Review: Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Kubrick, always Kubrick.

Why is it that whenever a new and ripe filmmaking talent comes along, some critics feel a need to make a comparison to the late, singular Stanley? Besides being a lazy comparison, it’s a dead weight around the person being praised. It gives them a shadow they’ll spend forever trying to escape (A notable recent example was Jonathan Glazer, whom more than one critic nominated as an heir to Kubrick in reviews of Under The Skin). When Memento launched his career proper (Following is a fascinating but problematic experiment), Christopher Nolan was suddenly encumbered with the Kubrick comparisons, and they’ve never totally disappeared. But they make no sense. He’s based his career to date on thrillers with a sci-fi edge. Presumably too many people are still reeling from 2001: A Space Odyssey to remember there are other sci-fi directors, or that Nolan’s yet to make a black comedy or a war film.

Now, Nolan actively invites the Kubrick comparisons with Interstellar, a film grappling with heady themes and huge effects-driven set-pieces similar to 2001, not to mention Hans Zimmer’s organ-led Strauss-baiting score. One has to praise both Nolan and his film for their gumption; they’re going after something far bigger than their contemporaries could ever manage. Mainstream films don’t generally ‘do’ ideas as grand as the effect of a black hole on the driving power of love, but Interstellar isn’t really all that mainstream. Yes, it’s from the director of the Dark Knight trilogy. Yes, it stars Mr. ‘Alright Alright Alright’, Catwoman and Jessica ‘Scannain‘s reviews editor wants to marry me’ Chastain. Despite all this, Interstellar is aiming higher. Therein, however, lies the film’s inherent risk. Comparisons between Nolan and Kubrick do neither much favour, but to compare this new space opera to Kubrick’s opus will only serve to demean the new pretender. Take it on its own terms, because Interstellar is too indebted to 2001 for it to step out of the monolith’s shadow.

It begins promisingly enough, with talking head interviews of older people recalling a crisis we have yet to experience. A global blight threatens our food supply; indeed, it has done so for years forcing much of the population in this distant future to take up farming to provide sustenance. One such farmer is engineer and former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). Like many Nolan leading men, Cooper is widowed and struggling to do right by those left behind. In this case, he’s trying to raise two children in this massive dystopian dustbowl. His son Tom (Timothée Chalemet) is destined/doomed to be a farmer, but daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) is more scientifically inclined, like her pop. This father-daughter relationship drives Interstellar; it carries across galaxies and through black holes, like a constant anchor. It’s good to have something so solid to cling to when the rest of the film demands a few leaps of faith.

The first leap of faith sees Cooper being led to a covert NASA base. Here, a search for a new planet for humanity to inhabit/destroy/do what we will is being headed up by Prof. Brand (Nolan’s good luck charm, Michael Caine). Brand and his theories on black holes are modelled on the work of astrophysicist (and Interstellar producer) Kip Thorne. His ideas of the possibility of interstellar travel are the basis for Nolan’s script, co-written with his brother Jonathan. In this case, a black hole near Saturn is a gateway to at least three planets that might host us. Thus, off go Cooper, Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and fellow scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), plus robotic assistant TARS, a source of much-needed levity voiced by Bill Irwin. From the start of the film until the eventual blastoff is when Interstellar is at its strongest, effectively establishing a world and a populace under threat, even if we’re not sure when the film’s set or why the blight is so rampant. Having fine actors like John Lithgow and David Oyelowo inhabiting even small roles does help. Meanwhile, McConaughey continues his winning streak with another committed performance, all slow-boil emotion and weariness.

It’s not long after blasting off into the second act that Interstellar begins to lose its footing. Within this black hole, there are large time loops to contend with; depending on the planet, minutes could be weeks, months or even years back on Earth. Nolan played with a similar structural gambit in Inception, but the distances and passage of time in Interstellar deny it the same immediacy. It’s hard to get pulses racing about wasting years in the space of an hour when characters are too far away from each other to feel the effects. Cooper wants to get home to his children, but his children grow up into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain in the blink of an eye. The children themselves are battling to maintain what lives they have left, all the while not knowing whether their father is alive or not. This is Interstellar‘s failing; its plotting is far, far too ambitious. The second act attempts to dovetail the Earth and space story strands via simultaneously-occurring conflicts, but it doesn’t quite work. 2001 was relatively plotless next to its stirring imagery; Insterstellar tries too hard to explain its earlier leaps of faith. The brothers Nolan cannot make a virtue of exposition as Inception did.

In addition, Interstellar’s underlying emotionality is problematic. Cooper’s love for his family, his daughter especially, is his driving force through this intergalactic chaos. Again, Nolan has covered this story before, but he attempts to give it more air than usual. He goes so far as to introduce the concept of love as a scientific variable. At one point, Hathaway’s Dr. Brand explains her motivation for the mission as an extension of love; it’s the point at which audience goodwill may get sucked out of the airlock. It’s a noble and poetic idea, but any scientist caught saying this in reality may find themselves a laughing stock. Next to this, it’s the moments of more recognisable love and humanity that prove most compelling. The remaining Earthlings send one-way video messages to the crew. One particularly spiteful message from Chastain’s Murphy to her long-gone pop threatens the tear ducts. But next to the over-reaching theories of love in the blackness of space, it’s a wonder the film gets near that level of emotionality at all. The Cooper-Murphy story works; there’s just too much else getting in the way.

If the script threatens to derail Interstellar‘s efforts, the technical skill on show elevates it. The special effects are necessarily impressive, but their heft comes from the efforts of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her). Space is none more black, against which the stars dazzle. In one of the most stirring shots of any film this year, the spacecraft carrying our heroes passes by Saturn, a tiny twinkling diamond rapt to the ringed gas giant. The visual thrills of Interstellar demand as big a screen as possible. Mile-high tidal waves, frozen clouds and an explanation-defying climax will stretch the eyelids to bursting point. Nolan elevates theatricality to artistry, delivering money shots worth every penny. As for that climax, the time loop is closed in a baffling sequence that seeks to explain all. Is Nolan being too neat about this? Probably, but you’ll be astonished he even dared to try.

To date, the films of Christopher Nolan have been accused of lacking in emotional resonance. With Insterstellar, he tries too hard to redress the balance, taking too long and too many liberties to make his point. Interstellar gets to its intended destination, somewhere under a Saturnine ring, but was the scenic route really necessary? Caine’s Prof. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas upon blast-off, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Nolan has raged and rallied against mainstream complacency in his oeuvre, but now might be a good time for him to calm down and come back down to Earth.

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Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

Director: Dan Gilroy

***

In one of his skits in his show No Cure For Cancer, Denis Leary bemoaned the fact his generation was labelled the ‘TV Generation’, doing nothing but staring at the gogglebox all the time. As he points out, it’s no wonder: Lee Harvey Oswald was shot live one Sunday morning and they were afraid to change the channel for thirty years. It’s this paranoid reticence on which Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his fellow ‘nightcrawlers’ prey in Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, an efficiently entertaining hodge-podge of influences, armed with a blunt message. Inhale deeply; the underbelly awaits

It’s that ‘crawl’ in Nightcrawler that sets the mood. The ‘crawlers’ are the freelance film crews that capture the immediate aftermath (if not more) of car crashes, murders, home invasions and the like. Anyone who’s ever watched local network news in the US knows this kind of footage: handheld, swiftly shot and bloody. It’s an unrepentantly vile line of work, but there’s clearly money to be made. It’s a stark contrast to the views that accompany the opening credits. Wide shots of a glittery LA rope us in, while the city is in turn hemmed in by television masts and aerials. For all the high-speed camcorders darting about, the unsung hero of Nightcrawler is DoP Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia), who has clearly rewatched Heat to nail this teeming mass of lights interrupting dark chasms of corruption. There’s a lot hiding in the shadows, including our leading man Bloom.

We first see Bloom attempting a break-in at a storage depot by cutting the rail-link fence. One security scare and a fight later, and he’s trying to sell on his ill-gotten gains (Selling a fence to a fence? Arf-arf). He also takes the opportunity to look for a job with said fence. There’s desperation here, masked by a studied (literally, learned from a book) confidence. Bloom is a jack of all trades, looking for one to master. In the first few minutes we see him as a thief, a trespasser, a salesman and a negotiator; with his motor mouth and Brylcreem-drowned bonce, he’s ace most any legitimate job interview. Instead, Bloom hides in the dark recesses, trading in the untradeable. Gyllenhaal plays Bloom as detached from all around him, a Patrick Bateman-type surrounded by a lot less yuppies. His vocabulary of buzzwords is built for pitching ideas, prices and himself. Gyllenhaal absolutely gets the creepiness of Bloom without resorting to tics (It’s a wonder he didn’t give his eyelids a sprain with his excessive blinking in Prisoners).

Driving on the highway, Bloom spots a fiery car accident. More importantly, he spots the crawler crew filming the dramatic rescue. Watching the breakneck pace advocated by long-time nightcrawler Loder (Bill Paxton, slimy), you can see the fire in Bloom’s eyes. One cheap camcorder and police scanner later, and he’s on the hunt for saleable carnage. His first piece grabs the attention of CBS 2 News, in particular its news director Nina Romina. With Romina, we get the welcome return proper (the Thor films count for relatively little) of Rene Russo. In her finest role since The Thomas Crown Affair, she plays the unscrupulous director with a charming menace. That said, even she gets taken aback by the methods and drive of little boy Bloom. Though he’s certainly an keen observer like his namesake Leopold in Ulysses, he derives little from it on a personal level. It’s all about the money, and the opportunities presented by his new trade. He has no scruples about what he must do; why not move a body if it helps get a good shot for TV?

The bloody-mindedness of the modern media may be an obvious target, but Nightcrawler takes aim and nails its target head-on. Once we see Nina rush to get Bloom’s stuff on the air, the message is clear. Unfortunately, from that point Nightcrawler is full of vim, but it’s racing to no clear destination. It’s a film of ever-increasing loops; Bloom goes after bigger quarries, get caught in greater dangers and gets paid bigger cheques. We see his new business grow (including hiring a new assistant, Riz Ahmed’s suitably-panicked Rick), but Bloom scarcely changes. The ‘no-hugging, no-learning’ rule may have worked for Seinfeld, but in Nightcrawler it means there’s little risk. Like Bloom, we become passive observers of the (admittedly gritty) action. At least Gilroy makes sure to keep the action going. For the sake of speed, Bloom invests in a sporty red number (ensuring an immediate recall to superior films like Drive), before getting directly involved in one of his news stories. Nightcrawler pokes at possibilities of investigating worthy topics like race relations, but that’s ultimately shelved for a worthy-but-familiar lesson in media perversion. If it bleeds, Gyllenhaal will make sure it leads for a price.

Nightcrawler is a crawl through an off-kilter mind but, by tip-toeing around some fertile material, it can’t help but feel a little wanting. Stilll, it does offer some gleefully lurid thrills, plus the fine performances from Gyllenhaal and Russo. But this kind of media nightmare is nothing new; Nightcrawler may be mad as hell, but it could always take a bit more.

Review: Birdman (Or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

*****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

In numerous ways, Birdman is miraculous. For starters, it’s a miracle it exists. It’s unapologetic in its sarcasm, and makes no bones about the targets it lines up for an almighty mocking. Here’s a superhero film with no delusions about its central hero being super; for all the assistance CGI can offer, Birdman shares more comic-book spirit with American Splendor than The Dark Knight.  At the time of writing, something in the region of forty superhero movies are at some stage of development or production. This phenomenon appears critic-proof, so a film taking a potshot at their increasingly-bloated and convoluted omnipotence proves both an inevitability and a necessity. Birdman will save us!

It’s hard to believe that superhero flicks were once a novelty, with no guarantees of success. Those were the days when Tim Burton still made solid work and Batman was more than a bit of a goth. 25 years after Burton’s first Batman brought the Dark Knight to filmic life, Michael Keaton brings his cape out for an airing. He had to be the only choice for the role of Riggan Thompson; Birdman’s ability to flip expectations on their head begins by making this actor’s baggage a welcome burden. Riggan is a washed-up actor, having had little success since playing the eponymous Birdman in a trio of outings twenty years previously. Despite starring in some higher-profile films in the last couple of years, Birdman is the biggest thing to happen to Keaton since Jackie Brown. We first find his Thompson in a crummy off-Broadway theatre, in a meditative position but apparently floating off the ground. Why this is happening, or why his gruff-voiced alter ego is delivering opinionated voiceover is not immediately clear, but from the off we’re invited to go with the rhythm. Unlike, say, most superhero movie trailers, all will be revealed gradually.

In a last-ditch attempt to jump-start his career, Thompson is directing, producing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Anyone who’s read it knows that this is a fool’s errand. Getting Birdman right could have turned into a similar folly for Alejandro González Iñárritu, with the director/co-writer potentially overreaching to escape the shadow of the worthy, miserabilist dramas that have defined his career up to this point. Amores Perros was the high point, and the films just got more ambitious and more dour. Discovering his funny bone can only be a good thing, but marrying it to his brand of ambition is a gamble. Fear not; ambition is Birdman’s fuel. It aims to do so much that the fact most, if not all, of it works is another of its miracles. As well as the superheroics, it’s a film obsessed by theatricality, and the associated freedoms and limitations. Shot and edited to give the impression of one impossibly continuous take, Iñárritu’s film invokes the same rebelliousness that spurred Hitchcock and Sokurov’s one-take wonders, and is driven by its own brand of kinetic energy. The camera rarely stops moving. Theatrical acting and production is always heightened, pitched a little closer to hysteria than what’s demanded by film or TV. Iñárritu embraces this approach, allowing the actions of both cast and camera to inform the film’s outlook. It’s overly dramatic? So are most superhero films. It’s dripping with sarcasm? So is Robert Downey Jr. Birdman’s medium is crucial to its message.

Thompson’s opening meditations belie his traumas. His play and his private life are coming apart at the seams. His ex-junkie daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone) is barely staying on the wagon, while his relationship with actress Laura (Andrea Riseborough) seems to be faltering. Meanwhile, the lead actor has just been incapacitated and is threatening to sue, and leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) is doubting her abilities onstage. What drives Thompson on through all this? Ultimately, it’s desperation with a side dose of mental issues. He needs a comeback, but his delusions of telekinetic ability and conversations with ‘Birdman’ threaten to derail his efforts. Keaton brings enough vulnerability and layers to the role to ensure he’s not just stunt casting. He’s necessarily stiff onstage, but comes alive when dealing with the real pressure offstage. The Hollywood system is an unforgiving beast, so it’s great to see his recent return to bigger roles reach such a sarcastic and triumphant apex. Keaton bites the hand that neglected to feed him for a long time, and it tastes delicious. Also taking a bite is Edward Norton, the former Incredible Hulk, playing leading-man replacement Mike Shiner. He’s written as a walking ego, and Norton delivers a hilarious performance, mocking both actorly self-importance and his own intense persona.

Shiner’s preening and the anxieties of Keaton and a uniformly-engaging supporting cast are all housed within the elaborate theatre, a character in and of itself. DoP Emmanuel Lubezki follows his Academy Award win with camerawork of such nimbleness and smoothness that the continuous shot effect, deliberate as it may be, doesn’t jar. Yet Birdman does have the potential to annoy. It demands you go along with its theatrical sensibilities and heightened performances. Occasionally ‘Birdman’ tauntingly manifests himself to Thompson, who in turn imagines taking flight as an escape. Birdman threatens to take off and leave its audience behind in a self-aware fuzz, but the performances keep it grounded. Thompson is brought down to Earth gently on occasion by talking to ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan, with less-than-enough screentime). Hearing Thompson’s manager Jake’s (Zach Galifaniakis) pronunciation of ‘Scorsese’ or seeing Antonio Sanchez appear on screen performing his own sassy drum score could be grating, but the score and Galifaniakis are more than engaging enough to ensure they stay on the right side of self-aware. At the very least, Birdman is interesting; at its best, it’s dazzling.

The film constantly and consistently draws attention to itself, but what’s the harm? It’s refreshing to see a film not take itself too seriously, even one with as much satirical potential as this one. Many a true word said in jest, and all that. While superheroes get a pummelling from one of the original and best of them, Iñárritu and his script (co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) risks goodwill and takes aim at critics. As represented by Lindsay Duncan’s veteran New York Times theatre writer Tabitha, the critical eye is accused of being unfeeling and pessimistic (As Thompson asks Tabitha, “What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic?”). Watching so much fluff can breed contempt, but that’s why we need “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”. That subtitle may seem like another layer of artifice to weed out anyone predestined to hate this thing, but it’s what Birdman is all about. On occasion, something like this comes around to surprise us. When superheroes didn’t dominate our billboards, we didn’t get teaser trailers for teaser trailers and Michael Keaton was Batman, we didn’t know any better; ignorance was bliss. If you go into Birdman knowing little about it, it might just astonish you. Birdman is anything but ignorant. The next umpteen years of umpteen caped crusades could be very long indeed, but Birdman probably has them sussed before they’ve even begun.

2014 – the year’s best movie scores

Looking back on the scores of 2014, the diversity of styles and sounds belies a year which (in the opinion of this writer, at least) has struggled to find a voice in any one singular film. In a vainglorious effort to redress this, here are the 10 best scores of 2014 (in no particular order). Even if some of the films aren’t particularly memorable, their soundtracks deserve a mention on their own merit.

 

Under The SkinMica Levi

Was Jonathan Glazer’s third feature – a common feature on many 2014 Top Tens – a gooey horror, a Kubrickian mindbender, or a parable on the nature of humanity? At its best, it works on all three levels, as shown in Mica Levi’s eerie music. The score reflects the juxtaposition embodied in Scarlett Johansson’s extra-terrestrial lead: it’s frightening, but it lures us in with elements that are recognisably human. Levi, previously known as lead singer with Micachu and the Shapes, delivers a debut score of remarkable confidence and character, destined to linger in the mind long after the end credits roll.

 

Nightcrawler – James Newton Howard

Listening to Nightcrawler’s soundtrack, anyone who knows scores will instantly recognise it as the work of James Newton Howard. Playing like a higher-tempoed cousin of his contribtions to the soundtrack of Collateral, there are echoes of his scores for King Kong and Peter Pan However, there are other influences at work here. The electric guitars recall Elliot Goldenthal’s score to Heat, and seedier moments play like Shore (Crash in particular). Like lead character Lou Bloom, it’s energetic, spiky and liable to change its tone and speed in a flash.

 

Cold In July – Jeff Grace

Jim Mickle’s Cold In July aims for the look and feel of a 1980s thriller (see also: The Guest), and it gets a sound to match from composer Jeff Grace. A fully synthisied score is a rarity these days, so it’s refreshing to hear this pulsing, paranoid throwback to the time that fashion sense forgot. At the very least, it’s an effective thriller score in its own right. At its best, the score to Cold In July honours the works of the late Riz Ortolani, and John Carpenter (especially Escape From New York and The Fog)

 

Maps To The Stars – Howard Shore

Howard Shore and David Cronenberg go together like Spielberg and Williams. Adding in some Eastern influences can only make it better. As the Lothlorien themes from Lord of the Rings proved, Shore can use instruments like sitars to mesmerising effect. He uses it again to bathe Cronenberg’s warped image of Los Angeles in an otherworldly glow. This is not the LA we know, or is it?; it’s full of warped tastes and ideas. The score is by turns exotic and poignant; even when the film digs into perversions, Shore’s restraint is unparalleled.

 

The Congress – Max Richter

Ari Folman’s follow-up to Waltz With Bashir, a loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s futuristic novel, was met with an overwhelming critical shrug. The film itself seemed unsure about its message and its method, a split between live action and animation indicative of a film at war with itself. Still, the whole thing was held in place by Robin Wright’s committed performance and a beautiful Max Richter score. Largely strings-driven, the emotive elegance of Richter’s work carried the film through its most chaotic stretches with a grace and heft the rest of the film lacked.

 

The Double – Andrew Hewitt

Richard Ayoade’s sophomore feature (after Submarine) buried Dostoyevsky’s tale of paranoia and self-doubt under too many influences and tics, but one standout element of the production was Andrew Hewitt’s score. Unlike the film, Hewitt settles on one primary influence (film noir) and lets the rest of the score fall into place. Interspersed amongst its more fast-paced elements are moments of genuine emotion and tenderness, resulting in a score that manages to blend tones better than the accompanying film could.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive – Jozef van Wissem/SQÜRL

For Jim Jarmusch’s vampiric lament for times and tastes past, composer Jozef van Wissem takes inspiration from the film’s dual settings of Detroit and Tangiers. The first half is driven by the electronic guitars of Jarmusch’s own band, SQÜRL. Then, the action segues to Africa, and local strings kick in to give a heady, exotic flavour. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s hunt for blood and inspiration is guided by these colourful sounds. Like our leading duo, each piece boasts an underlying tension below their cool elegance as each string is plucked and strummed. Marvellous.

 

Godzilla – Alexandre Desplat

It’s been a busy year for monsieur Desplat. He provided charming faux-Eastern European sounds to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and provided a solid-if-unremarkable score to the even-more-unremarkable The Imitation Game. However, his standout work of 2014 can be found in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. The score pays homage to the sounds of the Tohu originals, whilst still creating a distinct and scary vibe of its own. Pulsing rhythms and errant, far-off horns dominate this score, a slick and well-built slice of dread.

 

Gone Girl – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

For his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, David Fincher directed composers Reznor and Ross to the music played at massage parlours. The underlying creepiness of such pieces is accentuated in this killer score. Like Rosamund Pike’s Amy, the surface calm and reassurance gives way to unexpected darkness, with the composers actively setting the listener on edge with a calculated assault of digital textures and off-kilter soundscapes. It ends up somewhere between Shore in his Cronenberg-ian heyday and Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score, which is no bad thing.

 

Interstellar – Hans Zimmer

With director Christopher Nolan reaching for the stars and beyond, Hans Zimmer elected to treat us to one of those scores he pulls out every few years as a surprise. When he isn’t constrained by superheroics or rote action beats, Zimmer can deliver works of real depth and technical nous. Interstellar is one such work. As Nolan flirts with comparisons to 2001 (They’re ultimately undeserved, but bless him for trying.), Zimmer looks to the great composers for inspiration. The result is an percussive and triumphant score, with organ work echoing Bach and Philip Glass, and a huge scope befitting the themes and narrative with which Nolan grapples.

Review: Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu) (2014)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

For most other films, it would be an insult to say it would play well on stage. In the case of Winter Sleep, however, it would be not only a compliment, but an acknowledgement of the change in tack by its acclaimed writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. While his typically stunning eye for Anatolian vistas and the effects of Turkish climes are still very much in evidence, the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival sees Ceylan get comparatively chatty. Regrets and angers fuel the discussion, but it plays first and foremost like a dialogue on the Erdogan-ian state, and all started by an act of petty vandalism by a young boy. It could be called We Need To Talk About Turkey.

As commentaries go, it’s a simple setup: an aging man against an increasingly-hostile and accelerating world. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a former theatre actor turned hotel proprietor and landlord in the hewn and haggard Cappadocian caves. He’s prosperous, he’s intelligent and he’s disliked by most everyone around him. We slowly learn of Aydin’s pomposity, manifesting itself in a patronising manner. Bilginer’s performance is based around a balancing act; Aydin is pompous, but not overbearingly so. He is surrounded by tension and acts of violence, but opts to remain indifferent to mask his cowardice. Then, along comes a stone to smash his façade.

Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan) throws a stone at Aydin’s passing van, smashing a window. Whilst Aydin’s aide Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) gives chase on foot, our self-aggrandised wise man waits behind his cracked window and observes. The boy’s actions seem random, but a subsequent meeting with his father (Nejat Isler) explains a lot. Aydin is the family’s landlord, and rent is not forthcoming. Even as this confrontation gets heated, Aydin refuses to get involved directly. From this one act comes confrontation, self-examination, the opening of old wounds and realisation of regrets. This butterfly effect is localised, but in turn reflects Turkey in the here and now. It’s built on frustration, torn between East and West, with an aging leadership falling out of touch from those it purports to lead and encourage. The drama is riveting, but this commentary is Ceylan’s motivator.

Aydin’s standing in his locality, imagined and otherwise, comes from his successes in various fields. He owns and runs a hotel, the Othello. The hotel’s name is a reminder of his days as an acclaimed theatre actor. These days, when not chatting to guests or counselling villagers, he writes a column for a local newspaper (with a typically-pompous title, ‘Voices of the Steppe’). Ceylan and his co-writer (and wife) Ebru Ceylan give Aydin this life and these successes as fuel for his own shortcomings. It doesn’t help that those closest to him (at least, in proximity) are his newly-divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag) and his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), a much younger woman Aydin recently married. Necla is full of resent and open to criticising most anything Aydin does, most of which falls on deaf ears. Meanwhile, Nihal is an aspiring charity fundraiser, but he belittles her efforts. The plot beats come and go, but they serve only to carry us to the heart and soul of Winter Sleep. It’s built around discussion, as Aydin undergoes one verbal confrontation after another, each exposing another of his flaws. Every discussion is treated as a battleground, and though Aydin fancies his chances, he’s more evenly matched than he thought on most every occasion.

The settings and plot may deny Ceylan the opportunity to capture such awe-inspiring sights as those mercurial wide shots of the landscape in Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, but the characters and their conflicts draw us in so much that it’s not as great a loss as it otherwise might have been. Aydin’s cosy study is his ivory tower from which he surveys Cappdocia, but when the locals come to him he finds himself unprepared. There’s humour to be found in his interactions with Ilyas’ uncle Hamdi (Serhat Kılıc), a sycophantic imam. Necla is a constant thorn in his side, but she’s rarely incorrect. Meanwhile, his marriage to Nihal slowly founders. Her youthful energy cannot bear his standoffish intelligence, which he uses “to suffocate people, to crush and humiliate them.” Winter Sleep is repeated verbal assault on its characters, delivered with insight and artistry. Ceylan never loses sight of Turkey’s natural beauty; Winter Sleep may take some barbed swipes at Turkey’s establishment, but its tourist board ought to be thankful.

Winter Sleep is not exactly multiplex-friendly. The three-hour-plus running time is stretched out a little, to the point that a viewer’s focus on the plot may waiver towards the final act. In its defence, it deals with a lot of themes. From state inaction, to man’s capacity for evil, to the role of women in modern Turkey, Winter Sleep is admirably ambitious, even if it’s not interested in bringing everyone for the ride. You go with it or you don’t, but fans of Ceylan’s work will definitely not be disappointed. Everyone else is encouraged to give his latest opus a try, at least.

Review: Timbuktu (2014)

Director: Abderrehmane Sissako

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

The name ‘Timbuktu’ has always been used to refer to an unknown and unknowable place. To have gone there is to have disappeared off the face of the Earth. Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest, a favourite of festivals since its bow at Cannes earlier in the year, shines a light on the unknowable. It takes a look behind the walls of this city to show us something frighteningly prescient. With the rise of hardline groups like Islamic State and Boko Haram, any illustration that can be offered of life under such regimes is welcome, so long as it isn’t sensationalist.By this measure, Timbuktu is a clear success. It has high drama and energy, but it’s also smart and challenging, refusing to offer easy answers.

Its intent is clear from the opening scene, as a gazelle is hunted by Islamist militias in a van adorned in a black and white flag. Whatever about the gazelle, but the van of radicals could have been lifted from a TV news report. The militias belong to the Ansar Dine group, whose forces seized the Malian capital in mid-2012 and established a short-lived nation which ever got international recognition. Naturally, it’s shot from an outraged point of view, but Timbuktu never gives in to histrionics or over-reaction. It simply and tastefully shows how everyday folk (try to) cope with the harsh regime installed by the militias. A elderly female fishmonger bemoans having to wear gloves, while a gentleman’s shortened trousers earn him a warning. Everyday life is has been invaded, and the fear and frustration is written on everyone’s faces. Sissako clearly has sympathy for all involved (A compassion visible in his other films, such as Bamako), but the militias are all threat and no progress, and as such are worthy only of contempt.

Though many characters come and go in Timbuktu, the central characters are Kidame (Ibrahim Ahmed) and his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki, singer with Tuareg band Kel Assouf), trying to live their lives in peace before being confronted with the full force of Sharia law. As is so often the case in life, the adults will make the mistakes and their children (in this case, Kidame and Satima’s daughter Toya, played by Layla Walet Mohamed) will be the ones to pay the price. Sissako and co-writer Kessen Tall don’t portray any one character as being a rebellious hero or saviour. It is simply people trying to cope with a new and violent rule of law . Yet even the Islamists themselves appear unsure of their aims; watch as they struggle to remember their laws as they announce them to the locals. More leeway is given to some people as opposed to others. Their desired perfect religious state is clearly going to be a long work in progress. All the while, people’s passions and grievances get the better of them, leading to murder and despair. Timbuktu can both please the eye (Stunning wide shots of sunsets over a river, for example) and horrify (Scenes of scourgings and stonings are necessarily brutal).

It’s a testament to Sissako’s skill that he can provide such a comprehensive portrait of life under such a regime in under 100 minutes. Admittedly, it does mean some characters feel like comic relief rather than genuine stakeholders in this drama. The resident enforcer and the local eccentric woman grab some giggles, perhaps at their own cost. Still, it is the drama that lingers in the mind afterwards. Timbuktu is grounded by a sense of futility; desperation looms like a sandstorm. The film foreshadows its outcome, but how else could it end? It ends on a spirit of hopelessness balanced with enough openness to allow a sliver of possibility through. This is the message to take from Timbuktu. In the depths of repression, there is always a sliver of hope. Thanks to Sissako, it’s a message delivered with skill, patience and grace.

Review: Mr. Turner (2014)

Director: Mike Leigh

*****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com.

Miloš Forman says the reason he made Amadeus was because the script was different from any typical composer biopic he witnessed made in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. Peter Shaffer’s script had a dramatic force sorely lacking in the neutered Soviet-approved films Forman was used to. While Mr. Turner doesn’t play with the true story format (or the facts, for that matter) as readily as Forman’s film, it does boast a similar force. It should be slow and fusty; instead, it moves along at a brisk pace, while allowing itself an edge its contemporaries are missing. That said, it’s a Mike Leigh film; were we expecting a hagiography?

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) is today recognised as arguably Britain’s greatest artist. He gave a weight and worth to landscapes that transformed their standing in art appreciation. This transformative nature of Turner’s paintings is honoured in the sterling work of director of photography Dick Pope. Naturally, the works of Turner inform the film’s look, but it is a compliment to both the artist and the cinematographer that the whole thing looks so ravishing. The film opens with Turner (Timothy Spall) sketching a Dutch landscape, a windmill against a tangerine sky. It’s a stirring, striking sight.

This portrait of orange-wrapped windmills, amongst other tableaus, are beautiful homages to Turner’s work, but they also serve as a stark contrast to the life he’s portrayed to have lived. Leigh’s typically extensively-researched script is a rounded and rotund portrait of the final twenty-five years of Turner’s life, unafraid to show warts and all, starting with Turner’s physicality. A sizeable portion of Spall’s dialogue is heavy wheezing and knowing grunts. He ambles about with his face in a near-permanent frown, his lower lip protruding to give an air of contempt, perhaps even when no contempt is intended. Many portraits exist of Turner, but none resemble each other. Doubtless it will be Spall’s features that come to mind when Turner is mentioned in future.

The warts and all are also on show in the portrayal of Turner’s private life. Over the generous (though rarely overstretched) two-and-a-half hour runtime, a myriad of friends, family and less-than-welcome interlopers enter into Turner’s orbit. Upon his return from Holland, Turner warmly embraces his father (Paul Jessop) and is accosted by his former mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and her daughters, who Turner scarcely acknowledged fathering. Leigh has kept to the facts as much as possible, though there is always room for supposition. Turner’s relationship with his psoriatic housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson, heartbreaking in near-silence) is off-kilter, a mix of distance and hinted-at sensuality. Leigh and Spall are attempting to make a complex man relatable, but the mystique is never spoiled because there is no mystique. Turner was a mortal man, with manly opinions and appetites. Beyond the art appreciation, the aesthetes may overlook that fact.

Cantankerous as he may appear, Turner’s a very human ball of contradictions. He does not suffer fools gladly, but there’s a lot of warmth there too for those who earn it. In Mr. Turner the primary outlet for his affections ultimately turns out to be his Margate landlady Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey, all welcoming smiles and homespun charm). The widow Booth knows little about art, but much about the need for companionship and love. Bailey and Spall’s scenes together, first friendly but increasingly tender, are the emotional anchor for Mr. Turner. A lot of Turner’s world outside love brings out his combative side.

Contrast Turner’s romance with the business of creating and selling a painting. As he and his fellow members of the Royal Academy prepare for possible purchases by Queen Victoria, the academy halls are abuzz with activity. Artists put the finishing touches to their works and grumble about their pictures’ positions. At this point the film could become the tremulous period piece it always threatened to be, with plummy chatter and a brilliantly-muted standoff between Turner and Constable. But Leigh’s camera is nimble and observant, and then Turner starts reworking his own painting with dust and his own spittle. Mr. Turner, like its unlikely revolutionary subject, is not interested in formality when it needs to get to the heart of the matter. At the height of this crude (yet effective) display, we cut to a rugged Scottish moorland Turner visits for research, with rocks flecking the hillsides like the spittle Turner used to alter his art. For a moment, we can’t be sure whether or not we’re looking at another painting. Leigh shows the vulgar realities before Pope elevates them once more. Mr. Turner is a delicate balancing act between two extremes, pulled of with élan.

For all the formal rigour, from the exquisite period detail in the art direction and production design, to Gary Yershon’s eclectic score (reminiscent of the scores of Jonny Greenwood), Mr. Turner would be for naught without its leading man. Spall’s CV is riddled with a heady mix of grotesques and chummy friends. By turns, Turner is both. He had many acquaintances and good friends; observe his friendship with pioneering scientist Mary Somerville, as played by the ever-wonderful Lesley Manville. He was also contemptuous of many others; the image presented of art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) is less than flattering in its affectations. This autodidact belied his working-class roots with an informed sense of humour, which occasionally turned bawdy. The gruff front belies a hearty laugh and a pursed-lipped smile. Spall is a fascinating watch as Turner; observe the physicality, but it’s the laughter, the anger and the upset that remain.

For whatever reason, artists older than the last century seem unlikely subjects for biopics. But then how many people today would strap themselves to the top of a ship’s mast to observe a wintry storm? The truth behind this episode in Turner’s life is debatable, but Leigh includes it. If it’s true, it deserves to be shown. If it’s not, it’s still a rousing cinematic moment, full of the real chaos that informed his later works. Mr. Turner brings that story to life, and in doing so refuses to condescend to Turner or the audience by reducing it to the dusty, fussy prestige picture one would expect. This art is very much alive.