Wednesday, August 22, 2018

THE WILD PEAR TREE - MIFF 2018


The Wild Pear Tree” is the latest three hour epic from the Turkish film making genius, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Similar in form to his previous film, “Winter Sleep”, it is once again a very dialogue heavy human drama, this time about a young man returning home to his childhood town to attempt to get his first novel published. Prior to my screening of the film, I had read that the film was a tough watch, mainly due to its length, but personally I found that not to be the case at all. While I agree that focusing on a film for that amount of time can be challenging, I was immediately drawn into the characters plight, thanks to Ceylan's sensitive and intimate direction.

After completing his collegiate studies in the city, Sinan returns to his hometown of Cannakale to attempt to get his first novel published, while also trying to find work as a primary school teacher. Upon his immediate arrival, Sinan is politely harassed by a local claiming that Sinan's father borrowed gold off of him and has yet to return it. In the coming days and weeks, this is something that he hears regularly as his father has a gambling addiction, particularly when it comes to the horses. This addiction causes tension within the family, at its simplest, on a day to day basis when bills do not end up getting paid, and food is unable to be bought. However, the tension between Sinan and his father, Idris, seems more explosive as Sinan shows outright contempt towards the man who brought him up and supported him his whole life. As Sinan struggles to find financing for his novel to be published and getting a job much harder than he expected, he starts to realise that maybe he is more like his father than he once thought, and that the lifestyle of Cannakale is forever in his blood.

This is such a magnificent film from Nuri Bilge Ceylan. While the running time is definitely intimidating, I must say that I was mesmerised by the film right from the opening minute and was never bored at all. With both this and “Winter Sleep”, Ceylan has proven that he is a master of time, space, pacing and coming up with the most amazing scenes of conversation between characters that you are forever invested in. These scenes are much longer than the norm and yet the audience hangs on every word the characters are saying. After watching the behind the scenes footage of Ceylan filming “Winter Sleep”, it shows just how meticulous he is with his actors and of every line of dialogue, both in the way it is said and in what the dialogue ultimately means. He will take his time and only move on until he feels each scene is perfect and most importantly that it is a reflection of reality. Every moment has to be truthful. Once again, he has displayed this skill ad nauseam in “The Wild Pear Tree”. A broad and fair description of the film would be to state that it is a series of long conversations between Sinan and a number of other people discussing numerous topics that fully form his character for both the audience and himself. The many topics range from love, friendship, religion, beliefs, politics, money and art, and through these conversations we understand exactly who Sinan is. This is a very dialogue heavy film, but it is amazing just how natural all these conversations feel and how invested you become in them. Each word seems to have a point, as does each conversation. There was only one that I felt could've been removed, and stopped the film in its tracks a little (which I will mention a little later on), but in isolation, the scene itself is brilliant.

Another of Ceylan's many gifts is that he is able to give us complex and potentially unlikable (and definitely prickly) characters, that we still end up caring about. To be honest, I found the main character of “The Wild Pear Tree”, Sinan, to be an arrogant prick for the most part. This arrogance is something that flares up regularly when he interacts with the locals as he sees himself as somewhat better than the people living in the same town he, himself, grew up in. Now that he has got himself an education, and what he assumes is a better future, you can feel he has some sort of superiority complex to the townspeople. This is ironic as the novel that Siman has written (which he has titled “The Wild Pear Tree”), he describes as a celebration of the simple lifestyle of Cannakale and of the people that work and live there. While Cannakale is known for being the gateway of the Gallipoli battle in WWI, and the Trojan Horse from the battle of Troy, Sinan believes that the little people and normal folk going about their daily business should not be forgotten either and should be documented as well. However it is this lifestyle that Sinan feels above and better than, so it would be fair to say that his writing is doomed to failure because it does not come from a sincere place. Like I said above, his arrogance is so frustrating that you want to slap him and make him respect the people he is talking to, and yet we are always invested in his plight.

The man cast to portray Sinan is Dogu Demirkol, and he gives a phenomenal performance, full of many complexities but always based in a reality. He is true to this character and lets him be unlikable at times. The most amazing thing about this is Demirkol is actually a stand up comic but his comedic origins are never hinted at in the movie and his performance. He totally embodies Sinan. In fact the entire cast is amazing in “The Wild Pear Tree”. I honestly do not remember anyone putting a foot wrong, or a scene feeling off because of a performance. The other actor I really do want to make mention of though is Murat Cemcir, who plays Sinan's father Idris. The father is another flawed character but Cemcir gives a beautifully humanistic performance and never once judges his character. He makes mistakes, a lot of them in fact, but he is a man that loves his family and particularly his son who just cannot seem to find his way out of his addiction. While his life is tough at times, Idris always seems to see the positive side of it, constantly smiling and at times chuckling. As the film goes along, it is very obvious (at least to the audience) just how similar Sinan is to his father in a lot of ways, and this is part of the journey Sinan must take and learn to accept.

The Wild Pear Tree” is Nuri Bilge Ceylan's eighth feature film and at this point of his career it is obvious that the man is also quite the visual stylist. While his earlier films were modest from a visual standpoint, something changed when he partnered with cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki on his fourth film, “Climates” from 2006. This is the pair's fifth collaboration and their images continue to be something to behold. From their use of the widescreen to show off Turkey's amazingly vivid landscapes, as well as their perfect use of close ups, the images created by these two men are world class and this continues with “The Wild Pear Tree”. This time around they work with a lovely autumnal colour pallet filled with yellows, oranges, browns and greens. There are also a few scenes that take place during winter which obviously reminds of the work and snow-caped images from Ceylan's previous feature, “Winter Sleep”. This is a seriously good looking film and easily identifiable as a film from Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

With a running time of 188 minutes, you would think that surely there must be some bad in the film, but really there is not. Every scene feels like it belongs, and every word important. There are so many wonderful conversations and scenes that take place in the film but a couple of my favourites were the early scene between Sinan and Hatice, a female friend, that ends in a kiss, and a long scene where Sinan converses with a published author from the town. This scene ends on a hilarious and hysterical note too. Very early in this review I did mention that I thought maybe one scene could have been removed and that it stopped the film in its tracks a little. The scene in question is when Sinan talks to two imams about religion, faith and particularly Islam. What is funny about the scene is that the imams differ quite a bit in age which also affects their beliefs even though they are practising the same religion. On it's own, the scene is brilliant. Beautifully written and performed, very interesting subject matter and like I just mentioned, it is a scene that is also quite humorous. It is also an incredibly long scene, and I felt that at that moment on in the film, it slowed the momentum down of Sinan's ultimate journey. Also the fact that Sinan himself isn't a huge devotee to religion, I felt that in the story's context, it seemed less important than the rest of the film. Do not get me wrong, I absolutely loved the scene, but it was the only time I thought this “could” go, not necessarily that it “should” go.

Overall, “The Wild Pear Tree” is another magnificent film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Full of complexities and characters of all shades, it has been expertly written, directed, acted, shot and edited. While the main character is somewhat unlikable, his journey back home is a powerful one, as he comes to terms with the fact that he may not be as far removed from his father and the town he grew up in as he originally thought. While I understand that the film's extended running time can be intimidating, my advice is if you get the chance to see “The Wild Pear Tree”, do not miss out on it. It is a fantastic film experience.


4 Stars.


Monday, August 20, 2018

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID - MIFF 2018


A constant theme I noticed in regards to my viewings at this year's MIFF was that the large majority of films that I was anticipating, ultimately let me down, leaving me disappointed. It was not that they were all bad films, just that they did not live up to the expectations that I had put on them. One film that not only lived up to my expectations but exceeded them was Issa Lopez's “Tigers Are Not Afraid”, a beautiful and horrific look at the Mexican drug cartels shown through the terrified eyes of a group of orphan children. Early reviews for “Tigers Are Not Afraid” all cited Guillermo del Toro's films as a point of reference and influence, particularly “Pan's Labyrinth”, due to the fact that both films deal with very violent realities and children using fairy tales as a means of coping with that reality.

One afternoon, ten year old Estrella comes to the realisation that her mother has not returned home. After waiting at her home, hungry, scared and alone for two days, she makes the decision to leave her house and look for some food. While trying to stay hidden from the vicious Huascas cartel, Estrella runs into a gang of five orphan kids and although the gang's leader, Shine, is not impressed (seeing as she is a girl, thus bad luck), she becomes a member of this group. Together these homeless youths attempt to stay alive and safe from their harsh reality. One thing in their favour is that Estrella is in possession of three magical wishes, but in the brutal world these kids live in, does the saying “be careful what you wish for” hold extra meaning?

WOW!! This film was amazing! At times it also feels like a brutal gut punch. This is a film that you feel in your bones. It is a film that will make you sick. It will move you. It will make you angry. The fact that we live in a world where some children have to live through the horrors of this film on a daily basis is just heartbreaking. “Tigers Are Not Afraid” opens in a manner that immediately sets the tone of the film to come with Estrella and her classmates learning about the power of fairy tales, when a violent and loud gunfight erupts just outside her classroom. What is terrifying about this scene is how quick all the kids and teachers drop to the floor and hide under their desks, showing that this is clearly not a one off, that this is something they are used to. It is here that in an effort to calm Estrella that her teacher gives her three pieces of chalk claiming that they are magical wishes. So right from the get-go we get the brutal reality of living in a world dominated by drug cartels, with the whimsy of the magic realism of the wishes, often read about in fairy tales. The ending of this scene is also chilling as we watch Estrella leave school and stare at the dead body in the street and not be affected by it. These kids have seen far too much already in their young lives.

Director Issa Lopez has done the most wonderful job of depicting the world these kids live in and being true to it, while at the same time condemning it. This is an angry film. Lopez is clearly angry at the situation that currently exists in Mexico with the drug cartels and at the governments in charge there who are effectively doing nothing to see this situation come to an end. In fact, Lopez goes further than that in making it clear that the reason why the government does nothing is because they benefit more and are complicit to the cartels having ultimate power. With government officials being in bed with the cartels, it makes the police force useless and unable to act on any real problem, which is also highlighted in this film. While I obviously knew the problem in Mexico was bad, Lopez opened my eyes to a number of factors that I wasn't aware of, hadn't thought of or was blind to. The biggest of these was about the sheer number of children that are suddenly orphaned by the cartel violence, and these kids then being forced to fend for themselves, which ultimately leads them down a path of crime, and then the cycle continues.

While the topic of the film is a dark one, and there are some very heavy scenes in the film, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is not all doom and gloom, and that is because of the children themselves. These are children who have lost a lot of their childhood and are forced to grow up quickly because of it, but at the same time, they are still kids. As such, we regularly see the orphans playing with each other, making up games and just having fun. Each of the kids have their own personalities too, which adds to the flavor of the group. The two kids that the film mainly focuses on though are Estrella and Shine. When they first meet, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum with Estrella only just becoming orphaned and thus still has that sweetness attached to her; she isn't hardened yet. Shine, on the other hand, has lived on the streets for a while and trusts no one. He isn't someone that is easy to get to know or like, but this is due to the fact that he knows he can only count on himself to survive. The actors playing these roles are simply outstanding and make the film as great as it is. Paola Laura, who plays Estrella, has just the right amount of innocence to make her come across as slightly naïve but she also brings an inner strength to her that indicates she will likely have a chance to survive out on the streets. It is through her character that the audience sees this story and who we most likely relate to. We watch her being playful with the other kids but see her hardening as time goes on. Juan Ramon Lopez, who plays Shine, probably has the more complex role and excels beautifully. He is mesmerising on screen and so powerful. He is full of anger and emotion but keeps it bottled up always. While we never see him let his guard down and play with the other kids, his time with Estrella does soften him a bit as he exposes more of his personal pain.

