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)

 

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)

 

The Last Word – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

If you had the money and power to hire your own newspaper obituary writer while you were still living, would you do it? For wealthy control freak, Harriet Lauler (Shirley MacLaine), there’s no hesitation in making the decision. Only Harriet gets the last word on how she will be posthumously remembered in print.

Shirley MacLaine stars in The Last Word. Photo copyright 2017 Bleecker Street Media.

The former successful advertising executive has always been concerned about public image. That was her specialty, after all, until she was fired from her own advertising agency for a disastrous temper tantrum in front of clients. Universally despised – though respected for her intelligence and professional achievements – Harriet has no friends or loved ones in her old age.

Rewriting Her Life Story

Realizing she may end up with a generic obituary, she bulldozes her way into the local newspaper office where she still has enough clout to get the editor to bow to her will. Harriet coerces him into assigning young obituary writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) to the case – against Anne’s wishes, of course.

Harriet’s research reveals that a memorable obituary needs to cover specific areas of one’s life, so she’s determined to re-write her life story at this late stage. Specifically, she wants to mend fences with her estranged daughter (Anne Heche) and ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall), re-gain the respect of her co-workers, perform charity work with an at-risk minority, and be remembered for a “wild card,” that is, some random act that helps identify her quirkiness.

Overly Familiar Stereotypes

What begins as the stereotypical wide-eyed youth forced into a close relationship with a grouchy old person turns into another stereotype: the interaction between young and old causes the heart-of-gold beneath Harriet’s rough exterior to emerge, and in turn change Anne’s life for the better. Woven into the script are a romance between Anne and an independent radio station manager (Thomas Sadoski), (enabled by Harriet, naturally), and a sassy young black girl (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) whom Harriet mentors.

Though much of the storyline and characters feel overly familiar, MacLaine stamps the movie with her own unique mark. She rises above the material to find the humanity in her larger-than-life character. The others are not quite as successful: The idealistic young writer stuck cranking out obituaries, the foul-mouthed at-risk minority youth who changes almost instantaneously into a good kid, and the handsome single radio station manager just waiting for the love of his life to walk through the door are shallow stereotypes without depth or weight. The script by Stuart Ross Fink provides a few laughs, but most viewers likely will not remember anything about this movie beyond MacLaine’s powerful performance.

 The Last Word

  • A wealthy elderly woman hires a newspaper obituary writer to memorialize her while she’s still alive.
  • Stars: Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, AnnJewel Lee Dixon, Thomas Sadoski, Philip Baker Hall, Tom Everett Scott, Joel Murray, Anne Heche
  • Director: Mark Pellington
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 108 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Other Films with Shirley MacLaine

 

 

Live by Night – Book Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This newly published paperback edition of best-selling author Dennis Lehane’s gangster novel Live by Night coincides with the January 13, 2017 nationwide release of the movie adaptation starring Ben Affleck.

Lehane delivers another satisfying crime thriller in Live by Night, an examination of one man’s gradual transition from common outlaw to monstrous mobster. As with his thriller, The Drop (which became a major motion picture in 2014 starring Tom Hardy), this book has a cinematic adaptation.

Groomed for a Life of Crime

In this new novel, Joe Coughlin comes of age during the Prohibition era in Boston, Massachusetts during the 1920s. Beginning with his impending death by rival gangsters, the story says his problems all started because of his involvement with a woman and flashes back in time to tell his tale. The youngest son of a crooked policeman, Joe begins his life of crime early by stealing from local newspaper stands with his friends. His transgressions escalate over the years and before he’s even 21, he’s been charged and convicted with a robbery that led to the deaths of three police officers, and has lost the big love of his life – a gangster’s moll who set him up to be captured.

The book devotes considerable time to his criminal grooming in prison, where he slowly transforms from a survivor among murderers and thieves to someone who thrives among them. After his release from prison, Joe heads for Tampa, Florida, and Ybor City to head a group of mobsters who want to control the local crime syndicate that runs the area’s gun and liquor trade. Despite his aversion to heat, Joe relishes this assignment as it gives him the opportunity to strike back at an old rival.

Joe’s Ever-Changing Morality

A new romance comes into his life, but something in his soul dies. Proud of his status as an outlaw for so many years, he slowly comes to accept he’s now a gangster – someone who kills without remorse to get what he wants, whether it’s money or revenge.

Told in three chronological parts with crisp, clear writing, the story contains lots of graphic violence, but also examines Joe’s ever-changing morality. He’s not an inherently mean or vicious person; he’s merely someone who could never stand a day job and a traditional lifestyle. Joe lives by night. Self-educated through the prison library, he uses his knowledge and intellect to rise to the top of the crime syndicate. He craves the excitement of planning and executing dangerous assignments with increasingly high stakes, and naturally the women he desires fall into the risky category as well.

While this book succeeds as a thrilling crime novel, it also excels as a character study with well-developed, multi-faceted people who are heroes, villains, and something in between, depending upon the circumstances.

Purchase this book from Amazon

Live by Night

  • Dennis Lehane
  • William Morrow Paperbacks
  • 978-0062662422
  • Adult Fiction / Mystery/Suspense/Thrillers/Adventure

 

 

Helping Children Find Their Passion

In 4 Simple Steps

By Guest Blogger: Wanda Luthman

We all want our children to grow up to be happy, healthy adults, but how can we help them to become that? By helping them find their passion, of course! But, how do we help them find their passion, you ask?

I believe, like Mary Poppins, that the beginning is a very good place to start.

In the beginning, since we don’t know what our children are going to wind up enjoying, we should expose them to all different sorts of things and activities.

Read

One really easy way to do that is through reading. Read all kinds of books to your children. There are books about different professions like firemen (or fire persons), doctors, veterinarians, etc. and there are rhyming picture books where the child can clap along to the rhythm and “feel” the beat. Just in these two examples, your child has been exposed to a job and to music along with the all-important literacy of reading.

Play

The second thing is to allow them to play. I know our kids don’t get as much play as in the “olden” days when we played outside, but even indoor play is a good way to expose them to different things. Such as dolls (both male and female) or stuffed animals that children can use to role play people interactions. There are moving toys such as cars and trucks. There are creative toys like Play doh and paint. There are building toys like Lego and Lincoln logs. Provide some fun clothes for dress up and some musical instruments. What a big world you’ve just created for your child to “try” different things. See what your child is drawn to. Of course, we know not to limit toys to a specific gender.

Go

Third on the list is to go out and explore. Take your child outside and feel the dirt, talk to him or her about the plants, animals, and bugs that you see. Kick and/or throw a ball to each other. Look up and talk about the airplanes flying through the air and at night talk about the moon and the stars and planets. Visit a playground and let them climb, slide, and swing. They may find that they like nature or they like athletics. Go to ball games, go to plays (age-appropriate ones), and chorus concerts. They might discover that they like acting or singing or both!

Do

The fourth thing is to do. Ask your children what they would like to try—maybe they want to join a ball team, or a choir, or to plant a garden, or visit a planetarium, an airport, or a fire station. If possible, have the people at these places talk to them about their jobs.

Continue this process of exploring throughout their early years. You just never know what is going to spark excitement and passion in your child. It’s so fun to see that spark and then fan it into a blaze so they can grow up to be happy, healthy people living their passion!

Wanda Luthman is a children’s author who loves helping kids be the best they can be! Follow her on her Blog, Facebook, or Twitter for more parenting and teaching tips and techniques so you can help the children in your life be the best they can be too!

Children’s books by Wanda Luthman.

Her books include two chapter books for ages 7-11 (3rd and 4th graders) The Lilac Princess and A Turtle’s Magical Adventure and a picture book for ages 0-5 called Little Birdie Grows Up. They are all available in paperback, ebook and audiobook on Amazon at www.amazon.com/author/wandaluthman.