Film Review: BEN IS BACK (USA 2018) ****

Ben Is Back Poster

Peter Hedges, tHe writer/director of the new family drama cum thriller BEN IS BACK rose to film fame with the successful WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?  BEN IS BACK tells what happens when Ben, (played by Peter’s son Lucas Hedges, last seen in BOY ERASED and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) the drug addict son of the family returns home for Christmas against the advice of his worker.

His mother Holly (Oscar Winner Julia Roberts) is the only one standing up for him.  Neither her new husband Neal or Ben’s sister think it good idea for the unannounced Christmas visit.

It is either Ben making Christmas right or making the biggest f***ing mistake.

The script plays on whether Ben’s intentions on staying clean are genuine.  Mother Holly has already warned her son that she is keeping her eyes and checking in him 24/7 and one mistake and she will send him packing to rehab.  The film offers many opportunities for hm to be slipped drugs and director Hedges nor makes it clear to Holly or the audience whether he got some or did not.  This is the fun part of the film – being in the dark and in suspense as to waits going on.

Ben’s past acquaintances will not leave him alone either.  When the family returns from a Christmas Cantata, the family home is broken into and their dog Ponce (played by Nigel) missing.  Ben takes off with Holly to find the dog.  He ditches her to find his supplier (when he was dealing) to get the dog back but not until doing one last job.

Hedges ties in the thriller element into the family drama.  The tactic works wonderfully with the audience tense and glued toothier seat while always on the side of Holly and Ben.  Hedges knows how to connect his audience to both the characters and the story.

The script contains one flaw when Ben goes back to drug usage at the end, which is believable as no one can give up a bad habit including smoking and substance abuse.  Ben overdoses.  One would think that being a dealer would know the safe dosage of cocaine (no to mention he was given only a baggie) that would never overdose.  One can only guess that the overdose segment was inserted for the purpose of artistic dramatization.

The film is aided by two Oscar worthy performances.  Julia Roberts is so good by just sitting it the car looking scared and confused.  Her anger dialogue is also well-written allowing her to show her acting prowess, her character hen breaking out into then use of many ‘f’ words.  Hedges is also excellent keeping the advices int he dark as to his true intentions.  They make the movie.

The script also works entertaining set-pieces into the story.  The segment with Ben’s sister at the Christmas Cantata singing “O Holy Night’ is beautiful especially when her soprano solo reaches the high ‘F’ note. 

But the film’s best segment is the one where Holly, after discovering drugs on Ben again, drags him to the graveyard, screaming atheism asking whether wants to be buried.  It is a moving and explosive scene and one obviously written (and with success) for artistic dramatization.

BEN IS BACK is a rare family drama tied in with an added thriller element, making it an engrossing watch from start to end.  And the greatest joke on the audience is that the same question at the start of the film “whether Ben is making Christmas right or making the biggest f***ing mistake” is still left for the audience to answer.




Movie Review

Directed by Tony Gilroy
Starring: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen
Review by Matthew Toffolo


A pair of corporate spies (Owen and Roberts) who share a steamy past hook up to pull off the ultimate con job on their respective bosses — but can they learn to truly love and trust one another?


If there is any type of film that I am biased about, it's the figuring out who done it/how to pull off a great con in a complex step by step plan film. I love these movies, perhaps because I personally am exactly like these people.

No, I am not a conman, but I do like to make a plan and these plans are usually very complex and hard to pull off. The trick is to bring something to the world without having any trace that you are the one who did it. OR, in the case of these types of film, pulling off a scam without people realizing that you pulled off the scam.

Duplicity has the right title because this is the type of film that is part thriller, part romantic comedy, part crime drama. You don't really know what you're getting into when you sit down to watch it and the film's overall TONE is the exact opposite in the film's trailer and marketing concept to sell the movie to audiences. They are trying to tell us one thing whereas the film itself is another thing entirely. And people might be thrown off because of it.

I do have to admit I was very confused by these selling trailers because Director and Writer Tony Gilroy is not the type to make an all out romantic comedy. He's the man who wrote the screenplay's for all three Bourne movies and then gave us the terrific Michael Clayton in 2007, a film that I consider to be the most underrated film of this decade.

Gilroy's overall writing (and now directing) grammar is about people caught in the complex corporate system of our society. And how these people are all just ponds on the chess board who can easily be killed off without a hitch to serve and benefit their overall game. And his character's journeys are their attempts to beat the system and come out clean. But you can never come out clean as soon as you enter the game.

Duplicity is just like his past films with the only difference being that there is a love story in between the moments of the capitalism game. Clive Owen and Julia Robert's characters have come up with their own scheme to beat the big boys at their game. So for two hours we watch to see if they will win this game and outduel the masters at their own game or not. And there is definitely a surprise ending that will occur, something that I was shocked about.

Interesting thing about screen connections. Clive Owen and Julia Roberts definitely have fantastic chemistry. They are this generations Bogart and Bacall. We love them and want them to be together as soon as we see them. There are 7 scenes in the film of them just standing across from each other talking and nothing else and we are completely into it emotionally. Only two people with on screen connection like this can pull this off. And Gilroy uses it to his advantage.

The key to Duplicity is for us to like and believe that these two characters are in love with each other. They are both the middle-management version of the spy game and know they only have a short time left. And what's next for them? Is there a spy retirement home? These characters want to get away and they have figured out a plan to make some money and scam the people who have been scamming them for years.

All I can say is that you should never underestimate the Chief Operating Officers of gigantic corporations. They are on top for a reason. (but of course as of the writing of this review 21/03/2009, there is a certain rolling of the eyes with a comment like that)

I enjoyed this film and I can't wait to see what Gilroy does next. And Julia Roberts seems to have really leaped as an actress. After Mike Nichols shot her in Closer (2004), Ms. Roberts is letting the cinematographers of her films to shoot her anyway that suits her role and overall theme of the movie she's in. If you look at her past film roles, she is always shot from a Hollywood angle and there is never a hair out of place. The older she's getting, the more free she's becoming. And it usually works the opposite for female stars.

This movie might get lost in the shuffle in 2009, but it’s an entertaining movie that should be seen.


Movie Reviews

Directed by Ryan Murphy

Cast: Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis, Ali Khan
Review by Joshua Starnes


Happily married Elizabeth Gilbert (Roberts) takes a right turn in her life by enduring a painful divorce and proceeding to take a round-the-world journey of self-enlightenment and fulfillment.


Do you know what the most interesting thing in the world to you is? You. Do you know what the least interesting thing in the world to anyone else is? You.

That’s not entirely true because people have relationships and empathy, but I think we can safely call it 95% true. So how do you get around that problem in a story that is essentially about you? As an author or filmmaker you can either make your ‘you’ stand-in so likeable and/or universal that everyone else sees themselves in it and goes along for the ride out of shared experience. Or you can make your stand-in such a vehicle for ridiculous wish fulfillment that everyone else comes along to pretend the have the shared experience.

A lot of movies like “Eat Pray Love” like to pretend to themselves they’re the first kind of story, without realizing (or actively) ignoring the fact they are the second, resulting in something that is simultaneously preachy and shallow, which is about as aggravating as it sounds. Try imagining one of the ‘Real Housewives’ of wherever explaining to you what you need to do reach spiritual enlightenment. Well, maybe not that shallow but certainly that immature.


Liz (Julia Roberts) isn’t happy with life. She doesn’t know why, she just is. She married her goofball husband (Billy Crudup) too early to realize that wasn’t what she wanted and the affair she has with a young actor (James Franco) doesn’t make things any clearer. Her only solution is to check out of life: travel to several countries (all beginning with the all important letter I) so that she can spend some time focusing on herself and what it is she really wants.

The thing is what Liz really wants is to be 20 again, with the wonderful expanse of life ahead of her and none of the cynical realizations of maturity to keep her from enjoying it. If that sounds really, really hard to relate to, it is. Liz maybe the most unlikeable character Julia Roberts has ever had to play, not because co-writer/director Ryan Murphy (“Glee”) is trying to make her so (and eventually redeem her) but because everything the film does pushes her in that direction.

I suspect that’s because his eye is less on his characters than it is on the loving, beautiful travelogue he has put together of Italy and Indonesia and India. Especially Italy. Sure, it’s the part of the movie that’s supposed to be about giving in to physical pleasures as a real thing not to feel guilty about, but it also seems to be the only part of the movie anyone making it really understands because it’s the only part that doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. I swear to God, they spent longer lovingly lighting the spaghetti under Robert Richardson’s watchful eye than they did trying figure out why on Earth anyone would ever like Liz.

However as it moves into its spiritual journey, with Liz embracing her inner ashram in India and her attempt to balance the competing desires of her heart of India, “Eat Pray Love” reveals itself to be the con man it is. It knows people want to have their cake and eat it too, and it’s going to do its best to give it to them, while spinning just enough spiritual platitudes to make sure you’re not really paying attention to the smoke and mirrors.

After a year of discovering herself Liz literally runs into a dashing Brazilian ex-pat (Javier Bardem) in Bali with all the finesse of a Harlequin romance and has to wonder if it was all for naught and all she really needed was someone else to make her happy after all. It’s the sort of thing people rake “Sex and the City” over the coals for but at least they had the honesty to be up front about it.

There are some descent supporting performances scattered in “Eat Pray Love” from Richard Jenkin’s sloganeering Texas pilgrim to Viola Davis as Liz’s publisher and one and only model of sanity in the world. But they’re not enough to turn the tide that is all, all about Liz.

“Eat Pray Love” is the shallowest of shallow wish fulfillment, which wouldn’t be so obnoxious if it wasn’t trying to gussy itself up with the clothing of enlightenment. But maybe I’m the one who’s cynical. If I met the supermodel of my dreams on a beach in Bali, I’d probably get over any personal problems I had, too.



Movie Reviews

Directed by Joel Schumacher
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Kimberly Scott
Review by Melissa R. Mendelson


Medical students begin to explore the realm of near death experiences, hoping for insights. Each has their heart stopped and is revived. They begin having flashes of walking nightmares from their childhood, reflecting sins they committed or had committed against them. The experiences continue to intensify, and they begin to be physically beaten by their visions as they try and go deeper into the death experience to find a cure.

NOMINATED for Best Special Effects OSCAR


What is our fascination with death? What feeds our need to know more? Is it fear that there is nothing waiting on the other side, or is it wonder to know if life exists beyond life? What drives our imagination to create so many movies based on death, and why must we feel drawn to watching and hearing every story made and written? What really lies deep within our fascination?

With every step into this world, we experience life. Mistakes made and that could never be changed haunt us. Loved ones leave us too soon, and some still carry the blame of not doing enough, not being there, and living on beyond them. Taking every moment for granted and breaking all the rules is one road many take, but how far will they reach toward the end? The definition of life is the sum of all of our experiences, but once we experience death, what would define us then?

The hunger to know what really lies beyond, to prove that life still exists after death fuels one man’s bold experiment to cross that divide. Pulling a team of young, talented minds together, one doctor, Nelson puts the question to the test and places his life literally on the line. The sound of his heart races along the monitor, and minutes later… Flatline.

After a brief struggle to regain his life, the team succeeds in bringing Nelson back to the world of the living, but what they don’t realize is that he does not return alone. And one after another, members of the team take turns “walking on the moon” and experiencing life beyond death, but one by one, they discover that their amazing adventure comes with a heavy price. And there is no turning back.

The past has always stayed one footstep behind, but when you experience death, it now walks ahead but then turns around to stare you right in the face. All the mistakes that you could never erase wait to strike back. All your selfish, ruthless acts wait to taunt you. All the ones that you wronged get their revenge, and “in the end, we all know what we have done.”

The question of is there life after death has been answered, but what about all your sins let loose upon your life? How do you take back the past? How can you fight death?

Redemption. Face the past. Confront yourself. Admit being wrong and pay the price, but how can you, if the one you wronged is dead? Where do you go from there?

For one member of the team, opportunity reveals itself in her darkest moment. The blame that Rachel carried over her father’s death brings her face to face with the man that now haunts her, and no matter how hard she fights to escape, the past was waiting for her. And her father slowly rises to meet her and asks for her forgiveness, embracing her in his love, and all the blame that has held her prisoner for so long melts away. And her father’s spirit is finally at rest.

But for Nelson to find his redemption, he would once again have to cross that divide, and there was no coming back. He would confront his past, right his wrongs, and sacrifice his life. This was all his doing and his price to pay, and his heart frantically beats along the monitor. Minutes later… Flatline.

And the team hurries to his rescue, a race against time, but death is against them. And after a long struggle, they surrender, admitting defeat. The question of is there life beyond death should never been answered because you open a door that could never be closed afterward, and a heavy price has to be paid. But would they pay for it with Nelson’s life, and the answer is… No, and again they try to save him. And in the end… “Today is not a good day to die.”

With the heart and soul of a talented cast, brilliant writing, and a perfect example of a classic movie, Flatliners breaks ground in our hunt to know what lies across the divide between life and death. The storyline carries us through flickering, illuminated lights of experience, the past lying in red, and into the darkness, where the ghosts are waiting. We are carried along waves of passion and dedication by actors bringing their characters to life, and they captivate us in their struggle against what lies in wait. And the music lifts our spirits, touches our hearts, and carries us off in the end, and this movie marks forever a deep impression in our hunt to know life beyond death.


Movie Reviews

Directed by Hebert Ross
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts
Review by Matthew Toffolo


Revolving around Truvy’s Beauty Parlor in a small parish in modern-day Louisiana. A film about female friendship. The funniest movie ever to make you cry.


Steel Magnolias was one of three films that we owned when I was a kid growing up. The other two being Lethal Weapon 2 and When Harry Met Sally. Why we owned those films I had no idea, but I burned out the tapes after many viewings.

I had no idea what I was going to do with my life when I was 12-13 years old, All I knew is that I loved watching movies. But back then it was a world of only 5 TV channels, renting a movie at the video store was a big thing, and going to a movie theater was as rare as rain in Los Angeles. So Steel Magnolias was one of those films that I’ve seen many times. I hadn’t seen it in years until recently and it still stands the test of time.

This is a movie about friendship with a group of southern woman living in Louisiana. It could of easily been a movie about friendship of a group of athletes in a football locker room. The themes will remain the same. There is a lot of love in this movie and it was love that I craved for as a child, which is why I kept watching this film over and over again.

Only later did I realize that this is what they called a chick flick. And men weren’t supposed to watch this type of movie. So I abandoned Steel Magolias in my teenage years never to be watched again until 2009. Of course this is just silly stuff and I’m sure men would like these ‘chick flicks’ a lot more than woman do. After all, what better way understand women than to watch a movie about women?

I also grew up with a mother and two older sisters, so my influences growing up were mainly females. With their friends and other female family members, my mother and sisters formed a clan just like the women did in at the beauty shop in Steel Magnolias. A clan I attempted to join but was not welcome. They couldn’t talk the same when a boy was in presence. Of course I listened anyway as I eavesdropped on their conversations so I could hear what they talked about. A talent I formed then and continue to use to this day.

When the girls got together it was usually to talk about men and gossip about other woman. Why they were so fascinated about other people always blew my mind. After awhile the talk began a version of the same thing every time and that was when I fell in love with baseball and football. So I left the group of women behind and began to form or belong to my own male groups. In hindsight you sort of wish that there are more opportunities in life for woman and men to merge. But I guess these days there is, because almost as many men now go to beauty shops as woman do.

Watching Steel Magnolias was like watching my own mother and sisters. Except in the movie they were a lot nicer and the gossip talk always started with a rationalization to why they are speaking about someone else when they aren’t present. Gossip they did while they also learn a lot about themselves and their deep love to each other.

I loved the themes of this film and all of the performances are top notch. I always found it unfair that the male characters all had limited scenes but of course compared to almost every other Hollywood movie, this is a silly statement. Hollywood needs to tell more stories like this. And there are a ton of female actors who are ready and waiting for them.


Movie Review: MONEY MONSTER (USA 2016) ****

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moneymonster.jpgMONEY MONSTER (USA 2016) ****
Directed by Jodie Foster

Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito

Review by Gilbert Seah

MONEY MONSTER is a star-studded sharp Hollywood satire/drama that is as current as the stock prices on the stock market charts. Financial TV personality Lee Gates (George Clooney), who offers up stock advice on his hit show “Money Monster”, is held hostage by a viewer, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’ Connell). Kyle had lost all of his money, following a bad tip from Lee during his show. Kyle wants answers. As the police surround the TV studio, Lee eventually sympathizes and takes Kyle’s side in discovering the truth about the company’s $800 million loss explained on TV as a glitch in the company’s financial algorithm.

MONEY MONSTER is a odd film in that its middle portion is better than the end. The story is predictable enough once naive Kyle takes Lee hostage. It does not take a genius to figure out that Lee will take Kyle’s side and that the villain of the piece is the CEO of the company (Dominic West) who eventually confesses to his embezzlement. But as they say, the devil is in the details. It is all the little observations and various incidents that make the movie totally watchable thus covering up the predictability complaint of the story.

Directed by Jodie Foster (THE PANIC ROOM), the film contains strong feminine roles. The most obvious is Julia Robert’s Patty Fenn, a more than able producer. She is Lee’s neglected girlfriend who proves she that she is able to control the hostage situation as well as their relationship. The other is that of Molly (Emily Meade), Kyle’s girlfriend. Molly’s speech to Kyle, on the air, on how much a loser he is, is the arguably funniest to be found in a film this year: As in recent ‘female’ films, the males (Lee, Kyle, the show producer, Walt) are all egocentric ‘idiots’. But by putting them up high on the pedestal and making it all funny, Foster gets away with it.

Performances are top notch. Clooney and Roberts work their chemistry but top marks go to Brit actor Jack O’ Connell (STARRED UP) , playing the straight role of the victim/antagonist. He demonstrates how to keep attention from waning even when the limelight shifts to another character. The other supporting roles are well performed by Dominic West as the financial villain, Walt Camby and Caitriona Balfe as Diane Lester, the whistle blower.

The incidents leading to the expected results are however genuinely inventive. The parody on found footage is take up another level with a network camera following the hostage and kidnapper down the elevator and into the street, still shooting. Lee raps on stage and offers stock tips also satirizes the financial world well. The script by Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden is smart enough to include clips of “The View” as everyone watches the takedown on television. Walt’s defence statement that all these would not have happened if events had worked out with the stock going up instead of down rings so true. When something illegal occurs and everyone benefits, no one says anything.

For a thriller, editing is crucial. The camera shots of the snipers crawling into position, the movement of the target, the shots of the crew behind and in front of the camera and the dance routine (to show just enough but not too much) are close to perfect.

MONEY MONSTER ultimately satisfies as it delivers what it is supposed to – a sharp and witty satire on the financial world that is both funny and smart at the same time. It features Hollywood’s top and upcoming stars at their best. Highly recommended – take this as as a movie tip!

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Movie Review: MOTHER’S DAY (2016). Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts

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mothersdayMOTHER’S DAY (USA 2016) **

Directed by Garry Marshall

Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, Timothy Olyphant, Shay Mitchell, Jason Sudeikis

Review by Gilbert Seah

Director Garry Marshall has created his niche in directing saccharine sweet films for the not so demanding moviegoer. His NEW YEAR’S EVE, VALENTINE’ DAY and PRETTY WOMAN say it all. The 81 year-old has been at it since 1982 when I saw his first film YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE. He also is the creator of the iconic TV series, “Happy Days”, “Laverne & Shirley”, and “Mork & Mindy”.

So do not expect much from his latest family comedy MOTHER’S DAY. The plot involves 3 interconnecting stories with mothers. They are loosely connected. For example, a friend of one gives advice to another who is in a different story. So, the film could consists of 3 unconnected stories for all that matters.

The first mother is Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) who has two sons. Her recently divorced husband, Henry (Timothy Olyphant) is marrying young Tina (Shay Mitchell). To Sandy’s dismay, everything is going on too well with her ex. The second mother is high profile TV star, Miranda (Julia Roberts) who has given up her daughter, Kristin (Britt Robertson) for her career. Kristen seeks to find her mother while not being able to commit to marrying her Irish boyfriend. And there is Jesse (Kate Hudson), a mother who married an east-Indian against her parents wishes. All these stories are quite easy to follow on screen, despite it sounding confusing on paper. It is hard to determine which is the best story. But one can tell that there is healthy competition among the stars to do their part the best. Aniston tries very hard at being funny. Roberts smiles a bit too much looking artificially false.

All these shenanigans are mildly funny. An example are the stand up comic routines during the comedy contest at Burn’s (Jon Lovitz) club. Those routines including the $5000 prize winner are just ok funny at best. The other shenanigans also invoke a tear or two as niceness is pulled out of these stories, which director Marshall is so good at. There are a few genuine funny moments like the runaway trailer with the laptop screen having the image of the East Indian mother as it topples of the table when she says” “Where is everyone gone?”

Marshall has assembled quite the all-star cast. Marshall has got most of the big names, like Julia Roberts, who has worked with him before. Also noticeable is his use of minority groups to play bit parts (like the down-syndrome girl at the film’s start). But then, his film goes in the opposite direction with some very racist East-Indian jokes later on in the film. He also stereotypes East Indians having the mother, for example, always appearing wearing a full sari and always having all Indians speaking with a strong accent.

Midway during the film, the hit song “Photograph” by Ben Shereen is performed, only emphasizing Marshall’s desperation to get his film liked.

Otherwise, MOTHER’S DAY is just the typical Garry Marshall film: mildly entertaining at best and irritatingly full of sentimentality and niceness. As the saying goes, every Marshall story (he cowrite this film) has a happy ending.

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