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 ~ IT: Chapter Two


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård, Xavier Dolan, Will Beinbrink, Teach Grant, Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: R

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Two years after IT: Chapter One took the late summer/early box office by screaming storm, we find ourselves in a similar situation upon the arrival of its sequel.  Like its predecessor, IT: Chapter Two is being released at the very tail end of a mostly bummer summer of sputtering sequels and non-starter indies.  At this point in the year, the hunger for something high quality that isn’t seeking Oscar gold (or is it?) but just wants to entertain is, I must admit, quite appealing.  Re-watching Chapter One in anticipation of Chapter Two, I was struck by how well that earlier film scooped up the audience into its spell and had high hopes the second chapter would continue with that same magic.

In my review of the first film I wondered why the studio didn’t have a little more faith in the property and shoot the entire novel back-to-back instead of disrupting its non-linear plot in favor of more straight-forward storytelling. Instead, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, still wary after a troubled start to the project when the original writer/director left, decided to test the waters by filming only the first of a planned two-part movie.  The film was a gigantic hit (rightfully so), made a few stars out of the kids, and almost immediately had fans compiling their dream cast for the follow-up that quickly got the greenlight.

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club bested Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde) and most have moved away from the tiny town of Derry, Maine.  Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, The Three Stooges) is the only one that has stuck around, living above the library and keeping watch for any strange occurrences that might be tied to the evil he faced with his friends when they were tweens.  Receiving a fairly targeted message at the scene of a horrific crime that confirms his worst suspicions, Mike tracks down his long-lost pals who have all strangely forgotten the summer of the clown and they oath they made to return.

Overcoming his stutter and becoming a successful novelist and screenwriter, Bill (James McAvoy, Split) is more than happy to vacate the set of his latest movie where he’s having trouble getting the ending right.  Beverly (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) escapes her violent husband/business partner in order to keep her promise, while foul-mouthed stand-up comedian Richie (Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins) leaves his tour and heads for Maine.  Eddie (James Ransone, Sinister) and Ben (Jay Ryan) have no problems getting out of their stuffy corporate jobs and away from the drone of their daily lives.  Only Stanley (Andy Bean, Allegiant) finds it harder to return for reasons I won’t spoil here.

When the gang has gathered back in their hometown and Mike levels with them about the evil that has reemerged, the memories come flooding back and it’s here the movie starts to fray. Up until that point, writer Gary Dauberman (Annabelle Comes Home) and returning director Andy Muschietti (Mama) have been pulling the rope tighter and tauter around the group, giving them all warning signs that danger awaits them all.  Once they all arrive, however, there’s a fracturing isolation that occurs which gives each person an individual mini sub-storyline to follow and the movie curiously goes slack.  Seems that Mike has found out a way to destroy the entity that has been feeding off of Derry residents for hundreds of years and he needs his friends to split up and gather a personal “artifact” from that summer that was important to them.

This gives each actor their own stretch of time to be the star of the film and not everyone uses their time wisely. Surprisingly, it’s the biggest stars that fare the worst with McAvoy whipping himself into an absolute frenzy at inopportune times, coming off as bug-eyed and hysterical instead of terrified.  Chastain is right behind him feasting on the scenery and she and Hader fight over which high emotional moment to gnaw on next.  (There is a serious campaign to get Hader an Oscar nomination for his work here and, while I’m a fan, that’s totally bonkers.  This isn’t even an Oscar-adjacent performance.) All three become, frankly, grating as the movie extends which makes the restrained and nuanced work Ransone, Ryan, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mustafa, seem even more welcome.  These character “adventures” feel like the chapters they are in the book, personal moments that have slight ties to the greater action but are largely drop-in and drop-out scenes.  The same scenario is repeated later in the movie when the adults get thrown into their own personal horrors.  What started in 2017 as a scary riff on Stand by Me turns into a tricky re-working of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

What’s really missed are the child actors from Chapter One and, though they have been brought back for this second installment they aren’t…quite the same.  Over the past two years the kids have done what kids do at that age: they grow.  Via digital scrubbing and voice modulating, the performances have been youth-ized and the results are often creepier than Pennywise.  You know the voice matches the actor but the face doesn’t look right so it’s all strangely out of whack.  Only Sophia Lillis seems to have escaped the airbrush and thus her performance feels the most grounded and real.  When the action switches back to the adults, you can see the work the older actors have done to match their younger counterparts and, for what it’s worth, the casting is spot-on.  I just kept wondering what would have happened if they waited 27 years to let these younger actors grow into their older selves.

As is the case with most sequels to horror films, the scares have to be bigger and more frequent and IT: Chapter Two definitely falls in line with expectations  The trouble with that is there is no build up to a scare almost anywhere in the movie.  Sure, there is some disturbing imagery and a few jolts but none come close to the satisfying and expertly orchestrated thrills elicited from Chapter One.  It’s like in Jaws.  Once you’ve seen the shark, you’ve seen the shark and it’s all about the attack from then on.  Now that we are familiar with Pennywise and have seen so much of him, there’s less menace to be had, even though he does bare that hideous maw with rows upon rows of razor teeth multiple times in the film.

There’s a fairly large amount of iffy CGI on display, as well. Though the protracted finale of the film features the most well-rounded effects of all, there are numerous nightmare creatures conjured up by Dauberman and Muschietti that are simply goofy to look at.  An abundance of grotesque creepies emerge from the darkness throughout the movie and few have the same impact of the simple image of Pennywise staring out of the dark at an unsuspecting child.  An effective (if extremely hard to stomach) opening sequence at a country fair and a later scene underneath the town bleachers are good reminders of how Muschietti can extend tension to its most enjoyable breaking point.

At 169 minutes, the movie either needed to be 40 minutes shorter or 60 minutes longer. Were it shorter, Muschietti could have trimmed up some redundant character bits in the third act that feel like extra padding.  Had it been longer, we could have spent some more time with the Losers Club and their lives outside of Derry.  There’s too little of their current lives shown to give us a proper introduction so we have to almost base our knowledge soley on what we remember from the original film.  What I do appreciate is Muschietti’s attention to small details from the book and within his vision of the film.  I’ll  have to give the movie a second watch, but there’s usually something not quite right going on in the background of scenes that most viewers won’t catch on the first viewing.  It’s also a nice touch to have Eddie’s nagging wife played by the same actress who was his mother in Chapter One.  There are also two very funny cameos, one in particular that had our audience cheering.

There’s rumors of a supercut that might happen that would combine both movies into one and I’d be fascinated to see how that would come together. I’d definitely recommend this movie, sequel flaws and long running time aside, because of the way it nicely concludes what was started back in 2017.  If only everything was done at the same time and the filmmakers didn’t have that extra year to get too zealous with their plans for IT: Chapter Two.

Movie Review ~ IT (2017)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of bullied kids band together when a monster, taking the appearance of a clown, begins hunting children.

Stars: Jaeden Lieberher, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Nicholas Hamilton, Bill Skarsgård

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: IT, Stephen King’s 1986 novel was a popular book in my junior high library. At 1,138 pages and with only one copy though, the waitlist was long and I believe it took nearly the entire school year to obtain. I remember when I finally got my hands on it and marveling at its creepy cover, fretting over the length, and reading it by flashlight late into the night. Trouble was, by the time it was due back I was only halfway through and though as an adult I’ve carried (lugged would be a better word) a paperback version with me for the past six months, absorption by osmosis did not occur and to this day I’ve regretted never finishing it properly.

Most people, though, will have experienced IT for the first time via the 1990 made-for-TV movie that scared several generations of people over the two nights it aired. At the time I remember thinking the film quite entertaining but watching it again a year or so ago I found myself wincing more than cowering. The trappings of an era with more rigid television standards robbed it of being too scary or slick. While some of what goes on in King’s novel could (and should) never be depicted on film, today it feels toothless though it does find prime moments to gnaw your nerves. Then there’s the clown.

Mention IT to a crowd and you’re going to get a response. They either hate it or they love it and the reason why is almost always the same…that damn clown. It’s impossible to think of IT and not conjure up the vision of Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. While the movie itself may have lost some bite over the years, Curry’s menacing monster in clown’s clothing has perhaps become more terrifying. So while many were welcoming of a new adaptation of IT on the big screen, one of the biggest question marks was how well Bill Skarsgård (Atomic Blonde) would fill Curry’s admired shoes. Patience, dear reader, patience.

IT arrives at the end of a disappointing summer at the box office and before the wave of award seeking films are released. The timing couldn’t be better. Kids are back in school and the weather here in the Midwest has taken a cold turn. Walking into the packed theater and taking my seat for the screening there was a palpable excitement for the lights to go down, a buzz of anticipation I hadn’t felt for a while. 135 minutes later the lights came up on an audience that had screamed, laughed, and applauded. In short, IT’s a winner.

In the late ‘80s, something bad is happening in Derry, Maine. Kids are disappearing without a trace and no one knows why. Is it related the town’s history of bad luck or is something more sinister taking place? One thing’s for sure, a frightening clown has been haunting and hunting and his appetite is insatiable. A team of young outcasts band together to uncover the secrets of their town while battling their own phobias brought to life by the monster on the loose.

Though it had a bumpy road to the silver screen thanks to budget cuts and the departure of its original director, the wait was worth it. Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) has delivered a quality film that not only provides delirious scares but has an ambitious emotional resonance extending far beyond its genre.  I admit I got a little misty eyed as the film was wrapping up…when was the last time you went into a film expecting terror but found a tear or two eeking out?  Equal parts Stand By Me, Stranger Things, and The Goonies, it’s retro-feel is unobtrusive and navigating prolonged sequences of horror while maintaining energy is no easy task but Muschietti makes it look simple.  Scaredy-cats will have their limits mightily tested while fright fans are going to be nicely satisfied with the pulse-raising shocks doled out by Muschietti and company.

None of the good directorial decisions or the solid script would amount to a hill of beans if the actors didn’t measure up but Muschietti has cast the film splendidly.  Though Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special) has top billing, this is an ensemble piece and the kids are definitely all right.  I especially liked Jeremy Ray Taylor’s roly poly new kid on the block and Sophia Lillis as the only girl holding her own in the boys club.  Not all the acting is consistently convincing but it’s a small-ish nitpick in the grand scheme of things.

In a cast made up primarily of unknowns, it’s an interesting decision for Muschietti to further conceal some of the adult actors under prosthetics and fat suits.  A few times the adults gave me the same type of goosebumps brought on by Pennywise, further isolating the children as they realize they are the only townsfolk they can truly trust.  Some of the more extreme side plots of King’s original novel have been softened or excised and more’s the better for it.  There’s enough peril for the youngsters to deal with whenever that clown makes an appearance.

Ah yes…the clown. While Curry may be seen as the definitive Pennywise, Skarsgård makes the role entirely his own, bringing a sharp physicality to his clown that amps up the danger of his visits. Though he has precious few lines this is a performance based almost entirely on presence and Skarsgård is pretty electric in the film. Balancing childlike clown mannerisms with a serial killer’s alacrity, when he opens his bloodthirsty maw to consume or frighten it will shake you to your core.

While the studio had originally intended to film the novel as one long movie, budget fears were such that IT covers roughly half of the book. The movie is so good and the early buzz so strong I can’t imagine we won’t get a sequel in short order…but it makes you wonder why they didn’t just stick to the original game plan to begin with. In any event, IT is awesome which should please fans of the novel (even those that only finished half of it) as well as devotees of the TV movie. Scare you it does and scare you it shall.

The Silver Bullet ~ It (2017)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnCdOQsX5kc

Synopsis: In a small town of Derry, Maine, seven children come face to face with life problems, bullies and a monster that takes the shape of a clown called Pennywise.

Release Date:  September 8, 2017

Thoughts: Back in the day when adaptations of novels were all the rage on network television (RIP: The Mini-Series), I remember looking forward to the 1990 multi-night experience of watching Stephen King’s It.  Quickly becoming a popular nightmare calling card for clowns everywhere, the series was a smash but hasn’t exactly held up on repeated viewings.  Watching it just a few years ago, I was struck by just how far fond nostalgia can take you.  It was just…not great.

Flash forward 27 years and after numerous false starts and various directors, a big screen version of King’s classic is floating into your local cinema.  King’s novel bounces between the past and the present and rumor is that this film is only going to be focused on the story taking place in the past.  I’d always found that the most interesting part of the tale anyway and appreciate the filmmakers not biting off more than they can chew.

We all know that any crap movie can be edited to look like a winner but I’m hoping that It is truly as scary good as it looks.  Directed by Andy Muschietti (who helmed the nifty Mama), King has already given his blessing to the final product – an early stamp of approval from an important source.