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Review: The Wild Pear Tree Richly Weaves the Political and the Personal

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film takes a leisurely approach to narrative that’s both intensely dialogical and transfixingly visual.

3.5

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The Wild Pear Tree
Photo: Cinema Guild

Back in his hometown of Çan in western Turkey, recent college graduate Sinan (Dogu Demirkol) passes under a replica of the Trojan horse that looms over the town square. The kitschy monument to the Çanakkale province’s claim to fame—the region contains the archaeological site of the ancient city-state—is the most fraught metaphor in director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s highly symbolic The Wild Pear Tree. Its presence in the frame points directly toward the dominance of tourism in the economy of Sinan’s provincial hometown. It also foreshadows, more indirectly, his father Idris’s (Murat Cemcir) addiction to horse betting—and, more allusively, suggests the weight of the familial, literary, religious, and political legacies that the disaffected Sinan grapples with in the film.

Brimming over with significance, the Trojan horse is like Ceylan’s film itself, which compellingly, if not efficiently, captures the various forces that shape Sinan’s life, from family obligations to religion to local and global politics. The Wild Pear Tree takes a leisurely approach to narrative that’s both intensely dialogical and transfixingly visual, and one would have as much trouble pegging down its genre as Sinan has describing the eponymous book of essays he’s trying publish. The film contains some four main plotlines that develop and converge through its three-hour runtime. Home for Eid al-Fitr, and with a fresh degree in literature, Sinan meets with local luminaries who might fund his publishing project. While in town, Sinan also has a state teacher’s exam to take, after which he will probably be assigned to a school somewhere in the desolate eastern provinces of Turkey.

Meanwhile, during the week, the kindly but troubled Idris, a primary school teacher, is betting away his salary, which puts his family on the brink of financial ruin. On weekends, Idris escapes to a village outside the city to pursue a pet project on the family’s rural property, digging a well that may never be finished. To little avail, he tries to recruit both his father (Tamer Levent) and son to assist in the probably futile task. In Sinan’s meetings with Çan’s mayor and a local sand-mining magnate, as well as in his initial interactions with his father, he seems for the most part a sympathetic idealist struggling against a complaisant and corrupted older generation. But Ceylan and his co-screenwriters, Akin Aksu and Ebru Ceylan, endow their main character with an arrogant truculence that often undermines his grandstanding. Although his writing allegedly gives voice to life in Çanakkale apart from the area’s storied history, Sinan superciliously demeans the region and pretentiously scorns the writing of a famous local author, Mr. Suleyman (Serkan Keskin).

Sinan’s overt selfishness is sometimes as alienating as it is ironically humorous, but at its root, the confused ambivalence he feels toward his hometown is relatable and grounded. Much of the petulant resentment he exudes is clearly frustration channeled from his inability to fully confront Idris’s disgraceful gambling habit. His mother (Bennu Yildirimlar) alternates between encouraging him to respect his father and chiding him for not doing his part in corralling the man’s compulsive behavior. It’s easy to see why Sinan doesn’t quite have the appreciation for the sights and atmosphere of Çan that cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki’s lush photography does. We often follow Sinan as he walks around the town and its environs, head drooping, while around him the camera highlights the area’s rolling hills and autumnal colors.

Interrupting The Wild Pear Tree’s gradually progressing through lines is a series of extended asides and contemplative tangents that sometimes slip without notice into Sinan’s unconscious mind. His chance encounter with an old crush (Hazar Ergüçlü), a passive-aggressive confrontation with Suleyman after a chance meeting in a book shop, and his friendly debate with two imams about the relation between Islam and the modern world give the film an ambulatory quality. These extended conversations de-emphasize the plot in favor of an exploration of Sinan’s world—and, by extension, life in rural Turkey.

Ceylan’s camera pursues its own fascinating asides, often detaching itself from Sinan to gaze upward through tree branches, to track slowly across the barren field of his family’s rural property, to reframe a scene with a slow zoom, or to jump-cut to another point in a conversation. The camera movements are languid but often jarring, creating hypnotic images that force the viewer’s attention. At points, the film looks not unlike a latter-day Andrei Tarkovsky film, not least because, as in that director’s The Sacrifice, one of its anchoring symbolic images is a dead tree on Idris’s property. The Wild Pear Tree’s stylistic flourishes aren’t deployed only to express Sinan’s state of mind, but also represent, elliptically, the way his subjective experience intermingles with the nature and history of his region.

A rich, textured film, The Wild Pear Tree is ostensibly about patrimony—namely, what sons inherit from and owe to their fathers. In many ways it’s a coming-of-age story, featuring a protagonist whose immature callousness gradually gives way to a more mature openness to his family. But hovering around its margins is the political context of contemporary Turkey, and not just in the many allusions to the tourist industry. Sinan’s resentment toward his family and his hometown is born in part of the economic and social uncertainty faced by a young Turkish man with a degree in the humanities. In one scene, he has a long phone conversation with a fellow literature graduate who’s become a police officer, and the pair laughs about beating student protestors. Ceylan’s implication here might be that, in a country with a destabilizing economy and ongoing educational purges, literary patrimony is being abandoned in favor of brutality and generalized discontent.

Cast: Dogu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir, Bennu Yildirimlar, Hazar Ergüçlü, Serkan Keskin, Tamer Levent Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan Screenwriter: Akin Aksu, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan Distributor: The Cinema Guild Running Time: 189 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Working Woman Is Powerful Testimony to Workplace Sexual Harassment

Michal Aviad’s film forcefully brings home a reality that many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

3.5

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Working Woman
Photo: Zeitgeist Films

The general outline of director Michael Aviad’s Working Woman will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the discussions provoked by Me Too—and familiar to most women professionals, for that matter. An industrious, white-collar working mother finds herself the target of her superior’s unwanted and violating sexual advances, and despite her attempts to vocalize her discomfort, both his relative power and her precarious economic situation stand in the way of her making a clean break. But—and in this way, Aviad’s film isn’t unlike Dan Reed’s Leaving NeverlandWorking Woman is able to forcefully bring home a reality many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

The film captures the unspoken pressures that keep sexual harassment victims silent and force them into situations where it seems almost impossible to say “no” with enough authority to make the harasser stop. Liron Ben-Shlush plays Orna, a young Israeli mother who gets a job working as a personal assistant to Tel Aviv real estate magnate Benny (Menasche Noy). Orna’s husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), runs a fledging restaurant, and their family comes to rely on her income as Ofer’s dream project struggles through its unprofitable first few months. As Benny’s assistant, Orna finds something like a calling: Intelligent and personable, she proves particularly adept at finding buyers for Benny’s under-construction high-rise on Rishon Beach.

It becomes painfully difficult to tell whether Benny’s praise of Orna’s sales acumen is genuine, as he uses his approbation to engineer situations in which, alone with her and unobserved, he can test and violate the professional boundary between them. His harassment of her starts with small comments: In an early scene, he uses a prospective buyer’s orthodoxy and wealth as an excuse to instruct Orna to put her hair down and wear a skirt (“conservative but chic”) to their meeting. The film grows increasingly tense and unsettling as these ambiguous comments—which you can see Orna trying to rationalize as mere professional advice—escalate to full-on assaults. Benny, performatively contrite after the first forced kissed, grows increasingly brazen, ignoring Orna’s obvious indications that she’s uncomfortable with his advances.

Orna’s experiences at work, of course, have an impact on her personal and home life. Her relationship with Ofer is both affectionate and mutually supportive, but Ofer’s support has limits determined by the same sort of toxic masculinity that produces the Bennys of the world: Ofer is unable to view Orna’s work situation outside of the framework of his own concerns, whether it be the restaurant or his supposed rights to her body. Emotionally and financially, Orna is increasingly painted into a corner, and most of this distress goes unspoken; one of the film’s points, of course, is that in such situations there’s no one to turn to.

This means that much of what the film has to communicate, especially for those of us who don’t speak Hebrew, is delivered through Ben-Shlush’s gestures and expressions rather than in dialogue. The actress signifies her character’s dubious acquiescence and repressed revulsion in a gamut of forced smiles and hesitant body language, but Orna never feels like a one-note character—a victim only. Her workplace is a source of pride as well as a threatening space. One can understand her getting caught up in the thrill of making a difficult sell and forgetting that celebration drinks with Benny might be a bad idea. After all, shouldn’t she be able to?

Aviad concentrates us on the physical and psychological details of harassment largely through such communicative performances and precise blocking. There isn’t excessive commentary in the film’s editing: At a crowded birthday party at Benny’s, we notice in subtly composed long shot the way Benny takes her by the hand to introduce her to other attendees (in actuality, we suspect, to separate her from her husband), and doesn’t let go. There’s no close-up of their hands, or on Orna’s face, but we can almost see her squirming on the inside, and can’t help but notice that Benny is refusing to cease physical contact with her.

