OUT IN THE DARK and SALINGER



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I feel as if I must begin this review with an apology.  I recently saw two movies that for some reason I kept putting off and which have now left the theaters (at least in L.A.).  And I feel that both are far more worthy of seeing than many of the more praised films that have opened as of late (Prisoners, Short Term 12, In A World…, etc.), movies whose popularity and good reviews have totally and completely escaped me.  
The first, Out in the Dark, is a new Israeli drama written by Yael Shafrir and Michael Myer and directed by Myer.  It covers the same basic premise of Gale Uchovsky and Eytan Fox’s The Bubble, a story about two men who become romantically involved with each other, one a Palestinian man trying to avoid the consequences of his family’s terrorist connections, the other an Israeli man just out of the army.  
But in spite of having some plot similarities, Out in the Dark has it’s own voice and approach to the subject matter.   While The Bubble is a powerful and ambitious updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (perhaps one of the most brilliant of such updatings of classic works), Out in the Dark is an espionage thriller that would be worthy of John Le Carré.     
Shafrir and Myer’s drama is about a young male Palestinian, Nimr, who is given a student visa to study at Tel Aviv.  He strives to be apolitical long enough to get out of the area altogether and study at someplace like Cambridge.  But he also begins an affair with a male Israeli lawyer, Roy.  Things take a nasty turn when the Israeli secret service approach Nimr and tell him that if he won’t spy for them and infiltrate various campus organizations, and on top of that, betray his brother who they suspect (correctly) of being involved with terrorist activities, they will cancel his student visa and tell his family that he is gay, which in this context is a death sentence.  Nimr refuses.
The screenplay is first rate, a taught and emotionally fraught thriller.   The story is riveting and cleverly done.  The direction keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.  The acting, especially by Nicholas Jacob as Nimr (his first film role) and Michael Aloni as Roy, is subtle and sincerely felt.  And the ambiguous ending is deeply moving.
The reason I’m so late with a review of Out in the Dark is because it played for a shamefully short period of time.  I put off seeing Shane Salerno’s documentary Salinger because it was severely trashed by the critics.  But after seeing it, I have to say, I have no idea what it was that made everyone hate this movie so.  I found it gripping and quite emotionally involving. 
I even went to rottentomatoes.com to see what I could find out and though I didn’t read in detail all the reviews there, the basic consensus was that the movie was shallow, didn’t dig deep enough into its subject matter, and was as “phony” as the hero of Salinger’s greatest work, The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, thought the world to be.  But when I walked out, I had to double check and make sure we hadn’t seen two totally different movies.   In fact, in thinking back on it, I really can’t figure out what more the critics could possibly have wanted from the film (except actual appearances and interviews with J.D. himself, which he never gave, so that’s sort of that).
First, I must participate in full disclosure (actually, I don’t think this exactly counts as the ole FD, but it’s kind of the same thing).  I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school.  I enjoyed the book and thought the prose was lovely.  I was always entertained by it.  At the same time, when I finished reading it, my first thought was, “Wow, Holden has some serious mental issues”. 
This echoes an anecdote in the movie that tells of the first publisher that offered to take on the, now, ubiquitous book.  An editor told Caulfield his company wanted to publish it, but the editor hadn’t shown it to the firm’s owner yet.  When the owner read it, he called in Salinger and told him they would have to do extensive rewrites because the central character was obviously mentally ill.  Salinger ran fleeing from the building, devastated at the reaction.  And after watching this documentary, I’m not so sure that I and the owner were that far off.
At any rate, I offer all that to suggest that I am not as enamored of the book as others, all of whom have found it to have had a profound affected on their lives.
But I still found the documentary to be quite riveting, for the most part.  There were some slow moments and I still have issues at times with using documentary footage that feels taken from archives and have little or nothing to do with the topic at hand, but more seems like it’s there as filler, to give the audience something, anything to look at as people talk, as if the subject matter wasn’t interesting enough in itself.   And for some reason I can’t quite explain, I never could take seriously the appearance of celebrities like Edward Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen (they’re not experts on the book, just on how they felt about it upon reading it; but how they felt seemed at times like they were reading political talking points instead of really telling us what it meant to them).
But I suggest that this faux background material wasn’t that necessary and that the material was strong enough to stand on its own.   The most riveting moments are the extensive monologues people give who encountered Salinger, not just, but especially, Jean Miller and Joyce Maynard, both of whom were romantically involved with this recluse.  Here the camera does little but focus on the faces of these people and let them speak; and what tales they tell, stories of a troubled soul with demons they could never understand and Salinger wouldn’t share.
The documentary feels incredibly well researched and is filled with rich detail.  I knew nothing about Salinger’s life before this, but I feel as if I know just about everything I need to know now about this somewhat oddball character (though Jewish, he married an ex-member of the Nazi party in Germany just before his return—the marriage was annulled not longer after).  The film is well written, well told and well directed.  If anyone wants to know about Salinger, this is the movie for it. 
And it ends on a powerful and upbeat note.  Though Salinger is no longer with us, his writings still are.  And not just the books already published.  Apparently there is a large body of writing that he set up to be published after his death, starting in 2015.  That means more of the Glass family and more of Holden Caulfield as well. 

SAVAGES


The new Oliver Stone movie.  I think it is safe to say that this is what one would call a misstep in Stone’s oeuvre.   I could be wrong, of course.  I often am.  But to be ruthlessly honest, I would have to say the movie simply doesn’t work.  An indication that things are not going well shows up fairly quickly.   In a voice over, O (for Ophelia—yes, you read that right), a post modern flower child, is having passionate sex with her boyfriend Chon.  He’s a standard character in a Stone film, the war veteran forever haunted by the memories of what he went through.  O describes it more or less as: He has wargasms, while I have orgasms.  The screenplay (by Stone, Shane Salerno and Don Winslow who also wrote the book it’s based on) doesn’t get any better, and often gets a bit worse, sorry to say.  Savages is a story about some drug dealers.  Guess whether this is going to go well; go ahead, I dare you.  To paraphrase Captain Renault from Casablanca:  I’m shocked, shocked to find out that people who deal drugs get into trouble.  And in fact, the whole movie feels a little late, like it should have been done ten years ago (though even then it might have felt just a tad frayed around the edges).  I’m not sure why Stone made this film.  It’s unclear he has anything to really add to the many drug films that have come before.  Well, I sort of take that back.  There is something, though I have to believe it’s totally unintentional.  The basic conflict is between three idealistic and semi-naïve friends (O, played by Blake Lively; Chon, played by Taylor Kitsch; and Ben, played by Aaron Johnson); they’re all white.  The homophobic, racist, corrupt, vile and sadistic bad guys are played by Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir and Salma Hayek (guess what ethnic background they are).  I don’t know if Stone is trying to make a political statement here, but I’ll give him a benefit of the doubt and say it was all accidental.  At the same time, he may have tried to even everything out by casting the three innocents with actors who can’t quite, I’m afraid to say, keep up with the Joneses.  This is especially emphasized in a scene between Del Toro and John Travolta, the finest scene in the movie, in which they have a pax de duex over what they’re going to do next while bewailing what it’s like to be middle aged (I’d like to say this scene was worth the price of admission alone, but I can’t quite).   From a structural standpoint, what probably went wrong is that the opening and ending suggest that this is O’s story; and then the movie leaves her for huge chunks of time, so there’s no dramatic arc for her character (and it basically boils down to “it’s not my fault, it’s my mommy’s for not loving me enough”).  There’s also something a little ironic in Stone’s use of Chon’s haunted military past.  It’s awful what Chon had to go through; but without it, none of the characters would have survived.  It’s unclear that Stone purposely intended this irony.  In the end, the only daring thing in the movie is the menage a trois relationship between O, Chon and Ben (with the suggestion, from Hayek, that the two bros are only having carnal knowledge of O because they can’t bring themselves to have it with each other).   But this presents its own problem.  Though O is the central character, this suggests her only purpose for existence is to have sex with the Chon and Ben.  She has no other reason to be there.   After thinking it all over, I believe I’ll just go back to my original statement and say that, unfortunately, the movie doesn’t work.