Reel Opinions

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Goldfinch

John Crowley's The Goldfinch has an air of self-importance to it that it does not earn or deserve.  It's a pompous and ponderous slog through a plot that should be emotional, yet never is.  That's because all vitality and life seems to have been drained from every aspect of the production.  The performances, the confused out of sequence narrative, and especially the interminable two and a half hour running time all add up into an experience that is dead in the water from the word "go".

The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt, and while the narrative is more or less the same, nothing else from Tartt's original work has survived in the translation.  All nuance, character, and naturally the wording of the novel is missing.  What we have left is a lifeless and dreary reenactment of events from the book that hold almost no distinction or dramatic weight.  The disastrous and deadly dull screenplay is credited to Peter Straughan, who was responsible for another misguided adaptation just two years ago, 2017's The Snowman.  Either Straughan just simply stinks at adapting novels for the screen, or he has lousy luck with the filmmakers chosen to bring his vision to life.  Whatever the case, if I were a studio executive, I would start rejecting his scripts based on novels based on recent evidence.

The title of the film refers to a famous painting that plays a major part in its hero's life.  Young Theo (Oakes Fegley) was visiting New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother, when a terrorist bombing occurred that took his mother's life, as well as many others around him.  Theo survives and takes the painting, and the film follows the journey that both take over the course of 20 years or so.  Among the ruins of the museum, Theo also happens to meet an old dying man who gives the boy a ring, and tells him to give it to his partner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), a kindly man who runs an antique shop.  With no family to speak for him (his dad is an alcoholic who is currently missing), Theo finds himself adopted by a wealthy family headed by Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman), while also learning about antiquing and the difference between a genuine work of art and a replica by Mr. Hobie.

Just as Theo starts to adapt to his new life, his drunken lout of a dad (played by a miscast Luke Wilson) suddenly shows up back in his life, and drags him out to a mostly abandoned desert neighborhood in Las Vegas.  While all this is happening, the movie is constantly making time jumps to when Theo is an adult (now played by Ansel Elgort), having a hard time keeping his life and impending marriage together due to his drug and alcohol use.  Again, none of this connects in the slightest, and anyone who has not read the original novel is likely to be confused, and also wonder why this story is so acclaimed in its original form.  All the complexities and nuances have been stripped away.  In the original novel, Theo narrated in the first-person and shared his inner thoughts.  Here, he comes across as an empty void of a character that we never get to know, and simply reacts to everything and everyone around him.

Because of this, The Goldfinch not only lacks any kind of emotion that an audience can connect with, it also doesn't make a damn bit of sense at times.  The time-jumping, out of sequence narrative has little rhyme or reason, and plays more like an act of confusion rather than a stylistic choice.  There is also something just a little off about the performances here.  Despite talented performers like Kidman and Wright in the cast, nobody seems to be able to rise above this material.  We also get a strange disconnect between the two actors who play Theo at different ages.  While the young Oakes Fegley is fine, Ansel Elgort as the adult is completely one-note and shows no sign of personality.  It's hard enough to relate to these people given their stilted dialogue.  It makes it even harder when you see actors who you know are much better than this giving portrayals that are frequently stiff.

What we have here is a case of something that worked beautifully on the written page, because the author had the time, space and talent to truly explore the depths of these characters.  Take all of that away, and just leave nothing but the basic narrative, and you have what is easily one of the worst films of the year.  This is a failed prestige project that certainly looks beautiful and has attracted some strong talent, but to what end when you're not even going to bother to tell the story properly?


Friday, September 13, 2019


If seeing Jennifer Lopez giving her best performance since her acting peak in Selena and Out of Sight was the only reason to see Hustlers, that would be reason enough.  Her performance is transformative here, reminding us of what she can truly do when she's paired with a great script and a director who knows how to bring out the best of her.

Fortunately, writer-director Lorene Scafaria has given us so much more than Lopez's best on screen work in almost two decades.  Hustlers is just a ton of fun to watch, full of energy, and is the rare film that left me wanting more in a good way.  I wanted the film to run longer than it did, so I could spend more time with these characters, and exploring their relationships.  In telling the true story of a group of strippers who lured in wealthy Wall Street moguls, drugged them, and then took them for millions, Scafaria confidently strides the line between telling a compelling crime drama narrative, and a genuinely entertaining female-bonding comedy.  She is obviously drawing from Scorsese's Goodfellas here, using some of the same camera and visual techniques, as well as a fun but a bit on the nose soundtrack scoring the scenes.  However, she still finds a way to make this story her own, make it engaging, and most of all, make it tremendously entertaining.

