The Firemen’s Ball was quite an event in the career of Milos Forman, who would later become a darling of Hollywood what with his One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. It was his first film made in colour; but more importantly, it was his last movie in his native Czechoslovakia before he headed for America just in time to escape Prague Spring. The movie, which got banned in the country, is about a disastrous ball hosted by a group of middle-aged firemen in honour of their old retired chief. The crisp length and hilarious gags belie the movie’s immense artistic worth. It is a brilliant, anarchic, genre-bending classic whose comic timings would leave everyone laughing out loud, but whose subversive humour and satirical insights into a society behind Iron Curtain would not escape even those unaware of the then political turmoil surrounding the country. The actors, mostly non-professionals, did a remarkable job in bringing forth the farcical events that ensue over the course of the evening (interestingly, a number of members of the cast were repeated from the movie that preceded it, Forman’s delightful comedy Loves of a Blonde). The fact that Forman could infuse even the boisterous proceedings with a few moments of deep pathos and subtle (yet pinching) observations made the movie one for the ages, and along with a similarly subversive socio-political satire by Jiri Menzel, Closely Watched Trains, forms a cornerstone of the Czech New Wave.
Director: Milos Forman
Genre: Comedy/Political Satire/Social Satire/Black Comedy
Country: Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia)
German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s Jerichow is a modern-day variation of James M. Cain’s classic pulp fiction The Postman Always Rings Twice, albeit minus the hardboiled content that gave the source material its iconic status. The movie is about a penniless, laconic war veteran who, through a string of coincidences, gets employed by a reasonably wealthy middle-aged Turkish man (performed with great effectiveness by Hilmi Sozer) married to a bored, philandering, blonde adulteress screaming to get laid. The movie has been pictured without the kind of stylizations or disorienting camera angles that defined film noirs; rather, it is grim in tone and filled with dramatic realism and socio-political insights that belie the genre’s archetypal conventions. Further, even in the movie’s fatalist climax, there is more an element of absurdism than the kind of bleak nihilism that typified classic noirs. The movie is certainly not without its flaws – some of the plot contrivances seem too obvious, and the drifter’s character has not been as well delineated as the other two protagonists, for instance. However, having said that, this deceptively simple fable and revisionist neo-noir does deserve to be paid attention to.
Director: Christian Petzold
Producers of A Hard Day’s Night, in all probability, had one thing alone in mind when they conceptualized the movie – to cash in on the intense hysteria and mass frenzy surrounding the Fab Four. But, in the surprisingly jaunty hands of Richard Lester, the movie turned into a freewheeling, satirical and humorous cult classic, combining the peppy feel of early Beatles music with French Nouvelle Vague filming sensibilities. And in its circuitous, whimsical and delightfully irreverent portrayal of a fictitious day in the lives of the four iconic Liverpudlians – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr), all playing themselves, the movie managed to present a definitive zeitgeist of a time that has since been immortalized with the moniker Beatlemania. Shot in dazzling black-and-whites and based on a madcap script with an abundance of self-deprecating humour, the movie is filled with idiosyncratic characters like Paul’s amusingly eccentric granddad, comical managers, and an uptight TV producer. The movie is peppered with such legendary songs like the title track “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “She Love You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)”, among others. A fascinating blend of avant-garde narrative, brilliant (and at times, surreal) music videos, and cinema verite techniques, the movie, made in the form of a mockumentary, feels remarkably fresh even after nearly five decades of its release.
Director: Richard Lester
Genre: Comedy/Satire/Showbiz Comedy/Musical
Repulsion wasn’t just Roman Polanski’s first English language feature, it was also the Polish master’s first great masterpiece. Universally hailed as a cornerstone in the genre of psychological thrillers, and often placed in the same pedestal as Hitchcock’s Psycho, the movie is about the terrifying journey made by a young Belgian manicurist, living in London with her elder sister, from being a shy, introverted person to a criminally-insane psychopath. Hauntingly shot in moody black-and-whites, the movie is a brooding, disturbing and a brilliantly executed study of emotional alienation and psychological disintegration, and an eerie look at the delicate link between sexual repression and raging lunacy. The movie alternates between jazzy exteriors and claustrophobic interiors, interspersed with disconcerting surreal imagery on one hand, and shocking, albeit sparingly used, violence on the other. Catherine Deneuve (only 22 at the time!) brought to screen the frigid and emotionally distant protagonist with a seemingly pleasant demeanor, with astounding power, and her nubile, delicate beauty made the emotional impact of her portrayal that much more devastating. Though the movie might appear fatalistic, harrowing and even misanthropic to many, the story’s latent humanism wouldn’t get lost to those willing to delve deep.
Director: Roman Polanski
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller
Second World War was a bad time for children to grow up in Finland, as nearly 70,000 Finnish children were displaced and sent to neutral Sweden. Mother of Mine tells the story of Aero, one such Finnish child sent to Sweden and placed under the care of foster parents, against his wishes. Told in flashbacks by a much older Aero, this is a moving account of a child at complete odds with his otherwise idyllic environment, which to him is far more hostile than his war-torn homeland. Finding it exceedingly difficult to adapt and only begrudgingly accepted by his foster mother (who takes it upon herself to hide letters sent by his mother), Aero grows up to be a lonely man neither in touch with his foster mom nor able to rekindle the relationship with his real mother, and hence with a deep sense of abandonment, alienation and cynicism. Aero survives the war, yet for him his life is a great tragedy, and justifiably so. This is a fine, lyrical and an honestly made anti-war movie and a heartfelt tale told by a very sympathetic director of one of the many personal tragedies and disasters of life during the times of the war.
Director: Klaus Haro
Quentin Tarantino’s seventh feature direction (sixth if you consider the two Kill Bill volumes as a single movie) is a riotous and rambunctious rampage; there isn’t an iota of exaggeration in that! Inglourious Basterds (the title has been deliberately misspelt) recounts parallel attempts to assassinate the top brass of the German leadership, including Adolf Hitler, during WWII, while they are watching a movie at a theatre in German-occupied France – on one hand by a group of hilariously comical American-Jews called the Basterds who love to kick Nazi-ass, and on the other by the owner of the theatre, a Jewish girl, whose parents were executed by the Nazis. The movie is at once, an audacious and a provocative chronicle of an alternate WWII history where the Nazis face a reversal of fate vis-à-vis the Holocaust, an effective genre-spoof (some have even called it a spaghetti war movie), and the kind of wildly entertaining ride that can best be called Tarantino-an. The acting is memorable throughout, especially that of Brad Pitt as the gleefully over-the-top leader of the Basterds, and Christopher Waltz as an unctuous, sinister and silver-tongued Nazi ‘Jew Hunter’. However, the only flaw, as I remarked to a wonderful analysis of the movie by a fellow blogger, is that, despite some brilliant individual episodes, sum of the parts somehow failed to add up to the intended whole.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Genre: War Drama/Action/Comedy/Political Satire