Tuesday 28 February 2023

Secrets & Lies [1996]

 Mike Leigh edgily touched upon class and race identities in his disarmingly ambitious Secrets & Lies. They were, however, meshed into the canvas in a manner that was so nuanced and organic, that they felt intrinsic to this bleak yet broad-hearted kitchen-sink gem. Through its blistering tale of familial fault-lines that end up both magnifying and reconciling closeted wounds, therefore, it ended up crafting a quietly powerful celebration of multiculturalism and multiethnicity. The gradually unravelling domestic tapestry was structured around the complex interpersonal dynamics of five characters that were unapologetically, and at times even ferociously, real people – Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), an overwrought, neurotic and lonely middle-aged woman who’s facing an irreconcilable chasm with her alienated and angry daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook); Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a level-headed black optometrist adopted at birth, whose quest to locate her birth mother leads her to the white working-class and scarcely educated Cynthia, to both their incredible shock initially, which gradually evolves into a surprisingly warm bond; Maurice (Timothy Spall), whose relationship to his sister Cynthia has distanced on account of having moved up the social class as a well-to-do self-employed photographer and his troubled marriage to Monica (Phyllis Logan). These tense and simmering ripples reached a scorching crescendo at a family gathering where years of despair, frustrations, misunderstandings and interpersonal malaise finally erupt – something that the narrative, through its astute digressions, was always building up to. Powerhouse performances by Blethyn and Spall spearheaded the brilliant ensemble cast. The film’s most memorable sequences, aside from the incendiary finale, included a terrific 8-minute, single-take static shot that captured the first interaction between Cynthia and Hortense, and wry fragments from Maurice’s photographing of his diverse customers.

Director: Mike Leigh

Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Ensemble Film

Language: English

Country: UK

Thursday 23 February 2023

Brigitte and Brigitte [1966]

 Luc Moullet was relatively late in joining the party – vis-à-vis his fellow critics from Cahiers du Cinéma – because, even though he’d made a few shorts, the Nouvelle Vague had already reached its explosive apogee by the time he made his feature debut with Brigitte and Brigitte. Hence, what might’ve garnered greater reception few years back, remained largely under the radar – a phrase that also holds true for Moullet’s prolific filmmaking career in general – and it, therefore, remains restricted mostly to those really in the know. Yet, this slight, amusing, anarchic and steadfastly idiosyncratic work boasted of an astonishing jackpot – something that’s clearly indicative of the respect that Moullet commanded among his peers for his writings on cinema – since this flea-budget film had cameos by the likes of Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Samuel Fuller (who Moullet had been an early champion of), and it was called “revolutionary” by Godard (possibly borne out of his genuine admiration for Moullet’s writings, even if laced with an expression of his ironic self). This tiny time capsule portrayed the absurdly conjoined lives of two eccentric girls having the same name, viz. Brigitte (Françoise Vatel and Colette Descombes) and from the provinces – their farcically coincidental similarities at the beginning were eventually overshadowed by their doltish rivalry – who become flat-mates upon moving to Paris in order to study at Sorbonne. The film’s silliness became tad stretched and even laboured in the second half, but its first half was packed with some inspired and subversive sociocultural satire on cinephilia, college politics, academia, intellectualism and Paris’ postcard monuments. Its funniest sequences included wry street surveys on filmmakers, deadpan rating of famous buildings and dry aphorisms by Fuller.

Director: Luc Moullet

Genre: Comedy/Social Satire

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 18 February 2023

5 Broken Cameras [2011]

 ‘Personal is political’ and ‘political is personal’ were equally and ferociously relevant for the remarkable documentary 5 Broken Cameras every minute of runtime, and, in turn, Emad Burnat, the extraordinarily courageous and steadfastly dissident Palestinian man and possessor of what the title so evocatively alluded to. This defiant first-hand chronicle of the daily oppressions and injustices that Israel’s apartheid settler-colonial apparatus perpetrates against Palestine, is centred on the West Bank village of Bil’in where Israelis, through brute military force, have been forcibly occupying farmlands and bulldozing olive groves in order to build walls and settlements, and the fearless collective protests, civil disobedience and opposition that the town’s residents keep putting up despite endless arrests, abuse, violence, extra-judicial despotism and disillusionment. This daring work of political journalism and personal activism, therefore, is the very embodiment of ‘cinema of resistance’. In a fascinating mirroring of Kieslowski’s outstanding work Camera Buff, Emad bought his first camera in 2005 to make home videos on his fourth-born Gibreel, but ended up filming – over the course of the next 6 years – the encroachments, confiscations, destructions and devastations that Bil’in faced, and the valiant stand that they took in response. 5 of his cameras got damaged for different reasons – including a bullet hit that saved Emad’s life – but the footage that they recorded became a testimony to a video camera’s ability to transform into a blazing weapon of dissent. Made in collaboration with progressive Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, it also portrayed his family – in particular his wife of Brazilian descent and Gibreel who grows up amidst this turmoil – and his fellow participants in this struggle, especially two lion-hearted friends who’re always at the forefront of protests.

Directors: Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi

Genre: Documentary/Political Documentary/Diary Film/Essay Film/Activist Reportage

Language: Arabic, Hebrew

Country: Palestine

Wednesday 15 February 2023

The Friends of Eddie Coyle [1973]

 The Friends of Eddie Coyle – Peter Yates’ sublime adaptation of George V. Higgins’ massively influential debut novel of the same name that’d established “Boston Crime” as a sub-genre – felt like Edward Hopper meets Jean-Pierre Melville in the way it was soaked in urban desolation, existential anguish, deep sighs of melancholy and fatalism, poetic sparseness, and moody evocation of Boston’s working-class criminals. One such member of that subaltern community is Eddie “Fingers” Coyle (Robert Mitchum), who got his moniker thanks to a knuckle-breaking gangland punishment that he’d once received, and which he recounted at the film’s beginning with the kind of dry, deadpan, digressive and world-weary note that formed a discernible identifier of the film in general and Mitchum’s acting masterclass in particular. A low-level, middle-aged gunrunner who lives with his family in a cramped house, and essentially just about making ends meet and staying alive, he’s presently acting as an intermediary between the smug Jimmy (Alex Rocco) who’s leading a team of audacious bank robbers and the fidgety Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) – the name that’d form the title of Tarantino’s most unheralded work – a deceptively smart gun-supplier in a kitschy automobile. He’s also facing a lengthy jailtime which he’s desperate to avoid, and hence becomes a stoolie – albeit reluctantly, as he’s always been a stand-up guy who never lets his “friends” down – for a cop (Richard Jordan). The film’s most striking aspect – along with its vivid picturization of lonely urban spaces, gritty dialogues, tense set-pieces and magnificent jazz score by Dave Grusin – was that Mitchum, despite his iconic swagger, never overshadowed the ensemble cast, including a brilliant Peter Boyle as Dillon, a matter-of-fact enforcer masquerading as an impassive bartender.

p.s. My earlier review of this film can be found here.

Director: Peter Yates

Genre: Crime/Crime Drama/Crime Thriller/Urban Drama

Language: English

Country: US

Saturday 11 February 2023

The French Connection [1971]

 William Friedkin is best remembered for the three films that he made back-to-back between 1971 and 1977, viz. The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer; interestingly, they hardly had anything in common – one a gritty and memorably zeitgeisty policier; one a gleefully exploitative horror; and one a superb, desolate and immersive remake of Clouzot’s magnificent The Wages of Fear – except, perhaps, in their representativeness of the New Hollywood era through their sheer defiance of norms and conventions. This has come to be considered – alongside the works of Woody, Scorsese and Lumet – as one of the most iconic New York films from the 70s, for its grimy, visceral and absorbing verisimilitude, and in the way it captured the city’s locales and atmosphere through grainy, hyper-authentic and arresting visuals. And boy was it also nonchalant in its display of the sordid side of police work! Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman, in arguably his most famous turn) is an incredibly driven cop and an unlikable pig rolled into one; he has a racist streak, aggressive personality and penchant for brutality; he steps on tows, disobeys protocols and keeps emphasizing his hunch even though that’s led to bad consequences in the past; yet, he knows that he’s right that a massive narcotics deal is in the works and he intends to do whatever it takes to thwart it. His partner, Buddy (Roy Scheider), is his polar opposite given his more sedate nature, while the film’s wily antagonist is Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the wealthy boss of a Marseille-based heroin-smuggling syndicate. Loosely based on true events, it was defined by its moody cinema vérité style, excellent jazz soundtrack, and a thrilling car chase sequence.

p.s. My earlier review of this film can be found here.

Director: William Friedkin

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Police Procedural

Language: English/French

Country: US

Sunday 5 February 2023

I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) [1964]

 Produced by Mosfilm in collaboration with ICAIC to celebrate the Cuban Revolution, and made when the Cold War was at its frostiest nadir – the Bay of Pigs invasion had just been foiled, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its craziest peak – Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba was a dizzying, flamboyant, poetic and rousing political agitprop. Yet, ironically, it resonated neither with the Soviets nor the Cubans at the time, and was largely forgotten until its triumphant “rediscovery” by American cinephiles in the 1990s. The omnibus film, set in pre-Castro Cuba, nonchalantly glorified the country’s rebellious streak and revolutionary path through four episodes, where the respective protagonists representing diverse socioeconomic contexts – a young exploited prostitute in a decadent Havana hotel; an impoverished sugarcane farmer whose farms are sold off to the United Fruit Company; an angry student battling against the city’s despotic police alongside his guerrilla comrades; and a devastated farmer turned rebel in the Sierra Maestra mountains – are all at loggerheads with Batista’s draconian system. Sergey Urusevsky’s dazzling cinematography – filled with technical wizardry, bravura single takes, hallucinatory images crafted using wide-angle and infrared photography, oblique camera angles – made this an idiosyncratic tour de force. Its most jaw-dropping tracking shots included  the camera gliding with a fisherman along a narrow canal between shanty houses; capturing a beauty contest atop a crowded skyscraper, traveling down and plunging into a pool; slipping into a traveling bus and culminating with a 360-degree pan-zoom showing a guy’s getting off it, crossing the streets and walking into Havana University; and moving up from a packed lane into a cigar manufacturing unit, flying out of its balcony, and soaring like a bird observing a funeral procession.

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov

Genre: Drama/Anthology Film/Political Agitprop

Language: Spanish

Country: Cuba/Russia

Friday 3 February 2023

It's a Wonderful Life [1946]

 Frank Capra – arguably one of the most beloved Old Hollywood filmmakers – was, according to the popular line of thinking, a socially conscious man who empathized with the little people; however, according to another school of thought, he was a moralist, populist and closet conservative. It’s A Wonderful Life, being perhaps his most enduring work, was interlaced with both these seemingly irreconcilable facets, and that’s what made this such an interesting film; hence, to just typify it as a heart-warming Christmas classic, is to take a simplistic stance. The first production of Liberty Films – which Capra co-founded with William Wyler and George Stevens – this quintessential Dickensian fable with both religious and political overtones was centred on George Bailey (James Stewart) who, despite his desire to complete college and travel the world, is compelled to put his dreams on permanent hold when his father suddenly dies, in order to defiantly keep afloat his family-run business – aimed at providing affordable housing loans to the town’s working class folks – against all possible oppositions thrown in by the slimy, avaricious and Scrooge-like business man Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who wants to gobble up all the land and properties in the town. However, when he’s finally pushed to the brink and contemplates suicide on a Christmas Eve, a guardian angel (Henry Travers) is sent from the heavens to intervene. The film’s sentimentality, contrivances, simplistic religious morality and bathos were among its weakest aspects, while its evocation of the changing American landscape from Depression-era pessimism to Post-War hope, Stewart’s tremendous turn and the nightmarish, Dante-esque alternate reality that Bailey briefly experiences – arguably the film’s most fascinating and problematic segment – saved it from its own overt sincerity.

Director: Frank Capra

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama

Language: English

Country: US