A CINEPHILE’S QUARTET : RECOMMENDATIONS FROM 2018

A year ago, the Luddite in me had no concrete idea regarding the ubiquity of the digital sphere and this was exclusively attuned to the very concept of streaming; ‘streaming’ a wholesome library of diverse cinematic experiences existed in a separate void for me. Yes, it had made the viewing experience transparent, broader and the enterprise of original content was very well known to all and sundry and as someone who personally devours every single aspect of popular culture it was an area I was very well aware of.

But it was a mere fact till then and only by swooping into the reserves of giants like NETFLIX and AMAZON PRIME since late September 2017 did I find titles old and new that I had been waiting for to enrich my cinematic vocabulary. These mediums had the wherewithal to expand my worldview and facilitate approximations of life that maybe an expensive trip to the theater had whittled down to a single account or special occasions or was simply unable to bring to fruition . These, on the other hand, delivered splendidly. The excitement of watching prestigious classics and recent works of exemplary creative and emotional wattage all came of age for me , it seemed. So I devoted my post M PHIL months in updating my own library and the versatile choices included documentaries and few television series. My mind opened up to the significance of the mediums and the betokened opportunities they came with.

Frankly speaking, mediocrity writ large by traditional means of entertainment has only opened gateways for rich and unique works, going beyond the all encompassing multiplex screen. The sanctity to promote talent and resources vis a vis the streaming model is now the most sought after and universal pop culture breakthrough, powering the twenty first century aesthetic of imagination without boundaries further and with reason and merit . All this goes without saying that YouTube was and continues to be the first among equals in this vast worldwide community, the predecessor and global leader existing in a simultaneous continuum.

A welcome change such as the one brought by a behemoth like Netflix is that Cinema with a capital c, the pure nature of its contemporaneous variety as regards works of every possible contour, no longer needs to pay obeisance at the obligatory 70mm space as the proliferation of content is dictating the shift in craft and better output by the dozen. Hence the television screens and the mobile space as no medium is too breakaway or avoidable in the here and now to partake in the creative world of discerning filmmakers, cinephiles and technical wizards who conjure multiple dimensions with their far reaching sensibilities.

2018 has been a profound year for me as I let the spirit of discovery take full charge with these Netflix originals that simultaneously released in theaters too and were often distributed outside US territories on the streaming platform. So within days of original releases, I was able to watch them, conveniently extricated from any undue pressure and with the time and space to discover more ( NETFLIX and AMAZON are inbuilt features of my smart TV as is the norm)

The diversity of these features is startling : from the spectrum of speculative science fiction governed by real world orders of evolution (ANNIHILATION) to the real life tale of determined Mossad agents hunting down an enigmatic Nazi prefect, reflecting the right wing paranoia of today’s age (OPERATION FINALE), and with BEN KINGSLEY pulling in a calmer perspective of curdled evil this side of the post HANNIBAL LECTER era; from the hushed daze of middle age stasis in suburbia, male lifescripts divested of senseless machismo and generational dysfunction (THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS) to the vicious cycle of vengeance that abuse internalizes in us (REVENGE), the films touched a raw nerve, with styles that never matched each other and fulfilling the kaleidoscopic view of life under the influence of forces that unite and divide us. So here I briefly write about each. Ultimately, the experience is for you, my readers and fellow viewers, to uncover. So watch all of these and share your opinions. The biggest takeaway is that none of these vie for a blockbuster berth or frontlines of instant consumption. With patience and diligence, they exemplify the vision processed by makers without bowing out on the compactness of conventions.

*****

ANNIHILATION

CAST: NATALIE PORTMAN, OSCAR ISAAC, TESSA THOMPSON, TUVA NOVOTNY, GINA RODRIGUEZ, JENNIFER JASON LEIGH.

DIRECTION : ALEX GARLAND.

EX MACHINA(2015) , the promising and intricately carved debut feature by Alex Garland, anticipated the most current buzz around Artificial Intelligence and its myriad of ethical standards competently apart from instantly giving Alicia Vikander the fillip to come on her own as a performer. Today as AI robot Sophia, created by Hanson technologies, simulates human behavior and appears on world forums with more frequency, the bemusement and wonder of invention the film suggested becomes more urgent than ever before.

ANNIHILATION is a step in the right direction for him as a sophomore feature as scientific inquiry here marries the possibilities of human and alternative life forms, finding verisimilitude in the Rover mission to Mars, study of comet surfaces and the academic persistence of scientists that a comet like body, captured approaching earth’s surface, may have been an alien entity in the current climate as also INDIAN SPACE RESEARCH ORGANIZATION and TESLA making headway for space exploration in individuated ways.

*****

It begins with Natalie Portman’s Lena, a college biology professor, emphasizing on the world of cells and the indispensable value it holds for us to her students . Cleverly, the script takes this fundamental fact of life to entertwine her familial history, with a missing husband who disappeared on duty (Oscar Isaac), with a confidential mission to a government protected area on which she has to bring her expertise and attempt to search for her spouse. She has to separate both feats and this is the crucial juncture at which THE SHIMMER – the land beyond the government marquee where inexplicable occurrences have been rumoured to occur, leading to disappearances and deathly foreboding- appears as a mysterious Pandora’s box.

Another unique aspect is its gender fluidity as all the mission members are female and this is a natural progression and subversion of the all male ensembles we have accustomed ourselves to. I say gender fluidity as the all female cast did not need to be apostrophised and the organic presence of all makes it an universal template where individuals are thrust into nature’s bounty courtesy THE SHIMMER. There’s extraordinary beauty and primitive sense of dread here, a horror within that is crystallized in the scenes of their initial passage, the carcass, the bear like creature approaching them for a tense standoff without any mobile action and the gradual unraveling of dystopia as a video tape plays previously recorded self mutilation on the part of soldiers who were Lena’s husband’s allies. So what exactly does THE SHIMMER as a danger zone do to alter human beings and their sentience? The tryst begins with an inkling of muted adventure and the eventual bewildering tempers grasp horror at various steps. Also in ANNIHILATION, each mission member is given a distinctive beat. So Tessa Thompson goes into the great unknown by her own will akin to vanishings at Bermuda Triangle, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s soft spoken mission head gets subsumed in the unfolding cosmic play of mutations, Tuva Novotny meets a premature and unexpected dead end while Gina Rodriguez goes emotionally berserk as the possibility of mind control gets closer to the bone.

That is the question at the root of ANNIHILATION and though the word traditionally means end through destruction, here I reckon it signifies a beginning subsuming overall consciousness and putting an end to traditional notions of the natural and more so terrestrial ecosystem. In that regard, it probes in the manner of 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, which itself depicted the beauty and silent panorama of space a year before the original moon landing of 1969. The level of sophisticated and lucid foresight pervades here too. The special effects very naturally buttress the potency of this ‘other world’ the group visits to investigate a futuristic form of genetic mutation that mirrors origins of human beings.

The climactic part builds up to the most concrete and unpredictable journey into this outer borough of existence, the hollowed core of a virgin territory. Certain images outside the lighthouse and inside touch on certain ritualistic content and traces of voodoo while SONOYA MIZUNO, so memorable as the passive AI robot in EX MACHINA, is brilliant as the faceless alien form who merges with Lena in an extended sequence of horror and elaborate directorial flourish. The snare like rhythms are also courtesy the final stretch of the soundtrack by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. It is a collective mark of the omen and the excitement this recent imagining of evolutionary exploration espouses so well, with the attendant imagery generating a palpable mass of the great unknown. The physical bleeds into the cosmic. It reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s legendary song lyrics from Woodstock, “we are stardust, billion year old carbon/ and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” and THE GREAT GIG IN THE SKY by PINK FLOYD in the mysterious world of possibilities the music invites, amorphous and yet breathed to life by human touch as in the song’s classic wordless vocals by CLARE TORRY.

Finally, Portman’s tryst with experimental cinema continues to offer cerebral food for thought. Her face is like an emaciated mask, as if she has been drained of health and the exhaustion shows, quite like THE SCREAM by Munch. She is the soul of this film. Watch ANNIHILATION to peer at the great abyss.

https://youtu.be/zqFds4L73Uo

******

REVENGE

CAST: MATILDA ANNA INGRID LUTZ, KEVIN JANSSENS, VINCENT COLOMBE, GUILLAUME BOUCHEDE.

DIRECTION : CORALIE FARGEAT.

Perhaps nothing can warrant apocalyptic tremors of personalities than the basest of crimes – sexual assault – and a victimized woman’s scorn. The turning of the tide in post Me Too and Times Up era pivots to its bloody fag end in REVENGE. True to the French filmmaking team behind it, revenge is heaved out as the violently internalized emotion it is, settling for gore, yes, but a silent form that spells destruction on devious minds – particularly socially privileged males who employ sexual proclivity as a means to an end, that is ego – and retreats with more violent imagery to befit the severity of an enforced crime as rape.

The communal marshaling of the trio of men is complete, so the girl’s boyfriend tells her to forget it, the one who committed the deed looks at it as consensual transaction while the other looks away from the scene of the assault – a worse crime owing to his apathy. Again, the retribution plays out graphically even as the assault is suggested more than shown and this is where the presence of Coralie–a female filmmaker – matters and the sum of the outcome registers more viscerally. Titillation is not part of the process.

It’s searing, painful for the severely injured protagonist to claw her way back to exact revenge on her joint tormentors and the whole idea defies logic given her physical state and the impossible expanse of the desert where she is the lone survivor. But features as these, attempting to serve as analogies in a set up where rape is a subjective force stacked up against victims and promising more damage to her/him than the accused, perhaps delve into the interiors of the imperiled mind, attempting to make sense of the violent antipathy to reason so commonplace in real lives. In face of multiple accounts of this often gruesome act of mental siege, the response is one of vengeance, an emotion subdued by our ethical standards and still simmering in a mindscape of injustice breeding more hate for the turning wheels of humanity. We may not be able to act with such impunity against the powerful force of evil but this approximation of the sense of justice, punishment per se, is what REVENGE taps. The tapestry of blood befits a shocking and dangerously potent probing of this dog eat dog dynamic we live in today and the victim as avenging figure is an old filmmaking trope yet is strikingly urgent in times that call for attention to the violence of the mind, on all sides of the spectrum. A special shout out to the lead performer Melanie, the tone of claustrophia and wide angle dread the cinematographer ROBRECHT HEYVAERT imbues its frames with and the gut punch of a nightmare this ‘crime and punishment’ scenario ultimately invites. It left me with chills even as it silently questions our gaze upon the female form and her sexual independence that is always threatened by a force greater than her( and in turn our) own understanding.

******

THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS

STARRING BEN MENDELSOHN, EDIE FALCO, CONNIE BRITTON, CHARLIE TAHAN, THOMAS MANN, ELIZABETH MARVEL, MICHAEL GASTON, JOSH PAIS, BILL CAMP.

DIRECTION : NICOLE HOLOFCENER

The title, as I see it, points to a continuity of generational alienation where the past life- scripts of parents who were once clueless and living in loveless personal enclaves bleeds into their children. Nicole Holofcener, who won us over with her definitive look at middle age in ENOUGH SAID with nuance and heart, brings THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS as an instrument of generating empathy even when the hollowed core of people trespasses limits of that hard earned, priceless emotion.

It is about the path of redemption and the essentially decent core of a man who has devoted his life to securing riches and a certain standard of life for his family but in the pursuit of individuality has lost himself and his network of kindred. The expiry date for his suburban dream has passed and this script is laced with consumerism and its after effects, the toxic distance that couples exercise post separation and divorce, the circle of drug and alcohol abuse entrenched in our urban cultures and the quest of learning, failing, learning anew and failing again that never makes us anything less than human. Is it a lonely life then where father and son have little to reconcile with and connect and where even a simple greeting to a neighbor is met with a frosty and indifferent look? Where Christmas decorations on the front lawn of a middle aged man are seen as a nuisance? Has too much money invaded our basic capacity for companionship then ?

I felt supremely invested in this slow boil look at one man and the people in his orbit and the melancholy of Ben Mendelsohn’s expert craft is matched by the agency of the ensemble here. THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS has people grapple with the responsibility of living up to others’ expectations, who, in turn, are not above a reprimand. It’s realistic, compassionate, funny and greatly definitive of the urban clog populating the globalized world, insulating us from our immediate kindred. But the hope and spark is there just like the humanity that defines us at the end of the day. Enough said.

*****

OPERATION FINALE

CAST: OSCAR ISAAC, SIR BEN KINGSLEY, MELANIE LAURENT, NICK KROLL, LIOR RAZ, MICHAEL ARONOV, TORBEN LIEBRECHT, GREG HILL, OHAD KNOLLER, JOE ALWYN, HALEY LU RICHARDSON, GRETTA SCACCHI.

DIRECTION : CHRIS WEITZ.

The spectre of Neo Nazism is a rampant one and manifested in multiple ways in our era of so called modern overhauls for the better. Supremacy of race, colour, nationality, all peeking out from historical tracts and being laid out on pages of the present tome of society in the twenty first century , tells us about the dangers of extremism and how it survives . Chris Weitz’s OPERATION FINALE turns back the pages of recorded history and peels back sensationalist layers to tell the true story of Israel’s attempts to bring justice to the lives of Jewish populace around the world by capturing one Adolf Eichmann,the last surviving architect of Hitler’s ranks who oversaw the Nazi purge. He is discovered eventually after years of hiding in Argentina and by a fluke of fate that finds two lovers (Haley Lu and Joe Alwyn) tracing the bitter end of the line, divided by ideals that are poles apart.

**TORBEN LIEBRECHT who plays one of the members of the unit out to nab a Nazi criminal.

***

Incriminating evidence of his involvement and the determination to take one last stand against the oppressor guide the internalized pandemonium at its heart, derived as the title is by the mission launched by Mossad agents in the 1960s.

Not restricted to a particular type, people as Eichmann exist in our polity and higher circles to this date, whipping up propaganda at the drop of a hat and getting away with stealth and intellectual cunning to justify the means. They even become prime ministers and presidents. Here, Eichmann is presented as an exile, a recluse, a seemingly harmless family man and a master manipulator who engages in a cat and mouse game of distorted reality with Isaac’s Peter, leader of the Mossad group and himself a traumatized Jew privy to his mother’s PTSD. I found myself puzzled if Eichmann was merely a puppet in the hands of the Reich or an authoritative figure taking cognizance of the dastardly cause that had blinded his common sense. But then I am too naive to even catch a random stranger’s smile as nothing but a common pleasantry even though it may be a judgemental smirk. Ben Kingsley commits to that point of view of the monster in sheep’s clothing expertly. But his aggressive, racist words and past imagery of a mute figure presiding over a horrifying shootout in flashbacks cement his status as an unreliable man of shifting, quicksilver moods. The mind games these people play can pull day at night and vice versa. It’s reminiscent of THE READER(2008) that also operated on a line of ambiguity though its complexity was of a deeper hue and the ‘oppressor as oppressed’ beat emerged in all its grey shadings.

The repressed rage of Peter is counteracted by his calm demeanor in dealing with this passive oppressor and Oscar achieves the mid point balance that was crucial in collating facts with cold truth. A truth greater than history and wrested in the looming image of his beloved dead sister. The ensemble is efficient in further portraying individual outlooks while the haunting idea of the Holocaust, of any kind and in any form, finds an internally poignant turn in OPERATION FINALE.

It finds the intimacy in reinstating a sense of haunting justice to a community and the silent sequence at the end exhibits that. This was not a victory. The tension of the present and its ramifications on the future was what the mission wanted to erase. Sadly some truths have an overbearing weight on the conscience and this work finds that in a thriller of straight facts and momentum, elevated by lead performers who lend credence to the curdled forces of good and evil.

The far reaching tentacles of zealots is after all a brutal reality we must confront and the team’s courage here in performing the task, aided by such personal stakes of being Jewish individuals in a post Hitler era, is striking. The congealed passions work to extract the final result and Eichmann’s trial in the presence of the populace in Israel and his eventual punishment by death paints a trail of justice delayed, disrupted but ultimately not denied to survivors and posterity.

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