American Pastoral directed by Ewan McGregor

Review by Karim Malak

Philip Roth’s 1997 timeless novel American Pastoral about a New Jersey small town football and basketball star gets adapted for the screen in this year’s Ewan McGregor film which carries the same name. As both director and lead actor, Ewan McGregor plays Swede Levov: the handsome Jew who goes on to marry the Miss Union County girl, Dawn (played by Jennifer Connelly). It is a seemingly triumphant story of the American melting pot as a Jewish man in 1950′s America rises against the odds, has his cake and eats it. As Swede and Dawn decide to marry, Dawn confronts Swede’s father. Dawn is not one to take no for answers and prevails through all the difficult questions Swede’s father throws at her. She insists were they to have kids their child would be baptized, rather than be in limbo on account of being Jewish, and forces the hand of Swede’s father, Lou Levov, an old and stubborn self-made Jew who owns a leather factory.

Nominated for two awards, best feature at the Hamburg Film Festival and best film at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, American Pastoral is likely to bring together Philip Roth fans and those who appreciate good film in general. American Pastoral departs from Philip Roth’s classic novel style of taking one character and making the viewer see their life through their own eyes as was the case with Indignation, another Philip Roth adaptation that was premiered this year as well that tells the story of the trials and tribulations of a young Jewish atheist at a Catholic seminary who experiences American anti-Jewish attitudes during World War II.

In contrast, American Pastoral, the story is told through Swede’s brother who tells his story during his high-school homecoming and divulges to a friend of Swede that he is actually in town for his brother’s funeral. Told as a flashback American Pastoral thus shows the intersections of the Vietnam War, the black civil rights movement and the everyday racism of the New Jersey police as well as the family politics of a Jewish/Catholic family in which the daughter competes for the love of her father with her mother. Depicting a classic case of the Electra complex, the film increasingly revolves around Swede’s daughter; the American dream it seems of the high school football star who married the high school beauty quickly crumbles.

The movie then plunges into the life of Swede’s stuttering daughter, Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning), who, as the family’s shrink has already stated, lives in the shadow of the local county’s beauty queen mother and the burden to be a perfectionist. In this case, the white picket fence of the family farm is what holds Merry from speaking. As Merry becomes more and more politicized and goes to New York to attend meetings about the Vietnam War she becomes more and more secluded, eventually running away from the house as she joins the political underground as bombings in the US spread while curfews are called in to stop the “rioting” which Merry insists is instead the first wave of the revolution. Swede Levov’s factory which proudly employs “80% Negros” has its windows smashed and its manager, Vicky (played by Uzo Adoba), a black woman in her 40′s, calls to tell him she has never seen anything like this type of violence as police shoot unarmed black protestors. Swede joins her and risks getting shot when he hoists up a sign on the factory windows proclaiming “This factory employs Negros.”

As Merry resurfaces through an alleged comrade, Swede’s life brightens up and he is lured into believing that this mysterious co-activist can lead him to his daughter. After several rendezvous he is disappointed and his wife shows up in the factory naked with leather gloves on, singing and serenading while Vicky yells for him to come quickly. Dawn has had a breakdown and goes to a mental hospital, during which she has a few cathartic episodes where she describes what she sees – her past – “Catholic schools boys as life guards…I should have married them.” She blames Swede, and his non-Catholicism, for their current predicament, implying that they brought into this world an ungodly child. Eventually what brings Dawn back is her decision to do a facelift in Geneva and undergo plastic surgery; she wants to be reborn to bury her past but Swede cannot let go of Merry just yet. As a reborn woman, Dawn is still as beautiful, if not more, as Swede’s father reminds him. She cheats on him with an architect redesigning their home who happens to also be an artist from whom Swede purchases his art to appease his wife.

Merry reappears and Swede learns what she has been through: rape at the hands of her comrades; struggles leaving from Chicago to Boston to New York barely eating and how they ‘used’ her to carry out bombings to protest the Vietnam War. When Swede asks her how many lives she has taken, she replies four. In shock Swede says he can “bring her back;” he is outraged at the those four white deaths, while Merry’s old 16-year-old voice rings in the background, reminding viewers of the previous scenes when she rebutted Swede, asking how many lives in Vietnam were lost while he didn’t care. It is the classic story of the activist underworld that in the name of revolution reproduces the same ills it claims to fight against. As Swede grows old and dies, the movie ends with Swede’s brother and his high school friend at his funeral, only to see Merry reappear by his coffin.

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Loving, written and directed by Jeff Nichols

Loving
Review written Kamhai Beard, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 12

Before I get started with my review, let me tell you something. Love is the key to everything. If any of you have seen this film, you know the main idea of the story already. But if you haven’t, let me bring you up to speed. This is a sad yet romantic film. When I watched this movie, it changed my perspective or at least my way of thinking about love. After watching it, I thought about the life I live today and I realize that without the Lovings, the world would be a much different place.

This movie is about the true story of an interracial couple who fell in love. In the beginning of the movie, we see Mr. Loving (Joel Edgerton) building a new home for himself and his wife. Little did they know that the police were going to soon find out about their marriage and shortly after, they would end up in jail. Back in 1967, in the state of Virginia, interracial marriages were illegal. But love has no color so Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving decide to fight for what they believed in. When the police find out, they try to stop them. As you watch this movie, it makes you think about love, not differences. Now get this – after watching this movie some of the actors from the film came on stage and told us more about the movie. I learned that when Peggy, the Loving’s daughter first meet Joel Edgerton (who plays her dad in the film), she called him daddy and began to cry.

The filming crew truly captures the reality of the times in so many ways. I recommend this film for ages 10 through 18 and older. Children under 10 would not have learned about this subject yet, but when you’re 10 you already start learning about the racism in their country in social studies. I give this movie 5 out of 5 stars because it was better than my expectations. It has a good storyline and a good setting and, most importantly, the titles really catches the meaning of the film. This film is in theaters now so be sure to check it out.

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Indignation, directed by James Schamus

Review written by Karim Malak.

In the movie Indignation, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s work, the viewer gets a taste of how a Jewish atheist student, Marcus (Logan Lerman) struggles to attend weekly sermons at a prestigious boarding school. Despite doing all he can to avoid being a Jew, Marcus plays a richly written role of a young school boy who is moved by philosophy, music and the arts. Yet despite such qualifications he is reduced by his school master – Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) to sheer inferiority, showing American Anti-Jewish attitudes which are written out of history. With classic anti-Jewish tropes emerging in the film, the movie centers around young ‘Marcie’s’ life where he falls in love with the beautiful Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). As both explore their bodies together, word gets round and Olivia is shamed. While Marcus is taken aback by Olivia performing fellatio on him, he tells his roommates who begin to shun him and shame him. Word gets round fast.

Dean Caudwell uses the opportunity to remind Marcus of Olivia’s past attempted suicide and that she was in an asylum. This is interesting in bringing together how WWII-era ideas about the mental ward were used not only to police women’s bodies – making their sexuality seem like a disease that needed to be controlled – but that it was an ungodly disease that spread first to non-Christians such as Jewish Marcie, who for all his proclamations of being an atheist is not allowed to be one. In fact, Marcus refuses to join the Jewish Fraternity, something that seems to be beyond the head of the fraternity to understand. Yet when Marcus gets sick while arguing with Dean Caudwell, and faints because of his appendix, he wakes up in the hospital only to find the Jewish Fraternity taking care of him. For someone who tries to escape his religion so much, it cannot escape him.

In true renaissance fashion, Marcus embraces his studies and attempts to rise above the discrimination and loneliness by immersing himself in his studies. This idea whereby Marcus constantly removes his Jewish markers that would make him stand out becomes futile. In a heated discussion with Dean Caudwell, he tells him that his father is a butcher, that is what he listed in his paperwork after all; but Dean Caudwell reminds him his father is a kosher butcher. Marcus replies that he begs to differ, his father is not only a kosher butcher. This serves as an apt motif in the movie, why is it that Jews are made to identify as only Jews and at precise moments?

