La Haine

From the moment Bob Marley’s Burning and Looting kicks in over images of riots in a Parisian banlieue, you get the feeling this is a film you need to see. I didn’t know a lot about La Haine before I first saw it (it’s French, it’s in black and white, it stars a young Vincent Cassel) but something told me it was a film I’d enjoy. From the moment the title sequence started playing, my suspicions were confirmed. This was a film that I needed to see.

The title sequence is by no means the only scene that stands up on its own. Kassovitz has a knack for creating these highly entertaining and autonomous moments; The housing project DJ blasting a mix of KRS-One and Edith Piaf to his neighbours below. A seemingly meaningless bathroom joke shared between its three protagonists and a fortuitous passer-by. Perhaps most aesthetically memorable is the dizzying dolly zoom shot of the three boys with the streets of Paris shortening behind them. The technique may be inspired by a certain scene in Goodfellas and the influence of Scorsese on the film overall is another reason to love it. It’s a modern classic born straight out of the tenets of the new Hollywood. It feels like a natural heir to someone like Scorsese. La Haine is fictional yet all too easily believable story based on true events featuring young marginalised protagonists, a perfect balance of humour and grim reality, and inexperienced actors given starring roles under their same first names. Vincent Cassell even mimics De Niro’s Travis Bickle in front of his mirror with his ‘you talking to me’ imitation.

These moments, brilliant as they are alone, are of course just parts to a much bigger story. A story about the lives of French immigrants, a story about race relations, police brutality, state housing, and what the future holds for young boys living in the banlieues. This is a coming of age story built with conflicts only young people of colour will have experienced. In the same way that children make defining choices in Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, the adolescent boys of this Parisian slum are forced to grow up fast. Their lives are about to change over the course of one night. After a boy is hospitalized in the aftermath of a police riot, three friends are faced with how to react to what has happened. As Vinz deals with his masculinity, Saïd is set up as the impressionable loyal compadre, hungry to prove his worth and Hubie’s battle with morality comes to define his character, the trio gain depth and are elevated higher than mere prototypes of misrepresented youth. A series of events following the riots puts the boys in different conflicts; with themselves, with each other, with vengeance, and with deciding what is the right thing to do. The strength of their feelings wax and wane but hinge on one piece of vital information; whether their friend (the boy shot in the riot) will survive the night.

The other obvious talking point about this film for me, is the context of it’s re-release. Watching La Haine today gives the film even more weight than it might’ve done 27 years ago. It’s relevant and haunting much in the same way Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is (released 33 years ago). Among more recent films with with similar subject matter such as Fruitvale Station (2013)Queen & Slim (2019) and recent cinema release Les Miserables (2019) (not that one) it feels distinctly pertinent. Political films and social commentaries can struggle to remain significant after so many years. Often, we add exposition, ‘Now, you have to remember that when this came out… and at that time this was very big…’ etc. to contextualise history. It’s a tragedy that this film, made 27 years ago, doesn’t require such context. I don’t think there’s a lot I can add to this that wouldn’t be better said by someone who has directly experienced such tragedies. So I’ll just say this: I look forward and hope that one day films such as these will be read as documents in time and not a reflection of some people’s present circumstances.

Every now and then, a film grabs you and doesn’t let go. This is a film that burns bright from the moment the Molotov cocktail explodes over an image of the earth in the opening sequence, until the ultimate resolution brings things to a perfect close. If you get the chance to watch it, take it.

I thought this would be a film about drinking

‘Druk’ in Danish, means to binge drink. It means to imbibe, to consume alcohol beyond a reasonable amount, to indulge in the pleasure of intoxication. At a first glance, Thomas Vinterberg’s 2020 film Druk (Another Round) looks to be about just this. It centres around a high school graduation ceremony. An important moment for students coming of age, but one that in Denmark is tainted with an advocacy for consumption. Whether the participants are descendants of large bellied, Valhalla embracing Norse-folk or not, there is a suggestion that this behaviour can stray into unhealthy territory. When a headmistress addresses her staff about a recent incident, there are nods of agreement as well as rolled eyes. Perhaps she is right, or perhaps this is part and parcel of this important ceremony for young Danes.

History teacher Martin (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is all too familiar with this ceremony. In fact, his students will be preparing for it in the coming year. But this is not their main concern right now. They are worried that a bad grade in his class will bring their average down. They hold him accountable and confront him about his indifferent attitude to teaching. He is either too proud or embarrassed to engage, but he quietly and solemnly listens to their feedback.

Schoolroom of blonde Danish people from the film Druk/ Another Round

Two of Martin’s oldest friends also teach at his school, their other friend is a children’s football coach. Occasionally, to blow off steam and escape the mundanity of their lives, they have dinner together. For Peter’s 40th Birthday Martin has chosen to abstain from drinking. As his friends indulge their favourite vices, they tease Martin about how sensible his decision is. Except for Peter, who can do nothing to ignore the dark cloud above Martin’s head.

Peter tells the theory of a Danish philosopher; that man is born with a bac (blood alcohol content) level that is too low. He advocates for a measured and regulated intoxication, to perform to his full capabilities.

This theory is laughed off and Martin remains distant. Earlier that night he asked his wife if he has become boring, her response; ‘You’re not the same as when we met’ before rushing out to her regular night shift. His friends continue to indulge, hyperbolising the deliciousness of their craft beer and champagne.

When a waiter pours four elegant glasses of vodka ‘fine enough to put a smile on the Czar’s face’ Martin can’t help but allow himself a tipple to ease his burden. Soon he is guzzling red wine at haste and becoming emotional. His friends ask him what’s wrong and he breaks down, he is depressed. He hasn’t felt himself in years, he has problems at home, and in his classroom, he has lost his ability to inspire. ‘You used to be so full of life Martin, I remember your jazz ballet.’ They Joke. Thankfully, what he does have is close friends. Also, he is not the only one who carries a cloud around him. They drink their sorrows away together, long into the night.

Dimly lit image of four friends drinking around a table in the film Druk/ Another Round.

The next morning, Martin drags himself to work. In the school toilets he drinks vodka to take the edge off his hangover. He enters his classroom and addresses the issues bought up by his students. He conducts the best class he has taught in years, the bell rings as his students are cheering with endorsement.

His fellow teachers soon catch on and decide they must all follow Martin’s lead. They agree to all use alcohol to improve their teaching. They lay down some ground rules, so that the experiment is official. They will drink only in working hours, ‘like Hemingway’ one says, and to maintain a bac of no higher than 0.05. The fate of their chosen hero is not questioned, yet.

All four friends proceed with the experiment. Football, music, history, and philosophy lessons are dramatically improved with a steady flow of alcohol. ‘Just don’t drink from my water’ the coach tells his team. Beautiful choruses are heard from the music class, the philosophy teacher is finally exploring something worth writing about, even the football coach sees his weakest player score a vital goal. As for martin, the curriculum is only the tip of the iceberg, his students are learning valuable life lessons from the annals of history. Most importantly they are prepared not only for their exams but for their lives after.

Close up of Mads Mikkelsen in the film with the quote "the world is never as you expect"

Of course, it is only a matter of time until the experiment deteriorates. Despite the initial euphoria, there was always going to be a price to pay. After the group step their drinking up to beyond 0.05 bac, the experiment strays dangerously close to dependency. Martin is confronted by his family, he has been visibly drunk for weeks, and he is not alone. The group agree it affecting their lives too. Except for Tommy, the football coach. He doesn’t have a family to hone him in, he doesn’t have a reason to stop drinking. His fate, like Hemingway, was somewhat inevitable.

This tragedy allows the film to be more than just about drinking. There were always bound to be casualties from the experiment. Following Tommy’s funeral, the three remaining friends find themselves together in a restaurant. They are reluctant to drink. They are filled with melancholy of a different kind now. Martin receives a text from his wife, ‘I miss you’. He has come a long way since Peter’s 40th. As they soak up what has happened, a vehicle passes carrying a crowd of partying graduates, it’s their students. They walk out onto the street to observe the celebrations, the students are delighted to see who has joined them and before they know it they are being passed champagne and celebrating together. They have all earned the right.

For Martin, Druk is a success story, he has turned around his fortunes and taken control of his life. He has re-established his role in society and as a mentor for his students, he has prepared them for life. In the closing scenes, Martin performs his jazz ballet while swigging champagne. In a gleeful wave of euphoria, he dances to his own delight, before launching himself off into the harbour.

