These are further writings on the eclectic mix of works that I was lucky and glad to unearth from the immediate year that passed . Spread out over the last few months of 2018, they made me aware of the sprawling output the creative industry rolls out with such alacrity. Here they are in no particular order.
Alfonso Cuaron’s paean to the everyday and those who are content living on the frayed edges of personal histories, so much as popular consciousness, centralized the very humanity of every good soul committing to the mundane like a champion.
There is no false bravado or big statements on the surface here in ROMA yet in Cleo’s tale and of the family she looks out for as a housemaid( and surrogate mother figure), Cuaron honors the epic journeys we all undergo and in his nostalgic, sepia toned palette, the stark imagery fuses with the elements (earth, fire, water) to become symbolic of the way even a so called insignificant existence is transmuted through universal affiliation to love and a kind of sisterhood that women of two differing classes involuntarily heed to. Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira are au natural in this unforgettable collection of individual moments that is traced through the lens of present day remembering. Cuaron looks back at his own childhood here and the adult’s pragmatism shows the world as it was and still is.
CLEO, for me, is one of the many heartbeats of global cinema. Yalitza has a presence of calm and collected dignity that cuts across gender and class lines and lodges itself in the memory forever. I know that’s true for me.
The recreation of the life and times of Scottish ruler and enfant terrible ROBERT THE BRUCE ( a fine Chris Pine), who dared to initiate a strategic crusade against English overlords in the medieval epoch, is a finely layered representation of bare beginnings for a country and populace. In the Brexit era, it posits echoes of the uncertainty and many moral compasses that pointed towards dangers of decimation and death in the face of a righteous, well meaning uprising.
Director David Mckenzie gave it an epic sweep, savage primitivism of the setting without beautifying the edges and still mounted intimate moments of personal experiences for the king and those on his side while also plumbing the depths of Prince of Wales, Robert’s direct opponent, who’s a product of a skewed gender hegemony.
As for the rest, the cinematography, musical score, detailing and focus on historical authenticity was spot on while FLORENCE PUGH and AARON TAYLOR JOHNSON made the most out of one dimensional stereotypes with their interpretation and direction by Mckenzie. Above all, CHRIS PINE towered in this respectable cinematic traction of a historical life script. OUTLAW KING relayed the legend and myth with practical chops of storytelling.
NAILED IT (NETFLIX)
Who said too many cooks spoilt the broth? Not if comedic icings decorated the most irreverent brand of unconventionality. The other side of MASTERCHEF, NAILED IT believes in the credo of try and try until you succeed and overturns the presumably highbrow concept of a soul kitchen, peppering the proceedings with an array of disaster artists – who attempt to recreate some of the greatest desserts ever.
Of course, the creme de la creme of the business are here as judges and overseers. However, instead of a straight face, they let it all go for a decisively funny, bonkers ride of kitchen fails ; take my word for it: putting that cherry on top of the cake looks like the most entertaining exercise ( and the most impossible to achieve )
NAILED IT, for me, is the most fun I’ve had in recent memory, less a competition and more of a trial run for aspiring bakers. It revels in its uninhibited livewire host Nicole and inherent sweetness of expert confectioner Jacques Torres. 2018 has seen three seasons already inclusive of a delightfully entertaining Christmas special.
Our verdict : it’s so novel, the next time your cake making ventures go downhill along with that undercooked dough and incomplete flavor, you will be reveling in the spirit of trying to go against the strain. It’s relentless fun and games, invoking the brio of a child at heart.
God knows we need laughter right now. The effort is truly what counts, along with some chocolate. After all, when it involves food, our interests are always piqued? NAILED IT will lift your spirits.
THE ROMANOFFS (AMAZON PRIME)
Matthew Weiner’s personal vision after his historic ascent as writer and director with MAD MEN (2007-2015) was something to relish in THE ROMANOFFS where he fulfilled his double duties very well. This miniseries, about a group of disparate, globally scattered citizens with often spurious links to the erstwhile Romanov dynasty, was a distillation of our quest for privilege in a world that celebrates and denigrates elitism in equal measure. Here the personal halves of the larger whole occupied centrestage.
I’ll say it again : watching the eight part compendium was like reading a short story collection and I will not be surprised if a condensed screenplay /reworked draft was released as a book. Such was the novelistic technique in the storytelling, a polished, refined repository of people, places, affinities and life long bonds that were explored without the excess baggage of the royal lineage. This was particularly liberating as contemporary universality was ever the stakeholder in intimate dialogues of personal value in each relationship, tackling myriad hues of marriage ( THE ROYAL WE, EXPECTATIONS), filmmaking ( HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE), ropes of fact and fiction ( HIGH AND BRIGHT CIRCLE), medical malfeasance ( PANORAMA), parenthood ( in BRIGHT AND HIGH CIRCLE and most importantly in END OF THE LINE), heritage (THE VIOLET HOUR) and as in the last installment( THE ONE THAT HOLDS EVERYTHING) , a direct example of the pleasures of frame storytelling. It was a tale within the tale ensemble in this final episode, probing the essence of truth and marrying the contours of that entity with an Oliver Twist like melancholy, a commentary on alternate identities and the inestimable sting of lifelong bitterness.
Overall, THE ROMANOFFS was a pitch for the idea of finding a narrative and in its yen for rediscovering legacies, it sought the realism of the settings and performances, achieving them beautifully. A class apart is the term for it. Striking originality and humanism are hard to come by and both were hallmarks of this pleasing miniseries.
WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY?
The roots of conservatism are so deep, they have the power to outgrow modern, rational thoughts and gnaw at a youth’s future. Community is the vile force spreading its seed to one unit and soon enough love for one’s child gets chided by those buoyant forces and is overpowered by dangerous cultural precepts.
That’s the harrowing truth of Iram Haque’s own life that she brings to larger notice in the appropriately titled WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY? These are the lines we use to stifle our desires and shield ourselves from any turn towards the unconventional. The stakes are chilling here.
Its pivot is on a young, promising teenager who is the apple of her family’s eyes; one misunderstood action leads to doom for this Pakistani girl born and raised in Norway. She is packed off to her native land, tamed by those around her and yet her burgeoning sexuality and flight of freedom refuses to budge. This film explores how innocence is plundered, others’ unqualified opinions shape mindsets and repression makes way for more untoward passages for a young mind.
MARIA MOZHDAH makes an appropriate case for female dignity under siege as the lead while ADIL HUSSAIN and EKAVALLI KHANNA play her parents poised between offering love, clemency and unbending cultural fiats of their original land while enjoying stability in a foreign one. It’s a tale where humanity is not crushed so much as denied and echoes a subcontinental hypocrisy in passages of unpredictable mental horror for the young girl’s unraveling.
GRACE AND FRANKIE ( NETFLIX, SEASONS 1-4)
For starters, I never looked at the protagonists from the prism of their age because this universally beloved comedy showed them with the foibles, fears, absurdities and adventures that would have suited any demographic. But I’ll agree, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin have experience and the kind of vintage charm that turns GRACE AND FRANKIE into comedic gold, mining laughs and heart from issues of middle age and upwards. After all, experience counts for a lot especially if your gifts of performance get highlighted better than ever before. That’s the case here.
From being dealt a bombshell by their husbands in their seventies to reframing the very idea of ‘late in bloom’ friendships and down to their business acumen and personal entanglements, the four seasons I watched in 2018 gave me endless joy while putting into the center a talented cast. Coming from FRIENDS creator and writer MARTHA KAUFMANN, the laughs are plenty and the realities of life bittersweet. It’s one for all ages. (By the way, season fifth has already premiered in January 2019 and I have seen the first two episodes)
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER is the enduring motto of GRACE AND FRANKIE. The earned chalk and cheese dynamic among the two is an added incentive.
SONI ( A NETFLIX ORIGINAL RELEASED IN 2019 OFFICIALLY )
Lord knows if the collective marshaling of Ivan Ayr’s direction and naturalism of leads GEETIKA VIDYA OHYLAN and SALONI BATRA, demonstrated in Neflix’s original Indian feature film SONI, will multiply their clout in the lop sided scenario we find our artistic fields in. But I’m praying for their continued presence for voices as original as these should not struggle anymore against the routine ballast of mediocrity wrought by the mainstream. Netflix has been a boon for voices as these and may this continue manifold. The film they topline has the same concerns in the premise.
SONI, properly released in 2019, after touring various festivals including the prestigious Venice Film Festival, is centered on the titular protagonist (Geetika), a young police officer with fire in the belly, and her senior ( Saloni). They have to wrestle with the frustrations, ennui and gendered hostilities of being cops in the notoriously sexist belt of Delhi and the National Capital Region. Their uniforms do not shield them from loutish behavior displayed on the streets of the city while on regular nightly vigils in various pockets, with the hot headed and tough as nails Soni using her physical prowess to bring them to book and getting the higher establishment’s reprimand for it. Her senior Kalpana tempers her position with an eye for the way our society pushes women to either be cowed down or raise hell, by hand or words. A female cop is no more the better for it in either cases. She understands the precipice at which Soni is pushed to on a regular basis and how her aggression is not without reason. She gets the axe for her flouting of protocols while the men, some of them flaunting positions in power, can get away easily.
Kalpana and Soni’s camaraderie and competence shows what females in uniform can accomplish without any overt push of the law. But the male dominated scenario or rather a lop sided system is so rampant that honesty is crushed and consumed by the way things have always been.
SONI looks at all of these with a realistic eye, uncompromisingly and the world of humanity is palpable amidst the challenges of field work, like the kindly elderly lady from the building who looks out for Soni after she comes home, having committed hours of night duty. The personal halves of both women is a picture of cloistered spaces where good intentions and concern coincide with ways of the world subscribed to all, blindly followed by each. But these two attempt to make things right by the conviction in their competence.
In the course of the film, young girls cross their paths, one being Kalpana’s niece who suffers humiliation by her classmates as she hits puberty, the other being a silent, shuddering teen who finds her way to the police station after being found in a mall’s parking space and another is a toddler who is witness to a scene of sexism at its worst. They each represent different stages of the female experience. Just like the fully adult women do too.
There’s a brilliant touch here in how a male subordinate addresses Kalpana as Sir instead of Ma’am, an example of the stringent gender codes we have fallen prey to and the appropriation common among the less educated in North India. This unintentional continuum is striking. SONI is masterfully adept at evincing such details. It’s powerful and quietly assured of its place, just like Kalpana and Soni.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS AMONG 2018’S MANY ORIGINAL WORKS RELEASED WORLDWIDE VIA NETFLIX
These are cinematic works that were theatrically released in the USA but distributed in several territories exclusively by the streaming giant and two of them (THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS and HOLD THE DARK) were originals from the behemoth. As an afficianado, the NETFLIX ORIGINAL title for all ensured quality above everything else and in the long run, the versatility on display quantified the liberal model helping many independently funded features in finding a footing, in regions where they were not released. I have written about these in previous blog posts so I need not elaborate. As a last resort, I mention them as honorable works of art that must be lapped up by many more.
A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN comes first in its descent into the heart of darkness within a Thai prison and the British pugilist and drug addict lodged there who punches above his moral weight to find one thankless spot of redemption in a place teeming with codes and rules of its own. It’s also teeming with repressed humanity that bursts through the cracks and in the low key, naturalistic choice of execution, this real life tale finds a fitting approximation. Class, gender and the essential prison both build around us get examined in this haunting take culled from a memoir.
The heart of darkness pervades the spare, claustrophobic panoramas of HOLD THE DARK most fittingly , a naturalistic drama that draws from the frigid reserves of nature itself to blend myth with secretive facts of almost any and every backwater. The images have stayed with me, lingering like a hypnotic lull in which a wolf howl and piercing human look enter the soul and render it asunder. It’s a chilling dreamscape that comes to reality.
ANNIHILATION toplining Natalie Portman is a beast of another nature, fusing scientific fervour with an enigmatic, futuristic and probable riff on the origin of mankind, tracing it to the most fundamental nucleus of all: cells. The creeping sense of horror, discovery and incisive mythology of terrestrial life was credible to a t, coming from a filmmaker(Alex Garland) familiar with his own penchant for genesis for the future ( his first film was EX MACHINA) ANNIHILATION ultimately merits its slow burn and gets flexible by the final denouement.
On the other hand lies THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS, criss crossing generational melancholy with worn out truths about suburban exhaustion, marriage, parenthood and the grasp of material comforts, with a cast that reflects all of them perfectly well. Last but not the least come REVENGE about a young woman eviscerating male ego with counter violence to boot and OPERATION FINALE that crests on the recreation of a mission by Mossad agents trying to capture one of Hitler’s last surviving handymen. Both are propulsive in their own ways and show curdled forces of explicit evil clashing with sudden bursts of internalized bedlam by the wronged.
In the next post, more works will find pride of place.