Long Night’s Journey Into Day – JDIFF # 2

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Question – When is a crime drama not a crime drama? Answer – When its made by Turkish filmmaker and photographer, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. For his sixth full length feature, Ceylan takes on the police procedural, but his version is sure to be unlike any you will have seen before.

In the dead of night somewhere in the Anatolian steppes, a convoy of cars goes in search of a dead body, buried somewhere in the Turkish countryside. The cars contain the two murder suspects, the police chief, his officers, the town prosecutor, the  town doctor, soldiers and two local men whose job it will be to dig up the body, if and when it is found.  As the suspects were drunk when they committed the murder, their memory of where they buried the body is pretty sketchy. All they know for certain is that they left it near a tree and a fountain. What we see as they drive through the night, stopping here and there, is that the Turkish countryside is full of trees and fountains.

This is the basic backdrop which Ceylan sets up for his talkative protagonists, all of whom are male. And as they drive, they talk. Subjects range from good quality buffalo cheese, the symptoms of prostate problems, small-town politics, life, death and supernatural occurrences. It could also be a study of male middle-aged ennui; the police chief in particular seems to have had enough of work, as well as home life. Dread thoughts seem to dog them all, for different reasons.

Ceylan’s filmic sensibility is akin to that of the “old masters” of European art cinema, such as Andrei Tarkovsky. The pace is slow, the characters are given time to talk, smoke, then talk some more. In one lovely sequence, while the doctor and the prosecutor talk in the background, the camera tracks an apple as it is dislodged from a tree, rolls down the side of a hill, lands in a stream, gets carried along for a time by the water and then finally stops. Whatever about the slight details of the film’s plot, the images are never short of ravishing.  Ceylan also takes time to say something about the politics of town versus village life in rural Turkey. As the party stops off to eat in a nearby village, the local government official uses the opportunity to push for better facilities, such as a morgue, while entertaining the party with his best food. It’s also clear that the town officials, while polite, see him as slightly pitiful and inferior to themselves.

Obviously this film won’t be to everyone’s taste. There is a quality to the storytelling which renders it more like a fable, made clear especially in the ongoing conversation between the doctor and the prosecutor. Though the dead body is located and brought back to town for an autopsy, there is no real resolution to the story in the conventional sense. This is a closely observed character study, and it is the relationships of the men, their lives and duties that Ceylan focuses on. He tests his audience’s patience too, not just with the unconventional narrative, but with a running time which nears the 3 hour mark. I would be hard pressed to recommend this to anyone, other than fans of this very particular kind of cinema.

Michael (Marcus Schleinzer, 2011)

Schleinzer was Michael Haneke’s casting director for many years, and his problematic debut film quite patently owes a huge debt to his mentor’s chilly style. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a paedophile who keeps Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) a ten-year old boy, captive in his basement. Schleinzer presents Michael as introverted and quiet; fastidious in keeping his home clean and a polite, if non-communicative employee of an insurance firm. Many scenes show Michael blankly going about his daily chores; shopping, cooking, washing-up, and visiting Wolfgang’s room at night, where we assume he abuses him. Only one scene intimates that this is the case, but as with the film in general, everything is hinted at, rather than made explicit. One might say Schleinzer is brave in tackling such a difficult subject, and he may well be, but part of the problem with his film is that he doesn’t seem to want to confront the reasons for the behaviour he is depicting on-screen.

Michael’s visual template is similar to that of earlier Haneke films like Benny’s Video or Code Unknown. The settings are pedestrian, even drab – much like the main character himself – who is portrayed as being quite pathetic overall.  Though the film stops short of making us sympathetic towards Michael, as it regularly reminds us of the horror of the situation which he has brought about. As a filmmaker, Haneke, in contrast, does at least attempt to provide some kind of context for his subjects, and if he doesn’t exactly provide answers, his films prod you into asking questions around his characters’ motivations.  Schleinzer’s film is less successful in this regard. It only left me asking, is it enough to simply present images and situations and to then expect the audience to guess what the filmmaker’s motivation might be? Isn’t there some responsibility or even duty on the director’s part to make some kind of commentary, especially with subject matter as sensitive as this? Otherwise, the only question one can ask is: what is the point of this film?

 

Both films were showing as part of the 10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

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10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival #1

The 10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (or JDIFF, if you’re into the whole brevity thing) kicked off on February 16th and runs until the 26th, with a head-spinning number of films, gala’s and special presentations lined up. My choices have been made based on availability, whim, state of mind, budget and/or time constraints. I’ve had to drop two films already but hey, there’s plenty more to come, right?

Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011)

This is Whit Stillman’s first feature since Last Days of Disco in 1998, an absence of almost Malickian proportions for this previously regular, urbane director. What has kept him away for so long, I’m not quite sure, but with the release of Damsels in Distress, it’s as if he’s never been away really. The story takes place at the leafy Seven Oaks College where a trio of high-minded female students, led by the very lovely Greta Gerwig, attempt to take on the rampant “male barbarism” which they feel has overtaken the college. The girls’ mission, amongst other things, is to tackle the high incidences of college suicides, by way of encouraging students to improve themselves, eat doughnuts and take up tap dancing. As you may have already gathered, for a campus-set romp, Animal House this ain’t.

I couldn’t quite decide whether I thought this film was awful or good, or awfully good. It contains Stillman’s usual trademark qualities – well dressed, well heeled, articulate, intelligent characters with sharply observed, smart, funny, stilted dialogue. Like David Lynch, another creator of familiar-but-weird American settings, Stillman creates his own world which you either enter into at face value, or run screaming from. Though, to be fair, it’s not a film which you can really dislike or even hate. The characters are earnest, if a little dim, but likeably sweet; and there is a sort of old-fashioned innocence to the whole affair which is oddly appealing. Gerwig’s character, Violet, even aspires to inventing a new dance craze, which she genuinely believes will make the world a better place. Bless. The film ends, as surely every film should, with the principle characters leading their partners in a chereograped dance sequence set to a cheesy, 1950s faux-rock and roll soundtrack.

