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Monday, April 24, 2017

In Dubious Battle

The week of major literary adaptations by actors-turned-directors starts with Daniel from Freaks and Geeks doing Steinbeck. What could go wrong?

This review is also up at Channel 24.


What it's about

During the Great Depression, a pair of activists involve themselves in the struggles of desperate workers by getting them to strike for fair wages.

What we thought

In Dubious Battle is hardly the Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden or Of Mice and Men in the canon of great novels by premier American writer, John Steinbeck, as it is known for concentrating far more on its message than on its story or characters. At least, that seems to be the general consensus. I admit, I haven't read it or any of Steinbeck's novels (he's always been near the top of my must read list but I still haven't gotten round to him) so I certainly can't compare the novel to the film but, based purely on the evidence on display here, it's hard to argue with that consensus.

Interestingly enough, In Dubious Battle hits South African cinemas on the same day as American Pastoral, and the two films complement each other rather nicely. They do tell distinctly different stories, set in very different times, but in almost every other respect they mirror one another. Both films are based on classic American novels, both deal with the American Dream (albeit from opposite sides) and both are directed by their lead actors who turn in ambitious, heartfelt work but are ultimately sunk by biting off more than they can chew.

It's not hard to see what drew the Steinbeck semi-classic to James Franco; not only is he a well-known bibliophile but at a time when America is ruled by a narcissistic billionaire whose main aim seems to to make him and his fellow billionaires even richer, this tale of the working classes being exploited by the super-rich no doubt struck a particularly poignant chord with his unapologetically liberal world view. The world depicted in In Dubious Battle is basically Bernie Sanders' nightmare scenario writ large – which is all the more frightening as this world is one that America was supposed to have left behind nearly a century ago.

American Pastoral

Who knew that Ewan McGregor had balls this big...

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Seymour “the Swede” Levov is the envy of his local Jewish community as he follows his years as the most popular kid in high school with an adult life that includes his taking over his father's massively successful clothing business and having seemingly the perfect family life with his (non-Jewish) beauty-pageant wife and doting daughter. As his daughter comes of age and the 1960s rage on, however, the Swede's perfect life comes crumbling down.

What we thought

The acclaimed, Pulitzer-prize winning novel on which this film is based is one of those “classic” novels that utterly defeated me. I made it halfway through before the sheer misanthropic self-indulgence of Philip Roth's magnum opus had me throw up my hands in defeat and turn towards something a bit easier to swallow – something like War and Peace, perhaps (though, not really). Even after having read just half of American Pastoral, though, one thing was very clear: you'd have to be clinically insane to try and adapt it into a film.

Enter Ewan McGregor, who not only decided to stretch his sanity to the limits by tackling a book that was almost all internalized self-examination and almost no plot, but decided to make it his directorial debut along the way. The result, predictably, is a failure but it's an honourable, ambitious failure that is never quite the disaster it so obviously should have been. It's also far more accessible and enjoyable than its source novel - not to mention a whole lot shorter – if, admittedly, nowhere near as deep.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Gold

Not even bronze.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Based very loosely on true events, a gold prospector, desperate for one more chance at striking it big, joins forces with a geologist to find gold in the jungles of Indonesia. Is what they find there, however, to good to be true?

What we thought

Though a step up from the last movie starring Matthew McConaughey as a man in search of gold (the pretty but stupidly vacuous Fool's Gold), Gold takes one part Romancing the Nile (minus the romance), one part the Wolf of Wall Street and one part, oddly enough, Fool's Gold and churns out something hopelessly and profoundly mediocre.

McConaughey himself is pretty great, of course, as the “McConaussence” shows no sign of slowing down, especially when he eerily but presumably unintentionally channels his former True Detective co-star, Woody Harrelson, but he's the only remotely notable thing about a film that resolutely refuses to leave a mark. He is aided by a bang up make-up job that turns this, shall we say, rather good looking man into someone impressively repulsive but really, props to the guy for putting this much effort into something that is nowhere near deserving of all his hard work.

The first half of the film is just a total bore as we are introduced to a bunch of utterly uninteresting characters, doing uninteresting things in utterly uninteresting ways that shifts from the grey sterility of a Big City office to the wilds of Indonesia without ever shifting tone, thereby turning what is ostensibly supposed to be the film's Big Adventure set piece into something about as interesting as doing your taxes – if significantly less tense.