Aug 19, 2016

A Tale Of Love And Darkness

Actress Natalie Portman has adapted and directed Amos Oz's beautifully written memoir of the same name for the screen. Bravely, she shot the movie in Hebrew, which is her native tongue, to honor Oz's gorgeous language, which is apparent even in the English subtitles. The novel is remarkable because it is not only the story of a childhood spent as the State of Israel came into being, but as the "tale" in its title implies, it is also a book about how our lives are filled with stories, and how these stories heard at home, gleaned around the neighborhood, experienced or caught on the fly, inspire some people to become writers like Amos Oz.
The screenplay employs a voiceover narration (by the wonderful Moni Moshonov) that effectively conveys Oz's voice. But it is noticeably the work of an inexperienced screenwriter. Portman gets the emotional tenor of embattled immigrants arriving in a desertic, embattled land well, but her script ignores the basic rules of cinematic storytelling. Scenes start late and end too soon, or start too early and continue way past their ending; characters start actions that are never resolved, so there is no sense of forward momentum to the story.  The plot has been rendered in impressionistic vignettes, presumably to evoke the texture of memory. However, Oz's reminiscences are immediate and concrete. He brings the past to life in extraordinarily detailed dimension. The earthy source material, full of rich anecdote and observation, is the opposite of a tone poem.
Adapting this impressive book is an ambitious effort, but this is a good example of how a bad script and rookie direction can ruin a film even if the source material is brilliant.
Portman plays Fania, Oz's mother, a recent immigrant to Jerusalem fresh from pre-war Europe, who has trouble integrating to this new country, also menaced by war. Portman is fine, as she tends to be good at portraying emotionally intense women, and she plays a strong-willed, yet fragile woman who is most alive when she escapes into her imagination and tells young Amos fantastic stories, but ends up withdrawn, a silent bundle of depression.
The rest of the cast is underwhelming. In Room, young Jacob Tremblay carried the movie and made the story believable with his poise and alertness, but Amir Kessler, who plays young Amos, seems to recede into the background. Except for Moshonov's gorgeous narration, none of the character actors make any impression. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak does his best to make the movie look good, and the editors piece the story together as best they can. A Tale Of Love And Darkness is reduced to a sketch in this film version.

Aug 2, 2016


Adapting Philip Roth novels to the movies is a Sisyphean task and one that has encountered failure almost every time it has been attempted. I can understand why writers welcome the challenge. They are seduced by Roth's plots and incident, historical context, and indelible characters with clearly dramatic arcs, and by the devastating precision of his writing. But when it comes to bringing Roth's brilliant incisiveness to the screen, all that remains is incident, devoid of the lucid sharpness of the author's voice. The movies are either leaden, humorless, miscast, or dead in the water. I'm thinking of The Human Stain, with Anthony Hopkins as a light-skinned Black man, the forgettable Elegy, and the sharp but sloppy The Humbling, which at least has Al Pacino and the comic touch of Barry Levinson.
James Schamus' adaptation of Indignation is the best one so far because, at the risk of a stately pace, Schamus gives a starring role to language. This movie is not so much about acting, but about thinking, and arguing, and there are a lot of wonderful sentences in it.  The story is drawn out and depressing, a dark coming of age tale, but the movie is riveting.
Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, a young Jewish man from Newark who transfers to a Christian college in Ohio in order to avoid getting drafted into the Korean war. His father (Danny Burstein) is a kosher butcher, and the great Linda Emond plays his mother, Esther. Marcus is an only child of prodigious intelligence, and he is swathed in youthful arrogance. He is impatient with his dad's small town mores and his overwhelming anxiety about letting Marcus blossom into a man. As in many a Rothian tale, Indignation is about the tension between the old world and the new. Too many of his son's classmates are finding death in Korea, but if it's not Korea, it's Ohio, and if it's not Ohio, it's Marcus going out with friends in Newark. When we first encounter him, Marcus is coming home late at night as his mother waits for him stoically in the living room. His father is frantically looking for him all over town. America and its promise beckon, and Marcus does not want to remain in the mental shtetl his father still lives in.
On a personal note, I was blown away by Roth when I read Portnoy's Complaint as a freshman in college. I swore he must have met my mother, whose need to investigate my bowel movements inspired him to create Portnoy's mom; Jewish mothers being to deciphering their children's turds as Holmes and Watson are to solving crimes. Furthermore, my dad used to make my mother wait for me when I went out, just like Mr. Messner. I have since decided that Philip Roth knows everything, and I love him for laying bare (and how!) the deepest and most anxious reaches of Jewish identity.
Marcus arrives in Winesburg College, a genteel school that puts him in a dorm room with two other Jews, and makes them all attend chapel services with the polite but firm prejudice of America in the fifties.
An overly serious law student, Marcus gets derailed by a beautiful blonde Wasp, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who is also different from all the squares. For such a young girl, she has already been through terrible emotional turmoil. The two outsiders hit it off. This is enough to spark a quiet yet combustible chain of actions that lead to tragedy.
The centerpiece of the movie is a 16-minute conversation between Marcus and the dean of the school, a condescending but avuncular midwesterner played with extraordinary acuity by Tracy Letts, who deserves every best supporting actor award in perpetuity for his performance.
It's a beautifully written piece of dramatic writing. The dean summons Marcus to inquire as to why he moved to another room (a crummy attic all to himself). He pretends to want to help while he gleefully unnerves the young man. He gets a rise out of Marcus, singling out his Jewishness and questioning whether Marcus is ashamed of it (he denies it, but I think Marcus walks a private tightrope between pride and shame, as many do). The indignant Marcus pushes the Dean's buttons by affirming his atheism and his intellectual superiority. But as the discussion heats up and the unflappable dean pries into Marcus' private life, Marcus hyperventilates to the point of nausea.
He lands in the hospital.  His mother comes to see him. She takes one look at sweet, fragile Olivia, and confirms she's the worst kind of trouble. Not because she's not Jewish, which is what everyone expects her to say, but because with people like Olivia "their weakness is their strength", one of the smartest things I've ever heard said about damaged people.
Emond also deserves every award in the land. It turns out that Esther, as frumpy as she looks, is much more ahead of the times than both her husband and her son, but as a woman in the fifties she is their subordinate, which is probably the reason why she has a freer mind. When you are an afterthought, you have more room to think.
This is a world of men who fight wars and call all the shots, whether they're the dean, or the son of a butcher, or the rich father of a lost soul. In this world, women are peripheral. They use their brains and their hearts as best they can to make a dent.
Indignation is a movie in which complicated things happen. People are not stock characters, they have unpredictable dimensions. The ironies they suffer are thick and bitter. Marcus' ire is ultimately useless, and few things are more tragic than futile indignation.

Aug 1, 2016

Café Society

To be honest, the only reason that compelled me to see the latest Woody Allen film is that the cinematographer is Vittorio Storaro. His masterly touch certainly takes it to a higher level. His images are creamy. Some are breathtaking, like a shot of two lovers on the beach. He is beautifully abetted by the production design of the great Santo Loquasto, a longtime Allen collaborator.
So what about the movie, you might ask. Well, it's classic late-period Allen, skimpy on characters and plot, and dusted lightly with ancient jokes. Still, Café Society is not as slapdash as some of his recent outings. It is imbued with a feeling of nostalgia for the 1930's, a time when women were glamorous, nightclubs were swanky and popular music was masterful (as usual, the old standards soundtrack is delightful). Café Society is about the loss of first love; a bittersweet look at the impossibility of everlasting romance.
It is also a movie about different kinds of Jews. There are working class Jews, communist Jews, Hollywood Jews, and gangster Jews, all in one family. Allen has genuine warmth for this neurotic clan. This loving nostalgia and a good cast make this movie enjoyable.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a young man from the Bronx who moves to Los Angeles in search of a job. Unlike many actors who have tried and failed, Eisenberg refuses to imitate Allen's nerdy shtick. He is a canny actor, but it would be nice if he toned down that neurotic energy and cerebral edge of his. Still, he is effective as the fish out of water in glamorous Hollywood who gets a job at his uncle Phil's agency. Phil Stone (Steve Carell) is flashy, rich, and as a powerful agent, namedrops stars with panache. After much pleading, Bobby starts running errands for him and falls in love with his secretary, Vonnie, played with melancholy poise by Kristen Stewart. I didn't take Stewart seriously when she was younger and eternally pouty, but she has found her stride and here she is mesmerizing. Allen himself provides a narration that is unessential, but which aids in the feeling of longing for the past. The rest of the characters seem to have been imported from Annie Hall. The fabulous Jeannie Berlin plays Bobby's mom, and Corey Stoll plays his gangster brother, wasted without a part and saddled with an unnecessary wig (but I'll take him whenever and however I can get him). Blake Lively plays another Veronica, the other "shiksa" goddess for whom Bobby ends up falling. I wonder if the multiple Veronicas are Allen's homage to Kristof Kieslowski's The Double Life Of Veronique.
The plot is at once simplistic and convoluted and it surprises no one, but the palpable feeling of ruefulness, of losing your love to lesser but richer prospects, of the useless yearning for what could have been, is moving. This movie has more feeling than most of Allen's recent films. He has an opportunity to dwell on the uneasy combination of Hollywood glamour and bickering striving Jews, of Jews straddling between their family traditions and making it in the world, but Allen is too lazy to stitch these strands together insightfully. For a far more profound and devastating look at this topic, I heartily recommend Indignation, based on the novel by Phillip Roth, also playing.
Storaro's magic and that lovely sense of loss are about the only thing that works for Café Society. The jokes feel ancient, and some of the attitudes, like a cruel, uncomfortable scene between Bobby and a hooker are way past their expiration date.  I am also nostalgic for legendary swanky nightclubs that I never knew, wonderful popular music, and people dressing up to go out, but not for the kind of casual, rancid misogyny that is ever present in Allen's films.  He is not one with the times.