The Attack (2012) Film. Director: Ziad Doueiri


Dr. Amin Jaafari is an assimilated Arab surgeon who seems to have it all with a promising career with honors among the Israelis in Tel Aviv. That all changes after a devastating terrorist suicide bombing and his beloved wife, Siham, is found among the dead as the primary suspect. Although initially refusing to accept that as Shin Bet interrogates him, Amin comes to realize the allegations are true. Now, the ostracized Amin resolves to find out on his own why Siham had so strong a conviction that she kept secret from him. However, the answers prove hard to come by and the truths involved have a terrible pain of their own. Written by Kenneth Chisholm

JUNE 20, 2013

“The Attack” opens with the image of a man and woman embracing, the world blurred behind them. Her face to the camera, the woman cries as they hold each other, but it’s unclear whether he can see her tears. Her unexplained weeping and the ill-defined backdrop make an apt start for this intelligent, involving movie that’s by turns a murder mystery and a politically charged argument about contemporary Palestinianidentity. That it’s also about a troubled marriage becomes evident when the man, a successful Palestinian surgeon living and working in Tel Aviv, is awoken one night and discovers that both his wife and his safe, cosseted world have disappeared after a suicide bombing.

Wholly assimilated, at least as far as he’s concerned, the surgeon, Amin (Ali Suliman), has risen high in his field, progress that has come with the support of his Jewish colleagues. One token of his success is an Israeli award he accepts soon after the story opens, the first — as he lightly reminds his audience — given to an Arab in 41 years. If he’s fazed by this, he doesn’t say; mostly he seems gratified, and happy. Whether he means anything substantial by this seemingly casual nod at the past — specifically the 1970s, an era of spectacular terrorist attacks like that of the Palestinian group Black September on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics — it subtly, and necessarily, widens the movie’s historical framework.


Given how skillfully the Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri navigates the story’s political backdrop and its source material, it’s a fair guess that he knows the effect raising the past will have. (The movie, which is neither pro- nor anti-Israel, has been banned in Lebanon.) The genesis for the movie is a 2005 novel of the same title by Yasmina Khadra, the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer living in France. The movie, written by Mr. Doueiri and his wife, Joëlle Touma, retains much of what’s good in the book, including Amin’s forced confrontation with the past, which begins the night he’s called back to the hospital where he works. Minutes later, he is standing in a morgue and pulling a sheet off the mangled corpse of his wife, Siham (Reymonde Amsellem).

The Israeli police, led by the bullet-headed Captain Moshe (Uri Gavriel), believe that Siham was a suicide bomber whose stealth attack on a restaurant left nearly a dozen children dead. Horrified by this accusation, Amin insists that Siham was an innocent victim herself, a belief that crumbles in the face of mounting evidence.

After a period of mourning, he sets off to discover the truth, propelled by skepticism as well as a deep faith in Siham and their love and their marriage. Driven and then possessed by the question of her guilt — and by extension, his own — he heads off on an investigation that, as he gathers clues, transforms into an inquiry into the burdens of moral responsibility, the costs of political neutrality (or perhaps complacency) and modern Palestinian identity.

Mr. Doueiri, whose films include “West Bank,” manages even the weightiest development delicately. In contrast to the novel, which habitually slips into polemicism and is bookended by a shock that dilutes its punch, Mr. Doueiri creates characters, emotional colors and political contradictions that have the agonized sting and breathe of life.

Using Mr. Suliman’s nuanced turn as ballast — this is what a lonely heart looks like as it shatters — Mr. Doueiri creates a foundation of realism that makes an increasingly meaningful contrast with Amin’s idealized memories of Siham. Seen in flashbacks that will come to haunt this story, she comes across as a woman who at once was a sensual lover, a beautiful bride and a smiling wife, as well as a mystery — if only to her carelessly loving husband.


