(nl) wrote: Looking at the current state of the world it does at times seem like the world is ending, and with today's presidential win for Donald Trump seems like kind of sealed the deal. Anti-war protests. Heated political arguments. Police brutality. Social inequality. Race Riots. Calls for violence as a way to set things right around the world and the United States of America- and not just in the present day, but this all took place back the mid-1960s too. The American Civil Rights Movement and opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam were both at their zeniths, both yielding positive and negative results for the country and those most personally involved. Can you imagine if much of this turmoil converged where you lived? This film based on author Philip Roth's 1997 novel of the same name explores how that turmoil destroyed a family. This film, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning is dense with passion, politics and historical import. 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. There have been rumblings of a Hollywood production for more than a decade. Even with the great news of Ewan McGregor, directing his first feature with this material, he never manages to bring the film fully to life. The film is beautiful and occasionally poignant, but it lacks understanding. The acting is good, but there's something missing - the fire of the turbulent 1960s in which the film is set, which consumes the family at the center of the story but never ignites the film itself. What could have been daring statement about the contamination of the human spirit plays like a trivial TV film about a decent man in a time that doesn't fit him. Or worse, a reminiscence that plays more like a "when good girls go bad" after-school special. An effective Philip Roth adaptation demands an original big-screen voice, one capable of taking complex and personal material and shaping it into something at once consistent with the original work and wholly its own. Its too bad the film, even with its shinning moments drops dead in its final act. The story follows Seymour "Swede" Levov (Ewan McGregor), the pride of the Jewish-American community in Newark (which nicknamed him "Swede" because of his Nordic good looks). By the looks of it the Swede seemed to have it all! He was a star high school athlete (really, a hero and a legend in his hometown), he married the catholic Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), a beauty queen, he took over his father's thriving business (manufacturing high-end ladies' gloves), he had a house with land, he and his wife had a loving, beautiful daughter to care for. What could be bad? All of it. At the 45th high school reunion of Swede's younger brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans), retells Swede's story to an old classmate, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), a journalist who was overseas during the 1960s. He tells him how Swede's life became difficult after high school - and went downhill from there. Swede had to struggle to get his very traditional father (Peter Riegert) to accept the Catholicism of his wife, Dawn, he struggled to keep his business viable in the face of declining customer demand (and being at the epicenter of the 1967 Newark race riots), and he struggled mightily with his daughter, Merry (Ocean James in Merry's childhood and by Dakota Fanning as a rebellious teenager). Merry dealt with a bad stutter, which clearly affected her confidence and self-esteem (besides the "problem" of having such a beautiful mother, as pointed out by Merry's psychologist, Sheila (Molly Parker). But Merry's problems (and her parents' problems with Merry) had just begun. As she grew up, Merry became disillusioned with the world which she saw on TV as seemingly coming apart. She strongly sympathized with the Civil Rights Movement (especially its more radical elements) and the Vietnam anti-war movement (especially its more radical elements as well). She went from spewing hatred at President Johnson's image on the family's TV set to regularly taking the train into New York to commiserate with like-minded radicals. She rudely rebelled against all authority figures (including her own loving parents) and started talking openly about the need for a revolution in the U.S. One day, a local post office exploded, killing one man, and Merry disappeared. Her anguished parents insisted that Merry couldn't have done such a thing unless she was brainwashed and forced by others. The first half of the film is exceptionally well done and captures the essence of why the second half feels like a total decimation of everything Swede thought he had. Unfortunately, in the last third, the film contracts on every front. It becomes less about the story's general issues and more about the specifics of a father's relationship with his daughter - even as that story itself becomes less interesting. Sure, films don't often explore the unique bond between fathers and daughters, in a way it's refreshing to see the film turn in the direction, but the film never finds the right note of strangeness or madness to go with the sadness. It's all just grim and pathetic. There was reason to expect more from this filmand just as much reason to figure out why it was doomed from the start.This film is a unique combination of enlightening, frustrating, inspiring and depressing. I gained a greater understanding of what was going on during the Vietnam Era, how certain social issues intertwined and how all of this affected ordinary people. I was frustrated by the daughter's behavior - and by the way the film glossed over any real explanation for her unlikely and extreme radicalization. In any event, some of the film's views on the Vietnam War period come off as too far removed from the struggle itself. It's like it relied mostly on headlines, and stereotypes, from that period to craft two of its most important characters: the Swede's daughter, Merry; and the extremist radical, Rita Cohen.For one, Merry's evolving, so quickly, into a full fledged bomb maker doesn't compute.The mysterious Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) character, I must add, is totally incredulous. I was inspired by Swede's determination and unconditional love for his daughter, but it was depressing to see what those admirable qualities did to his previously promising life. As a director McGregor captures much of the "Swede" in airless absolutes. In what's already a crowded and specific series of tales for an era,the film emerges as familiar and indistinct. A scene happens, and our hero looks on. Seymour sees change, does not change much himself, and stares off sadly, wondering "why?" Why is the wife sad? Why is the daughter mad? Why is the business bad? There's something happening here, and it's limp filmmaking. Filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis, and Oliver Stone have addressed the '60s before with stronger eyes. Unfortunately McGregor has nothing special here. However, It's the superb acting, which keeps the film together and manages to sustain your interest till the final act kicks in. Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning each turn in affecting performances. Connelly essentially reconstructs her character toward the end of the film, changing Dawn's mannerism and voice ever so slightly to sell the trauma she's been through. McGregor pushes a father's desperation to the point of obsession, cutting deep, and as a director, he effectively builds tension in scenes where bombs go off (literally and figuratively). McGregor transmits a kind of gee-whiz blankness; like the film itself, he's all handsome surface, and only a few degrees removed, on the recognizable human behavior scale, from the pie-eyed dreamer the actor played in Big Fish. Dakota Fanning only has brief moments that are worthy of her talent. Peter Riegert is excellent. Valorie Curry repeats herself as the annoying mysterious woman. Rupert Evans and David Starthairn are wasted. On the whole, 'American Pastoral' is filled with gorgeous and heartbreaking moments and yet as a film fails to tell a good story.