Monday, October 31, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene; Tyrannosaur; Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Philadelphia Film Festival)

I saw two of these three as part of the Philly Film Festival, but "Martha Marcy" (which is now technically in its general release) played earlier in the fest so it's valid in rounding up here. I saw about 15 minutes of "House of Tolerance" (or "Pleasures," whichever you wish to call it), but I walked out so I could catch the end of Game 7 between the Cardinals and the Rangers. Much more interesting, as far as I could tell.

Sean Durkin has made one of the year's most propulsive, engaging films with "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Yet despite being so magnetic, it falls far, far short of being a great film. Durkin is a phenomenal director when it comes to look and atmosphere, but he stumbles mightily in the area of screenwriting. He fails to develop the plot to a satisfactory degree, and thus is unable to reach the heights he's more than capable of achieving.

Martha (Elizabeth Olson), who joined a cult due to her lack of a stable family (and who was renamed Marcy May), ultimately gets fed up and leaves to lay low with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who's on vacation in Connecticut. But Martha's flashbacks and cult-induced tendency towards uncouth behavior quickly start to alienate Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), and Martha's future seems uncertain.

The film's depiction of the cult is unsettling and riveting, full of many beautifully observed details (the men eating as a group, then the women) and POV quirks (rituals are seen from Martha's eyes). But it would be nice if there was just more there, since when the film comes to a close, we feel as if we only caught a glimpse of this faction. When you have John Hawkes at his absolute best, it's a pity to underuse him. (He does have one particularly extraordinary scene, where he sings and plays on guitar a tune called "Marcy's Song.") And Olson's work calls for more as well.

The film's strongest element is its overwhelming technical prowess. Jody Lee Lipes and Zachary Stuart-Pontier do incredible jobs with cinematography and editing, respectively. Though sometimes Lipes uses the wrong lenses in the wrong places, he accomplishes a stark, rattling visual style. And Stuart-Pontier's deft cross-cutting between the present and the past borders on too good at times-- editing usually isn't this seamless anymore. Yet Durkin confuses the pieces he has for a full puzzle when indeed there are some big holes that aren't filled. Thus, though it impresses in spades, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" isn't a full enough work. B-

Paddy Considine's "Tyrannosaur," is a cohesive film, but feels banal and unassured in ways that Durkin was able to avoid. A drunkard named Joseph (Peter Mullan), depressed after kicking his dog to death and being persecuted by the goons of the store owner whom he annoyed, looks for some support in the form of Hannah (Olivia Colman). In his abrasive way, he at first insults Hannah's naivete and devout Christian piety but eventually forms a strong bond with her. She needs some emotional aid as well, seeing that her husband James (Eddie Marsan) is a violent, manipulative, despicable version of his former self.

If it weren't for Colman's magnificent supporting performance, this movie wouldn't be moving in the slightest. It's still not that affecting, but Colman gives it all she can give. Considine does her and Mullan (solid as well) absolutely no favors, soundtracking the film as if it were a folly and piling on disaster after cliche disaster with the grace of a Disney auteur. If I still favored Jim Sheridan over Terence Davies (who, admittedly, did come to mind during this film's better moments), I think I would enjoy this. No dice. C

Nuri Bilge Ceylan has one of the most distinctive eyes in cinema today. Neither of the films of his that I've seen ("Distant" and "Climates") ever caught up to their images. "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" perfectly illustrates why the man should stick to photography or video art and stop with the pretense of making feature length narrative motion pictures. None of the film's rambling philosophy or stilted, patently unfunny comedy ever rings true in the way a single still does. What would have been nice if all of these images had been his, but in fact, Ceylan lifts a whole lot from the canon of Abbas Kiarostami: the use of the zigzag landscape, dashboard cam, the apple rolling from the tree downstream just like the can does in "Close-Up."

Despite these problems, Ceylan has still made a somewhat interesting film with great shots and many memorable, well-defined characters (a prosecutor, a driver, and a police chief among them). It follows a convoy of police officials as they drive around looking for a buried body at the mercy of the captured killer. In a regular film, this section would only take up a fraction of the film. The body would be found and that would be that. But Ceylan decides to devote 120 of 150 minutes on it, and thus incites us into thinking more about this process. I don't think much comes of it at the end, but it's a solid approach. Ultimately, it's less about what happens to the suspected killer and more about what happened to the body and the family of the deceased.

I was rather annoyed with the film's main character, a righteous doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) who seems to be solving everyone's problems and having all sorts of profound psychological quieries. I think most people who can take this guy will enjoy the movie, and those who can't (like me) will be less likely to appreciate it. As for Ceylan, he's becoming a director like Nicolas Winding Refn whose films I like in theory but not all that much in practice. It always seems like he's aspiring to far less than he could. C+

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