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: Night Moves

2 09 2014

Night MovesLondon Film Festival, 2013

Kelly Reichardt’s ecoterrorist drama “Night Moves” starts off with all the right moves.  As she details the steps that a group of activists take to blow up a hydroelectric dam, the film holds us with the firm grip of a well-crafted procedural.  Reichardt never has to resort to the usual arsenal of cinematic tricks to create suspense because it arises organically from her laser-like focus on presenting the reality of the scene.

The film’s style works at first because we get a sense of who the characters are based on the way they act and react.  There’s no clunky exposition to give us an abundance of background information on them, yet these three resolute and very different figures just seem to make sense as they plot towards their bold action.

That’s largely due to the actors filling the nuances left by Reichardt’s script.  Jesse Eisenberg (yet again) plays the silent and bitterly angry type well, but “Night Moves” is more exciting for its surprising performances.  Dakota Fanning as a zealous untested college dropout and Peter Sarsgaard as a confident but somewhat shady ex-Marine make far more compelling characters because we aren’t sure the depths they can reach.

Once their planning is done and the deed is carried out (notice I didn’t say how successfully), the three split ways.  This occurs between a third and half of the way through the film, a rather odd structure given that we expect blowing up the dam to be the climax.  The unexpected plot development portends an exciting departure when it begins, but “Night Moves” sadly becomes an entirely different movie afterwards.

Reichardt, so ably steering clear of genre cliches at the start of the film, sets a course straight into them at the back half.  As the three characters struggle with guilt, responsibility, and many other feelings, “Night Moves” assumes the tenor of formulaic melodrama. Though this conventional chapter of the story ultimately caps off with a surprising plot development, the familiar waters taint the powerful experience of riding through such uncharted ones.  B2halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 17, 2010)

17 09 2010

I don’t know why I have let “I Am Sam” wait in the wings so long for its moment in the sun through the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column, but it certainly reflects nothing on the quality of the movie.  For those of us who like to feel good, this a movie that will comfort your soul – although it will take you on an emotional rollercoaster ride leading up to your eventual soothing.

The title may be taken from the opening sentence of “Green Eggs and Ham,” but “I Am Sam” owes more to The Beatles than it does to Dr. Seuss.  The movie follows Fab Four fanatic and Starbucks employee Sam, played with complete control by the virtuoso Sean Penn, as he fights to maintain custody of his daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning in her breakout role – at the age of 7).  The state has good reason to take her as Sam is mentally challenged; Lucy came into the world because her mother exploited Sam’s lacking logical capacity.

Despite whatever cognitive disabilities he may have, Sam’s ability to love his daughter is uninhibited, and he makes a wholehearted attempt to keep her.  He consults a harried lawyer, Rita Harrison, (Michelle Pfeiffer) for help, who on first glance won’t give his case the time of day.  But for entirely misguided and selfish reasons, she agrees to take Sam on pro bono.  As she gets more involved with the case, Rita winds up being taught how to feel by his undying love for his daughter.

I know it sounds clichéd to say that a movie about the power of love is a really moving thing, but every once in a while, there comes a movie that comes along that can repackage old emotions and make them feel warm and cozy again.  “I Am Sam” tackles a tough ethical question: should a mentally handicapped person be able to have custody of a child that is more intelligent than they are?  No matter what your opinion on the matter is, it’s pretty hard not to be affected in some way by this testament to love that can transcend any boundary.