Sarah Paulson

The Goldfinch

28/09/19

I somehow never got around to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I loved her debut, The Secret History, but was not so enamoured of The Little Friend. Eleven years after reading a book I admired but did not enjoy, of course I wasn’t going to be first in the bookshop queue when The Goldfinch was released. Still, I have retained enough interest in Tartt’s work to pop along to Cineworld and give director John Crowley’s movie version a few hours of my time.

I’m glad I do, because it’s an interesting tale. I’ve read a few quite harsh reviews, but I don’t agree with those. It’s not perfect: the pace is glacial at times, and adherence to point-of-view means that some of the most exciting sequences happen off-screen. Theo’s sense of detachment permeates the movie and sometimes leaves us feeling rather detached too. And the one-hundred-and-forty-nine minute running time tests my patience somewhat: half an hour could be cut from this without sacrificing much.

But still. The plot is all convolution, contrivance and coincidence, but I don’t mind a jot. It works. Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley/Ansel Elgort) is at an art gallery with his mum one morning, passing the time before a meeting with Theo’s middle-school principal: he’s been caught with cigarettes. They never make it to the meeting, because a bomb explodes, killing Theo’s mum (Hailey Wist). As the dust clears, Theo sees Welty (Robert Joy), an old man at the gallery with his young niece, Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings). With his dying breath, Welty gives Theo a ring, tells him where to take it, and urges him to rescue a priceless painting lying in the rubble. Theo puts the picture in his bag and stumbles home.

He’s taken in by the Barbours; he’s friends with their son, Andy (Ryan Foust). They’re a wealthy family, kindly but cold. Mrs Barbour (Nicole Kidman) in particular is stiff and uptight, doing her duty but with little compassion. As time passes, however, she becomes fond of Theo, and he starts to feel like he belongs.

Until his wastrel father (Luke Wilson) shows up with his latest girlfriend, Xandra (Sarah Paulson), and Theo is hauled off to the Nevada desert, where he befriends a Russian goth called Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurin Barnard). He’s still got the titular painting though: his talisman, his link to his mother.

And when the wheels come off again, he makes yet another new start…

Nicole Kidman is the best thing about this film: she’s luminous and utterly convincing at all times. But the acting is uniformly good, the young cast particularly impressive in these demanding roles.

The film looks ravishing. The desolation of the abandoned housing estate in Nevada is beautifully rendered, the antique repair shop appears marvellous and magical.

The ending, however, feels a little deflating, the action occurring out of Theo’s (and therefore our) sight. Despite this, I think The Goldfinch is a decent film, and I might just purchase the novel now.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Bird Box

06/01/19

I’m not sure what to make of Netflix’s latest hit, Bird Box. On the one hand, it’s a decent little sensory-deprivation horror movie (is that a genre now?), nicely acted and directed, and it certainly takes me along for the ride. But on the other hand… well, there’s some pretty dodgy subtext here, and I’m not sure I want to overlook this stuff.

Sandra Bullock is Malorie, single and pregnant, ambivalent about impending motherhood. She wisecracks her way through her maternity appointments and avoids discussing crucial issues such as where a baby might be accommodated in her tiny artist’s studio. Of course she’s an artist: she has to work in a visual medium to underline the awfulness of what comes next.

Not that her art is ever mentioned again, once the mysterious beings arrive and begin their decimation of the human race. The conceit here is that ‘they’ can only get you if you look at them, but if you even catch a glimpse they’ll drive you to kill yourself. I like that director Susanne Bier never lets us see them ourselves, that their awfulness is left to our imaginations. But for the characters holed up in Greg (BD Wong)’s house, where they’ve fled in terror from the first attack, the beings are an ever-present threat, and survival is almost impossible.

There’s a great cast, featuring John Malkovich and Jacki Weaver, Sarah Paulson and Tom Hollander. Trevante Rhodes is Tom, and he’s a charming, likeable leading man. It’s always nice to see Parminder Nagra on screen, albeit this time in a minor role, as Malorie’s obstetrician. And the tension is palpable, even though the time-hopping structure means that we know from the beginning that Bullock ends up a lone adult, looking after two small kids, and pitting her wits against this unknown enemy.

But…

*MINOR SPOILER ALERT*

… there’s the heavy-handed extended metaphor about motherhood to deal with: the implication that Malorie has to endure all this heartbreak and struggle in order to accept her true calling as a mother; that her earlier consideration of adoption for her baby could never really have been the right answer.

And the depiction of people with mental health issues is problematic too. ‘They’ (because they’re different from ‘us,’ right?) don’t commit suicide when they see the beings; they become converts to the beings’ cause, committed missionaries, cajoling and persuading as many people as possible to take off their blindfolds and see the light. It’s unsettling, actually, to see such a toe-curling division drawn between the sane and the insane; I thought we understood things better than that now.

So, on the surface, a fun way to pass an evening. But it doesn’t really bear much scrutiny. If you really want to see something in this ‘genre,’ A Quiet Place is far superior.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Ocean’s Eight

19/06/18

I like Ocean’s Eight. I like its exuberance, its stellar cast, its slick plotting and its silliness. It looks great: as polished and meticulously groomed as the A-listers at the Met Gala, where the eponymous Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the franchise’s previous lead, masterminds an audacious jewellery robbery.

What’s not to like? Well, it’s just another heist movie, albeit a well-told one – a slice of polished nonsense, not particularly memorable. And it’s VERY American in its glorification of the maverick, a veritable celebration of outlaws and their crimes. Can you imagine a British film on a similar subject where everything runs so smoothly, where the thieves are as sympathetically presented, where no one bungles anything? Ocean and her team are almost super-human. All that talent – it’s a shame it’s wasted stealing sparkly stones. But still.

It’s great to see this fine group of actors given the chance to have some fun, playing roles that are strong, cool, funny and exciting. They don’t have to be seductive or damaged or any of the other limited options usually available to mainstream-movie women over thirty. (Of the eight, only Awkwafina is still – just in her twenties: Anne Hathaway, Rihanna and Mindy Kaling are all in their thirties; Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson in their forties, and – almost unbelievably – Sandra Bullock and Helena Bonham-Carter are over fifty now. How did that happen?) They all look like they’re having fun, especially Blanchett, razzing around on her motorbike, exuding charisma.

The plot’s a pretty simple one, even if the plan within is fiendishly complex. Debbie Ocean has been in prison for the past five years, and has spent her time conceiving every detail of this heist. She wants to pull off this crime, not just for the riches it will afford her, but for the kicks, and to live up to her family name. If she can exact revenge upon her ex at the same time, well, why wouldn’t she? So she looks up her old ally, Lou (Blanchett), currently engaged in watering down vodka at a nightclub she owns, and lays out her idea. They assemble a team and away they go.

It’s a shame there’s not much jeopardy: once the group has been established, the film is pretty much a series of daring steps, each one successful, building towards the climactic moment when the diamonds are snatched. The boldness is impressive, but there’s not much to feel other than admiration for their cunning; it’s pretty much a one-note film.

James Corden’s appearance in the final act is fun: he’s a much vilified man, but I’m never really sure why. He’s always been a good actor, and he’s very funny here, with some laugh-out-loud lines that help to puncture the smugness that’s in danger of creeping in.

All in all, this is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours; sadly though, that’s all it is.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield