THE GOLDFINCH (2019)

September 12, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The challenge after watching this movie is deciding whether it needed more time or less. With a run time of two-and-a-half hours, that may seem like a ludicrous question, but Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize (fiction) winning 2013 novel was almost 800 pages long, covering many characters and spanning more than a decade. What to include and what to omit surely generated many discussions between director John Crowley (the excellent BROOKLYN, 2015) and screenwriter Peter Straughan (Oscar nominated for the fantastic TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, 2011).

13 year old Theo (Oakes Fegley) is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother when a bomb explodes leaving Theo dazed in the rubble and his mother dead. An encounter with an injured stranger causes Theo to take a painting and flee the museum. Theo proceeds to hide the artwork as the family of one of his schoolmates takes him in. The painting is “The Goldfinch” by Rembrandt’s pupil Carel Fabritius. In the first of many parallels separated by time, we learn Fabritius was killed (and most of his work destroyed) in an explosion. In fact, it’s these parallels and near-mirror-images are what make the story so unique and interesting … and so difficult to fit into a film.

When Theo’s long-lost drunken shyster father (Luke Wilson) shows up with his equally smarmy girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), they head to the recession-riddled suburbs of Las Vegas. It’s here where Theo meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard, Richie from the two IT movies), a Ukranian emigrant living with his dad (yet another parallel). The two boys become friends, partaking in drugs, alcohol, and shoplifting. Another tragedy puts Theo on the run. He finds himself back in New York, where he takes up with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), the partner of the stranger from the museum.

All of this is told from the perspective of young adult Theodore Decker, played by Ansel Elgort (BABY DRIVER). We see him bunkered in a hotel room contemplating suicide. The story we watch shows how his life unfolded and landed him in this particular situation. And it’s here where we find the core of the story. Circumstances in life guide our actions, and in doing so, reveal our true character. Theo carries incredible guilt over his mother, and his actions with Hobie, regardless of the reasons for doing so, lead him to a life that is not so dissimilar to that of adult Boris (Aneurin Barnard, DUNKIRK) when their paths cross again.

Other supporting work is provided by Ashleigh Cummings as Pippa, the object of Theo’s desire, Willa Fitzgerald (played young Claire in “House of Cards”) as Kitsey Barbour, Theo’s fiancé, as well as Denis O’Hare, Peter Jacobson, and Luke Kleintank. As a special treat, Oscar winner Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour in what feels like two different performances. When Theo is young, she is the cold, standoffish surrogate mother who takes him in; however when older Theo returns, her own personal tragedies have turned her into a warm bundle of emotions in need of pleasantry. It’s sterling work from an accomplished actress.

The segments of the film that resonate deepest are those featuring Oakes Fegley as young Theo. Fegley was so good in the criminally underseen WONDERSTRUCK (2017), and here he conveys so much emotion despite maintaining a stoic demeanor. It’s rare to see such a layered performance from a young actor. Of course the film is helped immensely by the unequaled work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Mr. Deakins finally won his first Oscar last year in his 14th nomination. Trevor Gureckis provides the music to fit the various moods and the two time periods. All of these elements work to give the film the look of an Oscar contending project; however, we never seem to connect with the older Theo, which leaves a hollow feeling to a story that should be anything but. Instead we are left to play “spot the parallels” … a fun game … but not engaging like we would hope.

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BABY DRIVER (2017)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If his movies are any indication, writer/director Edgar Wright would be fun to hang out with. He thrives on action and humor, and seems committed to making movies that are entertaining, rather than philosophical life statements. Many know his work from Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), while others are fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. High concept, high energy and a creative use of music are identifiable traits within Mr. Wright’s films, all of which are crucial to the success of his latest.

Ansel Elgort (excellent in The Fault in Our Stars) stars as Baby, a freakishly talented getaway driver paying off a debt to a no-nonsense crime boss Doc played by Kevin Spacey. Baby has an unusual movie affliction – a childhood accident killed his parents and left him with tinnitus. He compensates for the constant ringing in his ear by listening to music through ear buds attached to one of his many iPods (depending on his mood). In fact, his insistence on finding just the right song for the moment adds a colorful element to each escape route.

The film opens with what may be its best car chase scene and the hyper-kinetic approach sets the stage for something a bit different than what we usually see. There are no car drops from airplanes or train-jumping (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious franchise). Instead these are old school chases in the mode of Bullitt, or more precisely, Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (Mr. Hill appears briefly here as a courtroom reporter). A heist-romance-chase film with a diverse and truly remarkable selection of songs, high energy, more than a few comedic moments (the Mike Myers mask sequence is brilliant) and a recurring Monsters, Inc quote requires a strong lead, and young Mr. Elgort aces the test. Baby is the DJ to his own life, and possesses a moral compass that others on his jobs can’t comprehend. It’s a heart of gold in a bad spot.

Spacey plays Doc with his chilling dead-eyed stare, and even has his own moment of action sporting an automatic weapon during a violent shootout. Spacey’s various crime teams (he varies the pairings) include psycho-lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm in his continuing effort to distance from Don Draper) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Jon Bernthal, Flea, and an aptly named Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is not the clearest thinker of the bunch. Other supporting work comes courtesy of the rarely seen songwriter/actor Paul Williams, musician Sky Ferreira (as Baby’s beloved mother), young Brogan Hall as Doc’s talented nephew, and CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father. Mr. Jones is one of the few deaf movie actors and he adds much to Baby’s life outside of crime.

The crucial role of Baby’s love interest goes to the very talented and likable Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as singing waitress Debora, who introduces him to Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” song, while he plays “Debora” from T.Rex for her. She and Baby share the not overly ambitious life plan: “to head west in a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have”. They are good together and that helps make up for the always cringe-inducing red flag of “one last job” prior to the lovers running away together.

Buried in the Miscellaneous Crew is Choreographer Ryan Heffington, who deserves at least some of the credit for the most unique and creative aspect of the presentation. This appears to be a movie fit to the music, rather than music fit to the movie. There are some astounding sequences where the drum/bass beats are right on cue with the action – gunfire, driving, and character movements. “Harlem Shuffle” plays as Baby playfully dances past graffiti and sidewalk obstacles that perfectly match the beat and lyrics. We see what is likely the best ever movie use of “Bellbottoms”, and without question, the most creatively brilliant use of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. At times exhilarating to the senses, the infusion of comedy shots and new love help offset the tension of crime jobs and the thrill of the chase.

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PAPER TOWNS (2015)

July 23, 2015

paper towns Greetings again from the darkness. If you have ever watched Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild, imagine what the characters of Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels would have been like in high school. That gives you some idea of Margo and Quentin in this latest screen adaptation of a John Green novel (he also wrote “The Fault in Our Stars”).

Margo (Cara Delevingne) is the “live life to the fullest” youngster, while Quentin (Nat Wolff) is the “college-career-family” type who has his life timeline fully planned. As kids in the same neighborhood, they hang out together, but the inherent personality differences lead to polar opposite paths in high school. Margo is the exciting girl that everyone aspires to, while Quentin and his band of geeky friends never skip class, turn in all assignments and are elite college bound. Everything changes one night when Margo climbs through Quentin’s window and enlists his help in an evening of revenge shenanigans. He falls hard for her, and then … POOF … she’s gone.

It’s at this point that the film bogs down a bit. See, Margo loves a mystery and Quentin must decipher her many clues, as he is convinced she wants him to find her so they can be soul mates forever. Fortunately, the inevitable road trip provides some fun banter for Quentin and his brood, and it’s here where the true life lessons occur … friendship and finding happiness with one’s self.

Amiable is the best word to describe most of the characters in this film from director Jake Schreir (Robot & Frank). These are good kids and each very likeable … not the rebellious teens that usually get movies made about them. But they are so amiable, that there is a glaring lack of conflict in the vast majority of scenes. It’s as if the darkness and hard edge were purposefully sucked out of the Green novel. Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, the formulaic approach is quite surprising. These are the writers behind (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars … three scripts that pulled few punches. On the bright side, the film is brave enough to include a Confederate flag joke, and what may be the best ever on screen tuba joke, and the all-too-rare multiple Black Santa Claus gags.

Newcomer Cara Delevingne looks like Mariel Hemingway but has the attitude of a young Linda Fiorentino. It will be interesting to see where her career goes from here. Nat Wolff was a secondary character in The Fault in Our Stars, but his natural ease on screen allows for a quick transition to leading actor. Support work comes from Justice Smith as Radar, Jaz Sinclair as his girlfriend, Halston Sage as pretty girl Lacey, and Austin Abrams as the comedy-relief buddy. Since it’s 2015, you know there must be a Duplass Brothers connection, and this time it’s Jay appearing as an English teacher. For those fans of The Fault in Our Stars, yes, Ansel Elgort has a cameo.

The film version is definitely for romantics, and not for those looking for hard-edged life journey. It’s actually a welcome change to have nice kids share the screen and have conversations without gratuitous violence, profanity or nudity. Because of this, it’s pleasant enough to watch, but probably won’t stick with you like the others mentioned here.

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THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014)

June 8, 2014

fault Greetings again from the darkness. Having not read John Green’s book, and missing his targeted demographics by gender and a few decades, the narrator’s very early criticism of my favorite teen movie Say Anything … had me quickly questioning whether I was going to make it through this one. The greatness of Shailene Woodley soon won me over and I was all in.

The story revolves around a teenage girl named Hazel (Woodley) who was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and has remained alive and active thanks to an experimental drug. She is an exceptionally perceptive girl and carries the burden of worrying about how (or if) her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) will carry on after her death. She attends a teenage support group to keep her parents happy, and bumps into a friendship with a spirited young man named Gus (Ansel Elgort) … a self-labeled one-legged 18 year old virgin cancer survivor.

You guessed it … this is a tear-jerker. But it’s even more of a love story. Specifically, it’s a story about the joy in finding someone to love. While the cancer is ever-present, it’s the love story that captures our interest. When the story veers from that, it suffers. The trip to Amsterdam and the segment with Willem Dafoe seems out of place until even that is eclipsed by the final scene at the Anne Frank house. I understand the point, but it struck me as forced emotions … in a movie that was not lacking emotion.

Regardless of all of that, the reason to see this is the genius of Shailene Woodley. Neither she nor Elgort are real life teenagers, but they perfectly capture the adorable balance between awkward and witty. Woodley’s range is staggering (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now, Divergent) and she and Jennifer Lawrence should be blessing us with their talent for many many years to come.

Director Josh Boone benefits not just from the presence of Woodley, but also the screenplay, co-written by Scott Neustadler and Michael H Weber who also co-wrote both (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now. Their feel for dialogue and budding relationships is spot on, delivering a level of respect to both sexes. This film is very sweet and filled with grace, and tainted only by the saccharine musical choices and the Amsterdam sequence.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to follow the career of the amazingly talented young actress Shailene Woodley OR you are due for a good tear-jerker OR you need visual proof that a Rik Smits jersey plays a vital role

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe summer movies should be filled with special effects and big budget actions and superheroes and mutants and aliens.

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