It's wrong to complain about a movie for not being what you want, but it's hard to desist with The Ottoman Lieutenant. The film is set during a provocative time in history, 1914, in Turkey. Yet, The Ottoman Lieutenant offers little understanding of the time or the place nor of history.

The Ottoman Lieutenant is busy being a romance. One spunky nurse, Lillie, her parents unhappy with her chosen profession, attends a lecture conducted by a medical missionary stationed in Anatolia, Turkey. Have Lillie offer her dead brother's truck to Dr. Jude for medical supplies; have him say no, can't get the truck to Turkey; have her say, pluckily, I'll bring it.

Have Turkish authorities say, "Little Missy, you can't do that. You'll need a military escort." Ta-da: Ismail appears, kitted in uniform and exuding hormones. Violins up, audience in swoon.

For awhile, it's possible to dismiss the cliched dialogue by Jeff Stockwell, who also wrote the astonishingly good The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. It's also possible to accept as part of the plot tossed-off references to Christians and Muslims, to soldiers and spies, to doctors doing good--or doing ether. Talkin' 'bout you, Dr. Woodruff, played feebly by Ben Kingsley. 

Michael Huisman from Game of Thrones plays Ismail to Hera Hilmar's determined nurse. Josh Hartnett, who has yet to prove that he can act, proves again that he can't as the dashing doc.

Daniel Aranyó's stunning cinematography of Turkey holds attention when the story does not, and Katerina Koutská's set direction, especially in Lille's Philadelphia dining room, grabs eyes. But, overall, The Ottoman Lieutenant adds little to history while shooting at historical romance. Would there have been better balance between the two.  

 

 

A United Kingdom makes the most of a titbit of history. Aspects of this true story connect to all sorts of history well known, yet little of its history is known. This is a connect-the-dots history. The time is 1947.

The places are foggy London and dusty Africa in the country now known as Botswana. The crown prince, Seretse Khama, has been studying in London to be the next king of his country when he falls in love with a woman. He's very African black, and she's very British white. His family, headed by the uncle who raised him, does not want her; and her family does not want him. Nothing dissuades them, but a lot, including England and Winston Churchill, can stop them from assuming their crowns.

Much of A United Kingdom must include exposition about protectorates and regents, about mineral rights and abdication, about banishment and acceptance. Bits of information, which fill in where needed without stopping action but with encouraging further study, manifests the skill of scriptwriter Guy Hibbert (he also wrote Eye in the Sky). 

Maybe because of their Britishness, the lovers do not seem head over heels despite the montage given over to courtship. That the romance does not take over testifies to the skill of actors Rosamund Pike of Gone Girl as Ruth Williams and Daniel Oyelowo as Khama. He is especially effective in negotiating and delivering Khama's ultimata. Also populating the history lesson are Jack Davenport as a very officious British official; Jessica Oyelowo, Daniel's wife, as the official's wife; and Tom Felton, Draco in Harry Potter films, another tight official. Laura Carmichael, Lady Edith on Downton Abbey, plays Ruth's sister. Director Amma Asante, as skillful here as in Belle, keeps A United Kingdom moving slowly through the vicissitudes of history, connecting the many dots.

 

 

 

The plot summary promises a hard-hitting indictment of Joseph Stalin's intentionally engineered and cruelly perpetrated famine designed to eradicate Ukrainians. Set in the early 1930s, Bitter Harvest has its political ideology on the right track, but its pervasive, simplistic, romantic perspective undermines every dramatic point. Regrettably, director George Mendeluk's story, though drawn from history, lacks any subtlety or complexity.

The film begins in an idyllic rural Ukrainian community with the artist Yuri the focus and in love with Natalka. After Soviet troops invade with dire consequences for the peasants, Yuri travels to Kiev with several lessons in Stalin's brutality paraded during the journey and once arrived in the city. As events proceed, the entire, rural Ukrainian community will be catastrophically impacted, but insightful, complex details are entirely absent.

The cast could certainly handle a more challenging narrative. Led by Max Irons as Yuri and Samantha Barks as Natalka, it also includes Terence Stamp and Barry Pepper. But the good guys might as well wear white hats, so admirable are they, and the villains could have black hats so malicious are their actions, all presented with heavy-handed monotony, the music included. The cinematography is Hallmark Hall of Fame style picturesque, the lighting melodramatic, and the art direction serviceable. This is old school, uninspired filmmaking.

That's particularly disappointing since the topic resonates with today's continuing Ukrainian conflict, but Bitter Harvest fails to explore the complex dimensions of the tragedy. It does remind us of Stalin's Holodomor, that is, death by starvation, the purposeful, merciless 1932 to 1933 famine. Archives revealed details after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991; in 2003 a U.N. statement, signed by Russia, acknowledged between seven and ten million Ukrainians died. To this day, Russia disputes the ethnic genocide allegation.

Nevertheless, in Bitter Harvest the merciless actions are clear, the effect indisputable. This monumental "crime against humanity," as asserted in 2008 by the European Parliament, deserves a more careful and nuanced presentation. Check area listings.

 

 

If all you know of cats is what you see on Facebook, you will be amazed by Kedi. If what you know about cats comes from your resident feline, you will be soothed and assured by Kedi. This documentary explores the world of cats in Istanbul, where they reign and roam.

Director Ceyda Torun wanted to show the humanity behind the people of Istanbul, and the best way she found to do so was to concentrate on the cats they care for. So she introduces seven cats: Among them, Bengü is a lover; Sari hustles for food for her babies; Psychopath fights off other cats, including any flirting with her "husband"; and Aslan is the hunter.

One velvety grey cat will not enter the bakery but paws the window to express hunger. Another lovely cat leaps into a woman's first-floor apartment house from the crotch of a tree, eats, looks around, and leaps back out. One man, who had a breakdown, found mental health by caring for cats; another woman whomps up great pans of food and feeds more.

This is the way it's been for years, with the inhabitants feeding the cats, petting the ones who will allow it, grooming them, and medicating them. What no one seems to do is castrate or spay them, for there are kittens everywhere. Yes, they're cute, but a lot of them have to die in the streets of Istanbul of hunger or traffic. Once, Istanbul offered green spaces for cats to hunt and loll, but with development there are few places for the cats to find nature. That means that the people of Istanbul must care for these creatures.

Torun's cameras sneak into a rat hole or under tables to follow the cats. She captures their faces, from eyes to whiskers to brick red noses. But she also shoots the city from on high, creating some amazingly beautiful cityscapes. More than anything, she captures the community of cat lovers whose philosophy is to love their feline neighbors as themselves.

 

 

Dutch writer/director Michael Dudok de Wit has become the first European animator selected by Japan's Studio Ghibli to be the talent creating their feature The Red Turtle. Dudok de Wit is an inspired, wise choice. He understands the appeal of simplicity and the power of understatement, the more Eastern aesthetic of less suggesting more. 

This is certainly the case with The Red Turtle, which includes no dialogue, and yet it speaks quite eloquently about human and animal nature and natural elements. The situation is simple: a storm deposits a man on a desert island, a castaway scenario. Using resources from the bamboo forest that covers the island, the man repeatedly builds rafts, increasingly better ones, to attempt an escape, only to have the title turtle confront him with other ideas. I'll reveal no more as unexpected events follow in this rich, symbol-laden fable. 

Dudok de Wit has written that he "hoped to convey my deep love for nature: for the beauty of light and shadow, the special ambience of warm nights and rainy forests, and the naturalness of death and birth." Adding an emphatic emotional element, composer Laurent Perez del Mar's score never intrudes disagreeably on events though it magnificently interprets them.

Studio Ghibli is justifiably famous among those of us who love elegant animation on serious topics, among them My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, and Ponyo. I could go on so beloved are these films from 1986 on. Dudok de Wit works wholly within the Ghibli style, preferring, as quoted in The New York Times, "films that are monochromatic. It gives a purity and simplicity to the image," a complement to the minimalistic line drawings that nevertheless express realistic movement. This is a film to relax into, to enter as in a dream, and to relish for hours and days afterward.

Two and a half years in production, The Red Turtle was well worth the wait. Winner of the Special Prize in last year's Cannes International Film Festival's Un Certain Regard section and an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature Film, The Red Turtle is playing at Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

 

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