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.

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BOY ERASED (2018)

November 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It has taken two movies this year, THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST and this one from writer-director-producer-actor Joel Edgerton, and I finally understand that the practice of conversion therapy (treatment designed to change a person’s orientation to heterosexual from something else) is real … and it’s widespread … and it’s cruel … and it’s absurd. I’ll readily admit that my little life bubble has previously protected me from knowing much about the world of conversion.

Lucas Hedges has quickly developed into a dependable dramatic actor with his moving performances in such films as MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, LADY BIRD, and MID90S. Here he stars as Jared Eamons, a college aged young man struggling with the inner turmoil that accompanies being a gay man raised by a Pastor-dad in the heart of the Bible belt. Since the film is based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, we can assume much of what we see and hear has been seen and heard by Mr. Conley in his life.

Jared’s parents are played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, and while the parental actions of their characters may confound us, both deliver strong performances. One especially impactful scene allows Ms. Kidman to show what sets her apart … it occurs in her scene at a table with Hedges when momma finally takes control. Director Edgerton appears as Victor Sykes, the director and “therapist” at Love In Action, the refuge program where Jared’s parents send him.

Over the opening credits we get childhood clips showing Jared was a “normal” little boy being raised in a loving household. Flash forward to his awkward date with a girlfriend who asks him “what’s wrong?”. Later, after being sexually assaulted by a college buddy, Jared comes out to his parents. His time in Sykes’ program is filled with unimaginable steps. A Genogram is to be completed, listing all of the personal problems and “dangerous” traits of relatives on the family tree – the point is to isolate the source of sin. One boy is beaten with bibles by his family in an effort to drive out the demons of homosexuality (nope, that’s not a joke). There is also a macho counselor (played by Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers) who gives inspiring manly talks and teaches how to look, act, and stand like a real man. It’s all so pathetic and tragic.

Rather than focus on Jared and the others in the program, much of the time is spent with his parents and why/how they could make the decision to enter him into conversion therapy. Jared’s dad tells him he won’t be loved by God … a message also delivered by Sykes. When Jared’s mom (Kidman) states “our family is so normal”, we aren’t sure whether she believes it, or wishes it so – although she leaves no doubt how she pictures a normal family. Of course, it’s really Jared’s dad (Crowe) who takes the news as a personal affront to his manhood and religious beliefs … beliefs somehow more important than his own son.

Support work is provided by Joe Alwyn, Cherry Jones (as a doctor, and the only reasonable adult), Frank Hoyt Taylor, Britton Sear, and Jess LeTourette. Filmmaker Xavier Dolan (MOMMY, 2014) also has a role as Jon, one of those in the program. The music is provided by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns, and for the most part, director Edgerton stays consistent with his focus on characters – though his frequent use of slo-motion loses impact with each successive use. The film avoids any cheap sentimentality or emotional gut-punches, instead focusing on the daily dealings. Perhaps it’s meant to appeal to parents in this situation – those parents who are confused and misguided. We see this film more than we feel it, although I often found myself looking at these parents and asking, ‘what’s wrong with these people?’ When the film ends by telling us 36 states allow for conversion therapy, we quickly realize Jared’s parents may be more ‘normal’ than we thought (incredible as it seems).

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LADY BIRD (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).

Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.

Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).

The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.

Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Once out of our teen years (though some take a bit longer), the vast majority of us accept the obvious truth to the adage “life is not fair”. Despite this, we never outgrow our desire for justice when we feel wronged. Uber-talented playwright/screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh delivers a superb drama blended with a type of dark comedy that allows us to deal with some pretty heavy, and often unpleasant small town happenings.

Oscar winner Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a grieving mother whose daughter was abducted and violently murdered. With the case having gone cold, Mildred is beyond frustrated and now desperate to prevent her daughter from being forgotten. To light the proverbial fire and motivate the local police department to show some urgency in solving her daughter’s case, Mildred uses the titular billboards to make her point and target the Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards cause quite the ruckus as the media brings extra attention, which in turn creates conflict between Mildred and the police department, the town citizens, and even her own son (Lucas Hedges). The film could have been titled ‘The Wrath of Mildred’ if not for so many other facets to the story and characters with their own layers. Her anger is certainly understandable, though some of her actions are impossible to defend. Things can never again be square in the life of a parent who has lost a child, yet vengeance is itself a lost cause.

Mr. McDonagh’s exceptional script utilizes twisted comedy to deal with the full spectrum of dark human emotions: managing the deepest grief, anger, guilt, and need for revenge. As in his Oscar winning script for the contemporary classic IN BRUGES (2008), his dialogue plays as a strange type of poetry, delivering some of the most harsh and profane lines in melodic fashion. In addition to his nonpareil wordsmithing, Mr. McDonagh and casting director Sarah Finn have done a remarkable job at matching many talented performers with the characters – both large roles and small.

Following up her Emmy winning performance in “Olive Kitteridge”, Ms. McDormand is yet again a force of nature on screen. She would likely have dominated the film if not for the effectively understated portrayal by Mr. Harrelson, and especially the best supporting performance of the year courtesy of Sam Rockwell. His Officer Dixon is a racist with out-of-control anger issues who still lives with his mom (a brilliant Sandy Martin, who was also the grandma in NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE). Caleb Landry Jones once again shows his uncanny ability to turn a minor role into a character we can’t take our eyes off (you’ll remember his screen debut as one of the bike riding boys near the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). Here he plays Red, the owner of the billboards with an inner desire to carry some clout. Rounding out the absurdly deep cast are Zeljko Ivanek, Kerry Condon, Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, and Clarke Peters (the epitome of a new Sheriff in town). Every actor has at least one moment (and monologue) to shine, and one of the best scenes (of the year) involves Nick Searcy as a Priest getting schooled on “culpability” by Mildred.

Cinematographer Ben Davis has a nice blend of “big” movies (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON) and small (TAMARA DREWE) in his career, and here he really captures the feel of the small town and interactions of the characters. Also adding to the film’s excellence is the folksy, western score (with a touch of dueling gunfighters) by Carter Burwell. And keeping the streak alive … it’s yet another worth-watching film featuring a Townes Van Zandt song.

Not many films dare tackle the list of topics and issues that are touched on here: church arrogance, police violence, racism, cancer, domestic violence, questioning the existence of God, parental grief with a desire for revenge, the weight of a guilty conscience, and the influence of parents in a rural setting. The film is superbly directed by Mr. McDonagh, who now has delivered two true classics in less than a decade. It’s the uncomfortable laughs that make life in Ebbing tolerable, but it’s the pain and emotions that stick with us long after the credits roll. Sometimes we need a reminder that fairness in the world should not be expected, and likely does not exist. If that’s true, what do we do with our anger? McDonagh offers no easy answers, because there are none. But he does want us to carefully consider our responses.

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

November 23, 2016

manchester Greetings again from the darkness. Grief. When a loved one dies, we experience a sorrow that is impossible to define. It can take on many different looks through various stages. When Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) receives a phone call, he rushes back to his hometown, but arrives at the hospital too late to say goodbye to his big brother whose years-long battle with heart disease has ended abruptly. It’s at this point that we begin to realize there is more to Lee’s daily disquiet than we had realized in his early scenes as an apartment complex janitor.

This is director Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) and in each, death plays a crucial role. Mr. Lonergan is also a renowned playwright and screenwriter (Gangs of New York, Analyze This, Analyze That), and here he displays an incredible feel for humor and sarcasm amidst the ominous presence of gloom.

If you aren’t yet scared off, you will be rewarded with one of the most outstanding films of the year, and one of the best ever on-screen portrayals of grief. Casey Affleck embodies Lee as the broken man – a tortured soul who doesn’t blame himself for the unspeakable tragedy that destroyed his life, yet neither can he forgive himself. As penance, he has basically dropped out of society and moved to Quincy, where he lives in a dumpy apartment simply trying to survive each day shoveling snow and fixing leaky faucets. It’s his way of not facing the present while avoiding the memories that haunt him in his hometown.

The death of big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces Lee to return to Manchester and handle the endless details of arrangements. He then learns that Joe’s will states that Lee is to take over guardianship of 16 year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As we learn from flashbacks, Lee and Patrick long ago bonded as Uncle/Nephew. Things are much different now – not just for Lee, but also for Patrick. He’s a popular athlete, musician and high school lothario … seemingly unwilling to accept the change brought about by the death of his father, and the long ago abandonment by his unstable mom (Gretchen Mol).

The flashbacks serve as the reference as to how this family and these relationships reached this point in time. We also see the devastating event that crushed Lee’s soul and left him unrecognizable from the one time life of the party, and doting husband and father. It also explains his approach to his unwanted duties in finishing brother Bob’s job raising Patrick, and why much of the town treats Lee as a pariah.

In addition to the brilliant writing and wonderful cinematography (Jody Lee Lipes), it’s the highest level of acting that elevates this film to the level of extraordinary. Ms. Mol and Mr. Chandler are joined in the supporting cast by Matthew Broderick as Ms. Mol’s evangelical husband, CJ Wilson as Bob’s former friend and partner, and Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. It seems like we have watched Lucas Hedges grow up on screen through the years, and he really nails the surprisingly complex role of Patrick. As terrific as all of these actors are, it’s Affleck who redefines grief and sorrow and pain. In fact, the single scene towards the end when Affleck and Williams meet by happenstance, is so powerfully acted that it alone should garner nominations for each. It’s a gut-wrenching scene that tells us sometimes reconciliation is just not possible.

This is a heavy drama set in a cold environment with hard people – at least on the outside. It’s not the typical Boston blue collar drama, but rather more the psychology of being a man. There is enough humor to prevent the weight from being too much on viewers, and Lonergan pokes a bit of fun at the Massachusetts accent by tossing in arguments about Star Trek and sharks, and a scene about parking the car. The diverse music of Handel, Dylan, and Ella Fitzgerald somehow complements the mournful Lee … the Humpty Dumpty of Manchester – unable to be put back together again. It’s certainly one of the gems of the year.

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KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

October 13, 2014

kill the mesenger Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those true stories that probably works better as a drama than as a documentary. Jeremy Renner brings passion and believability to his role as infamous journalist Gary Webb. This allows us to gain insight into Mr. Webb as a father, husband and man, rather than only as a fiery investigative reporter.

You likely recall Webb’s published story (San Jose Mercury News) from 1996, when his research uncovered the likelihood that cocaine imported into the US was sold as crack cocaine and the profits had funded arms for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the prior decade. The kicker being that the CIA was well aware of these activities.

The film presents Webb as an idealist, too naive to comprehend that the story would have ramifications to his employer, his family and his self. The use of actual news footage adds a dose of reality, as does the inclusion of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, John Kerry … and even the role Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played in outshining the ultimate redemption of Webb’s work.

The underlying message here … beyond the governmental cover-up … is the lack of a truly free press. Of course, the issue remains front and center today, but in this particular instance, it’s surprising to see the influence and pressure applied by outside forces. It’s further proof that any hope for checks and balances from our news outlets was snuffed out many years ago.

The movie is based on two books: Gary Webb’s own “Dark Alliance” and Nick Shou’s “Kill the Messenger”. The frustration as a viewer is derived from the fragmented presentation brought on by steady stream of new characters who mostly appear in only one or maybe two scenes. The list of known actors is impressive: Rosemary DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Gil Bellows, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta. That should help explain what I mean by fragmented.

The story is an important one and the film is worth seeing. Director Michael Cuesta’s approach makes it impossible to not think of All the President’s Men while watching. The Granddaddy of crusading journalism continues to produce heirs … those that are a black eye for the newspaper industry and our government.

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