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

Tuesday 5 July 2022

The Tsugua Diaries [2021]

  One generally associates something dramatic, visceral and even out of the ordinary – with the possible emergence of startling disclosures – with reverse narrative chronology in cinema… after all, there’s something flamboyant about it. Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes’ The Tsugua Diaries (“tsugua” being literally “august” spelled in reverse) was the very antithesis of that idea, and therefore diametrically removed from films that’ve resorted to this formal device, e.g. MementoThe Sweet HereafterEternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindIrreversibleSinq Fois Deux, etc. It had its share of simmering drama and unforeseen revelations too, and yet was such a seemingly breezy, freewheeling, carefree, improvisational and loosely structured work – and filled with such a lazy elegance – that it almost defied the formal rigour of filmmaking in general and such a punctilious narrative choice in particular. The film began with a dazzling and immersive sequence where its three main characters – Crista (Crista Alfaiate), Carloto (Carloto Cotta), and João (João Nunes Monteiro) – are seen dancing and enjoying over music and blazing colourful lights in a room. It immediately informed the strained character dynamics and gradually established the premise that they’re stuck in a tranquil and isolated country-house during Covid-19 lockdown. Over the course of August – where the days runs backward as indicated through vibrant cards – we observe them transforming a shabby place into something lovely by cleaning the pool, building a beehouse, arranging plants, flirting and lazing around. Eventually, the artifice behind the enchanting holiday is revealed – the fact that this is essentially a film-within-film, and the three are actors – thus adding sly, self-reflexive metanarrative to this befuddling yet playful pandemic movie. The alternatively sun-soaked and flashy cinematography added to its mystifying charm.

Director: Maureen Fazendeiro & Miguel Gomes

Genre: Drama/Experimental Film

Language: Portuguese

Country: Portugal

Friday 1 July 2022

Licorice Pizza [2021]

 Licorice Pizza was perhaps the most loosely structured and therefore atypical work in PTA’s oeuvre – coming after a string of formally rigorous and ambitious films – even if it did hark back the element of nostalgia for a lost (and freer) time, and the freewheeling narrative styles, of Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice. By focusing on first love, charming coming-of-age and idiosyncratic experiences, it managed to be amusing, carefree and whimsical on occasions, with a surprisingly unmoored script. However, alongside that, it was also too sketchy, sentimental and thematically insubstantial to be taken seriously. It, in fact, might’ve worked better if it was either more compact with some of the chaff edited out, or had its scope been broadened to provide a more sprawling evocation of the period. Set in California’s San Fernando Valley in early-70s – where Anderson himself grew up – it chronicled the unconventional friendship turned romance between Gary (the great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper Hoffman), a precocious 15-year-old child actor and incorrigible entrepreneur, and Alana (Alana Haim), a gauche and confused young woman 10 years his senior. Their relationship – traversing through camaraderie, business partnership, jealousy, conflicted feelings and love – was regularly interspersed with asides that imbued the proceedings with an episodic form and rambling flavour. Its most hilarious episodes involved wealthy, neurotic and self-absorbed men they come in contact with – Sean Penn as a motorcycle-loving film star modelled after William Holden, Tom Waits as a garrulous director, Bradley Cooper as an irascible producer, etc. The lovingly shot and joyously scored movie had potential – given the ideas and evocative set-pieces it contained – but stopped short of being anything much beyond an erratic love story and cute nostalgia trip.

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Genre: Drama/Romantic Comedy

Language: English

Country: USA