Friday 28 July 2023

Leila's Brothers [2022]

 The eponymous Leila in Saeed Roustayi sprawling, ferocious and enthralling Leila’s Brothers – in an ironic elucidation of art imitating life (and vice versa) – was as gutsy, freethinking, fearlessly outspoken and defiantly anti-patriarchal as the acclaimed Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, who’s a feminist and political activist, and courted arrest for her dissent during the Mahsa Amini protests. That she wasn’t just outstanding in it, but even gave a standout performance – amidst a cast that was terrific too – complemented the political underpinnings with artistic merit. The film was as riveting as a thriller, and – in what has drawn analogies with the likes of Rocco and His Brothers and the Godfather saga – formally audacious in its intricate juxtaposition of expansive attributes – complex intergenerational fault-lines, familial conflicts, emotional volatility – with intensely intimate domesticity. 40-year-old working woman Leila stays at her riotously chaotic family’s ramshackle house in Tehran, takes care of the household while also managing domestic chores, confronts everyone whenever needed, and strives to secure the future for her unemployed brothers – the serious but timid Alireza (Navid Mohammadzadeh) who loses his factory job in the excellent opening sequence that underscored the country’s economic downturn precipitated by US sanctions; morbidly obese Parviz (Farhad Aslani) who keeps begetting children and works as a lowly janitor; the scoundrel Manouchehr (Payman Maadi) who pursues shady schemes; and the hunk Farhad (Mohammad Alimohammadi) – who she loves fiercely and intends to get them financially settled. Their narcissistic, selfish, shadow-chasing and stubborn-as-mule father (Saeed Poursamimi), meanwhile, is intoxicated by the idea of being crowned patriarch of the clan, that threatens to jeopardize the plans devised by Leila, who’s prudent, resolute and ready to do whatever it takes for her brothers.

Director: Saeed Roustayi

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: Persian

Country: Iran

Sunday 23 July 2023

Showing Up [2022]

 Kelly Reichardt’s delicately strung Showing Up vividly bore the Indie auteur’s signature through its minimalist form, unassuming tone, awkward characters, sparse setting, and crises that imbue life with dramas both grand and intimate. It felt like a companion piece to her marvellous third film Wendy and Lucy, in that both centred on lonely, withdrawn women, with each a potentially alternative version of the other. It’s also arguably the funniest film in her canon, filled with deadpan, situational humour, and perhaps her most personal too given that, like her protagonist, she partakes in her vocation while associated with a liberal arts college. Lizzy (Michelle Williams, in a transformative turn filled with grumpy neuroses, furthering one of the richest ongoing director-actor collaborations) is a sculptor who makes dainty clay statuettes – on women in complex, anguished expressions, borne from evocative watercolours – while employed as resident artist at a small but vibrant arts college, where she doubles as administrative assistant to her mother. As she strives to be ready for a show on her work, she finds herself increasingly roiled and on the edge thanks to those surrounding her – Jo (Hong Chau), fellow artist, landlady and rival, who’s proudly exhibiting her flamboyant installation art, while ignoring the fixing of hot water in Lizzy’s place; her gregarious father who’s allowed a hippie couple to crash in his place; her emotionally distant mother; her unstable brother; and – recalling the running presence of animals in her filmography – a pigeon left wounded by her pet cat. All these come to head in the most idiosyncratic manner at the said show. The grainy, soft-hued cinematography visually complemented this gently eccentric portrayal of the fraught nature of creating art.

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Genre: Drama/Family Comedy

Language: English

Country: US

Friday 21 July 2023

Nope [2022]

 Jordan Peele constructed Nope like a multi-layered cake – wryly revisionist Western, acerbic satire on insatiable consumerism, and delightfully original sci-fi thriller that resorted to clever reworking of hackneyed genre tropes. It was also ecstatically permeated with metatextual elements through ironic references to movies and showbiz spectacles – through the recurrent motif of the camera’s gaze, audience’s voyeuristic impulses and exploitive nature of the industry – while resonant political readings were consciously invested into the narrative; the latter aspect made it particularly interesting for me, having watched it in succession with Kimi and Emily the Criminal over a long flight, given how the scripts were charged with topical political subtexts, even if, in this case, the scope was broader, the form more complex and the commentary subtler. Peele, therefore, displayed considerable audacity in composing this film; and, even though its zany ideas and moving parts didn’t always combine into a coherent whole, that never made it any less enjoyable. The brooding, taciturn OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Em (Keke Palmer), who has bundles of dramatic flair, are struggling to keep their family business afloat – training and handling horses for film productions, out of their ranch in rural California – and therefore the legacy of being descendants of the nameless black man in Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering Animal Locomotion, after their dad mysteriously dies of a metallic piece that falls from the sky. Having had to sell most their stable to a former child actor (Steven Yeun), who’d faced a horrible experience while shooting and now runs a kitschy theme park, they decide to capture on camera – as their foolproof ticket to the wealth – a sinister UFO that’s been stalking the desolate, breathtaking place.

Director: Jordan Peele

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror/Western/Mystery/Showbiz Satire

Language: English

Country: US

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Emily the Criminal [2022]

 It was a fun coincidence to watch Kimi and Emily the Criminal back-to-back, whilst on an intercontinental flight, given the interesting parallels – both were engaging genre films with scalding political subtexts, outspoken activism organically built into the script, and anti-establishmentarian stances that were manifestly zeitgeisty and topical; further, interestingly, both had bold, troubled, feisty and rebellious heroines at the forefront who aren’t afraid of taking on the established order. The titular Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is getting crushed underneath the burden of her student loans, seething under the financial exploitation and denigration that she faces as a gig worker and during job interviews, and still carrying the scars of a past DUI charge which scuttles her chances of starting afresh. She’s therefore very angry, at the end of her straws, and ready to subvert laws and even go rogue if need be. These, along with her fiercely independent nature and natural-born ferocity take her down a path that she should’ve never been pushed towards in the first place. It starts with acting as a “dummy shopper” – in lieu of a small pay cheque to start with, and soon graduating to more dangerous and reckless acts that come with more lucrative pay-offs – for the charismatic Youcef (Theo Rossi) who co-runs a credit card scam racket. Before long, with his help and her indomitable spunk, she starts off on her own. And things continue to get darker, messier, and as may be anticipated, more violent. Plaza brought in a sensational dose of brashness, volatility and chutzpah into her role – especially in the way she embraced criminality – which appropriately complemented the film’s tense and edgy thrills, as well as its scorching social commentary.

Director: John Patton Ford

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller

Language: English

Country: US

Monday 17 July 2023

Kimi [2022]

 Kimi was a decidedly topical film with its anxiety-ridden, agoraphobic, work-from-home protagonist struggling to segue into the “new normal”, residing in a hyper-connected yet intensely dislocated world seeped in everyday surveillance, smart devices recording incessantly, and micro-artifice of zoom calls. Yet, as a paranoia and conspiracy thriller in the mould of 70s and 80s classics – albeit repurposed to a post-pandemic, late-stage capitalist milieu where unregulated market forces, corporate malfeasance, nefarious cover-ups and gullible consumers are par for course – it was also a lean, sleek and smart genre exercise. Steven Soderberg, who’s made a prolific career out of flying under the radar on most occasions and interpreting the human condition, was possibly the right person behind cameras for this evocation of dystopia operating in the present tense. Angela (Zoë Kravitz) – who made for a captivating heroine with her blazing blue-dyed hair, smartness, quirks, vulnerabilities, self-imposed isolation and defiant agency – is a highly capable techie who works out of her sprawling, spartan apartment in Seattle – her professional and private spaces having subsumed within one another interchangeably – for a flourishing Silicon Valley startup that’s developed a creepy virtual assistant called KIMI that’s selling like hot cakes, while also garnering controversy for resorting to human monitoring to enhance its algorithm. Her controlled, staid and estranged post-Covid life, however, gets blown apart upon stumbling across incidents of sexual violence recorded by the device that refreshes memories of a past trauma, and which the company’s CEO, on the verge of going into a money-spinning IPO, is desperate to bury. The film, led by Kravitz’s spunky turn, reminded me of the De Palma gem Blow Out, despite its conventional finale and without the latter’s pulpy brilliance.

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller

Language: English

Country: US

Thursday 13 July 2023

Athena [2022]

 Romain Gavras demonstrated that he’s his father’s son – his dad being the great Costa-Gavras – with Athena. This rebellious, topical, polemical and vociferously political work, whose affiliation was clearly with defiant underdogs, was made in the tradition of such edgy and violent ‘banlieue films’ – a clear sub-genre within French cinema – as the enormously influential La Haine and, in particular, the thrilling Les Misérables; the latter resemblance wasn’t surprising considering that its screenplay was co-written by Ladj Ly. It kicked-off with an electrifying 11-minute sequence, shot in a bravura single take, that began with a solemn press conference, which spectacularly exploded into a mayhem upon a Molotov cocktail being thrown from the crowd, followed by the robbing of weapons and explosives from a police precinct by a group of guys, and them euphorically fleeing with the loot in a stolen police van. This meticulously orchestrated sequence saw the camera actively moving through crowded spaces, and in and out of a speeding vehicle. The pulsating tempo of the opening salvo, however, went down few notches thereafter, and the characters weren’t delved into enough either in this Shakespearean tragedy with a here-and-now spin and a rousing, albeit tad muddled, political stance. It portrayed the criss-crossing tale of three French-Algerian brothers over the course of a single day – Karim (Sami Slimane), the smouldering leader of a  resistance group of ghettoized young men, who’s decided to start an uprising for the murder of his 13-year-old brother allegedly in a display of police brutality; Abdel (Dali Benssalah), an army guy who’s come back from the front in order to appeal for restraint; and Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), a crazy criminal intent on taking advantage of the madness.

Director: Romain Gavras

Genre: Thriller/Political Thriller

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 8 July 2023

Metronom [2022]

 Iconoclastic RJ, audiophile and jazz aficionado Cornel Chiriac hosted the popular music show Metronom in Radio România between 1967 and 1969, until its cancellation by the authorities, his defection to West Germany, and relaunching the show as part of Radio Free Europe. That eponymous show served as the driving force and motif for this time capsule awash in mood, melancholy and memories. Its director Alexandru Belc was earlier the AD to Romanian New Wave trailblazers Mungiu, Porumboiu and Puiu, and their dry, conversational, faux-realist minimalism and formal exactitude were amply evident here, perhaps indicating a second generation of filmmakers continuing what their predecessors had started. The film is structured as a three-act piece set over 24 hours in 1972. In the low-key first act, the striking and reserved Ana (Mara Bugarin) experiences heartbreak upon learning that her high-school boyfriend Sorin (Serban Lazarovici) is emigrating to West Berlin. The engrossing second act is set in the apartment of Ana’s rebellious friend where their classmates have congregated to secretly listen to their idol Chiriac’s radio programme, drink, dance, and write a letter denouncing Ceaușescu’s totalitarian state; Ana, defying her parents’ instructions, joins the party, hoping for a final fling before Sorin’s departure. Their world, however, comes crashing when they get arrested by the Securitate, with the focus shifting to a tense psychological duel between a menacing senior officer (Vlad Ivanov, in a typically show-stealing turn that he’s made his own) and the defiant Ana. The excellent soundtrack featured the haunting Cu Pleoapa De Argint and pop/rock classics – including a lazily beautiful sequence set to The Doors’ Light My Fire –, while its camerawork comprised of atmospheric palettes and terrific single takes.

Director: Alexandru Belc

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Coming-of-Age

Language: Romanian

Country: Romania

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Triangle of Sadness [2022]

 Triangle of Sadness – the third instalment in Östlund’s ‘Anti-Capitalist Trilogy’, having been preceded by Force Majeure and The Square, and which won him a second consecutive Palm d’Or – was made with the incisive sharpness of a scalpel and the thudding blow of a sledgehammer. The resultant work, consequently, was filled in equal parts with cutting satire and unrestrained farce, in the Swedish provocateur’s outrageously unhinged assault on the shallow, vacuous, self-centred, hypocrisy-laden world of the über-wealthy. The film is structured into three disjointed episodes – the tantalizing first segment, made with barbed tonal precision, focused on a mutually corrosive battle of sexes, amidst the artifice of fashionistas and social media darlings; the superb second segment, set on an ultra-luxury yacht populated with grotesque affluence, traversed the highbrow farce of Buñuel and the lowbrow humour of Pasolini; the deadpan third segment, situated in a barren island, was a parodic variant, albeit with a class spin thrown in, to reality TV where celebs must “survive” for a grand prize. A model with a fragile male ego (Harris Dickinson) and a self-obsessed Insta influencer (Charlbi Dean) were the high-flying couple of the first chapter. The second chapter saw them aboard the exclusive cruise where they hobnob with dubious business magnates, smug aristocrats and repugnant weapons dealers; and featured a hilarious, alcohol-fuelled diatribe between the ship’s Marxist, world-weary American captain (Woody Harrelson) and a pompous Russian oligarch who worships Reagan and Thatcher (Zlatko Burić), and – arguably the film’s showpiece sequence – a truly cataclysmic dinner. Upon being stranded in the post-apocalyptic final chapter, the social order is spectacularly reversed as an Asian cleaning-woman (Dolly de Leon) lords over everyone as a stern but benevolent matriarch.

Director: Ruben Ostlund

Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire

Language: English

Country: Sweden

Sunday 2 July 2023

R.M.N. [2022]

 Cristian Mungiu’s proclivity for crafting singularly oppressive and viscerally haunting films harbouring sharp political critique, the ramifications of which transcend the tight spatial and temporal scopes of their microcosmic parables, have made him a powerful voice in contemporary cinema. R.M.N. – with its bleak, sparse, formally bravura and deeply discomfiting portrayal of xenophobia and fetid nationalism – made for yet another gripping inclusion to his canon. That toxic suspicion, prejudice and hatred towards others are manifested in a multicultural and geographically fluid milieu – one where the inhabitants are of multi-ethnic descent, regularly switch between languages (predominantly Romanian and Hungarian, with spattering of German, French and English thrown in), have emigrated over generations, and keep relocating to other European countries in search of work where they often face racial discrimination and social denigration – made the proceedings all the more ironic. Matthias (Marin Grigore), a Romani migrant worker, quits his lowly job in Germany after one racial slur too many and returns to his village in Transylvania – financially struggling upon the closure of the local mine – where he grapples with his marriage to his estranged wife (Macrina Bârlădeanu) who’s had enough of his boorish masculinity and incessant philandering, tries to “fix” his young son who’s emotionally regressed, struggles with his father’s health, and hopes to rekindle his affair with Csilla (Judith State) who’s an accomplished manager at a local bread factory. The threads tenuously holding this place together, however, irrevocably unravel when Sri Lankan workers are hired at the factory. These led us to the film’s pièce de résistance – a virtuoso 17-minute sequence shot in an unbroken take and featuring a dense, divisive crowd – which powerfully underscored its political urgency and formal brilliance.

Director: Cristian Mungiu

Genre: Drama/Political Drama

Language: Romanian/Hungarian/French/German/English

Country: Romania