REVIEW: Indignation

29 07 2016

IndignationSundance Film Festival

When it comes to films surrounding schooling periods, a certain set of general guiding principles undergirds nearly story. High school movies are about the competing impulse of individuation and socialization, finding oneself while also navigating the locker-lined corridors of the pecking order. College movies primarily center on free expression and discovery, like a trial run for adulthood with few of the responsibilities or consequences.

2016 has a pretty stellar roster of college movies between “Everybody Wants Some” and “Neighbors 2” – but a bit of a black sheep with James Schamus’ “Indignation.” The film, adapted from a novel of the same name by Philip Roth, follows university-bound protagonist Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) as he puts his hand to the plow in his studies. He scorns social contact, even from like-minded individuals such as the school’s Jewish fraternity that comes to earnestly recruit him. Marcus comes to school a skeptic and a deep religious doubter, two positions in which he only entrenches himself further upon arrival.

Whether the position comes from Schamus or Roth, it matters not – “Indignation” indulges Marcus’ cynicism rather than interrogating it or demonstrating the philosophy’s value. Vindication comes cheaply as the puritanical hypocrisy of the school administration, chiefly Tracy Letts’ Dean Caudwell, tries to clamp down on his rebellious streak. Marcus begins to see the same values in his own family, whose middle-class emphasis on diligence and industriousness leads them to disapprove of his budding relationship with the haunted yet wealthy Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon).

The romance between these two wildly different students begins, ironically, with Olivia’s performing oral sex on Marcus while his vehicle is parked in a cemetery. His genitals receive more stimulation than his mind throughout the film. And, to be quite honest, they probably receive more stimulation than the audience as well. “Indignation” has nothing pushing it forward but the fervent stagnation of its protagonist. Though one long, refreshingly theatrical-style spar between Letts and Lerman helps to break the rhythm towards the middle, the film is primarily a sterile exercise in self-satisfaction. C+2stars

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REVIEW: Fury

4 11 2014

FuryThe “war is hell” thesis argued by David Ayer’s “Fury” is certainly nothing new under the sun.  But as the amount of viewers with personal connection to warfare dwindles daily, cinema must continue to provide this myth-making service to provide those images for our culture.  Ayer’s film serves as a reminder of the sacrifices that soldiers make as well as the brutality to which they are exposed on a consistent basis.

“Fury” begins at the end of the journey in 1945 Germany for a tank division under the leadership of Brad Pitt’s Don “Wardaddy” Collier, an equally red-blooded but less caricatured version of Aldo Raine from “Inglourious Basterds.” He commands a group of men who have all been visibly demoralized by fighting the inhumanity of the Nazis, particularly Shia LaBeouf’s world-weary Boyd “Bible” Swan.  His sobering nihilism marks the first clean break the actor has made from his goofy Louis Stevens persona, which has been an unwelcome legacy looming over all his work.

After one of their drivers is gunned down, the unit receives an unwelcome replacement in Logan Lerman’s green, babyfaced Norman Ellison.  Prior to stepping in the tank, his only experience of World War II had been from behind a typewriter doing clerical work.  Norman becomes the entry point into “Fury” as well as its emotional core, two roles that Lerman performs astutely.

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REVIEW: Noah

28 07 2014

After “Black Swan” topped my best of 2010 list, Darren Aronofsky could have made a film about virtually anything, and I would turn out to see it.  From the earliest announcement of Aronofsky’s “Noah” in 2011, I was deliriously excited to see his distinct spin on the well-known Biblical story.

I maintained faith in spite of nearly every media report drumming up controversy about the film.  It became impossible to escape stories that claimed Aronofsky was replacing the original narrative with an environmental message, or that he was purging God from the film entirely.  Going in, I had the impression that I was bound to be offended by something in “Noah,” no matter how artfully Aronofsky presented it.

As it turns out, nothing that generated headlines about the film offended me.  What did, however, was the simple and rudimentary script of “Noah.”  It felt like Aronofsky went into production with the first draft for something that shows potential for greatness but achieves little of it.

As a character, Noah feels remarkably incomplete and incoherent.  His motivations are unclear, and I’m not sure whether to interpret that as Aronofsky saying God is confused … or whether Aronofsky himself is confused.  Russell Crowe turns in a rather schizoid performance, grappling with the seeming non-sequiturs of his character as much as he is with anything relating to God.

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REVIEW: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

16 12 2012

PerksIt’s rare that a high school movie captures the full range of experiences one can have in that crucial period, and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” covers all the bases with ease.  The movie, adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his own novel, saunters at a casual mosey that allows us to take in every moment and appreciate its importance.

In a sense, it allows us to get into the character of protagonist Charlie, played wistfully by Logan Lerman.  He’s the eponymous wallflower, a passive yet perceptive observer taking it all in his freshman year rather than actively seeking to fulfill his desires.  We go from feeling sorry for him as he struggles to find acceptance on his first day of high school to quickly frustrated … because we know the easiest way to put an end to those woes!

Thankfully, Charlie stumbles into two fantastic friends before our annoyance reaches walk-out/turn-off levels.  First, there’s Patrick, an extreme extrovert who says exactly what’s on his mind no matter how inappropriate it may be.  Ezra Miller plays him with such a fantastic gusto that it’s impossible not to be drawn in by his magnetism.

Miller also sheds a tremendous light on the private shame that the very public characters struggles with: the relationship with football player Brad who won’t acknowledge the flamboyant Patrick in the halls at school.  This storyline is arguably the most compelling and dramatic of the film, especially since Miller and fellow rising star Johnny Simmons play it with such high stakes and tense emotionality.

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REVIEW: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

16 08 2010

“Never judge a book by its movie,” says J.W. Eagan.  But if you were to go against the wise sage’s advice and judge, you might think that Rick Riordan’s novel “The Lightning Thief” is some campy piece of kid-lit just a few rungs above Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series,” on the class ladder.  It’s like “Harry Potter,” only written by that awesome history teacher you had in middle school.  I have had the pleasure of meeting Riordan and talking with him about his book, and it is so creative, weaving together all sorts of Greek mythology to create the narrative of modern day demigod Percy Jackson.

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief” bears a title that suggests a whole Hollywood franchise in the works, and it’s precisely that influence that tarnishes a perfectly good book.  If anything you have seen about the movie seems interesting, I implore you to read the book – or if you don’t have that much time, stop watching the movie when Ke$hA’s “TiK ToK” plays in a casino and start reading from there.

The beginning of the movie is pretty good, managing to capture some of the spirit of its source.  Logan Lerman takes on the titular character, a frustrated dyslexic adolescent who finds out unexpectedly that he is the child of a Greek god.  Hunted by the forces of evil, his best friend (Brandon T. Jackson, best known as the Lance-loving Alpa Chino from “Tropic Thunder”), who turns out to be a satyr hiding his goat legs behind a wheelchair, transports him to Camp Half-Blood, a save haven for demigods.  There he meets other kids like him, the offspring of god-human relations.  Before long, Percy must embark on a quest to clear his name after being accused of stealing Zeus’ lightning.

The adventure is fairly amusing, littered with plenty of celebrities to make you grin.  There’s Steve Coogan as Hades and Rosari Dawson as his prisoner, Persephone.  Uma Thurman plays stone-cold killer Medusa in a very slow sequence.  The always reliable Catherine Keener plays Percy’s mom, and Joe Pantoliano plays her scumbag boyfirend.  Although he doesn’t appear in this phase of the movie, you definitely can’t discuss the movie’s acting without bringing up Pierce Brosnan, who apparently forgot how to act after a disastrous turn in “Mamma Mia.”  He’s still brutal to watch, and if you’re still complaining about Daniel Craig as 007, this movie will make you thankful for the blonde Bond.

But it’s the climax that Columbus and the Hollywood goons absolutely destroy.  It’s an incomprehensible disaster, a cinematic trainwreck in every sense of the word.  Anyone who hasn’t read the book will scratch their heads in confusion at the muddled mess unfolding in front of them.  And those like me, who have read, will marvel at how effortlessly a thrilling literary ending is derailed by the desire to provide cheap blockbuster excitement.  The book’s final twist is revealed in the last handful of pages, leaving the reader gasping in surprise.  The movie, however, jumps the gun and lets the cat out of the bag way too early, robbing the moment of any suspense.

So while it will pass for entertainment, there’s still much to be desired.  A whole lot more can be pulled from Riordan’s rich novels, and a whole lot more of Chris Columbus’ moviemaking magic can be utilized.  B- /