Sunday, 2 October 2022

Crimes of the Future [2022]

 While watching Julia Ducournau’s gloriously seductive body-horror film Titane, one hoped for one last hurray from Cronenberg who’d once made this sub-genre his personal fiefdom and engendered the Cronenbergian grammar. Hence the Canadian auteur’s fabulous new film Crimes of the Future – albeit, conceived and written in the late-90s and was slated to go into production in early-2000s, before it got shelved for the next two decades – and his first in 8 years, felt especially exhilarating for its gleeful, provocative and ballsy evocation of his quintessential brand of outrageous, discomfiting, visceral and caustic social, cultural and biological commentaries in the veins of Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers and Crash. Bearing the same title as his sophomore film but without any resemblances otherwise, it captures a dystopian future when human bodily evolution has moved into uncharted territories where pain and infection are a thing of the past; new human organs are spouting out of nowhere and “surgery is the new sex”, leading to both edgy performance art and increased body control by the state; dietary habits have got radically altered – with an underground anarchist cult feeding on industrial plastic –; and the society has shaped into a battleground between the surveillance state and subversive non-conformists. In this disturbingly allegorical milieu, the story focussed on the tantalizing ménage à trois between a renowned performance artist couple – Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a brooding man having “accelerated evolution syndrome” and his sensual partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), who performs “live” surgeries on him – and saucy National Organ Registry bureaucrat Timlin (Kirsten Stewert) who’s secretly enamoured with Saul. The boldly grotesque visuals, hallucinatory atmosphere, and pulsating techno-classical score brilliantly complemented Cronenberg’s prescient, subversive and satirical vision.

Director: David Cronenberg

Genre: Thriller/Science Fiction/Body Horror

Language: English

Country: Canada

Tuesday, 27 September 2022

Better Call Saul [2015-2022]

 Breaking Bad, which earned immense fandom, plaudits and awards, was undeniably gripping; however, its spin-off prequel Better Call Saul – to let the cat out of the bag at the very outset – was even better. The creators, in an excellent creative decision, focussed here on the backstories of two secondary characters from the previous show – the hustling, loquacious and amoral lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) in particular, and to a lesser degree the taciturn ex-cop turned enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) – and dramatically reworked the mood and scope while retaining elements which were at the forefront there. The resultant work was more psychologically nuanced, morally ambiguous, stylistically ambitious, and sprawling in its narrative arc. Odenkirk gave a truly outstanding performance as Jimmy McGill, former con-man and struggling lawyer who, over 6 marvellous seasons, transforms into a wealthy, crafty and flourishing lawyer through a mix of sheer will, ingenuity, impudence, street-smartness and willingness to cut corners. Banks evoked a droll persona, juxtaposing fierce loyalty, albeit for Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) – the ruthless Chilean drug distributor for the cartel – with an indeterminate moral compass. Kim Wexler (magnificently played by the stunning Rhea Seehorn) – a virtuoso lawyer and a complex, enigmatic woman – formed a fascinating counterpoint to Saul. Among other memorable characters, Saul’s elder brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a renowned lawyer with psychological troubles; Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), a conniving and charismatic Mexican drug lord; and Nacho (Michael Mando), a foot-soldier in the Salamanca gang, stood out. The series became darker, murkier and more engrossing as it progressed, reaching its apotheosis in the final season – set “after” Breaking Bad’s events and shot in bleak monochromes – which portrayed a lonely, broken and hunted Saul struggling to contain his natural instincts.

Creators: Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould

Genre: Drama/Crime Drama/Legal Drama/Black Comedy

Language: English

Country: US

Friday, 23 September 2022

The Meetings of Anna [1978]

 Disaffection, displacement, loneliness, rootlessness, and emotional ambivalence were the defining attributes of Chantal Akerman’s autofiction film The Meetings of Anna. Made right after her monumental masterpiece Jeanne Dielman and during a phase when she was crafting one sublime, muted, nuanced, decidedly political and profoundly personal work after another, it formed a compelling companion piece to Je Tu Il Elle in particular and so much of her cinema in general, given her striking explorations of feminism, identity, queerness, memories, existential crises and living in a state of flux. Made with customary formal rigour – narrative minimalism, sparseness, empty spaces, melancholic hues, and bold use of silences – it presaged her magnificent mosaic film Toute Une Nuit, in the way they were both foregrounded on fragmented and momentary relationships.  Anna (Aurore Clément) – striking stand-in for Akerman herself – is a Belgian filmmaker who’s on a movie screening tour through various cities across Europe – Cologne, Brussels, Paris, etc. And, while putting up at different cold, impersonal hotels – small and shabby, big and elegant, discreet and modernist – she engages with diverse people and for a myriad reason, viz. impersonal one-night-stands with strangers, clandestine sleep-over with an old lover (Jean-Pierre Cassel), attempts at reconciliation with a bitter former friend, candid reconnect with her mother (Lea Massari) with whom she can easily shed all her physical and emotional inhibitions. Alongside these, she’s continuously trying to get in touch with a woman with whom she had a brief but intense affair. The cyclicity of her existence was brilliantly underscored when, finally on her own bed in her apartment, she listens to a series of telephonic messages which end with plans being spelled out for her next move screening tour.

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Drama/Semi-Autobiographical Film

Language: French

Country: Belgium

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Down There (Là-bas) [2006]

 Chantal Akerman made an intensely personal exploration of her fragile mind – filled with existential dilemmas, psychological ambivalence and political inquiries – in her spare, solemn and minimalist diary film Down There. Its formally rigorous focus on constricted physical spaces, expressions of displacements, and melancholic silences remind one of her fearlessly naked early work Je Tu Il Elle, albeit with the bold foregrounding of her body in that film replaced with her monologues here. Her reflections on the Holocaust, her family and her Jewishness, in turn, presaged her final work No Home Movie where she discussed these topics with her mother who was a Holocaust survivor. It was made during the month that she spent in Tel Aviv as a guest lecturer in a university there, during which she stayed in an apartment lent by a friend. Set almost completely indoors and in a manner that was disarmingly voyeuristic, we see long stretches capturing an ageing couple residing in a house opposite to hers – he’s seen spending his time either tending to his plants or having coffee along with his wife in their balcony – captured through a static camera and shot in grainy visuals through the blinds on her windows. And these sparse, extended and strangely hypnotic long-takes were sparingly accompanied with Akerman’s distinctive voice covering a mix of thoughts, memories and musings on such aspects as suicide – her aunt who was once a very gregarious woman had killed herself as did Amos Oz’s mother –, if it would’ve been better to settle in Israel vis-à-vis Belgium after the WW2, and the troubling present day realities of Israel’s settler colonialism that’s manifested by a bombing that takes place in the neighbourhood.

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Diary Film

Language: French

Country: French

Sunday, 18 September 2022

Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 60s in Brussels [1994]

 Made as part of Arte’s influential “Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge…” series where French filmmakers were asked to contribute recollections from their adolescence days, this might well place among Chantal Akerman’s most tender and playful films despite its aesthetic sparseness… and, alongside The Meetings of Anna, among her most autobiographical fictional works. This delightfully understated and freewheeling film portrayed a day in the life of the 15-year-old Michelle (Circe Lethem) who’s rebelling against her bourgeoise upbringing and experiencing deep existential crisis. It begins with her decision to quit school – she writes fake letters of absence where the reason ranges from an uncle’s illness to her own death, thereafter followed by dramatically tearing off her report card – which she shares with her bosom friend Danielle (Joelle Marlier); she then goes to the cinema where she meets Paul (Julien Rassam) – a young army deserter from Paris – and the two lost souls aimlessly amble along the city before getting into the vacant apartment of her cousin who’s on a holiday; and she ends the day by going to a dance party with Danielle that continues till dawn. Over the course of this lovely, leisurely day she becomes intimate with Paul – as a mix of teenage curiosity and defiance – while also expressing palpable signals of her deep attachment with Danielle, thus making this such an evocative coming-of-age movie. It had two memorable uses of music – Michelle dancing with Paul to Leonard Cohen’s mellifluous Suzanne and later with Danielle to the lively La Bamba – while the proceedings, in a cheeky disregard for temporal conventions, were anachronistically filmed with artefacts indicating the 90s even if the title pointed to the 60s.

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Drama/Coming-of-Age

Language: French

Country: France

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Dis-Moi [1980]

 The Holocaust had formed an integral part of Chantal Akerman’s lived experience, artistic voice, and being, and it was with Dis-Moi – also referred to as Aujourd’hui, Dis-Moi – that she confronted this devastating subject for the first time in her cinema. Made as part of a series on “Grandmothers” commissioned by French TV, this delicate, nuanced, melancholic, profoundly affecting and surprisingly powerful work – alternately heart-warming and heart-breaking, winsome and bleak, unassuming and eloquent – reiterated her prowess at capturing closed spaces (which she’d displayed in her marvellous silent docu Hotel Monterey) and her propensity for extracting broader personal meanings, feminist subtexts and political contexts through conversational voices (which she’d so magnificently evoked in her masterful essay film News from Home). She met and interviewed three elderly Jewish women in their Paris flats – packed with charming curios amidst an air of loneliness – who faced horrors, irreparable personal loss and forced exiles on account of Nazi occupations during the “Shoah”. And yet – perhaps on account of the passage of time – they shared their memories of their families and days of growing up with a mix of longing, tenderness, equanimity and poignant reconciliation, while coaxing Akerman with grandmotherly love to have the cakes, cookies and coffees if she wants hear their stories. Their digressive oral histories were juxtaposed with the lilting voice of Akerman’s mother Natalia – her letters formed a key strand in the aforementioned essay film and she’d be the central subject in her final film No Home Movie – who, like these women, was a Holocaust survivor (nearly everyone in her family was murdered in the Auschwitz death camps), and was trapped in memories of her idyllic closely-knit world before the Final Solution.

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Documentary/Holocaust Film

Language: French

Country: France

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Taming the Garden [2021]

 In his dry and disturbing documentary Safari, Ulrich Seidl had portrayed “trophy hunting”, wherein wealthy tourists kill exotic animals in the African jungles for fun and souvenirs. In Taming the Garden – whose wry and deadpan tableaux, incidentally, reminded me of Seidl’s aesthetic palette – we’re presented with “trophy trees”. Salomé Jashi’s spare, reflective and quietly caustic documentary elucidated the fact that human folly, entitlement and megalomania truly know no bounds, and that the super-rich can desire even the most ludicrous possessions simply because they can have it. Georgian billionaire and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has one such hobby that nearly beats everything in its staggering absurdity; he gets specialized teams – at enormous cost and extraordinary inconvenience – to uproot massive, magnificent and ancient trees from both private lands and public spaces, and relocate them across great distances – over land and sea – in order to plant them in his personal, artificially constructed and meticulously manicured garden. Jashi covered the process approximately chronologically, albeit captured over unspecified durations and different locations – complex extractions of the majestic giants, oftentimes at night-time to possibly avert protests; equally complicated transportations using trailers and barges, with ethereally shot vistas of the trees gliding over the Black Sea being the ones that stuck most to my mind; and finally ending with a peek into Ivanishvili’s faux park, even if its owner is never seen. These were accompanied with contrasting responses of poor villagers to this anomalous act – while they accepted the money offered for their trees and acknowledged the roads constructed in their villages to enable logistics, they also expressed a wide array of emotions – from amusement and bewilderment to dismay and outrage – at this Faustian transaction.

Director: Salome Jashi

Genre: Documentary

Language: Georgian

Country: Georgia

Saturday, 27 August 2022

Judas and the Black Messiah [2021]

 There’s a constant interplay between scalding anger and understated melancholy running through Shaka King’s furious, electrifying, fiercely evoked, meticulously researched and marvellously told feature debut Judas and the Black Messiah, and rightly so. It captured the grotesquery that the establishment committed under the guise of “threat to internal security of the country” – in essence a manifestation of systemic racism and systematized governmental overreach – through the real story of incessant intimidations, false arrests and ultimately murder of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, by the FBI. And, ironically, they achieved their nefarious objective by planting William O’Neal, a car thief turned FBI informant, in their midst in order to rat on Hampton and the Panthers, and thereafter betray him, in lieu of money and protection from prosecution. Daniel Kaluuya who played the charismatic, indefatigable and extraordinarily progressive 21-year-old revolutionary Hampton – who believed in social welfare, justice for black communities, and raising political consciousness of the working class, and could deliver rousing speeches – with superb panache, vigour and power, and Lakeith Stanfield who played the shifty, slippery and conflicted O’Neal with the cunning charm of a chameleon, were both excellent in this gripping work laced with political prescience, moments of tenderness and vulnerability, and exquisitely composed atmosphere. Jesse Plemons as O’Neal’s FBI handler and Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s girlfriend and fellow BPP activist Deborah Johnson provided noteworthy supporting turns, as did others. That King, instead of taking a straightjacketed approach, structured the film like a thriller – even if it’s tragically predestined – and chronicled it through the dual perspectives of its two dramatically divergent men, made this so much more layered, complex, authentic, dismaying and compelling.

Director: Shaka King

Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Biopic

Language: English

Country: US

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Getting Away With Murder(s) [2021]

 Released on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Nuremberg trials that were conducted by the Allies at the end of WW2, it’s a biting irony that David Wilkinson’s appropriately titled documentary Getting Away with Murder(s) dealt with the fact that the vast majority of Nazi perpetrators – politicians, death squad leaders, concentration camp guards, SS enforcers, bureaucrats, doctors, industrialists, etc. – who participated in the ghastly massacres unprecedented in modern human history, either escaped trials or went scot-free, many were freely absorbed back into their former positions and professions by the Adenauer government in West Germany, and numerous others lived long, comfortable lives in Germany, UK, Austria and elsewhere. Clocking at around three hours, this downbeat, serious, powerful, intensely distressing, rigorously researched and undeniably formidable work – funded to a large extent by the filmmaker himself and his wife – must surely place in the pantheon of essential cinematic dissertations on the Holocaust. Wilkinson criss-crossed across the Auschwitz-Birkenau (in Poland), Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Czech Republic, the US and his native UK covering Nazis who so easily escaped punishment despite the enormity of their crimes, through a vast array of stories, scholarly researches, personal testimonies,  evidences, archival documents and other historical artefacts, along with solemn and reflective conversations with renowned historian Mary Fulbrook, centenarian Benjamin B Ferencz who’s the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, tireless Nazi hunters, disillusioned members of British and German war crime departments who’ve been unable to accomplish much on account of governmental apathy despite possessing enough information to prosecute surviving Nazis, etc. The resultant work, therefore, was sombre, harrowing, bitter, mournful and troubling, with its impact amplified by intensely disturbing images, blunt assessments and journalistic matter-of-factness.

Director: David Wilkinson

Genre: Documentary/Political History/Holocaust Film

Language: English

Country: UK

Sunday, 21 August 2022

Everything Went Fine [2021]

 It’s really something to marvel at that a film, on subjects as heavy, brooding and serious as old age, mortality and assisted suicide, could so refreshing, humorous and bereft of sentimentality, and more so, considering François Ozon’s penchant for bleak and unsettling movies. Adapted from the Emmanuèle Bernheim’s memoir who’d earlier written screenplays for Ozon’s Swimming Pool and the especially downbeat 5x2, Everything Went Fine – the wry and deadpan irony of the title becomes clear only at the end – seamlessly laced grief, pain and loss with disarming levity into a bittersweet work. The wealthy and retired businessman André (André Dussollier) – very well connected socially on account of being an art collector, but having complicated relationships with his dementia-stricken and separated sculptress wife (Charlotte Rampling), and his two daughters Emmanuèle (Sophie Marceau) and Pascale (Géraldine Pailhas) on account of his acid-tongued nature and homosexuality – finds his life turned into shambles upon suffering a debilitating stroke. Unable to bear such an existence, he literally demands his favourite Emmanuèle – who, in turn, has always had a complex love-hate bond with him – to help him die. That isn’t just an emotionally wrenching ask, but a legally challenging one too as they need to surreptitiously take help of an expensive Swiss facility administered by a soft-speaking lady (legendary German actress Hanna Schygulla in a cameo) to avoid getting arrested by the police. Marceau was both striking and brilliant as the conflicted woman who as a kid wished for her dad to die and now, ironically, must facilitate that – not because she wants to, but because she can’t say no to him – while Dussollier was surprisingly effective as the obstinate, difficult, mercurial and entitled father.

Director: Francois Ozon

Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Biopic

Language: French

Country: France

Friday, 19 August 2022

Benedetta [2021]

 Deliriously provocative, gloriously lurid, gleefully profane, riotously scandalous and unabashedly hyper-violent, Benedetta possessed all the archetypes associated with Paul Verhoeven’s best-known works. That his ability to shock, cause outrage, and smash the boundaries of sexual morality remains so spectacularly undiminished even at the age of 82, should be enough of put many to shame. Loosely adapted from a non-fiction with an incendiary title that must’ve made Verhoeven chuckle with delight, viz. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown, it followed the extraordinarily turbulent and controversial life of 17th century Catholic nun, mystic and abbess Benedetta Carlini. Virginie Efira, who’d featured in a supporting turn in the filmmaker’s outstanding last movie Elle, gave a stunning performance – through terrific interplay between controlled precision and explosive bursts – as an overly devout twenty-something nun in a convent in Pescia run by the weary Felicita (Charlotte Rampling). Benedetta believes that she has a special connect with Jesus – bordering on the psycho-sexual, and sparked by bursts of disturbing, hallucinatory, grotesquely campy visions – and therefore the ability to perform miracles which’re often manifested through unsettling personality changes. And things become further unhinged when she embarks on a torrid affair with Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), a feisty young newcomer with an abusive past. Facing charges of being a heretic and sexual deviant on one hand by the brazenly patriarchal church, and the distressing onslaught of the plague on the other, the irrepressible heroine becomes even more valiant – bolstered by her zealotry and flamboyant performative abilities – thus taking this fearlessly blasphemous, richly melodramatic and sumptuously photographed film, with charged feminist overtones and ferocious critique of religious hypocrisy, to a feverish pitch.

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Genre: Drama/Religious Drama/Biopic

Language: French

Country: France

Sunday, 14 August 2022

Writing with Fire [2021]

 Khabar Lahariya (literally, “News Waves”) is a rare beacon of hope for journalism in the country – in a landscape otherwise cluttered with jingoism, populist propaganda, bigotry, sensationalism, disinformation and cacophony – in that it speaks truth to power with courage, doesn’t shy away from topics which are inconvenient to the establishment, and covers unsavoury ground realities. But it’s even more than that, as it’s run by rural women from disadvantaged and marginalized communities – necessitating them to operate in an environment dominated by entrenched patriarchy, caste violence and religious discrimination, while also battling economic and domestic impediments – thus imbuing their work with stirring social and feminist contexts. Co-directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, Writing with Fire is a terrific documentary on this incredible newspaper, and, in turn, a disarmingly powerful work of reportage laced with grit, socio-political conviction and understated eloquence. At its centre-stage were two remarkable Dalit women – Meera, the group’s seasoned Chief Reporter who takes charge of politically volatile stories while also providing mentorship to those needing guidance, and Sunita, a gutsy and self-assured young reporter who’s started covering difficult topics – who are covering such issues as murder of union leaders and activists by the coal mafia, apathy shown by the police towards an impoverished Dalit woman who’s faced sexual violence, and the obnoxious rise of muscular nationalism and cow vigilantism at the backdrop of the ominous 2017 state elections in the violent, chauvinistic and polarized quagmire that Uttar Pradesh represents. Filmed in spare, grainy and compelling visuals, these serious subjects were deftly juxtaposed with the bonding of these heroic comrades including their exuberant trip to Kashmir, their valiant attempts at going digital, and their incredible personal conviction.

Directors: Sushmit Ghosh & Rintu Thomas

Genre: Documentary/Reportage

Language: Hindi

Country: India

Wednesday, 10 August 2022

The Girl and the Spider [2021]

 Ramon Zürcher and Silvan Zürcher’s sophomore film The Girl and the Spider – and their first in 8 long years since their debut film The Strange Little Cat – was permeated with such a brooding and engulfing sense of melancholy, that one might almost ignore the sly, seductive and entrancing ambiguity, and delicate formal precision, with which it was so meticulously composed. It was an alternately haunting, droll and beguiling tale of longing, separation, lonely individuals, cryptic relationships, sexual gamesmanship, momentary reconciliations, and the various interlinkages between. The premise was simple – Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of her apartment in Berlin – which she shared with her roommate Mara (Henriette Confurius) – to another one in the city. This seemingly routine act of movement foregrounded a myriad emotions, and underlying intricate equations, that are laid nakedly threadbare over a couple of days. The strikingly beautiful, psychologically complex, impulsive, enigmatic, lonesome, deeply vulnerable and oftentimes unpredictable Mara formed the centre-point in the directors’ vivaciously crafted canvas where a host of people – family, friends, neighbours, workers and even strangers – move in and out of the frame like a meticulously orchestrated stage-play. We therefore see Lisa’s mother who strikes a bond with an ageing carpenter, a couple of girls who stay downstairs, a taciturn guy who pines for Mara, a shaggy bloke who cares for a neighbour’s dog, an old and intensely lonely lady, a former housemaid who’s left her piano behind, etc. Realism was often subverted with flights of imagination, fantasy and memories in this tight yet freewheeling work –photographed and scored with warmth, and with the mood switching between cold and tender – where catharsis loomed just round the corner like a missing cat.

Directors: Silver & Ramon Zucher

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Existential Drama

Language: German

Country: Switzerland

Thursday, 4 August 2022

Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades) [2021]

 Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of three acclaimed graphic novellas by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine – albeit, transplanted to Paris with surprising elan – is a beguiling and sensual amalgamation of old and new sensibilities – a tale of kinship and quest for love amidst the loneliness and existential isolation of an impersonal, hypermodern urbanscape. Audiard accomplished this dichotomy – based on a screenplay jointly written with none other than Céline Sciamma – through use of luminous B/W photography and melancholic palette on one hand, and the cold setting of the skyscraper-filled 13th arrondissement of Les Olympiades and candid depiction of lust, intimacy and sexuality on the other. It followed an emotionally fraught ménage à trois between three lost, demographically divided millennials craving for romance and companionship. Émilie (Lucie Zhang), who stays in an apartment that belongs to her senile grandmother and works at a shabby call centre, takes in Camille (Makita Samba), an erudite high school teacher working on doctoral degree, as her roommate. The two become lovers for a while; however, when he ends their brief fling with casual impassivity, the promiscuous Émilie finds herself falling for him. Meanwhile, Nora (Noémie Merlant), who’s moved to Paris to get back to college after many years, faces public humiliation on being mistaken for cam sex worker Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), upon which she begins a surprisingly affecting and deeply personal camaraderie with Amber, alongside an affair with Camille who she partners with in a small real estate company. The volatile and intertwining relationships were brought forth through fine performances, but none as fascinating as Zhang’s who expressed a volley of emotions and stirring vulnerability throughout the film’s length. The electronic theme score was an added bonus.

Director: Jacques Audiard

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Urban Drama

Language: French

Country: France

Sunday, 31 July 2022

History of Ha [2021]

 Lav Diaz’s sublime 4-hour gem History of Ha bore the hallmarks of “slow cinema” and the free-spirited Filipino maestro’s oeuvre – formally rigorous, structured around a metaphorical and deeply existential voyage, infused with trenchant political commentaries, filmed in entrancing single takes and stark B/W, and with continuous interplays between silence and conversations. It’s foregrounded on Philippines’ murky and turbulent political history, wherein even its most respected leader Ramon Magsaysay had problematic shades associated with his stint – his anti-Marxist Cold War interventions, militarism, and links to the US – while two repressive, brutal right-wing rulers, viz. Marcos and Duterte – ironically alluded to as “leader from the South” and “leader from the North” in the film, even if they were deliberately anachronistic as the film is set in 1957 – would dominate the country’s political scenes in the future. Akin to Hou’s masterful The Puppetmaster – which portrayed a puppeteer amidst complex, tragic political forces – the protagonist here’s Hernando (John Lloyd Cruz), a well-known ventriloquist and socialist poet, who retires around the same time as Magsaysay’s death in an aircraft accident. As his country’s dark fate gets sealed and his personal life is thrown into despair upon his fiancée’s decision to marry a landlord to help pay her family’s debts, the lonely and disillusioned man embarks on a directionless cross-country voyage and takes refuge in self-imposed silence – speaking, where unavoidable, through his puppet Ha. During his odyssey, he’s joined by three oddball characters – a do-gooder nun, a brash prostitute and a lost teenager – who all wish to go to an island where gold rush is underway, and finds himself in a disturbing psychological tussle with a despotic local strongman (Teroy Guzman) who’s a Marcos/Duterte stand-in.

Director: Lav Diaz

Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Road Movie

Language: Tagalog/English

Country: Philippines

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Mariner Of The Mountains [2021]

 Karim Aïnouz’s origin is a complex melting pot, in that he was born to a Brazilian mother and resides there, while his name is of Algerian descent courtesy his father, even though he hadn’t visited the country until now in his 50s. This duality imbued his marvellous and deeply personal docu Mariner of the Mountains, both in terms of its form and visual palette. It operated at an intriguing interjection between essay film, memoir, epistolary diary, travelogue, political inquiry, oral history and anthropology, and Aïnouz captured that through a myriad cinematographic means – vistas, kaleidoscopic montages, handheld cams, washed-out images, sepia-toned colours, black-and-whites, archival footage, etc. The resultant work, consequently, was elegiac, atmospheric and intimate, laced with melancholy and quirky humour. It chronicled his voyage from Fortaleza in Brazil to Algeria in order to know his heritage, meet family members from his father Majid’s side – who he never really knew while growing up – and understand the late Iracema who brought him up as a single mom. Heady political forces brought his parents together and separated them thereafter. They’d met and fallen in love while in the US as students; however, while the 1964 military dictatorship in Brazil compelled her to return home, he went back to Algeria with the dreams of building a new future for his country upon the Algerian War that freed them from colonialism and made it – along with Cuba and Vietnam – the then world capital of revolution. There he strolls through Algiers, visits his ancestral village in the Atlas Mountains, wryly reflects on the turbulent political destinies of Algeria and Brazil, and forms a more profound connect with his mother whose memories continue to haunt him.

Director: Karim Ainouz

Genre: Documentary/Diary Film/Essay Film

Language: Arabic/Portguguese/French

Country: Brazil

Saturday, 23 July 2022

Once Upon a Time in Calcutta [2021]

 Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s 3 films are a study in contrasts and commonalities. Where Asha Jaoar Majhe was a marvellously muted tone-poem and Jonaki a haunting, surreal tapestry on memories, Once Upon A Time in Calcutta – his most narratively ambitious effort thus far given its multiple characters, interlocking sub-stories and highfalutin title – is a bold mix of broken marriages, crumbling cultural citadels, nostalgic artefacts paving way for the future, and new-age business models selling false hopes and disenfranchising the disenfranchised. Yet, despite their narrative divergences, one can still perceive here the aesthetic minimalism, urban loneliness and elegiac reflections that his earlier films were suffused with. Ela (Sreelakha Mitra), an enterprising woman who dreams of owning an apartment and works at a TV show peddling lurid astrological crap to gullible viewers, walks out of her dead marriage to a simple, middle-class teacher residing in a quintessential old North Calcutta house, upon a terrible personal bereavement. When hopes for bank loan fails, she tries convincing her obsessively reticent half-brother (Bratya Basu) to sell off the abandoned, dilapidated building he stays in – what was once an iconic theatre with a revolving stage – to realtors. Meanwhile she allows for a quid pro quo affair with her slimy boss – who has been openly salivating for Ela and also runs a nefarious chit fund scam for swindling the poor – in exchange for a flat, while also embarking on a relationship with an old acquaintance who’s in charge of constructing a flyover that necessitates the dismantling of a once famous T-Rex structure. The film’s soap opera storyline, charged socio-political undercurrents and quirky use of Tagore’s songs were surprisingly juxtaposed with luminous cinematography, intimate compositions and melancholic air.

Director: Aditya Vikram Sengupta

Genre: Drama/Urban Drama

Language: Bengali

Country: India

Sunday, 17 July 2022

Vortex [2021]

 Gaspar Noé suffered a near-fatal brain haemorrhage in early-2020, and that experience inspired the implosive, gut-wrenching and magnificent Vortex. It was permeated with extraordinarily brooding and profoundly bleak exploration of ageing, mortality, and the engulfing chaos that precedes death. He covered this grim ultimate truth of life through claustrophobic vividness, wintry sparseness, and stunning formal bravado where we simultaneously see the two halves of an aged couple – each approaching death in their own sinewy, disorderly routes – through split screens. The film, unsurprisingly, reminded me of Haneke’s masterful Amour – where too an aged couple grappled with a harrowing downward slide – while the stunning use of dreary, incisive split screens made me draw parallels with two other brilliant works – where this formal choice achieved similarly discomfiting parallel gazes – viz. Godard’s Numéro Deux and Carrasco’s The Year of the Discovery. The narrative was steadfastly centred on an aged couple residing in a cramped apartment in Paris packed with books, artefacts and memories – comprising of “husband” (legendary Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, who picked up French for the role, and is therefore seen speaking in a deliberate, halting manner), a film critic writing a book on cinema and dreams, who suffered heart attacks in the recent past, and “wife” (veteran actress Françoise Lebrun, most famous for her role in Eustache's remarkable The Mother and the Whore), a former psychiatrist, who’s irrevocably slipping into the dark vortex of dementia – who we observe in parallel with stark, voyeuristic intimacy. The film began with Françoise Hardy’s haunting song Mon Amie la Rose that fittingly set the tone for this devastating chamber drama where one’s left with paralyzing sense of inevitability as things go from bad to worse.

Director: Gaspar Noe

Genre: Drama/Chamber Drama/Marital Drama

Language: French

Country: France

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

The Power of the Dog [2021]

 The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s first feature in a decade, is a film that’s bound to keep one unbalanced – for its genre subversions, psychological interplays and character dichotomies. It’s a spare, moody and stunningly composed revisionist Western, but it’s temporal setting, locational vistas and stylistic archetypes aside, it’s almost an anti-Western in how it’s focused on complicated relationships and anachronous thematic explorations. It’s a brooding, and oftentimes ferocious, meditation on a man’s complex relationship with his brother, demons, vocation, identity, garbled notions of manhood, and most importantly, conflicted sexuality. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the quintessential Western anti-hero – tough, macho, taciturn, gruff, unpredictable, with natural-born leadership qualities and a sinister penchant for violence; and yet, ironically, he was academically brilliant, has a talent in music, is emotionally bound to his brother George (Jesse Plemons) – whose plump, soft-spoken, gentle demeanour, and intellectual mediocrity couldn’t make them more antithetical – to the point where it’s discomfiting, and is ravaged by a scalding sense of conflicts, guilt and vulnerability. His brazen and brutal self-assuredness, therefore, are profoundly affected when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) – a widowed and emotionally fragile single mother bordering on alcoholism – and brings her to their home; and if his brother’s love getting divided isn’t enough, they’re joined in their arid cattle ranch by Rose’s frail and artistic young son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who Phil torments to start with but takes him under his wings with feelings bordering on homoerotic, the way he’d once become a protégé to his dashing late mentor he hero-worships. The oblique and gripping tale bordering on the gothic – laced with ambiguity and simmering melodrama – is led by a terrific, smouldering turn by Cumberbatch.

Director: Jane Campion

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Western

Language: English

Country: New Zealand

Saturday, 9 July 2022

Ahed's Knee [2021]

 Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee was angst-ridden, provocative, coruscating, and combative to the point of being a vitriolic tirade at times, further amplified through impulsive narrative movements, staccato editing, and jarring, stylized camera work that can get on one’s nerves. But, that said, it was also an intensely semi-autobiographical and a politically radical work, with its lashing takedown of Israel’s proud apartheidism, militarization, otherization of Palestinians, censorship, and in turn Godardian illustration of cinema being a political manifesto rather than just an artform. Its form, therefore, was defined by its agitprop stance, which made it both assaultive and oppressive. Y (played with seething fury by Avshalom Pollak) – a celebrated and controversial filmmaker, and stand-in for Lapid himself – is in the casting stages for his latest feature which is inspired by the fearless Palestinian activist Ahed Tamini, who created a furore in the settler colonial state by slapping an Israeli soldier on camera. While in the midst of that, he visits an arid little town in the Arava Valley where his previous film is being screened. His hostess is the coquettish Yahalom (Nur Fibak, in a turn filled with sly ambiguity), an official with the Ministry of Culture and vociferous admirer of Y’s filmography, who flirtatiously instructs him to abide by government-sanctioned and pro-state positions during his address to the attendees. He of course has no intentions of toeing the official line, and consequently forms an ambivalent relationship with her while reminiscing his damaging memories from his compulsory military service days and veering towards bold individual resistance. The film’s episodes – many taken directly from Lapid’s own experiences – were filled with courage, urgency and anguish, even if they were overwrought on occasions.

Director: Nadav Lapid

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Semi-Autobiographical Film

Language: Hebrew

Country: Israel