Ben is Back

Posted on December 6, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie, drug dealing, drug use, overdoses
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 7, 2018

Copyright Lionsgate 2018
Movies about families struggling with substance abuse, like real life struggles, generally follow the same pattern. A family member gets involved with drugs (or alcohol or some other addiction) and then there is the horrified realization of how serious the problem is, hope, betrayal, hope, back-sliding, incalculable damage to other family members, anger, recriminations, tears, hope, more back-sliding, maybe some more hope. We saw that most recently in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the joint memoirs of a father and son. But writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,””What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) wisely takes a different approach in “Ben is Back,” starring his son, Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By the Sea,” “Boy Erased”).

As he explained to me in an interview, Hedges has always been fascinated by the story of Orpheus, who followed the woman he loved into Hades to try to save her. As the title tells us, this movie begins when Ben (Hedges) unexpectedly shows up at home just before Christmas. We learn everything that the typical substance abuse movie takes two hours to cover in the first few minutes, from the very different reactions of his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), who is overjoyed to see him and his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), who is furious and horrified. (Nice Christmas-y names, there, Holly and Ivy). And then we see that Holly may be happy to have Ben home, but she has not forgotten who he is — she immediately empties out the medicine cabinet and hides her jewelry.

He says he got permission from the residential rehab program. It is probably not true, but what can a mother do? She wants it to be true so badly. She wants him to be home and to want to be home. And it is Christmas. Holly’s husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the father of her two younger children, does not want Ben to be there. Holly persuades him to give Ben (another) chance.

And then, she must follow him into Hades. An incursion from Ben’s old life in the underworld of drug abuse means that Ben must visit many of his former contacts, and Holly insists on going with him. She may have thought she knew and had experienced the worst, that she knows how far she can go, how far she is willing to go, but she will learn that none of that is true.

Hedges, as always, approaches his characters with a deep, tenderhearted humanity. He is clear-eyed about the genuine villains in this story, including those who make and sell legal opiates, and he recognizes the mistakes even well-meaning, attentive, caring people make. He also understands how family dynamics curb and enable abuse, and how abuse distorts and damages everyone in the substance abuser’s orbit. But he has sympathy for addicts and their families, acknowledging their mistakes and their struggles but always wanting the best for them.

We go backwards through Ben’s life (and Holly’s), meeting people who used with him and people who used him. We see how he first got hooked, one of the movie’s most powerful moments as Holly confronts the now-pathetic culprit in a shopping mall food court. We see the collateral damage, the grieving mother, the near-destroyed friend. And, paraphrasing the words of the old public service ad, we know what it did to Ben, but does Holly know what it is doing to her?

Roberts, who has always been one of the most expressive of actors, gives one of her all-time best performances here. From the film’s very first moment, as she persuades her younger children to do something with a small, seemingly harmless bribe, we see how much of her energy and focus is on managing the world for the people she loves. As she and Ben are driving through their own version of Hades, she keeps assuring her family that everything is fine and that she and Ben will be home soon. It is as though she thinks that if she can only persuade everyone, she can will it into being. The skill of this movie is that while it is clear she cannot, we wish she could.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of drug abuse, overdoses, rehab, drug dealing, sexual references, sad offscreen death, and very strong language.

Family discussion: How is this different from other stories of substance abuse? What do we learn from the scene in the food court? Why can’t Holly tell her family the truth?

If you like this, try: “Beautiful Boy” and “Flight”

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The Happytime Murders

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 5:35 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material)
Profanity: Very strong, crude, and offensive language
Date Released to Theaters: December 3, 2018
Copyright STX Films 2018

A couple of minutes into “The Happytime Murders,” an adorable Muppet-like puppet says the f-word. If that strikes you as funny, think very carefully about whether it is funny enough for 90 minutes of pretty much the exact same joke to justify the price of a movie ticket. If you want to hear puppets swear and talk about porn, see “Avenue Q.” If you want to see a detective try to solve a murder in a show business community where entertaining non-human characters are second-class citizens, see “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” If you want a good time at the movies, do not go to see this.

