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
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Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story


Glamour was Kevyn Aucoin’s business.

(2017) Documentary (The Orchard) Kevyn Aucoin, Isaac Mizrahi, Christy Turlington Burns, Jeremy Antunes, Brooke Shields, Carol Alt, Cindy Crawford, Cher, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Paula Porizkova, Amy Sidaris, Isabella Rossellini, Tori Amos, Carla Aucoin Hoffkins, Eddie Greene, Garren, Scottie, Sandy Lintner, Keith Aucoin, Todd Oldham, Paul Cavaco, Linda Wells. Directed by Tiffany Bartok

 

Women have worn make-up for largely thousands of years but it is only relatively recently that it has evolved into being an art form. One of the people responsible for that evolution is Kevyn Aucoin (the last name pronounced AH-Kwan).

Kevyn, one of four adopted children, grew up in the less-than-accepting burg of Shreveport, Louisiana. From an early age he had a thing about fashion magazines like Vogue and the musical styling of Barbra Streisand. It was not surprising that he became openly gay which was not exactly looked favorably upon by the citizens and youth of Shreveport. Kevyn was bullied, sometimes brutally, scars which stayed with him all through the rest of his life.

Aucoin went on to New York and through sheer force of will hooked on at Vogue. The rest, as they say, was history. He would grow to be the first celebrity make-up artist, penning books sharing his beauty secrets. He was one of the pioneers of contour make-up – essentially using colors to shape a face – and he revolutionized how women apply make-up in the process.

He was an outspoken activist for LBGTQ+ causes and worked tirelessly for gay rights. Sadly though, he developed a glandular tumor which led to an addiction to opioids and an early grave at the age of 40. Still, while his candle didn’t burn quite as long, it burned much more brightly than perhaps even he had hoped for.

This doc on his life features a plethora of testimonials from family, clients and friends and some of the interviews are absolutely delightful. His sister talks about him using her as a canvas to practice his techniques on when they were in high school, while some of his early models talk about his drive and his absolute fearlessness. He had a vision for what he was going to become and he pursued it as relentlessly as he could.

Aucoin was also an obsessive record keeper; he filled journals with notes and diagrams while he utilized video cameras to document all the fabulous aspects of his life – and let’s face it, he did define fabulous for an entire generation of gay men and women of all persuasions. He was the king of make-up artists during the 1980s, arguably the most make-up heavy era in American history. Because he did so much work on music videos, Aucoin was a heavy influence on how people looked whether they were going out to dance at the clubs or headed out for school.

The perceptions of what beauty was did change over time and Kevyn did change with the times even if he was no longer quite as influential as he was at the height of his career. While the documentary stops just shy of being hagiographic – it does cover his drug addiction and resulting personality change fairly clinically – it does approach fawning territory upon occasion. Perhaps though that makes it more heartbreaking as we see him becoming less easy to work with, less fun to be around. The pain from his cancer and from late growth spurts took its toll and led to his untimely death as the pills he took that basically allowed him to function took over his life.

It bears mentioning that Kevyn was fairly promiscuous but he did find his one true love – Jeremy Antunes whom he married and spent the last years of his life with despite Kevyn’s often difficult behavior. It also bears mentioning – since the film didn’t do it – that after Kevyn passed Jeremy was locked out of the home he shared with his husband by Kevyn’s family. Yeah, it might be water under the bridge and the parties involved might be reluctant to reopen old wounds but it should have been at least mentioned. It was the kind of thing ironically that Kevyn was fighting against.

Still, Aucoin isn’t the household name he perhaps deserves to be. He was a giant in his industry, comparable to Michael Jordan or Meryl Streep. On a strictly human level, this is a story of an outsider who fought his way to the very inside; it’s a story anyone can relate to. This documentary, while unremarkable, does at least a solid job of presenting his life and why he is deserving of a feature film. Bartok could have used a little more editing – it feels like some of the interviews regurgitate the same platitudes – but all in all this is a lot more satisfying a film than I expected it to be.

REASONS TO GO: The film looks at make-up as an art form.
REASONS TO STAY: The run time is way too long and the appeal mainly to a niche audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the clients that Aucoin worked with who weren’t interviewed for the film were Oprah Winfrey, Janet Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Halle Berry and Madonna, to name just a few.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon,  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil Wears Prada
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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