Indignation

I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of Philip Roth’s work, although not recently enough that it’s made its way into this blog. So I was interested to see how his work would translate to the screen in Indignation.

Indignation  tells the story of Marcus Messner, a young Jewish student at a university in Winesburg College in Ohio. While we follow him in his first year of university, he is narrating his own quest to discover exactly what decision it was that led him to his death.

It’s mildly interesting, but not gripping. Worth it if you enjoyed the novel, but probably not otherwise.

SPOILERS FROM HERE

Marcus is a gifted, determined student, who goes on a date with a young woman named Olivia Hutton. On their first date, she gives him a blowjob, which, as it’s his first one, is a mindblowing experience. From there, the plot meanders its way through Messners frustration with the archaisms of a 1951 university with its chapel requirements, and … not much else, really.

I found myself wondering, halfway through, what the actual story was. What was Messner trying to achieve? Or would he just bounce between random scenes throughout the entire movie?

The movie makes sense, of course, as an attempt by Messner to understand what it is that has lead him to his death on the battlefield in Korea. The most direct causal link is that he’s been expelled (and therefore again subject to the draft), because he paid someone else to go to chapel for him.

Because there is no clear sense of agency for the protagonist, it’s hard for the movie to motivate the viewer. If something happens, should we feel happy, or sad? Does it get Messner closer to, or further from his goal? We don’t know.

It’s also interesting to watch the piece, because in some way it feels like an elegy for a different time. When universities might still require students to attend chapel, and when that was the most prominent point of rebellion for students. As students today live in a world that includes both trigger warnings and protests against police killings, it’s hard to look back at that time without the context looming large.

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Iron Giant

The Iron Giant was made in 1999, but it feels as though it is deliberately trying to recreate an idealised version of a very different era – somewhere in 1950s America, in the midst of the Cold War.

The Iron Giant tells the story of a strange iron giant, fallen to Earth, and discovered by a young boy. As their friendship grows, the Iron Giant learns a little more about himself – that he can speak, and that he has terrifying weapon capabilities.

Throughout, he and his young companion (or teacher) try to dodge the attentions of the nefarious government, embodied by that adult who always wants to know what kids are up to.

Ultimately, we never find out where the iron giant is from, or who he is. But as the government escalates the conflict, trying to destroy that which it hasn’t tried to understand, the focus of action shifts from the boy trying to protect his new friend, to the Iron Giant, who must make a hard set of choices about himself, and the humans he’s come to love.

None of it is terribly surprising, but it is beautifully done. And there’s a bittersweet remembrance of the Iron Giant, as we remember his abilities to reconstruct.

Defenders: Another Marvel content vomit

By now, this is really my fault. I watch a little bit of some Marvel content – maybe it’s a movie, maybe it’s another TV show – and I think: ‘This one will be different! There’ll be an interesting protagonist with a real plot and interesting character development.’

As inevitably as Marvel grinds out yet another crushingly bad addition to the franchise, I am inevitably proven wrong, with another disappointing instalment.

Today’s edition is The Defender’s. The show brings together characters who’ve had their own shows (including Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Daredevil), as they must work together to … oh, who even cares?

Look, it took two episodes for them to even meet up. And satisfying as it was to see Iron Fist completely fail to hurt Luke Cage with his fancy martial arts, and then get laughed at for his story about a dragon, the whole thing is disappointing.

The dialogue is so pointless that it’s an exercise in frustration. Yes, we get it: the team is having trouble bonding. Beyond displaying that, the dialogue does little except pad out the excruciatingly slow moments between the fight scenes, which are the rare points of interest in the show.

I stopped five episodes in, because by that point I was over the writers yanking us around by refusing to reveal anything about what the Hand was trying to do, and because they kept giving the protagonists incredibly stupid lines, and no real motivation beyond stupid decisions that would generate internal team conflict.

If you love Marvel so much you can’t breathe because you’re out of fresh content, this may tide you over. Otherwise, do anything else with your time. Watch the clouds. Go for a walk. Hum a song your parents taught you as a child. Set your hair on fire (please don’t really do this at home). But do anything else rather than watch The Defenders, because it will be a better use of your time.

Frank

I didn’t love Frank. If you’re after something particularly slow and dreamy this may do, but otherwise I’d steer clear.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Frank is a movie about a middle class, suburban office drone (Domhnall Gleeson as Jon) who dreams of being a brilliant musician. Luck strikes when he’s offered the chance to join an indie band fronted by a tortured musician (Frank, played by Michael Fassbender in an enormous paper-mache head).

He goes with them to their retreat in the Irish countryside. What we learn alongside him though, is that rather than wanting to create wonderful music, he wants adulation, adoration, clicks and likes and retweets.

Like every good protagonist he’s driven by two conflicting desires, and in getting on to the main stage at SXSW he tears apart the band, and leaves Frank distraught and getting hit in traffic.

Eventually, Jon finds his way to Frank, and brings the band back together; but they can only make beautiful music if he’s not there. Having learnt his lesson, he graciously leaves.

Luke Cage

Luke Cage a slightly cheesy TV show, with a satisfying amount of action, and feels less intense than Jessica Jones. Mike Colter is excellent as Luke Cage, a prison inmate who’s given superpowers in a freak accident. He sets out to find himself, and in doing so he fights crime, and finds community and love.

Worth it if you want some mindless, cheesy action that’s good fun.

The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani is a comic born in Pakistan, and experiencing significant success in the US. The Big Sick is a movie that he coauthored and starred in, released recently to positive critical feedback and commercial success.

Specifically, The Big Sick was co-authored by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. Nanjiani stars in it as himself, playing alongside an actress, telling the story of how he met Emily.

It’s a touching story. Nanjiani is failing to live up to his family’s expectations (get a law degree, marry a Pakistani background woman), when he meets and falls in love with a young psychologist from North Carolina. They date, and enjoy each other, for a few months, until there’s a fight – she asks him if there’s a scenario where can imagine being with her, and he tells her that he can’t.

Shortly afterwards, she’s hospitalised and subsequently enters a coma. Nanjiani connects with her parents, and gradually fights his way through a frosty encounter to befriend them. That rang, at points, a little hollow to me; it didn’t feel realistic that the night before major surgery, a mother would booze it up with the ex-boyfriend she was angry at for rejecting her daughter. But, that was just my take.

Whether Emily wakes up or not, and what happens afterwards, are questions I’ll leave in case you want to watch it. I’ll just say here that I think it’s a fun movie, and worth watching because it’s better than most rom-coms, but it’s not spectacular. [SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read on if you haven’t watched it]. 

What interested me was that … for anyone writing a story about themselves, there must be a set of challenges. Paint yourself in too positive a light – too courageous, too noble, too self-sacrificing – and you risk being criticised for sanctifying your own perspective. But there’s another risk, too – that you might undersell yourself, play down your actions. And if you did, who would know?

That is perhaps the most charitable interpretation I can find for the thing that bothered me about The Big Sick, which is essentially that Nanjiani felt, at times, largely unlikeable. He lies to his family for years (about whether he’s praying), and then refuses to confront them about the charade they’re forcing on him (of meeting young Pakistani women). When his girlfriend wants him to fight for her, he doesn’t – they break up. He’s actually in another woman’s bed when the call comes that she’s sick in hospital. From there, he reconnects with her family largely by being there.

If every love story is about two people struggling to be together despite the obstacles fate throws at them, it’s easy to see where the obstacles are; illness, culture. But at times it felt that Nanjiani’s actions are quite late in the piece; he stands up to his family only after his would-be girlfriend is in a coma, and he tells her that he still loves her only after she’s recovered from a coma.

Perhaps better late than never. Nanjiani does eventually overcome the obstacles he faces, and they do find love together.

Importantly, too, this is a funny move. Najiani is a standup, and you can feel it in the one-liners that fly back and forth. It makes for fun viewing, it’s more grounded than your average rom-com, and it’s touching.

Oh, and Emily’s parents’ plotline feels lovely and … real to the challenges of an ongoing relationship.

The company you keep

Some stories can only be told in particular mediums; and some mediums can only tell particular stories. That’s partially reflected, I think, in The Company You KeepIt’s a movie about an interesting set of questions, but I don’t think it fully does them justice – not one I’d recommend.

The Company You Keep focuses in on a group of middle class, suburban Americans. Specifically, on Jim Grant – a father, a lawyer. We see him caring for his daughter, after his wife’s death. What we take a few scenes to learn is that Jim is a false name for a former member of the Weather Underground, a ‘militant radical left-wing organisation’ of students in the 1970s. Since then, ‘Jim’ has lived a normal life, as a lawyer.

There’s a lot in that premise. A lifetime of adjusting, of hiding, of twitching when a siren goes off. Of hiding his deepest secrets from everyone around him. Did he tell his wife? We don’t know. Those are the questions that might have been beautifully unpacked in a novel, which can handle a twenty year arc comfortably, when done right (although the reviews of the novel seem mixed).

Instead of those questions, the movie launches into a different story arc when a young, unconscionable reporter outs him, and he’s forced to flee across the country. ‘Jim’ is chasing something – we don’t know what, but the movie hits us over the head with several hints that he’s trying to clear his name – and we see the FBI and the reporter chase him.

SPOILERS FROM HERE

Ultimately,  ‘Jim’ is trying to find a long lost lover, so she can testify that it wasn’t him that killed the guard at the bank robbery that went awry. In doing so, she has to give up her own freedom, as someone who believes in violent opposition to the system. That’s a tough set of questions, complex ones; all the movie can really give us is a scene of a boat turning around on the water, to signify her decision.

The unconscionable journalist finds another great scoop, but in doing so learns feelings and discovers a conscience; so the price he pays is that having found an earth-shattering scoop, he can’t use it.

Jim, finally, is freed to return to his daughter, now that his former lover has testified to her own guilt.

It’s an interesting set of questions, but it’s too sweeping for a slightly clumsy movie to cover.