It might have made a pretty good Funny or Die video. But it is not enough to sustain even a less-than 90-minute running time. It is vastly less entertaining than the behind-the-scenes credit sequence showing how some of the scenes were filmed. And it is vastly less interesting than a movie about adults trying to trash the imperishable legacy of a legendary father, as is the case here with the Henson kids making a hard-R movie with characters from the Muppet world their father created.

Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) is a disgraced cop-turned private detective with a comely receptionist named Bubbles (Maya Rudolph, the movie’s highlight). A beautiful new client (Dorien Davies) asks Phil to find out who is blackmailing her. Phil investigates a possible connection in a porn shop (where a puppet cow is having her udder massaged by a puppet octopus) just as a gunman arrives and kills everyone else in the store. One of the victims was an actor on a popular television show called “The Happytime Gang,” featuring Phil’s brother and a bunch of other puppets, along with a human named Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), once Phil’s girlfriend.

Phil’s former partner, Connie Edwards (co-producer Melissa McCarthy) shows up, and her lieutenant (Leslie David Baker) assigns them to work together on what turns out not to be a simple robbery but a plot to kill off all of the Happytime Gang. Phil and Connie track each one down, bickering along the way, and failing to protect any of them. This is an opportunity to show many puppets engaging in extremely depraved behavior including substance abuse and prostitution and brutal murders with bits of fluff and disembodied puppets everywhere. Fun!

What makes the Muppets magical is the vivid personalities. We don’t love Kermit and Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf and Elmo and Oscar and Big Bird and the Swedish Chef and Fozzy Bear because they are puppets. We love them because they are characters, as vivid and engaging and real as any human. The puppets here, are expertly made but bland. And so, despite all the naughty talk and truly filthy behavior, is the script. It is too lazy to even think through its premise, beyond “it’s funny to have characters usually designed for children say and do R-rated things.” A human has a transplanted puppet liver. Puppets and humans apparently have sex with each other. Puppets have puppet children and, if the puppets who have children are cousins, those children do not have the correct number of eyes. Hilarious! And on top of regular old fashioned bad taste, it has the extremely poor judgment to have a “puppet lives matter” element.

A brief pause before my conclusion to mention Maya Rudolph, who almost packs a whole movie’s worth of watchability in her irresistible performance. As Bubbles, she manages to pay tribute to and slightly parody the classic hard-boiled but soft-hearted dames who used to work for detectives like Bogart’s Marlowe and Spade. The timbre of her voice, she way she holds her shoulders, the way she walks, the way she picks a lock, the way she thanks Phil for bringing her a candy bar — each moment is a small chamber piece of exquisite choices. McCarthy is great. She’s always great. But she is not always great at picking projects, and this one, despite her crackerjack timing and remarkable focus, is a big, fluffy, dud.

Parents should know that this film includes constant extremely strong, vulgar, and crude language, very explicit sexual references and situations, drinking, smoking, drugs, violence including guns and fire, and characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: What parallels is this movie suggesting about today’s political issues? Why did the humans feel superior to the puppets?

If you like this,try: “Avenue Q”

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Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Posted on June 28, 2018 at 5:54 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, bloody images, and language
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive and intense peril and violence involving children, teens, and adults, terrorism, guns, chases, explosions, grisly and disturbing images, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 29, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 1, 2018

Copyright Columbia Pictures 2018
The first Sicario movie had stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins, a character with integrity and courage, in a performance of equal integrity and courage from Emily Blunt, to bring us into the complex, layered story of moral quagmires around drug smuggling.

This sequel, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” has none of that. While the first film thoughtfully explored issues of whether the ends justify the means and how to fight for the rules when the people on the other side do not abide by any, this one starts out with all the nuance of ultra-partisans screaming at each other on cable news and then, even worse, gets smug about it. The movie begins with stark claims about drugs and people crossing the border from Mexico, and then a couple of suicide bombers blow themselves up. Just to make sure we GET THE POINT, we see law enforcement discover Muslim prayer rugs out in the desert and we see a mother with a young child plead with a suicide bomber to let them leave before he blows them all up.

And so the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine, pretty much relegated these days to seedy bad guys who direct tougher types to do the bad stuff) declare drug smugglers terrorists, which literally triggers a new range of strategic responses. “No rules this time.” Blunt’s character is gone (understandable, considering where we left her), so our focus is on two other characters from the first film, lantern-jawed, whatever-it-takes Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and attorney turned revenge-seeker Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro).

Part 2 is also written by Taylor Sheridan, but director Denis Villeneuve has been replaced by Stefano Sollima (television’s “Gomorrah”) and Deakins has been replaced by Dariusz Wolski. And subtlety has been replaced by a storyline just a notch above “The Expendables.” Graver (what a name) warns SecDef that “If you want to see this through, I’m going to have to get dirty.” “Dirty is exactly why you’re here,” the Secretary replies.

Actually, it’s deniability, as we will learn to no one’s surprise. Deniability with an unlimited budget. The plot is straight out of “Mission: Impossible” the 1960’s television series, the ones with the “As always, should you or any of your Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” Lotta take-out, lotta staring at screens barking orders, lotta thousand yard stare-offs.

Graver goes off to hire a bunch of Erik Prince-style black ops mercenaries for $10 million a month. “Now you’ll be able to afford that hockey team,” Graver congratulates him. If they kidnap the 16-year-old daughter of the head of one of the biggest drug cartels, he will blame the rival cartels, and they can save us all a lot of bullets by wiping each other out. What could go wrong?

Yeah, pretty much everything, with a mountain-high body count along the way, and very little to show for it, not carnage about the numbing impact of fighting an implacable, amoral, insurmountable foe, just carnage for the numbing effect of being in a movie that has run out of ideas.

Parents should know that this film includes constant crime and law enforcement peril and violence involving adults and teens, terrorism, suicide bombers, chases, guns, explosions, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images, moral, legal, and political issues, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Is it possible to fight people who break the law without breaking it ourselves? What should voters know about these kinds of operations?

If you like this, try: the original “Sicario,” Traffic,” and “Sin Nombre”

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Oceans 8

Posted on June 7, 2018 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, drug use, and some suggestive content
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 8, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 10, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

Heist films are irresistible, especially when they are as twisty and stylish as “Oceans 8.” First, there is the practicality of the puzzle part. I always love the way they set it up to show us how impossible it is, so we can fully appreciate the cleverness of the characters in coming up with plans to surmount the various traps and security features. And then things always go wrong in the moment, so we have the fun of seeing problem-solving in real time. But just as important is the luxury of the fantasy element. We get to identify with people who, like wizards and superheroes, operate outside of the usual rules. All we need is some very slight reason not to worry about the people who are being stolen from (they are usually either unworthy or so institutional it seems impersonal), and we’re on board.

“Oceans 8” has another reason to intrigue us as well. We are already very familiar, perhaps too familiar with the “Oceans 11” series, which rather wore out its welcome by the last in the trilogy and perhaps the original, starring Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Freshening up the concept with an all-female group of grifters and thieves with a cast that features three Oscar-winners and a sensationally beautiful style icon gives it an embedded freshness and underdog quality. “A him gets noticed; a her gets ignored,” Debbie Ocean says. “For once, we want to be ignored.”

Debbie (Sandra Bullock) is just out of prison after five years, eight months, and twelve days. She explains to the parole board that she has learned her lesson and all she wants is “the simple life. Hold down a job, make some friends, go for a walk after work in the fresh air, pay my bills.” They buy it. And soon she is out, shoplifting herself a new wardrobe and swindling herself a hotel room. She visits the grave of her brother, Danny (the character played by George Clooney in the male “Oceans” movies), though the movie does leave open the possibility that his death might just be another con. And she gets in touch with two of her partners in grift from the past, Lou (Cate Blanchett), who has been dealing in petty cons like watering vodka, and art dealer Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), against whom Debbie seems to have quite a grudge.

Debbie has spent her time in prison devising a heist of delightful complexity and ingenuity. Of course in reality it was devised by director Gary Ross, who wrote the script with Olivia Milch, and one of their best ideas was to set the robbery at the most glamorous event in America, the annual Met Gala (that’s GAH-la, not GAY-la). Their plan: to get the event’s celebrity chair, an air-headed actress named Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear a $150,000,000 diamond necklace so they can steal it.  And this gives us a peek into the most exclusive party of the year, with a delicious chance to get up close to huge celebrities in fabulously over-the-top gowns (though gala empress Anna Wintour is played by an anonymous extra in an impeccably coiffed wig).

This will involve a combination of talents from the psychological (persuading Kluger to choose an out-of-fashion designer and persuading Cartier to loan the necklace) to the technological (everyone needs a hacker these days) to the embedding of various moles to good old-fashioned pickpocketing. As we used to say in the 70’s, sisterhood is powerful.  I won’t spoil any of the twists or surprises; I’ll just say that I enjoyed them all very much and this crowd and they are welcome to steal a necklace from me any time.

Parents should know that this film has criminal behavior, some mild peril, brief strong language, alcohol, and marijuana.

Family discussion: If you had a crackerjack team of thieves, what would you want to steal? What would be the biggest obstacle? What was the movie’s biggest surprise?

If you like this try: the documentary about the Met Gala, The First Monday in May and other sophisticated heist movies like the original and remake versions of “Oceans 11,” “The Italian Job,” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” as well as “How to Steal a Million” and “Topkapi”

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Gringo

Posted on March 8, 2018 at 12:39 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, violence and sexual content
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Constant peril and violence with many graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, guns, car chases and crashes, torture, kidnapping
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 9, 2018

Copyright Amazon 2018
“Gringo” is the story of a hapless dupe named Harold (David Oyelowo, showing deft comic timing) who gets stuck in the middle of a lot of bad people and bad decisions.

Harold is an immigrant from Nigeria, married to Bonnie (Thandie Newton, criminally underused), and in financial trouble. “Are you saying I’m cash poor?” Harold asks his accountant. “No, I’m saying you’re poor poor, ,” he replies.

The accountant also tells Harold that his company may be merging, and he could lose his job. But Harold reassures himself that his boss Rich (Joel Edgerton) is an old friend, who has even hired Bonnie to decorate his apartment, and will not let him down. Rich reassures him as well, reminding him that he promised Harold’s life would look like a rap video if he stayed at the company. It’s obvious to us that Rich is a crook and a liar, but Harold has no clue.

Rich’s co-president of the company is Elaine (Charlize Theron, having a lot of fun as a ruthless executive whose self-pep talk includes “Who’s Daddy’s Blue Ribbon girl?”). They come along on Harold’s business trip to Mexico, where the company’s marijuana-based pills are manufactured. That merger means the end of lucrative off-the-books sales to a powerful drug dealer. And that leads to mayhem involving a fake kidnapping, a real kidnapping, a toe sent by international mail, a murder for failing to give the right answer to a question about which Beatles album is the best, a mercenary, and many betrayals.

Nash Edgerton (Joel’s brother) directs with high energy and clearly relishes very dark humor of the story, with many twists and turns as the various bad guys collide with each other. Paris Jackson (Michael’s daughter) has an impressive cameo as a girl enticing a hapless guitar salesman into helping her steal some of those marijuana pills. If you like your crime stories to be nicely nasty, this one does the trick.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive and graphic violence, chases, shootouts, torture, disturbing images, many characters injured and killed, drugs and drug dealing, alcohol, very explicit sexual references and situations, and very strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Was Harold’s father wrong? Why was it hard for him to see what was happening? What is the point of the banana/carrot story?

If you like this, try: “Big Trouble” and “Midnight Run” and, also from the Edgerton brothers, “The Square” (not the recent Cannes award-winner, the Australian crime drama)

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