Thursday, May 7, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: MR. TURNER (2014) and WINTER SLEEP (2014)

(UK/France/Germany - 2014)

Since his 1988 breakthrough HIGH HOPES, Mike Leigh has become one of the most distinctive voices in British cinema. In the years since, his credits read like a list of essential British films of the last quarter century: LIFE IS SWEET (1990), the shockingly misanthropic NAKED (1993), SECRETS & LIES (1996), TOPSY-TURVY (1999), VERA DRAKE (2004), HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (2008), and ANOTHER YEAR (2010) are generally considered great films to varying degrees, and even comparatively minor Leigh works like CAREER GIRLS (1997) and ALL OR NOTHING (2002) are very much worthwhile. I guess every great filmmaker has to have an off day, and with MR. TURNER, Leigh has delivered his first genuine misfire, though considering its current 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I'm clearly in the minority with that sentiment. A lethargic, coma-inducing biopic that focuses on the last 25 years in the life of famed British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and feels like it's being told in real time, MR. TURNER offers the great character actor and Leigh regular Timothy Spall the opportunity for the role of a lifetime, but after 30 or so minutes, his endless grunting, snorting, and harumphing in lieu of actual sentences--and when he does talk, you can barely understand him--gets old and there's still two tedious hours to go. Leigh has a method to his filmmaking that works for his small, intimate character studies: he brings his cast together for weeks or even months of improvisation and workshopping, collaborating as a team to develop the characters, their backstories, and their arcs, and from that, Leigh constructs a script and then the film is made. It's a system that has always worked but utterly fails him here. All Spall has is the tics and the mannerisms and they become a crutch because there's no narrative drive to MR. TURNER whatsoever.

It opens in the middle of the action and it's a good 45 minutes before you've worked out who's who and where they fit in Turner's world. It's all for naught because all Leigh presents is a series of vignettes and snapshots, jumping around the last two decades of Turner's life as characters drift in and out of view. It should be a perfect showcase for Spall, but it always ends up with Turner finding some inspiration for a landscape painting, then treating people like garbage--he has two children he doesn't acknowledge with a former mistress (Ruth Sheen) he ignores, and that mistress' psoriasis-stricken niece (Dorothy Atkinson) works as Turner's housekeeper and is routinely mounted from behind by her grunting, slobbering boss when he feels the urge. Turner has fleeting moments where he's a sensitive, caring individual in his own peculiar, grunty way, whether in his close relationship with his father (Paul Jesson is very good) or later, when he falls in love with his widowed landlady (Marion Bailey), but generally, he's a bastard, and maybe Leigh wants to make a point about the divide between the beauty of his art and the darkness of his soul. Unfortunately, it's lost amidst a guttural cacophony of snorts and gurgles that turn Spall's performance into a hammy and constipated embarrassment, regardless of how accurate the portrayal may be, and once Turner's father dies around an hour in, the film loses Jesson and its biggest source of warmth and humanity. Turner may be a great artist, but there's little here to suggest--at least in Leigh's unbearably monotonous presentation--that he's an interesting subject for a two-and-a-half hour film. By contrast, Turner's clashes with rival painter Benjamin Robert Haydon--and Martin Savage's performance in the role--bring a too-infrequent spark to the proceedings and definitely lead one to conclude that perhaps Haydon would've been a more interesting and cinematic subject for Leigh to pursue. Despite the beautiful, Oscar-nominated cinematography by Dick Pope--Academy Awards president Cheryl Boone Isaacs mispronouncing his name "Dick Poop" at the announcing of the nominees is more memorable than anything in the actual film--MR. TURNER is a shockingly empty and unfocused work from a great filmmaker, a tortuously, frustratingly dawdling 150-minute endurance test whose maddeningly molasses pacing is slower than any Merchant-Ivory film. (R, running time: endless)

(Turkey/France/Germany - 2014)

WINTER SLEEP is 45 minutes longer than MR. TURNER, and while it actually feels shorter than Leigh's film, it's still too much by at least an hour. The Palme d'Or winner at last year's Cannes Film Festival--a decision that suggests the Jane Campion-led jury was possibly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome--WINTER SLEEP, loosely based on the Chekhov short story "The Wife," is the latest from Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan and demonstrates very much the same visual aesthetic of his 2011 masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA. It's also more self-indulgently bloated than it has any reason to be, with significant stretches of time devoted to escalating arguments between characters who make their point and keep circling back and restating those points for no other reason than to pad the film's absurd length, coming in at just under 200 minutes. In a performance with a demeanor and mannerisms that frequently recall Robert De Niro, Haluk Bilginer is Aydin, a one-time actor and now de facto town leader, landlord, and owner of the Hotel Othello, an unusual hotel carved into the side of a mountain. He fancies himself a benevolent and important figure but his arrogance is alienating everyone, including his much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen). He owns all the property and writes a newspaper column that nobody reads, and tries to horn his way into Nihal's charity work for a local school, which she resents, accusing him of ignoring her requests to help improve the school for the last year and then swooping in to take all the credit at the end. He also claims to be busy working on a book about the history of Turkish theater, even though there's no demand and his blunt sister Necla (Demet Akbag) says he's only writing because he pontificates and loves the sound of his own voice. It's essentially a three-plus-hour horse pill that follows a not very likable person with an inflated sense of self-importance, both subtly and overtly denigrating everyone, and while there are some undeniably strong moments, both visually and with the work of the actors, it's just an exhausting experience. Riding high on the acclaim bestowed upon ANATOLIA, Ceylan just lets WINTER SLEEP go on and on and on to the point where he's like Michael Douglas' Grady Tripp in WONDER BOYS--he just doesn't know where to stop. You can probably zone out for several stretches of the film and still not miss anything in the way of plot development. By the interminable last hour, where Aydin leaves and Nihal tries to make amends with a local drunkard (Nejat Isler) who clashed with Aydin and his employee Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) early on, I have to admit that I was pretty much over it. WINTER SLEEP is well-made, beautifully shot, powerfully acted, and Ceylan is obviously a major international talent, but maybe he shouldn't read so much of his own press next time. (Unrated, 197 mins)

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