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Criticwire Picks: 'Chicken with Plums' is a Successful Return to Iran

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by Steve Greene
August 30, 2012 10:00 AM
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Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's "Chicken with Plums." Patricia Khan, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The last time Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi collaborated on directing a feature film, the critical response was overwhelmingly positive. "Persepolis," the autobiographical tale of Satrapi’s experiences growing up after a post-revolution Iran, was one of the best reviewed movies of 2007. However, their latest team-up, "Chicken with Plums," features an original screenplay from the pair, rather than drawing on Satrapi’s graphic novel as "Persepolis" did. While not quite approaching the near-universal acclaim that its creative predecessor did, "Chicken with Plums" has drawn enough endorsements to be chosen as our Criticwire Pick of the week.

The story of "Chicken with Plums" returns to the familiar Iranian setting, but is set decades before in the late 1950s. Mathieu Amalric stars as Nasser Ali Khan, a violinist mourning the loss of his most prized instrument. In his four-star review, Roger Ebert highlights how the film captures the details of the country and the magic of music without being bogged down by discussions of politics or religion. "One of the film's particular strengths is its portrait of an Iran that sheltered invaluable little shops and expressive old savants, and had not yet been dragged into the future — or the past, you decide," Ebert concludes. The Atlantic’s Jon Frosch echoes that the visuals are often sumptuous, but argues that they ultimately feel less substantive. "The film is frequently enchanting, but the ravishing bits and pieces don't add up to much, and despite the themes of thwarted desire and dreams left cruelly unfulfilled, nothing really sticks," he writes. Mark Jenkins of NPR, also focusing on the overall look of the film, compares the film to recent visually acclaimed works, writing, "In appearance, the movie recalls Amelie or Hugo, but with a shadowy, sepia-toned palette. Its storytelling style is playful and self-conscious, with magically unrealist touches."

One of the more notable releases of the week and the post-Cannes calendar is John Hillcoat’s "Lawless." When it premiered in France back in May, it largely underperformed in its first festival outing. The overall impression was that the film features effective performances, but fails to distinguish itself from other Prohibition tales or westerns. Our Review Capsule for the film covers much of the underwhelming consensus.

A film inspiring much more polarizing feedback is "The Ambassador," the latest documentary from Mads Brügger, which finds the filmmaker assuming the identity of a foreign diplomat, making political deals in struggling African nations. In his Indiewire review, Eric Kohn explains that, while there’s a chance that Brügger might have taken his charade a bit too far, the format helps to illustrate just how dire the situation is in the countries that the film charts. "Throughout the movie, Brügger dances between the necessity of blurring moral lines and actually crossing them. His unfettered access to the blood diamond industry, often captured with mini-cameras hidden in the crevices of the rooms where his business deals take place, brilliantly pulls back the careful veil of legitimacy that diamond smugglers use to cover their uncouth intentions," he writes. Christopher Campbell, reviewing the film for Movies.com, was one of those critics generally unmoved by the proceedings, explaining that he "had trouble finding the humor and the point and wasn’t concerned enough to be as provoked as...intended." Film.com’s William Goss takes the position that, despite deft production elements, the documentary’s bigger-picture elements don’t extend quite far enough beyond Brügger’s central conceit. "As the film goes on," Goss contends, "that very pretense lacks any sense of righteous indignation behind it towards the circumstances that locals now find themselves contending with."

"The Tall Man" and "The Good Doctor" are enjoying theatrical releases this weekend after previously being available on VOD. Both were featured as part of our going VODetails series, complete with helpful narrative and critical overviews.

Rounding out this week’s busy release docket is the Jet Li-led "The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate," Elgin James’ "Little Birds" and the Sundance comedy "For a Good Time, Call..."

A list of films opening next week with their accompanying Criticwire averages can be found on the next page.

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