Saturday 31 October 2020

Safari [2016]

 Leave it to Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl to make a straight-faced, matter-of-fact and low-key documentary that’s more nightmarish and viscerally upsetting than most horror movies. Stark, brutal, relentlessly unflinching and pungently satirical, Safari was both damning and riveting in its portrayal of big-game hunting – European tourists glibly killing majestic and exotic wildlife animals for fun, sports and trophies, on expensive trips to a hunting lodge in Namibia – and in turn, as in Paradise: Love, on the recurrent and underlying themes of neo-colonialism, white entitlement and racial exploitation. Though not exactly linear, the docu was structured in the form of three inter-related acts, with the stunning simplicity of this darkly deadpan approach counterpointing the disturbing subject – and therein perhaps lay Seidl at his most radical. It started off with talking head interviews filmed with his typically static shots – a middle-aged couple casually discussing the prices of wild beasts (one can only wonder what tempted them to feature in another Seidl work after the grotesque preceding docu In the Basement), a well-off family of four gleefully boasting of their love for hunting and the guns they prefer, the proprietors of the lodge sanctifying the utility of their facility, etc. The middle sections showed the actual hunting acts, including the devastating felling of a zebra and a giraffe. And, in the gruesome and queasiness inducing final act – which especially wasn’t for the weak-hearted – the focus shifted to the natives as they’re shown clinically skinning, disemboweling and dismembering the two magnificent animals, so that the different parts can serve their respective purposes in the form of hides, meat and memorabilia; unsurprisingly, the tourists were conspicuous by their absence from the slimy abattoirs.






Director: Ulrich Seidl

Genre: Documentary/Social Satire

Language: German

Country: Austria

Tuesday 27 October 2020

If Only (Magari) [2019]

 Ginevra Elkann – accomplished producer of indie and eclectic films – made her directorial debut with the wistful, bittersweet and warmhearted If Only. With its delightfully told tale of a fractured family, imbued with semi-autobiographical and quietly personal touches from her own life, one may even find hints of Mia Hansen-Løve in it. What the film, therefore, might’ve lacked in formal bravura or thematic audacity, it lovingly compensated through the portrayal of otherwise complex marital, familial and filial scenarios with nuance and simplicity, paralleled with the coming-of-age of a cheerful little girl. 8-year old Ana (Oro De Commarque) – clearly representing the childhood self of Elkann and through whose eyes the story largely unfolds – has just one wish, viz. to reunite her parents who’ve been acrimoniously divorced for 5 years now. She’s the youngest of three siblings – the uptight Seb (Milo Roussel) and the physically vulnerable Jean (Ettore Giustiniani) are older to her – and they stay in Paris with their devoutly Catholic mother (Céline Sallette) and stepfather. Their staid and sheltered lives, however, experience a unexpected whiff of chaos and change when they’re sent to Italy to spend their Christmas holidays with their biological father Carlo (Riccardo Scamarcio), a temperamental, unreliable and stony-broke wannabe screenwriter; he, along with his bohemian, quirky and thoroughly unconventional girlfriend and co-scriptwriter Benedetta (Alba Rohrwacher), takes them to a friend’s seaside cottage for a topsy-turvy and freewheeling stay filled with confusions, fights, fun, humour, tenseness, mischief, bonding, rebellion and even tentative hints of first love. Elkann did a fine job in handling the non-professional child actors, with Commarque, as the sweet and ever hopeful Ana, being the star of the show; Scamarcio and Rohrwacher were top-notch too.






Director: Ginevra Elkann

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: Italian/French

Country: Italy

Sunday 25 October 2020

In the Basement [2014]

 In his biting, subversive, unsettling and wryly outlandish documentary In the Basement – imbued with his distinctive formal rigour and cutting tonal palette, and at times even blurring the lines with fiction filmmaking – Seidl took his hapless viewers, both literally and metaphorically, on a rather macabre journey into Vienna’s sordid underbelly and warped entrails. By focusing on the basements of a few handpicked middle-aged, white, suburbia residents, therefore, he provided discomfiting peeks into some of their darkest secrets, murky and haunting Freudian obsessions and repressions, sexual addictions venturing into BDSM, and the disturbing prevalence of neo-Nazi pride and xenophobic tendencies. And, while the brutal candidness of the various tableaux and the gallows humour therein are bound to make this a visceral viewing experience, the fact that it was at times difficult to guesstimate the degree of enactment within these portrayals also made this an interesting testament to the role of a documentarian and the possible realms of documentary filmmaking. The vignettes have been captured usually using static, muted, medium-long shots: a middle-aged man and amateur tenor who uses his massive basement space as a firing range for a group of men who spew vitriol against Muslim immigrants when they’re not target practicing; a raging Hitler aficionado who’s filled his den with Nazi memorabilia; a woman who loves cradling authentic looking baby dolls stored inside shoeboxes in her cellar; a man who lives as a naked sex slave to his dominatrix mistress; a woman who’d faced sexual abuse and helps others, being ironically addicted to masochism; a hunting maniac who loves boasting of his string of animal head trophies (Seidl would expand this theme in his brilliant next docu Safari); etc.






Director: Ulrich Seidl

Genre: Documentary/Black Comedy/Social Satire

Language: German

Country: Austria

Friday 23 October 2020

The Skin I Live In [2011]

 Almodóvar’s rambunctious filmography can perhaps broadly be categorized into four buckets, viz. flamboyant, complexly structured melodramas; ribald, gleefully madcap comedies; deeply intimate, inward-looking dramas; and dark, brooding and unapologetically twisted psychological thrillers… and, despite the wild genre and tonal variances, his distinctive auteur touch – pastel palettes, bold thematic choices, idiosyncratic characters, dash of opera – is always immediately identifiable. His deliciously creepy, perverse, provocative and oftentimes exhilarating film The Skin I Live In – based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet, and his first collaboration with Antonio Banderas in 21 years (who he’d cast again – as his alter-ego – before the decade ended, in Pain and Glory) – undeniably belonged to the fourth bucket. Though elementally reminiscent of Franju’s Eyes Without A Face and Teshigahara’s The Face of Another, it had a stunning bucketload of outrageous and offputting plot and thematic elements added – mad scientists and their hubris, pathological obsessions, voyeurism, sexual assault, extreme revenge, sordid family secrets, forced gender reassignment; and yet one can’t help but be amazed at how compelling they were in Almodóvar’s while also being so discomfiting and viscerally shocking. The byzantine plot revolved around a brilliant, unhinged plastic surgeon (Banderas), whose wife had suffered horrible burns in a road accident, conducting transgenic experiments in secrecy at a high-tech lab inside his palatial mansion – on a strikingly beautiful lady (Elena Anaya) held captive, who looks eerily like his dead wife – to develop burn-resistant skin; and that was just the beginning of this deviously lurid movie that tantalizingly shed one unexpected layer after. The taut pacing, moody atmosphere, aesthetic production designs, marvelous performances, eccentric character dynamics, and haunting score made it all the more fascinating.






Director: Pedro Almodovar

Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller

Language: Spanish

Country: Spain

Monday 19 October 2020

Meek's Cutoff [2010]

 Kelly’s Reichardt’s moody, contemplative, languidly paced and low-key Western Meek’s Cutoff – more appropriately an anti-Western, for its subtle but discernible deconstructions of gender and race stereotypes typically associated with the genre – is filmmaking at its most minimalist; and, it’s defiantly opaque too given the narrative’s shrouding under psychological and contextual ambiguity and the refusal to provide much in the way of expositions. Loosely based on the 1845 Oregon Trail – apart from a title card at the beginning, one would need to rely on external readings to know about this historical incident – it’s centered on three settler families travelling across the Oregon High Desert, led by fur trapper and frontier guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). We’re never sure where they’re coming from and where they’re headed to, or how they’re connected to each other, or what compelled them in the first place into embarking on this immensely onerous journey; all we know is that they’re lost, they’re abysmally short on water, and they’re having serious doubts about Meek’s credibility despite his pompous braggadocio. The traditional power dynamics of the group – so far defined by the frontierman at the helm and the men who’re family heads by default – however, starts shifting when a Native American gets captured. Though distrusted, vilified and repulsively treated with typically racist violence – their misdemeanours being ironically exactly what they stereotypically accuse him of – it soon emerges that his knowledge of this harsh, unknown terrain might be their sole hope for survival. And this dynamic shift is complete when Emily (Michelle Williams, in a fiercely resolute turn), viz. a woman, stands up for the “Indian” against the white male power structure of the microcosmic wagon train.



Director: Kelly Reichardt

Genre: Drama/Western/Psychological Western

Language: English

Country: US