Tuesday 27 September 2022

Better Call Saul [2015-2022]

 Breaking Bad, which earned immense fandom, plaudits and awards, was undeniably gripping; however, its spin-off prequel Better Call Saul – to let the cat out of the bag at the very outset – was even better. The creators, in an excellent creative decision, focussed here on the backstories of two secondary characters from the previous show – the hustling, loquacious and amoral lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) in particular, and to a lesser degree the taciturn ex-cop turned enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) – and dramatically reworked the mood and scope while retaining elements which were at the forefront there. The resultant work was more psychologically nuanced, morally ambiguous, stylistically ambitious, and sprawling in its narrative arc. Odenkirk gave a truly outstanding performance as Jimmy McGill, former con-man and struggling lawyer who, over 6 marvellous seasons, transforms into a wealthy, crafty and flourishing lawyer through a mix of sheer will, ingenuity, impudence, street-smartness and willingness to cut corners. Banks evoked a droll persona, juxtaposing fierce loyalty, albeit for Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) – the ruthless Chilean drug distributor for the cartel – with an indeterminate moral compass. Kim Wexler (magnificently played by the stunning Rhea Seehorn) – a virtuoso lawyer and a complex, enigmatic woman – formed a fascinating counterpoint to Saul. Among other memorable characters, Saul’s elder brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a renowned lawyer with psychological troubles; Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), a conniving and charismatic Mexican drug lord; and Nacho (Michael Mando), a foot-soldier in the Salamanca gang, stood out. The series became darker, murkier and more engrossing as it progressed, reaching its apotheosis in the final season – set “after” Breaking Bad’s events and shot in bleak monochromes – which portrayed a lonely, broken and hunted Saul struggling to contain his natural instincts.

Creators: Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould

Genre: Drama/Crime Drama/Legal Drama/Black Comedy

Language: English

Country: US

Friday 23 September 2022

The Meetings of Anna [1978]

 Disaffection, displacement, loneliness, rootlessness, and emotional ambivalence were the defining attributes of Chantal Akerman’s autofiction film The Meetings of Anna. Made right after her monumental masterpiece Jeanne Dielman and during a phase when she was crafting one sublime, muted, nuanced, decidedly political and profoundly personal work after another, it formed a compelling companion piece to Je Tu Il Elle in particular and so much of her cinema in general, given her striking explorations of feminism, identity, queerness, memories, existential crises and living in a state of flux. Made with customary formal rigour – narrative minimalism, sparseness, empty spaces, melancholic hues, and bold use of silences – it presaged her magnificent mosaic film Toute Une Nuit, in the way they were both foregrounded on fragmented and momentary relationships.  Anna (Aurore Clément) – striking stand-in for Akerman herself – is a Belgian filmmaker who’s on a movie screening tour through various cities across Europe – Cologne, Brussels, Paris, etc. And, while putting up at different cold, impersonal hotels – small and shabby, big and elegant, discreet and modernist – she engages with diverse people and for a myriad reason, viz. impersonal one-night-stands with strangers, clandestine sleep-over with an old lover (Jean-Pierre Cassel), attempts at reconciliation with a bitter former friend, candid reconnect with her mother (Lea Massari) with whom she can easily shed all her physical and emotional inhibitions. Alongside these, she’s continuously trying to get in touch with a woman with whom she had a brief but intense affair. The cyclicity of her existence was brilliantly underscored when, finally on her own bed in her apartment, she listens to a series of telephonic messages which end with plans being spelled out for her next move screening tour.

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Drama/Semi-Autobiographical Film

Language: French

Country: Belgium

Wednesday 21 September 2022

Down There (Là-bas) [2006]

 Chantal Akerman made an intensely personal exploration of her fragile mind – filled with existential dilemmas, psychological ambivalence and political inquiries – in her spare, solemn and minimalist diary film Down There. Its formally rigorous focus on constricted physical spaces, expressions of displacements, and melancholic silences remind one of her fearlessly naked early work Je Tu Il Elle, albeit with the bold foregrounding of her body in that film replaced with her monologues here. Her reflections on the Holocaust, her family and her Jewishness, in turn, presaged her final work No Home Movie where she discussed these topics with her mother who was a Holocaust survivor. It was made during the month that she spent in Tel Aviv as a guest lecturer in a university there, during which she stayed in an apartment lent by a friend. Set almost completely indoors and in a manner that was disarmingly voyeuristic, we see long stretches capturing an ageing couple residing in a house opposite to hers – he’s seen spending his time either tending to his plants or having coffee along with his wife in their balcony – captured through a static camera and shot in grainy visuals through the blinds on her windows. And these sparse, extended and strangely hypnotic long-takes were sparingly accompanied with Akerman’s distinctive voice covering a mix of thoughts, memories and musings on such aspects as suicide – her aunt who was once a very gregarious woman had killed herself as did Amos Oz’s mother –, if it would’ve been better to settle in Israel vis-à-vis Belgium after the WW2, and the troubling present day realities of Israel’s settler colonialism that’s manifested by a bombing that takes place in the neighbourhood.

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Diary Film

Language: French

Country: French

Sunday 18 September 2022

Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 60s in Brussels [1994]

 Made as part of Arte’s influential “Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge…” series where French filmmakers were asked to contribute recollections from their adolescence days, this might well place among Chantal Akerman’s most tender and playful films despite its aesthetic sparseness… and, alongside The Meetings of Anna, among her most autobiographical fictional works. This delightfully understated and freewheeling film portrayed a day in the life of the 15-year-old Michelle (Circe Lethem) who’s rebelling against her bourgeoise upbringing and experiencing deep existential crisis. It begins with her decision to quit school – she writes fake letters of absence where the reason ranges from an uncle’s illness to her own death, thereafter followed by dramatically tearing off her report card – which she shares with her bosom friend Danielle (Joelle Marlier); she then goes to the cinema where she meets Paul (Julien Rassam) – a young army deserter from Paris – and the two lost souls aimlessly amble along the city before getting into the vacant apartment of her cousin who’s on a holiday; and she ends the day by going to a dance party with Danielle that continues till dawn. Over the course of this lovely, leisurely day she becomes intimate with Paul – as a mix of teenage curiosity and defiance – while also expressing palpable signals of her deep attachment with Danielle, thus making this such an evocative coming-of-age movie. It had two memorable uses of music – Michelle dancing with Paul to Leonard Cohen’s mellifluous Suzanne and later with Danielle to the lively La Bamba – while the proceedings, in a cheeky disregard for temporal conventions, were anachronistically filmed with artefacts indicating the 90s even if the title pointed to the 60s.

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Drama/Coming-of-Age

Language: French

Country: France

Tuesday 13 September 2022

Dis-Moi [1980]

 The Holocaust had formed an integral part of Chantal Akerman’s lived experience, artistic voice, and being, and it was with Dis-Moi – also referred to as Aujourd’hui, Dis-Moi – that she confronted this devastating subject for the first time in her cinema. Made as part of a series on “Grandmothers” commissioned by French TV, this delicate, nuanced, melancholic, profoundly affecting and surprisingly powerful work – alternately heart-warming and heart-breaking, winsome and bleak, unassuming and eloquent – reiterated her prowess at capturing closed spaces (which she’d displayed in her marvellous silent docu Hotel Monterey) and her propensity for extracting broader personal meanings, feminist subtexts and political contexts through conversational voices (which she’d so magnificently evoked in her masterful essay film News from Home). She met and interviewed three elderly Jewish women in their Paris flats – packed with charming curios amidst an air of loneliness – who faced horrors, irreparable personal loss and forced exiles on account of Nazi occupations during the “Shoah”. And yet – perhaps on account of the passage of time – they shared their memories of their families and days of growing up with a mix of longing, tenderness, equanimity and poignant reconciliation, while coaxing Akerman with grandmotherly love to have the cakes, cookies and coffees if she wants hear their stories. Their digressive oral histories were juxtaposed with the lilting voice of Akerman’s mother Natalia – her letters formed a key strand in the aforementioned essay film and she’d be the central subject in her final film No Home Movie – who, like these women, was a Holocaust survivor (nearly everyone in her family was murdered in the Auschwitz death camps), and was trapped in memories of her idyllic closely-knit world before the Final Solution.

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Documentary/Holocaust Film

Language: French

Country: France