Film Review: La Haine

A still from La Haine.

Vinz and Said take in their projects.

La Haine (1995)

Directed and written by Mathieu Kassovitz
Last night I finished the new essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between The World And Me,” and I remarked upon it to my girlfriend and a couple customers as perhaps the greatest book I’d ever read. Watching La Haine, I realize that I now see things I couldn’t see before, things I didn’t understand. Or maybe I always did, but now I can better translate the symbols I see in this film.

La Haine is a film which depicts three young French men oppressed by classism and racism in a community in riot. Their friend, Abdel, has been brutalized by police in the riots, and he is in critical condition. They cannot see him, and attempts to do so nearly get them all arrested. Later, the film shows what happens when the two non-white men get arrested; in watching this film, I understand better what happened to Eric Garner, what happened to Sandra Bland.

The white man Vinz, played perfectly by Vincent Cassel, is furious. He has been shown what is life is meant to look like by the media, but classism has put him in this ghetto. Vinz dreams about going ballistic, about being a cop-killer, and eventually gets his chance. Vinz embodies much of what I’ve felt in the past year of police protests, a desire to bring down reckoning that comes from a place of security, of knowing that white people have to do more wrong to not get favors from friends in the force. Vinz is a body in the streets, dominated by protection of himself and taking what is his. He knows these rules, and he is protected because he can venture outside the streets and resemble a ballet director or a French prince.

The black man, Hubert, played subtly by Hubert Kounde, embodies much of what I have learned from Coates’s book. He seeks redemption, works hard to be twice as good as Vinz, to distinguish himself from that anger and to support his mother and siblings. Hubert is not without anger; he participates in protests, and he is a boxer. But he will not entertain the simple freedom of killing a cop and dying, which simply escalates the violence in his community; Hubert knows the rules of the streets, and he has the patience to recognize they rule against him. That patience is his virtue, and it is tested.

The Arabic man, Saïd, played quietly by Saïd Taghmaoui, is unfortunately overlooked in an effort to give Vinz and Hubert duality. He is younger, a bit more rash, a bit unsure whether to be confident or reticent. When faced with the direct conflicts between the two, Saïd resorts to peacemaking, either by separation or by distraction. He does not want to help them grow, and when the situation grows, he takes opportunities to retreat.

Perfectly shot, paced, and scored by excellent popular music, there is nothing I would change about La Haine. But Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book taught me something that places La Haine as a dated or foreign relic. In one scene, four men enact gun violence upon each other before being arrested, and the three protagonists join a large-scale rush on the police officers, who they fear will enact violence upon the fighters.

In La Haine, the police slightly escalate the situation, but they do not enact any noticeable violence upon the protesters. Based on our reports of the American justice system, the four men who carried firearms might be dead immediately, and responding like a human with fear is a death warrant.

A new favorite film.


Film Re-view: Prometheus

A still from the film Prometheus. The android David (Michael Fassbender) falls in love with the cosmos.

Prometheus, 2012

Directed by Ridley Scott, Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof

Maybe a little more frustrating than I remembered, but Prometheus still looks and sounds better than most movies, carries one of cinema’s most disturbing scenes, has an amazing performance from Michael Fassbender, plumbs at broad, humanistic questions in a way I find interesting, and gives its pantheon of characters motivations that are ill-defined yet still reasonable.

This is a myth, hence the mythic title, about what happens when humans lose their sense of place in the natural order. The Prometheus is manned by three distinct groups; the skeptical scientific community, the optimists who believe the Prometheus will succeed in its mission to encounter “ancient aliens,” and the corporate jerks who have no faith but want to keep things moving speedily along. Its characters are played like Greek ones, archetypes who betray philosophical depth, yet still walk themselves to bitter ends. Continue reading

Film Review: La Strada

A still of the film Gelsomina (Masina) plays a trumpet tune to keep Zampano’s attention (Quinn) as he tries to sleep.

LA STRADA (1954)

Directed by Federico Fellini, Written by Federico Fellini, Tulio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano

Occasionally, you see the sort of keystone performance when watching a classic you’ve missed that illuminates something about the technique of actors you’ve known for years. Giuletta Masina, here playing a woman who believes herself to be an idiot, betrays her character’s true intelligence with a level of emotional nuance I cannot ascribe to earlier films. Many credit some of these nuances to Chaplin, but her interpretation must be credited in the discussion of actresses like Meryl Streep, Audrey Tatou, and Elisabeth Moss.

The film is named “La Strada,” for the road which its leads find themselves traveling without a heading. The circus strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) buys Masina’s Gelsomina from her mother on a postwar Italian coastline. He will refer to her as his wife and make her work in his performances, in which he demonstrates his great pectoral muscles and lung capacity; she will develop her own skills in comedy, music, and dance along the way.

There is a deep intellectual satisfaction to the kind of film Federico Fellini has created with La Strada. For the film is simultaneously a Neorealist Italian melodrama on poverty, a psychological study of a man who cannot handle his own violence and consumption, a morality tale questioning what one does when they feel desperate and taunted, and a feminist smackdown of the patriarchy. Its characters simultaneously exist as their own agents and reflections of the psychology of its stars, and the dreamlike nature of Fellini’s later 8 1/2 already exists in the symbology of its supporting cast.

Each thematic element comes to a head in the character of Il Mato, a would-be circus artist played by Richard Basehart. His character is really cruel, psychologically toying with anyone he happens to engage in conversation. He sets the two leads on opposite trajectories, and the falsehood of his nature is everyone’s downfall.

It is no surprise to say this is a great film; it exists as a hallmark of foreign cinema. Yet Ebert, who champions La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, may have set this film back by taking it too literally. We are told that Gelsomina has “turned out strange,” but he assumes this to mean she is in some way retarded. As I suggested at the beginning, I think Gelsomina is instead a very complex character, one who has little place in the world of poverty and vagabondism that its characters populate, but not a character who is truly as useless as she’d like to believe.

Perhaps my boldest claim? Zampano, who is credited as having a revelation at the end of the film, has almost no revelation at all. He, I believe, is still the same pitiful, misanthropic man he began the film portraying; he simply has taken steps too far one or two too many times, and now, staring at the carnage and abyss of his past, he is overwhelmed. This interpretation captures reality and my imagination.


Film Review: The Pool

A still from Venkatesh prunes dead leaves for Nani.

The Pool (2007)

Written and Directed by Chris Miller

“Don’t sit so close to the screen or you’ll strain your eyes.” Using this just-distant sort of metaphor, The Pool constantly considers how those who dream will be hurt the moment they look too closely at those dreams, and what happens when we give up on those moments. The poor boy wants to swim in a rich man’s pool and decides to work for him until he can find a way. He watches them from afar until he gets hired, and then he looks at them through the front door only to see that they’re having an argument. The “rich” man is sad; his “sexy” daughter is depressed. She reads books about foreign lands that will “screw your head up,” but reading too much will “strain your eyes” too.

She won’t eat samosas, but she will eat cake. We cite “The Gift of the Magi,” minus the irony. Indian boys throw rocks at trees for mangoes and watch American wrestling because the director does not seem to know what Indian youth do for fun.

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Film Review: Wild at Heart

A still from the film Wild At Heart.

Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) take a respite from their highway to hell.

Wild At Heart, 1990

Written and Directed by David Lynch

There’s something small that Lynch does better than many other writers, and I think it’s a lynchpin to his work. Two people have a moment of relative quiet, in which one is carrying an anxious trauma. It is the bubbling point of a secret, the ones that expose how American romantics internalize dismissing reality to maintain the status quo which created it. Finally, the other no longer allows their behavior. It’s a moment where one character calmly explains to the other that they, with whatever decency they may carry, will listen to their problem and that they will find a way to figure it out together.

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Film Review: Listen Up Philip

A still from Listen Up Philip.

Jason Schwartzman as the titular Philip, oozing the charisma of that guy who won’t stop talking about your fine arts discussion when you accidentally find yourself trapped in a conversation at a party.

Listen Up Philip, 2014

Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry

“I don’t find you charming. You are just like him, and I hope you take responsibility for yourself before you hurt the people who you love.”

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Film Review: The Assassination of Jesse James By The Robert Coward Ford

A still from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Jesse James (Brad Pitt) looks with frustration upon the young, optimistic Robert Ford (Casey Affleck.)

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Robert Coward Ford, 2007

Directed and Written by Andrew Dominik, co-written by Rob Hansen

We are expected to praise a Western just for having a heart and a brain, as though the song the balladeer concludes the film busking is not just a good song, but would be deeply insightful were it to understand that the coward was sad too.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a moderately well-acted and quite well-shot melodrama in the west with bursts of great, whip-smart violence that say more than the interminable, cliché-ridden script and fairly unoriginal production style. For the violence screams that anyone could do what these men are doing; they miss repeatedly, they grapple their own intense fears, and the winner in a shoot is just the luckier man at the end of a gun. The violence is not played for legend, and that is the film’s purpose.

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