Saturday, 25 June 2022

Joji [2021]

 Dileesh Pothan’s Joji was as much a macabre and darkly funny crime thriller, as it was a commentary on patriarchy and masculinity, the arrogance of power and affluence, and the lust for wealth and violence. Either way it was a wickedly delicious work set during the pandemic, and filled with acrid familial fault lines, feuds and outright dysfunctions bordering on the comically grotesque… unsurprisingly, the director cited Shakespeare’s Macbeth as an inspiration. Kuttapan, the muscular, disdainful and domineering patriarch of a closely-knit family – comprising of the physically imposing and short-tempered eldest son Jomon (Baburaj) who’s closest to his father; the whimpering middle son Jaison (Joji Mundakayam) who feels trapped under his father’s iron-grip; the youngest son Joji (Fahadh Faasil) who’s a college dropout and detests his father’s contemptuous attitude towards him; Jaison’s taciturn wife Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad) who inwardly riles at her position as a voiceless housewife; and Jomon’s teenage son – living amidst his lush and sprawling estate in Kerala. Hence, when he suffers a near-fatal stroke, each of his sons react differently – Jomon is devastated and becomes increasingly erratic to the point of insulting the local clergy; Jaison hopes to finally have financial freedom; but it’s the seemingly meek and loafing Joji who decides to take matters into his own hands… and, as he does so, he displays a terrific capacity for smouldering fury, unpredictable ferocity, and calculated violence – with neither patricide nor fratricide being beyond his reach – and Bincy becomes an unlikely ally. Faasil, with his captivating turn as the sociopathic antagonist, led a cast full of compelling performances, in this spare, bleak and minimalist work punctuated with ironies, wry humour and a sparingly used moody score.

Director: Dileesh Pothan

Genre: Crime Drama/Family Drama

Language: Malayalam

Country: India

Saturday, 18 June 2022

Întregalde [2021]

 Radu Muntean’s excellent new film Întregalde had all the quintessential hallmarks of Romanian New Wave – the kind championed by Muntean himself in his memorable Tuesday, After Christmas from a decade back – viz. narrative sparseness, ultra-realism, formal rigour, voluble script, bone-dry humour, lack of non-diagetic sounds, long and unobtrusive single takes, and near real-time filming. He expertly infused these with atmosphere, tenseness and brewing suspense that made it akin to a slow-burn thriller, in striking juxtaposition to the deliberately paced and darkly satirical human drama. The film began with an exquisite mise-en-scène wherein a terrific tracking shot – with a gently roving camera moving through a crowded space – took us amidst the volunteers of a philanthropic social service group, who’re embarking on trips to small villages to distribute essential items to the destitute on the occasion of Christmas. The narrative then zooms in to three of them – Maria (Maria Popistaşu), Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu) and Dan (Alex Bogdan) – who’re travelling together in an off-roader vehicle to the titular Transylvanian village. On the way they pick up an elderly and possibly senile man called Kante (Luca Sabin) who suggests a short-cut to their destination, and that’s when their lucks take a nose-dive. As things go south in an uninhabited and bitingly cold environ, incommunicado to the outside world, their temper, morality and sense of charity undergo nerve-racking pressure tests. Sabin, an amateur actor and apparently an actual resident of the eponymous village, was extraordinary as the wiry, garrulous and unpredictable man stuck in a time warp – portrayed through audacious single takes where he blabbers endlessly – and served as the fillip to the gripping narrative, and in turn the three edgy, brilliantly enacted volunteers.

Director: Radu Muntean

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama

Language: Romanian

Country: Romania

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Hit the Road [2021]

 Panah Panahi proved that he’s his father’s son in his debut film Hit the Road. Even if it’ll take him some time to fill the great Jafar Panahi’s shoes and emulate his voice – and it did feel slight and tad unmoored on occasions, and the cuteness went overboard at times – this charming, effervescent, and funny road movie – a quintessential American genre that, ironically, has paved way for a number of Iranian gems too – displayed in no uncertain terms Panahi Jr.’s storytelling mettle, willingness to use narrative as a springboard rather than an end in itself, and – like his defiant father who’s never tempered his dissent nor his distinctive chuckle – the gall and temerity to tackle politically uncomfortable topics, albeit under the guise of a playful and unassuming exterior, that may not please the authorities. Gray-haired vivacious mom (Pantea Panahiha), gruff but adorable father (Hassan Madjooni) with a broken leg in cast, brooding and taciturn elder son (Amin Simiar), and one of the most energetic, precocious and chatty 6-year-old kids (Rayan Sarlak) imaginable, are on a cross-country road trip in their old and dusty station wagon. They drive, sing, smoke, argue, fight, reflect, reminisce and bond as part of their seemingly aimless journey – through some stunning and excellently photographed Iranian landscapes – while the real reason for their trip, and therefore their possible destination, gradually emerge. That, in turn, provided context to the interpersonal undercurrents that were regularly alluded to until the disclosures happened, and which added interesting emotional dynamics to this tender, bittersweet and featherweight comedy. There were a few interesting asides too, especially a hilarious one involving a motorcyclist who’s compelled to take a brief ride with the family.

Director: Panah Panahi

Genre: Drama/Road Movie

Language: Persian

Country: Iran

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

In Front of Your Face [2021]

 Hong Sang-soo, poet of the understated and the quotidian, crafted a disarmingly sublime work – delicately laced with melancholy, regrets, old memories, and impermanence – in his 26th feature, and second in 2021, In Front of Your Face. And its striking self-reflexive flourishes and sly infusions of wry, deadpan, self-deprecating humour made it an archetypal work in his prolific but understated canon. The protagonist here is Sangok (Lee Hye-young) – a middle-aged woman and one-time actress – who’s come back to Korea after many years in the US. The gently unfolding narrative captured small yet surprisingly profound moments over 1 ½ days – bittersweet reconciliation with her younger sister (Jo Yoon-hee) who clearly loves her but was left deeply hurt upon her sudden disappearance from their lives many years back; a quiet cigarette under a bridge during a walk in the gardens; bafflement at seeing Seoul’s urbanization (euphemism for relentless construction of skyscrapers) and gentrification during her absence; an elegiac visit to the house where she’d grown up; and a customary extended session of rambling conversations over endless glasses of soju at a lonely café where a garrulous and effusive filmmaker (Kwon Hae-hyo) is desperate for her to come out of her self-imposed retirement in order to star in his next movie. The film, in itself, was captivating in its evocative portrayals, formal sparseness, humane character and Hong’s continued exploration of Seoul’s locales, taverns and back-alleys. And these attributes were made even more fascinating by the fact that the lead actress – a former star in the country during the 80s – was the daughter of legendary filmmaker Lee Man-hee, with whom Hong’s mother Jeon Ok-soon – who was a movie producer – had collaborated on five films.

Director: Hong Sang-soo

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: Korean

Country: South Korea

Sunday, 5 June 2022

The Souvenir Part II [2021]

 If “art imitated life (and vice-versa)” in Joanna Hogg’s nakedly autobiographical film The Souvenir, that was twice over in her superb, intimate, nuanced, delicately composed and wonderfully metatextual sequel. Where the former film was about its heroine’s debilitating affair with an enigmatic man – based on the director’s remembrance of her own days as a young woman – the complex interplay of “real” and “reel” were taken a step further as the protagonist here decides to make a film to remember, interpret and understand that tragic relationship, along the lines of what Hogg already did in the earlier one; therefore, like Kiarostami’s sublime masterwork Through the Olive Trees, the protagonist – who herself is a stand-in for the filmmaker – directs an actress who’s a stand-in for her in the film-within-film. And yet, despite the formal ingenuity, the work itself brimmed with disarming simplicity, poignant reminiscences, affecting mix of emotions – joy, melancholy and pathos – and fine evocation of an artist’s startling coming-of-age as a woman and an artist through her art. It took off where the earlier one ended, with Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) trying to recover – at the charming countryside estate of her parents (played by Tilda Swinton, Byrne’s real-life mother, and James Spencer Ashworth) – from the crushing impact of her boyfriend’s addiction and demise. And, as part of this recovery process, she first tries to understand who he really was, and thereafter deconstruct her own memories of him and their relationship through her graduation film – a memoir, instead of a social-realist documentary that she’d initially planned for – against her professors’ wishes. Multiple moments of self-deprecating humour and bold stylistic splashes were adroitly blended into this otherwise sombre, muted and self-reflexive gem.

