The Goldfinch Review

Novel adaptations are, like a lot of things, a bit of a thorny prospect. On the one hand there are successful adaptations, such as the Twilight Saga or the Harry Potter books, but on the other hand, there are the less successful adaptations, like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby or the Golden Compass.

A lot of this has to do with translating the non-visual and long-form medium of the novel to the very much visual and shorter form storytelling of the big screen. A recurring issue of novel adaptations seems to be that they try and squeeze too much of the novels content into a shorter space of film (although the opposite does sometimes apply, looking at you, Hobbit trilogy).

So, The Goldfinch then, I must admit I haven’t really head of this book, as it were, until the film adaptation was advertised. According to my sources (the twin scholars of Wikipedia and Google) it is a 2013 American novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, although I’m fairly certain the film adaptation won’t be earning any such plaudits.

Story

The Goldfinch is a coming-of-age story about Theodore Decker (Ansel Elgort), a 13-year-old boy who survived the terrorist attack at a local gallery and the eponymous painting which he recovers from the scene of the attack. The narrative focuses on Theodore’s attempts to navigate his life after his mother perished in the explosion.

Verdict

Sometimes, a film can be accomplished in its filmmaking, but still can make a film critic very angry. It is not the kind of crimes against film that say, Michael Bay commits, but it is still is grievous a sin to make is boring a movie as The Goldfinch as it is to make a film as stupid as Mr Bay’s output.

Using the word “narrative” in the story summation is giving the film much more credit than it deserves, as The Goldfinch doesn’t really have one, well not really, it meanders about making vague points and threatening to get started on narrative, but never really takes off to anything meaningful. It feels so unbearably pleased with itself but it manages to weave a narrative quilt so full of holes that you could stick your head through it and call it a poncho.

As I say, the broad filmmaking strokes are visually pleasing to look at and well put together, but nothing about The Goldfinch gives me any emotional reaction whatsoever. The characters seem to glide from scene to scene with no motivation to speak of, just this tissue-thin plot link to the painting, which when thought about hard enough, doesn’t make any sense that the characters are still worrying about this, the problems could easily be solved by just talking to each other, but since they are characters in a film, they seem incapable of doing this.

The performances are the most disappointing element of The Goldfinch, Ansel Elgort, an actor who I previously admired in the Baby Driver, seems wouldn’t this interested in his character (as are the audience, to be fair to him) but his woodenness is a mere drop in the ocean when compared to Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Samantha Barbour. Somewhat surprisingly given her experience, Kidman always looks like a deer in the headlights, a fish out of water, so to speak, she never seems comfortable in any scene and she’s about as wooden as some of the furniture that Theodore sells in the antique shop he works in.

There doesn’t seem to be anything overall redeeming about the goldfinch sure it looks nice and is well put together but there is nothing to keep an audience interested in its two-and-a-half hour narrative that goes on for seemingly four hours, seriously I’ve watched films that are an hour longer that are much better paced than this film, and if anyone was particularly interested in the film, then they will well and truly be put off by the films ending, which is seemingly a massive middle finger to every viewer who hoped for satisfying conclusion to the web of confusing and disjointed narrative that it was concocting. It deflates the film, and seeps out the last few drops of goodwill anyone ever had towards the film.

Somewhere in this mess lies a good idea for a for a film, unfortunately it was handled by people of such pretentiousness that the films narrative seems to disappear in and out of its own backside for its 2 1/2 hour run time. It’s mystery is uninteresting and bland, it’s characters are poorly evolved and wooden, but it’s biggest sin is that it seems so pleased with itself and its own intelligence, but it forgets to have an interesting narrative, or anything interesting about it to make anyone care a jot about this film, which, thankfully, in a few weeks, no one will.

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Downtown Abbey Review

Earlier this year, I reviewed a pair of ‘period drama’ films, in those reviews I expressed that I’m not a fan of these kind of films, they’re scarcely involving enough for my tastes and it’s rare that any of the period characters are likeable.

So, you’d think that a film version of the wildly popular television period drama Downton Abbey wouldn’t cross my critical radar, but in truth, I am always willing to be surprised, and seeing how popular this film currently is at the box office, I’d be doing a disservice to my readership if I missed such a massive release.

I’ve never sat and watched a full episode of the TV series of Downton Abbey, but I was confident I could fill in the gaps of the characters stories, as they don’t generally tend to stray very far from certain archetypes, and I was correct in this assessment, I felt as though I grasped the characters and setting well enough without having seen the TV show, which is an early mark in the film’s favour at least, but would it manage to keep my interest for its runtime?

Story

Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives word that the King & Queen will be coming to stay at Downton Abbey for an evening, accompanied by the numerous members of the royal staff, who soon push out the loyal Downton staff, causing a fightback from the servants.

Verdict

I will admit right out of the gate that I might not be the best person to judge Downton Abbey. I have no interest in films of its ilk, I’ve never seen the TV show, and I’m most certainly not the target audience (who judging by the people in the screening I attended, are rarely younger than 80).

What I find most egregious about Downton is its patronising portrayal of the British class system, something which is still evident in modern society, but unfortunately still lingers on in fringes of the upper class. The celebration of the old members of the upper class seems like nothing more than propaganda for a time thought of as ‘the good old days’ when those days were, in fact, nowhere near as good as anyone remembers.

For what it’s worth, I do get a sense that the real story lies with the workers of the Downton house, but then the script will lose that and romanticise the upper-classes in a baffling tonal inconsistency.

The life-Blood of the house seems to be in the staff, the cooks and the maids. The upper classes seem like blank slates, all smiles and forced charm, but with none of the character. There’s a reason the class system is obsolete, because the constant primping and preening to those who have more money, and thus, supposedly, more worth got wearisome for most, and not a moment too soon.

All this being said, and as nauseating as I find most of the upper crust in this film, it is always my task to look at a film as subjectively as possible, to look at it with a critical eye for film, and not for ethics. If I involved myself with writing about every film controversy, I’d scarcely find the time to sleep.

So, as a film then, did I enjoy Downton Abbey? Well, it’s a loaded question, I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I expected to, but it also struggled to hold my attention throughout its runtime, there are parts and sections of the film that I think would have been better on the cutting room floor, not an awful lot of interest things happen in the film to begin with, without filling it with additional padding.

From a filmmaking perspective, it’s incredibly well realised, as well. Its direction is engaging and eye-catching , and its script is, in parts, razor-sharp and as tight as walnut corset. But it does suffer from bloating around the middle and unnecessary faff and nonsense, with its over-abundance of characters being my chief complaint. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all of the different people being mentioned, and it’s even more difficult to think of a reason why I should care.

It’s biggest saving grace is its cast, who do a phenomenal job with what they’re given. Dame Maggie Smith is the highlight for my, utilising her unique flair for acidic wit to its highest potential, with impressive supporting turns from the likes of Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter rounding out a stellar cast.

So, all in all then, I found more to like than I thought I would, but saying that, I expected to be bored half to death from minute one, so I was surprised to be taken in by the immersive world the film created, and charmed by accomplished performances, it caught me off-guard in some ways, but in other areas, it entirely matched my expectations for dullness, a real mixed bag for me, and it just affirms my position of apathy towards the romanticism of the past.

If you liked the TV show, I think there’s enough to recommend, but, if like me you’re unfamiliar with the show, you won’t feel lost for your lack of foreknowledge, but I wouldn’t imagine you’d be stimulated by the experience either.

Rambo: Last Blood Review

The Rambo franchise as a whole is a bit of a mixed bag to be honest. I’ve always had a soft spot for them, but truthfully, no film after the first can be called anything above ‘average’ with our best critical hats on.

While the fourth instalment (which, by the way, came out 11 years ago, I know, I feel old too) was a step up on the third, that’s hardly high praise, as a film of Sylvester Stallone reading fan mail would be a step up from Rambo 3.

I have in the past said that Sly has only ever been good in the Rocky franchise, and while I stand by that point, he has always been enjoyable, if a bit bland, in this role too, but like with Rocky, he just won’t let the character die, a draw-back which I’m sure will come up again as this review goes on.

Story

John Rambo (Stallone) has stepped away from his mercenary life to live a peaceful existence of farming with an adopted family. All this is changed however when his adopted niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) is abducted in Mexico after searching for his father, prompting Rambo to mount a rescue.

Verdict

There’s certainly a different feel to the franchise this time around, I’ll say that right out of the gate. I think Sly May have watched Logan a few times over the past few years as several aspects of the film borrow heavily from it; like the aesthetics and the once-unbeatable protagonist ravaged by age.

However, it’s not as well put together as Logan, in a development that should come as no shock to anyone with pattern recognition. The film has a breakneck pace, barely taking the time to register important plot developments to give them significant gravitas. There are moments in the film designed to heighten the emotional investment the audience has, which works for a while, but the goodwill starts to drain in retrospect as the plot whizzes by without a second thought.

This is most evident by the film’s conclusion; now, obviously I am not going to detail the ending here, as I keep my reviews spoiler-free, so I’ll leave it at saying the films narrative was building towards a final payoff that doesn’t happen, leaving the audience without the sense of closure the story sorely needed, and as a result, it just falls flat, limping to an inconclusive end that just makes us feel like we’ve wasted our time.

Other than that, I can describe the film as adequate, if a little redundant. The acting is fine, Stallone isn’t at the top of his game, which just really goes to prove my point about Rocky, the cinematography and direction seek to give the film a separate identity to its predecessors, but don’t stick to their guns often enough for my liking, and the series trademark brutal violence borders on the psychotic.

All of this comes together in an odd little package, one that is not without its moments, but failing to leave a lasting impression, we’ve seen much better on many occasions, I don’t think it’s an improvement on the last film in the series, but I wouldn’t call it a bad film either. I can see some of its themes and plot developments being controversial, but that’s par for the course in this day and age.

In conclusion, Rambo: Last Blood makes me quite sad, in a way. Stallone’s heyday has come and gone and he seems to be the only one who doesn’t know that. While his other iconic character has developed in modern instalments, Rambo has regressed, he hasn’t changed with age, and there’s a point where you have to think that a man in his 70’s running around with a longbow racking up the body count is just a little bit ridiculous. By no means is it a bad film, but I’m not sure it has much reason to exist.

Ad Astra Review

There are almost infinite possibilities with a space film. Space is unique in its isolation and pure untapped terror, seeing how little we know about it and what inhabits the quadrillions of light year’s of space that it has to offer.

The past few years have been kind to us in this area, films like Gravity, The Martian and Interstellar have shown us just a few of the possibilities of deep space, as well as some of its hostility, and now it’s the turn of Ad Astra, a sci-fi drama starring Brad Pitt.

With decades worth of space exploration films to succeed, Ad Astra has somewhat of an uphill climb to have any sort of relevance, luckily it has a bankable lead and a savvy director (James Gray, a former Palme D’Or nominee.) With such prominent films to follow, however, the task was still great.

Plot

It’s the ‘near future’ and a series of electrical surges emanating from deep space cause chaos on Earth. One such catastrophe involves astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) who finds out that these ‘surges’ have links to a past mission undertaken by his father. He is sent on a perilous journey through space to find his father and stop the surges.

Verdict

One thing I’d say about Ad Astra is: it’s not a film if you like instant gratification. It’s slower and more contemplative than many modern films, almost to its detriment in the early stages of the film. It takes a while to find its stride, but the slowly-building narrative eventually does any admirable job of drawing you in and building suspense.

One of the things it does really well is portraying the isolation of space. Roy is a contained, thoughtful personality, not prone to much emotion, but when he’s on his own in the vastness of space, this starts to play against him. You really feel his deep loneliness as he flies towards uncertainty, which is almost exactly what space represents in films. It’s utterly unique in being hostile and unknowable, it’s finding out what lurks behind the stars that keeps bringing us back to these films.

I sense a lot of inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey in this film, especially in the cinematography, which does a fine job in juxtaposing both the immense vastness of space, and the claustrophobic nature of a rocket. There are numerous breathtaking shots in this film, some of the best space cinematography we’ve ever seen in fact, in both of the aforementioned environments, this is what really stood out to me, how staggeringly beautiful the film was to look at.

But without an engaging narrative and relatable characters, the best cinematography can be redundant, it’s all very well and good looking nice, but does it manage to hold your attention long enough to enjoy the lovely scenery, well, yes it does.

As I said before, the slower pace may put some people off, even though it’s not an overly-long film, it’s not in a rush to let its story unfold, it’s thoughtful with its events and the manner in which they unfold. It’s like one of those optic illusions that become clearer the more you look at them in that the story becomes clearer and clearer as time goes on.

It isn’t perfect. Some of the dialogue is a touch derivative and redundant, and there isn’t an awful lot of character development outside of Roy, who has a nice, clear emotional arc from start to finish, but characters are also very fleeting, we don’t stay in their company for long enough to develop, so it all balances out.

Brad Pitt is on fine form carrying this film too, he has by far the most to carry the film, his character is a near-constant presence throughout, yet his characteristics are conveyed gradually, it feels as though his mind opens up the further he goes into space. He starts as a man closed off from his emotions, and by the end, his experiences of being completely alone have opened him up to connecting with people, in a way that feels organic and not hackneyed.

So then, as a final word, I really loved this film. It drew me in gradually, so gradually in fact that I didn’t realise how invested I was until the final third and I felt that I had become completely immersed in this characters struggles, I was on the edge of my seat, and all it took was one man alone in a spacecraft. Stunningly shot, intelligently written and skilfully acted. A real treat for any sci-fi fan.

Hustlers Review

The past few years have been ones of great change in Hollywood and the film industry as a whole; the emergence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp exposed several unacceptable practices and people within the industry and, directly or indirectly, birthed a new age of female-led films.

Naturally, this has been met with backlash from a vocal minority, outraged that the norm is being challenged and that the stranglehold that was held over film was being loosened.

In case you haven’t gleamed from the past two paragraphs, I’m very much in favour of the emergence of new female-led films, stories are universal as a general rule, and I don’t naturally empathise with a character based in ether gender, but their individual struggle, no matter their gender, race or religion.

That being said, there are certain moral mazes to be found in films starring women too, and we’ll get more into that later, but for now, let’s get on with the review.

Story

Dorothy (Constance Wu) takes up ‘exotic dancing’ to support her family, and soon meets the more experienced Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) Who shows her the ropes of getting the most money from their clientele, unfortunately, the stock market crash lurks just around the corner.

Verdict

The broader narrative of Hustlers begins in 2007, just before the economic recession that hit in ’08, and this plays a part in the middle of the story, adding to the struggle as suddenly, the tidal wave of Wall Street investors begins to dwindle.

You could be forgiven for having seen the trailer and written Hustlers off as an easy comedy about a bunch of strippers who steal from their client base, but beneath that basic premise lies a larger heart, and more importantly, brain than you could have gleamed.

It mixes in the extravagance of life before recession for both the girls and the bankers and brokers with the inevitable crash. It doesn’t set the girls up a common thieves, but rather women with bills to pay just doing a job, and seeing how far they can push the boundaries.

Obviously, this leads to more unsavoury activities down the line, putting the viewer in an uncomfortable moral quandary, are we to sympathise or demonise these characters we may have grown to like? Well, that would entirely depend on your outlook, and knowing how much of a sewer online opinions could be, it’s an argument you could do well to steer away from. For what it’s worth, I don’t get the sense that the film is glamorising fraud, but it also never demonises those who work in the sex industry, a very fine line to walk I’m sure you’ll all agree.

Following on from my previous review, this is another film with a strong cast. It’s a great vehicle for Constance Wu, showing off her range, mirrored very well by Jenifer Lopez’s performance, both mix together a manipulative side with a sympathetic side, both for different reasons, and they make for an intriguing double-act.

Certain scenes are dripping in a neon stylishness that could have been made more use of I feel, there are certain glimpses of a higher intention of filmmaking, there are certain scenes that are rather pedestrian, but there’s also some lovely uses of tracking shots and close-ups to show us that there was an accomplished filmmaker behind this project.

I do have some complaints, the inclusion of Cardi B in the cast seems desperate for a larger exposure (as is the inclusion of a certain cameo early on), she adds very little besides base name recognition, her acting certainly wasn’t a great addition; and the timeline jumps can get a bit muddled and hard to follow.

But, besides these few quibbles, I had a great time with Hustlers. Some good performances as likeable characters with flashes of accomplished filmmaking flourish made it a very enjoyable watch and I’d highly recommend giving it a chance.

It: Chapter Two Review

I’ll be the first to admit that the first IT film (the 2017 one that is not the first first one) took me by surprise. As someone who is often left cold by horror films and their often predictable tropes, it drew me in with its immersive setting and focus on a core nucleus of extremely likeable characters.

Of course, readers of the Stephen King Novel from which the film originated will know that the story didn’t end there, the novel itself was also in two parts and was well over 1000 pages long, so it was only going to be a matter of time before ‘the losers club’ battled Pennywise again.

So, here we are with a new cast of adult ‘losers’ ready to do battle with a demented, demonic clown, and we are all ready to see the result.

Story

27 years after first defeating Pennywise, The Losers Club is called back to Derry as the demonic entity rises again. As they arrive, their long-suppressed memories of their encounter resurface, as Pennywise sets his sights on them once more.

Verdict

It was always going to come with a sense of diminishing returns, this one. When the first was released p, it was such a breath of fresh air that a follow-up would struggle to have the same impact, nevertheless, it does its damnedest, and comes pretty damn close.

I stand by every sentiment I have stated in the past few years that Bill Skarsgård’s portrayal of Pennywise is leagues ahead of Tim Curry’s. As much as I like and respect Tim, he comes nowhere near the level of unsettling that Skarsgård achieves, even before the editing trickery, just the voice and the way he moves is enough to make him one of Horror cinemas most iconic characters.

Speaking of characters, that was, for me, the strongest aspect of the first film. It had a strong emphasising its ‘Losers Club’ group, and each of them got their moment to shine. Naturally, some were more memorable than others, Richie Tozier, for example is my personal favourite in both films, as a child played by Finn Wolfhard and here by Bill Hader, who gives a career best performance as an emotionally-suppressed Richie.

The performances are strong across the board, in fact. The always dependable James McAvoy doesn’t disappoint, and Jessica Chastain seems to really fully grasp the character of Beverley, in all her complexities, quite admirably.

Like many Stephen King stories, if you go in with the wrong mindset, the story will seem nonsensical and oblique, but he has this unique knack of making the supernatural work in a grounded environment, for all the talk of ‘Dead Lights’ and ‘Ritual of Chüd’ it still manages to maintain a grip on a twisted reality that some would struggle with. He’s not afraid of delving into the supernatural, no matter how far-fetched it may seem, and IT is particularly far-fetched, let me tell you.

It’s a long watch as a film, clocking in at close to three hours, but not a minute is wasted, each member of the Losers gets their own unique showdown with Pennywise and the final third of the film is as tightly scripted and executed as the JFK assassination, I’m tempted to say that the last half an hour alone is worth the price of admission.

The film doesn’t escape the trappings of horror cinema completely however, for as much as the focus on the characters and their interactions with the monster remain in tact, there is also a heavier emphasis on my pet peeve jump scares this time round, some of which were quite effective, to give the filmmakers credit, but others were entirely predictable, and taken straight from the cliché books.

For all its faults in that area, and the stretching of the formula, IT Chapter 2 is a perfectly acceptable conclusion to the story, complete with the same likeable characters, an iconic monster, performances ranging from accomplished to career-defining, and a superb third act which gives just the right amount of closure to send both long-time fans and newcomers alike happy. It might not seem as fresh as the first-time around, but it is still a very worthwhile watch indeed.

The Informer Review

Bit of an under the radar release this one. In fact it’s fair to say that it’s media profile wasn’t so much low as non-existent, I think I only saw one trailer in the run-up to release and it looked fairly generic and nondescript, but with us being in a release lull lately, I wasn’t spoiled for choice this week.

It’s release schedule also appears to be from opposite land, as it’s release here in the U.K. predates the USA release by almost half a year, as it won’t be released for our American cousins until January next year, which is odd for a U.S based film, although it was a U.K. production apparently, it just gets stranger with this film.

Anyways, let’s get in with the review.

Story

A convicted felon (Joel Kinnaman) working as an informer for the FBI, gets caught up in a drugs sting gone bad, which ends up with a police officer being killed, he then has to survive prison without being found out as a ‘snitch’.

Verdict

The Informant is a tough one to review, admittedly, and I can see why it didn’t have a big promotional push prior to release as it’s a tough film to sell.

On the surface, it has all the hallmarks of a straight-to-DVD action film that you’d find in the bargain bucket, except with maybe a fatter budget and more relevant talent.

It’s plot is a product of this comparison, very much a paint-by-numbers tail of an unlikely police informant and his dealings in organised crime, as a result, all of the characters seem like tired archetypes, especially our leading character, Joel Kinnaman seems to be doing his best, but there’s no reason to like his character. The film tries to make him sympathetic by giving him a wife and child, but this is a shallow attempt at characterisation that falls flat.

Direction and cinematography-wise, it’s also very pedestrian. It uses the dull colour palate that most dark and gritty crime dramas have that don’t help with the feeling that we’ve seen everything this film has to offer a million times before.

As a whole, it’s competent, but unexciting. Its plot makes sense and it’s put together well, so if that was the intention then those lofty ambitions have been realised, but I feel like it’s an u inspired film that even the studio didn’t have much faith in, and if they don’t believe in it, who are we to argue?