Films openig include the excellent INDIGNATION that comes with my highest recommendation. Also opening are SUICIDE SQUAD and LITTLE MEN.
This review contains a spoiler. The paragraph with the spoiler is highlighted in bold italics.
INDIGNATION (USA 2015) ***** TOP 10
Directed by James Schamus
INDIGNATION is the first feature of James Schamus, founder of Good Machine production company, and the CEO of Focus Features. He has championed classics like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, FAR FROM HEAVEN and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The film is based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, a powerful one based on the writer’s college days.
The plot of the film is simple. But the pleasure of the film is not in the plot but in the writing. Based on the Philip Roth novel, excellence can only be expected. A working class Jewish student, Marcus (Logan Lerman), leaves Newark, New Jersey to attend a small college in Ohio. There, he experiences a sexual awakening after meeting the elegant and wealthy Olivia (Sarah Gadon). Later he ends up confronting the school's dean (Tracy Letts) over the role of religion in academic life.
Director Schmaus also adds his artistic touch. He frames the story with the killing of a soldier during the Korean War. (Roth served two years in the U.S. Army.) Though the year is not mentioned, the film later reveals the time period through the college banner of ‘Class of 55’ when Marcus enrols on the college. As most of the film are interior shots, he places his camera often stationary, concentrating on the performances on his actors, with close ups and pullbacks.
In the Philip Roth novel it is explained early in the book that Marcus is dead and telling his story from the afterlife. In the beginning of the film an American soldier is shot dead in the Korean war. The next scene has Marcus attending a funeral of a friend. The audience assumes that the dead soldier is Marcus’ friend. It is only at the end of the film that it becomes clear that the dead soldier was not Marcus’ friend but Marcus himself. Director Schamus achieved this rather brilliantly conceived trick cinematically. The audience had not seen Marcus’ face yet so the assumption is that of any soldier. At the film’s end, Marcus’ face is very familiar so the association become complete. Also the wallpaper in Olivia’s mental home of the vase with flowers is cinematic as the effect of the wallpaper (as seen by an audience) cannot have the same effect as the reading of the book.
The script by Schmaus changes the novel a bit. In the novel, Hawes D. Caudwell, the college's dean (Tracy Letts) suspends Marcus after he refuses to attend double the chapel services (mandatory in the school) that he had missed. In the film, Marcus is seen serving in the Korean War. The audience is assumed to be smart enough to put two and two together that Marcus had been kicked out of college and therefore been drafted as a result into the U.S. Army.
The success of the film lies a great part to the performance of the lead actor playing Marcus, who is in almost very scene in the film. Logan Lerman (who has proven himself in the PERCY JACKSON films and other dramas like THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) displays acting capability and eloquence as in the film’s best scene with Dean Caudwell debating Bertrand Russell’s Christianity. His character is described by Dean Caudwell as intense. The same adjective can be used to describe Lerman’s performance. Linda Emond is also excellent as Marcus’ mother. Ben Rosenfield has a supporting role as Marcus’ roommate. When Marcus moves out of the room, the roomate's longing stare at Marcus during the Chapel service could be taken as his closeted homosexuality.
Shamus has now proven himself as a superb writer and director. INDIGNATION is a thinking man’s film that is smart, entertaining and funny. It is cinematically excellent in all departments from wardrobe, art and production design and acting. I would highly recommend this film and would also gladly see it a second time.
LITTLE MEN (USA 2016) ***1/2
Directed by Ira Sachs
As Jesus said in the Bible, “And a child will lead them.” In the case of Ira Sach’s occasionally brilliant new film LITTLE MEN, pre-teens lead the way for the adults that have gone astray.
The film begins with the death of 13-year old Jake’s (Theo Taplitz) grandfather. Jake’s dad, Brian (Greg Kinnear) inherits the grandfather’s building and move in. Below is a store that the grandfather leases to a seamstress, Leonor (Paulina Garcia) and her son, Tony (Michael Barbieri). Trouble arises when Brian needs to raise the rent money as he is short of income. Leonor is unable to pay. A bad state of affairs result when Brian evicts Leonor.
Though premiering at the Toronto Inside Out LGBT film festival, there is no explicit gay theme on display in the film. The friendship that develops between the two boys hints that one might be gay (the other pines over a girl in he neighbourhood), but still one can never be sure. The hint arrives when Jake’s mind immediately rushes to think of Tony when asked to write a poem above love in his English class. No use in labelling. No matter whether one of the boys is gay or not, it is of no importance. Sach’s little film astounds in many avenues, particularly in the subtlety department. But the bond that exists between the two boys is nothing short of wonderful. They stand up for each other. Tony gets beaten up in school for Jake. Both boys refuse to talk to their parents when they learn that their parents are not getting along.
The film is seen mostly from the points of view of the two boys, which makes the film more interesting.
The script has two characters, Brian’s sister and Brian’s wife which could easily have been moulded into one character. They collectively could serve the same function as one person.
When Brian finally confesses the problem to his son Jake, Jake offers a solution so simple that the adage “and a child will lead them” comes to mind.
Films about kids often have them speak in adult dialogue that would unlikely come from them. This occurs regularly in many of Neil Simon’s plays, Woody Allen films and also in this film. But here at least, the boys still behave like boys. They play video games, ignore their parents, get into trouble (and fights) in school while growing up and learning about life. The great thing about all this is that they teach their parents a thing or two on the way.
Sach’s film succeeds tremendously from the performances of it two young actors. They are able to elicit sympathy and humour, strength and vulnerability in their characters. One of the best performances occurs in the segment in a training dialogue between Tony and his acting coach in his new school.
The film contains a non-Hollywood but rather clever under-stated ending. LITTLE MEN is a good example of how brilliant a little film with a good script and direction can turn out.
SUICIDE SQUAD (USA 2016) *
Directed by David Ayer
SUICIDE SQUAD is the third D.C. comics extended universe film, following the awful BATMAN V. SUPERMAN that barely made its money back from its costly production. SUICIDE SQUAD has so far received awful reviews, including this one from your humble reviewer. It has also been reported that Suicide Squad fans have petitioned to shut down Rotten Tomatoes after negative reviews.
The film has been reported to be rushed out to meet time schedules with lots of editing and rushed scripting by David Ayer (FURY). It shows!
The Suicide Squad initiative functions as an unorthodox work release program. The modern incarnation, the Suicide Squad, is an antihero "strike team" of incarcerated, death row supervillains. Acting as deniable, covert assets of the United States government, it undertakes high-risk, black-ops missions in exchange for commuted prison sentences. The group operates out of Belle Reve Penitentiary under the directorship of Amanda Waller (played with dead seriousness by Viola Davis).
The members of the squad in this film is taken from different the different volumes of the comic books. In the aftermath of Superman's death in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, intelligence operative Amanda Waller assembles a team of dangerous criminals - the deranged Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie), also known as "Harley Quinn"; elite hitman Floyd Lawton (Will Smith getting star billing), who longs to be reunited with his daughter Zoey; pyrokinetic ex-gangster Chato Santana (Jay Fernandez), who refuses to fight after accidentally killing his wife and children and opportunistic thief Digger Harkness (Jai Courtney) who is supposed to use his boomerang among others. Each member is introduced at the start of the film with a famous tine. Harleen is introduced with the song “Super Freak”; Lawton with “Spirit in the Sky” etc. The Suicide Squad are offered reduced sentences in exchange for their services and implanted with nanobombs so Waller can terminate them should they go rogue. Flag (Joel Kinnaman) leads the squad under instruction from Waller.
Though billed as a comedy action film, the film’s comedy lie mainly in the one-liners. THE SUICIDE SQUAD’s comedy is similar to that of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Margot Robbie and Oscar Winner Jared Leto (as the Joker) steal the movie. Leto is plain creepy delivering a performance of equal stature to Heath Ledger’s.
One of Waller's recruits is Flag's girlfriend, Dr. June Moone, an archaeologist who has become possessed by a malevolent spirit witch known as "The Enchantress" after touching a cursed idol. She and her brother form the villains of the film that have to be taken out by the squad in an extended action sequence in which a barely recognizable downtown Toronto (where the film is shot) is destroyed. (Dundas Square can still be recognized at least.)
Beware. Characters that die midway in the film can suddenly appear live and well in later parts of the film. There is a 2-minute meeting between Waller and Bruce Wayne (Ben Effleck) midway during the end credits, indicating that it might serve as an entry point to a sequel.
Like BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, SUICIDE SQUAD is plain awful. The 2 films contain the similar traits of being incoherent and a complete mess. If there are 10 D.C. comics films slated till 2020, heaven help the D.C. Universe!