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: Our Kind of Traitor

27 06 2016

Pop culture seems to be reaching a point of saturation with espionage tales, no doubt due in large part to Daniel Craig making James Bond cool again and Tom Cruise finding some new life in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. It has also led to a revival of appreciation for British spy novelist John le Carré, whose career began in the Cold War and has stretched into the post-9/11 world.

Our Kind of Traitor,” the latest adaptation of the author’s work, comes at the tail end of a big spate from le Carré. 2011 brought the feature-length version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy;” 2014 saw the release of “A Most Wanted Man;” earlier in 2016, his novel “The Night Manager” got the prestige mini-series treatment. Given what else has recently been dredged from his oeuvre, it’s hard not to see this new film as second-shelf le Carré.

For a writer whose strength lies in the grounded nature of his stories, the turn of events in “Our Kind of Traitor” is remarkably improbable. Large, bizarre narrative leaps work fine in a larger-than-life series like James Bond. This level of suspension of disbelief and stretches of plausibility feel odd and out of place in this realistic world.

The film’s protagonist, Ewan McGregor’s Perry Makepeace, just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time when he meets Stellan Skarsgard’s Dima, a Russian money launderer looking to go straight, in Marrakesh. Dima wants to get out of the criminal underworld and takes a gamble on the first Englishman he can find. And of course, the dominos just so happen to fall in a way that involves MI6 and produces a number of intriguing plot points. Susanna White’s film is an intelligence movie with fairly little intelligent craftsmanship, neither reflecting on the state of modern back-room diplomacy nor providing a particularly fun cinematic outing. C+2stars





REVIEW: Jane Got a Gun

6 05 2016

Jane Got A GunReally, truly and sincerely – I cannot think of a recent movie that I watched with more dispassion or disinterest than “Jane Got a Gun.”

The film, whose three-year journey to the audiences involved a revolving door of exiting talent along with the dramatic bankruptcy of its distributor, endured more than most. Yet in spite of (or, more likely, because of) this off-screen fracas, nothing remotely cinematic emerged. It feels like watching the motions of a western with no actual genre feeling. The wheels of time move, so the machinations of plot are there, but nothing really seems to happen. It’s mobile paralysis, if you will.

I generally tend to abide by Roger Ebert’s dogma when critiquing movies that suggests (as paraphrased by Wesley Morris) judging a movie against the best version of itself. All I can say is that the world is a worse place for not having the version of “Jane Got a Gun” directed by Lynne Ramsay, the wunderkind who summoned one of Tilda Swinton’s greatest performances in “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” Far more intriguing than watching any scene in the film directed by Gavin O’Connor (director of insipid MMA drama “Warrior”) was imagining how Ramsay might have approached the same situation.

I wondered how she might have gotten a more multifacted portrayal of the titular protagonist out of Portman. (Fun fact: this would have been the first feature-length film for Natalie Portman under a female director. So, yeah, go look up #HireTheseWomen.) I pondered how her impressionistic style could have livened up what otherwise feels like direct-to-DVD western fare. Surely whatever kind of uncommercial art film Ramsay was concocting could have made more money than this hastily assembled version of “Jane Got a Gun.” C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Miles Ahead

4 04 2016

Miles AheadNew York Film Festival, 2015

Biopics, particularly those chronicling musicians, tend to follow predictable patterns surrounding a rise from obscurity filled with pitfalls and setbacks. With judgments of quality momentarily tabled, Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” deserves some credit for avoiding the traditional structure. The film, which captures the spirit of jazz great Miles Davis, does not resemble the jagged line of the normal genre piece. Instead, it feels like a series of jagged glass shards, presenting themselves for reassembly.

The form matches the subject quite nicely; Davis, in the film’s later timeline, appears wonked out from drugs and chronic pain. The shifting back and forth with little straightforward logic reflects his mental state. But the freeform flow of the film also mirrors Davis’ craft. “Miles Ahead” recalls the riffing and improvisation of jazz – or, as Davis himself was prone to call it, “social music.”

Content-wise, however, Cheadle’s film is not nearly as impressive. Davis says, “Change it up!” Ironically, “Miles Ahead” rarely heeds that advice and shows history repeating itself again and again. Per usual, the cross-cut stories do ultimately manifest their similarities. Yet along the way, the film somehow dabbles in a heist film-cum-buddy comedy as Davis and Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) track down a stolen session tape together. The arrangement may not be familiar, but the notes played in the film certainly are. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Son of a Gun

7 02 2016

Son of a GunSon of a Gun” is a film about…

Well, actually, I’m not sure I can finish that sentence honestly. Julius Avery’s film is not really “about” anything. It’s yet another installment in a type of cinema that I call “things happening to people.” These types of movies are not automatically or categorically bad, but they are the cinematic equivalent of the simple sentence. They have the bare minimum necessary to get by and cohere. Any complexity beyond that is absent.

I could imagine a film where the journey of Brenton Thwaites’ JR is compelling like “A Prophet” or “Starred Up.” Both feature young men who enter prison with little to no affiliation or grounding and carve out a unique place in its social infrastructure. JR falls in with Ewan McGregor’s Brendan Lynch and quickly gets in far over his head, particularly once he exits the facility and faces expectations of continuing his role in their criminal enterprises.

But “Son of a Gun” mostly just watches as JR moves from scene to scene like the alphabet proceeds from A to Z. Avery adds none of the features – strong characterization, thematic heft or virtuosic artistry – that can elevate a “things happening to people” movie. The film does have some nice chemistry between Thwaites and Alicia Vikander’s Tasha, a path for his redemption. But otherwise, it’s less watchable and more just passable. B- 2stars





REVIEW: I Love You Phillip Morris

5 11 2014

i_love_you_phillip_morrisIn his opening monologue at the Golden Globes in 2011, Ricky Gervais quipped, “Not nominated, ‘I Love You Phillip Morris,’ with Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey, two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay.  The complete opposite of some famous Scientologists, then.”  I have nothing to say about said couch-jumper, largely because I’m not trying to get sued or anything.

But I do have plenty to say about the two straight actors playing gay.  Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor were, quite frankly, borderline offensive in “I Love You Phillip Morris.”  They play the broadest, most stereotypical feminine and weak homosexuals I could possibly imagine.  It’s these types of characters and performances that are undermining any sort of progress towards a more equal and accepting world.

Carrey’s idea of playing gay is to be the most over-the-top, female, scenery-chewing performer in the history of cinema.  He has succeeded in doing exactly what he set out to do, at devastating effect (for all the wrong reasons).  It’s as if he’s merely one of his other characters from his outrageously physical career, but on acid.  To Carrey, homosexuality appears to be a sort of affectation, trivializing it in the process.  McGregor is slightly better, but not by much as the bizarre energy of Carrey ultimately rubs off on everyone else.

The whole movie is just strange.  It’s a major misfire for Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the directorial team who gave us the hilarious and inspired “Crazy Stupid Love” after this disaster.  They take a tale that should be played as a tragedy and spin it into a comedy, largely at the expense of criminals and homosexuals, who take the brunt of the jokes.

What’s so funny about Carrey’s character, Steven Jay Russell, a closeted homosexual who lives a lie with his wife?  What’s funny about him leaving her devastated with his revelation, running off to Florida living an absurdly extravagant lifestyle with a male lover?  What’s funny about that lover, played by Rodrigo Santoro (Paulo Poops-A-Lot from “Lost”), later dying?  What’s funny about him falling into a life of crime?

What’s funny about him finally meeting the love of his life, Ewan McGregor’s Phillip Morris, only to be separated from him?  What’s funny about several people being stricken with AIDS, a disease that has ravaged the homosexual community like a plague?  This has all the makings of serious, touching drama.  But Ficarra and Requa see it as a comedy, why?  Because it has gay people?  Why give them feelings, why give them heartfelt moments?

In “I Love You Phillip Morris,” humanity for homosexuals takes a backseat to letting them traipse around effeminately in an attempt to prey on horrible preconceived notions for humor.  I am wowed by the insensitivity of this movie from the directors to the stars.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: August: Osage County

22 01 2014

August OsageI’m a firm believer that there are some source texts that are absolutely impossible to botch, provided they keep the main narrative intact.  Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County” belongs in such a category.

Many in the theatrical community already assert that it will be in the American dramatic canon along with works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner.  Letts provides some of the most gripping familial tensions I’ve ever read, and it’s chock full of meaty characters in an ensemble for the ages.

John Wells’ film adaptation of “August: Osage County” brings that story to a larger audience than likely could ever be reached on one stage.  Moreover, the cast he assembles is like the kind of “one night only” extravaganza that fans can only dream about.  I’ve never seen the show live, so I can’t really speak to its theatrical power.

Letts’ words did, however, jump off the page and paint such a vivid picture in my mind that I feel as if I did.  While the film does a decent job translating the action to the realm of cinema, there still feels like a bit of raw intensity evaporated in the transfer.

That’s not to say, though, that Wells doesn’t effectively harness the power of the screen to bring a different dimension to Letts’ opus of intergenerational discord.  On a stage, you can’t key off the subtleties in an actor’s facial movements, which is one of his most clever editing tricks in “August: Osage County.”  Some theorists have labeled film a fascist form because it has the power to direct your attention towards only what it considers relevant, but the way Wells chooses to organize these massive scenes is actually quite freeing.  It ensures we do not miss crucial reactions that serve to define the arcs of the characters.

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