Thursday, September 12, 2019

THE GOLDFINCH

Nicole Kidman     Ansel Elgort     Oakes Fegley     Jeffrey Wright 
Luke Wilson     Sarah Paulson    Finn Wolfhard     Aneurin Barnard


     This movie is full of surprises, most of which I loved.  Above all, the characters fascinate the viewer while the rest of the cast seem to take them all in stride, a kind of lesson in acceptance.  Storytelling hits that sweet spot in which information comes through gradually, punctuated by significant details, but giving one time to savor the plot.  The central character, Theodore (beautifully rendered by Oakes Fegley playing the younger and Ansel Elgort the older Theo), reminds of “Baby” in Baby Driver (also played by Elgort), actors able to convey mystery as they become endearing and grow on their acquaintances.
     The story begins with tragedy, when Theo’s mother is missing after an explosion in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.   His alcoholic father disappeared long ago, so he needs someone to take him in.  When he names the mother of a classmate whom he has befriended, as at least a temporary solution, Mrs. Barbour (Kidman) steps up to the plate and brings him to her family, which is both wealthy and dysfunctional.  She ends up really caring about him, and it looks like he may be with them for a long time.  
     But… (This story is filled with twists and turns, continually bringing up questions about coincidences versus fate/predetermination).  That juxtaposition is one of the themes of the film, coupled with questions about what is fake and what is real, both in relation to art as well as in human relationships as portrayed.  
     The movie Goldfinch is mesmerizing during Theo’s growing-up years when we observe him to be so well balanced and well behaved, managing his losses and compensating for them in healthy ways.  It gives us a realistic picture of trauma (in other characters as well as Theo), its after-effects, and how people manage it.  The characters introduced make the story come alive, such as different family members in the Barbour family, Hobie (Wright) who takes Theo under his wing and educates him about artistic furniture and reproductions, and the reappearing father (Wilson) and his girlfriend (Paulson) who whisk him off to sandy, bleak Las Vegas.  
     Unfortunately, the film loses its way and tries to become a thriller toward the end, with drug dealing, mobsters, and other unsavory characters introduced into the mix.  This is where it lost me, although I did appreciate attempts to show all the characters to be a mixture of good and bad qualities, most of which with good intentions; but the ending was just too fantastical for me to go along with it.
     For the most part, director John Crowley, the actors, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Trevor Gureckis have created a beautiful work of art, capturing the qualities of the Goldfinch painting and its history, while prompting us to consider different philosophies of life.

A captivating story with meaningful characters, derailed by superfluous drama seemingly “tacked on” toward the end.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


HUSTLERS

Jennifer Lopez     Constance Wu     Julia Stiles     Keke Palmer     Cardi B     Lili Reinhart


     Hustling pays off—sort of—according to this movie about a group of strippers in New York eventually conning the likes of Wall Street bankers.  It’s a dramatic account based on a true story as reported by one of the screenwriters (with director Lorene Scafaria), Jessica Pressler ( "The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole From (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves". The Cut. 2015-12-28).  It’s said that truth is stranger than fiction, and this is one of those cases where the saying applies.  I’m sure some of the conned men might say, “You can’t make this thing up.”
     At any rate, Scafaria and her crew have put together an entertaining comedy that has rings of truth all over it, making it more substantive than simply humorous.  Comedy flows in one-liners such as a graphic artist commenting on an education-aspiring stripper’s handwriting:  “You’re handwriting is so beautiful!  You could be a font.”  The substance is about truths found in human beings’ continual wishing for more (often the source of their vulnerabilities) and the sisterhood found in so many female groups, an aspect mostly ignored in fictional portrayals.  
     Jennifer Lopez as Ramona and Constance Wu as Destiny form a consummate pair of conniving women driven by life circumstances to cut certain corners simply to survive.  Their on-screen attraction (toward each other and ours to them) drives Hustlers’ momentum, which I attribute to their acting skills and charisma.  As in many close friendships, the characters Ramona and Destiny differ significantly from each other, while their skills and values are complementary; Ramona is the “people person” able to talk down any complaier and Destiny is the organized, business-minded one with basic human values.  (She has her limits as to how far she will go in getting clients to submit and a practical, “business” sense.)  
The film gives us a picture of strip clubs at the time—the tremendous amount of money flowing in, the exploitation of the strippers by the club owners, the “art” of attractions like pole dancing, and the special kinds of relationships the strippers had with their clients. 
     Then comes the recession of 2008, which results in the abandonment of the clubs by wealthy men, the introduction of cheaper Russian girls willing to perform whatever is requested, and Ramona and Destiny realizing they need to adopt a better business model.  They are astute in figuring out how to benefit the clubs—their source of support—along with themselves.  They will “go fishing” for men in smaller venues like bars to bring to the clubs.  This is imminently successful until…
     Towards the end, the story gets a bit absurd, but mostly it shows a very clever ruse.

Thanks to director Scafaria and the stars, Hustlers ends up being an entertaining romp with substance to boot.

Grade: B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, September 5, 2019

IT CHAPTER TWO

Jessica Chastain     James McAvoy     Bill Hader     Bill Skarsgard
Isiah Mustafa     Jay Ryan     James Ransone     Andy Bean



     This reunion of childhood friends after 27 years isn’t going to be typical; for one thing, a fat kid is now trim and fit—rather than everyone being more portly—the usual reunion preoccupation.  But of course it will be out of the ordinary in so many other, more important, ways.  It’s important to know that this group of reunion members are from the “Losers Club”, and “losers they will always be”, BUT they have pledged as a group to defend against a dark force.
     These friends are called together based on a promise (sealed in blood) made at a time when they thought they had done away with Pennywise (Skarsgard) the wicked clown who preys on young children.  Now Mike (Mustafa) is sending them all urgent messages to come to Derry, Maine, at once.  This will be no easy feat, because they’ve all (except for Mike) left Derry to establish careers and, sometimes, families.  We see each of them attempt to disengage from their commitments to honor the childhood pledge.
     Only one (Stanley, played by Bean) chooses not to go, but the rest brave all kinds of obstacles to return to Mike in Derry, Maine.  He has brought them all together, of course, to tell them that Pennywise has resurfaced and is killing children.  He has done enough research to learn that an ancient Native Indian tribal ritual is called for.  Each of them must find his/her own distinctive “artifact” (from childhood) and bring it to resolution in a ritual.  It’s a bit Jungian in that each must discover his/her shadow and resolve the conflict, one of the stronger assets of the film.
     Beverly (Chastain) has issues with her father, Richie (Hader) has unresolved sexual identity issues, Bill (McAvoy) is carrying the weight of his brother Georgie’s death on his conscience, Ben (Ryan) is still suffering from his “fatness” and the rejection of his childhood flame, Eddie (Ransone) has Mommie issues, and Mike has to come to terms with prejudice against his race.
     Much of the movie covers each person’s struggle with the psychological issue significant for him/her, emphasizing the “losers” aspect (“and we will always be losers”) and the group sticking together to accomplish a noble goal.  I enjoyed these parts of the movie, directed by Andy Muschietti and written by Gary Dauberman based on a Stephen King novel. 
     Unfortunately, the film degenerates into a showcase for special effects, making it insufferable in its length (almost three hours), and completely unbelievable in plot.      Additional nonessential sequences were in the beginning about brutality against gays and toward the end in gay references, neither of which fit in with the main story. The filmmakers seem to be making a side point—which I sympathize with—but find the sequences “stuck into” the plot.
     It Chapter Two has A-list actors in the major roles, and they are superb in what they are given by the script, but their roles are limited.  Jessica Chastain has little to do other than react to the male actors. With her talent, she is wasted in this film.  James McAvoy’s character is a little more filled out, but fails to make him the forceful presence he should be.  Probably the standout is Bill Hader as Richie whose ambivalence and neurotic characteristics gives him more of a platform to exploit his range and ability.
     Most of all, Director Muschietti can be faulted for getting so caught up in special effects, he lost sight of the “meat” of Stephen King’s works having to do with friends sticking together, the drama in the growing-up years, and the influence of early traumas on adult life.  He addressed these, but then covered them up with showy special effects and extended final scenes with Pennywise to an almost unbearable length.

Pennywise and pound-foolish seems to fit this rendition of a Stephen King novel.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, August 29, 2019

DON'T LET GO

David Oyelowo     Storm Reid     Mykelti Williamson    Alfred Molina    Brian Tyree Henry     Byron Mann


     Don’t let yourself go to this movie.  It’s a hodgepodge of scenes going back and forth in time, which makes the action even more senseless than it would be if told in a conventional way.  We get from the beginning that there is a close connection between Jack Radcliffe (Oyelowo) and his niece Ashley (Reid). There are intimations that her father, Jack’s brother (Henry), has a history of drug problems and that Jack stands in for him for Ashley.  But little is provided in the way of background or character development of these or any of the characters.  For instance, we know absolutely nothing about Ashley’s mother.  
     Instead of there being a story for us to follow, scene after scene is presented with little or no context or a sense of what went before.  Early on, Jack stumbles across a triple murder of his family and their dog; but then, he gets mysterious calls on a phone he got from the murder scene, from a person who is supposed to be dead.  But in the end, there is absolutely no evidence in all these scenes how the culprit comes to do what he does or how the hero exerts his effect.
     David Oyelowo has done some fine work in Selma, The Butler, Queen of Katwe, and A United Kingdom—to name a few—and so why he and two other well-known actors, Brian Tyree Henry and Alfred Molina, agreed to be in this film is beyond me. His conversations with Ashley and others are a series of part-sentences that shed no light on what is going on. The script is so poorly written it is difficult to follow what little story is contained in it.  Jacob Estes co-wrote (with Drew Daywalt) and directed Don’t Let Go, but it takes a far more experienced and talented writer like Christopher Nolan (Memento) to pull off time bending sequences to prevent a future event that are convincing and not simply frustrating as seen in this film.

A movie with aspirations beyond its capabilities.

Grade:  F                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Shia LeBeouf     Dakota Johnson     Zack Gottsagen
John Hawkes     Thomas Haden Church     Bruce Dern


     Tyler (LeBeouf) and Zak (Gottsagen) make a most unlikely pair—almost as implausible as peanut butter and falcon.  But all of it comes together in this charming tale of overcoming the odds and living in the moment—against the background of catchy folk music tunes.
     Local thief Tyler, holding a lot of anger and depression, is on the run when his path crosses that of Zak, an orphaned runaway from the nursing home, with Down’s Syndrome.  Zak has hidden away in Tyler’s boat, not realizing that Tyler is being chased by the men he stole from.  On Zak’s tail is his caretaker Carolyn (Johnson) from the home.  But after a touch-and-go start, Tyler and Zak have figured out a way to survive in the wild, and they’ve become bro’s with a special handshake.
     Having grown up with an older brother, now deceased, who was his mentor, Tyler is basically honorable and doesn’t have the heart to leave Zak behind. Instead, he becomes Zak’s mentor, something that Zak is sorely in need of after a life of being over-protected. His hunger for masculine influence is expressed by a burning desire to meet his idol, Salt Water Redneck (Church), and attend his wrestling school.  Tyler encourages him in this pursuit, promises to take him there, teaches him survival skills like swimming (after Zak had almost drowned), and even begins training him for wrestling by building up his strength. When Zak is indulging in peanut butter one evening, Tyler says he needs to pick out a wrestling name, an “alter ego.”  Zak thinks of a falcon, and somehow the peanut butter gets mixed in, and the name “Peanut Butter Falcon” is celebrated.
     Meanwhile, the dedicated Carolyn, who has become something of a mother figure to Zak, is canvassing the countryside with a picture of Zak and questioning whether anyone has seen him.  When she finally locates him and Tyler on the beach with their makeshift raft, she gets drawn into their adventure, and the duo becomes an even more unlikely threesome (a “family!” Zak proudly proclaims).
     Their journey to Salt Water Redneck will be filled with folksy adventures and danger in the form of Tyler’s determined pursuers.  These travels are entertaining and frequently amusing as we see them accommodate to one another, develop insights, and form a close bond.
     Peanut Butter Falcon is enjoyable as light entertainment with some soul and human truths that give it some substance, and a number of close calls that create excitement.  The cast is probably the most impressive quality it has. Applause is in order for Zack Gottsagen for his convincing portrayal of his character with a combination of pluckiness, determination, likeability, and sheer joy.  Tyler is a different role for Shia LeBeouf, one that is more intimate and emotional than his usual, and he pulls it off nicely.  John Hawkes, Thomas Hayden Church, and Bruce Dern all cinch the entertainment value of their distinctive cameos, for which they are perfectly cast.

