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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BOTTOM OF THE 9th (2019)

July 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. For us baseball fans, seeing the sport on the big screen can be bliss (THE SANDLOT, 1993) or extreme torture (ED, 1996). Actually, with any sports movie, the pressure is on the filmmakers and cast to be respectful to the talent and athleticism required to play that game. When they succeed, it can be a wonderful blend of movie and sport. When they fail, it can be maddening … a cinematic version of fingernails on a chalkboard.

Director Raymond De Felitta delivered an excellent (and underappreciated) little gem in 2009 entitled CITY ISLAND. This time out he’s working from a script by Robert Bruzio (his first feature film screenplay). It begins with Sonny Stano (played by Joseph Manganiello) being released from Sing Sing Prison. He has served nearly two decades (since 1999) after accidentally killing someone just after signing a big contract with the New York Yankees right out of his Bronx high school … in the shadow of historic Yankee Stadium. See, Sonny was a baseball legend in the area – a “sure thing” to become the next Yankees legend. He even has a Mickey Mantle jersey mounted on the wall of his childhood apartment, alongside numerous pennants, trophies and sport photographs.

All those years ago, Sonny left behind not only baseball, but his high school sweetheart Angela (Sofia Vergara), who is now a single mom raising her young daughter. Of course, once Sonny and Angela bump into each other at the market, we know where this is headed. Just like we know where it’s headed when Sonny’s old Coach Hannis (Michael Rispoli) invites him to help out with the local Yankees minor league affiliate … in particular, a young hot shot player who is mouthy and uncoachable. Along the way, we also see Sonny’s Parole Officer (Denis O’Hare, in a “True Blood” reunion with Manganiello) and Angela’s less-than-welcoming cop/brother (Yancey Arias). They don’t call them stereotypes for nothing. It is nice to see Burt Young appear as a grizzled baseball scout, and fortunately Brian Cashman and Bernie Williams are the only Yankees who make a cameo appearance (awkwardly with no dialogue).

The idea is strong enough to work as an inspirational, second-chance-in-life sports movie; however, it all falls apart once Sonny hits the diamond. He moves like a weightlifter, not a ballplayer. His swing, supposedly capable of mashing pitches into the stratosphere, looks no different with a bat than with the sledge hammer he uses in one scene. The throwing motion is even more cringe-inducing. Still, we have been known to overlook such things in movies if there is a real life lesson. Unfortunately, despite his scenes reconnecting with Angela, we never find Sonny very likeable or easy to root for. Reading “King Rat” (James Clavell’s debut novel about his time as a POW) and wanting to take a business class is not enough to overcome the fact that he immediately quits the job that his friend gave him … the same friend who helped him get paroled. Plus, Sonny wears a constant scowl and tries to lecture, rather than lead, the prodigy he’s been assigned.

The fictional Staten Island Empires are a joke to watch, and it’s ludicrous to believe Sonny would catch the Yankees’ attention while taking BP for them. The scenes that do work are the quiet moments between real life husband and wife Mr. Manganiello and Ms. Vergara. Their scenes, while a nice reprieve from the clumsy baseball ones, are simply not enough to inspire us or give us reason to cheer the obvious and easy-to-predict developments. And another thing … why is it always the Yankees?

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LATE NIGHT (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. ”A woman who hates women”. That is how talk show host Katherine Newbury is described. Oh, and her show’s ratings have been declining for 10 years, she doesn’t even know most of her writers by sight (or name), and we are led to believe that her age has something to do with the new network executive wanting to replace her. Five minutes in, my opinion was that Katherine Newbury doesn’t like people (not just women), is basically a narcissistic jerk, and her age has nothing to do with her being replaced … it’s the fact that her show is lame, she’s not appealing to viewers, and advertising revenues drop with poor ratings. It’s called business – not sexism or gender discrimination. Never once did this seem like someone getting a raw deal. However, it’s only a movie, so I tried to play along.

Very talented actors fill the screen. Two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, the stuck-in-her-ways, Emmy winning talk show host hanging on based on reputation and longevity in the business. Her character reminds me of David Letterman towards the end of his long run … scandal and all. Mindy Kaling co-stars as Molly Patel, a factory, err, chemical plant worker, who dreams of being a comedy writer, but puts no effort into actually learning the craft. Instead, luck puts her in the right place at the time the show needs a token hire. Enter Molly, a woman of color in a writers’ room full of white men. The interesting dynamic here is that most of the men in the room probably got their seat thanks to connections, while Molly got hers based on gender. Talent and skill seem to play no part for any of them.

The story is basically Molly trying to find her true self by helping Katherine modernize her evil ways and save her job. There are quite a few little sub-stories – can’t really call them subplots – that mostly distract from the overall direction, but serve the purpose of allowing punchlines or supposedly insightful social commentary. John Lithgow plays Katherine’s wise, Parkinson’s stricken husband, and the writers’ boys club includes Hugh Dancy (“Hannibal”), Reid Scott (“Veep”), Max Casella (“Ray Donovan”), Paul Walter Hauser (I, TONYA), and Denis O’Hare (“True Blood”). Ike Barinholtz plays the hot young comedian being groomed as Katherine’s replacement, and it’s Amy Ryan (“The Office”) who really registers as the network President. More of Ms. Ryan’s character and more attention to the network perspective would have improved the film.

Director Nisha Ganatra (“Transparent”) is working from the script by Ms. Kaling, whose real life experiences as a token hire in the industry could have been better presented. A lame stab at a romance distracts from the reactions of the threatened writers materializing in a lack of respect towards Molly, and most of the comedy felt forced and obvious, rather than real and painful (the sources of the best comedy). It’s a shame that most any episode of “30 Rock” or “The Office” provides more insightful commentary and comedy than this film. It’s such a missed opportunity.

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NOVITIATE (2017)

November 9, 2017

Greetings again from the darkness. As recognized at Sundance, this is a commendable debut feature film from writer/director Margaret Betts. It touches on subjects as thought-provoking as traditions in religion, faith, youthful romanticism, and most poignantly, first love. The film is at its best when focusing on the frustration, anger and confusion of both a helpless parent and the teenage girls so full of innocence as they try to come to grips with a decision their maturity level has them incapable of making.

Margaret Qualley (“The Leftovers”, and real life daughter of Andie MacDowell) stars as Cathleen, a 17 year old girl whose small town life included parents who divorced when she was younger. Her mother (an excellent Julianne Nicholson) is a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking agnostic who embraced the responsibility of raising Cathleen, even after the father stormed out of their lives. As they stand face-to-face and Cathleen announces she is going to become a nun and proclaims “I’m in love with God”, we all share the parent’s pain as a mother stares back incredulously, knowing full well a 17 year old is incapable of making such a decision on her own.

At the convent we meet Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a woman so devoted to the cause that she hasn’t stepped foot outside the fortress-like walls in 40 years. As she explains to the nuns-in-training that her voice is God’s voice, it brought back memories of Alec Baldwin’s surgeon character in MALICE (1998) stating in a perfunctory manner, “I am God.”

The story follows (at least) three stories: the Reverend Mother, Cathleen and the other nuns, and that of the powerless parent. The setting is the early 1960’s and an ordinance known as Vatican II has just been issued. It was designed to restructure the Catholic Church (for the first time in a century) and have it become more contemporary – allowing the nuns to better serve society. Unfortunately, many of the long-term nuns did not embrace the changes and it rocked their daily routines. Adding salt to their wounds was the fact that the changes were mandated from Rome with no input from the nuns – signaling the beginning of a still-present lack of power for women in the church. This is oh so evident in a scene with the Archbishop (Denis O’Hare) explaining to Reverend Mother how she missed the “subtext” in the suggestions.

Most of the film focuses on the group of girls who are shielded from the outside world and its temptations as they go through the rigorous training on the path to solidifying their love of God. What we see is that these girls are simply trying to figure out their own identities as the system works to drain human nature from their souls. The scenes of solitary prayer are powerful as they each wrangle with their beliefs, faith and true self. Typical teenage giddiness is on display as the girls wear their white dresses and veils on the day of vows. Their elation around the campfire is more creepy than comforting. Most painful of all are the “circle of faults” that Reverend Mother subjects the girls to. Morgan Saylor (“Homeland” daughter) plays one of the Sisters and has one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film. Most of us have never been through anything close to this and would label it cruel and manipulative.

Cathleen’s mother visits when allowed and dutifully shows up for all ceremonies. We can feel her pain as she strives to will some common sense into her daughter – never giving up hope. It’s crucial to note that Ms. Betts does not attempt to take down the church. Rather her story seeks to explore what inspires these young girls to make such a decision, and the emotional turmoil that goes into it. The film kicks off with a narrated “We were women in love”, and ends with a footnote explaining that 90,000 nuns left the convents after Vatican II. If you can connect with the hopeful girls, perhaps the film will have the intended emotional gut punch for which it strives. For the rest of us, we are left with no real explanation, nothing to uplift us, and the crushed spirit of a 40 year devoted nun. On the bright side, the arrival of an exciting, new filmmaker is always worthy of celebration … no need to comfort me.

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THE JUDGE (2014)

October 11, 2014

judge Greetings again from the darkness. It’s hard to beat a good on screen courtroom drama for tension and conflict. Despite centering around a long time judge accused of manslaughter and being defended by his estranged son, a hotshot defense attorney, this one eschews gritty courtroom action in favor of uncomfortable and explosive family dynamics. And thanks to the acting abilities of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr, that’s a good thing.

Mr. Downey’s Iron Man/Tony Stark character has ingrained in movie goers his motor-mouthed smart-aleck persona that fits very well with the lacking-a-conscience cocky defense attorney who only defends the type of white collar criminals who can afford his unmatched courtroom savvy. When Hank (Downey) returns home for the funeral of his mother, we quickly witness the strained relationship with his demanding-perfection magistrate father (Duvall), and the historical family details slow-drip for the next couple of hours.

Hank’s older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) was once a promising baseball player whose career was cut short after an automobile accident (with a crucial component). Hank’s younger brother (Jeremy Strong, who played Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland) is a mentally handicapped young man attached to his video camera. Hank also (of course) runs into his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter (Leighton Meester), as a reminder of what he left behind in his quaint hometown when he chose fortune and big city life.

John Grisham has made a career, actually two (books and movies), dissecting lawyers and courtrooms. As you might imagine, director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) doesn’t have Grisham’s eye and ear for the courtroom, so the script often slips into manipulative melodrama during the trial (think Grisham-lite). But the scenes between Duvall and Downey more than make up for the fluffy parts. The kitchen confrontation and the bathroom sequence couldn’t be any more different, or any more powerful. One is the exorcism of a parent-child relationship gone bad, and the other is a vivid depiction of old age and disease.

This is old-fashioned mainstream movie-making. It’s about relationships and family and personality and life choices. There are no explosions or CGI or car chases. Even the key crime happens off screen. It’s also not breaking any new ground, and if not for the acting, could be just another TV movie. A perfect example is Vera Farmiga, who brings an edge to a role that otherwise would be superfluous. Same with Hank’s brothers. Both roles are severely underwritten, but D’Onofrio and Strong somehow make them work. Billy Bob Thornton brings a presence to an otherwise not-believable role as a slick special prosecutor wearing $1000 suits. Even Dax Shepard plays his comic relief country-bumpkin attorney slash furniture re-seller in an understated (for him) manner.

Other support work is provided by Ken Howard as the judge, Emma Trembley (Hank’s daughter), Balthazar Getty as the deputy with a grudge, Grace Zabriske as the victim’s vengeance seeking mother, David Krumholtz as a District Attorney, and Denis O’Hare as Duvall’s doctor.

In better hands, the script could have become much sharper and the film much crisper. Prepare for cheese and schmaltz, but it’s difficult to imagine more fun than watching Duvall and Downey go nose to nose and toe to toe. If you stay for closing credits, you’ll hear Willie Nelson wobbly warble through a Coldplay song.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see two excellent actors battle each other as only resentful father and sons can

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: even a single teaspoon of courtroom schmaltz is more than your movie doctor recommends

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