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

Wonder


Julia Roberts with her new leading man.

(2017) Dramedy (Lionsgate) Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon, Daveed Diggs, Ty Consiglio, Kyle Breitkopf, James Hughes, J. Douglas Stewart, Millie Davis, Ali Liebert, Joseph Gordon, Cameron Roberts, Nadji Jeter, Danielle Rose Russell, Erika McKitrick, Sonia Braga, Nicole Oliver. Directed by Stephen Chbosky

 

Going to a new school can be traumatic even in the best of circumstances. Throw in that you know – without any doubt whatsoever – that you are for certain going to be bullied. How much more traumatic does that make things?

Auggie (Tremblay) is in that exact situation. He’s not being bullied because of sexual preference, religion or race; Auggie has a disfiguring disease known as Treacher Collins syndrome. The effects of 27 surgeries besides making it necessary for Auggie to be homeschooled have allowed him to breathe and essentially survive but nothing really can change the deformities of his face. They are so pronounced that he’d rather wear an astronaut’s helmet to school which would merely mark him as weird than go barefaced which marks him as a freak.

His loving parents – Nate (Wilson), the cool dad we all wanted and Isabel (Roberts), the über-protective Mama Bear – are worried for him. His big sister, teenaged Via (Vidovic) is protective of him but has troubles of her own; her best friend Miranda (Russell) has suddenly shut her out and is off with a much different clique of friends. Forlorn, she signs up for drama class and meets a cute guy Justin (Jeter) who she crushes on and eventually the two begin dating.

Auggie, with his upbeat attitude and intelligence begins to make friends despite the hardships. Jack Will (Jupe) becomes his best friend although Julian (Gheisar) continues to torment him. Still all the people in Auggie’s orbit are trying to make it the best they can but it isn’t easy.

This is based on a bestselling children’s book by RJ Palacio who was inspired to write it when her son whom she had taken out for ice cream was brought to tears by the sight of a kid with Treacher Collins syndrome. The book is very heartwarming and teaches the value of accepting people as they are and the movie follows it pretty closely from a stylistic perspective.

The acting is solid – one might say wonderful – with Tremblay getting particular kudos. Child actors tend to be stiff and hammy but Tremblay plays it with a degree of naturalism that is refreshing. Yeah from time to time he says and does thing that come from the perfect kid school of filmmaking but that’s not on Tremblay, the actor. Considering he has to emote under layers of make-up, something some adults have trouble with, one has to really give the kid kudos. Most of the other performances are strong as well, although I would have wished for more Roberts. It seems a shame to hire her on for a role like this one and not have her in the picture more.

My issue is that a lot of the book – and the movie – is a bit too nice, suffering from too-good-to-be-truism. They all have their weak moments but it’s like the entire movie is populated from characters in a children’s show and it doesn’t feel real or authentic. I needed a little more of both to make this work for me.

Movies that are this emotionally manipulative tend to irritate critics but for some reason critics embraced this one. It got strong scores on Rotten Tomatoes (see below) and while it’s pretty much out of the awards consideration picture, it nonetheless got favorable reviews from both critics and consumers alike. I wish I could join them but this felt a little bit too bland and predictable for me to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Tremblay gives a nice, nuanced performance.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit too vanilla and predictable for my tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of bullying and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The medical name for Auggie’s affliction is mandibulofacial dystosis.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mask
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Strawberry Flavored Plastic

The Conjuring


Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Morganna Bridgers, Zach Pappas, Amy Tipton, Joseph Bishara, Ashley White, Rose Bechtel, Desi Domo. Directed by James Wan

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we know, things we can guess at and things we don’t have a clue about. If the sum total of all that can be known is represented by a volume of War and Peace the collective human knowledge to this point would fit in the first letter on the front cover of the book. Things we don’t know much about – the paranormal – we tend to disbelieve. If it can’t be proven scientifically, the rationale goes, then it isn’t real. Poppycock. Balderdash! All that it means is that we don’t have the wherewithal to prove it at the moment. Our scientific understanding of the paranormal hasn’t reached a point where we can do much more than rule out the mundane. The fact of the matter is, there have been plenty of phenomena captured either anecdotally or on video and for us to say that there’s no such thing as the paranormal is a bit arrogant at best.

One of the first paranormal investigative teams were the Warrens, Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga). Lorraine, a clairvoyant and Ed, who tends to be the more pragmatic of the pair, make a pretty good team. They tell people going in that nearly all of the cases they consult on end up having a non-spiritual explanation. There are the few though that do – and often those cases involve some kind of entity. Something malevolent. Something not human.

The Perron family, on the other hand, are salt of the earth sorts. They’ve just moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse that has enough room for the seven of them – trucker husband Roger (Livingston), his wife Carol (Taylor) and daughters Nancy (McFarland), Christine (King), Cindy (Foy), April (Deaver) and Andrea (Caswell). However, it soon becomes evident that the family isn’t the only tenant of the farmhouse. Things are going bump in the night (more like BANG!), there are disembodied voices of children, things are misplaced and moved at random and the dog refuses to go inside the house. As Roger is frequently away for work Carol is left to protect her daughters and she is beginning to suspect that is something she’ll be unable to do. Desperate, she contacts the Warrens.

At first Ed isn’t very enthusiastic about taking on a new case. In a recent case, Lorraine was endangered and ended up suffering injury and he is very concerned for her well-being. However, even he can’t deny that the Perron family is in grave danger and he and Lorraine just can’t turn their backs on them.

Their investigation leads them to the conclusion that this is not explainable by conventional means; there is a malevolent spirit in the house, that of an accused witch named Bathsheba Sherman who had died by her own hand in the house centuries before. She doesn’t take kindly to strangers in her domicile and she means to get them out by any means necessary.

This is the movie that spun off the recent hit Annabelle and the doll figures in the action in a pre-credits sequence and then later on near the climax of the film. However, she definitely takes a back seat in the movie to the Warrens themselves (although she decidedly makes an impression). Wilson, who has worked with Wan in the Insidious movies is excellent here – Wan seems to bring out the best in him. His chemistry with Farmiga is wonderful; they are completely believable as a married couple. In fact, both married couples have good chemistry. The casting in this movie is impeccable.

Let’s be frank; this movie is as scary as any that has come out in the last few years, maybe the scariest. Wan does this wonderfully, establishing the ordinary and building slowly to the terrifying. He does it in a very matter-of-fact way without resorting to a lot of CGI (most of the effects here are practical). A children’s game of hide and clap turns into something menacing as phantom arms come out of an armoire or a basement to lead players astray. All of this leads to one of the best climaxes in a horror movie that I’ve seen in ages.

If you haven’t seen this one yet, this should be a priority especially during the Halloween season. With a spin-off already under its belt and a sequel on the way, the success of the movie financially is equaled by its success cinematically. While critics tend to give short shrift to horror movies in general, this is the sort of ride that fans tend to love – and make converts out of non-fans. You can add this to your list of horror classics, folks.

WHY RENT THIS: Scary as all get out. Great chemistry between Wilson and Farmiga as well as with Livingston and Taylor. Sets up ordinary and builds nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A raft of 70s-set horror films lately.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of disturbing violence and scenes of intense terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is the third-highest box office opening weekend for an R-rated horror film, behind only Paranormal Activity 3 and Hannibal.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes both on the real life Warrens and the real life Perrons. The surviving Perrons and Lorraine Warren are all interviewed for the disc.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $318M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Amityville Horror
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Five!