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: Belle

9 08 2014

“Costume design porn” (if that’s not a phrase yet, I call dibs on the trademark) rarely satisfies for me, but I’ll admit, “Belle” came as a pleasant surprise.  Amma Asante’s 18th-century set period piece focuses far less on the threads and refreshingly more on social values of the period in England.  And for once, I felt like I should care far more about what the characters had to say than what they wore.

Perhaps my interest in the film’s subject came from having visited Kenwood House in London, the film’s setting.  I spent one beautifully foggy morning exploring the newly refurbished historical site while it was nearly empty, and one particularly kind docent took the time to explain the history behind Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mixed race daughter of an English aristocrat.  Dido is brought up just like any other legitimate child by her aunt (Emily Watson) and uncle (Tom Wilkinson), who is tasked with deciding a landmark case of the rights of slaves.

Ironically, her cousin Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) has far more power and standing in British society … yet far less of a dowry to offer suitors.  A rivalry develops between the two that feels completely believable, and the tension propels “Belle” throughout some dull moments in the middle of the film.

Assante’s film has its heart in the right place, promoting causes like racial equality and the rights of women as self-sufficient individuals.  She gets a little self-righteous and preachy at times, but at least these struggles ground the world in reality as opposed to the first-world problems that seem to occupy most films of this genre.  Sadly enough, these are battles still being fought, and “Belle” reminds us that we’ve still got some distance to go even though we’ve progressed from the times being covered in the movie.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Enemy

21 06 2014

EnemyIn a discussion about the film “Enemy” a few days after seeing it, someone referred to it as “a particularly accomplished thesis film.”  To a certain extent, I do have to agree.  Denis Villeneuve’s film seems fixated on communicating mood and tone, doing so with such an intensity that it could easily be mistaken for his first time playing with it.

“Enemy” is far more successful at making you feel an overarching sense of gloom than it is at making you connect with its characters.  But that unrelenting dread in and of itself is a pretty remarkable achievement.  It’s more than just an atmospheric score recalling “Taxi Driver,” or the grays and faded yellows that dominate the color palette.  The film is the cinematic equivalent of a yoga pose held for 90 minutes straight, something to be admired for sheer poise alone.

Villenueve also manages to compliment his visual style with an equally controlled and subdued performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.  “Enemy” follows a meek history professor Adam Bell as he discovers an actor who looks exactly like him, Anthony Claire.  Both characters are played by Gyllenhaal, and they each feel distinct in demeanor as well as in the way that the events affect them.

The film is the definition of a slow burn, and Javier Gullón’s script keeps revelations rolling out at a similar pace.  Even when “Enemy” doesn’t have you completely emotionally engaged, it keeps you tense with its smoggy disposition and cryptic imagery.  Not that Villeneuve ever really loosens up in the film, but he does channel David Lynch on a few occasions.  So now that he’s accomplished this film, maybe it’s time to dabble in the surreal.  B+3stars