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.

San Francisco portion of Jewish Festival ends with Mr. Spock

Sunday night I attended the last screening at the Castro Theatre for this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The festival itself will continue in other Bay Area locations.

The film was For The Love of Spock, Adam Nimoy’s loving tribute to his father, Leonard, and the character that made his father famous.

Adam Nimoy, an entertainment lawyer turned television director (he directed his father in a 1995 Outer Limits episode), gave a surprisingly long introduction to his documentary. He pointed out that this screening was the film’s west coast premiere. Because this was a Jewish film festival, he discussed his father’s connection to Jewish tradition. Born to orthodox parents, he was a frequent donor to Jewish charities and he created audiobooks of Jewish and Yiddish short stories.

He also discussed how this film came about. “We had made a short film together about his growing up. it was such a great bonding experience that i wanted to replicate that…Leonard was immediately enthusiastic about it. ”

Originally, they were going to make a documentary about Mr. Spock. After the elder Nimoy passed away, Adam decided that the film had to also cover his father’s life, and their loving but sometimes difficult relationship.

So what did I think of the film itself?

Adam Nimoy splits this feature documentary about evenly between his father Leonard and his Star Trek character, Mr. Spock. He tells us how the character developed, and then became one of the last century’s most important cultural icons. But he also shows us how his father developed, from a struggling actor to a star to a director, how he struggled with family conflicts and with alcohol. It’s a loving tribute, but also an honest one.

I give For the Love of Spock a B+. I’ll publish a longer review next month, when the film opens in theaters.

After the screening, Nimoy and three other people involved with the film or with Star Trek came on stage for a Q&A. A few highlights:

  • We broke all crowdfunding records for a documentary.
  • The one word that characterized your dad is passion.
  • If you’re not passionate, you don’t belong in this industry.
  • [Leonard Nimoy] grew up in a shtetl. It happened to be in Boston, but it was a shtetl.

For the Love of Spock screens again tonight (Monday), 8:30 at Berkeley’s Roda Theater. And as I mentioned above, it will open in theaters and on VOD September 9.

Russian Ark & Buena Vista Social Club: Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive

I saw Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. The first film was part of the ongoing series Guided Tour: Museums in Cinema. The second one closed the long-running series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.

But they had an interesting thing in common. Both were shot digitally at a time when that was unusual, and when the arguments for sticking to 35mm were far more compelling than they are today.

Both films were projected digitally off of 2K DCPs. Considering the low resolutions of the cameras they were shot with, 4K would have been pointless.

Russian Ark

Sokurov’s 2002 dive into European art and Russian history is easy to admire but difficult to love. Technically speaking, it’s an astounding achievement. And while it’s often beautiful and exciting, it sometimes feels aimless and pointless.

I saw Russian Ark once before, on DVD, soon after it’s theatrical release. This was my first time seeing this big-screen movie on the big screen.

The film provides a tour of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, one of the largest museums in the world. The Winter Palace–the home of the Czars’–is just one of the Hermitage’s six main buildings. Sokurov creates a fantasy fiction around the complex. An unseen narrator (perhaps a ghost; certainly the camera’s eye) and an early 19th Italian diplomat walk not only through the museum’s space but through its time. As they move from one room to another, they find themselves in different centuries. They meet people in modern clothes (some playing themselves) and others in powdered wigs. The diplomat joyfully joins a 19th century waltz. The last Czar’s children play in their home, not knowing their horrible fate.

Sokurov shot the entire 96-minute film, minus the credits, in one unbroken take. The logistics must have been insane. The camera wanders through a gallery that looks like a modern museum, with students and tourists examining the art. Then it glides into a magnificent ballroom, with hundreds of costumed extras laughing and dancing. And then it glides on to something else. All those people had to be ready on cue. The lights had to be set up correctly. One mistake and the whole thing would have had to be shot again. The final film is actually the fourth take.

It’s hard to pace a single-shot film properly. Without editing, you can’t remove the slow parts. Russian Ark occasionally has its slow parts.

When things slow down, you can study the paintings, the sculptures, and the bright and uniquely costumed extras. But the best digital camera available in 2001 (when the film was shot) lacked the resolution and color depth needed for enjoying such spectacular eye candy. I suspect it would have been a better film if shot today. Shooting a single, 96-minute take on film is quite simply impossible.

Much as I admire Russian Ark, its flaws keep me from giving it a better grade than B. But that’s an upgrade. The last time I graded it, based only on a DVD, I gave it a B-.

The PFA will screen Russian Ark again today (Sunday), at 5:30.

Buena Vista Social Club

Too many recent music documentaries make the same mistake: They focus on the musicians and ignore the music. You’re lucky if you get one song played from beginning to end.

Wim Wenders didn’t make that mistake in 1999 with Buena Vista Social Club. He puts the songs front and center. You fall in love with the music, and thus become eager to meet the brilliant musicians who created it.

I saw the film theatrically soon after its release. So Saturday night was a revisit.

In 1998, Ry Cooder went to Cuba to find a group of musicians that had played brilliantly together in the 1940s. He brought them together, recorded an album, and eventually took them to Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, he brought Wenders with him to record all of these events.

Music takes up most of the film’s 105 minutes. We see the Club performing live. We see the musicians recording in a studio. When the music isn’t playing, the musicians tell us about themselves–the poverty they grew up in, how music saved them, and life in general. Their stories are moving and funny.

We see a fair amount of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, nearly 40 years after the revolution. But that’s only background. Wenders sticks to the music and the musicians.

The digital cameras Wenders used for this film were far inferior to the one that shot Russian Ark. In fact, it was standard definition–a pre-HD video signal blown up to a big theater screen. But for Buena Vista Social Club, that wasn’t really a serious problem.

This was my first screening in the new PFA theater that really showed off the new Meyer Sound audio system’s capabilities. It was excellent.

I give Buena Vista Social Club an A-.

What’s Screening: July 29 – August 4

We still have five local film festivals; the same ones that ran last week. But we also killer robots, Cuban and French musicians, a lot of Russians, and James Cagney doing Shakespeare.

Festivals

New films opening

C+ Phantom Boy, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday

All of the parts don’t quite come together in this animated, moderately entertaining family adventure. Eleven-year-old Leo is very sick and may not survive. But he has a superpower, which he uses to help a detective and a reporter foil a supervillain. The French fantasy is being screened in both dubbed and subtitled versions. Read my full review.

Promising events

AI Amok: The Killer Computers of the 1970s, Roxie, Friday through Sunday

Remember when we thought that computers would take over the world? And not with Pokémon Go. The Roxie will screen four science fiction movies from the decade following the creation of HAL 9000:

Buena Vista Social Club, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:15

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Wim Wenders documentary on Cuban musicians, but much of the soundtrack is seared permanently into my brain. Ry Cooder took Wenders and his camera to Cuba to rediscover artists whose sounds hadn’t been heard in the USA for decades. Even if you don’t like the film (and I did), you’ll love the music. The last screening in the PFA’s three-month-long Wim Wenders series.

Recommended revivals

A- Shoot the Piano Player, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:30

After stunning the world with The 400 Blows, François Truffaut tried something very different—a film noir that’s unlike any other (including Goddard’s Breathless, which Truffaut wrote around the same time). Charles Aznavour stars as a nightclub pianist with a past—he was once a big name in the classical music world. He’s going by a different name now, but that isn’t enough to hide him from his gangster brother, or the brother’s rival gangsters. Truffaut moves, for the most part effortlessly, between suspense, tragedy, and outrageous comedy. Part of the series Hitchcock/Truffaut.

B A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935 version), Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday

Here’s what the Warner Brothers did when adapting of a Max Reinhardt stage production of Shakespeare’s romantic fantasy. They created one of the weirdest movies to come out of studio-era Hollywood. Oddly, Reinhardt’s spectacular visuals are its weakest point. They amaze the eye at first, but eventually just slow down the story. And yet the many big-name movie stars make it work. Who would have guessed that Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, Joe E. Brown, James Cagney, and best of all Mickey Rooney, could do Shakespeare? On a double bill with Duck Soup, which I’m listing below in the Lebowskies.

B- Russian Ark, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:00; Sunday, 5:30

Alfred Hitchcock wanted to shoot Rope as a single, unbroken shot, but that wasn’t feasible with 35mm film. But Alexander Sokurov did it digitally in this 2002 excursion through Saint Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum as well as Russian history. Huge, sumptuous, and spectacular, it’s a treat for history buffs, museum fans, and movie technology geeks (I’m all three). But as is inevitable with a single-shot film, it sags at times. Part of the series Guided Tour: Museums in Cinema.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

The Phantom Boy doesn’t quite come together

C+ Animated family-oriented fantasy crime thriller

Written by Alain Gagnol

Directed by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli

Eleven-year-old Leo is very sick. He’s in the hospital, will be for months, and he may not survive. But he has a superpower. His spirit can leave his body, fly through walls, and see and hear everything around him.

Meanwhile, an evil villain demands a billion dollars or else he will destroy New York City’s power and data networks. Need I mention that he has two bumbling assistants?

Then there’s the often brilliant and athletic, but occasionally clumsy police detective. He’s got a sidekick of sorts–a pretty newspaper reporter who’s obviously in love with him.

All of these parts don’t quite come together in this moderately entertaining movie. Yes, it has thrills and laughs, but neither the suspense nor the humor ratchet up enough to make The Phantom Boy really worth seeing.

The detective breaks a leg early on, and is confined to the same hospital as Leo. Once the cop recognizes Leo’s powers, they become a team to protect the journalist (AKA, the damsel in distress) and save the city. Leo can follow the reporter, flying all over the place, sticking his head through walls, all without being seen. When he talks, the sound doesn’t come out of his disembodied spirit, but from his physical body back in the detective’s room in the hospital. Then the detective can give the reporter instructions via cellphone.

Another thing we learn early about Leo’s powers: If he stays out of his body long enough, his disembodied hands and then feet begin to fade away. If he stays out too long, he will never be able to return to his body. Nothing like a painfully obvious plot point.

Leo’s mortality is the movie’s biggest problem. When the hero is a dying kid, there are only two possible endings. Either Leo dies, which is way too sad for such a light piece of entertainment. Or he recovers, which is predictable and mawkish.

Despite the New York setting, The Phantom Boy is a French film, and in the subtitled version that I reviewed, everyone speaks French. That’s kind of funny at first, but I got used to it. Theaters will be screening both subtitled and dubbed versions.

Newspapers and signage are all in English.

As old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation goes, The Phantom Boy isn’t particularly original, clever, or beautiful. It can’t hold a candle to another recent, feature-length French cartoon, April and the Extraordinary World.

There is one curious bit of design. The main villain has what is repeatedly described as a horribly disfigured face. A running gag keeps him from explaining the disaster that ruined his face. But judging from how he looks in the movie, he was apparently attacked by Pablo Picasso.

Sunday Docs at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

I went to the Castro Sunday afternoon to catch two documentaries screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

It wasn’t until Monday before I realized what they had in common. Both centered on a very old person.

A German Life

Brunhilde Pomsel, 103 when she was interviewed for this film, worked as a secretary and stenographer for Joseph Goebbels during World War II. She did not believe in Nazi ideology, but she joined the party in 1933 because it seemed good for her career. At that time, her best friend was Jewish. After the war, she spent five years in a Soviet prison.

Clearly, she carries a lot of guilt. But she also carries a lot of denial.

The film’s four directors shot these interviews in black and white extreme close-up, against a black background. The audience is not allowed to see anything except her wrinkled face. We never hear the voices of the people interviewing her.

The documentary doesn’t always show her face. It often cuts to clips and outtakes from American, German, and Soviet propaganda films–including some of the most horrifying Holocaust footage I’ve ever seen.

I found the film troubling and frightening. With its story of a people giving up their freedom and basic humanity for a demigod, I couldn’t get thoughts of Donald Trump out of my mind.

I give it an A-.

After the film, two of the four directors came on stage for Q&A. Some highlights, paraphrased from my notes:

  • When you made the film, did you know how timely it would be? (This question got huge applause.) Europe is shifting to the right, and it’s happening here as well.
  • Because of her age, we never knew how long we could interview her.
  • Was she truthful? Yes. She stuck to her own experiences. For instance, she didn’t tell us how Goebel’s children died (they were poisoned by their mother), she told us how she found out about it.
  • Is she still alive, and has she seen the film? She’s still alive at 105. She saw the film. She found it interesting to “look at your life and see all the things you did wrong.”
  • During the interview, she went through her whole life, and it triggered something every day. We repeated a lot of questions over and over. In the end she gave completely different answers. There was a process in her.
  • It’s not so much about her personal guilt, but about human nature.
  • Do you think she’s a criminal? She’s guilty, yes, of course.

A German Life will play one more time in the Festival, at Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre, Sunday, August 7, at 2:15.

Freedom of Speech Award: Norman Lear

Every year, the Jewish Film Festival hands out an award to someone who has fought for our First Amendment rights. This year, the Freedom of Speech Award went to television producer Norman Lear.

Lear isn’t quite as old as Brunhilde Pomsel, but he’s turning 94 this week, and is still working. He’s recently completed his memoirs, and is working on a new TV show for Netflix.

Before bringing Lear up on stage for an interview, we were treated to a screening of the new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. The film is on the Festival’s Hold Review List, which means for the time being, I have to keep my review short. Here it goes:

In the 1970s, Norman Lear changed the face of television with controversial sitcoms like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, then became a full-time political activist creating the organization People for the American Way. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have created a warm, sympathetic, and funny documentary about Lear. Of course it’s funny; comedy is his lifelong trade. But parts of the story felt incomplete, such as a happy marriage hits trouble and then…he was married to someone else.

I give it a B+.

After the film, Lear and former SFJFF Executive Director Peter Stein came on stage for an interview. Some paraphrased highlights:

  • What is it like to watch a form of you in this documentary? All my life I’ve been an audience member. I sit down to what I’m watching and say “Take me. I’m yours.”
  • I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of America’s right hand. What I mean is that the man is the fool he is, the asshole he is, and I believe that the American people understand this.

