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 ~ Wonderstruck

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from fifty years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Cory Michael Smith, Tom Noonan, James Urbaniak

Director: Todd Haynes

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: We’re all about honesty at The MN Movie Man so I’ll admit that I was a little sleepy when I caught an early preview of Wonderstuck a few weeks back. Seen on a double screening day, I struggled greatly not only keeping up with its ping-pong-y plot but just staying awake for the new film from well-liked director Todd Haynes. Based on Brian Selznick’s thick tome that’s a hybrid of novel and picture book (much like his previous hit Hugo which found its own way to screens a few years back), Selznick also wrote the screenplay and one wonders what Haynes would have done (or could have done) had he run the whole show.

Taking place in two time periods that eventually collide in unexpected ways, Wonderstuck spends a good hour just to get moving and another half hour after that to provoke the kind of wonderment I think the filmmakers were going for. For those first sixty minutes I was largely at sea with the two tales. One features a motherless boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon) in the ‘70s who loses his hearing in a freak accident before running away to find his unknown father. The other trails deaf-mute Rose (the exceptional Millicent Simmonds) as she embarks on a quest to track down her favorite Hollywood actress (Julianne Moore, Still Alice) making a return to the New York stage following the advent of talkies in the late ‘20s.

Ben’s story is displayed in the vibrant, pulsating with color world of the ‘70s while Rose’s is presented in somber black and white silence. No matter how good or bad his movies are, the one thing you can absolutely say about a Todd Haynes film is that the production design will be flawless and that’s certainly the case here. Production designer Mark Friedberg (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) recreates two totally different eras of NYC with a master’s touch. I totally marveled at the depth of detail evoked by each period…if this isn’t an Oscar front-runner already, it surely will be as more people in the know see it.

How the stories eventually come together is a mystery that isn’t as easy to solve as you may first realize. The disparate time periods would suggest a different solution than Selznick arrives at but by the time we get to our destination the film has overstayed its welcome every so slightly and explained more than it showed how it all came to be.  It does help that the performances across the board are delivered with a strong sense of conviction.  Fegley’s frustration at his loss of hearing, the loss of his mother (Michelle Williams, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later), and the needle in NY haystack he’s out to find is crushingly felt as is Simmonds wish for independence despite the limitations others perceive her as having.  Moore, as usual, makes a strong showing in dual roles that are polar opposites of each other.

To its credit, the final fifteen minutes are exceptionally moving and send you out of theater better than when you arrived…but at the same time I wish the film had found another fifteen minutes to excise. It wants to be a family art-house prestige picture but can’t get out of its own way to find a stronger rhythm that will hold the attention of young and old alike. That’s all well and good for the previous films that Haynes has directed like Carol or Far From Heaven, these films had the benefit of playing to an adult audience looking for a sophistication. If Wonderstruck is able to find that family audience, I think that’s wonderful and I hope it happens. However, parents should take this one in first to determine if their kids are up for something challenging.

 

Movie Review ~ Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The adventures of an orphaned boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just so happens to be a dragon.

Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford

Director: David Lowery

Rated: PG

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If you were to visit The MN Movie Man’s house during the early eighties, on any given weekend you can be sure that at some point Pete’s Dragon would be unspooling on an oft-rented (eventually purchased) VHS cassette.  The 1977 Disney musical production was a household favorite and Helen Reddy’s plaintive Candle on the Water remains one of my favorite tunes to this day.

So you’ll understand that when I heard Disney was adding Pete’s Dragon to it’s expanding list of remakes, I was less than thrilled.  How dare the studio take its folksy tale of a boy and his dragon changing a small New England town and its residents for the better and put a 21st century spin on things…and would they stoop so low as to have some pop princess warble out an auto-tune version of Candle on the Water?  Right up until the lights went down and the Disney logo appeared on screen I was on the defense…but then something downright magical happened.  I loved this remake.

When I say loved, I don’t mean in the same way you say “I love that new Rogue One: A Star Wars Story trailer” but loved in the sense that you feel a wave of warmth emanate from your belly just thinking of certain key scenes in writer-director David Lowery’s damn lovely re-imagining.  Not only is it the best family film to come along in ages but it’s without question the best movie released so far this summer.  People wanted to believe that the terrible Suicide Squad would save the (summer) day and forgive the June and July trespasses but it turns out that Pete’s Dragon is the one that flies highest.

The first thing Lowery did was wisely throw out everything but the names of Pete (Oakes Fegley, This is Where I Leave You) and his dragon Elliot (spectacularly rendered via CGI).  Gone are the songs, the East coast setting, and the plot involving a runaway orphan finding a home with a lighthouse keeper and his daughter in the early 1900s.  Lowery knew the charming yet staid quaintness of the original and it’s accompanying songs wouldn’t appeal to modern audiences so he’s set his film in the 1980s Pacific Northwest.

By the time the credits are over, toddler Pete has been orphaned via tragedy and adopted by a gentle dragon he names Elliot before disappearing into the forest for the next six years.  Found by a kind forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World) and befriended by her future stepdaughter (Oona Laurence, Bad Moms), a near-feral Pete warms to this new family but struggles to leave the pain of his past and his fire-breathing constant companion behind.  There’s some late in the game roughness involving a logger’s (Karl Urban, Star Trek) plot to hunt down and trap Elliot that gives the film some tangible conflict but it’s the emotional conflict that is the biggest test for all involved.

This is a film you’ll get a good cry at so just go with it and enjoy the way it kindly pushes your emotional buttons.  It’s not manipulative or malicious in its intent and, man, it feels so good to have an honest response to a movie this far into 2016 when many films have left me cold.  The actors, especially Howard and Fegley, do outstanding work and Robert Redford (All is Lost) exudes grandfatherly warmth as Howard’s dad with his own ties to Elliot.

Where the 1977 Elliot was an animated goofball with neon lime green scales and pink accents, the 2016 version is impressively created as a furry tenderheart endlessly devoted to Pete.  With dog-like mannerisms (watch him struggle to get a giant log through two towering trees), Elliot wins you over from the first time he appears onscreen and thankfully the folks at Disney don’t keep him under wraps/invisible for much of the movie.

Beautifully produced and told with grace, Pete’s Dragon is the kind of remake that shows how to do it right.  If the original wasn’t broke, don’t fix it via a remake but use it to inspire a new tale that can stand on its own against its predecessor.  The two films may share a title but they couldn’t be more different in style and tone…and this new version easily earns a spot on the shelf of future family classics.