Movie Review ~ The Personal History of David Copperfield


The Facts
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Synopsis: A fresh and distinctive take on Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical masterpiece, chronicles the life of its iconic title character as he navigates a chaotic world to find his elusive place within it.

Stars: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse

Director: Armando Iannucci

Rated: PG

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Right about the time this pandemic hit and the country shut down, I was closing on a condo my partner and I were set to take our time painting and moving into with the help of our friends and family.  Now, this new social distancing term and all that went with it meant that our friends couldn’t help us move or be with us to paint so we were on our own.  To while away the hours slapping primer and two coats on the entire place, we decided to go all literary and listen to Jane Austen’s Emma because it was a rare Austen neither of us had read.  As a reward not just for toiling away in Behr Eggshell over the course of several weeks but for getting through the novel, we movie buffs thought it a good idea to make our way through the filmed versions of Emma before watching the 2020 version that arrived this year because, well, there couldn’t be that many to get through right?  Wrong. So wrong.

Watching the various versions of Austen’s tale come to life so soon after reading the book illustrated that there were different ways to breathe energy into a novel but that it’s all based on interpretation.  There was a four-and-a-half-hour version of Emma that in some ways moved faster than the 1996 much-loved Gwyneth Paltrow version.  You also can’t forget 1995’s Clueless which we all know was writer/director Amy Heckerling’s loosely inspired modernization of the classic.  It all goes to show that you can have your Austen fancy or you can have your Austen cool but when the characters are written so well to begin with no amount of fussing around with them is going to totally ruin the heart of the piece.

So, why all this talk about Emma in a discussion of a new view of Charles Dickens David Copperfield?  Well, it’s to address off the bat that this isn’t going to be the David Copperfield you have come to expect from your BBC adaptations or your Masterpiece Theater Sunday evening appointment television showings.  While certainly not in any way a faithful adaptation of a novel Dickens published in 1850 and was known to be his favorite, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a richly realized one that rather blithely removes the most despondent pieces and revels in the fanciful.  It also wisely knows the difference between modernization and revisionism and walks the line between the two with ease.  The result is one of the most surprising and surprisingly entertaining films of the year.

Director Armando Iannucci is likely a familiar name to those that followed the HBO series Veep.  As the creator and showrunner for the first four seasons, he helped establish that political satire and its irreverent humor so I went into this film expecting it to have that same fast style and brusque energy.  The quick interplay was there and it definitely has the energy that I’ve come to expect from Iannucci but not in that same kind of rough and hot to the touch feel it has had before.  It’s softer here and allows the story to be propelled forward by the characters and their choices, not by plot machinations.  That’s a significant achievement when you’re working within a storyline where a seemingly endless set of maladies befall our leading man throughout.

For those unfamiliar, David Copperfield is the story of a young man (Dev Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who spends the majority of his growing up years encountering one set of colorful characters after another.  At his birth, his arch aunt (Tilda Swinton, Suspiria) arrives to assist but leaves promptly when she discovers he is not a girl.  His young, widowed mother (Morfydd Clark, Crawl) marries again, this time to a wicked man with an even more wicked sister (Gwendoline Christie, Welcome to Marwen) and soon he’s living with an always in-debt landlord (Peter Capaldi, World War Z).  During a brief stay with his aunt he’s introduced to her eccentric cousin (Hugh Laurie, Tomorrowland) before enrolling in a respected school where he meets lifelong friend James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch) and first encounters the meek but not mild Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, Little Joe).  He’s loved from afar by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) and pursues dotty Dora (also played by Clark) all the while hoping to secure his future happiness.

There’s a lot for Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell to cover in two hours and it’s a remarkable accomplishment that they managed to cram as much story in as they do.  Obviously, some of it has to go and a good chunk of the book’s latter half is missing, with several storylines either combined or excised.  What’s been removed are the sallower portions of Dickens novel, leaving the remaining moments more light-hearted and vibrant.  One could argue that the characters needed a little more strife but Iannucci and Blackwell give David and his extended family a fair amount of business to overcome.  The villains in a Dickens story are always of the scheming and grasping variety, making them perfect for the likes of icy Christie and the gleeful apathy of Whishaw.

Along with the sharp writing, Iannucci has cast the film with a spectacular amount of top-tier talent and it all starts with Patel’s nicely metered approach to the title character.  Patel is an actor that has grown on me greatly over the years and continues to get better with each new role he takes.  I also especially liked Jairaj Varsani as the young David, showing again that its possible to play precocious without losing your audience to alienation.   As usual, Swinton mines every syllable and skin cell for maximum effect, and you simply can’t end 2020 without seeing her go crazy over a persistent donkey presence on her property.   If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s so packed with welcome faces in episodic segments you don’t always feel you’ve rounded out the corners with each character before they’ve vanished for good.  That goes for the strong supporting players as well, many of whom have but a few lines/scenes to make an impression yet manage to leave an indelible on in their wake.

Purists may scoff and, honestly, I see their point in some way, but there’s an abundance of joy in these 120 minutes that have been hard to come by.  That’s something celebrate and not over-analyze.  A week after the extremely nasty and unpleasant Unhinged became the first film to re-open theaters, here comes The Personal History of David Copperfield on its heels to remind the rest of us what possibilities there are on the big screen…though it works just as well on the small one too.  I was thankfully able to screen this one from my home and would not have reviewed it otherwise.  Please, decide carefully if venturing into theaters is the right choice for you as well as anyone in your home that you may be returning to.

Movie Review ~ Radioactive


The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of pioneering scientist Marie Curie through her extraordinary life and her enduring legacies – the passionate partnerships, her shining scientific breakthroughs, and the darker consequences that followed.

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard, Sam Riley, Simon Russell Beale, Jonathan Aris

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  With the increasing convenience of streaming services available to the general public, it has become much easier to tell stories at a pace that’s entirely up to the filmmaker.  Gone are the days where writers, directors, and stars are tied to having to decide between a two-and-a-half-hour movie or a two night miniseries.  Now there’s the limited series that can run anywhere between three and twelve episodes, giving the space that’s needed if a life, a legacy, an event won’t fit into the same old standard package.

Releasing on Amazon Prime after debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, Radioactive is an odd case of a film recounting a life that feels shortchanged.  Though it has an admirable cast, a talented director, and focuses on a source and subject that hasn’t been explored in this kind of narrative detail before, you leave the movie without any deeper understanding.  Sure, you may glean some Jeopardy! factoids about the advances Marie Curie brought forth but it’s nothing that speaks to any kind of emotional resonance it appears the filmmakers were attempting to uncover.

Before watching Radioactive it’s sad to say my only exposure to Marie Curie on film was in the much-maligned but cult favorite Young Einstein from 1988.  Aside from that supporting role, Curie was a brief topic in my history classes with the Polish scientist living in Paris being given credit for her discovery of the elements polonium and radium and her development of the theory of radioactivity alongside her husband Pierre.  Her work earned her not one but two Nobel prizes, the first woman to ever win the award and the only female to ever win it a second time.  Modern medicine and general science effectively owes its practice to her pioneering efforts.

Much of director Marjane Satrapi’s film covers these breakthroughs and even flashes forward decades in time to the lasting effects (good and bad) of Curie’s work.  Basing the film off of Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, screenwriter Jack Thorne (How I Live Now) hits all the necessary milestones with a workmanlike efficiency and a kind of rote necessity.  This has the effect of shading some of the make or break moments as less urgent and more like another day at the office for the Curies instead of the gigantic scientific innovations they were.  Surely the Curies were more multi-dimensional than Thorne’s screenplay makes them out to be and not the drones going through the emotional touchstones of the ups and downs of being married partners that also worked together.

Things get even more rocky when the action shifts from science to Marie’s personal life.  As Marie, Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher) is the right choice for the role, I think, but isn’t served well by Thorne’s sedate dialogue.  You can sometimes feel Pike itching to roll her eyes at the words she has to utter, especially when Curie moves from celebrated physicist to pariah almost overnight thanks to a relationship scandal.  Viewed now, you almost want to throw something at the screen for the way the brilliant woman is thrown to the wolves but then again the historical context bears remembering.  It’s once Marie starts to suffer the effects from being so close to the radium that Pike gets down to her acting business and Satrapi lets her leading lady be looser with the material.  Working with a fine but not memorable Sam Reilly (Sometimes Always Never) as her husband, Pike starts to take control of the movie rather forcefully, so much so that the last forty minutes of Radioactive are downright compelling.  It only makes you wish the previous sixty minutes were as good as the final act when Marie was tackling her last battle alongside her daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy, Split) who would soon after have a Nobel Prize of her own.

In the end, I was left wondering if Radioactive wouldn’t have worked better like the recent Netflix limited series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.  In four episodes totaling a little over three hours, the history of another important female was told and felt like a thorough examination that didn’t cut corners.  Clocking in at barely over ninety minutes, Radioactive feels like it needed more time to get under Marie’s skin and certainly with the cast and creative team Satrapi assembled (the haunting music from Evgueni & Sacha Galperine who also worked on the score for 2019 Oscar nominee Corpus Christi is right on the money) it would have truly glowed bright.

Movie Review ~ The Goldfinch


The Facts
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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.

Movie Review ~ Dunkirk

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.

Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Director: Christopher Nolan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Coming off of the enormous success of The Dark Knight trilogy, director Christopher Nolan stumbled a bit with his next film, Interstellar.  Though far from a complete miss, the movie was a little too smart for its own good and is one of the rare Nolan films to get less interesting with subsequent viewings.  Three years later, Nolan is back in a big way with the release of Dunkirk, a superbly structured World War II adventure that almost assures a long overdue Best Director nomination is headed his way.

Instead of giving you the same old review, I’ve compiled a list of Dunkirk Do’s and Don’ts.

Do bring earplugs.  Nolan has continued his use of IMAX technology to film select scenes and with that comes a sound design that’s positively ear splitting.  Looking around the audience in several key moments I saw numerous movie-goers with their fingers in their ears yet still enraptured with the film.  Bullets whiz by with sharp zings and fighter planes streak across the sky with a sonic boom.  Your teeth will be rattling by the time the credits roll.

Don’t be late.  I’ve had some bad luck with technical problems plaguing screenings lately and the showing of Dunkirk I attended was delayed by almost a half hour due to sound issues.  When we were told that it would be another five or ten minutes before the screening would resume, many audience members (including my guests) headed for the bathroom only to have the movie start up the moment they were out the door.  That left their movie mates to quickly explain to them in loud whispers what was happening when they returned because Nolan’s script doesn’t repeat itself or explain the setting other than short title cards as the movie opens.

Do pay attention. Dunkirk is typically Nolan-esque with multiple overlapping storylines that take place at different times.  There’s three ‘pieces’ to Nolan’s puzzle, each capturing a specific stretch of time during the evacuation of British and French soldiers from a beach in Northern France.  The Mole covers a week stretch, following several young soldiers as they desperately try to escape the sand in any way possible.  The action in The Sea unspools over a day while merely an hour is the length of time The Air covers.  All three start and end at different places/times and if you aren’t fully paying attention you’ll miss the point at which they all convene.

Don’t look for star turns.  While Nolan has cast dependable actors like Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express), Mark Rylance (The BFG), Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins), and Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), the real stars are the young unknowns that make up the soldiers and civilians that played a part in the withdrawal of the armies from Dunkirk.  Even singer Harry Styles turns up as a tightly wound army man and acquits himself nicely as no mere bit of stunt casting.  Only Hardy could be considered a leading player as his ace airman eventually takes center stage in his storyline.  It’s unfortunate that Nolan didn’t learn from his critics in The Dark Knight Rises that bemoaned not being able to understand Hardy behind Bane’s mask.  Once again, much of Hardy’s performance in covered by an air mask, obstructing his words from coming through clearly.  The good news is that Nolan’s script is fat-free, never too speechy or preachy. So even though you can’t always understand Hardy, you aren’t missing  ton of exposition.

Do bring some kind of stress ball and clip your nails judiciously before the movie starts.  This was one of the tensest movies I’ve seen in some time…and it begins almost as soon as the first images appear onscreen.  With Hans Zimmer’s score switching back and forth between graceful and pulse-racing, the music is almost another character.  Even when nothing of note is happening, the score is always present to remind you that no one is truly safe.

Don’t miss this one on the biggest screen possible.  Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her) has lensed a staggeringly beautiful film with its overwhelming wide aerial shots of fighter pilots in action and smaller moments between soldiers hoping for a miracle trapped in the hull of a grounded boat.  Another name to mention is editor Lee Smith (The Dark Knight) who has cut Nolan’s film into a lean example of cinematic efficiency.  At 106 minutes, it’s Nolan’s shortest film to date and were it any longer it would lose valuable steam.

Do read up on the real-life story that inspired Nolan’s fictionalized screenplay.  While not a huge WWII buff, even I know that the events that happened on Dunkirk aren’t always mentioned in the same breath as other acts of heroism.  Nolan affords time to take on the perils of war but tops it all off with a message of sincerity and hope that feels justly earned by the characters and audience, considering all we’ve been through together.

In summary…Do go, Don’t delay.