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:
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The Fountain


The Fountain

Just another 26th Century Icarus.

(2006) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Marc Margolis, Stephen McHattie, Sean Patrick Thomas, Donna Murphy, Ethan Suplee, Richard McMillan, Lorne Brass, Fernando Hernandez, Cliff Curtis, Janique Kerns.  Directed by Darren Aronofsky

There are some mysteries that fire the imagination and others that are so immense that they’re terrifying. Eternal life is like that. We as a species fear the unknown, and there is nothing quite so unknown as death. We try to avoid it, we shrink from it, we fight to stave it off and yet inevitably, it claims us all. Some come to embrace it, others in time learn to accept it. Others, however, never quite come to terms with it.

The Fountain is an attempt to breach the mystery and it is done in a way that reading a plot won’t really shed a lot of light as to what the movie is about. The storyline is this; in the 16th century, a conquistador named Tomas Creo (Jackman) has been given a mission by Isabel (Weisz), the Queen of Spain who has been beset by the Grand Inquisitor (McHattie) for her heretical thoughts which are a tad more liberal than his liking. A priest, Father Avila (Margolis) under her control has discovered the location of the Biblical Tree of Life which grants eternal life to all those who drink of its sap. Returning to Spain with such a treasure would shift power from the Inquisitor to the Queen, who has pledged that should Creo return successful he would have her hand in marriage. However, to get to the Tree he must fight his way through a bunch of annoyed Mayans in a heretofore lost pyramid.

In modern times, Dr. Tommy Creo (Jackman again), a brilliant medical researcher, is racing against the clock to find a cure for the extremely aggressive brain tumor that is slowly killing his wife Izzi (Weisz again), an author who is writing a book about a conquistador’s quest for the Tree of Life. She has left the final chapter unfinished, wanting her husband to complete the book for her when she is gone. Tommy, for his part, is driving his team relentlessly, causing his boss Dr. Guzetti (Burstyn) to remonstrate with him. She wonders if he shouldn’t be spending more time with Izzi in her last days rather than on this fool’s errand to find a cure. His teammates Antonio (Thomas), Betty (Murphy) and Manny (Suplee) are concerned that he’s lost his perspective. Tommy, however, is working on a plant from South America that may yield the cure he desperately needs for his starry-eyed wife, who is trying to make her peace with her eventual fate.

Five hundred years from now, a hairless astronaut named Tom (Jackman a third time) hurtles through the void in a transparent bubble-like spaceship with a dying tree with the intention of flying it into the center of a dying star. His motives are unclear; whether he intends to restore life to the star, or life to the souls of those the ancient Mayans believe went to this place to rest or perhaps some other theory altogether. He hallucinates the presence of his lost love who looks suspiciously like Izzi, practices yoga and meditates as the sphere speeds towards the nebula.

Director Aronofsky has made not so much a movie you watch passively but an event to be experienced. Critics and audiences alike have lined up on either side of the coin; the movie was roundly booed at its Venice Film Festival premiere and has received a critical pasting. However, those who get this movie absolutely love it. Aronofsky really doesn’t give you much room for anything else but absolutes here, which is ironic since the movie has a tendency to be vague with its message.

That message is left open to interpretation, with Aronofsky asking the viewer to reach their own conclusions about the movie. There is a certain 2001: A Space Odyssey feel, particularly to the 26th century sequence and there has been some grousing that this is a movie best encountered while stoned out of your mind. Not being a stoner, I can only imagine what this movie would be like whilst altered.

Jackman does his best work to date as the three Creos (which is Spanish for “I believe,” by the way). All three characters are alike in that they are extremely driven, but different in that they are driven in different ways. Jackman is at once a brutal conquistador, a brilliant but bereaved researcher and a serene Zen monk-like astronaut. Weisz, who at one time was not one of my favorite actresses but has been on a roll lately, makes the best she can out of a role which really doesn’t require much from her other than to smile beatifically most of the time and give soulful looks from a warm bath.

The effects are not CGI on purpose, as Aronofsky felt that would date the movie (not mentioned is that his budget was cut in half by the studio; undoubtedly he had to get a little bit more imaginative with the effects in order to pull it off, and cutting expensive CGI shots would seem to be the right way to go here). Still, there are some spectacular sequences, particularly on the Pyramid and then again as the spacecraft reaches the dying nebula. The whole she-bang is framed by one of the most beautiful scores you will ever hear, penned by Craig Mansell and performed by the classical group the Kronos Quartet and the rock band Mogwai.

This is not a movie for everybody. Several audience members walked out after about 20 minutes and the teenagers expecting some sort of space opera were completely baffled by what they saw. This is the kind of movie that requires an intellectual commitment, and a lot of people who go to the movies are out to turn their brain off, which is fine – I do it all the time. However, if you’re in the right frame of mind, exploring the mystery of eternal life and our attitudes towards it can make for a fine evening’s mental exercise. I realize I’m something of a voice crying in the wilderness, but The Fountain is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, but not many will share that opinion, and that’s fine by me.

WHY RENT THIS: Great performance by Jackman and thought-provoking script. Despite the lack of CGI, still beautiful to look at. Outstanding score by Mansell and performance by the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The triple timeline story is often confusing and frustrating to follow.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some surprisingly violent action sequences as well as some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Xibalba Nebula refered to by Mayan astronomers as the place where departed souls enter the afterlife, is located in the constellation Orion.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The movie’s torturous journey to the screen included an aborted first film that starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett that was halted not very far into production after creative differences between Pitt and Aronofsky and budgetary concerns from the studio led to the cessation. The feature “Australia” discusses this, although not in as much detail as we’d like.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.0M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Happy Feet

Starting Out in the Evening


Starting Out in the Evening

Lauren Ambrose and Frank Langella out for an evening stroll.

(Roadside Attractions) Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Karl Bury, Anitha Gandhi, Sean T. Krishnan, Jessica Hecht, Adrian Lester, Michael Cumpsty. Directed by Andrew Wagner

All of us want to leave a legacy of one sort or another and nowhere is this desire keener than with writers. The older we get, the more urgent that need becomes.

Leonard Schiller (Langella) has had his share of artistic triumph. In his career he has written four books, all of which have received acclaim and notice, particularly the first two. However, as the 21st century begins all of his books are out of print and he has been relegated as something of a literary footnote. He has been working on his fifth novel for a decade now and has come to realize that it will be his last.

Into his New York milieu comes comely graduate student Heather Wolfe (Ambrose) who is eager to do her master’s thesis on the notoriously reclusive Schiller. That would mean giving the young woman access to his life in ways Schiller doesn’t feel comfortable with. While Heather promises that her thesis will re-ignite interest in Schiller’s books, Schiller himself is less concerned with interest in books he’s already written and more interested in getting his final work written and published, so he declines politely but firmly.

Browsing in a bookstore later with his daughter Ariel (Taylor), Schiller is bemused to see that Heather’s claims of being a published writer herself are correct and that her previous essay on another writer did in fact result in that writer’s works going back into print again. He also is disturbed to discover that there is little interest in the publishing world in putting the final work of an aging and more-or-less forgotten novelist whose best work was forty years behind him into print. Given all of this, Leonard changes his mind.

Ariel is also going through a difficult period in her life. She had dreamed of being a dancer but is reduced to teaching Pilates and yoga classes. As she is approaching forty, she very much wants to have a child, but seems to have the unerring ability to choose men who don’t. Her latest boyfriend, Victor (Cumpsty) is busy with his legal career. When Ariel stops using her birth control without telling him, the relationship comes to an end, much to Leonard’s disappointment. He’d liked the latest boyfriend, unlike his feelings for Casey (Lester), Ariel’s previous beau who had coincidentally just returned to New York. They had broken up because she wanted to have children and he didn’t, but nonetheless they get back together, falling into the same patterns, living the same lies.

As time goes on, Heather’s motivations for choosing Schiller become more obvious and the attention of a much younger, beautiful woman becomes flattering. What skeletons will emerge from Schiller’s closet and will he find the legacy he so painfully wants?

Based on a novel by Brian Norton, director Wagner (who co-wrote the screenplay) creates a world in which authors are revered, good literature is worth saving and people still care about reading. That’s a world which is shrinking in a day and age where people are more willing to vote for the next American Idol than for the next American President. Wagner isn’t necessarily pointing the finger of condemnation at our shallow modern society, but he does so simply by displaying this one. There is depth and layers to each and every character in this film, even the minor ones.

Langella is a force onscreen. He has the gravitas of a Morgan Freeman and the gentility and intelligence of Laurence Olivier. His Leonard Schiller is a complex man, one whose life was altered forever when his wife died in a tragic car accident. From that point, everything about him changed – his art, his relationship with his daughter, his perception of the world. He is discovering that he no longer wants to live the solitary life of a literary icon and recluse, but needs human company, even human love.

Lauren Ambrose, best known as Claire in “Six Feet Under,” has a very difficult role and she carries it off surprisingly well. Heather is driven, ambitious and charming on the surface, but below the surface she is conflicted and not nearly as self-confident. She has a tough veneer but she can be wounded and Leonard finds a way to do just that. There is some sexuality in her performance, but it isn’t just sex.

In some ways, we all hear the clock ticking. Perhaps it’s our biological clock, urging us to bear progeny. Perhaps it’s our life clock, counting down the end of our days. Perhaps it’s our career clock, compelling us to take advantage of opportunities while they still exist. Those opportunities, whether for children, success or creating a legacy exist within an all-too-brief period of time. Take the opportunity to see this movie as soon as you can.

WHY RENT THIS: Langella is becoming one of the most distinguished actors in America today, and he demonstrates his skills here. A very literate movie with some fine moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat talky in places and a bit high-falutin’ in others.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brief nude posterior in view as well as some sexuality and language concerns. Okay for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Brian Morton novel this is based on was a PenFaulkner Book Award nominee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 17 Again