AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Sexual Material, Language and brief Violent Images

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Directed by: Ewan McGregor

Written by: John Romano

(based on the novel AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Rupert Evans, Valorie Curry, David Strathairn, Uzo Aduba, Peter Riegert & Molly Parker

Despite having a killer trailer, lots of pre-premiere hype and being based on an acclaimed novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL hasn’t been nominated for anything and wasn’t well-received by most critics. This might be because the film differs so much from its source material, but I’d argue that this depressing story cuts a little too close to home for many folks. AMERICAN PASTORAL is a heartbreaking tale that seems frighteningly relevant in our modern divisive times. We’ve seen people willingly abandon friends and family members for differing opinions, all while riots erupt in the streets and hateful rhetoric is spewed on both sides of the political spectrum. After one of the most toxic elections ever and in a currently crazy year, AMERICAN PASTORAL is powerful stuff.

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Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), an aging author, attends his 40th high school reunion. Though he hopes to catch up on old times, Nathan is stoked to meet former friend Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor). However, Nathan is informed that Swede recently died and is then filled in on details of the man’s life. Swede was a guy who had everything ahead of him. He was a local football star and married his beauty queen sweetheart Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), they had a child named Merry, and then Swede’s life went to hell in a handbasket. When teenage Merry (Dakota Fanning) develops a penchant for radical protests and becomes the 60’s equivalent of an SJW, Swede finds his family ripping apart at the seams. This only worsens when a post office is bombed and a missing Merry becomes the prime suspect. As his relationships and life crumble around him, Swede desperately searches to find his vanished child.

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AMERICAN PASTORAL is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut and quite impressive for a first-time feature. The visuals are slick and McGregor captures the sense of this story’s shifting time period. I was whisked away to the 60’s and saw how little has really changed on the political spectrum over the years. That’s one big point that AMERICAN PASTORAL (the film version, anyway) seems to be making, along with many other possible interpretations of the heavy material. Ideas of materialism, perfection, and ideologies over people all have a place in this tragic drama. McGregor handles the material wonderfully on the big screen, though it should be noted that I have not read Roth’s novel and have no way of comparing it to the book.

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Pulling double-duty behind and in front of the camera, McGregor steps into the role of Swede. This all-American guy is a devoted husband and a loving father, though the latter seems to outshine the former in his daily life. McGregor seems to be playing a darker version of his BIG FISH character…but we see this man’s life fall apart and some blame comes back directly onto his shoulders. Jennifer Connelly (who’s mostly hit-or-miss) does an excellent job as a grieving mother and emotionally damaged wife. The scenes of her breaking down feel realistic and tug at viewer’s heartstrings. She just wants her family to be together again, though she also struggles with her daughter from the get-go.

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Dakota Fanning is infuriatingly great as the stuttering SJW daughter Merry. Though she is off-screen for about half of the running time (possibly more), Fanning makes a strong impression on those around her and will likely have viewers frustrated in watching her interactions. Like many real-life SJWs, Merry’s conversations always have to come back to politics/social justice in one way or another. Another notable stand-out is Valorie Curry as a mysterious woman with ties to Merry. Curry’s performance actually had me angrily yelling at my TV screen at one point. She’s that good. Molly Parker is underused as a strange psychiatrist and seems like she should have been a more prominent character. Meanwhile, David Strathairn is phoning it in during his bookend moments, but his final voiceover monologue hits one universal point of the story home.

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PASTORAL encounters a few problems in its pacing and the latter half of the script. This movie is a combination of a tragic-drama and a missing person crime-thriller. It tries to do both of these things and succeeds at the former, while stumbling in the latter. One long conversation scene explains away mysteries and honestly, I feel that a “show me, don’t tell me” style would have worked far better for this story. What works on a page doesn’t always work on the screen. One scene that should have been deeply moving and powerful, instead seems rushed and like an anticlimactic revelation. Other than this disappointing scene and the opening/closing bookends, which serve a purpose and still seem jarring nonetheless, the script pretty much knocks it out of the park.

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AMERICAN PASTORAL is a depressing, infuriating, and powerful film that tackles issues of family, relationships, toxic politics, and ideologies that harm more than they help. This movie doesn’t ever fully take sides on a political spectrum and I think that’s an admirable quality. Instead, it seems to hold up a cinematic mirror to the modern divisive state of America and says, “Nothing ever really changed.” AMERICAN PASTORAL is not necessarily a film that will be liked and it was never intended to be that. This emotional tragedy punched me right in the gut and I applaud it for taking on harsh truths. If AMERICAN PASTORAL sounds up your alley, then you’ll probably love this dark drama.

Grade: A-

HELLBOY (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Written by: Guillermo Del Toro

(based on the HELLBOY comics by Mike Mignola)

Starring: Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, Rupert Evans, Karel Roden, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, David Hyde Pierce, Brian Steele, Ladislav Beran & Bridget Hodson

The early 2000’s weren’t necessarily a good time for superhero flicks. There were a few exceptions (two X-MEN films and two SPIDER-MAN installments), but for the most part, filmmakers tried too hard to be cool, slick and edgy while pretty much attempting to turn every big superhero into their own franchise…most of which failed miserably. HELLBOY looked to be yet another one of these mediocre comic book movies and didn’t quite attract a huge crowd of filmgoers as a result. Luckily, the film eventually found its audience and garnered enough attention to warrant an outstanding sequel, but this review isn’t of HELLBOY II. It’s of 2004’s HELLBOY (adapted from Dark Horse comics). Skillfully directed by Guillermo Del Toro (in one of his early breaks into mainstream American cinema), HELLBOY is a rockin good time boosted by creepy visuals, tons of creativity, and a sense of humor that embraces the premise’s goofiness instead of flat-out ignoring it.

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The film begins in 1944. Nazis are using insane methods to fight the war. These methods include supernatural forces, otherworldly dimensions, and undead mystics. Luckily, an attempt to unleash Lovecraftian monsters fails and the evil Rasputin (yes, that Rasputin) is killed. Something made its way into our world though: a young demon with a rocky right hand. He’s adopted by a paranormal investigator and grows to become the monster-hunter known as Hellboy. In 2004, the timid John Myers is hired by the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense to be Hellboy’s caretaker. Little do Hellboy, John, or any of the BPRD members (including an aquatic psychic and a pyrokinetic) know that Rasputin has been resurrected and intends on using Hellboy to successfully bring Lovecraftian monsters to our world. Our lives are in danger and the one person that can save them is a demon.

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HELLBOY is a gorgeous-looking film. Guillermo Del Toro was no stranger to filmmaking by 2004 (creating CRONOS, MIMIC and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE) and lets his creativity shine behind the camera. With a budget of just over 60 million, HELLBOY looks better than most of our modern superhero movies. There’s a slick visual style and attention to detail brings every scene to life. You could pause any frame of this movie and spend a minute studying every detail about that still frame. It’s downright (for lack of a better word) cool. The creativity isn’t just in the visuals as Guillermo Del Toro was clearly having a blast in adapting the comics to the screen. The movie is fast-paced, confident, but not afraid to embrace the goofy cheese that comes with material like this. Even though it has a sense of humor, the movie isn’t too jokey though. That’s a tough tightrope to walk.

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The cast is great, with two exceptions. Ron Perlman is perfect as Hellboy. Though he’s wearing make-up and horns, Perlman sort of has the look that you’d expect Hellboy to have. He has that appearance even without the make-up and nails down the mannerisms of a witty, horned superhero in a way that’s rarely captured in superhero movies. Meanwhile, Selma Blair shines as the emotionally damaged pyrokinetic Liz. For my money, Liz is the best role that Blair has ever had. Karel Roden is great as Rasputin, yes that historical Rasputin, while John Hurt is well cast as Hellboy’s “father.” Doug Jones and the voice talents of David Hyde Pierce are combined to bring Abe Sapien (the psychic fish guy) to life. On the other side of the coin, Rupert Evans is utterly bland as the clean-cut FBI agent. He hadn’t starred in many movies before HELLBOY and hasn’t been in many since. This is probably for a reason. His delivery is unbelievably wooden. It’s a good thing that he’s not a big player in this movie and more of a background character. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Tambor is hit-or-miss as FBI Director Tom Manning. He has a couple of solid scenes, but does get over-the-top.

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Besides being creative and mostly well acted, HELLBOY greatly benefits from a terrifically creepy atmosphere too. The special effects are top-notch and incorporated into their environments with care. The decision to keep this relatively dark for a PG-13 was a ballsy one and there are a couple of images in this film that could potentially be nightmare fuel for young kids. These mainly include shots of giant tentacled beasties and a dual-sword wielding surgery addict (who unmasked has no lips or eyelids).

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Brimming with imagination, great effects, (mostly) good performances, and a tone that manages to be jokey, creepy and cool at the same time, HELLBOY really is among the top-tier of superhero films from the early 2000’s. Though it’s definitely an unconventional superhero flick, it’s made all the better for it. Lucky for fans, the film eventually garnered its audience (I remember watching this on DVD a whole lot) and got enough popularity to warrant HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (a sequel that manages to be even better than this first installment) as well as rumors of a third movie in the works. In this current situation where Marvel and DC are dominating movie theaters, 2004’s HELLBOY is a movie that deserves far more credit than it gets.

Grade: A-

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