child, it adds an extra layer of burden to Reza’s lies.

“Ballad of a White Cow” never really shakes the feeling of heartbreak, because even though Mina’s problem about her living situation has been resolved, it’s under deceptive circumstances on Reza’s part. Even though Reza seems to be a kind and caring new friend to Reza, at a time when she really needs a friend, he can never reveal his true identity to her or he would lose the friendship. And when Mina is dishonest to Bita about what happened to Babak, it’s another betrayal that might have had good intentions but is ultimately damaging.

All of the acting in “Ballad of a White Cow” is convincing and nuanced, but the movie’s biggest strength is in making viewers think about what they would do if they were Mina or Reza. There’s also a level of suspense over how or if Mina and Reza will be able to continue their deceptions. It might be easy to judge and say they made bad choices, but both Mina and Reza are both emotonally hurting in different ways that could certainly cloud their judgment.

The movie’s writing, acting and direction are solid for this type of movie, which makes good use of its low budget. As for why the movie is called “Ballad of a White Cow,” it has to do with a memorable image in the film of a white cow standing in the middle of a courtyard, as men stand on one side of the courtyard, and women stand on the other. Is this cow about to be milked or will it be slaughtered? The same question could be posed about the complicated friendship of the two lonely people at the center of this melancholy story.

UPDATE: MUBI will premiere “Ballad of a White Cow” on February 10, 2022.

Review: ‘A Simple Wedding,’ starring Tara Grammy, Christopher O’Shea, Rita Wilson, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Maz Jobrani and Houshang Touzie

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Christopher O’Shea and Tara Grammy in “A Simple Wedding” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“A Simple Wedding”

Directed by Sara Zandieh 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and California’s Orange County, the romantic comedy “A Simple Wedding” features a cast of middle-class characters who are primarily of Iranian descent or white, with some representation of the LGBTQ community.

Culture Clash: A straight woman and a bisexual man fall in love with each other, despite coming from two different backgrounds: She has a conservative Iranian family and he has a non-traditional white American family.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of “opposites attract” romantic comedies or movies about contrasting families.

James Eckhouse, Peter Mackenzie, Rita Wilson, Christopher O’Shea, Tara Grammy, Houshang Touzie and Shohreh Aghdashloo in “A Simple Wedding” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

When a romantic comedy has the word “wedding” in the title, there’s a certain kind of audience it has in mind. And then there’s everyone else who’ll be repelled or will have no interest in watching what is sure to be a bunch of sappy clichés. But if you’re the type of person who hates stories that revolve around weddings because so many of these stories recycle the same tropes, then consider “A Simple Wedding,” which is a sharp and witty romantic comedy for people who usually hate romantic comedies. Even if it’s far from a groundbreaking film, “A Simple Wedding” is entertaining from beginning to end because of its unique take on cultures we normally don’t see in American films.

Directed by Sara Zandieh (who co-wrote the screenplay with Stephanie Wu), “A Simple Wedding” is about not only a couple who are opposites of each other but their family backgrounds are also very different. Nousha Housseini (played by Tara Grammy) is a Los Angeles housing attorney who’s smart, sarcastically funny, and going through a family ritual that she dreads: Her Iranian immigrant parents—mother Ziba (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) and father Reza (Houshang Touzie), who live in nearby Orange County—have been setting up meetings with Nousha and eligible bachelors of Iranian descent, with the expectation that Nousha will enter into an arranged marriage.

Nousha, who’s in her early 30s, isn’t too keen on getting married to anyone because she doesn’t think she’s ready yet. And if she does get married, she wants it to be for love, not because it was arranged for her by other people. In the film’s opening scene, Nousha deliberately sabotages a meeting with her parents, her fiancé and his parents. It’s not shown or mentioned in the movie how long Nousha has been dating her fiancé. (Keep in mind that in certain cultures, it’s not unusual for people in arranged marriages to get engaged after knowing each other for a few days.)

While visiting at the other couple’s house with the would-be husband in attendance, Nousha offers a birthday cake to the wife and sings “Happy Birthday” in the seductive way that Marilyn Monroe famously sang the song to President John F. Kennedy. The mother doesn’t know what to make of this unexpected delivery and is very uncomfortable with the way Nousha is singing the song to her. It’s so unnerving that she cuts the meeting short and says that maybe Nousha isn’t the right match for her son. “Are you breaking up with me?,” Nousha says as she tries to hide her smile.

Mission accomplished. Her parents are disappointed that Nousha’s been eliminated as a prospective wife for this well-to-do and educated suitor, but Nousha is happy that her plan has worked perfectly to get out of being married off to him. As she argues with her parents later, she says that she thinks marriage is an outdated institution and she doesn’t want to be stifled by it. Meanwhile, her outspoken mother whines, “I can’t sleep until you get married!”

Nousha’s circle of friends includes a lesbian couple named Lynne (played by Rebecca Henderson) and Tessa (played Aleque Reid), who are mothers of a pre-school-age girl. When Nousha tells Tessa and Lynne about the breakup, they tell her that she was just in the relationship for the sex with the guy and to please her parents’ expectation that she would marry him. “Oh my God!” Nousha exclaims. “I was doing him for my mom!”

