The Flash and Subtraction
Reviews by Marc Glassman
Andy Muschietti, dir.
Christina Hodson, script from story by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein & Joby Harold
Starring: Ezra Miller (The Flash/Barry Allen), Sasha Calle (Supergirl/Kara Zor-El), Michael Shannon (General Zod), Ron Livingstone (Henry Allen), Maribel Verdu (Nora Allen), Michael Keaton (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Kiersey Clemons (Iris West)
One of the great science fiction questions is: what happens if you go back in time and change events that are truly dreadful? In some terrific sci-fi stories, people return to the past in order to stop tragedies but, inevitably, things turn out worse. Trying to transform events, even supposedly small ones, creates “the butterfly effect,” which is so powerful that even a change in the movement of the most harmless of creatures can cause terrible consequences. Put bluntly, if you touch a butterfly in the 1960s, earthquakes and nuclear holocausts might have taken place by the time you return to the present. It’s a sci-fi truism: let the dead past bury its dead. But there’s an inevitable reply: can’t we just try once and maybe get it right?
The creators of The Flash, the new DC Comics blockbuster, must have been science fiction readers when they were kids. Driving the plot of the $200 million-dollar (plus) epic, which features multiple special effects action scenes and enough sonic booms to awaken anyone’s dead past is that wonderful time travel chestnut. Barry Allen, who possesses supersonic speed and is a legit hero, The Flash, suffers from a personal tragedy, one which he would love to challenge.
Like his mentor, Bruce Wayne, aka The Batman, he’s lost his parents due to a random homicide. In Barry’s case, his lovely Hispanic mother Nora was stabbed to death while her husband Henry was at the grocery store picking up a can of tomatoes. In a terrible misrepresentation of justice, Henry was jailed for killing his beloved wife after he found her dead in their kitchen, leaving Barry effectively an orphan and so psychologically damaged that he can barely relate to anyone.
After a typically hyperbolic opening sequence which involves car chases, babies nearly plunging to their deaths as a hospital explodes and the interventions of Batman and Wonder Woman, The Flash offers us its chronological plot. While running at beyond record setting Olympic speeds one day, Barry Allen realizes that he can go backward in time. What should he do? He quickly realizes that his mother could be saved if she’d only picked up an extra can of tomatoes earlier in the day at the grocery store. Wouldn’t it be Ok if he slipped the can into her shopping car? Maybe the film should have been called “The Butterfly Effect,” because it certainly isn’t okay.
What we witness is a sometimes hilarious but often disastrous series of events starting with the major one: suddenly there are two Barry Allens and, after a couple of plot twists, a couple of Flashes. One is the sad guy we’ve been witnessing and the other is an over-the-top exuberant lad, who is totally immature but bracingly funny as he tries to figure out how to deal with his new superpowers. Unless you love special effects and long action scenes, the most interesting part of The Flash is the interplay between the Barry Allens. The two are remarkably different, like twins who have drifted apart. Although they look alike, they fight all the time as the mature Barry, who has spent his life dealing with loss and depression, has to deal with a funny, irresponsible brother whose time has been so much better thanks to his mother being alive. How they play out their differences is fascinating in ways that move the rest of the film.
The casting of Ezra Miller as the lead is key to the film’s success. In their life and career, Miller is referred to as “they” and prefers to be “genderless.” It’s not germane to this review to dwell on Miller’s controversial life; what’s important is that, like the non-binary Emma Corrin playing Orlando on stage in London, the authentic presentation of a dual personality on screen makes the film a true drama. We care about the two Barry/Flash characters and that’s what makes the film work.
Director Andy Muschietti, scriptwriter Christina Hodson and a host of animators, producers, and technicians have worked for years to make The Flash a visual and bombastic treat. One can only hope that multitudes will come to support their efforts, which I find to be generic apart from the interplay between the two Flashes. For me, special applause is reserved for Michael Keaton resurrecting his role as Batman with a rueful gravitas, the wonderful (and pardon me, still gorgeous) Maribel Verdu who is absolutely charming as Barry Allen’s mother and, of course, Ezra Miller, for a tour-de-force performance. Or should I say, performances?
Mani Haghighi, dir. & co-script w/Amir Reza Koohestani
Starring: Taraneh Alidoosti (Farzaneh, Bita), Navid Mohmmadzadeh (Jalal, Mohsen), Esmail Poor-Reza (Jalal’s Father), Farham Aziz (Bardia)
“Living in a theocracy splits you in two. You must become two people to survive. A private life, and a public mask.”—Mani Haghighi
What would you do if you saw someone who looked just like you walking down the street? Or the clone of your partner or mother or best friend? It’s a good bet that you’d think you were hallucinating or, worse, losing your grip on reality. That’s what happens to Farzaneh, a driving instructor in Tehran, during the middle of a typically intense city rainstorm, while negotiating heavy traffic. In front of her appears to be her husband Jalal, and when she follows him to an apartment building, she can see him from an upstairs window talking intensely to an attractive woman. An affair must be taking place, she thinks. But when he is confronted by his father and Farzaneh the next day, Jalal denies everything and offers categorical proof—a time-stamped official receipt–that he was nowhere near Tehran when the event took place. Something uncanny is occurring.
The director and scriptwriter of Subtraction, Mani Haghighi, who studied philosophy at Montreal’s McGill University before returning to Iran, has constructed a brilliant fable about duplicity and the impossibility of knowing oneself. He’s done it through the devise of a mystery, one which draws us in and offers multiple interpretations as the plot twists and turns like a boa constrictor embracing its prey.
Farzaneh, it turns out, hadn’t made a deliberate error when she saw someone familiar in the rain; she simply was following the wrong man. She had seen Mohsen, Jalal’s double in appearance though not truly his clone emotionally. Farzaneh soon finds out something even stranger: the attractive woman she could only partially see arguing with Mohsen was Bita—and, yes, the two females are doubles, or doppelgangers (the German word for someone who is shockingly the same as you).
Subtraction moves us into the world of the uncanny, one that is quite familiar to Iranians. Persian tales, which form the roots of Iranian culture, have given us the wonderful Aladdin and the Thousand and One Nights, as well as less famous tales that involve mysticism and complex, inventive storylines. Haghighi places his film squarely in that tradition as Farzaneh and Jalal work out their relationships to Mohsen and Bita.
We quickly discover that Farzaneh is pregnant, totally traumatized by her impending motherhood and, worse, is suffering from the loss of the medication that she regularly takes to deal with the stresses in her life. It was the lack of drugs, which made Farzaneh question what she was seeing when she encountered her doppelganger—and throughout the film, she’s never sure what she’s seeing and feeling. By contrast to the vulnerable Farzaneh, Bita is a worldly mother of a feisty boy, Bardia, and a brilliant host for her aspirational husband Mohsen. It’s clear that Bita and Mohsen are far more prosperous than Jalal and Farzaneh though Haghighi never insists on the point.
Though they are hardly the same, the big difference between these two absolutely similar couples isn’t the women, it’s the men. Jalal is a nice guy, who likely suffers from a lack of a drive to succeed; he’s a “pleaser.” That’s not Mohsen, who, we discover, has beaten up an older man so severely that he’s in hospital. Worse, Mohsen refuses to apologize, which forces Bita and eventually Jalal to deal with the toxic situation.
In his director’s notes, Haghighi suggests that it’s hard for couples to retain their romantic images of each other as their relationship gets older. With Subtraction, this issue becomes clear as Jalal and Bita begin to fall in love with each other—or are they really remembering how they felt about their real partners in the past?
Subtraction is a sophisticated psychological thriller. That said, it has less in common with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler than it does with Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. Murder and mayhem do take place in this film but what makes it exciting is the crazy concept of dual personalities, which is brilliantly realized by Haghighi and his actors. Kudos must go to Taraneh Alidoosti as Farzaneh and Bita and Navid Mohmmadzadeh as Jalal and Mohsen. These are thespian tour-de-forces. Each actor has created truly distinct characters, who one can totally relate to throughout the film. Subtraction would simply be a great concept without the efforts of Alidoosti and Mohmmadzadeh, who turn the film into an effective drama, which cultures throughout the world should embrace, including Canada.
SPECIAL NOTE: SUBTRACTION OPENS IN TORONTO ON JUNE 23
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