All posts by Jesse

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

It, The Goldfinch, and temporal mismatches

While it always feels a little gross to solicit praise for any of the big five (formerly six) movie studios, a microsecond of appreciation, please, maybe, for Warner Bros., a conglomerate that nonetheless saw fit to release two supersized literary adaptations in as many week. It Chapter Two may be a blockbuster, but it’s an expensive R-rated horror-movie adaptation of a very good book. The Goldfinch, an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning bestseller, is unlikely to follow in its $200 million-or-so footsteps. But Warner made it anyway, tasking director John Crowley (Brooklyn) and screenwriter Peter Straughan with taming Tartt’s 800-page opus. That this sort of Oscar-hungry play can now feel like bittersweet nostalgia feels oddly appropriate to the movie does with its timeline—or what it hopes to do, anyway.

Like It, The Goldfinch weaves together its lead characters’ past and present, and has to make some temporal adjustments to do so. Stephen King’s seminal 1986 horror novel whips between 1986 and 30 years earlier, following the reunion of childhood friends and the story of how they became bonded together in the first place. (Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, you may have intuited that killer clowns are involved.) Because the book is very long, the film adaptation has been split into two films, and the chronology re-organized: movie one is about the characters as kids, and Chapter Two is about the characters as adults.

The Goldfinch does the opposite: The book (I’m told) proceeds retrospectively but chronologically, following Theo, a boy who loses his mother in an art-museum terrorist attack, steals a painting from the rubble, and eventually becomes involved with antique-dealing and, by proxy, the Russian mob. The movie cuts between adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) and his younger self (Oakes Fegley).

Neither movie stays completely true to their narrative conceit. It Chapter Two, trying to forge cinematic bonds between the kids and their grown-up replacements, and presumably understanding how much audiences loved the kid characters in the first film, includes plenty of flashbacks to the timeline of the first movie (though the scenes are new, to the point where the kid actors are digitally de-aged, sometimes creepily and noticeably). The first half of The Goldfinch inevitably skews more toward the younger Theo, while the second half is heavier on Elgort, even though they’re both present all the way through.

It’s easy enough to suggest, backseat critic-style, that these adaptations should have left well enough alone, and trusted the structure of their source material, and that may be well be the case (as an It reader, it’s even more tempting to suggest that they should have just found a way to make one damn movie that works, instead of two that only kind of do). But movies are well-suited to these kinds of adjustments; prose sometimes needs to establish a pattern (alternating chapters) or hold up signposts, while movies can make time-jumps so concise. One shot of Fegley or Elgort, and you more or less know where you are; that goes double, or maybe times seven, for those It kids after spending a whole movie with them.

And that is exactly what makes both The Goldfinch and It such dispiriting, bittersweet-for-the-wrong-reasons experiences. The reunion angle of It is a major part of its primal power. The group of outcasts comes to rely on each other, rather than the various ineffectual adults in their lives, and team up to defeat a force of unfathomable evil (or at least beat it back into hiding). Later, when It resurfaces, they attempt to finish the job—and must remember old lives that they’ve let themselves forget. It’s a heightened, fantastical version of an old cliché: Hearing someone’s voice (in this case, the phonecalls from group historian Mike that kick off both Chapter Two and the original novel) and having memories flood back—or, stranger still, to feel the flood of memories knocking against a dam, but not quite breaking through yet.

The It movies simplify some of this into cheap insta-nostalgia. As fun as it is to see the talented kids back on their bikes for certain scenes of It Chapter Two, the movie is an object lesson in the trickiness of portraying youthful friendships and then translating them into adult roles. Those relationships are supposed to form the backbone of the newer film, as it introduces the grown-up versions of Bill (James McAvoy), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Ben (Jay Ryan), Richie (Bill Hader), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), Eddie (James Ransone), and Stanley (Andy Bean). After the friends (or most of them, anyway) come together in their hometown, director Andy Muschietti nimbly edits together a series of haunted-house set pieces where each goes on a quest for a childhood “totem” to aid them in the fight against evil. Each character confronts a personal demon, provided by their collective demon, Pennywise the Clown. And each scene has a little flashback to the It kids, explaining the objects’ importance.

This is meant as an elegant solution to the book’s unwieldly narrative, and technically speaking, it is; Muschietti’s transitions between past and present are often graceful, and they’re true to the spirit of the original narrative. As it turns out, that includes the book’s unwieldiness, because the adults don’t really have as much to do, narratively speaking. In theory, mixing their solo adventures with kid flashbacks is clever; in practice, it’s repetitive, and often traps the charming kid actors from the first film in a series of exposition-laden moments that play like deleted scenes. Though that earlier movie had some overcrowding problems—leaving Eddie and Stanley feeling vaguely interchangeable and poor Mike barely developed at all—it at least had the space for some effective shorthanding of the group dynamic. Adding the adult versions doesn’t deepen those the relationships, with certain developments (like an unspoken longing experienced by Richie, well-played by Hader) feeling almost like retcons. The kids themselves become the movie’s totems, providing pithy bits of backstory in place of real emotional connection. It’s arguable that this is at least semi-intentional—that by their 40s, the characters’ childhood friendships (which most of them barely remember at the beginning of the film) are more symbolic than functional. A less sentimental movie might have better integrated that into the story; it’s telling that the bittersweet memory fades of King’s novel aren’t a major feature of the film’s postscript.

The Goldfinch only has one totem: that stolen painting Theo secrets away and takes with him as he bounces from a childhood friend’s well-to-do family in Manhattan to his actual father’s ne’er-do-well makeshift family out west. The film’s childhood scenes are busy and a little overwrought, but Crowley captures the details of childhood helplessness—the friendships that form in its wake, the routines that form, the alliances and negotiations. The rough-edged-yet-tender friendship between Theo and Boris (Finn Wolfhard, who also appears in It) feels lived-in, yet somehow, when it resurfaces in adult form, it feels as phony and superficial as if the characters were being introduced for the first time. Forced to interact with what might feel like an entirely different movie, these past-present narratives become a minefield for the poor actors—none poorer than Ansel Elgort, who feels utterly adrift as the grown-up Theo, like he’s dressing as a famous literary character for Halloween. Finn Wolfhard, meanwhile, has to navigate this space twice, and while he’s not exactly bad in either movie, he has trouble forging much kinship with his adult counterparts: Bill Hader is basically doing his own thing, while while Aneurin Barnard (the older Boris) feels weirdly over-imitative of his younger self.

As in It Chapter Two, it’s possible to read the adult play-acting of The Goldfinch as an intentional reflection of arresting childhood traumas. It’s also possible to read it as a bad movie spliced into a good one—more so than It, which has some pleasures on the adult side of things even if they’re ultimately kinda self-negating. There’s something both magical and clumsy about the tricks these two movies play with time, not least because both movies are overlong to the point of distention. The way they stretch out, trying to encompass the fullness of years passing, of faces changing, of childhood traumas echoing, feels like an authentic struggle. It was a struggle even with the “realness” of Boyhood, where Richard Linklater really did film some of the same actors across twelve years of incremental, accumulating changes, but there the imperfections and hiccups and narrative detours felt, in their own way, true. It’s hard to fit life into a coherent. It Chapter Two and The Goldfinch find a more specialized, less moving truth: It’s hard to fit novels into movies.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Top Movies of Summer 1999

It’s the longest-running SportsAlcohol.com Podcast Franchise: Since 2014, we’ve been revisiting the top-grossing North American box office attraction of 20 years earlier, discussing how we feel about some of these movies with the fullness of time (or in the case of one 1999 movie, with the fullness of having watched it for the first time just days earlier). So, in the tradition of 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995, and 1994 comes our take on the blockbusters of 1999, including:

    • The Sandman!
    • Will Smith’s best!… theme song
    • The future star of The Fanatic and Gotti!
    • Peak shagadelicism!
    • Toydarians!
    • AND MORE!!!

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The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Quentin Tarantino (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2)

Last month, Quentin Tarantino released (by his count) his ninth feature film, which is also (by his count) the second-to-last film he’ll ever direct. With the takes, thinkpieces, praise, and outrage flying thick and fast, your movie core at SportsAlcohol.com felt it was a good time to talk about every single movie Tarantino has directed so far, starting with his newest one. Hence our brand-new two-part episode: first, a rundown of what Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse thought about Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood; then, a consideration of how it relates to all of his other films. So strap into your death-proof cars, drop a needle onto some semi-obscure oldie that may actually be from another iconic film, and enjoy our discussion of all things QT. (Even that Four Rooms segment.)

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ANNA plays like exactly the movie Luc Besson intended. That is to say: Yikes.

Early in the new spy thriller Anna, the title character played by Sasha Luss is selling matroyshka dolls on the streets of Moscow, until a talent scout notices her beauty and whisks her away to Paris to begin a modeling career. Soon enough, she’s introduced to a cadre of similarly lanky, striking housemates, anyone who has seen the film’s trailer, or knows that it’s directed by Luc Besson, might reasonably expect that the modeling agency will turn out to be a cover for some kind of elite agency of gorgeous, deadly assassins.

That isn’t the case—though Anna herself is, indeed, a deadly assassin working for the KGB. Further details about her situation are filled in through the movie’s frequent flashbacks, and Anna isn’t really a movie about a model-turned-spy so much as it is a spy movie with a few modeling scenes to explain why its ass-kicker looks like, well, a supermodel. It’s a very ’90s conceit that Besson indulged all through that decade and beyond. La Femme Nikita, The Professional, The Fifth Element, and even Lucy all feature variations on this theme.
Continue reading ANNA plays like exactly the movie Luc Besson intended. That is to say: Yikes.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Dark Phoenix and the X-Men Movies

It’s been almost 20 years since the first X-Men movie made the world safe for high-quality big-screen superheroes, and somehow the ensuing film series is only now winding down, with the release (and flop!) of Dark Phoenix, combination sequel, prequel, and remake that marks the final big team X-Men movie greenlit before Disney finalized its acquisition of Fox. While New Mutants and maybe another Deadpool remain on the docket at DisneyFox, it seems likely that the X-Men as a full-fledged franchise is going away for a while, likely to re-emerge as part of MCU Phase 7 or whatever. So this seemed like a good time for Rob, Sabrina, Nathaniel, Marisa, Jesse, and Jon to sit down and talk about all things XCU: Dark Phoenix, the series as a whole, the highlights and the failures, and, of course, Michael Fassbender’s beautiful face. It’s a lengthy but somehow also zippy discussion and we all wind up making fun of Beast at some point for some reason. Poor Beast. But long live the X-Men!

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The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: The MCU and Avengers: Endgame

Hey, did you guys hear about this Avengers movie? It’s like, the end, except like, not? It came out a month ago, but Avengers: Endgame will likely stand as the biggest-grossing superhero movie (maybe even biggest-grossing movie, period) for a good long while. The SportsAlcohol.com crew has talked a lot about the Marvel Cinematic Universe on our podcast in the past, whether it was about Spider-Man, or Captain America punching Iron Man, or mitigating some of the praise for the Guardians of the Galaxy, or enthusing about Ultron, or getting psyched about a new take Thor. We skipped a big Infinity War discussion, but we’re back now with a sum-up about our reactions to Endgame, its predecessor, and the state of the MCU in general (including our work on a group-voted MCU list that isn’t actually complete yet, since the new Spider-Man movie is coming out next month). Disagreements and weird preferences abound, so now that you’ve finally had a chance to digest all three hours of Endgame, let us tell you all about what we loved and hated about it! (Fuck you, soul stone!)

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Tribeca 2019, Part 2: American Women

If my first batch of Tribeca movies featured a lot of woodsy scenes, Clementine (Grade: B-) occupies a whole woodsy subgenre: the Two Women in a Cabin movie. Another title for this obscure-ass video shelf, Always Shine, premiered at Tribeca a few years ago; another, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, was his first time giving Elisabeth Moss a starring role, an uncomfortable prelude to their current collaboration Her Smell. Clementine, Lara Gallagher’s feature directing debut, doesn’t derive its tension from two women who are ostensibly close friends but secretly ready to maybe throttle each other; Karen (Otmara Marrero), unlike the characters in those other two movies, admits at the outset that she just wants to be left alone. Then again, she has a weird way of showing it: She breaks into her older, imperious-sounding ex-girlfriend’s vacation home, and decompresses from their recent break-up.

Her solitude is disrupted by Lana (Sydney Sweeney), a girl-next-door of indeterminate door. She shows up asking Karen, a stranger at least five or six years her senior, to drive her around and help find her lost dog. Karen both doubts the existence of this dog and agrees to help, and for the rest of the movie, the two women circle each other with uneasy fascination and sometimes flirtation. Gallagher takes her time, and never goes into full-blown psycho-stalker territory; Clementine often feels like a movie about two women deciding whether or not the other is a stalker, an object of obsession, or something in between. The film has a short-story quality that drags, a little, at 90 minutes; written out at 25 pages, this might be masterful (and would probably seem a lot more eventful). But I admire its quiet precision, even if it its outlines look a little thinly sketched.

There’s a similarly uneasy quality to the relationship between the two central women of American Woman (likely to underdo a name change, as it shares a title with an upcoming and unrelated Sienna Miller film). This American Woman (Grade: B-) has an impressive pedigree: It’s an adaptation of the Pulitzer-nominated Susan Choi novel, written and directed by Semi Chellas, a Mad Men staffer, fictionalizing the story of kidnapper-turned-radical Patty Hearst. Sarah Gadon takes the Hearst-ish role, while Hong Chau plays a radical-in-hiding hired to look after her. She’s also supposed to encourage ringleader Juan (John Gallagher Jr.) and his partner Yvonne (Lola Kirke) to put their experiences down on paper, to self-publish and further their cause, but good luck with that; the pair is antsy and unfocused.

A bond of sorts develops between Gadon and Chau, and Chau is especially terrific as a radical who has grown accustomed to containing and managing her emotions to survive. In just a few movies (she was great in the underappreciated Downsizing), she’s become an expert at showing women working, pushing through their personal feelings to get shit down. But the movie oddly elides a lot of the pair’s one-on-one time; they aren’t isolated from the other major characters until the movie is nearly over. American Woman has an ambiguity, sense of place, and performances worthy of Mad Men, but there’s something frustratingly elusive about it. It doesn’t make a clean break from its real-life inspiration, and winds up feeling like a docudrama even though the characters are made up. But Chellas and Choi are both artists to watch.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Checking in with SNL and Adam Sandler

Certain pockets of the SportsAlcohol.com editorial team have a soft spot for Adam Sandler, so when we heard that the Sandman would be returning to his launching pad Saturday Night Live for his first-ever hosting gig, it struck us as the perfect time to do our annual but irregularly timed Saturday Night Live check-in. So Marisa, Jesse, and Nathaniel stayed up late to watch the episode and talk about both Sandler’s performance, and the show’s performance all during its 44th season. So listen up, because we have a microphone and you don’t!!!!

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Every Adam Sandler Character from SNL, Ranked

The SportsAlcohol.com editorial core closely follows Saturday Night Live, and perhaps not coincidentally also closely follows the career of Adam Sandler, through a series of numerous lows and occasional highs. So obviously some of our most misguided interests were piqued when it was announced that the Sandman was down for his first-ever Saturday Night Live hosting gig, airing this Saturday, May 4th, on the good old NBC television network. Sandler has returned to the show for a few celebrations and one show-opening musical number, but he’s demurred on the possibility of hosting for many years. Though he currently alternates Netflix movies with the occasional arthouse indie picture (!), Sandler is still a major star, and his return to the show where he spent an uneven five years as a writer and performer qualifies to us as a major pop-culture event. So we decided to figure out a complete ranking of Sandler’s (non-impression) recurring characters from his SNL years.

As it turns out, there aren’t really that many; one of these 16 “characters” doesn’t really qualify, and 6 of the remaining 15 are Weekend Update bits. Really, Sandler’s signature character was, well, Adam Sandler: the guitar-playing or Halloween-costume-suggesting goofball who showed up at the Update desk to goad Kevin Nealon into singing or to make faces at Norm MacDonald and/or Chris Farley. Sandler is not a virtuosic sketch performer; his stand-up comedy roots show, and it’s arguable that the stand-up-bro sensibility of so many mid-90s cast members is what led to one of the program’s worst slumps. But Sandler and his guys — Chris Farley, David Spade, to a much lesser extent Rob Schneider — all had great moments on the show.

To rank these characters,, I sent a master list to a bunch of people who I thought might know or care enough about Adam Sandler to send back ranked ballots. Only I, Nathaniel, and SNL fan Brian had enough of an opinion to weigh in. And, as it turns out, our ballots were often pretty much in sync, making this an unusually strong consensus in terms of what goes where. The Sandman: the great uniter…of people who watched him on SNL when they were younger.
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Tribeca 2019, Part 1: Into the Woods

There are certain types of indie movies I’ve seen a lot in seven years or so of Tribeca Film Festival coverage: the gritty coming-of-age movie, the would-be scrappy rom-com (more on that in a future dispatch!), the slow-burn thriller. But it was still a little surprising that at Tribeca 2019, I saw no fewer than three movies in a row that featured following shots of its characters traipsing through woodsy environs. The movies had very little to do with each other. Sometimes it’s just one of those things.
Continue reading Tribeca 2019, Part 1: Into the Woods