Wednesday 30 August 2023

EO [2022]

  Veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO was an unclassifiable viewing experience, considering its bold narrative experimentations on a premise that walked a fine line between simplicity and simplistic; its balancing between tonal solemnity and demonstrations that veered towards cloying and cartoonish; its simultaneous espousal of the kind of themes and “radical sympathy” that aren’t really new, but situated in a modern-day European setting filled with topical social abominations that provocatively pointed towards its “rotten core”. These dichotomies were especially manifested by the way it unequivocally evoked Au Hasard Balthazar – which had made a profound impact on Skolimowski when he’d watched it sixty-seven years back – and in its dramatic departure by replacing the earlier film’s austere and rigorous form with an overly eventful sequence of tableaux and stylistic spectacle. The protagonist, like the Bresson classic, was the eponymous donkey who observes, experiences and journeys through long stretches of apathy, abandonment, dislocation, desolation, misery and cruelty – sparingly separated by brief yet unanticipated moments of love, tenderness, empathy, companionship and beauty – and becomes a mute, unwitting and oblivious witness to zealous animal rights activists who spark the first of its string of separations, casual exploitation of vulnerable immigrants, horrific hooliganism, humans’ shocking capacity for violence, decrepit aristocrats and whatnot. Its tad overdone journey began with a traveling circus that it was a part of and bleakly ended in an industrial abattoir, and traversed through Polish countryside, lonely highways and Italian towns. The hyperactive direction, therefore, was marked by mordant world-view, dazzling camerawork and hallucinatory visuals on one hand, and corny moments, glib humanity and showboating artifice on the other. Isabelle Huppert featured in a short, enticing cameo as a cold, frustrated countess.

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

Genre: Drama/Social Drama/Experimental Film

Language: Polish

Country: Poland

Saturday 26 August 2023

The Novelist's Film [2022]

 Self-reflexive and metatextual elements, quotidian urban settings, rambling alcohol-fuelled conversation, passive-aggressive interactions, moments of epiphany – captured through rigorous form, improvisational style, loosely-strung narrative, sparse aesthetics, limpid storytelling, and wry, playful tones with undercurrents of melancholy – and performed by actors belonging to a small pool of regulars – Korean maestro Hong Sang-soo’s excellent 27th narrative was delightfully laced with his distinctive signatures. And yet – thus underscoring the unassuming Korean filmmaker’s brilliance – this deceptively complex, gently affecting and nakedly personal film marvellously displayed his panache for serving refreshingly fascinating wines in amiably familiar bottle, while reinforcing his love for the medium. Lee Hye-young, who was memorable in the lead role in Hong’s sublime 2021 film In Front of Your Face – where the middle-aged former star played a middle-aged former star – is a famous, veteran novelist here struck with writer’s block. She’s therefore looking for inspiration in order to rejuvenate her creative impulses, and with that intent she makes an unplanned visit to a town in Seoul’s suburbia where she has awkward reconnects with two old acquaintances –a former writer (Seo Younghwa) who now owns a bookshop, and a well-known filmmaker (Kwon Hae-hyo) who’d once planned to adapt one of her books to screen but didn’t finally do. Amidst these delicate interactions, and a drinking episode too, a chance encounter with a renowned actress (Kim Min-hee), who’s taken an indefinite sabbatical from movies, proves fortuitous as she spontaneously decides to direct a novelistic short film, and even convinces the latter to collaborate with her. The ravishing colours at the end – providing fleeting glimpses of the said short – led this fragile and intimate film, otherwise shot in high-contrast B/W, to a deeply sensuous finale.

Director: Hong Sang-soo

Genre: Drama

Language: Korean

Country: South Korea

Friday 18 August 2023

Barbie [2023]

 The most intriguing irony defining Barbie is that, it’s a riotous satire of patriarchy, consumerism and the shallow beauty standards that the eponymous dolls had embodied and glorified, and yet it was also promoted through gimmicky marketing blitzkrieg that reinforced the very attributes the film lampooned. It’s, therefore, fascinating not just on account of Greta Gerwig – who’d established her toehold in the industry as an actor in low-budget Indie cinema, and demonstrated her understated feminist streak thereafter as a filmmaker – helming a big-budget studio movie as this, but more so in how she succeeded in making such a subversive and feminist work despite it being produced by Mattel Inc., the very organization that was responsible for these plastic, vacuous and regressive toys. One half of the pop-culture frenzy “Barbenheimer” – a portmanteau that was coined despite Barbie and Oppenheimer being two diametrically opposite works, in order to indicate the hype that presaged their simultaneous theatrical releases, and the gargantuan blockbusters that both became even though they were far removed from straightforward mass entertainers – its deliberately garish colour palette and kitschy aesthetics served as apt juxtapositions to its silly fantasy and comedic portrayal of Barbieland, a joyous matriarchal society inhabited by, among others, the ravishing Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) who, upon experiencing existential crisis, takes a trip to the grimy real world in company of a drooling Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling). That leads to widespread repercussions, including among the all-male Mattel executives led by its CEO (Will Farrell), a disenchanted mother-daughter combo, and Barbieland’s motley residents. The narrative’s messy, self-conscious and meta elements were both its unique strength and, by kind-of embracing the very artifice that it parodied, also its failing.

