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 ~ Concussion

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.

Stars: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, David Morse, Albert Brooks

Director: Peter Landesman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: In recent years, I haven’t been the biggest Will Smith fan.  Not that he’s given us any reason to be.  A series of high-profile pseudo vanity projects have trampled the one-time surefire blockbuster maker into questionable territory, with audiences not totally trusting the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Honestly, I’ve never totally warmed to Smith’s onscreen presence, too often feeling like the actor was showboating more than acting.  Even his Oscar nominated turns in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness felt like Smith barely tapping into the maximum of his potential.

So I approached his latest drama with some caution because the melodramatic trailers had the whiff of a desperate attempt redemption.  Well, there’s redemption to be had in Concussion but it’s not the least bit desperate or undeserved.  As a brilliant pathologist that finds a link between football players and traumatic brain injuries, Smith (Winter’s Tale) turns in his best performance to date.  He dives deep into the character, eschewing his penchant for winking compliance in the face of adversity for a more realistic take on a man that knows a dangerous truth and can’t understand why others don’t know it too.

I’d imagine that the timing of Concussion was not only considered for Smith’s chance at an Oscar nomination but for the final weeks of the NFL Pro Football season.  In recent years there’s been much discussion, more at the high-school and college level, about the long-term effects of football related head injuries and what steps are being taken to prevent these tough damages within a sport known for its necessary roughness.

Director Peter Landesman (Kill the Messenger) created Concussion out of a GQ article that followed the studies of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant working in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office.  Dr. Omalu came to America like so many, looking for the American dream with his own set of ideals and values.  When he delves deeper into the death of an ex-pro footballer, he identifies a slow-developing injury in the brain previously undetected.  His colleagues (especially a bitter co-worker) think he’s marching down the wrong path but Dr. Omalu’s drive and conviction eventually attract national attention.

Going up against an organization as big as the NFL is no small feat but with the help of a former NFL physician (Alec Baldwin, Aloha, more awake and alive than ever) and his superior (Albert Brooks, A Most Violent Year, excellently wry) he shines a light on a problem many are choosing to actively ignore.   First dismissed then vilified, Dr. Omalu’s persistence in his findings aims to bring about a change…but at what personal cost?

The film is on point in its message and overall is an entertaining two hours that goes by quickly.  It’s only after that you realize the loose ends present, the characters introduced but not fleshed out or truly finalized.  Years go by over the course of several scenes and it can be difficult to keep track of where we are in the grand scheme of things.  The movie relies on Dr. Omalu’s growing relationship with a romantic interest (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jupiter Ascending) and the building of his dream house to help us chart the timeline.

While this is Dr. Omalu’s story, Concussion doesn’t seem like it has a serious agenda at play.  That could be purposeful, a way to not anger the football fans that are likely the target audience.  But this isn’t just another sports picture, there are no nail-biting touchdown plays or Hail-Marys in the final seconds. It’s a true life account of one man seeing a problem and trying to fix it, no matter how unpopular his opinion may be.  And it’s worth seeing.

Movie Review ~ The Skeleton Twins

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Having both coincidentally cheated death on the same day, estranged twins reunite with the possibility of mending their relationship.

Stars: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell

Director: Craig Johnson

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I blame Saturday Night Live for not liking The Skeleton Twins more.  I mean, stars Bill Hader (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them) and Kristen Wiig (Friends with Kids, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) should shoulder most of the responsibility for the film feeling like an extended sketch from the tail end of the long-running late night show but it’s easier for me as a fan of both to just blame the show that brought them national attention.

As much as I know I should, it’s hard to separate out Hader and Wiig from being comedians and allow them the opportunity to sink their teeth into this familial drama about two twins brought together after a suicide attempt.  Surprisingly (said with the utmost sarcasm) there are a lot of outstanding family issues that need to be settled and, wouldn’t you know it, over the course of the film they all seem to get dealt with in one way or another in director Craig Johnson’s hum drum script he co-wrote with Mark Heyman.  From a visit with their absentee mother (an all too brief appearance by Joanna Gleason) to Hader’s reunion with his first love (Ty Burrell, Muppets Most Wanted) to Wiig’s ongoing issues with her husband (a surprisingly strong Luke Wilson) this is one of those kitchen sink movies where everything gets thrown in just to make sure no dramatic stone is left unturned.

When Hader and Wiig are apart, both actors turn in some impressive work that shows of their dramatic chops nicely.  Hader especially has some nice moments as he comes to grips with his life not being in any shape or form what he intended it to be.  It’s when the two are together in extended sequences involving lyp-syncing Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, getting high on laughing gas, and dressing up for Halloween that I started to feel like these were scenes from the very late night writing sessions Saturday Night Live is historically known for.  These goofball moments could have worked in a different film with a less somber tone but here they don’t fit with the rest of what Johnson has set-up.

Still, it’s a short ride and one that does go by quickly even with some fairly major bumps.  And it should be noted that it’s a huge improvement over Wiig’s last attempt at a dramadey, the dreadful Girl Most Likely.  A complicated film made more so by Wiig and Hader’s chemistry that reads more collegiate than familial, The Skeleton Twins doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to make much of an impression.

The Silver Bullet ~ Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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Synopsis: With the 70s behind him, San Diego’s top rated newsman, Ron Burgundy, returns to take New York’s first 24-hour news channel by storm.

Release Date:  December 20, 2013

Thoughts: Well, the second trailer for the sequel to 2004’s Anchorman has arrived and, like the first preview, I’m left cold.  Though I know the first film has achieved a high position on the list of cult favorites over the years, I’ve never been a big fan of what’s essentially an overlong comedy routine from Will Ferrell and his gang.  Now I think all of these men are funny individually but I’ve yet to be swayed that as a group they’re the laugh riot they think they are.  I barely cracked a smile during this…and that doesn’t bode well for my enjoyment of the finished product.  I realize I’m in the minority here and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is poised to be a huge holiday box-office hit, but man-child humor has to work extra hard to get a laugh out of me and so far I’m unimpressed.