AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016)

October 20, 2016

american-pastoral Greetings again from the darkness. Tackling one of the great American novels is a difficult challenge for even the most seasoned film directors … and a dubious undertaking (at best) for a first-timer. Philip Roth won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel “American Pastoral”, and there have been rumblings of a Hollywood production for more than a decade. It’s somewhat surprising that the screen version is directed by first time director Ewan McGregor … with the Scottish actor also taking on the lead role of local Jersey boy and sports hero Seymour “Swede” Levov.

The story examines the cracks behind the façade of a seemingly perfect family … the sports hero marrying the beauty queen. Of course, there is always more going on within a family than most care to admit (at least that was the case in the days prior to Facebook). There’s an early scene where Swede has introduced Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) to his father (Peter Riegert), and the philosophical and religious differences perfectly capture the changing times and mores from one generation to the next. Never has this been more true than the late 1960’s and early 1970’s … political and social upheaval were daily occurrences – and sometimes quite violent.

The first half of the movie is exceptionally well done and captures the essence of why the second half feels like a total decimation of everything Swede thought he had. He and Dawn’s daughter Merry is beautiful and feisty and stutters … something that only enhances the anger she expresses and anguish she causes for her parents. Her innocent questions as a young child evolve into radical political beliefs and affiliations as she grows up.

Merry (ironically named) is by far the most interesting character in the story, but with the focus on Swede, Dakota Fanning only has brief moments that are worthy of her talent, and Dawn has only a few emotional moments that allow Ms. Connelly to flash the acting depth she hasn’t shown in years. So much time and attention is devoted to Swede that the second half is a bit of a letdown and leaves too many details and questions unanswered.

John Romano’s (The Lincoln Lawyer) adaptation of the American classic took a different direction than we might have preferred, but it’s a thankless job since so many have considered this as unfilmable. McGregor shows a good eye as a director, though it’s obvious this material needed a more experienced filmmaker at the helm. The great Alexandre Desplat provides a classy score … the piano pieces are especially well suited. Supporting work is solid from David Strathairn as narrator Nathan Zuckerman, Rupert Evans as Swede’s brother, Molly Parker as Merry’s therapist, Uzo Aduba as Swede’s employee, and Valorie Curry as a misguided revolutionary. It’s a reminder that family dynamics may be the most complex organism, and when blended with the volatile times of the Vietnam War, a generational gap should be expected … even if it’s difficult and emotional to accept.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

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NOAH (2014)

March 30, 2014

noah Greetings again from the darkness. Since I am no biblical scholar, my comments are those of a movie lover. Tackling any part of a story from the bible is a journey filled with land mines and aggressive criticism – and that’s before your movie is released! Surely director Darren Aronofsky was prepared for backlash from those who forbid any interpretation of the Good Book. The story of Noah lasts but a few pages in the bible, meaning Aronofsky had to creatively fill some space to produce a 2-plus hour film.

Russell Crowe makes a fine Noah. He is relentless in his quest to fulfill The Creator’s request … and he flashes his “Gladiator” glare on a few occasions. Rather than an uplifting childhood bedtime story, this Noah carries the burden of God, his own family and the survival of all beings … his days are filled with moral dilemmas much larger than what you and I go through.

With all the miscommunication afforded by email and text these days, imagine if God conversed with you through images in your dreams. Maybe that process creates some areas of gray? Not if you are Noah. I guess he only dreams when God wants to show him something, so his decision making and mission is pretty focused. He is to build a giant floating warehouse to save two of every creature. Yes, that means a lot of death for those not invited. See, God is using Noah and his family to help cleanse the earth of mankind … God is ready for a re-boot. He is really not happy with how mean and nasty man has become ever since that whole apple debacle and the murder of Abel by Cain.

Some of the visual effects are spectacular. I especially enjoyed the high-speed montage showing the creation of life … you know, that first week. Also, the beginning of the flood is quite a spectacle, but the ark itself is actually quite stunning … constructed per the size noted in the Bible. The animals are all digitally created and we actually see little of them, though the on-boarding process goes remarkably smooth – considering this happens before the herbal sleep concoction is disbursed.

Most of the discussion will probably be on The Watchers … the fallen angels who once tried to help mankind, and for their efforts, God turned them into giant stone creatures. I will add that The Watchers need a new nickname since they did the bulk of the manual labor in constructing the ark and then protecting it … not much watching going on for these poor guys (voiced by Nick Nolte and Frank Langella, among others).

Noah’s wife is played by Jennifer Connelly and their sons are played by Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth and Leo McHugh Carroll. They welcome Emma Watson into their family in what turns into a very odd plot twist, and the villain, Tubal-Cain is payed by Ray Winstone. Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, is played to the hilt by Anthony Hopkins. All of these characters are pretty one dimensional, but it matters little since this is Noah’s story. The burden he carries is quite heavy and his decisions aren’t always popular.

If you are looking for the well documented story of Noah, it’s no mystery what book you should be reading. If you are after a pretty impressive visual interpretation, you could certainly do worse than Aronofsky’s take. And the best news … no Morgan Freeman voice-over!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see one of the most impressive set pieces ever built (the ark), plus some pretty cool fallen angels made of stones, a ferocious flood and a few trademark “Gladiator” glares courtesy of Russell Crowe.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: if you are extremely particular about bible movies … you know it will annoy you.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE DILEMMA

January 15, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. On average, I see two new releases per week. Selections are based on subject matter, cast, director, and most often, the trailer. My two most recent viewings were BLUE VALENTINE and SOMEWHERE, both somber to say the least. So a light-hearted buddy flick with Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, and directed by Ron Howard, seemed like just the right change of pace.

Unfortunately, the actual film has little resemblance to the film advertised in the trailer. Sure the comedy scenes from the trailer are present: Vince gives an acidic toast, Kevin James does his fat-man dance, and Channing Tatum plays an off-center tattooed boy toy with a loaded gun and dead fish. Where the fraud comes in is with the rest of the film. This is a pretty dark, weighty relationship movie that poses quite the moral dilemma (hence the title) for Vince. Should he tell his best friend and business partner that his wife is cheating on him?

Rather than a few rounds of funny scenes with Vaughn trying to get it right, we get “deep” emotional wrangling of a poor guy who just doesn’t know the best solution. Along the way he hurts many people he likes, and a few he doesn’t. Please don’t take this wrong, I am fully onboard with dramas being mixed with comedy. In fact, Ron Howard has provided us with one of the best examples of this … PARENTHOOD. However, this is nowhere near that level, and in fact, misses the mark in both comedy and drama.

I spent much of the movie trying to decide who was most frightening, Winona Ryder or Karen Carpenter. What?? Oh wait, I meant Winona Ryder or Jennifer Connelly. Too soon? Come on, she died in 1983. The point is Ms. Ryder carries forth with her BLACK SWAN look and Ms. Connelly evidently hasn’t had solid food for at least a dozen years. Queen Latifah does her best to bring some energy to the film, but her character only has about 3-4 scenes. It’s always nice to see how Ron Howard works in his brother Clint and his father Rance … thereby keeping their actor’s guild cards current.

 There really was a good idea here, but the comedy and drama just weren’t meshed well. And Kevin James as a genius engineer? Seems a stretch from Mall Cop! Ron Howard has some classic movies to his name. Some funny ones like NIGHT SHIFT, and some dramatic ones like A BEAUTIFUL MIND and APOLLO 13. Unfortunately, this one falls flat and really provides little entertainment.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: umm … sorry, I’ve got nothing … just watch the trailer and save your money.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a slapstick comedy with Vince Vaughn, Kevin James and Queen Latifah.