Under 800: A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story is the greatest meditative experience of the year, bar none. It’s a miracle that such a movie was made in America, considering it bears all the hallmarks of Eastern European cinema – it moves at a snail’s pace, relies on symbolism and visual imagery more than dialogue, and features long, transformative takes that play with the viewer’s perception of time and space.

There isn’t much of a story. A married couple lives in a small house in the American South. It’s all rather idyllic, until the husband is killed in a car accident. The recently deceased comes back as a white-sheeted ghost and returns to his home, where he watches on as his wife deals with his death. Eventually, she moves on and leaves the house, never to return, leaving the ghost trapped inside. The rest of the movie follows the ghost’s journey through time, witnessing other families live their lives in what was once his own home.

There is one scene in particular that seems to have attracted more attention than the rest of the movie, and it is the five-minute-long take of Rooney Mara (the wife) eating pie as the ghost looks on. It’s been used as an example of the film’s pretentiousness and self-indulgence, but in reality it serves a very important narrative purpose. As the story progresses, the time jumps become more frequent, the ghost turns around and finds himself with a new family, or sees the house changed, transformed in the space of two frames. This is in stark contrast with the first half of the film which is much, much slower, with less cuts and more long takes. The passage of time speeds up as the ghost ages, it’s a phenomenon that we all experience as we progress through life. Our formative years seem much longer, each day feels like a whole eternity in and of itself. But as time wears us down, we start to realize that everything is passing by us at a much faster pace. One minute you’re enjoying your summer vacation and the next you’re stuck home, working, snow falling right outside your window. The passage of time is a cruel thing, especially once you become completely cognizant of it. But it’s also an integral part of the formation of memories. We cherish our past because it is unattainable. We look back on it fondly because it is a moment that is forever trapped in time, untouchable and impossible to change or taint. David Lowery knew that when making A Ghost Story and used it to make the viewer empathize with the ghost, despite its being a walking sheet. We see a slice of the husband’s life in the very beginning of the movie, we see how alive he is, we see he has things to do and to live for. All of that is gone in an instant, and his ghost is left wandering through time and the space of his house, constantly remembering what he had and will never have again. He becomes lost in his own home. The first part of the movie sees the wife grieving the loss of her husband, while the second part shows us a man that is nothing but a remnant of the past, helplessly looking for an anchor. The feeling of entrapment is further augmented by the film’s unusual aspect ratio (1.33 : 1, the original silent film ratio) with rounded edges and the constant use of frames within the frame.

Another point of contention has been the longest speaking part of the film, a monologue, delivered by a man at a party as the ghost watches on. In a nutshell, it’s about the finite nature of both our own existence and that of the Universe as a whole, as well as an admission of defeat in the face of pointlessness. It’s somewhat heavy-handed, but in my mind it was very necessary. It ushers in the latter part of the film that sees the ghost moving on from mourning himself and his own fate and realizing the nature of time and the futility of life. It could’ve been done in a more subtle way, but it would’ve meant extending the film’s run time, which would’ve been a disservice to it, as A Ghost Story works much better as a short but heavy and mentally tasking experience.

The score is great and sets the tone perfectly, guiding us through the ghost’s feelings. The editing is also key to setting the tone and controlling the pacing. Some shots linger for what feels like an eternity, but at other points the film cycles through years or decades in a matter of seconds, while still managing to emphasize the emotions of its characters. The pie scene is one such case. The longer we watch the wife eating pie, the harder we’re hit by the realization that she is utterly, completely alone, but also by the recognition of our own selves in Mara’s brilliant performance – the feeling of emptiness after the passing of a loved one, the lack of direction, the listlessness and apathy.

A Ghost Story is a beautiful film that delivers an understated exploration of grand themes through great cinematography and editing. It’s one of the best films of the year and most definitely worth a watch, if only to see Casey Affleck wearing a ghost costume.

Shin Godzilla (2016)

Here’s a movie that has left me rather conflicted. On one hand, I can confidently say that this is the most fun I’ve ever had watching a Godzilla flick, while on the other I’m not at all certain that I can objectively describe this movie as anything other than middling.

Let’s start with the good. Godzilla is finally back in Japan where it belongs and I firmly believe that most gigantic monsters work best there, in part due to how culturally ingrained they are in the Japanese psyche and what they represent. The kaiju genre has always reflected Japan’s biggest fear, be it nuclear weapons or natural disasters. Shin Godzilla doesn’t break with tradition and provides a look into the country’s response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the public perception of its handling. Director Hideaki Anno inserted some rather interesting commentary on the nature of Japanese bureaucracy through satire and self-awareness, adding to the overall schlocky goodness of Shin Godzilla. Government officials debate which conference room they should hold their meeting in while Godzilla ravages the city and sends its inhabitants running for their lives in absolute terror. There are long, drawn out conversations about logistics, paper work and politics that take up almost three times the screen time that the monster itself does. These scenes of politicking and strategy-devising are often interlaced with moments of melodrama and cheesy dialogue, but all of this works because the film is aware of its own ridiculousness and embraces it, along with all the tropes and cliches that come with the genre. Some of them are rather annoying to me, as someone watching from the sidelines and only slightly aware of Japanese film culture (which is heavily influenced by anime), but overall they do not detract from the viewing experience due to Anno’s direction, like using overly-dramatic battle music during fairly tame back-and-forths between officials and having the actors staring into the camera and proclaiming something with wide-eyed terror, makes the movie a great throwback to its creature-feature predecessors.

And now for the bad. There’s one thing that bugs me more than anything else in this movie, one thing that I cannot forgive due to it being a crucial component to my enjoyment of a movie like this – Shin Godzilla‘s abhorrent characterization. See, in a movie where monsters the size of the Eiffel tower are roaming the streets of a big, densely-populated city, you have to have a reason to care about all the destruction that will inevitably arise from this tricky predicament that the citizens have found themselves in. The viewer needs someone to root for, a hero that is fleshed out and believable, an anti-hero with honorable motivations, hell, even an everyday person who’s found themselves in the middle of all the carnage like in the original Godzilla from 1954. That’s not the case in Shin Godzilla. There is no character ark in this movie, though, no growth or change whatsoever, no sympathy or connection to be established. What’s the reason for this? It’s because none of the characters in this film have any motivation behind their actions. Sure, they all want to defeat Godzilla and protect their home, but none of them have any direct contact with the creature. We never see their families, hell, they never even mention them. It’s as if all the experts working on a way to deal with this gigantic monster that is ravaging their country are robots, one-dimensional beings that have a single purpose for their existence and nothing else interests them. Shin Godzilla is filled with cardboard cut outs. The only semblance of emotional depth that we see in this movie is when the US announces its plans to drop an A-bomb on Godzilla, prompting another interesting look into the way the Japanese view their history and how that relates to them today. But this isn’t even actual depth, it’s just a reflection of my own ignorance. I find it intriguing because it’s something that I never would’ve seen or experienced if I hadn’t been for this movie. Someone more ingrained in Japanese culture, or someone completely uninterested in it for that matter, would find that there is very little of interest when it comes to the characters in Shin Godzilla. Their interactions are somewhat stiff, mostly professional and straightforward. The hierarchy is mostly clear and there is very little chaos involved in this system, though the movie does do its best to make it clear that it is chaos that is necessary in order to make bureaucracy more flexible and useful to the general populace. It does get that point across, but I didn’t think it did it in a rather effective manner. One more thing – Satomi Ishihara’s character is the most boring one I’ve seen in years. She’s an anime archetype that can be found all throughout Japanese cinema – the cocky hottie that frequently uses English words. Though in this case I found it even more egregious due to Ishihara’s inability to enunciate, despite her character being half-American. Speaking of American, all the US officials’ dialogue (there isn’t much of it, thankfully) sounds like it was written by someone with very limited knowledge of the English language and with the help of an online translation tool. The “actors” they picked didn’t help either, they all behaved and sounded like random tourists the producers had plucked off the street.

