Capone's Art-House Round-Up with WINTER SLEEP, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, PELICAN DREAMS, and VIVA LA LIBERTA!!!
Published at: Jan. 2, 2015, 2:50 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
WINTER SLEEP It's often difficult to describe the appeal of or the impact that a film by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, CLIMATES) will have on someone. I know that by the end of the film, you feel like you live among the people he is showing us, people the likes of which you will never see in any other film from any other country. They can be as grim and painful as a Bergman movie, but there's something so brutally direct and honest about his works that I've never once been bored by them even though his last couple of works, including the newest one, WINTER SLEEP (which clocks in at three hours and 15 minutes), are marathon adventures of self discovery.
Winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, WINTER SLEEP centers on Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former Turkish actor who made enough money on the stage to purchase a sizable piece of land to build a hotel for the infrequent tourist traffic. The film has something of a narrative—there's a story involving a family that rents a place from Aydin that is behind on rent and the drama that comes from that situation—but that isn't truly what propels the film. A series of people come in and out of Aydin's life during the course of the time we spend with him, both familiar faces and visiting ones.
Nihal (Melisa Sözen), his much younger wife, is attempting to make the best of this isolated living situation by doing charity work for the community, but the minute Aydin finds out, he attempts to insert himself into the work and it destroys her confidence. His sister Necla (Deme Akbag) has been living with them in the hotel since she divorced her husband and has become a sponge and a parasite on his hospitality and resources. Aydin spends his spare time writing a weekly column on living like a good Muslim, and she spends her time picking apart his writings and pointing out the hypocrisies in it. And then there's Aydin's right-hand man Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). Something of a lackey, he's the guy called upon when hands need to be dirtied.
The filmmakers leave judging Aydin up to the audience. At times, he seems like a put-upon old man who can sometimes be soft, leaving himself open to being taken advantage of; other times he's a calculating bully whose mere refusal to walk out of a room when his wife is suffering is cruel and unusual punishment. Aydin is the type of man who never admits to being wrong, even when he apologizing for making a mistake. He carefully considers others' opinions and then does what he wants anyway. But he's also a man with boundless curiosity. He loves talking to his foreign guests and getting a sense of their lives. He particularly bonds with one guest, a cross-country motorcyclist who lives a free and easy life with no destination, plan or boundaries in the way he lives.
WINTER SLEEP is loosely based on a couple of short stories by Anton Chekhov, but director and co-writer Ceylan had spun those stories with his own unique tapestry of misery and awareness. And with bleak yet stunning mountains in the distance, the stage is set for some genuinely back-breaking picking apart of the soul. All of the characters and their philosophies on self deception, morality, charity, and kindness are easy to follow and are articulated beautifully, and that helps an audience stay glued to every word.
Don't let the running time scare you; you'll come out the other side of this work with ideas bouncing around your head that you probably haven't had in quite some time. WINTER SLEEP is wonderfully engaging, perfectly acted, and shot like a love letter to rolling barren landscapes. It's one of the more impressive works that I saw in 2014.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT Boy, did I love this movie, so much so that it managed to crack my Top 25 of 2014. There is something about a pale young woman walking around in the dark wearing a full-length black chador that just freaks me out and makes me giddy all at once. The Girl (with no name apparently) is played by the hypnotic Sheila Vand, and she lurks in the shadows of a place called Bad City, which I'm guessing is doubling for a location in Iran, based on the dwellings, the fact that everyone speaks Farsi, and because the film is the stunning feature debut of Iranian-American director (and former rock musician) Ana Lily Amirpour.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is a film shot in crisp black-and-white and takes advantage of the location's shadowy angles and minimal street lighting. We follow the handsome young Arash (Arash Marandi) as he attempts to make ends meet while taking care of his junkie father, who can barely stand up, let alone leave their small dwelling. His only true possession is a sweet muscle car that he drives with such pride. While attempting to negotiate with the local drug dealer, he is forced to give up the car for money owed for his father's drugs. Meanwhile, The Girl patrols the night, and has been watching Arash closely.
I don't think I'm giving anything away (the film has been around the festival and art house circuits since it premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival) by saying that The Girl is a "selective" vampire, only appearing to select victims who are less worthy of living, by her standards. For example, she allows the drug dealer/pimp (Diminic Rains) to think that he has drawn her into his lair, and then she butchers him; you get the idea. And in this town of dirt bags and dark alleys (hell, the score sounds like a dusty '60s Spaghetti Western), she has quite a lot of potential food sources. Naturally our male and female heroes begin to develop feelings for each other, and find ways to protect the other as a result.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is a rare example where style and substance walk hand in hand in equal measure. The sheer level of cool reminded me a great deal of Jim Jarmusch's ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (which ranked in my Top 15), but this particular approach to the vampire myth is fairly original and certainly hasn't been this lovingly photographed (courtesy of cinematographer Lyle Vincent) in quite some time.
To only talk about plot is to miss the point of this visual masterwork from Amirpour. But there are just as many silly touches that add a real charm to the proceedings. For example, The Girl's taste in music made me smile many times over. She also sometimes coasts around the city on a skateboard, which is covered by her garment, making it appear that she is gliding over the ground. And I haven't even mentioned Atti (Mozhan Marnò), apparently the city's only prostitute, whom The Girl hasn't quite made up her mind about. The film is dripping with mood and atmosphere, but it's also the story of a young (-looking) woman just trying to find her place (and a steady blood supply) in the world. That's how I like my vampire stories.
PELICAN DREAMS If you see a whole lot of films in a given year, especially documentaries, you're bound to stumble upon a few directed by hippies. That's not a judgement call (unless you hate hippies), but it's clear that in many of these nature-oriented docs that the prevailing belief is that nature and animals can do no wrong and human beings are terrible, destructive murder machines. That doesn't necessarily mean the film will be bad, but when it is, it's often unbearable. One of the great hippie-made works in recent years was director Judy Irving's THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL, which was something of a hit in the doc world.
With her latest film, PELICAN DREAMS, Irving traces to path of a wayward California brown pelican named GiGi (short for Golden Gate) that somehow ended up on the Golden Gate Bridge a couple years ago. We follow the bird's care and rehab, and Irving gives us just enough history on Pacific migratory patterns, nesting, and how global warming is throwing off many birds' senses. If all of this sounds a little too warm and feathery, you probably won't enjoy this particular slice of nature. But there is something charming and moving about how passionate Irving and those that she interviews are about caring for these pelicans and eventually sending them back into the wild.
During the course of her following Gigi's path, Irving also meets Morro, whose wing injury is so severe that it will never fly again, which often means putting the animal down. That scenario adds an entirely different depth and drama to PELICAN DREAMS that I wasn't expecting. So often in films about nature or the environment, the message is more vague about the dangers and risks of not caring for the planet, and certainly the solutions to the problem are often even more unfocused. But Irving knows what she's doing, and by putting faces and names to the problems of protecting rare birds and the importance of wildlife in our lives, audiences will be able to make connections, which is sometimes all it takes.
Admittedly, sometimes Irving's tone (both as the visual storyteller and narrator) is a little too much like your mom telling you to eat your kale salad for lunch, but the beautifully awkward mannerisms of the pelicans are endlessly fascinating. There's an intimacy and grace to the way the film is shot, and if you don't mind the message being driven home rather pointedly, you might get drawn into PELICAN DREAMS.
VIVA LA LIBERTA (LONG LIVE FREEDOM) In the last few years, I've marveled at the recent works of Italian actor Toni Servillo in works like GOMORRAH, IL DIVO, DORMANT BEAUTY, and the Oscar-winning THE GREAT BEAUTY. While only 55 years old, he is often called upon to play men much older, while still being asked to keep that spark of youth in their eyes. In his latest effort (at least the latest to hit stateside), VIVA LA LIBERTA, Servillo plays wildly unpopular political party leader Enrico Oliveri, who is on the verge of a complete mental meltdown as a result of his party and the rest of the country turning against him. On the eve of a major speech that is supposed to spell out the future of his party, Enrico get the hell out of Dodge and heads for France, where old lover Danielle (the luminous Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is working alongside her movie director husband Mung (Eric Nguyen). Without explaining much, Enrico asks if he may hide out with them until he gets his head on straight enough to return to public life.
Left leaderless, the party heads are ready to move on without Enrico, but his top aide Andrea Bottini (Valerio Mastandrea) uses a healthy combination of stall tactics and out-of-the-box thinking to come up with an impossible plan to stall things long enough for Enrico to return. He tracks down Enrico's estranged, bipolar twin brother Giovanni (also Servillo), recently released from a mental hospital, to pose as Enrico. The plan is to feed Giovanni just enough lines to sound like his brother without saying anything radical, but Giovanni is slightly crazy and quite opinionated, and he goes on an honesty rant that promises a new direction for the party that stirs up the party loyal in the best possible way. He also starts to become the most popular politician in the country. Even Enrico's wife (Michela Cescon) likes him better.
Obviously, VIVA LA LIBERTA isn't meant to be taken seriously, but at the same time as a biting satire, it's committed enough to make the film an interesting study on Italian politics, courtesy of writer-director Roberto Andò (who also wrote the novel on which the film is based). The problem is, while Giovanni is riling up the masses, Enrico is busy attempting to seduce his ex-girlfriend under the nose of her husband. The man most in need of life lessons isn't paying any attention to what his brother is up to. The film doesn't have quite the sting it needs to be memorable or important as a BEING THERE-type work (or even Ivan Reitman's DAVE).
Servillo does a remarkable job creating two distinct personalities who look almost completely identical (one has gone totally grey), but the story simply isn't compelling enough to recommend VIVA LA LIBERTA as anything more than a political trifle that tries to turn into a sappy story about something resembling redemption. The parts I enjoyed, I did so because I love these actors so much, but certainly not because the film was pushing any vital buttons.