Wonderstruck – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Wonderstruck is built on a promise. If you sit through nearly two hours watching the magical teasing together of two plotlines slowly converging, the final payoff will be worth the wait. Unfortunately, Wonderstuck does not fully deliver on its promise.

Julianne Moore and Oakes Fegley star in Wonderstruck. Photo copyright 2017 Amazon Studios.

Two Stories from Different Time Periods

The two stories concern a girl and boy from different time periods. A sweet deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds, who is actually deaf) lives alone with her disapproving father in New Jersey in 1927. She’s obsessed with a silent movie actress (Julianne Moore) and runs off to New York City to see her. Rose’s older brother also lives there and works at the nearby American Museum of Natural History where Rose enjoying wandering through the rooms.

Although she is advised to go back home to her father, she decides to stay in New York. Rose’s silent world makes a sharp contrast to the noisy action of Manhattan’s city streets. Oblivious to the potential dangers around her, she seeks family and a sense of belonging, and is willing to go wherever it takes to find it.

Seeking Family in New York City

In the parallel story about the boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley, an expressive young actor known for his role of Pete in the 2016 action adventure, Pete’s Dragon) lives in Minnesota in 1977. His mother recently died in a car accident, and he’s staying with his aunt and disagreeable cousin. He finds a romantic message to his mother inside an old book about cabinets of wonder – the earliest form of museum. The note is written on a bookmark indicating a used bookstore in New York.

As Ben calls the phone number listed for the store, a freak lightning strike goes through the telephone receiver and causes him to go deaf in both ears. This latest setback doesn’t deter 11-year-old Ben from jumping on a bus and traveling to New York City to find clues about the love note, presumably written by the mysteriously missing father he’s never known. Like Rose, he’s deaf, alone, and seeking family and a sense of belonging. He finds a new friend, Jamie (Jaden Michael), who helps him adjust to his deafness, and find the answer to the question about his father’s whereabouts.

A Disappointing Ending

The grand sweeping cinematography (Edward Lachmna), enchanting music (Carter Burwell), lush production design of two different eras (Mark Friedberg) and suspenseful direction (Todd Haynes, who also directed Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven) imply that these two stories will combine in an “aha” moment that will send chills down your spine. Intended as a family film, young children may experience this sense of wonder while piecing it all together. However, adults are far less likely to be wonderstruck by this ultimately disappointing film.

Wonderstruck

  • The lives of a young boy in the present and a young girl from the past connect in a mysterious way.
  • Stars: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds, Jaden Michael Smith, James Urbaniak
  • Director: Todd Haynes
  • Writer: Brian Selznick (based on his book, Wonderstruck)
  • Genre: Drama Mystery
  • Run Time: 116 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and smoking)

 

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)

 

My Cousin Rachel – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The title, My Cousin Rachel, sounds like the latest rom-com where a mysterious long-lost cousin shows up to the perfect wedding and nearly ruins everything as riotous laughs ensue. Actually, that’s not too far from the actual premise, except without the humor. This film, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier (The Birds) with a screenplay adaptation by Roger Michell, is a remake of the 1952 film, a creepy suspense thriller set in 19th Century England.

Sam Claflin as “Philip” and Rachel Weisz as “Rachel Ashley” in My Cousin Rachel. Photo by Nicola Dove. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Cousin Rachel

The story focuses on a naive 24-year-old Englishman named Philip (Sam Claflin), whose cherished guardian leaves for a warmer climate to improve his health. While away, he falls in love with his mysterious cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), and they soon wed. Philip then receives increasingly disturbing letters from his guardian suggesting that Rachel is controlling him and poisoning his tea.

In a rage, Philip journeys to the newlyweds’ home and discovers from an attorney that his guardian recently died of a brain tumor – a condition that may have affected his perception. Intent on vengeance, Philip invites the so-called grieving widow to visit his soon-to-be-inherited estate so he can confront her.

Hinted Sexuality

Once there, however, virginal Philip becomes mesmerized by Rachel’s charm (despite his close relationship with the ever-loyal Louise (Holliday Grainger), who clearly hopes to marry him someday. Even dressed in her black widow’s garb, Rachel’s sophistication and hinted sexuality entice Philip enough to protect her from gossip, pain, and poverty. The latter issue is especially problematic because Philip is weeks away from turning age 24 and inheriting a full fortune in jewels and real estate.

His plan to rescue Rachel turn into a desperate attempt to save himself and his wealth as Philip suddenly becomes ill with an unexplained sickness. Is she poisoning him, too? Did she actually murder his guardian? Does she have another husband in Italy to whom she sends money? Sometimes it seems that way and sometimes it doesn’t.

No Concrete Answers

This is not a film that provides concrete answers. Much like its movie poster that features Rachel’s face shrouded by a black widow’s veil, the film’s mysteries are never fully revealed, which leaves the viewer to form his or her own conclusions based on the facts presented, patterns of behavior, and subtle innuendos.

Claflin convincing plays the innocent young man who is easily manipulated by the slightest touch of a feminine hand. Weisz’s fragile beauty seems less suited to her role as the enigmatic cousin, alluring enough to make nearly any man fall in love with her. Even so, production values in this period piece come together nicely. The costumes, landscapes, and candle-lit interiors provide a rich backdrop to the story that intrigues, but never truly thrills.

My Cousin Rachel

  • An Englishman on the brink of inheriting a fortune falls in love with a mysterious woman who may have murdered his guardian.
  • Stars: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, Poppy Lee Friar, Andrew Knott, Andrew Havill
  • Director: Roger Michell
  • Genre: Mystery Drama
  • Run Time: 146 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality and brief strong language)

The Lost City of Z – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Amazon Studios took advantage of a great tie-in opportunity with this Bleeker Street film project – the story of one man’s obsession with the Amazon. He’s not fascinated by competitively priced books, bulk foods, or kitchen gadgets, however. This early 20th  century explorer was intrigued by artifacts of what he believed to be an undiscovered advanced civilization that once lived in the jungles near the Amazon River.

The Lost City of Z. Copyright 2017 Aidan Monaghan / Amazon Studios & Bleeker Street.

The True Story of Percival Fawcett

Based on David Grann’s best-selling nonfiction book The Lost City of Z, this film depicts the true story of former British Army officer Percival (Percy) Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who followed his dream of exploration into the Amazon and risked everything to prove the validity of his findings.

The story begins by establishing Fawcett as a loyal soldier and outstanding marksman. Even so, he’s never given proper respect from society because of his family’s humble background. These early scenes – while getting the movie off to a slow start – help to establish one reason why Fawcett might have been so single-mindedly determined to prove his worth to others. Having gained the backing of the Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett leaves his lovely young wife (Sienna Miller) and enlists the aid of his friend (Robert Pattinson) to explore uncharted territory in eastern Bolivia.

A Long, Long Journey in the Amazon

Encountering reptiles, insects, and arrows from unfriendly natives, Fawcett has no intention of giving up the mission, even though it means missing the birth of his son. A second and third expedition follow prompted by his excitement over finding some ancient pottery. It’s this third mission in 1925 – accompanied by his son (Tom Holland) – from which he mysteriously never returns.

Beautiful cinematography helps keep viewer interest as the story oh-so-slowly progresses. At 140 minutes, it’s a mighty long trip through the jungle, but worth the journey.

The Lost City of Z

  • In this true story, an obsessive British explorer repeatedly leaves his family to visit the Amazon, believing he has discovered a previously unknown civilization.
  • Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland,
  • Director: James Gray
  • Genre: Action Adventure Biopic
  • Run Time: 140 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity)