Cate Blanchett’s performance as the title character is the highlight of the otherwise unutterably deflating Tár. What begins as an unexpectedly captivating profile of a world-class musical conductor and promises to develop into a story of sexual and psychological intrigue ultimately fails to satisfy when it refuses to offer thrills and drama – not to mention plot resolution. We pick through our problems with it, including what we find implausible, its reactionary attitudes and low opinion of young people, and its embrace of ambiguity and lack of interest in developing the story of Tár’s downfall.
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is here: a colourful, expressive telling of the story of Elvis Presley, through the eyes of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who opens the film by claiming that he’s not the villain he’s renowned to have been. But the film flattens any complexities in the history it tells so thoroughly that we have no option but to continue to see him as one.
Still, it starts vibrantly and excitingly, understands and loves the sexual allure of Elvis – the lengthy introduction to him leads up to a fabulous scene of crotch-gyration – and Austin Butler is fantastic in the starring role. But once it settles down, is it anything more than a filmed Wikipedia page? Does it offer insight into the story it tells? José will have to tell you, because Mike fell asleep.
A different Paris
In this video essay I will explore the presentation of Paris, including the Banlieues (the suburbs on the outskirts of central Paris) in Michael Kassovitz’s La Haine in comparison to the American Hollywood, and French film presentation of the city to highlight the stark differences that come together to ultimately offer a rejection of the Parisian beauty and allure one would conventionally attribute to the city of lights.
I was particularly interested in coming to understand that Michael Kassovitz’s presentation of Parisian society was through the eyes and experiences of individuals that we can think of as not quite French, and certainly not Parisian. La Haine seems to clearly make the black-blanc-beur grouping, which at the time had been used as a racial slur towards these ethnic minorities through its three central characters, Hubert (Hubert Koundé) who is black, Vinz (Vincenet Cassel) who is white Jewish and Said (Saïd Taghmaoui) who is suggested to be of African or Arabian decent, kind of modelling those that are considered ‘other’ within French society at the time. This racial grouping is also representative of the people living in the Banlieue, and offers a stark contrast between the first half of the film that takes place in the Chanteloup les Vignes in Yvelines, France, and the second half of the film that takes place mostly in central Paris, filled with predominantly white, French people, before ending back in the same Banlieue.
What became clear through my research, was that La Haine was functioning within France’s 1990’s film ‘movement’, Jeune Cinéma Français. Joe Hardwick defines this ‘movement’ as ‘synonymous with relatively low-budget, director-driven and character- centred films which have been read as bringing to French cinema a new kind of realism in the very personal stories they recount, which are often set against the backdrop of the fracture sociale of late twentieth century French society.’ La Haine demonstrates this ‘fracture sociale’ (which is explained in the video essay) through the trio of boy’s clear alienation and disenfranchisement with Paris, particularly evident through this kind of refusal of Parisian allure, taking landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and presenting them in a way that rejects its previous construction as a place of light and beauty. La Haine seems to offer something distinctly ‘other’, and mundane within Paris’ city centre signified through how much of the second half of the film takes place inside, and even the use of tight framing making the scenes taking place outside seem claustrophobic and the streets maze-like. Even in the Banlieue Hubert, Vinz and Said compare themselves to animals being watched in a zoo. We can also see the strange and violent encounters that Hubert, Vinz and Said experience particularly in the city centre, I think, uncharacteristically present Paris as the kind of source of the issues raised throughout La Haine.
This idea is framed from the beginning of video essay through a clearly inspired Martin Scorsese lens, that can be seen ideologically to be quite similar to La Haine, even down to an imitation of Taxi Driver’s (1976) ‘You talking to me’ mirror scene through the character of Vinz seeming to align himself with a Travis Bickle character. This is not to be reductive to the overall anti establishment message of La Haine, which offers Paris as a city, much like Taxi Driver’s New York, that needs to be ‘flushed down the fucking toilet’.
