Winter Sleep(1/16/2015)

1-16-2015WinterSleep

It has become increasingly easy to watch movies at home today, which is both awesome and troublesome at the same time.  All to often I hear people say “I don’t bother to go to the theater anymore unless it’s a ‘big’ movie that ‘has’ to be seen on the big screen” and it really bums me out.  Movies that are filled with special effects and booming sound effects are certainly more enjoyable on the big screen but that is far from the only reason to see a movie in theaters.  One of the biggest advantage of a movie theater is the lack of distraction.  All too often I’ll try to watch some cinema classic or another on Blu-ray only to guiltily find myself pausing it three or four times to compulsively check my e-mail or listen to some song that pops into my head or something.  The modern world has really done a number on our attention spans and home video has been a real enabler in this.  Yeah, there’s some chance that any given screening at a movie theater might be marred by some jerk with a cell phone, odd are that doesn’t really compare with the self-inflicted distractions inherent in home viewing.  That’s why I was so excited to see director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film, Winter Sleep, in a theater.  The other two Ceylan films I’ve seen, Climates and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, were both experienced through home viewings that were marred by all the usual problems associated with watching something at home and I had a strong hunch that seeing one of his films in a theater environment would really make it click.

The film is set in a small town in the mountainous Cappadocia region of Anatolia and focuses on a wealthy middle aged man named Aydın (Haluk Bilginer) who owns the area hotel and also owns a number of homes in the village that he rents out to locals.  At the moment he’s living with his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who’s a good thirty years his junior, and his recently divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbağ).  The film opens with Aydın and his right hand man Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) getting into a conflict with a tenant named İsmail (Nejat İşler) who is behind on his rent and whose son Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan) recently through a rock at Aydın’s car.  İsmail’s brother Hamdi (Serhat Kılıç), who is the local Imam, tries to mediate the conflict and it ends in a rather inconclusive way.  This conflict will be put on the backburner for a little while but won’t go away and in many ways brings out a number of things between Aydın and the people around him that will alter his status quo in life.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is often listed next to the likes of Béla Tarr and Apichatpong Weerasethakul as one of the really “out there” foreign filmmakers who mainly appeal to the most dedicated of cinephilles.  What jumps out at me about the three films he’s made so far is just how different they all are from each other even while maintaining a fairly similar tone and aesthetic.  His 2006 film Climates had kind of a meta feel to it, almost like something Abbas Kiarostami would make whereas his 2011 film Once Upon A Time in Anatolia was more like an ethereal mood piece which focused on landscapes and minimalist interactions.  Winter Sleep, by contrast, is a much talkier movie and at times almost resembles a stage play with its long meaningful conversations, which seems like a deliberate choice given the main character’s interest in the theater.  As such I think this is easily the most accessible of his movies, at least of the ones I’ve seen.  That’s not to say that this isn’t also a very cinematic movie.  The scenery is very picturesque and Ceylan also shoots the film excellently, especially in certain scenes that seem to be largely lit by fireplaces.

On its most basic level, Winter Sleep is a character study about Aydın, who is a multifaceted and fascinating person.  He fancies himself to be a renascence man and a pillar of his community.  He seems to have more or less inherited most of his wealth and property and has subordinates doing most of his dirty work, and as such he’s dedicated himself to reading and writing.  In particular, he writes weekly columns for a local newspaper and believes that they are widely appreciated by the townsfolk.  His actual interactions with most people are riddled with a sort of passive aggression and condescension, but it isn’t entirely clear how much he is aware of this.  This is pretty well established in the opening conflict with İsmail who he approaches along with his hired man, and outlines his grievance.  He never comes out and demands that İsmail pay for his broken window but he does stand there expecting an answer and it’s more than implied that this is what he wants even if he insists that he doesn’t.  His interactions with his friends and family are not too different and this comes to a head later on in the film.

At its heart this is a movie about class differences.  On a global and national level I don’t think Aydın would come close to counting as a one percenter, but within his local community he is, and this colors most of his interactions.  The whole wealth inequality issue often either doesn’t show up onscreen or shows up in a simplistic way that vilifies one side or the other.  This depiction is a lot more complex and humanistic.   The film doesn’t pardon Aydın for his behavior but it’s also sympathetic to how he’s become the way he is and how he may not quite have the degree of self-awareness necessary to really see how empty his kind gestures really are.  They movie also shies away from forgiving his wife, who wants to be one of “the good” rich people with her charity work but can be just as condescending to people in her own way.

