Movie Review ~ French Exit

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An aging Manhattan socialite living on what’s barely left of her inheritance moves to a small apartment in Paris with her son and cat.

Stars: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Valerie Mahaffey, Susan Coyne, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald

Director: Azazel Jacobs

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I’d seen Grease 2 several dozen times before I ever knew there was a Grease.  My counting skills aside, to this day I’ll still go to the mat for the cult-favorite silly sequel to one of the biggest movie musical hits of all time.  Yes, I know that you have thoughts about it and want to defend the legacy of Travolta and Newton-John but from my earliest days all I knew was that the leads of Grease 2 were the most beautiful people in the world, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were all friends?  All these years later I’m still a devoted fan of Michelle Pfeiffer (and Maxwell Caulfield appears to be living his best life too) so will always be excited when a new Pfeiffer pfilm comes our way.  The bonus in 2020 was that her newest was generating the type of early buzz that suggested this could be Pfeiffer’s year to return to the awards circuit.

Writing this nearly a week after the Oscars, I think back to when I originally saw French Exit and held out hope that Michelle Pfeiffer might wind up with her first nomination in nearly thirty years.  While the resulting film may not have fallen into line with the titles Pfeiffer was associated with in the early days of her prestigious career, the performance she gave in it pulsated with just the kind of eccentric vibrancy that usually gets noticed by voters.  Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt and adapted by the author himself, this film is out there, to put it mildly, and Pfeiffer’s darkly funny and brittle socialite is the nucleus the entire action swirls around.

Rich NYC widow Frances Price (Pfeiffer, mother!) has almost run out of money after not doing much of anything since her grossly affluent husband (Tracy Letts, Lady Bird) died twelve years prior.  Never bothering to work or pass along a sense of wealth management to her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back), mother and child find themselves in a bind when told they have a limited amount of funds to work with.  Neither has any particular talent or skill so their options are limited if they want to stay in their tony Manhattan digs.  Deciding its better to leave on top and wanting more time to figure out a plan, Frances sells almost everything they own and cashes out their accounts before anyone can come to collect on the bills that have been piling up.

Traveling by sea with a pile of dough and avoiding unnecessary customs questions in the process, the duo (along with Small Frank, their unique cat) travel to Paris.  On the way over, Malcolm has an intimate encounter with a kooky medium (a very fine Danielle Macdonald, I Am Woman, continuing a trend of being an MVP in a cast of strong supporting players) that can spot death, which tends to get her into trouble on a cruise made up of largely elderly passengers.  After arriving in Paris and ensconcing themselves in the flat of an old friend of Frances, there isn’t much to do but sit and wait for what comes next.  But what comes next?

That’s where French Exit gets its foot stuck in the door and never manages to wedge itself out.  DeWitt’s novel is a surreal bit of frivolity that involves a surprise twist I won’t reveal here but when it’s uncovered it moves the film from deadpan humor to a new level of cosmic comedy that not everyone is going to be able to roll with.

Perhaps they’ll find some diversion in Valerie Mahaffey’s (Sully) side-splitting turn as a zany widow desperate for friends who lures Frances and Malcom to a Christmas party under false pretenses.  Mahaffrey is a veteran character actress that’s as underrated as they come and it’s a shame the film didn’t heat up for Pfeiffer because I’d expect if it had then Mahaffrey would also have gotten recognized for her scene-stealing work.  Had the film only added Mahaffrey’s character to the mix it may have remained in a comfortably droll zone that reveled in its quirky charm but instead it continues to add multiple characters, few of whom are actually interesting or integral to the central figures of the plot.  Besides Hedges, on his second crazy cruise movie of 2020 after Let Them All Talk, who is unusually uncomfortable looking, the remaining cast (including Green Room’s Imogen Poots) feels like they are always annoyingly elbowing to get at a spot at the table next to the star of the film.

It all comes down to Pfeiffer, though, and director Azazel Jacobs capably brings out a wicked twinkle we haven’t seen in quite some time.  Reveling in reciting DeWitt’s biting dialogue and rolling her eyes whenever Mahaffrey’s character is trying to ingratiate herself to Frances, Pfeiffer has spoken about her affinity for this project, and it shows.  While it didn’t propel her to the finish line for any statuettes when the year was wrapped, it garnered her some of the best notices she’s received in a number of years.  There’s a reason Pfeiffer has had a lasting career in Hollywood and French Exit is a solid reminder of why she continues to surprise us.

Movie Review ~ Let Them All Talk

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Gemma Chan, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, Daniel Algrant, John Douglas Thompson

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: If there’s one thing to be said about veteran filmmakers, it’s that they can get a movie put together quickly.  I kind of marvel at the endless gestation periods franchise pictures need to make their way to their release date (it’s not all about how long the special effects takes, trust me) or how particular directors struggle with the fine-tuning part of their oversight that keeps a project from getting in front of the viewer.  Then you have your Spielbergs, Eastwoods, and Soderberghs who can churn out movies, and often good ones, with such ease it feels like they just woke up and decided to make a movie that day.  There’s more to the planning of it of course but when you have as much experience as they do this process starts to come naturally.  At the tail end of 2020, a number of people were taken a bit off guard when Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk was announced as complete and ready for release…how did this Meryl Streep led serio-comic film on the high seas get this close to us with no one taking notice?

Many a film fan got weepy when Oscar-winning director Soderbergh put out a very public statement that he was retiring.  The vanguard director that led the ‘80s independent film wave in Hollywood had accumulated an impressive list of box office successes and critical hits during his time in the business, earning respect from colleagues and admiration from celebrities who knew him to be an actors director.  Showing a knack for casting down to even the most minor role, for a while Soderbergh couldn’t lose…until he began to take a “one for them, one for me” approach and his ratio of winners to losers started to shrink.  Too many bombs and experimental failures followed before a last gasp strange run of oddball efforts between 2008 and 2013 (including Magic Mike and Side Effects) that led to his retreat into television and his supposed retirement.

He didn’t stay put for long.  Making a somewhat stealth return with 2017’s pleasing Logan Lucky (written by his wife, who felt the strange need to use a pseudonym), Soderbergh has been trying something a bit new with each project.  His high concept TV effort Mosaic for HBO started as an interactive app that aided audiences in solving a murder mystery, 2018’s Unsane was filmed completely with an iPhone, and 2019’s The Laundromat did the unthinkable – it found an accent and make-up that Meryl Streep couldn’t convincingly pull off.  For a man several years into retirement, he’s certainly keeping busy with his previous job.

Streep and Soderbergh are teaming up again with Let Them All Talk for HBO Max and it brings a screenplay by humorist and noted short story author Deborah Eisenberg to life and for better or worse, it’s a big improvement over the last time the star and director worked together.  For one, it’s not based on real life events, something that tended to stymie The Laundromat and bound the filmmakers to certain limitations.  It also spreads the wealth nicely among co-stars, with Streep often graciously exiting stage left in favor of her other highly respected co-stars to have their moment in the spotlight.  Soderbergh is no dummy, though, and he trots his star out for the less strong members of the cast or when the mostly improvised dialogue starts to stall out.

Everyone is waiting for the next novel from Pulitzer-winner Alice Hughes (Streep, Hope Springs) who has been struggling with completing her latest manuscript, rumored to be a sequel to her most famous book.  Recently moved to new agent Karen (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) that she’s not totally comfortable with, Alice prefers to work at her own pace and doesn’t like to be rushed in her process.  Karen’s under pressure from their publisher, though, and isn’t as much of a friendly shoulder pushover like her predecessor.  With Alice set to receive an esteemed award in London that’s rarely given out, Karen seizes the opportunity to get Alice focused on the work and raise her profile a bit in the process.  There’s one problem, though, NY based Alice doesn’t like to fly.  But this is New York, darling…so through Karen’s connections it’s off to London on the Queen Mary II with Alice and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased) acting as her assistant of sorts.

Also invited along are two of Alice’s oldest friends she hasn’t seen in quite some time.  Though Alice doesn’t know it, Roberta (Candice Bergen, Book Club) is more frenemy than anything, holding a long grudge against her friend through an unproven theory that she took secret information told in confidence and used it as the basis for her bestselling novel.  She’s spent the ensuing decades blaming her for the shambles her life has become as a result. The peace-keeper of the bunch is free-spirited Susan (Dianne Wiest, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) who has come on the trip for all the right reasons in wanting to reconnect with her old friends and help the other two mend a fence long broken.  When Karen hops on board and starts to work in secret with Tyler to get more information on his aunt, it creates another side relationship the movie has to juggle throughout it’s two hour run time.

Acting once again as his cinematographer (credited as Peter Andrews) and editor (under the name Mary Ann Bernard), there’s not a lot Soderbergh isn’t involved with here and you can feel it.  Much of the movie was improvised and that’s why for every dymanic scene there are two are three insignificant ones of mundane goings on that Soderbergh feels drawn to.  From the obvious improvisation in many scenes (most evident with Chan and Hedges who tend to commit the kiss of boring death in making their improvised dialogue far too specific, serious, and detailed) to the hand-held filming, it has all the calling cards the director is known for.  What it also has is a sort of deep sadness to it as well and while that provides good space for seasoned actors like the three leads to play in, it winds up making you feel bad for everyone.  Sad that friends can’t be honest, sad that family can’t be more vulnerable, sad that too much goes unsaid until too late.

As is often the case with Soderbergh, he runs the film on its rims several miles longer than necessary.  It was pretty disappointing to come out of the movie dovetailing from a quite touching ending to a pointlessly overlong coda that was of no benefit.  By that point, we’d already filled our cup with the impressive showings of Bergen, Wiest, and Streep.  Anytime Streep is onscreen you can’t help but be drawn to her magnetic aura but Soderbergh has found a way to harness that by sandwiching her between two other actresses of her generation that also possess the same sort of power to command a screen.  They have presence and in different ways.  Bergen is playing right into the type we want her to be and that’s good, though I wish the script had provided her one more establishing scene with Streep earlier in the film, it would make a later bedroom scene work that much better.  How wonderful to see Wiest knock it out of the park here playing a kind of extension of her worldly but not perfect character from Parenthood.  Her wry revelations to Bergen over their daily parlor games by the ocean are a riot and a lovely speech summing up the journey up is the film’s true high point.

If Soderbergh is going to continue to skate that line of retirement, I hope he stays with this kind of dour material because he seems to have found a nice, if imperfect fit with his own interests.  This is bound to draw comparisons to the films of Woody Allen and I can’t imagine this didn’t cross the minds of everyone involved at one time or another.  It’s got the same arch rhythm, conversations about nothing that are about everything, and that wistful longing for the joy of travel but not the pain of separation. Let Them All Talk is not going to rank high on the Best-Of list for any of the cast or crew when all is said and done but it’s one of the more interesting experiments mad scientist Soderbergh has concocted.  And who wouldn’t want to sail across the Ocean with at least one of these three stellar stars?

Movie Review ~ Waves


The Facts
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Synopsis: Traces the journey of a suburban African-American family as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss.

Stars: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Clifton Collins Jr.

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: There’s a part of every movie going experience that I dread the most.  No, it’s not battling traffic to get to the theater or praying the person next to me isn’t a talker/texter/cruncher.  It’s not even a fear of being disappointed by a highly anticipated title I’ve been counting down the days to or hoping the seat I’m going to be occupying will allow me to cross my legs (I’m tall and these tree trunks need to be stretched!) that gives my brow a slight bead of sweat.  It’s the thought of being asked immediately by my neighbor when the credits roll “What did you think?” or worse, being asked to write it down.  I totally understand these quick takes are necessary for feedback and want to do my best to provide an honest answer but I usually need time to process what I’m feeling just a tad longer.  Often, my responses are pretty dumb (no, really) and I wind up feeling differently the more I ponder.

Take Waves, for instance.  After 135 minutes of fairly intense drama, my first reaction wasn’t entirely positive.  Knowing the film had strong buzz from its festival circuit debut coming in to the screening gave me a framework for what I was going to see but the initial response was in answer to the emotion I felt at the experience and not the movie.  Does that make sense?  The more I thought about the film and it’s complex look at a seemingly picture perfect family that begins to break down the less personal emotion I attached to it and the more critical analysis I was able to apply.  I still can look at the film for how it made it feel but the overall consensus is now based on more than that hot take in the moment.

Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce) is a Florida teenager in the middle of a successful senior year.  He’s popular, a good student, he’s in love with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and he’s a star athlete.  The achievements haven’t come without hard work and we see how much he’s pushed by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown, Frozen II) to train and stay on task. Stepmother Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry, The House with a Clock in Its Walls) senses he may be taking on too much but doesn’t want to get in between father and son, and it doesn’t appear that his quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell, Escape Room) pays much attention to the comings and goings of her more outgoing brother.  Life for this family goes on without much disruption — everyone stays in their own lane.

An injury that threatens to derail his plans for the future is the first fissure in Tyler’s picture perfect life but it won’t be the last.  A physical set-back becomes the least troubling bit of business for the young man as what seemed to be a solid groundwork turns out to have been constructed on something entirely more delicate.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults takes Tyler down a believably troubled path of self-destruction that’s hard to watch, mainly because of how quickly it all happens.  From one issue springs two more, which open up old wounds that never truly healed.  What starts as a fall from grace for Tyler has a ripple effect for the entire Williams family and it leads to a devastating turn of events that changes all of their lives forever.

And that’s only half of the movie.

Around the midway point, Shults changes the protagonist to Emily to track her high school experience after the events that have already transpired, and it feels like an entirely different film all together.  Where the preceding hour was a vibrant mélange of a world constantly in motion that barely took a breath, the brakes have now been slammed and we’re slowly examining the aftermath of a tragedy with the people often left with more questions than answers.  Using Emily as a focal point for intuiting the grief that remains after a loss, Shults eschews making her a social pariah in her school but instead quickly gives her a confidant in Luke (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back) a socially awkward boy in her class that knows her story and likes her anyway, which comes as a surprise.

As their relationship deepens and becomes something more mature, Emily begins to see the difference between a partnership that is working and one that isn’t.  That’s how a subplot with Ronald and Catherine is introduced, giving Brown and Goldsberry a bit more to work with than they had earlier in the film.  It’s here where Shults starts to veer into overly familiar territory with the couple being written a little broadly and making discoveries that are expected and overly dramatized.  When Shults sticks with Tyler in the first hour and Emily and Luke in the second the real authenticity is found and from there comes powerful moments that will resonate with anyone wishing they had spoken up sooner or intervened on someone’s behalf earlier.

Leaving the screening of Waves I originally found myself favoring the first half because it was the more tangible piece, the easier and more straight-forward narrative to grab onto.  As he did earlier in the year with the underseen Luce, Harrison is an undeniable force onscreen and he’s someone you want to know more about, even if you already know you won’t ever truly figure them out.  The more I sat with the movie, though, I couldn’t get that second section out of my mind.  It’s not as easy to interpret and it goes slack far more than it should, but when it gets in its groove there’s some riveting stuff going on, providing Russell with a handful of excellent scenes that she often plays solo.  I’m not sure if it was Shults intention to make any scene featuring adults feel intrusive but they do, I kept wishing for less of Goldsberry (who is otherwise strong) and Brown (who pushes the dramatics too much) and more with the honesty of their children.

Released by the rising indie distributor A24, Waves fits perfectly into their model of championing burgeoning filmmakers like Shults and for his third high profiled film he’s shown continued advancement in storytelling and technique.  By and large, Waves finds Shults navigating new territory and even the small diversions into oft-traveled waters don’t take away from the lingering bit of sadness that follows you out of the theater. It’s also quite well made, another Shults trademark.  The cinematography and ever-present score are nigh-hypnotic and the performances from Harrison and Russell fuel the kinetic energy that keeps Waves riding high.

See, I just needed a little more time and then I could come up with something a little more thoughtful.  My apologies to my patient screening reps 🙂

Movie Review ~ Boy Erased


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

Stars: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Joe Alwyn

Director: Joel Edgerton

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Based on the 2016 memoir from Garrard Conley, Boy Erased is not the first film in 2018 to tackle the tough subject of gay conversion therapy.  Sundance hit The Miseducation of Cameron Post came out in late summer and featured a similar storyline of a gay teenager sent by their parents to a religious based program orchestrated to “convert” LGBTQ youth to live lives as “straight” people.  I haven’t seen The Miseducation of Cameron Post yet but have a feeling I would have emerged from that screening much like I did from Boy Erased: sad, frustrated, angry.

After a long internal struggle Jared (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back) has recently admitted to his parents that he has feelings toward men. His father (Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner) is a preacher in Arkansas and obviously this news isn’t received with much compassion or understanding.  Told he can either leave his home and job or go to a program to help cure him of these impure thoughts, he’s half-heartedly agreed to the latter and has been sent to a program called Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy assessment in Texas. Accompanied by his mother (Nicole Kidman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Jared will spend 12 days being evaluated by the staff along with other youths facing similar ultimatums.

At first, it seems like this is something Jared might actually have put some faith in.  He clearly feels what he feels but also knows that to be gay would change his relationship with his parents forever.  When the director of the program (Joel Edgerton, Midnight Special, who also adapted the Conley’s book and directed) starts to implement the teachings in increasingly destructive ways, Jared questions which life would be worse?  Living his true self and having the chance at happiness, or continuing to lie to everyone for the sake of his family.

There’s a lot of tricky terrain to navigate here but Edgerton keeps the material nicely above pithy melodrama by encouraging his talented cast to lean back in their efforts as opposed to latching on to each emphatic moment/revelation along the way.  The performances come across as natural and even the Arkansas twangs are nicely muted (Kidman’s hair has the biggest drawl of all), creating an environment that sometimes feels documentary-like.  There are times when Edgerton skates the edge of hitting us over the head (literally) with his message but overall the subject matter is presented without much editorializing.

Conley’s true tale is one of solitary survival and that’s brought nicely to the screen by Hedges in a sensitive and nuanced performance.  The movie flashes back and forth from the present when Jared is entering the conversion program to an earlier time when he’s still in high school and then further forward as he moves into college.  We see the first time he gets close to opening up to someone and wince as he undergoes a traumatic encounter with a co-ed friend (Joe Alwyn, Mary Queen of Scots) we originally think will turn out much differently.  When his coming out story seems to be cruelly told for him, it’s a painfully tense moment as he desperately attempts to find yet another way to cover up his dark secret.

As Jared’s parents, Australian mates Kidman and Crowe nicely play two sides of the religious coin.  Both love their son but one has a much more difficult journey in the path to acceptance.  Hedges shares wonderful scenes with both but it’s an exchange with Crowe late in the film that allows both characters to exorcise some long-standing issues in a most powerful way.  Crowe doesn’t have to do much but listen to Hedges but he conveys so much with his eyes and posture that he takes us on a mini-journey of the spirit in several minutes.  As in life, Edgerton doesn’t have his characters change overnight but instead he presents building blocks for a bridge between two opposing sides and lets the audience come along as the people build a pathway to understanding.

Like Beautiful Boy also released in 2018, Boy Erased is as much a look at the parents as it is about the children but in the end I found Boy Erased to be a more relatable film.  Whereas in Beautiful Boy the character at the center of the family drama was making a choice to continue in a life that was proving destructive, Boy Erased’s Jared had no choice in how he came into this world.  His journey to discovery felt more authentic and, in the end, cathartic to this viewer.

 

Rare Soap Box Moment: If you are gay or know someone that has struggled with being gay this movie will likely prove maddening.  How these types of programs are allowed to exist and are supported in numerous states is a terrible thing.  Knowing many of these have no basis in scientific fact and are still covered by health insurance is even worse.  Legislation needs to be in place to remove these programs from receiving any kind of substantiation in the medical or psychiatric because they are selling a false promise to people Being gay is not a choice but something you are born as.  No amount of therapy, prayer, or government funded programming can change that.

Movie Review ~ Ben is Back


The Facts
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Synopsis: A drug addicted teenage boy shows up unexpectedly at his family’s home on Christmas Eve.

Stars: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton

Director: Peter Hedges

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Well, we’ve all (hopefully) survived another Christmas and many of us will have spent Christmas Eve with our families.  While you may have weathered your fair share of withering relatives, bad fruit cake, and are coming home with yet another taupe turtleneck from Aunt Marge, you’ll likely not have had quite as eventful a day as the family featured at the center of Ben is Back.  Taking place over one 24-hour period in the lives of a family that’s all in a recovery of one form or another, this is the kind of harrowing familial drama that makes you glad you’re just dealing with an uncle with opposing political views.

It’s Christmas Eve in a small town in upstate New York.  On the way back from a church program rehearsal with her three children, Holly (Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias) is shocked but overjoyed to see her first-born son Ben (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom) standing in the driveway waiting for them.  For Holly and her two youngest children, Ben’s arrival is met with joy but for her daughter (Kathryn Newton, Lady Bird) and husband (Courtney B. Vance, Office Christmas Party) the return is anything but a Christmas miracle.  Burned in the past by Ben’s addiction to drugs and the horrific behavior that it brought out, both are leery that he’s changed enough to be trusted.  Holly chooses to believe her son has finally turned his life around and that his 77 days sober is enough proof for her family to see that he’s on a new path.

With her eye on her son (and her medications and valuables safely locked away), Holly spends the next day trying to focus on the holiday at hand while nervously watching for signs that he’ll disappoint her.  He’s manipulated her in the past and she’s ready to call him on any indication that he’s not being fully straight with her.  They go Christmas shopping, they attend an AA meeting where Holly gets a first-hand account of what recovery looks like not only for her son but for the men and women continuing to struggle with addiction in their later years.  Later, they’ll go on another more complex journey both physical and emotional that takes them through painful memories.

Written and directed by Peter Hedges (The Odd Life of Timothy Green), Ben is Back has a fairly solid and tension filled first half that eventually gives way to a second act I didn’t enjoy quite as much.  It’s at that midpoint the movie switches things up from a stress-inducing drama focused on the devastating effects addiction has on families to a more traditional storytelling arc that feels like something we’ve all seen before.  It’s as if the scripts for two separate and half-finished movies dealing with the same subject were cobbled together. That being said, I wasn’t ever sure how things would turn out for Holly and Ben and for that I was grateful.

What makes the movie so very watchable are the two lead performances, namely Roberts in one of the best roles of her career.  A true Hollywood A-List star, Roberts has coasted a bit in the years following her Oscar win for Erin Brockovich, taking on projects for fun (Mirror Mirror), in support of prestige leads (August: Osage County), or what had to have been as a favor (Mother’s Day).  She’s back in full force in Ben is Back, going total mama bear as she fights to protect her son from himself and fend off all others that may stand in her way.  Through it all, Roberts layers her character with idiosyncrasies and flaws that show she’s not perfect either but reinforce she’s human like the rest of us.  For someone so recognizable with that mega-watt smile, she’s remarkably adept at blending in with ordinary folk.

She’s matched well by Lucas Hedges (yep, the son of the director) as a man reckoning with his past misdeeds over an already stressful holiday.  Back in the town filled with memories that might derail his progress, the real reason he’s back isn’t revealed until late in the movie and makes what has transpired that much more heartbreaking.  Lucas does right by Ben and the audience in never letting us in on how much he’s telling us is true and how much is a put-on façade for the benefit of others.  While Lucas has less meat on the bone to chew on in the second half, he proves to be a good scene partner for Roberts and brings out colors in her that have long been dormant.

Acting as another somber reminder on the struggle with drug addiction in America (though not a preachy PSA), Ben is Back is most notable for the performances of Roberts and Hedges but also has a nice way of creating an atmosphere of tension that keeps you on edge for most of its 103 minutes.  You never quite know which way the movie is going to veer and even though the latter half of the film isn’t a strong as the first it eventually finds its way back to the heart of the family with a whopper of an ending.  Though it might be as manipulative as our titular character, the final shot of the movie really hit me hard.

Movie Review ~ Lady Bird

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The adventures of a young woman living in Northern California for a year.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There was a time in the not so distant past when Greta Gerwig and I weren’t on speaking terms.  I know when the rift started: Frances Ha.  While Gerwig’s collaboration with writer/director Noah Baumbach became an indie twee delight, it didn’t bowl me over in the slightest.  Finding Gerwig’s titular character vapid, vain, and selfish, I just couldn’t get into the film and struggled to even finish it.  Gerwig’s popped up here and there in the following years, to better results, in Mistress America, Jackie, and 20th Century Women but it’s Lady Bird where our fences can be considered mended.

A thinly veiled but admittedly autobiographical look at Gerwig’s years as a teen in Sacramento in the late ‘90s, Lady Bird is going to be compared to Juno and with just cause.  Both are female led films that find a truth to their portrayal of adolescence and an authenticity in how teens and adults struggle to find common ground while just trying to make it through the day.  The difference between the two is that looking back at Juno it seems like it arrived from another wacky dimension while Lady Bird is already a period piece so there’s less chance of it becoming rapidly dated.

About to enter her senior year of high school, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, How I Live Now) demands that her family and friends call her Lady Bird and wants to attend college as far away from her Northern California town as possible.  She dreams of a life surrounded by arts and artists, while her mother (Laurie Metcalf, Uncle Buck) wants her daughter to come down from the clouds and understand that community college may be the best she can do.  With a father (Tracy Letts, The Post) that just lost his job and a brother living at home with his goth girlfriend, there isn’t much space for Lady Bird to breathe.

A small chance at happiness shows up in the drama department’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.  Cast in the ensemble, she falls for the leading man (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) who is both her first love and first heartbreak.  Feeling like she has to climb higher socially than she can sticking by her best friend (Beanie Feldstein, who was wonderful in Broadway’s Hello Dolly!) she ingratiates herself with the popular girl (Odeya Rush, Goosebumps) and takes up with an alt-emo boy (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name).  As the school year draws to a close and the great unknown future awaits, Lady Bird will learn tough lessons about finding one’s place and making a unique path toward happiness.

As she did in Brooklyn, Ronan is able to find a mainline to your heart without making it seem like a huge effort.  That’s surprising because her Brooklyn character was warm and selfless, and Lady Bird is anything but that.  Constantly sucking the air from any room she’s in and preventing others from finding their own orbit, Lady Bird is a force of nature and while it can be easy to get frustrated with her it’s just as easy to feel her pain as dreams she makes for herself vanish just as fast as they take shape.  If you’ve ever heard Gerwig talk it’s instantly clear that her voice comes through loud and clear not only in Ronan’s performance (Ronan channels Gerwig in eerie ways) but in the thoughts and ideas expressed by other characters.

Ronan isn’t the only star of the show here, though.  She gets the movie stolen away from here more than a few times by Metcalf as her steely mother.  Though the movie opens with mother and daughter waking up staring into each other’s eyes, both women soon wind up in an argument that bursts whatever peaceful bubble they had formed.  Scene after we scene we see Metcalf deliberately divert attention away from her daughter if she feels she’s getting too big for her britches or cast a spotlight on her when she makes the wrong move.  It sounds bad, but she’s doing what every parent tries to do but doesn’t always succeed in…help their child see that life is tough with the least amount of outside pain as possible.  It’s easy to see part of oneself in these moments when a child will push their parent’s buttons or the parent cuts their teen down just to prove their point.  I know I winced a few times when I recognized actions I’ve had in my own life.

If you’re already a fan of Gerwig’s, you’re going to get a lot of satisfaction out of her directorial debut which will likely earn her a place on the shortlist for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.  Expect Ronan and Metcalf to earn nominations as well for their deeply felt and carefully layered performances. If you’re just coming around to Gerwig like I am you’ll find it easier than ever to use Lady Bird to fly back into the fold.

Movie Review ~ Labor Day

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tom Lipinski, Clark Gregg, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Brighid Fleming, James Van Der Beek, Maika Monroe, Brooke Smith, Micah Fowler, Tobey Maguire

Director: Jason Reitman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I have this nagging feeling that I’m going to be one of the very few people that likes Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel.  I’ve had time to think about the film a lot over the last few weeks since I attended a screening with the author present.  While I enjoyed the film when I saw it, I was wondering if the author’s buoyant personality in the Q&A after colored some of my judgment.  I gotta say…after some deep soul searching my opinion stands.  I liked Labor Day… I liked it a lot.

Though the trailer suggests Labor Day fits on the same golden hued shelf as countless film adaptations of those saccharine Nicholas Sparks books, rest assured that it’s so much more than that.  Reitman has become one of my very favorite filmmakers and I don’t believe he’s made a movie yet that I don’t have a high level of respect for…even Juno, which I caught part of recently and for the record does not hold up as well as I remembered.

I hold steady that Up in the Air is his best film but there’s signs here of a maturing director that doesn’t feel the need to make the same film repeatedly just because he found favor there before.  I’m in the camp that feels Young Adult was one of the under appreciated gems of 2011, navigating its pitch black comedic moments with ease and leading up to a less than satisfying resolution for our anti-heroine that was incredibly satisfying for the viewer.

That same against the grain approach Reitman has employed in previous efforts is true here with the director taking responsibility for adapting Maynard’s work for the screen.  As has been the case with every Reitman film, his taste in casting is impeccable.  From the A list stars above the title down to the extras populating the background Reitman finds himself in a league with directors like Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher who have an eye for casting.

Reitman wanted Kate Winslet (Carnage) for this role so badly that he delayed production of the film to accommodate her schedule.  Back on screen after nearly two years, Winslet reminds us again why she’s so valuable an asset to any film set she joins.  In similar territory to her work in 2006’s Little Children, Winslet is a mother struggling with depression years after her husband (Clark Gregg, The To-Do List) left her to start a new life.  Living with her son (Gattlin Griffith) in the kind of New England home that’s too run down to be fancy but too well kept to be ramshackle, she rarely ventures outside, preferring to shut the world out and stay cocooned within.

Relative newcomer Griffith is remarkably assured and Winslet helps him avoid coming off with a misplaced hyper-sensitivity to the situation.  When an escaped convict (Josh Brolin, Oldboy) takes mother and son hostage during a once in a blue moon trip to the supermarket, a carefully played trio of agendas start to take shape over a hot and sticky Labor Day weekend in 1987.

Brolin’s character is wounded physically and emotionally, jailed for a crime of passion we see played out in brief flashbacks that reveal themselves cautiously rather than tease for show.  Coming off like a gentle giant rarely threatening, Brolin’s actions over the next several days are certainly unconventional as he helps around the house, fixes what was once broken, and, in a scene bound to be lampooned in the next Scary Movie entry, helps Winslet and Griffth make a peach pie.

Ah…the peach pie scene.  Y’know, I went into the movie with no knowledge of this but so many of the reviews are either deriding it as exceedingly syrupy or praising it as one of the sexier non sex scenes since Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze made a muddy mess at their Ghost pottery wheel.  Either way you’ll be licking your lips at how deliciously cinematographer Eric Steelberg (Draft Day) captures every flake of crust and piping hot filling.

Aside from the central trio, Gregg’s fatherly once a week outings with his son and new family have that forced happiness feel to them that we actually understand why Griffith can’t wait to get back to the man on the run playing house with his mom.  Brooke Adams has a nice little cameo as a mother to a disabled boy…and leaves a lasting impression with a genuinely startling surprise.  Even if she comes off like a character out of Diablo Cody’s imagination, Brighid Fleming’s turn as the new girl in town leaves you wanting more.  Heck, even James Van Der Beek gets a few good moments as a concerned sheriff.

In the stifling heat of a long Labor Day weekend (everyone maintains a glistening gleam of sweat for the majority of the film), three people form the kind of family environment they never knew they needed.   Sure, the final third of the film withers a bit and lingers a tad too long but it doesn’t die on the vine.  With a director now fully coming into his own leading a cast of esteem, Labor Day has even-keeled fireworks on display.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Zero Theorem

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Synopsis: A computer hacker’s goal to discover the reason for human existence continually finds his work interrupted thanks to the Management; this time, they send a teenager and lusty love interest to distract him.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: Say what you will about the deeper meaning of many of Terry Gilliam’s films but it’s hard to deny that the director doesn’t have a style that’s instantly recognizable. Even if I didn’t know that this first look at The Zero Theorem was the newest entry of Gilliam’s colorful oeuvre, I’d have come away thinking it very Brazil-esque.  Starring two time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), The Zero Theorem’s trailer isn’t one I’ll be craving to watch over and over again without an Aleve handy but I’ll keep my peepers open for the finished product.

The Silver Bullet ~ Labor Day

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Synopsis: Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.

Release Date:  December 25, 2013 (limited)

Thoughts: By all accounts, Jason Reitman is on a roll.  Starting with the sly Thank You For Smoking before breaking into the major leagues with the unconventional hit Juno, he followed that with the rewarding Up in the Air and the very underappreciated Young Adult.  So for his fifth major motion picture, Reitman probably had it in the bag the moment he enlisted Kate Winslet (Titanic), an Oscar winner continuing her streak at the top of her cinematic game.  Winslet costars with Josh Brolin (Men in Black III) in a film adaptation of the Joyce Maynard novel that has shades of Winslet’s 2006 suburban drama Little Children but seems to maybe not cut quite as deep a wound.  That’s not a bad thing when you consider Reitman’s talent for taking off-kilter material and fashioning something wonderful from it.  Keep your eye on this one; it may be one of those sleeper films that slip in to award conversations at the last minute.  The pedigree is certainly there.