INDIGNATION (2016)

August 4, 2016

indignation Greetings again from the darkness. Quite often, Hollywood “period pieces” feel dated and somewhat irrelevant to our world today – as if they were a snapshot from an old magazine. But the best ones transport us to a different era while also serving up themes and characters that are just as interesting and germane today as then … and that’s what we have here.

First time director James Schamus (founder of Focus Features) is an Oscar nominated producer (Brokeback Mountain) and writer (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and he tackles the popular 2008 Philip Roth novel … one that the 83 year old novelist admits to being influenced by his own college years. Mr. Roth has been writing novels for more than 50 years and won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 “American Pastoral”.

Taking on the lead role of college-bound Marcus Messner is Logan Lerman … an actor who has been on screen since he was 8 years old, and seems to have the eternal youth DNA so sought after by Ponce de Leon. While his looks haven’t changed much since the “Percy Jackson” films or the excellent The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Lerman shines here as the working class Newark Jewish boy, smothered by his parents, and as naïve to the world as he is academically gifted.

It’s 1951 and too many neighborhood boys are arriving back home in pine boxes after serving in the Korean War. Marcus’ father (Danny Burstein) is a kosher butcher and is half of the hyper-cautious parental unit that is alternatively thankful and frightened that their son is avoiding serving in the military by heading off to ultra-conservative (and fictional) Winesburg College in Ohio.

Once on campus, Marcus discovers little of the hoped-for freedom. Mandatory chapel attendance, roommates assigned via religious leanings, and the expectations of joining the Jewish fraternity and hanging out with his own kind combine to be only a different kind of emotional stifling than what he had at home. A series of events serve to shake up Marcus and his beliefs. Date night with his dream girl from the library ends with him being both repulsed and enchanted by a sexually assertive Olivia (Sarah Gadon). An argument with his lughead roommates ends with his being given the worst dorm room on campus. Meeting with the College Dean (Tracy Letts) results in an exhilarating debate that will surely be treasured by all who adore wordplay and oratory sword-fighting. Finally, an emergency appendectomy brings a hospital visit from Marcus’ mother (Linda Emond), and a conversation that drastically alters the course of his life.

The conservative social mores of the 1950’s are on full display, as is the restlessness of the young who would change society forever. Fear would be replaced with daring, and the film does a terrific job of highlighting how revolution often comes at a high price. Bookended by war scenes that dramatize the fine line between civilized society and the brutality of war, it all comes together … bringing more power and poignancy to the two best scenes: as previously mentioned, Letts and Lerman go mano y mano in arguing the brilliance of Bertrand Russell, and their word battle highlights the age-old idealist vs. real world struggles; a mother-son scene towards the end is as heart-breaking as any we’re likely to see on screen this year. Mr. Letts, Ms. Emond and Ms. Gadon all work well with Logan Lerman in order to provide an excellent presentation of Roth’s novel and Schamus’ first film.

 watch the trailer:

 

 

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BELLE (2013, UK)

July 12, 2014

belle Greetings again from the darkness. Always a bit partial to films based on a true story, I would have to label this as a fictionalized historical period piece, and a step above most costume dramas (though the costumes here are quite stunning). While it’s a very attractive movie to look at, I was a bit frustrated at the multi-directional approach that just skimmed many topics.

The movie could have focused on the relationship between cousins Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Or it could have zeroed in on the unusual complexities raised by the illegitimate mixed race Belle being raised in British Aristocracy. Still another option would have been digging into the historical impact of Zong massacre and the subsequent arguments, court trials and appeals. Instead, we get a splash of each … which leaves the viewer wanting more detail on all three.

The cast is very strong and features Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Court … he raises Belle at the request of his nephew (her father). Lord Mansfield’s wife is played well by the always excellent Emily Watson.  Also featured are Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton (always entertaining), James Norton, Sam Reid, and Tom Felton – who creates yet another despicable character to go with his Draco from the “Harry Potter” series.

Maybe the best term for this is historical melodrama, as the courtroom decision comes across as anti-climatic, with more third act attention paid to Belle’s love interest (Mr. Reid). Very little is known of the actual Dido Elizabeth Belle, but it seems clear that her role in the Zong trial was dramatically enhanced for the purposes of the film. In fact, more drama may have played out for the film’s writing credit between the director Amma Asante and the WGA. Though the director lost the writing credit, she can be proud enough of the final product.  The two cousins are featured in the famous 1779 painting (see below) that inspired the story.

1779 painting

 

 


COSMOPOLIS (2012)

September 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. David Cronenberg is a brilliant filmmaker. Brilliance doesn’t necessarily translate into popular or even accessible. He tends to make movies that force a level of discomfort while viewing, while also stretching our intellect as we attempt to follow. Even his films that come closest to mainstream (A History of Violence, The Fly) refuse to allow us to just sit and be entertained. His more esoteric films (Naked Lunch, Crash) will cause your thoughts to swim and your gut to churn.

This latest is based on the Don DeLillo novel and there is no known group of film lovers for whom this can be recommended, save Cronenberg fans. Even that doesn’t reduce its brilliance. Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, the ultimate example of the 1% that is receiving such notice these days. Packer is a young, billionaire, who rides around in his mobile high tech ivory tower (you might call it a white stretch limo), taking meetings while on his mission to get a haircut. The meetings are vignettes designed to grow increasingly abstract and dialogue heavy as the film progresses.

The meetings feature Jay Baruchel as his Chief of Technology, Philip Nozuka as an Analyst, Emily Hampshire as his Chief of Finance, Samantha Morton as his Chief of Theory … oh, and a special meeting with his mistress Juliette Binoche. He also manages to continually run into his new wife played by Sarah Gadon, and work in his daily doctor’s exam which is extremely thorough. All of these occur while he is being protected by his security chief played by Kevin Durand.

 This film is not plot driven, but rather ideal and theory driven. From the discussions we can tell that the financial systems are collapsing and Packer is losing millions by the minute. His fortune is vanishing and there are threats on his life. The most interesting threat comes from his true polar opposite in life – Benno Levin played by Paul Giamatti. This sequence is the film’s longest and most dialogue heavy. Understanding every sentence is not necessary to realize it’s a comment on the faceless many vs the evil privileged. The paranoia has boiled over to the point where anarchy and violence somehow make sense.

Twilight fans will not be pleased with Pattinson’s performance, but he is absolutely perfect as Packer. His cold, arrogant nature and monotone voice are anything but emotionless. He apparently realizes his path is leading to the Village of the Damned, and he seems to have designed his own purgatory. One of the funniest, yet still odd, moments arrives in the form of Mathieu Amalric, who will generate recollections of a Rupert Murdoch incident.

Howard Shore provides an extremely subtle score that fits with the mood changes a the film progresses. Again, this is a bit like watching a philosophical laboratory experiment and certainly won’t appeal to a wide audience. If you are a Cronenberg fan, have at it. If not … the risk is yours.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a big time Cronenberg fan (I can’t think of another reason)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Twilight fan expecting Robert Pattinson’s bedroom eyes to steal your heart

watch the trailer: