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

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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

New Releases for the Week of November 16, 2018


FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

(Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Zoë Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo. Directed by David Yates

When outlaw wizard Grindelwald escapes custody, he plans to create an army of wizards to make war on the world of Muggles. Standing in his way are Newt Scamander, No-Mag Jacob Kowalsky, Tina Goldstein and an instructor at Hogwart’s by the name of Albus Dumbledore.

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

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, 4DX, DBOX, DBOX 3D, Dolby, IMAX, RPX, RPX 3D, XD
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of fantasy action)

A Private War

(Aviron) Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci. This is the story of Marie Colvin, one of the most respected and admired war correspondents of the 21st century thus far, a woman whose compassion and passion entwined to tell the story of those most affected by war – those caught in the middle. Colvin would go to places few other journalists would dare to tread, including a Syrian town called Homs where she would find a story that would eventually define her.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for disturbing images, language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity)

Boy Erased

(Focus) Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Madelyn Cline. After a Baptist pastor’s son is outed, the community leader in a small conservative town feels that the boy’s only hope of salvation is conversion therapy. Based on a gripping true story, the young man fights to establish his own identity in an environment where he’s told that being the person that he is becoming is a sin.

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: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Plaza Cinema Café, Regal Winter Springs Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square

Rating: R (for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use)

Instant Family

(Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer, Margo Martindale. A couple, exploring foster care adoption, discovers three siblings that they decide to take on. Going from no children to three without any parenting experience is a daunting task at best but throw in a rebellious 15-year-old girl into the mix and they are in over their heads. This is based on writer-director Sean Anders’ own experiences.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

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

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references)

The Public Image is Rotten

(Abramorama) John Lydon, Jah Wobble, Martin Atkins, Lu Edmonds. Johnny Rotten was once the face of punk rock until his band, the Sex Pistols, imploded. Lawsuits and legal chicanery kept him from moving on with his stage name so he adopted the name he was born with and founded Public Image Ltd., a band decidedly different than the one he left. Forty years later it is still a band. This was recently reviewed here on Cinema365 (see link below) and may be the best music documentary you attend this year.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Music Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (Monday only)

Rating: NR

Widows

(20th Century Fox) Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki. When their criminal husbands are killed during a job, their widows are left with the debt their late spouses incurred with people you really don’t want to owe money to. Resolved to get out of the situation, they decide to pull off the heist their husbands couldn’t. This is Oscar winning director Steve McQueen’s first film since his masterwork 12 Years a Slave.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Crime Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Amar Akbar Anthony
The Clovehitch Killer
Speed Kills
Taxiwaala

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

A Sniper’s War
Amar Akbar Anthony
El Angel
The Front Runner
Green Book
Taxiwaala

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

55 Steps
Amar Akbar Anthony
The Children Act
Johny Johny Yes Appa
Sarkar
Taxiwaala

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Amar Akbar Anthony
Taxiwaala

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

The Children Act
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald
The Front Runner
Green Book
Instant Family
The Public Image is Rotten
Widows

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale

New Releases for the Week of October 26, 2018


MID90S

(A24) Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie, Fig Camila Abner. Directed by Jonah Hill

Stevie, a 13-year-old boy living in Southern California in the 1990s, develops a deep friendship with a group of skaters at the local skate shop. They help take his mind off of his troubled home life and teach him life lessons that will serve him well in the next Millennium. Not only is this actor Jonah Hill’s directing debut it is getting some legitimate Oscar buzz off of the film’s Toronto Film Festival appearance just last month.

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

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

Rating: R (for pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use, some violent behavior/disturbing images – all involving minors)

The Guilty

(Magnolia) Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, Omar Shargawi, Johan Olsen. A Copenhagen police officer is put on desk duty at the local emergency call center after an incident in the field. On his last day before he is expected to be cleared for his actions, a call comes in from a terrified woman who has been kidnapped. As the drama unfolds we see this entirely from the point of view of the operator who it turns out has secrets of his own. This was my favorite movie from this year’s Florida Film Festival and if you missed it then, you owe it to yourself to see it now. Not convinced? Follow the link below to my review

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Suspense
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language)

Hunter Killer

(Summit) Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common, Linda Cardellini. An American captain is tasked with the mission of rescuing a kidnapped Russian president from a rogue General and in doing so averting World War III.

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: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence and some language)

Indivisible

(Pure Flix) Justin Bruening, Sarah Drew, Jason George, Tia Mowry-Hardrict. An Army Chaplin serving in Iraq and his wife keeping the home fires burning at home face tribulations and heartache while separated. Neither dreamed that reuniting would be even more of an obstacle as they both wonder if they have the strength left to save their marriage.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material and war violence)

Johnny English Strikes Again

(Focus) Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon. Britain’s greatest spy is called out of retirement when all of the current secret agents are outed by a cyber-spy. To find the mastermind behind the disaster, English must utilize all his experience and skills which is harder than it sounds being as he’s an analogue man in a digital world.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Spy Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for some action violence, rude humor, language and brief nudity)

London Fields

(Paladin/Atlas) Billy Bob Thornton, Amber Heard, Theo James, Jim Sturgess. A terminally ill American writer in London searches for one last story to tell and finds one in Nicola Six, who knows when and how she will be murdered but not who – only that one of them is a man she’s having a relationship with. Based on a Martin Amis novel, this has already been reviewed by Cinema365. Follow the link to the review below

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Mystery
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando

Rating: R (for language including sexual references and brief nudity)

