Tag Archives: movies based on books

TIFF19: The Goldfinch

I mean, who’s NOT excited to see a film adapted from a 784 page, Pulitzer-prize winning novel about a missing piece of art? Sean Taylor, that’s who. He did, however, make use of the film’s 147 minute run time to have a hearty nap. Hands lightly clasped, mouth totally agape, he slept, and he slept hard, for 60 of the film’s first 65 minutes. So when he did wake up, I wondered what the point was in staying. Surely he was lost. Surely there would be no rejoining the movie at this point.

But the truth is, wide awake as I was and always had been, I wasn’t any more into it. And yes, I had read Donna Tartt’s novel, which has been bowing my bookcase ever since.

The Goldfinch is about a little boy who visits a museum with his mother, who then perishes when the museum is bombed in a terrorist attack. Having survived the bombing, young Theo (Oakes Fegley) wanders around the ruins, searching for his mother, until an old man stops him, and with his dying breath, implores him to take a painting, Fabritius’ The Goldfinch.

Basically orphaned, Theo is sent to live with classmate’s family (Nicole Kidman plays the mother). He befriends the old man’s business partner, Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) and another young survivor, a cute redhead named Pippa, who sustained brain damage in the attack. But just as he’s maybe settling into this new, motherless life, his deadbeat dad (Luke Wilson) shows up, with a surprise girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) in tow, and whisks him off to live in a deserted Vegas suburb of foreclosed homes. His only friend is a boy named Boris (Finn Wolfhard), who’s got some questionable habits, though not nearly as objectionable as his dad’s, as it turns out.

Cut to: adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) is an antiques dealer, working with Hobie in New York City, trying his best just to cope with the lingering effects of the attack, trying hard not to be held hostage by the trauma. He’s held onto this painting, a very historied and valuable painting, all these years, secretly of course, allowing the rest of the world to believe this priceless artifact was destroyed in the bombing along with so much else. But that is not the case.

Can you imagine what this painting might represent to a young orphaned boy, having saved it from the very same rubble in which his mother’s body lay? Director John Crowley cannot. In 2.5 hours, the painting is not a symbol of hope, or a replacement parent, or the receptacle of grief and loss. It’s just a dead thing underneath a kid’s bed, as if it means nothing. In fact, the movie itself means nothing, but it takes an agonizingly long time establishing this nothingness. On and on, with lots of things happening yet none of it finding meaning. And worse yet, it finds no emotional connection, nor does it appear to even look for it. And when you’re talking about childhood trauma and absentee parents and feelings of dread and loneliness – well, you’ve got to be pretty bad at your job not to even accidentally stumble upon some kind of feeling.

The painting The Goldfinch is about how we preserve meaningful bits of our lives and our culture, but the movie The Goldfinch is about how some things are destined to be forgotten.

 

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TIFF19: Sweetness in the Belly

Though not ironically titled, the fact remains: Sweetness in the Belly is actually quite bland. I suppose there are worse things than blandness, but if you are going to spent several million dollars and the better part of a year to make something, it better be worthwhile.

Perhaps you’re a fan MV5BMWQ4NDEwZDktZTcyMC00M2VmLThlNjEtMzdmZmZiMDc4MTMxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTQxOTM1NTc@._V1_of the novel by Camilla Gibb, and of course I read it myself about 500 books ago. I have little memory of it, but had the vague impression of not having appreciated it much.

In 1975, in the wake of Haile Selassie being deposed, many Ethiopians flee, fearing for their lives. Many others do not have the opportunity, and pay with theirs. In the chaos of so many people emigrating at once, Lily Abdal (Dakota Fanning) finds herself in London without knowing what happened to her lover, Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

Lily is a special case. Though she is Muslim like the other immigrants fleeing Ethiopia, her skin is white. This means she is plucked from a long line of black women and given special treatment. While hundreds of others share cots in a community centre, Lily gets an apartment to herself, though it’s not long before she invites another woman, Amina (Wunmi Mosaku), to join her. Together they start trying to reunite families amid all the chaos.

It’s hard to dump on a movie with such noble subject matter – but hi, I’m Jay, and I’m an asshole. I watch a lot of movies and I guess I’m fairly critical of them. Sweetness in the Belly is more like a Mild Irritant in Your Eye. I just kept waiting for it to start, and when it didn’t, I started waiting for it to end. Zeresenay Mehari, the director, seems content with banality and the film never gathers any momentum. It’s occasionally moving and competently performed, but you will spend the whole movie waiting for it to get interesting.

TIFF19: Human Capital

Drew is an ex-gambler who has borrowed money he doesn’t have to invest in a hedge fund. When it tanks, he’s pretty desperate, with bills piling up and not one but two babies on the way. Drew (Liev Schrieber) also happens to be the father of a teenage daughter, Shannon (Maya Hawke), who is dating Jamie (Fred Hechinger).

Jamie’s parents are rich, which gives Drew a lot of envy. humancapital_0hero-hr__1_2Jamie’s dad, Quint (Peter Sarsgaard) just happens to be the manager of that hedge fund I was talking about, and he’s super stressed, selling assets to stop the bleeding. He’s not a particularly nice guy, it probably goes without saying. His wife Karen (Marisa Tomei) is fairly pragmatic about their flawed marriage, but she cries a lot. She recently bought a theatre to renovate and run, but with the hedge fund having a coronary, she’s about to lose it.

Jamie and Shannon are actually recently broken up because Jamie is gay and Shannon has a new boyfriend, a bad boy with a record. But for now, both families are together for a high school fundraiser, after which there will be a hit-and-run, and one of them will be responsible.

Human Capital is a tale of guilt and innocence, and how much they’re worth, and to whom. It’s about greed and compromise. It’s based on a novel, and another movie besides, and ultimately fails to justify its own existence. It’s moderately interesting and the performances are fine, but there isn’t a single aspect of this movie that distinguishes itself. Even the whodunnit feels beside the point.

With nothing to uplift it, it may as well have stayed on the page.

TIFF19: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel is David Copperfield – it’s an inspired bit of casting that’s instantly a perfect fit. In fact, the whole film is so overwhelmingly cast to perfection it’s almost embarrassing.

I worried about this film because though director Armando Iannucci’s previous film, The Death of Stalin, was extremely well-received by critics, it was not my the-personal-history-of-david-copperfieldcuppa, not by a long shot. As an introduction to this film’s premiere at TIFF, Iannucci informed/assured us the two films could not be more different. And while I’m not sure that’s true, I was relieved and elighted to find myself really enjoying it.

I hope it’s obvious that this movie is inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, though TIFF Artistic Director & Co-Head Cameron Bailey rightly called it an “audacious” interpretation, and it is that. Iannucci was struck by how timeless the themes of love and friendship were, so though the film is undoubtedly a period piece, Iannucci reminds us that for the characters, it’s present day.

As for myself, I was most struck by how convincingly Copperfield is portrayed as a budding writer. Even as a child he’s wildly observant, with a knack for accents and a fondness for “collecting” lovely turns of phrase. The way this movie explores and plays with language is unlike anything I’ve seen onscreen. It was setting off fireworks in the verbal parts of my brain. And there are plenty of visual treats too – beautiful costumes, dingy apartments, bustling markets, whimsical seaside abodes, and blooming gardens teeming with donkeys.

Sean did not feel so positively about the film – though he liked it, he also found it boring and meandering. Well, he said slow. I thought meandering sounded better.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a funny, perceptive, and inventive twist on an old favourite. I can’t help but think Dickens would approve.

Coraline

It’s actually nearly impossible for me to believe I haven’t reviewed this one here yet because it’s such a treasure, one that continues to impress me in new ways every time I watch it. Coraline is 10 years old now and it’s safe to say the world of animation has changed in its wake. With Coraline, Laika showed that animated films could be more than just cartoons for kids. With gorgeous, artful sets, thoughtful stories, and dark themes, Laika has distinguished itself as a cut above, and Coraline has set the bar for so much that has come since. They weren’t the first to do this, of course, but they’ve certainly made the biggest impression on American box offices.

I happen to love stop-motion films because it feels like we’re so much closer to the artwork. 24 character puppets were constructed for Coraline, which kept 10 artists busy for four months. The Coraline puppet at one point shows 16 different expressions in a span of 35 seconds. When you stop to think about what that series actually means, the careful minutiae, the attention to detail, the willingness to expend so much work for a few seconds of film, you start to really appreciate the possibilities of stop-motion. Of course, there was no single Coraline puppet, there were 28 made of her alone, in different sizes for different situations. Her face could be detached and replaced as needed. The prototype would be molded by a computer, and then hand-painted by the modeling department. Each jaw replacement was clipped between Coraline’s eyes, resulting in a visible line later digitally removed. There were exactly 207,336 possible face combinations for her character. Just her character! Over 130 sets were built across 52 different stages spanning 183,000 square feet – the largest set ever dedicated to this kind of film.

I like to think about the different people on the set of a movie like this. One person was in charge of making the snow (the recipe calls for both superglue and baking soda, if you’re interested; leaves are made by spraying popcorn pink and cutting it up into little pieces). Someone laid 1,300 square feet of fake fur as a stand-in for grass. Another was hired just to sit and knit the tiny sweaters worn by puppets, using knitting needles as thin as human hair. You have to really LOVE doing this to dedicate your life to knitting in miniature. Students from The Art Institute of Portland had the opportunity to help out – what an amazing induction to a burgeoning industry.

Coraline is an 11 year old girl, recently moved to a new home, and her parents have little time for her. So perhaps she can’t entirely be faulted for falling for a grass-is-greener situation when she finds a secret passageway in the new house and follows it to an alternate universe where her Other Mother is attentive and loving. Of course, all is not as it seems – the Other Mother is trying to keep her there, permanently. It’s dark, but also magical, spell-binding. It absorbs you into this world, which remains in a state of disorienting metamorphosis. The Other World seems inviting at first – utopian, even, to a young girl. But as it unravels, the world looks and feels increasingly hostile; Other Mother herself begins to wear clothing and hairstyles more forbidding and harsh. It reveals itself in a dizzying, undeniable way, the best use of the medium, an unforgettable piece of film.

(The Problem With) High Fidelity

This is going to sound strange, so deep breath in, and bear with me. The problem with High Fidelity is John Cusack.

There, I said it. I feel much better now.

You can disagree with me if you want. You’re wrong, but you can disagree. It is physically possible. It’s just not intellectually advisable.

There’s nothing wrong with John Cusack. He was just miscast. I mean, I get how Rob Gordon might seem like the grownup version of Lloyd Dobler, but he’s not even close. Rob Gordon is actually a pretty pathetic guy, but because he’s played by Cusack, some accidental, unintentional coolness is rubbed off. And I get how some underachieving young men might misguidedly put him on a pedestal. Rob is the ultimate fanboy nerd, but he’s the least losery of his friends, the least socially inept. And he puffs himself up by being snobby about his pop culture obsession. Fine. But the thing about Rob Gordon is: he’s not a good guy.

Nick Hornby makes that pretty damn clear in the book, and the character tells us this repeatedly himself in the film: “I am a fucking asshole,” he tells us, but then Cusack flashes those deep brown puppy dog eyes and we feel conflicted. He’s doing and saying pretty shitty things, but it’s Cusack, so he MUST be likable, right?

He’s not likable. He’s an ungrateful little shit. He’s a womanizer with a serious case of (male, as if it needs to be said) entitlement. He skulks about being a rude human being, a stalkery ex, and a very bad boyfriend. But Cusack is such a charmer, and he’s got such a sweet, sympathetic history with cinema, that we ascribe way more positive feelings toward this guy than the character actually deserves.

At one point, when he’s on a self-serving rampage of reconnecting with ex-girlfriends in order to reassure himself that he’s basically blameless, Penny tells reminds him that in fact, HE broke up with HER because she wouldn’t have sex with him (“I wasn’t interested in Penny’s nice qualities, just her breasts, and therefore she was no good to me.”). Her heartbreak led to what basically amounts to rape, and years of sex phobia, and he’s so relieved and satisfied with that answer that he’s spurred to pursue even more ex-girlfriends, never mind the fact that the one right in front of him has just run out of the restaurant in tears. The man is a sociopath and I’m not even kidding. The next ex-girlfriend he visits is thickly mired in depression, and he practically asks us to pat him on the back for not taking advantage of her.

Rob is jealous and possessive and harassing. He is the stuff restraining orders are made of. And he doesn’t even learn a lesson. In the end, the woman who dumped him takes him back because, having just suffered the death of her father, she’s simply too tired, too beaten down by his coersion, to fend him off. That is not a getting back together story that anyone should feel good about, and almost as fast as they can reconcile, he’s off chasing yet another manic pixie fantasy cunt because he can’t even for 10 seconds actually be the nice guy he pretends to be. This is the height of toxic masculinity, but because it’s wearing a cute and cuddly John Cusack body, we fail to see it. We root for him because he’s less of a greaseball than Tim Robbins’s Ian. But being 10% less of a douche doesn’t make you not a douche. It doesn’t make you a nice guy. It doesn’t make you deserving of anyone’s love. Rob Gordon is not a hero. He’s a romantic failure and a social liability and if we made a follow-up to the movie today, he’d be living in his mom’s basement screaming at her to make him some Hamburger Helper as he trashed-talked 12 year olds on League of Legends.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In Canada we have only two seasons: winter, and construction. We are right in the middle of steaming, stinking construction season here in Ottawa, and we’re facing a weekend where the 417, a major highway and our main east-west artery, will shut down entirely. This after a flood season has left our infrastructure crippled and our commutes doubled. Which sort of makes the opening scene of Hitchhiker’s seem a little more likely. In order to make way for an intergalactic superhighway, a little lowly planet called Earth has to be demolished. We meet our hero Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) just minutes before the Earth’s destruction. He learns that his good pal and towel enthusiast Ford Prefect (Yasiin Bey, then billed as Mos Def) is in fact an alien who can call in a favour to save his friend, but erm, nothing else of human history (don’t worry, the dolphins have already defected – so long, and thanks for all the fish).

They meet up with a clinically depressed robot, Marvin (Alan Rickman), an egomaniacal president, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), and most improbably, Arthur’s Earthling crush, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel). Together they’re going to zing around the universe, searching for the Ultimate Question, the meaning of life, a single solitary spot of tea, new chapters for an ambitious encyclopedia, and any remaining shreds of life as they knew it.

Director Garth Jennings bit off more than he could chew trying to adapt Douglas Adams’ influential and beloved work, but you can hardly blame him for trying. Is the movie always coherent? Of course not. If you aren’t familiar with the book, you might find it hard to keep up. If you are familiar with it, there are no doubt bits and bobs that you’ll miss. It is not so much a faithful adaptation as an ode to it, with Adams’ blessing, and mostly by his own invention (such as the sneeze religion helmed by John Malkovich – achoo!). But if it’s a little sloppy, well, what else can you expect from a movie with an improbability drive?

Ivan Reitman and friends actually optioned the film as far back as 1982, thinking it might make an interesting vehicle for Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray (this is no doubt true). But then Ghostbusters came calling and they were off on a tagent, and Hitchhiker’s languished in development hell, at one point with Hugh Laurie and Jim Carrey slated to appear (I’m less thrilled with that pairing, personally). Douglas Adams wanted Hugh Grant for Dent but I’m so, so glad it went to Freeman instead, who plays the everyman so perfectly he is often overlooked.

In 2005’s finished product, Sam Rockwell steals the show as Zaphod Beeblebrox, basing the character on likely unequal dashes of Bill Clinton, Elvis, and Vince Vaughn. Personally, watching it in 2019, I saw all kinds of his George W. Bush in the role and it gave me a whole new appreciation for a performance I already loved.

Anyway, it’s inevitable that a film adapted from such a great book would fail to live up to it, but I actually give it a lot of credit and find it highly watchable and highly entertaining. So many of the little jokes really do work on the screen, and everyone involved is clearly relishing the opportunity to be involved. It’s hard not to find joy where so much exists.