Speaking of pain, it should be fair warning that “Tigers Are Not Afraid” contains plenty of it. This is such a brutal film, filled with sickening violence. This is not the type of cool Hollywood violence, you feel every moment of the violence in this film and none of it is fun or cool. The fact that a lot of this violence is targeted at children means that this is a film that Hollywood would never have made, but this is another thing that I feel that Issa Lopez needs to be congratulated for. The fact that she did not tone this side of the film down, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, needs to be acknowledged. She has respected the reality of the world she is portraying and the film is more powerful for it. People die. Children die. It is ugly and it is bloody. This is both in the real world in Mexico at the moment and in the film. “Tigers Are Not Afraid” has one of the most shocking deaths of a child I have seen in a film for ages, since the “Noodles, I slipped” scene from Sergio Leone's “Once Upon A Time In America”. To be honest, I am not sure if the scene in question is graphically violent or not, but emotionally, it just knocked every bit of air I had within me. I didn't see it coming and I felt it all and it was painful.

While I have mostly talked about the real side of “Tigers Are Not Afraid”, I think it is time I talked about the fantasy and fairy tale elements to this film which are also handled with the lightest of touches. While I agree that “Pan's Labyrinth” is a good film to compare this with, the fairy tale elements here are not as large as that film. The majority of it revolves around Estrella's three wishes. The interesting thing about these wishes are that they never go the way Estrella imagines when she makes the wish. Her first wish (which is not really a spoiler since it happens so early in the film) is that she wishes that her mother would return to her. Her wish comes true, but since her mother has been killed, she returns as a ghost wrapped head to toe in plastic. It is an image that obviously terrifies the poor girl, not to mention that she has her mother's voice whispering in her ear the whole time now. From then on, Estrella is reticent to use the wishes but when she does, it is for reasons of good but they never turn out that way. Her third and final wish, and the result from it........wow! I had to pick up my jaw from the floor. While these wishes are used for Estrella to help cope in this world, it is as if director Lopez is saying that there are no magical wishes that can save you, you just need to come to terms with your own reality and survive, which is a sentiment that is actually echoed by Shine to her at one point. Some other instances of magical realism that show up in the film are when one of the orphan's soft tiger toy comes to life, a dragon imprint on a phone breaks free and flies away, and a snake from a tattoo comes to life. These are handled by some so-so cgi. I thought the tiger toy was very well done, but the snake was a bit of a dud.

Overall, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” was a film that I adored. It was not an easy film to watch, at times it is not an easy film to enjoy, but it is a story that needed telling and was told in the most beautiful and horrific manner imaginable. It was such a powerful and painful experience, that moved me considerably. It is a film that makes you angry but it also gives a voice to the people from beyond the grave screaming for all this madness to STOP! I have attempted to keep as many details of this film as vague as possible (or not mentioned them at all) so viewers who end up seeing this film, get to watch it as unspoiled as possible. It is a stunning achievement from director Issa Lopez (and all else involved), and it was my favourite film from this year's MIFF.


4.5 Stars.

 

THE CHEATERS - MIFF 2018


One of the great joys of attending film festivals like MIFF is to be able to view beautiful restorations of older or classic films on the big screen again, the way they were always meant to be seen. This joy is increased ten fold (for me, at least) when it is a silent film that has been restored and screened. This year MIFF presented a one off screening of the 1929 Australian silent film “The Cheaters” that had been lovingly and painstakingly restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Before the announcement of this screening, I must admit that I had never heard of the film. While I have a passion for silent film, until my screening of “The Cheaters”, I am embarrassed to say that I had never seen one from my home country of Australia. I was not going to let this opportunity to do so slip through my fingers either, and I must say that I was suitably impressed by the quality of film making on display.

The film opens with a man being caught stealing from his workplace by his boss. The man, Richard Marsh, pleads that the money is for his sick wife who needs medicine to continue to live. While he knows he has done wrong, his cause is just, and he begs his boss to show mercy. However his boss, John Travers, is the kind of man who believes stealing is stealing, no matter how just the cause may be and sends his employee to jail. An anger immediately builds within Richard, and he declares that he will have his revenge! Cut to twenty years later, and Richard is now the head of the biggest criminal organisation in Sydney, specialising in theft. After such a long time, Richard decides now is the time to fulfil his promise and to get his revenge by stealing everything from his former boss, leaving him destitute and bankrupt. While the plan is simple enough, a spanner is thrown into the works when Richard's best thief (and daughter) Paula, ends up falling in love with John's handsome and dashing son, Lee. Richard has to decide what is more important, his revenge or his daughter's happiness?

This was a super fun silent film with a very entertaining crime plot. Not only that but it is also a love story as well. The most amazing thing about “The Cheaters” though is the people behind its making. This is a film that was produced by The McDonagh sisters; three sisters who together made a series of self financed films during the 1920s and 30s. In a time now where women's voices in film are finally starting to be heard and noticed, it is somewhat astounding that these pioneering sisters were doing the same thing almost one hundred years earlier. Paulette McDonagh was the writer and director of these films, Phyllis was the producer, and Isobel, considered the family beauty, was the on screen talent and star of the films they made, under the more exotic name of Marie Lorraine. “The Cheaters” was their third film and it is a very impressive achievement. While you could say that the plot of the film is derivative of the kind of films being made in that time in both Germany and the US, and that would be true. The film isn't very deep, emotionally speaking and content wise, but what is undeniable is the girl's talent at presenting this kind of story in a very visual way, all of their own.

While the film does not have the visual bravura of the late era German films, “The Cheaters” is miles ahead of the point and shoot approach of the silent films of the previous decade, which is what I was expecting (as unfair as that is). Instead we are treated to the expert use of dissolves, double exposures, long tracking shots, and close-ups which have been magnificently edited together in a manner that gives the story some punch. The visual splendour doesn't end there though, as the film's costumes are sublime (this is the 1920's though, a decade known for its excess in fashion) as are the locations and décor within. An amusing, but visually unforgettable, moment is when Richard goes to his wall safe, which is more like a vault as opposed to your traditional safe, complete with retractable stairs that appear when the door is opened.

However, this is not the only “moment” in the film as there is also an impressive jewellery store heist that is well staged and multi layered. It is essentially the centre piece of the film, and takes place towards the front half, which unfortunately the rest of the film tries to match. While I do not want to give away all of the film's secrets, I must say that I was very surprised by a late twist that I never saw coming. In fairness to myself, it is a twist that has never been hinted at previous so the chances of working it out before its reveal are almost nought, but I liked that it was included and it upped the fun and ante of the ending.

Another thing that I was impressed with was the quality of acting in “The Cheaters”. While I feel that those unfamiliar with silent films think that they are all overly dramatic, this just isn't the case. Still the performances here were of a very high quality and very naturalistic. Ok, so Arthur Greenaway is a little hammy as Richard, the master criminal, but that kind of goes with the role. The rest of the cast are quite fantastic with Marie Lorraine simply charming as the confused and stuck in the middle, Paula, while Josef Bambach is admirable as her romantic partner. I also really liked John Faulkner in the role of John Travers, as a man who has great morals who is unfairly targeted by Richard.

The Cheaters” was presented with a live piano and percussion score that was simply beautiful and of the era. I am ashamed that I did not take note of the musicians who played this score to give them their proper credit in this review but their music elevated an already great movie. Before they began playing, I was nervous that it was going to be a kind of modern style score that would not fit the film at all, but within seconds I knew that they had got it right and respected both the film and era it was produced. The music matched perfectly the action and emotions on screen and I couldn't have been happier with it.

The only thing I was disappointed in with my screening of “The Cheaters” was that it was not a heavily attended screening. Do not get me wrong, there was still a lot of people in the cinema but this is the kind of special screening that I would love to see sold out. The film is a large part of Australian film history, playing at one of the biggest Australian film festivals, with a live score playing over the top of it.......I was disappointed that more film lovers didn't come and be part of this rare screening of a rare film from a lost era. After such a beautiful digital restoration, “The Cheaters” deserves to be seen more, and I hope that someone will release this fine film on blu ray in the very near future. When this was announced in the MIFF program, it was one of my most anticipated sessions of the film festival and I am happy to say that it did not let me down.


3.5 Stars