Street side–stepped Hollywood to appreciate two weeks of pure cinephilia.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Directed by: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmax Erdogan, Raner Birsel, Firat Tanis
150 min., Turkey
See if you liked: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2008)
Clocking in at two and a half hours and featuring long, deliberately–paced shots with minimal action, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia clearly isn’t for impatient audiences. However, through the plotless ruminations of the characters navigating the sweeping Turkish landscape, the film offers subtle yet profound insights into the human condition.
In the middle of the night, police officers, a doctor and a prosecutor escort a suspected murderer in the search for the body of his victim. However, the murderer cannot remember (or lies about) where exactly the body is, which results in a journey throughout the Turkish countryside.
In many ways this film is the anti–CSI. The meandering and often-interrupted search for the body merely provides a backdrop for the characters to interact and reveal their insecurities. They navigate their places in society through each other, thinking about love, gender, sexuality, religion and life in a democratic state.
This is arguably Ceylan’s most successful film because of how human and universal his characters feel. He has shaken some of a heavy–handedness that weakened his earlier films, often allowing laugh-out-loud dark humor to pervade most scenes. The result is a hypnotic and complex journey that presents a humanistic stance on existence. Life presents all sorts of obstacles, but Ceylan’s characters are able to find meaning in unexpected places, and this gives us hope.
Piano in a Factory
Starring: Yongzhen Guo, Shin-yeong Jang, and Qian Liu
Director: Zhang Meng
137 min., China
See if you liked: Me and You and Everyone we Know (2005)
Piano in a Factory is the tale of laid off Chinese steelworker Chen’s attempts to construct a piano in order to keep custody of his daughter. Though the premise may be wrapped in Disney goodness, director Zhang Meng expertly sidesteps any cheesy trappings. Instead he portrays a bleak industrial wasteland where Chen’s misfit gang redeems the post–industrial world by creating something beautiful out of the gothic machines that have betrayed them.
Meng is successful because of how subtly he advances the plot. The film may move a bit slowly at times, but it makes the audience earn every plot element and engages them further and further into this world. The Piano in a Factory, as you’d expect, is full of music. Mixing Sino–Soviet country tunes with western pop, the soundtrack adds life to the decaying landscape and an almost peasantry optimism that makes every scene a delight.
Though essentially a Full Monty rip off, this movie is full of its own unique brand of begrudging charm and dark humor. You can’t help but leave the theater wearing a sly smile and a plan to learn how to play the accordion.
Director: Chen Kaige
Starring: Ge You, Wang Xueqi
124 min., China
See if you liked: Hero (2002)
Sacrifice, a sprawling tale of loss, determination and revenge, is the latest effort from legendary Chinese director Chen Kaige. This historical drama takes place in the Spring and Autumn period of ancient China, following the physician Cheng Ying (Ge) in his desperate efforts to avenge his family after their deaths at the hands of the ruthless general Tu Angu (Wang).
Chen’s film is an undeniable visual treat – beautifully shot, and with no shortage of gracefully choreographed action sequences. However, in its first act Sacrifice struggles to comfortably identify its main characters, which can leave viewers with a little trouble understanding which narrative they’re supposed to be following.
But once the narrative hones in on the story it’s actually trying to tell — a father hell–bent on destroying the demon who stole his family — the emotive struggle of Cheng’s torment and grit, accompanied by Chen’s stylistic direction, renders it a little easier to forgive the film’s top–heavy story pacing.
Directed by: Jill Sprecher
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Billy Crudup, Lea Thompson
92 min., United States
See if you liked:
What happens when a sleazy man without an honest bone in his body is confronted with the biggest con opportunity of his life? Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin are reunited from Little Miss Sunshine in this unexpected, darkly humorous conman comedy about just such a man and just such a situation.
Mickey (Kinnear) is an unapologetic, morally corrupt insurance salesman who will do or say anything to make the sale. When he meets Gorvy (Arkin), an old, absent–minded man, his lying, cheating and scheming come to a head as he plots to steal Gorvy’s $30,000 dollar in a ploy to get back together with his estranged wife (Thompson).
When a dishonest locksmith (Crudup) steps onto the screen, things go drastically awry for Mickey’s plan to pull one over on the old man. As the plot unravels and Mickey tries to manipulate and orchestrate each moment, his adeptness at duplicity makes him blind to the selfsame duplicity of others.
The story that unfolds is exciting, surprising and wry. Kinnear, Arkin and Crudup headline an all–star cast as they dynamically feed off one another’s energy to make every unbelievable twist more funny and mysterious. Thin Ice is a smart, fast–paced and darkly humorous film that will have you on the edge of your seat, alternatively cringing and laughing at each sleazy situation the characters find themselves in.
The Turin Horse
Directed by: Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky
Starring: Janos Derzsi, Erika Bók
146 min., Hungary
See if you liked: Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
The opening sequence of The Turin Horse is visually dynamic, shot in lush black and white and, like the remainder of the film, about twice as long as it should be. The title animal struggles to pull a cart as his master urges him on, and the image is made chaotic by the fog and leaves that blow across the frame as the camera circles around the plodding horse. By setting this scene to Mihaly Vig’s droning score, Tarr achieves the desired monotonous effect, but allows the shot to continue far longer than is necessary.
The entire film is composed of just 30 long takes, many of which depict the same daily activities of the horse master (Derzsi) and his daughter (Bok); they eat potatoes, they undress, they sleep. While the scenes in which the daughter helps her father undress are infused with subtle sexual tension and the steaming potatoes achieve an unexpected beauty, their effectiveness decreases as they recur, essentially unchanged, for six days.
Inspired by Nietzsche’s witnessing of a horse being whipped by its master, the film succeeds in envisioning the master’s deteriorating livelihood, but unfortunately does so at the expense of a typical viewer’s attention span.
Turn Me On, Dammit!
Directed by: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen
Starring: Helene Bergsholm, Malin Bjorhovde, Matias Myren
76 min., Norway
See if you liked: Easy A (2010)
Alma (Bergsholm) longs to escape her small town in Norway, where she sees everything as mundane and stupid; “stupid house… stupid trampoline…. stupid youth center,” she wryly muses as the film begins. She is filled with typical teenage angst, but hers has manifested itself as extreme sexual frustration. Alma spends her days talking on the phone with her unlikely confidant, a phone sex operator, and dreaming up sexual fantasies about a local boy, Artur (Myren). She becomes a pariah in her town when Artur denies a strange encounter with her that garners her the hilarious, mercilessly–repeated nickname “Dick–Alma.”
The realistically disjointed traits of the characters makes for some humorous personas; Alma’s best friend, Saralou (Bjorhovde) moodily dresses in Goth–dark colors, smokes even though she hates that it is unhealthy and dreams of fleeing to Texas to abolish the death penalty. This film is surprisingly hilarious, recalling films such as American Pie (1999), but differs by handling Alma’s sexual obsessions not with coarse slapstick, but instead with bluntness, honestly and genuine humor. Turn Me On, Dammit! strikes the perfect balance of reality and levity about the loneliness and confusion of angsty teenage sexual awakening.
Directed by: Paddy Considine
Starring: Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan
91 min., UK
See if you liked: Winter’s Bone (2010)
With Tyrannosaur, writer and first–time director Paddy Considine creates the perfect framework for a poignant meditation on violence. The film’s sparse dialogue, washed–out color palette and simple cinematography allow the actors’ brilliant performances to take center stage. Peter Mullan imbues Joseph — a spent, overly violent codger with a penchant for killing dogs — with a frenetic energy that simultaneously promises aggression and overwhelming pathos.
When he first encounters Hannah (Colman) while hiding from the thugs he just assaulted, he tells her to fuck off, then weeps a moment later as she prays for him. Mullan’s ability to convey this duality establishes his transition from victim to savior; Joseph soon provides Hannah with protection after she suffers a particularly devastating assault at the hands of her husband (Marsan). Colman covers Hannah’s misery with a veneer of composure, giving her character a depth that transcends the bare script.
The past weighs heavily on both Joseph and Hannah, but Considine leaves their histories intentionally vague. Instead, he conveys their weariness through frequent close–ups, which, when cast in the bleak, diffuse lighting that pervades the film, call attention to Joseph’s wrinkles and Hannah’s bruises, as well as Mullan’s and Colman’s strikingly realistic depictions of suffering.
The Yellow Sea
Directed by: Na Hong-jin
Starring: Ha Jung-woo, Kim Yun-seok
140 min., Korea
See if you liked: Scarface (1983)
If you even flinched during a late night screening of Kill Bill, Na Hong–jin’s new film The Yellow Sea is not for you. A deafening explosion of gruesome violence and chaos, The Yellow Sea is an action–packed thriller with kitchen knives in place of handguns. Ha Jung–woo plays Gu–nam, a broke gambling addict and a joseonjok, an ethnic Korean living in China.
Abandoned by his wife who has fled to South Korea and taken up with another man, Gu–nam struggles to pay off his debts to crime lords as a taxi driver. Desperate for money and emotionally unstable, Gu–nam agrees to travel to South Korea as a hit man, weathering the grueling trip and dirty work to chase shadows of his wife around Seoul.
The Yellow Sea is a discomforting array of blood, violence and mutilation that never appears to subside. Its blatant implausibilities are shielded by gratuitous yet powerful shots and almost nauseatingly rapid cuts. Morphing from noir to action packed thriller to full frontal gang warfare, the only common thread holding the film together is Gu–nam, who successfully captivates the audience’s sympathy. At an indulgent two and a half hours, The Yellow Sea is a fragmented work of stylized violence that will test the stomachs and patience of any viewer.