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Knitting the middlebrow

Movies opening this week: Indignation, Suicide Squad, The Innocents, and more

Never mind the brow, how about Richard Brody’s outstanding beard?
Never mind the brow, how about Richard Brody’s outstanding beard?
Movie

Indignation ****

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Longtime screenwriter and producer James Schamus adapts longtime novelist Philip Roth’s novel of love and death and Midwestern collegiate life, and turns what might have been an exercise in mordant mid-century nostalgia into something vital and resonant (as opposed to the trendier, emptier “relevant”). Something that lives and breathes and feels and fights: you don’t have to care about Bertrand Russell’s essay on <em>Why I Am Not a Christian</em> to sympathize with Jewish undergrad Marcus Messner (a fierce yet cuddly Logan Lerman). You just have to know what it feels like to be flailing away at a system that seems thoroughly comfortable with its failure to understand the subtlety and significance of the particular, the internal dramas that shape our lives and set our destinies. (It’s not that Winesburg College is Evil; it’s just that it’s so thoroughly Other.) That includes its view of romantic love, a thing that moves from external to internal with frightening ease (no pun intended). Messner’s affair with a troubled but generous co-ed sets him against not only his chosen institution, but also the one he inherited, and what seems like a simple act of affection sends our hero headlong into the mouth of fate, and ultimately, his eternal reward.

Find showtimes

How do I know that I am, at heart, a middlebrow critic? Well, partly because I have yet to join my fellow critic Scott in his celebration of the Jackass franchise. But also because I really liked James Schamus’s cinematic adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel Indignation, a film that New Yorker film critic Richard Brody referred to as “cramped and simplistic” in comparison to the “terrifying and visionary” book.

Why was the delightfully highbrow Brody (the title for his piece on the recent Ghostbusters remake calls that film “bland, mechanical, and totally worth seeing) displeased? He makes a detailed case, but the thesis is right there at the end:

  • Roth seems to have written his novel with a sense of infinite possibility and infinite curiosity. His telling of the story is itself the discovery of a singular way to tell it. Schamus has filmed the story with a sense of constraint. The writer-director didn’t just reduce and simplify the novel in order to squeeze it into movie form; he sterilized it. Everything that makes the novel live has been killed to make it into a movie, as if the cinema were some lesser medium that would be broken by the attempt to confine a living thing, a thing as spirited and active as the novel “Indignation.” Of course, the breaking of familiar forms in the interest of artistic freedom — the inward, spiritual type of freedom that becomes political when the work of art instills it in readers, viewers, or listeners — is exactly the point. It’s what Roth does, it’s what Beethoven did — and it’s what Schamus, making an utterly familiar and easy film, doesn’t do.

Short version: Roth was in full Roth mode when he wrote Indignation, and Schamus made an ordinary story out of it. (Do go and read the long version, though; it’s very well done.) The thing is, Schamus knows this. When we chatted, he freely discussed how he thought the characters could survive without Roth’s tremendous voice and how the story could be made “fable-like.” Does it become simpler, more conventional, more accessible in the process? It sure sounds like it. Is that a terrible thing? I suspect it depends on the placement of your brow.

Movie

Suicide Squad

thumbnail

You know the army of faceless goons that so many superhero movies offer up? The ones that are either terrifyingly badass (bullets don’t work!) or goofily lame (but baseball bats do!), depending on the needs of the moment? Well, say this for writer-director David Ayer: in <em>his</em> superhero movie, those faceless goons are <em>literally faceless</em>. So that’s something. And Jared Leto’s Joker looks right for the times. Otherwise, this story of bad guys being forced to fight other bad guys by a very bad guy who is also a woman (Viola Davis, apparently sedated) and a government agent is a godawful mess. Begin at the beginning, as Davis drones her way through about four movies’ worth of backstory exposition — gotta introduce/explain our villainous heroes — in between bites of steak. Her big idea: the future of warfare is metahumans, and we need weapons we can control. So she sticks bombs in the necks of some nasties (most of whom don’t seem terribly meta) and sends ‘em on a mission: not to take out the witch who’s getting ready to wipe out humanity, but to rescue a nearby asset. Incoherence ensues, rife with cliché, replete with boring battles, stuffed with absurdities, overlaid with pointless rock riffs, drizzled in sentiment, and utterly lacking in meaningful characterization. (Are these bad guys bad or not? Will Smith’s hyper-accurate hit-man scoffs at the idea of love, but will do apparently anything for his daughter.) By the end, it’s almost comedy: a witch doing a twitchy robot dance as she casts her apocalyptic spell, then deciding the best way to manifest her awesome supernatural power is to get into a fistfight. If it were a little better, it would demand a proper autopsy to figure out what the hell happened. (Ayer made <em>Fury</em> just two years ago!). As it is, it just isn’t worth it.

Find showtimes

Who knows? Maybe Brody’s remarkable aesthetic perspective (and I mean that sincerely) will allow him to discover merits in the superhero (supervillain?) movie Suicide Squad that escaped me utterly. From the reports on the on-set goings on (which I read about only after writing my review), it certainly sounds like some far-out art was getting made, but that’s not what I saw on screen.

Anyway, Indignation deals heavily is sex and religion and sanity, and so does The Innocents. Four stars and three stars from me, respectively. Make of that what you will.

Scott has a couple of docs up this week: the NFL-star-gets-ALS doc Gleason and the Disney-therapy doc Life, Animated. He tosses two stars to both, but even so you can catch a distinct whiff of his disappointment with each film. The genius walks a lonely road. At least, that’s what I hear.

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Never mind the brow, how about Richard Brody’s outstanding beard?
Never mind the brow, how about Richard Brody’s outstanding beard?
Movie

Indignation ****

thumbnail

Longtime screenwriter and producer James Schamus adapts longtime novelist Philip Roth’s novel of love and death and Midwestern collegiate life, and turns what might have been an exercise in mordant mid-century nostalgia into something vital and resonant (as opposed to the trendier, emptier “relevant”). Something that lives and breathes and feels and fights: you don’t have to care about Bertrand Russell’s essay on <em>Why I Am Not a Christian</em> to sympathize with Jewish undergrad Marcus Messner (a fierce yet cuddly Logan Lerman). You just have to know what it feels like to be flailing away at a system that seems thoroughly comfortable with its failure to understand the subtlety and significance of the particular, the internal dramas that shape our lives and set our destinies. (It’s not that Winesburg College is Evil; it’s just that it’s so thoroughly Other.) That includes its view of romantic love, a thing that moves from external to internal with frightening ease (no pun intended). Messner’s affair with a troubled but generous co-ed sets him against not only his chosen institution, but also the one he inherited, and what seems like a simple act of affection sends our hero headlong into the mouth of fate, and ultimately, his eternal reward.

Find showtimes

How do I know that I am, at heart, a middlebrow critic? Well, partly because I have yet to join my fellow critic Scott in his celebration of the Jackass franchise. But also because I really liked James Schamus’s cinematic adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel Indignation, a film that New Yorker film critic Richard Brody referred to as “cramped and simplistic” in comparison to the “terrifying and visionary” book.

Why was the delightfully highbrow Brody (the title for his piece on the recent Ghostbusters remake calls that film “bland, mechanical, and totally worth seeing) displeased? He makes a detailed case, but the thesis is right there at the end:

  • Roth seems to have written his novel with a sense of infinite possibility and infinite curiosity. His telling of the story is itself the discovery of a singular way to tell it. Schamus has filmed the story with a sense of constraint. The writer-director didn’t just reduce and simplify the novel in order to squeeze it into movie form; he sterilized it. Everything that makes the novel live has been killed to make it into a movie, as if the cinema were some lesser medium that would be broken by the attempt to confine a living thing, a thing as spirited and active as the novel “Indignation.” Of course, the breaking of familiar forms in the interest of artistic freedom — the inward, spiritual type of freedom that becomes political when the work of art instills it in readers, viewers, or listeners — is exactly the point. It’s what Roth does, it’s what Beethoven did — and it’s what Schamus, making an utterly familiar and easy film, doesn’t do.

Short version: Roth was in full Roth mode when he wrote Indignation, and Schamus made an ordinary story out of it. (Do go and read the long version, though; it’s very well done.) The thing is, Schamus knows this. When we chatted, he freely discussed how he thought the characters could survive without Roth’s tremendous voice and how the story could be made “fable-like.” Does it become simpler, more conventional, more accessible in the process? It sure sounds like it. Is that a terrible thing? I suspect it depends on the placement of your brow.

Movie

Suicide Squad

thumbnail

You know the army of faceless goons that so many superhero movies offer up? The ones that are either terrifyingly badass (bullets don’t work!) or goofily lame (but baseball bats do!), depending on the needs of the moment? Well, say this for writer-director David Ayer: in <em>his</em> superhero movie, those faceless goons are <em>literally faceless</em>. So that’s something. And Jared Leto’s Joker looks right for the times. Otherwise, this story of bad guys being forced to fight other bad guys by a very bad guy who is also a woman (Viola Davis, apparently sedated) and a government agent is a godawful mess. Begin at the beginning, as Davis drones her way through about four movies’ worth of backstory exposition — gotta introduce/explain our villainous heroes — in between bites of steak. Her big idea: the future of warfare is metahumans, and we need weapons we can control. So she sticks bombs in the necks of some nasties (most of whom don’t seem terribly meta) and sends ‘em on a mission: not to take out the witch who’s getting ready to wipe out humanity, but to rescue a nearby asset. Incoherence ensues, rife with cliché, replete with boring battles, stuffed with absurdities, overlaid with pointless rock riffs, drizzled in sentiment, and utterly lacking in meaningful characterization. (Are these bad guys bad or not? Will Smith’s hyper-accurate hit-man scoffs at the idea of love, but will do apparently anything for his daughter.) By the end, it’s almost comedy: a witch doing a twitchy robot dance as she casts her apocalyptic spell, then deciding the best way to manifest her awesome supernatural power is to get into a fistfight. If it were a little better, it would demand a proper autopsy to figure out what the hell happened. (Ayer made <em>Fury</em> just two years ago!). As it is, it just isn’t worth it.

Find showtimes

Who knows? Maybe Brody’s remarkable aesthetic perspective (and I mean that sincerely) will allow him to discover merits in the superhero (supervillain?) movie Suicide Squad that escaped me utterly. From the reports on the on-set goings on (which I read about only after writing my review), it certainly sounds like some far-out art was getting made, but that’s not what I saw on screen.

Anyway, Indignation deals heavily is sex and religion and sanity, and so does The Innocents. Four stars and three stars from me, respectively. Make of that what you will.

Scott has a couple of docs up this week: the NFL-star-gets-ALS doc Gleason and the Disney-therapy doc Life, Animated. He tosses two stars to both, but even so you can catch a distinct whiff of his disappointment with each film. The genius walks a lonely road. At least, that’s what I hear.

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Comments
2

I'm trying to figure out whether you liked the movie "Indignation"or not. I was one of about eight people in the hall at the Arclight La Jolla Construction Zone last night -- and I couldn't tell if they liked it either. The hero student's lively and unlikely exchange with the college dean was wonderful -- and in general the film captured the sexually repressed '50's, boys' fears of being drafted into the Korean conflict, as well as the sense of limitless possibility that came from leaving home and going away to a strong academic college. But the movie was also flat and stylized and I will have to read the Philip Roth story to understand the war scenes and the final image of the aged woman in a nursing home. No actor was recognizable to me except for the dean played by Tracy Letts.

Aug. 5, 2016

Brave man: that's a helluva construction zone. I did like it, more than most, I think. I think "the limits of intelligence" is a pretty big theme: Messner's friend tells him he's too smart to wind up killed in the war, but we know from the outset that that's not true. Messner counts on his intelligence to save him; it's why he feels comfortable rejecting the community offered by the Jewish frat, and why he thinks he can win against the Dean. Then he sees that leg, and fate kicks into gear, because from then on out, it's a matter of character. I guess SPOILER ALERT: the woman in the nursing home is looking at that wallpaper pattern of roses in a vase for a reason.

Aug. 6, 2016

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