Sillouette of Mads Mikkelsen throwing himself into the air in the film Drunk/ Another Round.

Besides the obvious advocacy for alcohol, Druk is about much more than the Dionysian approach to living it opens and closes with. Clearly there is a liberation from the staleness of life, that is ignited by alcohol, but this is only the vehicle these disillusioned men use to access this behaviour. The underlying message here is about the importance of staying young. The need to engage with your inner child. The need to stay frivolous and joyous, the need to have fun.

This is not just important to regain one’s own lust for life. These men are teachers. Their students are approaching graduation, a time when they need mentors most. Druk is about adulthood in two senses, one for kids becoming adults and for adults re-empowering their roles in society. These are broken men, that have a role to play in the coming of age of young Danes. Not so long ago, these men were coming of age themselves.

Vinterberg’s story was originally a play, taking inspiration from a theory that defining moments in world history were fuelled by a dependency on alcohol. The director’s daughter, who had her own experiences of Danish drinking culture, pushed Vinterberg to make it into a movie. She was even lined up to play Martin’s daughter, but four days into filming she was tragically killed in a car accident. After deciding to press on with production, Vinterberg re-wrote the film with a more life-affirming message “It should not just be about drinking. It was about being awakened to life”.

I wasn’t expecting that much from Druk. I thought it would be a fun ride, maybe a few laughs, some scenes of frivolous drinking. It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised.

A burning desire for Korean Cinema

There are layers to Lee Chang-Dong’s 2018 film ‘Burning’. So much takes place and yet very little really happens. It’s an appreciation of the minute, an exercise in ambiguous and interpretive storytelling, and a character study about loneliness.

The film circles around about three young Koreans, all in their own way disillusioned. The kind you would read about in a great 20th Century American novel. None of them are interested in working traditional jobs, all appear lost and wandering, in search of something deeper.

But this isn’t a story about kinship. This story is filled with melancholy, loneliness, distrust, and even paranoia.

This film is a tapestry of emotion, told through intentionally ambiguous gaps of information. The way these characters’ stories unfold leave a lot open to interpretation. More than we might conventionally be familiar with. So much so, that you find yourself projecting, recalling own experiences, connecting dots that may only appear to you, and jumping to conclusions.

The only help we get is seeing the world through the eyes of lead character Jong-Su. But he is no help, he is just as hopelessly misinformed as us. In fact, worse, he’s a writer. He may be even more dangerously imaginative than we are…

Three main characters in Lee Chang-Dong's mysterious film 'Burning'

Jong-Su is a directionless guy with a wandering mind. He’s done his military training, he’s finished his degree, he wants to be a writer. He doesn’t have a job; so, he’s looking after the family home while his dad is on trial for assaulting a man in the village. His mother left when he was young, so there is only him to look after things now. He runs into Hae-Mi, a girl from his childhood, she has changed since they knew each other as kids. She’s pretty now.

Hae-Mi is working as a promo girl. She doesn’t earn much but it’s enough to rent a dingy apartment and save for a trip to Africa. She bumps into Jong-Su and asks him to look after her cat while she’s away. When she returns home her thoughts are consumed by a tribal dance she witnessed on her trip. A dance about small hunger and big hunger, where food and life are almost symbiotic. Hae-Mi is desperately lonely, she cries often, and suffers bouts of hysteria. What else happened on her trip? She met Ben.

Ben is mysterious and charismatic. He is slightly older, drives a Porsche, has a nice apartment, he enjoys the finer things in life, yet doesn’t appear to work. He tells Jong-Su he doesn’t see the difference between work and play, he only does things that are fun. He has hedonistic tendencies. He reveals that, sometimes, he burns greenhouses. He justifies this as if it is the natural order of the world, like the rain falling. Jong-Su says he is Gatsby. Jong-Su can’t decide whether he’s jealous of Ben or looks up to him.

Steven Yeun in a cold snowy scene from the movie Burning

There is a pale ambiguity and melancholia that runs through this film. A deliberate blankness. In the detail of the characters and in their relationships to each other. They tread a fine line between friends and strangers. it is almost painful to witness this disparateness, to see there is so much they don’t know about each other. This ambiguity also suggests something deeper, something brooding, perhaps something sinister.

This feeling instils distrust, you can’t quite get a grasp of who these characters really are. You start to like them, then you remember that perhaps you shouldn’t. A part of you questions them, like you would a stranger. You don’t really know these people.

I’ve never seen something with such ambiguous, open-ended writing. It’s so open to interpretation that I find myself forgoing the slim pieces of concrete evidence to pull on the ambiguous threads. Much like Jong-Su, I am desperate to find some significance. Like a bad detective caught up in his own prejudice, I follow the red herrings and avoid the mundane, for a chance to find something deeper. 

But maybe this isn’t a deep movie. Maybe it’s just about ordinary people, trying their best not to live ordinary lives. Perhaps, like life, there isn’t much significance. Sometimes there aren’t any answers. Just a feeling of inconclusiveness. 

Then it hits you. There was something brewing, you just didn’t see the signs. You read the wrong code; even a great detective would have fallen victim.

Jeon Jong-seo pointing to her head in the movie Burning

Lee Chang-Dong doesn’t necessarily lead you down a rabbit hole, he lets you wander in yourself. He opens a million doors, and you take the ones that seem interesting, the ones that seem significant to you.

In the film Jong-Su reads William Faulkner. He tells us, “Something about his words make me feel the story is about me.”

I think Lee Chang-Dong achieves the same in his film. He makes the story so real and so open to interpretation that you feel compelled to fill in the gaps with your own expectations. 

He knows that as movie goers we are in search of significance, like Jong-Su we love a good story. He knows we have these expectations. So completely subverts them and hits us with what was probably the most likely conclusion.

This isn’t a twisty detective film, there’s a real appreciation of subtlety. It paints a picture of melancholy and suffering, but with a mysterious and sinister undercurrent. It almost flirts with the potential for surrealism but it never crosses the line. It remains totally natural. Besides a few dramatic moments, nothing much happens. It just unfolds like a day in the life. 

This film didn’t hit me until a few hours after I’d finished watching, but then it was like a flood. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much detail there is wrapped up in what felt at the time like a fairly simple tale.

I think one sign of a good film is that it lingers long after it’s over. Maybe the sign of a great movie is that it takes a while to really sink in.

Four films I’m quite looking forward to watching

Titane

Agathe Rousselle in Titane with a neon car in background

Julia-Ducournau’s film Titane has been described as “an outlandish film full of sex and violence”

Is it me or is there a bit of a resurgence in body horror at the moment? Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor was one of my films of 2020, and with Malignant in theatres the renaissance is going strong! I don’t know all that much about Titane, besides it sounding like a mix of Rubber (that one about the killer tire) and the back catalogue of Gasper Noe. However, following a Palme D’or win the hype is building and critics are running out of superlatives. Here are some descriptions that caught my eye; “an outlandish film full of sex and violence”, “the most shocking film of 2021” and my personal favourite; “a nightmarish yet mischievously comic barrage of sex, violence, lurid lighting and pounding music”. I for one can’t wait.

Where can I watch ‘Titane’?

In select theatres 31 December


The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in The Power of the Dog is being cited as his best ever

Jane Campion’s 1993 breakthrough The Piano almost single-handedly put New Zealand on the map for cinema (at least until a certain fuzzy haired director entered the scene) and won many accolades in the process, including an Oscar win for screen débutée Anna Pacquin. Her new film is a western and stars Benedict Cumberbatch in what many are reporting as his best acting performance to date. What was the last good modern western? The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? Django Unchained? I think it’s about time something new takes up the mantle.

Where can I watch ‘The Power of the Dog’?

In select theatres 19 November, arrives on Netflix 1 December.


The Tragedy of Macbeth

Is there a more accomplished actor right now than than Frances McDormand?

I love a Shakespeare retelling. Or any old English lit adaptation really. I immensely enjoyed The Green Knight with Dev Patel recently, and the version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marrion Cotillard. This time the roles are played by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. I don’t think there’s an actor in a better vein of form right now than McDormand, she’s really been on a hot streak since Three Billboards. If there’s anyone you’d rely on for a complex leading female performance right now, it’s probably her. If only there was a hot shot studio, top echelon director and a timeless script that could seamlessly marry up at the perfect time… Oh wait, where do I buy a ticket?

Where can I watch ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’?

In select theatres 25 December, arrives on Apple TV Plus 14 January.


Last Night in Soho

We don’t love old films we love good films, and good films have something to say regardless of their place in time.

Edgar Wright recently said, “The idea of there being the good old days, in any form, is a fallacy” and I love this sentiment. In my opinion there’s too much nostalgia for the golden age of cinema.

When you look back, I don’t think there is a ‘golden age’ as such. Great films crop up throughout history, from different decades, different countries, with different technologies, ideas, contexts, and the ability to be important in different ways. Who is to say time should be what links them together? We don’t love old films we love good films, and good films have something to say regardless of their place in time.

Edgar’s new film is ‘from the director of Baby Driver’ rather than Shaun of the Dead, or Hot Fuzz. He’s purposely leaving those films aside because, despite their popularity, they’re not relevant to this one. I think he would more likely connect Soho to British films of the 60s, or his more recent endeavours, because that’s how these particular ideas are connected. They sit in modern day Cinema, and in a vision of 60s London too.

The place of art in the post-post-modern world can be paralyzing to some, but if there’s any respite it should be in the fact that more ideas, being more widely accessible is something to be celebrated. You can readily watch a film made in the early 20th Century today and see something that applies to you now. When personal, rather than social or cultural, experience can provide context to art, this should be celebrated. External systems need not influence our ideas when inspiration can come from within. There are more ideas, and more types of ideas occurring than there’s ever been in history before. This should be a liberating rather than overwhelming factor of our age.

Edgar’s new film stars Thomasin McKenzie (Jo-Jo Rabbit) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) alongside 60s icons Terence Stamp and the late Dame Diana Rigg. It’s a concoction of time-travel, psychological trauma, London fashion (new and old), slasher horror and probably a slice of humour too.

Where can I watch ‘Last Night in Soho’?

In theatres now.


And thus end the first post on my new site! Thanks for reading and remember to follow me on Instagram, twitter and letterboxd! or leave a comment below =]

Four upcoming films I’m quite hyped to see


Roadrunner: A film about Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain wielding a sandwich at the camera in an aggressive stance

Morgan Neville’s documentary shine’s a light on Bourdain’s brilliant and tormentous life, with help from those who new him best.

There’s controversy over the use of AI to replicate Bourdain’s voice in this, but if 99% are his familiarly, well crafted, world weary and gratitudinal words, that will be more than enough for me. It’s probably gonna be sad it’s probably going to be beautiful. It already reminds me of Asif Kapadia’s ‘Amy’ which was both those things. It looks good.

Where can I watch Roadrunner: A film about Anthony Bourdain ?

US release: 16th July
UK release: (looking like no cinema release sadly, we’ll have to get creative)


Nope

Promo image for Jordan Peele's film NOPE

Is there anyone better than Jordan Peele at making blockbuster horror films right now?

Don’t know anything about this besides that it’s Jordan Peele working with Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Sicario) and Steven Yeun (Minari, Burning) and that’s just fine.

If it’s anything like ‘Get Out’ or ‘Us’ that will be even better! 😄

Where can I watch ‘Nope’?

Sit tight it’s a 2022 release, but I’m sure this one will get an extensive theatrical release.


Old

Gael Garcia Bernal in the M. Night Shyamalan film Old

Old is an interesting concept if very typically M. Night Shyamalan

Maybe I’m a sucka for a good trailer, but who doesn’t love a kooky thriller every now and then? Okay it’s M Night, but it looks like a good concept… Doesn’t it? Atleast if it doesn’t live up to expectations we’ll get some good quality Gael García Bernal screentime.

Where can I watch ‘Old’?

In cinemas July


Pig

Nicholas Cage as Rob the truffle hunter/ chef extraordinaire in the film PIG

Yes it’s true, one of best films of the year is a movie about Nicolas Cage on the hunt for his stolen pig.

I just watched this and its brilliant.

Rob is a kind hearted recluse and a truffle hunter, whose beloved pig is stolen in the dead of night. Everyone is describing this as a Taken/ John Wick story but it’s so much more. I’m slowly coming round to the fact that Cage is a great actor, this is definitely a good place to start and overcome the Cage-o-phobia if for 90 minutes you can supress such images as ‘the bees, the bees!’ etc.

Where can I watch ‘Pig’?

In UK theatres Aug 20

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