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 ~ Brooklyn

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An Irish immigrant lands in 1950s Brooklyn, where she quickly falls into a new romance. When her past catches up with her, however, she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters

Director: John Crowley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: Here’s something you don’t get every day, a sweetly innocent romance that doesn’t oversell its charm and doesn’t make anyone a villain along the way.  Brooklyn was an unexpected delight, anchored by strong performances, a sensitive script adapted from a heartfelt novel, and tender direction that underplays without ever resting on its heels.

A wallflower working for a shrewish shop owner in 1950s Ireland, Eilis (a ravishing Saoirse Ronan, How I Live Now) is given the chance for a new life in America when her sister makes arrangements for her to travel to a new country with new opportunities.  Her sister stays back to care for their aging mother and invests her dreams with her sister as she sends her on her way.  The journey is hard and the adjustment difficult but soon Eilis has created a place and purpose for herself where previously it never existed.

Living in an all-female boarding house run by Mrs. Keogh (a splendid Julie Walters, Paddington), Eilis works in a department store and attends Friday night dances put on by the parish that sponsored her trip.  Expecting to meet another Irish immigrant, she’s instead romanced by a shy but persistent New York native (Emory Cohen, The Gambler) who courts her in a most old-fashioned way.  She meets his family, considers a future with him and then…plans change.

What makes Brooklyn so special is that it presents choices for our leading lady in a time when women didn’t always have a say in what their lives had in store for them.  And it goes further than that, making clear that either decision that Eilis contemplates holds promise of a full life.  No one is colored as malicious (at least none of the main characters are) and there is no “bad guy” to be found.  To introduce that factor would mean that there was a “right” choice to make.  As audience members we know what we want her to do, but there’s trust established that lets us know she has her head on straight.

Ronan was one of the younger actresses ever to be nominated for an Oscar for her brilliant work in 20074’s Atonement and she’s likely making her way into the Best Actress nominees this year for her beautifully realized performance.  Cohen, too, has charm to spare and I found myself smiling at his sincerity as the would-be tough New Yorker expresses his feelings for his Irish lass.  Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) hits the right notes as an Irish suitor for Eilis as does Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas) as a priest that provides support for Eilis while in America.

More than anything, I wished for Brooklyn to go on longer…I wanted to know more about these people, their lives, their hopes, and their dreams.  It wouldn’t be hard to imagine another movie (or TV series…hint hint hint) fashioned around the boarding house run by Julie Walters.  There’s rich material there and from the various women we meet during our brief visits there’s more than enough laughs and tears to fuel new story ideas.

Directed by John Crowley (Closed Circuit) and adapted by Nick Hornby (Wild) from the novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is surely one of the best films you’re likely to see in 2015 (or 2016, now that you’re reading this).  Make the journey, it’s worth the trip.

The Silver Bullet ~ Brooklyn

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Synopsis: In 1950s Ireland and New York, young Ellis Lacey has to choose between two men and two countries.

Release Date: November 6, 2015

Thoughts: After making an impressive (and Oscar-nominated) debut in 2007’s Atonement, Saoirse Ronan has found herself in a diverse line-up of roles/films that have shown she’s not a one-trick pony.  From the post-Twilight teen romance The Host to Wes Anderson’s zany masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel to the bold (and woefully underseen) How I Live Now, Ronan seems to favor keeping her options and not being pigeon-holed in any one genre.

Tackling another period piece in Brooklyn (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín), Ronan looks like she has another small winner on her hands.  Then again, I’m a sucker for films set in this era so it’s not a shocker that I’m looking forward to this tale of an Irish immigrant making a go of it in 1950s New York City. Director John Crowley last helmed the so-so Closed Circuit in 2013 but his screenwriter is Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Wild) who knows a thing or two about what it takes to bring a novel to life.  Arriving after the summer din and before the holiday rush, here’s hoping it’s as good as it looks.

Movie Review ~ Closed Circuit

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A high-profile terrorism case unexpectedly binds together two ex-lovers on the defense team – testing the limits of their loyalties and placing their lives in jeopardy.

Stars: Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciarán Hinds, Riz Ahmed, Anne-Marie Duff, Kenneth Cranham, Denis Moschitto, Julia Stiles, Jim Broadbent

Director: John Crowley

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I think we’ve been long overdue for a paranoid thriller with conspiracies at every corner and the threat of mortal danger with each new secret discovered so I was looking forward to the twisty feast that Closed Circuit purported to offer.  Sadly, though the appetizer of the film was filling if lacking spice the main course was a flavorless Jell-O mold of stale red-herrings.

A bombing in a populous square in London leaves many dead and is described as the worst terrorist attack on record.  A suspect is arrested and, due to issues of national security, given two lawyers for his defense.  One will try the case in open court while the other is appointed as a Special Advocate, privy to private, classified information that the other lawyer can’t hear and will present in a closed session.  It’s a strange situation and unlike any we’ve seen in most courtroom thrillers so the set-up is appealing…at the start.

Taking elements from any number of government conspiracy thrillers from the 70’s and 80’s, the film starts out sharp with a nicely tense opening sequence of the closed circuit cameras that pick up the moments leading up to the bombing.   When the original lawyer assigned to the case takes his own life (a scenario no one seems to bat an eye at in a case we’re constantly reminded is the most important in British history), the job goes to Martin Rose (Eric Bana, Star Trek, Lone Survivor) who soon finds out that the Special Advocate assigned to the case is his former mistress Claudia (Rebecca Hall, Iron Man 3, The Awakening).

Now their past relationship should mean that one of them has to recuse themselves but, no, where would that leave us?  The law states that the two are to have no contact so the audience is left to wonder two things.  The first is why Martin and Claudia ever got together in the first place.  There’s an obvious lack of chemistry between the actors and it’s tough to pinpoint who is more at fault, Bana’s cocky puffshirt of an attorney or Hall’s chilly take on her character.  The second thing is how long it will be before Martin and Claudia break the rules and start talking about the case with each other.

As the movie follows Martin and Claudia conducting their own investigations into the bombing, a whole slew of extra characters are introduced and nearly all are written in solely to give information that moves the plot along.  Julia Stiles’ (Silver Linings Playbook, Girl Most Likely) miniscule role is given such short shrift that her exit from the film might very well be missed if you look away.  Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas), Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), and Ciarán Hinds (The Woman in Black, John Carter) get their jobs done efficiently, even if they are merely obviously placed roadblocks to Martin and Claudia getting at the truth of it all.

If the film is worth seeing it’s for a scene that I can’t even talk about because it would give the one interesting twist the movie has up its sleeve.  I’ll just say that it involves Hall’s character cross-examining a witness that audiences won’t see coming (well, if you’ve seen the trailer you may…so take my advice and don’t watch it).  That this scene crackles is thanks to the actor playing opposite Hall and it gives way nicely to several more scenery chewing moments.

Unfortunately, this scene a little over halfway through the movie can’t snap the film back onto the promising track it started off on.  It winds up blowing totally off course as it struggles to find an ending that is suitable and winds up settling for a denouement that’s not very exciting or satisfying.  Arriving at the tail end of the summer movie season, Closed Circuit seems out of place for this time of year and with so many other strong films arriving in the last few weeks, this isn’t one I’d make a serious effort to see.  A fine rental for a rainy day but not worth the trip to the theater.

The Silver Bullet ~ Closed Circuit

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Synopsis: Martin and Claudia are lawyers — and ex-lovers — who find themselves put at risk after they join the defense team for an international terrorist’s trial.

Release Date:  August 28, 2013

Thoughts: Though it does remind me of something moviegoers would have been treated to in the early 90’s, this UK thriller boasts a nicely low-key cast and a premise that may have some mileage in it.  I’ve never been totally won over by either Rebecca Hall (The Awakening) or Eric Bana (Star Trek) but this movie intrigues me. I love a nice courtroom thriller and this seems to fit squarely into a John Grisham-y rhythm that could be worth investigating when it goes before the late summer film fan jury.