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: Noah

28 07 2014

After “Black Swan” topped my best of 2010 list, Darren Aronofsky could have made a film about virtually anything, and I would turn out to see it.  From the earliest announcement of Aronofsky’s “Noah” in 2011, I was deliriously excited to see his distinct spin on the well-known Biblical story.

I maintained faith in spite of nearly every media report drumming up controversy about the film.  It became impossible to escape stories that claimed Aronofsky was replacing the original narrative with an environmental message, or that he was purging God from the film entirely.  Going in, I had the impression that I was bound to be offended by something in “Noah,” no matter how artfully Aronofsky presented it.

As it turns out, nothing that generated headlines about the film offended me.  What did, however, was the simple and rudimentary script of “Noah.”  It felt like Aronofsky went into production with the first draft for something that shows potential for greatness but achieves little of it.

As a character, Noah feels remarkably incomplete and incoherent.  His motivations are unclear, and I’m not sure whether to interpret that as Aronofsky saying God is confused … or whether Aronofsky himself is confused.  Russell Crowe turns in a rather schizoid performance, grappling with the seeming non-sequiturs of his character as much as he is with anything relating to God.

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REVIEW: The Dilemma

12 01 2011

The whole premise of deciding whether or not to tell a friend that their wife is cheating on them sounds like something that would make a good episode of “Full House” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.”  The whole thought process is something perfectly suited to sustain a 22-minute sitcom episode.  However, “The Dilemma” takes that setup and stretches it out to nearly two hours, and all it does is prolong the pain.

Ronny (Vince Vaughn) catches Geneva (Winona Ryder) two-timing her husband and his best friend Nick (Kevin James).  Unsure of whether to meddle or not, he weighs his options carefully but finds physical pain instead of answers and decisions.  The choice is harder to make since the two buddies are business partners under a great deal of stress to deliver big and Ronny is also wrestling with proposing to his girlfiend Beth (Jennifer Connelly).

The longer he delays, the harder it gets to make the decision.  It ultimately results in all four parties revealing and uncovering long-held secrets, which are of course nothing surprising or profound to viewers.  For this reason, “The Dilemma” is quite a bit darker and more solemn than most comedies hitting theaters nowadays.  Perhaps the strange tone is what attracted Ron Howard to direct the film, an Academy Award winner with a curious fascination at having a versatile resumé.  He’s much better at directing such unremarkable and controlled period pieces, where he’s actually capable of making a decent connection with the audience, than he is at directing comedy.

Both Vaughn and James bring a game face to the movie, but their physical and vocal humor is ultimately stifled by an artificial layer of dramatic importance and a poor script.  They get into it, sure, yet they are undermined by either poor dialogue or ridiculous situations.  It’s like these two dynamite comedic forces are trapped in sitcom reruns and aren’t sure whether to escape or adjust their acting style.  The duo desperately needs to return to the R-rated comedy genre which is perfectly able to harness their energy and turn it into side-splitting laughter.  (And, for that matter, Channing Tatum needs to leave acting altogether and just go back to modeling.)

It’s pretty sad for any movie when its legacy will ultimately be not what’s on film, but the fuss over an unsavory epithet for homosexuals in the trailer will likely be the only thing worth remembering about the movie in the years to come.  Ron Howard and Universal gave us a conversation topic in October 2010, yet in January 2011, they didn’t follow up by delivering a quality movie.  By the time you escape from the tepid grasp of “The Dilemma,” you’ll feel as if you’ve watched a highlight reel of failed jokes and cringe-worthy moments.  C-





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 11, 2010)

11 06 2010

They don’t make movies this powerful and impacting very often.  That’s why “Requiem for a Dream,” an stylistic masterpiece by Darren Aronofsky, is the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  I thought I couldn’t be scared by movies after having made it through several horror movies barely flinching.  Yet along came “Requiem for a Dream,” and unexpectedly, I was screaming, shouting, and cowering in fear.

The movie follows four people over nine months as drug abuse affects their lives in profound ways.  It’s a somewhat typical addiction story for Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) and Tyrone Love (Marlon Wayans) who are trying to earn enough money dealing drugs to open up a fashion shop for Harry’s girlfriend, Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly).  But due to various unfortunate incidents, they end up having to go deeper into the drug trade to dig themselves out of a hole.  Meanwhile, Marion has also fallen into a state of desperation to keep up their lifestyle of recreational drug use.

But easily the most powerful and heartbreaking storyline of “Requiem for a Dream” is that of Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), Harry’s mother.  A New Jersey widow who has confined herself to her tiny apartment, Sara becomes convinced that she has been selected to appear on her favorite infomercial after a fake phone call.  Trying to make herself look attractive for a television audience, she visits an underground doctor to obtain pills that will help her take off some weight quickly.  She gets what she wants out of the pills but winds up addicted.  It’s tragic to watch the doctor turn a blind eye to her issues when she comes in, clearly unable to address her own problems.  Because she didn’t intend for this to happen, it’s her unconventional addiction story that really captures our sympathy.  We leave all four of them in a state of misery that no human being should ever have to endure.  It is chillingly devastating to watch their lives spiral out of control, and even more so once we reach the unsparing conclusion.

There’s no way to talk about the movie without talking about the incredible acting, particularly Ellen Burstyn.  A role like Sara is risky for someone of her age and stature, and she went all-in.  The result is one of the most powerful performances of the decade, one that should have won her an Oscar.  Jared Leto is scary good as her son, Jennifer Connelly takes her character to the edge just one year removed from winning her own Oscar, and Marlon Wayans isn’t bad!

The tension in the movie is amplified by Clint Mansell’s absolutely terrifying score.  Usually, a film’s score is gravy in a best-case scenario or a distraction in a worst-case scenario.  But “Requiem for a Dream” incorporates Mansell’s music into the very fabric of the movie, making it that much more effective.  The main theme from the movie has become a cult hit, but it’s “Meltdown,” the song that plays during the climactic moments of the movie, that deserves to be worshipped.

But “Requiem for a Dream” really works because of the incredible vision Darren Aronofsky has for it.  He makes addiction real for us and gets us into the minds of the addicts themselves.  It’s the split-screen, the close-ups, and the time lapse sequences.  It’s the quick cuts, the repetitive sequences when drugs are used, and the increased speed whenever the addiction accelerates.  Most of all, though, it’s his willingness to give us the truth about addiction and his unflinching drive to take us where few movies can.  The whole movie exudes his confidence in his vision, and his style leads us exactly where he wants to take us.

Really, if you ever want to scare someone out of doing drugs, you should show them this movie.  There’s no one on this planet who could watch this movie and then want to go do hard drugs.  Heck, it could scare the average person out of taking a pill.  So by all means, if you think you can handle it, I strongly recommend “Requiem for a Dream.”





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 21, 2009)

21 08 2009

The new feature that I hyped up (OK, I briefly mentioned in a post that no one read) is here!  The F.I.L.M. of the week will be unveiled every Friday; F.I.L.M. is an acronym for “First-Class Independent, Little-Known Movie.”  But the movies will not be limited to independent films, although I would like to highlight them.  The word just works better in forming a strategic acronym.

The whole point of this weekly feature is to suggest a movie that you might not have seen, considered, or even heard about (barring you are a major film buff like myself).  So if you are browsing Netflix or walking around Blockbuster, rather than picking up “17 Again” or, God forbid, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” you will be armed with the knowledge of at least one movie that is a safe bet for excellent entertainment.

It is my distinct pleasure to award the distinction of the first “F.I.L.M. of the Week” to the exquisite “Little Children.”  The movie is just on the outside of my top 10, although given more viewings, it just might move into the elite ranks.   It is one of very few movies that I can say are practically flawless.  Every performance is great.  Every character is well-developed.  Every minute of it is absolutely spellbinding. Unfortunately, audiences didn’t pick up on its brilliance; it grossed about $5 million at the box office, most of which was from Oscar season. The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actor (Jackie Earle Haley), and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Golden Globes nominated it for Best Picture.

The movie is based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, but he decided to take the movie in a distinctly different direction than the book rather than just make a carbon copy.  The screenplay is about as good as it gets.  It complexly weaves together the tales of Sarah (Kate Winslet), the resistant mother stuck among droves of Stepford wives, Brad (Patrick Wilson), the stay-at-home-dad emasculated by his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and her success, Larry (Noah Emmerich), a disgraced police officer out for vengeance, and Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a pedophile who moves in with his loving mother.  They all impact each other in ways they cannot even fathom, and the film’s overlying messages become clear through their encounters.

Everyone is magnificent in the movie, but I do have to single out a few names.  Director Todd Field gives the film narrative poise unlike any movie of the decade, and his presence and guiding hand is clearly felt throughout the movie.  He skillfully handles the very tough material that the movie tackles, treating it with the respect and dignity that they deserve.  Despite its heavy themes, Field also allows it to function as a very dark comedy as well.  This should have been Kate Winslet’s Oscar-winning performance.  It is nuanced, emotional, and absolutely gripping.  She immediately draws you in and never lets go.  Jackie Earle Haley does the unthinkable by turning a feared sexual predator into someone we can ultimately feel compassion for and empathize.  He moves you almost to the verge of tears, especially in scenes with his gentle and loving mother (Phyllis Sommerville).  Here, we see him as emotionally raw and not a pedophile, but as an insecure human being just like the rest of us.

But it’s time for me to stop writing and let the movie speak for itself.  I will say that the movie might be disturbing for some easily squeamish, mainly because of its brutally honest and often graphic portrayal of things that exist in our society.  Nevertheless, for a movie that will keep you thinking for days, drop everything and watch “Little Children.”  If you do see it, write your thoughts in a comment, or if you have seen it, still express yourself in a comment.

Until the next reel,
Marshall

P.S. – Watch the trailer.  It’s one of the rare ones that doesn’t give away anything about the plot. And it also sets you up for the ride that “Little Children” offers.