#352: Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (2012)


There are not enough superlatives in the world that would let me aptly describe Once Upon a Time In Anatolia. A Grand Jury prize winner at Cannes, the sixth feature from Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a deeply involving existential crime-drama. Both bleak and beautiful, the picture is just so rich, the words so stunning and the acting beyond comparison.

At it’s crudest, Once Upon a Time In Anatolia is a film about redemption, mercy and misery. It starts at dusk, with a group of men venturing into the Turkish countryside to find the body of a murder victim. It’s an odd group, comprised of a police chief and his officers, a public prosecutor, a doctor, some diggers, guards, the confessed killer Kenan (Ferat Tanis) and his mentally challenged younger brother, Ramazan (Burhan Yildiz). Driving across the barren landscape, Kenan is awfully reticent, unable to recall the exact place where the body is kept. He also doesn’t seem like the conventional killer: timid, polite he’s even reduced to tears on three separate occasions throughout this torturous night. Whether they are tears of regret or genuine sorrow is up to the audience to judge.

The night drags on into dawn, and the men grow increasingly frustrated. Taking respite in the shanty house of a village mayor during an electrical power cut, the group drop in and out of sleep, haunted by an image of the mayor’s beautiful, candlelit daughter. When morning breaks, the search for a body becomes a hunt for something far more intangible. Beneath the desolation, car headlights, expressionistic shadows and treacherous ravines is the pursuit for masculinity and the buried secrets the men are carrying on heavy, tired shoulders.

What’s so striking in Anatolia is Ceylan and his co-writers – brother Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesel (who plays the village mayor) – are able to shift so gracefully between profound, poetical dialogue, to the slapstick, the mystical, satirical and the genuinely haunting. Very early on in their pursuit, some of the men irreverently natter in the car about the difference between buffalo yoghurt and cheese; followed by the more prescient, harrowing image of a face carved into rock, a totem of sorts from the ancient tribe who once roamed this squalid land. Even at a staggering 2.5 hours running time, Ceylan has an incredible ability to keep us enthralled and guessing where the film will take us next.

Just like Iranian maestro Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, and the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, location in Anatolia becomes it’s own sort of character. With the beautiful cinematography of Gökhan Tiryaki, one of the film’s most memorable moments is it’s smallest: two long takes of an apple falling off a tree, rolling across the desert and floating away down a stream, to the sounds of the Prosecutor and stern police chief arguing. Perhaps it’s symbolism on the brevity of life in contemporary, emasculated Turkey, or maybe it’s just a pretty little aside from the heavy drama elsewhere. Whilst Ceylan is first and foremost a storyteller, his intricate framing makes us look at the world anew, not dissimilar from activist Godfrey Reggio’s visual essays, The Qatsi Trilogy.

Subtle framing meets the subtle delights of the onscreen performers. Whilst there is no central character, Taner Birsel is so captivating as ‘The Prosecutioner’; a man trying to document the truth of the murder case, whilst wrestling with the unspoken truths of his past. He’s also very funny too, breaking the dour tone with jokes about how he was once told he resembled Clark Gable. Poetical once again, even as the most distinguished member of the group, he can’t help but wish he were somewhere else other than in this purgatorial situation.

Yes, Anatolia is long and moves at a glacial pace, the middle act is confusing and the Turkish political allegory will certainly slip through the brains of the uninitiated (i.e. me). It’s difficult cinema, but why should art cinema be easy?

Ceylan has an unmatched ability to render down the audience, to test us, and even lead us to question his own creative intentions. Once we get to the film’s revealing, yet still ambiguous closing moments, he reels us back in, the credits roll, and it’s impossible to deny his genius.

IMDb / Trailer

#207: Hard Eight (Sydney) (1996)

This is a very fucked-up situation.

Although he may refute the title, Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the finest auteurs working in cinema today. With diverse story lines ranging from The Golden Age of Porn in Boogie Nights, to the 19th century oil boom of America in There Will Be Blood, the one thing that is synonymous with all of his work is a stress on comprehensive character development. It’s an almost terrifying quality for a filmmaker to obtain; creating characters which transcend primary emotions and reach more realism and fragility than most people I know outside of the movie hall. Hard Eight is PTA’s forgotten debut, with ensemble characters that rank at the top of his flawless career.

It all opens with an observant, twenty-minute prologue. Sharp-suited elder gent Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) approaches a disheveled, young brute named John (John C. Reilly), outside a roadside diner. Sydney invites John to join him for a cup of coffee, cigarette and conversation. With the testy John loosening up, he details that he’s on his way back from Vegas, after trying to win enough to bury his mother and failing drastically. Sydney thinks his intentions are admirable, and offers him a once in a life time opportunity to come back to Vegas and learn how to win back his pride and cash. After some convincing, the two set off in the sunset with dollar signs in their eyes, arriving in the glitzy Sin City and start rolling dice.

The rest of Hard Eight takes place two years later in Reno, when Sydney and John are surrogate father and son. Hanging out in gambling dives, their game gets more complicated with the arrival of a love interest in trashy casino waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and John’s seedy security enforcer buddy Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) brought into the fold.

Although it might not hit the three-hour running time of MagnoliaAnderson stays true to formula and doesn’t rush things in Hard Eight. During the first half, virtually nothing happens, with characters getting to know each other for the first time just like the audience is. Hall is fantastic as the laconic and comfortingly stoic Sydney, perfectly matched with the underrated Reilly marvellously portraying the lost man child at his side. Paltrow brings the melodrama as the femme fatale destined to mess things up, and even Samuel L. ‘I’m the luckiest bad-actor in the world’ Jackson gives perfect comic relief as the straight-talking Jimmy. These are four very strongly presented, contrasting characters working harmoniously together, with such patient exposition leading into the noir-like second half building the momentum to the film’s fatal conclusion.

The movie flaunts fluid cinematography by Robert Elswit, who manages a few dazzling tracking shots, which also will become a staple of Anderson today. And aside from those onscreen performances and glorious display, the original music score from Michael Penn and PTA-regular Jon Brion is diverse and engrossing; with the glamorous casinos soundtracked by lounge muzak which is both familiar and unnerving. This audio-visual interplay reveals the films themes of despair and loneliness, with all four characters gambling their stagnant lifestyles in a chance to get that one last big win.

Even with it’s downtrodden atmosphere and zingy crime-caper dialogue, Hard Eight doesn’t quite resonate through time alongside Paul Thomas Anderson’s exceptional body of work. Light on plotting, big on moody personality, it is ostensibly an accomplished debut feature from a filmmaker with an eye and heart for great cinema.

IMDb it.

Hard Eight is available on DVD & Blu-ray in all good stores. You’ll probably find it streaming on NetFlix/Hulu too, if you’re lucky.


  1. Anderson’s offbeat drama Punch Drunk Love from 2002 is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Check out my very brief, six-star review.
  2. His upcoming film is scheduled for release in October. From the clips online, it looks absolutely fucking incredible.

#202: Terribly Happy (2007)

Cheer up, chumps

A big city  marshal arrives in a desolate country village. Meanwhile, the locals gather at the saloon, terrified by the town bully, who struts around adorning a cowboy hat, a bolo tie and a mean moustache. It soon becomes clear that the marshal and the bully are headed for a showdown. The makings of a spaghetti Western, Henrik Ruben Genz takes the conventions of the well-worn genre and creates a stylish noir, relying heavily on its offbeat, dour atmosphere for cheap thrills.

For a start, that marshal is no pious hero. Robert Hanson (Jakob Cedergren) is a Copenhagen police offer who, after suffering a nervous breakdown on the beat, is transferred to the tiny hamlet in Southern Jutland to lay low and cool off. Unfortunately for him, Robert has been transferred to one seriously weird town. Filled with people scuttling around in fear, suspicious of their fellow inhabitants roaming the deserted streets, it’s clear right from the off – except for our naive marshall, of course – that this town isn’t short of skeletons in the closet, or in ‘the bog’ lying on the outskirts.

Ruling above it all, there’s Jorgen (Denmark’s go-to menace to society Kim Bodnia), the pest who beats his wife Ingerlise (Lena Maria Christensen) and children in full view of the rest of the town, confident that nobody will stop him. Hanson, seemingly as the only voice of reason, tries to get in the way of the couple’s sticky relationship, which will only lead to more village tension, anxiety and bloodshed.

Directed and co-written by Henrik Ruben Genz, Terribly Happy tries terribly hard to squeeze a comic thriller out of his dinky little setup. The characters are intentionally stupid, but the writing isn’t necessarily smarter. The main problem of illogicality is our main man himself. Cedergren doesn’t have the figurative balls to own the screen as a bad-ass cop, not to mention his every move defying common sense, especially after we discover the cause of his breakdown. There are few signs of a broken psyche and hints of hokey existentialism, but you can stumble into the narrative potholes a mile-off.

If the film achieves anything successfully, it’s in recalling the far superior Coen brothers’ debut Blood Simple. Using a concoction of jokes and horror in a film noir vein, the movies share a dimwitted, horny lawman, a wandering wife, and a vile husband, partial to wearing cowboy hats.  Blood Simple. had visual personality and a devoted atmosphere of dirt and suspense, Terribly Happy is nothing more than a cheap imitation. A torturous watch, mercilessly eating away at it’s excessive running time and the audiences’ patience. Terrible it is. Happy it ain’t.

