Review – Only a Kid in a Gilded Cage (“The Goldfinch”)

Based on the novel by Donna Tartt, this movie plays out like some grand scale Great Expectations set in the 20th Century about a young boy growing up in NYC with a secret, his whirlwind adventures in the Big Apple and in Las Vegas, and growing up to face insurmountable turmoil and strife. Y’know, just like you and I.

Told in a sorta odd flash-back/flash-forward storytelling, we ping-pong through the life of Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley as a child, Ansel Elgort as an adult) and the catastrophic loss of his mother when a terrorist bomb goes off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Miraculously unhurt, young Theo walks out of the rubble secretly carrying away a small priceless painting with him: The Goldfinch by Dutch master Carel Fabritius. But this Mcguffin… I mean, painting serves as a catalyst for the rest of his life. He soon is taken in by the Barbour family, headed by stoic, but kindly Samantha (Nicole Kidman) and her very strange husband, Chance (Boyd Gaines). But Theo is on a mission as well; to return a ring to antiques dealer James “Hobie” Hobart (Jeffrey Wright) and see young Pippa (Aimee Laurence as a child, Ashleigh Cummings as an adult) who was also injured in the museum.

Through flash-backs & forwards we witness Theo’s traumatic and miserable life as he’s taken away by his loser father (Luke Wilson) and his gold-digging girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) to the bleak and stark desert of outer Las Vegas, and his meeting of bad-influence tween Boris (Finn Wolfhard as a teen, Aneurin Barnard as an adult) who calls Theo “Potter” (as in Harry Potter). Theo returns to NYC & Hobart’s store to become an antiques dealer and meets up with Pippa again after many years. In-between, Theo develops some nasty habits like smoking, drinking, and drugs, but the one constant in his life has always been his precious painting worth millions; how could that ever go wrong?

The one thing about trying to adapt a tome like The Goldfinch with its linear storyline, multiple characters, and only two and half hours to do it, is that you’re gonna miss something in the translation. An avid book reader has only to watch the Harry Potter films to know THAT fact! Screenwriter Peter Straughan (Our Brand Is Crisis) really gave this his best shot, but decided to flip-flop the timeline around for, what, better storytelling? It all gets very confusing and the one thing you don’t need in this movie is confusing. You already have many people coming and going that you have no idea who they are in relationship to the story, unless you read the book. But what IS on the screen is compelling, albeit long and strung out. There are many scenes that are tacked on, while others go on forever, giving you a full, careful examination of the character.

Which is not a BAD thing, mind you, as director John Crowley (Brooklyn) really knows how to capture the moment on film like an eerie postcard. He holds on his actors to get the most out of them in some distinctive and sublime moments. With the subject matter of loss and grief, you gotta give it up for both Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort playing the crucial role of Theo. Oakes has a gentle naturalness about him, making him perfect for the introverted lad hiding a secret, while Elgort appears so vacant and distant he might as well be an alien from another planet studying us; a remarkable character trait. Kidman is wonderfully restrained as is Wright, but my money is on the tag-team of Wolfhard & Barnard who both steal the picture as the Russian ne’er-do-well, Boris.  

A Monster Calls (2016)

In movies that feature heart-breaking family crises and tear-jerking family dramas, here’s one that dared to throw in a little fantasy spin, just to mix things up. Based on the Patrick Ness novel, this gripping, dark, yet fanciful tale is a cut above the rest where children are dealing with grief, loss, and holding on to reality.

It’s not been easy for budding artist, 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) who lives in a quaint little British village. Not only is he bullied at school, but his estranged father lives in L.A., his grandmother isn’t the nicest person alive, and his mother (Felicity Jones) is slowly dying of cancer. Yeah, he’s having a very rough time with life, until one night (or morning, depending on how you look at it) at 12:07am, something very weird happens. The giant yew tree in the old church graveyard uproots itself and walks over to talk to Conor!

This Godzilla-sized tree ‘Monster’ (voiced by Liam Neeson) makes Groot look like a sickly twig and tells Conor that he will tell him three stories, after which Conor will have to tell him one… or else! Intrigued by this gigantic walking/talking ent, Conor listens and ‘sees’ the stories (beautiful animation by Spain’s Headless Productions) and learns life lessons from them; but the story endings are not what they appear to be. Events get worse and Conor’s dad, (Toby Kebbell) comes out to visit, while his acerbic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, attempting a British accent) moves the child into her pristine home in town. The Monster shows up (always at 12:07) and gives Conor another tale, sparking the kid to vent his frustrations on his grandma’s living room.

While his mother is getting worse, the Monster is helping Conor cope with the bullies at school using another tale. But things don’t get any better and, in a final  ‘fairy tale’, Conor must learn to face the harsh realities of what’s happening; facing the harsh realities he’s been denying all along. With the help of the giant Monster at his side, and a tortuous nightmare come true, Conor comes face-to-face with his own mortality. Needless to say, you’ll need to bring a box of tissues with you for the climax.

With a blistering screenplay by author Patrick Ness, the story walks that fine line between sci-fi fantasy and human drama and still manages to tell a solid story without going too campy or too surreal. Conor’s life is mirrored all around him and his life is reflected in the words and monstrous (and sometimes grandfatherly) attitude of the Monster that may, or may not really exist. It’s a genuinely moving story that doesn’t pull any punches, so if you’ve lost any loved ones, be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster ride.

Director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) knows drama and where to squeeze your heart; he’s that good. But the real find in this movie is the extraordinary Lewis MacDougall as Conor. This is only his second movie (he played a Lost Boy in Pan), but he shows powerful restraint and a touching passion for such a young age, that I hope we’ll be seeing more of him in the future. Jones, fresh off her Rogue One triumph, is also heart-breaking as the loving mother, succumbing to the deadly disease and fighting it for the sake of her son. Even with the sci-fi/fantasy element, the story may be an old one told over and over again, but here it’s given a fresh new coat of paint and is remarkable.

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