Forever My Girl – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This prodigal-son themed romance based on a young adult novel offers many tired romantic tropes and few surprises.

Forever My Girl. Photo copyright 2018 Roadside Attractions.

Liam Page (Alex Roe, who trades his British accent for a Southern one) left his beautiful young bride-to-be, Josie, standing alone at the altar while he fled town to pursue his country music career. Now eight years later at age 27, Liam is an international celebrity, sleeping with groupies, throwing money around foolishly, putting toxic substances into his body, and doing all the other things prodigal sons do before they return home ready to repent for their sins.

Returning to Saint

When his best friend from high school dies unexpectedly, Liam ventures back to his hometown of Saint Augustine, Louisiana (conveniently nicknamed Saint), where he symbolically sits outside the church while his father (employed as the pastor) delivers the eulogy. Inside the church, Josie (Jessica Rothe) sits with her overly protective brother (Tyler Riggs) and precocious young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). The little girl (who has Liam’s dark brown hair) talks like an adult who works a day job as a mechanical engineer and spends her weekends doing standup comedy at the Improv. (In all fairness to Fortson, she is adorable and likely delivered the performance exactly as directed.)

Why didn’t Josie, the prettiest woman in town, ever marry in those eight years? Why did Josie name her seven-year-old daughter after Liam’s dead mother, Billy? Why does Liam’s father suddenly begin preaching about forgiveness when his son returns home? Why does Josie’s brother appear to have no life outside of caring for his sister and niece, and shaming Liam for his former behavior? Why did Liam save his old cell phone with Josie’s message on it?

Faith-based Romantic Drama

If you’ve ever seen a romantic drama before, you probably can guess the answers. If you’ve ever seen a faith-based romantic drama or read a Christian romance novel, you’ll definitely know the answers. Even if this were the first movie you’ve ever seen, there’s still the title giving away the central idea. The slow-paced scenes, unsubtle morality messages, overly familiar storyline, and predictable dialogue make for a lackluster 104 minutes for cinema-savvy movie lovers, although the very young (under 20) and very old (over 80) seemed to enjoy the film at the promotional screening I attended.

Forever My Girl

  • Based on the YA novel of the same name by Heidi McLaughlin, this tame romance unites a wayward country singer with his hometown love.
  • Stars: Alex Roe, Jessica Rothe, John Benjamin Hickey, Abby Ryder Fortson, Tyler Riggs, Peter Cambor, Gillian Vigman, Travis Tritt
  • Screenwriter-Director: Bethany Ashton Wolf
  • Genre: Romantic Drama
  • Run Time: 104 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements including drinking, and some language)

I, Tonya – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

You don’t need to like Tonya Harding to like this stranger-than-fiction true story of the disgraced figure skater’s troubled life.

Margot Robbie stars in I, Tonya. Photo copyright 2017 Neon.

Dramatic elements of the story, including Tonya’s physically and emotionally abusive mother and husband, abandonment by her father, and Nancy Kerrigan’s busted knee cap, are perfect for supermarket tabloid cover stories. However, under Craig Gillespie’s quirky direction and Steven Rogers’s clever screenplay, I, Tonya emerges as a darkly comic character study of one damaged young woman’s attempt to overcome the overwhelming odds stacked against her. And briefly – very briefly – she succeeds.

Actions and Reactions

As depicted in this film, Tonya Harding’s life could be described as a series of actions and reactions – or perhaps motions and emotions. Aided by actress Margot Robbie’s enthusiasm and athleticism (in addition to numerous CGI effects), Tonya is shown as a girl twirling and jumping on the ice, running through the house to avoid a beating, or otherwise keeping herself a moving target from her vicious mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Jamey, who won best supporting actress at the 2018 Golden Globes for this role), and violent husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). These three actors, along with Julianne Nicholson as Tonya’s sympathetic skating coach fully commit to their characters, regardless of their exposed ugliness and weaknesses.

Although Tonya’s single mother works long hours waitressing to pay for years of ice skating lessons, her homemade costumes, working class attitude, and dedication to technique over style always separate her from the other more wholesome girls involved in the sport. Facing the judges’ constant disapproval and derision from the wealthier girls, Tonya goes home each day to face more abuse: Golden’s never-ending dissatisfaction with her daughter. Later, Golden is replaced by a similarly abusive husband. The film doesn’t attempt to defend anyone’s actions, but merely relates the sadly ironic events in her life and career.

A Destroyed Career

Love, tenderness, compassion, contemplation, insight, and analysis are entirely absent in Tonya’s life, which helps explain – though not justify – her collaboration in the attack on her skating rival in the Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan, whose kneecap is savagely hit by a baton during practice. Tonya’s husband, his delusional friend, and two hired goons plan the ill-conceived attack. Intended to elevate Tonya’s chances of success, instead the attack glorifies Nancy (and has sponsors throwing money at her for endorsements), while Tonya’s reputation is destroyed, the press tears her apart, her rankings are low, and a judge bans her from figure skating for life, despite her rare ability to achieve the triple axel.

While many of the facts in this case were already known, Tonya’s conflicted background and the other characters in this story provide a clearer picture of how this strange, but true story came to pass. Iconic music from that time period is used effectively in the film, most notably the introduction of Golden with “Devil Woman.” Unusual camera angles and pans, flashes back and forth in time as older versions of the characters are interviewed about their experiences, and breaking of the fourth wall combine to make this edgy film lively and interesting with a fictionalized feel, despite its determination to stick to the facts.

I, Tonya

  • Based on the bizarre true story of how figure skater Tonya Harding rose to stardom and fell from grace.
  • Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, McKenna Grace
  • Director: Craig Gillespie
  • Screenwriter: Steven Rogers
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 120 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity)
  • Additional Information: Watch a trailer for this film.

The Shape of Water – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Describing Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasy-horror-romance as Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Splash provides a good idea of the types of characters involved and where the story may be headed, but this genre-defying film contains too much beauty, poetry, and depth to be confined to an elevator pitch.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones (as the creature) in The Shape of Water. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The other-worldly tale is set in Baltimore in 1962 where a top-secret government facility hides a large aquatic creature known as “The Asset” (Doug Jones) taken from the Amazon, where it was worshipped as a god. Here in the USA, however, it’s considered a monster and subject to verbal taunts and brutal assaults by its captor, Strickland (Michael Shannon), a sadistic misogynist who views the creature as an affront to God.

A Personal Vendetta

Strickland’s personal vendetta (renewed with vigor after the creature tears off two of his fingers in retaliation for one such assault) plays out on a semi-public stage when after condemning the aqua man to death, it mysteriously disappears from the facility. Strickland’s career – and very life – depend on finding the creature that he thinks may have been stolen by Russian spies or some competing Government team.

As Stickland nervously chomps on pain pills and nurses his gangrenous reattached fingers, the creature (who is definitely male) is now happily living in the bathtub of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor employed at the facility who fell in love with him while cleaning the room in which he was imprisoned. Aided by her chatty co-worker (Octavia Spencer), lonely gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and a laboratory scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elisa masterminded the escape for her interspecies love interest.

Two Silent Interspecies Outcasts

As creepy as it may sound, the onscreen romantic element between these two silent outcasts seems natural and inevitable. Watching beautiful blue lights streak across the creature’s body as he responds sexually to Elisa makes an elegant contrast to Strickland’s ugly animalistic efforts in bed. In fact, comparisons and contrasts abound in this film – part of what adds to its poetry. There are multiple depictions of how various people eat food, mend wounds, initiate romance, display anger, and use water. And, of course, there’s the question of what constitutes a god and a monster.

Although it’s primarily Elisa’s story of finally finding her “voice” and becoming complete, it’s also Strickland’s story of losing his control and acknowledging failure for the first time. Her growth and development make an interesting juxtaposition to his deterioration and regression. Beautiful cinematography (including an underwater dream sequence and retro-fantasy scene) combine with eccentric storytelling and masterful performances by Hawkins, Shannon, and Jenkins. It’s the kind of film you can watch over and over again, and see something new each time.

The Shape of Water. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Shape of Water

  • Set in the 1960s, a mute janitor working in a high-security laboratory forms a relationship with an aquatic creature being studied in a classified experiment.
  • Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
  • Director: Guillermo del Toro
  • Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
  • Genre: Romantic Fantasy
  • Run Time: 123 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and language)
  • Watch the trailer.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Sometimes a movie comes along with exceptional acting, intuitive directing, clever writing, and iconic scenes and phrases that create an exclusive cinematic world all its own. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is such a movie. Even so, it’s a world that’s not very enjoyable to visit, much less inhabit.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has a right to be angry – furious even. Her 20-year-old daughter was raped and murdered seven months ago, but the local police department of her small town has made no arrests in the case, and doesn’t have any suspects or persons of interest to investigate. The case has gone cold, but Mildred’s fury remains red hot. She rents three billboards outside of town on a nearly deserted highway; each sign focuses on Police Chief William Willoughby’s (Woody Harrelson) ineptitude.

An Escalating Situation

Soon the townspeople of Ebbing take sides in the billboard fiasco, and although their hearts are with Mildred, they’re against her written attack of the much-admired police chief. Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), for instance, worships his boss, Willoughby, as a father figure and has previously demonstrated a streak of brutality toward anyone disrespecting the law. This sets up a dangerously escalating situation between Mildred and Dixon, both of whom have fuses easily ignited.

Mildred’s antagonizing billboards, venom-spewing outbursts, and increasingly violent behavior affect her son’s (Lucas Hedges) life as well. Already known as the boy whose sister was murdered, he’s further ostracized as the boy whose mother has gone ballistic. There’s also Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes), a domestic abuser who recently found a 19-year-old girlfriend. Between her grief over her daughter, the disapproval of her son and ex-husband, and vengeance by many of the local citizens devoted to the police chief, Mildred is a woman with nothing left to lose.

Outstanding Performances

There’s a lot going on in this small town, and most of it is not kind, pleasant, or fun. But just when you think a character’s all bad, he or she makes an abrupt left turn. The same is true for the seemingly “good” characters. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri takes many left turns, with red herrings and plot twists that will surprise most movie goers. Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage is randomly thrown into the mix as a local man sweet on Mildred despite her lack of style, grace, warmth, or friendliness.

Although the film has many strengths (especially the performances of McDormand, Rockwell, and Harrelson), it’s also strongly manipulative. Not every film needs to provide perfect closer, pat explanations, or a happy ending. But the constant pushing and pulling of viewer emotions and mind games make the visit to Ebbing deliberately unsettling and uncomfortable – a dark comedy heavy on darkness and light on comedy.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

  • A distraught mother commissions three billboards reprimanding the local chief of police for his inability to arrest her daughter’s killer.
  • Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes
  • Writer-Director: Martin McDonagh
  • Genre: Dark Crime Drama/Comedy
  • Run Time: 115 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references)


The Man Who Invented Christmas – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas looks at how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) changed the way people think about the holiday based on Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal transformation in A Christmas Carol.

Dan Stevens stars in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Photo copyright 2017 Bleeker Street.

Painters, filmmakers, singers, dancers, and other visual and performing artists are far easier to depict in the movies than writers. Putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard just isn’t that interesting to watch. The Man Who Invented Christmas circumvents this problem by depicting the dreams, memories, and imagination of Charles Dickens, in addition to his everyday circumstances. The past, present, and future combine with the real and imagined in a film that compares the creator and his creation.

A Master Storyteller

The movie begins in 1842, when Britain and the United States herald Dickens as a master storyteller for Oliver Twist. Just one year later, however, he’s had two unsuccessful new books, an expanding family, expensive house renovations, and a disinterested publisher. Desperate to reclaim his former glory and secure his finances, Dickens decides to write a Christmas book, even though the holiday is soon approaching.

Encouraged by his friend, Forster (Justin Edwards), who acts as a literary agent of sorts, he enlists the aid of an artist to illustrate the story of a misery man (Christopher Plummer in a terrific casting choice as Scrooge) visited by three ghosts in one night.

A Looming Deadline

The next few weeks are spent observing everything in his atmosphere for inspiration – from the local cemetery to his children’s bedroom – so he can lock the pieces of his puzzling story into place. Sure enough, he finds all the characters and plot points he needs in his everyday life – except for the ending. Struggling with a looming deadline, he finally looks inward for his answer and finds it.

Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne turn what could have been a depressing examination of family dysfunction and hurtful legacies into an uplifting story of self-discovery with the perfect blend of humor and seriousness for the subject matter and the PG rating. From the compelling acting to the extraordinary set design, this inspiring movie adds another dimension to the classic Christmas story about cleansing one’s soul and embracing others.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

  • This fantastical family film (based on a true story) examines how Charles Dickens created A Christmas Carol while writing under extreme financial limitations and a ridiculously tight deadline.
  • Stars: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards
  • Director: Bharat Nalluri
  • Writer: Susan Coyne
  • Genre: Biography Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 104 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some mild language)
  • Additional Information: For another recently released film about a famous British author, read Goodbye Christopher Robin – Movie Review, the story of A. A. Milne’s creation of Winnie the Pooh and his friends.