Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

A slow-burning meditation on the relationships between men and women disguised as an obsessive police procedural, Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia plays out like Andrei Tarkovsky’s CSI: Ankara, a two and a half hour epic about a parade of cops and killers trawling the remote hillsides around a rural town, searching for a murder victim’s corpse.

Outlining the plot takes substantially less effort than the commitment and attention Ceylan’s film requires. After an unhurried preamble that introduces us to a man about to die, the story opens with a static shot of a convoy of three cars winding along a rough country road at night, their headlights streaming across a grassy hillside. The three cars contain a stern group of middle-aged men, including Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), Police Commissioner Naci (Yilmax Erdogan) and hospital Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner). In the back of the police car, they have a grim, bruised prisoner, the self-confessed killer Kenan (Firat Tanis). Kenan, who barely speaks, has agreed to lead the policemen to the corpse, but is having trouble remembering the exact location. There is a tree, he says, and a stream beside a field. But there are a lot of trees and streams and fields. The search will take all night.

Ceylan uses a three-part structure, with a few short scenes serving as transitions. The convoy visits a series of locations in the rural hinterland before they take a break at a small village. There, they all sit around in circles eating a meal as the local mayor fills their ears with requests for funds to help modernise the village. The final act brings the convoy back to town, and the sterile halls of the hospital, where the doctor, his cantankerous assistant and a police recorder undertake a lengthy post-mortem, dissecting the body they have disinterred, and the events we have just watched.

This description might make Once Upon a Time in Anatolia sound prosaic, even dull, but this is a film so delicate that any attempt to analyze it might, like an archaeologist digging through an Egyptian tomb, cause everything to crumble into dust. Ceylan’s screenplay (co-written with his wife Ebru and his Three Monkeys screenwriter Ercan Kesal) contains a whole world of suggestion, forcing the audience to piece together the tiny details of everything that came before. What appears to be a simple cop story evolves into a complex, multi-layered human drama, a compelling examination of Turkish manhood and a cutting critique of an economically depressed country on the cusp of European assimilation. Ceylan constructs his film through a careful accretion of terse exchanges, quick glances, gestures and passing moments that remain suggestions, implying a story far deeper and darker than the one being told.

What ties the three sections together is the introduction of a female presence into this all-male world. In the first sequence, the police captain’s wife calls him on his mobile to remind him of an errand while later the prosecutor tells the doctor a story about a woman of his acquaintance who prophesied her own death. In the second section, a bridge between night and day, a beautiful girl emerges from a house in the village to send each of the men into a stunned reverie, underlined by a quick shot of a burning lamp surrounded by moths. Finally, in the concluding part, the victim’s wife appears at the hospital to witness his post mortem, her stoic silence acting as a blank wall against which Ceylan bounces a series of unanswerable questions.

This mature, involving and endlessly fascinating drama was a deserved winner of last year’s Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix. Ceylan the visual stylist places his characters in a spectacularly moody nocturnal landscape, but it is the emotional resonant characters and the inquisitive performances that are the most compelling. The questions continue long after the credits roll.

John Carter

Given that it’s based on a groundbreaking work of early science fiction, it comes as no surprise that Disney’s 3D adventure based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, John Carter carries an musty air of pastiche; being a hodgepodge of elements that have been borrowed by every fantasy filmmaker in the hundred years since it was first published.

As directed by Andrew Stanton, the story opens in 1881 with Burrough’s himself as a young man (played by Daryl Sabara) inheriting the estate of his recently deceased uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). Among his effects, Burroughs finds a leather-bound journal that tells a story of interplanetary travel, war, romance and heroism that seems, extraordinarily, to be a true account. Carter was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, brought West after the peace to prospect for gold. No sooner does he discover a cave full of nuggets than he is mysteriously transported to another realm: the planet Mars, which the locals call Barsoom.

There, blessed with super-strength thanks to the lower gravity, Carter meets the Tharks; a race of green-skinned, six-armed creatures who are struggling in a thousand-year war. Their adversaries are the technologically advanced Zodangans, whose arrogant leader Sab Than (Dominic West), has just acquired a new weapon of mass destruction from a shape-shifting, blue-skinned demi-god known as Matai Shang (and played by Mark Strong). The third faction in the battle for Barsoom are the Jeddak (Ciaran Hinds) and his beautiful daughter Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who are looking for a hero to unite them against the belligerent Zodangans. They find their man in Carter, with the bemused Earthman quickly cast as the chosen one and leading the united forces of the planet in a quest for peace.

Stanton, who directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E and had a hand in writing all three Toy Story features, follows his Pixar colleague Brad Bird in moving from the elevated world of gorgeous, rightly-lauded digital animation to the hustle and bustle of the live-action cattle-market. Despite the presence of novelist Michael Chabon among the scriptwriters, dramatic coherence loses out to visual flair with the result that John Carter is more a series of thunderous incidents than a gracefully composed story. The time and patience required to thread a route through a troika of warring factions, a rogue’s gallery of good guys and bad guys, a mystical back-story and an interplanetary romance is sacrificed for another jumpy effects sequence or 3D wow. There is too much going on and little of it makes much sense on a single viewing.

All this means John Carter is more of a passing diversion than an immersive experience. Stanton has all the technological bells and whistles that a reported $250 million budget can buy, but he struggles to carve any meaning out of his pretty effects. The characters remain broad types, the plot is confused and saggy while the essential otherworldly nature of Carter’s adventure is never given a moment to settle. It says a lot when, having waited his turn for a century, we still don’t know much about our eponymous hero after two hours of extravagant spectacle. Fittingly perhaps, for a film set on Mars, there is a distinct lack of atmosphere, with the director eschewing the usual flame-red Mars template for something that looks like what it is; a snag-toothed yellow desert straight from a John Ford western.

Taking the lead role for the first time, Kitsch is entirely convincing as a rippling action hero, with his straggly hair, tattered loincloth and nipples that follow you around the room like the Laughing Cavalier’s eyes. He meets his match with Collins, a capable, courageous heroine with unconventional looks and a whip-smart mind, whose skimpy costumes might come to define puberty for a generation of teenage boys (if any of them actually go to see it) in the same way as Carrie Fisher did in Star Wars thirty years ago. The secondary characters are well delivered; Strong is good as the monkish puppet-master pulling the strings on planetary politics, Hinds does extremely well to overcome a pantomime costume and reams of explanatory dialogue while Prufroy adds a winning smirk to his otherwise perfunctory factotum.

The nagging thought remains that if Disney believed John Carter was good enough to fight for a spot in the crowded, lucrative summer marketplace, we wouldn’t be watching it in the chill damp of March. There's also something disconcerting about their decision to truncate the title, removing "from Mars" and making their hero indistinguishable from a geography teacher or, according to Google, the heroic hospital doctor Noah Wyle played on E.R. Regardless of all their tinkering, what Disney has on it's hands is a pretty decent sci-fi action picture, targeted at but unsold to the middle-teen market, that contains some intriguing ideas, gutsy performances and a few enduring moments, mostly from the special effects work. John Carter could have been much more: the story could have been more clearly deliniated, the effects work could have been cleaner, it could have been more exciting and Stanton could have made us care something for his characters. It’s no classic but neither is it a fiasco. Not out of this world, then.

This Means War

It’s only March but This Means War is already the frontrunner to be the worst film of the year. One thing is for certain, 2012 has nowhere to go but up.

A tuneless cover version of Francois Truffaut’s classic love-triangle Jules et Jim, the latest brain-numbing romantic comedy from Charlie’s Angels director McG plays out like an ultraviolent toothpaste commercial; visually ugly, politically gruesome and desperately unfunny. In fact, the only thing that McG does right is to cower behind his abbreviated moniker. If you made films this bad, you wouldn’t want people to know your real name either.

The Jules character is known as F.D.R. (Chris Pine), while the Jim is Tuck (Tom Hardy). They are best friends and co-workers at the CIA, who seem to spend every waking moment together. Reese Witherspoon plays bubbly blonde Lauren, a lonely-hearted singleton who signs up for a dating website and attracts the malignant attention of the two emotionally-arrested agents. She doesn’t know that they are CIA agents and best friends and are fighting each other for her amorous attentions. Also unbeknownst to Lauren, they are using sophisticated espionage technology in order to more accurately pitch their woo.

They tap her phone, install listening devices in her home, trawl through her private records and track her every move using hidden cameras and satellites. Having diverted the vast resources of the CIA into gathering a bank of information, the two men then sit and watch each other trying to seduce the young woman, eavesdropping as she gets advice from her exhausted-looking friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Not only is their behaviour immoral and illegal, it’s inordinately time consuming, even in terms of the shiny, brutal fantasy world that McG strains to invoke. But worse, all this supposedly fun snooping about takes Witherspoon’s already ridiculous character and turns her into nothing more than a target for well-equipped stalkers. And that’s just creepy.

As all of this is going on, F.D.R. and Tuck become embroiled in a vendetta waged by grim-faced European bank robber Heinrich (a scowling Til Schweiger) in a sub-plot that does nothing but provide a hint that there is a world outside the over-designed halls of their CIA office. An opening shoot-out between the tuxedo-clad agents and Heinrich’s heavily-armed goons is staged in a manner that is both logically implausible and visually incoherent; the latter deficiency intended to disguise the former. If these sequences weren’t there, nobody would miss them, with the added advantage that the film would be about thirty minutes shorter.

This Means War sees modern romance as a battlefield where there is no such thing as personal space or privacy, where aggressive bullying is mistaken for charm, gunplay is confused with foreplay and women are reduced to prey. These characters are not people, or even action-movie exaggerations, but toothy zombies with short skirts, rippling biceps and itchy trigger fingers. Their dialogue is a blithe catalogue of lies. Their smiles are artificially whitened and their eyes have been carefully brightened by some diabolical software programme, but their hearts remain pitch black. In one scene, the two goons team up for an operation and end up assassinating about a dozen people between them. They saunter away from the bullet-strewn mayhem without a care in the world, cheerfully discussing their ongoing plans for romantic capture. The fantasy being conjured here is not love, or even sex, but death without consequences.

Witherspoon’s character works for a company that conducts market research on new products. As a kind of consumer advocate myself, be warned that This Means War is not fit for purpose and, in fact, contains such corrosive poison it might eat away at your soul.


Anyone who followed the TV series The Shield will be familiar with the basic premise of Rampart, written by crime novelist James Elroy and directed by Oren Moverman, based on a real-life corruption scandal that shattered the reputation of the Los Angeles Police Department in the late 1990s when a squad of police officers assigned to investigate gangs became gangsters themselves. Moverman’s film doesn’t even attempt to tell that story (which took The Shield seven seasons to unravel), but employs the mood of distrust and disgrace as a backdrop for a sun-kissed noir, familiar yet jarringly strange.

Renegade Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a racist, violent scofflaw in a crisp blue uniform who enforces what he calls a “military occupation” on the multicultural streets of East LA. His home life is equally idiosyncratic. Dave lives in bohemian comfort in two neighbouring suburban houses: one occupied by his estranged wife (Anne Heche) and the other by his ex-wife (Cynthia Nixon), who happens to be his wife’s sister, and their two daughters.

Cruising the streets in his shiny patrol car, smoking endless cigarettes and swigging occasionally from a bottle of whiskey, Dave imagines himself as a kind of Wild West sheriff, imposing harsh order on the chaos of the city, when in reality he is a rabid dog who has been let off the leash. When he is filmed by a passerby beating a Hispanic man half to death, Dave is hauled before the authorities (represented by cameos from Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi) where he brazenly claims to have been acting in self-defence.

It’s not Dave’s first time to get into trouble and he knows the disciplinary procedures intimately, cleverly negotiating his way through the cracks until he glimpses an escape route. Constantly popping the pills he extorts from a local chemist, Dave holds hushed summits with a retired veteran cop (Ned Beatty), who tips him on ways to steal money. He starts an affair with a lawyer (Robin Wright), even though she has been sent to bring him to justice and stages a series of angry confrontations with a fellow policeman (Ice Cube) who believes he has gathered enough evidence to finally throw Dave off the force.

Ellroy and Moverman are more concerned with crafting a character than negotiating their way through a plot, sometimes to the detriment of the film. The story leaps from moment to moment, arranging Dave’s misdeeds in an untidy pile, primarily so we can get a sense of how power wielded by the unworthy can be so dangerous. Moverman directs the film as if he had shot bits and sequences without any conception of his final structure, content to trail Harrelson as he interacts, briefly, with a gathered cast of shadowy secondary players. None of them stick around long enough to make much of an impression, as they all fall victim to Moverman’s scattershot style. The pieces could be shuffled around in any order without making much difference to the storyline. A scene with Harrelson, Weaver and Buscemi is ruined by the director’s awkward camera movement, the tension evaporating as the viewer is distracted, while later, the introduction of Ice Cube’s righteous policeman’s policeman is sidelined into a short series of dead ends.

Despite the film’s flaws, Harrelson gives a performance of extraordinary power as the dirty cop at the centre of an unravelling system, the most compelling anti-hero cop since Denzel Washington in Training Day. He seems to thrive among the snatches and snippets of story, crafting a character whose worldview was formed by his father, a policeman in the LA of the 1950s, who taught him to shoot first and avoid questions later. With his glinting sunglasses and vulpine smile, Harrelson brings both a nervy intensity and cocky self-confidence to his unsentimental performance. Dave is an unrepentant monster and a dark-hearted villain but he is only as warped and corrupt as the society that allows him to prosper.