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)

Patti Cake$ – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Patty cakes are sweet cake miniatures, but there’s nothing sweet or miniature in the gritty drama Patti Cake$, director Geremy Jasper’s look at a corpulent foul-mouthed young rapper wannabe.

Patti Cake$. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight.

The movie begins with a dream sequence as 23-year old Patti Dombrowksi aka Dumbo (Danielle Macdonald) fantasizes about being introduced onstage as a rap star. She awakens to find herself in the harsh reality of her existence. She lives in a rundown New Jersey home with her sleazy alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett) who gave up her music career because she was pregnant with Patti. They share the home with Nana (Cathy Moriarty), Patti’s sick old grandmother who sits in her recliner coughing as she watches television all day.

Patti’s work life is not much better. She works in a crummy little bar doing everything from serving drinks to unclogging toilets, in addition to a second job – all to help her mother pay the bills. Her only relief is rapping with her good friend (Siddharth Dhananjay), who works as a pharmacy technician, and offers her emotional support. One night they encounter a strangely violent rapper with a scary new style that intrigues Patti. Known as Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), the man’s mysteriousness is so alluring to Patti that future interactions are inevitable.

An Overweight Underdog

In fact, so much of the film works on stereotypes and cliches that its tiresomeness is rivaled only by its dreariness. Obviously the overweight underdog will succeed in her dreams at some point, but watching her suffer through life until then makes for an uncomfortable movie-going experience.

The actors throw themselves fully into their roles for this little indie film that recently made the festival circuit (including Florida Film Festival), before being picked up by Fox Searchlight. However, full immersion into this profane, misogynistic, drug-infested existence isn’t somewhere that every viewer will want to go. Rappers, singers, poets, and other outcasts and underdogs might find the film most relatable.

Patti Cake$

  • An obese 23-year-old white woman dreams of becoming a rap star and leaving her depressing life in New Jersey.
  • Stars: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty, Siddharth Dhananjay, Patrick Brana, McCaul Lombardi, Mamoudou Athie, Sahr Ngaujah, MC Lyte
  • Director: Geremy Jasper
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 108 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image)

 

 

 

The Only Living Boy in New York – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In his second film released this year, director Marc Webb (whose movie Gifted was released in April) explores the push and pull within families between parents and their children.

The Only Living Boy in New York. Photo copyright 2017 Amazon Studios.

In this case, it’s all about a young man named Thomas (former Burberry model Callum Turner), a 20-something recent college graduate with no immediate plans for a career. Despite his life-long dream of becoming a writer, Thomas’s father, Ethan, (Pierce Brosnan) – the head of a large New York publishing house – scoffs at his son’s dreams and demands that he see a career counselor to find an occupation to which he is better suited. His mother (Cynthia Nixon) loves and supports her son, but is emotionally fragile and usually zoned out with alcohol, cigarettes, and various bouts of depression/bi-polar disorder that make her in need of mothering, rather than the other way around.

An Extra-Marital Affair

In addition, Thomas remains sexually frustrated by his close friend, Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), a girl who spends nearly all her time with him, shares intimate information, and got physical with him on one drunken occasion. Even so, she keeps Thomas mostly at arm’s length because she has a boyfriend (an absentee character never actually seen or heard).

To add to his dilemma, one night while at a club with Mimi, he spots his father having a romantic encounter with a beautiful younger woman named Johanna (Kate Beckinsale as an unlikeable character whose physical appearance is her only attractive feature). Their physical closeness and flirtatious behavior can only mean one thing: His father is having an extra-marital affair, a situation that will destroy his emotionally unstable mother. Obsessed with the idea of breaking up Ethan and Johanna’s relationship to save his mother from more pain, Thomas eventually realizes his obsession is really more focused on the woman herself. Before long, he’s having his own affair with Johanna.

A New Friend

Luckily Thomas has a new friend with whom he shares his problems. A wise, but broken-down alcoholic, neighbor W.F. (Jeff Bridges, who narrates the story) recently moved into the shabby Lower East Side apartment where Thomas resides. With his surprising eloquence and insight, the somewhat mysterious W.F. charms Thomas into sharing the details of his life. Living in a shabby apartment devoid of furniture or personal items, W.F. claims this is his second home and that he’s actually quite wealthy. His motives for living this way and dispensing advice to a confused young millennial are slowly revealed as the film progresses.

Although the film gets off to a slow start, tensions build within each scenario until explosions, confrontations, and explanations are inevitable. Twists and turns will keep viewers engaged, but a few flat scenes (particularly the pivotal blowup between

Thomas and Mimi) look staged and sound inauthentic. Why would an open-minded young woman suddenly become preachy and judgmental by assigning labels of “good” and “bad” to people, rather than merely accepting that even well-intentioned people make mistakes? What exactly does Johanna have to gain by sleeping with her lover’s son? These – and a few other manipulations by the filmmakers, such as songs that echo exact dialogue rather than reflect emotion – give the movie a forced feel at times, and detract somewhat from what could have been a charming little indie movie.

The Only Living Boy in New York

  • A young man living in New York struggles with career indecision, his father’s mistress, unrequited love, and an overly familiar neighbor.
  • Stars: Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Kiersey Clemons, Tate Donovan
  • Director: Marc Webb
  • Screenwriter: Allan Loeb
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 88 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and some drug material)

 

Logan Lucky – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Southern rednecks and the fast-paced cinematic style of director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen) may not seem like the perfect fit, but somehow this hillbilly heist film gets off to a fast start, gains traction, and continues smoothly toward the finish line.

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver star in Logan Lucky. Photo copyright 2017 Bleeker Street.

The Iraq War took its toll on the Logan family. Jimmy (Channing Tatum) wears a knee brace to support his leg, but still walks with a noticeable limp. His younger brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), wears a prosthetic device to replace his lost hand and forearm. Both brothers are barely getting by financially since they returned home. Now divorced, Jimmy dotes on his young daughter during his visitation times, but finds that his temporary construction jobs don’t always pay the bills. Likewise, Clyde lives a rather dreary existence as the bartender at a local pub, with Jimmy as his best friend.

A Planned Heist at the Charlotte Motor Speedway

When Jimmy’s ex-wife (Katie Holmes) and her rich new husband decide to move across state lines with Jimmy’s daughter, he realizes that with no job, no cell phone, and no money, he will lose touch with his little girl. So with this motivation in mind, Jimmy hatches a plan to combine forces with Clyde and their incarcerated explosives expert friend, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig as a bleached blond, tattooed redneck criminal). Joe insists on involving his two moronic brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson) into the scheme, as well. But how can a few uneducated hillbillies pull off a complicated major heist during NASCAR races at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, the work site from which Jimmy was recently fired?

The fun in this movie lies in watching the guys work through this seemingly impossible feat. It’s also a mystery which one (if any of them) is truly the brains of this operation. Despite the tension involving Joe Bang’s jailbreak and the meticulous details of stealing the money, the film finds humor in the most unlikely places. In addition, the father-daughter bond adds a layer of depth to the film, and makes Jimmy a more sympathetic character.

A Film That’s Fast and Fun

Fast-paced and fun, Logan Lucky includes an interesting cast. Channing Tatum (who worked with Soderbergh in Magic Mike) again reveals a big-hearted character beneath a hunky exterior. Although Adam Driver looks nothing like Tatum, his skillful portrayal as the stoic, slow-paced, one-armed bartender and Jimmy’s younger brother make him completely believable in the role. Daniel Craig is an unexpected delight as the tough criminal with a sensitive stomach and an eye for the Logan brother’s sexy younger sister (Riley Keough). Small parts by Seth McFarlane (a flamboyant British racer) and Dwight Yoakam (weasily prison warden) may be brief, but they’re certainly memorable.

Don’t take your eyes of the screen for a moment or you’ll miss something in this slick film with humor and heart, and, of course, heist.

 Logan Lucky

  • Two unlucky brothers plan a major heist during a NASCAR  race in North Carolina.
  • Stars: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Seth McFarlane, Hilary Swank, David Denman, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Jeff Gordon
  • Director: Steven Soderbergh
  • Screenwriter: Rebecca Blunt
  • Genre: Crime Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 119 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language and some crude comments)

More films directed by Steven Soderbergh