Saturday, 17 August 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [2019]

Quentin Tarantino’s 10th film (or 9th, depending on how one considers the delirious Kill Bill volumes), Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, had the maverick provocateur’s signature all over it – digressions, narrative pyrotechnics, gradual build-up to gleeful mayhem, and using cinema to explore myths and deconstruct history (something he started with the enormously entertaining Inglourious Basterds). And, it also formed a troika of sorts with the revisionist Django Unchained and the fabulous The Hateful Eight in his continued fascination with the Western framework. The film’s two central protagonists – Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former Western star whose on a perceptible decline, and his stunt-double, odd-job man and buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) – are increasingly moving towards obsolescence with the changing sociocultural order; their anachronism is also reflected in their casual disdain for the here-and-now – be it Spaghetti Westerns or the then bristling political climate. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), upcoming actress and Roman Polanski’s wife, has moved in as Rick’s neighbour – and, as one would anticipate, the sprawling narrative, despite its incredibly broad canvas, ultimately builds to the notorious murders by the Manson Family… only that, things don’t turn out exactly the way history unfolded. While the intricate structure, meditative pacing, terrific chemistry between the film’s two heavy-duty stars, free-flowing metatextuality, and self-reflexive wit, made this a superb piece of craftsmanship, I was also disturbed by its political subtexts – the infectious portrayal of “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley) apart, the muscular disparaging of the counterculture movement reeked of regressive conservatism. However, one could argue that this was a double subversion – a slap to neocon fantasy fulfilment reflective of the Old-New divide during the turbulent 60s – and that added to the text’s ambiguity.

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Genre: Drama/Social Satire/Showbiz Comedy/Ensemble Film
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday, 15 August 2019

L'Enfant Secret (The Secret Child) [1979]

L’Enfant Secret marked a momentous turning point in Philippe Garrel’s filmography, as he transitioned towards personal, memoirist filmmaking, and went on to make a series of deeply autobiographical works culled out of his relationships, craft and politics. Garrel had a decade-long love affair with German singer, actress and pop icon Nico – she acted in 7 of his films during this period – and memories of this turbulent, transformative relationship formed the central tenet of this intimate and melancholic film. The circular narrative covers the affecting, tumultuous and ultimately doomed affair between Jean-Baptiste (Henri de Maublanc), a pensive filmmaker, and Elie (Anne Wiazemsky – the unforgettable girl from Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar), an intermittent actress and fragile single mom – they meet at a countryside retreat and move in together to his tiny flat in Paris; his foray into politics, involvement with drugs, and tryst with psychological breakdown and shock therapy; her tussle between her son (the title was a reference to Nico’s child with Alain Delon – who, apparently, had refused to recognize him) and her desire to be free; the emotional impact of her mother’s death, and her growing dependency on drugs to cope with her existential crisis. Despite the emotional upheavals, this tone poem was laced with a brittle tranquility through Garrel’s poetic imbuing of it with the form of a diary film – ravishing, moody, shadowy, grainy B/W photography; preponderance of dialogue-free sequences and inaction; and a haunting, cathartic score based on piano and violin. The movie’s brilliant final scene – where, in a bravura single take, the glass wall of a café provides us, alternately, a peek into the interiors and views behind the camera through reflection – was a moment of cinematic virtuosity.

Director: Philippe Garrel
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Diary Film/Experimental Film
Language: French
Country: France

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown [1988]

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which established Almodóvar’s smashing international repute, is a singularly vibrant exercise in farce. Packed with neurotic women at the edge of their sanities, a carnivalesque atmosphere against deliberately theatrical set-pieces, and comprising of one deliriously and gleefully wacky narrative development after another, this idiosyncratic, offbeat, deceptively feminist and incredibly hilarious film is impossible to pigeonhole, and provided for depiction of a truly uninhibited post-Franco Madrid. The flamboyant dash of bold, solid colours that defined the film’s palette, and the arresting use of deeply melodic score that strikingly contrasted with the movie’s madcap tone, further amplified its cinematic bravura. Pepa (Carmen Maura), a well-known voiceover artist, is depressed and distraught as her lover Iván (Fernando Guillén), a philandering lothario with a silken voice, is possibly having an affair with another woman. She therefore spikes her gazpacho with sleeping pills to end her life, only for that drink to be consumed by everyone but herself, as her penthouse apartment becomes a crazy melting pot – her panic-stricken friend (María Barranco) whose boyfriend is a radical terrorist, Iván’s docile son (Antonio Banderas) who arrives to rent the apartment with his domineering fiancée, Iván’s mentally unstable and homicidal ex-wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano) who’s desperate to get back Iván, and finally cops investigating a potential airplane hijack plan. Throw in a sentimental taxi-driver who ends up arriving every time Pepe hails a cab, people randomly snoozing off upon consuming the spiked gazpacho, a series of droll gags featuring telephone messages and booths, and a truly unhinged chase sequence – and what one gets from this terrific ensemble piece is an uproarious, absurdist and unapologetically outlandish comedy of errors.

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Farce/Ensemble Film
Language: Spanish
Country: Spain

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Import/Export [2007]

There are moments of sharp, brittle, deadpan humour in Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl’s powerful, bleak, ironic and relentlessly downbeat film Import/Export; three scenes were especially reminiscent of the palette & tone in Roy Andersson’s fabulous ‘Grandeur of Existence Trilogy’ – a man trying in futility to kick-start a bike, two men silently shadow-boxing in a cramped room, a woman dancing with an old man to a melancholic tune in an empty basement hall. The movie’s two key protagonists are social outsiders who make complementary journeys in the parallel narratives – Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a single mother residing in a monstrous apartment block in crumbling post-Communist Ukraine, who scrapes her living as a nurse and an inept webcam sex worker, takes the difficult decision to leave behind her kid and relocate to Vienna with the hope of a better life – only to experience arbitrary discrimination, hostility and despair, initially as a housemaid and thereafter, in the film’s most deeply poignant sections, as a janitor in a geriatric hospital; Pauli (Paul Hofmann), on the other hand, is a gauche Austrian guy indebted to practically everyone, who, upon losing his job as a security guard upon being humiliated by a gang of hooligans, and then not making anything out of a series of sadly funny motivational sessions, joins his greasy stepfather (Michael Thomas) in a trip to Ukraine to sell outdated candy and arcade gaming machines, only to experience the nadir of the latter’s grotesqueness. The film, shot in static shots and a spare style that gave it a stark look, provided a disconcerting view on the sordidness of being compelled to follow the money trail – be it as a dispossessed immigrant or an aimless drifter.

Director: Ulrich Seidl
Genre: Drama/Social Satire/Black Comedy
Language: German/Russian/Slovak
Country: Austria

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Two Days, One Night [2014]

The Dardenne Brothers, Belgian filmmaking duo who’ve been torchbearers for the cinéma vérité form and socialist realist themes, created a bleak, gut-wrenching, inherently political and formally rigorous examination – with small joys like the characters briefly losing themselves for a few moments to Van Morrison’s rock-n-roll classic Gloria, punctuating the otherwise pervading despair – of the adversarial relationship between organizational objectives and humanity, and between collective financial choices and individual moral ones, in their sublime Two Days, One Night. Sandra (Marion Cotillard), upon returning from a period of clinical depression, finds that she’s on the verge of losing her job. The company isn’t in the best financial state, and hence she has the weekend to reach out to her colleagues and plead with them to sacrifice their annual bonuses – which is vital for each given their working-class backgrounds and economic necessities – in lieu of her not getting fired, when they vote between these two conundrums on Monday. Battling bouts of depression, popping pills to maintain a veneer of false calm amidst the severe stress on her fragile psyche, and struggling to come to terms with the sense of pity she’s possibly evoking including in her well-meaning husband (Fabrizio Rongione), she goes about in this emotionally onerous task swallowing her self-pride. The Dardennes brilliantly juxtaposed the film’s stark realism with a sense underlying tension and even suspense in terms of how these interactions – each a terrific mise en scène in itself – will turn out. Cotillard left me spellbound with her breathtaking and emotionally charged performance of a deeply vulnerable woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and possibly worse, displaying a volley of conflicting and conflating emotions over her tumultuous weekend odyssey.

Director: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Genre: Drama/Social Drama
Language: French
Country: Belgium