Tuesday 30 August 2022

Taming the Garden [2021]

 In his dry and disturbing documentary Safari, Ulrich Seidl had portrayed “trophy hunting”, wherein wealthy tourists kill exotic animals in the African jungles for fun and souvenirs. In Taming the Garden – whose wry and deadpan tableaux, incidentally, reminded me of Seidl’s aesthetic palette – we’re presented with “trophy trees”. Salomé Jashi’s spare, reflective and quietly caustic documentary elucidated the fact that human folly, entitlement and megalomania truly know no bounds, and that the super-rich can desire even the most ludicrous possessions simply because they can have it. Georgian billionaire and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has one such hobby that nearly beats everything in its staggering absurdity; he gets specialized teams – at enormous cost and extraordinary inconvenience – to uproot massive, magnificent and ancient trees from both private lands and public spaces, and relocate them across great distances – over land and sea – in order to plant them in his personal, artificially constructed and meticulously manicured garden. Jashi covered the process approximately chronologically, albeit captured over unspecified durations and different locations – complex extractions of the majestic giants, oftentimes at night-time to possibly avert protests; equally complicated transportations using trailers and barges, with ethereally shot vistas of the trees gliding over the Black Sea being the ones that stuck most to my mind; and finally ending with a peek into Ivanishvili’s faux park, even if its owner is never seen. These were accompanied with contrasting responses of poor villagers to this anomalous act – while they accepted the money offered for their trees and acknowledged the roads constructed in their villages to enable logistics, they also expressed a wide array of emotions – from amusement and bewilderment to dismay and outrage – at this Faustian transaction.

Director: Salome Jashi

Genre: Documentary

Language: Georgian

Country: Georgia

Saturday 27 August 2022

Judas and the Black Messiah [2021]

 There’s a constant interplay between scalding anger and understated melancholy running through Shaka King’s furious, electrifying, fiercely evoked, meticulously researched and marvellously told feature debut Judas and the Black Messiah, and rightly so. It captured the grotesquery that the establishment committed under the guise of “threat to internal security of the country” – in essence a manifestation of systemic racism and systematized governmental overreach – through the real story of incessant intimidations, false arrests and ultimately murder of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, by the FBI. And, ironically, they achieved their nefarious objective by planting William O’Neal, a car thief turned FBI informant, in their midst in order to rat on Hampton and the Panthers, and thereafter betray him, in lieu of money and protection from prosecution. Daniel Kaluuya who played the charismatic, indefatigable and extraordinarily progressive 21-year-old revolutionary Hampton – who believed in social welfare, justice for black communities, and raising political consciousness of the working class, and could deliver rousing speeches – with superb panache, vigour and power, and Lakeith Stanfield who played the shifty, slippery and conflicted O’Neal with the cunning charm of a chameleon, were both excellent in this gripping work laced with political prescience, moments of tenderness and vulnerability, and exquisitely composed atmosphere. Jesse Plemons as O’Neal’s FBI handler and Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s girlfriend and fellow BPP activist Deborah Johnson provided noteworthy supporting turns, as did others. That King, instead of taking a straightjacketed approach, structured the film like a thriller – even if it’s tragically predestined – and chronicled it through the dual perspectives of its two dramatically divergent men, made this so much more layered, complex, authentic, dismaying and compelling.

Director: Shaka King

Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Biopic

Language: English

Country: US

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Getting Away With Murder(s) [2021]

 Released on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Nuremberg trials that were conducted by the Allies at the end of WW2, it’s a biting irony that David Wilkinson’s appropriately titled documentary Getting Away with Murder(s) dealt with the fact that the vast majority of Nazi perpetrators – politicians, death squad leaders, concentration camp guards, SS enforcers, bureaucrats, doctors, industrialists, etc. – who participated in the ghastly massacres unprecedented in modern human history, either escaped trials or went scot-free, many were freely absorbed back into their former positions and professions by the Adenauer government in West Germany, and numerous others lived long, comfortable lives in Germany, UK, Austria and elsewhere. Clocking at around three hours, this downbeat, serious, powerful, intensely distressing, rigorously researched and undeniably formidable work – funded to a large extent by the filmmaker himself and his wife – must surely place in the pantheon of essential cinematic dissertations on the Holocaust. Wilkinson criss-crossed across the Auschwitz-Birkenau (in Poland), Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Czech Republic, the US and his native UK covering Nazis who so easily escaped punishment despite the enormity of their crimes, through a vast array of stories, scholarly researches, personal testimonies,  evidences, archival documents and other historical artefacts, along with solemn and reflective conversations with renowned historian Mary Fulbrook, centenarian Benjamin B Ferencz who’s the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, tireless Nazi hunters, disillusioned members of British and German war crime departments who’ve been unable to accomplish much on account of governmental apathy despite possessing enough information to prosecute surviving Nazis, etc. The resultant work, therefore, was sombre, harrowing, bitter, mournful and troubling, with its impact amplified by intensely disturbing images, blunt assessments and journalistic matter-of-factness.

Director: David Wilkinson

Genre: Documentary/Political History/Holocaust Film

Language: English

Country: UK

Sunday 21 August 2022

Everything Went Fine [2021]

 It’s really something to marvel at that a film, on subjects as heavy, brooding and serious as old age, mortality and assisted suicide, could so refreshing, humorous and bereft of sentimentality, and more so, considering François Ozon’s penchant for bleak and unsettling movies. Adapted from the Emmanuèle Bernheim’s memoir who’d earlier written screenplays for Ozon’s Swimming Pool and the especially downbeat 5x2, Everything Went Fine – the wry and deadpan irony of the title becomes clear only at the end – seamlessly laced grief, pain and loss with disarming levity into a bittersweet work. The wealthy and retired businessman André (André Dussollier) – very well connected socially on account of being an art collector, but having complicated relationships with his dementia-stricken and separated sculptress wife (Charlotte Rampling), and his two daughters Emmanuèle (Sophie Marceau) and Pascale (Géraldine Pailhas) on account of his acid-tongued nature and homosexuality – finds his life turned into shambles upon suffering a debilitating stroke. Unable to bear such an existence, he literally demands his favourite Emmanuèle – who, in turn, has always had a complex love-hate bond with him – to help him die. That isn’t just an emotionally wrenching ask, but a legally challenging one too as they need to surreptitiously take help of an expensive Swiss facility administered by a soft-speaking lady (legendary German actress Hanna Schygulla in a cameo) to avoid getting arrested by the police. Marceau was both striking and brilliant as the conflicted woman who as a kid wished for her dad to die and now, ironically, must facilitate that – not because she wants to, but because she can’t say no to him – while Dussollier was surprisingly effective as the obstinate, difficult, mercurial and entitled father.

Director: Francois Ozon

Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Biopic

Language: French

Country: France

Friday 19 August 2022

Benedetta [2021]

 Deliriously provocative, gloriously lurid, gleefully profane, riotously scandalous and unabashedly hyper-violent, Benedetta possessed all the archetypes associated with Paul Verhoeven’s best-known works. That his ability to shock, cause outrage, and smash the boundaries of sexual morality remains so spectacularly undiminished even at the age of 82, should be enough of put many to shame. Loosely adapted from a non-fiction with an incendiary title that must’ve made Verhoeven chuckle with delight, viz. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown, it followed the extraordinarily turbulent and controversial life of 17th century Catholic nun, mystic and abbess Benedetta Carlini. Virginie Efira, who’d featured in a supporting turn in the filmmaker’s outstanding last movie Elle, gave a stunning performance – through terrific interplay between controlled precision and explosive bursts – as an overly devout twenty-something nun in a convent in Pescia run by the weary Felicita (Charlotte Rampling). Benedetta believes that she has a special connect with Jesus – bordering on the psycho-sexual, and sparked by bursts of disturbing, hallucinatory, grotesquely campy visions – and therefore the ability to perform miracles which’re often manifested through unsettling personality changes. And things become further unhinged when she embarks on a torrid affair with Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), a feisty young newcomer with an abusive past. Facing charges of being a heretic and sexual deviant on one hand by the brazenly patriarchal church, and the distressing onslaught of the plague on the other, the irrepressible heroine becomes even more valiant – bolstered by her zealotry and flamboyant performative abilities – thus taking this fearlessly blasphemous, richly melodramatic and sumptuously photographed film, with charged feminist overtones and ferocious critique of religious hypocrisy, to a feverish pitch.

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Genre: Drama/Religious Drama/Biopic

Language: French

Country: France

Sunday 14 August 2022

Writing with Fire [2021]

 Khabar Lahariya (literally, “News Waves”) is a rare beacon of hope for journalism in the country – in a landscape otherwise cluttered with jingoism, populist propaganda, bigotry, sensationalism, disinformation and cacophony – in that it speaks truth to power with courage, doesn’t shy away from topics which are inconvenient to the establishment, and covers unsavoury ground realities. But it’s even more than that, as it’s run by rural women from disadvantaged and marginalized communities – necessitating them to operate in an environment dominated by entrenched patriarchy, caste violence and religious discrimination, while also battling economic and domestic impediments – thus imbuing their work with stirring social and feminist contexts. Co-directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, Writing with Fire is a terrific documentary on this incredible newspaper, and, in turn, a disarmingly powerful work of reportage laced with grit, socio-political conviction and understated eloquence. At its centre-stage were two remarkable Dalit women – Meera, the group’s seasoned Chief Reporter who takes charge of politically volatile stories while also providing mentorship to those needing guidance, and Sunita, a gutsy and self-assured young reporter who’s started covering difficult topics – who are covering such issues as murder of union leaders and activists by the coal mafia, apathy shown by the police towards an impoverished Dalit woman who’s faced sexual violence, and the obnoxious rise of muscular nationalism and cow vigilantism at the backdrop of the ominous 2017 state elections in the violent, chauvinistic and polarized quagmire that Uttar Pradesh represents. Filmed in spare, grainy and compelling visuals, these serious subjects were deftly juxtaposed with the bonding of these heroic comrades including their exuberant trip to Kashmir, their valiant attempts at going digital, and their incredible personal conviction.

Directors: Sushmit Ghosh & Rintu Thomas

Genre: Documentary/Reportage

Language: Hindi

Country: India

Wednesday 10 August 2022

The Girl and the Spider [2021]

 Ramon Zürcher and Silvan Zürcher’s sophomore film The Girl and the Spider – and their first in 8 long years since their debut film The Strange Little Cat – was permeated with such a brooding and engulfing sense of melancholy, that one might almost ignore the sly, seductive and entrancing ambiguity, and delicate formal precision, with which it was so meticulously composed. It was an alternately haunting, droll and beguiling tale of longing, separation, lonely individuals, cryptic relationships, sexual gamesmanship, momentary reconciliations, and the various interlinkages between. The premise was simple – Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of her apartment in Berlin – which she shared with her roommate Mara (Henriette Confurius) – to another one in the city. This seemingly routine act of movement foregrounded a myriad emotions, and underlying intricate equations, that are laid nakedly threadbare over a couple of days. The strikingly beautiful, psychologically complex, impulsive, enigmatic, lonesome, deeply vulnerable and oftentimes unpredictable Mara formed the centre-point in the directors’ vivaciously crafted canvas where a host of people – family, friends, neighbours, workers and even strangers – move in and out of the frame like a meticulously orchestrated stage-play. We therefore see Lisa’s mother who strikes a bond with an ageing carpenter, a couple of girls who stay downstairs, a taciturn guy who pines for Mara, a shaggy bloke who cares for a neighbour’s dog, an old and intensely lonely lady, a former housemaid who’s left her piano behind, etc. Realism was often subverted with flights of imagination, fantasy and memories in this tight yet freewheeling work –photographed and scored with warmth, and with the mood switching between cold and tender – where catharsis loomed just round the corner like a missing cat.

Directors: Silver & Ramon Zucher

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Existential Drama

Language: German

Country: Switzerland

Thursday 4 August 2022

Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades) [2021]

 Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of three acclaimed graphic novellas by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine – albeit, transplanted to Paris with surprising elan – is a beguiling and sensual amalgamation of old and new sensibilities – a tale of kinship and quest for love amidst the loneliness and existential isolation of an impersonal, hypermodern urbanscape. Audiard accomplished this dichotomy – based on a screenplay jointly written with none other than Céline Sciamma – through use of luminous B/W photography and melancholic palette on one hand, and the cold setting of the skyscraper-filled 13th arrondissement of Les Olympiades and candid depiction of lust, intimacy and sexuality on the other. It followed an emotionally fraught ménage à trois between three lost, demographically divided millennials craving for romance and companionship. Émilie (Lucie Zhang), who stays in an apartment that belongs to her senile grandmother and works at a shabby call centre, takes in Camille (Makita Samba), an erudite high school teacher working on doctoral degree, as her roommate. The two become lovers for a while; however, when he ends their brief fling with casual impassivity, the promiscuous Émilie finds herself falling for him. Meanwhile, Nora (Noémie Merlant), who’s moved to Paris to get back to college after many years, faces public humiliation on being mistaken for cam sex worker Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), upon which she begins a surprisingly affecting and deeply personal camaraderie with Amber, alongside an affair with Camille who she partners with in a small real estate company. The volatile and intertwining relationships were brought forth through fine performances, but none as fascinating as Zhang’s who expressed a volley of emotions and stirring vulnerability throughout the film’s length. The electronic theme score was an added bonus.

Director: Jacques Audiard

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Urban Drama

Language: French

Country: France