This was followed by an audience Q&A. Unfortunately, as soon as Lear answered an audience question, Stein would ask another, related question, eating up time that should have been used for more audience participation.

  • How did you get Sammy Davis Jr. on All in the Family? I met him when I worked with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He begged to be on the show.
  • How you get your sense of comedy? If your father goes to jail when you’re nine years of age, and a guy is buying your father’s favorite chair, and the guy says “Well Norman, you’re the man of the house now,” you understand the foolishness of the human condition.
  • Shooting sitcoms in front of a live audience? I love performing with a live audience. If the audience didn’t laugh, that was it. We didn’t use a laugh track.
  • I created Archie Bunker on paper, but I never saw the real Archie Bunker until I saw Carroll O’Connor. Nobody could write the Archie-isms like he could speak them.
  • On Jean Stapleton: She was always where she was. We’d ask What would Jesus do. That’s how we wrote Edith.

For some strange reason, the Festival had placed a painting on a stand on the stage. Near the end of the Q&A, it collapsed. Lear proclaimed “Now that’s funny!” He got a big laugh on that one.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You will screen one more time in the Festival, at the Rafael, Sunday, August 7, at 2:10. But it will screen three more times at the Rafael that week–not connected with the Festival. PBS will eventually broadcast it as part of the American Masters series.

What’s Screening: July 22 – 28

We’ve got five film festivals running this week, along with a lot of very good classic movies.

Festivals

Recommended revivals

A Sunset Blvd, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:30

Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s seedy underbelly looks like the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much Lena Lamont after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances. Part of the series Vienna and the Movies, even though it was shot and set in Hollywood. The film will be introduced by David Thomson.

A M, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:00

In this early talkie, director Fritz Lang shows us a Germany sinking into corruption, depression, and paranoia. The paranoia is understandable; someone is murdering little girls and successfully eluding the police. Eventually the underworld must do what the authorities cannot and stop the killer. Peter Lorre became famous as the oddly sympathetic child molester, driven by inner demons to kill. I’m not sure film noir would ever have happened without M. Another part of the series Vienna and the Movies.

A- Harold and Maude, Roxie, Monday and Wednesday, 7:00

This 1971 comedy fit the late hippy era as perfectly as Pink Floyd and the munchies. At a time when young Americans were embracing non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and a woman four times his age made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helped considerably. But I do wish that screenwriter Colin Higgins had found a better ending. See my full discussion. A tribute to the now-gone Red Vic movie theater.

A- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,
Stanford
, Saturday through Tuesday

Corrupt political bosses appoint a naive, young idealist (James Stewart) senator because they think he’s stupid. They’re wrong. The second and best film in Frank Capra’s common-man trilogy, Mr. Smith creeks a bit with patriotic corniness, and seems almost as naive as its protagonist. But it has moments–Stewart’s speech about how “history is too important to be left in school books,” for instance–that can still bring a lump to the throat of any left-wing American patriot. Besides, it’s just plain entertaining. On a Frank Capra double bill with Lady for a Day.

B+ Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 remake), New Mission, Tuesday, 10:15

Phil Kaufmans San Francisco-based remake of the classic alien invasion movie isn’t quite as good as the low-budget, 1956 original, but it comes close. One by one, Donald Sutherland’s friends and loved ones turn into emotionless pod people, and he knows that he too will be lost if he can’t stay awake. A very good sci-fi thriller. Kaufman will attend and introduce the film.

B+ M. Hulot’s Holiday, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:30

Jacques Tati’s second feature, and his first as the hapless Mr. Hulot, is odd, plotless, nearly dialog-free, and in its own quiet and reserved way, pretty damn funny. The pipe-smoking Hulot takes a vacation at a seaside resort, and while anarchy doesn’t exactly break out, it pops up a bit from just below the surface.

B+ Iron Monkey, Great Star Theater, Saturday, 5:00

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Hong Kong action flick that felt so much like a Hollywood swashbuckler. The evil rulers of a village are stealing everything they can while oppressing the people. Luckily for the average peasant, a masked criminal called Iron Monkey robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Meanwhile, a traveling physician and his young son, both martial arts masters, turn up to help. Funny, rousing, and thoroughly entertaining. a (Not Just) Hong Kong Action Film Series screening.

B+ Bullitt, Roxie, Sunday, 5:00

Age hasn’t been altogether kind to this once cutting-edge police thriller. But it has its pleasures, especially Steve McQueen’s exceptionally cool charisma and the best car chase ever shot on the streets of San Francisco. Another marker: To my knowledge, McQueen’s single use of the word “bullshit” marks the first time anyone said such a word in a Hollywood movie. On a double bill with Blow-Up, which I saw so long ago I had to lie about my age to get in.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

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