Rebel in the Rye


Quiet please; author at work.

(2017) Biographical Drama (IFC) Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Sarah Paulson, Lucy Boynton, James Urbaniak, Amy Rutberg, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, Naian González Norvind, Evan Hall, Adam Busch, Celeste Arias, Bernard White, Kristine Froseth, David Berman, Will Rogers, Jefferson Mays, Caitlin Mehner. Directed by Danny Strong

 

Being an author is often a lonely pursuit. Writers live inside their heads more than most and for those who are true writers the act of writing is more of a compulsion than a calling. The talented ones often see that talent turn savagely on the wielder of that talent.

Jerome David Salinger (Hoult) was a teen who was bright but had difficulty dealing with authority. A caustic, sarcastic soul, he didn’t win points with school administrators by often ridiculing his professors in class. As 1939 is in full swing, he decides to attend Columbia University in New York City and study creative writing, much to the frustration of his staid stodgy father (Garber) but supported by his ever-patient mother (Davis).

At Columbia he comes under the wing of Whit Burnett (Spacey) who is a published author and a passionate teacher. Burnett, who also edits Story magazine on the side, has no time for fools or dilettantes but finds the kernel of something worthwhile in the young, insufferably arrogant student. In the meantime Jerry, as his friends and family call him, is busy wooing Oona O’Neil (Deutch) who happens to be the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil.  Talk about a long day’s journey into night.

His pursuit of being a published author is interrupted by World War II and Salinger, who was part of the Normandy invasion as well as the Battle of the Bulge, was profoundly affected by his wartime service. He was present at the liberation of concentration camps and watched his friends die before his very eyes. He came home a changed man and although one of his psychiatrists called his PTSD “a phase,” it would as his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Paulson) said, “mess him up” for the rest of his life.

One of his constant companions during the war was Holden Caulfield, a character Salinger had invented for a short story he had submitted to The New Yorker before the war. Burnett had been particularly enamored of the character and had urged his young student to write a novel about him; Salinger had been reluctant to since he had primarily written short stories to that point but throughout the war Salinger continued to write about the character; much of what he came up with appeared in the seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye, which became a publishing phenomenon and catapulted Salinger to international fame.

However with that fame came stalkers, young people so inspired by the novel that they approached the author wearing the red hunting caps that were the preferred chapeau of Caulfield in the novel. Salinger, already a private person, felt constrained to leave New York City for rural New Hampshire where he built walls of privacy around himself and his second wife Claire Douglas (Boynton) who eventually found her husband, who wrote constantly, to be more and more distant. As time went by, she confessed to her husband that she was lonely. That didn’t seem to matter much to him.

Much of this material appears in the Kenneth Slawenski-penned biography J.D. Salinger: A Life on which this is mainly based and it certainly gets the facts about Salinger’s life right. However, we don’t really get the essence of Salinger here and maybe it isn’t possible to do so; the reclusive nature of the author makes it difficult to really get to know him now even more so than it was when he was alive (he died in 2010 at age 91).

Hoult does a credible job playing the author during the 15 year period that the story takes place. It was one of the heydays of literature in New York City but we don’t really get a sense of the vitality that suffused the literary scene that saw magazines like The New Yorker publishing some of the best work of American authors ever. The movie is in some ways lacking in that rhythm that made the Big Apple the most vital city on Earth at the time. Nevertheless, Hoult is a marvelous actor and while this isn’t the role that is going to get him to the next level, he at least does a good enough job here to continue his forward momentum.

Hoult though in many ways is overshadowed by Spacey as the charismatic Burnett. We see Burnett as a mentor, and then in later years as a man with little money who sees his magazine and publishing house slowly languishing into obscurity even as Salinger is becoming one of the most popular authors in the world. The two would have a falling out and we see that Burnett is stricken by it, while Salinger is remarkably cold. Spacey makes Burnett more memorable than Salinger himself and who knows, given his performance here and in Baby Driver we might see his name bandied about for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar during awards season.

I was never convinced of the time and place as I said earlier; the characters look and act like 21st century people rather than mid-20th century, other than the smoking. The dialogue is full of platitudes and doesn’t sound the way people of any era talk. This I found doubly surprising since Strong wrote two of HBO’s best films including Recount, one of my all-time favorite made-for-cable films.

This isn’t going to give any insight into Salinger or his work; in fact other than a few snippets, very little of the words that the author penned have made their way into the film. The best that one could hope for is that younger people, seeing this movie, might be moved to see what the fuss was about and read Catcher in the Rye for themselves. I suspect that will give frustrated viewers of this film much more insight into the mind of the author than any docudrama ever could.

REASONS TO GO: Spacey delivers a strong performance. Renewed interest in Salinger might be generated.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is littered with platitudes and the characters don’t act like people of that era.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some violence, a few sexual references and some disturbing wartime images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Abundant Acreage Available

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Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro


Sleepers in unquiet graves.

Sleepers in unquiet graves.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Tony Vaccaro, James Estrin, Tyler Hicks, Alex Kershaw, Michel Lepourty, Anne Wilkes Tucker, John G. Morris, Sam Tannenbaum, Mike Forster, Lynsey Addario. Directed by Max Lewkowicz

 

Soldiers are a special sort of breed, one to be admired immensely. Not only are they willing to lay down their lives for their country but they often return home damaged – particularly during times of war. They are forced to do things that go against everything they are taught (i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill) and they see things – horrible things – that reflect humanity at its absolute worst.

Tony Vaccaro was barely out of high school when he was drafted to serve as an infantryman in the Second World War. Orphaned at a young age in Italy, he left that country and moved to New Rochelle, NY when the Fascists took over. While in high school, he developed an interest in photography and when he was drafted, applied to the Army Signal Corps to take photographs for them. He was turned down, told that he was too young for the Signal Corps. “I’m too young to take pictures,” he reflects in the documentary about his 272 days in the service of his country during which he took more than eight thousand photographs, “But not too young to kill.”

He took pictures of weary servicemen, resting for a moment after marching or fighting. He took pictures of men being shredded by shrapnel. He took pictures of burned tanks, the burned driver on the ground beside it. He took pictures of shell-shocked civilians and grateful French children kissing G.I.s. Many of his pictures come with incredible stories.

At one point he finds a soldier frozen in the snow. Curious as to whom the victim was, he is horrified to discover it is Henry Tannenbaum, a childhood friend. Years later, Tannenbaum’s son Sam saw the picture of his father at an exhibition of Vaccaro’s work and called up the photographer. When Tony found out who was on the other end of the line, he wept but for Tannenbaum, the picture gave him some closure and made his father, whom he had no memory of, more real to him. The two men became friends and visited the site where Tony found Henry’s body. Ironically, the place is now a Christmas tree farm (Tannenbaum is Christmas Tree in German).

One of the hardest photographs he ever took was that of a German woman, who had been raped and murdered by Allied troops after she’d been found with a bazooka, and then stabbed in her vagina with a bayonet. At first Tony was horrified and he removed the blade and covered the dead woman up. However, he went back and put her back the way she was when he found her and snapped the picture before then covering up the body and removing the blade once again. He had set out to document his experiences and he felt it wouldn’t be true to his mission if he didn’t document that as well, but he remarked it would be the most difficult of all the pictures he’d shot, including that of Tannenbaum.

In an era where photographs were routinely staged, Vaccaro’s pictures stand out because they were real. While sometimes soldiers would refuse to have their pictures taken by outside photographers, Tony was trusted. He was one of them, a brother. They would pose for him sure but they also allowed him to turn his cameras on them when they were fighting for their lives and the lives of their brothers. No other photographer in any war, before or since, has gotten as close to the soldiers fighting it as Vaccaro did. The incredible pictures he took reflect that. War is undoubtedly hell, the kind of hell that only those who have been to the front lines of war can understand. The photographs of Tony Vaccaro help those who have never been to war to gain at least a little bit of understanding.

Vaccaro is front and center here and he reminisces about some of the things he took pictures at from the places he took them in 70 years later. We see him on the beach at Normandy where he was part of the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach; the quaint French village which was largely untouched by the fighting; the woods where a horrific battle was fought. His memory is incredibly clear for a 94-year-old man.

His interviews are augmented by commentary by contemporary combat photographers who are singularly admiring of the job Vaccaro did, often going from firing his M-1 rifle to grabbing his camera and snapping pictures. In one incredible moment entitled “The Last Step of John Rose” an infantryman throws both hands in the air as a mortar explodes behind him. Shrapnel is already lancing through his body and with his next step he will crumple to the ground. “Suddenly, life comes to an end and gravity takes you,” Vaccaro reflects. “Giving up life, we all go down to earth again. All of us.”

After the war, Vaccaro stayed in Europe, unable to return home. He was caught in the grip of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although they didn’t discuss such things then. He put his negatives in storage and left them there until recently; even though he had documented his experiences, he was not disposed to sharing them although eventually he did. He would eventually continue following his passion for photography, becoming a fashion and celebrity photographer for Life magazine and others.

But despite a lifetime photographing beautiful things and beautiful people, he remains close to the pictures that haunted him from the time he took them until now. “There is beauty in tragedy,” one of the commentators intones and there is truth in that. The picture of a frozen soldier in the snow is awful to contemplate but has a certain serene beauty to it that is hard to ignore. So is this documentary, which is worth looking into.

REASONS TO GO: The photographs are absolutely extraordinary. Vaccaro is still emotional about his time on the front lines and that emotion only enhances the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to death and mayhem may find the photographs too disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity some gruesome images of war and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Argus C3 35mm camera that Vaccaro used throughout the war cost him $47.50 as a used (or secondhand) camera back in 1942.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fury
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Collateral Beauty

Edge of Tomorrow


Tom Cruise sees the initial box office numbers.

Tom Cruise sees the initial box office numbers.

(2014) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way, Kick Gurry, Franz Drameh, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Masayoshi Haneda, Noah Taylor, Terence Maynard, Lara Pulver, Madeline Mantock, Assly Zandry, Martin Hyder, Mairead McKinley, Andrew Neil, Beth Goddard, Anna Botting. Directed by Doug Liman

What a difference a day makes. Sometimes, a single day can make all the difference.

Major William Cage (Cruise) is one of those slick PR types that the army employs to sell war. This war, however, is unlike any other war we’ve ever fought; a mysterious race of aliens has invaded and quickly taken over Europe and Asia. The Mimics, as we call them, have withstood the might of our combined armies and now are poised to cross the ocean and take on the Americas. Much like another war half a century ago, the Americans know that they need to stop them in Europe or else have them hit us at full strength.

Cage is meeting up with Irish General Brigham (Gleeson) of the United Defense Force but the meeting doesn’t go well and the exasperated General orders Cage to the front. Cage balks at it and tries to BS his way out of it but ends up being tasered and sent to the front lines anyway. There, he meets up with MSgt Farrell (Paxton), a gung ho Kentuckian and the somewhat sullen J Company as they are put on massive troop transport helicopters and ferried over to Normandy. Unlike the previous invasion of that beach, the Mimics are expecting them and the invasion is disastrous. Cage is killed in the first five minutes.

Except he wakes up, on exactly the same day – right after he was tasered. And things unfold exactly the same. And he wakes up again. This time, however, he does things a little differently – and he survives longer, getting to meet Rita, the so-called Angel of Verdun who just about single-handedly won the only victory the UDF has had. Rita immediately realizes what’s going on and brings him to see Dr. Carter (Taylor) who knows more about the Mimics than just about anybody alive.

Just before he died, Cage had met up with a super-rare Mimic Alpha, and killed the damn thing, getting its blood all over him. That had somehow given Cage the same power the Mimics have or rather their Omega creature – the ability to re-set time. That’s why the Mimics are unstoppable; they know what humans are up to because they see it before resetting time, then react accordingly during the replay. However, now, it is us that has the advantage and if we can find the Omega and destroy it, the war will be ours. However, Cage has to figure a way to get off that beach.

Based on a Japanese manga called All You Need a Kill (a much better title although Da Queen prefers the ad tag line – “Live. Die. Repeat.” as a movie title better), astute moviegoers will recognize the plot conceit as being the same as Groundhog Day. However, the similarities are merely superficial. Whereas the older movie was a comedy in which Bill Murray wanted to get the girl, here Tom Cruise is out to save the world. And get the girl.

Liman, one of the most underrated and outstanding action directors out there (he made The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith among others), continues his fine work with the battle sequence here that recalls that of Saving Private Ryan only it isn’t nearly as intense or chaotic. The parallels between this war with the Mimics and the Second World War are heavy-handed indeed.

Cruise remains as bankable a movie star as there is out there although this is quite a different role for him, at least initially. Cage is a bit of a con artist, shucking and jiving his way through the army and willing to do anything to keep from going into actual battle. He’s a bit of a coward and a whole lot of arrogant, the kind of political survivor that always manages to land on his feet – until the aliens put him face-down. Eventually he grows a pair and becomes the hero we’re used to, but it is a slow process.

Blunt is also playing against type. Generally she plays a spunky but somewhat emotionally fragile sort but here she is all business and a credible action hero of her own. In the manga her character is sometimes known as The Bitch of War and that’s not far from the truth; she’s hard, merciless and without fear. She knows we’re losing this war and only one thing will prevent it – and her opportunity had slipped right through her fingers.

This isn’t a space opera – we never get a sense of how the aliens arrived here and what they want. The somewhat insectoid Mimics have lots of tentacles that owe something to the creature Giger created in Alien and they are terrifying. Kudos to the creature design team who also came up with the Alpha and Omega creatures as well. We’ve seen some decent alien designs in recent years although alien invasion movies have tended to be very poor as of late.

This is a little bit more thoughtful than most Hollywood summer blockbusters and that isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Yeah, sometimes all I really need is a loud movie with absolutely no thoughts in it at all, but this isn’t that. You are left to ponder the significance of each and every day with an eye towards learning how to use that pattern to your own advantage. I found it to be on par with the better-reviewed films of this summer and while the box office hasn’t been scintillating thus far for the movie, it is on course to at least make its production budget back and then some and in a crowded summer of stronger quality films than we’ve seen in recent years, we have to appreciate all the movies that aren’t just formulaic and either lacking in creativity, over-relying on CGI or pandering to its audience. Edge of Tomorrow does none of that.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining. Cruise plays against type.

REASONS TO STAY: Borrows a little from Starship Troopers, Battle: Los Angeles and Groundhog Day.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of sci-fi war violence, a fair amount of salty language and some sexually suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The failed invasion is depicted as taking place in Normandy. In the United States, the film’s official release date was June 6, 2014 – the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Trip to Italy

The Family (2013)


Michelle Pfeiffer is en fuego!

Michelle Pfeiffer is en fuego!

(2013) Comedy (Relativity) Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Dominick Lombardozzi, Jimmy Palumbo, Stan Carp, Vincent Pastore, Jon Freda, Michael J. Panichelli Jr., Paul Borghese, Anthony Desio, Ted Arcidi, David Belle, Raymond Frnaza, Christopher Craig, Cedric Zimmerlin, Dominic Chianese, Oisin Stack, Sissi Duparc, Elba Sette-Camara. Directed by Luc Besson

You can choose your friends. Sometimes, you can choose your enemies. You can never choose your family however – and sometimes that might be just as well.

Giovanni Manzoni (De Niro) is an American living in France. Not just an American, however – an American from Brooklyn. And not just an American from Brooklyn – a mob boss from Brooklyn. You see, he ratted on the mob and has been taken into the witness protection program, hauling his none-too-thrilled-about-the-situation family along for the ride.

That ride has taken them from the Riviera to Normandy, shepherded by their very put-upon handler Stansfield (Jones) and his agents Di Cicco (Palumbo) and Caputo (Lombarozzi). Stansfield urges the family, now calling themselves the Blakes, to blend in but they’re having a hard time with it, as usual. Pretty wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) longs for good old American comfort food and when she asks the local grocer where the Peanut Butter is, he disdainfully tells her they don’t carry that sort of  thing there, then insults her in French to a couple of old biddy regulars at the cash register, not realizing she speaks French. Maggie doesn’t lose her temper however – she just improvises a bomb and blows up the store.

Pretty daughter Belle (Agron) is sweet as pie, but when a group of French guys drive her to the local park and make it clear that they expect her to put out under the impression that all American girls are sluts, she beats one of them to a bloody pulp with a tennis racket and takes their car. Industrious son Warren (D’Leo) quickly horns in on the black market pill and cigarette market at school, and attracts the ire of the school board while Belle attracts the eye of a callow young teaching assistant named Henri (Stack) to whom she wants to deliver up her virginity on a silver platter.

As for Giovanni, calling himself Fred, he masquerades as a writer which inspires him to write his memoirs which might not be such a good idea considering how much he knows. He also is frustrated with the quality of the town’s water which he traces back to an industrial plant on the edge of town, leading him to take extreme solutions in hand.

All of the Manzonis want nothing more than to go back to Brooklyn and resume the lives they once led but as it turns out Brooklyn is coming to them. Well-armed, as a matter of fact, and none to happy about their situation.

Besson is without a doubt the finest action director/writer/producer in France and his tutelage has turned out several other fine directors in the genre, such as Olivier Megaton. This is a cross between an homage to Martin Scorsese’s mob films (and Scorsese serves as a producer here) and a farce along the lines of Married to the Mob (which Pfeiffer memorably starred in). At times the two genres rest uneasily together but for the most part Besson keeps the balance between the two light.

This is the kind of role that De Niro has done a million times before and there is a familiarity to him playing this kind of character that gives the audience an easy in to the film. He has the good fortune to have Pfeiffer to play off of – the chemistry between the two is note-perfect and they make such a good team it makes me wonder why they were never cast together before (they actually were, in Stardust but shared no scenes together in that one).  Pfeiffer is regal here, a mafia princess with a fierce protective instinct, a touch of pyromania and a volcanic temper. She is every bit De Niro’s equal here which is a rare occurrence.

Agron, best-known for her work on Glee has a meaty role here and she sinks her teeth into it with gusto. Belle is a bit of a homicidal maniac under the veneer of a sweet girl next door. Her love for her family is fierce but she, like the rest of her brood, is a more than a little sociopathic and more than a little out-and-out crazy.

There are plenty of action scenes but it is the farce that works best here, the fish out of water scenes that have the ugly Americans trying to make things work with the even uglier French. Sure, there are plenty of stereotypes here (I’m sure there were lots of Italian-American societies cringing at their portrayal here) but it’s all in good fun and not meant to be taken seriously. As entertainment goes, this isn’t half-bad. If you have no plans to catch it in theaters, it might well be a good fit on home video instead.

REASONS TO GO: Wry sense of humor. De Niro, Pfeiffer and Jones are all stellar.

REASONS TO STAY: Kind of cliché. Predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some violence, plenty of bad language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the film society debate attended by Jones and De Niro, the wrong movie is sent and they instead view Goodfellas which De Niro starred in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Analyze This!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Missing Person