Monday, 6 July 2020

First Reformed [2017]

Crisis of faith and existential dilemma of of priests is a theme that’s been powerfully explored by European Masters, from Bergman’s Winter Light and Bresson’s Diary of A Country Priest to Dreyer’s Ordet and Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice to even Melville’s Léon Morin and Graham Greene’s novels (The Power and the Glory, A Burnt-Out Case, etc.). And, in many of these works, this has straddled across both personal doubts and external political turmoils. Hence, there have been powerful antecedents which Paul Schrader alluded to in First Reformed. However, it also had defiant elements of radical political activism blended – Bergman meets Costa-Gavras or Elio Petri or Mrinal Sen, if you will – which made it a daring, gripping work, even if the two opposing elements did create some dissonance. That Scharader also punctuated the muted, minimalist aesthetics with surrealist blasts made it formally bold too. The central protagonist is Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a conflicted pastor at a historic church with a dwindling congregation that’ll be celebrating its 250th anniversary soon; his broken past – his son died in the Iraq War which led to marital dissolution – and his crumbling health, are exacerbated by his loneliness and borderline alcoholism. Things, however, take a darker turn when he’s approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), the pregnant wife of radical environmental activist (Philip Ettinger), who’s morally opposed to bringing a kid to a world on the verge of being ravaged by climate change. The man’s shocking suicide, the realization that the parish’s billionaire donor owns a string of heavily polluting companies, and his complicated feelings for Mary lead the reverend to extreme despair and disillusionment, and, in turn, to the cusp of a potentially violent rebellion.

Director: Paul Schrader
Genre: Drama/Religious Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Mysteries of Lisbon [2010]

Raúl Ruiz’s magisterial and monumental 4 ½ hour symphony – the prolific Chilean filmmaker’s penultimate feature film, initially made as a 6-hour miniseries – is a work of seductive beauty, stunning bravado and staggering brilliance. Memory, parental abandonment, infidelity, unrequited love, passionate but destructive relationships, aristocratic entitlements, and faith were the key themes in this luxuriously mounted period piece akin to a Dickensian saga or a Balzacian “human comedy”, while its narrative intricacies – achieved through elaborate, interconnected flashbacks – were quite breathtaking. Yet, for all its irresistible storytelling, Ruiz’s artistic and formalist vision, be it structurally and tonally or in its shifting POVs and sensorial compositions, were also discernible, making this a work of grand artistry. The episodic, labyrinthine plot was strung together by the intertwined lives of three men – João (João Arrais / Afonso Pimentel), the illegitimate son of an obsessed aristocrat’s wife (Maria João Bastos), who later, as a young poet haunted by the memories of his mother, falls hopelessly in love with the ravishing older lady Elisa (Clotilde Hesme); Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), an enigmatic but compassionate priest who was an illegitimate child to a doomed affair, fell in love as a young man with Elisa’s enchanting mother (Léa Seydoux), and later became a caretaker for João’s life and fate; and Alberto de Magalhães (Ricardo Pereira), a roguish, enigmatic nouveau riche man with a disreputable past whose life, too, has been inextricably linked to Pedro and Dinas, and to Elisa too. The magnificent cinematography – a rapturous synthesis of delicate hues, compositions and framing of impressionistic paintings, brought to motion with glorious tracking shots and signature deep focus shots –, and hauntingly melodic soundtrack, made this masterwork a mesmeric audiovisual spectacle.

p.s. My 400th movie review at Cinemascope.

Director: Raul Ruiz
Genre: Drama/Period Drama/Romantic Drama/Religious Drama/Family Drama/Epic
Language: Portuguese/French
Country: Portugal

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Taxi Tehran [2015]

Dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran is impish and defiant, freewheeling and formalist, matter-of-fact and reflective, amusing and serious, deadpan and reflective. And, irrespective of how one views this – subversive mock documentary, underhanded city portrait, meta commentary on cinema itself – it’s a remarkable example of political dissent in world cinema. In 2010 Panahi was handed 6-year suspended prison sentence, 20-year ban on filmmaking and indefinite moratorium on foreign travel by the Iranian government. Yet, despite these directives, he made two films in secrecy, viz. the impudent video essay This is Not a Film and the allegorical “personal agitprop” Closed Curtain; and, with this, he made a triumphant return to the streets of his city in the garb of a taxi driver who, as it initially appears, has either taken this as a parallel vocation or is conducting a sly social experiment. Over the course of the day his green taxi turns into an eclectic, microcosmic melting pot – a conservative man who supports capital punishment and a liberal woman who irks him by calling for its abolition; a seller of pirated foreign films; an injured man who wants his wife to record his will on a mobile phone so that he can bequeath his possessions to her; a couple of superstitious old women; Panahi’s precocious niece Hana Saedi (she later received the Golden Bear Award at Berlin on her uncle’s behalf) who’s been given an assignment to make a short film, but bereft of themes that would make it “undistributable”, all of which, ironically, Panahi amply indulges in himself; and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh on her way to visit a young woman imprisoned for attending a men’s volleyball match.

