Lucy in the Sky – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This sci-fi drama is loosely based on the bizarre true story of Lisa Nowak, (aka “The Diaper Astronaut,”) a married naval flight officer and NASA mission specialist, who in 2007 drove from Houston, Texas (reportedly wearing a diaper to avoid stopping) to Orlando, Florida where she attacked and attempted to kidnap her former lover’s new girlfriend at the Orlando International Airport.

Natalie Portman stars in Lucy in the Sky. Photo copyright 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The strangeness of a highly respected astronaut who flew on Space Shuttle Discovery suddenly losing her mind over an extra-marital fling gone wrong made international news and inspired enormous interest in the all-astronaut love triangle.

Also dubbed, “The Astro-Nut,” Nowak also inspired the new film Lucy in the Sky, starring Natalie Portman as Lucy Cola (the Nowak character) and Jon Hamm as womanizer Mark Goodwin (her illicit love interest). Zazie Beetz plays Erin, the target of Lucy’s jealousy, and Dan Stevens portrays Lucy’s self-righteous and completely oblivious husband.

The Diaper Astronaut

In addition to names being changed, this fictionalized version of reality makes other curiously random alterations, such as conjuring hallucinations of Lucy’s dead grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), adding a niece to her cross-county ride, changing the location from Orlando to San Diego, having Lucy attack Mark instead of Erin, and eliminating any mention of adult diapers. If the filmmakers wanted to make Lucy a more likable character with these changes, they weren’t particularly successful as she come across as self-centered, obsessive, and cold-blooded (and that’s before she completely goes off the rails following a tragedy).

Liberties taken with the story, however, pale in comparison to liberties taken with the cinematography. Apparently used as a metaphor, the edges of the screen are blurry after Lucy returns from her mission, as if her experience in space has figuratively altered her view of reality. This technique also literally changes the way the audience views her reality.

As she drifts further into mental illness, the blurriness expands beyond the outer edges of the screen. While this artful idea may have sounded great in pre-production, it’s a headache-inducing mess onscreen. Likewise, the inexplicable aspect ratio shifting back and forth from widescreen to full-screen throughout the movie is jarring, confusing, distracting, and unnecessary.        

Exciting Scenes of NASA

Inspired by true events (but not based on true events) and subjected to the aforementioned ill-conceived cinematic metaphors for mental illness, this film also suffers from uneven pacing (long, dull scenes of home life and exciting scenes of NASA) and stereotypical characters (eccentric, foul-mouthed grandma) that blatantly show Lucy’s mental breakdown was a combination of internal and external factors.

Despite two beautiful co-stars, intriguing behind-the-scenes glimpses of the space program, and good intentions, this filmed fiction is surprisingly less interesting than the reality on which it’s based.

Lucy in the Sky

Inspired by true events, this fictionalized story describes astronaut Lucy Cola, who loses touch with reality after returning from a mission in space.

  • Stars: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Pearl Amanda Dickson, Ellen Burstyn
  • Director: Noah Hawley
  • Genre: Science Fiction Drama
  • Run Time: 124 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and sexual content)

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

Downton Abbey – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

After watching nearly 30 minutes of the Downton Abbey staff go into a cleaning, polishing, and food-planning frenzy in anticipation of a royal visit, this period piece pulls the metaphorical imported rug out from under us.

Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery star in the movie version of Downton Abbey. Photo copyright 2019 Focus Features.

What begins as a rather stuffy beginning that introduces the inner-workings of the estate and the central and supporting characters shifts into an entertaining combination of interconnected stories about the devoted servants and high-falutin residents of Downton Abbey (based on the famous Crawley family from the PBS television series of the same name.)

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

So once the first quarter of the film establishes who (the Crawley family and their extensive staff), what (dinner, dance, and parade for the royal family), when (1927), where (Downton Abbey, of course), and why (why not?), the final three quarters of the film tells us how (with considerable planning, preparation, work, and subterfuge). And how the Crawleys and their staff navigate the visit from Queen Mary (Geraldine James) and King George V (Simon Jones) proves to be enormous fun—even for those unfamiliar with the television series.

Under the sarcastic command of Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, (Maggie Smith) and her tough granddaughter, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), servants scurry and family members (for the most part) tow the line to keep the two women happy. The problem is with so many people living, working, and visiting one enormous estate, something will always go wrong—a comical state of affairs that rattles the characters, but should delight most audience members.

Stellar Production Values

The chuckles keep coming throughout the film, as do the unexpected plot developments. The costumes (by Anna Mary Scott Robbins) are exquisite, the acting terrific, and the cinematography (by Ben Smithard) an artistic blend of establishing longshots, tight close-ups, and everything in between. Downton Abbey is an immersive film that sweeps viewers back to the past and into the opulent estate where titles, positions, and roles must always be maintained—except when they aren’t.

Downton Abbey

Based on the popular PBS television series of the same name, this film looks at before, during, and after a royal visit to the family estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.

  • Stars: Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Allen Leech, Joanne Froggatt, Laura Carmichael, Imelda Staunton
  • Director: Michael Engler
  • Writer: Julian Fellowes
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 122 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language)
  • Click here to watch the trailer.

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.

Film Selections from 2019 Florida Film Festival: Capsule Reviews

By Leslie C. Halpern

The 28th Annual Florida Film Festival, produced by Enzian Theater and held throughout Central Florida this year from April 12-21, 2019, offers nearly 200 narrative features and documentary short films from 41 countries around the world, in addition to celebrity guests, special events, film forums, film sidebars, parties, and the American Independent Competition.

Special guests this year include cast and film crew from The Blair Witch Project (1999) on Sunday, April 14th from 8:00 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. at Enzian Theater, and Richard Dreyfuss on Friday, April 19th from 7:30 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. at Enzian Theater for a screening of the Herbert Ross-directed romantic comedy, The Goodbye Girl (1977).

A sample of capsule film reviews appears below.

Roll Red Roll. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Roll Red Roll

In Competition Documentary Feature. Screens April 13, 2019 at 8:30 p.m. and April 18, 2019 at 4:00 p.m., both at Regal Winter Park Village.

At the center of this disturbing documentary is a rape case where a drunken underage girl was attacked by two teenaged football stars of their high school team, and the crime was photographed and videotaped by their friends. While the details of the rape are heinous, the case is even more shocking by the photographs of the barely conscious victim, derogatory comments about her, and macho posturing on social media by the perpetrators and their friends. When true-crime blogger, Alex Goddard, starts writing about the case, the locals of Steubenville, Ohio, where the crime occurred, rally behind the boys and work to discredit the victim. As a police detective, attorneys, a newspaper reporter, and school officials also get involved, the insidious small-town rape culture is exposed.

  • Directed by Nancy Schwartzman
  • Stars Alexandria Goddard
  • Run Time: 80 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: Not Rated
  • 4 / 5
Radium Girls. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Radium Girls

In Competition Narrative Feature.  Screens Sunday, April 14, 2019 at 11:30 a.m. at Enzian Theater and Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village.

Based on true events, this story set in 1920’s New Jersey concerns young women (particularly two sisters) who work hand-painting glow-in-the-dark watch dials at a factory called American Radium. The radioactive paint is sickening and killing these women at alarming rates, yet the company hides the truth and perpetuates the myth that radium is good for health. The two Caballo sisters (with the help of the local Consumer League) take on the fight against injustice and callous disregard for human life. Beautifully filmed with archival footage blended with original fictionalized footage, the main story is echoed in a subplot about police brutality and racism.

  • Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler
  • Stars Joey King, Abby Quinn, Cara Seymour
  • Run Time: 95 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: Not Rated
  • 4/5
Autumn Waltz. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

International Shorts Program #1: Never Let Me Go

In International Shorts. Screens Friday, April 19, 2019 at 6:30 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village and Sunday, April 21 at 2:30 p.m. at Enzian Theater.

This curious mix of narrative and documentary shorts, placed together by Florida Film Festival programmers, includes an assortment of films about letting go. Sometimes it’s letting go of rules, roles, animals, relationships, or preconceived notions. Although with such a diverse collection, audience members are sure to have favorites, there’s not a clunker in the bunch. Autumn Waltz (directed by Ognjen Petkovic) is a Serbian suspense story about karma set in a surreal environment. Tungrus (directed by Rishi Chandna) is a funny mini-documentary about a Mumbai family being terrorized by their cantankerous pet rooster. The Role (directed by Farnoosh Samadi) is a satisfying, if somewhat predictable, multi-layered look at role playing. All These Creatures (directed by Charles Williams) presents a boy’s trauma surrounding his unstable father and his connection to nature. All Inclusive (directed by Corina Schwingruber Ilic) is a 10-minute documentary about working and vacationing on a cruise line. In its North American Premiere, the highly entertaining Happiness (directed by Maciej Buchwald) follows three people entrenched in the world of self-help as they navigate speed dating, group therapy, and motivational presentations.

  • Total Run Time: 106 minutes
  • Overall program: 4/5 
The Blair Witch Project. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

The Blair Witch Project

An Evening with The Blair Witch: A 20th Anniversary Celebration on Sunday, April 14, 2019 at 8:00 p.m. Talent in attendance.

This groundbreaking horror film from 1999 is a fake documentary about three student filmmakers who go deep into the woods to search for the legendary Blair Witch. Sleep-deprived, unnerved, and shooting their own verite-style camerawork, the adventurous actors unwittingly aided the filmmakers in seamlessly blending fact and fiction so well that it’s often difficult to tell the difference. How much was improvised and how much scripted? How scared were the actors and how much was acting? (Audience members screaming in terror, fainting, and vomiting were real enough.) Now 20 years later, many aspects of this film remain a mystery, although “An Evening with the Blair Witch” may reveal some of the secrets which made this a huge hit, social media sensation, and highest-grossing film in Enzian Theater’s 34-year history.

  • Directed by Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
  • Stars Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard
  • Run Time: 81 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language)
  •  4/5
Ode to Joy. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Ode to Joy

In Spotlight Films. Screens Saturday, April 20, 2019 at 9:30 p.m. at Enzian Theater and Sunday, April 21, 2019 at 4:45 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village.

Charlie suffers from cataplexy, a rare neurological disorder that causes loss of muscle control under extreme emotions, and in his case, feelings of joy. He lived a careful life avoiding babies, puppies, weddings, and romantic love until one day an exceptionally beautiful and spontaneous woman walks into his library and causes a scene. After this strange initial meeting, they begin a short-lived romantic relationship because of his conflicting desires to be happy and miserable at the same time. The closer he gets to happiness, the more misery he inflicts upon himself (in the form of horrible entertainment choices, unstimulating conversations, and physical pain to damper excitement). His brother and sister complicate the situation further, as does the woman’s quirky co-worker. Sweet, sad, and humorous, this film includes an unusual story, an eclectic cast, and truly funny scenes depicting human frailty to which all of us can relate.  

  • Directed by Jason Winer
  • Stars Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin, Jack Lacy, Melissa Rauch, Shannon Woodward, Jane Curtin
  • Run Time: 97 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R for some language and sexual references
  • 5/5

Click here to read more capsule reviews of Spotlight Films in the Florida Film Festival. For a complete list of films, ticket information, and to learn more about the Florida Film Festival, visit the official website.

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