Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

My short review published online in One Hundred Words Magazine [no longer available]:-

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most gifted directors in the world; Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is his latest magnificent creation.

What seems a simple police procedural is in fact a fascinating, intricate character study and philosophical essay, full of narrative sleights of hand. Yet this long and slow film is not dry and tiresome, it is full of the most delightful, unexpected wit. It also seduces with stunning cinematography: from the vast mythical landscapes, to the close scrutiny of faces.

This is serious cinema – not with a stern and pompous face, but a strange melancholic smile.

Since writing that, I’ve seen the film again and was even more impressed! I fully agree with Peter Bradshaw, writing in The Guardian:-

I can only say it is a kind of masterpiece: audacious, uncompromising and possessed of a mysterious grandeur in its wintry pessimism.

Bradshaw goes on to say:-

Ceylan displays pure, exhilarating mastery in this film: it is made with such confidence and flair…With his two early features, Distant (2002) and Climates (2006), Ceylan has showed himself a superb film-maker. This is his greatest so far.

In an extended piece by Geoff Andrew in Sight and Sound (April 2012), which includes an interview with Ceylan, Andrew says:-

For many, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia was not only the most remarkable of the director’s six features (no mean achievement in itself, given the consistently high standard of his work); it was also the finest film in Cannes [last year] – and, for this writer, the greatest of last year.

Long and slow but wholly engrossing from opening shot onwards, the film’s lithe narrative – seemingly digressive but in fact meticulously constructed – begins at dusk and ends around the middle of the following day… As the rambling, shambling, for some time seemingly futile investigation proceeds, Ceylan uses it as the framework for a richly quizzical meditation on a range of themes… Though packed with piercing insights, the film never feels solemn, overloaded or excessively ‘arty’.

Most commentators note that the film is long and measured in pace. In the Sight and Sound interview Ceylan says:-

Compared to literature, where you’ve a lot of freedom in what you write, cinema seems bound by strict ‘rules’. The market pushes you to make films that last 90 minutes or so, or at least feel like that. But I wanted to break with that – I wanted audiences to feel at least some of the frustration the search party feel. My box office is pretty modest, and I thought that those people who insist on seeing short, fast movies are probably not going to come to mine anyway. So I didn’t really need to worry about them.

He makes an interesting comment about ambiguity in his films:-

In the cinema, if you don’t ensure that the audience’s imaginations are activated, you can’t go very deep. So I try to include lots of ambiguous details, so that everyone has to try and create their own ‘reality’ for the film. That said, ambiguity is certainly not the same as arbitrariness. Ambiguity should always be carefully worked out. As a director you always need to know the answers to any questions raised in your film.

And, on the character he most identifies with:-

[The doctor: ] he’s rather distant from the world around him, and I’m like that. He’s not so close to other people as the local townsfolk are.

This is taken up more fully by Jonathan Romney who interviews Ceylan in a piece in The Independent:-

In Turkey, Ceylan shuns the limelight. He never appears on TV or gives interviews, unless he’s taking a film to Cannes. “There I’m open to everyone … but in Turkey I shut myself off. I don’t generally answer the phone, unless I know it’s a friend.”

Yet Ceylan is a more social creature than that suggests. He wrote his last two films in a trio with Ebru [his wife] and Ercan Kesal. “We meet every day. We discuss a scene, and I give them homework. I also write and we read to each other … [but] the last decision is always mine.”

It seems to me that the doctor is the key to the film. As Dave Calhoun says in his Time Out review:-

…This investigation unsettles the doctor – just as, we imagine, Ceylan hopes to unsettle us as he takes us with him on this compelling, masterly journey.
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A bit of trivia: Romney handily explains how to pronounce the director’s name:-

Nuri Bilge Ceylan – pronounced “Bil-ger Jey-lan”

Carancho

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My short review published online in One Hundred Words Magazine [no longer available]:-

Carancho, the latest film from talented Argentinean director Pablo Trapero, is a bleak, severe drama which takes the audience on an unsettling but hugely rewarding cinematic journey.

In a Buenos Aries rife with casual corruption and extreme violence, Sosa is one of the shady compensation lawyers – ‘vultures’ – who prey on those injured in road accidents. However, when he meets Lujan, a young doctor, he tries to turn his life around.

This is a film of grim authenticity, with brilliant performances from leads Ricardo Darin and Martina Gusman, and an ending that will leave you stunned. Tough, uncompromising, but highly recommended.

For another take on Carancho, the review by Mar Diestro-Dopido in Sight and Sound (March 2012) takes a very different line from my own, as these extracts illustrate:-

Although Carancho attempts to meld social drama and love story with genre mechanics of a more straightforward action thriller, it never quite feels as if the various elements fully click, making for a bustling, formally agile yet unconvincing viewing experience.

The doomed-lovers narrative seems flat and predictable, and its principal characters underwritten, leaving both Darin and Gusman stranded.

…Carancho’s social and polictical comments are crushed under the film’s mannerisms and contrived oppression, sealed with a coda that turns the dial towards sensationalism.

I would agree, to some extent, that the coda section is a touch unconvincing, though I was happy to suspend disbelief, and I thought the last plot twist was brilliantly powerful. (By the way, I think Diestro-Dopido gets it’s absolutely right when he references Scorsese’s somewhat underrated Bringing Out The Dead.)

In contrast, here’s Peter Bradshaw writing in The Guardian:-

Some movies are described as explosive: this is positively eardrum-perforating. It’s a brutal but very smart contemporary noir from the Argentinian director Pablo Trapero, and it could be his best film to date, the clearest and most effective fusion of his dual gifts for realism and thrills.

The chaotic and violent finale is breathtakingly horrible, and all too appropriate for a group of people making a good living out of poor people being hit by cars. The final confrontation even has a little of the excitement of the failed heist in Reservoir Dogs.
Luján and Sosa have a Bonnie and Clyde heroism. Let’s hope Carancho isn’t remade. No Hollywood pairing would have a fraction of this steam heat.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

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My short review published online in One Hundred Words Magazine [no longer available]:-

Amongst the many gems on offer in the BFI Southbank’s complete retrospective of the films of master Danish director Carl Dreyer is this silent masterpiece.

The Passion of Joan of Arc portrays the final days of the tragic and deluded heroine. It is a film of heartbreaking intensity: an unflinching portrayal of personal suffering. The unusual and powerfully effective editing and framing are surprisingly experimental even for a modern audience. What dominates everything, though, is the film’s intense scrutiny of human faces in close-up, especially the achingly sad gaze of Joan herself.

This is an extraordinary, unforgettable work of art.

In their guide to the Dreyer season at the Southbank, Silent London describe the brilliance of this film:-

Dreyer summarised his harrowing, cathartic dramatisation of the trial of Joan of Arc as, ‘a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life’. It’s a genuine masterpiece, one of the greatest, and most emotionally powerful films ever made. The hectic edits and swirling camera movements will dazzle you, but Falconetti’s performance in the title role will quietly astonish you. A film to be treasured, but more importantly to be watched on the big screen as often as possible.

Steve Rose in The Guardian on Falconetti’s performance:-

Maria Falconetti’s portrayal of Joan is somehow in a class of its own, outside the realms of acting. Just her agonised expression is enough to move viewers to tears – no words or actions are needed. Quite how Falconetti and Dreyer achieved this is a mystery, but it is still often regarded as the single greatest performance in the history of cinema.

Roger Ebert perfectly captures this aspect:-

You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti. In a medium without words, where the filmmakers believed that the camera captured the essence of characters through their faces, to see Falconetti in Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) is to look into eyes that will never leave you.

For Falconetti, the performance was an ordeal. Legends from the set tell of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face–so that the viewer would read suppressed or inner pain. He filmed the same shots again and again, hoping that in the editing room he could find exactly the right nuance in her facial expression… Perhaps it helps that Falconetti never made another movie (she died in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1946). We do not have her face in other roles to compare with her face here, and the movie seems to exist outside time (the French director Jean Cocteau famously said it played like “an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist”).

The Kid With A Bike

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My short review published online in One Hundred Words Magazine [no longer available]:-

The Kid With A Bike – a Special Jury Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival – is an intense and moving story of a troubled boy, rejected by his father, whose life begins to change when he meets a caring stranger.

In a fascinating and informative post-screening Q&A, director Luc Dardenne explained how he and his brother deliberately avoid sentimentality in favour of a more realistic, authentic humanism.

It’s a strategy which results in a touching, thought-provoking film.

The Arts Picturehouse Q&A with Luc Dardenne was particularly fascinating to me because it provided such an insight into the Dardennes’ unique approach to film making, as well as some clues as to how they achieve such a strong sense of authenticity in their work. This piece in The Guardian by Anne Billson covers some of the same ground as the Q&A. Some extracts:-

[The Dardennes’] fictional work is usually pigeonholed as social realist, but despite the sense that you’re watching a naturalistic slice of life, the plotting is tightly controlled, with hardly any improvisation.

The Kid With a Bike is the story of Cyril, an 11-year-old boy whose father has dumped him in an orphanage. Help is at hand in the form of a sympathetic hairdresser called Samantha, played by Cécile de France. De France, who pulls off the not-inconsiderable feat of playing a good person who is neither cloying nor carrying a Hollywood-style backstory to explain her niceness, is probably the nearest thing to a box-office star the brothers have worked with. “Yes, Cécile is an actress everyone’s already heard of,” says Jean-Pierre, “and an excellent actress, but also a great collaborator.”

Cyril is played by Thomas Doret, who’s so persuasive in the title role of a kid who can’t keep still for a second that it’s surprising to hear he wasn’t like that in real life. “Thomas is great,” says Luc, “but the physical aspect wasn’t really his thing. He does karate, but you don’t actually touch your opponent in that. Thomas is more of an observer, he doesn’t get stuck in, so we had to do lots of things to help him get into the physical aspect of the character, rehearsing the falls and the scene with the scissors and so on… And Thomas got into the character through all these physical things.”Rehearsals are important, since it is then that the brothers work out their camera movements, which are sometimes but not always dictated by the movements of the actors; “It’s a mixture,” says Jean-Pierre. “We always rehearse in the locations where we’re going to film,” says Luc, “not in a rehearsal room.” They usually rehearse for about a month, but on The Kid With the Bike it was six weeks. “We had a 13-year-old actor who had never acted before,” says Luc. “We knew that he was talented, and we’d gone through scenes with him, so we knew he could do it, but we needed to rehearse, to be sure.”

In a scenario strewn with excuses for sentimentality – a kid, an orphanage, adult-child bonding – the Dardennes rigorously avoid it. “It’s counterproductive,” says Jean-Pierre. “The problem with sentimentality is that it kills the emotion.” To this end, they asked De France to be “a little bit cooler, a bit more reserved”, and when she did it like that, it worked. “It’s a question of rhythm,” says Jean-Pierre.

How do they collaborate on the writing and directing? “We work on the structure together,” says Luc, “and then I write the first draft, and give it to Jean-Pierre, and when I’m writing we talk on the telephone.”

Do they never argue? “Not in front of the actors!” says Luc, and they both chuckle, but he’s clearly joking; the two of them run a smooth conversational relay, completing each other’s thoughts without interrupting the other’s flow. “If the people we were working with saw that we didn’t agree,” says Jean-Pierre, “it would be difficult for them, and for us.”

“I think there’s also a sense that one completes the other,” says Jean-Pierre. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be any point in working together.”

Project Nim

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Roger Ebert neatly summarises:-

Can a chimpanzee learn to speak by using sign language? Yes. But in what sense does it know what it is saying? “Project Nim,” a fascinating documentary, follows the life of a chimp named Nim Chimpsky as it’s raised like a human baby and then shuttled from one set of “parents” and “homes” to another. The chimp emerges from this experience as a more admirable creature than many of its humans.

I could add that there is also a touch of the heroic in one or two of the human protagonists, but what I really want to say is that this documentary encourages more subtle assessments of its interviewees.

Simon Chinn, Producer (DVD extras)

Somehow in a documentary by being able to see the whites of someone’s eyes you can convey a complexity in people’s emotion that I think is often very difficult to achieve in a fictional form. What are his tears, what do they mean? Can you explain them? They are not reducible to one easy explanation, they are complicated tears.

James Marsh (DVD extras)

The story itself embodies some very interesting ideas but there is no simple moral conclusion. The questions which the film poses are really for the viewer to resolve. What I’ve tried to do is to tell the story as well as I can without distilling the film into some sound-bite morality, some easy comforting moral.

That last quote characterises some of the very best documentaries. This one certainly poses some very interesting questions.

Rob Nelson in The Village Voice:-

Marsh’s film remains a deeply haunting portrait of the unbridgeable gap between kindred species. Nim learns to communicate in sign language (he particularly likes the words “play” and “hug”), but declines—heroically, perhaps—to supply scientific proof that an ape can live comfortably among people who often appear far less intelligent than he is. Naturally, this seals the animal’s fate. And Project Nim guarantees that we’ll never look at zoos—or our pets—the same way again.

As a companion film to Nim, I would highly recommend Nicolas Philibert’s brilliant, meditative documentary Nenette. Philip French in The Guardian:-

It’s an absorbing, contemplative film that compels us to participate rather than just sit back and look. Centrally, we’re invited to speculate as to what Nénette [an orang-utan in a Paris zoo] is thinking, what she makes of us and to ask ourselves what right we have to imprison her and what rights she herself possesses.

Schleinzer’s Michael – shock tactics or powerful provocation?

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Michael [Markus Schleinzer, 2011]: my short review of the film published online in One Hundred Words Magazine [no longer available]:-

Markus Schleinzer’s astonishingly assured debut feature is a deeply disquieting film about a paedophile who has a boy locked in his basement. It is also devastatingly brilliant.

Carefully understated, its precision of framing, editing and sound design is powerfully employed to convey the horror and disturbing banality of the everyday routines. Much of the story unfolds by implication, but is all the more unsettling for it. The film avoids simplistic explanation, and instead concentrates on subtle observation of character.

Critical opinion has been somewhat divided, but I think it may be one of the best films you see this year.

However, not everyone has been so positive about the film. Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times:-

a strange and troubling little film, a hermetically sealed creep-fest that seems to have no desire to be anything more than just that.

And Nick Pinkerton in The Village Voice:-

You can’t say that Michael is sensationalistic, for it is cold to the touch. You can’t say that the things shown here do not happen, for even worse things do. And you can’t say that such things don’t deserve the spotlight of art, for the artist should always bear in mind Terence’s “Nothing that is human is alien to me.”

But not everything that is human is naturally interesting, and Schleinzer approaches his subject not as an investigator, but as though covering up a crime scene and scrubbing it of anything that might provide insight or empathy or psychological traction. The cleanup is so thorough, you can’t detect what possible motive he might have had for making Michael, other than to play a nasty game with the viewer’s natural concern for a child’s life. This is cheap when it comes with a Hollywood happy ending and no better without.

Criticisms tend to focus on two aspects: that the film is cold and detached, to such an extent it refrains from taking any moral viewpoint; and that the film provides no explanation for Michael’s behaviour.

Some even say that the story is told from the viewpoint of the perpetrator. I don’t think it is: in some sense the film is actually told from the viewpoint of the audience. This is why the detached, observational style works so well – it provokes a reaction in the viewer: the film asks for active audience participation in constructing its meaning. It does not follow, though, that the film has no moral standpoint; quite the opposite – each and every scene only makes sense in relation to the expected and carefully suggested viewer reactions. In this context, the film’s refusal to provide any substantial explanation becomes an advantage rather than a problem: it avoids reductive and dismissive closure, while stimulating enquiry of the film’s themes.

Jonathan Romney in The Independent:-

Michael’s lucid, uninflected style suggests a spirit of quasi-scientific observation: Schleinzer invites us to study his protagonist rather than “understand” him. Schleinzer’s cool, clinical direction is very much school-of-Haneke. But while Michael is extremely uncomfortable viewing, the fact that it’s never pitched for either pathos or horror makes the film all the more challenging – because it so directly tests our understanding of normality and aberration, humanity and inhumanity.

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:-

When I first saw Michael last year, I wondered whether this film really told us anything new, for all its brilliance, and for all that it offered us the conventional enticements of plot twists and turns. Arguably, Michael can’t compare in horror to the real-life Kampusch and Fritzl cases that have inspired it. But, for me, a second viewing allowed the implications to emerge.

Michael is a scabrous, satirical comment on the Stockholm syndrome inherent in all parent-child relationships. What is disturbing about this story is not simply the sexual abuse, which is kept off-camera, but the way Michael and Wolfgang fall so easily into a grotesque routine that looks like family life: this is the theatre of normality that takes place up on the ground floor. (Here, the movie is comparable to Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, another truly horrible vision of violence, secrecy and family dysfunction.)
And the film offers something else: a vision of male relationships themselves. In the brief timespan covered by the movie, Wolfgang begins to grow up, just a little; just perceptibly, he is approaching manhood, horrifyingly shaped and guided by Michael. In one of the film’s most mysterious scenes, Wolfgang gives Michael a Christmas card on which he has drawn, not a horribly ironic or parodic daddy-son picture, but two figures of equal height. Has he imagined his grownup future alongside his captor? Michael is more furious and scared by this than anything else: imagining the future, and by that token understanding the present, is something of which Michael is incapable.

New album by Get The Blessing may be best yet…

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My short review of OCDC published online in One Hundred Words Magazine:-

Bristol-based jazz-rockers Get The Blessing are back with an addictively rousing album, OCDC. It’s perhaps their best yet.

The front line are Pete Judge (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Jake McMurchie (saxes) playing music which is part-inspired by Ornette Coleman but with a contemporary rock feel. Together they weave long melodic lines and then break out into wildly inventive solos. They are supported by the powerhouse rhythm section of Jim Barr – with his catchy, driving bass riffs, and Clive Deamer – with forceful, precise and elegant drumming.

This is feisty, exhilarating music that will have you hooked from the
very first track.

Dave Gelly has a nice short review here:-

This band’s music has a unique identity that will beguile you if you let it.

One of the great things about this band’s music is that it’s so hard to pin down. John Fordham in the Guardian:-

OC DC spans sinister, Morricone-like atmospherics, the Miles Davis of Sketches of Spain, a Joe Meek 1960s rock sound, Ornette-sax soulful.

The band’s saxophonist, Jake McMurchie interviewed in thejazzbreakfast:-

Our influences are almost too diverse to name, and they’re probably only relevant when talking about the composition process itself. In which case you could cite Frank Zappa, Ethiopiques, Mark Ribot, Tom Waits, Robert Wyatt, Kraftwerk, Radiohead as major reference points. But stories, books and films are just as important. We often use visual references when trying to guide each other to a desired end. It’s important that music evokes a mood, draws you in emotionally, tells a story.

But as to Ornette, he (and Don Cherry and the other regular members of his bands) has been a constant reference point. There’s something about the visceral nature of his sound that is always disarming.

I love this video of the opening track on the CD:-