Director: Joanna Hogg

Genre: Drama/Film a Clef

Language: English

Country: UK

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Unclenching the Fists [2021]

 Ada (Milana Aguzarova), a deeply conflicted, vulnerable and troubled young Muslim woman – the protagonist in Kira Kovalenko’s Unclenching the Fists – is haunted by the past and oppressed by the present; she’s inextricably bound to her overbearing family, while furiously desirous of breaking free; she wants to explore her womanhood, but is held back by fear, shame and denial of agency. These complex dualities formed the crux of this bleak, lyrical and defiantly feminist film that, through its claustrophobic story, covered a woman’s aching cry for liberation amidst political violence, societal alienation and stifling patriarchy. Ada lives with her domineering, over-protective father (Alik Karaev) who she’s desperate to escape from, and her younger brother who’s disturbingly close to her, in the desolate former mining town of Mizur in Russia’s North Ossetia region. She pines for her elder brother (Soslan Khugaev), who’s relocated for work, to return and take her away, while also torn by the amorous overtures of a goofy loafer. Her social construct was further complicated by allusions to the Chechen-Russian conflict, and the 2004 Beslan school hostage tragedy in particular where the siege by Chechen rebels was crushed by the state with brutal iron-fist, leading to 333 deaths, including that of 186 children. Ada was one of the students who survived the bloody massacre; however, she still carries the painful physical scars and debilitating psychological trauma which has made it profoundly difficult for her to have physical intimacy with anyone. Aguzarova gave a stunningly assured, courageous and ferocious turn in this bold directorial work by the second student of celebrated filmmaker Alexander Sokurov – after her batchmate Kantemir Balagov who made Beanpole two years back – to achieve international recognition.

Director: Kira Kovalenko

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Family Drama

Language: Ossetian

Country: Russia

Sunday, 29 May 2022

The Year Before the War [2021]

 The gold standard for picaresque works centred on impassive and amoral protagonists – who drift through historical moments through a mix of lucky coincidences and ability to change political colours based on what’s expedient – have been, for me, the blazing Polish filmmaker Andrzej Munk’s Bad Luck and the towering Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England, alongside, to a marginally lesser degree, Czech New Way giant Jiri Menzel’s adaptation of the latter novel. Latvian filmmaker and university professor Dāvis Sīmanis’ audacious, feverish, flamboyant and politically ambiguous movie is a fascinating addition to that list. He captured the singularly fragile point of inflection that Europe was in, in 1913 – with its nationalist hysteria, warmongering and violence – and which would soon explode into a devastating war engulfing and ravaging the continent, through formal bravura – it’s made in the veins of silent-era German Expressionism, through dazzling high-contrast visuals, disorienting compositions, chiaroscuro, and changing film-speeds – lacerating satire, bleak ironies, brash historical evocations and bold surrealist splashes. Peter (Petr Buchta) – a.k.a. Hans – starts out as a doorman at a luxury hotel in Riga, until he loses his job upon an attack by anarchists. The inscrutable anti-hero, thereafter, traverses across Switzerland, Prague, London, Vienna, etc. over this tumultuous year, has dramatic interactions with various historical figures – a hideously cartoonish Lenin (Lauris Dzelzītis), a sultry Mata Hari (Inga Siliņa), a lascivious Freud, a buffoonish Hitler –, and participates in defining incidents that literally triggered the Great War. While the film’s politics can be troubling at times, there were some striking displays of empathy towards the little people facing bigotry, brutality and discrimination at the hands of those in power that underscored its humanist core.

Director: Davis Simanis

Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire

Language: Latvian/French/Russian/German

Country: Latvia

Friday, 27 May 2022

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? [2021]

 Alexandre Koberidze’s sophomore feature was a quirky, playful and charming ode to youth, flights of imagination, football, cinema and the ancient Georgian city of Kutaisi. It effortlessly operated in the intersection between endearing romance, magic realism and city symphony, through freewheeling infusion of humour, fantasy and whimsy. At the heart of this lilting film is a wistful, oddball romance between two soft-spoken loners. Medical student Lisa (Ani Karseladze) and football player Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) bump into each other twice over the course of a day, upon which they agree to fix a date as they start experiencing the soft pangs of first love. However, in a curious twist of fate, they wake up the next day looking completely different (now played by Oliko Barbakadze and Giorgi Bochorishvili) and shorn of their vocational skills. And hence, while their plans go for a toss, in an ironic development they end up getting employed by an affable, middle-aged café owner who’s spectacularly unsuccessful in increasing his business, though not for lack of trying. As we hope for luck to shine back on these two lost individuals, we’re presented with a series of captivating digressions capturing the myriad idiosyncratic shades of the city – viz. the unique personalities of stray dogs, the tradition of watching football games which is amplified during the World Cup, people’s love for whiling time, a director’s attempt at filming actual couples, and the gentle ebb of life in general. Lovingly shot in saturated colours, set to an eclectic score that alternated between peppy and mournful, laced with deadpan humour, and accompanied by narration by the director himself, this film was imaginative, impish and uplifting, albeit tad frothy at times.






Director: Alexandre Koberidze

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Fantasy

Language: Georgian

Country: Georgia

Saturday, 7 May 2022

Titane [2021]

 Titane is lurid, provocative, violent and outrageous, requiring complete suspension of disbelief; it’s also a trippy, edgy, visceral and thrilling ride, with surprising infusions of tenderness and fragility. Julia Ducournau’s incendiary work reminded me of early Cronenberg’s nightmarish techno-body-horror – Crash in particular, and Videodrome too, in their erotically-charged human-machine interfacing – and early Verhoeven’s punk-sensuality, along with explorations of gender fluidity, sexual transgressions, hypermasculinity, male gaze, and boundary-bending inorganic relationships which were Ducournau’s own. The deliriously extreme first half is set off with the asynchronously folksy “Wayfaring Stranger” and a car accident that leaves young Alexia with a titanium plate in her cranium and alien-like scars around her ears. Flashforward few years later, and Alexia (Agathe Rousselle in a scintillating, chameleon-like and ferocious debut) – introduced through a hypnotic tracking shot, to the electrifying beats of “Doing It a Death” – is an exotic dancer at car shows, whose writhing performances leave cuckolded men salivating. She harbours a devilish murderous streak that gets triggered by human intimacy, and an auto-fetish that leads to what has become a cause célèbre and leaves her pregnant. When the trail of bodies becomes unmanageable upon a darkly comical spree, she shape-shifts into an alternate gender identity – through DIY facial reconfiguration and body strapping – and becomes the long-lost son of a heavily grief-stricken, steroid-pumping firefighter (Vincent Lindon) in the film’s brooding second half. The delicate bond that develops between the two lonely, lost individuals – trapped in their respective netherworlds – was interspersed with an affecting slow dance to “She’s Not There” and a stunningly liberating solo atop a car – where else? – to a sexier rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger”. Eclectic electronic soundtrack, therefore, was integral to this brash piledriver.

Director: Julia Ducournau

Genre: Thriller/Body Horror/Psychological Drama

Language: French

Country: France

Sunday, 1 May 2022

Mr. Bachmann and His Class [2021]

 Maria Speth, in her remarkably expansive, quietly radical and deeply intimate 3 ½ hour documentary Mr. Bachmann and His Class, covered serious and urgent topics that’ve become enormously relevant today in a world fraught with right-wing populism, nationalism, majoritarianism, parochialism and religious prejudices – viz. embracing of pluralism and multiculturalism through acceptance and assimilation of immigrants from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, along with transparent discourses on discomfiting historical memories. But – and such is the quiet beauty and warmth of this big-hearted work – these complex political themes were never at odds with its profoundly personal and enchantingly unassuming nature. This foregrounding of everyday stories – organically enmeshed with the above themes through an unhurried, observational form – reminded me of Wiseman’s magnificent In Jackson Heights (and City Hall too), even if the scope was significantly more compact vis-à-vis the latter films. The setting here is a public school in the town of Stadtallendorf – where Nazis used slave labour for their war industry, and thereafter West Germany brought in “guest workers”, a euphemism for low-wage labourers who can be easily exploited by the capitalist market – where the students belong to blue-collar immigrant families from different countries and are struggling to get integrated because of social, cultural and linguistic barriers. Dieter Banchmann – an extraordinary, bohemian and rockstar teacher approaching retirement – imparts a progressive form of pedagogy where inclusiveness of diverse cultural backgrounds and socio-economic hurdles through music, transparent conversations, empathy and humour are as important as math and language skills. Speth, who’s known Bachmann since many years, followed him and his students – each of whom we get to know closely – for around 2 years for this immersive work with an underlying streak of resistance.






Director: Maria Speth

Genre: Documentary

Language: German

Country: Germany