Working Woman thus becomes a deeply and intentionally unsettling film. Like Benny, the tension creeps up on the viewer, and the stress ratchets up as Orna is forced into more and more impossible circumstances. Many professional women will probably not need Aviad’s film as proxy to relate to that kind of stress, but for those of us who haven’t directly experienced a Benny, the film is a powerful testimony.

Cast: Liron Ben-Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen Director: Michal Aviad Screenwriter: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik, Michal Aviad Distributor: Zeitgeist Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Mary Kay Place on the Emotional Journey of Kent Jones’s Diane

The actress speaks at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character.

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Mary Kay Place
Photo: IFC Films

Diane, the eponymous character of film critic, programmer, and documentarian
Kent Jones’s narrative directorial debut, provides Mary Kay Place with a rare leading role that the character actress inhabits with customary nuance. Diane is a woman grappling with countless burdens, none bigger than her struggle to bridge the gap between herself and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s battling addiction. Place is in every scene of the film, and she’s mesmerizing in each one, for showing how Diane’s routines, from volunteering at a soup kitchen to caring for a dying cousin, takes some kind of toll on her mind.

Place has delivered many memorable performances throughout her long career, most notably in The Big Chill and Manny & Lo. She became reliable for playing folksy, no-nonsense women—often mothers—who’re predisposed to putting others first and leading from the heart. Maybe that’s why Diane felt like a perfect fit for the actress. Throughout Jones’s film, Diane drops by houses and hospital rooms, looking to stay “only but for a minute.” But her business masks a deeper pain and loneliness, and the film allows Kay to bring to the surface certain rhythms that she hasn’t often been allowed to channel in her previous work.

In a recent conversation with Place about Diane, the actress spoke to me at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character, how she expresses her own anger, and why she considers herself a “kitchen dancer.”

Diane is selfless, lonely, ashamed, tough. Do you see yourself in her?

Yes, because she lives in a small community, and my parents came from small towns in Texas, and because I went to these towns my whole life to visit my grandparents with my family. The casserole exchange, and the experiences that take place in small communities—they resonated with me. Many of us in our families have addiction issues; we can all relate to that aspect of Diane. And many of us have said things we regret or feel ashamed about and hold on to, though maybe not for as long as Diane does. As members of her family pass away, that family loss is an initiation into a new dimension of your life. I could relate to that as well. She takes a turn into a deeper exploration of her own needs and wants because she has time to reflect.

Diane’s well-meaning is an attempt to compensate for her failures. Why do you think Diane is the way she is, so hard on herself?

Because some people just are. She’s a sensitive person. She busies herself with lists to distract her from thinking about the things she carries around as a burden. But as the film moves on, she has more time for reflection and goes through a transformation in small, tiny ways.

Much of your performance as Diane is internal. Can you describe your process in playing those moments?

It flowed naturally because of the script. There was an inner dialogue going on and that was reflected on my face. I was aware of subtext. Even though it wasn’t written, my imagination found the rhythm and flow that occurred. Once you get into shooting, being in every scene helped that development. There was an inner and outer dialogue. We go through this whole time period and as she has more time alone and once her son gets sober—that’s a huge weight off her shoulders—she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Diane’s relationship with her son is interesting. He lies to her, he bullies her, and at times she stands up to him. She’s no-nonsense in dealing with him. I’m curious to know your personal thoughts about this dynamic of their relationship?

She’s definitely codependent and enabling her son by doing his laundry. She doesn’t know how to let go. Maybe she’s never been to an Al-Anon meeting—or has and rejected it. So, they have this dynamic, and they feed off each other. They’re hooked in. She’s not able to break free of it.

How do you personally cope with the ups and downs of life?

Well, I do centering prayer, and mindful meditation, exercise. I think the prayer and meditation have always been important coping mechanisms.

There’s a scene in a bar where Diane goes drinking, puts on the jukebox and dances. It made me remember your dancing in the kitchen to “Handyman” in Smooth Talk.

I’m a big kitchen dancer—with other people or by myself. I have all kinds of playlists and I love to dance. I really wanted to do that bar scene. I picked the song—Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”—because it’s fun to dance to, and the lyrics were appropriate for Diane. Kent was game for that. It showed another side of Diane that we hadn’t seen. It was from when she was at a simpler time in her life and didn’t have shameful thoughts and was just out having fun.

We see what makes Diane come undone. So I guess I’m also curious to know what makes you lose your temper or patience?

I come from a family that doesn’t hold things in. We let the freak flag fly and then it’s totally over and done with. Explosions and then we’re through! I lose patience with people being oblivious to the feeling of others, and I have no tolerance for meanness. None. I might lash out, depend on the circumstances—and I can if called upon—but I generally don’t.

Diane appears to be a creature of habit, living a life that consists of routine. Are you in that mold, or more peripatetic or free-spirited?

I’m “both/and” instead of “either/or.” I get real orderly and then I get real spontaneous and have to start all over again. Diane’s driving connects the scenes and shows that monotony that she experiences. Oh my God, we’re back in that car again driving to someone’s house! It’s not a walking community. And it’s a different rhythm driving on country roads than in L.A.

We also see how patient Diane can be. Where do you think she gets that quality, and do you share it?

Sometimes she’s not patient. I strive to be more patient. I can be patient and sometimes I can be very impatient. Once again, it’s a “both/and” kind of thing.

Your career has been as an in-demand character actress. This is a rare leading role for you. Watching Diane, I kept thinking: “It’s long overdue that you were the star!”

Thank you for saying it’s long overdue. I enjoy every minute of it, but I love ensemble work. It’s interesting to find a rhythm and exchange words and movement with other people. It’s fun. It’s been interesting to have this leading part, but I love the other work as well.

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Review: A Vigilante Is a Revenge Film with Delusions of Grandeur

It conspicuously tries to distance itself from the revenge film’s propensity toward florid excess.

1.5

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A Vigilante
Photo: Saban Films

Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s A Vigilante tries to distance itself from the revenge film’s propensity toward florid excess, operating less as an action thriller than as a kitchen-sink character study. Sadie (Olivia Wilde) is a young woman who’s clearly been wronged, judging by the scars on her back and crying fits that suggest someone in the throes of PTSD. In what almost appears to be a form of therapy, Sadie helps women and children escape domestic abuse, running husbands and negligent mothers off with physical action, sometimes after forcing the predators to sign much of their net worth over to the aggrieved parties. In other words, Sadie is an Equalizer. However, Daggar-Nickson’s violent scenes are pointedly leached of the nightmarish snap of the set pieces of Antoine Fuqua’s Equalizer films.

The Equalizer and its sequel are less concerned with notions of justice than with providing the narcotic thrill of violence as wrought by an intensely charismatic actor. By contrast, A Vigilante foregrounds the pain of victims who’re usually reduced by revenge movies to inciting incidents. This film’s violence occurs in sharp, unpleasant bursts, and offers neither Sadie nor the audience relief. Daggar-Nickson lingers instead on the faces of battered women, particularly those in the support group that Sadie attends. The women are poignant, often whispering as if they’re still locked in the terrifying vice of their tormentors.

In case viewers miss the intensity of A Vigilante’s virtuousness, Daggar-Nickson also favors close-ups with hard lightning and landscapes that are rife with snow, sterile highways, and dead trees. Any sign of pleasure or life would compromise the filmmaker’s earnest devotion to hopelessness and trauma. Sadie isn’t even allowed to fleetingly enjoy the first sip of a bourbon that she orders in a bar that is, of course, sleazy and uninviting.

A Vigilante’s women and children may not be utilized as pawns for an action scenario, but it’s reductive how the film’s victims here are defined only by how they’ve been violated. Sadie is no exception to this rule, and we’re meant to unquestioningly champion her exploits in a manner that’s ultimately familiar of the manipulations of less self-conscious genre cinema, which usually offers at least the nominal value of disreputable excitement. A Vigilante sucks all the thrills out of a thriller, and offers nothing else to fill the void.

The irony of the film is that Wilde may have had a better role if she’d been allowed to indulge her inner bloodlust, as Denzel Washington did in the Equalizer films. In the end, Daggar-Nickson’s sermonizing becomes a kind of straitjacket. Wilde is a terrific actor, and it’s perverse to watch her whittle down her expressiveness so that Daggar-Nickson may make a theoretically “realist” genre flick. Wilde has one startling moment in A Vigilante, in which Sadie, after putting on makeup as she prepares for one of her equalizing campaigns, smiles with a manic quality that suggests both glee and madness. This brief scene evinces an originality, and a curiosity about Sadie’s inner life, that’s otherwise missing from the film.

Cast: Olivia Wilde, Morgan Spector, Tonye Patano, Betsy Aidem, C.J. Wilson, Judy Marte, Kyle Catlett, Olivia Gilliatt, Cheryse Dyllan Director: Sarah Daggar-Nickson Screenwriter: Sarah Daggar-Nickson Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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