Marcus goes against instinct and upon learning that most students skip weekly sermons by hiring someone to hand in their attendance card, agrees to hire someone. Yet oddly enough his fixer is caught despite all other students having never been caught before. Dean Caudwell clearly does not want Marcus to stay at the school despite being a scholarship student. Upon getting caught red-handed, Marcus is kicked out and is forced to join the army in Vietnam because of the draft. The movie ends where it began: with Marcus running in Army uniform and dying in Vietnam. Marcus’s experience is precisely about the power to have his Jewish identity dictated to him despite all his efforts to hide it; in fact it is not only about having his identity dictated to him by those who want him to remove it, but it is about when his identity is dictated for him. If everybody gets away with forging their attendance during weekly sermons, it is the fact that Marcus was an agitating Jewish student that meant that they policed who handed in their attendance cards rather than leave the box where attendance cards are deposited unattended. It is at this moment, while the war in Vietnam is being fought, that Marcus was rendered a Jew despite all his attempts, ultimately resulting in his death.

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The Fifth Wave, reviewed by Movies According to Des

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The Good Dinosaur, reviewed by Movies According to Des

Hello everyone and welcome to my podcast,
I reviewed the animated film, The Good Dinosaur.

Synopsis: Arlo is lost from his home and finds a best friend. Can they find their way home together?

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Café Society, written and directed by Woody Allen

Café Society reviewed by Mike Fishman

Another year, another Woody Allen film. Apparently having few interests other than directing films and playing clarinet, Mr. Allen has continued churning out his signature comedies at a regular pace, marking this as his 47th feature film since 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? (though perhaps it’s more accurate to reference 1969’s Take the Money and Run as his first film of wholly original material) and his 17th since 2000 ushered in Small Time Crooks. Whether he has in him another great film like 2013’s Blue Jasmine remains to be seen but there is no doubt that his latest offering, Café Society, belongs firmly in the category of the majority of his late period oeuvre: often clever, generally interesting, but occasionally feeling rushed or unpolished. And so for every witty line we get in Café Society (“When a Jew cooks something, it’s always overcooked, because they want to kill all the germs”) there is dialogue too on-the-nose or just pretentious proclamations that might have generated laughs in his early comedies but here are delivered with too little irony. A running voiceover narration by Mr. Allen is unnecessary and at times oddly recounts what just transpired on-screen or tells us what we already know. It’s almost as if Allen adapted the screenplay from a work of fiction and just couldn’t bear to toss out the narration because he’s in love with the sound of the words. And with Allen not appearing in the film, the nagging question might well be asked, who is this narrator anyway?

But the wondrous elements of Allen’s best work are here in this tale of an uncertain young man from the Bronx (Jesse Eisenberg) trying his luck in Hollywood with the help of his agent uncle (Steve Carell) but falling in love with his uncle’s mistress (Kristen Stewart): the period music, the energetic editing, the evocative photography by the legendary Vittorio Storaro, here working digitally but softening the images to a golden glow (for more on that see: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/cinematographer-vittorio-storaro-filming-cafe-911441). And the setting of 1930’s Hollywood with its cars and gangsters, furs and handshake deals, should prove catnip to fans of classic Hollywood.

The love triangle, too, is more involving than we’ve seen from Allen in some time, with all three characters portrayed at various points having to respond to a sudden revelation of the other’s complicating involvement. Kristen Stewart as Vonnie, the love interest, has come a long way since the ancient history of the Twilight films and the unintended absurdities of Snow White and the Huntsman, and Café Society gives her more to work with than last year’s Equals, though that moody sci-fi was certainly a more ambitious film. Blake Lively, on the other hand, is given a pitifully small role in which she not surprisingly shines and it’s unfortunate Allen did not make more use of her. Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby, now appearing in his second film with the director, does excellent work as the expected Woody Allen surrogate (as usual for Allen a curiously not very likable main character) and calls to mind Tony Roberts, the always-great supporting actor in several of Allen’s earlier comedies. Steve Carell as Uncle Phil, the third wheel in the love triangle, is reined in here and like so many great comedians who have dabbled in dramatic roles (Albert Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Garry Shandling, Robin Williams to name a few), the more restrained, the better, the more power the funny man (not being funny) exudes.

The film ends on a refreshingly uncertain note with Vonnie and Bobby (did they really need to have rhyming names?) pining for each other while still committed to their marriages. Perhaps predictably, Bobby pines more than Vonnie, who seems perfectly fine with her marriage to the much older and wealthy Phil. As uncertainty exudes from Eisenberg’s puppy dog eyes, clearly not quite sure how much in love he still is with his wife, we might wonder if Allen is subconsciously (or otherwise) presenting his own view of women as more complacent creatures when it comes to marriages of convenience. In any case and despite its shortcomings, the film’s great period detail should transport viewers to an earlier time and help fill the gaps between the weak moments of the film and keep minds from wandering too far before the end.

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Alice Through the Looking Glass, directed by James Bobin and produced by Tim Burton

Based on the book by Lewis Carroll, Disney brings us Alice Through the Looking Glass directed by James Bobin and produced by Tim Burton. The story follows Alice who returns to the whimsical world of Wonderland and travels back in time to save the Mad Hatter. KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Clayton P. comments, “Disney’s Alice Through The Looking Glass is a magical fantasy adventure film in the great Tim Burton tradition. It is also a refreshing, feminist take on the classic Lewis Carroll story.” See his full review below.

Alice Through The Looking Glass
Review by Clayton Pickard, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 16

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The Playground directed by Edreace Purmul

The Playground directed by Edreace Purmul

Film synopsis: A New-Ancient thought-provoking thriller: Five vastly separate inner-city lives struggle against their limitations in an interlocking story assembled by a dark orchestrator. All five characters play their hand in an obscure playground they find themselves in. As answers begin to unravel, so does their sanity…

Review written by Shirley Rodriguez

This film presents us with 5 characters and several themed chapters in which they are facing various struggles, and not all is what it seems. Although the movie opens with a scene in an actual school playground, the true playground we discover is the world itself and its inhabitants. Within this playground are humans destroying themselves and each other. The destructive elements include lying, cheating, murder and deception for evil gains without regard for others. Faith and religion are questioned when times are difficult, but that is when it is needed most for those who choose to believe.

There is a married couple struggling to maintain their marriage, a young priest questioning if he has what is necessary to fulfill his calling, a homeless man tempted by outward riches while searching for substance and faith within himself, and a blindly ambitious businessman looking to attain and display wealth at all costs regardless of how ill-gotten they are. Their stories are interwoven and there are secondary characters who influence the main characters further complicating their situations.

Each of them are tested and their choices like a domino effect ultimately lead them to their ends. We see unquestionably outright destructive behaviors, but the more frequent incremental and seemingly harmless actions lead to ultimately similar if not more dreadful consequences. They are caught up in fear, insecurity and doubts in faith.

There is a lot of running away physically and spiritually in this film, but no one can run away from themselves. The human struggle is universal and personal at once. We can identify with a spiritual force of choice guiding our actions but it does not exempt us from any responsibility. You believe what you choose to. If it changes something in you in either direction, reassess yourself and where you stand. No one else can make those decisions for you in anything, including your faith.

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Ratchet & Clank, directed by Kevin Munroe and Jericca Cleland

Based on the Popular Play Station Game, An Adventure Suitable For Younger Kids. Ratchet & Clank tells the story of two unlikely heroes as they struggle to stop a vile alien named Chairman Drek from destroying every planet in the Solana Galaxy. When the two stumble upon a dangerous weapon capable of destroying entire planets, they must join forces with a team of colorful heroes called The Galactic Rangers in order to save the galaxy. Along the way they’ll learn about heroism, friendship, and the importance of discovering one’s own identity.

KIDS FIRST! Film Critics Abigail Zoe L. and Ryan R. review the film.

Ratchet & Clank
By Abigail Zoe L., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 8

Interviews with cast & crew:
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Ratchet & Clank
Reviewed by Ryan R., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 12

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2015 Best Film List – Brendan Rose

I am happy to report that 2015 was another vibrant, inspiring year for cinema. While the year’s film landscape may be dominated by the fairly stellar return of the galactic juggernaut better known as the Star Wars franchise, the idiosyncratic, singular visions of a score of filmmakers would better represent the year’s achievements. From Mali to Mexico City to the South Side of Chicago, important films were made outside the Hollywood system and at a remove from genre conventions.

As we approach Oscar night, it should be noted that the nominees for the Academy Awards once again highlight how lacking in true diversity the industry remains. Whether it relates to which artists receive award nominations or, perhaps more important, which artists are supported in creating work, Hollywood remains a (straight) white boys’ club, one desperately in need of a greater variety of voices and perspectives.

As with any year, there were promising films I simply have not gotten to yet. To name a few: Brooklyn, Creed, In Jackson Heights, Son of Saul, and Taxi, are 2015 movies I still look forward to viewing.

Without further ado, here is the 2015 film list:

TOP TEN (in order):

Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako): Sissako’s masterpiece looks at this famed multicultural city of learning and trade as it suffers during an occupation by fundamentalist invaders. The movie’s patchwork of incisive stories and its quietly poetic style demand a world of tolerance, humility, and forceful humanism.

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien): Hou’s plot may at times confound, but this wuxia-inspired martial-arts flick set in medieval China brims with cinematic lyricism via textured, potent visuals and expert, tone-setting sound design. A consistently powerful lead performance by Shu Qi paces this elliptical, mesmerizing, dream of a film.

Carol (Todd Haynes): Haynes’s astounds with this flawless, finely orchestrated love story of two women in a world (1950s New York City) not ready to accept who they are. The grainy, expressive Super 16mm cinematography of DP Edward Lachman reminds us that celluloid is far from dead.

The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu): This is no perfect film — the third act feels too much like a Liam Neeson revenge vehicle — but it is undoubtedly a work of art, an epic-scale canvas detailing early 19th Century fur trappers and foreign armies overtaking the west, thereby destroying the cultures of indigenous America Indians and despoiling the natural environment.

Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven): A well-crafted debut feature that serves up a classic tale of societal and generational conflict in provincial Turkey. Ergüven sustains the sort of originality of perspective and freshness of voice often lacking in such early-career films.

Tangerine (Sean S. Baker): Baker’s exuberant, zany comedy about transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles functions as American independent films more often could — with non-traditional casting, crafty filmmaking, a nitty-gritty sense of its world, and, deep down, a big, generous heart.

Ex Machina (Alex Garland): An expertly performed, dexterously executed sci-fi thriller set in the hermetically sealed, middle-of-nowhere palace/laboratory of a billionaire software CEO/mad scientist. Hitchcock meets Philip K Dick.

Chi-Raq (Spike Lee): Lee’s re-imaging of Lysistrata to violence-plagued Chicago is at times overly campy and caricatured, but the film is likewise bold and humorous, inventive and necessary. Where are the other filmmakers confronting the scourge of gun violence?

The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt): Jason Segel impresses as late writer David Foster Wallace, and Ponsoldt’s movie resurrects the art of conversation, embracing the power of its tête-à-tête, writer-on-writer bull sessions.

Güeros (Alonso Ruiz Palacios): The spirit of Godard is repurposed in Ruiz Palacios’s rollicking, clever coming-of-age picture set during a student protest in Mexico City, 1999. So many scenes stand out and remain with you, months later.

HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order): The Big Short (Adam McKay); The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller); Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad); Sand Dollars (Laura Amelia Guzmán & Israel Cárdenas); Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)

BEST GENRE FLICKS (not mentioned above):
Creepy Thriller: Goodnight Mommy (Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala)
Horror: It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)
Historical Drama: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
Sci-Fi: The Martian (Ridley Scott)
Action-Adventure: Everest (Baltasar Kormákur)
Action-Crime: Black Mass (Scott Cooper)
Action-Geo-Political: Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

Article written by Brendan Rose

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