Sunday, 1 October 2023

Camouflage [2022]

 Jonathan Perel, in his riveting investigative journalism and docu-essay Corporate Accountability, had catalogued how organizations had collaborated with the Argentine military junta during the “Dirty War”, by enabling abductions, disappearances, detentions and tortures. In Camouflage, the haunting remnants from that dark chapter in his country’s past continued to inform its political context, but the canvas very specifically focussed on Campo de Mayo, a massive army base on the outskirts of Buenos Aires which’d served as a notorious concentration camp during the military dictatorship. The life of Félix Bruzzone, a writer in his 40s, has been shaped irrevocably by the dictatorship and the camp like numerous others. His parents were both disappeared when he was a baby; much later, upon moving to a house close to the base, he discovered that his mother was detained, tortured and killed at this chamber of horrors which still exists like a sinister monster. This low-key work alternately served as a personal space for Bruzzone – he loves running as a therapeutic exercise, which is captured through long tracking shots – and a communication channel with people for whom the camp holds starkly diverse meanings. His grandmother with whom he lived after his mom was disappeared; old friends reminiscing the changing landscapes; a woman who survived detention and has been striving to preserve their collective memories; another woman who secretly collects soil from here and sells that to tourists; artists who draw inspiration from this place; a real estate agent who’s excited about property prices around the site; a palaeontologist who wishes it could be converted into a dinosaur park. He also participates in a “killer race” that the army’s propaganda machinery organizes through the complex.

Director: Jonathan Perel

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Political History

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina

Friday, 29 September 2023

Malayankunju [2022]

 Sajimon Prabhakar merged the sub-genre of disaster/survival movies – one that’s not very common in Indian cinema – with strong social commentary – on a topic that’s largely avoided in Indian cinema – in Malayankunju. An ambitious combination such as this meant that the film came with its set of remarkable highs as it worked excellently on certain fronts, alongside a few problematic and disappointing lows. It’s squarely centred on Anikkutan (Fahadh Faasil), a seemingly ordinary man who works as an electronics technician out of his home in the mountains, where he resides with his widowed mother. One, however, doesn’t need to scratch deep to see that he's filled with flaws, neuroses and demons. He’s difficult, troubled and rude; he carries unresolved baggage from the past which has led to an estranged relationship with his sister; and he’s filled with caste-based prejudices. Things, therefore, start slipping out of control when his neighbours – a couple belonging to the so-called lower caste – have a baby, whose cries disturb his sleep. Meanwhile there’re public service announcements of an impending natural disaster, which does strike in the form of devastating flood and landslides. Faasil gave a stunning turn as the edgy, taciturn and unlikeable character; the day-to-day activities and interactions preceding the disaster imbued the script with visceral undercurrents; and the disaster itself was crafted with immersive brilliance. That said, by linking Anikkutan’s casteist nature with his past – and thereby assigning a rationale to that – the director did a grave disserve to this noxious issue; further, while what transpires upon his being trapped by land collapse struck a strong emotional chord, the director conveniently provided a means for the cleansing of his toxicity through a heroic deed.

Director: Sajimon Prabhakar

Genre: Drama/Thriller/Psychological Drama/Social Drama/Disaster Movie

Language: Malayalam

Country: India

Wednesday, 27 September 2023

Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey [2022]

 Vipin Das’ darkly humorous film – its playful title, by ironically referencing to a line from the national anthem, highlighted how women are often limited as individuals by placing them on pedestals in terms of their social roles – covered a despicable and pervading societal evil through hilarious fantasy fulfilment, deadpan satire and gleeful hyperboles. On most occasions this was a firecracker work laced with rousing feminist stance and lashing depictions of normalized patriarchy, toxic behaviour and hypocrisy. However, its tricky narrative choices risked trivializing such a serious topic by diminishing a grim reality – marital abuse, denial of agency and voice to women, lack of economic independence that leaves housewives trapped and helpless – into amusing escapism. Consequently, it felt lacking in the kind of nuance, depth and scorching brilliance that The Great Indian Kitchen had manifested; and, by counting the number of slaps instead of articulating that even one slap is one too many – which Thappad categorically did – it also missed a beat. Nevertheless, it had sufficient chutzpah, wackiness and satiric ingenuity to make this a crackling watch despite its simplistic constituents and convenient sidestepping of certain inconvenient topics like abortion through deux ex machina. The eponymous Jaya (Darshana Rajendran) has always been at the mercy of the men surrounding her – her irascible father intent on making all decisions for her; her unctuous uncle (Sudheer Paravoor) who doles out intrusive advices under the guise of caring for her wellbeing; her college teacher (Aju Varghese) whose progressive homilies are a sham; and finally her patriarchal, misogynistic, heavily abusive and manipulative husband (Basil Joseph). The well-enacted film comprised of a number of standout set-pieces, including arguably the funniest karate kick in recent memory.

Director: Vipin Das

Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Family Drama

Language: Malayalam

Country: India

Sunday, 24 September 2023

Pada [2022]

 Pada is that enthralling “political thriller based on true events” where all the three components of the sub-genre worked brilliantly both independently and in relation to each other. Its politics – that of the ceaseless systemic oppression of tribal communities by the establishment – is profoundly persuasive, powerful, dissenting and progressive and, in an eloquent demonstration of authenticity, portrayed neither through the gaze of the privileged class nor that of the upper-caste; as a thriller it’s moody, gripping and dazzlingly crafted; and the incident was chronicled with the here-and-now precision and controlled urgency of narrative reportage. In 1996, four seemingly regular men, in an astonishing display of political consciousness, fearless bravado and radical revolutionary spirit, held the then Collector of the city of Palakkad hostage for several hours in solidarity with the harrowing plight of Adivasis in general, and, in particular, to have a recently passed legislative bill – that further diluted the miniscule land rights of this immensely marginalized indigenous community – revoked. They identified themselves as belonging to “Ayyankali Pada” or Ayyankali’s Army, in honour of the iconoclastic Dalit social reformer, and nearly achieved the impossible – through their fiery act of rebellion and resistance – of compelling the state to pay heed. Vinayakan and Kunchacko Boban were riveting as two of the faction members, with commendable turns also from Joju George and Dileesh Pothan (the terrific Joji’s director) as the two balance members, Prakash Raj as the level-headed Chief Secretary, Arjun Radhakrishnan as the sensible Collector and T.G. Ravi as a socialist-minded mediator, amidst a large cast that was mobilized to exhibit the state of frenzy. The pulsating background score and brooding visuals deftly complemented the film’s bleak premise and fatalist undercurrents.

Director: Kamal K.M.

Genre: Thriller/Political Thriller/Docufiction

Language: Malayalam

Country: Kerala

Wednesday, 20 September 2023

While We Watched [2022]

 In his nuanced, compelling, politically urgent and deeply solemn reportage essay While We Watched, Vinay Shukla freely traversed from the macro to the personal – a country engulfed with unfettered majoritarianism, frenzied nationalism and religious zealotry; the rotten state of mainstream TV media that feeds on hysteria and hatred, and spews it back through virulent disinformation, thus shaping and proliferating the right-wing narrative; the extraordinary struggle that a journalist must endure in order to remain independent and ask uncomfortable questions – while crafting an elegiac paean to Ravish Kumar. The former Senior Executive Editor with NDTV – he worked there for nearly 30 years and anchored a number of flagship programmes, prior to his resignation immediately upon the media house’s hostile takeover by the oligarchic Adani Group – was as celebrated for his courage, defiance, resilience, integrity and plain-speaking (with wry satiric undertones), including being bestowed with the Ramon Magsaysay Award, as he was incessantly vilified, abused and threatened for neither pandering to the government lines nor cheerleading for the right like his bile-spewing peers. Shukla crafted discomfiting juxtapositions by interlacing the increasingly dystopian external milieu – cow vigilantism and mob lynching by bigoted supremacists; character assassinations and threats of violence against people freely designated as “anti-nationals”; crackdown on social and political dissenters using official agencies, etc. – with melancholic interiority, achieved through intimate close-ups of Kumar, growing desolation at seeing his colleagues leave (farewell cakes served as a running motif), his moments with his family frequently broken by malicious calls, etc. This, along with the terrific Writing With Fire from previous year, powerfully depicted the crumbling fourth pillar of democracy, by fearlessly yet tenderly documenting rare exceptions that’re stirring and disquieting in equal measures.

Director: Vinay Shukla

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: Hindi/English

Country: India

Sunday, 17 September 2023

Sparta [2022]

 Seidl had conceived Rimini and Sparta – his diptych centred around two emotionally and geographically dislocated brothers with broken moral compasses, and with a dementia-afflicted father having past Nazi affiliations – as a single film titled Wicked Games, but split them during post-production, which, ironically, turned out to be a fortuitous choice. While the sardonic and melancholic former film has had a successful run in the festival circuit, the latter has faced allegations of breaching the boundaries of ethical filmmaking and, consequently, cancellations. In some of his prior works – Import/Export, Paradise: Love, Safari – privileged Austrians have been shown traveling to African and East European countries in order to partake in activities that’d be considered either illegal or morally reprehensible back home. Sparta is a murky, grubby and intensely discomfiting addition to that list. Ewald (Georg Friedrich) is a taciturn, mild-natured 40-something man who’s relocated to a grungy Transylvanian town where he’s found work as an industrial engineer and has moved in with a beautiful Romanian woman. He’s, however, experiencing inability to consummate their relationship due to a dark, closeted impulse that he harbours – viz. attraction to young boys and guilt on account of that. Unable to suppress his urges any further, he moves to an impoverished village where he converts an abandoned school into a judo training centre for kids from broken families, to enable carefree proximity to pre-pubescent boys in an intimate and secluded setting. Seidl’s sparse, non-judgemental portrayal of a troubled and conflicted non-offensive paedophile, whose perverse desires are juxtaposed with the physical abuse and toxicity that the kids endure at the hands of their parents, posited disturbing dialectical questions and therefore made for an extremely uncomfortable viewing experience.

Director: Ulrich Seidl

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama

Language: German/Romanian/English

Country: Austria

Friday, 15 September 2023

Rimini [2022]

 The hulking, hustling, hard-drinking, debonair, has-been Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas) – a middle-aged lothario perennially recalling his past glory, and attempting to reconnect with his estranged daughter Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher) – might lead one to draw comparisons with Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. The resemblances, however, end right there, as it was helmed by the Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl, whose politics and aesthetics stand diametrically apart. Rimini – one half of his diptych, which also comprised of the unapologetically scandalous Sparta – is a dreary and desolate film packed with gaping existential, familial and societal voids. Furthermore, its bone-dry cynicism, sexual grotesquerie, and cutting political commentary were captured in his customary style – spare visual framing, formal exactitude, and deadpan malice – which coalesced the grimy and sordid with radical melancholy. It began with Bravo briefly reuniting with his brother Ewald (Georg Friedrich) – the rotten centrepiece of the other half of the diptych – and their aged dad (Hans-Michael Rehberg) – afflicted with dementia and residing at an old-age home in Austria – upon his mother’s death. Once a popular crooner, he is now a lounge singer who charms a diminishing crowd of old-timers with his silky voice and retro garments at a chintzy hotel in the titular Italian resort town, while earning additional bucks by seducing his geriatric women fans to bed. The unanticipated appearance of his daughter, who lives amidst impoverished squatters, inspires him to rise beyond his shallow artifice and also leads him to touch new depths of depravity. Three odiously funny moments stood out – Bravo’s father spontaneously breaking into a former Nazi Youth anthem; a tipsy Bravo inadvertently trying to work his charms on Tessa; Bravo, with his pompous racism, playing host to impoverished illegal migrants.

Director: Ulrich Seidl

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: German/English/Italian

Country: Austria

Saturday, 9 September 2023

Nelly & Nadine [2022]

 Swedish documentarian Magnus Gertten’s remarkable found footage film Nelly & Nadine didn’t just tell an extraordinary story of queer love, social defiance, resilience in the face of dehumanizing persecutions, and preservation of memory, it had a fascinating backstory too. He’d been obsessed, since 2007, with a grainy reel of women Holocaust survivors arriving in Sweden on 28th April, 1945 – where, among a gang of joyous and cheerful faces, there’s a lady bearing a solemn, perplexed expression – and which featured in two of his prior works. While he’d been able to identify most of the people in it, the last remaining puzzle finally fell into place during a screening of his previous film that was serendipitously attended by a middle-aged French women called Sylvie Bianchi. As it turned out, Bianchi’s late grandma – Nelly Mousset-Vos, Belgian opera singer and former member of the French Resistance – had been in a passionate relationship with that enigmatic woman, who, as it emerged, was Nadine Hwang, the daughter of a Chinese diplomat and iconoclastic gay feminist Natalie Barney’s lover before the War. The two met and fell in love in the ghastliest place imaginable – the Ravensbrück concentration camp – and, upon liberation, they reconnected couple of years later and emigrated to Venezuela where they lived together in sublime bliss for many years. Gertten stitched the canvas with delicacy and through a disarmingly complex polyphonic form – Nelly’s profoundly intimate diary entries, infectious Super 8 home videos shot by Nadine, personal reminiscences of Nelly’s genial granddaughter (with whom the archive had remained unopened for many years), and other historical artefacts and interviews. Aesthetic sparseness, lyrical narration, and evocative score splashed this haunting docu with warmth, depth and melancholy.

Director: Magnus Gertten

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Holocaust Film

Language: Swedish/French/English/Spanish

Country: Sweden

Thursday, 7 September 2023

See You Friday, Robinson [2022]

 Mitra Farahani is Iranian by descent and Parisian by residence; further, she produced Godard’s The Image Book and has been involved in the restoration of Ebrahim Golestan’s films. These parallel strands both informed and shaped her epistolary, experimental and irreverently staged documentary See You Friday, Robinson. In 2014 she engineered a weekly email correspondence between the trailblazing Franco-Swiss auteur and the relatively lesser known but nevertheless important Iranian filmmaker – both important cultural icons, but who’d never crossed paths despite having been key figures in French and Iranian New Waves, respectively, which happened concurrently – and as part of which the two veteran giants exchanged messages every Friday, over 29 weeks, from late-2014 to early-2015. Godard – being the gargantuan intellectual that he always was and the mischievous, elusive non-conformist that he remained until his demise – filled his mails with cryptic, satiric, pun-laden missives, and attachments that ranged from Goya to Matisse, and Shakespeare to Joyce. And, alongside these – in what remains a memorable takeaway for JLG aficionados – deadpan home-made videos of him chomping on his cigar, drinking red wine diluted by water, and even doing something as hilariously banal as hanging clothes to dry. Golestan’s responses were no less interesting, wryly expressing his inability to fully decipher the messages while emphatically acknowledging Godard’s brilliance. Golestan’s massive mansion, meanwhile, made for a dramatic contrast to Godard’s cosy house. In a poignant coincidence, both men experienced hospitalization and were reminded of their mortality during this period, which perhaps forged a deeper kinship. The film was whimsical, playfully essayistic and consciously oblique, even if lacking in any significant reflections or insights emerging out of its fascinating juxtaposition, and felt tad unfinished in its assemblage.

Director: Mitra Farahani

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Experimental Film

Language: Persian/English/French

Country: Iran

Wednesday, 30 August 2023

EO [2022]

  Veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO was an unclassifiable viewing experience, considering its bold narrative experimentations on a premise that walked a fine line between simplicity and simplistic; its balancing between tonal solemnity and demonstrations that veered towards cloying and cartoonish; its simultaneous espousal of the kind of themes and “radical sympathy” that aren’t really new, but situated in a modern-day European setting filled with topical social abominations that provocatively pointed towards its “rotten core”. These dichotomies were especially manifested by the way it unequivocally evoked Au Hasard Balthazar – which had made a profound impact on Skolimowski when he’d watched it sixty-seven years back – and in its dramatic departure by replacing the earlier film’s austere and rigorous form with an overly eventful sequence of tableaux and stylistic spectacle. The protagonist, like the Bresson classic, was the eponymous donkey who observes, experiences and journeys through long stretches of apathy, abandonment, dislocation, desolation, misery and cruelty – sparingly separated by brief yet unanticipated moments of love, tenderness, empathy, companionship and beauty – and becomes a mute, unwitting and oblivious witness to zealous animal rights activists who spark the first of its string of separations, casual exploitation of vulnerable immigrants, horrific hooliganism, humans’ shocking capacity for violence, decrepit aristocrats and whatnot. Its tad overdone journey began with a traveling circus that it was a part of and bleakly ended in an industrial abattoir, and traversed through Polish countryside, lonely highways and Italian towns. The hyperactive direction, therefore, was marked by mordant world-view, dazzling camerawork and hallucinatory visuals on one hand, and corny moments, glib humanity and showboating artifice on the other. Isabelle Huppert featured in a short, enticing cameo as a cold, frustrated countess.

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

Genre: Drama/Social Drama/Experimental Film

Language: Polish

Country: Poland

Saturday, 26 August 2023

The Novelist's Film [2022]

 Self-reflexive and metatextual elements, quotidian urban settings, rambling alcohol-fuelled conversation, passive-aggressive interactions, moments of epiphany – captured through rigorous form, improvisational style, loosely-strung narrative, sparse aesthetics, limpid storytelling, and wry, playful tones with undercurrents of melancholy – and performed by actors belonging to a small pool of regulars – Korean maestro Hong Sang-soo’s excellent 27th narrative was delightfully laced with his distinctive signatures. And yet – thus underscoring the unassuming Korean filmmaker’s brilliance – this deceptively complex, gently affecting and nakedly personal film marvellously displayed his panache for serving refreshingly fascinating wines in amiably familiar bottle, while reinforcing his love for the medium. Lee Hye-young, who was memorable in the lead role in Hong’s sublime 2021 film In Front of Your Face – where the middle-aged former star played a middle-aged former star – is a famous, veteran novelist here struck with writer’s block. She’s therefore looking for inspiration in order to rejuvenate her creative impulses, and with that intent she makes an unplanned visit to a town in Seoul’s suburbia where she has awkward reconnects with two old acquaintances –a former writer (Seo Younghwa) who now owns a bookshop, and a well-known filmmaker (Kwon Hae-hyo) who’d once planned to adapt one of her books to screen but didn’t finally do. Amidst these delicate interactions, and a drinking episode too, a chance encounter with a renowned actress (Kim Min-hee), who’s taken an indefinite sabbatical from movies, proves fortuitous as she spontaneously decides to direct a novelistic short film, and even convinces the latter to collaborate with her. The ravishing colours at the end – providing fleeting glimpses of the said short – led this fragile and intimate film, otherwise shot in high-contrast B/W, to a deeply sensuous finale.

Director: Hong Sang-soo

Genre: Drama

Language: Korean

Country: South Korea

Friday, 18 August 2023

Barbie [2023]

 The most intriguing irony defining Barbie is that, it’s a riotous satire of patriarchy, consumerism and the shallow beauty standards that the eponymous dolls had embodied and glorified, and yet it was also promoted through gimmicky marketing blitzkrieg that reinforced the very attributes the film lampooned. It’s, therefore, fascinating not just on account of Greta Gerwig – who’d established her toehold in the industry as an actor in low-budget Indie cinema, and demonstrated her understated feminist streak thereafter as a filmmaker – helming a big-budget studio movie as this, but more so in how she succeeded in making such a subversive and feminist work despite it being produced by Mattel Inc., the very organization that was responsible for these plastic, vacuous and regressive toys. One half of the pop-culture frenzy “Barbenheimer” – a portmanteau that was coined despite Barbie and Oppenheimer being two diametrically opposite works, in order to indicate the hype that presaged their simultaneous theatrical releases, and the gargantuan blockbusters that both became even though they were far removed from straightforward mass entertainers – its deliberately garish colour palette and kitschy aesthetics served as apt juxtapositions to its silly fantasy and comedic portrayal of Barbieland, a joyous matriarchal society inhabited by, among others, the ravishing Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) who, upon experiencing existential crisis, takes a trip to the grimy real world in company of a drooling Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling). That leads to widespread repercussions, including among the all-male Mattel executives led by its CEO (Will Farrell), a disenchanted mother-daughter combo, and Barbieland’s motley residents. The narrative’s messy, self-conscious and meta elements were both its unique strength and, by kind-of embracing the very artifice that it parodied, also its failing.

Director: Greta Gerwig

Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Fantasy

Language: English

Country: US

Wednesday, 16 August 2023

Oppenheimer [2023]

 Oppenheimer – contrary to my apprehensions of muscular and/or hagiographic account of a man who’d helped engineer war crimes and precipitate global arms race – was a thematically dense, formally dazzling and deeply bleak film which was antithetical to a conventional biopic, deconstructive of a dark chapter in 20th century history, and riveting political thriller with a surprisingly level-headed portrayal of leftism in America alongside feverish examination of individual and collective hubris. Nolan demonstrated his fascination with temporal fluidity in cinema by crafting a work at once monumental and intimate, through a Cubist structure – Picasso’s Guernica, incidentally, is eloquently referenced near its beginning – that kept zooming in and out, and rigorously progressed along interlocking timelines. It was a bold audiovisual exercise too, in its experimentations with colour and monochrome, aspect ratios, depths of field, and interplay of diagetic/non-diagetic sounds. The film’s stylistic bravura boldly complemented the multifaceted decomposition of its complex protagonist, enacted with searing intensity by Cillian Murphy. He was leftist and antifascist – his brother Frank, wife Katherine (Emily Blunt) and troubled former girlfriend Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) were card-carrying Communists; many of his Manhattan Project colleagues had left-wing affiliations; he’d contributed to Spanish Civil War causes through Communist channels, etc. – and yet collaborated with the American military and industrial machineries that were fervidly conservative; further, he became “father of the atomic bomb”, the concentration and proliferation of which he subsequently dissuaded. The parallel narratives chronicled his university days, Los Alamos, McCarthy witch-hunts orchestrated by Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.)., and guilt. He’d crossed paths with the who’s-who of scientific giants of his time, which the film mirrored through an all-star cast, comprising also of Matt Damon, Kenneth Branagh, etc.

Director: Christopher Nolan

Genre: Biopic/Political Drama/Political Thriller/Historical Drama/Psychological Drama/Epic

Language: English

Country: US

Sunday, 13 August 2023

Fire of Love [2022]

 Katia and Maurice Kraft left back a legacy that’s so rich, eventful and fascinating that it’s not surprising that their lives have been celebrated through two well-made documentaries. And, quite startlingly, both were released in the same year! Hence, alongside evaluating the two essay films on the iconic volcanologist couple – geochemist Katia and geologist Maurice – in a remarkable three-way affair with active volcanos, it’s especially interesting to do a comparative analysis of the two. While both Herzog’s The Fire Within and Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love made extensive use of the treasure trove that they’d left behind – breathtaking images and videos of volcanic eruptions across the world – capturing their thrilling journeys until their tragic demise in a massive pyroclastic flow from Mount Unzen in Japan, these were essentially two very different works. Where the former was edgier and more expansive, and charged with the German giant’s customary fierceness, deadpan irony, wry idiosyncrasy and fatalist undercurrents, the latter was relatively more light-hearted, intimate, lyrical, and with the edges rounded through good-humoured speculations and romanticism. Additionally, this was a relatively more straightforward work in its thematic exploration and form. Buoyed by Miranda July’s lilting narration – she brought in a freewheeling quality into the proceedings – we get to hypothesize on their first meeting; how they were drawn into this magnetic passion unto death; the two broad classifications of volcanos that they’d settled on – the more spectacular looking “red” ones and the incredibly deadly “grey” ones which leave devastation in their wake; how they divided responsibility between their tours to generate funds; Maurice’s flamboyance and daredevilry vis-à-vis Katia’s unassuming charm and level-headedness; and their efforts in building awareness for better preparedness among governments.

Director: Sara Dosa

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: English

Country: US

Friday, 11 August 2023

The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft [2022]

 Werner Herzog, in The Fire Within, didn’t intend to make either a conventional biography or a straightforward hagiography of eminent French volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Kraft. His objective, rather, was to compose a personal interpretation of their legacy, by resorting to the stunning archive of footage and photos that they’d left behind prior to their demise in 1991 (they were both killed by the pyroclastic flow from Mount Unzen in Japan). The result was a fierce and enrapturing essay filled with brooding atmosphere, ironic observations (delivered by Herzog in his customary deadpan voiceover), idiosyncratic moments, and breathtaking visuals. The narrative provided a fascinating peek into the Krafts’ transition over the years from wannabe scientists who recorded their experimentations in amateur home videos, dressed at times in oddball outfits to enable proximity to high temperatures, to grand filmmakers who – as Herzog quipped – “were shooting a whole film about creation in the making… they just didn’t have enough time left to edit it” through mesmeric visuals that silently captured the ferocious power of volcanos, and even quirky humanists deeply invested in the devastating human, sociological and ecological impacts of volcanos. The couple’s captivating journey and their shared, unwavering obsession with this frightening force of nature was bookended on either side by reportage on their fateful trip to Japan, while in between we see their visits to diverse places – Italy, Iceland, Hawaii, Alaska, Indonesia, Colombia, etc. – in their quest for fire and love, including a couple of truly near misses. As an interesting aside, 2022 saw another well-received documentary on the Krafts, Fire of Love by Sara Dosa, while Herzog himself had earlier made one on active volcanos, Into the Inferno.

Director: Werner Herzog

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: English

Country: US

Saturday, 5 August 2023

Petite Fleur: 15 Ways to Kill Your Neighbour [2022]

 Petite Fleur couldn’t have demonstrated a more dramatic departure vis-à-vis Argentina,1985 – the two wildly contrasting films that Santiago Mitre made in 2022. The latter was a serious, intricate and politically charged docudrama. The former, on the other hand, was a feral, eccentric and intoxicating blend of black comedy, stylistic playfulness, surreal flourishes and macabre poetry. That it essentially portrayed a warm-hearted story – comprising of love lost and re-found, disintegrating marriage, loss of employment, reversal of conventional gender roles, ennui, existential and artistic crises, and the bad press that “routine” gets – under the delirious, elliptical and exuberantly pulpy guise of murderous impulses, mucky charlatans, marital infidelity, violent crimes, zany outbursts and the sensuous thrills of jazz music, made it all the more engrossing. José (Daniel Hendler) and Lucie (Vimala Pons), an Argentine couple residing in an enchanting French town, find themselves in a mess when, having just become parents, he loses his job as a professional cartoonist, upon which she decides to take up work to enable their financial sustenance. As the soft-spoken man becomes a househusband – taking care of their baby, performing daily chores, living a life of dull repetitiveness – he finds himself losing touch with his creative zest, while realizing in parallel, when his vivacious wife falls under the influence of a charismatic guru (Sergi López), that their relationship too has started going south. Things, in the meantime, take a sinister yet fantastical turn when, one Thursday, he inadvertently befriends Jean-Claude (Melvil Poupaud) – a wealthy, rakish, insouciant jazz connoisseur, and a great aficionado of Sydney Bechet’s mesmerizing titular composition in particular – who he spectacularly kills in a moment of madness, and keeps doing that every Thursday thenceforth.

Director: Santiago Mitre

Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Marital Comedy/Mystery

Language: French/Spanish

Country: Argentina

Tuesday, 1 August 2023

No Bears [2022]

 Does a filmmaker really ever become a martyr at cinema’s altar? While such a statement may appear disingenuous and even pompous in most cases, not so for Jafar Panahi, who continues to undermine legal restrictions, defy punitive retributions and push boundaries. No Bears – the fifth film that he’s made since being banned from making movies, barred from leaving Iran and intermittently placed under house arrest, and completed just prior to being handed a fresh prison term on old charges – organically manifested and was powerfully informed by these extrinsic realities, thus coalescing political with personal. Suffused with bristling meta-commentary, rich self-reflexive aspects, moments of unsparing self-criticism, and tones that veered between ironic and bitter, the film was as much a brilliant and complex formal exercise as it was a bold and incisive use of cinema as an agency of subversion and dissidence. Panahi, once again playing a version of himself with self-effacing elan, is remotely directing a staged docudrama – about an Iranian couple, playing themselves, who’re trying to emigrate to France using fake passports, with the shoot taking place in Turkey – on account of being disallowed from making movies and leaving Iran. He’s stationed himself at a remote village on the country’s border in order to have proximity with his crew, while barely controlling the urge to cross the imaginary lines that separate the two countries. Meanwhile, courtesy his love for photographing locals, he becomes unwittingly embroiled in a sensitive situation upon being charged with capturing a couple in a forbidden relationship on camera. Both narrative strands escalated unpredictably and with tragic consequences, which Panahi navigated – as filmmaker, dissenter, observer, individual – with a wry blend of incredulity, resentment and melancholy.

Director: Jafar Panahi

Genre: Drama/Experimental Film

Language: Persian

Country: Iran

Friday, 28 July 2023

Leila's Brothers [2022]

 The eponymous Leila in Saeed Roustayi sprawling, ferocious and enthralling Leila’s Brothers – in an ironic elucidation of art imitating life (and vice versa) – was as gutsy, freethinking, fearlessly outspoken and defiantly anti-patriarchal as the acclaimed Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, who’s a feminist and political activist, and courted arrest for her dissent during the Mahsa Amini protests. That she wasn’t just outstanding in it, but even gave a standout performance – amidst a cast that was terrific too – complemented the political underpinnings with artistic merit. The film was as riveting as a thriller, and – in what has drawn analogies with the likes of Rocco and His Brothers and the Godfather saga – formally audacious in its intricate juxtaposition of expansive attributes – complex intergenerational fault-lines, familial conflicts, emotional volatility – with intensely intimate domesticity. 40-year-old working woman Leila stays at her riotously chaotic family’s ramshackle house in Tehran, takes care of the household while also managing domestic chores, confronts everyone whenever needed, and strives to secure the future for her unemployed brothers – the serious but timid Alireza (Navid Mohammadzadeh) who loses his factory job in the excellent opening sequence that underscored the country’s economic downturn precipitated by US sanctions; morbidly obese Parviz (Farhad Aslani) who keeps begetting children and works as a lowly janitor; the scoundrel Manouchehr (Payman Maadi) who pursues shady schemes; and the hunk Farhad (Mohammad Alimohammadi) – who she loves fiercely and intends to get them financially settled. Their narcissistic, selfish, shadow-chasing and stubborn-as-mule father (Saeed Poursamimi), meanwhile, is intoxicated by the idea of being crowned patriarch of the clan, that threatens to jeopardize the plans devised by Leila, who’s prudent, resolute and ready to do whatever it takes for her brothers.

Director: Saeed Roustayi

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: Persian

Country: Iran

Sunday, 23 July 2023

Showing Up [2022]

 Kelly Reichardt’s delicately strung Showing Up vividly bore the Indie auteur’s signature through its minimalist form, unassuming tone, awkward characters, sparse setting, and crises that imbue life with dramas both grand and intimate. It felt like a companion piece to her marvellous third film Wendy and Lucy, in that both centred on lonely, withdrawn women, with each a potentially alternative version of the other. It’s also arguably the funniest film in her canon, filled with deadpan, situational humour, and perhaps her most personal too given that, like her protagonist, she partakes in her vocation while associated with a liberal arts college. Lizzy (Michelle Williams, in a transformative turn filled with grumpy neuroses, furthering one of the richest ongoing director-actor collaborations) is a sculptor who makes dainty clay statuettes – on women in complex, anguished expressions, borne from evocative watercolours – while employed as resident artist at a small but vibrant arts college, where she doubles as administrative assistant to her mother. As she strives to be ready for a show on her work, she finds herself increasingly roiled and on the edge thanks to those surrounding her – Jo (Hong Chau), fellow artist, landlady and rival, who’s proudly exhibiting her flamboyant installation art, while ignoring the fixing of hot water in Lizzy’s place; her gregarious father who’s allowed a hippie couple to crash in his place; her emotionally distant mother; her unstable brother; and – recalling the running presence of animals in her filmography – a pigeon left wounded by her pet cat. All these come to head in the most idiosyncratic manner at the said show. The grainy, soft-hued cinematography visually complemented this gently eccentric portrayal of the fraught nature of creating art.

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Genre: Drama/Family Comedy

Language: English

Country: US

Friday, 21 July 2023

Nope [2022]

 Jordan Peele constructed Nope like a multi-layered cake – wryly revisionist Western, acerbic satire on insatiable consumerism, and delightfully original sci-fi thriller that resorted to clever reworking of hackneyed genre tropes. It was also ecstatically permeated with metatextual elements through ironic references to movies and showbiz spectacles – through the recurrent motif of the camera’s gaze, audience’s voyeuristic impulses and exploitive nature of the industry – while resonant political readings were consciously invested into the narrative; the latter aspect made it particularly interesting for me, having watched it in succession with Kimi and Emily the Criminal over a long flight, given how the scripts were charged with topical political subtexts, even if, in this case, the scope was broader, the form more complex and the commentary subtler. Peele, therefore, displayed considerable audacity in composing this film; and, even though its zany ideas and moving parts didn’t always combine into a coherent whole, that never made it any less enjoyable. The brooding, taciturn OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Em (Keke Palmer), who has bundles of dramatic flair, are struggling to keep their family business afloat – training and handling horses for film productions, out of their ranch in rural California – and therefore the legacy of being descendants of the nameless black man in Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering Animal Locomotion, after their dad mysteriously dies of a metallic piece that falls from the sky. Having had to sell most their stable to a former child actor (Steven Yeun), who’d faced a horrible experience while shooting and now runs a kitschy theme park, they decide to capture on camera – as their foolproof ticket to the wealth – a sinister UFO that’s been stalking the desolate, breathtaking place.

Director: Jordan Peele

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror/Western/Mystery/Showbiz Satire

Language: English

Country: US