Lynne is one of Nousha’s co-workers, and she’s already spread the word that Nousha has broken up with her latest boyfriend and that she’s available to start dating someone new. Nousha figures out that her love life has become gossip fodder at her job, because after Nousha has told Lynne about the breakup, people in the office keep asking Nousha how she’s feeling, with a sympathetic tone in their voices. And one creepy male co-worker who’s been trying to hook up with Anousha reminds her in a hilarious way how he’s available if she’s interested. (She makes it clear that she’s not interested.)

Meanwhile, Lynne has been asking people at her job to join her in a public protest against sexism and misogyny. Nousha considers herself to be a progressive liberal, so she participates in the protest, which Lynne has named “Pussies Against Patriarchy.” The turnout isn’t very large (less than 20 people), but they are joined by an all-male group of feminists who call themselves The Minstrels.

One of the Minstrels is a lanky, boyishly good-looking artist/DJ named Alex Talbot (played by Christopher O’Shea), who locks eyes with Nousha during the protest. They start flirting with each other, and Nousha gives him her business card. He doesn’t wait long to call her and ask her out on a date.

Over dinner at a hipster-looking dive café, Alex and Nousha talk about their childhood crushes that they would be embarrassed to tell most people. For Nousha, it was David Hasselhoff. For Alex, it was Celine Dion. (And he confesses that Celine is still a major turn-on for him.)

Nousha immediately assumes that Alex must be gay, but he tells her that he’s sexually attracted to men and women—and that he’s attracted to Nousha. She then reveals that she can do a pretty good Celine Dion impersonation because her mother is a big fan, and Anousha learned how to impersonate Celine Dion when she was a child so “my mother would like me better.” After much pleading from Alex, Nousha reluctantly does her Celine Dion impersonation for him while sitting at the café table. That pretty much seals the deal, so it’s no surprise that when they go back to Alex’s place, they become lovers.

During their whirlwind romance, Alex and Nousha spend as much time as they can with each other, but Nousha is very hesitant at first to introduce him to her parents. Alex is the type of free-spirited, avant-garde artist who hangs up on his wall a drawing that he did of Saddam Hussein kissing Andy Warhol. She also has some concerns about Alex’s financial stability—as a struggling artist, his low income is unpredictable—and the fact that she makes a lot more money than he does.

Although Nousha and Alex are both politically liberal, they have different personalities. Nousha is ambitious, high-strung and practical, while Alex is more of a laid-back, “go with the flow” dreamer. Because they spend so much time together and because Nousha doesn’t care for Alex’s dumpy loft in a low-income area, it’s only a matter of time before they move in together to a place that’s more suited to Nousha’s comfort level. But Nousha still doesn’t tell her parents about Alex, because she thinks he won’t fit in with her family.

It’s not just because Alex isn’t Muslim or because her family also disapproves of couples living together before they get married. It’s also because Alex has a very unconventional family, whom he affectionately calls “crazy.” His parents divorced when he was 16, and his father Bill (played by Peter Mackenzie) ended up marrying another man. Meanwhile, Alex’s mother, Maggie Baker (played by Rita Wilson), is still bitter about the divorce and has given up on finding love again. She has a lot of animosity toward Bill’s husband Steven (played by James Eckhouse), whom she blames for breaking up her marriage.

During a Facetime chat that Nousha has with her mother, Ziba sees a shirtless Alex in the background, so Nousha finally tells her mother about her relationship with Alex. When the inevitable time comes to meet Nousha’s family—which includes her maternal grandmother (played by Jaleh Modjallal)—Nousha warns Alex that her family will pressure them into getting married. Needless to say, Nousha and Alex do in fact get engaged. And her family— following the tradition of the bride’s family hosting the wedding—wants to goes all-out for the occasion. However, Nousha insists that the wedding should be a small event in her parents’ backyard.

During the wedding plans, Nousha’s Uncle Saman (played by Maz Jobrani), who is her father’s brother, comes to visit the family. Saman is a war veteran who has never been married and doesn’t have kids. (People who first meet him assume that he’s gay, but he’s not.) Saman gets pulled into the rehearsals for the wedding march because Alex’s mother Maggie needs a partner for the procession. Bill and Steven are paired together, and Nousha’s parents are also coupled up, so it would look awkward for Maggie to not have someone to walk with too. Because of underlying tensions and because of the big cultural differences in the two families, there are several arguments and moments of discomfort that are played for laughs in the movie.

Fortunately, “A Simple Wedding” has a well-cast group of actors who handle their performances with believability, charm and great comedic timing. These actors know that the right pauses and facial expressions can turn a scene from something that would land with a thud to a scene that will make people burst out laughing. A lot of the dialogue also looks improvised.

As the story’s protagonist, Nousha is not a typical heroine of a wedding movie. She’s bossy, she’s impatient, and she’s frequently cynical about the concept of “happily ever after.” And even though she’s an attorney, she’s not that straight-laced, since she likes to get high on various substances—and not all of them are legal. Alex is very sweet and eager-to-please (perhaps too eager, since he decides to give himself the nickname Mohammed), but he still maintains a strong sense of identity and feels comfortable with who he is.

The movie has some slapstick moments that look a bit awkward, but the real humor is in the snappy remarks and reactions of the story’s characters. “A Simple Wedding” is worth seeking out for people looking for an enjoyable romantic comedy that has a slightly raunchy sense of humor but still has a sentimental soft spot inside.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “A Simple Wedding” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 14, 2020.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix
CULTURE MIX