Godzilla itself has an interesting design, though the CGI might seem rather dated to Western audiences. Its skin looks rubbery and plastic on purpose, giving it a more authentic look. This Godzilla is rather different than the ones we’ve seen over the past few decades, it’s more passive, more akin to a force of nature than an actual creature. It’s path is predictable and rarely changes and most efforts to stop or stall it are completely ineffective, prompting mass evacuations. This is something that Shin Godzilla absolutely nails – it lets us feel the monster’s immense power. There are hundreds of government workers and officials running around, quite a few of them have at least one or two lines as well. We feel that the efforts to stop Godzilla are those of a whole country, rather than the President and a select few, as is the case in the American versions. Each unsuccessful attempt feels that much more meaningful exactly because we’ve seen just how many of Japan’s brightest and most prepared minds have failed at providing a solution. Everyone is doing their best, yet it just isn’t enough. For the most part. Of course we know that Godzilla is doomed from the very get go, it is a kaiju movie after all.

There are some issues with the sound editing that might jump out at you if the movie has failed to engross you completely, but nothing too glaring or jarring. Visually, it’s nothing too impressive, though some of the bureaucratic segments are filmed rather competently. The lens used throughout most of the movie is anamorphic (as has been the case with quite a few movies I’ve reviewed of late, interestingly enough), but what DP Kosuke Yamada did was squish the shots in order to give the impression of a long telephoto lens but with a wider FOV, allowing for more space in the background of the frame, as is necessary when filming offices and boardrooms. There is some rather annoying shaky cam, filmed with an iPhone, that is supposed to mimic the motions of a real person but ends up making the viewer nauseous.

Overall, Shin Godzilla isn’t particularly good, but it isn’t bad either. It’s a passable movie that acknowledges some (not all) of its shortcomings and subtly makes fun of both itself and its cultural and social context. It’s also an interesting look into Japan for all of us sheltered and uncultured westerners who don’t even know that Japan has its own means of defending itself.

Under 800: Locke (2013)

Minimalism is a rare sight in modern cinema, as it seems to be wholly incompatible with the contemporary style of escapist film making that aims to transport the audience as far away from the mundane and realistic as possible. This is particularly obvious in blockbuster movies, the same ones that owe their very existence to Alfred Hitchcock who famously said that “Cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.”. Hitchcock was at the forefront of American cinema’s growth during and after WWI so it comes as no surprise that modern Hollywood follows his philosophy quite closely.

Locke sets itself apart by embracing the minimalist style that has been shunned by commercial film and presenting its story in a manner that is both intriguingly unique and, perhaps paradoxically, rather tame and grounded. Ivan Locke has monumentally screwed up his life. A woman that he barely knows is having his baby in London, more than an hour away from where he lives, while his wife and kids are at home, waiting for him to finish work so they can watch that night’s football match together. Ivan himself is an illegitimate child and his sense of duty and honor gets the better of him, prompting him to drive over to London for his child’s birth, abandoning both his family and work in the process. The whole film takes place in Locke’s car, during his 85 minute drive to London, as he does his best to pick up the pieces of his shattered life over the phone. He loses his job because he won’t be able to show up for a historic concrete pour that he was supposed to be overseeing, leaving his employer scrambling to find a replacement in the middle of the night. He tells his wife about his “one-off affair”. Understandably, she doesn’t take it well.

That’s all fine and dandy, but one might be inclined to think that watching a man talk over the phone while driving a car for 85 minutes would be an incredibly dull affair. And perhaps it could be, for the viewer who goes into it without having any experience with European cinema (yes, British films do count as such) and its typically slower and more human approach to film making. But Tom Hardy is able to turn anything into a spectacle, delivering perhaps his best performance to date, and showing for the umpteenth time in his career that he can do pretty much anything on the screen. Locke closely resembles a stage-play, relying solely on Hardy (the only actor who we can actually see) to provide subtext and foreshadowing for the events to follow. It’s something that he is no stranger to, as one of his first big leading roles (in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson) featured some segments that were, quite literally, stage plays, with Hardy performing in front of a live audience. Locke‘s success hinged almost solely on its protagonist and it absolutely needed someone as talented as Hardy to pull it off properly. Few actors have the ability to express so much with just their face and upper body while in the close confines of a moving car. He cycles effortlessly between emotions, switches between his work and family selves, delivers his dialogue so naturally that at times it seems like he’s making it up on the fly. Of course, the voices over the telephone help quite a bit in that respect, and Olivia Coleman, Andrew Scott and Tom Holland all deliver some great voice work.

Visually, the film goes for a certain style and rolls with it all throughout. The camera can’t exactly around too much while in a moving car, so DP Zambarloukos had to come up with ways to convey as much meaning as possible while keeping the imagery almost completely stationary, save for the occasional bumps in the road. One of the main camera angles is directly in front of Hardy and uses the front window of the car as sort of canvas. Lights dance across it and prevent the image from becoming stale and sterile. These lights also serve a narrative purpose, occasionally acting as a visualization of Ivan Locke’s inner turmoil, blinking in and out of existence, shining right next to his head before going out to signify the end of something – his marriage, his career, his hatred for his father. The imagery in the film is fuzzy and quaint. I personally find it almost uncanny in its resemblance to my own memories of travelling at night, it captures the sense of constant movement and transition, by putting an emphasis on bokeh, at times letting it take over the whole screen and using it as a transition to wider angles that show the highway. The lengthened light bubbles produced by the anamorphic lens are frequently superimposed on the windows of the car or on Hardy’s face, which we also frequently see through the front window rather than through the camera placed in the passenger seat next to him at a slightly lower angle.

Overall, Locke is a great example of making do with very little, both financially and spatially. Its script could have done with some tweaking in order to make Ivan’s decisions more impactful (because a lot of the time we’re left with the feeling that whatever happened would’ve still happened even without his involvement in it), but the writing is superb, the direction is delightfully minimalist and Hardy is at the top of his game, making for a movie well worth watching.

The Turin Horse (2011)

Hungarian director Bela Tarr has long been hailed as one of the greatest film makers of all time. Most oft-cited is his undeniable magnum opus, Satantango, a towering achievement of cinema that is as intimidating and intellectually challenging as any great piece of art that has ever been created. But don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him or his films, they’re not exactly easy to come by, least of all because of how long they are (Satantango boasts a run time of precisely 450 minutes or seven and a half hours).

The Turin Horse is Tarr’s latest work, as well as his last (the director himself believes that he has said all that he has to say and anything past this point would be the cinematic equivalent of verbosity), and it really does show. It’s the story of a farmer and his daughter living in a rundown house in the middle of nowhere. They’re poor as dirt and completely unable to escape their dreary homestead. Not that they truly want to. There is nothing to say past this point. That is the story. We see six days of their life, each day being more or less the same, with some slight yet noticeable variations to each iteration.

It all begins with a black screen. The narrator recounts the story of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s final moments of sanity. As Nietzsche left his hotel in Turin, the narrator tells us, he saw a man whipping his horse in frustration. Nietzsche ran over and put his arms around the horse’s neck, collapsing into a sobbing heap. I find it interesting that the narrator doesn’t mention the philosopher’s words during those emotional moments, a simple “I understand you!”. I assume Tarr thought it would have made the general theme of the movie much too obvious if he had included that tidbit in the opening narration, for most have come to see Nietzsche’s words as his final admission that life cannot be positively affirmed. His work was based around the idea that life should be celebrated, that it is something beautiful and valuable and must be cherished even in the face of the Universe’s horrifying coldness. Could it be that, in his final moments of lucidity and relative sanity, he realized that he was wrong, that his idea of nihilism as a phase that one must go through in order to better themselves and achieve a new, higher level of understanding was fundamentally flawed? That I cannot say. What I do know is that Nietzsche fell ill shortly after and spent the next ten years of his life in his mother and sister’s care. The narrator then tells us Nietzsche’s final words, “Mutter, ich bin dumm.”, meaning “Mother, I was dumb.”. Now that I think of it, the subtext here is quite similar to that of the omitted quote.

The opening is a beautiful horizontal tracking shot of a horse-driven cart with an elderly man sitting in it. We follow the horse’s movement for more than four minutes before we reach the true mise-en-scene of the film, the man’s home, situated in a geographical depression. There is nothing to see there, nothing to focus on except for the dying tree at the top of the hill opposite the house, and the leaves blowing in the harsh wind. The film is shot entirely in black-and-white and features the intense celluloid texture that all of Tarr’s films have in common, making the dreariness of the imagery even harder to miss. Or escape, for that matter. There is absolutely nothing in The Turin Horse that could be described as even mildly optimistic. It is, in a sense, Tarr’s admission that all is lost. In fact, the preterist notion that the apocalypse has already occurred is present multiple times throughout the film. There is even an anti-Bible, as Tarr describes it, that is heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s writings.

The inside of the house is brilliantly crafted, drawing inspiration from stage-lighting practices in an effort to make the space that the two characters occupy as dramatic and claustrophobic as possible. It is there that the father and his daughter spend a majority of their time, slowly moving back and forth and going about their day. The camera moves gradually and slowly, it takes its time to switch from place to place. There are very few cuts in this film, just like Werckmeister Harmonies which consisted of 39 shots in total. Tarr resorts to the shot within the shot technique in order to make us privy to the desperate boredom and sadness that the characters feel, confined to their decrepit home. The outside is practically inaccessible to them, as the weather is shown to be extremely cold and the wind is a constant sight – yes, sight – in their one window. They only go out to fetch water from the well or to feed the horse, their only connection to the outside world. But the horse refuses to pull the cart. Then it refuses to eat. It gives up. Just like everything else in The Turin Horse, apart from the two main characters who continue to exist as biological automatons with no real substance to their depressing lives. The well dries up. Their fire goes out and the two seem unable to light a new one. The wind stops blowing at one point, despite being a constant for more than two of the two and a half hours of the movie. Everything in the movie just stops functioning, flat out refusing to play a part in this ridiculous exercise in futility that the main characters call life.

There are only a few moments that break up the monotony of the family’s daily life. At one point they are visited by their neighbor (though we never see any other buildings, the horizon is completely clear of any signs of human habitation) who says he has run out of booze and has come looking to buy some from the main characters. He seems like a rich man, much better off than the elderly man and his daughter, but we never actually learn anything about him. He rants about the debasing of all that exist at the hands of those who have renounced morality and holiness and wholeheartedly embraced their own egotistic desires upon realizing that God does not exist. Tarr has described his movie as diverging from Nietzsche’s idea that God is dead and we have killed him, thus freeing ourselves to forge a new morality. Tarr sees this not as an opportunity for progress, but as evidence of degradation and decay, of man’s inability to see and appreciate the immaterial, to value anything that is spiritual and fundamentally human. It’s important to note here that God is not, in this context, a religious figure, so much as a representation of our inner selves.

In conclusion, I can confidently say that this is pure cinematic genius. It’s beautifully shot, excellently acted and remarkably poignant in its commentary on philosophy and the human condition. That said, I don’t particularly like it. It’s hard to enjoy something as bleak and hopeless as The Turin Horse, a work that renounces existence and, in a sense, argues that non-existence is preferable to life. It also marks a bit of a turning point (the final one, mind you) in Tarr’s career, as his previous works have all harbored at least a hint of hope, despite the depiction of the heaviness and cruelty of our shared existence. Nevertheless, The Turin Horse is an extremely high note to end your career on, it is a feat that few can so much as hope to achieve even at the apex of their film making days.

The Big Sick and what makes a good romantic movie.

To give you the gist of it, The Big Sick is the story of Kumail and Emily and their pursuit of love and happiness in the face of the cultural discrepancies that stand in their way. Kumail’s parents want to arrange a Muslim marriage for him, in keeping with Pakistani tradition, while he himself isn’t even religious, but keeps up appearances because he fears being exiled from his family. Then stuff happens. I usually don’t keep these reviews spoiler-free, but in this case explaining the plot would mean taking away from the viewing experience, so I won’t.

The Big Sick had a budget of just 5 million dollars and was written by Nanjiani with the help of his wife, the real Emily Gordon. It premiered at Sundance and received universal critical acclaim, which led to the film being picked up by Amazon Studios, which significantly helped the distribution and subsequent commercial success of the movie. The Big Sick made 49 million at the box office, making it the highest grossing indie of 2017 (so far).

What sets it apart from the rest of the schlock that the rom-com/rom-dram genre has to offer is its ability to juggle its themes in a way that seems completely effortless and natural. It switches tones with such ease that the viewer doesn’t even truly notice the transition between comedy and drama, the movie flows like real life does – one second you’re talking to your girlfriend about something as inane as the weird American pronunciation of the name Craig, and before you know it she’s found your box-full of headshots of attractive Pakistani women, ready and waiting for a lucrative arranged marriage. Yeah, it sounds ridiculous when you write it out, but the chemistry between the two leads, Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani, makes their on-screen relationship as believable and realistic as romances get. It’s truly amazing to see how much can be achieved with just a strong cast and a well-written script. Even Ray Romano gets some actual acting done instead of phoning it in with his usual Everybody Loves Raymond shtick.

The dialogue is very snappy and quick-witted. Sure, there are some jokes that feel somewhat forced, like most of the stuff that Bo Burnham’s character says (half of his jokes sounded like they came from TJ Miller in the remarkably dull Deadpool), but the majority of the script is polished and genuinely funny. Nanjiani really does carry the latter half of the movie, displaying his ability to portray a much wider array of emotions than expected as he goes from sadness to rage and desperation.

So what does The Big Sick tell us about its genre and how to execute it properly? As mentioned above, a movie like this absolutely needs good characters. Any romantic comedy or drama is dead in the water if its writer isn’t competent or imaginative enough to create a pair of interesting and likable characters that the audience can connect with emotionally. We can’t root for a plastic cut-out or a walking cliche, and I say that with the conviction of someone who is above fed-up with manic depressive dream boys and girls and their tales of pseudo-depression and Facebook-tier philosophizing. A great example of horrible characterization can be found in this year’s In Search of Fellini. The protagonist is a sheltered girl that has never had any friends or, as far as I could tell, even gone to school. Her mother raised her at home, watching black and white movies with optimistic and hopeful messages, creating a false image of life and human interaction in her daughter’s head. The whole movie hinges on this ridiculous, nonsensical premise. It gets worse though, as this girl goes to Italy in the hopes of meeting the great Italian director Federico Fellini. She has very limited funds and no skills, social or otherwise. It’s all the story of her dreamy mental illness, which never even gets mentioned or noticed because apparently it’s not unusual for someone to spend their days watching romantic movies and fantasizing about having a relationship while simultaneously being completely unable to function as a human being, and how it led her to living the life that she was meant to be living. It’s cheap, it’s boring, and it’s offensive to anyone who has ever suffered from an actual mental illness. Compare this to The Big Sick where the characters behave like actual human beings instead of personified Tumblr posts. They’re not defined by any one thing, they don’t fall into some predetermined category that provides a template for their actions and opinions. Kumail and Emily react to the world they’re in, to the situations that they’re faced with.

Dialogue is the second important point. No, it doesn’t need to be on par with the works of Paddy Chayefsky or Aaron Sorkin, but it needs to have rhythm. Take a look at The Coen Brothers’s films for an example of what rhythm in dialogue looks like, even in their weaker films that lack an impressive script. The cutting of the scene, the pauses, the very ebb and flow of conversation matters just as much as what is being said. A lot of the dialogue in movies in general these days sounds sterile and restrained, as if the characters simply need get something out of the way before continuing on to the next set-piece. The most memorable scripts, for me, are the ones that accurately portray human interaction, like in Before Sunrise, Lost in Translation, Network (despite its over-the-top satire), The Social Network, The Big Lebowski. All of these movies, even when they those that on occasion plunge into absurdity, share one thing in common – their ability to entertain you for hours on end with just the acting and dialogue. That’s why the script is so important in a rom-com, and in character-driven movies in general. They can’t fall back on the visual or technical aspect of film making because that would go against their stated purpose (not that they can’t be visually appealing, mind you, I’m simply arguing that their focus inherently lies elsewhere). The Big Sick hits the sweet spot. Its writing is impressive in that it meshes comedy with character development. It both furthers the plot in a non-intrusive way and entertains the viewer. I expect this movie to be near the very top of my Best of 2017 list.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

I’ll be honest, this isn’t an easy watch. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is slow, pensive and introspective. It’s one of those films that make the passage of time a completely tangible process. But it also happens to be a masterpiece and quite possibly the greatest foreign film of the 21st century.

The movie’s plot is quite simple. A man’s been murdered, his body buried somewhere in the seemingly endless Turkish countryside. There are two suspects, one of them has promised to do his best to recall the exact location of the body, despite being blackout drunk on the night of the murder. The police officers do their jobs. That’s really all there is to it. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia‘s beauty is hidden beneath this surface layer, beneath the almost banal trivialities of the typical police procedural. Actually, scratch that. Those very trivialities are the whole point of the film. A man’s been murdered, in much the same way as hundreds of others are each year. The police fulfills its duties, as is expected of it. The bureaucrats write down everything that is relevant to the case. The criminal is put away. Life goes on as it always does and no single person has any real effect on it. None of the characters in the movie are exceptional. None of them excel at their jobs. They’re just making it through the day, getting the job done before returning home to deal with their duties there. This is the great tragedy of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and of the human race in general, if philosophical pessimism is your poison of choice – all is inconsequential, all is trivial and, ultimately, pointless. It’s a point that is reiterated time and time again  by the movie, be it visually or through dialogue. An example of the first would be the scene in which two shopkeepers sweep the sidewalk in front of their stores, a large mound of sand between them. No matter how much time they spend sweeping, the sand will always fall back in its prior place, erasing any and all signs of their hard work. Wind in general becomes the focus of a quite a few scenes. At some points the countryside is shown as mass of swaying grass, at the mercy of the blowing wind. In these scenes we realize, as does Dr. Cemal, the story’s protagonist, that man is just a helpless as the grass in the face of his own fate, unable to exert any sort of influence over it in the grand scheme of things. Other times we see the wind blowing away signs of human occupation and chasing the men back into their homes. The idea remains the same, and it’s one that becomes abundantly clear not only by the movie’s overt references to it, but also by Gökhan Tiryaki‘s brilliant cinematography. The camera work and direction are, at different points in the movie, reminiscent of two of cinema’s greatest artists, Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky. The first half of the movie reminded me very much of Barry Lyndon, with its detached long shots (as well as extreme long shots that turn people into dots on the face of the landscape), limited or completely non-existent movement and remarkable framing and composition that turn every shot into a painting. The second half of the movie’s 150 minute run time put slightly more focus on the characters of the story, featuring more close-ups and interior shots. Dr. Cemal could well have been part of Stalker, what with the constant ambiguity of his expression and the philosophical theorizing.

One of the most telling and poignant parts of the movie comes during the doctor’s conversation with Arab, the driver of their police car (a shoddy old Lada):

It’s raining on Igdebeli.
Let it.  It’s been raining for centuries. What difference does it make?
But not even 100 years from now, Arab, neither you, me, the prosecutor or the police chief..
Well, as the poet said…Still the years will pass.. And not a trace will remain of me.  Darkness and cold will enfold my weary soul..

These words are a summation of the film’s pervading theme of insignificance in the face of the overall grandeur of existence. The camera work, as mentioned and described above, makes that obvious right from the get go, making the characters it follows seem no more important than the beautiful landscape around them, at times even less important than it. As the officers are talking about the case, we see an apple fall from a tree. The camera leaves the characters and wanders off, following the apple on its trip down a gentle slope and into a small river. A lightning flash earlier on illuminates carvings on a boulder that the doctor is passing by, startling and unnerving him. There are these hypnotic, almost Lynchian moments that put into perspective man’s lack of a fundamental understanding of his existence. We inhabit a realm that we cannot even hope to ever truly understand, one that we have tricked ourselves into believing that we own, that we all subconsciously believe exists for or because of us.

It’d be a mistake to think of this movie as uninterested in, or not empathizing with, its characters. There are moments that are so intimately human and believable that they make the viewer take a step back and wonder if he or she is still watching the same movie. The opening few minutes feature a dialogue about food that could have been ripped straight out of a Tarantino movie because of how efficiently it characterizes the protagonists through seemingly inane chatter and how fast-paced and entertaining the very execution is. But Nuri Bilge Ceylan specializes in realism, and it wouldn’t be a movie set in the Balkans or Anatolia without mentioning the death of the small town and the rural village, from the perspective of people who remain put in said small towns and rural villages, no less. Specters of a time and place that is disappearing, fading into complete obscurity.

Everything in this movie comes together to paint a rather bleak and morose picture, one of aimlessness and a lack of agency. The scenery is grey and repetitive with no music to help the viewer escape its pessimistic clutches; the characters are confused and rather restrained. It’s a tasking experience, one that is just as much emotional as it is intellectual, but it is certainly worth it to see a master practicing his craft.

Under 800: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Mental illness is a topic that many movies tackle, yet few do it in a manner that presents the audience with any actual insight into what the person suffering from the ailment feels and how they go through their life. Many modern directors go the Scorsese route, creating a character that is self-destructive, while simultaneously hostile towards the outside world as a whole, Fight Club being the most obvious example of this post-Taxi Driver sub genre. Others dramatize mental illness, turning it into a simple plot device that serves the purpose of furthering the story without adding any actual depth to the narrative, as is the case in Shyamalan’s The Visit.

Kenneth Lonergan chooses a third way of looking at depression, the affliction of Manchester by the Sea‘s protagonist Lee, and it is through the harsh lens of realism. The whole movie is guided by this one fundamental principle. It never glorifies or dramatizes its characters, never portrays them as anything other than struggling human beings, going about their lives and dealing with the death of their loved ones. Lee is a troubled man who lost his three kids in a house fire. A house fire that was his fault, if by accident. His wife leaves him, but not before telling everyone in their home town that Lee started the fire on purpose, in order to get back at her for ruining his night. Lee’s life spirals out of control and the beginning of the movie finds him working as a plumber in a new town, drinking heavily. And then his brother passes away, shattering what little stability he had in his life. The bulk of the movie follows Lee’s attempts at taking care of his brother’s teenage son, making sure that everything is all set up for him after the passing of his father.

It’s a rough story. The moments of optimism are few and far between, overshadowed by the permeating sense of ennui that every single aspect of the film hammers in. The camera is more oft than not kept at a distance, completely stationary. The framing is flat, at times almost boring. The colors are somewhat desaturated, muted by the overall greyness of the atmosphere. The cinematography serves to accentuate Lee’s underlying issues. His world is small and uninteresting, one that is past its peak. He looks and feels like a man that’s just about ready to give up on everything. Casey Affleck delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, giving us a window into the life of someone that’s hopelessly depressed and frustrated at his own inability to deal with everything that’s come his way. Lee dislikes himself and that reflects in his interactions with the outside world. He has trouble keeping eye contact with people outside his family. He prefers his own company and seems completely unable to keep a normal conversation going. But the most telling aspect of his self-loathing is his resistance to progress and positive change. Lee receives the opportunity to leave his one-room apartment and crappy, dead-end job in favor of a nice new home with all expenses covered, yet he refuses. Instead, he gets hammered at the bar in Manchester and gets into a fight (one that ends rather badly for him at that). It’s a move that makes not even the smallest bit of sense. It’s completely counter-intuitive. And that’s what depression is like – a constant feeling of unease and apathy, broken only by the occasional bouts of fierce self-loathing. It turns you into a mumbling, shambling mess, a shell of a human being. Lee is cursed to perpetually go over his past life, remembering the family and friends he once had, before losing everything in a cruel twist of fate. The film uses perfectly timed and executed flashbacks that show us a different Lee, one that has a direction in his life and doesn’t wander the streets with a somewhat vacant expression.

I believe this to be a near flawless movie. Some have, in retrospect, described certain directorial choices as bland and uninspired, but such complaints are completely missing the point of Manchester by the Sea. It isn’t the flashy or glamorous. There is no hero in this story. It’s just us humans there. Nothing else. The camera work matches the tone, or rather helps set it. And that’s what great cinematography is – a visual manifestation of the story, a half-seen force that guides the viewer’s perception and augments the emotional or intellectual significance of the film’s themes. In Manchester by the Sea‘s case, the camera had to be just as understated as the character it was following, giving us a chance to view him through his own prism, rather than our individual preconceived notions of what the person is or should be.