The Goldfinch

First Hit: In general, I liked it despite the slow pacing and the occasional, awkward movement between time.

Occasionally while watching this film, I thought of how this might have been a problematic adaptation from the novel. Because of the strengths and weaknesses of each medium, I make it a point to not read many fiction books.

Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley as the younger and Ansel Elgort and the older Theo), was traumatized early in life because as he and his mother toured a New York City museum, a bomb went off, killing his mother.

The traumatization of this event is carried throughout the film by the actors and how they respond to what is going on around them. Both the young and adult Theos are almost zombie-like at times, looking blankly at the people talking to them and responding with little emotion. What Theo uses, as a child and adult, is The Goldfinch painting he had taken during the bombing. This painting was his mother’s favorite, and it is the one thing he has left to remind himself of her and their time together.

Theo’s father Larry (Owen Wilson) is not in the young boy’s life because he drank too much and was a mean alcoholic. Because his father is not around and he’s got nowhere to go, the State puts him in the home of the Barbour’s (Boyd Gaines and Nicole Kidman). Mr. Barbour is gregarious while Mrs. Barbour is thoughtful, quiet, pragmatic, and reserved. The audience is presented scenes where we see how she is slowly becoming very fond of Theo and his relationship with her young son Andy.

Of the Barbour’s children, Andy (Ryan Foust) and Kitsey (Carly Connors as the young Kitsey and Willa Fitzgerald as the older Kitsey) are open to having Theo as part of the family. The oldest boy, Platt (Jack DiFalco and Luke Kleintank), however is a bit of a brat in his early scenes but comes to show his heart later in the film.

When the bomb exploded, Theo was standing next to Pippa (Aimee Laurence and Ashleigh Cummings) and her uncle, her primary caretaker. Pippa’s uncle was killed just as Theo’s mother was, and this circumstance creates a connection that runs deep. It was Pippa’s uncle, just before he died, that told Theo to take the Goldfinch painting after the bombing. He also gave Theo a ring and told him to deliver it to Hobie. Pippa and her uncle lived with the uncle’s antique store business partner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright).  

Just as the Barbour’s were thinking of adopting Theo, Larry shows up and takes him to where he’s now living, Las Vegas. Taking him out of this safe environment and all the way to Las Vegas to live adds to Theo’s trauma. The scene when Xandra (Sarah Paulson), Larry’s partner, gives Theo a valium for this anxious plane ride to Vegas, tells a lot about the situation Theo is headed.

In Vegas, he meets another outcast student Boris (Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard). Boris is originally Ukrainian, is without a mother, and has lived all over the world because his father is a mining engineer who is also a mean drunk and gets booted out of all the jobs he takes on. They both live in a housing tract where 95% of all the houses are empty because of foreclosures, and the whole tract was built in a remote area. This is emblematic of their lives, loners together, and in the middle of nowhere.

After Larry tries and fails to get money out of Theo’s educational trust to pay off gambling debts, he gets drunk and dies in an auto accident. Quickly seeing that life with Xandra will be hell, he runs out of the house, gets on a bus,  and heads back to New York City and ends up living with Hobie.

At this point during the film, we’ve seen various clips of the bombing some of them through the dreams that Theo continues to have even through adulthood. This is where the film spends most of the time from here on out.

As an adult, Theo continues hold the wrapped-up painting as solace over the loss of his mother and often, he does this while being on drugs.

Yes, there are a lot of pieces in this story, but they all are important as the film winds into the last 40 minutes. Pippa, Hobie, Kitsey, Platt, Mrs. Barbour, and especially Boris all have significant moments as Theo finally comes to grips with his life and the actions he took as a young boy and later as a grown man.

Fegley was fantastic as young Theo. His ability to be both lost and present was excellent. Elgort was perfect as the continuation of Theo into adulthood. He was able to seamlessly give me the sense that he was the older version of the young Theo. Wolfhard and Barnard were outstanding as the young and old Boris, respectively. The loyalty he showed and willingness to fix the problem he caused Theo was perfectly portrayed. Kidman was excellent as Mrs. Barbour especially as the older Mrs. Barbour when her softness and love showed through so delicately. Wilson was true to his character and enjoyable as the man trying to make his way through gambling. Wright was sublime as Hobie the antique craftsman. When he turns to Theo, after Theo had taken busses all the way from Las Vegas to NYC with a dog, and says, you both can stay as long as you want, I was deeply touched. Laurence and Cummings were wonderful as Pippa young and old respectively. When she tells Theo that if one of them fell, the other would not be able to save either of them, it was heartbreakingly sincere. Foust was superb as Theo’s close friend and companion. Peter Straughan wrote a strong script from the novel by Donna Tartt. John Crowley did an excellent job of making this complex novel and story come alive on the screen. This was a complicated story to film, but, for me it was worth it.

Overall: Unless the audience member is ready to let this introspective story unfold within themselves, then they could become frustrated with this film.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

First Hit: Enjoyable at times, but I somehow think the story didn’t address the elephant in the room.

Brittany (Jillian Bell) is introduced to us as a woman who sleeps long hours, binge drinks, is overweight, and her life is slipping away from her. She resents a woman who lives above her in the building, calls her Martha when her name is Catherine (Michaela Watkins). The resentment comes because Brittany believes Catherine has money, is kind to her, is married, and runs every day.

Brittany has a social media hungry roommate named Gretchen (Alice Lee) who obviously uses her as a fat funny friend.

To show how low Brittany will go, she’s drinking in a bar, a guy tells her he’d like her to go with him to the restroom for some action, then pulls out paper cocktail napkins and says, “to protect your knees.” It is a humiliating scene and provides an emphasis on how her life is falling apart.

She goes to the doctor, who advises her that she needs to change her habits and life. One of the recommendations is to lose 45 – 55 pounds.

Up until this point, Brittany’s sarcastic, mean humor is tolerable by her friends and even her doctor, but later in the film, it changes.

Brittany goes to a gym, and when the gym representative tells her their least expensive program is $129.00 a month, she wisecracks herself out of joining the gym. Finally, she decides to try running like her neighbor Catherine does. To make extra money, Brittany decides to house and dog sit in wealthy homes.

When she goes into a home she’ll be sitting in, she discovers the night sitter, Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who thinks of himself as a functional art creator.

There are several scenes where we see Brittany struggling to make smart decisions about what she eats and not going out drinking because she’s making progress in her running resulting in the loss of some weight.

There are also scenes where Catherine and Brittany’s sister Shannon (Jennifer Dundas), Jern, and Gretchen are the brunt of some very vicious comments by Brittany. Even strangers, including one scene at Gretchen’s home, when Brittany drunk, slams an overweight guest.

This brings up the elephant in the room, often when Brittany gets vicious, she does it when she’s been drinking, and unfortunately, this film doesn’t address this. However, the film does discuss the importance of learning to like yourself, respecting your body, and a willingness to receive help, support and guidance from friends, people that are showing up to you.

The film does follow Brittany in her attempt to run a marathon, but for some reason, it came across a bit haphazard. It was inspirational to a point, but at times it seemed to miss essential aspects that could have raised this film to another level.

Bell is okay as Brittany, and I appreciated that she did lose and gain weight to deliver an authentic performance. Lee was instrumental as the social media affected roommate and friend. Watkins is lovely as the sober, and inspirational, neighbor and in the end, friend. Lil Rei Howery (as Demetrius) and Dundas as Brittany’s brother-in-law and sister were excellent. They showed a supportive understanding of Brittany’s behavior. Ambudkar was funny and enjoyable to watch as Brittany’s the co-house sitter. Paul Downs Colaizzo wrote this screenplay based on his former roommate, the real, Brittany O’Neill’s adventure to start running and run a New York City Marathon. Colaizzo also directed this film, and he knew what he wanted, but I’m not sure it was enough.

Overall: This film seemed to float between wanting to be a comedy, through sarcasm, and a drama with powerful messages to share.

Official Secrets

First Hit: I really enjoyed this film not only because of the exceptional acting but also because I learned about this brave individual.

Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) worked for the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) as part of British Intelligence. Her mandarin language translation skills from living all around Asia as a child, helped the agency translate tapped intercepted telephone conversations and write reports about them. Her job was to help prevent terrorist activities and attacks in Britain.

One day she receives an email with an attached memo stating that the United States and Britain were going to coerce votes from small United Nations members to influence the support for invading Iraq. George Bush and his team of people wanted to invade Iraq after 9-11, and he wanted to do it legally with United Nations support. Manufacturing evidence (WMDs) and using this coercion of small nations, they would get UN approval to bomb the hell out of Iraq. Bush wanted to prove that the US was doing something about the 9-11 attack and he felt his father the senior Bush didn’t do enough when they’d previously invaded Iraq.

The attached memo was seen by Gun as collusion between England and the US to enter this war illegally. With a deep sense of purpose to stop this illegal action and from the potential deaths of fellow Englishmen, US soldiers and possibly thousands of Iraqi citizens, she prints a copy of the memo and gives this copy to a friend who will give it to the press. Three weeks go by, and it isn’t published, but finally Martin Bright (Matt Smith) of The Observer decides, after doing their due diligence, to release the memo in full and all hell breaks loose.

Scotland Yard starts their investigation at GCHQ and shortly after the interviews begin, Katharine admits she leaked the memo in violation of the Official Secrets Act. After threatening and harassing her and her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), even arresting him and attempt to deport him, eight months later the government decides to formally charge Gun.

Obtaining Ben Emerson (Ralph Fiennes) a volunteer lawyer, through a public legal group, they decide to take on the government. By investigating authorized personnel in the government that had initially told Prime Minister Tony Blair that his actions would be illegal, they decided to fight the case. Because it is public knowledge, I’ll share that the government exonerated Gun from the crimes she committed even though she confessed to leaking the document.

This was a great story and one I knew nothing about until seeing this film.

Knightley is fantastic as Gun. Her ability to be fragile, scared, and brave, all at once is perfect for this film. Great casting call. Smith, as Bright was excellent. His drive to publish the article was strong. His look when someone on their staff used “spellcheck” on his story and changed the spelling of key words was perfect. Bakri as Gun’s husband was wonderful. His caring support of Katharine felt genuine. Fiennes was excellent as Gun’s lawyer, and the scene at the end of the film when he asks his friend to leave the spot where he’s fishing is pointed about how things have to change. Rhys Ifans was fabulous as US investigative reporter Ed Vulliamy. His outrageous drive helped to secure the information needed to validate the information in the leaked memo. Everyone in this film was good and, of course, seeing the real Katharine Gun in film footage was perfect. Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, and Gavin Hood did a fantastic job of creating a compelling screenplay. Hood got terrific performances from the entire crew and actors.

Overall: This film is a potent reminder that we have to live our truth and be willing to stand up for what is right.

Aquarela

First Hit: One of the most cinematographically influential films I’ve ever seen.

This exquisitely shot film is about water, water in various forms of power and beauty.

The beginning is both puzzling and amusing at times. We watch as men walk around on frozen water, stooping down, and pressing their head against the ice. They are looking for something.

What could they be looking for? Sealife? A human body? No, they are looking for cars or trucks. We watch as they painstakingly find one, create a big hole in the ice, and using the primitive, yet ever practical, pulley and lever system of moving heavy objects, bring the vehicle up from underneath the ice.

I never really figured out if this was a wide river, part of a bay in the ocean, or a lake, but in the end, it didn’t matter. These inhabitants of a far northern unnamed country drive across the ice for many months of the year, and now that there is global warming, the ice is giving way three weeks earlier than usual, and vehicles are breaking through the ice and sinking into the water. The camera shows this happening several times and it both astonishing and amusing to watch.

At one point we watch this happen, and the camera catches one of the bloodied escaping survivors climbing on to the ice surface and then panicked, we see him trying to find his passenger. Everyone is looking for him, and when they see his body through the ice and they start chipping away to save him.

The film transitions to seeing glaciers, then glaciers calving into the ocean. Later, calving underwater resulting in icebergs rising to the top of the water and spinning in the water as they find the balance point. The noise of the calving glaciers is eerily breaking the silence of the film and sets an ominous tone. The shots of these calving events are extraordinary. I felt right there.

Then we’re on a sailing craft heading through rough seas, and then really rough and vast seas. The two sailors are alone in the dark battling rolling waves that are easily 30 – 40 feet. The boat slamming into the crevasse and then the rise of each wave creates spray off the bow that covers the entire ship. I would not want to be on that boat.

Then ocean waves in a dark arctic storm rolling across the ocean. They are easily 50 – 60 feet. This sequence uses loud heavy metal as background music, and for me, just too much and too loud, and I understood why it was used. These scenes are some of the darkest most potent visions of water on this planet.

We then segue to hurricane shots in Florida, then water overrunning Oroville Dam in California, and end up at Angel Falls in Venezuela, the highest waterfall in the world.

In between all this, there are other shots of water that are equally powerful and at times elegant in their serene beauty.

I cannot imagine the patience and fortitude it took to capture all this water, in this way, on film. These were some of the most amazingly sublime shots I’ve ever seen – in any movie.

Viktor Kossakovsky wrote and directed this, and all I can say is, “wow, what vision.”

Overall: Outside of some of the music choices, this film stands heads above most documentary films about the nature of our planet.

Don't Let Go

First Hit: Visually well crafted and ambitious in concept, ultimately it didn’t quite satisfy.

Films that mess with time (jump time), like “Memento” and “Frequency” have had their ways to jump time and create an engaging story. “Don’t Let Go” does this and then some.

In this story, the deep trusting relationship between a Policeman Jack Radcliff (David Oyelowo) and his niece Ashley (Storm Reed), is put to the test when Ashley, her father (and Jack’s brother) Garret (Brian Tyree Henry), and mother Susan (Shinelle Azoroh) are brutally murdered, or are involved in a murder-suicide.

The film does a great job of showing how close Jack and Ashley are through multiple telephone calls and one on one discussions. He does this because his brother has had a checkered past, and he wants the best for Ashley.

Jack gets a disturbing and interrupting call from Ashley that ends in a hang-up. He drives over to his brother’s home and finds them all murdered. Shocked, he thinks that this could be the result of Garret’s re-involvement in illegal drugs, with the intent to distribute.

Despondent, he’s in shock during the funeral which is then followed by scenes of him sitting at home, at a loss for why this happened.  Shortly after that, he gets a call from Ashley’s phone and the voice on the other end is definitely Ashley, although it is more scratchy sounding than usual. She hangs up. He calls back and gets a message that this number is no longer in use. Shocked he checks the police crime scene file boxes and doesn’t find her phone. Breaking into his brother’s murder scene sealed home, he finds the phone in the tub. It is broken and doesn’t work.

He then gets another call from Ashley from her number, and he begins to talk with her while trying to grapple with how this can be because he’s buried Ashley and yet she’s calling him.

Eventually, he determines that she’s calling him from the past and by slowly accepting that if he can change Ashley’s past actions, just before the murderous event, he is hoping to help her shift her future and his future as well, the one he’s already lived through.

That’s what this film attempts to do, have the audience believe this possible and improbably story of past and future existing at the same time. The work to make this film believable is all up to the acting of Oyelowo because he’s trying to live in three different time frames all at the same time. In doing so, he must juggle and make the audience believe the various versions and scenarios of the story. In two of them he gets shot. One he gets shot by a drive-by shooting. In another he gets shot twice, once in a warehouse and then by a fellow officer. These wounds bring him to the edge of death but also make him figure out who his brother’s murderer is and who might be corrupt in the police department. Ultimately, he’s able to help Ashley stay alive and conversely it allows him to live.

This is a complex film, and I thought the sets and scenes were well designed. The alleyways, buildings, and street scenes were not overpowering, but they brought the right tone and reality to this mystery.

Oyelowo does an outstanding job of creating belief. Less of an actor would have made this film a mess and unbelievable. He was able to use his protective love for Ashley in a most effective way. The whole restaurant gum scene was beautiful. Reed shows again (“A Wrinkle in Time” among her credits) what a wonderful actor she is becoming. Again, watch the restaurant gum scene, she’s magnificent in it. Mykelti Williamson, as fellow police officer and friend Bobby, was excellent as a trusted friend and eventually an antagonist. Jacob Estes wrote and directed this complex and challenging movie. At times, I felt I needed different clarifying touchpoints, but it was well done.

Overall: Although I really liked the components, I still don’t feel that the film finished as well as it could have.