In an era where right-wing “strong men” from across the world dominate news cycles by beating their chests and boasting of their ruthlessness, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte managed to set himself apart by openly bragging about the extra-judicial killings he had orchestrated across the nation. This was the “War on Drugs” as hardcore conservatives across the planet would like to see it fought, but which would be political suicide to ever openly call for in most parts of the world. The “War on Drugs” itself is a term which the police chiefs in Brillante Mendoza’s latest film continually parrot, a nod to the American ancestry of their particular brand of chaos. That the president himself can brag of having directed his citizens to murder one another hints at the special kind of hell Alpha, The Right to Kill is engaging with.
Working within the slums of Manilla, Espino (Allen Dizon) is a high-ranking drug cop, plotting the police’s most lethal drug raids and quietly helping himself to a cut of the money and merchandise on the side. Elijah (Elijah Filamor) is a small-time dealer who now acts as Espino’s informant as well as his partner in crime. Both are struggling to raise their children in cramped, crowded homes on incomes that don’t nearly merit the daily danger they face.
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We have all had those moments where a stranger is rude to us right out of the blue. They shove past us or cut ahead or say something venomous in our direction, totally without provocation. They are pissed about something else, but they are going to make it our problem. These moments tend to be so quick and unexpected that we’re left tongue-tied, unable to process the sudden, ugly interruption into our lives quick enough. Maybe we meekly say nothing, or maybe we explode back at them on pure reflex but can’t get our words together well enough and end up just sort of spurting angry syllables at them. Neither is very satisfying, and we’ll likely spend the next few hours, if not days, returning to that moment, re-writing our lines. What we would have said. What we should have said.
Rojo opens on that rare moment where a person immediately has exactly the right words at their disposal. Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) is a highly successful and respected lawyer, waiting for his wife in a small, busy restaurant. As he waits, the man standing next to him (Diego Cremonesi), who is waiting for a table to free up, becomes increasingly irate. Perhaps because he is closest, perhaps because he is alone, perhaps because he has the neatly-dressed, quiet demeanour of a man who can be dominated by brute force — whatever the reason, the stranger makes Claudio the target of his rage. After a brief exchange, Claudio politely acquiesces, picking up his coat and rising from his seat. He walks a few feet away before calmly turning round and delivering an eloquent, pointed speech which condemns the stranger’s behaviour as that of a deeply unhappy man, more to be pitied than hated.
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The samurai is an archetypal action hero which has been remixed and re-invented in a million ways since the days of Kurosawa. Sergio Leone drew directly from the legendary Japanese filmmaker to create his iconic Westerns, replacing the katana and bun with a revolver and a ten-gallon hat. Star Wars switched the blade for a laser beam and moved the whole thing to another galaxy, while films like Ghost Dog brought the Bushido code into a world more like our own. In each iteration, the appeal remains the same: the hero is a man with the violent talents to make for exciting action cinema, but with a rigorous moral code that allows the audience to root for him even as he’s slicing people down. Essentially, the samurai embodies the two-fold relationship we have with violence.
With Killing, Shinya Tsukamoto pushes us to look harder at our willingness to cheer for the man with the sword.
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Capturing the rave scene in Scotland in its dying days, Brian Welsh’s spirited Beats is a slice-of-life portrait of the kids that won’t go down without a fight. It’s 1994, and best friends Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorne Macdonald) are on the phone chatting excitedly about the new EDM track they’ve discovered. “I waited two days on the radio to tape it,” Spanner says, immediately evoking a nostalgic romanticism when music was discovered like treasure.
Beats is propelled by an old fart piece of legislation: Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill which sets a ban on “gatherings around music characterized wholly or predominantly by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” Characters will spit this phrase at several moments, tutting the T’s like a sort of battle cry. No stuffy laws will subdue the freewheeling spirit of kids just looking to escape from the West Lothian grey. The bill is only fuel for the fire.
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“You look fat and healthy, and you dress well,” Wang Zhun (Wang Xuebing) tells a fellow director at the beginning of The Pluto Moment. It’s a little hard to tell whether it’s a back-handed compliment or a thinly-veiled insult, but the way in which he walks away immediately after, leaving the other man staring on in bewilderment, suggests the latter.
An arthouse filmmaker himself, Zhun has found himself on the set of a glitzy international production by pure chance. His wife Gao Li (Miya) is the movie’s action star, delivering high kicks in an all-leather jumpsuit when he arrives. The production is a mess of mixed languages and moving parts, moviemaking on the sort of mammoth scale reserved for real blockbusters. From the way he is skeptically interrogated upon arrival, to the forlorn look he wears as he watches on from the side-lines, it is clear that this is not Zhun’s world.
When shooting is wrapped up and the couple have a chance to talk, we find out that Zhun is trying to tempt his wife away from her glamorous, big-budget titles to star in his next venture. He doesn’t have any money for the film. Or a script. She already has another film lined up. Why not just wait and star in the sequel, he asks? Because, of course, this kind of movie always has a sequel. Or the third one? She playfully suggests.
Even with only the half-baked beginnings of an idea and no funding, he seems confident that his movie would be more worthwhile than whatever franchise she has been asked to helm. Even if he does not yet know what it will be about, he knows that his movie will at least be about something.
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“He is the most attractive man in the world,” says Eve (Lily Rose-Depp) at one point about Abel (Louis Garrel), the man she’s had a crush on since childhood. Usually, I would think this is narcissistic—after all, this is a line written by Garrel (and legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière) about a character that he plays. But, let’s be honest, is he actually wrong? ‘Write what you know’ is the old saying, and what Garrel knows is: 1) he’s very good-looking and 2) how to write a charming film of a decidedly very French variety.
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