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.

Movie Review ~ Dunkirk


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.