Review Of Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine” And Stephen Verona’s “Lord’s Of Flatbush”: Which Losers Will Prevail?!

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Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine. (c) Criterion

Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine. (c) Criterion

Having just re-watched Stephen Verona’s The Lord’s Of Flatbush, I was shocked by two things. First, it’s simply an excellent little film. I was able to pick up on many details that eluded me when I was younger, which probably means that I’ve grown as a critic and artist. Second, it has garnered pretty average reviews, and although it deals with a similar problem – a few losers trying to grow out of adversity – it is vastly superior to Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (The Hate), which suffers for being precisely what Lord’s isn’t: didactic, heavy-handed, and unable to balance the film’s anomie with good narrative. La Haine simply goes on and on through pointless scenes and dull conversations where Lord’s makes this palatable by giving its characters depth, irony, and poesy – even if they themselves are too dumb and immature to see it. They get in, get out, and linger only to deepen things within their purpose. After all, a good director does not simply drop characters into a fictive world only to record every boring detail, like the endless string of corny jokes in Haine, or the all-alighting prose of a Toni Morrison. There needs to be a filter that guides whatever’s interesting and deep TO the screen, and only then can the viewer’s imagination truly play off of it. Thus, in Lord’s, it’s really a matter of economy, where Verona truly shines. Give the mind a few strong images, seeds, and threads, and watch them grow to peaks the director only hints at, which only seems to deepen the visual experience the longer you are away from it. La Haine doesn’t trust the viewer enough to be able to do this, and by trying to explain every cliché it throws at you, becomes its own worst explanation.

La Haine follows a day in the lives of Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert, three friends of Jewish, Arab, and African origins living in the housing projects a bit outside of Paris. After their friend Abdel is brutalized into a coma by the police, Vinz riots with the rest of the neighborhood, finds a police officer’s gun, and keeps in order to “get revenge.” The movie opens to some overlong footage of rioting while KRS-One’s “Sound Of Da Police” ridiculously plays in the background – Kassovitz really wanted to set the film against a hip-hop backdrop, even if, apparently, the clunky and obvious song choices make the artistry all the worse for it. But, La Haine is also “socially aware,” and what better way to express that idea than to shift to Bob Marley’s “Burning And Looting” for the remainder of the riot? Again, I don’t see how the director failed to mark the obviousness of these audio choices and, even worse, failed to amend them. Thus, just a few minutes in, we already get the basic problems that will plague the film’s remainder, which is especially frustrating … Continue reading →

Review Of David Ridgen’s & Nicolas Rossier’s “American Radical,” On Political Critic Norman Finkelstein

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Norman Finkelstein mid-argument.

Norman Finkelstein mid-argument.

“You don’t know what Norman Finkelstein is. He’s poison. He’s a disgusting  self-hating Jew. He’s something you find under a rock.” – Leon Wieseltier

“It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth. Those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed.” – Raul Hilberg

“You know the famous joke? A journalist goes around and asks a Russian, a Pole, and an Israeli the same question. He first goes to the Russian: ‘Excuse me, what’s your opinion on the meat shortage?’ The Russian says: ‘What’s an opinion?’ The reporter then goes to the Pole: ‘Excuse me, but what do you think of the meat shortage?’ The Pole goes: ‘What’s meat?’ He then goes to the Israeli: ‘Excuse me. What’s your opinion on the meat shortage?’ The Israeli replies: ‘What’s “excuse me”?’” – Norman Finkelstein

This joke introduces American Radical, a documentary by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier, and in many ways defines both the film and the man within. It is pitch-black, and one only hears Finkelstein, who eventually fades in, inflecting and de-emphasizing select words, offering the right pauses, then ending it all on a smirk. It is not an arrogant smirk, nor is it a happy one. Rather, it is melancholy. Bitter. For a man whose work –  despite claims – is so rational and un-emotive, this is one of the few places where emotion has an outlet. Bergman once said: “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.” By contrast, Finkelstein lives in his work – plodding, mechanic, in the best sense of such words – and bleeds in his life.

Prior to going any further, I must write that I’m slightly acquainted with the subject of this documentary. I’ve met Norman Finkelstein on a few occasions, had an e-mail correspondence, and even spent a few hours at his apartment, having grown up in the same neighborhood (albeit forty years apart). I am both an admirer of his work, as well as intrigued – for better or worse – by the man, himself, as it is his plight, rather than his accomplishments, which might interest future generations when the Israel-Palestine Conflict is merely yet another name, another time, like so many others that have come and go, and will continue to do so for as long as we’re recognizably human.

Finkelstein is Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They eventually moved to New York, where Finkelstein was born, and taught him the sense of justice that he credits for his work. First coming to prominence in the early 1980s, Finkelstein exposed the hoax that is Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, a then-popular book which argued Palestinians had little to do with Palestine, but rather had fabricated themselves into its history. This drew the ire and respect of scholars, readers, and wackos of all stripes. Yet it … Continue reading →

Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” (2002) And The Undoing Of A Narrative

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Lee Chang-dong's Oasis (2002)

Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (2002)

I’m often amazed by how little respect the world shows reality, and, by extension, how little respect the people who inhabit this reality end up getting. This is especially true in how kids, the mentally retarded, transgender folks, minorities, the handicapped, and victims (both real and imagined) are treated in the world’s meta-narrative, which is the sum of every bias, policy, opinion, perception, artwork, and the like, available to us. They are at turns fetishized, sobbed over, exaggerated in importance, distorted, and otherwise demeaned by the very same people who claim to be giving them agency and respect. I mean, who wins, here? And how could “winning,” in such an arena, ever be construed as such, anyway, when the gain is so temporary and small?

Thus, in watching Lee Chang-dong’s 2002 film, Oasis, I was struck by how anti-Hollywood it was — that purveyor of the mess, above — in not only how it treats its subject matter, but also how it chooses to present the two main characters: a woman with cerebral palsy (Gong-ju), and a mildly retarded sociopath (Jong-du) who develop a relationship pretty much everyone disapproves of. Jong-du is seen doing all sorts of odd things: eating a block of raw tofu, asking school-girls for spare change, wrecking his boss’s motorcycle, leaving his shoes as “insurance” when he cannot pay for food, walking around in the cold with nothing but a t-shirt, climbing a tree to saw it off, and even attempting to rape his future girlfriend. He is not, then, some caricatured “harmless retard,” but a man with motives (limited as they are) and an unsympathetic streak. Gong-ju more or less stutters through the film, plays with light and glass, and, in a number of poetic little scenes, imagines herself as a perfectly normal girl, living the sort of life she sees others live. Given the meta-narrative described, however, one would think the film would take the banal angle, showing us how “deep” and “utterly complex” such people are, when in fact they are shadows of us, and our wants. It doesn’t, for the best art portrays reality as a corrective to such things, despite what may or may not be “wanted.” Nor are their disabilities glossed over, but are front and center for nearly two hours of oddities that must have taken some time to perfect without turning the two into circus freaks, or degenerating them — on the other extreme — into mere victims. One gets the feeling that they will go on, they will live, even if it’s not in the way that we desire or expect. The film, in short, is their turf; or rather, it is their turf as it gets eaten away by the outside’s bias and expectations.

That said, it is difficult to empathize with the characters, at times, a fact that Lee Chang-dong continually ensures. Jong-du is not exactly evil, but amoral. For the most part, the things he does do … Continue reading →

Review Of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Like Father, Like Son”

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Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son (2013). Image via Flixist.

Having now watched most of Hirokazu Koreeda’s feature films, it seems fair to divide his work into two categories: that of timeless observations on relationships (Still Walking, Nobody Knows), penetrating, and all-relevant, and his far more numerous, yet minor tales that flesh out those greater films’ peripheries (I Wish, Air Doll, Maborosi). The first, while absolutely awash in contemporary Japanese life, transcend such limits by adapting characters to situations that can appear anywhere, while the latter are observations of a far smaller nature, even if quite uniform, and well done. 2013’s Like Father, Like Son is, no doubt, one of these small works, but while its faults might keep it out of better company, they are, ironically, the very elements that keep the film afloat, and even help build up to a few excellent scenes when they are most needed.

The narrative follows a young, seemingly happy couple that, soon after the film’s open, are informed their six year-old child, Keita (Keita Ninomiya), is not theirs, having been switched with that of another married couple in a hospital mix-up. Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), Keita’s life-long dad — as opposed to biological father — is the prototypically wealthy but overworked Japanese, demanding but absent from his son’s life, while Keita’s mother, Midori (Machiko Ono), is the dutiful but neglected spouse. The three interact quite well, it seems, but after a while, their jabs are only too visible, even as no one else seems to notice. Meanwhile, the couple’s ‘real’ son, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), is being taken care of by Yukari (Yoko Maki) and Yudai (Riri Furanki), a lower-class couple who, by contrast, seem to hate and nag each other to no end. After much internal conflict, they all finally agree to exchange kids, cut off contact, and hope for the best. The original bonds are just too strong, however, and the families drift back to one another, even as it’s revealed that Yudai — crude, lazy, and overly concerned with the hospital’s reimbursement — is the far better father, and Ryota, seeing his own deficiencies in Yudai’s goodness, decides to ‘do better’, and be the sort of father he’s never had.

If the film sounds predictable, that’s because it is, not only in its narrative arcs, but also in that each and every character is a stereotype — or rather, that they seem to be. Nor does it help that the hospital reveals its mistake at the ten minute mark of this two hour film, thus ensuring certain conflicts must play out, if not the film’s various resolutions, in a back-and-forth manner expected of such a difficult situation. For all that, however, the film is saved by how these arcs dip and go, and not merely where they lead the viewer, because while so many scenes are barefaced cliches, as far as the content goes, they are still uniquely presented, and with enough detail … Continue reading →

Review Of Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder”

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Terrence Malick's To The Wonder (2012)

Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder (2012)

After watching To The Wonder, I must come to the melancholy view that — with nearly four decades of film-making behind him — this is Terrence Malick’s first film without some argument for greatness. Yes, Badlands was not especially deep, and Tree Of Life had a number of abysmal and overwrought moments, but these films were wonderfully constructed, even if the latter could have used some pruning. That said, To The Wonder is not the near-masterpiece Roger Ebert thought it was, nor is it the “meandering,” “incomprehensible” mess others claim. In fact, it’s a good film with a handful of great moments and a lucid narrative, bogged down by some large problems that keep it out of better company.

Before I show what those problems are, however, I’d like to get the primary misconception out of the way. Yes, the film has narrative, even if it’s not rich on plot, for the two are not the same thing. Plot refers to what happens, on the superficial level, as far as simple action is concerned. Narrative integrates action, character, emotion, musings, symbols, sound, image, and pretty much anything else conceivable in film, into a coherent whole. Does the film have this? Well, let’s see. It opens with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) describing love as being newly born and opening one’s eyes. The camera looks blurry and overwhelmed, evoking this very thing. As the voice-over continues, you get Neil (Ben Affleck) in different love scenes with Marina, including a few magnificent shots of the two on a beach, where the water and the sand seem to unify in both color and behavior, furthering the narrative with symbol. Neil is good to Marina’s daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), even as he declines to marry Marina, and is aloof in general. This disconnect becomes especially obvious when the family moves from Paris to Oklahoma, and Tatiana — in another wonderful scene — asks Neil to marry her mother, relating, with typical childishness, what this might look like, as he looks on with shock and discomfort, emotions that are lucidly communicated by mere facial expression and body language. Going further, we see the family playing with each other, which is both well-crafted and realistic, as Marina confesses her own loneliness to a neighbor, while barely even speaking, and ostensibly about her own daughter, at that. Yet the viewer knows she is talking (or rather, emoting) about herself, for it’s visible on her face and her expressions, even as it tries to be “about” something else entirely.

So far, the narrative (and its techniques) is clear, but is complicated by the appearance of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who plays the cliched role of the self-torn priest, yet does it well in a handful of interesting scenes that, unfortunately, have little to add to the rest of the film, including a brief attempt to “catch” the warmth of the light against a stained-glass window. In his own voice-overs, he … Continue reading →