Coming of age in a sad, sad world in James Schamus’ touching Indignation

A Coming of age drama

Written and directed by James Schamus

From the novel by Philip Roth

Most coming of age movies leave you feeling optimistic. No matter what horrible things happen to the protagonist, you know that everything will come out alright.

Not this time.

In James Schamus’ directorial debut, you slowly begin to realize that Marcus (Logan Lerman) just might not find happiness. He has no good options, only bad ones. And he lacks the maturity to find the lesser evil.

Marcus, the son of a New Jersey kosher butcher, is the first member of his family to go to college. Aside from learning and finding a good career, he has another very good reason for embracing higher education. Indignation is set in 1951, and a college deferment will keep him out of the draft and thus out of Korea.

His stellular grades have gotten him a scholarship for the last college you would expect to find a boy of his background–an very Christian college in Ohio. He’s not the only Jew on the campus–there’s even a Jewish fraternity–but even with Jewish dorm mates he still feels like an outsider. Every student is required to attend regular chapel services.

Marcus is an exceptional student, but he doesn’t play well with others. He studies, he works in the library, and he considers himself too busy to have a social life. He refuses to join the Jewish fraternity, and he doesn’t get along with his Jewish roommates.

In one amazing, powerful, and very funny scene, Marcus and the deeply religious dean go at it, arguing about compromising, socializing, and faith. Marcus isn’t just a Jew; he’s an atheist; Bertrand Russell is his hero. The dean is horrified.

Despite his hermit-like tendencies, he manages to get the notice–and then the affection–of the very beautiful, blonde, and experienced Olivia. At first glance, she’s the cliché of the gorgeous shiksa that every Jewish man of that generation wanted. But she turns into someone far more interesting. She’s a troubled soul with a history of drinking. And when he avoids her, she understands what’s going on in his head before he does.

Two paragraphs back, I describes a scene as “very funny.” For a tragedy, Indignation provides a surprising amount of laughs. This doesn’t break the films overall sadness; it deepens it.

James Schamus is one of the most interesting unsung people in the American cinema today. If you’re a fan of Ang Lee, you’re a fan of James Schamus–even if you don’t know it. He wrote and produced most of Lee’s films. He ran Focus Films and turned it into one of the best arthouse distributors in the country (and then he was fired). Now he’s finally helming his own films.

Judging from his first try, this 57-year-old first timer has a promising career ahead of him.

Adapting Shakespeare: Ran and Chimes at Midnight

400 years after his death, people still love William Shakespeare. I can think of no other story teller whose works have remained popular so long. His talent, obviously, has a lot to do with it. But so is his adaptability. His plays, written with almost no stage directions, give actors and directors countless interpretations.

Most Shakespeare productions, either on stage or in film, stay loyal to his work. A production of Hamlet may be shortened, and set in a time and place that the Bard of Avon could never imagine. But the dialog would all come from Hamlet.

But some imaginative directors can take a Shakespeare play–or five of them–and create something totally new.

Within a few days of each other at the Pacific Film Archive, I caught two of the most imaginative, and two of the best, Shakespeare adaptations ever recorded on film. Not coincidentally, they were made by two of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers: Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa.

The PFA didn’t screen these films as part of a Shakespeare series. They were just classic films that had recently received beautiful, new digital restorations. Both films were screened off 4K DCPs.

Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles stuck almost entirely to Shakespeare’s language in his 1966 retelling of the Falstaff story. But he didn’t stick to one particular work. The dialog comes from five separate plays.

Most of Chimes at Midnight comes from the plays Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, with a smattering of dialog from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Winsor. From these plays, it tells the tragi-comic story of Sir John Falstaff and his doomed friendship with Prince Hal–the future King Henry V.

Years before I knew that this film existed, I wanted someone would make it. Henry IV, Part 1 is my favorite Shakespeare play. I never cared much for Part 2, except for the brilliant ending that closes the story much better than anything in Part 1. Welles combined the two plays to use the best from each of them.

Quick rundown on the story: King Henry IV (John Gielgud), struggles with a rebellion and his own guilt in the overthrow and murder of Richard II. He also worries about his oldest son, Hal (Keith Baxter), who’s spending his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with a bunch of lowlifes led by a fat, drunken, lying knave named Sir John Falstaff (Welles). Inevitably, Hal will have to set aside his wild ways and take on his royal responsibilities.

It would be tough to find a more perfect actor to play Falstaff than Orson Welles. He was extremely overweight by the 1960s, and yet he still had that star charisma. His Falstaff is rowdy, tricky, mostly joyful, often funny, and inevitably heading for disaster. Like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, he’s a good man with a tragic flaw. But his flaw is his zest for life.

The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Fernando Rey, Margaret Rutherford, and Ralph Richardson’s voice narrating from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

As is true with so much of Welles’ work, Chimes at Midnight was made with very little money. Shot in Spain in black and white, it’s a remarkably beautiful film for its budget. Welles and his collaborators create a battle with a smattering of extras, shoot the castle scenes in old, crumbling ruins, and re-imagine the ultimate Merry Olde England pub and bawdy house.

But the low budget shows itself in the soundtrack. Almost all of the dialog had to be post-dubbed after the shooting–and not always with the same actor who had played the role onscreen. The lips don’t always match, and the sound is often too clean for the onscreen environment. I found this a big problem early on. Eventually, I got used to it.

I might not have gotten used to it if it wasn’t otherwise such an excellent film.

Ran

William Shakespeare created his saddest, most hopeless tragedy in King Lear. And Akira Kurosawa loosely adapted it in his saddest, most hopeless film, Ran.

Kurosawa altered the story considerably. In the most obvious change, the three daughters become three sons. When your story is set in 16th-century Japan, giving land and castles to daughters would have been unthinkable.

But another alteration takes Ran into a deeper space than Lear. Kurosawa tells us something about the aging warlord’s past. The Lear figure Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is now a senile old man, but was once a cruel and fearsome warrior. He attacked and destroyed his neighbors without pity, killing his rivals, forcing their daughters into marriage, and blinding children who might one day want revenge.

He’s carrying some very bad karma, and he will pay for that karma before the film ends. So will his sons–two of which are as bad as he used to be. Many innocent people will suffer as well. Kurosawa shows no optimism in Ran. The evil will pay for their sins, but that’s of little comfort to their victims. (The title, Ran, loosely translates into English as chaos.)

While turning Lear’s two evil daughters into evil sons, Kurosawa also created one of cinema’s great villainesses in the oldest brother’s wife (Mieko Harada). Seemingly the proper Japanese high-born wife, she manipulates her husband and, after his death, her brother-in-law in her desire to destroy Hidetora’s family. We understand her reasons; Hidetora killed her family and forced her into marriage, but she doesn’t care how many good people must die for her vengeance.

Kurosawa and his collaborators created a stunningly beautiful film in Ran, but it’s often a strangely ugly beauty. The exceptionally gory battle scenes run with a bright red, and a sense of unnecessary yet inevitable death. A castle siege, with no sound except haunting music, may be the best medieval battle scene ever filmed.

I discussed Ran at greater length in 2010–also after a PFA screening. It was screened then off a new 35mm print which I described at the time as “beautiful.” Was that better than the new DCP? How should I know; that was six years ago. But I’d call the digital version beautiful, as well.

Late Spring at the Pacific Film Archive

As people grow, the way they relate to their family inevitably changes. Some fight the change, and others accept it.

I went to the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night to see Yasujirô Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece, Late Spring, about a young woman resisting change. She wants to stay with her widowed father, but he senses that it’s time for her to make a life without him.

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is 27, and seems completely happy living with and taking care of her father (Chishû Ryû). No other actor in the history of cinema could radiate kindness and joy like Hara, and she makes us know with absolutely certainty that she’s contented in her life.

But her father worries about her. Most women her age are married. If things don’t change soon, she will be lonely after he’s gone. So, with the help of friends and family, he searches for a suitable husband and–with far more difficulty–convince her to marry.

Today, a film about a woman being pressured into marriage would carry a strong feminist message: A woman can lead a full and happy life without being chained to a man. I’m not entirely sure if Ozu felt that way when he made Late Spring. Probably not, but the film actually works within that point of view. After all, she doesn’t meet that perfect man. But Ozu never looks down on the father and the others trying to bring Noriko to the alter. They’re clearly acting on what they believe are her best interests.

Besides, Noriko is already chained to a man she loves–her father.

Noriko’s reluctance to change makes her judgmental of change in others–a surprising character trait on someone so warm and friendly. She calls a divorced male friend “dirty” (with a smile) because he remarried.

Late Spring is shot and edited in Ozu’s patented simple, elegant style. Especially in interiors, he kept the camera low–only a few inches from the ground–and rarely moved it. You take in the room and see how everyone reacts to each other.

Ozu’s slow editing pace helps bring you into the world of the characters. He shows us a tea ceremony, trolley rides, Tokyo and rural streets, and a good bit of a Noh play. As an American born in the second half of the 20th century, I found these moments fascinating and enlightening. But I couldn’t help wondering how these scenes may have effected Late Spring‘s intended audience. For them, much of this must have felt like boring old life.

While Ozu’s camera stays on day-to-day life, much of the story is concealed–another common part of Ozu’s style. For instance, we never see the man everyone is pressuring Noriko to marry.

Late Spring has recently benefited from a new 4K restoration, and the PFA screened it off a 4K DCP. I’m getting a little tired of praising the latest 4K restoration; starting with Children of Paradise in 2012, they’ve all been gorgeous. Late Spring’s restoration had a few washed out moments, but other than that, it looked great.

Late Spring will screen again on Sunday, July 17, 5:00.

Pregnant nuns, and no; it’s not a comedy. My review of The Innocents

B+ Religious drama

Written by Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial, Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine

Directed by Anne Fontaine

Religion at its worst–stern, rule-based, shameful, and dictatorial–comes up against basic human values in this drama about a nunnery experiencing a rash of new-born babies.

Yes, that description suggests a Monty Python-like farce, not a serious drama. In the case of The Innocents, it brings layers of tragedy as well as much-needed redemption.

The setting is rural Poland, December, 1945. The horrors of Nazi occupation had been replaced by the horrors of Communist occupation the previous spring. When Russian soldiers overran the area, they broke into the convent and raped the nuns. Now many of them are pregnant.

People often stigmatize rape victims in today’s most liberal societies; imagine what it would have been like 70 years ago for Polish nuns. They’re desperately afraid of letting anyone outside of the convent know about the situation. Even within the convent the subject is tricky. Bringing to a Polish or Russian doctor would be unthinkable.

The extremely strict mother superior doesn’t help. She keeps her charges on a very short leash, and wants to smother certain topics of conversation. As the film progresses, we discover just how horrifying–and how horrified–she is.

Luckily, there’s a French Red Cross hospital nearby. It’s there only to take care of wounded French soldiers. A rebellious nun sneaks out of the convent, finds the hospital, and begs help from a young woman doctor named Mathilde (Lou de Laâge). Hiding her altruistic act from her superiors, Mathilde visits the convent as often as possible, while hiding what she’s doing and maintaining her duties. (Were there really French soldiers and French doctors in 1945 Russian-occupied Poland ? Seems unlikely to me. But this is a French film, so it needed a French heroine.)

Brought up in a French Communist household, Mathilde doesn’t believe in God (whether she still believes in Communism isn’t clear). But basic kindness is in her nature, and she clearly represents a secular humanism that’s light years away from the mother superior’s strict rules.

The Innocents doesn’t suggest that religion is inherently evil. Most of the nuns are decent, loving human beings who try to find inspiration from their condition despite the mother superior.

Mathilde enjoys a romance (more of a fling, really) with one of the French Red Cross doctors, and she eventually brings him to the nunnery to help. He’s a Jew who got out of France just in time; his parents died in the Holocaust. When he arrives at the nunnery, I thought the mother superior would object to the presence of a man. But she seemed far more upset about the presence of a Jew.

The Innocents is beautifully shot by Caroline Champetier, giving us a sense of extreme austerity–not only the willful austerity of the nuns, but also of the peasants who have been put through war and occupation.

Mild spoiler below

The film’s happy ending felt forced to me. A revelation (not the magical kind) and a good idea solve everything. Then an epilogue, set three months later, makes it clear just how happy everyone is now.

That ending is a significant flaw, but not enough of one to keep me from recommending The Innocents.

3 Views of America: What I saw in theaters this weekend

I saw three movies in theaters this weekend.

Free State of Jones at the Elmwood

Being a history buff, and particularly one interested in the Civil War and reconstruction, I couldn’t help rushing out to see Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones. I caught it at the Elmwood.

Matthew McConaughey stars as an actual historical figure, Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of escaped slaves and other discontents. They fought the Confederacy and successfully held considerable land. After the war, he supported reconstruction and tried to help the freedmen gain their rightful place in society.

It’s an interesting piece of history, and one that Americans should know something about. What’s more, it makes for an exciting movie. (I don’t know to what degree the movie is historically accurate. I suspect not much.) It can’t help being something of a white savior movie, but that flaw really couldn’t be avoided in a story that really needed to be told.

I give it a B.

I’ve been to the Elmwood many times, but always for something showing in the theater’s big, downstairs auditorium. This time, Jones played in one of the two small, upstairs auditoriums. It was horrible. The front row was way too far back, and there was no way to get close enough to the screen.

Even worse, a low wall in front of the front row was much too close for comfort. I had to tuck my legs under the seat. My back was sore at the end of the movie. Some low chairs, or even bing bang chairs, in the front would help.

Next time something I want to see is at the Elmwood, I’ll make sure it’s screening downstairs before I go.

Scarlet Letter at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

Sunday was the last day of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, and the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter was the final movie of the day. I introduced the film, explaining how star Lillian Gish pushed to get the film made despite censorship issues.

In case you don’t remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel in High School, it’s set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, whose husband disappeared years ago, has a baby out of wedlock and suffers from religious intolerance.

The film, which is very much the MGM version, emphasizes the romance between Hester and her lover, the church minister Arthur Dimmesdale. But unlike the universally reviled Demi Moore version, MGM kept the tragic ending. It’s a powerful story, well-told. I give it an A-.

The 16mm print screened was washed out and fuzzy. As I have never seen a good print of this film; I suspect that nothing better is available.

Bruce Loeb did a wonderful job on piano. His music enhanced the emotions onscreen and deepened the story.

The Lusty Men at the Pacific Film Archive

Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it.

The Lusty Men is not, as I had assumed, about a love triangle. At least not in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s about two men and one woman, but the men don’t compete for the woman. It’s the wife who must compete against her husband’s new bromance.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff McCloud, a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. He latches onto the happily-married Wes and Louise (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward). Wes is a cowhand, working for someone else, and badly wanting enough to buy his own place. The rodeo promises quick, easy, yet dangerous cash, and Jeff offers to mender him. Wes eagerly jumps into the world of constant travel, heavy drinking, poker, bar fights, and the adrenaline rush of riding a wild horse or (much worse) bull. Louise is pulled into it far more reluctantly.

The rodeo industry clearly approved of this film’s production–although I can’t help wondering if they had read the script. The film contains a good deal of actual rodeo footage. Much of this footage, accompanied by on- and off-screen announcers, celebrate the real cowboys on the real horses and bulls we’re looking at. One problem: This real-live footage didn’t match well with the footage shot for the film. It was grainier and slightly out of focus.

I give The Lusty Men an A-.

The PFA screened a brand-new 35mm print (I’m delighted to know that Warner Brothers is still making them). For the most part, it was beautiful, and did service to Lee Garmes’ moody black and white photography. The occasional scratches were, I assume, from the source material.

Strangers become family in the strangely warm yet violent Dheepan

A- Refugee drama and crime thriller

Written by Noe Debre, Thomas Bidegain, and Jacques Audiard

Directed by Jacques Audiard

A family escapes from war-torn Sri Lanka to make a better, safer life in France. Except it’s not safe, and they’re not really a family.

The smugglers who brought this man, woman, and child out of Sri Lanka and into France gave these them new identities–a husband, wife, and daughter. So, in addition to learning a new language, adjusting to new customs, and surviving financially at the very lowest rung of the economic ladder, they have to fake or create real relationships.

And judging from Dheepan, surviving is a literal challenge at that lowest rung of France’s economic ladder. The neighborhood they live in, which looks to me like what we Americans call projects, is riddled with horrific violent crime–much of it organized. No one is safe here.

Dheepan feels like two excellent films that don’t quite fit together. The first and best film is a social drama about refugees adjusting to Western civilization. The second film, or perhaps I should say movie, proceeds as a very tense, effective, but not very believable thriller.

Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), the man who must learn to be a husband and a father while adjusting to a strange world, was a soldier in the civil wars and now just wants to live in peace. He comes off as a decent, responsible human being. But his history will likely be a problem.

His “wife,” Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), resents the man and girl she’s been thrown in with. She’s not a mother and doesn’t know how to be one. She feels no love or responsibility for her young charge–a fact that seriously bothers Dheepan. But slowly, she learns motherhood and warms to both Dheepan and Illayaal. A deeply religious Hindu, she brings them to her temple. The two adults even become the lovers they have been pretending to be.

Their orphaned “daughter” Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) just wants to fit in. Not surprisingly for her age, she learns French faster than the adults she has to pretend are her parents.

Audiard shows us their transition into French culture subtly. Their clothes change. Their home looks more western. They have less language troubles. Yalini even starts wearing a scarf on her head when out in public; most French women of her complexion are Muslim.

But everything isn’t happy. There’s racism and poverty. And far worse, there are those gangsters. Some of them are just reckless, stupid, violent thugs. The others, the smart ones, seem nice at first glance. Yalini even works for one as a cook and housekeeper. But it soon becomes obvious that befriending a gang leader doesn’t buy you much safety.

Dheepan becomes quite violent in the third act. Expect a lot of gun fire and blood. The big climatic action sequence feels like a very stylish and well-done version of a 1970s Charles Bronson movie. But as much as I enjoyed that climax on its own terms, it didn’t seem right for what had been a realistic drama up until that point. That’s why I can only give this film an A-
.

Dheepan is a visually beautiful, haunting, loving story that humanizes the important issue of third-world refugees running to the west. I loved it. But I would have loved it even more if director/co-writer Jacques Audiard had skipped the big action finish.

Friday at the PFA

I caught two very different films, from two very different series, at the Pacific Film Archive Friday night. Both films were shown without an introduction.

Bachelor’s Affairs

This was the second screening of the UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016 series, and the first in that series that I was able to attend.

Before the feature, we were treated to a Vitaphone short from 1929, Me and the Boys. Like all early Vitaphone shorts, it was basically a vaudeville act performed in a movie studio—in this case, a song. I found it moderately entertaining. The print was tinted yellow; like the silents they helped replace, Vitaphone pictures were often tinted. The preservation was clearly made from a print that suffered a lot of nitrate decomposition.

The feature looked much better. And while I wouldn’t list this 1932 marriage farce among the great pre-code comedies, it was fun. Adolphe Menjou starred as a middle-aged millionaire who unwisely marries a young blonde who’s being pushed into the marriage by her older sister. She wants to party and, we assume, sleep with younger men. He’s too old for this lifestyle. Meanwhile, his secretary really loves him.

The rumba dance sequence was very funny, and most of it proved entertaining. And at 64 minutes, it was pleasingly short. I give it a B.

Like everything in this UCLA series, the film is screened in 35mm instead of off of a DCP. These films have only been preserved, not restored. Preserving a film is still an analog, film-based process. You make a new negative from the best source you have. Restoration, where you try to make the best-possible recreation of the film, has become a digital process and with good reason.

These films either don’t need a full restoration (Bachelor’s Affairs certainly didn’t), or aren’t important enough for the expense (probably the case with Me and the Boys).

The Wrong Move

I’m beginning to see why the PFA called this series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road. This is the second film in the series that I’ve caught, and it’s the second road movie.

The Wrong Move is a more even film than Kings of the Road. It lacks the brilliant scenes that made Kings so memorable. On the other hand, at 103 minutes, it didn’t sag in places like the other film did.

The film looks at a temporary family that creates itself on the road. It’s told through the eyes of Wilhelm (Rüdiger Vogler). He wants to be a writer, but he worries that he’s too emotionally remote to be a good one. And he’s probably right. He’s a pretty cold guy.

He sets out to see Germany on train, and becomes the nucleus of a group of travelers. There’s the former Nazi officer filled with guilt (Hans Christian Blech), the teenage girl who never talks and develops a crush on Wilhelm (Nastassja Kinski in her first screen role), a beautiful blonde who might be an actress (Hanna Schygulla), and the bad poet comedy relief (Peter Kern). They travel together for a while, and then go their separate ways.

These people interact with each other in some intriguing ways, but they learn very little on the trip. I give this one a B, too.

As with everything in this series, The Wrong Move recently received a 4K digital restoration. It was screened off a DCP.

More on the new PFA Theater

Before the first film, I walked up to the back of the theater, and took some photos:

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