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)

 

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