Rebel in the Rye

Posted on September 14, 2017 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking
Profanity: A few strong and crude words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence with disturbing images including holocaust images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Copyright 2017 IFC

J.D. Salinger had three great losses and three great teachers, and “Rebel in the Rye” is the story of how those all came together to influence the author of one of the most popular and influential novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye, along with his shorter pieces, a few novellas and stories. Salinger is almost as well known for his decades of seclusion in New Hampshire as he is for his work. Reportedly, after publishing his last story in 1965, he continued to write full-time, but never showed it to anyone or allowed it to be published. It may be that the mystery is a better story than the writing.

Writer/director Danny Strong (co-creator of “Empire,” screenwriter of the “Mockingjay” films and actor in “Gilmore Girls” and “Buffy”) introduces us to Salinger before all of that happened, young, ambitious, and like Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield, a smart aleck who has left or been asked to leave a number of top schools. Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) shows us the teenage Salinger, arrogant but insecure, especially arrogant when it came to writing and especially insecure when it came to girls. He meets Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, and they begin to date, though what makes her most attractive to him is her lineage and her admiration for his writing. And, after leaving NYU, he enrolls in Columbia, where he takes a class from the editor of Story Magazine, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). “There is nothing more sacred than stories,” Burnett tells the class. And he advises Salinger not to let his voice overwhelm the story, not to let his ego obstruct the emotional experience of the reader.

Burnett will be Salinger’s most important influence on the content of his stories, suggesting that Holden Caulfield deserves a novel. And O’Neill will be an influence, too, the first of the three great losses, when she leaves him to marry Charlie Chaplin.  Just as he is beginning to make progress as a writer, with his first published work in Burnett’s literary journal, Salinger joins the military in WWII, where he endures great peril and hardship and witnesses some of the worst events in world history, including the landing on Normandy beach and the liberation of a concentration camp.  These traumatic experiences caused great distress for Salinger, what would today be called PTSD (as Salinger movingly described in my favorite of his stories, “For Esme, with Love and Squalor.”  But it was these experiences that gave him the depth and scope to write his sole novel.

Burnett teaches Salinger that publication is incidental; what matters is doing the work of writing.  Salinger’s agent (Sarah Paulson, wry but sympathetic) tells him that “publication is everything” and urges him to “soften” his stories according to the “notes (comments) she gets back from editors.  Salinger, initially refusing to make any changes, finally does and even admits that they made the story better.

But the stress of success becomes too much for him.  “I’m shackled by my own creation,” he says as Catcher is seen as an invitation for readers to come see him.  The last loss and the last teacher are combined in a zen master who advises him to let go of his need for approval.  He moves to New Hampshire and never has anything to do with the literary world again. “If I can dedicate my life to writing and get nothing in return,” he says, “I think I might find happiness.”

Hoult is fine in showing us how Salinger changes, especially the effect of the war.  His scenes with his parents (Hope Davis and Victor Garber) and with the women he is trying to impress are especially effective.  Strong, as a writer himself, well understands the struggle to understand which voices to listen to, whether internal or external, in evaluating the work, and the complexity of needing approval even as we try to transcend that need.  The film evokes the mid-century era without being showy or distracting, and, an even more difficult challenge, explores the life of someone who wanted to be left alone without being exploitive.  Salinger insisted that there will never be a film about Holden Caulfield, and he was right as the value of that book is in the voice of its narrator more than in the incidents it portrays.  This is a better version of a story about someone who wants to catch children to keep them safe, at least in his own mind, or in the stories he will never show.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime violence with disturbing images including holocaust footage, drinking and drunkenness, constant smoking, and sexual references.

Family discussion:  Who was right about writing vs. publishing?  What makes Catcher in the Rye so compelling?  How was Salinger’s wartime experience reflected in his writing?

If you like this, try: the books of JD Salinger

 

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Crown Heights

Posted on August 31, 2017 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and violence
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, murder
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017

Copyright Amazon 2017
The story of Damon and Pythias has exemplified friendship and loyalty since the time of the ancient Greeks. The story of Colin Warner and Carl King should stand beside it. King spent 21 years working to get Warner released from prison after he was unjustly sentenced for murder. A reporter for “This American Life” told their story, and now it has been adapted for the screen by former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha, who plays King opposite the extraordinarily gifted LaKeith Stanfield (“Get Out,” “Short Term 12″) as Warner.

The friends met growing up in Trinidad and then reconnected when both emigrated to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Writer/director Matt Ruskin and Director of Photography Ben Kutchins evoke the lively but volatile and gritty atmosphere of 1980 Brooklyn. Warner is not even in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is nowhere near the spot where an apparent revenge execution-style murder is committed. But the cops are overwhelmed and under a lot of pressure to produce arrests and close cases. Archival footage of Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush promising crackdowns on crime provide context.

It is possible that determination to be fair to as many people as possible costs the film some dramatic momentum, especially as it stretches over decades, with setback after setback and complication after complication, plus the various family stresses, particularly with King as his wife understandably gets frustrated with the time and money he is devoting to Warner instead of their children. But the dignity and sensitivity of the performances by Stanfield and Asomugha hold the story together. But the time King takes a job as a process server in order to better understand what kind of legal help they need, things begin to pick up. A tender romance and a touching expression of forgiveness give the film a quiet power that I hope will not always feel as timely as it does right now.

Parents should knot that this story concerns a wrongful murder conviction and includes peril, violence, abuse, strong language, some sexual references and situations, and some nudity.

Family discussion: Why does this film title refer to the neighborhood, not the people involved? Why didn’t Carl give up? Listen to the story that inspired this film on “This American Life.”

If you like this, try: “Conviction” and “Hurricane”

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I Do…Until I Don’t

Posted on August 31, 2017 at 5:27 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and language
Profanity: Very strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017
Copyright 2017 Ways & Means

Hopes are high for Lake Bell after the delightful “In a World….,” which she wrote, directed, and starred in.  A terrific cast, a peek at the unfamiliar world of voice actors, and an endearing heroine made it an exceptionally promising debut.  Unfortunately, her sophomore effort retains only the superb casting and the affection for title ellipsis. “I Do…Until I Don’t” is more like an r-rated episode of the cheesy anthology series “Love American Style” than it is like “In a World.”

Bell clearly wants to explore the challenges of monogamy and marriage, a topic well worth exploring because most movies about romance end with the wedding, the “happily ever after” to be imagined.  Where “In a World…” benefitted from the sharp, vivid observations of a person who thoroughly understood a world that the audience had never seen before, in “I Do…Until I Don’t,” the barely-out-of-the-newlywed-stage Bell (she and her husband were married in 2013) is trying to explain marriage to an audience who have all literally lived in or with the experience of marriage as husbands, wives, children, and family members.  Her portrayal of three different couples is immediately apparent as superficial and unrealistic.

The entire premise is artificial.  Bell imagines a cynical documentarian named Vivian (Dolly Wells) who is determined to expose the essential impossibility of the idea of marriage.  Her theory is based on the tired theory that the idea of lifelong monogamy was developed in an era when the average lifespan was less than four decades and is therefore unrealistic when we are living twice as long.  Of course when the lifespan was three decades marriages were more likely to be based on alliances of property and money than romantic love, which might have played into the expectations of the participants, but that has nothing to do with Vivian’s premise.  And of course she has a villainous British accent just to remind us that she’s the bad guy.

Three couples become the focus of her film.  Two of them are so unpleasant it is impossible for us to care very much whether they prove Vivian wrong, except to keep them off the market so they can’t marry someone nicer.  All three of them are so thinly conceived that even the very able work of an outstanding cast cannot give them any depth or reality, even in a heightened comic setting.

Bell plays Alice, married to Noah (Ed Helms).  Their business is failing. So are their efforts to become parents.  Alice tells Noah Vivian will pay them a lot of money to be in her film. It is a lie. She has to find the money somewhere, so she agrees to provide “happy endings” at a massage parlor run by Bonnie (the terrific Chauntae Pink).

Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybill (Mary Steenburgen) are middle-aged and constantly snipe at each other, especially Cybill, who puts real effort into it while Harvey is mostly playing defense.

The third couple is not married and has an open relationship because why not.  They are Fanny (Amber Heard) and Zander (Wyatt Cenac), free-wheeling hippie stereotypes.  Alice thinks Noah is into Fanny for no particular reason other than her own insecurity over not being honest with him about pretty much anything.

These people are not interesting and their realizations are completely unfounded.  My advice: don’t.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and explicit language, explicit sexual references and situations, prostitution, drinking, and marital problems.

Family discussion: Why is it so important to Vivian to be right about marriage? Which couple changes the most?

If you like this, try: “In a World…” from the same writer/director/star

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The Trip to Spain

Posted on August 24, 2017 at 5:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 IFC

In the third “Trip” movie, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon again traveling through gorgeous countryside, eating exquisitely prepared meals, and trying to top each other’s impressions, Coogan does something we have not seen before.  He laughs.  The series plays deftly with what is real (the actors’ names, the general outline of their careers, their improvised banter) and what is fiction (their heightened characteristics and tension between them, their family members, romantic interests, and professional colleagues played by actors and the created relationships and developments, the fact that they do not acknowledge they are being filmed).  Coogan’s character, that is, the version of himself he plays in the films, is at the same time insecure and superior, and therefore he usually responds to Brydon’s comments and performances by either insulting them or topping them.  But in one scene here, he can’t help himself; he just laughs, more than once, and we see a very different, more relaxed, genuine, and appreciative, perhaps more “real” Coogan.

In this third “trip,” the pair goes to Spain, where the literary overlay is Don Quixote (they even dress up as Quixote and Sancho Panza for a photo shoot), the impressions are as funny as ever (Mick Jagger, John Hurt, Roger Moore talking about the Moors), and the subject of aging comes up now and then. They assure each other that in their 50’s they are in the “sweet spot,” still attractive to women and if, too old to play Hamlet, still too young for Lear. Coogan, always wanting to appear erudite and successful, finds a way to mention the Oscar nominations for “Philomena” (he co-wrote and starred in it), and his new script, called “Missing.” And Brydon points out that “Philomena” was the story of a mother looking for her son and “Missing” is the story of a father looking for his daughter, so perhaps it might be time to go in another direction.  The two men go back and forth, jockeying with each other in a dozen different ways, as they obliquely and sometimes directly engage with the passage of time, between glimpses of flaming pans and delectable sauces being spread just so.

Coogan and Brydon are more comfortable and compatible in this version, and, as always, very, very funny.   If they get on each other’s nerves, for us in the audience they are excellent traveling companions.  The poignancy of their choices and disappointments adds some welcome depth and complexity.  There have been some complaints and controversy about the end of the film, which is jarring and out of place with the mood of the series.  I am not sure what it is intended to do, but I hope that there will be another trip to find out.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, alcohol, teen pregnancy, sexual references, and some implied peril.

Family discussion: Why do Rob and Steve enjoy impersonations so much?  Do you agree with Rob’s decision?  What should Steve have said to his son?

If you like this, try: the other “Trip” movies with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and of course “Philomina”

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Dave Made a Maze

Posted on August 18, 2017 at 3:06 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and violence, characters injured and killed, monster
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Gravitas Ventures

For generations, there have been children who have had more fun playing with the box than with the toy that came inside. The reason is easy to understand: a blank box puts no limits on imagination. It can be a clubhouse, a rocket ship, or a submarine, or all at once. It needs no batteries and there is no technology to break down. There’s no disappointing discovery that what looks cool on the commercial does not actually work. Cardboard can be anything and imagination can take you everywhere.

That is the theme of “Dave Made a Maze,” both the story on the screen and the story of the movie itself. Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) comes home from a short trip out of town to find her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has taken over their living room with a cardboard maze, or, rather, a labyrinth so intricate that he is literally lost inside it. Like the TARDIS, Dave’s construction is bigger on the inside. Annie grabs some friends and a box cutter and goes inside. A film crew led by their friend Harry (James Urbaniak) comes along to document (and sometimes shape) the adventure.

Co-writer/director Bill Watterson (not the Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist) has created a slacker/artisanal “Cat and the Canary” or “Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” a comedy/horror film with real stakes and deadpan delivery, all the funnier for being so understated.

The star of the film is unquestionably the maze/labyrinth itself. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sumner, clearly having the time of their lives, worked with the genius artists of the Cardboard Institute of Technology to create an endlessly inventive world, enchanting, spooky, hilarious, and, when you don’t expect it, pretty scary. Just because the blood is made of yarn and paper, we learn, does not mean it is not real. On the other hand, one labyrinthian portal somehow turns the characters into paper bag puppets, a transformation which thankfully turns out to be temporary. Dave’s maze, a manifestation of his frustration at not having a job that fulfills him, turns out to have a malevolent sentience he and his friends have to battle. Having different artists work on different rooms and corridors adds to the continuous surprise and disconnect, with one section looking like a mock-up from “2001,” another sporting origami birds, and others playing with perspective and space. I was especially taken by the intricate cardboard mechanics underneath one space, with several others hinting at an even more expansive and complex cardboard world.

Part of the film’s charm is the way Annie and Dave’s friends immediately accept the premise and just go for it. But what makes this one of the most imaginative films of the year is the way it makes a virtue of its micro budget. Like Dave himself, the filmmakers have found what the cheapest materials can do better than the most sophisticated animation equipment. They’ve created a tactile environment that puts no limits on their imagination or ours.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, fantasy peril and violence, a monster, and characters who are injured and killed.

Family discussion: Which was your favorite room in the maze? Why did the maze get out of control?

If you like this, try: “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Coherence”

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