Pick of the Litter – January 2019


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Glass

(Blumhouse/Universal) Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy. Security guard David Dunn is locked up in an institution for his belief that he has superpowers. But when a disturbed patient with 24 separate personalities including a homicidal maniac escapes, Dunn must put his powers to the test – knowing all of this is masterminded by evil genius Mr. Glass. This is a sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s previous films Unbreakable and Split.. January 18

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Genesis 2.0

(Kimstim) Christian Frei. Jeff Goldblum as the fictional chaos theory mathematician once said “They were so busy trying to see if they could they never stopped to think if they should.” That was from the original Jurassic Park. Life is imitating art at a much more rapid pace than you might be aware; the discovery of a nearly intact mammoth carcass in the Siberian permafrost with muscle, liquid blood and fur intact has set off a frenzy of scientific interest as geneticists and virologists look to research the find and possibly bring an ancient mammoth back to life from the DNA recently discovered.  January 2

The Vanishing

(Saban) Gerard Butler, Peter Mullan, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Gary Lewis. In 1900 three lighthouse keepers in the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland disappeared without a trace and were never seen again. Although much conjecture about their fates was considered by the newspapers of the time, no explanation for their disappearance has ever been fully accepted. This film looks at one possibility. January 4

Ashes in the Snow

(Vertical) Bel Powley, Peter Franzén, Sophie Cookson, James Cosmo. In his quest for power, Stalin and the Soviet Union occupied many countries already reeling from the ravages of the war. A 16-year-old aspiring artist and her family are deported from the Baltic to Siberia due to her father’s anti-Stalinist stance. Young Nina draws what she sees in hopes that history will give a voice to those who have none. January 11

Girl

(Netflix) Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts. A 15-year-old girl, born in a boy’s body, dreams of becoming a ballerina even as she begins her body transition but achieving all her dreams may not be enough. This is up for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Golden Globe Awards. January 18

The Image Book

(Kino-Lorber) Jean-Luc Godard, Buster Keaton, Dmitri Basil. Without a doubt Jean-Luc Godard is one of the great visual artists of our lifetime. His latest film can only be described as a cinematic collage which may seem random at first but I’m told tells a story in five parts that illustrates his take on the state of humanity as the 2010s circle the drain. January 25

The Wild Pear Tree

(The Cinema Guild) Domu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir, Bennu Yildirimlar, Hazar Erguçlu. A young man returns home to his village from college with the intention of becoming a writer. However, his father’s debts put a crimp in his plans and thrust his family into peril. January 30

Christmas Blood (Juleblod)


What’s a Killer Santa movie without a half-dressed blonde elf?

(2017) Horror (Artsploitation) Stig Henrik Hoff, Marte Sæteren, Kylie Stephenson, Sondre Krogtoft Larsen, Julia Schacht, Truls Svendsen, Yasmine Johansen, Karoline Stemre, Nina Winther, Haddy Jallow, Helene Eldsvåg, Andreas Nonaas, Bente Julie Kill, Anita Ihler, Ingvild Flikkerud, Sindre Olav Fredriksen, Jon-André Hakvåg, Jorgen Langhelle, Frank Kjosås, Elizabeth Mainy, Julianne Aga. Directed by Reinert Kill

 

Horror film aficionados will tell you at this time of year, you’d really better watch out. Santa Claus is coming to town after all and we’re not talking about a cuddly fat guy bringing presents and eating cookies – we’re talking about a man with an axe to grind, quite literally.

For 13 years, Norway was beset by a crazed serial killer who murdered people on his “naughty list” – those publicly accused of crimes but never convicted. He has a list of 324 names, most of which he’s attended to until he is caught by an obsessed detective named Thomas Rasch (Hoff) who lucks into finding the culprit and puts several slugs into him.

Miraculously, the killer survives (don’t they always?) and he is placed in an asylum for several years until at last he escapes – just in time for another dose of yuletide terror. In the meantime, one of the potential victims on the list has committed suicide, apparently racked with guilt over her crime (although the killer is blissfully unaware of her demise). Her daughter Julia (Sæteren) who desperately trying to cope, invites a group of her college friends to the remote Arctic circle village where her mom had a house to spend the holidays. The girls, including Aussie Annika (Stephenson) who loves to party, tough gal Ritika (Jallow), sweet deaf child Elizabeth (Stemre) and Katja (Johansen) who has brought her can’t-keep-it-in-his-pants boyfriend Christian (Nonaas) along – and apparently he and Ritika have a history. Terje Hansen (Larsen) drags a now-alcoholic Rasch out of retirement to go after the killer, whose pattern indicates he will finish off his list in a tiny town above the Arctic Circle – where a group of scantily clad friends are alternately partying and bickering.

The killer Santa subgenre is nothing new, nor is the virtually un-killable killer; this movie recycles a bunch of tropes from both. Veteran horror director Kill (who may have the best name for horror directors this side of Rob Zombie) has an eye for atmosphere; the remote town is virtually deserted and the streets empty and full of snow and mist. There is also a decent soundtrack (a bit overloaded with bland electronic Europop) particularly when the killer is around when drums beat, lights dim and the ground shakes. That’s a guy who knows how to make an entrance!

I found myself yelling at the screen. When a police detective goes into a murder scene at night, don’t you think the first thing they’d do is turn on the lights. I suppose Norwegian detectives prefer operating in the dark. I’m all for atmosphere but I am also all for common sense as well. A little less darkness and a little more respect for the viewer’s intelligence would be welcome.

The plot is pretty stale – anyone who has seen a killer Santa movie is likely to find things on the predictable side – but that’s offset by some genuinely beautiful scenery, both in Norway and yes, the girls aren’t too hard on the eyes either. Still, with elements of Halloween and Silent Night Deadly Night to deal with, most hardcore horror fan may find this a little overly familiar without adding a whole lot new to either genre.

REASONS TO GO: The girls are very attractive.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a very predictable movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore as well as profanity, drug use, sexual situations, rape and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Reinert Kill was at one time a member of the Norwegian Air Force.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent Night Deadly Night
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Santa Claus

Dede


The ageless Caucasus mountains dwarf the individuals who live there.

(2017) Drama (Corinth) Natia Vibliani, Nukri Khatchvani, George Babluani, Girshel Chelidze, Mose Khatchvani. Directed by Mariam Khatchvani

 

The Caucasus Mountains stand brooding in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, imposing and timeless. In the region of Svaneti, tradition is the backbone of life but that tradition but it is a region that is slowly fading into history. They have their own language but it is officially listed as a dying language (you can hear it spoken here). Director Mariam Khatchvani knows the region well – she grew up there.

Following the Georgian civil war of 1992, the remote village of Ushguli welcomes back their favorite son David (N. Khatchvani) who brings with him Gegi (Babluani) who saved David’s life in the war. Both of them have something to return to; David a fiancée and Gegi a mysterious woman whose name he does not know but whom he feels a special connection and, he’s sure, feels one with him. Little do they know that they are both after the same woman – Dina (Vibliani).

For Dina’s part, she has no love for David whatsoever – the marriage was arranged for her by her tradition-bound grandfather – but as much as she wants to break off the marriage, nobody else particularly wants to. Both families would lose face (particularly that of David) and the situation would undoubtedly lead to a blood feud between the two families. However fate intervenes and sends Dina on a journey in which she will attempt to exert her own independence, face tragedy, become the mother to a son and become the object of desire for three different men.

This made some waves on the European festival circuit and for good reason. Mariam Khatchvani, making her feature film debut, has crafted a beautiful movie of magnificent vistas and strong emotions, giving us a peek into a little-known culture and commenting on the patriarchal nature of her native land. That’s an awful lot to expect from a first film but she makes it work deftly and gracefully.

Some critics have compared this to A Handmaid’s Tale and while this isn’t quite as dystopian, there are certainly some revealing moments in regards to the attitudes towards women, often from other women. Traditions are strong in that part of the world and they govern nearly everything when it comes to love and relationships. Women “have no say,” as one patriarch grumbles, in whom she marries (even today, 25 years after this was set, women still cannot inherit from their husbands). It is permissible for a family to kidnap a woman off the street and take her to their home – and yes, that means they’re married. Once a man declares his intent to marry a woman, there’s no response from the woman necessary – they are betrothed whether she likes it or not. Generally though these things are arranged between the eldest males in the families..

While the traditions may seem backwards and even primitive to American sensibilities, they are very much a part of that part of the world. Life is hard, particularly during the harsh winters in the mountains and there are not a lot of modern conveniences. Most of the actors are non-professional locals and while Vibliani stands out as the best of the bunch, Babluani – the lone other professional – acquits himself well also. Vibliani has an angelic face and projects the fierce inner strength of Dina. Her beauty is both a curse and a gift in the mountain village as Dina goes through life as a prized possession, but a possession regardless. She is considered chattel like all women of the region and it is sobering to think that it has only been a bit over a century since we held the same attitudes in the West.

The cinematography is absolutely stunning with the mountains rendered as a silent Greek chorus to the events here. There is also plenty of singing and the singing is breathtaking and beautiful. Svaneti may as well be on another planet in many ways, but this movie helps us reflect that the attitudes toward women even in supposedly enlightened cultures are not that far removed from utter misogyny and domestic slavery. Given how women continue to be treated here in the west, there is nearly as long a way to go here as there is in Ushguli.

REASONS TO GO: The scenery and music is absolutely stunning. The film illustrates the hardship of life in that part of Georgia. Vibliani is beautiful and spirited.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a tiny bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is a Khatchvani family affair as the director cast her husband and son.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Suitable Girl
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Christmas Blood

Bleed Out


Steve Burrows faces an overwhelming situation.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) Stephen Burrows, Judie Burrows, Beth Burrows, Cindy Knueppel, Lynn Laufenberg, Mark Bauer, Susan Darmstadter, Ted Payne, Mike End, Marty Markery, Cindy Payne, Mary Ellis, Charles Harper, Margo Burrows, Catherine Scoon. Directed by Stephen Burrows

 

It is no secret that the American health care system is badly broken. Just how broken may come as a surprise to those who are only aware of statistics. Sometimes, getting to the heart of a problem requires us to look at it from the perspective of a single incident.

Steve Burrows in 2008 had a good career going. A comedian, he also wrote and directed comedy features (Chump Change) as well as acted in them (Spy Hard). He had a close-knit family including his mom Judie, a retired schoolteacher in Wisconsin who traveled the globe in her golden years, as independent and free-spirited a woman as Steve had ever known.

Then he got the call from his sister; his mom had fallen and broken her hip. Surgery was required. Fortunately it would be an old family friend – Mark Bauer – who would be doing the operation. Things seemed to be well in hand, but then they weren’t. The surgery took much longer than expected. While in recovery they were unable to rouse Judie, so she was sent to an intensive care unit. During the night, her blood pressure fell to near-fatal levels.

That’s when the bottom fell out of Steve’s life. First of all, it turned out that Judie was on Plavix, an anti-platelet drug used to reduce the risk of stroke and heart attacks; it is recommended that patients on Plavix discontinue the use of it at least five days before surgery. Bauer knew that but assured the family that he had performed surgery without the buffer period without any ill effects. In any case, Judie was in serious pain and he wanted to get the surgery done as quickly as possible.

Also, the ICU that Judie was in had no doctors assigned to it. In what can only be deemed a cost-cutting move, the ICU was monitored remotely by a physician in a building near the Milwaukee airport. To make matters worse, it is possible that the camera in Judie’s room had never been turned on. In any case, it was evident that Judie had slipped into a coma. She had lost more than half of her blood during the operation; either at that point or when her blood pressure dropped in the supposedly monitored ICU her brain didn’t get enough oxygen and became damaged. Judie would never be the same person again.

Nobody would take responsibility. The surgeon blamed the anesthesiologist who blamed the hospital who blamed the surgeon. Everyone was pointing a finger. Steve was urged to sue, especially by his Uncle Ted (Payne) whom Steve trusted because his Uncle Ted was a doctor. The advice sent Steve and his family into a quagmire of legal issues, laws stacked against the patient and in favor of insurance companies and hospitals, and against health care professionals who lied through their teeth during sworn depositions.

Judie’s savings, which were to get her through retirement, were blown through in a matter of months. Soon Judie was broke and in need of constant care; Steve and his wife took the brunt of responsibility to see to Judie’s medical needs and steer the lawsuit, although few lawyers wanted to touch it – medical malpractice lawsuits in Wisconsin have been rendered pointless mainly because they are expensive to prosecute and laws putting a cap on how much patients can win makes lawsuits impractical; the plaintiff could win the lawsuit but receive nothing and in fact owe the lawyers a considerable sum afterward. Still, Steve persisted in trying, even though it was impacting his own finances and career.

If you look at Steve’s iMDB page you’ll notice that between 2008 and 2018 there is almost nothing. Yes, he did do some advertising work but for the most part his life was focused on taking care of his mom. His agent ended up dropping him and until this documentary came out, his career was essentially over. Relationships within his family, who watched this saga drag on for a decade, became frayed and in some cases unraveled completely.

Burrows shows the incident from all sides whenever possible, interviewing the various participants as well as experts in the medical insurance business. We get a fairly comprehensive view although his intent – and rightly so – is to give his mom a voice. She is the one who has been most devastated by all of this. Steve has had his own suffering; as he suffers setback after setback, listens to his own mother sob that she wants to die, getting no help from any corner, his sense of humor begins to ebb and the weight of the world is clearly on his shoulders. I don’t know what I would do in his shoes but there would be a lot of tears and yelling.

This is a sobering and depressing film that is nonetheless essential viewing. We often talk about the state of the healthcare system but here it is in al it’s ignominy. People like Judie Burrows, through no fault of their own, are left holding the bag physically and financially, their lives altered in meaningful ways, their future grim. For all the political talk about why single payer healthcare won’t work here, it remains a fact that had Judie resided just a few hundred miles north, she wouldn’t have been bankrupted because she’d have been living in Canada.

Medical errors are the third largest cause of death in the United States to the tune of a quarter of million deaths annually. Think of it as three fully occupied 747s crashing every day. Certainly there’d be more of a hue and cry if that were going on but partly because we tend to hold doctors in such high esteem – and honestly, most are deserving of it – we seem to be willing to allow them to dodge accountability when, as human beings, they mess up.

I don’t think it’s possible to watch this movie without feeling angry – not so much at the doctors, although there is some to spare for the doctor who falsified records and lied about it – but at the insurance companies, the for-profit hospitals and the politicians who protect their interests at the expense of the patients. If you ever wondered if your local representative is looking out for you, this is a movie that will put in stark focus that they are not.

REASONS TO GO: The story is absolutely flabbergasting. Burrows lays out the various facets of the film very succinctly, covering all sorts of different dimensions. Burrows is a likable on-camera presence.
REASONS TO STAY: This cautionary tale may hit a little too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steve Burrows got his start as a member of Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bleeding Edge
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dede

New Releases for the Week of December 28, 2018


VICE

(Annapurna) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Allison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Jesse Plemons, LisaGay Hamilton, Shea Whigham. Directed by Adam McKay

Here’s the story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming Washington insider and bureaucrat who ended up as one of the most powerful and important Vice-Presidents in the history of America. Vice came out of nowhere to garner more Golden Globe nominations than any film this year and is a strong contender for a number of Oscar nominations.

See the trailer, video featurettes and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release (Opened on Tuesday)

Rating: R (for language and some violent images)

Holmes and Watson

(Columbia) Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Ralph Fiennes, Rebecca Hall. An allegedly humorous take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, this film has been getting absolutely savaged by critics thus far.

See the trailer, clips and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release (Opened on Tuesday)

Rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual material, some violence and drug references)

Simmba

(Reliance) Ranveer Singh, Sara Ali Khan, Sonu Sood, Siddharth Jadhav. An orphan from the streets grows up to be a corrupt police officer and enjoys the high life and many perks of such a life. However he soon finds himself faced with choices that may transform him and send him down a more righteous path.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Bollywood Action
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Universal Citywalk
Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Fantastica

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

The Charmer
The House That Jack Built
If Beale Street Could Talk
Kill Mobile
Natacha

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

None

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Fantastica

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Holmes and Watson
Vice

Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers


Bob Lazar has thoughts none of us can guess at.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard)  Bob Lazar, Mickey Rourke (narrator), Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell, Mario Santa Cruz, George Knapp, Layne Keek, Phyllis Tucker, Zack Slizewski, Joy White. Directed by Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell

 

For those who believe that there is life on other worlds, the truth is out there. For those who don’t, often there is no out there when it comes to truth. Some are more agnostic about it; the odds favor life developing elsewhere but until an alien spacecraft lands on the White House lawn, it is only theory. Many believe that aliens have already landed here and much of that belief is centered around two places; Roswell, New Mexico and Groom Lake, Nevada – the latter better known as Area 51. It’s not hard to figure out why Roswell is in the picture but why Area 51?

Most people are unaware of Bob Lazar but to those true believers who accept that aliens have visited our plant he is revered. In 1989, his voice disguised and his identity hidden, he “came out” to TV news journalist George Knapp of Las Vegas that he was an engineer working at building “S-4” in the Groom Lake complex tasked with reverse engineering propulsion systems of alien spacecraft. He asserted that the U.S. government is in possession of nine of them, and that there are alien bodies as well (although he only thinks he’s seen one, a claim walked back from his initial interviews in which he claimed he’d seen them). He later followed up that interview with one in which he revealed his identity.

The scientific community initially pooh-poohed his claims and Lazar became something of a pariah in the scientific community; these days he runs an electronics manufacturing firm. However in the thirty years since he made his startling claims he hasn’t changed his story overly much except as noted. Many of his friends and family have supported him, telling anyone who will listen that Bob Lazar isn’t the type of guy to lie. They point out he hasn’t profited a dime from his claims; why commit professional suicide in that case?

Corbell apparently aspires to make this film part of a series of paranormal investigations and in some ways he’s starting off with a bang. Lazar has been notoriously press-shy for more than a decade now, rarely granting interviews. There is some interest here for those who want to learn where some of these UFO theories got started and how they accelerated into the mainstream. It’s truly an interesting story.

Unfortunately, Corbell busies up the documentary with a barrage of images of atomic age archival footage and such that after awhile make the movie seem more like a collage than a film. There is also the psychobabble narration that is mumbled by Mickey Rourke; at times poetic, at times it comes off like comic relief. It’s distracting and unnecessary.

Corbell would have been better off going the “simple is better” route. He has a compelling story and an opportunity to really develop it. However he falls into the trap of not only trying to come off as an artist but also of getting too close to the subject and ends up making a manifesto more than a documentary. There’s nothing wrong with making a film with a point of view, but you have to take your audience into account; true believers may require some corroboration but we hear about FBI raids and assassination attempts with absolutely no evidence. Corbell and Lazar claim that much of Lazar’s past has been systematically erased – his work records at Los Alamos expunged (although he does appear on a phone guide there) and his education at Cal Tech and MIT also gone. The latter claim is a little dicier; none of his professors remember him although a couple of students do. It isn’t enough to make much of a case.

This is definitely a missed opportunity that has more to do with a tyro filmmaker trying to make a splash than it does with the subject matter. Had Corbell dispensed with the pretentious narration and the onslaught of unnecessary images, this would have been a more palatable film. As it is the movie seems to be directed only at true believers and at the end of the day fails to convince anyone who isn’t already of that mindset that the truth indeed may be out there.

REASONS TO GO: There is some really interesting material here.
REASONS TO STAY: There is far too much visual input to the point that the film gets annoying after a little while. Little proof is offered to substantiate anything.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing Baker is in pre-production on his second feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Area 51: Secrets and Conspiracies
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Bleed Out

Ben is Back


Julia Roberts shows quiet resolve in a powerful scene from “Ben is Back.”

(2018) Drama (LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions) Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Alexandra Park, Michael Esper, Tim Guinee, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Kristin Griffith, Jack Davidson, Mia Fowler, Jakari Fraser, Cameron Roberts, Jeff Auer, Henry Stram, Bill Buell, Sandra Caldwell, Nathalie Carvalho. Directed by Peter Hedges

 

A mother’s love is a beautiful thing. It crosses all boundaries, it transcends time. A mother loves her child with a fierce devotion that is unmatched. It doesn’t matter whether her child is a saint or a sinner, a success or a failure – that mother loves that child unconditionally and without measure.

Holly (Roberts) returns home with her three young children on Christmas Eve to their comfortable home in a New England town to find an unexpected surprise – her eldest son Ben (Hedges) from a previous relationship. Ben has been in rehab for heroin addiction but he informs his over-the-moon mom that he’s doing so well that his sponsor has agreed to sign him out for a holiday pass to come home.

The youngest siblings Liam (Fraser) and Lacey (Fowler) are overjoyed to see their big brother but eldest daughter Ivy (Newton) is less enthusiastic. She remembers previous Christmas holidays ruined by Ben and worried sick, she calls stepfather Neal (Vance) to let him know what’s going on. Holly is a little more pragmatic though; while Ben plays outside with Liam and Lacey she hides all her jewelry and prescription medicine. Neal comes home and is absolutely pissed, demanding that Ben return to the treatment facility. Holly reluctantly prepares to drive him back but Neal, seeing Holly’s dejection, relents and gives Ben a day – a day in which Ben will be drug tested and watched like a hawk.

Needless to say things fall apart quickly. Former drug associates of Ben show up and vandalize the house, among other things. Holly is dragged into Ben’s world as he desperately tries to make things right. Over all the specter looms – can Ben stay clean or will he regress and use again and maybe spiral down to an early grave?

The movie is a harrowing and often heartbreaking look at how addiction affects not just the addict but all those around him or her – him in this case. At least, it does for the first part of the film; the second part becomes something more of a thriller as Holly pursues Ben into the underworld of her community, desperately trying to rescue him from himself. It is less effective than the first part of the film.

Despite the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the film, it still works mainly due to phenomenal performances by Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. For Roberts, this is one of the Oscar-winning actress’ finest performances of her career. It is telling that this has been such a phenomenal year for performances by women in the movies that Roberts won’t likely be part of the conversation for the short list. In most any other year, she would be. She brings a wide emotional range, from desperate to nurturing to angry to terrified, making us feel all of them without a false note in the bunch. At the end of the day this is a performance we can believe without hesitation. I can imagine any mom going through the gamut, wanting so much to find hope that her son will return to her yet knowing deep down that as an addict he will lie and cheat and steal and dash all her hopes more likely than not.

Hedges, himself nominated for an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, gives a terrific performance in the title role. Ben is charming and smart but he is also full of demons. You end  up rooting for him but deep down as the movie progresses you know he can’t be trusted. Hedges doesn’t make Ben too likable to be realistic but neither does he turn Ben into a monster. Ben’s just a kid who went down the wrong path and now doesn’t have an inkling of how to right himself.

This is a flawed film but nonetheless an effective one. It is raw and gritty in the places that it needs to be, underscoring it with the idyllic family life that Holly has without Ben. There are some really magnificent moments, such as when during a visit to a mall Holly confronts the doctor who was responsible for getting Ben hooked on opioids in the first place. There’s also a moment when during church services Ben realizes that the family of a girl he helped hook on heroin but who passed away is in the congregation with him.

Any good doctor will tell you that addiction doesn’t just change the life of the addict but of everyone who cares about them. That is the gist of the message here and it is prevented in a powerful way. The Christmas setting only serves to further make the message more poignant. This may be too much of a downer for some at this time of year but it is a movie that earns the praise it is getting.

REASONS TO GO: Heartrending dramatic moments starkly illustrate the effects of drug abuse on families. Roberts gives one of her finest performances ever. Hedges is nearly as brilliant as Roberts. The message is firmly underscored by the Christmas eve setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a bit fractured, devolving into a standard thriller during the final third. Some may find it too depressing for this time of year.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some brief violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lucas Hedges is the son of director Peter Hedges
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Boy
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bob Lazar: Flying Saucers and Area 51

New Releases for the Week of December 21, 2018


AQUAMAN

(Warner Brothers) Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temeura Morrison. Directed by James Wan

Arthur Curry, the son of a lighthouse keeper, discovers that he is heir to the throne to Atlantis. There are forces aligned against him, however, that want him to stay on land – and who also wish to wage war against the land-dwellers.

See the trailer, clips and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, DBOX, DBOX 3D, DTSX, IMAX, IMAX 3D, RPX, RPX 3D, ScreenX, XD, XD 3D

Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language)

Ben is Back

(Roadside Attractions) Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton. When her drug addicted teen son from a first marriage returns unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, a mother is at first delighted but cautious. As the evening goes on it becomes apparent that things are not as they seem with him and soon she is dragged unwillingly into his world with the rest of her family dragged in behind her. Look for the review on Cinema365 tomorrow.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Barnstorm Theater, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language throughout and some drug use)

Bumblebee

(Paramount) Hailee Steinfeld, Dylan O’Brien (voice), John Cena, Megyn Price. In 1987 a young girl finds the battle-scarred and broken Transformer Bumblebee in the junkyard of a small California town. She soon finds herself in the middle of an interstellar conflict which threatens the very existence of planet Earth itself.

See the trailer clips, interviews, video featurettes and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, 4DX, Dolby, RPX, XD, XD 3D
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action violence)

Mary Queen of Scots

(Focus) Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, David Tennant. The story of the half-sister of Queen Elizabeth I the two of whom were once close but turned into bitter rivals and eventually, deadly foes.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, video featurettes and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square

Rating: R (for some violence and sexuality)

Mary Poppins Returns

(Disney) Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer. The Banks children, one of the beneficiaries of the legendary Mary Poppins, have all grown up and have children of their own. Now Mary returns to save the Banks family once more with her heartwarming brand of magic.

See the trailer, interviews and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website
Release Formats: Standard, DBOX, Dolby, RPX
Genre: Family
Now Playing: Wide Release (opened Wednesday)
Rating: PG (for some mild thematic elements and brief action)

Second Act

(STX) Jennifer Lopez, Leah Remini, Vanessa Hudgens, Treat Williams. An ambitious big box retail clerk reinvents her job history and biography and ends up with a golden opportunity to show the Wall Street boys club what a street smart Puerto Rican woman can do.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a video featurette and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some crude sexual references, and language)

Welcome to Marwen

(Universal/DreamWorks) Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monáe. A man who was the victim of a brutal beating that cost him his memory, tries to rebuild his shattered life through a make-believe town that he constructs where he can be heroic and strong. This is based on an actual incident.