Where this recognition of La Haine within the ‘movement’ of Jeune cinema Francais is most clear is when compared to the presentation of Paris in other films, namely those of Hollywood in the 1940’s and 50’s such as Casablanca (1942), An American in Paris (1952) and Funny Face (1957), and of French New Wave films such as The Red Balloon (1956), The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960). I will be using these well known French films, and American films set and shot in Paris, to clearly showcase this divide, both in colour and black and white, and will thus be exploring La Haine mostly aesthetically. It is worth noting that I will show the romanticised, almost magical realism of the Paris in these films mentioned above, but will also be using such as examples of a Paris thought to be a place of mystery and beauty, set against the dark reality experienced by the trio of boys in La Haine. This is even reflected by La Haines use of darker blacks and shadows in comparison to Breathless or Casablanca’s use of monochrome for example, which seem to offer lighter blacks and greys, creating a softer visual aesthetic style.
There are certain similarities which I draw from Sue Harris’ writing on ‘Renoir’s Paris’ to Kassovitz’s presentation of Paris in La Haine, such as, ‘the will to document the “real” Paris of which he (Renoir) is both a product and an unwitting cinematic ambassador’. She also talks of this tension between authenticity and mythology in relation to Renoir’s work which I think can be applied to La Haine in the way that Kassovitz offers these moments of magical realism such as the encounter with the cow, and Vinz imagining shooting the two white policemen, whilst clearly attempting to showcase what he thinks of as an authentic depiction of Paris to Hubert, Vinz and Said, both within the Banlieue and once they are within the city centre. Whilst I recognise I am not covering Renoir’s work, Harris’ ideas offer an excellent framing that can be linked nicely to a romanticised presentation of Paris existing at the same time as a rejection of such. Harris’ writings on ‘Renoir’s Paris’ is helpful then, in drawing out Paris as this city of juxtaposition, as both a place of love, but also of hate.
Whilst the content, and the ending of La Haine has perhaps offered the most debate and consideration, I think Kassovitz’s presentation of Paris aesthetically provides an untapped and particularly interesting area to explore in a video essay. In further considering such a presentation of the ‘city of lights’, films after 2000 such as Before Sunset (2004), Paris Je’Taime (2006), and Ratatouille (2007) are also included amongst other action films to suggest that a kind of romanticised, magical offering of Paris has continued to be a focal point of films set in Paris since La Haine’s release. The structuring of the video essay will attempt to function most clearly by using constant juxtaposition, evident through the clips and themes present within those clips. La Haine seems, in this respect, to offer Hate both towards a city that is confusing and increasingly alien to the boys, and towards a governmental system that they view as corrupt on its decent and ultimate arrival at chaos and disorder, whilst the other films engaged with, seem in opposition to show Love, and present a city full of world renowned landmarks, beauty, and wonder.
(Jeancolas 1999, p. 15) in Joe Hardwick, The vague nouvelle and the Nouvelle Vague: The Critical Construction of le jeune cinéma français, Modern & Contemporary France, DOI: 10.1080/09639480701802666 (2008)
Harris, Sue, and Queen Mary. “Renoir’s Paris: The City as Film Set.” South Central Review, vol. 28, no. 3, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011, pp. 84–102, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41261503. p. 8
Filmography at end of video essay
 (Jeancolas 1999, p. 15) in Joe Hardwick, The vague nouvelle and the Nouvelle Vague: The Critical Construction of le jeune cinéma français, Modern & Contemporary France, DOI: 10.1080/09639480701802666 (2008)
 ibid p. 53
 Jeancolas in Hardwick’s The vague nouvelle and the Nouvelle Vague: The Critical Construction of le jeune cinéma français
 Harris, Sue, and Queen Mary. “Renoir’s Paris: The City as Film Set.” South Central Review, vol. 28, no. 3, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011, pp. 84–102, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41261503. p. 8
Aretha Franklin, an icon of American music, receives a dispiritingly by-the-numbers biopic in Respect, which takes this perfect subject for such a film and does nothing very interesting with her. We discuss, among other topics, the film’s dependence on clichés, its poor lighting, Franklin’s relationship with her father and upbringing in a prosperous household, Jennifer Hudson’s performance in the central role, and that scene, so common to music biopics, in which the signature song is developed.
If one of the functions of the biopic is to introduce newcomers to a person’s work and provide an insight into what made them worthy of their story being told… then the Queen of Soul needs another biopic. Respect certainly isn’t devoid of entertaining and engaging moments, but, ultimately, it fails its subject.
Occupying some similar thematic terrain to Coco, Pixar’s 2017 masterpiece, Soul uses an afterlife-bound journey with a tight deadline to explore what it is that makes us human, in the context of a life devoted to music. When Joe, a music teacher and passionate jazz pianist, dies in a classic open manhole cover accident, his soul, now separated from his body but desperate to live, escapes an A Matter of Life and Death-inspired travelator to Heaven and ends up in the Great Before, a meadow populated with unborn souls preparing for their upcoming lives. Mistaken for a mentor, he is assigned 22, a cynical, sarcastic soul with no desire to live on Earth, and when he tries to return to his body, she accidentally comes with.
As well as to Coco, Mike finds Soul comparable to another of Pixar’s films: Soul handles philosophical concepts the way Inside Out did psychological ones, rendering them visually imaginative and narratively physical. ‘The zone’, where people describe themselves when feeling that transcendent state of flow when an activity consumes them, is in the Great Beyond a real place that Joe and 22 visit; the unborn souls develop personality traits signified by Boy Scout-style badges. The storytelling is economical and concise, characters’ priorities and attitudes smoothly and legibly changing as their goals and relationships shift. It’s a beautifully told story.
José considers the social and economic setting of Joe’s life, the music he loves and the barber he visits, about whose life he learns – the film humanely understands people and hardship without wallowing in despair, finding space for joy. We wonder how well it will play to kids, thrilled that Pixar refuses to speak down to its audience, if a little unsure about how much will translate to the younger members of its target audience. Predictably, Mike finished the film in tears, despite an ending he found to be overly mechanical and inorganic.
Soul is a beautiful, wonderful film. To José, it’s a masterpiece. To Mike, possibly not, but only because Coco exists. See it.
Andrew Griffith has brought to out attention this article you may also find interesting about rumblings of discontent in relation to the film and why it’s turned out surprisingly polarasing.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
William Friedkin remakes Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, telling four strangers’ tale of their two-hundred-mile journey through the South American jungle, transporting dangerously explosive cargo for a US oil company. Though a flop upon its release, we find some nice things to say about Sorcerer.
It’s impressively narrated, largely wordlessly, although we wouldn’t have minded some character development, and Friedkin’s preference for spectacle over depth is on display: as with The French Connection, the end leaves us asking, “is that all it’s about?” The treatment of South America and its people is lazy if not worse, the central characters ending up in this hell as a form of cosmic punishment for their sins. But there’s a keen sense of pace to Sorcerer, despite how long it takes for the journey to even begin, some memorable images, and one outstanding, stunning set-piece. Its present-day reappraisal is understandable, and despite its problems, it’s worth a look.
Neil Jackson informs us that, ‘It’s worth mentioning also that when the film was released internationally, it was completely re-cut (without Friedkin’s involvement) using alternative scenes and shots in some cases, and reducing the running time by about thirty minutes. It also alters the implication of Scheider’s fate in the denouement. The entire opening section introducing the characters is removed altogether, and only appears in brief flashback! It’s a completely different (and wholly inferior ) film. That’s the version we got in the UK, and it was re-titled ‘The Wages of Fear’. Fascinating. And Neil also brought to our attention this fascinating comparison between the US and German version, which was also the one shown in the UK as The Wages of Fear.
Mirrors and doppelgangers and dual meanings and symmetries abound in Jordan Peele’s Us, in which a family of four is terrorised one evening by a family of four identical copies. Like Get Out, Peele’s 2017 debut, Us is hyper-aware of its genre’s ability to make use of bold metaphor to offer coded commentary on social issues.
We find more room for a variety of interpretations in Us than in Get Out, and our conversation ranges from talk of race and its importance or lack thereof, consumer culture and materialism, cultural items and icons, including and especially Michael Jackson, someone who embodies duality better than perhaps anybody, the 1986 charity event Hands Across America and the competing ideas conveyed by its imagery, and far more. We also find the time to discuss and praise Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible pair of central performances, creating two fully embodied characters, the technicality of her physical acting always perfectly evident but never distracting. She’s extraordinary.
We have our problems with it, including its structure, lack of scares, and some imagery that we find lacking in meaning or clarity, and it’s a less tight and cogent film than Get Out, which we ultimately agree is superior. But it’s ambitious, intelligent, witty, original and rewarding. See it.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
The road to banal and disappointingly homophobic biopics of rock legends is, as they say, paved with good intentions. The Queen story/Freddie Mercury biopic has been in the works since 2010, with creative differences amongst the filmmakers made public and Brian May and Roger Taylor apparently exercising tight control over how the story would be told. What they apparently wanted was sanitised, bowdlerised, pasteurised, inoffensive to the delicate sensibilities of an audience that would rather not look too closely at the sexuality of a gay icon. Which sounds absurd, but considering the old man sat near us in the cinema who audibly said, “oh dear”, when Freddie was shown kissing a man… Jesus, they might have had a point.
José expresses his disappointment at seeing yet another gay story in which being gay leads to isolation and unhappiness: ‘the sad young man’ trope evolving into the ‘dead queer’ one. Freddie is lonely, surrounded by cats in a vast empty house, pining for a woman. His gay relationships are chaste and the one openly gay character, comfortable with who he is, is cast as a snake, a villain. Freddie’s sexual drive bursts out of his music; are we supposed to believe he experienced no joy in being gay? Brian May – the character – is depicted as a particularly annoying pest, clean, perfect, and forever commenting on Freddie’s lifestyle and behaviour as if to vet it; or perhaps as if to ensure the audience is comfortable. The more we think about it the more homophobic it is.
Our discussion of the film’s attitude to and portrayal of Freddie’s sexuality is central, but two other key aspects to his life also come under criticism – his music, and his death from AIDS. The latter is skated over almost entirely, sympathetically included right at the end to help you feel good about feeling bad for him. The music can’t be hurt, of course, and it’s a pleasure to hear banger after banger, but as Mike says, you may as well go home, read the Queen Wikipedia page and put on the Greatest Hits. What drives the band, what drives Freddie, aren’t things the film appears to have even considered might be interesting questions. Things just… happen. In chronological order. Mainly.
Ultimately we ask ourselves who this film is for. We watch it at a distance, wondering why it is the way it is, not really involved in it until that final act in which Live Aid provides Freddie with the opportunity to make the entire world his own for twenty glorious minutes. And once we get there, everything else becomes insignificant for a while, because it all comes together, the music, the character, and the best parts of Rami Malek’s performance – his physicality and stage presence – and we get to watch Queen for a while. (Or at least a very good tribute act.)
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Hyped up, already very successful, and widely well-received, A Star Is Born earns strong reactions from us. To Mike it’s at points truly reprehensible, to José simply a confused failure. Mike has never seen any of the previous versions – he tried and couldn’t make it – while José finds writer/director/star Bradley Cooper’s new remake unworthy to share their company. The novelty of seeing Lady Gaga unmasked soon wears off, her performance opaque and lacking in presence. We agree that Cooper is very good and truly a star, though with the opprobrium he receives from one half of us, he must have done something to Mike in a previous life.
We discuss and debate what we make of the film’s characters – Mike finds them deeply unlikeable, toxically compatible, which isn’t in itself a bad thing but for the fact that the film wants to render it romantic. (Cooper has a real problem with consent and personal space.) José finds their love difficult to believe in, particularly Gaga’s for Cooper. Quite why she’s so hot for him is barely even told, let alone shown.
Cooper’s take on the music industry is out of date and simplistic, which is more than disappointing considering he was working with one of the biggest pop stars of the last decade. We each have our reasons for finding the suicide scene nonsensical. And Mike describes his problem with the film’s ending.
A lot to talk about, most of it negative. See you again in between twenty and forty years for the next version.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
An excellent piece by Richard Dyer on the films can be accessed here: