Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Nosh 30: 'Indignation' and 'Lo and Behold'

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER (reviews of Indignation and Lo and Behold)
Indignation is not about the 1950s of Happy Days, and not a chic retro dream like Carol. It takes place during the grim Truman vs. Stalin year of 1951, with the Korean War slamming in, a migraine sequel to WWII. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) seeks to avoid conscription, so the bright Jewish boy, a butcher’s son, opts for Ohio’s spiffy Winesburg College. Only 40 of the 1,300 students are Jews, and the single Jewish fraternity pursues handsome Marcus. Independent, he says no. Later he stands up in fierce resistance to Dean Caudwell, a pillar of Christian snobbery who is less anti-Semitic than anti-rebel, hating the freshman’s crisp candor and bold atheism. If this dean ever sees Brando on screen, he’ll probably drop dead.

Marcus’s confrontation with conformity blimp Caudwell (Tracy Letts, like a smug merger of John Houseman and John Lithgow) is the centerpiece of the absorbingly smart movie directed by James Schamus, who adapted Philip Roth’s novel. Here is the Roth fixation on a vampy, mysterious shiksa (Sarah Gadon), his Portnoy emphasis on penile pleasure, and the old, anti-erotic currents in Jewish family life. Linda Esmond plays Marcus’s mother as a “loving” terror. When she corners him about the dangerous blonde, she’s even scarier than Shelley Winters as the guilt-milking mama in Next Stop, Greenwich Village.

With justice you could say that Indignation is a bookish, performance-driven movie. But that would undersell the deeply subtle work by Lerman, Letts, Gadon and Esmond, and it would skip over how well Schamus and his cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, wove the emotional texture of a bygone time, creating a slightly archaic, softly shadowed aura of memory. It isn’t corny or nostalgic, and Roth’s deftness is respected. The story’s generic campus elements are absorbed in a fully adult way. The opening gives us a fair clue to an ending that arrives with pathos and resonance.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World 
As usual in his documentaries, Werner Herzog seals up any cracks in his new film with his voice, that purringly Teutonic tonality that sounds like a less sardonic Christoph Waltz. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is fairly minor Herzog about a truly major subject: the birth, growth and future of the Internet. We are being devoured by this shining, cryptic beast. As we are absorbed, fretful Werner guides, informs and spooks us about the future, in ten brief, rather professorial segments.

Here are the wiz-dweebs who sent the very first cyber message in 1969, from UCLA to Stanford and back. One of them proudly shows us the dull room where it happened (and got stuck, briefly, on the third letter). Here is a stuffy savant attempting, a little desperately, to reassure us that as machines become brainier, we will, too. Here is rich, remote visionary Elon Musk, coming off as the sullen love child of Ayn Rand and Werner Von Braun. Here are computer volunteers who helped to code-build a new cancer treatment, and scientists devising big robots. The last seems an awful waste of money and smarts, given our current problems.

Parents will shiver with the young man whose obsessive game addiction has led him into therapy. We can all tremble as a chipper, blithe woman tells us that an epic solar flare could wipe out the Web and much of civilization. Depend upon Herzog to festoon the pensive flow with special touches, such as Buddhist monks fixatedly tweeting in Chicago. And a distraught family, their dead daughter smeared by vile Internet trolls, poses glumly behind a tidy display of baked goods. It’s enough to make you want to hurry back to, oh, 1957, even if that means losing every Herzog movie.

SALAD (A List)
These are 12 Top College Movies, largely set on campus: Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983), Lucky Jim (John Boulting, 1959), College (Buster Keaton, 1927), The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963), Legally Blonde (Robert Luketic, 2001), The Paper Chase (James Bridges, 1973), The Freshman (Newmeyer and Taylor, 1925), The Man Who Knew Infinity (Matthew Brown, 2015), The Freshman (Andrew Bergman, 1990), Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, 2000), Shadowlands (Richard Attenborough, 1992) and Animal House (John Landis, 1978).  

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
George Orson Welles explains how he got his name: “Orson is a family name, descending from the Orsinis. Also because by a bewildering and rather tiresome coincidence, my mother and father were on holiday in Rio, with (humorist) George Ade and a man whose name was Orson Wells, without the ‘e,’ but with $30 million.  I’d have those millions now if only I’d gone to visit my godfather … I’d go now, on my knees. But as a 12-year-old I had my pride.” (Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles) 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
R.I.P. Gene Wilder, 1933-2016.
For his classic "baby blankie" shtick in The Producers,  Wilder "recalled his childhood dog Julie and 'rubbing my cheek against her curly fur.' He felt actual fury when Zero Mostel grabbed the little cloth, but love returned in force. Wilder also felt that Mostel 'looked after me as if I were a baby sparrow." (From the Zero Mostel/The Producers chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)  

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
The recently heaven-bound Gene Wilder (center), with Zero Mostel and Christopher Hewett in The Producers (Avco Embassy Pictures, 1968; director Mel Brooks, cinematographer Joseph E. Coffey).

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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