See the trailer, clips and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama/Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language)

Zero

(Yash Raj) Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Karina Kaif, Salman Khan. A young man born to wealth and privilege and was content in his life. Then he meets two women who broaden his outlook and give him a purpose he never knew he needed.

See the trailer, promos and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

American Renegades
Antariksham
Burning
KGF Chapter 1
Padi Padi Leche Manasu

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Antariksham
KGF Chapter 1
Padi Padi Leche Manasu
Shoah: Four Sisters
Swimming with Men

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Antariksham
KGF Chapter 1
Padi Padi Leche Manasu

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

KGF Chapter 1

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Aquaman
Ben is Back
Bumblebee
Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Poppins Returns
Swimming with Men
Welcome to Marwen

Islam and the Future of Tolerance


Sam Harris is looking for peace.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Maajd Nawaz, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Directed by Desh Amila and Jay Shapiro

 

It is a given that it is a bad idea to discuss politics and religion if you want things to be sociable. Harris, a neuroscientist, is an atheist who has become symbolic of the New Atheist movement. Nawaz is a former radical Islamist who after being rescued from an Egyptian jail by Amnesty International has become an outspoken advocate for religious reform within Islam. Initially when they met, a discussion over the possibility of reform within Islam led to a rift between the two men.

Eventually, they decided to talk things out and discovered that they were more like than unalike. While they both have fundamental differences in philosophy, both agree that Islam needs reform, and that the way to do it properly is not through violence but through conversation. The two men had just such a conversation (which fortunately was recorded with excerpts from it played here) which led to them co-authoring a book whose name this documentary has taken as a title and whose subject matter has inspired this film.

Both men are articulate and intelligent; listening to them talk is absolutely fascinating. They are also passionate believers in their ideas, with Harris in particular suggesting a willingness to have his mind changed. Watching this movie is like being privy to a conversation between two intellectual equals who not only have differing points of view, they are both willing to admit the points of view that they share as well. At times the movie gets a little bit talky which might scare some people off (if the subject matter doesn’t to begin with) but I found the movie never got dull. Your opinion may differ on that score.

While the directors use some interesting visual metaphors to what’s happening (like using tightrope walkers to illustrate the difficulty both men faced when they re-convened in 2014) they mostly stick to interview-style tactics to discuss the backgrounds of the two main subjects, particularly when it comes to Nawaz whose background in England going from a fairly happy high school student to a radical Muslim is compelling. He would join the radical Hizb Ut-Tahir group and become an important recruiter to their cause. After 9-11 (he was in Cairo recruiting at the time) he was arrested by the Egyptian police and tortured. It was only through the intervention of Amnesty International that he was released; the fact that it was Westerners who saw to his rescue led to his transformation from radical Islamist to advocate for reform.

The questions raised by the movie are worthy ones and to be honest these are questions we are all going to need to grapple with. The last third of the film both men take aim at liberals who have a tendency to overreact to criticism of Islam by immediately playing the bigotry card. The infamous Real Time With Bill Maher show on which actor Ben Affleck blew a gasket when host Maher and guest Harris referred to Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas.” He said that the sentiment was “gross and racist,” and at the time I agreed with him.

Watching this though I see what Harris and Maher were trying to get across a little bit more clearly. They are absolutely correct that liberals are becoming more and more entrenched and intolerant in their beliefs that true liberals march in lockstep when it comes to issues of cultural appropriation, sexual politics and other liberal sacred cows. Criticism of bad ideas is at the heart of liberalism and if we can’t do that without someone yelling “cultural insensitivity,” then we have failed. However, words do matter and I can understand why Affleck blew a fuse – going back and watching the clip over again (it’s on HBO Go) the language both Harris and Maher used was inflammatory. That becomes more of an issue when Nawaz argues that strict interpretation of what the Quran says may not necessarily reflect what the intent was of the writer to get across; the language has changed considerably in the interim, as well as the context.

This is fascinating stuff although some may find it dull and overly intellectual. For my part, I think that film should occasionally give our brains an opportunity to be exercised and tackling controversial but relevant questions about explosive subjects is in general a good thing. This is a dynamic if occasionally dry movie that is unafraid to tackle a subject most of us don’t care to think about – but we really should.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer is forced to reexamine their beliefs. This is more of an intellectual film than an emotional one. There are some interesting visual metaphors.
REASONS TO STAY: The film may be a bit too talky for some.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is not suitable for children. There is also some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Nawaz met at a dinner following a debate in which Nawaz felt he had his rear handed to him; Harris, admittedly tipsy, asked questions of the obviously hurt Nawaz that led to a non-violent standoff. Four years later, Harris reached out to Nawaz and had a lengthy phone conversation; both men found to their surprise that they had more common ground than they thought.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thinking Atheist
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Ben is Back

Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker


Jonathan Baker, meet Jonathan Baker.

(2018) Documentary (Random)  Jonathan Baker, Jodie Foster, Taylor Hackford, Faye Dunaway, Nicolas Cage, Adrian Lyne, John Badham. Directed by Neal Thibedeau

 

It goes without saying that it takes a certain amount of ego to be a successful Hollywood motion picture director. You need that ego to maintain focus on your vision and refuse to let compromise and collaboration dilute it or divert it. Without that ego, a director’s crew, his/her actors and financial backers will walk all over them like a linoleum runner on your mom’s best carpet.

Jonathan Baker is nothing if not ambitious. Not only does he want to direct movies, he wants to be really good at it – Oscar-winning good, name above the title good. He was getting ready to direct his first feature film – a suspense film from Lionsgate called Inconceivable with a stellar cast including Nicolas Cage, Faye Dunaway and Gina Gershon. Baker wisely figured out that he could avoid a lot of pitfalls by talking to other directors and finding out what their experiences were on their first films – and what advice they had for an aspiring director.

The interviews with such luminaries as Foster (Little Man Tate), Badham (Blue Thunder), Hackford (Ray) and Lyne (Fatal Attraction) are actually mega-informative and have some good advice for those who want to direct movies as a career – in fact much of their advice can be applied to leadership roles in other fields as well.

Baker is clearly passionate about film and filmmaking and I have no doubt that he wanted to make the best film he could. He talks about the interference and lack of faith from the studio, the bond holders and even his own crew. Often he felt that it was “me versus them alone on an island,” a comparison he uses more than once. Overcoming these sorts of hurtles and completing his film was a Herculean effort that is worth respecting.

But Baker is also extremely full of himself. Some might remember him from The Amazing Race 6 which he ran with his then-wife Victoria Fuller and became one of the most hated contestants in the history of the show, allegedly shoving his wife to the ground in anger after losing a foot race to the rest stop for one of the legs in Paris. While Baker maintained that he would never hit his wife (and the tape is inconclusive as to whether she lost her footing or if he shoved her), he certainly verbally abused her throughout the race. He seems a lot calmer now.

Getting back to the present, Baker drops names incessantly, particularly that of Warren Beatty whom he characterizes as his mentor – not once but at least a good half a dozen times during the film. He also mentions that he owns Beatty’s first house, which he claims that the legendary actor/director wouldn’t have sold to just anybody. We’ll just have to take your word on that one, Mr. Baker.

So much of the movie we’re made to watch Baker walking down streets, walking in parks, sitting in an editing bay…at times it is difficult to figure out whether this is meant to be an instructional documentary or a biographical one, omitting his stint on The Amazing Race which brought him notoriety and fame enough that likely opened a few doors for him.

Baker’s advice often comes off as a means of pumping himself up, to illustrate that he had the inner strength and purity of vision to withstand all of the obstacles and in honesty those obstacles were considerable. When he concentrates on the other directors and their experiences – even on his own experiences – the movie is at its best. When we hear the actors on his single feature film describe what it’s like to work with the Iconic (eventually) Jonathan Baker, or hear Baker talking about how talented and strong in character he is, well, it comes off more like a love letter to himself.

Director Neal Thibedeau doesn’t do himself any favors by inserting as many random issues that are sometimes only tangentially related to what’s being discussed onscreen as possible. He also managed to get a soundtrack which sounds like it belongs on a 1980s action film, preferably one based on G.I. Joe. The two elements together take a movie that needs all the help it can get and lets it drown in shallow water.

Not to discount Baker’s accomplishment in getting his film made, but it should be noted that Inconceivable carries with it a Rotten Tomatoes score of 31, not a number that speaks of a natural talent immediately making waves. Baker has a considerable distance to go before becoming iconic – even some of the directors interviewed here are experienced rather than iconic. That’s not to say that Baker one day won’t make amazing, insightful award-worthy films but in the meantime it might serve him well to remember that along with a healthy ego a good director needs humility as well.

REASONS TO GO: Hearing some of the stories by the likes of Foster, Hackford, Lyne and Badham is invaluable particularly to budding filmmakers but also budding leaders of other fields as well.
REASONS TO STAY: The name-dropping and self-promotion wears one down. This may come off a little bit as “Movie Directing 101” for first year film students. There are a lot of visual non-sequiturs and the soundtrack is inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing Baker is in pre-production on his second feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Islam and the Future of Tolerance