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.


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.


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.


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!


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

My Eight Favorite Books of 2016

By Leslie C. Halpern

In addition to reading books for pleasure, I’m a book reviewer for online publications, including BlueInk Review and IndieReader, among others. I typically read about two books a week, so that’s more than 100 books a  year. Even so, there’s still a tall stack of unread books always waiting for me on my nightstand.

Although I have a special fondness for mystery, romance, science fiction, thriller, autobiography, poetry, spirituality, and the entertainment industry, my editors (and sometimes publishers and authors) send me just about any kind of book to review from the current year or perhaps even published a couple of years earlier. I’m exposed to a variety of genres throughout the year, from traditionally published books to small presses to self-published platforms – including adult books, YA, and children’s publications.

200 Love Lessons from the Movies

200 Love Lessons from the Movies

I spent the first half of 2016 anticipating the release of my own new book, 200 Love Lessons from the Movies, which came out in August from Taylor Trade Publishing. As an author myself, I know how important it is to spread the word about interesting, well-written books that readers would enjoy – if only they knew about them. So in an act of public service, eight of my favorite books that I read this year appear below in no particular order.


Young Frankenstein: A Mel Brooks Book

Young Frankenstein: A Mel Brooks Book

Young Frankenstein: A Mel Brooks Book by Mel Brooks. (Audiobook) Hachette Audio.1 CD. 978-1478942849. This brief audiobook takes a fond look back at the making of 1974’s Young Frankenstein, a black-and-white spoof of the old James Whale horror classics about Frankenstein’s monster. Read by Mel Brooks, Michael Gruskoff, Ellen Archer, and Robert Petkoff, and with a foreword written and read by Judd Apatow, the book provides little-known information about how the movie was developed, produced, directed, and marketed. The recent passing of Gene Wilder (the star and co-screenwriter) makes this memoir poignant at times. Brooks provides his own anecdotes, mixed with the memories of others involved in the movie’s production and previously published reviews and interviews. Like his films (and the director himself), this book is short, direct, and entertaining.

Networking Karma

Networking Karma

Networking Karma by Gail Tolstoi-Miller. (Paperback) Consultnetworx. 160 pages. 978-0988383401. This book shows how anyone – no matter how introverted – can learn to effectively practice speed networking to make personal and business connections. Aided by contributing experts, the author provides an insider’s guide to one of the newest networking trends, speed networking, which is similar in many ways to speed dating, although with an entirely different goal. Clearly expressed and easy to implement, these networking strategies are based on “karma” more than polished techniques. Tolstoi-Miller assures readers that sincerity produces far greater results than bragging and posturing. Fourteen chapters with bullets, photographs, and diagrams offer a crash course in speed networking that could change people’s lives.

How to Survive an Active Shooter

How to Survive an Active Shooter

How to Survive An Active Shooter by Jacquelyn Lynn. (Paperback) Tuscawilla Creative Services LLC. 132 pages. 978-1941826140. From Jacquelyn Lynn’s “Conversations” series with experts on important topics, comes this timely book on lifesaving tips about what to do before, during, and after an attack – terrorist or otherwise. Written shortly after the Pulse Nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida, this book answers questions that we should never have to think about. What should you do when the shooting starts? When do you call 911? How do multiple shooters operate? Does the motive of the shooter matter? Can you teach children to survive an active shooter situation? Skillfully presented in an easy-to-understand style, these and other questions are addressed in their own chapters to help people prepare for what they hopefully will never need to know.

Wing Man

Wing Man

Wing Man by Rich Celenza. (E-book) Book Baby. 186 pages. ASIN: B015YFGBF8. Subtitled “The Ultimate Guide to Getting the Woman of Your Dreams,” this book stands out for its honest insights about meeting, attracting, and dating women. Though the author acknowledges that six-pack abs and great hair get the girls, he goes much deeper than that. He talks about confidence, attitude, style, and authenticity that make you distinctly you. Rich Celenza, a filmmaker and designer who also authored The Model Bible: The Must-Have Guide for Anyone Interested in Becoming a Female Model, knows quite a bit about projecting the right image to get ahead in life. Wing Man tells it like it is for those who are tired of sitting home alone dreaming of being in a relationship.


A Place No One Should Go

A Place No One Should Go

A Place No One Should Go by D L Havlin. (Paperback) Double Edge Press, 168 pages. 978-1938002144. This creepy novella takes a man into his own heart of darkness as he and his family camp on prohibited Indian land in South Florida. Ben Callison thinks of himself as a regular guy who just wants to have fun, but may break a few rules sometimes in the process. When he ignores the warnings of a recently deceased friend and a mysterious Indian by camping in a forbidden area with his reluctant wife and two children, he may have gone too far this time. What’s real and what’s imagined are left for the reader to determine. Great pacing and vivid imagery make this book an exciting page-turner.



