Film Review: “Ben is Back”

Starring: Lucas Hedges, Julia Roberts and Kathryn Newton
Directed By: Peter Hedges
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
LD Entertainment

“Ben is Back” starts out well-intentioned enough, but by the end it comes off as a hyper-exploitive freak out. The movie, a day in the life of the Burns’ family, tackles the dire issue of opioids from several different angles. Sometimes it tackles it in very realistic terms, specifically the pain and awkwardness it can create for families in its wake. However, it predominantly tackles it like a daytime soap opera, with the gauche touch of those 80’s drug PSAs.

Ben (Hedges) has unexpectedly returned home on Christmas Eve. His younger siblings, who have no memory of the terrifying nights he put his family through, are happy to see him; His sister and mother not so much. Holly (Roberts), Ben’s mom, immediately goes to work hiding drugs that could trigger her son’s addiction, as well as jewelry and other sellable knick knacks, just in case he’s already relapsed. It’s in these opening moments that the film is emotionally riveting by not holding back on any of its emotional gut punches. Then it starts going off the rails when Holly confronts Ben’s old doctor at the mall and tells him that she hopes he rots in Hell. Merry Christmas from the Burns family!

To dive into the specifics of why “Ben is Back” continues to fall off the wagon, and hard, would be to ruin the film’s second act, which feels more like another movie with the same actors was flipped on in the projector booth. What should have been a harrowing story about addiction, becomes an even more over-the-top “August: Osage County,” involving drugs and crime. There are also several moments where I can just hear Nancy Reagan bemoaning the horrors of addiction and paralyzing viewers with fear that we too can suffer every feasible scenario from just one night of drug use.

It’s not that the things that happen to and around Ben, haven’t happened before or could happen to an addict and their families, but it’s the frequency, severity, and occurrence of which it happens in “Ben is Back” that’s laughable. I half expected Walter White of “Breaking Bad” to pop-up and tell Ben to stay out of his territory. That’s how comically bad it gets. Because of the dire subject matter though, it takes a veteran actor or two to wring out any semblance of seriousness in the script.

No matter how bad the dialogue gets, Roberts and Hedges tow a fine line to keep their characters within the realm of “maybe this could happen.” It’s actually quite impressive seeing Hedges go toe-to-toe with Roberts when they argue or clash. I couldn’t imagine anyone else, in either role, pulling off the same acting acrobatics and making it remotely watchable. In that regard, “Ben is Back” is admirable in its dramatic attempts. Like I said, it’s well intentioned and the first 30 to 40 minutes are good, but sometimes the best of intentions can hurt the cause you’re reportedly fighting for.

Film Review: “Roma”

Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira and Fernando Grediaga
Directed By: Alfonso Cuaron
Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
Netflix

You know the phrase, “a slice of Americana,” or at the least the variations of it? In pop-culture it’s used to describe pop-culture that capture a moment in time, with the values and ideas reflected in the American characters on screen. Classics like “The Best Years of Our Lives” or “A Christmas Story” come to mind, while its contemporary cohorts are films like “Mudbound” or “Friday Night Lights.” Alfonso Cuaron’s latest movie, “Roma,” could be called a slice of Mexicana.

Cuaron returns to his roots in “Roma,” a film about Sofia’s (Tavira) strained household in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Living under the roof is Sofia’s four children, her mother, her “husband,” and two maids. The drama involving Sofia and her husband, who are separating, is placed on the backburner to stew to its natural boiling point towards the end of the movie. But one of her maids, Cleo (Aparicio), is surprisingly the core drama for most of the film. That’s because Cleo believes she’s pregnant and once she shares this news with her boyfriend, he quickly abandons her in the worst possible way. Unfortunately things don’t get any better for Cleo.

So much transpires in such little time, and sometimes in such few words, that “Roma” feels like the most poignant chapter of an autobiography. At face value, there’s nothing extraordinary about the people in the Sofia household, but because Cuaron captures the seesawing family dynamics so perfectly, it’s hard to look away during some of the film’s simplest scenes. It also makes some of the most emotionally devastating scenes, and there are several, much more impactful and riveting.

The actors in “Roma,” who’ve never starred in anything before or aren’t household names in the U.S., but are in Mexico, are outstanding here. Kudos to Cuaron for finding Aparico, who effortlessly handles the hefty amount of emotion, her character demands. This is her first role and certainly won’t be her last. The multi-layered maternal roles that Aparico and Tavira tackle are difficult, but their performances are nuanced and subtle, but speak volumes about gender roles, whether it be in society as a whole or in the Sofia household.

While Cuaron broke visual ground in “Gravity,” he proves to be an equally captivating director with the classic panoramic format, capturing rarely before seen beauty in the black and white picture. Even in monochromatic, the city streets pop, the seaside is picturesque, and the surrounding mountains have never looked more beautiful. Nearly every facet of “Roma” has been meticulously groomed by Cuaron, whose letting us watch him blow a kiss to his native land as tears fall from his eyes.

Film Review: “The Favourite”

Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz
Directed By: Yorgos Lanthimos
Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

I’ve mentioned every time that I’ve had to review a period piece film, that I’m not the right person to critique it. Generally as a film critic, it’s a good rule of thumb to appreciate cinema in all its forms, genres and approaches. But that’s a little too idealistic. We all have that genre, actor, director, etc. that just don’t click with us and never will. That’s why I have to say that “The Favourite” has broken me of period piece films. It’s not that I’ve finally found one I like; it’s just that the film does such a good job of subverting what’s expected of the genre in a wildly amusing way. This is good news for those, like me, who don’t like the genre, but also those who eat it up and are looking for something fresh.

“The Favourite” takes place during a time where Britain is at war with France (when haven’t they been? amirite?) where a frail Queen Anne (Colman) appears more concerned about her gout flare ups than young British men dying on foreign soil. Sarah Churchill (Weisz) is her right hand woman, and secret lover, who generally handles all the matters of the Kingdom through whispers in Queen Anne’s ear. Trouble arrives in the form of Sarah’s younger cousin, Abigail Hill (Stone). While eager to work and toil in the belly of the castle, Abigail shows cunning and treachery that could spoil Sarah’s seat at Queen Anne’s side.

“The Favourite” is the kind of film that understands the tropes of the genre so much, that it employs them in a mocking fashion that also moves the story along. There’s certain elegance to the film’s crass humor. Maybe it’s because men in whigs and women in dresses are the one’s slinging four letter words along with the mud. They curtsy through insults and stab each other in the back with such kindness; you can’t help but laugh at their acts of sheer folly. The humor, while prevalent throughout, quickly grows dark as the stakes get increasingly dramatic.

There is a lot of high intrigue between the triad of woman. None of them seem to know what the other is up to, but in moments of vain anger and sheer depravity, they seem to understand what each other are up to. It’s almost like Queen Anne understands the sheer depravity of what the two women underneath her are doing because she’s getting off on it. Meanwhile, the women underneath Queen Anne understand what’s at stake if they don’t put their claws away and know that whoever blinks first will ultimately lose a seat at the Royal table.

There’s some adjacent storylines, but they’re just not as enthralling as the cat fight unfolding on screen. That’s thanks to some rich performances by the three leading ladies involved, who manage to create characters that can be easily hated and loved, all in the same scene. It’s almost like each one is attempting to steal an acting award, just as their character is looking to steal the throne away. The acting and witty script combine for highly amusing put downs and treachery. “The Favourite” is savage, nasty and cleverly funny.

Film Review: “Mary Queen of Scots”

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, Joe Allwyn, Jack Lowden
Directed by: Josie Rourke
Rated: R
Running Time: 124 minutes
Focus Features

By many accounts Mary Queen of Scots had a tragic life. The monarch was widowed at eighteen and eventually beheaded decades later only after nineteen years in captivity in England. She can easily be seen as a victim of the machinations of the men who surrounded her. The film version of her life however, from lauded stage director Josie Rourke and scripted by “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon, would not have you simplify it as such. Instead, the film Mary Queen of Scots, presents an intimate portrayal of a passionate young woman navigating the troubled political waters of both Scotland and England. Although at times it can be hard to keep track of everyone in play, Rourke delivers a strong, richly designed film lead by a confident Saoirse Ronan.

Rourke’s take on Mary benefits heavily by opening up its scope to include the simultaneously eventful reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). From the opening of the film, we know both that Mary’s very existence threatened Elizabeth’s claim to her throne and that Mary would be condemned to die by that same cousin. Yet, with this is mind, the film never quite pits them against each other. Instead Rourke is able to take a more modern look at how each of them faced no-win choices when being challenged by contemporaries frowning upon female rulers. Elizabeth for her part is always wary of taking a husband or providing the heir that her privy council demands while Mary is viewed as a harlot for doing exactly that—but the wrong husband. This dichotomy of the spinster and the slut stereotypes is keenly observed by Rourke and never too on the nose.

Among the menfolk in this story is where I found some difficulty keeping up. It’s a little difficult at first to grasp onto which lord or musician giving Meaningful Looks from the shadows will evolve into an actual relationship for these women. They can be a bit of a blur of beards. Often times when they were talked about while off screen, I regretted not doing a quick wikipedia read of Mary to get a handle on which of them really warranted attention. Still, David Tennant as a vicious Scot priest set firmly against Mary is a snarly delight in this crowd. Buoying every performance, it cannot be understated, is some truly beautiful costume design by Alexandra Byrne .

Finally of course though, the film rests heavy upon its titular monarch and even though she shares much of the marketing with Robbie, this is Ronan’s film. She is by turns steely and vulnerable, whether on the battlefield or in the private company of her lifelong handmaidens. Rourke’s film shines when it spends more intimate time with Mary than many period films usually do with their subjects. Meanwhile, Ronan seizes her titular responsibility with relish and infuses Mary with such conviction that I was rooting for her even as I knew she was doomed. 

Film Review: “Fantastic Beasts : The Crimes of Grindelwald”

 

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston
Directed by: David Yates
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hrs 14 mins
Warner Bros.

Is “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” fantastic or criminal? The answer falls somewhere in the middle. This second installment of what is intended to be a series of “Fantastic Beasts” films, all from the mind of “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling, is a long-winded tale that lacks the charm of its 2016 predecessor. The story is predictably darker in tone, but a bulk of the over two-hour running time is a snooze fest.

Set in 1927, “Crimes of Grindelwald” begins excitingly enough as we watch Johnny Depp play the steely fanatical villain Gellert Grindelwald, regarded as one of the two most powerful wizards around, make a daring yet well-planned escape from the British Ministry of Magic. That’s when the story comes to a screeching halt as we are then forced into the world of mild-mannered Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he tries to get his international travel ban lifted.

Not much has changed with our hero since the original – he refuses to take sides, rarely makes eye contact with anyone, and has trouble communicating with the opposite sex. Newt is offered the chance to work alongside his brother for the Ministry of Magic in order to locate the powerful yet troubled Obscurial Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, “Justice League”), but he refuses. However, he cannot turn down his former teacher Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) so he travels secretly to Paris with his Muggle sidekick in-tow, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who’s fighting with wizard girlfriend Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).

It’s all rather sluggish and overly contrived as we are bombarded with a dizzying array of plot points for not only this film, but also for the “Fantastic Beasts” sequels that are already planned. There is little in the way of suspense even though more and more characters are introduced who are trying to find Credence for a variety of reasons, some more mysterious or nefarious than others. Rowling’s story also tries to rekindle the endearing romance in the first film between Newt and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Unfortunately, Rowling’s screenplay fails as their bumbling stumbling relationship feels like something straight out of a TV sitcom.

The character of Newt ends up becoming a boring, overshadowed distraction instead of a hero as we are left with wanting more of Law and Depp. Both are a treat to watch on the silver screen with Law successfully being able to make his own mark on a character already forged in the minds of “Harry Potter” followers by Michael Gambon and the late Richard Harris. Depp delivers one of his better performances as Grindelwald as he stays away from being overly quirky and gives his character a magnetic solemnity.

The pace is picked up in the last third of “Crimes of Grindelwald” as secrets are revealed, characters die, and those still living chose sides. Plenty of magical special effects abound but none are necessarily ground breaking or spell binding. Maybe it’s a sophomore slump and the “Fantastic Beasts” series will get better, but in the meantime it’s a disappointing pill to swallow.

Film Review: “Overlord”

OVERLORD
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell
Directed by: Juluis Avery
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 39 mins
Paramount
 
Produced by J.J. Abrams, “Overlord” is not your father’s John Wayne-type World War II flick. Other than the title being derived from Operation Overlord, the codename for the June 6, 1944 Battle of Normandy, best known as D-Day, “Overlord” has little to do with the actual invasion. A mix of action, horror and science fiction, “Overlord” contains a predictable storyline with a degree of vagueness high enough to undermine the plot. However, watching crazy, evil Nazis getting blown apart by the good guys is always excellent fun to watch.
 
The first third of “Overlord” is the most intense of the film as planes full of American paratroopers are flying into Nazi-controlled France on the eve of D-Day. Their mission, as ridiculous as it sounds, is to knock out a singular German radio tower or else the Allied invasion will fail. It’s a chaotic, tense-filled scene as the American fleet tries to survive withering anti-aircraft fire from German positions. Director Julius Avery (“Son of a Gun”) does a wonderful job of making us feel like we are on the plane with lots of shaky camera work. We can almost smell the vomit and the fear.
 
From the moment we meet him we know that Pvt. Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo, “Fences”) is going to be the story’s hero even though he doesn’t have the respect of many of his fellow soldiers. He is especially harassed by Pvt. Tibbet (John Magaro, “Not Fade Away”), a sniper whose bad faux-accent is as annoying as nails on a chalkboard. Amidst the plane’s green soldiers is brooding explosives expert Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell, “22 Jump Street”), the obvious grizzled veteran who doesn’t take any guff from anyone.
 
Eventually it comes down to just four GIs, including our three named American heroes, who must find a way to sneak into the heavily guarded radio tower, which sits on top of a French church. Pvt. Boyce stumbles his way inside, but once there he discovers horrific experiments are being conducted on French villagers, American soldiers, and even dead Germans. Think Captain America soldier serum meets “The Walking Dead.” Some sort of mysterious liquid underneath the church is being refined by a Nazi scientist to make invincible soldiers, which isn’t that the goal of every evil scientist in a war-related movie? Yawn.
 
Ultimately, our heroes, with the assistance of a local girl (Mathilde Ollivier, “The Misfortunes of Francois Jane”), must save the test subjects and destroy the tower while trying to evade a sadistic Nazi officer (Pilou Asbaek, “Game of Thrones”). Oh, and don’t forget they are to ensure that D-Day succeeds.
 
“Overlord” sometimes feels like a version of the Wolfenstein video game, only with slightly better acting. The intensity of the beginning is lost because of predictability and near-campiness of the story. The plot is paper thin with a climax that unfolds like a B-movie. Still, “Overlord” is a bit of a guilty pleasure so get plenty of popcorn.

Film Review: “Widows”

Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki
Directed By: Steve McQueen
Rated: R
Running Time: 129 minutes
20th Century Fox

“Widows” begins with Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his partners in crime meeting a quick, fiery end, before we even really get to know any of them. But we quickly learn that the ripples from their deaths have major implications on a bitter election campaign in one of Chicago’s most blighted neighborhoods, along with millions in dirty money that needs to be repaid. Unfortunately caught up in all this, is three grieving widows. Veronica (Davis), Rawlings’ widow, decides to use a notebook left behind by her late husband, detailing his next planned heist, to prevent herself from being another victim.

“Widows” is the kind of movie we’ve seen before. Any number of political thrillers, revenge, or crime and heist movies come to mind. But what makes “Widows” unique is how much it subverts tropes or incorporates them into themes that touch upon racism, police brutality, class warfare, gender politics, and more. Sometimes the themes are heavy, layered on thick so that a general audience can understand. Other times they’re casually sprinkled in, only coming through the film’s visual aesthetics or the director’s incorporated camera techniques.

The blueprint for “Widows” could have easily been used to craft a well-made summertime popcorn flick that would have delighted the masses. “Widows” will still delight those masses, but it’s nourishing because of the sustenance it finds in the script and it’s performances. When the film could have easily told the audience what’s happening, it shows it. And when the actors could have easily read through plot points and pertinent topics, they etch everything we need to know on their faces and through their actions.

Davis, who should seriously be on everyone’s radar in Hollywood by now, channels a primal feminine rage about the destruction left behind by the men in her life, whether it be personal or circumstantial. Rodriguez and Debicki, playing the other two widows brought in for the all-female heist, feed off of Davis’ energy. Even in scenes where Davis’ is paired alongside any of her male cohorts, she seems to tower above them in terms of dramatic acting chops.

There is no small role in “Widows” as the likes of Colin Farrell, Jacki Weaver, Matt Walsh, and others provide another layer for viewers to peel back. The nuances of every role in this film beef up the main players, but also supply much life to an already bleak backdrop. Steve McQueen has entered the mainstream with a stellar ensemble crime heist film that interjects weighty thematic material that’s easily digestible and relevant. “Widows” is one of the must-see films of the years, for general audiences and cinephiles.

Film Review: “The Old Man and the Gun”

THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN
Starring: Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek
Directed by: David Lowery
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 33 mins
Fox Searchlight
 
Jesse James. Cole Younger. Billy the Kid. Bonnie and Clyde. All were criminals who robbed and murdered their way into history thanks to being turned into distorted Robin Hoods by dime store novels, bleeding newspaper headlines, and eventually a variety of movies. The supposed glory days of stickup artists arguably ended by the time the 1940s rolled around, yet one man named Forrest Tucker (1920-2004), who had a flair for the dramatic, probably stole more than all the aforementioned bandits combined. His life of crime, which began at the age of 15, is detailed in the current drama “The Old Man and the Gun,” starring Robert Redford in the alleged last acting gig of his career. Redford goes out with a bang in a performance that is charming and engrossing.
 
Written and directed by David Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), “The Old Man and the Gun” is based upon a January 27, 2003 article of the same name in “The New Yorker” by American journalist David Grann. Like the title implies, we meet Tucker in his older years when he should be enjoying retirement somewhere sunny or at the very least staying out of trouble with the law. However, we quickly discover that Tucker cannot give up the thing he loves the most no matter what his age is. With fellow thieves Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) in tow as part of what the press dubs the Over the Hill Gang, Tucker continues a nationwide bank heist spree in 1981 that garners the attention of detective and family man John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Hunt and Tucker are complete opposites of each other, but there is a bit of mutual respect as a cat-and-mouse game evolves before Hunt’s case is taken over by the feds.
 
In the middle of it all, Tucker encounters Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a single woman with a small horse farm in the country. He beguiles her with his charm, which Redford fleshes out effortlessly in scenes not only with Spacek, but also in scenes when Tucker is holding up banks with smiles and courtesy. Their chemistry on the silver screen is tangible and watching these two acting masters at work is a special cinematic treat to be savored like a fine wine. Of course, their relationship becomes more complicated when she discovers his real line of work, which is growing increasingly perilous as he continues to take chances despite mounting press coverage of his crimes.
 
Lowery has crafted a wonderful little film that flows smoothly from beginning to end with great acting and solid dialogue. Waits is subtly fantastic as a hardened tough guy while Glover quietly plays a worrywart and Affleck is solid in a nice supporting role. Beneath the entertaining Hollywood veneer, though, is a man who was in and out of jail his entire life, which included 18 alleged successful escapes from various detention centers and prisons. The film glides by how many lives were adversely affected by Tucker’s criminal activities and it only gives a brief nod to what happened to his family. Much like the dime store novels of the 19th century, “The Old Man and The Gun” sentimentalizes Tucker by taking a lot of dramatic license with reality. So much so that Tucker achieves a certain level of sympathetic status that whitewashes the fact he was a habitual criminal.

Film Review: “Museo”

MUSEO
Starring: Gael García Bernal
Directed by: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 2 hrs 8 mins
Vitagraph
 
Every so often a work of cinema is created that is so fantastic and brilliant that it belongs in a museum where it can be forever enshrined. The new Mexican drama “Museo” is not one of those films. “Museo” is the tale of the 1985 robbery of Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology during which over 100 pre-Columbian artifacts were stolen. Never mind the recognition it received at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival, “Museo,” misfiring on nearly every cylinder, is two hours-worth of distorted history, obnoxious musicality, bad writing and directing.
 
The son of a successful doctor, Juan Nuñez (Gael García Bernal, “Y Tu Mamá Tambien,” “Mozart in the Jungle”) is dissatisfied with his upper middle-class lifestyle and family. He claims to be studying for a degree veterinary medicine, but it appears to be a lifelong pursuit because he lacks all motivation to finish. The same is true for his best friend, Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris). While Benjamin may not have quite as comfortable of an existence, he lacks any friends and has little in the way of desire.
 
To alleviate their boredom, Juan hatches a scheme to pull off the greatest heist in Mexico’s history. It seems impossible that could ever work, yet miracle of miracles the two half-wits succeed easily during the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Day. They are amazed by the subsequent coverage and how the news media portrays the thieves as part of an international conspiracy. However, their victory is a hollow one.
 
Benjamin proves to be more worried about his ailing father than Juan cares for while Juan himself begins having visions of a Mayan king that lead to having feelings of guilt. It all puts a great stress on their longtime friendship, especially after they meet an unscrupulous artifact dealer who points out to them that their stolen goods are both priceless and worthless at the same time. Despair falls upon them as the manhunt by Mexican authorities begins to breathe down their necks.
 
Extremely little accuracy is paid to the actual events besides that the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City was indeed robbed by two men. Director Ruizpalacios tries to create suspense by having the two imbecilic friends almost get caught by museum security. Never happened. Nor did they try to sell their artifacts right away or develop a guilty conscience as one of the two main culprits in real life was arrested in 1989 while participating in a drug trafficking ring. The dramatic license taken goes beyond absurdity.
 
The choice of musical score is a complete disaster as it is loud, brash, and fails to heighten the nonexistent suspense. It plays like a bad, offensive sample of a Hitchcock film. Making matters worse are a series of ill-suited, quasi still shots of the dynamic duo as they rob the museum. Combine that with some random shaky camera footage, add a rambling sense of storytelling without any tightness and you get a cinematic mess. Bernal is adequate for his role, but his acting is only pushed in one lone, actual memorable scene involving Juan and his stoic father. The only drama you will find in “Museo” is if you can sit through its entirety.

Film Review: “Wildlife”

WILDLIFE

Starring:  Ed Oxenbould, Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal
Directed by:  Paul Dano
Rated: PG 13
Running time:  1 hr 45 mins
IFC

It’s amazing what a little pride will do to a family.  Take the Brinsons.  Things go to bad when man of the house Jerry (Gyllenhaal) is fired from his job.  They go to worse when he is offered his job back but, because of his pride, refuses to accept it.  With a family to support – wife Jeanette (Mulligan) and 14 year old son Joe (Oxenbould) – he leaves home to take a dangerous job as a firefighter.  He should have just gone back to work.

I don’t know what is happening in Hollywood, but so many young actors are taking the reins and writing and directing their own features.  This film was directed by Paul Dano (the co-star of such films as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood”) and written by Dano and fellow actress Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick” and the granddaughter of the great director Elia Kazan) and while it starts off a little slow, as the story grows you begin to embrace it.

The performances are smartly delivered, with Gyllenhaal at his most hang-dogged at times and Mulligan her beautiful but unsure self.  The story is told through the eyes of Joe and Oxenbould is fine as the central story point.

Technically the film is beautifully presented, with long shots of mountains and sky as far as the eye can see.  Credit this to director Dano and cinematographer Diego Garcia, who give the film almost a “postcard” quality and Mr. Dano a very strong freshman effort from behind the camera.

Film Review: “Boy Erased”

BOY ERASED

Starring:  Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Joel Edgerton
Directed by:  Joel Edgerton
Rated: R
Running time:  1 hr 54 mins
Focus Features

 

ARKANSAS.  THE LAND OF OPPORTUNITY.

So reads the license plate that is the first thing we see at the beginning of “Boy Erased.”  But opportunity for who?  It’s certainly been good to the Eamons family.  Father Marshall (Russell Crowe) is not only the town preacher, he also owns the big car dealership in town.  Wife Nancy (Kidman) is busy in the community.  And son Jared (Hedges) is a popular high school boy who dreams of being a writer.  But Jared has a secret, one that will pit him against those he loves because of those he loves.

Based on the experiences related in the book “Boy Erased” by Gerrard Conley and written by director and co-star Edgerton, the film follows Jared as he is outed to his parents and made to attend a program that will “cure” him of his supposed misdeeds.  He is taken to a campus run by Victor Sykes (Edgerton).  The rules are strict.  No cell phones allowed in classes.  They are actually confiscated each morning, with the staff informing the owners that they will be checking their contacts and calling random numbers to ensure there is no evil happening on the other end of the line.  No contact, except for the briefest of handshakes.  Heck, you have to take a counselor with you when you use the bathroom.  Most important…you do not discuss the therapy with anyone outside the campus.  Jared wants so much to please his parents but as his therapy continues he realizes that to deny his true feelings is to deny himself.

I was a huge fan of Edgerton’s previous writing/directing project, 2015’s “The Gift” and he continues to show with his work here that he is one of the most gifted filmmakers working today and one to be reckoned with for many years.  It can’t be easy pulling double duty both in front of and behind the camera, but he keeps the story moving while allowing the audience to absorb the happenings on screen.  He also pulls amazing performances out of both Hedges and Kidman, with both of them doing some of their best work in recent years.  Add to the acting kudo list Edgerton himself, as well as supporting work by Flea, Jesse LaTourette, Britton Sear, Theodore Pellerin and David Joseph Craig, whose smug face and attitude made me want to punch him every time he came on screen.

Awards season is coming and “Boy Erased” has easily put itself in the running for some end of the year gold.

Film Review: “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch”

Starring the Voice of: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones and Kenan Thompson
Directed By: Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney
Rated: PG
Running Time: 90 minutes
Universal Pictures

“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” is a moderately safe viewing experience for children. I say this because the past several films churned out by Illumination have been less than stellar with questionable ethics, and they were more about selling toys than they were about telling a genuine story. Illumination has managed to create a crowd pleaser for kids new to the story. But while its super sugary goodness may satisfy kids, it’ll certainly give their parents a toothache.

“The Grinch” is fairly similar to the book and the television special that followed, give or take a few creative liberties that are equally distracting or amusing. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the furry green creature that loathes Christmas, and honestly does a spectacular job. He’s likeable, yet cruel, as well as casually dorky, yet firm with his voice. The rest of the voice talent, Kenan Thompson, Rashida Jones, and others, feel like they were only given a few hours to rehearse and read their lines.

When taking into account, the films based on Dr. Seuss’ work, “The Grinch” stands firmly near at the top by default. It’s not gross and obnoxious like the live-action “Cat in the Hat” or a complete misfire like “The Lorax,” another Illumination film. It’s possible the studio learned from those mistakes, catering towards fans of the original work while making sure they didn’t make it to obnoxiously modern with pop-culture references.

The criticisms of commercialism aren’t lost on the 2018 update on Dr. Seuss’ classic tale. “The Grinch” spends several moments touching upon how the title character is transfixed on the buying, receiving and gluttony of the holidays. It’s the viewpoint of a curmudgeon who’s spent his life loathing a holiday that’s beloved by all. You probably know the story by now about how the cynic softens and how his heart grows multiple sizes by the tales end. It’s hard to take that message at face value when Illumination’s only reason for retelling this tale is for financial reasons.

There are several attempts by the creative team to inject some original, unique ideas into the timeless tale, but only one seems to actually stick. The idea that the Grinch is an orphan, whose deep-seated dislike for Christmas stems from his parentless childhood and the PTSD that follows helps bring everything around in a more complete circle. Other subplots brought in to help the movie don’t resonate at all, like a group of kids in town plan on capturing Santa or Cindy Lou Who’s mom who’s in desperate need of some R&R.

Just like Ron Howard’s film in 2000, this film doesn’t hold a candle to the 1966 television classic. But with television sliding to the wayside with the rising of streaming services, “The Grinch” actually has a legitimate shot at replacing that hand drawn classic. “The Grinch” is bright, flashy and silly; a perfect combination for young children who’ve had their parents read them the Dr. Seuss’ book throughout their young life during the holidays. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of comment that could get a critic crucified in the domain of public opinion, but anytime Dr. Seuss’ works are adapted for TV or screen, it’s a cash grab regardless of how good and wholesome the final product is.

Film Review: “Mid90s”

Starring: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston
Directed By: Jonah Hill
Rated: R
Running Time: 84 minutes
A24

I’m not sure who this movie is for. Sometimes coming-of-age films ring true for everyone because it speaks specifically to those who lived the generation it represents and still manages to slip in some universal truths. “Mid90s” seems specifically niche: stoner skateboarders who grew up on “Ren and Stimpy” cartoons and played NES video games. It’s not necessarily a bad thing because the film manages to stretch outside those confines, painting a broad picture of children who’ve come from single parent homes or troubled living conditions. You just have to squint a little hard to see it.

The film focuses on 13-year-old Stevie (Suljic), who actually looks a lot more like he’s 10. He seems to take daily beatings from his older brother, Ian (Hedges), who’s just turned 18. Their single mother, Dabney (Waterston), loves them unconditionally, but seems to have taken a hands-off approach during their pubescent years. Ian and Dabney become background noise in Stevie’s life when he’s accepted into a group of rebellious young boys hanging out at a skateboard shop. This misanthropic brotherhood doesn’t seem to have much in common, but the glue that binds them is their status as outcasts at home, school and in life. The alpha dog of the group, Ray (Na-Kel Smith), also manages to keep them all in line, even when they’re at each other’s throats.

“Mid90s” is the kind of movie “Lords of Dogtown” wishes it was, even though the target audience might fight me on that unpopular opinion. “Mid90s” prevents itself from being overly dramatic and unrealistic thanks to Hill’s raw script which highlights the politically incorrect vernacular of the time while unflinching capturing troubled youth in Los Angeles. However, there are a lot of gaping flaws in how everything is presented. The comedy sprinkled throughout sometimes works, but also undercuts the seriousness of several situations. It also may not be funny for those uncomfortable with how carefree some slurs were used by teens in the 90s. There’s also one scene in particular that quickly goes from uncomfortable to borderline exploitive.

There are flashes of creativity with Hill’s directorial debut, but too often he limits his characters and the stories they have to tell. There’s an inventive subtleness to what Hill reveals about Stevie and his crew, but too often we’re left with more questions than answers. The scope is so narrow that the average moviegoer may find “Mid90s” to be too brash and at times, a bit derivative. But underneath its crass nature, are good-intentions and a unique perspective on growing up that we’ve rarely seen.

Film Review: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY
Starring:  Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton and Joseph Mazzello
Directed by:  Bryan Singer
Rated: PG 13
Running time:  2 hrs 14 mins
20th Century Fox

 

I’m going to confess something here.  On my list of life regrets, one of the ones near the top has to do with the fact that I had a few opportunities in my lifetime to see the band QUEEN live in concert and never went, always telling myself, “I’ll see them the next time they come around.”  Sadly, on November 24, 1991 that statement became moot, as the world mourned the death of the bands flamboyant lead singer, Freddie Mercury (music trivia purists will also note that Eric Carr, the 2nd drummer for KISS, also passed away on that date).  Director Bryan Singer’s new film, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” containing an amazing star-making performance from Rami Malek, lets the world know that Freddie isn’t dead!

London, 1970.  When we meet Farrokh Bulsara (Malek) he is unloading luggage at Heathrow Airport.  He is not happy in his work, especially when his co-workers refer to him as “Paki.”  “I’m not Pakistani,” he constantly reminds them (he was actually Parsi, having been born on the island of Zanzibar before his family moved to England).  While his mother and sister dote on him, he knows his father is ashamed of him, scolding him for going out late at night and imploring him to follow his father’s words of “Good Thought.  Good Words.  Good Deed.”  Farrokh has the opportunity to meet a band who has just lost their lead singer and he soon gets the gig.  A few changes, including the name of the band (and its lead singer) and QUEEN, as well as Freddie Mercury, are on their way.

Full of the music you will fondly remember and featuring one of the most immersive performances by an actor EVER, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a musical masterpiece.  And while the film is definitely designed around the flamboyant Mercury, the other band members – Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardee) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) – are given ample screen time, allowing their characters to be as fleshed out as possible.  They enjoy the musical ups (concert tours and success) and downs (the head of the record company hate’s their music and concepts, critics hate the song “Bohemian Rhapsody”) together, as a family.

However, anyone familiar with the QUEEN story knows this may not be a family you or I would like to be a part of.  Besides the “getting better through science” fast track that Freddie s drug abuse puts him on, there is the same kind of in-fighting and arguments between the members of the group.  There is also the subject of Freddie’s sexuality.  He meets the “love of his life,” Mary (Boynton) but she understands that there will always be an unsaid “thing” between them that will keep them apart.

The film follows the band through their appearance at 1985’s LIVE AID.  It is here that they cemented themselves as one of the greatest bands of all time.  Four decades later, they still hold that distinction.

Confession number two:  I’m old enough to say that my first concert was Elvis Presley (Valentine’s Day – 1977) so when I say I’ve seen them all, I’ve seen them all.  And I’ve said for years that the greatest front man EVER was Freddie Mercury.  If you care to disagree, drop me an email and we’ll talk about it.

Film Review – “Halloween”

 

HALLOWEEN

Starring:  Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer and Will Patton
Directed by:  David Gordon Green
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hr 46 mins
Universal

 

There are a handful of films that can be pointed to and described as “game changing” in Hollywood history.  “Citizen Kane” broke all the rules as to how a film is made.  “Jaws” gave us the summer blockbuster.  “Star Wars” ensured that sci-fi fans would always have a voice.  And where do you start when you talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe?  In 1978, another film arrived and changed the face of the horror genre’ forever.  That film was “Halloween.”

We “meet” Michael Myers as an adult, standing alone in a squared-in area of a state-run mental institution.  He is being visited by a film crew working on solving a mystery:  why did 6-year old Michael stab his sister to death on Halloween night, 1963 and why, after escaping from captivity, did he return to his hometown 15 years later and kill again?

One thing to note here for fans of the series, or just those that are interested.  Despite a plethora of “sequels” to the 1978 original, they are treated here as non-existent, making THIS film a continuation of the original.  And I’ll say here that the film, with some tongue in cheek references to other films, works well.  The scares are legit and the performances, led by the amazing Jamie Lee Curtis, are well delivered.

I was surprised to learn that this film was co-written by the always funny Danny McBride.  Good job.  The script is solid, with some nice set-ups inter-spliced with some emotional family moments between Curtis’ Laurie Strode and her estranged daughter and granddaughter.  But you go to these films to see the boogeyman get his comeuppance.  So, what are you waiting for?

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