Tuesday 31 October 2023

The Banshees of Inisherin [2022]

 In Irish playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s captivating debut film In Bruges, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson had portrayed an oddly fascinating bromance. Made 14 years later, The Banshees of Inisherin reunited the two actors, along with the sense of being oppressively stuck in a ravishing locale, into a darker, nastier and gorier variant of the Laurel and Hardy films – with Farrel embodying a baffled shaggy dog persona, while Gleeson bringing in stolid stoicism – albeit no less absurdist or farcical, and occasionally as funny too. However, its demonstration of an intimate friendship transforming into an ugly, bitter and mutually destructive separation – catalysed by brittle male egos and wounded male prides which reach gothic proportions – ambitiously aimed for profundity, ingenuity and grand Shakespearean tragedy (with sharp satiric undertones and a macabre sense of humour), even if it couldn’t always sidestep artifice and contrivances. The grim fairy tale – articulating the collapse of reasons and morals amidst spiralling madness and violence, wherein a fable playing out in an eerily tranquil and astonishingly beautiful island served as an analogy to the dance of destruction and deaths that was playing out in the Irish mainland – kicked-off on a deadpan note when the dim simpleton and dumbfounded Pádraic (Farrell) is made to realize that Colm (Gleeson) – afflicted with existential anguish – has decided to cut off their seemingly inseparable bond, in order to spend his days composing, playing and teaching music, as opposed to indulging in meaningless banter. This banal premise rapidly escalates into the realms of lurid ludicrosity. The film’s outstanding central cast also comprised of Kerry Condon as Pádraic’s intelligent sister Siobhán, and Barry Keoghan, a troubled guy regularly beaten by his policeman dad.

Director: Martin McDonagh

Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire

Language: English

Country: UK

Wednesday 25 October 2023

The Fabelmans [2022]

 The gold standard for autobiographical cinematic representations of directors’ coming-of-age as cinephiles and their journeys into filmmaking – across films à clef and docu essays/diaries – would include Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Mészáros’ Diary Trilogy (Diary for My Children, Diary for My Lovers, Diary for My Father and Mother), Mekas’ Lost, Lost, Lost, Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès, etc. Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, as a love letter to the movies, ode to discovering one’s life-long passion, in seeing the world through the camera’s lens, and the myth making capacities of this medium – alongside its quirky humour, self-effacing tone, tender personal anecdotes, and cinema’s ability to display alternative realities – aimed for the afore-mentioned echelon. The brilliant meta reference evoked through a home video that the protagonist makes – fun and bonhomie in the released version vis-à-vis discomfiting forebodings in the director’s cut – was its most representative moment. It was also, however, marked by sentimental approach, largely sanitized exploration of topical particularities – with rare incursions into political contexts – and whimsy intended at easy likeability; and these undid its lofty ambitions. It began with Sammy – Spielberg’s deadpan alter-ego – literally crashing into the world of movies upon seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth with his dad Burt (Paul Dano), a low-key guy and brilliant computer engineer, and mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a deeply temperamental woman and trained pianist. The gradual marital unravelling of his parents – accentuated by physical dislocations and Mitzi’s falling for Burt’s friend (Seth Rogen) – provided an engaging parallel track to Sammy’s obsessive immersion into filmmaking. The film’s standout turn belonged to Williams, and comprised of two striking cameos – by Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s eccentric granduncle and David Lynch as John Ford.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Biopic/Film a Clef/Coming-of-Age

Language: English

Country: US

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Rabiye Kurnaz Vs. George W. Bush [2022]

 Turning grim, serious and incredibly tragic historical incidents/episodes into funny and idiosyncratic comedies is either a very brave creative choice or a very stupid one, as they can either turn into blazing, if provocative, works (Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties, Holland’s Europa Europa, Menzel’s I Served the King of England, etc.) or films that divide its viewers right down the middle (Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, etc.) or despicable pieces of trash best suited for the garbage bins (Waititi’s Jojo Rabit, etc.). While this docufiction by German filmmaker Andreas Dresen didn’t belong to the inherently complex sub-genre of Holocaust films, its focus on extra-judicial measures, nefarious subversion of due processes, and colossal travesty of justice that the US freely carried out under the guise of “war on terrorism” – which included racial profiling, kidnapping, illegal detentions for indefinite periods, limitless tortures, etc. – did make for a bleak, solemn and intensely sensitive subject. Hence the director’s formal choice – alternating between deadpan and bouncy – could’ve easily led to flippancy and trivialization of the matter. Fortunately, he was careful and empathetic enough to avoid that, and in turn succeeded at making a film worth watching, despite some of its broad brushstrokes and crowd-pleasing flaws. The film catalogued the relentless efforts of Rabiye Kurnaz – a super gregarious and effervescent Turkish-German housewife living in Bremen, memorably played by Meltem Kaptan – in order to get her eldest son Murat released from the notorious Guantanamo Bay hellhole. Over nearly 5 years, and with massive help from soft-spoken but dogged human rights lawyer Bernhard Docke (Alexander Scheer), she must defiantly battle through the opaque, murky and Kafkaesque world of post-9/11 geopolitics if she hopes to achieve the impossible.

Director: Andreas Dresen

Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Docufiction

Language: German/Turkish/English

Country: Germany

Monday 23 October 2023

Both Sides of the Blade [2022]

 Clair Denis’ Both Sides of the Blade portrays the sequence of events upon the sudden return of an old flame, which leads to a turbulent love triangle, marital discord and eventually emotional collapse for all. The veteran filmmaker structured this along the intersections of grand melodrama and slow-burn erotic thriller, and liberally peppered the narrative with a heady cocktail of messy, chaotic, unbridled, tempestuous and violent emotions ranging from romantic turmoil, sensual enticement and fervid lust to heartbreak, fury and self-destructive outbursts. What made it especially intriguing, aside from its reckless passions and charged atmosphere, was that Denis based it on middle-aged people with their freckled backs, loosening skins and deep wrinkles; the seething, bursting and ravishing allure, desires, pleasures and urges that the ever-magnificent Juliette Binoche, nearing her 60s, so nakedly and boldly displayed – both literally and figuratively – was especially breathtaking. And she, as radio journalist Sara – who hosts a political talk show covering the daily lives of people from former French colonies – whose seemingly happy marriage to Jean (Vincent London) starts unravelling upon the return of her former boyfriend François (Grégoire Colin), added magnetic dimensions to this otherwise conventional story. London was compelling too as a former rugby player with felony record bouncing between his successful wife, increasingly lost mixed-race teenage son (Issa Perica), and the business venture that he gets drawn into with François despite some past baggage. The lack of a murkier and more discomfiting denouement that the edgy but tad muddled script was seemingly leading us towards along the lines of a Chabrol or a Highsmith – albeit, accompanied by hypnotic jazz-based score and moody compositions – made this otherwise engaging film stop short of greatness.

Director: Claire Denis

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Marital Drama

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 21 October 2023

Red Africa [2022]

 Red Africa – a kaleidoscopic compilation of astounding footage – operated in the porous intersection of political reportage, myth making and dry satire. Alexander Markov achieved this magnetic balance by meticulously stitching together singular historical artefacts in the form of a subtly shape-shifting tapestry that begun, and ran for most parts, as a disarmingly straight-faced peek into a relatively lesser-known side of Cold War history, and only much later revealed its darkly ironic stance. In a bold formal choice, it’s fully bereft of narrations and expositions. Instead, this dazzling documentary collage – based on footage shot by Soviet filmmakers in various African countries and back home from 1957 to 1991 – organically and diagetically contextualized the images, and in turn their meanings, interpretations and significances. In the 1960s, a wave of independence swept through a slew of African countries after years of colonial subjugation; in parallel, they also found a seemingly unlikely comrade from a far-flung place. The Soviet Union, in its strategic choice of courting the global south, made emphatic overtures towards these newly liberated countries that were in immediate need of patronage. The film, through its engrossing archival footage, documented the economic, industrial, educational, cultural and political exchanges that the Soviet Union had with these countries. Having experienced contempt and exploitation from the western world so far, this unanticipated display of alliance won them over, and consequently paved way for their inclusion into the socialist sphere of influence; that is, until the stunning dissolution of the USSR – and the Soviet Bloc in general – around 1989 and 1990. This reversal was captured in the film’s tone too, as the lyricism and lilting score got replaced with an edgy palette and grungy music.

Director: Alexander Markov

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Political History

Language: Russian

Country: Russia

Tuesday 17 October 2023

All The Beauty And The Bloodshed [2022]

 The celebrated photographer Nan Goldin’s fascinating life has been one of profound personal tragedies, furious defiance, feminist agency, civil disobedience, queer experiences, eclectic underground and counterculture associations, and active participation in anti-establishmentarian communities. These, in turn, influenced her art – which was, at once, gritty, non-conformist, political, sexual, powerful, and above all, intensely personal – and shaped her activism. Laura Poitras’ magnetic documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed – filled with urgency, ferocity, angst, immediacy and formal fluidity – captured Goldin’s polychromatic shades through a blend of thrilling reportage, freewheeling memoir, vivid art exhibits, engrossing zeitgeist and melancholic reflections. That Poitras herself has fearlessly critiqued the state machinery and defied the system with her documentaries – which too have existed at the crossroads of art and activism – paved way for a symbiotic collaboration between the two women. It’s a matter of marvel that the different elements of the mosaic combined with such lucidity despite so much ground that it covered – the repressive familial and suburban milieu in which Goldin grew up; the haunting memories of her sister’s suicide; her dizzying friendships with rebellious individuals, radical artists and social misfits living on the margins; her experimentations with drugs, sexuality and subaltern circuits; her journey as a trailblazing artist who merged avant-garde form and subversive undercurrents with rare intimacy; her addiction to Oxycontin that nearly killed her; and her blazing activism to bring the hideous Sackler family to account for their culpability in the opioid epidemic. The protests that she led at the Met, Guggenheim and Louvre – for taking donations from the Slackers and naming galleries after them – provided for rousing moments, as did her dazzling photographic installations accompanied by terrific music hand-picked by Goldin.

Director: Laura Poitras

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Biopic

Language: English

Country: US

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Until Tomorrow [2022]

 Societal conservatism and patriarchy combated with female solidarity and defiance in Ali Asgari’s Until Tomorrow. Its focus on burning social issues and moral dilemmas manifested through a tense, gripping, moody and suspenseful thriller, thus presenting yet another compelling example of a fearless Iranian film where genre is employed as springboard, McGuffin and catalyst – and therefore interlaced with complex sociopolitical themes and commentaries – instead of an end in itself. The director’s niece Sadaf Asgari brought in a stirring mix of resistance, ingenuity and vulnerability – thus displaying agency amidst repression, and serving as the film’s feminist face – in the role of Fereshteh, a working single mother who’s had a child out of wedlock. While she’s been somehow managing things – her two-month-old baby, job at a printing press, and studying English with the hopes of emigration – living alone in a small flat in a large middle-class building block in Tehran, her delicately strung existence experiences an unanticipated jolt when her parents decide to visit the city for a day. She hasn’t disclosed her motherhood to them – knowing full well the repercussions of that – and hence must somehow find a way to hide her baby and its stuffs until their departure. With a fiercely loyal friend by her side – Atefeh (Ghazal Shojaei), with her red short crop and impudent smarts, made for a striking contrast to Fereshteh’s evocative beauty – she embarks on an increasingly feverish and absurdist urban odyssey for a temporary resolution to her crisis. What the two powerful girls end up doing, however, is circumvent, subvert and even challenge the stifling value systems they’re engulfed in. That it preceded the massive Mahsa Amini protests, imbued additional dimensions to it on hindsight.

Director: Ali Asgari

Genre: Drama/Psychological Thriller

Language: Persian

Country: Iran

Sunday 1 October 2023

Camouflage [2022]

 Jonathan Perel, in his riveting investigative journalism and docu-essay Corporate Accountability, had catalogued how organizations had collaborated with the Argentine military junta during the “Dirty War”, by enabling abductions, disappearances, detentions and tortures. In Camouflage, the haunting remnants from that dark chapter in his country’s past continued to inform its political context, but the canvas very specifically focussed on Campo de Mayo, a massive army base on the outskirts of Buenos Aires which’d served as a notorious concentration camp during the military dictatorship. The life of Félix Bruzzone, a writer in his 40s, has been shaped irrevocably by the dictatorship and the camp like numerous others. His parents were both disappeared when he was a baby; much later, upon moving to a house close to the base, he discovered that his mother was detained, tortured and killed at this chamber of horrors which still exists like a sinister monster. This low-key work alternately served as a personal space for Bruzzone – he loves running as a therapeutic exercise, which is captured through long tracking shots – and a communication channel with people for whom the camp holds starkly diverse meanings. His grandmother with whom he lived after his mom was disappeared; old friends reminiscing the changing landscapes; a woman who survived detention and has been striving to preserve their collective memories; another woman who secretly collects soil from here and sells that to tourists; artists who draw inspiration from this place; a real estate agent who’s excited about property prices around the site; a palaeontologist who wishes it could be converted into a dinosaur park. He also participates in a “killer race” that the army’s propaganda machinery organizes through the complex.

Director: Jonathan Perel

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Political History

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina