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David Strathairn (#110 of 6)

Toronto Film Review Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral

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Toronto Film Review: Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral

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Toronto Film Review: Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral

One of the most despairing and searching works of American literature, Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral is a tragicomic grotesque that exaggerates both sides of the generation gap to better explore the conflict between young and old. Ewan McGregor’s inert adaption, however, smooths out the 1997 novel’s eruptions of self-loathing and doubt, leaving only loose sketches of conflict that bid for prestige. That McGregor himself plays Seymour “Swede” Levov, the goy-passing Jew whose idyllic life is shattered by bad-seed daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning), is the film’s first problem. The Scottish actor in no way embodies the crux of Roth’s character: that of a man whose hard work and ambition for the quintessential American life ultimately can only pay off thanks to his genetic fortune.

Summer of ‘88: Call Me - Orange You Glad You Came?

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Call Me</em> - Orange You Glad You Came?
Summer of ‘88: <em>Call Me</em> - Orange You Glad You Came?

The poster for Call Me is full of sexy promises. It prominently displays a dame’s gorgeous gams, one bent and one elevated. Both are wrapped in a long, curly telephone cord that salaciously travels the length of female real estate. The eyes can’t help but traverse that cord. Into the poster it comes, going around the calf and across the thigh. It ventures between the bend behind the knee that no lover should ignore before making its exit over the ankle and dangerously close to an elevated high-heel shoe. Positioned between the legs is a pink switchblade and the orange from which it has just carved a small, obscene sliver. This juicy fruit is positioned so the viewer can see the suggestive slit in it. “Her fantasies can be fatal,” the tagline warns, reminding us that nobody can enjoy fucking without consequence in American cinematic smut. The title, complete with punctuation, beckons the horny reader with its bold, typewritten font: “Call me.” Naughtiness should ensue if you obey, n’est-ce pas?

By now, you should know that such advertising tawdriness can only lead to tears of disappointment. Call Me is a wrong number on all accounts. It plays as if someone saw the poster and, inspired by its visual elements, wrote a terrible screenplay. The title should have been Call Me: Based on the Poster Pushed by Sapphire, the Vestron Pictures Marketing Lady. You can almost hear the director, Sollace Mitchell, yelling, “Don’t forget the orange!” to screenwriter Karyn Kay. That orange is the only memorable aspect of the film. Since it plays a dirty, yet crucial role, I will gleefully spoil its appearance for you later.

Oscar Prospects: Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Oscar Prospects: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Oscar Prospects: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Will the Academy really go for a star-free, Sendak-esque allegory, whose rugged charms are tied to its loose lack of answers? At this point, it certainly seems like it. There will be those who’ll struggle with what’s behind the journey of young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), but the openness of this film’s metaphors (ecological statement? simple coming of age?) grant it a broad accessibility, with oodles of obstacles represented by those encroaching horned hogs. What’s more, the movie is anchored by a powerful father-daughter story, which steadily stops short of piling on mush, and brings gracious warmth to a tough and unforgiving film environment. Beasts of the Southern Wild is this year’s all-bases-covered, Oscar-y indie, boasting worldly subject matter, a standout lead performance, dizzying critical acclaim, and true originality of vision. It ably fills a necessary slot in the Best Picture field, and the refreshing truth is that it’s also arguably the year’s best film thus far. Backlash is inevitable, and already well underway in certain circles, but it’s hard to imagine any major buzz derailment. Films with this much widespread love historically reach the finish line, and thanks to a recent media push from Oprah Winfrey, you could say that any levees restraining the movie’s influence have officially been broken.

The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai

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The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai
The Conversations: Wong Kar-wai

Jason Bellamy: “When did everything start to have an expiration date?” That’s a question posed by a lovelorn cop in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express, and in a sense that line is a snapshot of what Wong’s films are all about. In the 20 years and change that Wong has been directing, he’s developed several signature flourishes that make his films instantly recognizable—from his striking use of deep, rich colors, to his affinity for repetitive musical sequences, to his judicious use of slow motion for emotional effect, and many more—but at the core of Wong’s filmography is an acute awareness of passing time and a palpable yearning for things just out of reach. In the line above, the cop in Chungking Express is ostensibly referring to the expiration dates on cans of pineapple, which he’s using to mark the days since his girlfriend dumped him, but in actuality he’s referring to that failed relationship, to his (somewhat) fleeting youth (he’s approaching his 25th birthday) and to the deadline he has created for his girlfriend to reconsider and take him back. In the cop’s mind, at least, whether they will be together has as much to do with when as with why. Or put more simply: if timing isn’t everything, it’s a lot of it.

That theme pops up again and again in Wong’s films. Roger Ebert zeroed in on it in his 2001 review of Wong’s In the Mood for Love when he observed of the two lead characters, “They are in the mood for love, but not in the time or place for it.” While that’s particularly true of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, it could readily be applied to almost all of Wong’s lead characters. In this conversation we’re going to discuss Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007), and over and over again we’ll see characters united by emotion but kept apart by timing. So I’d like to open by asking you the following: Do the recurring themes of Wong’s body of work strengthen the potency and poetry of the individual films or water them down? Put another way, are Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express enhanced by In the Mood for Love and 2046 or obliterated by them, or are they not significantly affected one way or the other?

Luminous Being: My Blueberry Nights

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Luminous Being: <em>My Blueberry Nights</em>
Luminous Being: <em>My Blueberry Nights</em>

Wong Kar-wai’s films aren’t just intoxicating; they’re intoxicated. They deploy slow motion, fast motion, freeze-frames and other visual flourishes not to highlight pivotal narrative moments, but to italicize feelings—some sorrowful or profound, others fleeting, playful, sensual. His frames are packed with chromatic and textural details and often separated from the viewer by environmental scrims (curtains, door frames, windowpanes, human blurs of foreground motion). Wong compounds disorientation by layering images atop each another in a series of luxurious dissolves. He glosses over dramatic housekeeping and fixates on tremors of emotion. His films seem to be struggling to remember themselves.

Run Bourne Run: The Bourne Ultimatum

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Run Bourne Run: <em>The Bourne Ultimatum</em>
Run Bourne Run: <em>The Bourne Ultimatum</em>

Maybe it was the casting of Franka Potente in The Bourne Identity (and, briefly, in its equally competent sequel The Bourne Supremacy) that got me thinking that the Bourne films are simply Run Lola Run overloaded with an exposition-heavy plot involving amnesia, corrupt government spooks and international globetrotting.

Replacing Lola, of course, is Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), a super-spy trained to kill, trapped in a world he never made, and desperate to discover the secrets of his forgotten past. What made Run Lola Run special was its understanding that genre requirements for this sort of movie are so arbitrary and even ridiculous that it became the film’s running joke. The movie was not about the mysteries and unpredictability of life; it was in effect saying that the allure of action pictures is simply watching a tough and determined hero or heroine, with single-minded purpose, racing so magnificently you want to pin an Olympic medal on them.