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.

 

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

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)

 

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)