Director: Jafar Panahi
Genre: Docufiction/Experimental Film/Diary Film/Political Satire
Language: Persian
Country: Iran

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Jackie [2016]

It’s truly surprising, and a tremendous rarity too, that Pablo Larraín made two biographical films in the same year, and which couldn’t have been more spectacularly different in nearly every aspect. Neruda, chronicling the legendary poet’s flee upon the Chilean government’s purge against Communists, was a playful and delightfully modernist mock-biopic; Jackie – his first venture into Hollywood – centered on Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) reminiscing certain key periods in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, was, in contrast, a somber, serious and self-conscious study in grief. Yet, the startling tonal and formal differences aside, both had a strong focus on the idea of myth making, and how history is often shaped by perceptions. It starts off with an interview of the recently widowed Jackie by a journalist (Billy Crudup) – a composite character – whose insolence and cynicism are palpable, even if Jackie controls what gets printed; this establishing premise, which somehow reminded me of Frost/Nixon, held a tantalizing potential of a take on truth vis-à-vis perceptions, and therefore the unravelling of the myths surrounding the superceleb couple. Larraín, despite his penchant for subversive and political filmmaking, however, went for a rather straightforward portrayal, by intercutting between a few key moments – her hosting of a televised tour of the White House; being beside JFK when he got shot; the strains between the cocky Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and LBJ (Caspar Phillipson); being comforted by her close confidante (Greta Gerwig); bulldozing her desire for a gala funeral procession; and sharing her insecurities with a priest (John Hurt). However, despite its overly staid approach, the film did have its moments that resonated, courtesy the stark production designs, and Portman’s immersive turn.

Director: Pablo Larrain
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Biopic
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Crystal Swan [2018]

Harvard educated Darya Zhuk was based out of the US when she decided to take up filmmaking, and she accomplished that by going back to Belarus, her country of origin, for her quirky, colourful and perceptive directorial debut Crystal Swan. Set during the transition period of the 90s, Minsk here is an eccentric mishmash of its socialist past and its proto-capitalist present, and an oddball representation of that was achieved through a giant Lenin statue forming the backdrop in a nightclub playing electronic music. The movie’s strikingly captivating heroine is Velya (brilliantly brought to life by Alina Nasbullina) – a law graduate turned DJ – who loves her shocking blue wig, and has fallen trap to the lure of the ‘American Dream’. She craves to travel to Chicago, propelled by her love for house music, even though she has scant chances of securing a visa. Hence, she puts in a false telephone number in her application, to give the impression that she has a stable job here and thus a strong reason to come back. However, when she learns that the embassy will call on that number to verify her employment status, she must find a way to intercept that. As it turns out, the number belongs to a dysfunctional household in the countryside, and that the family is preparing for the marriage of their embittered eldest son (Ivan Mulin) who gets enticed by this aloof city girl. Woman’s agency, the desire for freedom, painful coming-of-age and poignant journey back home formed the film’s central themes. Interestingly, the deadpan irony of the working class making crystals which fetch absurd prices in Western Europe provided a salty commentary in how capital operates.

Director: Darya Zhuk
Genre: Drama/Social Drama
Language: Russian
Country: Belarus

Saturday, 27 June 2020

The House That Jack Built [2018]

It’s rather bemusing to note that Danish provocateur Lars von Trier began the 2010s with a movie as haunting, wrenching and transcendental as Melancholia and ended it with one as inflammatory, grisly and brash as The House that Jack Built (one can say the same about the 2000s too which he’d begun with the bleakly beautiful Dancer in the Dark and ended with the daringly controversial Antichrist). What has remained unchanged, however, is his irrepressible penchant for provocations and cheeky subversion. Filled with disturbing themes, unsettling violence and misogyny, wildly digressive narrative, gallows humour, flamboyant stylistic insertions and biting self-reflexive commentary, the film’s bound to mesmerize and infuriate in equal measures; no wonder, on its premiere at Cannes – which was an event in itself given that he’d been declared persona non grata 6 years back – over 100 viewers walked out, while there was also a 10-minute standing ovation at the end. It’s structured as freewheeling, mock-serious and ironic conversations – mix of self-deprecating ruminations and deadpan philosophizing – between Jack (Matt Dillon), a demented sociopath and brutal serial killer with a love for architecture, and a man  he calls Verge (Bruno Ganz), who’s either the Roman poet Virgil’s amused ghost or Jack’s exasperated psychotherapist or perhaps his delusional conscience; and, over faux-intellectual discourses ranging from rationalizing his murders and the grand artistry behind them to Glenn Gould’s music and Nazi concentration camps, Jack recounts over flashbacks 5 of his vicious crimes – a cocky woman (Uma Thurman) he bludgeoned; a gullible widow he strangled; his unwitting girlfriend and her kids he executed; a stunning hooker (Riley Keough) he massacred; and his absurd scheme to murder 5 men with a single bullet.

Director: Lars von Trier
Genre: Drama/Psychological Horror/Black Comedy
Language: English
Country: Denmark