Watch the trailer –

Hill Street (JJ Rolfe, 2012)

Getting its world premiere at JDIFF was this “labour of love” documentary about Dublin’s skateboarding scene from the 1980s to today. Now, I know nothing about skateboarding. I know what a skateboard is, but that’s where my knowledge begins and ends. Happily, complete ignorance of the sport of skateboarding will not dampen your enjoyment of this fascinating, well made documentary feature.

Director JJ Rolfe (whose day job is in cinematography) has spent the last number of years putting this film together, often in his own time and on his own money. He charts the origins of the scene back in the 80s, starting with Clive Rowen’s Hill Street skate shop (an almost mythical touchstone for skaters), right up to the present day. The avuncular Rowen features heavily throughout, as do many of the other movers and shakers who went on to make their names on the scene, or who just found a lifelong passion to indulge in.

With a soundtrack by Gareth Averill (Great Lakes Mystery), this is a very enjoyable, informative film which the makers hope to extend and expand on, and take onto the Festival circuit.  It deserves your support and who knows, may well go on to become a touchstone for new generations of skaters.

More information here

Pause / Rewind

Things have been pretty hectic at Focuspullr HQ in recent weeks, so I haven’t been able to get around to posting much lately. However, I have managed to catch a few films, so I thought I’d play a bit of catch-up and round them up here.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

I know we’ve only just dipped our toes into 2012, and we’ve lots of goodies to come, but I’m going to go ahead and say that this is one of the strongest films I’ve seen thus far. Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a troubled young woman who flees a remote Catskills commune, where she has spent two years disconnected from family and the outside world. Martha seeks solace with her sister Lucy (Sarah Poulson) and husband Ted in their gorgeous lake-side retreat, while she tries to process her time with the commune. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the life Martha (or Marcy May, as group leader Patrick “renames” her) had with the group; where personal identity and history is stripped away, individuality is subsumed into a group mentality and where civil and personal boundaries become dangerously blurred. A deeply immersive film with the feel of an extended dream, MMMM looks beautiful and features a wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack. A must see.

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)

Charlize Theron stars in this darkly comic drama as Mavis Gary, a writer of young adult fiction, who returns to her home town following an invite from ex-boyfriend Buddy Slade, on the occasion of the birth of his first child. Despite the fact that her life has devolved into an unhappy round of heavy drinking and one night stands, punctuated by filing copy for the teen fiction series she writes to order, Mavis sets out to show Buddy just what he’s been missing all these years. Theron is fantastic as the bitter, twisted, deluded but fundamentally decent Mavis, as she careen’s through her home town like the out of control wreck that she is. She also finds an unlikely ally in high-school loser Matt, wonderfully played by Patton Oswalt. As you’d expect from the team who brought you Juno (Jason Reitman & Diablo Cody) Young Adult is smart, ultra-sharp and caustically funny, and any film that features Teenage Fanclub on the soundtrack is ok in my book.

Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)

Polanski follows his 2010 outing The Ghost (adapted from a Robert Harris novel) with another adaptation; this time from an acclaimed play, “Le Dieu du Carnage” by Yazmina Reza.  Here we have two pairs of parents who meet following an altercation involving their sons. One couple, the Longstreets (John C Reilly and Jodie Foster) invite the other, the Cowans (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) over to their Brooklyn apartment, to discuss the situation and to decide what punishment, if any, should be meted out to the offending Cowan boy. What follows, as social niceties slowly give way to sly digs, sarcastic slurs and personal insults, is nothing short of war.

Both couples quickly drop the veil of respectability to each fight their corner, hurling abuse at each other and finally, themselves. Polanski is no stranger to putting squabbling characters in a cramped setting and letting them slug it out (see also Cul-de-Sac and Knife in the Water) and with Carnage, as it’s adapted from a stage play, all the action takes place in the Longstreet’s Brooklyn apartment over the course of an afternoon.  The A List cast is terrific; Polanski’s direction is tight and unfussy and the whole thing zips by in a brief, but wonderfully entertaining 80 minutes.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

Alexander Payne hasn’t exactly been twiddling his thumbs since his 2004 feature Sideways – he has made a video short and contributed a segment to Paris, je t’aime since –  but The Descendants marks his welcome return to feature film directing. Set in Hawaii, the film stars George Clooney as Matt King, a lawyer and wealthy trustee of his family’s considerable real estate interests. King’s wife has had a boating accident and lies in a coma while Matt tries to cope with home life and his two daughters; ten-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and teenage tearaway Alex (Shailene Woodley).

Things get complicated when Matt learns of his wife’s infidelity with a local Real Estate agent, just as the extended King family are on the verge of signing a monumental deal for the family land, which will set them all up financially. The Descendants is a fairly flimsy affair which coasts along at an agreeable pace. Clooney digs a little deeper emotionally than is usually required of him, and turns in an affecting portrait of a man who realises just how little he knows of his wife and daughters’ inner lives. Clooney is ably supported by the girls – foul-mouthed Scottie gets some choice lines –  but overall this is a slight confection which fails to get you to care too much about the central characters’ dilemma.

That’s all for now folks! Focuspullr will be busy over the coming week or so with the 10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. I’ll be endevouring to post updates on the films I’ll be seeing, once my eyes readjust to daylight. Here are some of the films I’m most looking forward to –  Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia; not to mention a return to Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre and a restored classic in the form of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Phew!