IMDb it.

#184: Chacun son Cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema) (2007)

Take to your seats.

Presented at the glitzy 60th Cannes Film Festival in 2007, Chacun son Cinéma is an unsurprisingly tumultuous omnibus feature. With 34 three minute shorts shorts from 36 directors, it also feels a bit too crowbarred for a single 100-minute presentation.

With festival director Gilles Jacob challenging each director to create a short which somehow describes “their state of mind of the moment as inspired by the motion picture theatre, it’s fascinating to see these international auteur’s explore their devotion to cinema restricted to a measly time restraint. With little time for exposition or pretty much anything else, I was hoping for pure cinema, but instead I got 34 short homage films featuring cinema halls. Close, but no Croisette.

There’s a great deal of shorts to like here. Brazil’s Walter Salles’ 5,557 Miles From Cannes is at tuneful riff on Cannes elitism. Canadian visionary David Cronenberg morosely explores the futile future of cinema in mini-dystopia flick At the Suicide of the Last Jew In the World In The Last Cinema In the World. Italy’s answer to Woody Allen, Nanni Moretti produces a narrative commentary about his movie-watching history in Diary of a Spectator, which is both breezy and informative. And China’s Wong Kar-Wai’s luscious I Travelled 9000km to Give It To You presents the director’s love for cinema in a sexy new, beautifully coloured light. Oooh, I almost forgot Kiarostami’s Where is My Romeo?; even when given just three minutes, he can still churn out an allegorical mini masterpiece.

Expectedly, when the turkeys do come, they come gobbling. David Lynch’s uninspiringly mysterious Absurda is, even for the master of modern suspense, completely trite. Then there’s France’s most forgiven child molester Roman Polanski pain inducing attempt at comedy with Cinema Erotique. Above and beyond, the worst of them all comes from Britain’s most overrated filmmaker, ‘socio-realist’ Ken Loach’s Happy Ending, a frustrating and superfluous father and son tale starring Bradley Walsh. BRADLEY FUCKING WALSH!

The subheading of the programme translates roughly as Or That Thrill When The Lights Dim And The Movie Begins. Although these projects may come from a passionate place, there’s not a lot of love or willingness to thrill in the projects individually. There’s also no space (or, let’s face it, time) to represent the artistic license which these lauded directors have accumulated over their career’s.

An exercise in industry back-patting, Chacun son Cinéma attempts to present the world’s film artist arsenal in all it’s glory, but ends up feeling like a lightweight pet-project. Still, as far as omnibus movies go, it’s much better than Paris Je t’aimeBut then again, so is everything.

As an overall, 100 minute film….


IMDb it.

If you were interested, here’s details on all 33 shorts, with individual star scores out of six. A lot of them can found on YouTube.

OPEN-AIR CINEMA- Raymond Depardon – 2/6
ONE FINE DAY- Takeshi Kitten – 3/6
THREE MINUTES- Theo Angelopoulos – 5/6
IN THE DARK- Andrei Konchalovsky  – 5/6
DIARY OF A SPECTATOR – Nanni Moretti – 5/6
DARKNESS- Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne – 3/6
WORLD CINEMA – The Coen Brothers – 5/6
ANNA- Alejandro González Iñárritu – 3/6
ABSURDA – David Lynch– 1/6
MOVIE NIGHT- Zhang Yimou – 4/6
THE DYBBUK OF HAIFA- Amos Gitai – 2/6
THE LADY BUG- Jane Campion – 1/6
ARTAUD DOUBLE BILL –Atom Egoyan – 3/6
THE FOUNDARY- Aki Kaurismäki – 2/6
UPSURGE –Olivier Assayas – 2/6
47 years later- Youssef Chahine – 1/6
IT’S A DREAM- Tsai Ming-Ling – 2/6
OCCUPATIONS- Lars Von Trier – 3/6
THE GIFT- Raul Ruiz – 4/6
FIRST KISS- Gus Van Sant – 1/6
CINEMA EROTIQUE- Roman Polanski – 1/6
NO TRANSLATION NEEDED- Michael Cimino – 2/6
THE WORLD David Cronenberg – 5/6
I TRAVELLED 9000 KM TO GIVE IT TO YOU –Wong Kar Wai – 5/6
WHERE IS MY ROMEO? –Abbas Kiarostami – 5/6
THE LAST DATING SHOW- Bille August – 1/6
IRTEBAK – Elia Suleiman – 2/6
SOLE MEETING –Manoel De Oliveira – 1/6
5.557 MILES FROM CANNES – Walter Salles – 6/6
WAR IN PEACE –Wim Wenders – 2/6
ZHANXIOU VILLAGE- Chen Kaige – 3/6
HAPPY ENDING- Ken Loach – 0/6