Sep 26

“Indignation”: College Guy Meets Troubled Gal

James Schamus‘s new Indignation is a film adaptation of author Philip Roth’s 2008 novel. And David Edelstein‘s review title, “Indignation Is the Best Philip Roth Film Adaptation By a Mile,” is a sentiment echoed in various ways by other critics as well.

The plot summary on Rotten Tomatoes:

Indignation takes place in 1951, as Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, travels on scholarship to a small, conservative college in Ohio, thus exempting him from being drafted into the Korean War. But once there, Marcus’s growing infatuation with his beautiful classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and his clashes with the college’s imposing Dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), put his and his family’s best laid plans to the ultimate test.

Some family background, per David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:

Back in Newark, funerals for local boys are fueling the spiraling anxieties of Marcus’ father, Max (Danny Burstein). ‘The tiniest mistake can have consequences,’ he says, fearing that his straight-A student son will be led astray in pool halls and gambling dens. Max’s paranoia is scaring his levelheaded wife Esther (Linda Emond) and pushing Marcus away.

Sexually inexperienced, Marcus is at first conflicted about his attraction to the more open and emotionally fragile Olivia. Stephen Holden, New York Times:

After a separation, they warily reconnect, and Olivia, who has scars on her wrist, confesses to Marcus that she had a breakdown and attempted suicide. In Ms. Gadon’s sensitive performance, you can feel the vulnerability just beneath the surface of her apparent poise. Marcus isn’t worldly enough to understand fully the implications of her instability. But when Esther visits and meets Olivia, she immediately notices and pleads with her son to discontinue the relationship.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “Very much a character-driven film, ‘Indignation’ focuses on its young protagonists as they movingly attempt to determine who they are both as individuals and as a possible couple.”

The movie’s 15-minute “grueling centerpiece,” according to Edelstein (Vulture) (and others), is the one “in which Marcus is summoned to meet Dean Caudwell [Tracy Letts] and finds himself literally — and, folks, I’m not misusing that word — fighting to hold his insides together…Caudwell is the embodiment of right-wing, Christian authority and its penchant for hypocrisy (the charge against Marcus is a refusal to compromise), and Marcus’s attempts to assert religious and philosophical independence only tighten his own noose. Caudwell leaves Marcus in ruins while barely raising his voice.”

You can see the trailer below:

Selected Reviews

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “’Indignation’ might be dismissed as a small, exquisite period piece, but it is so precisely rendered that it gets deeply under your skin. There are a lot of words, and every one counts. You feel the social pressures bearing down on characters who, in accordance with the reticence of the times, tend to withhold their emotions and suffer in silence.”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “…(T)he story and treatment keep inviting us to circle back to it and wonder what the characters might have done here or should have done there. Like the best wines and the best films, there’s a complexity to the finish, so that it reverberates with meanings beyond the obvious. ‘Indignation’ has the disconcerting quality of truth and is an altogether adult piece of work.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “The beauty of ‘Indignation’ can be found in how it builds, growing from a garden-variety coming-of-age story into a poetic, even prayerful, meditation on the pitiless vagaries of character and regret. Thoughtful and reserved, perhaps even to a fault, ‘Indignation’ winds up packing a wallop far greater than its modest parts might suggest.”

Nov 24

“Beyond the Lights”: Romance Follows Suicide Attempt

Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s Beyond the Lights, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, and Minnie Driver, offers up a familiar and predictable kind of story—despite this, however, many critics have liked it.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter, describes the mental health issues at stake:

The film opens in London in 1998, where white Brixton single mum Macy Jean (Driver) guides her shy black 10-year-old daughter, Noni (India Jean-Jacques), through a talent contest. Noni comes in second with an unaccompanied performance of Nina Simone’s plaintive ‘Blackbird,’ but that represents failure for hungry Macy. She tells the compliant kid to toss the trophy, hissing, ‘You wanna be a runner-up? Or you wanna be a winner?’

Prince-Bythewood amusingly navigates a leap forward in time by cutting to an aggressively sexual music video for ‘Masterpiece,’ one of three back-to-back hits that the adult Noni (Mbatha-Raw) has recorded with superstar white rapper Kid Culprit (Colson ‘MGK’ Baker). The awkward, bespectacled girl with the tangled mop of hair has been transformed into a strutting gazelle, with a toned body, a flowing weave and a micro wardrobe. The song wins a Billboard Award, but when Noni returns to her Beverly Hills hotel, she attempts a suicide dive off her 12th floor balcony and is rescued by Kaz (Parker), an LAPD hunk on celebrity-babysitting duty.

Wesley Morris, Grantland: “‘I see you,’ [Kaz] tells Noni, understanding that her concern is that no one knows the real her. Soon, her stage mother (Minnie Driver) has them both lying to a skeptical press that the incident was a drunken accident…Noni asks Kaz to be her one-man security detail. Yes, it’s also The Bodyguard, or not unlike it.”

The trailer for Beyond the Lights:

Noni’s State of Mind

Chris Cabin, Slant:

Much of the blame for Noni’s depression ends up with Macy Jean, who excuses misogynistic photographers to keep Noni on magazine covers. As Macy Jean explains, she was asked to play so many roles on top of mother, including father, manager, agent, and promoter, that business sense overtook maternal extinct. Noni is similarly expected to be a singer, a dancer, a role model, a celebrity, and a sex symbol, all while also beaming with some tinny sense of purity. Beyond the Lights presents a fascinating polemic on maintaining true identity while also crafting a divergent, false face for an unwieldy public…

Main Themes

Wesley Morris, Grantland: “The issues of race that really weren’t an issue in The Bodyguard get an Obama-era treatment. Noni’s boyfriend is a white American rapper (MGK) who gets aggressive with her during a live performance at the BET Awards.”

Marshall Fine, Hollywood and Fine: “Noni has issues with parental expectations about her career – but so does Kaz. His father (Danny Glover) is a police captain who has been grooming Kaz his whole life: first the police career, then the move into city politics. When the old man gets wind of Kaz’s involvement with Noni, he cautions his son, ‘She’s not first-lady material.’”

Andrew Barker, Variety: “Gauzy fairy-tale elements aside, the pic tackles a number of tough issues with rather admirable directness: the default hyper-sexualization of female musicians, the entertainment industry’s disinterest in the mental health of its prime assets as long as the show goes on, and the way a genuine gesture of humanity can be subtly sullied the moment it becomes a media opportunity.”

Overall Reviews

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “Sometimes the most seemingly conventional stories are the best tools for digging into knotty, everyday truths.”

Leah Greenblatt, ew.com: “Both Mbatha-Raw and Parker are appealing, expressive actors, and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood…lets them breathe, filling in the boilerplate bones of the story with smartly nuanced commentary on race and fame and the relentless negotiations that a young woman—even one without a record deal—has to make in a world that expects her to be everything but herself.”

Andrew Barker, Variety: “’Beyond the Lights’ is a strange beast, a music-industry romance that alternates freely between wisdom and mawkishness, caustic entertainment-biz critique and naive wish fulfillment, heartfelt flourishes and soap-opera shenanigans. Yet…Prince-Bythewood (‘Love and Basketball’) nonetheless manages to fit all the warring elements of her screenplay into an undeniably entertaining, attractive package…”

Oct 01

“The Skeleton Twins”: Each of Siblings Has Become Suicidal

According to the website for Craig Johnson‘s new film The Skeleton Twins, “Family is a cruel joke.”

Johnson places his emphasis here on the relationship between a brother and sister (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader). Critic Andrew O’Hehir calls this new film “a potent sibling dramedy,” and Jonathan Kim (The Huffington Post) says it’s “movie siblings (finally) done right.”

Wiig and Hader, both well known for their stints on Saturday Night Live, are not, however, playing characters who have fun-filled lives. We know right from the start, in fact, that each is having serious suicidal thoughts. More like “Saturday Night Dead,” quips Richard Corliss, Time.

Geoff Berkshire, Variety, explains the plot further:

Aspiring actor Milo lives in Los Angeles and is fresh out of a failed relationship, while Maggie is a New York dental hygenist in a seemingly happy marriage to gregarious guy’s-guy Lance (Luke Wilson). Of the two, Milo is the one who goes through with it, slitting his wrists in a bathtub. It’s a phone call informing her that her brother is in the hospital that pulls Maggie back from the brink. She rushes to his side and, after some initial awkwardness, the ice is broken by a memorable gag involving ‘Marley and Me,’ effectively demonstrating their shared sense of humor.

Turns out they’ve been estranged for 10 years. Nevertheless, Milo lets his sister bring him back to Nyack, New York, the area where they grew up.

THE SKELETON TWINS

Richard Corliss, Time: “Milo and Maggie endure lives of quiet desperation…Nearly from the start, it’s clear that they can relax only when playing the giddy games of their youth and that their sole soul mates are each other.”

Jessica Zack, San Francisco Chronicle: “The twins share a dark sense of humor, and both grapple with why and how their lives became detached not just from each other, but from the paths of promise they thought were in store for them.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “Milo uses humor as a natural defense mechanism, even if it doesn’t always mask the grimace of discomfort, while the more outwardly thorny Maggie subjects herself and everyone around her to wild mood swings. ‘Landmines, dude,’ explains Lance, about the challenges of navigating his wife’s volatility.”

Things are gradually revealed in this film that would have had more impact on me, I think, if I hadn’t read the reviews beforehand. For the sake of those who need to have certain info, though, in order to assess whether to see a dysfunctional-family movie, I will give some basic specifics—starting now—including that their mom (Joanna Gleason) is New-Agey, self-involved, and unavailable and that their dad killed himself when they were teens.

For therapy buffs (is there such a thing?), we learn in a brief scene that Milo and Maggie were sent to a shrink way back when. And that they didn’t respond so well to continually being asked to journal, journal, journal.

MORE ABOUT MILO 

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “When he was 15, Milo was seduced by his high school English teacher (Ty Burrell), who is now back in the closet, with a 16-year-old son and trying to make his latest heterosexual relationship work. Milo’s return to Nyack unsettles this secret-laden educator, who now works in a bookstore.”

MORE ABOUT MAGGIE

Richard Corliss, Time: “She hides her grief behind a suburban housewife’s little festival of passive-aggressive behavior. In a particularly desperate moment, she screams into a pillow. And when she tells Lance ‘I love you,’ she means ‘I want to love you but can’t.” Lance, who everyone agrees is the most decent guy in the world, has a knitted-brow heartiness that grates on Maggie. Not his fault: his jock adolescence matured into love for this sweet, strange woman he can’t quite understand.”

MORE ABOUT LANCE

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “One of the most rewarding aspects of ‘Skeleton Twins’ is the unlikely alliance that sprouts between Lance and Milo, two guys who could hardly be more different. It would have been awfully easy to make Lance a homophobic jerk, but he doesn’t seem bothered by Milo’s sexuality at all. Instead he’s a decent, loving man with relatively modest aspirations, who has to come to grips with the fact that he barely knows the woman who claims to love him but has repeatedly lied to him.”

THE TRAILER

OVERALL REVIEWS

Jonathan Kim, Huffington Post: “The Skeleton Twins is very funny, but with touching and heartfelt scenes to go along with the film’s themes of suicide, depression, disappointment, and infidelity. And there are other themes that most adults, particularly siblings, will relate to — the fear that you peaked in high school, the disappointments of adulthood, wondering if you’re the most screwed up of your siblings, the difficulties of being true to yourself, and the questions and chasms left behind by an absent parent.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “…The Skeleton Twins gets it right. Warm, funny, heartfelt and even uplifting, the film is led by revelatory performances from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, both of them exploring rewarding new dramatic range without neglecting their mad comedic skills.”

Chris Nashawaty, ew.com: “Hader…is the film’s real surprise. It would have been easy for him to turn Milo into a gay cartoon like his after-hours alter ego Stefon. But he resists the temptation to go for easy laughs and broad strokes and delivers something darker and deeper. It’s a shockingly vulnerable performance, one of the best I’ve seen all year.”

Geoff Berkshire, Variety: “…’The Skeleton Twins’ captures the way siblings develop their own unique comedic shorthands in a way few films ever have. Johnson also nails the flip side of that tight link: They’re capable of hurting each other like no one else can.”

Jul 18

“A Long Way Down”: Suicide Postponed By Four Individuals

A Long Way Down, the film adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel, caught my attention because of its theme: on New Year’s Eve four different individuals meet each other on the way (down) to suicide.

Many of the movie’s reviewers, however, have decidedly panned A Long Way Down.

Peter Debruge, Variety: “…(I)n movie form, it’s worse than tacky, trivializing depression for a handful of easy laughs and pop-psychology platitudes.”

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com: “’A Long Way Down’ is a film that’s afraid of its subject matter: suicidal depression. One never senses any actual danger or urgency in the plight of these characters to battle their demons before they kill them, and the lack of any sense that these people might actually end their lives drains the piece of drama.”

Jessica Kiang, IndieWire: “…(T)his utterly oblivious, tone-deaf and borderline offensive film…seems to posit that potentially life-ending issues can be addressed by a holiday in the sun and a couple of trite, random displays of Being There For Each Other. Yay, everybody! The solution to suicide is hijinks!”

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, offers a concise summary of the film and its characters:

All have reasons to end it all, and they meet at the top of a London tower block, a notorious suicide spot (perhaps a conflation of London’s Hornsey Lane Bridge and the ineffably grim Archway Tower).

A farcical turn of fate means they collectively decide not to go through with it, and form a supportive ‘gang’, whose brush with despair makes them of interest to the facile and exploitative media world.

Who are the “Topper House Four,” as they come to be known? Tim Robey, Telegraph:

Pierce Brosnan is Martin, a former breakfast TV host whose dalliance with a 15-year old (‘she looked 25’) has led to the abrupt end of his career and a stint in prison. Imogen Poots is Jess, manic-depressive pixie daughter of an MP (Sam Neill). Aaron Paul is JJ, a pizza delivery boy claiming to have brain cancer. And Toni Collette, making the best of it, is Maureen, a frumpy single mum whose son has cerebral palsy.

Says Peter Debruge, Variety, “Each of these individuals is a walking cliche, incapable of an original thought, even when it comes to making his or her exit.”

The trailer for A Long Way Down:

OVERALL REVIEWS

Brian Viner, Daily Mail: “…(D)irector Pascal Chaumeil doesn’t seem quite sure whether to play the story for laughs or to squeeze every pip of poignancy from it.” 

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “…something like a non-musical Mamma Mia! for self-harmers: a wince-inducing parade of misjudgments and false notes. It is a fantastically unconvincing and unfunny movie, apparently determined to salvage a feel-good flavour from feel-bad material.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Plenty will find it adorable; the rest will be left wanting to slit their wrists.”

Jessica Kiang, IndieWire:

Pinging between obvious cliché and contrivance, the characters bounce around like pinballs until, in an unearned conclusion that could have happened at literally any other juncture in this ‘story’ and made precisely as much sense as it does here, suddenly everything is A-OK, peachy fine and will be forever and ever, because these four poor individuals haven’t even realized that they’re not people at all, just wobbly, makeshift, flesh-covered assemblages of tics and bloodless tropes. Which is almost a good thing; otherwise the pat resolution on offer would be a real slap in the face to any actual real live person who may have faced any of the myriad issues the film raises and then twirls its hair at.

Oct 11

“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” By Jeanette Winterson

Prolific novelist Jeanette Winterson, probably best known for her 1985 novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, has written a nonfiction book about herself called Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I have to agree with a writer in The Huffington Post who called this “arguably one of the best titles for a memoir, ever.”

The words of the book’s title are those of “Mrs. Winterson,” the emotionally and physically abusive adoptive mother who strongly disapproved of the author’s teen romance with another female. “I was sixteen and my mother was about to throw me out of the house forever, for breaking a very big rule…The rule was not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex.” I mean, Why be happy when you could be normal? 

If there’s indeed such a choice to be made, it seems that Winterson goes for happy. She strikes out on her own. She becomes an award-winning author in her early 20’s. Her successful writing career, though, is not a focus of this memoir; instead, she fast-forwards to more recent times, giving a “…very stark and real account of a long-term relationship break up, Winterson’s subsequent mental-health breakdown and suicide attempt, and the painful process of finding her birth mother” (Bitch Magazine). 

Interestingly, although her adoptive mother was a “flamboyant depressive” and the author’s childhood had been so traumatic, Winterson generally hadn’t had trouble with mood issues until the combination of the breakup and finding out more things about her adoption.

In a column written in 2009, Winterson writes about the depression, now past:

I think that the really bad time of my depression was when I could not find that happiness in simple things. I devised a ritual to help myself through it, and to re-make the connection with the natural physical world that gets lost in depression.

What I did was to sit outside, quietly, raining or not, and concentrate completely on a leaf or a flower or a stone, feeling it, looking at it, putting it to my face, sometimes in my mouth, until I recognised it again, as both separate from and part of me. At my worst I just lay in the rain, or sometimes even the snow, until I could feel something not in my own head.

I am not sure this would work for everyone, but I know that finding the way out of the dark labyrinth has to happen in connection, in relation, and can’t happen in the head alone – where the monsters are.

It’s with the help of her current partner, well-known writer and therapist Susie Orbach, that she completes a quest to find her biological mother, Ann. Not that they’ll ever “be mother and daughter,” says Winterson. Nor, as she tells interviewer Debra Ollivier (The Huffington Post), does she expect “closure” from this experience.

Some of the reviews of Why Be Happy give further insight into Winterson’s memoir:

Sarah Barmak, Globe and Mail: “Winterson’s memoir of an abusive upbringing can at times give the sense of a therapeutic wound-draining exercise, a complaint session with primary benefits for its author. But she takes it further, talking about how literature can be a lifeline to isolated and abused children.”

Sheena Joughin, Telegraph: “We are shown ‘how it is when the mind works with its own brokenness’, and come to respect Winterson’s psychological courage and her rage to love, despite the ‘savage lunatic’ she discovers inside herself.”

Nicola Griffith, Los Angeles Review of Books: “When the past and present iterations of Jeannette Winterson are in accord, her observations read as verses of the King James Bible: bold, beautiful, and true. When they obscure one another, the meaning is lost. Occasionally, she is working with two layers at once. Depending on which the reader reads most easily, the ending could be happy or sad. We don’t know. Winterson hasn’t decided yet. As she says:

I have no idea what happens next.

Writing on her website, Winterson gives us some clues, though—and some perspective. A passage from this past August, her birthday month:

I am fortunate. I am fortunate enough to have been unlucky. Not a misprint. And learned from that unluck what to do. Life is a series of mistakes. It doesn’t matter. Love matters. By which I mean a certain open-heartedness. And a pleasure in the everyday and the ordinary. And knowing when someone is looking after you. And knowing how to be thankful…