Tag Archives: film review

It, The Goldfinch, and temporal mismatches

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.

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.

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

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.

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.
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PET SEMATARY wants to punish Jason Clarke, and everyone else, for being such a fuck-up

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.

With Pet Sematary, Jason Clarke has truly arrived. Not as a Hollywood leading man; he’s already played John Connor (in a Terminator if not The Terminator), the main guy in a Planet of the Apes sequel, and a bunch of prominent roles in prestige-y pictures like Mudbound, The Great Gatsby, and Chappaquiddick. In 2019, Clarke has arguably already blown past the traditional leading-man phase of his career, and gone into Patrick Wilson territory, which I would define as operating in a perpetual state of former leading man.

This is not the same as a perpetual Baxter/Ralph Bellamy type, like Bill Pullman in 1993, or James Marsden in the early 2000s, playing the nice, handsome, normal guy who often loses the girl to someone cooler, handsomer, and less normal. Those characters are hardly ever actually leading roles, their reduced screen presence tipping the audience off about who the real star is. But Jason Clarke is the main character in Pet Sematary, just as sure as Patrick Wilson is the male lead of Insidious, Little Children, Watchmen, and Young Adult among others. He’s not playing the same guy in all of these movies, but there’s definitely a vibe (reinforced by his work on the indelible Girls episode “One Man’s Trash”): the handsome guy who’s in some supposed position of power, authority, or contentment, but operating with some kind of faded glory, lack of gumption, or dark secret. He is, whether pleasantly (Young Adult) or destructively (Insidious), the golden boy gone slightly to seed. He’s often a husband and/or a father, and he’s usually trying, if not necessarily his best. Often, he’s just a little too passive or outmatched by someone. He gets in over his head. It’s not his fault, except it kind of is.
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Shazam! is another superhero movie that’s not like all the other superhero movies that aren’t like other superhero movies

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.

Shazam!, based on the DC Comics hero originally called Captain Marvel and originally not published by DC Comics, stars Zachary Levi, who once appeared in a Thor movie for Marvel Studios. Levi plays the hero; the bad guy is played by Mark Strong, who also played a supporting role (and unrealized future bad guy) in Green Lantern, based on the DC Comics hero, but unconnected to the current DC Comics movies. Shazam! also co-stars Djimon Hounsou, who also has a supporting role in Captain Marvel, currently in theaters, a separate character from Shazam, the former Captain Marvel, and based in part on the Marvel Comics hero originally called Ms. Marvel.

Shazam! is about a teenager learning to wield his superpowers responsibly, like Marvel’s Spider-Man; it’s also concerns the effects of those superpowers on family dynamics—sort of like The Incredibles, a Disney film which is not based on a comic book, but owes a lot to the Fantastic Four, whose movie rights were recently welcomed back into the Disney fold when Disney completed its purchase of 20th Century Fox’s film division. The end credits of Shazam! feature charmingly scrawled drawings of the main character’s superheroic antics, followed by a post-credits scene goofing on another superhero, both elements that recall Deadpool, an offshoot of the X-Men series, which was also recently absorbed back into Disney via Fox. Disney, of course, owns Marvel, and Captain Marvel, but not Shazam!, which belongs to Warner Bros., which owns DC, which bought the character from Fawcett, the company that originally published stories about Shazam, back when he was called Captain Marvel.
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Watching Mel Gibson Again: DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE

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.

Mel Gibson was “canceled” in Hollywood before “canceled” was really a thing that could be done to a person instead of a TV show, but in a weird way, his shunning was (for lack of a better phrase) well-timed, beyond even the apparent breaking point of his drunken violence, misogyny, and anti-Semitism. Gibson didn’t really fall from grace until the mid-2000s, saving him the trouble of adapting to a re-aligned movie-star economy. His ‘90s peers in superstardom dealt with it in different ways: Julia Roberts stepped back, Tom Cruise tried to push forward like nothing had changed, and Tom Hanks made a graceful transition to late-middle-aged muse-following (give or take a terrible Dan Brown adaptation or three). Gibson seemed to be pivoting to directing when he made the torturous megahit The Passion of the Christ and the less mega (but also less tedious, honestly probably career-beest) Apocalypto, but after his star fell, he seemed keen on pivoting back into movie-star pulp and/or image maintenance. Audiences mostly stayed away, except for his recent part in the recent Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg sequel Daddy’s Home 2.
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GLORIA BELL: Is it time for Generation X to get its groove back?!

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.

Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, a remake of his Chilean film Gloria from six years ago, follows the broad outline of a light dramedy about a middle-aged woman getting, as the Terry McMillan phrase goes, her groove back. Gloria (Julianne Moore) is fiftysomething, gainfully employed, outwardly cheerful and maybe a little bit lonely. Her children are grown, her divorce long since finalized, and she even has a cute-movie-ready hobby: We first see her out at a dance club, populated by other middle-aged folks, eyes searching and hopeful. She likes to dance, though a lot of her moves are tentative.

Early in the movie, Gloria meets Arnold (John Turturro). They dance together, and soon they’re in a bona fide relationship–passionate, but seemingly with potential that extends beyond a sexy post-club fling. Re-energized sex life… romantic restaurants… her groove! Is it back?! But with the basic framework of a middle-age-revitalization story in place, Lelio feels free to dance around it. Stories like this, especially when they’re focused on providing some degree of fantastical wish-fulfillment, are often belabored with exposition about the protagonist’s normal, perhaps humdrum life. In Gloria Bell, we learn a lot of details about Gloria’s life with a quickness and a clarity that recalls Greta Gerwig or Noah Baumbach (he even captures Moore singing along in her car, alone, in a few shots that recall the intimacy of Gerwig’s earliest moments in Baumbach’s Greenberg). She works for some kind of insurance firm, mostly on the phones. Her young-ish son (Michael Cera) is a single parent to an infant. Gloria does not own a cat, but a hairless one keeps slipping into her apartment somehow. All of this plays out in concise and well-observed micro-scenes, with a near pathological avoidance of overstaying their welcome.
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Is Neil Jordan’s GRETA deliciously bonkers, or just kind of bad?

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.

Neil Jordan’s new movie Greta is a thriller in which a just-graduated young woman (Chloe Grace Moretz), still grieving from the death of her mother, finds herself bedeviled by Greta (Isabelle Huppert), an older woman who initially appears to be a sweet surrogate mom figure but turns out to be a dangerous obsessive. It’s the stuff early-’90s stalker movies were made of, and the throwback angle combined with access to new technology and Jordan’s considerable talent, not to mention a plum role for Huppert, give the movie a buzz of anticipation as it starts to unfold.

That buzz grows dimmer and more erratic as the movie explores the life of Frances (Moretz), who has moved to New York (played mostly by Canada and Ireland) to share a fancy Tribeca apartment with her spoiled best friend Erica (Maika Monroe). The two women speak mostly in awkward exposition, like, well, a couple of middle-aged guys making their best guess at what 22-year-olds sound like. Restless and unsure of herself in the big city, Frances finds a purse abandoned on the 6 train. She tracks down the owner, Huppert’s Greta, who invites her into her charming little house (of undetermined location) for tea. Soon Frances is going to dinner with Greta and helping her adopt a dog, as Erica rolls her eyes over her friend’s weird social engagements.
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How to Train Your Dragon 3, Lego Movie 2, and kid movies that won’t grow up

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.

Given the logistical undertaking of making a movie franchise out of big-studio animation, it must be a blessed relief not to have to include live-action performers in the mix. Voice actors can often fit their performances into packed schedules, they can change their appearance without affecting production, they can let natural aging take its course—and if the studio’s hand is forced, they can be replaced with minimal fuss.

It’s notable, then, that the sequels to the 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon have decided not to take advantage of the medium’s potential for eternal youth. The first movie is about a Viking teenager’s bond with the dragon he’s supposed to be hunting; in the sequels, released in 2014 and now in 2019, the boy ages more or less in parallel with the passage of real-world time. He’s taller and more assured in How to Train Your Dragon 2, and in The Hidden World he’s old enough to lead his tribe and think about getting married. Another recent (mostly) animated sequel aimed at kids, The Lego Movie 2, also works the passage of five years into its storyline. The walking, talking Lego minifigs who populate the movie don’t suffer much wear and tear, but in the movie’s parallel live-action storyline, the boy from the first movie is now approaching teen-hood—and his shifting interests are an engine of the sequel’s plot.
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The SportsAlcohol.com MiniPodcast: Second Act

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.

Typically, the SportsAlcohol.com podcast does overviews: of directors, of stars, of full TV seasons, of a year or decade’s worth of pop culture. But as part of our miniseries look at business movies, Jesse and Ben decided to rush into the studio right after watching a screening of the new Jennifer Lopez movie Second Act and discuss it, just like we discussed Pretty Woman and The Secret of My Success, among others. Only this time, there’s no science fiction… except that which this Jennifer Lopez vehicle provides.

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

Widows cooks like a heist picture and sprawls like an epic drama

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.

In the Saturday Night Live-based comedy MacGruber, Will Forte’s would-be action her assembles a kickass team of he-men during a stirring montage, packs them into a truck for a mission, and accidentally blows them all to hell. That’s not exactly what happens at the opening of Steve McQueen’s Widows, and probably drawing the comparison is a little bit insulting. But hear me out: McQueen dispatches an entire B-movie’s worth of tough guys with similar (if non-comic) efficiency, and precision-cut style. He toggles between a man and wife nuzzling in bed together and a brutal robbery turned car chase turned armed showdown. Back and forth it goes, quiet and loud, until the crew (including Liam Neeson and Jon Bernthal) is consumed in an explosion and, in the final pre-title image, the pillow next to Veronica (Viola Davis) lingers, empty. Her husband Harry (Neeson) isn’t coming back.
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