Director: Greta Gerwig

Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Fantasy

Language: English

Country: US

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Oppenheimer [2023]

 Oppenheimer – contrary to my apprehensions of muscular and/or hagiographic account of a man who’d helped engineer war crimes and precipitate global arms race – was a thematically dense, formally dazzling and deeply bleak film which was antithetical to a conventional biopic, deconstructive of a dark chapter in 20th century history, and riveting political thriller with a surprisingly level-headed portrayal of leftism in America alongside feverish examination of individual and collective hubris. Nolan demonstrated his fascination with temporal fluidity in cinema by crafting a work at once monumental and intimate, through a Cubist structure – Picasso’s Guernica, incidentally, is eloquently referenced near its beginning – that kept zooming in and out, and rigorously progressed along interlocking timelines. It was a bold audiovisual exercise too, in its experimentations with colour and monochrome, aspect ratios, depths of field, and interplay of diagetic/non-diagetic sounds. The film’s stylistic bravura boldly complemented the multifaceted decomposition of its complex protagonist, enacted with searing intensity by Cillian Murphy. He was leftist and antifascist – his brother Frank, wife Katherine (Emily Blunt) and troubled former girlfriend Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) were card-carrying Communists; many of his Manhattan Project colleagues had left-wing affiliations; he’d contributed to Spanish Civil War causes through Communist channels, etc. – and yet collaborated with the American military and industrial machineries that were fervidly conservative; further, he became “father of the atomic bomb”, the concentration and proliferation of which he subsequently dissuaded. The parallel narratives chronicled his university days, Los Alamos, McCarthy witch-hunts orchestrated by Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.)., and guilt. He’d crossed paths with the who’s-who of scientific giants of his time, which the film mirrored through an all-star cast, comprising also of Matt Damon, Kenneth Branagh, etc.

Director: Christopher Nolan

Genre: Biopic/Political Drama/Political Thriller/Historical Drama/Psychological Drama/Epic

Language: English

Country: US

Sunday 13 August 2023

Fire of Love [2022]

 Katia and Maurice Kraft left back a legacy that’s so rich, eventful and fascinating that it’s not surprising that their lives have been celebrated through two well-made documentaries. And, quite startlingly, both were released in the same year! Hence, alongside evaluating the two essay films on the iconic volcanologist couple – geochemist Katia and geologist Maurice – in a remarkable three-way affair with active volcanos, it’s especially interesting to do a comparative analysis of the two. While both Herzog’s The Fire Within and Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love made extensive use of the treasure trove that they’d left behind – breathtaking images and videos of volcanic eruptions across the world – capturing their thrilling journeys until their tragic demise in a massive pyroclastic flow from Mount Unzen in Japan, these were essentially two very different works. Where the former was edgier and more expansive, and charged with the German giant’s customary fierceness, deadpan irony, wry idiosyncrasy and fatalist undercurrents, the latter was relatively more light-hearted, intimate, lyrical, and with the edges rounded through good-humoured speculations and romanticism. Additionally, this was a relatively more straightforward work in its thematic exploration and form. Buoyed by Miranda July’s lilting narration – she brought in a freewheeling quality into the proceedings – we get to hypothesize on their first meeting; how they were drawn into this magnetic passion unto death; the two broad classifications of volcanos that they’d settled on – the more spectacular looking “red” ones and the incredibly deadly “grey” ones which leave devastation in their wake; how they divided responsibility between their tours to generate funds; Maurice’s flamboyance and daredevilry vis-à-vis Katia’s unassuming charm and level-headedness; and their efforts in building awareness for better preparedness among governments.

Director: Sara Dosa

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: English

Country: US

Friday 11 August 2023

The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft [2022]

 Werner Herzog, in The Fire Within, didn’t intend to make either a conventional biography or a straightforward hagiography of eminent French volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Kraft. His objective, rather, was to compose a personal interpretation of their legacy, by resorting to the stunning archive of footage and photos that they’d left behind prior to their demise in 1991 (they were both killed by the pyroclastic flow from Mount Unzen in Japan). The result was a fierce and enrapturing essay filled with brooding atmosphere, ironic observations (delivered by Herzog in his customary deadpan voiceover), idiosyncratic moments, and breathtaking visuals. The narrative provided a fascinating peek into the Krafts’ transition over the years from wannabe scientists who recorded their experimentations in amateur home videos, dressed at times in oddball outfits to enable proximity to high temperatures, to grand filmmakers who – as Herzog quipped – “were shooting a whole film about creation in the making… they just didn’t have enough time left to edit it” through mesmeric visuals that silently captured the ferocious power of volcanos, and even quirky humanists deeply invested in the devastating human, sociological and ecological impacts of volcanos. The couple’s captivating journey and their shared, unwavering obsession with this frightening force of nature was bookended on either side by reportage on their fateful trip to Japan, while in between we see their visits to diverse places – Italy, Iceland, Hawaii, Alaska, Indonesia, Colombia, etc. – in their quest for fire and love, including a couple of truly near misses. As an interesting aside, 2022 saw another well-received documentary on the Krafts, Fire of Love by Sara Dosa, while Herzog himself had earlier made one on active volcanos, Into the Inferno.

Director: Werner Herzog

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Biopic

Language: English

Country: US

Saturday 5 August 2023

Petite Fleur: 15 Ways to Kill Your Neighbour [2022]

 Petite Fleur couldn’t have demonstrated a more dramatic departure vis-à-vis Argentina,1985 – the two wildly contrasting films that Santiago Mitre made in 2022. The latter was a serious, intricate and politically charged docudrama. The former, on the other hand, was a feral, eccentric and intoxicating blend of black comedy, stylistic playfulness, surreal flourishes and macabre poetry. That it essentially portrayed a warm-hearted story – comprising of love lost and re-found, disintegrating marriage, loss of employment, reversal of conventional gender roles, ennui, existential and artistic crises, and the bad press that “routine” gets – under the delirious, elliptical and exuberantly pulpy guise of murderous impulses, mucky charlatans, marital infidelity, violent crimes, zany outbursts and the sensuous thrills of jazz music, made it all the more engrossing. José (Daniel Hendler) and Lucie (Vimala Pons), an Argentine couple residing in an enchanting French town, find themselves in a mess when, having just become parents, he loses his job as a professional cartoonist, upon which she decides to take up work to enable their financial sustenance. As the soft-spoken man becomes a househusband – taking care of their baby, performing daily chores, living a life of dull repetitiveness – he finds himself losing touch with his creative zest, while realizing in parallel, when his vivacious wife falls under the influence of a charismatic guru (Sergi López), that their relationship too has started going south. Things, in the meantime, take a sinister yet fantastical turn when, one Thursday, he inadvertently befriends Jean-Claude (Melvil Poupaud) – a wealthy, rakish, insouciant jazz connoisseur, and a great aficionado of Sydney Bechet’s mesmerizing titular composition in particular – who he spectacularly kills in a moment of madness, and keeps doing that every Thursday thenceforth.

Director: Santiago Mitre

Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Marital Comedy/Mystery

Language: French/Spanish

Country: Argentina

Tuesday 1 August 2023

No Bears [2022]

 Does a filmmaker really ever become a martyr at cinema’s altar? While such a statement may appear disingenuous and even pompous in most cases, not so for Jafar Panahi, who continues to undermine legal restrictions, defy punitive retributions and push boundaries. No Bears – the fifth film that he’s made since being banned from making movies, barred from leaving Iran and intermittently placed under house arrest, and completed just prior to being handed a fresh prison term on old charges – organically manifested and was powerfully informed by these extrinsic realities, thus coalescing political with personal. Suffused with bristling meta-commentary, rich self-reflexive aspects, moments of unsparing self-criticism, and tones that veered between ironic and bitter, the film was as much a brilliant and complex formal exercise as it was a bold and incisive use of cinema as an agency of subversion and dissidence. Panahi, once again playing a version of himself with self-effacing elan, is remotely directing a staged docudrama – about an Iranian couple, playing themselves, who’re trying to emigrate to France using fake passports, with the shoot taking place in Turkey – on account of being disallowed from making movies and leaving Iran. He’s stationed himself at a remote village on the country’s border in order to have proximity with his crew, while barely controlling the urge to cross the imaginary lines that separate the two countries. Meanwhile, courtesy his love for photographing locals, he becomes unwittingly embroiled in a sensitive situation upon being charged with capturing a couple in a forbidden relationship on camera. Both narrative strands escalated unpredictably and with tragic consequences, which Panahi navigated – as filmmaker, dissenter, observer, individual – with a wry blend of incredulity, resentment and melancholy.

Director: Jafar Panahi

Genre: Drama/Experimental Film

Language: Persian

Country: Iran