Inspired by an article run in New York magazine, we are introduced to the movie's world through a young woman who goes by the stage name of Destiny (Constance Wu), who seems to be in over her head when she first starts working at a strip club, entertaining wealthy Wall Street clients who are flush with cash.  She's in the line of work to support the grandmother who raised her since she was a child (Wai Ching Ho), and when she first starts out, she doesn't seem to have the slightest clue about what to do.  Men are attracted to her, but she hasn't yet learned the ropes.  That's when she meets Ramona (Lopez), the most popular lady at the joint, who sees something in Destiny, and wonders why she isn't making the big bucks like she does.  Ramona was once a cover girl for magazines, but now she's here, supporting a young daughter, and making huge amounts of money as one of the club's leading attractions.

With Ramona's help, Destiny learns the tricks of the trade, as well as starts both a personal and professional relationship, with both women creating a seductive routine together for men's pleasure.  Destiny starts making some real money, buys some nice things for herself, and helps her grandmother.  She's even able to leave stripping behind for a short while.  But then, Destiny goes through a bad marriage, has a baby, and the 2008 recession hits.  She goes back to the club she once worked at, only to find it in a slump.  The Wall Street people who once occupied the joint just don't have the money to spend anymore, and most of her friends from her past days are now gone.

Needing to make some real money again, Ramona concocts a scheme.  Destiny helps her develop a drug made of MDMA and ketamine, and then they go out looking for wealthy and powerful married men.  They flirt with the men, drug their drink with the mix they develop, and then drag the men back to the club in order to drain his credit card while he's in a stupor.  If the men complain about the massive amount of money suddenly missing from their account, the ladies will just tell them they had a great time, spent too much, and that they probably shouldn't tell their wives about what happened.  They recruit two other women from the club into their scheme - Merecedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), and this creates the strong bond between the four women that carries most of the film.

Hustlers follows the four through their highs and lows, and expertly juggles the multiple angles that the film requires.  We see Ramona and Destiny developing a truly strong bond with each other, and as the other ladies enter the scheme, we see that bond grow larger and stronger.  It is important that the film stay laser-focused on their lives and relationships, otherwise the lead characters would probably come across as shallow or horrible.  There is definitely a fun, party vibe to a lot of the film, but there are also hard doses of reality throughout, such as when Destiny is brought down by financial difficulties, which leads to the hatching of the scheme in the first place.  The screenplay could have definitely focused a bit more on the moral questions about what these women are doing, but the emphasis that it places on the women at the center of it helps us at least see their desperation, and allows us to follow them to the end, when the plan inevitably starts to fall apart at some point.

Of the performances, it will obviously be Lopez who gets all the attention, with the effortless way she plays all the sides of Ramona.  She's a mentor, a warm mothering type, and a scheming ringleader who is willing to do whatever it takes to stay on top.  She is more commanding than she's been in a film in a long time.  However, this should not take away anything from Constance Wu's performance, which is just as strong, and as the most definitive arc.  She starts as a wide-eyed innocent, becomes a pro, willingly helps develop the scheme to fleece the money, and creates such a powerful, dramatic portrayal in certain scenes that she shows even more star potential than she did in last year's Crazy Rich Asians.  We feel for her, and we feel for the sister-like relationship that she builds with Lopez.  It makes the film's final moments between the two women all the more cutting and emotional.

This time period after the Summer blockbusters have gone, and the big Fall films are on the horizon, is usually quite slow, so to have a total blast of energy like Hustlers hit theaters right about now is very welcome indeed.  It's not just a great time, it's also a truly engaging experience from top to bottom.


Saturday, September 07, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon

With a title like The Peanut Butter Falcon, a movie has a lot to rise above.  Fortunately, it manages to do just that, and is even sort of engaging, which is good when you consider how corny and almost hokey the movie can get.  This is a big hearted modern day take on The Adventures of Huck Finn that manages to rise above its somewhat cliched narrative.

The big attraction here is its lead star, Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down Syndrome who manages to deliver a sweet, funny and compelling performance as Zak, a young man who has been shunned by everyone because of his disability.  His family has abandoned him at an old folks home, because he has no one else to look after him.  Zak spends his days watching an old VHS tape of a popular 1980s Pro Wrestler called the Salt-Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and plotting ways to escape the home so that he can make the journey to meet his Wrestling idol.  With the help of his elderly roommate (a funny Bruce Dern), Zak does manage to escape, although he has to discard most of his clothes to do so.  Dressed only in his underwear, and with no money or means of transport, Zak's journey at first seems impossible.

But then he runs into another young man who is on the run for his own reasons.  Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, more sincere and honest than he's ever been on the screen) is a self-destructive fisherman with a tragic past who encounters Zak when he stows away on Tyler's boat.  They form a reluctant bond and before you know it, the two become reliable friends.  For Zak, Tyler knows the way to get him to his goal, and also is the first person in his life who doesn't treat him as being different from everyone else.  All his life, Zak has been told he can't do certain things, but because of Tyler, he feels confidence for the first time.  As for Tyler, he has been in a constant downward-spiral since he caused an accident that took the life of his brother (Jon Bernthal in flashbacks), and young Zak is the first friend he's had since then.

The two begin a journey down the river by any means necessary, whether it be Tyler's boat, or a make shift raft at one point.  All the while, both are being pursued by different people for different reasons.  Tyler is in trouble with some dangerous goons who want to hurt or possibly kill him for stealing their fishing profits, while Zak's caretaker from the home (Dakota Johnson) is trying to find him before he gets in trouble.  There are encounters with a blind Bible-thumping old man, run-ins with colorful characters along the way, and quite a lot of implausibility here.  But, The Peanut Butter Falcon rises above it all, thanks to the performances of both Gottsagen and LaBeouf, who share a warm chemistry.  And yes, we do eventually figure out what the title means, as it becomes Zak's Pro Wrestling name.

The film ultimately works not as a journey picture, but because of the emotional journey both men take in order to improve themselves.  Zak learns that he is capable of much more than he ever dreamed of, while Tyler finally decides to forgive himself for his past mistakes.  There were moments where I was kind of wondering where the movie was going, as it seemed to be dragging its feet, but I was constantly engaged by the winning performances.  Even the somewhat out of the blue romantic relationship that LaBeouf and Johnson start to develop kind of won me over by the end.  The movie is laid back, but not deadly dull.  This is the kind of movie where we admire the scenery, the pleasant soundtrack, and the performances on display, rather than a gripping narrative.

The Peanut Butter Falcon could have easily gone wrong in so many ways.  It could have been sappy, or made its Down Syndrome lead into a "cute" little comedian.  But, you can tell that first-time feature writers and directors, Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, cared about this project and their young star too much for that.  The story goes that the filmmakers met Gottsagen while volunteering at a theater camp, struck up a friendship, and promised that they would make a movie starring him.  Not only have they done that, but he has returned the favor by giving one of the more truly inspiring performances of the year.


It: Chapter Two

Like a lot of sequels, It: Chapter Two ups the ante over the original horror blockbuster from exactly two years ago this weekend.  There's more blood, more eerie voices rising from the sewers, a lot more ghouls to terrorize the heroes, and naturally, more of the diabolical Pennywise the Dancing Clown (once again played by Bill Skarsgård).  Also like a lot of sequels, because it goes bigger in so many ways, it ends up losing some of what made the first movie such a great entertainment.

Oh, there's still plenty of stuff that works here.  It's well made, and the performances are great.  There are just more setbacks than before.  This is a much longer film than the original, clocking in at about three hours, and because of that, it feels a lot less focused.  The plot meanders a lot, especially during the very long middle portion of the film, and the whole production just kind of feels overstuffed.  It's never boring, but it does seem to be spinning its wheels a lot.  We get a lot of scenes where the characters intentionally do stupid things (like sticking their hand down a sewer grate when they hear voices coming up from within) when they obviously should know better.  They do it, because the movie needs another special effect shot of some kind of monster.  This time, the effects seem to be the main attraction, and not the story or the characters we grew to love before.

The original It was obviously a great thriller, but it was also a wonderful coming of age dramatic comedy and an exciting adventure.  That film focused on a group of likable kids played by some wonderful child actors who joined up to battle a supernatural evil that was terrorizing their town.  But it wasn't just about the kids having to rise up against the demonic entity that was stalking them.  The kids themselves felt real.  They had real dialogue, relationships, concerns, and bonds with one another.  When they faced danger from the local bullies or were threatened by the evil that usually manifests itself in the form of a clown, we genuinely cared about them.  We wanted to see them succeed.  The sequel is set 27 years later, so we are introduced to these same characters as adults.  And while the group is played by some fine adult actors, and they are all giving strong performances, they don't quite have the bond that we remember them having when they were young.  The kids were more interesting than who they grew up to be.

I can say this with certainty not just because I have recently watched the original again to prepare for the follow up, but also because the sequel contains a number of flashbacks where the kids return, and their scenes just strike me as being so much better.  Again, this is not the fault of the adult actors.  All of them fit the roles they're given.  They just seem to have been written with less personality for some reason.  Of the returning heroes, Bill Denbrough (played by Jaeden Martell as a child / James McAvoy as an adult) has become a horror writer who has trouble coming up with endings, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis / Jessica Chastain) is married to an abusive lout who comes across as a cartoonish, screaming villain of a bad domestic melodrama, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer / James Ransone) has become a risk assessor with a needy wife, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor / Jay Ryan) has lost weight and become a successful architect, and Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard / Bill Hader) is a stand up comedian, so that means everything that comes out of his mouth has to be a one liner or a quip, no matter what may be happening. 

The group is reunited by Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs / Isaiah Mustafa), the sole member of the group of friends who never left their original hometown of Derry, Maine.  He is the first to realize that the evil entity that they battled as children has come back when there are a new rash of murders and child kidnappings around town.  He summons his friends home to face it once again, as this time, he thinks he's found a way to defeat the shape-shifting monster once and for all.  It's kind of interesting at first to see these characters reunite as adults.  We look forward to the film developing them, and showing us how they have changed.  Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be what the filmmakers are going for.  Aside from learning that Ben still secretly longs for Beverly, we don't really learn much about what's happened to these people in the past 27 years, aside from what I told you in the previous paragraph.  I wouldn't call them boring, as the performances from the adult actors is enough to hold our attention.  But they definitely come across as underwritten, and not quite as complex as their young counterparts in the flashbacks.

Once all the friends are back in Derry, It: Chapter Two suffers from a lengthy and unfocused middle section where the individual characters explore the town, and are usually menaced either by the monstrous Pennywise, or some kind of CG ghoul that include zombies, vomiting demons, entities that can disguise themselves as harmless old ladies, creepy crawlies coming out of fortune cookies, and an awful lot of creatures that resemble spiders to the point that you wonder if the movie has some kind of strange fetish when it comes to arachnids.  It was during these moments that my heart sunk a little, and I realized that this sequel was not really interested in further development of the characters, and was instead going to be a spookhouse thrill ride where computer generated monsters leap out and scream at the camera repeatedly.  Not only are these moments repetitive, they just are not scary in the slightest.  All of the monsters are so blatantly computer animated, they often don't fit in with the live actors or settings.  The most embarrassing attempt is when the movie tries to create tension in the audience with a statue of a lumberjack that comes to life.  The effects used are not convincing in any way, and it kind of looks like we're being menaced with a deranged CG cartoon character.

There is an over reliance on special effects that really kills the tension.  The first movie kind of had the same problem, but nowhere near the extent as here.  That's because last time, the filmmakers were confident enough in the memorably creepy performance of Bill Skarsgård as the clown who lures in children, then murders them.  They emphasized his innocent, almost child-like nature that he would use to gain the trust of his victims.  This time, Skarsgård is overpowered by the CG effects and monstrosities, and at times becomes a special effect himself, such as when he turns into a giant half clown-half spider.  There are only two scenes where he gets to stand out like he did last time, one involving him luring a little girl under the bleachers during a baseball game, and the other involving a fun house mirror maze.  The rest of his screentime is devoted to short bursts where he shows up to threaten the heroes, then disappears, or is replaced by an unconvincing effect. 

There are moments throughout It: Chapter Two that work, but the movie doesn't come across as the fully realized and satisfying entertainment like the first half.  Maybe this was inevitable, as it has always felt to me like the stuff involving the adults was never as interesting as the stuff with the kids.  It was true of Stephen King's original novel, it was true of the 1990 TV Miniseries, and it's unfortunately true here.


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