The Peanut Butter Falcon – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

While comparisons to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are anticipated and even encouraged by the filmmakers, there’s more to this adventure than a dangerous coming-of-age story set in the Deep South.

The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen. Photo copyright 2019 Roadside Attractions.

The bonus feature concerns the movie’s central character, Zak (Zack Gottsagen) a childlike man of 22 with Down syndrome who’s been abandoned by his family in a state-run home for senior citizens. Although his case worker at the nursing home, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), clearly cares about his well-being and realizes he doesn’t belong in that setting, she’s forced to follow the rules and state laws that govern the young man’s situation.

The Salt Water Redneck

Zak dreams of becoming a fierce wrestler like his hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) in part as an escape from his daily life and to fully embody his self-image (explored later in the film). After multiple unsuccessful escape attempts, he makes his getaway one night through his window with the help of his roommate (Bruce Dern), who doesn’t think to throw some clothes out the window for his young friend. Tasked with finding the underwear-clad escapee, Eleanor flashes Zak’s photograph around neighboring towns in an effort to find him before possibly losing her job.

Meanwhile Zak is on the run, partnered with a small-town criminal named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who keeps moving to escape his recent past transgressions. Through unfortunate circumstances, both men are acting out roles assigned to them by others, rather than living happy lives. Despite Tyler’s initial resistance to his nearly naked tagalong, he develops a fondness for Zak—like an older brother caring for his younger sibling. This relationship helps heal both of their emotional wounds over time.

Sweet, But Not Too Sweet

The backwoods, rivers, and small-town settings add richness to the film, as do the performances of LaBeouf (nuanced and convincing) and Gottsagen (fearless and sincere). John Hawkes convincingly portrays a relentless thug, and Thomas Haden Church gives his larger-than-life character more sides than the obvious arrogance we are expecting to discover. Dakota Johnson has a generic role as the caregiver who needs family as much as Zak and Tyler. She smiles a lot, looks sympathetic, and stays calm; it’s a forgettable and thankless role that any attractive young actress could have played. This sweet story has just enough rough edges with vengeful rednecks, a mean-spirited kid, and backyard wrestling matches to keep it from overdosing on goodness.

The Peanut Butter Falcon

A 22-year-old man with Down syndrome escapes from his assisted living facility and goes on a wild river adventure with a small-time criminal.

  • Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern
  • Directors: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
  • Writers: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Run Time: 93 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and language)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Brian Banks – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This dramatic biopic begins and ends with the concept of freedom and what it means to one young man, a rising football player named Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge).

Greg Kinnear (left) as Justin Brooks and Aldis Hodge (right) as Brian Banks in Tom Shadyac’s Brian Banks, a Bleecker Street release. Photo credit: Katherine Bomboy / Bleecker Street.

The film begins with a flashback of Banks as a youngster playing football in an open field with neighborhood friends, feeling safe and free. From there, the movie jumps back and forth in time as we see Banks (at age 16) promised a full-ride athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, which he loses after a false rape charge by a female acquaintance at high school.

A Broken Legal System

A victim of the broken legal system, he is directed by his attorney to plead no-contest, and is sentenced to six years in prison with five years of parole. Meanwhile, his 15-year-old accuser, Kennisha, (portrayed with alarmingly callous disregard by Xosha Roquemore) receives $1.5 million from suing the school system (under her mother’s direction) for not providing a safe environment. With that much money at stake, she has no intention of recanting her testimony, despite learning of how the conviction has devastated Banks’s schooling, career plans, and personal life.

We see flashbacks to high school and prison (where Banks is mentored by a wise teacher [Morgan Freeman] to control his response to life even when life is out of control), and current scenes where Banks attempts to interest the California Innocence Project in helping to clear his name.

California Innocence Project

Led by Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), the organization enlists the aid of a group of legal professionals to help exonerate people charged with crimes they didn’t commit. Their emphasis is on those who are currently imprisoned, so Banks (now free, but on parole, after serving his time) is a low-priority. However, Banks is insistent. Not only was he wrongly charged, convicted, and sentenced, but he’s further punished by not being able to get a decent job or find a romantic partner because of the rape conviction.

The story is gripping and the acting impressive. Hodge has the physical presence to portray a rising athlete (as the younger and older versions of himself), and his accuser is portrayed as a mindless, heartless young woman by Roquemore. Though in some ways a stereotype, Kennisha needed to be portrayed as someone lacking insight and depth; otherwise her actions would not have made sense. Kinnear provides his usual reliable performance as the over-worked, jaded doo-gooder who needs his conscience prodded to do good in this case.

Director Tom Shadyac, whose recent work leans more toward the spiritual, presents a well-intended story that loses some of its edge with frequent disorienting shifts back and forth through time. Those who are unfamiliar with the details of the case may find the film particularly moving.

Brian Banks

Based on a true story, high school football star Brian Banks is wrongly convicted of a sex crime that lands him in prison and ruins his chances for a career in sports until the California Innocence Project finally takes an interest in his case.

  • Stars: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Melanie Liburd, Tiffany Dupont, Matt Battaglia, Xosha Roquemore, Morgan Freeman
  • Director: Tom Shadyac
  • Writer: Doug Atchison
  • Genre: Biographical Drama
  • Run Time: 99 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content and related images, and for language)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Spy Behind Home Plate – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In addition to various books and a narrative feature film (The Catcher Was a Spy [2018]) about the enigmatic athlete, scholar, and patriot Morris (Moe) Berg, baseball fans now have a documentary by director Aviva Kempner to add to the mix. The doc covers most of Berg’s adult life through photographs, newspaper clippings, interviews with baseball experts, authors, and historians, and archival footage of Berg, his family, and his overseas adventures.

Spied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

Berg caught and fielded during baseball’s Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s during his 15-year athletic career. Well-known for also earning a law degree from Columbia Law School, speaking ten languages, memorizing facts about multiple subjects, and overcoming Jewish stereotypes, he also spied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Europe to help America undermine Germany’s war efforts.

Moe Berg’s Passport

In addition to a few personal facts—including his father’s disdain for baseball and Moe’s reputation as a womanizer—the film divides its time between his professional career and his spy efforts. Berg’s time working for the Brooklyn Robins (which became the Dodgers), the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, and the Boston Red Sox are highlighted, along with a mention of his mediocre running skills. Berg’s exotic travels to Japan, Paris, and Switzerland (often shrouded in mystery about their purpose) included instructions to film specific locations and interview Italian physicists about their knowledge of the German bomb program.     

Moe Berg: An American Hero

It’s hard to imagine a more intriguing real-life person to document. Berg was handsome, charming, athletic, brilliant, fluent, and daring. Despite the dramatic elements in his life and the enigmatic nature of the man, this documentary lacks the sizzle that Berg apparently possessed. Although it covers all the bases (so to speak), the doc fails to draw any important conclusions or delve into the psychology of the man.

We learn that parental pressure caused the respected athlete to also pursue a law degree, but there’s no insight into why Berg would repeatedly risk his life to gather information for his country. Rumors of his homosexuality (addressed in other works about him) are not addressed here; in fact, he’s portrayed as a ladies’ man.

The doc outlines the important facts about Berg and presents plenty of experts (often accompanied by their books on the subject prominently displayed next to them). Even so, there’s little dramatic flair in this film, despite the obvious dramatic flair of its subject. Yes, he clearly was an American hero, but what drove him to it?   

The Spy Behind Home Plate

This documentary focuses on Moe Berg, a professional major league baseball player and spy during WWII.

  • Stars: Moe Berg (archive footage),  Sam Berg (archive footage), Brad Ausmus, Bruce Adams, Ira Berkow, Nicholas Dawidoff, Robert K. Fitts, Franklin Foer
  • Writer-Director: Aviva Kempner
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run Time: 101 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Tomorrow Man – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Contrived quirkiness is the main ingredient in this love story about two dysfunctional hoarders: one prepares for a future world disaster and the other hangs onto everything from the past (and then some).

John Lithgow and Blythe Danner star in The Tomorrow Man. Photo copyright 2019 Bleecker Street.

Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) is an aging, divorced retiree who blogs about doomsday conspiracies on the internet. His son (Derek Cecil) considers his father to be a paranoid ass—a highly annoying paranoid ass who can’t stop blabbing about an impending disaster for which we should all prepare.

Isolated and Lonely

One day, Ed sees an attractive woman in his age range at the grocery store where he buys his bomb shelter supplies. Despite his isolation and awkwardness, he strikes up a conversation with Ronnie (Blythe Danner) and the two misfits spark an attraction. Ronnie is loaded with quirks—simultaneously shy and outspoken, a bad dresser but stylish in her own way. We soon learn that Ronnie’s only child died as a youngster, and she holds onto memories and physical items as a means of finding connection to something.

During their sweet, but rocky, relationship, the two learn secrets about each other. Old habits die hard, especially among the well-over 60 crowd. Both need to make adjustments to fit into society a little better, and more importantly, maintain their newfound relationship.

Too Many Quirks

Sometimes it feels like the script tries too hard for cute comments, offbeat humor, and general quirkiness. For instance, Ed has an absurd passion for ball bearings, geeky Ronnie works at a very hip gift shop, and Ronnie’s 20-something boss (Eve Harlow) dishes out advice on sex, love, and dating to her much-older employee as if she were a child. When Ronnie sings “Muskat Love” (Ed’s favorite song) on the car radio, he screeches the car to a halt and bolts out the door because it’s all just too perfect.

Although acting and production values are solid, the shaky script provides an interesting story that suffers slightly in the implementation. A few less quirks and a little more authenticity would have helped The Tomorrow Man see a brighter future.

The Tomorrow Man

A man obsessed with the future and a woman stuck in the past find love in a small town.

  • Stars: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena
  • Writer-Director: Noble Jones
  • Genre: Romantic Drama
  • Run Time: 94 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and some suggestive material)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Tolkien – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The latest in the recent proliferation of writer-based biopics, Tolkien recounts the early life and young adulthood of J.R.R. Tolkien (portrayed by Nicholas Hoult as a young man), best known as the author of the children’s fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Like the biopics, Rebel in the Rye (also starring Hoult as J.D. Salinger), The Man Who Invented Christmas (starring Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens), and Goodbye Christopher Robin (starring Domhnall Gleeson as A.A. Milne), this film focuses on the inspiration for what would become classic stories celebrated by generations of readers (and moviegoers).

Nicholas Hoult stars in Tolkien

As the actual process of writing is mostly cerebral and therefore not inherently interesting, the film must focus elsewhere. In this case, Tolkien looks at how the impoverished young Tolkien brothers lose their father and mother before John (the “J” in J.R.R.) turns 13, and must live with an elderly matron who takes in young orphans. While there, John meets another resident, Edith (Lily Collins), who is studying to be a pianist. Their budding romance interferes with his school grades, and is soon halted by Father Francis (Colm Meaney), a well-meaning, but misguided priest who made a promise to John’s dying mother that the boy would attend college and make something of himself.    

A Fellowship of Words and Beauty

Without Edith, John turns to his three best friends for support, classmates Robert (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), and Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney), with whom he forms an after-school think tank. Together, they plan to change the world through the power of art. Their fellowship of words and beauty, however, is disrupted by World War I, which forever breaks apart their bond. The film is told mainly through flashbacks from the battlefield, as John struggles desperately to find Geoffrey in the heat of a grisly attack.  

One of the film’s chief goals appears to be laying the groundwork for Tolkien’s eventual creation of Middle Earth. We learn of his love for inventing language, his connection to “rings,” his anguished love affair with a woman he is forbidden to see, and horrific battle scenes forever seared into his memory. While providing possible connections from Tolkien’s past to his groundbreaking books, the film leaves much unsaid – merely offering suggestions of where some ideas or images might have originated.

The acting is terrific, and the transition from younger actors to older ones especially so. Music by Thomas Newman is often reminiscent of the feature films based on Tolkien’s work. Production values excel across the board, making Tolkien a must-see for fans of the books and film trilogy.

Tolkien

The adolescent and early adult years of the famed author J.R.R. Tolkien are examined in this drama that explores how his real-life experiences influenced his later books.

  • Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Patrick Gibson, Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney
  • Director: Dome Karukoski
  • Writers: David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
  • Genre: Biographical Drama
  • Run Time: 112 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of war violence)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.