Breathe – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The true story of how Robin and Diana Cavendish coped with the devastating effects of his polio diagnosis and resulting paralysis is the subject of this inspiring biopic by first-time director Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy stay in Breathe. Photo copyright 207 Bleeker Street.

The film jumps right into the courtship of twenty somethings Robin (Andrew Garfield) and Diana (Claire Foy). He’s a dashing world explorer, and she’s a wealthy society girl who’s always the prettiest female in the room.  Even though Robin’s income can’t guarantee all the luxuries with which she’s become accustomed, Diana knows he’s the only man for her, and they soon wed.

A Devastating Case of Polio

Shortly after she announces her pregnancy, Robin falls ill with polio – a devastating case of total paralysis which lands him in the hospital with only a few months to live on a respirator. Although Robin says he wants to die rather than suffer another day in the hospital, Diana convinces him that he must survive so their child will know his father. Diana learns how to care for Robin at home (an outrageous idea at that time), and their inventor friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), constructs a revolutionary new wheelchair with a breathing apparatus, so Robin is not confined to bed.

As the years go by and Robin proves the doctors wrong, he enjoys traveling with his wife and son, and socializing with his loyal friends who’ve helped him throughout the years. He also visits other patients around the world to show doctors better options for fellow Polio sufferers like himself. Eventually his health declines further as a result of living with a breathing tube for so many years, and the prognosis is impending death and being a further burden to his wife until that happens. It’s at this point that the usually jovial Robin again falls into a bout of depression and wants to die.

Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother

Honoring one’s father and mother is so important that it’s one of the Ten Commandments. However, importance doesn’t necessarily make for great filmmaking. Jonathan Cavendish (son of Robin and Diana) produced this film, which idealizes his parents and their experiences. The relentlessly upbeat tone shows a physically beautiful woman, tireless in her devotion to her husband and son, and possessing extraordinary courage and compassion. There’s also her invalid husband – a man robbed of all movement and given a death sentence at the tender age of 28; even so, he’s usually the life of every party and offers flippant remarks in the face of death. Likewise, their friends and family are eternally loyal, patient, and loving. While all these factors may well be true, the darker sides of these people and their experiences are never revealed.

There’s also music by Nitin Sawhney that ranges from somewhat somber in dramatic scenes to inappropriately lighthearted pieces more fitting to a slapstick comedy. The producer’s fond memories of these moments with his parents appear to have distorted his view of the way things were at the time. The jarring shifts in tone feel uncomfortable and inauthentic. The Cavendish story – especially Robin’s inspirational visits to help others – is certainly worth telling, but perhaps with more facts and less subjectivity.

Breathe

  • This true story examines a couple’s determination to be together despite a devastating disease.
  • Stars: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Ed Speleers, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Amit Shah, Jonathan Hyde
  • Director: Andy Serkis
  • Writer: William Nicholson
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 117 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images)

Battle of the Sexes – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This biographical film by husband-and-wife filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris takes an unexpectedly lighthearted look at the heavy topics of sexism, prejudice, and addiction during the 1970s when Bobby Riggs challenged Billy Jean King to a tennis match dubbed Battle of the Sexes.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in Battle of the Sexes. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

This film highlights the music of the era and the (now ludicrous) clothing of that time period. It also shines a spotlight on the pill-popping gambling addict known as Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), the former men’s world tennis champion, now a two-bit hustler and media clown, who takes delight in his sexist attitudes and behavior.

The Fear of Being Judged

If it weren’t for men like Riggs there would be no need for staunch feminists and activists like Billy Jean King (Emma Stone). Her pure love of tennis motivates her to achieve the highest rank in women’s tennis, but the male chauvinists dominating sports and media force her into taking a public stand. Due to prejudice and the fear of being judged, King also hides her emerging lesbian relationship with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough in soft, dreamy close-ups). Her new feelings complicate her existing life (which includes a loving husband), but are only a small part of a much larger, more important story.

A Media Circus Clown

King’s heroic character displays impressive physical skills and endurance, in addition to a strong will and compassionate nature. Riggs, however, is more than the media circus clown he’s made out to be. Carell’s version prances on the furniture with his young son, appears to love his wife (although he lies to her incessantly), and makes a mockery out of the big tennis match. But the women-hating attitude beneath that over-the-top behavior is anything but amusing. In addition, his gambling addiction gets treated like a disagreeable habit, rather than the disease it really is.

At the screening I attended, during the final “Where are they now” captions at the end, it was noted that Riggs continued his gambling addiction his entire life. This reference elicited laughter throughout the theater, which indicates the audience shared the filmmakers’ opinion that Riggs is merely a harmless buffoon, instead of a danger to himself and others. Kudos to Stone and Carell for terrific performances, but it’s a shame the filmmakers chose to trivialize the sad ripple effects of sexism, prejudice, and addiction.

 Battle of the Sexes

  • This fact-based film explores the private lives and the very public 1973 tennis match between women’s world champion Billy Jean King and ex-men’s world champion Bobby Riggs.
  • Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue
  • Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
  • Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy
  • Genre: Biopic, Sports
  • Run Time: 121 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and partial nudity)

 

Rebel In the Rye – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life and a screenplay by Danny Strong (who also served as director), Rebel in the Rye examines enigmatic author Jerry D. Salinger’s early days as a struggling writer and the years directly following the publication of The Catcher In the Rye, a classic American masterpiece.

Nicholas Hoult and Kevin Spacey star in Rebel In the Rye. Photo copyright 2017 IFC Films.

Crafting stories, proofreading, copyediting, and other tasks related to writing tend to be intellectual pursuits that don’t particularly lend themselves to physicality or strong emotion. Therefore, it’s not too surprising that this story of the reclusive writer’s life – compressed here to include his early days in college all the way to later years after two children and a failed  marriage – comes across as more of a cerebral study of the man, rather than an engaging cinematic portrayal.

The Problems of J.D. Salinger

Viewers learn about some of Salinger’s problems as a young man, his writing motivations, conflicted love interests, and constant inner demons, but the story never fully engages our emotions or presents a three-dimensional character we can embrace. The film is interesting without being enlightening or inspirational.

Here’s what Rebel In the Rye does accomplish. We learn of the similarities between the iconic character Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In the Rye and his creator, J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult). After getting kicked out of other colleges for his sarcasm and bad attitude, Salinger finds a mentor (Kevin Spacey as college writing professor and Story editor, Whit Burnett) who believes in his writing, especially the Holden Caulfield character in a short story. (Spacey’s pithy depiction enlivens each scene in which he appears with a zestful sincerity lacking in other characters.)

Other than Jerry’s encouraging mother, his family doesn’t support his writing career. In fact, his father (Victor Garber) disapproves of most of his son’s decisions and behavior. Fighting in World War II has a devastating effect on Jerry that lands him in a mental hospital. His relationships with women mirror everything else in his life, including his publishing career: emotional detachment, inflexibility, and eventual abandonment.

Mysteries Remain Unsolved

Hoult exudes a certain charm as J.D. Salinger, despite his character’s unlikable qualities (such as calling people out for being phoney, refusing to accept critique of his work, and inability to forgive those he thinks betrayed him). Mental health professionals might argue that emotional abandonment by his father caused his anti-social behavior, and that his problems reached critical mass during the war, which led to post-traumatic stress disorder that stayed with him for the rest of his life. But those would only be theories based on the sketchy material provided in the film.

Why did J.D. Salinger really give up writing for publication after achieving worldwide fame with his novel? Why did he give up on his second marriage and two children to live alone in his secluded domestic retreat? Why did he give up on his close friendship with his mentor based on one misunderstanding? These questions remain frustrating unsolved mysteries in this biopic.

Rebel In the Rye

  • The true story of how reclusive writer J.D. Salinger achieved overnight fame with his book The Catcher In the Rye before abruptly deciding to end his publishing career.
  • Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Victor Garber, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton
  • Writer-Director: Danny Strong
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 106 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking)

Stronger – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the nonfiction book Stronger by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter (and adapted to the screen by John Pollono), this film explores the physical and emotional challenges Bauman faced after losing his legs from the Boston Marathon bombing.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Stronger. Photo copyright 2017 Roadside Attractions.

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) was just an ordinary 27-year-old man living in Boston and working at Costco. Though not a runner himself, he supported his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), who dreamed of finishing the Boston Marathon. Known for being unreliable, he promises to wait for her at the finish line with a congratulatory sign — a promise that changes his life forever. Standing near the terrorists without realizing it at the time, he was in the direct line of fire when the bombs exploded and shattered both of his legs below the knee.

Direct and Indirect Victims of the Terrorist Attack

The terrorist attack occurs early in the film (and is shown in more detail through grisly flashbacks). The story focuses almost exclusively on Jeff’s physical and emotional struggles following the attack, and how his mother (Miranda Richardson) and Erin adjust to the changes in his life and in their own lives as they care for him. The themes of “showing up” and “reluctant hero” arise again and again as Jeff deals with international attention from the media (even Oprah wants to interview him), tributes from fans and friends, and contact from other victims of tragedies.

Despite becoming the unwitting poster boy for “Boston Strong,” Jeff fights depression and alcoholism privately as he works to maintain a brave facade for those around him. As a regular guy whose favorite pastime was hanging out with friends drinking beer at the sports bar, Jeff finds his new roles of survivor, hero, and inspiration to others extremely uncomfortable. He silently deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to the physical pain of healing from his injuries and managing physical therapy. He also struggles with being a burden to his independent girlfriend and boozy mother.

Gyllenhaal Shares the Spotlight

Steering clear of addressing the weighty subjects of politics and terrorism, this movie focuses on Jeff. Maslany and Richardson have the difficult task of stirring viewer sympathy for their supporting characters, who also suffer (though less directly than Jeff) from the terrorist attack. Both succeed, in part because of Gyllenhaal’s willingness and ability to share the spotlight with his co-stars. Transformational roles such as this often lead to Academy Award nominations, and Gyllenhaal (Nocturnal Animals) certainly would be deserving of such an honor.

Though his donned Bostonian accent seems stronger at times than others, his authentic portrayal of the body, mind, and spirit of his character never falters in this powerful performance. Special effects aid in providing a convincing appearance for the double amputee, but Gyllenhaal’s physicality is what makes it believable, memorable, and poignant.

Stronger

  • This true story looks at how the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing changed the life of Jeff Bauman, a 27-year-old working-class man who lost both legs from the attack.
  • Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, Patty O’Neil, Clancy Brown, Kate Fitzgerald, Frankie Shaw, Carlos Sanz
  • Director: David Gordon Green
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 116 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity)

 

Crown Heights – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Through flashbacks, fantasy sequences, and two men’s interconnecting stories over a period of 21 years, this fact-based crime drama is elevated by exceptional performances. Adapted from an episode of the weekly public radio show This American Life on NPR, the story itself is all too common: a poor young black man is falsely accused of a crime, but lacks the money, knowledge, and connections to adequately fight the charges against him.

Lakeith Stanfield stars in Crown Heights. Photo copyright 2017 Amazon Studios/IFC Films.

The story begins in the spring of 1980 when a black teenager is shot dead on the street in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Although most of the people in the community (comprised of Haitian and Jamaican immigrants) know the details of the crime, none are forthcoming to the police. In an effort to solve the case quickly, the cops round up a teenaged criminal from the area and offer him a lighter sentence if he swears to be an eye witness to the murder. Under pressure, the kid picks the mugshot of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), an 18-year-old car thief from nearby Crown Heights.

Wrongly Convicted of Murder

Although Colin has no involvement with the crime, he’s arrested, charged, and eventually convicted of driving the getaway car in the drive-by shooting (which wasn’t actually a drive-by shooting at all). The true murderer also is convicted as a co-defendant, but receives a light sentence because he’s a minor. At 18, Colin is sentenced as an adult and gets a 15-year sentence. Angry, shocked, and defiant, he refuses to confess or express remorse for a crime he did not commit. Though his resentful attitude is understandable throughout his 21 years in prison (extra time added for bad behavior), it doesn’t serve him well, as officials continue to pressure him for admission of guilt and punish him for refusing to comply.

Outside of prison, Colin’s best friend, Carl (Nnamdi Asomugha), struggles over the years to help exonerate his friend. Unfortunately he’s in the same situation as Colin was before the conviction. He’s an immigrant, low on funds, uneducated, and (unlike Colin) has a wife (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who resents the time and money spent on a family friend, rather than on their growing family. Colin’s own long-time love interest (Natalie Paul) promises to wait for him no matter how long he’s away from her.

21 Years in Prison

There’s a lot going on here with the two men, and the 21-year stretch of time is difficult to cover. Captions on the screen identify how many years pass as Colin waits in prison. To help speed the story along, writer-director Matt Ruskin uses flashbacks to show viewers what Colin is thinking, dreaming, and feeling. Fantasy sequences also depict his desire to be free to love and live outside the confines of prison. These artful touches (including quick cuts, extreme close-ups, and shaky altered images) get the point across quickly without the need for non-essential dialogue and scenes depicting the passage of time.

The entire cast seems committed to the task. Stanfield presents a believable three-dimensional character worthy of our concern and compassion, despite his earlier life of crime and violence born of frustration and injustice. Asomugha carries his side of the story well, also. The actor beautifully portrays his character’s strong persistence in his quest of justice for his friend, even at great personal expense and risk. Although some unpleasant stereotypes appear in the film (lazy and dishonest policemen; sleazy white attorneys and parole board members), the main characters appear well-rounded, reflecting strengths and weaknesses evident in all humanity.

Crown Heights

  • Based on a true story from 1980, an innocent young man from Crown Heights is wrongfully convicted of murder.
  • Stars: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Nestor Carbonell, Amari Cheatom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Luke Forbes
  • Writer-Director: Mark Ruskin
  • Genre: Biography/Crime Drama
  • Run Time: 99 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexuality/nudity, and violence)