Tag Archives: drama

The Goldfinch

14 Sep

‘The Goldfinch’: Tartt adaptation never soars, but tale’s also not as bad as it’s been painted

 

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With waves of discontent rolling out of the Toronto Film Festival, John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Goldfinch” seems poised to join “The Bonfire of the Vanities” as one of the great miscues of transposing popular contemporary literature to the big screen. Having seen it for myself, I’m not so sure that’s the case; it’s got its share of flaws, but that’s mostly because it tries to pack in too much (the 800-page novel is a lot to bite off) and Tartt’s central theme about the lingering burn of grief gets lost, as does a sense of character and character motivation.

The most rocked in Crowley’s sea of emotional turbulence is its dour anti-hero, Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, “Baby Driver”), who gets hit with a lot of bad shit but mostly caroms passively from one frying pan to the next, his fate and actions shaped by that of others. The film moves in a series of times shifts that transition seamlessly and are most effective in their early stagings around the young Theo (Oakes Fegley, of “Pete’s Dragon,” excellent here) seeking security and a sense of home after his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing at The Met. Dad (Luke Wilson) happens to be missing (abandoned the family, whereabouts unknown) so Theo moves in with the family of a fellow New York City prep school friend (Ryan Foust), where the family matriarch (a staid and elegant Nicole Kidman) comes regularly to Theo offering kind and compassionate coos.

Given the heft and span of Tartt’s work, there’s a lot of moving pieces – perhaps too many. Theo’s stay in the in Barbours’ flush Manhattan doesn’t last long; dad reappears; and then there’s Carel Fabritius’ painting of the title that looms over every frame and drives the plot with celerity as it nears conclusion.

Fans of the novel may have greater cause for disappointment, but the film’s never boring. Though long, it’s also riddled with enough bad-situation-gone-worse scenarios and compelling, human-touch moments to hold the audience’s attention, not to mention that it’s shot by Roger Deakins, a 13-time Academy Award nominee and once winner (“Blade Runner 2049”); to say it looks good would be an understatement. The acting also really anchors Crowley’s uneven interpretation. Elgort, given the least to work with, has enough natural charisma – like Kidman – to push the role further than the script by Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) dares, and one’s coming-of-age heartstrings get tugged by the chemistry Fegley’s young Theo has with Foust’s chum, as well as a feral young Russian immigrant (Finn Wolfhard, alluring with a moppish head of hair and porcelain skin) whom Theo meets in the Vegas desert. The whole New York side of the story (then and now) get a warm avuncular embrace by the presence of Jeffrey Wright as an antiques dealer who mentors Theo. His reflective compassion and Kidman’s grace against indignity buoy each scene they’re in. Like the chained bird in Fabritius’ painting, Crowley’s screen adaptation is hindered from taking flight – by its ambition, scope and eddies of emotional indifference. The pieces are there, but they don’t cohere, resulting in more of a warble than a melodious song of grief.

Ray & Liz

11 Sep

‘Ray & Liz’: Harrowing rewind to a childhood where the guardians are ones to watch out for

By Tom Meek

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Photographer turned filmmaker Richard Billingham reworked a photo exhibit he did about his parents and childhood as material for his first feature. If that sounds somewhat bland, consider Billingham’s profession and know that the film is shot in close, aesthetic framings that make such mundane acts as smoking a cigarette or drinking a shot of rotgut enigmatic and alluring. Also know that Billingham grew up under grim conditions in a seedy housing project in Dudley, near Birmingham, England. The film is staged and shot in the same locale. The fact it’s so autobiographical and steeped in neglect and emotional abuse only makes “Ray & Liz” all that much compelling (and hard) to drink in.

The saga of Ray and Liz–as well as a young Richard and his younger brother, Jason–is told in three time shifts. We catch up with Ray (Patrick Romer as the older Ray), a bird-faced man who lives in spare, one-room apartment high up in the projects, where all he does is lie in bed or drink. We never see him leave his apartment; he’s delivered bourbon and rye that are put carefully on a side table so Ray can perch on the edge of his bed and binge. He imbibes so vampirically and rapaciously it’s chilling–I’d take Ray in a drink-off versus a platoon of fraternity boys on a spring break bender. 

More chilling–yes, more chilling–is the dial-back to the 1980s, to a larger flat on a lower level of that project where Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) chain smoke and pretty much demand that the boys (Jacob Tuton and Callum Slater) steer clear and remain quiet or else. A tattooed and ring-adorned (think brass knuckles) Liz bears the countenance of a deeply perturbed bovine ready to charge at the first sight of red; an analogy that comes to life after Ray and Liz unwisely leave toddler-aged Jason in the charge of a cognitively challenged relative named Lol (Tony Way, nailing a complex part with nuance and verve) who, at the goading of manipulative neighbor (Sam Gittins), hits Ray’s liquor stash. When Ray and Liz return, Lol’s vomited all over the apartment and passed out as a naked Jason, covered in shoe polish, runs around with a knife in hand. It doesn’t matter that the dubious interloper may be responsible; Liz’s unquenchable wrath, and its manifestation on the helpless Lol, is a scene that will not soon leave you.

There’s another shift–unlabeled, without overt anchoring, because there’s no need in a film so intimate and even claustrophobic–to a 10-year-old Jason again at risk. It pales by comparison, though it’s unnerving to learn that Ray and Liz manage the boys primarily for welfare benefits. The reunion with the older Ray, higher up, living the sot good life, is at once bleak and empowering the way “Leaving Las Vegas” was back in 1995. What’s wrong with a man doing what he loves, right? The win here is Billingham’s artful delivery–think of the texture painter Julian Schnabel brought to “Before Night Falls” (2000) and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007)–and a domestic horror story, told with earnest insight. I’m not sure where Billingham will go next, but I’m there with rapt anticipation.

Ophelia

27 Jun

A new feminist slant on a bard classic

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A feminist reenvisioning of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Ophelia” assumes the POV of Hamlet’s betrothed (the heroine of the title) and boldly begins with a “Sunset Boulevard”-esque opener; us hovering above the protagonist’s body floating in a body of water as their voiceover from beyond tells us how they got there and why. It’s an alluring grip, but not necessarily one that holds as tight as that 1950 classic starring Willam Holden and Gloria Swanson.

Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein, the perspective pivot might tweak some Shakespearean loyalists but for others, it may also pique bard interest—after all look what Tom Stoppard did with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” The burden of success for such a high dive attempt ultimately comes in the execution, and while Claire McCarthy’s production is big, lush and gorgeously shot (by Denison Baker) it doesn’t quite stick it. On the plus side, the tragic tale of deadly familial parlor games finishes with some smart, surprising twists and the whole feminine slant feels timely and appropriate given the state of sexual politics and equality these days.

The casting too is something of a minor coup, with Daisy Ridley (Rey in the current “Star Wars” trilogy) donning auburn locks in the title role, Naomi Watts as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude and Clive Owen as the snaky manipulator Claudius. George MacKay add a fresh face in the role of the Danish prince though it’s mostly in the corners of the frame, though the scenes with Ridley—and there’s not enough of them—posses the kind of rich ripe chemistry found in the Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann productions of “Romeo and Juliet.” Though the role of Claudious is deepened with more backstory here, Owen is mostly held in check by his character’s singular duplicitous mode. Ridley and Watt on the other hand, are gifted more full bodied characters that expand, bond together and lift what threatens to become a production over leaden with plot and expectation. To that end, MacCarthy and her screenwriter Semi Chellas (“Mad Men”) do keep all the pieces successfully (if precariously) in the air, and handle the flips from the known to the new, with respectful diligence.

Overall “Ophelia” delivers bewitching intrigue and charm. It takes bold chances and mostly succeeds—a big part of that being Ridley’s subtly sizzle. Her Ophelia’s not too far from Rey in “The Force Awakens” (heroines of ‘common’ origin forced to the center of an epic conflict spurred by greed and tyranny) but in a Shakespearean yarn you can’t hide behind massive CGI FX and Yoda speak, her range and confidence will have casting agents think of her for—just about anything. McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) too should likely see her stock rise, the composition is assuredly sharp and authentic, though the slight modernistic infusion into the period score, distracts more than it adds anything new.

American Woman

14 Jun

 

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Can you imagine being a grandparent at age 36? In this dark, cloistered drama, we meet Debra (Sienna Miller), who had a daughter at age 16 who did the same thing at the same age. When we first catch up with Debra, she’s working as a waitress and sleeping with a married man who’s pretty much paying for her time. It ain’t pretty, but in her working-class neighborhood it feels like part of the American way.

The film spans 10 years. During it all, Deb’s older sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) is across the street, disapproving of her sib’s lifestyle but giving out unconditional love and support.Not far away is their newly widowed mother (a dignified Amy Madigan) who, while compassionate and reflective, also harbors reservations. In short, we get three generations of women with the youngest, Bridget (Sky Ferreira, “Baby Driver”), rebellious and not all that great of a mom, often hitting the party scene and dumping her neonate, Jesse, on Deb. Funny how history repeats itself. The toddler’s fate seems sealed, but Deb holds it together as much as she can, clearly doing better than she did with Bridget. Then Bridget disappears, and the film shifts.

That abrupt changeup draws in the audience, going unpredictable places fast. Did the boy’s father Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), himself still a kid, have something to do with it? Is Bridget alive or dead? The not knowing almost literally kills Deb, but also forces her to be the mother to Jesse she wasn’t with Bridget. When we leap forward in time, Deb has changed and has a decent man in her life (Aaron Paul, from “Breaking Bad,” feeling a bit miscast), but the Bridget mystery remains, as does the fraught weight hanging on Deb. The film, directed by Jake Scott (Ridley’s boy), revolves around tropes about family and watching each other’s backs despite some wildly poor life choices. The script by Brad Ingelsby has Lifetime network written all over it as it ambles awkwardly out of the gate. Much is asked of Miller to hold it all together, and she responds with a gritty, emotionally deep performance. The rest of the cast is up to the task too, especially Will Sasso as Katherine’s protective husband (and perhaps the only decent man in the film), who saves Deb from more than one unsavory situation.

Digging around in the trivia trash heap, the film was originally called “The Burning Woman” and Ann Hathaway was set to star. (Hard to imagine her pulling this off any better than Miller, capable as she is.) There’s no question the film could have used a better title: Many will associate this with the indelible 1970 song by The Guess Who – not bad company, mind you, but also no way to distinguish yourself. “American Women” might have made more sense. Without Miller bringing the burning misery of uncertainty to the fore, “American Woman” would be just another generic American drama with a dusting of grit and woe.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

14 Jun

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’: Occupying family home doesn’t get it back

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Given efforts to address the widening socioeconomic chasm in Cambridge and matters of diversity and affordable housing, there might not be a more apt fable to heed than that of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” – even if that city’s affordability and economic divide, with its long list of tech startups and horde of nouveau millennials, far outpaces ours. This Spike Lee-sque work about a forlorn young man looking to return to the stately family home where he grew up hits all the right (dis)chords, though. The house, in what was once known as the “Harlem of the West” (in the Fillmore District) is now a tony enclave perched quaintly atop a San Fran hill, streetcar stop and all, that looks right off the Travel Channel. The specter of gentrification is in every frame of this Sundance-winning film, though never directly named.

So what does Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, can you dig the meta framing?) do to gain back the the periwinkle-gray Victorian manse? Well, he just shows up and starts cleaning, raking the yard and painting the windows sills – which doesn’t sit well with the current white owners, who themselves are in a financial pickle and forced to move out. That’s when Jimmie and his pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), who’ve been in a less desirable part of the city with Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover – again this week after “The Dead Don’t Die”!), decide to move in. None of that is on the up and up, which gives the film its teeth; the stakes climb even higher when the “witch hat house” goes on the market for a cool four mil. Jimmie, a caregiver at a retirement home, and Mont, who works in the local fish market, don’t have a chance in hell of buying it.

The resolution is ultimately beside the point. It’s more about the subtle portrayal of race, the impact of gentrification and the grim prospects for young men of color who have either unwisely stepped outside the law or been passed over by the system. “Blindspotting”(2018) moved in similar waves, but not quite as engrossingly or with such inventive nuance. The film, directed by Joe Talbot (who is white) and conceived by he and Fails, swings for the fences, evoking at points Godard’s “Weekend” and Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and succeeds for the most part, even if the premise feels razor thin, contrived and unlikely.The gathering of tough lads who sit outside Mont’s grandfather’s house and drop the N-word more than the article “the” (if it’s ever even used) become a captivating Greek chorus (one’s a dead drop-in for Radio Raheem) and a reality check on the American dream, not to mention a harsh reminder of the irrational suddenness of street violence and the improbability of making it off the street once you’re there.

Fails–the character, not the actor–is saddled with a lot: mom and dad are absent (due to circumstances it’s hard to have complete empathy for) but remain present in the corners, framed as impactful forces. He’s also spent time in juvie. But somehow his mission and character profile, while palpable and moving, isn’t as intriguing as Mont’s, a complex, multilevel eccentric, an aspiring intellect in tweed, a younger, emotive David Allen Grier. It’s a mind-blowing performance that pretty much makes the film – or I should say, holds us in place. Some of the dreamlike, absurdist scenes orchestrated by Talbot are a wonder to drink in. Boots Riley went this way with “Sorry to Bother You” (2018, also starring Glover as the golden “white voiced” black salesman), and while not every one of that film’s surrealist experiments landed, the sum was visceral and far-reaching in ways far beyond that of a more conventional approach. Same can be said here, about a film whose title says it all. A title change to “Cambridge” would work just as well.

Trail by Fire

17 May

‘Trial by Fire’: On death row after arson trial, but he finds a new hope (if not a new story)

 

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Anti-death penalty films tend to land far and wide. There are hits (“Dead Man Walking,” “The Green Mile”) and misses (“The Life of David Gale”), much of it hinging on degree of subtlety vs. preachy, manipulative overtones. Sure, the talent involved matters, but so do tenor and posture. “Trial by Fire,” from Edward Zwick (“Glory” and “The Last Samurai”) lands closer to the “Dead Man Walking” side of the field than sermonic foul territory. It’s something of a nifty crime drama too.

Adapted from David Grann’s haunting 2009 “New Yorker” article of the same name, “Trial by Fire” plays us for our stereotypes the way a courtroom might. Two days before Christmas 1991, in a poor Texas ’burb, Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a man with a bedraggled mullet, pentagram tattoos, no job, no education and several run-ins with the law on his record, watches his house go up in flames with his three baby girls inside. Later that night he’s drinking at the bar and playing darts, reveling in all the donations that have rolled in. 

It’s not pretty, and next comes sordid details of his marriage (wife Stacy, played by Emily Meade, was at work at the time of the fire). It all comes out in the courtroom after investigators examining the remains of the charred house – one expert articulating, “Fire doesn’t destroy evidence. Fire creates evidence” – deem it an arson-engineered death trap and charge Willingham with the crime. 

As the film sets it (or us) up, Willingham’s guilty as hell – and just like that, off to death row he goes. The script by Geoffrey Fletcher plays with time and our sensibilities as it goes along. Willingham’s trial lawyer seems competent during the initial defense, but not so in a rewind, and then there are the shifting accounts from eyewitnesses (we saw what they saw, and they tell it differently on the stand). It’s enough to cast doubt but not enough for a retrial. Willingham and the film get a big boost when Laura Dern’s Elizabeth Gilbert (not the “Eat, Pray, Love” author), a compassionate single mother with two teens, embarks on a letter-writing relationship with Willingham and jumps in on his defense. 

O’Connell, a British actor (“Unbroken”) whose stock should rise in the wake of “Trial by Fire,”  does an affectingly palpable job of selling us on his transformation into a more educated and balanced person behind bars. Meade and Dern are likewise commendable. It’s a heavy film with a heavy agenda that lets us know that Texas executes five times as many death row inmates as the next death penalty state, and Project Innocence gets rolled in too. It’s not overtly (and unnecessarily) manipulative until late in the game. Its points about the weaknesses of the justice system are provocative and real considerations to deliberate. 

Diane

5 Apr

‘Diane’: Mother has some issues of her own, and she’s taking the audience down with her

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Sin and redemption is an arduous process. For Diane (Mary Kay Place, knocking it out of the park and into the next city) it’s an endless ordeal. When we first catch up with Diane she seems something of a saint, doing her son’s laundry, visiting her terminally ill cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell) in the hospital, looking in on a convalescing neighbor and staffing a local soup kitchen with her friend Bobbie (Andrea Martin), whom she tells much over coffee and drinks throughout the film.

Over the slow-arcing – and emotionally aching – course of “Diane” we come to learn that part of the motivation in these selfless acts is atonement. Too, life at home in rural Western Massachusetts (though shot in Upstate New York) isn’t so tranquil. Diane’s mercurial adult son, Brian (Jake Lacy, who actually is from Western Massachusetts) is a recovering addict and in the throes of relapse. In such a state he’s content to wallow in his own squalor and drop the C-word should his mother threaten him with an intervention. Diane’s life is exhausting, to say the least, and then there’s that specter from her past that’s been driving her for years, the way Casey Affleck’s weary and remorseful dad shambled across the screen with the heaviness of the world on his slim shoulders in “Manchester by the Sea”(2016).

If the film sounds a bit like the Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts tough-love flick “Ben is Back,” it is – in some ways. “Diane” is far grittier. It might sound as if Diane just needs a spa day; but she gets that, and then she goes out and gets a drink and another, and another after that, until she’s cut off. It’s arguably the best scene in the film, as Place’s tortured soul tries to find solace at the bottom of a glass while mouthing lyrics to 1990s classics on the jukebox. At some point Brian goes missing, and where the film goes from there is anything but predictable.

What director Kent Jones (of the 2015 documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” making his feature debut) mainlines here is a sense of rue and how the present is shaped in crashing waves from small, rippling transgressions out of the past. The sense of fate, family and faith, let alone loyalty and betrayal, resounds. Jones goes about it all with subtlety, and has a talented ensemble (the great Estelle Parsons among the lot).

It’s impossible to sit through “Diane” and not get pulled by the strong emotional current or bold performances. If the name Mary Kay Place is a bit of a head-scratcher, she’s always been off to the side in films such as “Being John Malkovich” and “Girl Interrupted” (both 1999), but that’s now likely to change, and for many others in the cast as well. It may be early in the year, but boy, there’s a lot of gold prospects in “Diane.”