Silencio

(Tulip) John Noble, Rupert Graves, Melina Matthews, Michel Chauvet. In order to save her son’s life, a woman must find a stone with incredible powers in a remote and dangerous part of Mexico. However, there are others after the stone – who would be willing to kill to acquire it.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cobb Plaza Cinema Café, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village, Satellite Ocean Walk

Rating: R (for some violence)

Street Voices

(Duende) El Alfa, Melymel, Vicente Suriel, Shellow Shaq. A trio of talented but poor street kids who love rap decide to pool their talents to realize their musical dreams. Those dreams could come at a high price however.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Urban Musical
Now Playing: Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes

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

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Don’t Go
First Love
Kaashamora
Namaste England
Trabajo Sucio
Veera Bhoga Vasantha Rayalu

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Beautiful Boy
El Pacto
First Love
Glass Jaw
The Happy Prince
Havana Habibi
I Am Not a Witch
Kayamkulam Kochunni
Parkland Inside Building 12
Suspiria (2018)
Trabajo Sucio
Veera Bhoga Vasantha Rayalu

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Air Strike
The School
Trabajo Sucio
Veera Bhoga Vasantha Rayalu

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

The Perfect Wave

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Don’t Go
The Guilty
Hunter Killer
London Fields
Mid90s

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

Manchester by the Sea


Grief is an emotion best shared.

Grief is an emotion best shared.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Jami Tennille Mingo, Anna Baryshnikov, Liam McNeill, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Joe Stapleton, Brian Chamberlain, Christian Mallen, Oscar Wahlberg, Ruibo Qian, Tom Kemp, Chloe Dixon, Matthew Broderick, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

 

Joseph Conrad famously wrote that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but like all aphorisms, it isn’t always true. There are some things, some horrible terrible things, that may not necessarily kill us but they destroy us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They turn us into the living dead, unable to recover, unable to die.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is someone like that. He works as a handyman/janitor in several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, taken for granted and overlooked – and quite happy in that circumstance. He’s good at what he does, but when he gets guff from the tenants he tends to give it right back. He hangs out in bars, ignoring the come-ons of attractive women and then getting into meaningless bar fights, exploding over the slightest provocation.

His routine is disrupted with the news that his big brother Joe (Chandler) has died suddenly. Joe has had heart problems for years so it isn’t completely unexpected but it is still a devastating blow. Both brothers are divorced but Joe does have a son Patrick (Hedges) that lives with him since it turns out that his mom (Mol) is a raging alcoholic. Lee for whatever reason has been unable to forgive her for this. Lee goes back to Manchester-by-the-sea, a North Shore town where he grew up but he has left for good reason.

To Lee’s dismay, it turns out that Joe in his will named Lee as Patrick’s guardian. It also turns out that Joe has left enough money that will assist Lee in paying for things that Patrick will need. Lee has no intention of taking care of Patrick in Manchester – he wants Patrick to finish out the school year and then live with him in Quincy until he goes to college but Patrick balks. His whole life is there in Manchester – two girlfriends and a truly bad garage band – but he doesn’t want to start over, particularly with his Uncle who is taciturn, grim-faced and possessed of an explosive temper that gets him into trouble.

Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) is seeing someone else but seems eager to re-connect with Lee, which Lee seems absolutely against. There are those in town who seem to have some sort of issue with Lee as well; most seem to shy away from him, as if he’s a bomb with a hair trigger. Bit by bit, we discover why Lee has these walls up…but can anything bring them down?

Most Hollywood movies dealing with a broken man (and Lee Chandler is most assuredly broken) who is forced unwillingly to become responsible for a child (although Patrick is 16 years old) usually end up with the broken man being fixed by the experience. Manchester by the Sea is a refreshing change from that trope as Lee is changed, but not fixed. The pain he is in is still there when the movie ends, and it is clear that pain will always be with him – and understandably so. What he has to live with is not something that people can just fix and forget.

Affleck, who in many ways has always been in the shadows of his brother Ben, has emerged with this performance. Oh sure, we always knew he could act – Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and several other examples are proof of that. Here though he is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and is a lock to get at least a nomination. This is the kind of performance that sears the soul of the viewer and stays there; it is a performance one can view again and again and still find something fresh and new about it. It is the step one takes from being a good actor to being a great one, and it is worth celebrating – we can always use great actors and Casey Affleck has become one.

Much of the movie is concerned with grief and how different people experience it. One point that Lonergan makes is that no matter how together someone seems on the surface, eventually that pain must manifest itself in some way or another, either through tears or walls or both. There are several scenes – a late film encounter between Lee and his ex, the moment when Patrick finally breaks down, the aftermath of a tragedy – that are as important as any you’ll see in a movie this year, or any other for that matter.

This is a movie firmly entrenched in working class values. Hollywood has a tendency to either mythologize those values, or condescend towards them. Lonergan does neither; he simply presents them as he sees them and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. He doesn’t shy away from allowing people to think either; there are a lot of concepts here worthy of post-movie discussion and while it can be a hard movie to sit through, it is rewarding because of that reason. The subject matter is heavy and Lonergan refuses to take short cuts or dumb things down.

I know a lot of people mistrust Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elitism and there’s some justification for that. Those people who feel that way should see this movie. It is a celebration of life in the midst of pain and death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of life but it doesn’t wallow in them either. It finds the quiet bravery of just getting up in the morning without making a fuss about it. In short, this is one of the best movies of 2016 and one which you should make every effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A show-stopping performance by Casey Affleck is one of the best of the year. Grief is looked at in an honest and realistic way. The attitude is completely working class in a good way. This film doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally intended for Matt Damon to direct and star in, but conflicts with The Martian forced him to withdraw.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angels Crest
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Vacancy