Winter Sleep won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival which was widely seen as a well-deserved recognition for Ceylan’s accomplishments within world cinema.  That makes perfect sense, but as stated before this is kind of a departure for Ceylan, at least on a narrative level.  Where his previous two films seemed a little too detached and cerebral for me to really get a grip on, this was one film that I could really embrace without reservation.  The film does this without dumbing down Ceylan’s usual material or abandoning what made his previous films so interesting.  In fact this may be the Rosetta Stone that makes those previous films make more sense to me.  But let’s step away from the auteur analysis; Winter Sleep works quite well simply as a piece of literature.  Its characters are really well drawn and developed and there’s a very wise insight into human behavior on display in the way they interact.  This is the kind of movie that really makes you wonder why we waste out time on so much dreck day in and day out.

**** out of Four

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DVD Round-Up: 1/14/2015

The Battered Bastards of Baseball  (1/7/2015)

 1-7-2015TheBatteredBastardsofBaseball I’ve talked before about how damn hard it is for sports documentaries to excel now that we’ve become spoiled by ESPN’s “30 for 30” series and I think this is yet another example of a perfectly good sports doc that just doesn’t seem all that special when similar things are showing up on TV every other week.  The film is about the founding of the first independent minor league baseball team of the modern era, a club called The Portland Mavericks which was founded by a TV actor named Bing Russell (who was the father of actor Kurt Russell).  The film basically uses talking head to give an overview of this team’s rise and fall and tell a few colorful stories along the way.  There doesn’t seem to have been a ton of archive footage of the team’s games, so the film needs to engage in some trickery to work around that limitation like using a lot of newspaper headlines and title cards.  All in all it’s an interesting enough watch but I can’t say it really stood out.

*** out of Four

The Congress (1/10/2015)

Ari Folman’s 2008 film Walz With Bashir is probably one of my favorite films of the 2000s.  It used animation to tell a very real and very honest story about his own experiences in the 1982 Lebanon War.  For his follow-up he’s completely abandoned the seriousness of his debut and has instead completely leaned into the occasional surreal touches that were displayed in it.  The film is pretty clearly split into two separate halves, one live action and the other animated.  I thought the live action sections pretty much just straight up sucked.  They were filmed with almost no style and mostly set up uninteresting characters.  The animated portions didn’t really work much better on a character level but did sort of make up for it by simply being insanely surreal and surreally insane.  The animation is sort of a cross between Saturday morning cartoon stylings and a sort of 70s midnight movie acid trip sensibility.  I more or less gave up trying to make any sense out of its wacky science fiction story and just went along for the ride and was not completely unrewarded, but as a narrative the movie is a mess and kind of feels like a misguided venture from the beginning.

** our of Four

 1-10-2015TheCongress

Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger (1/10/2015)

 1-10-2015Whitey When I first heard about this documentary I kind of assumed it was a quick cash-in on a topical news story, but that was before I learned that it was directed by Joe Berlinger, one of the two filmmakers behind the “Paradise Lost” trilogy.  The film actually has a pretty interesting approach in that it doesn’t simply give a chronological recantation of Whitey Bulger’s life but instead focuses in on his trial and uses that to help look back on his exploits.  There was little doubt about Bulger’s guilt and he himself seemed to know it.  Instead he devoted a lot of his trial to trying to prove that he wasn’t an F.B.I. informant while a number of people both in the prosecution and within the media were looking to the trial as a potential means of uncovering heretofore unproven levels of corruption within the F.B.I. and Boston politics.  The movie paints the Whitey Bulger era as a wildly confused and chaotic time within both organized crime and the F.B.I. and I’d be lying if I was fully able to follow every one of the left turns that the story took.  Bulger’s trial never really does uncover the juicy dirt that many were hoping it would, but in spite of this Berlinger is still able to craft a very detailed documentary that paints a very good picture of the scars this criminal left on the community.

*** out of Four

The Guest (1/13/2015)

The Guest is a movie about a family that’s recently lost a son to the war in Afghanistan and is visted by a man claiming to have served with him.  The family invites this guy in, but he starts acting a little suspicious and it starts to seem he’s harboring a dark hidden personality.  Wait a minute… well off family that has a crazy person enter into their lives… this is a yuppie horror film!  Alright, the characters here aren’t actually yuppies but it’s hard to deny that this is basically following the formula set in the early 90s by movies like Fatal Attraction, The Stepfater, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.  I watched a bunch of those movies not too long ago and the experience did not lead me to believe that it was a genre in need of reviving.  This movie tries really hard to make an argument for a return to this kind of thriller and while it is somewhat entertaining I don’t think it really succeeds.  This material is really schlocky and a little exploitative at its heart but the movie itself never really seems to commit to that.  Instead it’s trying to act like a respectable thriller while following a very predictable formula and just becoming really stupid in its third act.  A nice try I guess, but ultimately a rather lackluster film.

** out of Four

 1-13-2015TheGuest

The Return to Homs (1/14/2015)

 1-14-2015ReturntoHoms I don’t know that the documentary The Return to Homs is any kind of triumph of documentary filmmaking but it is definitely proof of what can potentially happen when someone with a camera is given amazing access to a subject that’s in a crazy situation.  The film is about a young Syrian man who seems set to become a soccer star but who instead feels driven into the anti-Assad rebellion.  The film then basically follows this rebel cell through their various struggles in the civil war.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a documentary present such an unobstructed view of a ragtag militia cell as they’re in the midst of a conflict.  Whoever it is who was allowed to make this does not seem to have had any restrictions at all as to what he could and couldn’t film and the film never looks away at all.  The film doesn’t dwell on blood and gore but there is some violent combat footage here and the movie isn’t for the squeamish.  It also isn’t for anyone trying to get a more complex picture of the conflict because it never really breaks from the militia’s point of view and is consequently rather one-sided.  Still, it’s a pretty big accomplishment that this thing exists and it’s a very interesting way to get a ground’s eye view of a conflict that the mainstream media hasn’t really been able to see.

*** out of Four

Selma(1/11/2015)

1-11-2015Selma

After decades of seeming neglect, African American history stories have suddenly become very popular in Hollywood.  In just the last three years we’ve seen movies about the struggle for civil rights as varied as Red Tails, 42, The Help, 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Get on Up.  There are probably a number of rather cynical explanations for this.  Biopics in general tend to get made because they have the same name brand recognition advantage of a sequel or a comic book adaptation while appealing to a different and arguably underserved audience and biopics of famous African Americans serve as a means for studios to bow to pressures for more diversity while still keeping racial issues “safely in the past.”  Still, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.  These stories are important and it’s about time that Hollywood at least attempted to tell them.  Of course for all the Civil Rights heroes that have had movies made about them, one has remained elusive: Marin Luther King himself.  King is basically considered a saint among American historical figures and as such he’s kind of a hard figure to really tackle, but someone has finally tried to do it and the resulting film is called Selma.

Selma extensively features Martin Luther King, but it isn’t exactly a biopic.  Rather it’s about the various struggles leading up to the 1964 Selma to Montgomery March and a number of the people involved in that episode.  The film sets the situation with a conversation in the Oval office between King (David Oyelowo) and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) with King pushing for the 1964 Voting Rights Act and Johnson asking King to lean hold off on any further action so that Johnson can save his political clout for the passage of his Great Society programs.  King does not accept this proposal and instead decides to begin a series of protests in Alabama with the openly hostile town of Selma as his staging ground.  There he collaborates with other civil rights leaders like James Bevel (Common), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) to plan a march to Montgomery that will be harshly opposed by the locals, including Alabama’s infamous governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).

Selma will likely draw comparisons to some of the other recent Black History biopics, but in many ways it actually reminded me a lot more of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  I always thought that movie would have been better served if it had been called “The Amendment” or something, because it wasn’t really a biopic so much as a dramatization of one of Lincolns finer accomplishments, the passing of the 13th amendment.  Similarly, Selma is less of a biopic than a sort of procedural about how Martin Luther King was able to organize this one demonstration.  Also, like Lincoln, it isn’t too afraid to dig into some of the less glamorous politics that its subject needed to get involved in even while staying overwhelmingly positive in its ultimate assessment.  The film hovers around, but doesn’t necessarily dwell on, the somewhat questionable practice of putting activists in danger in order to draw national attention to his protests.  The film also doesn’t shy away from discussing King’s infidelity and the way it was used by the FBI to blackmail him.

King is played here by David Oyelowo, who does a very good job of replicating the famous civil rights leader’s speaking style and mannerisms.  However, I feel like I’ve seen so many actors effectively imitate historical figures at this point that a performance really need to do more than that to really impress me at this point and that’s why I consider Oyelowo’s work here to merely be “very good” rather than “masterful.”  When Oyelowo’s King is giving rousing speeches in front of crowds it’s very easy to get caught up in the moment and be very impressed, but I’m not sure that Oyelowo was quite as able to humanize the character in some of the quieter moments.  I don’t know that I could really picture this version of King telling a joke or engaging in a little small talk and even when he’s getting into some rather unpleasant arguments with his wife he never seems like anything less than a living saint and icon.

Oyelowo is surrounded by an very large and very impressive supporting cast of actors who each do a great job in their own right of portraying the various historical figures involved.  Tom Wilkinson does a pretty good Lyndon Johnson, certainly better than the one Liev Schreiber did in last year’s The Butler.  Tim Roth also has a wonderfully shit-eating turn as George Wallace, which is one of the best roles he’s been given in years.  Below the lines there are just a ton of notable actors like Cuba Gooding, Jr., Oprah Winfrey, and Dylan Baker who do a great job of playing small roles without having them feel like stunt cameos.  The only actor who really stands out as a somewhat distracting presence is probably Martin Sheen as Judge Frank Minis Johnson, who needs to maybe lay off playing inspirational leaders going forward.  Beyond that there are a ton of less famous actors like Wendell Pierce, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lorraine Toussaint, and Colman Domingo who bring a lot of the inter-movement discussions alive without being weighed down by all the baggage that Oyelowo had to deal with.

Martin Luther King is different than most American heroes because he wasn’t an elected official, a general, or a frontiersman.  Rather, he’s an activist, and Selma is largely a film about the nature of protest and activism.  King says early on that his ultimate goal is to influence the hearts and minds of white America and specifically the heart and mind of the white man who happens to be sitting in the oval office.  The film pains Lyndon Johnson as someone who sees the passage of civil rights as inevitable but also someone who’s more than willing to slow the process down in order to focus on other priorities and progress in the film is gauged by how far away Johnson is to changing his mind and focusing in on the Voting Rights Act.  This has not gone over too well with certain historians who view Johnson more as a sort of collaborator who intended to pass the Voting Rights Act from the beginning.  That this has become such a matter of controversy is perhaps a bit curious because aside from one rather questionable moment where Johnson all but orders J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous “suicide letter” to King, Johnson is depicted as a mostly well intentioned leader who comes through in the end.

When I first finished watching Selma I was pretty damn impressed, but I’ve maybe cooled on it a little in the couple days since I watched it.  The film was directed by Ava DuVernay, who had up to this point only made tiny self-distributed films like I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere.  She does a very proffetional job of mounting and pacing Selma but I also kind of got the impression that DuVernay could have maybe benefited from a little more time in the minors before trying to mount an epic like this.  I was particularly bothered by a choice that she and cinematographer Bradford Young made to soften a lot of the black levels in the film and sort of wash out the whole image.  At times it looked like I was watching an otherwise well shot film on a television that had had the brightness setting turned all the way up.  That probably sounds like a minuscule thing to be bothered by but it is omnipresent and was a pretty big distraction for me during the whole film.  Ultimately I don’t think this is on the same level as something like 12 Years a Slave and I also don’t think it’s quite as strong as Lincoln was, but it is significantly better than something like 42 or Red Tails.  I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, activism, or American history in general.  Would I recommend it to someone simply looking for great cinema… not necessarily.  Still, the movie does too much right to be ignored and is Hollywood biopic filmmaking at its finest.

***1/2 out of Four