Forever My Girl – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This prodigal-son themed romance based on a young adult novel offers many tired romantic tropes and few surprises.

Forever My Girl. Photo copyright 2018 Roadside Attractions.

Liam Page (Alex Roe, who trades his British accent for a Southern one) left his beautiful young bride-to-be, Josie, standing alone at the altar while he fled town to pursue his country music career. Now eight years later at age 27, Liam is an international celebrity, sleeping with groupies, throwing money around foolishly, putting toxic substances into his body, and doing all the other things prodigal sons do before they return home ready to repent for their sins.

Returning to Saint

When his best friend from high school dies unexpectedly, Liam ventures back to his hometown of Saint Augustine, Louisiana (conveniently nicknamed Saint), where he symbolically sits outside the church while his father (employed as the pastor) delivers the eulogy. Inside the church, Josie (Jessica Rothe) sits with her overly protective brother (Tyler Riggs) and precocious young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). The little girl (who has Liam’s dark brown hair) talks like an adult who works a day job as a mechanical engineer and spends her weekends doing standup comedy at the Improv. (In all fairness to Fortson, she is adorable and likely delivered the performance exactly as directed.)

Why didn’t Josie, the prettiest woman in town, ever marry in those eight years? Why did Josie name her seven-year-old daughter after Liam’s dead mother, Billy? Why does Liam’s father suddenly begin preaching about forgiveness when his son returns home? Why does Josie’s brother appear to have no life outside of caring for his sister and niece, and shaming Liam for his former behavior? Why did Liam save his old cell phone with Josie’s message on it?

Faith-based Romantic Drama

If you’ve ever seen a romantic drama before, you probably can guess the answers. If you’ve ever seen a faith-based romantic drama or read a Christian romance novel, you’ll definitely know the answers. Even if this were the first movie you’ve ever seen, there’s still the title giving away the central idea. The slow-paced scenes, unsubtle morality messages, overly familiar storyline, and predictable dialogue make for a lackluster 104 minutes for cinema-savvy movie lovers, although the very young (under 20) and very old (over 80) seemed to enjoy the film at the promotional screening I attended.

Forever My Girl

  • Based on the YA novel of the same name by Heidi McLaughlin, this tame romance unites a wayward country singer with his hometown love.
  • Stars: Alex Roe, Jessica Rothe, John Benjamin Hickey, Abby Ryder Fortson, Tyler Riggs, Peter Cambor, Gillian Vigman, Travis Tritt
  • Screenwriter-Director: Bethany Ashton Wolf
  • Genre: Romantic Drama
  • Run Time: 104 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements including drinking, and some language)

The Shape of Water – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Describing Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasy-horror-romance as Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Splash provides a good idea of the types of characters involved and where the story may be headed, but this genre-defying film contains too much beauty, poetry, and depth to be confined to an elevator pitch.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones (as the creature) in The Shape of Water. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The other-worldly tale is set in Baltimore in 1962 where a top-secret government facility hides a large aquatic creature known as “The Asset” (Doug Jones) taken from the Amazon, where it was worshipped as a god. Here in the USA, however, it’s considered a monster and subject to verbal taunts and brutal assaults by its captor, Strickland (Michael Shannon), a sadistic misogynist who views the creature as an affront to God.

A Personal Vendetta

Strickland’s personal vendetta (renewed with vigor after the creature tears off two of his fingers in retaliation for one such assault) plays out on a semi-public stage when after condemning the aqua man to death, it mysteriously disappears from the facility. Strickland’s career – and very life – depend on finding the creature that he thinks may have been stolen by Russian spies or some competing Government team.

As Stickland nervously chomps on pain pills and nurses his gangrenous reattached fingers, the creature (who is definitely male) is now happily living in the bathtub of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor employed at the facility who fell in love with him while cleaning the room in which he was imprisoned. Aided by her chatty co-worker (Octavia Spencer), lonely gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and a laboratory scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elisa masterminded the escape for her interspecies love interest.

Two Silent Interspecies Outcasts

As creepy as it may sound, the onscreen romantic element between these two silent outcasts seems natural and inevitable. Watching beautiful blue lights streak across the creature’s body as he responds sexually to Elisa makes an elegant contrast to Strickland’s ugly animalistic efforts in bed. In fact, comparisons and contrasts abound in this film – part of what adds to its poetry. There are multiple depictions of how various people eat food, mend wounds, initiate romance, display anger, and use water. And, of course, there’s the question of what constitutes a god and a monster.

Although it’s primarily Elisa’s story of finally finding her “voice” and becoming complete, it’s also Strickland’s story of losing his control and acknowledging failure for the first time. Her growth and development make an interesting juxtaposition to his deterioration and regression. Beautiful cinematography (including an underwater dream sequence and retro-fantasy scene) combine with eccentric storytelling and masterful performances by Hawkins, Shannon, and Jenkins. It’s the kind of film you can watch over and over again, and see something new each time.

The Shape of Water. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Shape of Water

  • Set in the 1960s, a mute janitor working in a high-security laboratory forms a relationship with an aquatic creature being studied in a classified experiment.
  • Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
  • Director: Guillermo del Toro
  • Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
  • Genre: Romantic Fantasy
  • Run Time: 123 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and language)
  • Watch the trailer.

 

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)

 

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)