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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Safe


Safe

Jason Statham intimidates Catherine Chan into liking his Facebook page.

(2012) Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Robert John Burke, Chris Sarandon, Catherine Chan, Anson Mount, James Hong, Sandor Tecsy, Joseph Sikora, Igor Jijikine, Reggie Lee, James Colby, Matt O’Toole, Barry Bradford, Jay Giannone. Directed by Boaz Yakin

 

Redemption isn’t easy. It usually requires sacrifice and great risk. You aren’t just handed it; it has to be earned and the greater the transgression, generally the more difficult the redemption.

Luke Wright (Statham) has had what might generously be described as a checkered past. A special forces black ops guy with a set of skills that would make Rambo look like a Disney princess, he had been recruited by the New York City Police Department after 9/11 to help ferret out further terrorist attacks on the Big Apple and eliminate the threats. Permanently.

However he gradually became aware that great corruption had set in his team, led by Captain Wolf (Burke) and Luke blew the whistle. It really didn’t accomplish much other than to get him drummed out of the Force and business as usual resumed. Luke went on to fight in underground MMA fights; however when Luke was enjoined by the Russian mob to take a dive in his fight, the incompetent opponent got himself knocked out before Luke was supposed to take his fall and as a result, the mob murdered his wife and warned him that anyone he befriended would be killed. For several years, Luke lived on the streets alone and anyone who showed him kindness or even attention usually got themselves whacked.

He’d had enough and went to the subway meaning to throw himself in front of a train and finish the job the mob started. However, before he can end it all he sees a little Asian girl being stalked on the platform by the same mobsters who murdered his wife. Unable to stand idly by, he rescues the girl and puts a whole lot of Russian thugs in the morgue.

He discovers the girl’s name is Mei (Chan) and that she’s an orphan gifted with the ability to remember really anything she is told, including really long strings of numbers. She was taken from her home in China by triad boss Han Jiao (Wong) who has set Quan Chang (Lee) to babysit her. Han had recently returned to New York City to give Mei a very long string of numbers to memorize with the instructions that she would soon meet someone who would give her a second very long string of numbers to memorize.

It turns out that one set opens a safe holding $35 million. The other opens a safe that holds a disc containing information of all the Triad’s operations in New York. The Russians will give the contents of one for the contents of the other. The cops want all of it. Everyone’s gunning for this kid and Luke has put himself square in the middle of it.

The results are pretty much carnage; gunfights, martial arts beatdowns, car chases and lots of screaming in Russian, Mandarin and English (well, with a thick New York accent anyway). It’s all good, particularly if you love to see things blow up, things get shot and Jason Statham glowering.

Director Yakin isn’t noted for his action chops but he does a pretty good job here. Action movies need to be kinetic in every sense; the plot has to move along with the action and all things considered, this has a pretty good one. It isn’t anything you haven’t already seen before on either side of the equation – there are no stunts here that take your breath away nor is the plot or story much more than several action classics cobbled together.

Most of those action classics are from the ’70s when the movies tended to be anti-government. Safe harkens back to a day when The Man was literally out to get you and had his goon squads coming down on the innocent, laughing maniacally as they machine gunned innocent civilians. This is little different and only misses big afros, eight track tapes and headbands from those pictures. And maybe Curtis Mayfield on the soundtrack.

Still, Statham is as good at asskicking as any of the 70s heroes (Billy Jack, Shaft, Superfly and so on) and has the Clint Eastwood growl down to boot. The technical end is better as well – this is a pretty good looking film, with plenty of neon, glass breaking and blood spray. Action fans will get their money’s worth and for those who aren’t into action movies? Well, this is as good an introduction to the genre as any but if those sorts of movies aren’t your cup of tea, there isn’t enough else here to really make this worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Jason Statham kicks ass (as usual). A nice throwback to 70s urban paranoia action flicks.

REASONS TO STAY: Nothing here that you haven’t seen before.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, particularly of the gunshot variety and a fair amount of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in a three-film distribution deal between Lionsgate and IM Global, an international productions company that specializes in action films. Dredd and Protection being the other two films in the deal.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. It’s safe to say the reviews have been pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Witness

CAR CHASE LOVERS: There are three distinct car chase scenes during the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Eden Lake


Eden Lake

Kelly Reilly gets a different kind of facial.

(2008) Horror (Third Rail) Kelly Reilly, Michael Fassbender, Tara Ellis, Jack O’Connell, Finn Atkins, Jumayne Hunter, Thomas Turgoose, James Burrows, Thomas Gill, Lorraine Bruce, Shaun Dooley, James Ghandhi, Bronson Webb. Directed by James Watkins

We are trained from birth to jump at things that go bump in the night. We give form to our fears in all sorts of monsters from Godzilla to Dracula. The true horror however lies in the human heart.

Jenny (Reilly) and Steve (Fassbender) are a couple who are taking a weekend trip to an idyllic lake in rural England, a place Steve has happy memories of from his childhood. However when they get there, they discover that an impending development has closed off the lake. Disregarding the “Keep Out” signs, Steve drives into the park-like setting.

The lake doesn’t disappoint – it’s beautiful and placid. However, the couple’s peace and quiet is shattered by a group of teen hoodlums. Led by Brett (O’Connell), they’re mostly obnoxious and a bit intimidating. Rather than moving elsewhere, Steve decides to stay because “they were there first.” Not very mature and not very smart.

Things begin to escalate. The kids steal their car and their things. There are confrontations. They get physical. Brett’s beloved dog is accidentally killed. Things are about to get seriously ugly, and it will be up to Jenny to save them after Steve is seriously injured. Between her is a pack of rabid dogs in kid’s bodies that are baying for her blood.

Watkins makes a film that is a worthy successor to Straw Dogs and other 70s survival movies. Once things get rolling, you will be cringing in your seat and almost begging for the couple to make it. Steve and Jenny are extremely likable and the kids so utterly horrid that there is an easy rooting interest.

Fassbender has come on in recent years to be poised on the edge of stardom, but this movie was made before his higher profile roles of late. His role here is much more of a supporting part; for most of the second half of the movie he is essentially immobile and has few lines. Still, he has an innate likability and it shows onscreen here.

Reilly is really the star of the movie. Jenny is really put through the wringer here – dragged through the mud, burned, stabbed, beaten and betrayed – she is pushed to the limit and beyond. Reilly plays her as a fragile woman who has an inner strength that comes roaring out when cornered. She’s a likable heroine who can also be fierce, pushed to do things that are she must in order to survive.

O’Connell makes for a vicious and brutal gang leader, one of the nastiest to ever be seen on screen. When things get violent, he gets out of control, savaging his own gang members when he doesn’t get his way. O’Connell doesn’t make him sympathetic but he does make him human and not just a cartoon character. The brutality may be extreme but it comes from a realistic place.

This may be an extreme case but there have been reports of incidents of people being set upon by youth gangs in Britain. As things escalate to their conclusion, we can view this as a morality tale that leaves us with a few lessons. First, never underestimate the danger that comes from a pack of people; no matter how young they are. Second, it is a bad idea to stay somewhere when there are clearly dangerous people around, no matter how much it wounds your macho pride. Finally, never come between a boy and his dog. It can only end badly.

WHY RENT THIS: An excellent thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. The leads are attractive.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The brutality can be off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of brutal violence, some nudity and sexuality, a whole lot of foul language and a brief bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turgoose first gained critical notice for the movie This is England.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably made a little bit of money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Other Man