Tangerines (Mandariinid) (2013) Film. Director: Zaza Urushadze



War in Georgia, Apkhazeti region 1992: local Apkhazians are fighting to break free from Georgia. Estonian village between the mountains has become empty, almost everyone has returned to their homeland, only 2 men have stayed: Ivo and Margus. But Margus will leave as soon as he has harvested his crops of tangerines. In a bloody conflict in their miniature village wounded men are left behind, and Ivo is forced to take them in. But they are from opposite sides of the war. This is touching anti-war story about Estonians who find themselves in the middle of someone else’s war. How do they handle it? How do the enemies act under third-party roof? Written by Annts



The first Estonian film (it is a Georgian co-production) to make the foreign language Oscar shortlist since the country started entering films in 1992, Zaza Urushadze’s humanistic and moving examination of how innocents can be caught up in war – and how choosing sides can be absurd – is fully deserving of the recognition.

It focuses on a corner of of the Caucasus, a place that had been home to Estonian settlements for a century, but where the populace was mostly forced to flee in 1992, when war broke out between Georgia and Russian-backed Abkhazia. The setting could barely look less like the sort of frontline we usually see on movie screens, with its lush green trees, rich browns and tiny settlements, but then, as one character points out, “Cinema is a big fraud”.

It is against this bucolic backdrop that elderly Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak with a wonderfully lived-in performance) lives. The rest of his family are only glimpsed in photographs in the rustic home he occupies alone, while his days are spent in the haze of sawdust, constructing crates to help his friend Margus (Elmo Nüganen) who is determined to collect one last tangerine harvest before he follows the rest of his family and neighbours back to Estonia.

They may not want any part of it but the war comes to their doorstep when a skirmish breaks out on the neighbouring road. The Estonians find an injured Chechen mercenary (Giorgi Nakashidze) and take him into Ivo’s house. When they go to bury the dead, they discover that one of the Georgians (Mikheil Meskhi) is also still alive, though gravely injured. Taking him back to Ivo’s house and putting him in a second room, the stage is set for an examination of conflict in microcosm as the two men gradually get well, while Ivo remains stoically neutral, refusing to allow bloodshed under his own roof.

The title doesn’t just refer to the fruit grown by Margus, it also references the film’s main colour contrast – captured beautifully by Rein Kotov’s cinematography – whether it is the tangerines, shiny against the deep leafy green, the flicker of candlelight as Ivo tends his patients or the sharp orange glow of headlights or a fire in the night.

There is something of the tragicomic humour of Samuel Beckett about the men’s predicament, particularly in the way that Margus and Ivo are waiting for there own sort of Godot – soldiers promised by a local major to help them pick the fruit. Equally, the absurdity of two injured men desperate to kill one another is quickly established, although Urushadze also finds plenty of pathos and poignancy in the situation, as his film shows that the shifting opinion of one or two individuals is not enough to turn the tide of a war. Accompanied by a melancholy but atmopsheric refrain from Niaz Diasamidz, which gives an excellent sense of place as well as adding to the elegiac mood, the film is a great example of how powerful and universal small but well-crafted stories can be.



Birdman (2014) Film. Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu


Actor Riggan Thomson is most famous for his movie role from over twenty years ago of the comic book superhero Birdman in the blockbuster movie of the same name and its two equally popular sequels. His association with the role took over his life, where Birdman is more renowned than “Riggan Thomson” the actor. Now past middle age, Riggan is trying to establish himself as a true artist by writing, directing, starring in and co-producing with his best friend Jake what is his Broadway debut, an adaptation of Raymond Carver‘s story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He is staking his name, what little artistic reputation that comes with that name and his life savings on the project, and as such will do anything needed to make the play a success. As he and Jake go through the process of the previews toward opening night, Riggan runs into several issues: needing to find a replacement for the integral supporting male role the night before the first preview; hiring the talented … Written by Huggo

25 December 2014

You’ll believe a man can fly. Or you’ll believe that believing you can fly and flying are sort of the same thing. Either way, Alejandro González Iñárritu achieves takeoff in a big way with his crazy, freaky-deaky, hellzapoppin’ showbiz comedy Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I certainly levitated with enjoyment. What is this? The Wings of Desire, as directed by Mel Brooks? At certain moments, watching it felt like inhaling laughing gas mixed with helium. And the technically extraordinary “flight” sequence looked very much like dreams of flying I’ve had myself.

It’s shot in one single take, without cuts (but with a few seamless digital sutures) and depicts the escalating anxiety attack being suffered by a failing movie star called Riggan Thomson, played with fiercely tender self-pity by Michael Keaton. Poor Riggan has haughtily abandoned the dumb superhero role of Birdman that made him rich and famous, and is now trying for credibility by starring in his own self-financed Broadway stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. He has hired his lawyer buddy Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to produce, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) to be his personal assistant, in a pathetic attempt to make up for neglecting her in childhood while away shooting those hateful Birdman films – an abandonment that contributed to her drug issues.

Divorced Riggan is now in a semi-covert relationship with co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who wants a baby; however, she also has a Sapphic tendresse for the show’s leading lady, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who must act opposite her own boyfriend, Mike Shiner, a hyperactive, narcissistic method-acting diva hilariously played by Edward Norton. As opening night approaches, the pressure is causing Riggan to hallucinate, and he is visited by the granite-voiced figure of Birdman, the superhero monster he created, ordering him to forget the theatre and reclaim his chief superpower: making movie megabucks.

It is a film that has been wildly hailed by the critics, despite – I am sorry to say – depicting critics as fatuous, shallow, parasitic and prejudiced. At one stage, in an excitable impromptu casting discussion, Mike Shiner’s own popularity with the critics is discussed: “They want to spooge on him!” “Right on his face!” As for Iñárritu, he’s getting the facial-spooge-tsunami he deserves, showing a glorious capacity for comedy I hadn’t suspected from his earlier, more solemn movies like21 Grams, Babel or Biutiful. This does, however, finally display those movies’ tendency towards what I can only describe as plangent romantic seriousness.

Something in the jittery, crazy dialogue makes it sometimes hard to tell if the characters are talking as themselves, or performing the Carver dialogue. Riggan himself will roam the peeling, faintly nightmarish theatre corridors and burst out into the (genuine) crowded New York street – a bravura single-take staging in one unitary space that gives the movie the excitement of some experimental theatrical happening. And the unbroken take is weirdly reminiscent of the first-person point-of-view movies like Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void or indeed Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake. There is simply something disturbing in the unending, relentless single view. As the restless action unfolds, you’ll hear strange passages of music, orchestral swells or insistent nerve-jangling jazz drumming – music that may or may not be diegetic. Is Riggan using it as background music in the show? Can the characters hear it as well as us?

And all the time, poor Riggan is approaching a mental breakdown due to the imminent critical and commercial catastrophe; and he can’t quite admit to himself that he is addicted to celebrity, though he is unsure how to renegotiate his declining position as a famous person in the alien new world of reality shows and social media. Amusingly, he confesses to a horrendous status-anxiety episode while on a plane with George Clooney – like Clooney, Michael Keaton himself played Batman in that pre-Nolan era when superheroes were not quite as ubiquitous as they are now. Riggan doesn’t want to renounce his celebrity. He wants to upgrade it, improve it, make it classier. Deep in his heart, he prefers the acclaim of strangers to intimacy with his wife and daughter. And there is a brilliant, farcical moment when he is locked out of the theatre just before needing to go on, and the only way to the stage is through the public front-of-house entrance. The situation is every star’s worst nightmare: having to somehow prove your importance and validate your existence from scratch. Birdman is a delicious and delirious pleasure.

27 August 2014

On the opening day of the Venice film festival, the organisers like nothing better than to lock the guests inside a darkened room and suck the oxygen from their lungs. Last year’s event kicked off with Gravity, a weightless, airless thriller to die for. On this occasion we were treated to Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, a hysterical backstage melodrama that purports to hold its breath through the course of one continuous take. If Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film finally lacks Gravity’s populist punch, it is at least its equal in terms of technical prowess and claustrophobic panache. I sat through the whole thing with a mounting alarm.

Michael Keaton, best remembered for his role as Batman, plays Riggan Thomson, best remembered for his role as Birdman. Riggan is a vain, ageing Hollywood actor, his blockbuster days behind him, who is seeking redemption via a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver short story. But the boundaries are blurring. The walls are closing in, his personal life is in tatters. “The play is starting to feel like a deranged, deformed version of myself,” he wails at one stage.

Iñárritu’s film, we come to realise, is nothing less than an extended actor’s nightmare of disputatious colleagues, snooty critics and boisterous fans who still love him as Birdman. The camera hounds us from the dressing-room to the wings to the stage and then out into the din of Times Square, where Keaton parades in his pants during the tale’s comic highlight. En-route Riggan runs up against Edward Norton’s strutting co-star, an impotent diva who finds he can only perform when the lights are on and the house is full.

He squabbles with his acerbic daughter (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, and receives visits from his ex-wife and current girlfriend, who may just be figments. The acting is clamorous verging on the indulgent. But the script cuts like a knife even when the editor does not, gleefully flaming everyone from Meg Ryan to Justin Bieber to Robert Downey Jr, the star of the Iron Man films. “That clown doesn’t have half your talent,” growls the voice of Riggan’s demon. “And he’s making a fortune in that tin-man get-up.”

Do we care about Riggan? I’m not sure that we do; I’m not convinced that we’re meant to. His torments are framed as sour satire, hotwired by gaudy flights of fancy. At times Birdman reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a more melancholy riff on a similar theme; at others of Alexander Mackendrick’s sublime The Sweet Smell of Success, with its restless, prowling tour of nocturnal midtown Manhattan. There’s no doubt it makes for a jubilant ride, a galvanic first blast. But it remains a film which feels deeply thought rather than deeply felt; a brilliant technical exercise as opposed to a flesh-and-blood story.

Is it a redundancy to complain that Birdman lacks soul? Maybe so. It’s a depthless, self-absorbed film about a shallow, self-absorbed man; jittery and relentless from the first to last gasp. We come scurrying up narrow corridors and up darkened stairwells, through the exploded stage-set of Riggan Thomson’s own head. The delegates applauded; they clearly relished the tour. But they broke for the exit with something approaching relief.

Life Feels Good (Chce sie zyc) (2013) Film. Director: Maciej Pieprzyca


Neither tearfully sentimental nor coldly scientific, “Life Feels Good,” Maciej Pieprzyca’s film about a man with cerebral palsy struggling to communicate to those around him that he is an intelligent, sentient human being, instead proves oddly entertaining. The protagonist, diagnosed as mentally retarded since childhood, delivers interior monologues that supply ironically normal counterpoint to the contorted sounds and spastic movements he makes. Brilliantly thesped by non-disabled actors playing the character as both child and grown-up, the film captures as much wonderment as frustration, and is filled with fully fleshed-out characters that defy simple categorization. Having swept the jury, audience and ecumenical prizes at the Montreal fest, this Polish feature could generate genuine arthouse interest.

Helmer-scripter Pieprzyca places the character of Mateusz squarely at his story’s center. As a boy (Kamil Tkacz), Mateusz devises a unique method of moving around the apartment, lying on his back and flailing his arms to propel himself backward, which gives him a measure of autonomy.  His happy childhood provides all kinds of education, from social instruction gained by watching neighbors from his window, to cosmic knowledge imparted by his whimsical wizard of a father (Arkadiusz Jakubik). While his mother (Dorota Kolak) wheels him around and showers him with kisses and laughter, his father fires his imagination.

As he grows up, Mateusz (his role now undertaken by David Ogrodnik) even wins a loving girlfriend, the beautiful blonde next door (Anna Karczmarczyk).  But, as with all his attempts to influence the world around him, his efforts to help her backfire: Momentarily freed of her abusive dad, she flees with Mom to parts unknown. Exit romance.

But not sex. Once his father dies and his mother becomes unable to physically tend to him, Mateusz is uprooted and placed in a home for the mentally disabled (or “morons,” as they are unkindly called), where only his undying interest in breasts keeps him sane. He devises a system to judge female caretakers by breast size, since they have little else going for them. Even more than at home, where his excitement at possibilities for communication were misread as hysteria and met with sympathetic quashing of his supposed “fits,” he is treated like a mindless carcass in the asylum.

Then Magda (Katarzyna Zawadzka), a beautiful new nurse, arrives and pays loving attention, dancing for him and waltzing with him in the wheelchair, the subjective camera turning in time to celebratory music. She even lets him touch her breasts; Mateusz feels vindicated. But comprehension does not always prove a blessing: When Magda takes him on an outing for her own neurotic needs, he understands her betrayal all too clearly.

Pieprzyca situates the central axis of his film in that gap between the emotional vegetable, seen by even the kindliest, and the smart, quite sardonic “inner Mateusz” manifested in his interior monologues and extremely expressive eyes. His erratic movements and unintelligible sounds register less as symptoms of disease than as a language that others are too unimaginative to interpret.

Visually, “Life Feels Good” falls somewhere between the overstated optics of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and the clinical/humanistic distance of “The Sessions.” Like these disability dramas, the film is based on a true story, though its happy ending yields some unexpected twists.

Her (2013) Film. Director: Spike Jonze


Theodore is a lonely man in the final stages of his divorce. When he’s not working as a letter writer, his down time is spent playing video games and occasionally hanging out with friends. He decides to purchase the new OS1, which is advertised as the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system, “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness,” the ad states. Theodore quickly finds himself drawn in with Samantha, the voice behind his OS1. As they start spending time together they grow closer and closer and eventually find themselves in love. Having fallen in love with his OS, Theodore finds himself dealing with feelings of both great joy and doubt. As an OS, Samantha has powerful intelligence that she uses to help Theodore in ways others hadn’t, but how does she help him deal with his inner conflict of being in love with an OS? Written by Bob Philpot

Needless to say, the film is half in love with the loneliness it diagnoses. The whole thing looks like the most expensive ad for urban anomie ever made – Antonioni for the artisanal-cheese set – and for the first hour the conceit is unveiled beautifully, via a brisk series of gags, most of them in the periphery of the main plot. Theo’s workplace is a website called, where he sits in office composing personal notes for those who can’t be bothered – “Who knew you could rhyme so many words with ‘Penelope’?” says a co-worker, admiringly of his work – while a neighbour, played by a curly haired Amy Adams, designs video games in which mums pick up “Mom points” for feeding the kids or beating the other mothers to the carpool, or else face the ignominious charge “You’ve Failed Your Children!”

The closer we draw to the central romance, the straighter grows the film’s face. “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m gonna feel,” confides Theo to Samantha, finding in her precisely the sympathetic ear he failed to find in his wife. She is played by Rooney Mara, thus confirming Mara’s position as the ex most men would regret breaking up with, ideally through a happier times montage involving cascades of hair and white sheets seen in chalky sunlight. She gets in the zingiest line in the film, delivered over an exchange of divorce papers – “He couldn’t deal with me, tried to put me on Prozac and now he’s in love with his laptop” – but it doesn’t quite land. It’s like a zinger from one of Woody Allen’s comedies that has somehow drifted into one of his alienation-and-anomie numbers. The script wants things both ways – an obvious outrage to Mara, Phoenix’s love for his computer is seen as entirely normal by others – a penchant for blur that starts with the film’s wispy compositions and seems to spread from there.

Phoenix is as sweet and soulful as we always suspected he might be. Ditching the trail of dysfunction and hiding his scarred lip behind a neat little moustache, spectacles and high-hitched pants, Theo is a portrait of the sad sack as saintly urban eunuch – a great listener and perfect empath whose less attractive attributes are discretely masked from view. An early mention of Theo’s anger issues is never followed up on. A session of phone sex leaves him the bemused victim. Even his consummation with Samantha is discretely blacked out, to spare us the lonely, masturbatory truth. That’s quite a burden of simplicity to put on a figure who must carry a two-hour film; you can detect the strain during some of the date scenes, where Phoenix is required to gurgle with happiness one too many times – he wears the fixed grin of a man on a visit to the dentist.

Johansson has an easier time of it, having long taken over Demi Moore’s mantle as the owner of Hollywood’s huskiest tonsils. If anything she may pack too much punch for Theo, who remains a strangely chaste figure, too hung up on his ex-wife for sex, let alone a relationship. What he really seems to need is a therapist, and so it proves, as the script succumbs to the kind of well-intentioned maundering that ensnares the better kind of romcom: “It’s in this endless space between the words that I’m trying to find myself right now,” says Samantha. How did such a sharply conceived movie end on such a woozy note? It’s almost as if the haze above Los Angeles descends to envelop the rest of the film.

We are a long way from the sprightly anarchy of Being John Malkovich, which remains Jonze’s most fully realised film. Adaptation continued some of the fun, but Where the Wild Things Are felt far too depressed for a children’s fable: a movie about childhood from an adult who seemed to regret growing up – “run for the hills!” it seemed to warn them. “We don’t have a thing in hand!” Her seems to come from the same place – the desire, above all, to be comforted, cradled. The most direct emotional demand comes from Rooney Mara, who tells Theo “Come and spoon me,” and the cry recurs, as if technology had ushered us not into adulthood but made infants of us, trapping and swaddling us in our hi-tech cocoons. Oh well. The hunt resumes. Maybe one day, Jonze will find out and tell us where the wild things are.

Whiplash (2014) Film. Director : Damien Chazelle

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OCT. 9, 2014

The world worships excellence and runs on mediocrity. Most of us are fated to dwell in the fat middle of the bell curve, admiring and envying those who stake out territory in the higher realms of achievement. There is a wide gulf between doing your best at something and being the best at it, a discrepancy in expended effort and anticipated reward that is the subject of “Whiplash,”Damien Chazelle’s thrilling second feature.

This story of an ambitious young striver and his difficult mentor could easily have been a sports movie, and structurally, it resembles one. There are montages of grueling practice scattered among scenes of tense competition, all of it building toward a hugely suspenseful (but also, to some extent, never in doubt) championship game moment of reckoning. But Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a jazz drummer rather than an athlete, enrolled at a highly selective Manhattan school (Juilliard in all but name) and under the sway of a charismatic and terrifying instructor, Fletcher (J. K. Simmons).

Fletcher has a first name, but nobody has the nerve to use it, and in classic drill sergeant or gym teacher fashion, he calls his students by their surnames, generally in the course of browbeating and humiliating them. Progressive pedagogical methods have not penetrated the room where his studio band practices, a virtually all-male preserve of sarcasm, sadism and enforced virtuosity. There is nowhere Andrew would rather be.

Mr. Chazelle, a 29-year-old natural-born filmmaker whose previous feature was the stylistically daring, hipster-cute musical romance “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” has an aficionado’s ear for jazz and an offbeat sense of genre. He and the director of photography, Sharone Meir, give “Whiplash” the brooding, spooky look of a horror movie, turning the New York streets and the school hallways into a realm of deep, expressive shadows. There is an atmosphere of whispery menace, and Mr. Simmons prowls the screen with a vampire’s stealth and a killer’s wry half-smile. Fletcher is a seductive monster, swiveling from charm to nonchalance to violent rage with a snap of the fingers. The scariest words a studio band player will ever hear are “not quite my tempo.”

But Andrew eagerly signs up for Fletcher’s cult of perfection, though whether in the role of acolyte or human sacrifice remains in question for most of the movie. Andrew is not one for modest aspirations: He wants to vault beyond the masses of session guys and second-stringers into the pantheon, to keep company with Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker and the other giants of the art form. This makes him a bit insufferable, and Mr. Teller, adept at finding the ambiguous middle ground between self-confident nice guy and smug jerk, is not shy about demonstrating Andrew’s arrogance. (A recent interview in The New York Times suggests that he may share his character’s seriousness and self-confidence.)

Andrew is a young man at a crossroad. He can either pursue normal activities for a person his age — dating Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a Fordham student; going to the movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) — or he can practice until blood splashes on the skins of his drums in hopes of impressing his mentor. “Whiplash,” which takes its title from one of the tunes Andrew must master, neatly maps out the nature and cost of this choice, and the anguish and exhilaration it brings him.

Maybe a little too neatly at times. For all its dexterity and assurance, the movie has its share of false notes and rhythmic stumbles. The contrast between Fletcher and Andrew’s father, who long ago gave up his dreams of literary glory to become a teacher, is drawn a little too emphatically, as if nice guy and artist were completely antithetical. A few plot twists test the limits of credibility. And there is something a little dispiriting — if sadly unsurprising — about the way Mr. Chazelle turns a historically African-American art form into the existential arena for a couple of white guys.

Still, the battle of master and disciple is exciting and terrifying to witness, and, at its best, the film can feel as wild and spontaneous, as risky and precise, as a live jam session. The music — original compositions by Justin Hurwitz, Mr. Chazelle’s collaborator on “Guy and Madeline,” supplemented by some classic jazz numbers — is potent and pungent.

You can think of the mad-mentor plot as a songbook standard, a familiar composition transformed by the distinctive interpretation of a gifted group of performers. Mr. Teller and Mr. Simmons work through a lively and complicated duet of aggression, suspicion and unspoken complicity, with spellbinding results. They know how to play serious artists, because that’s exactly what they are.

By going deeper into the details of musicianship than most such movies — by allowing us to hear things as Andrew and Fletcher do, and to understand the endless and exacting discipline of their work — this one breaks free of the constraints of realism and takes wing toward the sublime. It may get a few things wrong, but it aims at, and finally achieves, an authenticity at once more exalted and more primal than mere verisimilitude.

The long, intricate final scene transcends psychological drama with a surge of pure musical inspiration, pushing the audience’s response from curiosity to empathy to awe. Just try to sit still in your seat. “Whiplash” may not quite be a great movie, but there’s no doubt that it knows a thing or two about what greatness means.

Winter Sleep – Kis Uykusu (2014) Film. Director : Nuri Bilge Ceylan




  • Aydin, a former actor, runs a small hotel in central Anatolia with his young wife Nihal with whom he has a stormy relationship and his sister Necla who is suffering from her recent divorce. In winter as the snow begins to fall, the hotel turns into a shelter but also an inescapable place that fuels their animosities…

    Written by Cannes Film Festival  


Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is a huge, sombre and compelling tragicomedy set in Turkey’s vast Anatolian steppe; it moves at the pace of a north Atlantic convoy. This film is avowedly inspired by Anton Chekhov, and since its appearance at this year’s Cannes film festival, critics have specifically identified in it Chekhov’s stories Excellent People (1886) and The Wife (1892), although in an interview with me, the director denied having intended or created any sort of adaptation.

Winter Sleep won the Palme d’Or, and that was a triumph about which I had complicated feelings, perhaps like those of Ian McEwan fans when Amsterdam won the Booker prize in 1998. There was a sense that this wasn’t quite the best contender, nor quite the winner’s own best work – but nevertheless clearly that of a supremely praiseworthy, prizeworthy artist.

It’s a film whose geography has a daunting grandeur: the vast and wintry plain, with its rocky forms, often looks like that of an alien planet, or a planet on which the characters we see are the last humans left. This gigantic setting creates a mesmerising, if slightly mis-matched context for the pain, pathos and absurdity of a sharply observed, intimate domestic drama.

Haluk Bilginer plays the insufferably conceited Aydin, a retired, middle-aged actor who has inherited his late parents’ provincial hotel out here, along with the freehold of surrounding cottages. Running the business and collecting rent is delegated to his manager Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), allowing Aydin the leisure to write a smug, preposterous column for the local paper called the Voice of the Steppe, to bore his guests with memories of having once met Omar Sharif, and to patronise his beautiful young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag). They have come to hate Aydin – and themselves –for being dependent on his unearned wealth and trapped with him in this icy wasteland, far from the Istanbul they dream about. Bilginer’s performance shows how Aydin has cultivated the style of a worldly man. It is a mask of knowing condescension that does not conceal his own loneliness, disappointment and fear.

Winter Sleep fascinates, saddens and occasionally amuses, at various points on its vast canvas, although I couldn’t help feeling that the landscape’s enormity worked better for Ceylan’s more violently disturbing film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), and that the bittersweet Chekhovian pastoral here might have been more intelligible in a more metropolitan or at least less isolated and more socialised setting, such as his Uzak (Distant) of 2002, although I accept the important point is that they are isolated. Tellingly, and touchingly, poor Aydin prides himself on the seriousness of his lost thespian career and on never having done a soap opera. Nihal asks the spiky and self-dramatising Necla if she hasn’t perhaps been watching too many soap operas. The awful truth is that their life is like a soap opera, but played out with a dreary and glacial slowness, even more oppressive in the hotel’s winter off-season.

The movie has an oceanic swell, or surge of emotion that appears to be building somewhere in its depths, but never quite breaks into a wave.

In fact, the film’s one real dramatic flourish, when Nihal meets Aydin’s resentful tenant Ismail (Nejat Isler), seems overstated and misjudged. The extended dialogue scenes ring truer. Aydin will have long, bitter, subdued conversations with Neclan and Nihal separately, which take place in flickering firelight, as if the end of the world has come and there is no more electricity. They are conversations for which the audience must readjust their sense of conventional dramatic pace, in order to appreciate the unbearable pain and anger that everyone is afraid to express fully, for fear of admitting to the world their own anguish.

The first shot in Winter Sleep is of a smoke or steam wispily rising from the soil (oddly, I thought of the hellish vapour coming from the grate in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). The land is like a fen or a bayou, alternately icy and muddy, essentially hostile, habitable only at enormous human cost: a vision of its inhabitants’ mental landscape.

Ceylan paints an absorbing, compassionate portrait of people who are making a painful accommodation with each other, and with a world that rejected them long before they thought about rejecting it.




 20 Nov 2014

A beast, a beauty, a castle in the snow. Winter Sleep, the new film from the Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan, has all the key components of a fairy tale, but its magic blows in whispering breaths, raising the hairs on your arms even as you barely notice the air’s movement.

This is a bold, intently serious film, and a justified winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Festival, in which we watch a failing marriage unravel in a mountaintop hotel on the Anatolian steppe. (Think The Shining as retold by Chekhov, without the axe and spooks.)

The proprietor is Mr Aydin (veteran Turkish stage actor and sometime EastEnders cast member Haluk Bilginer), a retired thesp who carries himself like the region’s kindly baron, or a Shakespearean king, and whose many business interests pervade the village down below.

Early on, Aydin is driving to the village, where the houses nestle and burrow into the enormous rocky folds of the landscape. Then, with a low crack, a stone breaks one of the car windows. It was thrown by a boy who you assume is just a troublemaker, although Ceylan gradually reveals a motive behind this apparently unprompted attack. It turns out that most people have at least one very good reason to dislike Aydin: even his wife, whose charity fundraising efforts he dismisses laughingly, criticising the state of her bookkeeping like a teacher ticking off a particularly slow pupil.

Only one man, the obsequious imam, makes a concerted effort to get along with him, although Aydin is annoyed by his flattering talk and insincere, teeth-baring grins, and obliquely insults him in his newspaper column.

His sister is unimpressed. “It reads like the writer has adopted certain values just to make himself popular,” she says. “It stinks of sentimentality.”

“I wish my threshold of self-deception was as low as yours,” he snaps back. Over the film’s three hours and 16 minute running time, there’s a great deal of snapping and counter-snapping. Ceylan and his excellent cast the picture around conversations: long, literate, circuitous, psychologically searching, sometimes funny, almost always passive-aggressive. These unfold and refold in fire-lit rooms, covering everything from mushroom-picking to the nature of evil and guilt, each one casting another shaft of light on Aydin’s monumental, fragile ego.

In practical terms, this makes for a lot of scanning subtitles, although the closeness of Aydin’s life to a stage play is all part of the game, and Ceylan often sends its theatricality echoing crazily back on itself.

Ceylan’s films are an acquired taste, and his oddball isolation drama Uzak and masterful police procedural Once Upon A Time in Anatoliaare perhaps easier routes into his work for the curious. But this is more fiendishly intelligent stuff from the director, nudging back the limits of what we expect of cinema and also what it expects of us: a mighty tale of what becomes of a man when his heart goes into hibernation.