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”

Related Tags:

 

Crime Drama Family Issues Illness, Medicine, and Health Care movie review Movies Movies

Creed II

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 10:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic fight scenes, serious injury, fighter killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 20, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

Like a Timex watch and like Rocky himself, the Rocky franchise takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Here we are, four decades later, and Rocky Balboa is still going. “Creed,” written and directed by Ryan Coogler in between “Fruitvale Station” and “Black Panther,” was an unexpected upgrade, as Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s opponent in the original Oscar-winning film took over, angry, with a chip on his shoulder, and itching for a fight. Michael B. Jordan is a brilliant actor with sizzling screen charisma, and it was, well, a knockout. He was on his way to becoming a champ and to making a life with a beautiful hearing-impaired singer (Tessa Thompson).

Coogler produced this next chapter, written by the original Rocky, Sylvester Stallone, who returns as Creed’s coach and mentor, the guy you always want in your corner. And one thing Stallone knows how to do is step up the stakes. Entertainment Weekly once wrote that “It’s hard to find anything more 80’s than Rocky IV.” Just before the Cold War would draw to a close, “Rocky IV” had Stallone battling a Soviet fighting machine named Drago (Dolph Lundgren) with an ice queen of a wife (Brigitte Nielsen, who would be Mrs. Stallone briefly).  After Drago kills Apollo Creed in the ring, Rocky fights him on behalf of Apollo and of course on behalf of America and freedom, and Rocky-ism.

And now, in the eighth film in the series, Drago’s son, trained by his bitter, brutal father (Lundgren again), challenges Adonis, newly crowned heavyweight champion, to a fight on behalf of Apollo, America, freedom, and Rocky-ism.  One fighter is bigger and tougher, but he has been trained with hate. The other has been trained with heart . Time for the classic Bill Conti score again.

Michael B. Jordan is mesmerizing on screen and so completely authentic that he makes even the soapiest moments real and engrossing.  Is Rocky going to refuse to train Adonis to fight Drago’s son (Florian Munteanu) just to create an opportunity for extra drama? Will there be ten-counts? Will there be a proposal, a baby, a reconciliation? Maybe two? Cornerman pep talks about “this is your house” and commentary on the business side of boxing (“The belt ain’t enough — you need a narrative, something that sticks to the ribs”)?  Decadent Russian oligarchs in a dining room that looks like it belongs to Count Dracula?  A camera shot that makes us feel like one of Drago, Jr.’s fists is coming right at us?  Callbacks to “Rocky IV?”  (In that film, Lundgren said only 46 words. In this one, he says a few more but some of them are the same words. Nielsen, on the other hand, is in the film but her ex-husband did not give her more than a few words to say.)  Dramatic moments in the audience, as women watch the fights — or don’t?  All of that, plus, in case we miss anything, a lot of expository narration from the sports announcers. 

Oh sure, it’s cheese.  But it’s Rocky, and it still works.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and graphic scenes of boxing with severe injuries, references to a boxer who died following a fight, brief strong language, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: How did the different goals Adonis and Viktor had for the fight affect them? What made Ivan Drago change his mind? What do we learn from Adonis’ night with the baby?

If you like this, try: the “Rocky” movies and “Warrior”

Related Tags:

 

Drama movie review Movies Movies Series/Sequel Sports

Green Book

Posted on November 15, 2018 at 5:50 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018

Copyright 2018 Universal
Before I tell you how good this movie is, let me tell you how many ways it could have gone wrong. First, it is based on the true story of a trip through the deep South in 1962, before the Civil Rights Act, taken by two men who were opposites in every way. One was Don Shirley, an elegant, sophisticated black musician with two PhDs who lived in an apartment filled with exquisite works of art above Carnegie Hall. The other was a crude, provincial Italian bouncer from Queens known as Tony Lips. It is almost impossible to make a story like that without falling into the White Savior trap or the Magical Negro trap.

Next, the movie is co-written by the real-life son of Tony Lips (real name, Tony Vallelonga), so there was a high risk of a lack of perspective, and probably a lack of experience. And the director, Peter Farrelly, is known for working with his brother, Bobby, on movies known for often-shockingly crude humor like “There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber,” and “Movie 43.”

And yet, they pulled it off. “Green Book” is wonderfully entertaining and guaranteed to warm even the hardest of hearts. The music is sublime, and the performances by Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lips are superb. Yes, lessons will be learned and racial harmony will be kumbaya-ed, but resistance is futile. This movie will win you over.

Tony needs a job, but not badly enough to accept an offer from some mob-connected friends. When he hears that a doctor needs a driver, he goes to the address for the interview and it is not a home but the legendary Carnegie Hall. It turns out that Don Shirley lives above the performance space, in an apartment filled with antiques and objects d’art. He is (twice) a doctor of music. He appears in a gold and white caftan and conducts the interview from an actual throne. He is sophisticated and a little effete. He is, as is usually the case in road and buddy movies and especially in buddy/road movies, the id to Tony’s unrestrained ego. He immediately knows that Tony is not the right guy and turns him down. But later, he offers him the job, even though when he tells Tony he is going South, Tony thinks he means Atlantic City.

It is 1962. The Civil Rights Act has not yet passed, meaning that the Jim Crow segregation laws are still in effect throughout the South, and there are very few hotels and restaurants that allow black customers. Don will be traveling with two other musicians (the group is called the Don Shirley Trio), and they are white and driving a separate car. The record label guy gives Tony a copy of the Green Book, a travel guide for black Americans who wish to “vacation without aggravation.” And he tells Tony that if Don does not make every single performance on the schedule, he will not get paid.

Tony, in an early scene put a glass in the garbage because a black plumber working in his kitchen drank some water from it, has lived a life as insular as Don’s has been urbane. Tony is expansive and chatty. Don is reserved and cerebral. Tony is devoted to his wife and family. Don is a loner. Tony loves food. Don loves music. Ahead are plenty of conflicts with each other and plenty of conflicts that will put them on the same side against pretty much everyone.

It teeters toward overly cutesy at times, as when Tony teaches Don the joys of fried chicken. But we see Tony’s spirit enlarge as he sees for the first time the beauty and brutality of America outside of New York, as he is touched by the music and Don’s artistry and horrified by the bigotry he faces. And we see Don open up a little to someone outside his world. Watching that opens our hearts a little, too.

Parents should know that this film includes depiction of Civil Rights Era racism with some peril and violence, strong and racist language, drinking, smoking, some sexual references and non-explicit situation.

Family discussion: Why did Don Shirley pick Tony? If you wrote a movie about your parents, what would it be?

If you like this, try: listen to the music of the Don Shirley Trio and watch “In the Heat of the Night”

Related Tags:

 

Based on a true story Drama movie review Movies Movies Race and Diversity

Instant Family

Posted on November 15, 2018 at 5:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and some peril and accidents, brief disturbing images of injuries, family confrontations, issues of foster care
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018

Copyright 2018 Paramount Pictures
An adoptive mom explained to me once that most couples who adopt have “a drag-er and a drag-ee.” That can be the essence of a good partnership; parenting in any form is one of life’s greatest leaps into the unknown and it makes sense to talk it out thoroughly while understanding that no one can ever understand the terror, the exhaustion, the way children “push buttons you didn’t know you had,” and of course the unparalleled joy of being a parent until you get there, by which time you are probably too terrified, exhausted, and, yes, filled with joy to understand it even then. That is why we gravitate to movies like “Instant Family.” They give us a chance to think about how much our families mean to us.

“Instant Family,” based in part on the real-life story of writer-director Sean Anders, tells us everything we need to know about Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) in the first scene, as they race through a decrepit mess of a house thrilled at the possibilities only they can see. Their optimistic vision and instinctive teamwork will be needed when a half joking remark about adopting an older child to catch yup with their contemporaries leads Ellie to start looking at websites about foster parenting and then to being the drag-er to Pete’s drag-ee. “This is what we do! We see potential in things and fix them up!” But of course, as someone said, adults do not make children; children make adults. The parents get some fixing up, too.

After some foster parent training, they go to a “foster fair,” to meet some of the children who are available. They were not planning to foster a teen, but they are drawn to a remarkably self-possessed girl named Lizzy (Isabela Moner) (and a bit intimidated by her, too). The social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer) tell them she has two younger siblings. They are daunted by the idea of going from zero kids to three all at once, but understand the importance of keeping them together and cannot resist their adorable photos. The next thing they know, they are calling out, “Kids! Dinner is ready!” and wondering whether it will be reassuring or intrusive to kiss them goodnight.

You can tell Anders (“Daddy’s Home”) has been through it and has spent time with other foster families. The film has well-chosen details of the two steps forward-one step back relationship with the children, especially Lizzie, who is used to taking care of her brother and sister herself and still hopes that their mother will come for them. It is frank about the issues of fostering children of different ethnicities, the ambivalent feelings about the possibility of the biological mother returning, and the moments when Pete and Ellie wonder if they’ve done the right thing, and if not loving the children immediately makes them horrible people. Ellie says at one point that she feels like she is babysitting someone else’s kids. And she’s right. They don’t become hers because a social worker says so or because a judge says so. They become hers because she does not give up. And because she fights for Lizzie. And because she brushes Lizzy’s hair so gently and lovingly.

