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