The Seasoned Ticket #176

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

Two movies, playing near you.

Hit the Road

Panah Panahi, the writer-director of Hit the Road, is the son of the Iranian master Jafar Panahi, and 38 years old. It’s his directing debut. Maybe these facts explain why on the one hand Hit the Road feels, exuberantly, like a film of youth, bubbling with a spirit of play and invention you want to see in a debut picture, while on the other hand it radiates moviemaking confidence, sure-footedness, wisdom. Or maybe those facts don’t explain anything, although the younger Panahi’s experience growing up around movies surely served him well in the process. Harder to explain is the joy of it all.

The film is a road trip with a purpose that becomes generally but not entirely clear as it goes along: a family of four is traveling to a particular spot in rural Iran, so that the elder son (Amin Simiar) may leave the country. He is a quiet type, which cannot be said of his much younger brother (Rayan Sarlak), a little devil. (It says something for the movie’s gentle style that this rascal become more endearing as the film goes along, even though he rarely comes to rest.) The performatively grouchy father (Hassan Madjooni) is stuck in a leg cast; the mother (Pantea Panahiha), without ever ceasing to be a rock of patience and sanity, is equally capable of lacerating sarcasm. These two actors are superbly fine at conveying a grown-up family dynamic that understands how snarky one-liners might be a long-held method of expressing affection.

Much of the film takes place in the family’s borrowed van, which also includes a sickly dog; there are a few rest stops along the way, each memorable. The road comes alive, and has its share of absurdist touches, like the encounter with a talkative bicyclist, or a sight gag involving a chair in motion. Nothing ever goes on too long, and the realistic setting might be punctured by a magical-realist touch at any given moment. I won’t soon forget a scene where father and older son sit by the edge of a river, sharing an apple and a conversation that we sense might be a rare thing for the two of them. The river flows by as they talk. The scene goes on for a while, and then it keeps going, the camera holding and the river continuing to flow, and the more it goes on the more you realize that something important might be happening, not that either man would point this out. And this is a debut film? Hard to believe.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The first feature by the two filmmaking partners who call themselves “Daniels,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, was Swiss Army Man, a furiously inventive black comedy that got up to a great many amusing hijinks, which almost concealed its soft and squishy core. They’ve upped the ante considerably with Everything Everywhere All at Once, an ambitious five-alarm fire that plays around with multiverse ideas and flips everything together like so many playing cards being shuffled in a wind tunnel. All of which—maybe you can see this coming—reveals a soft and squishy core, a collection of unsurprising platitudes, the same-old same-old.

There’s a lot to enjoy—the clever back-and-forth between “verses,” the serene professionalism of Michelle Yeoh at the center, the fact that most of the movie (even if it dabbles in those different verses, including one that apes Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love) somehow unfolds in a bland IRS office. I was not just delighted but moved by Ke Huy Quan, as Yeoh’s nebbishy husband—they run a laundry—whose gentle presence is full of humor and lived-in sadness, as well as martial-arts skills. It’s one of the performances of the year. And yet I found myself resisting the greeting-card conclusions, and resenting the verse-jumping required to get there (and, although I am willing to believe that I may have seen a subpar projection, I found the film’s photography to be shockingly drab and poorly lit, despite the imaginative design and costumes on display). In a different verse – or just seeing the film a second time – maybe I like it a great deal; but in this verse, not quite.


May 6, 2022

Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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