Suspend disbelief and take in this fanciful, heartwarming film.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, August 19, 2019

THE NIGHTINGALE

Aisling Franciosi     Sam Claflin     Baykale Ganambarr     Michael Sheasby


      The Nightingale in this story is an Irish woman with a lyrical, clear-as-a-bell voice caught up in the colonization of Australia 1825.  Having served a prison term, she needs papers from her husband’s superior to absolve her of her crimes and be free.  She has an infant and she and her husband are trying desperately to escape to parts unknown.  The problem is Leftenant Hawkins (Claflin), who has a hold over both Aiden (Sheasby) and Clare (Franciosi), has no qualms about exacting services from her against her will.
     I wanted so much to love this movie.  The writer/director Jennifer Kent, cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, and musician Jed Kurzel all worked together on the well received Babadook (2014) in which a woman is forced to deal with supernatural forces.  In contrast, in this film the main protagonist, Clare (Franciosi), must confront and deal with a real man whose ethical/moral principles never seem to have registered.  We admire her fortitude and perseverance in overcoming one obstacle after another, only to find herself trudging through the Australian outback, guided by an Aboriginal, Billy (Ganambarr).
     My primary issue with the film is in the character of Clare, a woman tough as nails in some scenes, but sinking into passivity in others when real action is required.  It’s an inconsistency in character that is simply not plausible.  I didn’t necessarily expect her to be super-hero heroic—as in recent films attempting to highlight the power of women—but I would expect the fire that propelled her toward vengeance and fuel her stubbornness toward her black guide would last to the end when she finally confronts her tormenter.  But she freezes at significant times, which is inconsistent with how she is portrayed earlier in the film.  There are also lapses in judgment, which seem uncharacteristic for someone of Clare’s temperament.
     The Nightingale is beautifully filmed, but would have benefitted from more judicious cutting of violent scenes that go on too long and some of the scenes where the actors are trudging through brush.  Aisling Franciosi makes a wonderful Clare, showing her honesty, solid values, and fortitude in the face of adversity.  Sam Claflin captures the smooth sleeze of a lieutenant who has been promoted beyond his capabilities and has no compassion for others, but only for his own advancements.

A beautifully rendered film about a convicted Irish woman’s struggles in surviving and maintaining her family in Australia.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

READY OR NOT

Samara Weaving     Mark O’Brien     Andie MacDowell    Adam Brody     Henry Czerny


     The entire premise on which this film is based is that family myths are true and their precepts must be heeded when, by now, we all know that everything your family tells you is not necessarily so.  The picture opens in a huge mansion with everyone running around with masks on.  It looks intriguing, but don’t hold your breath.
     Thirty years later, the Le Domas family myth lives on and the rituals are still observed, an excellent time to teach young children the traditions.  After having been somewhat estranged from his family, the oldest son and heir to the family fortune, Alex (O’Brien), has brought his bride home for their wedding.  Grace (Weaving) is a bit intimidated by the family, but sees their tradition of a game to welcome new members to the fold as amusing, and she’s ready to play along.  
     Little does she know what she’s in for; Alex has not divulged to her the bizarre aspect of “games” in their household.  He gives her a chance to back out, but she thinks he’s being silly, and goes ahead and draws the card that will indicate the game they will play:  Hide and Seek.  She’s a little puzzled, but immediately goes to look for a place to hide; the family will play the part of the seekers.  Foreboding dawns immediately when Grace elects to hide in a dumb waiter.
     That much will suffice in giving the reader a hint as to what the story will be about. Horror buffs may revel in this production filled with gore to the laughable stage.  It offers a “thrill” a minute; just leave your logic at home.  Grace will be running and fighting for her life for the next hour.
     It seems to me, the hinge on which everything depends, the script by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, falls short in providing material that this group of fine actors could exploit, nor does it engage the viewer in reacting to the horror and mystery.  It is something of a hack job (pun intended) where one impossible event follows another. For instance, one is not meant to question how a character can use her hands that have been shot and pierced with a nail to scale an iron fence, choke a pursuer, and use them for other means of escape.
     Samara Weaving performs admirably, showing real strength beneath a veneer of blond beauty, along with strength of will, even when it looks like she’s done for. Her feats are not always plausible, but they elicit interest and some degree of satisfaction.  Adam Brody as the loyal brother of Alex, also brings expertise to his role.  The other actors, including Andie MacDowell and Henry Czerny, are solid back-ups for the main stars.

Ready or Not is a film for horror fans who enjoy the action without having to think through the logic of the plot.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland