Editor’s Picks

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A24 films Production Company has produced some timeless classics over the years. Founded in 2012, within a short span of time, it has already racked up a whopping twenty-four Academy award nominations. This independent entertainment company seems to have a strong conviction to produce only quality films that are devoid of Hollywood cliché. The road less taken. The films distributed by A24 were also cogent, visually creative; rich in content and after a certain period of time, the production house turned out to be a great culmination of every type of genre. If Ex-machina was a sci-fi thriller; Spring Breakers was a freaky action. Lady Bird was a coming-of-age comedy drama and It comes at night was a terrific horror. When I take a look back at the best American movies of the past five years, the ones that immediately pop up in my mind are ushered by A24. To name a few, Enemy (2013), A Most Violent Year (2014), While we’re Young (2015), Amy (2015), Krisha (2016), The Lobster (2016), Moonlight (2016), Good Time (2017), A Ghost Story (2017), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Hereditary (2018) are my favorites. This year, they banged again with a sublime film, First Reformed (2018), undoubtedly the pinnacle of director Paul Schrader’s cinema career. Spoilers ahead.

First reformed is the name of the church headed by Father Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a former military chaplain. Aged 46, he is alcoholic, writes a diary to cumulate his random thoughts on God and faith and has been diagnosed with cancer (Remember Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest?) Situated in a remote area, his loneliness is accompanied by guilt of losing his son in Iraq war (Toller encouraged his son to enlist) and annulment of the marriage. The sermons are attended by only a handful and the visitors who show keen interest in buying t-shirts and recapitulating the history of the church annoy him. He is tormented between hope and despair. The inability to overcome his personal inadequacies perpetuates his anxiety. Above all, something holds him from making a complete surrender to God. Though Esther (working in Abundant Life, the parent church of First reformed) is caring about him and desperately longing for physical intimacy, Toller despises her as she is a constant reminder of what he actually is. The dramatic events take a turn when pregnant Mary (demure & lovely Amanda Seyfried) seeks the help of the troubled pastor to counsel her pessimistic husband, Michael. He is a radical environmentalist actively participating in rigorous campaigns against companies that pollute the globe. The nuanced conversation between Michael and Toller coaxed with Biblical throwback forms the crux of the film. They expose themselves in a broader perspective, re-examining their disturbed faith and religious virtue. While trying to be optimistic, Toller realizes that, to encounter the brutal realities, he imposes a fake convincing spiritual logic among the believers that is fragile and entirely unreliable. After all, his own personal crisis could not be addressed by the mighty lord.

The voice-over of the protagonist interrupting the coherent story-line is a poor technique deployed to jump or bridge the gap between the transformation scenes. This kind of imprudent ‘Terrence Malickan’ approach has diluted the intensity leaving no impact on the viewer during the first act. However, the slow-paced film picks up momentum and the rapturous Balzacian methodology enforced to chart out the internal conflicts of the major characters is remarkable and lucid. The depth of perception is astonishing. The activist Michael shots himself in the head, unable to bear the injustice done to the earth by fellow human beings. From this point, the film is not just an examination of one’s insecurity related to faith. The church choir sings “Who’s going to stand up?” as a part of honoring Michael’s last wish. The congregation fans the flames for political aspirations. The pastor cannot live the same boredom life anymore. He is imbued with passionate awakenings and the role to play is clear. When Toller learns that both the Abundant life and 250th anniversary of First Reformed is funded by one of the major pollutants of the earth, his anguish intensifies. He is ready to react!

The poetic portrait of Mary and Toller performing a mystic ritual is purely Tarkovskian. The metaphor alludes over the central theme of the film creating a mesmerizing effect. Enhanced with the low ambient distorted music, the struggle to cope up with the dying hope and strive for the newly desired relentless spirit is conveyed in the most subtle way. It doesn’t simplify things. More importantly, there is no urge to provide definite answers or certainty. As any work of artistic importance do, this film too makes us feel the heaviness of inevitable questions. Few traces of Jean-Pierre Melville’s priest (Léon Morin, Priest 1961) could be noticed in Ethan Hawke’s character sketch yet he never ceases to bring out different shades of his acting skills. He usually exhibits an exceptional performance whenever he had collaborated with Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise-Sunset-Midnight, Boyhood). This time, it is Paul Schrader’s turn. As a middle-aged Reverend, he is apt, riveting and persuasive. His troubles with theistic belief are well articulated and he could trigger the empathetic connection between the viewer and the film. Though the sexual tension between Mary and Toller is not obvious, the spectator could sense it via Hawke’s eyes. The philosophically potent moment in which Toller succinctly says “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world” elevates the purpose of this film to an impressive level. The most substantial film of the year, so far.

After the removal of section 377, I had posted in Facebook listing out the important works in literature and cinema that are thematically connected with LGBTQI. 1. Moonlight (2016) 2. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) 3. Paris is Burning (1990) 4. Tropical Malady (2004) 5. My Own Private Idaho (1991) 6. I, You, He, She (1974) 7.  Weekend (2011) 8. Call Me by Your Name (2017) 9. The Normal Heart (2014) 10. Victim (1961) 11. Mädchen in Uniform (1931) 12. The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1974) 13. Tangerine (2015) 14. Milk (2008) 15. Tomboy (2011) topped in my list of favorite films and 1. Death in Venice (Thomas Mann) 2. A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara) 3. Naked Lunch (William S.Burroughs) 4. Maurice (E.M. Forster) 5. Boy meets Boy (David Levithan) 6. Oranges are not the Only Fruit (Jeanette Winterson) 7. Orlando (Virginia Woolf) were appealing literary works. Many were disappointed and furious for not including Brokeback Mountain. In my opinion, it was overtly romanticized and dramatic immediacy was poorly captured. I missed an important movie, 120 BPM (2017), a French film directed by Robin Campillo, as I watched it only after sharing the above list. Campillo’s The Class (2008) was an instant classic and one of the best films made on uncontrived teacher-student relationship. It also won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes film festival.

120 BPM, set place in the year 1989 when the AIDS virus began to wreak havoc in France, is a story about ACT UP organization that made deliberate efforts, like throwing balloons filled with fake blood inside the laboratory premises, to seek the attention of government and pharmaceutical companies. It follows the day-to-day activities and debates of the prominent members of the group that open wider horizons about the community. The vein of emotion is tingled with their desire to drive pugnacity against injustice within the limited lifetime. Even in the midst of suffering, they are acceded to sexual liberation; promote the use of condoms, love to dance, celebrate the slightest achievements and cheer in the awareness parade. Their joy between life and death evokes a melancholic sensation throughout the film; makes us feel depressive without dolorous romanticism or unapologetically over-sentimental fallacy. The heightened moments are filled with brilliant and intact tribulations. It does not just skimp on shock sex scenes or banally hover over inextricable deaths but well packed histrionics illuminate their sufferings in profound ways. If the entire Seine River turning red is evocative, the transcendental portrayal of light and dust in the night club is simmering with ambiguity. Archival footage of various other campaigns and revolutionary acts are also snipped and inserted to provide a glimpse over the past. Yes, there are some ‘archetypal’ sequences that place themselves by default in this kind of genre. They had watered down the sheer force of observations made in the rest of the film too. But the film surfaces above and leaves a strong impact due to its distinctive approach towards ill-fated activists.

Elena Ferrante’s much acclaimed Italian novel, My Brilliant Friend – first of the Neapolitan quartet, is being adapted into television series. It is an endearing story about female friendship set in Naples during 1950’s. The first season consists of eight episodes and the premiere of pilot episodes in Venice film festival has received a standing ovation. This would be the first non-English program ever produced by HBO and in order to transmit the essence of the original, the entire series is recorded in Neapolitan dialect itself. As we learn, it will air on HBO in the beginning of November. To read more:

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/hbos-first-move-foreign-language-series-my-brilliant-friend-1139303

Watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXCKYOlIgTQ

This October marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The new web portal http://gandhi.gov.in/ has also been launched by the government of India announcing the commemoration. In the name of Gandhi, Narendra Modi calls for ‘clean India’ and there is tremendous boasting about Swachh Bharat. I closed the site abruptly. Sigh!

Ramachandra Guha’s latest biography on Gandhi has been released and is praised to be the most ambitious book on the Father of our nation. If the first part, Gandhi before India, elucidated his South African struggles and transformation, the second part – Gandhi the years that changed the world (1914 – 1948) begins with his return from South Africa and shadows him until his death. Penguin publication states that, “[…] magnificent book tells the story of Gandhi’s life, from his departure from South Africa to his assassination in 1948. It is a book with a Tolstoian sweep, both allowing us to see Gandhi as he was understood by his contemporaries and the vast, varied Indian societies and landscapes which he traveled through and changed beyond measure. Drawing on many new sources and animated by its author’s wonderful sense of drama and politics, Gandhi is a major reappraisal of the crucial years in this titanic figure’s story.”

Many were wondering about the dire need for another book on Gandhi, when there is already a pile of books magnifying his stature, explaining his motives and criticizing his shortcomings. The simple answer would be, ‘Yes! He is still intriguing.’