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

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REVIEW: Louder Than Bombs

8 05 2016

Louder than Bombs

It feels quite fitting that Joachim Trier’s “Louder Than Bombs” features voiceover narration comes from all different characters. The writer/director frequently harbors novelistic ambitions in his work, and this feels like a stab at the ambitious multi-tongued narrations of Faulkner. Yet in trying to swing for the fences, Trier really just demonstrates how thin a grasp he has on the differences between literature and cinema.

Granted, this device is partly excused by the fact that the story has no real protagonist. Because “Louder Than Bombs” is a story about loss, it’s somewhat fitting that the center of the film is a departed character. The narrative is one of absence, not about presence. Such a choice comes with a cost, however. Trier’s film feels largely empty. Where one would normally find a heart, there is little more than stale air.

As the family of acclaimed war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) picks up the shards left by her sudden departure, Trier seems to consciously avoid the clichés of similar movies. The widowed father (Gabriel Byrne) resists becoming emotionally absent; the eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg) remains cooly distant; the younger son (Devin Druid) feigns normalcy. Yet avoiding banality does not guarantee quality. It is not enough to merely remove the bad if it is not replaced with something else good. And Trier has little of substance to offer.

“Louder Than Bombs” plays like the kind of film made by someone who has seen movies and read books about grief but has never really experienced it – or at the very least, has never really come to terms with it. Be it in the performances, the tone or the content, every moment feels motivated by the art being imposed onto the events rather than the emotion that ought to flow from them. People grieve singularly, to be sure, and it is not for anyone to say how it should or should not be done. But Trier’s choice to stand so far outside the messy, complicated reality of mourning and rebuilding provides scant insight into the very thing he seeks to depict. C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: Godzilla

8 06 2014

GodzillaIn 2010, Gareth Edwards unleashed the ultra-low budget flick “Monsters” on the world.  It was a striking debut, and it also wound up serving as an audition tape for the job of reenergizing the “Godzilla” franchise.  Indeed, if there was anyone to scoop up from the world of independent cinema for large-scale filmmaking, Edwards seemed like a natural due to the way he emphasized human relationships over flashy computer graphics.

Sadly, what ultimately hits the screen in “Godzilla” is something far more in the mold of Marvel than Edwards’ own “Monsters.”  The plot structure resembles the paradigm perpetuated by films like “The Avengers;” I’d like to call this formula “30-40-50.”  The first 30 minutes of the film introduce us briefly to the characters and cap off with an inciting event that sets up a climactic clash with an opposing villainous force.  The next 40 minutes vamp up to this giant conclusion, showing the various heroes and their preparations.  And it all caps off with 50 minutes of destructions, explosions, collapsing buildings … you know the drill.

The scariest part of “Godzilla” is not the monster; it’s realizing how quickly the art of screenwriting has transmuted into an engineered science.  It favors empty computer graphics over real suspense and rewarding characterization.  Edwards’ penchant for thrilling action goes woefully underutilized as he settles to provide a standard entry in the genre “Monsters” so ably defies.  He gets to be somewhat ironic on occasion but never subtle.

Actors can often rescue movies that sag under the weight of a bloated effects budget, but no such salvation is available for “Godzilla.”  Here, Bryan Cranston is forced to play a Walter White-lite variety and acclaimed actresses such as Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche are relegated to serve perfunctory roles on the sidelines.  But don’t worry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson fruitlessly channels Mark Wahlberg trying to save the day, an archetype he’s ill-equipped to play.

But hey, who needs actors when you can watch a giant lizard destroy the Golden Gate Bridge and the rest of San Francisco?  Not like we got to see it terrorized in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  Or the “Star Trek” movies.  (Heck, even the animated “Monsters vs. Aliens” got in on the action.)  Sure, it’s probably more extensive here in “Godzilla,” but it all just feels so familiar and generic.  No better way to sit through the threat of near-apocalyptic extinction than comfortably numb, right?  C+2stars





REVIEW: Howl

2 08 2011

If you yearn for an alternative to the tired narrative structure of Hollywood films but want it without all the puzzling avant-garde vibes of a Terence Malick movie, perhaps “Howl” is a good pick for you.  It’s experimental but stays largely within comfortable confines, shifting between various storylines tied together by Allen Ginsberg’s poem in a fairly standard non-linear format.  The movie is overall not as provocative or engaging as it should be, but it does make give some interesting background on the discontent of the Beat Generation while also giving a portrait of a very interesting thinker.

Ginsberg is full of a cryptic intelligence and a paradoxically reserved openness thanks to a brilliant portrayal by the new millenium’s Renaissance man James Franco.  Behind the cigarette smoke and tucked away behind the Ray-Ban lenses is a fully understood man, even if Franco doesn’t want to grant us full access to his mind.  Call it the anti-“127 Hours” because rather than letting it all out in a furious display of emotion, he gets to do a slow reveal characterized by a careful restraint.

That doesn’t keep us from appreciating his portrait of Ginsberg.  Much like he convinced us we were watching Aron Ralston and not James Franco, he gets lost in Allen Ginsberg, fully absorbing his strange vocal cadences while reading “Howl” and picking up his easy-going, laid-back mannerisms that also exhibit the pain he has experienced in the interview portion of the movie.  It’s amazing what Franco can do when he sets his mind on acting because when he isn’t fully engaged in the movie, his boredom pulsates beyond the screen.

“Howl” is more than just the James Franco show, though, and it does more in 80 minutes than many movies do in two hours.  The ambitious film, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (two documentarians instrumental to making Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” work), tackles not only Allen Ginsberg but his effect on literature and American culture by also showing the obscenity trial surrounding the controversial poem that is totally separate from Franco’s Ginsberg.  This section asks us to challenge where obscenity overlaps with art, a question that still plagues us today.  What the two produce in their first narrative film is hardly a groundbreaking or game-changing film, but the experiment is hardly a failed one.  If you want an introduction to Ginsberg’s enigmatic poem that will provide you some valuable insight into what exactly he meant – and what his work meant for society as a whole.  B / 





REVIEW: Cold Souls

20 07 2010

Paul Giamatti is usually a pretty funny guy; his facial movements alone can illicit a few good laughs.  But not even he has the power to fill the emptiness of “Cold Souls.” Giamatti hasn’t exactly shied away from some pathetic characters in the past, and he has infused them with plenty of neuroses.  Yet for some reason, the whole act just falls flat here.

I get that the movie is a criticism of the capitalist society that we live in, and it’s one of those “intelligent satires” that aren’t exactly meant to entertain us so much as make us think.  It wouldn’t bother me so much had I not seen an excellent movie called “Being John Malkovich” that does everything that this movie so desperately wanted to do, and it does it flawlessly.

Apparently, writer/director Sophie Barthes wants us to think that soul extraction is the new therapist’s couch.  Giamatti, that is, a fictionalized version, undergoes this operation to make his work on a play easier.  He becomes disappointed at how small his soul looks in its glass container and throws a nice little fit.

And from there on out, it’s pure agony to watch Giamatti soullessly sulk around the screen, barely saying a word.  The plot collapses as there is some sort of “soul trafficking” issue going on in Russia that we are supposed to care about, but by that point, it’s so easy to just tune out everything that’s going on and be thankful you have a soul.

Strangely enough, I really enjoyed the movie whenever David Strathairn was on screen.  Too bad that was only for a few minutes.  C- /





F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 11, 2009)

11 12 2009

This week’s “F.I.L.M.” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie for those that need a refresher) is George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.”  The movie follows newscaster Edward R. Murrow’s stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in the 1950s.  But Clooney, the movie’s writer/director, makes the movie more than just a chronicle of events.  The movie isn’t about Murrow or McCarthy, nor is it about the Red Scare.  “Good Night, and Good Luck” is about standing up for what is right even if you are the only one.  Clooney understands the importance of these themes still today and makes a film that will be forever relevant.

The movie takes us back to a much simpler time in television.  Murrow (David Strathairn) is more than just a reporter; he is an orator with well thought-out speeches and firm opinions.  In the era where the Red Scare is at its height and blacklisting is a very present fear, Murrow dared to stand up and call out Joseph McCarthy when no one else would, knowing that he very well could become the Senator’s next victim.  Many people were not willing to take this risk with him; even more bet against him.  But Murrow was unyielding and uncompromising, and he used the power that his voice had to convey to Americans that it is not acceptable to live in a climate where we fear one another.  His forceful discourse indirectly led to the end of McCarthyism and, in this writer’s opinion, will become immortalized in the annals of American history at a level near that of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Adress.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” is for television journalism what “All The President’s Men” is for print journalism, a classic story of ethics.  But the former is packed with an extra punch: a cautionary moral tale.  A speech by Murrow in the late ’50s shown at the close of the movie is particularly haunting as he elaborates about the tremendous power of television and how we must use it to inform people, not merely to entertain and amuse.  Murrow passed away over four decades ago, but Clooney sure wants us to ponder what he would think if he turned on the cable box today.  Would he be proud of the uproars when millions of people miss “Grey’s Anatomy” so ABC can show President Obama’s speech?  Would he be proud of the fact that our news channels are so concerned with political correctness that they become lambs rather than the lions of his day, willing to call out wrong behavior with confidence?  Would he be proud to see dozens more movie channels than news channels on most televisions?  Clooney’s double gut-punch of virtue is a wake-up call that does not go out to just politicians and news anchors.  It retains meaning for people dealing with even the smallest of dishonorable conduct.  Now that is something that would make Murrow proud.