BEN IS BACK (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. So many families have been thrown into turmoil due to a loved one’s drug addiction. Count writer/director Peter Hedges among those, so know this is more than just another film for him … it’s personal. Mr. Hedges previous work includes the underrated PIECES OF APRIL (2003) and DAN IN REAL LIFE (2007), as well as an Oscar nomination for his ABOUT A BOY (2002) screenplay. This time out, he cast his own son Lucas in the titular role of Ben. It was a wise choice.

When your son is checked into drug rehab, and you pull up to your house on Christmas Eve and see him pacing in the front yard, should your first reaction be total joy or immense trepidation? Are you thrilled to see him or worried for your other 3 kids – each who is in the car with you? Such is the moment for Holly Burns (played by Julia Roberts). With excitement from her two youngest, and pleas of “no” from her teenage daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton), Holly bolts from the car and embraces Ben (Lucas Hedges), her eldest and most self-destructive child.

What follows is the ultimate example of inner-conflict for both mother and son. Holly is simultaneously happy to see her son and apprehensive for his well-being and that of her family. Ben is putting up an “all is well” front, while carrying the guilt of lying through his teeth. This initial sequence is by far the most powerful segment of the movie, and adding punch to these scenes are Ms. Newton and Courtney B Vance as Holly’s husband and Ben’s stepfather. Lucas Hedges and Kathryn Newton are immensely talented and two of the fastest rising young stars. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and she is recognizable from her work on “Big Little Lies”.

After such a strong beginning, the story falters quickly as it spreads outside of the family home. At the local shopping mall, mother Holly spews vicious venom at the doctor who first prescribed the pain killer for Ben’s sports injury. She blames the now dementia-riddled doctor for ruining her son’s life – it’s an all too obvious and overblown moment of a parent needing to place the blame elsewhere. Soon after, we truly fly off the rails as mother and son treat us to a tour of the cities drug-related highlights. When the family dog goes missing, most people post on Facebook for help. Not this family. They hop into the car and revisit all the drug havens and dealers from Ben’s past. Of course, we do get the obligatory drug recovery meeting where Ben’s soliloquy praises his mother (she’s in attendance) and shows remorse for his many sins.

Every parent will understand the desperate feeling of mother Holly here or father David (Steve Carell) in BEAUTIFUL BOY, a similar-themed movie released earlier this year. We are also familiar with the deceptive and often dangerous actions of addicts, even those who were raised in our home. So while we are flexible in our judgement of Holly, Ms. Roberts’ performance is just too showy and over-the-top here, though she’ll likely be lauded for a dramatic role with only minimal dependence on her usual acting quirks. The first third of the movie is outstanding, however the rest comes across as an attempt to create intense drama when there’s already plenty.

watch the trailer:


WONDER (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. What a pleasant surprise and crowd-pleasing treat from director Stephen Chbosky! Ordinarily, if you tell me a Julia RobertsOwen Wilson movie is opening, I would experience nightmares of Malcolm McDowell in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with his eyelids forced open by metal prongs attached to a head immobilizer (Don’t expect any other reviews of this film to reference the Kubrick classic). It’s based on the New York Times bestseller and it’s a throwback to the days of sweet message films that don’t require explanations before recommending.

I can’t wait for Halloween!” exclaims Auggie. While it’s not difficult to imagine any kid looking forward to this big day, very few would share Auggie’s reason. Through narration, he informs us that he’s “not an ordinary kid”. After a startling birth, he’s been through 27 surgeries. Auggie has genetic facial deformities, and it’s not the Halloween candy he anticipates; it’s the one day with a level-playing field for him, as other kids wear their costume masks and he can simply blend in. Feel the tug on the heartstrings yet? You will.

Jacob Tremblay (ROOM) plays Auggie, and Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson play his loving parents. Until now, he’s been home-schooled by Mom, but it’s 5th grade and time for “real” school. Auggie’s older sister Via is played beautifully by Izabela Vidovic. This is very much her story as well. She carries a burden that few understand, and even briefly finds peace in her fabricated time as an “only child”. Previously, she had described Auggie as the sun, and the rest of the family as orbiting planets. Not only is it a wonderful performance from Miss Vidovic, but kudos to the filmmakers for casting a 16 year old actress as a high schooler. Typically these roles go to actors in their mid-20’s (a pet peeve of mine).

The film kicks into gear, and we really begin to get to know Auggie, once school starts. Mandy Patinkin plays the principal Mr. Tushman (a name he embraces), and we get the expected nice kid Jack Will (Noah Jupe), the rich bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), and the popular girl Charlotte (Elle McKinnon). Some of the characters have various segments of the film named after them, and though these are quite loosely told, they do provide some semblance of structure to the film and keep viewers focused on the diverse personalities. A Science Fair, field trip and school play (Our Town) each provide critical turning points, and of course, most of the film is based on Auggie’s impact on those whose path he crosses.

Although we are subjected to one of Julia Roberts’ patented cackles, it doesn’t ruin the sentiment or message that Auggie delivers. Daveed Diggs has a nice turn as a teacher, and the always wonderful Sonia Braga makes a much-too-brief appearance. Director Chbosky previously gave us the gem THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, and this time out he allows us to explore the fragility of friendship and family, and the importance of toughness in an individual. The ending is pure Hollywood, but we should accept the crowd-pleasing cheesiness and be thankful for a pleasant, entertaining family movie.

“We need a renaissance of wonder. We need to renew, in our hearts and in our souls, the deathless dream, the eternal poetry, the perennial sense that life is miracle and magic.”

– E. Merrill Root (1895 – 1973)

American Writer

watch the trailer:


MONEY MONSTER (2016)

May 15, 2016

Money Monster Greetings again from the darkness. Adam McKay and Michael Lewis sought to educate us on the corruption and deceit within the marrow of the financial world in The Big Short. Director Jodie Foster and three writers (Jim Kouf, Alan DiFiore, Jamie Linden) scale things way back to show the effects on a single, working class man … and how Wall Street and the media conspire to make it hard on us little guys.

George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer type cable news financial guru … the kind of media star who makes an Apollo Creed style entrance (complete with “dancing”) for each segment. Julia Roberts plays Patty, the show’s ultra-talented producer, and the one who keeps Gates and the show from flying off the rails. It’s just another typically hectic day in the studio, when the show is abruptly interrupted by a man who charges the stage pointing a gun at Gates. Kyle (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken) has a few things to get off his chest, and makes it clear that he blames Gates for a recent financial loss … and he expects some answers.

It turns out that Gates had presented a recent investment as a sure thing, and Kyle believed him. When that company lost $800 million overnight, Kyle’s loss was his $60,000 nest egg. Kyle represents the work-class folks who are simply fed up with the lies and manipulation for which the media and Wall Street seeming conspire on a regular basis.

It’s Jodie Foster’s first directorial outing since The Beaver (2011), and she seems at home with a straight-forward hostage-for-admission story. Created for a mass audience (no segment or issue goes too deep), there are snippets of Clooney and Roberts humor that will satisfy their fans. The three most interesting characters are the gun-wielding, end-of-the rope Kyle; his pissed-with-a-twist girlfriend played by Emily Meade (who provides the film a lift when it’s needed); and Caitriona Balfe as Diane Lester, the communications officer for the evil corporation at the heart of the swindle.

As with so many things these days, the hostage ordeal plays out on TV and captures the limited attention span of average Americans … heck, the film even references the OJ Simpson event. Of course, this film isn’t an instigator, but rather an exhibitor – a mirror of the times. Once the spectacle ends, everyone returns to their normal activities.

Since this thriller really only offers a few moments of real suspense, viewers might have more fun spotting and identifying the multitude of cable TV faces sprinkled throughout. The 1970’s were the era for extraordinary conspiracy movies, and this one is less Network or Chinatown, and more like Phone Booth or John Q. ‘Forget it Kyle. It’s Wall Street (and cable news).’

watch the trailer:

 

 


SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015)

November 19, 2015

secret in their eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Why, Billy Ray, why? It’s not surprising that Hollywood green-lighted the Americanization of the 2010 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, El secreto de sus ojos. That original from Argentina is exemplary filmmaking and a thoroughly entertaining and compelling mystery-thriller; a must-see for any true film lover. Even if an Oscar-studded cast is hired (2 Oscar winners, 8 nominations), the guiding inspiration for a remake should be more than losing the subtitles and filming Julia Roberts without make-up.

The story balances two timelines spanning 13 years. Jess (Ms. Roberts) is an investigator who works with FBI Agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Assistant District Attorney Claire (Nicole Kidman), and a blustering District Attorney played by Alfred Molina. When Jess’ daughter is brutally murdered, the investigation is impacted by the suspect’s role as a department snitch. When we catch up all those years later, the unrequited attraction between now former FBI Agent Ray and now DA Claire is as strong as ever; Jess’ appearance is on par with someone suffering from a terminal illness, and the murder still hovers over these characters as if it had occurred last week.

It’s a fascinating story that was handled superbly in the original, yet mostly comes across as uninspired in this latest project. At times, it’s even a bit confusing in how the two eras are handled. The score from Emilio Kauderer and a couple of fine scenes from Ms. Roberts (although she gets no credit here for appearing sans-makeup) are the best parts of this one. Otherwise, Mr. Ejiofor (usually a fine actor) goes over-the-top, while Ms. Kidman is simply miscast and unable to generate the proficiency required for her position. Other support work comes courtesy of Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”), Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”) and Zoe Graham.

Other than lacking the grit and realism of the original, the editing and camera work (so exceptional in the first version) at times come off as amateurish this time around. The soccer/futbol sequence from the original is replaced with Dodgers baseball (Chavez Ravine and Vin Scully) and a link to former Manager Walter Alston. Normally that would be considered an improvement, but again, these fall short and fail to generate the necessary suspense. A weak impersonation of the famous long-tracking shot certainly doesn’t help.

For anyone who hasn’t seen writer/director Juan Jose Campanella’s (an Executive Producer here) excellent original, this version from Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) might prove interesting enough; however, those same folks are strongly encouraged to instead track down the original, and experience the emotional depth and filmmaking expertise that made it such a worthy Oscar winner.

watch the trailer:

 


AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)

January 12, 2014

august Greetings again from the darkness. Tracy Letts had a very nice year in 2008. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for writing the play August: Osage County. Since then, he has also written the play and screenplay for Killer Joe, and been seen as an actor in the key role of a Senator in the TV show “Homeland“. This time out, he adapts his own play for director John Wells’ (The Company Men, TV’s “ER“) screen version of August: Osage County.

With an ensemble cast matched by very few movies over the years, the screen version begins with what may be its best scene. Weston family patriarch and published poet Beverly (the always great Sam Shepard) is interviewing Johnna for a position as cook and housekeeper when they are interrupted in stunning fashion by Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s acid-tongued wife who is showing the effects of chemotherapy and her prescription drug addiction. This extraordinary pre-credits scene sets the stage for the entire movie, which unfortunately only approaches this high standard a couple more times.

Despite the film’s flaws, there is no denying the “train-wreck” effect of not being able to look away from this most dysfunctional family. Most of this is due to the screen presence of a steady stream of talented actors: in addition to Streep and Shephard, we get their 3 daughters played by Julia Roberts (Barbara), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy) and Juliette Lewis (Karen); Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin as Roberts’ husband and daughter; Margo Martindale (Violet’s sister), her husband Chris Cooper (Charles) and their son Benedict Cumberbatch.

As with most dysfunctional family movies, there is a dinner table scene … this one occurring after a funeral. The resentment and regret and anger on display over casseroles is staggering, especially the incisive and “truth-telling” Violet comments and the defensive replies from Barbara. As time goes on, family secrets and stories unfold culminating in a whopper near the end. This is really the polar opposite of a family support system. Unlike many movies, getting to know these people doesn’t make us like them any more.

Meryl Streep’s performance is one of the most demonstrative of her career. Some may call it over the top, but I believe it’s essential to the tone of the movie and the family interactions. Her exchanges with Julia Roberts define the monster mother and daughter in her image theme. They don’t nitpick each other, it’s more like inflicting gaping wounds. Surprisingly, Roberts mostly holds her own … though that could be that the film borders on campy much of the time. Streep’s scene comes as she recalls the most horrific childhood Christmas story you could ever want to hear.

It must be noted that Margo Martindale is the real highlight here. She has two extraordinary scenes … each very different in style and substance … and she nails them both. Without her character and talent, this film could have spun off into a major mess. The same could be said for Chris Cooper, who is really the moral center of the family. While the others seem intent on hiding from their past, he seems to make the best of his situation.

The film never really captures the conflicting environments of the claustrophobic old Weston homestead and the free wide open plains of Oklahoma. The exception is a pretty cool post-funeral scene in a hayfield where Roberts tells Streep “There’s no place to go“. The main difference between the film version and stage version is the compressed time and the decision to include all explosive scenes. There is just little breathing room here. Still, it’s one of the more entertaining and wildly dysfunctional comedy-dramas that you will see on screen, and it’s quite obvious this group of fine actors thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to sit back and watch family members go at each other with much more verocity than anything at your own family events OR you just want to see some of the best actors working today (Streep, Martindale, Cooper, Cumberbatch)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t imagine sitting through a dysfunctional family dinner so soon after your own holiday family time.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VBEZrkCT8Q

 


MIRROR MIRROR (2012)

April 6, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Fairy Tales. The Brothers Grimm. Expectations for a delightful story and fascinating characters should not be doused. Blah is the best word I have for this version of the classic children’s story. The “updated” story is a mess, the characters are quite bland, and the few sets are limited in scope. On the bright side, the costumes are colorful and, for a change, disliking Julia Roberts will not place me in the minority … she is after all, the evil Queen.

It seems logical that a classic fairy tale movie should be either designed for kids, enhanced for adults, or a mixture of each (The Princess Bride comes to mind).  Despite being one of the most beloved stories of all time, this one appears to have been made for an audience not consisting of kids or adults.  I spent much of the movie distracted by Julia Roberts’ lips and Lily Collins eyebrows. Both are characters unto themselves. Julia Roberts should be the perfect evil Queen, but she seemed to put forth little effort with her lines … an odd mix of sarcasm for a kids’ movie. Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) is just bland. She has no screen presence at all and is swallowed up in her scenes with Roberts, Armie Hammer (the Prince) and the band of dwarves.

There are so many things I could comment on, but most would be negative, so I’ll just (mostly) leave it alone. Being a fan of director Tarsem Singh (The Fall), there were moments where his remarkable eye for colorful visuals provided hope, but the lack of quality story-telling was just too much to overcome. The evil Queen spa treatment just seemed to be a one-off idea that got stuck into the film … scorpion and bee stings, parrot poop, and grub worms in ears probably seemed comical on the page.  Not so much on the screen.  The story has always made a statement on the quest for eternal beauty/youth, but this queen just comes across as desperate.  It was nice to see Danny Woodburn (Mickey on “Seinfeld”) as one of the dwarves, and I thought Armie Hammer found the proper chord in his performance.  As a viewer, stick to the 1937 Disney version, or hold out hope for the much darker version coming out later this year, Snow White and the Huntsman (with Kristen Stewart).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see how a creative director can turn a fascinating fairy tale into a bland ball at the palace.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have young kids … they probably won’t enjoy it, laugh much or even be frightened of the witch.

watch the trailer:

 


LARRY CROWNE

July 3, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I view Tom Hanks as one of the all-time giants among movie actors. He is true Hollywood royalty. When I heard he was producing, directing, co-writing and starring in a new film (his first directorial outing since That Thing You Do), I assumed it was his first step in becoming the new Clint Eastwood. Sadly, Mr. Hanks broke the number rule of movie-making: have a point to make or a story to tell. What we get is a time warp when mainstream movies could be successful just by putting nice people on screen.

 And nice people is what we get. Tom Hanks plays the ultimate nice guy as Larry Crowne. Crowne is the type who attracts nice people and makes them even nicer. Even when he loses his job, we never doubt that this nice guy will land on his feet and even be better off eventually. Oh no you don’t … stop trying to guess the ending! Other nice people are … EVERY STUDENT in the speech class taught by Julia Roberts, the L.A. scooter club that recruits Crowne, the Marine owner of a diner who hires Crowne, the lottery-winning neighbors of Crowne and the dean of students at the community college. The nicest one of all is Talia, played delightfully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from the awful “Undercovers” show that lasted less than one season).

The closest thing to a bad guy is Roberts’ husband played by Bryan
Cranston (“Breaking Bad”). His fault? He is a bit lazy (after writing two
books) and he likes to look at swimsuit models on the internet. Sure,
when the movie starts, Ms. Roberts character is at her lowest. She
clearly drinks too much to mask her misery, though it’s never obvious
just why she is so miserable.

But this is not a movie about conflict or tension or anything not nice
… even though it begins with a nice guy getting laid off from his
job. The story and screenplay are co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos.
You will remember her as the creative force behind the gem My Big Fat
Greek Wedding. Unfortunately, this film is nowhere close to the level
of that one (conflict with Greek traditions).

 If Mr. Hanks’ goal is to become an important filmmaker in the vein of Clint Eastwood or Frank Capra, he will need to study the films that have made him rich and famous. Or at least study the best screwball comedies or rom-coms. A good story must have CONFLICT! There needs to be something that creates interest for the viewer. Even children’s books give us something – a mean raccoon, a wicked witch.  Simple, bland, generic, nice, likable and swell can all play a part … but they can’t be EVERY part! My two favorite things about the film are George Takei and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Mr. Takei (of “Star Trek” fame) provides some of the few laughs in the film as a very meticulous Economics professor. His voice and mannerisms inspire us to smile and ultimately laugh outloud. Gugu is just terrific as the idealistic free-spirit who transforms Crowne and lights up her every scene. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

 As you might expect, supporting actors lined up to work with Hanks and Julia. Among those not mentioned above are Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji B. Henson (Crowne’s neighbors), Wilmer Valderrama (Gugu’s boyfriend), Rita Wilson (the mortgage officer), Pam Grier (professor), Grace Gummel (Meryl Streep’s daughter as the ‘pasta’ speech student), and it’s always nice to see Bob Stephenson on screen. He is one of the more underutilized deadpan comedic talents around.

There is little doubt that this film will find an audience. An audience
that demands little from a movie. There is nothing wrong with two hours
of back-slapping and giddy smiling … as long as you get a story to go
along with it.  The best way I can describe this movie is that it’s like looking at a family photo album.  Everyone is smiling.  Everyone looks happy.  But nothing is really happening.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe thinking and movie watching should remain separate activities OR you simply want to see a lot of nice people onscreen for two hours

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe filmmakers owe us something and shouldn’t cash in on their reputation … even if their name is Tom Hanks.