Wahlberg and Byrne are perfectly cast and the tone and pacing are exactly right for depicting family life, where tears are mixed with laughter and laughter is mixed with tears. They are hilariously funny and also touching and moving. There’s great support from Notaro and Spencer and from Margo Martindale as a feisty grandmother, and Moner is excellent as Lizzy whether she’s being defiant, manipulative, protective, or vulnerable. This story could have been cloying or it could have been soap opera. But Anders and his cast make it into a genuinely heartwarming experience that makes us wish we could be part of their family, too.

Parents should know that this is a warm-hearted comedy that is frank about some of the issues presented in foster parenting and adoption including trauma and neglect, drug abuse, predatory behavior and sexting, with some strong language.

Family discussion: What were the biggest challenges Pete and Ellie faced and how well did they deal with them? What is the best way to help kids in the foster program?

If you like this movie, try: “Room for One More” with Cary Grant and his then-wife Betsy Drake

Related Tags:

 

Based on a true story Comedy Drama Family Issues movie review Movies Movies

Boy Erased

Posted on November 1, 2018 at 5:20 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic, disturbing rape scene
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

“Boy Erased” is the second major feature film released in 2018 about Christian “gay conversion” facilities (the documentary “Far from the Tree” touched on gay conversion therapy). It is based on the experience of and expose by Garrard Conley, “Boy Erased” might better be called “Boy Ineradicable” because it is the story of a college student who is at first genuinely grateful to be sent to the conversion facility to be “cured,” but there realizes, contrary to and because of that experience, that those who do not understand that he is healthy and love him as he is and for who he is — those are the people in need of conversion.

Home movies show us Jared (as he is called in the film, played by Lucas Hedges) as an only child growing up with devoted and loving parents. His father, Marshall (Russell Crowe) is a preacher and a prosperous owner of a car dealership. He is a sincere and honest man of faith, preaching redemption, not fire and brimstone. Jared’s mother is Nancy (Nicole Kidman), with blonde bouffant hair, perfect manicure, and sparkly sense of style. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace; He for God only, she for God in him.”

Jared is a high school basketball player with a pretty cheerleader girlfriend and a brand new car as a birthday gift. But he pushes her away when she tries to get physical, telling her he wants to wait. In college, a handsome student invites him to join him in running and come to his church — and then he rapes Jared. Afterward, he cries, confesses he has done it before, and begs Jared not to tell. And then he pretends to be a counselor, and calls Jared’s parents to tell them that their son has been engaging in homosexual activity.

Jared at first denies it, and does not tell them the truth about the rape. But then he confesses that he does think about men. Marshall consults with senior clergy, and packs Jared off to what begins as a twelve-day live-out program run by a group gruesomely called Love in Action,” run by Victor Sykes (writer/director Joel Edgerton). Sykes tells the young people sent to his facility to make a moral inventory and to list all family members who have sinned, helpfully giving a list of categories to assign, from gang activity to gambling, alcoholism and drug abuse, and homosexuality. “None” is not an acceptable answer.

At first, Jared tries to change. But as he witnesses the abusive tactics, from humiliation to “recommendations” that the participants be switched from live-out, short-term care to live-in care for an indeterminate period, he begins to understand that he is not the one with the problem. Later, we see how his mother and father diverge in their ability to accept him for who he is.

Edgerton’s writing, directing, and performance are all first-rate here. He has said that the issue of imprisonment has scared and fascinated him all his life, and he powerfully creates the sense of claustrophobia and abandonment of the Love in Action facility, and the inept but extremely damaging techniques that exemplify the experiences of almost 700,000 people. His fellow Aussies Crowe and Kidman create real, human portraits, not caricatures. Kidman has two outstanding scenes showing us how Nancy resolves the conflicts between what she has been taught and the love of her son. In his big scene, Crowe shows us a man who is struggling with that conflict. “I sought the counsel of wiser men,” he says, and really, that is what it is all about. How do we decide who is wiser? The information about the main characters at the end provides a powerful coda. Flea is fine in a small role as one of the instructors at the facility, who confesses his own sins and tries to teach the participants how to stand in a manly way.

Hedges continues to impress with his exceptionally thoughtful performances, following his work in “Manchester by the Sea,” “Lady Bird,” and the upcoming “Ben is Back.” He shows us Jared’s vulnerability but also his resilience, and the essential decency that leads him to be true to himself because of his empathy for what the others are going through. This movie should do that for us as well.

Parents should know that this film concerns “gay conversion” with abusive and homophobic activities, a brutal rape scene, sexual references, some strong language, and brief drug use.

Family discussion: Why did Jared’s parents have different ideas about what was best for him? Who are the “wiser” people you consult for advice and why?

If you like this, try: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “But I’m a Cheerleader”

Related Tags:

 

Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Family Issues GLBTQ and Diversity movie review Movies Movies
THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2018, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at Rogerebert.com, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik