Archive for March, 2012

What should be expected of men? Oftentimes it may seem appropriate to define men as unsubtle, uncomplicated and single minded beings. Many men like to consider themselves assured, decisive and in possession of the facts; they make every effort to appear this way outwardly. But what if this is self-deception? Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a nuanced study of the moral uncertainty that lies behind the facade, deep in the hearts of men.

Taking the genre of the police procedural and turning it on its head, Ceylan sidesteps the gung-ho and builds a story around a group of ordinary men dealing with unpleasant and gruelling responsibilities. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia sees police commissioner Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) and prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) relentlessly driving through the steppes of Anatolia as Naci attempts to gain insight from Kenan (Firat Tanis), a murder suspect, regarding the whereabouts of a corpse.

Ceylan’s film carries the audience with the men throughout the arduous task. The first act of the film deals primarily with Naci’s responsibilities. He is jaded in his job and wants simply to complete his responsibilities to the case and move on. His is continually troubled by the incommunicative Kenan, who claims to have been drunk when burying the corpse. In addition to his policing responsibilities he has his wife on the phone pushing him to obtain medication for their young son, who has run out of his prescription.

Naci has the doctor Cemal on hand, from whom he will get his son’s prescription, but they must complete their nights work first. Cemal’s responsibilities involve carrying out an autopsy on the corpse. His job can only commence upon actually finding the body. Cemal harbours his own problems as he is a single, childless divorcee. Haunted by what could have been Cemal is a sensitive, thoughtful and sceptical person, in many ways the emotional heart of the film. While conducting the autopsy he discovers something, but chooses not to report it – this little white lie is his attempt to buffer the truth, for the sake of emotional censorship.

Despite seeming outwardly assured, Nusret the prosecutor is perhaps the most inwardly troubled. He exhibits the strongest example of self-deception, but through telling Cemal a story he tries to confront his conflicts. It is also implied that Nusret may have prostate cancer, but this is something the character himself never acknowledges. Fortunately for the audience, Ceylan also allows Nusret some of the most prominent moments of humour, which function to illustrate his capacity to endure reality. One grim scene swiftly becomes hilarious as he admits his resemblance to Clark Gable.

But Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is not a film made for the purposes of entertainment. It is not built to amuse, thrill or delight – it is a meditation. It is a serious film with a genuine interest in the inner lives of men. In spite of its seriousness though this film is still captivating. In part this is due to the remarkable digital cinematography by Gökhan Tiryaki. Tiryaki captures the Anatolian steppes with wide shots reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami and an eye for nature that evokes Tarkovsky.

Nature is a compelling character in this film, almost taking on a narrative life of its own. At times Ceylan diverts our attention from the physical action of the main characters with a gust of wind or the fall of an apple. One of the most memorable moments sees an apple drop from its tree into a stream. Ceylan’s camera follows the apple as it moves with the flow downstream, giving us the opportunity to experience the natural flow of nature; this contrasts with the monotonous struggle of the crime procedure.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia takes a sincere look at its band of troubled souls. It portrays their yearning for better things, for innocence and peace despite their masculinity. The most remarkable scene sees the men stop at a small village in the middle of the night, where they are treated to food and a brief rest by the locals. After their meal a beautiful young woman enters the scene carrying a lantern and a tray of drinks – she is practically the only woman in the film. She hands each man a drink and they look up at her, not with desire, but as if stirred by her purity. According to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film there is more to men than meets the eye – be they lawmen, doctors or criminals.

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With Polish Holocaust film In Darkness director Agnieszka Holland shows she is not afraid to test her audience. With a run time of almost two and a half hours and a cinematic style reminiscent of The Third Man if it were shot with the grungy modernity of Anthony Dod Mantle, this film is a dark, lengthy and unrelentingly unsentimental experience. In spite of its steeliness however In Darkness tells a true tale that is still utterly moving upon conclusion.

In Darkness focuses on Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker (and petit thief) in WWII Poland. The film tells of how he risked everything by hiding a group of Jewish people in the sewer network during the Nazi invasion of Lvov. While jaded viewers might feel we have seen enough of the Holocaust on the big screen (with Schindler’s List and The Pianist still reasonably fresh in our minds) Socha’s story resonates with enough moral dilemma and reluctant courage to make the trip worthwhile.

Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha makes for a robust leading man, holding the film with an earthy charisma. His character brushes death numerous times and Wieckiewicz carries his character through the proverbial minefield of Nazi occupation with a directness that gradually makes him endearing. His home life offers something of a relief from the oppressive occupied world, with his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and daughter Stefcia (Zofia Pieczynska) offering some stability. Holland stages family scenes inside, lit with Rembrandtesque warmth by cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska.

This warmth is in direct contrast to the milieu inhabited by the Jewish characters. For the majority of the film they live, quite literally, in darkness in the sewers. Somewhat inevitably not all of these characters are given an entirely rounded character treatment. A number of them exist as cyphers to create drama, yet Holland does not allow them all to become victims. The tough Mundek Margulies (played by German actor Benno Fürmann) becomes an important motivator for the cause of the Jews as he forfeits cover, attempting to reunite missing members of their group. This leads to a number of tense scenes where he encounters the singular brutality of the Nazi characters.

Tensions between the Jewish characters however, are where some of the most intense drama originates. Yanek Grossmann (Marcin Bosak) leaves his wife Szona (Etl Szyc) for younger woman Chaja (Julia Kijowska), whom he impregnates in the sewers. The scenes of these events feel sordid, particularly as Szona witnesses them and attempts to prevent her daughter Rachela (Ida Lozinska) from seeing her father’s primal betrayal. While they are strong scenes, a problem emerges. Due to underdevelopment, characters like Yanek and Chaja remain one-dimensional, sucking some of the authenticity from an otherwise realistic scenario.

But at its heart In Darkness is Socha’s story. It is a film about a morally ambiguous man whose instincts ultimately guide him to do something remarkably ethical, in the face of depravity. Holland gives Socha’s story clarity and, with her impassive style, allows us to consider critically how we would react in similar circumstances. Only during the last scene does she step close to the melodramatic. The strongest emotional punch however, comes with the information we are given in text form, when the film has ended. We discover the fate of each character outside the context of war, reminding us of the fragility of life, even in times of peace.

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John Carter felt the impact of the critics and box office statistics. Like a faulty space ship it made a crash landing on its opening weekend in the US and has left a crater in the UK too. The film revolves around John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Virginian and former Army Captain in the midst of the American civil war, who is mysteriously transported to Mars (known to its natives as Barsoom) whereupon he discovers he can jump great distances. With his new superpower he becomes leader of a Barsoomian civil war and falls in love with Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Given its $250m budget and wacky premise perhaps the harsh reception is justified, but for this viewer the two hours flew by – ok perhaps they jumped, not flew.

Admittedly John Carter sets itself up for a hard fall at the outset. The film’s opening scenes are troublesome at best, establishing Carter’s space dwelling antagonists Sab Than (Dominic West) and Matai Shang (Mark Strong) first, as they set out to exert inordinate power over the Barsoomian people. Following this we leap to Richmond, Virginia (the year is 1881) where John Carter’s nephew Edgar “Ned” Rice Burroughs discovers that Carter has died and been put in a mysterious mausoleum. Edgar receives a document of John Carter’s life to read and thus we skip to 1868 whereupon Carter is in Arizona and on the run from the US army (and Apache Indians). It is here, hiding in a cave, where he finds a medallion which teleports him to Mars.

We can agree that this is not the most streamlined nor logical of opening sequences – Carter himself comes into the mix too late and the date and location hopping is almost maddening. When we reach Mars the film has already left most of the audience feeling baffled and alienated. Credit to director Andrew Stanton then, when he wins us back with a gloriously comic sequence in which Carter discovers the challenges of moving in the Mars atmosphere. A small contraction or expansion of muscles means Carter can catapult himself great distances. Stanton stages a sequence that sets the silent slapstick of Buster Keaton to the surrealistic scenery of Salvador Dali.

It is this big bold fun where John Carter feels at home and the relatively straightforward middle section delivers the goods. Taylor Kitsch performs Carter with a charismatic respect to the humour of the material, while maintaining an appropriate air of cynicism and a muscular physicality. Despite his relative status as an unknown Kitsch holds it together remarkably well, taking John Carter through a number of character phases from scholar/adventurer, prospecting army deserter and Spartacus-esque gladiator. The quality of Kitsch’s performance is particularly pertinent when we realise that we are dealing with a run time of two hours and ten minutes. For the bulk of the adventure the film stays on track structurally, with a few remarkable effects-driven scenes that have a rare ecstasy to them – one involves a giant animated plateau which resembles the roots of a tree.

It is when the film reaches the end that it reminds us of its troubled beginnings. Attempting to tie up the world cavorting nature of the story leaves us just as bewildered as we were at the outset, as Stanton is not able to reorientate the film with a sequence like the anti-gravity one. In its essence John Carter is an entertaining sci-fi romp, bookended with strong doses of confusion. It seems that translating Edgar Rice Burroughs’ wacky Martian tale, which was originally written in 1911, to film form is still something of a mountainous challenge. But I am left wondering, is John Carter with its intense reliance on exposition really a story ideal for the film medium? While Stanton may not have succeeded in making the leap to sci-fi classic, at least he has created a charming anomaly like David Lynch’s Dune.

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Today we bid farewell to Current UK, the British branch of documentary television channel Current TV.

Their young and talented staff produced and commissioned a diverse variety of documentaries for five years. They explored contentious social issues, politics and the very nature of documentary itself. They also looked beyond Britain and the States and gave us true life stories from oft unseen places.

I will miss the channel personally, having worked for the team. Furthermore I will miss their diverse and hard-hitting programming. Their shows welcomely filled a huge gap on British television on a day to day basis – now this gap is wide open once more.

Current TV continues in the USA and UK viewers can follow Current via http://current.com/

Their main US Twitter feed can also be located here: https://twitter.com/#!/current

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Rampart seemed to have so much going for it. A script by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), Woody Harrelson as a badass LAPD cop, a supporting cast complete with Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi as senior police officials and a director in the shape of Oren Moverman (Oscar nominated writer of The Messenger and I’m Not There). The question we should ask ourselves, like Harrelson’s protagonist, is: Where did it all go wrong?

Nicknamed ‘Date Rape’ (for dubiously shooting dead a suspected rapist), David Douglas Brown (Harrelson) is a police officer whose career (and self-image of invincibility) implodes after unwittingly being caught on camera committing a heinous act of police brutality. Set during the LAPD Rampart scandal in the late 1990’s, Brown becomes something of a scapegoat for the corrupt police department. This sends his macho self-esteem into a downward spiral. Given that ‘Date Rape’ is thoroughly unpleasant pig-of-a-man (with various characters verbally reminding us that he is racist, sexist and homophobic), you might have assumed that his downward spiral would be compelling viewing, but sadly it isn’t.

Rampart is packed full of characters. The most interesting group is undeniably Brown’s family, which consists of two sisters (whom he married successively) and their two daughters (whom he fathered to each respective sister). Aside from his Charlie Sheen style family structure (which unravels at snails pace throughout the film), a number of the other characters contribute little drama to Rampart. Brown’s main ‘love interest’ Linda Fentress (Robin Wright) is an alcohol dependant attorney in whom he confides. Scenes between the two characters result in a wallowing mess, as they are mutual wrecks. Brown’s other friends consist of Hartshort (Ned Beaty) an untrustworthy old friend of his father and General Terry (Ben Foster), a homeless guy with whom he regularly trades cigarettes and booze.

The film is largely built on dialogue scenes between these characters (and Ice Cube’s Internal Affairs Investigator Timkins), but Rampart feels like it requires some action. The relative lack of real action that occurs is approached with a schizophrenic approach to style that attempts to keep the film feeling dynamic. However, the true effect is to make us more aware of the fact that Rampart is all talk and no trousers. Moverman, shooting on the Arri Alexa digital camera, films conversational scenes with an eccentric verve that almost screams ‘student film’. One particularly frustrating scene, a conversation between Harrelson, Weaver and Buscemi consists of shots which pan past each respective character in a wild and unmotivated manner. As an audience member it is all too clear that this is an effort to bring some energy to a scene that is otherwise lacking life.

Were it not for Harrelson’s embodiment of Dave ‘Date Rape’ Brown Rampart would be entirely dull viewing. Harrelson is perfect for a Bad Lieutenant or Dirty Harry type role and there is a sense that with a more dynamic script and a more assured director he would have had the chance to offer more than bigotry juxtaposed with angst. Thinking back to his appearance in No Country for Old Men, Harrelson has the capacity to make a considerable stamp on a film even with limited scenes. That he would make an impression upon Rampart was always inevitable, if only the film could stand up to his presence.

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