Movie Review ~ The Goldfinch


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A boy in New York is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald, Aimee Laurence, Denis O’Hare

Director: John Crowley

Rated: R

Running Length: 149 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: When I was in school, I like to think I was pretty good with my homework. Sure, there were times when I wound up working late on calculus, having procrastinated my way into an all-nighter but for the most part I was on top of things. One thing I never failed to follow through on was doing any assigned reading.  However, I’m admitting now in this public forum that lately, in my advancing age, I’m getting bad at finishing books. I’ll start them all the time but then I get distracted and can’t make it to that final page. If a movie is based on a book, I do everything I can to read it before I see it and in these last few years it’s often come down to the wire to get in those last chapters.

I give you that brief backstory because it helps illustrate how disappointed I should have been with myself for not reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-prize winning 2014 novel The Goldfinch before the film adaptation was released. You know what? I got on the waiting list for the library and waited months and months for it to be my turn. When I finally got the hefty novel home, I took one look at it in all its 794-page hardback glory and decided on the spot I was going to give myself a well-earned pass on attempting it.

I feel no shame.

In fact, having seen the movie I’m wondering if I was better off with not having any pre-conceived notions going in. With nothing to live up to, the film could make a play for my attention without striving to be exactly what I had envisioned in my head. I purposely avoided delving too deep into the plot or matching characters to actors prior to seeing the film but rather let the screenwriter Peter Straughan (The Snowman) and director John Crowley (Brooklyn, Closed Circuit) have a crack at telling me a story. It’s a long story, though, and one that doesn’t quite shake off its creaky contrivances and some muddled performances.

Narrated by protagonist Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), we see how he lost his mother at a young age, when a bomb is set off in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Barbours, a rich family with a son that attends Theo’s prestigious prep school, soon take in Young Theo (Oaks Fegley, Pete’s Dragon). Initially hesitant to get too close to this broken boy, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, Secret in Their Eyes) warms to his love of fine art and kind spirit that shines even during his most dark days. Yet Theo has a secret he’s keeping from everyone and it involves a priceless painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, and a mysterious man he meets in the rubble after the bomb goes off. Both will lead him on journey forward while shaping his future from a past he wants to forget.

Straughan has a challenge in parsing down Tartt’s epic into a watchable two and a half hours and it winds up working some of the time. Having to manage two timelines with the younger Theo and the grown-up man he becomes gets a little tiresome over the course of the film, only because Theo as a boy is so much more interesting than the enigma he turns into. Every time the action switched back to Elgort in the present there is a marked dip in energy and curiosity into the mystery at the center of it all. It helps that Fegley is an assured talent, steering clear of your typical child actor trappings and giving the impression he’s an old soul trapped in the small frame of a youngster. The same can’t be said for Elgort who labors mightily with the material, rarely letting go and totally losing himself in the role. Sure, there are Big Acting scenes where Elgort puts himself through an emotional ringer but there’s a thread of falsehood running through his work that lets the character and, in the end, audiences down.

It’s a good thing, then, that Crowley has filled the supporting roles with such unexpected (and unexpectedly solid) actors. As is often the case, Kidman is terrific as a WASP-y Upper East Side wife, rarely without her pearls and pursed lips. Even in old age make-up later in the film, she manages to give off a regal air. Kidman always gives her characters sharp edges yet the performance never lacks for warmth. Luke Wilson (Concussion) was a nice surprise as Theo’s deadbeat dad that brings him to Nevada to live with his new wife (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave, gnawing on the scenery like it was a turkey leg) but doesn’t seem to have interest in being a parent. Wilson so often plays soft characters but he gets an opportunity here to show a harder side and it works to his advantage.

I struggled a bit at first with Finn Wolfhard (IT, IT: Chapter Two) and his Borat-adjacent accent as young Theo’s bad influence best friend but he eventually won me over, though Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk) as the older version of Wolfhard’s character rubbed me the wrong way from the jump. Ashleigh Cummings gets perhaps the best scene in the whole movie as older Theo’s unrequited childhood love, I just wish her character was better conceived. She gets all this wonderful material and then pretty much vanishes. Also absent for long stretches is Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), turning in the most memorable performance in the movie. Wright has long been a valuable character actor, never quite making it to A-List leading man status but showing here you don’t have to be the focus of the film to effectively steal the show.

Crowley’s best move was to get Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) to lens the film. Deakins is a master behind the camera and his gorgeous work here is another reminder that he’s one of the all-time greats. Everything about the movie looks wonderful and feels like it should work but there’s a curiously absent beating heart that holds it back from reaching the next level, one that I’m guessing would have pleased fans of the book more. For this audience member coming in blind, I found it to be a watchable but only occasionally memorable literary adaptation of a celebrated work.

Happy Friday the 13th!

 

Hello Campers!

Tonight is the first time there’s been a full moon on Friday the 13th since October of 2000!  This rare occurrence might mean you’ll want to stay indoors tonight and steer clear of ladders, black cats, and mirrors perched precariously and waiting to shatter.  Why not fire up one of the classic Friday the 13th films that were a mainstay during the ’80s, arriving almost yearly to slice and dice their way through a new set of unlucky teens.  They may have become a bit of a joke by the end but there are a key few that get the jolt job done, achieving a great balance between horror and entertainment.

I’ve reviewed a few of these over the years and sometime I’ll do a retrospective of all — but here’s a few to look out for:

Friday the 13th (1980) – The original that started it all, I watched it again recently and must admit that it’s still pretty effective.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) – It was supposed to send Jason out with a bloody bang and, thinking it was the last, it shoots for the moon and scores.
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) – My personal favorite, it’s the one I’ll likely make time for tonight – a prime example of how the genre can combine laughs with screams.
If you’ve got seven hours to spare, I also would highly recommend Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (2013) – it’s jam-packed full of juicy bits on the making of the movies.

The others?  Well, your mileage may vary and it all depends on how forgiving you feel toward dear old Jason and his beloved Camp Crystal Lake.

There won’t be another one of these nights for another 30 years — 2049!  Make the most of this evening!

Movie Review ~ Official Secrets


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The true story of a British whistleblower who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, Adam Barki, Conleth Hill, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans

Director: Gavin Hood

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  You can almost set your watch by it.  Every year, the moment the summer movie season has made its last gasps (and with Brittany Runs a Marathon and Ready or Not sneaking in, what a fulfilling final breath it was!), the more serious-minded films are staging a not so stealth attack at cinemas.  It’s time to set aside the imaginary heroes that vanquish villains in other galaxies in favor of stories of true to life tales of champions of a different nature.  Come hell or high water, you will be exposed to one or more of these films in the next several months and you can only cross your fingers and hope it’s as entertaining as it is informative.

The first movie to step up to the plate is Official Secrets, a long gestating project that at one time was set to star such A-listers as Anthony Hopkins, Harrison Ford, and Martin Freeman.  When it failed to materialize, the work bounced around until it was picked up by Academy Award winning director Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky) and attracted another tantalizing cast of UK favorites.  Taking a familiar page out of the Spotlight handbook and exploring a cover-up by that reaches deep within the government, Official Secrets has everything the equation of a pot-boiler needs to succeed.  What it doesn’t have is any spark to get a fire going.

In 2003, Katharine Gunn was a translator working at a British intelligence agency who is copied on an e-mail from the chief of staff of the NSA.  The memo sought to identify support for the illegal surveillance on six nations within the UN that could tip the scale in favor of war with Iraq.  Though information Gunn, her colleagues, and her bosses had about Iraq clearly indicated the reasons for the proposed war were flawed, there was little Gunn could do to stop a determined train that had already left the station.  However, she could expose the lie…but to do so would cost her everything.  Leaking the memo to the press, Gunn was eventually arrested and charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act.

While Gunn’s story is compelling and her bravery with sticking her neck out is to be applauded, I’m not entirely sure a feature film was necessary.  The screenplay from Gregory and Sara Bernstein doesn’t exactly make the case either, with the movie often devolving into a fairly standard David v. Goliath tale.  The only interesting wrinkle in this courtroom drama (that rarely sees the inside of a hall of justice) is that Gunn’s hands were often tied in her defense, since she would run the risk of violating the Official Secrets Act every time she discussed the case with her lawyer.  On the other side of the coin, Hood shifts focus to the offices of The Observer, the publication that got a hold of the leaked document and printed it as a cover story.  The characters at The Observer are arch, like a UK version of The Paper, and while the actors often acquit themselves nicely you can’t get around the feeling you can predict the next line of dialogue at any point.

With the screenplay lacking in dramatic heft, it’s up to the actors to do the heavy lifting and that’s where the movie finds a few sparks.  As Gunn, Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method) clocks a solid performance, shedding her normal period attire for a modern-ish drama where she can show a range that sits in a comfortable spot.  It’s not a huge performance, it’s not a muted one…it’s evenly pitched and effectively grounds the movie in some realism even as it starts to drown in cliché.  I also liked Matt Smith (Terminator Genisys) playing Martin Bright, The Observer reporter that breaks the story and almost gets swallowed up by the wave of backlash it incurs.  Continuing his streak of showing fondness for quirky, rumpled roles, Ralph Finnes (Skyfall) turns up as Gunn’s human rights attorney that goes to bat for her.

Less successful is Adam Barki, MyAnna Buring, and Rhys Ifans (The Five-Year Engagement) in underwritten roles that eventually become distractions.  Barki, in particular, has little chemistry with Knightley so their husband and wife characters never seem to gel.  When the movie implores us to care about this relationship, it becomes a big ask.  With Buring (Kill List) as, actually, I never quite understood what her relationship was to Knightlely, only that she was part of the group that helped get the memo out in the open. I’ve been intrigued by Buring in her previous roles and wish she had been given more to do. And Ifans, what can I say?  The Blustery Reporter with Conviction has been done countless times in better movies, though I did respond positively anytime we spent time in the offices of The Observer.

What’s good about Official Secrets when all is said and done is that it serves as a reminder that governments are not above the law or beyond reproach.  Some may look at what Gunn did as treasonous but in this current time of frustration with the truth being hidden behind a smoke screen of lies, there’s a particular thrill in seeing someone rebel against it all.  I’d have liked it if Hood had sharpened the movie more – it was never going to be a political mystery thriller but there was room to turn the volume up a bit.

Movie Review ~ Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice


The Facts
:

Synopsis: With one of the most memorably stunning voices that has ever hit the airwaves, Linda Ronstadt burst onto the 1960s folk rock music scene in her early twenties.

Stars: Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt

Director: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s one thing to see the toll the cruel progression of time can take on a person but it’s another experience all together to hear it.  For famous actors or people in the public eye, there can be ways both artificial and natural of slowing that march toward wrinkles.  If you’re a singer, though, there’s little that can be done to keep a clarion voice ringing out forever.  Think about it, how often have you been to a concert from a performer and wondered, “Gee, they just don’t have the range they used to.”  We’ve seen many voices sadly silenced too early due to reckless living but it’s the singers that have no control over their fading instrument that are especially tragic.

Timing-wise, the excellent new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice came my way at a most opportune moment.  I’d just finished listening to a new double-CD of Ronstadt’s most famous songs and a number of lesser-known tunes that didn’t chart as high but still showcased her dynamic song stylings and killer voice.  I was surprised that I never made the connection at how many instantly recognizable songs Ronstadt leant her voice to.  With her wide range in vocals and interests, the singer spent decades at the top of her game, only to have her career cut short due to the gradual onslaught of a debilitating disease.

Directors Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman both bring a healthy experience in documentary film making, having amassed decades of work with topical subjects that are deeply rooted in human emotions. Epstein’s won two Oscars for his feature docs about the AIDS quilt and Harvey Milk and just last year Epstein and Friedman were nominated for an Academy Award for their short, End Game.  They are probably most noted for 1995’s The Celluloid Closet, showing the history of homosexuality depicted in Hollywood films.  Though their narrative feature Lovelace wasn’t as well received as it could have been, it showed they were capable of more than just telling stories via an investigative lens

Born the daughter of a machinery merchant and a homemaker, Ronstadt grew up in Arizona and was brought up with music ever-present.  From the Mexican folksongs her father taught her as well as the large library of records her family owned, she honed her musical gift by building her range in multiple styles.  By the time she joined the folk-rock group the Stone Poney’s in the mid-‘60s she was already creating a singular sound that set her apart from her contemporaries.  Rather rapidly advancing as a solo recording artist, she was still associated with many legendary artists of the day from The Doors to Jackson Browne to the men that would eventually form The Eagles.  Pretty much everything Ronstadt touched (or sang) turned to gold.

While Ronstadt was never a fading violet in terms of being outspoken and does contribute guiding narration to the film, she mostly lets Epstein & Friedman tell her story through interviews with her friends, family, and colleagues.  Considering Ronstadt’s time in the business and how many people she’s worked with, it’s a who’s-who of titans in the music industry…from recording executives to superstar artists.  Many seem in total awe not just in Ronstadt’s talent but in her humble persona, always preferring defer praise onto someone else.

Over the next four decades Ronstadt would earn multiple Grammy’s and even a Tony nomination for starring in the Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance.  While she collaborated with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris on three CDs and made a duet with nearly every popular star of the day, it was always her solo songs that hit the biggest chord.  The term ‘rock chick’ was largely coined because of her and at one point she was the highest paid female singer in the music industry.  The power in her voice was unmatched and whether she was belting out a rock song or pulling it back to deliver a soft ballad, she had the ability to make any song her own.  Those interviewed for the doc speak of an artist they loved seeing perform, someone who was there for them onstage and off if they needed.

Retiring in 2011, there were rumors Ronstadt was having trouble with her voice and found it difficult to maintain her sound.  When she announced in 2013 she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was unable to sing anymore, it was devastating for her fans across the world.  Being interviewed now, Ronstadt seems a bit unconvincingly resolute about her future…like she has grudgingly accepted some realities about her diagnosis.  Yet there’s still an aura of gratefulness around her, thankful for the time she was given, but clearly desiring more.

Epstein & Friedman pack the film with music and archival performances that demonstrate what a force Ronstadt was in her prime.  Thankfully, it’s not a warts and all feature so there’s little time spent on Ronstandt’s very public relationship with Governor Jerry Brown or any other kiss-and-tell diversions.  It appears Ronstadt was the rare artist that found her calling early on and kept her focus on quality instead of excess.  Near the end of the film,  Epstein & Friedman capture a moment Ronstadt as she is now in her home in San Francisco that gave me extreme goosebumps and a lump in my throat.