When the Music’s Over

When the Music’s Over: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson. (Hardcover) William Morrow, 432 pages. 978-0062394781. British suspense novelist Peter Robinson does it again with an enthralling mystery about two similar, but unrelated, sex crimes. This twisted tale of perversion veers off in many directions, but keeps coming back to a famous singer and television series host, who’s now 85 years old. How much of his past is legend and how much is factual? It’s up to Inspector Alan Banks and his team of cold-case experts to find out. This best-selling author, known for his attention to detail and exceptional writing skills, has a popular series with his Inspector Banks novels and this latest one is a fine addition to the collection.

Personal Essays (Blend of Fiction and Nonfiction)

You'll Grow Out of It

You’ll Grow Out of It

You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein. (Audiobook) Grand Central Publishing, 6.5 hours on 6 CDs. 978-1478936619. As soon as you see the cover with a grimacing little girl, you know this memoir is going to be funny. In this collection of humorous personal essays, Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer, Jessi Klein reveals her awkward moments growing up as an outsider. Suffering no real tragedies or setbacks, she lives a somewhat privileged life, but as a former tomboy she grows into a woman who can’t fit in with society’s idea of femininity. Like many others, she struggles with beauty rituals, women’s fashions, boyfriends, and commitment. Read by the author in a clear, cordial tone of voice, Klein’s clever observations are uniquely her own.

High School Dance

High School Dance

High School Dance by Starbuck O’Dwyer. (Paperback) Green Chair Publishing, 156 pages. 978-0972162470. This collection of humorous personal essays looks at the author’s adolescence and early childhood. General subjects, such as love and loss, make these essays relatable, plus specific subjects, including tennis and his first rock concert, mix with timely cultural references and a heaping dose of comedy. O’Dwyer shares many cringe-inducing moments from his youth through the intelligent eyes of an adult. Intended as lessons for his children, these are lessons for everyone.

Enjoy as many of these selections as you can. An entire new year of books awaits.



Life, Animated – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Documentary film lovers are in for a treat with Life, Animated, an inspiring look at how a silent autistic boy found his voice through animated Disney movies.

As a baby, Owen Suskind was especially sensitive to sound and stimulation, but his parents didn’t pay much attention to this somewhat common occurrence. When he stopped talking and responding at age 3, they and the medical community gave the matter significant attention. Doctors repeatedly told the young family that autism is still a mystery and that Owen may never speak again. Desperate for anything to bring their son back to them, Owen’s father, Ron (a journalist and author), and mother, Cornelia, noticed that he seemed to understand the character interactions in Disney movies and once (after years of silence) muttered the movie line: “Just use your words.”

Owen Suskind is the subject of the documentary Life, Animated. Copyright 2016 The Orchard.

Owen Suskind is the subject of the documentary Life, Animated. Copyright 2016 The Orchard.

Understanding the Movies

Was it merely a coincidence that this line from a movie also applied to the situation at hand? Doctors thought so, but the Suskinds thought differently. They believed their son understood the movies and life around him, but was merely having difficulty processing the information and expressing it. Their first real glimpse into Owen’s animated world was the second time he spoke after so many years of keeping his thoughts to himself.

Upon seeing his brother’s sadness on his birthday, Owen spoke again, this time telling his parents that his brother didn’t want to grow up, “just like Mogli or Peter Pan.” This time it was clearly not just memorization. Owen’s observation showed a level of complexity and awareness that was nothing short of a miracle in his parents’ eyes. After so many years of waiting, they finally had a way to communicate with their son again. Ron would imitate animated characters, and they interacted with each other through the voices, characterizations, scenes, and emotions of the Disney movies.

Connecting With the World

To tell its story, Life, Animated uses live action footage, old home movies, Disney movie clips, and animation created specifically for the documentary that depicts Owen’s struggles through a fairy tale story he wrote. In his own words, Owen describes how a villain had injected fog into a little boy’s brain that for a long time made it hard to discern what was really happening, and kept him silent for many years. The animation scenes are excellent; their dreamy quality captures an altered state of consciousness while maintaining a childlike point of view.

In addition to the story of Owen’s childhood and his family’s efforts to help him connect with the world, protect him from bullies, and guide him through his first love, the film’s framework is his slightly delayed coming-of-age at 23. Graduating from his specialized classes, Owen is about to embark on independent living (away from his family for the first time) in a group home with a supervisor. Through brilliant editing that blends the past, the present, and animated imaginings, this transitional time becomes the perfect opportunity for looking back and seeing how the Suskind family arrived at this point.

Filled with love, this film informs, inspires, surprises, and entertains. Don’t miss it!

Life, Animated

  • Based on the book by Ron Suskind, this documentary explores how his autistic son learned to express himself through Disney’s animated movies.
  • Stars: Ron Suskind, Owen Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Gilbert Gottfried, Jonathan Freeman
  • Director: Roger Ross Williams
  • Genre: Documentary, Animation
  • Run Time: 89 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference)