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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I Melt With You


Never drink alone, Jeremy  Piven.

Never drink alone, Jeremy Piven.

(2011) Drama (Magnolia) Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe, Jeremy Piven, Christian McKay, Carla Gugino, Sasha Grey, Zander Eckhouse, Abhi Sinha, Arielle Kebbel, Tom Bower, Joe Reegan, August Emerson, Rebecca Creskoff, Melora Hardin, Anthony Newfield, Tom Donald, Emma Friedman, David Lowe, Natalia Nogulich. Directed by Mark Pellington

Regret is a powerful drug, more addictive than cocaine and more destructive than heroin. As we reach middle age it becomes a drug we are less and less able to resist.

Four friends from college have reached that plateau. They meet every year for a weekend to party like rock stars and remember the good old days. All of them seem successful on the surface  but are living lives of quiet desperation. Ron (Piven) is a Wall Street hotshot who is under SEC investigation and will doubtlessly be arrested when he returns home. Jonathan (Lowe) is a physician whose practice consists mostly of prescribing drugs to Beverly Hills housewives who don’t need them and whose daughter identifies more with her mom’s new husband than with her dad.

Then there’s Richard (Jane), a published author who did get his book published but has been unable to write anything since and is teaching high school English to make ends meet. Finally there’s Tim (McKay), openly bisexual whose relationship with a couple turned tragic when the other two people in the relationship died in a car accident.

All of these men are at crisis points in their lives and are turning to self-medication, self-loathing and self-examination to try and figure out what went wrong, or better still to numb the pain. They also turn to sex, bringing home a waitress and her friends. During the debauchery, one of the four friends abruptly commits suicide, leaving as a note a suicide pact the four of them made in college to the effect of if they were disappointed by life when they reached middle age, they would agree to kill themselves and thus avoid further disappointments in old age.

After burying their friend, the survivors decide to hide the evidence of his deed just in case the police assigned them responsibility for his action after reading his note. However, his act and the justification for it is weighing heavily on each of their minds.

This is one of those movies that is made with the best of intentions but doesn’t quite make the grade. Pellington and writer Glenn Porter intended this to be a journey into the male psyche, but as a male I can tell you this wasn’t a journey into MY psyche. These guys mistake taking lots of drugs, drinking lots of alcohol and having lots of sex as a trip down memory lane reclaiming their lost youth. While I’ve known guys like that, I’ve never seen anyone with this degree of denial.

Part of the problem is that the dialogue is so bloody pretentious. Real people don’t speak like this. I can have deep conversations with my buddies about the meaning of life and manhood and all that without sounding like Diablo Cody on Quaaludes. The pacing is leaden and the dramatic tension is nil. By the time all the excrement goes down you’re not much caring what happens to who.

I will say that the actors give this thing the old college try. Piven in particular is meritorious, doing some of his best work with his sad, trapped animal eyes. He has a tendency to play characters who are just this side of being a jerk, but who are nonetheless compelling for all that.

The soundtrack, mainly made up of 80s college rock standards, rocks the house. Adam Sandler would get a chubby listening to it. Seriously, if you like the ’80s you’re going to find one or two songs that you’re going to go “Oh yeah, I really need to download that to my iPhone.”

I really wish this had been written a bit better. Pellington spoke in the press notes of wanting to provoke a polarization and I suppose that there is some value in that, in the initiating a conversation sense. After seeing this though, I really didn’t want to talk about any of it; I just wanted to forget it and move on.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive soundtrack. The four main leads are solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cringe-worthy, pretentious dialogue. Ponderous pacing and lacks any sort of reason for the audience to get involved.

FAMILY VALUES: The drug use here is pretty pervasive as is the foul language. There is also some sexual content and a little bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot chronologically in order for the actors to see and feel the consequences of their character’s actions.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are close to six hours of extra features and not a one of ’em rises up beyond the usual, although a couple of guerilla promotional pieces from Piven and Jane nearly do.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,361 on an unknown production budget; probably didn’t make back the catering costs, let alone the production costs..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bachelor Party

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Back to the Future II

Side Effects


Is this what depression looks like?

Is this what depression looks like?

(2013) Psychological Thriller (Open Road) Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer, Vinessa Shaw, Michael Nathanson, Sheila Tapia, Ann Dowd, Debbie Friedlander, Polly Draper, Marin Ireland, Katie Lowes, Elizabeth Rodriguez. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a society we’re drug-happy. Our physicians and psychiatrists prescribe willy-nilly and Big Pharma encourages them to. Modern American medicine has largely become a matter of knowing what pill to prescribe. That’s not to deny there haven’t been serious advances in pharmaceuticals – but the question has to be asked if we rely on them overly much.

You would think Emily Taylor (Mara) would be happy. Her husband Martin (Tatum) is getting out of prison after doing four years for insider trading. Sure, their lives which had been all about privilege and pampering had gone to a more hand-to-mouth lifestyle but at least they’re together. Emily though suffers from depression and after a failed suicide attempt is sent to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), an expatriate Brit plying his psychiatric trade on American shores.

Various prescriptions of anti-depressants prove to be ineffective until Jonathan runs into Emily’s former shrink Dr. Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones) at a conference. They discuss her condition and Victoria recommends Ablixa, a fairly new drug, as an alternative (she’s even got a promotional pen to give him). Dr. Banks agrees to give it a try.

At first it’s everything advertised; Emily feels a lot better, her sex drive has returned and things are looking rosy. There are a few blips on the radar – she’s sleepwalking which is a common side effect of Ablixa but that’s not worth stopping the treatment. That’s when a tragedy occurs that changes everything, turning Emily’s life upside down and calling into question Dr. Banks’ abilities as a psychiatrist and threatening to destroy his life as well.

Soderbergh excels in these sorts of psychological thrillers and while this isn’t his best, it’s still a solid effort. He has a strong cast (particularly among the lead four) and casts Law perfectly into a role he specializes in. Law is equally adept at playing heroes and villains, largely because he is a bit twitchy to begin with but is also likable. That serves him well here as he is somewhat morally ambiguous although clearly he’s also having his strings pulled.

Mara has only had three leading roles thus far but she’s been excellent in all of them and here she plays a completely different character than her last big part – seemingly mousy, frightened of the world and everything in it, somewhat high maintenance. She’s a bit of an enigma and the movie relies on her being so. Plenty of actresses can be enigmatic but Mara makes her engaging enough that you want to see her get better, want to protect her and take care of her. That’s exactly what the part calls for.

Longtime readers know I’m not especially a fan of Tatum’s acting but in all honesty he does pretty darn well here. He’s certainly morally ambiguous – all of the characters are, a Soderbergh trademark – but he’s also much more warm and likable than I’ve ever seen him. I might just have to revise my opinion about the man.

Zeta-Jones has of late done some fine character acting. She’s still as beautiful as ever but her range has always been much greater than she’s been given credit for and she gets to stretch it a bit here. I’ve always liked her as an actress and she’s given me no reason to think differently now.

While well-written and even brilliant in places, writer Scott Z. Burns falters in the middle third. However the beginning and the last 25 minutes or so are taut and imaginative. You may see some of the solution coming but it’s unlikely you’ll see the whole picture unless you’re pretty damn clever and observant. This is an effective thriller that is sharp, brainy and sexy – everything you want in the genre. That’s not as common as you’d expect.

REASONS TO GO: Skillfully written thriller. Law and Mara deliver fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity to skewer Big Pharma. Middle third muddles about a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sex, a bit of nudity, a surfeit of foul language and some sudden and graphic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Soderbergh has said that this will be his final feature film as a director (he’s currently putting the finishing touches on a premium cable mini-series) although he hasn’t ruled out coming back to the profession in the future.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100; the film has been getting good reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Firm

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Warm Bodies