Tuesday 31 March 2020

Infinite Football [2018]

Sports movies have rarely had common grounds with auteur driven cinema, despite exceptions like Raging Bull or The Hustler or Offside, etc. Porumbiou’s dry, idiosyncratic and self-reflexive documentary Infinite Football – laced with existential, philosophical, personal and political ruminations – indisputably serves as an example of that rare overlap. The Romanian filmmaker’s childhood friend Laurențiu Ginghină was a promising football player in his youth; however, his playing days ended upon receiving a nasty leg injury during a bad tackle; and, it relapsed while working at a now defunct plant on one dreary New Year’s eve leading to the Revolutions of 1989. That propelled a life-long obsession for him – the desire to conceptualize a new variant of the beautiful game where the teams and the field are divided into parts in order to restrict agglomeration of players, and hence potentially avert injuries; and, in order to ensure that the play is smooth, the ball keeps moving and the offside rule is suitably addressed, he’s kept coming up with new versions ever since. Though his idea never really took off, and despite multiple potential gaps in it – as pointed out by a local football coach, and also Porumbiou himself, who’s present throughout with his chuckling and skeptical nature – Ginghină has never stopped believing. Meanwhile, his life continued to be a series of ironic “what could have been’s”, as the 09/11 prevented his plans of moving to the US and he ended up becoming a mid-level government functionary, helping local residents get back their seized lands. The film’s deceptive simplicity and matter-of-fact style, along with its wry tone, realism and nods to his country’s contemporary history, made it yet another quintessential Porumbiou work.

Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Genre: Documentary/Sports Movie
Language: Romanian
Country: Romania

Sunday 29 March 2020

An Elephant Sitting Still [2018]

Novelist Hu Bo made his movie debut with the formidable 4-hour fable An Elephant Sitting Still; hence, it’s such a tragedy that his life was curtailed by suicide right after he completed it, reminding one of the likes of Andrzej Munk (Bad Luck, Eroica, Man on the Tracks), Jean Vigo (L’Atalante), RW Fassbinder (too many to recount), Cristian Nemescu (California Dreamin’), etc. whose dizzying potentials were cut short by untimely deaths. An ambitious work, and a bleak, disorienting and visceral viewing experience – further heightened by the interplay between intense close-ups and a steadycam incessantly following the characters on their backs, along with long takes and a blue-washed colour palette – it provided for a study in despair, disillusionment, familial dysfunction, existential crisis, lovelessness, and the juxtaposition of societal decay with loss of personal equilibrium; the last point made for an ironic counterpoint to the metaphoric title referencing a mythic elephant unfazed with the happenings around it. Drenched in fatalism and nihilism, the leisurely paced movie chronicled a really bad day in the lives of four crisscrossing individuals residing in a grungy city in Northern China – a school student (Peng Yuchang) with an unemployed, embittered father, who goes on the run after fatally injuring a bully by accident; a lonesome girl (Wang Yuwen) who’s emotionally distant to her working class mother and has been inappropriately seduced by her school’s well-off administrator; a local mobster (Zhang Yu) plagued with guilt upon witnessing a friend’s suicide with whose wife he was having an affair; and an aged man (Liu Congxi) whose daughter and son-in-law want him to shift to a glum care home to make space for their daughter in their cramped apartment.

Director: Hu Bo
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Urban Drama
Language: Mandarin
Country: China

Thursday 26 March 2020

I, Daniel Blake [2016]

Ken Loach, the champion of social realist cinema and mouthpiece for the British working class, crafted a powerful and gut-wrenching account of the devastation wrought upon voiceless individuals through the outsourcing of state welfare to for-profit organizations, in I, Daniel Blake. Packed with emotional wallop, deep empathy and stirring political punch, the film had evoked a passionate response in Britain upon its release, as it rightly should; and, that its relevance went beyond national boundaries, made it all the more poignant and pertinent. The opening sequence – wherein a “health service professional” decides over phone, through inane Q&A, that 59-year old widower Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), who’s suffered a stroke and has been forbidden from employment by his doctor, that he’s fit to work and hence ineligible for support – immediately established the utter ludicrosity of the situation and brilliantly set the context for what followed. The increasingly agitated, frustrated, humiliated and helpless Daniel fights a lonely battle against the heartless system, and ends up getting trapped inside a Kafkaesque nightmare; and this inevitably takes him towards heartbreaking consequences instead of helping him out. Meanwhile, as ironic silver linings to his bleak state of affairs, he befriends single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) who’s been pushed to the edge of her resolve, and a young hustler who’s decided to subvert the system that wants to keep him tied down. Both Johns and Squires were magnificent, and the deliberately low-key portrayal of their existences was both authentic and moving – aspects which took the film to a moment of brief epiphany but an ultimately heartbreaking finale. Loach therefore defiantly expressed, through this, both rousing dissent and a stunning indictment against wanton neo-liberalism and state apathy.

Director: Ken Loach
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Political Drama
Language: English
Country: UK

Monday 23 March 2020

Goodbye First Love [2011]

Goodbye First Love, Mia Hansen-Løve’s accomplished third feature, reminds one of Maurice Pialat’s films in the way it portrayed love – bordering on irrational, delusional, self-destructive – by stripping it of overt displays of emotions, sentimentality and nostalgia. Instead, what we have here is an intense yet sensitive depiction of a messy romance, which only grows messier with time. The narrative, set over a wide temporal arc of nearly a decade, is structured into three acts – it begins with Camille (Lola Créton), a 15-year old Parisian girl, passionately in love with the relatively reticent Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who eventual breaks off with her upon embarking on a 10-month backpacking trip to South America, nearly leading to the emotionally fragile girl’s suicide; fast forward four years later, and she’s now an architecture student with growing finesse for her vocation, and gets involved with her admired professor Lorenz (Magne Håvard-Brekke), who also happens to be significantly older to her; in the final act, set another few years later, Camille gets accidently reconnected with Sullivan who’s now based in Marsaille, and the two get embroiled in a clandestine affair despite she still being in relationship with Lorenz, only for him to yet again dispay his unwillingness to commit beyond a point. The protagonist’s arc provided for a rather ironic elucidation of the maxim that, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Interestingly, while Camille’s liaison with Lorenz alludes to Hansen-Løve’s own relationship with and eventual marriage to) the much older Assayas, the prime focus of the film, carried commendably by Créton, remained the other – and more turbulent – affair; and the symbolic final scene brought things to a surprisingly refreshing end.

Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama
Language: French
Country: France

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Sieranevada [2016]

Cristi Puiu, best known for his powerful depiction of one man’s devastating fall in The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, made a stirring one on familial dysfunction with Sieranevada. And, what made it even more arresting was the way it captured a host of subjects that were both seeped in Romania’s complex contemporary history, as well as the happenings of the world around – the tussle between religious dogmas and atheism, individualism vis-à-vis the collective, the guilt of infidelity and the scandal of addiction within a conservative social construct, a world irrevocably altered by 9/11, the violent attack on Charlie Hebdo, and more. The scene is a gathering of Lary (Mimi Branescu), a seemingly sanguine doctor, his jittery wife, and extended family members on his side to commemorate his deceased father. And, Puiu made use of this occasion for a compelling study on complicated human dynamics – along with suppressed differences, bitternesses, resentments, sociopolitical disilussionments – laced with cynical and even caustic humour. The movie’s most astonishing and virtuoso feat perhaps lay in how nearly the entire thing was seamlessly filmed within a cramped apartment, made even more congested with the horde of fidgety and rarely static characters continually changing positions and interacting across groups, and that too using long single takes (despite the immense spatial and logistical constraints). Further, it was marvelously shot and sequenced in near real time and in hyper-realism, with the camera – and in turn the viewers too – placed right in the middle of the family clearly on edge and ready to implode. The brilliantly rambling and conversational script, along with the intensely naturalistic turns by the cast, made this an offbeat, wryly ironic, simmering and immersive viewing experience.

Director: Cristi Puiu
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Family Drama
Language: Romanian
Country: Romania