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

Ben Is Back Poster
Trailer

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.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7ckCekdGr8

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Film Review: BOY ERASED (USA 2018) ***1/2

Boy Erased Poster
Trailer

The son of a Baptist preacher is forced to participate in a church-supported gay conversion program after being forcibly outed to his parents.

Director:

Joel Edgerton

Writers:

Garrard Conley (based on the memoir Boy Erased by), Joel Edgerton (written for the screen by)

This year sees two films based on Christian gay conversion therapy camps.  The recent Desiree Akhavan’s THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST follows a female survivor while BOY ERASED written and directed by Joel  Edgerton sees a male counterpart.  Both are excellent films.  It is worthwhile to watch both films as the two films treat the material quite differently.  But the aim of discrediting these camps is identical.  And both films are based on true stories written into acclaimed novels.  BOY ERASED is based on Garrard Conley’s memoir.  Conley, who was present during the promo screening I attended mentioned the one incident that was changed in the film that Edgerton inserted for artistic purpose.  Which I agree works.

BOY ERASED has as its subject the teenaged son of a Baptist pastor.  Jared gets good grades, plays basketball, and is in a steady — but chaste — relationship with a girl from school. Everything in his life is going according to plan, until a college friend outs Jared as gay.

Jared (Lucas Hedges) is forced into a gay-conversion program by his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) – shown in the film as a very scary cloistered world of brainwashing.

Overseen by Victor Sykes (Edgerton, in a superbly cagey performance), the program’s bullying and bigotry fosters an environment that is anything but a refuge. Though Jared begins the program desperate to be healed, he begins to wonder about the validity of the program after witnessing a few terrible incidents.

Being based on real live events, what transpires on screen is realistically scary.  One incident includes a suicide that occurs as a result of extreme psychological distress of the patients. What is moving about the story is the sincere love of Jared’s parents.  Pastor Marshall loves his son but cannot accept that his son his gay.  In the film’s most dramatic confrontational scene between father and son, Jared tells his father:”I am gay, deal with it!”   Mother Nancy does what a wife should do but not what a mother should.  She sides with her husband till she finally sees the light and switches to her son’s side.  Kidman delivers an extraordinary performance as the mother.  The parents are not the villains in this piece.  (This issue is sidestepped in THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST as Cameron is an orphan.)  Sykes is the villain, brainwashing the patients while preventing them from letting outsiders know what really goes on in the place.  Sykes has no real qualifications either.  The irony of all this is at present (according to the closing credits), Sykes is living with his new husband somewhere else in the U.S.

It is not doubt that BOY ERAESD is a dramatic film with a clear message about the survivors of these Christian therapy schools.  In the words of the author Conley present at the promo screening, it is extremely disturbing to learn that many of these centres are still existing, even in New York City.  Many states have already banned these centres.

BOY ERASED is a courageous film that demands to be seen.  Writer/director Edgerton is straight but knows the urgency of the film’s message.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-B71eyB_Onw

Film Review: Mid90s (USA 2018) **

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Mid90s Poster
Trailer

1:21 | Trailer
Follows Stevie, a thirteen-year-old in 90s-era LA who spends his summer navigating between his troubled home life and a group of new friends that he meets at a Motor Avenue skate shop.

Director:

Jonah Hill

Writer:

Jonah Hill

Actor Jonah Hill (MONEYBALL) makes his directorial debut in the highly touted Mid90s, a film that centres on rebellious youth.  Like all first time directors, tJonah Hill demonstrates in the film’s strengths what he is familiar with – in this case his acting.  His young actors perform magnificently capturing the spirit of troubled youth.  But there is much lacking in the overall bigger picture.  For one, Mid90’s captures a minuscule portion of the life of its subject, 13-year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic last seen in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) but omits the larger story of perhaps examining the advancement in his coming-of-age rites.

The film begins with a skateboarding segment where the camera fluidly follows the smooth gluing movement of the sport.  It is a promising start showing expert technical camerawork.  The film then settles on Stevie and his friends who hang around a skateboard park with other misfits, some of whom are acquaintances with others they have altercations with.

One of the film’s troubled scenes involve a party where most of the partygoers are between the ages of 18 to 30 where obviously, drug and sex are going on, besides alcohol consumption.  Stevie meets an older black girl.  They chat before heading upstairs to a room where they make out, Stevie for the first time and her, to satisfy her curiosity.  If the gender of these two were reversed, the elder participant would be considered a pedophile, a dirty old man akin to a Harvey Weinstein type sex offender.  Also, Stevie is of the young age where he should be sheltered from foul language, such that is frequently uttered with the skateboard buddies.  One wonders if his dialogue was dubbed into the film, and if not, that would be trouble for tHill and his filming company.

Credit is to be given to Hill and Suljic however in the creation of this sweet 13-year old character who comes across as vulnerable, goofy and occasionally strong and clever.  The other buddies are more cardboard characters despite given interesting names like Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), perhaps for the reason he behaves and thinks like one and Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) called that for other reasons.

The script, probably with a lot of dialogue improvised is street smart talk, fast and furious and often hilarious and occasionally hits the nail on the head with respect to youth observation.  One must be fast to catch the lines or one will miss out.  Political correctness is thrown out of the window in the film with the N word constantly in use and dialogue like “Don’t say thank you, that’s gay!”  One could argue that this is the way words are used on the streets.

Jonah Hill’s Mid90s may be interesting in parts containing impressive performances from its young cast but the film is too short sighted.  Despite being authentic and entertaining, Mid90s is nowhere remotely close to Truffaut’s 400 BLOWS.  The film has garnered rave reviews and one can see that is a street-smart down-to-earth crowd pleaser, despite its flaws.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9Rx6-GaSIE