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)

 

Goodbye Christopher Robin – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Remember those happy lyrics from the Winnie the Pooh song? “Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, / Where Christopher Robin plays. / You’ll find the enchanted / neighborhood, / of Christopher’s childhood days.” Well, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a riveting biographical drama that casts a bit of gloom over the blissful existence of a little boy and his anthropomorphic stuffed animals.

Goodbye Christopher Robin. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Inspired by the true story of A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who created honey-loving Winnie the Pooh and his fuzzy friends, the film looks at how a world opens its heart to the lovable woodland creatures to escape recently experienced horrors of World War I. Milne returns home from the War debilitated by post-traumatic-stress disorder, and writes plays and books as a means of escapism.

Milne Wants to Make People See

He reaches the point where he needs to leave London for the country with Daphne (Margot Robbie, as a cold-hearted mother and wife) and their young son (angelic little Will Tilston) for some peace and quiet. It’s here that he plans to write an anti-war book that will change the way people attempt to solve their problems. Tired of making people laugh, Milne wants people to see and think.

Daphne wants no part of such a plan and heads back to London for more partying. Meanwhile the family’s beloved nanny (Kelly Macdonald) leaves for a few weeks to take care of her dying mother, which means father and son are left alone for the first time. During this extended period, Milne finally bonds with Christopher Robin (who is nicknamed Billy Moon), making up stories about the stuffed animals and having adventures in the woods. Although his son asks Milne to write a story for him about the animals, he writes a book about his son and the animals that captures the world’s imagination.

Enormous Wealth for the Family

The sudden success of these books brings Daphne back home, earns enormous wealth for the family, and casts a lonely little boy in the international spotlight. Billy Moon insists the boy in the stories is not him, and recoils from the interviews and media attention. His star-struck parents, however, exploit the boy for fame and fortune at the expense of his happiness. Only the nanny observes this sad state of affairs and gets fired for speaking her mind.

At times lighthearted and joyful, other times dark and disturbing, Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the sad story behind one of the most beloved literary creations of all time. Gleeson comes across as a well-meaning, but clueless father, so lost in his PTSD and imagination that he’s rarely accessible to his son. Robbie’s portrayal of Daphne is downright frigid; beautiful and fun-loving, she’s selfish and insensitive most of the time. Little Will Tilston, who plays eight-year-old Christopher, has an androgynous appearance with enormous dimples and large, newly acquired permanent teeth. He’s quite good at throwing a major tantrum or displaying a subtle nuance of disappointment.

Cinematography is lush and beautiful with close-ups of beautiful faces and clothes, and gorgeous longshots of the woods near the family’s home. Apart from a manipulative scene toward the end and an extremely unflattering portrayal of Daphne, this film mostly tells the story behind-the-story without telling us what to think.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

  • This true story looks at how author A.A. Milne’s literary success with the Winnie the Pooh stories takes a devastating toll on his family.
  • Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore
  • Director: Simon Curtis
  • Writers: Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 101 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some bullying, war images, and brief language)
  • Watch a trailer for this movie

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)