Saturday 30 November 2019

The Irishman [2019]

Martin Scorsese has made a triumphant return to his glory old days with his magnificent masterpiece The Irishman. Sprawling, ambitious, multi-layered, elegiac, alternately epic and intimate, and audaciously framed, fellow septaguanarians Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino spectacularly rolled back their years with bravura filmmaking and acting masterclass. While Mean Streets remains the most emblematic Marty gangster film for me, this is stylistically closer to Goodfellas and Casino – forming a trilogy of sorts – in that they’re based on real-life accounts, are narratively similar (mobsters looking back at their rise and fall) and set against expansive historical-temporal canvases. Adapted from Charles Brandt’s euphemistically-titled narrative nonfiction I Heard You Paint Houses, the movie – riveting every minute of its 3 ½ hour length – chrocicles the life of narrator and central protagonist Frank Sheeran (a tour de force De Niro), a WWII veteran who becomes a Mafia enforcer and labour leader, along with an engrossing parallel account of the world of organized crime in general as well as watershed political events through the 60s and 70s – the Bay of Pigs debacle, the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s presidency and assassination, the Watergate Scandal, etc. Sheeran’s eventful life, moral ambiguity and the burden of crimes and violence that he carries to his graves, and the timeless clannish themes of loyalty, brotherhood, honour, guilt, betrayal and omerta, played out through his evolving relationships with Mafiosi boss Russell Bufalino (a remarkably restrained Pesci) and the infamous labour union legend Jimmy Hoffa (a boisterous Pacino). The fabulous ensemble cast includes a terrific Stephen Graham and Hervey Keitel in a cameo, while the tonal shift from vigorous to mournful was aided by the terrific soundtrack.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Genre: Crime Drama/Gangster Film/Biopic
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Ash Is Purest White [2018]

With Ash is Purest White Jia Zhangke created a film that is at once expansive and intimate, broad canvased but with a tight central focus, slow-burning and yet possessing a thrilling sense of immediacy. And, through his novelistic portrayal of a complex relationship over a 3-act structure, and in turn a layered exploration of China’s rampaging socioeconomic transitions, its cultural mores based on patriarchy and machismo, and the strict moral code of the jianghu underworld, the film memorably blurred the personal / political divide. In the 1st act, Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her mobster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan) are an inseparable couple in the mining town of Datong, until their relationship screeches to a halt when she gets imprisoned for 5 years for protecting him from violent assailants with an unlicensed gun. In the beautifully picaresque next act, Qiao, freshly released from jail, travels to search for Bin, with the massive Three Gorges Dam over the Yangtze as the backdrop, only to find desolation, loneliness, and that Bin’s now moved on from his past life including her. And, in the final act set another few years later back in Datong, Qiao runs Bin’s erstwhile gambling parlour, while also taking care of a disillusioned and irascible wheelchair-bound Bin. The film abounds in self-referential allusions which should be rewarding to those who’ve invested in Jia’s filmography; the 2nd act, where Qiao is seen in the same outfit and setting as Still Life, made for a stirring sense of déjà vu. Leisurely paced, deftly photographed and comprising of pop soundtrack, it boasts of a magnificent turn by Jia’s iconic muse in the way her body language kept subtly changing over the course of the narrative.

Director: Jia Zhangke
Genre: Drama/Social Drama/Political Drama
Language: Mandarin
Country: China

Sunday 24 November 2019

Om Dar-B-Dar [1988]

There are movies which are difficult to interpret and analyze, and then there are those which are way beyond all realms of coherent or decipherable meanings – so much so that, even an attempt at rational untangling is bound to end in futility. Kamal Swaroop’s weird, absurdist, surrealist (or Dadaist, perhaps?), trippy, bizarre, loony and wildly experimental cult film Om Dar-B-Dar belongs, unequivocally, in the latter category. Hence, understandably, watching it was equal parts infuriating, frustrating, maddening and baffling, and it certainly doesn’t make for a regular viewing experience. However, that said, it was also funny, quirky and gleefully crazy; no wonder, it has been routinely classified as a “Great Indian LSD Trip”. Made in 1988 but not released in theatres until 26 years later (interestingly, it opened on big screen on the same day as Ashim Alhuwalia’s intoxicating grindhouse gem Miss Lovely), it reminded a bit of such psychedelic movies as Daisies, Birds Orphans and Fools, The Color of Pomegranates, etc. Set in the small town of Ajmer in Rajasthan, the film’s array of characters includes the titular Om, a misfit and disillusioned teenager; his elder sister Gayatri (Gopi Desai) who seduces the love-struck bicycle riding Jagdish (Lalit Tiwari); their wiry astrologer father (Lakshminarayan Shastri); a titillating actress (Anita Kanwar) hoping for image makeover, etc. Swaroop filled the film with a barrage of non-sequitur sounds and fantastical images, jarring production design, free-flowing mash-up of reality, dreams and fantasies, a hysterical sense of humour, and some phantasmagoric songs too – the deadpan “Bablu Babylon Se” and the nutty “Meri Jaan” were memorable zany – as it covered themes ranging from religion, mythology, cinema, politics, consumerism, war, voyeurism, small-town nostalgia, Freudian dreams and whatnot.

Director: Kamal Swaroop
Genre: Avant-Garde/Experimental Film/Surrealist Comedy
Language: Hindi
Country: Country

Thursday 21 November 2019

The Meyerowitz Stories [2017]

In his 2005 gem The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach had crafted an exquisite portrayal of marital breakdown and its effect on the couple’s two kids. Though not a sequel, The Meyerowitz Stories finds the three kids of an aged intellectual father with multiple divorces to his credit, still battling with themselves and with each other on account of having grown up in broken families. The film captured the intrinsically dysfunctional lives of the titular family through an episodic and wryly funny mélange – the narcissistic father Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a retired art professor and sculptor, who’s trapped in his own image even if the world outside doesn’t hold him on such a high pedestal anymore; the unemployed elder son Danny (Adam Sandler), a former musician and house husband, and his introverted sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who care for their father despite the deep-set grouse they carry for having been neglected as kids and not achieving material successes in their lives; and Danny’s well-to-do accountant half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller), who, on the other hand, never liked the fact that he was never given enough space by his domineering father. When Harold falls seriously unwell, his siblings are compelled to come together, and that opens up their unreconciled memories and unresolved wounds. There was a fair bit of name-dropping of canonized artists, and also some expositional dialogues, which felt tad superficial at times. However, that aside, it was filled with whimsical and idiosyncratic scenarios, with an underlying naked wire that got exposed from time to time. Performances were good throughout; Hoffman was peerless in particular as the incorrigible but vulnerable old man, and Marvel a revelation as the deeply troubled daughter.

Director: Noah Baumbach
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Family Drama/Social Satire
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday 19 November 2019

The Handmaiden [2016]

Maverick Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s movies have always been about unhinged outsiders – be it men (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Cut) or women (Lady Vengeance, I’m A Cyborg but that’s Ok, Stoker) – who operate outside the conventional social dynamics, and invariably end up instigating violent, even operatic, chain reactions. In a fabulous continuation of that thematic trend in his filmography, The Handmaiden is a lush, gorgeously mounted, deliciously twisted and gloriously unpredictable tale with a script that progressively upped its delirious idiosyncrasy like a sumptuous orchestra; it also had Park’s quintessential signature all over in his penchant for gallows humour, shocking violence and outré in general. Adapted from the novel Fingersmith, but the setting transplanted from Victorian-era Britain to colonial-era Japanese-occupied Korea, the film also bristles with subversive political and stirring feminist subtexts, which made this more than just a thriller. The intricately structured gothic tale – where one sees moments from Chapter 1 in a diametrically different light in Chapter 2, before hell starts breaking loose in Chapter 3 – covers the scintillating relationship between the seemingly placid and immensely wealthy heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a closet femme fatale whose life is controlled by her tyrannical japanophile uncle (Cho Jin-woong) whose grotesque perversions know no bounds, and the sassy Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), an attractive pickpocket hired by a conman (Ha Jung-woo) to masquerade as Hideko’s maid. The compelling tale of devious one-upmanship and forbidden romance between these two brilliantly etched and marvelously enacted women, in a rigidly patriarchal social construct, was complemented by elaborately designed set-pieces and sumptuous camera work. The hideous octopus, by the way, gleefully referenced the notorious octopus eating sequence in Oldboy.

Director: Park Chan-wook
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Romance
Language: Korean/Japanese
Country: South Korea