REVIEW: American Pastoral

19 10 2016

American Pastoral posterWithout any knowledge of the source material, it’s hard to draw a line between novelist Philip Roth’s grandiloquence and the bombast of the film adaptation of “American Pastoral,” the latest attempt to transpose his work on screen. For example, when Ewan McGregor’s Swede Levov drops a patently pretentious line like, “We can live where we want, this is America,” who’s supplying the sincerity? Who’s responsible for the irony? The delivery indicates a mix of both, and it’s unclear (at least to the uninitiated) whether McGregor as director is offering his own commentary on the novel or simply presenting it as written on the page.

John Romano’s script does a decent job at recreating the central generational dynamic at the heart of “American Pastoral.” In conflict-riddled 1968, tensions boil to a head among a nuclear family in rural New Jersey as free-spirited Baby Boomer Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning) rebels against her parents, Swede and Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). A discontent and rabble-rouser from an early age, Merry sets out to disrupt the idyllic outlook held by the jock and the beauty queen from the Greatest Generation. She commits an actual violent act, yes, but the most drastic rupture comes from their shattered contentment and complacency.

Though at times this conflict plays out like a bit of a Living History Museum, McGregor manages to find enough points of resonance to make “American Pastoral” a compelling watch. Well, at least for the first half. The broader, thematic story eventually gets whittled down into a smaller, more intimate psychodrama. The shifted focus might have worked had the film gone deeper into its characters from the beginning. Accepting each person as a human, not just a mouthpiece for a demographic group, proves a little difficult. The contradictions are clear, but like so much else in “American Pastoral,” it is uncertain whether these are designed for mere acknowledgment or full contesting. B-2stars

REVIEW: Christine

18 10 2016

christineSundance Film Festival

If “Nightcrawler” had a spiritual prequel, Antonio Campos’ “Christine” might fit the bill. This true story of 1970s news anchor Christine Chubbuck, played with masterful precision by Rebecca Hall, hinges on the maddening descent of local television into the “if it bleeds, it leads” culture. The downward spiral of Christine’s profession matches her own personal crisis as internal demons wrest influence away from her sanity.

Rebecca Hall, most likely known to audiences for bit parts in films like “Iron Man 3” or her memorable supporting turn in “The Town,” finally gets to shine like the talent Woody Allen recognized when he cast her as the lead in 2008’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Though Christine’s notorious final on-air stunt has come to define her in the public memory, Hall’s performance finds her deep, troubled humanity and recreates it to devastating effect.

Christine tries to make a name for herself doing positive human interest stories with the verve of a true filmmaker, positioning herself against the grain of exploitative pulp. We know it’s a losing battle, and for the most part, so does she. Both the character and the audience alike are caught in a mutual death pact of dramatic irony, sensing the tragic end ahead but unable to turn away or turn the tide. Watching Christine’s unease mount in everything from an ill-fated romance with more successful co-anchor George Ryan (Michael C. Hall) to decaying relationship with the mother (J. Smith-Cameron) that still houses her provides the true motor of the film. Individual events matter less than the escalating paranoia, both real and imagined.

Director Antonio Campos resists easy sympathy for Christine, making her neither martyr, victim or antihero. She is a vividly realized person to us, but she is also someone whose narrative we experience through the moderation of a screen. As such, he often adds distance to her within the composition of a shot, photographing her through another video inside the frame. “Christine” treads this tricky line between sympathy and alienation with remarkable exactitude, just as it balances personal dissatisfaction against cultural sensationalism. A-3halfstars

REVIEW: The Lost City of Z

17 10 2016

New York Film Festival

In 2014, while still in the thralls of my passionate obsession with James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” I attended the Telluride Film Festival where, lo and behold, Gray himself was attending to present a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” (I won’t go into too much detail about how I choked on approach to chat with him outside a screening.) He also penned an essay for the festival’s program lavishing praise on Coppola’s masterpiece, writing, “The film poses questions without any attempt to provide definitive answers, and its profound ambiguities are integral to its enduring magic.”

Of course, this only popped into my mind about an hour of the way through Gray’s latest work, “The Lost City of Z.” The film’s jungle trek in search of a mythic destination, of course, bears many surface similarities to “Apocalypse Now.” Going deeper, however, little else in the Amazonian journey of Charlie Hunnam’s Percy Fawcett corresponds to the descent into madness of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard. Fawcett’s quest is one for pride, not shame. In his attempts to discover a lost civilization among the South Americans derided as “savages” by the Brits, he hopes to provide both a cultural corrective and a reputation restoration to his tarnished family name.


There’s an earnestness to Fawcett’s trips (yes, plural, because it takes a trio of them) that feels entirely from before the moral malaise of “Apocalypse Now,” due in large part to Gray’s unabashed classicism. He’s even got his own match cut to pay winking homage to David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” Yet “The Lost City of Z” feels caught between two periods, the old-fashioned spectacle of the Hollywood cinematic epic and the more self-conscious, interrogative New Hollywood style. To return briefly to Gray’s own terminology, the film lacks some magic because its ambiguity exists within a structure that prefers resolution and triumph.

Gray always has a firm command of what’s happening on screen, and director of photography Darius Khondji captures it in luscious hues and sweeping movement. What exactly is meant by Fawcett’s multiple journeys, each of which test his commitment to his fellow explorers, country and family, is not always clear. Removed from the personal authenticity of Gray’s early work and the radical sincerity of “The Immigrant,” narrative resonance is somewhat lacking.


Even so, “The Lost City of Z” is still a sumptuous delight of visual splendor. Thirty minutes could probably be trimmed to help sustain more momentum, though such cuts might sacrifice some of the delicate character arcs. As the film progresses, Fawcett’s right-hand man Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, playing his supporting role with the humility of a great character actor) gradually grows uncertain that their mission to locate their missing city can bear any fruit. At the same time, however, Fawcett’s son Jack (Tom Holland, recalling his superb turn in “The Impossible“) moves from disenchantment with his father to full allegiance and companionship. Witnessing one rise as the other falls makes for a more unexpected journey within the film – and one of its few facets that’s not entirely straightforward. B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Birth of a Nation

7 10 2016

In Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” many an incident between slaves and their white captors in early 1800s America feels like the first ripple leading to the tsunami of racial tension washing up today. A black man walking home innocuously who is greeted with distrust and violence from roving vigilantes recalls the charged interactions between minorities and police officers. The employment of selective Bible quotes to reinforce racial hierarchies draws attention to how religious groups often impede, rather than promote, equity and justice. Black women are commoditized and then made the targets of sexual violence – well, nothing much has changed there.

Parker’s message becomes apparent quite quickly: it’s a movie about Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, but it’s ~really~ about contentious race relations in 2016. Historicizing the present is, on its face, certainly nothing worthy of complaint; plenty of great films have used this technique to stirring effect. But “The Birth of a Nation” falters because in the relentless focus on contemporary concerns, Parker loses sight of what makes slavery so horrible.

By favoring present-day relevance over historical trauma, Parker denies us a full glimpse at the true terrors of slavery. It’s a pure spectacle, one that primarily exists to provide moments that propel Nat Turner’s ultimate transformation from plantation pastor to rebellious renegade. Parker’s parade of images meant to illustrate the brutality of the system do a disservice to the atrocity of slavery by avoiding anything that causes pain.

His sanitized glimpses at the violence include cutaways during forced teeth extraction, a painless whipping against the pole and an implied rape. Parker is so concerned about locating the pulse of “The Birth of a Nation” in modern times that he winds up taking a gallingly non-confrontational attitude about the subject of slavery. Placing his agenda on a pedestal over their pain rings both cheap and hollow.

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REVIEW: The Girl on the Train

5 10 2016

Arguably the most famous close-ups in cinema history take place in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” the 1928 silent classic that elevated the expressively tight framed shot of facial contortions to the position of high art. Dreyer later said of the close-up, “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring.”

It’s a blessing Dreyer did not live to see Tate Taylor’s “The Girl on the Train,” a film that puts the close-up to shame through bludgeoning and excessive use. This specific shot is the movie’s only language to convey the internal agony of its three leading female characters. No need to waste time detailing the multitude of other techniques available at Taylor’s disposal, so let’s just leave it at the fact that the close-up is lazy shorthand for emotional intimacy.

The camera tries to substitute the reservoirs of feeling hidden by the icy women, each with their own secrets to bury and axes to grind. Their blank stares into the distance are meant to convey restraint or secrecy; instead, they convey nothing. One only needs to hold up the work of star Emily Blunt in “The Girl on the Train” alongside her performance in “Sicario” to see the difference. In the latter film, the most minuscule movement in Blunt’s face communicates a complex response to the ever-shifting environment around her character Kate Macer. Here, as the alcoholic voyeur Rachel Watson, Blunt is reduced to gasps and gazes that do little to illuminate her psychology.

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REVIEW: Me Before You

3 10 2016

me-before-you-posterIt has been a long time since a movie infuriated me to the extent that “Me Before You” did. Strap in, folks, this review is chock full of opinions and passion. (Also, here be spoilers, but if you’ve followed any of the online discussion surrounding the book/film, you probably know what happens anyways.)

Let’s just lay down some ground rules before we begin: suicide is not a release. It is not an escape. It is not a relief. But for those who feel compelled to commit the act, it is almost never cowardice or selfishness.

Unless, of course, we are talking about Sam Claflin’s Will Traynor, the wheelchair-bound character at the center of “Me Before You.” After being struck by a motorcycle in the film’s opening scene, he resigns himself to moping about the house when the accident dashes any hopes of returning to his adventurous lifestyle. But Jojo Moyes, author of the source novel and screenplay, is content to explain away his surliness as largely stemming from being ensconced in wealth and privilege as well as the betrayal of his girlfriend. Any actual depression or pain never surfaces.

And how convenient that is – because the film needs Emilia Clarke’s Lou Clark (playfully referred to by her surname) to swoop in and make him happy. Clarke plays her character with the clumsy verve of a “Saturday Night Live” skit mocking Zooey Deschanel, begging both Will and the audience how someone can contemplate suicide in the presence of someone who squeals upon receiving a pair of striped tights. While it might avoid the “Silver Linings Playbook” cliché of love curing mental illness, something more insidious is happening.

Will moves forward with his decision to end his life while the film only shows us the forward-facing aspects of his growing fondness for Clark. What it omits is any sign of actual pain or real depression. “Me Before You” treats suicide flippantly, doing a disservice for quadriplegics and the mentally afflicted in the process. It really adds insult to injury when this euthanasia spurs Clark to make the bold life choices she is hesitant to make on her own volition.

Suicide is not a cute plot device. Someone who takes their own life does so because they see no other option. Presenting it as a tool to expand someone else’s options is shallow and misrepresentative. One person’s anguish does not translate to another person’s triumph. Presenting suicide as inspirational or aspirational is dangerous. Look up “suicide contagion” if you don’t believe me. C-1halfstars


2 10 2016

goatSundance Film Festival

“The pledges have to go through hell, or what’s the f—ing point?” It’s a question posed toward the end of Andrew Neel’s “Goat” by cruel fraternity pledgemaster Dixon (Jake Picking), and the film provides no easy answer.

We live in isolating, estranging times that can often leave young people separated from their very essence. The pressures for college-aged men today, at a time when centuries of male hegemony are being upended by gender equality, can often take on a dark tenor that drives reckless behavior. The Greek system is meant to provide belonging, community and brotherhood. Its current practice frequently perverts these ideals into violence, sadism and outright cruelty.

When Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) enters Phi Sigma Mu, it’s due in large part to the presence of his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) already being a brother. But there’s more than just family loyalty behind the decision to rush – Brad is still recovering from a mugging incident that left bruises on his body and pride. The fraternity becomes a space in which he can reclaim the masculinity he feels those brutes took from him that fateful night.

The Phi Sigma Mu residence, in particular the basement where so much hazing takes place, houses many distinct personalities with their own issues they look to the organization to solve. Some are looking for validation of their future prospects. Others are trying to resolve their sexual frustrations with women, even going as far as engaging in acts with homoerotic undertones that replace the contact they miss. All taken together, the brothers create and perpetuate a system in which violence and humiliation only begets further violence and humiliation. Their credo states “All My Strength Is In My Union,” but the initiation rituals only sew discord and mistrust.

The target of Neel’s rage is not the fraternity system. It’s toxic masculinity. “Goat” offers little in the way of pointers as to how this can be overcome. But we do get a little bit of hope in observing the progressing relationship dynamics between the blood brothers Brad and Brett. The elder feels no need to help his younger sibling upon entering rush; in fact, he probably goes harder on him to avoid accusations of favoritism. Yet the more that hazing breaks Brad’s spirits, the more Brett begins to realize that so little about Phi Sigma Mu actually matters. Through Brett’s genuine compassion, they take strides toward making peace with the fraternity. That empathy provides a nice twinge of hope after being party to some misguided acts of true brutality. B+3stars