Tag: julia roberts

Ben is Back

Ben is Back (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although occasionally adhering to a few tropes of drug addiction dramas, “Ben is Back,” written and directed by Peter Hedges, provides a realistic look at a specific person who decides to come home from rehab on his 77th day of being sober in order celebrate Christmas with his family. It is a sad story, so knowing when it comes to which elements to amplify when the heart-tugging moments come around, but it is worth seeing because it is willing to stare into the void of drug addiction.

It treats addiction like the disease that it is. Lucas Hedges plays Ben, the son who insists that he is doing much better and is healthier than ever, and Julia Roberts plays Holly as the mother who wants to make her son feel welcome but at the same time extremely wary that the most seemingly insignificant trigger may result in relapse. From the moment the family sees Ben standing near the front door as they pull up on the driveway, one could feel them getting ready to resume carrying the burden they had dropped temporarily. It is an astute decision for the director to keep the camera inside the car for a few more seconds before the would-be happy reunion, as if the family, even subconsciously, is bracing themselves for another rollercoaster ride. They are tired of Ben, but they must try not to show it.

Particularly intriguing is the decision to show how Ben has affected his community. There are dead bodies in the ground and their families are still in deep mourning, some very angry. And so when depressed parents despise Ben’s presence even at church, we may not know them but we empathize with them, too. The screenplay ensures that we are likely to feel how they are feeling if we were in their shoes. Even Ben believes he deserves some kind of punishment, welcoming it even. He feels sorry, deeply sorry, but the sentiment is too late. Corpses have been buried, money have been stolen, there are new addicts on the street thanks to Ben the former drug dealer.

Performances by Roberts and Hedges are highly watchable and emotional. Tight close-ups are employed generously, but the duo are up for the challenge. The latter shows Ben slipping bit by bit while the former portrays Holly as desperately trying to keep up with her fragile son, to ensure that 1) he maintains his sobriety and 2) she be there to catch him when or if he falls. (They made a deal that he could stay home for Christmas but must return to rehab the next day.) She watches him like a hawk, but, as drug addicts do, he manages to find ways to elude her. Even a few seconds matter. The picture makes a point that their relationship—the addict and the supervisor—is a lot of work, exhausting, untenable. And the story unfolds in just over a day. It communicates, with great clarity, a mother’s love for her child.

Carefully paced and unafraid of raw emotions, “Ben is Back” shows that the road to sobriety is labyrinthine—not just for the addict but also for the loved ones who care. Sometimes the right thing to do is the wrong thing when only one or two variables have changed. And sometimes you are just so tired of having to be the constant source of support that you hope that, against all odds, simply being there is enough. And when it isn’t, well, life has a way of pushing us forward.

August: Osage County

August: Osage County (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

When their father (Sam Shepard) took off without warning, a note, or a telephone call, a rarity occurs: the Weston daughters—Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis)—are all under one roof with Violet (Meryl Streep), the drug-addicted, cancer-stricken matriarch. It isn’t long until old wounds are rubbed with salt and the pain, anger, frustration are exorcised to the surface. There are good reasons why the women meet only during dire occasions. Every little thing turns conversations turn into arguments.

Based on a play and written for the screen by Tracy Letts, “August: Osage County” offers big and often entertaining performances. If you like to see emotionally self-destructive characters yelling at each other until others hurt as much as they do, then look no further. However, it is a bit of a disappointment because it feels too much like a play in that we rarely feel that these characters have inner monologues or have inner lives. Just about everything must be expressed verbally which is simply not very cinematic.

Streep is mesmerizing to watch as usual but it is Roberts that grabbed me most. I was interested in the character she plays because Barbara is so blind with rage that she fails to realize she no longer has anybody. Her daughter (Abigail Breslin) does not respect her. Her husband (Ewan McGregor) seeks emotional and physical comfort somewhere else. She is not very close with her sisters. Forget about having any relationship with her mother. At one point, I wanted to ask her directly if she was tired—tired of being alone, being so undesirable to be around, being so into her head that she neglects to see the big picture.

I wished the picture had shown more of the landscape where there is only farms, yellow grass, and mountains for miles. Being in that dark house takes a toll eventually and I began to get tired of the incessant whining and barking. When characters drive through the highway or step outside the vehicle, I imagined the scent of the wind, how it caresses the skin, and what it must feel like to walk barefoot on dried grass. Director John Wells fails to take advantage of contrast: the elegance of open space against the unpleasant quarreling in the household.

The characters confronting each other is a claustrophobic and uncomfortable experience. The dinner is one to be remembered, for better or worse, because it builds for an extended amount of time. Just when we think it has hit the highest mark, the next minute shows that the previous one is only a warm-up. While it has its share of histrionic lines, it entertains in a campy sort of way.

About halfway through, I asked myself what “August: Osage County” wishes to say—about family, the idea of unconditional love, generational gaps—but cannot come up with any. And that is a problem. Though the seeds are there, none of them are given the chance to sprout and thrive. Like many plays that have been translated onto film unsuccessfully, perhaps this one should have remained on the stage.


Wonder (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Once in a while a family film like “Wonder” comes along to remind everybody that the sub-genre is plagued by awful and generic movies, often so loud, obnoxious, and busy that they end up saying absolutely nothing, forgotten about even before the end credits roll. Here is a film imbued with expected lessons regarding kindness and empathy, but what makes it special is director Stephen Chbosky putting his finger on the pulse of what makes this particular story worth telling, about a fifth grader with a facial deformity attending school with other children for the first time. It is willing to show kids as living, breathing, complex young people rather than wooden caricatures surrounded by slapstick humor and crude jokes involving bodily functions. The film has plenty of heart and a brain, too.

The structure of the film is fascinating, especially for a sub-genre notorious for playing it safe. Although Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) is in the center of it, the story is not just about him. It shows how one person’s struggle affects nearly everyone in his orbit, especially those who love and care about him. We get small glimpses of how, for example, Auggie’s elder sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), must, in a way, shove her personal struggles in the backseat when at home so her parents (Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson) can instead turn their complete attention to her brother who is having a very difficult time adjusting to his new routine.

And yet Via is not shown merely as a saintly sister. She has yearnings and needs as a daughter and as a teenager. We even root for her to be selfish once in a while because she is a part of the household, too. Each character who receives a title card before we see the story through his or her eyes is intriguing in some way. I wished the film were three hours or longer because I wanted to get to know every one of them thoroughly.

It takes great talent and discipline to be able to communicate the necessary subtleties of thought and emotion while wearing a mask or prosthetic. Even adult actors usually have trouble with such a task. Tremblay is an A-level performer in the making and I hope that throughout his young and promising career, he would choose to take on a range of characters who may not necessarily be likable so long as they are interesting.

Here, he makes it look so easy to perform through heavy makeup and prosthetics. I applaud him for not relying on being cute but one aspiring to deliver a believable boy who just so happens to have a genetic mutation. Another performer worth looking out for is Noah Jupe, playing Auggie’s friend Jack Will. He takes a typical “nice boy” character and gives it a bit of edge through minute, sometimes subtle, facial expressions. It is the correct approach because the movie, is seen through various perspectives. We wonder whether there might be something else to this character that is worth looking into. We await his title card.

Based on the novel by R.J. Palacio and helmed for the screen by Chbosky, Steve Conrad, and Jack Thorne, I admired that the material loves and respects children. As someone who has worked with kids, I found its honesty to be refreshing in terms of how intelligent and perceptive children can be. Even those who are mean are shown to be aware of their cruelty. It makes the audience look beyond behavior and consider why certain characters choose to take action that might hurt others. It is rare when films for families touch upon potentially confronting realities. So many are too safe and forgettable. It is because they fail to inspire discussion.

Time will tell whether “Wonder” will become a modern classic. This might come across as a ridiculous claim, but I choose to stand by it because it possesses numerous elements that just might boost it to such a status. For instance, it is a feel-good film but it is unafraid to put the audience through a rollercoaster of emotions on top of strong performances all around. Many of us relate to the underdog story. Some of us may still remember how it is like to feel ugly in school, to be stared at, to be laughed at, to be bullied. And if does stand the test of time, well, that’s a wonderful thing.

Secret in Their Eyes

Secret in Their Eyes (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“Secret in Their Eyes,” a remake of the masterful film “El secreto de sus ojos” by Juan José Campanella, leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the execution of plot, pacing, and tone, but it is anchored—somewhat—by three highly watchable performances. If one had already seen the modern-classic Argentine thriller, there is not much to see or learn here.

The crime-drama revolves around a murdered teenager whose rapist and killer (Joe Cole) goes free after high-ranking men in the FBI determine that he is too valuable an asset, a snitch, within a potential terrorist group—despite the fact that the deceased was the daughter of one of their very own investigators, Agent Jessica Cobb (Julia Roberts). Cobb’s partner, Agent Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), demands that justice be served and so every day for next thirteen years, he devotes himself to looking through endless records with the hope of finding the whereabouts of the killer who had been set free.

The screenplay is not sharply written and so the movement between past and present comes across as jarring, careless. It merely relies on the characters’ different hairstyles and graying hair so audience can discern which timeline is up on screen. Many viewers are likely to end up confused. Such a superficial approach is frustrating especially since the material pretends to be more intelligent or compelling than it actually is. A more subtle picture would have chosen to show how experience hardened the characters over physical characteristics that come across as silly and fake in the first place.

Tension is absent during Kasten’s investigation. There is a scene where Kasten and a fellow cop (Dean Norris, severely underused) sneak into the home of a potential suspect. The failure of the scene is due to the filmmakers not taking the time to get us to feel nervous for the cops for doing something that could potentially destroy their case. The camera moves quickly. Cuts are generously employed. Moving the camera slowly and having minimal cuts would have made all the difference.

It goes to show that the writer-director, Billy Ray, does not thoroughly understand his film’s direct inspiration. “El secreto de sus ojos” is about perspectives. The plot involves a murder, a fierce investigation, and the passions of those people involved. But these elements are not what that picture is about.

The Argentine film plays with perspective as it uses characters like chess pieces. As we observe the chess pieces make their intelligent, risky, nail-biting moves across the board—with each piece always having something interesting or compelling to say or do—we lose track of the possibility that we, too, are getting played. That key understanding separates a great film, one that will stand the test of time, from a project that is mediocre at best.

Still, Ejiofor, Kidman, and Roberts try to do the best they can with the material. Although Ejiofor and Kidman do not share much chemistry, which is a significant problem because their supposedly complex relationship is the heart of the material, at least each of the three gets at least one specific moment to shine. Out of the trio, Roberts is the strongest, particularly during scenes when she must balance a mother’s sorrow and rage alongside a cop’s disappointment of the system that gets more than one chance but consistently fails to provide her daughter justice.

The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made. — Lawrence K. Altman, “The New York Times” (1981)

Before acronyms HIV and AIDS came into the picture, there is only “the gay cancer,” formerly believed to be a plague that affected only gay men. Thus, the government, instead of acting with utmost urgency, chose to turn a blind eye and go on as if the problem would just go away on its own. “The Normal Heart,” directed by Ryan Murphy, tells the story of Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), partly based on the activist and playwright Larry Kramer, in his very personal war to force the American government and its people to pay attention, look past discrimination, and offer some kind of help for a minority but a part of the American society nonetheless against an unknown epidemic.

The picture is at its best when showing desperate individuals trying to deal with the hand they’ve been given. Dr. Brookner (Julia Roberts) starts to notice that many of the patients she sees are immunocompromised, most of them ending up dead within weeks, sometimes months, due to diseases that normally do not kill people. Roberts injects a most necessary intensity into the role. Although her character is confined to a wheelchair, she turns the character into a fighter, someone who wants to understand the new epidemic and genuinely help the men who come to see her. Roberts has a chilling scene with government officials who are convinced that the disease is far from a priority.

Of course, the story’s focal point is Weeks’ perspective and the hoops he goes through so that everyone would be on the same page. I admired that the screenplay makes the character so unpleasant at times that we understand why he is not chosen by his friends to become the president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization that provides services from counseling the afflicted to executing fundraisers for research. Credit goes to the casting directors for choosing Ruffalo to play Weeks because although he looks very accessible, the actor can deliver dagger-like fury in an instant. The contradiction makes the character more interesting because there is an unpredictability to the performer.

But the film is not only strong when someone is having an outburst. There is great sadness when it depicts the gay community in 1981 not taking the disease seriously even though their acquaintances and friends are ending up dead. It makes a case that sometimes a tragedy is allowed to continue because people are not willing to stop for a second, consider, and listen.

Admittedly, it took some time for me to wrap my head around the fact that people still choose to engage in sexual activities, often with random partners, when there is already suspicion that the disease might be sexually transmitted. It is expressed that the community feels that the whole thing might merely be a ruse so that the government can take away the freedoms that the queer community have long fought for. The screenplay ought to have provided a better, clearer context for those who were not aware or alive during that time.

Conversely, we see Weeks’ softer side when he is around Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a writer for The New York Times and Weeks’ eventual lover. We learn details about the protagonist and consider possible reasons why he is so uptight and ready to fight all the time. Bomer is another good casting choice because he knows how to downplay his character just enough—playing him more reserved, a bit quiet, and sensitive—as to not overshadow his co-star’s role in the story being told.

“The Normal Heart” ought to have featured more shots of bodies infected with AIDS. Although we see a few, from skeletal frames to skin lesions, we need to see many, almost on an overwhelming level. I wanted that camera to be as close as possible, almost functioning as a magnifying glass, to the bodies and really force the audience to see what the disease can do. Would that have disgusted or repelled audiences? Yes. And that is good. AIDS is neither a pretty disease nor is it easy to understand. Otherwise, we would have a cure by now. Thus, its ugliness and complications should have been shown through and through.

Larry Crowne

Larry Crowne (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks), a former chef in the Navy, has been an associate at UMart for several years. He shares a camaraderie with his co-workers, is friendly to customers, and great at his job. When he is called in by his superiors, he suspects he is to be named Employee of the Month. In actuality, his bosses inform him that he has been let go, citing the bad economy as a reason. Also, they tell Larry that even though he is good at what he does, there is no chance of him ever climbing the corporate ladder because he did not go to college. His solution: to go back to school and get a degree.

Written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos, “Larry Crowne” takes serious issues involving job instability and unemployment and colors them with a lighter shade, often to an amusing effect. Some might say that this is an inappropriate avenue given that there is nothing funny about a person losing his or her job. While getting fired or let go along with the feelings it unearths is a serious matter–more than a handful have become so desperate that they committed suicide–the filmmakers intended to make a comedy. Therefore, it must be evaluated with respect to the genre and not what we believe is or is not respectful.

When Larry decides to go back to school, the picture carries a certain excitement. From the people he meets, like cute-as-a-button Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her passion for vintage clothes, to the classes he signs up for, like Speech 217, The Art of Informal Remarks, led by Marcedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), and Economics 1, led by Dr. Ed Matsutani (George Takei), there is grace in the way subplots pile on top of one another. I enjoyed tug-o’-war between the youthfulness of the situation and Larry, no longer a young pup, trying to keep up with the groove. It is not always easy.

Serious situations are not simply swept under the rug. The scenes of Larry having to make difficult decisions since he can no longer afford the mortgage for his house ring some truths. His interactions with his neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson), holding a year-round garage sale, offers some humor but it has enough small, personal moments that serve as a reminder that they, too, have had their share of pecuniary instability. In a way, Larry sees the happy couple as possible life he can have if he can manage to get his life back on track somehow.

It is not just Larry who has to struggle. Mercedes is extremely frustrated with her husband (Bryan Cranston), a writer who claims he gets work done at home when, in reality, he spends a lot of his time looking at pornography. On top of her problems at home, she no longer feels passionate about teaching. So, she turns to alcohol to drown the thoughts and feelings that she does not want to deal with. I enjoyed that this message is communicated clearly: hangovers disappear but problems do not.

My problem with the movie is neither its intentions nor its small scope. It is in the many conveniences of the script that do not feel completely believable. While Larry and Mercedes are supposed to be yin and yang, their scenes wonderful to watch when life’s silly coincidences converge with their effusive charms, some strands left me wanting more.

For instance, Larry eventually joins a bike gang after being invited by Talia. There is chemistry between the two even though they are about thirty years apart in age. I felt that the material shies away from their electricity, relying on the bike gang distraction as a sort of quirk, an excuse for them to not deal with their feelings. Talia is an adult, smart and plucky, and there should have been no shame in a possible romance between them. Instead, the script conveniently paints her as “the nice girl,” a plot device designed to build a romantic bridge between Larry and Mercedes.

“Larry Crowne,” directed by Tom Hanks, is about people trying to make it through one day at a time but it needs more highs that feel more complete–highs that are not restricted to Mercedes binge drinking after a long day of work.

Mirror Mirror

Mirror Mirror (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Although Snow White (Lily Collins), whose mother passed on while giving birth to her, was trained by her father (Sean Bean) in preparation to rule their kingdom, the King felt compelled to remarry a new Queen (Julia Roberts) because he felt he was unable to teach her everything she needed to know. When the kingdom was bewitched by dark magic, the King headed to the forest to search for answers but never returned. Years passed and the Queen had taken control of the kingdom and driven it to bankruptcy. Realizing that her stepmother was unfit to rule, Snow White decided to usurp the Queen and restore her father’s legacy. “Mirror Mirror,” based on the screenplay by Jason Keller and Marc Klein, had hiccups of genuinely amusing moments but in its desperation to convince us that its protagonist wasn’t bland, the little comedic momentum it managed to gather dissipated just as quickly. Without a doubt, the most interesting characters to watch were the evil Queen and Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), the former deliciously vain while the latter valiant and adventurous. Whenever Roberts and Hammer shared a scene, there was electricity on screen because the two seemed unabashed when it came to making fun of themselves as well as their characters. While there were infantile jokes, like bird excrement being brushed onto the Queen’s face as part of a beauty regimen and the prince licking everyone’s faces as if he were a dog, I laughed because they were so unexpected and delivered with such glee. Not always a fan of gross-out humor, I was entertained when the material asked its actors to go for the extremes. Unfortunately, Snow White was as boring as staring at a plank of wood. To its credit, however, much effort was taken to make her appear edgy. For instance, she was allowed to hold a dagger, engage in a sword fight against the prince, and utter feminist lines–dizzying at best because it was so eager to hammer us over the head about how modern it all was. Perhaps casting was responsible because Collins was almost too classically beautiful. The contrast between the actor’s look and the intentions for her character, in this case, failed to create synergy. In the end, she was just nice, but nice proved dangerously tedious when placed between vitriolic malevolence and hunky earnestness. Furthermore, the look of the film did not offer anything special. When characters ran in the woods or strutted about the palace, it felt like I was watching actors performing on set. Since I wasn’t immersed into their world, I was more keen on noticing images that did not quite fit. For instance, when the thieving dwarves, played by actual dwarfs, got on stilts to appear as giants, the ones on stilts still looked like stuntmen despite the fact that the camera kept its distance. Also, there were some shots that made me question how a character got from one place to another in a matter of seconds when the distance between the two places was at least a tens of meters. The errors proved very distracting especially during the action scenes when it was supposed to be exciting. If anything, there should have been a flow to the images gracing the screen so that the logic specific to its fantasy world would come off as believable. Directed by Tarsem Singh, although “Mirror Mirror” had its moments, the rewards were not fruitful nor plentiful enough. I couldn’t stop thinking how big a statement it would have made if the Queen and the prince actually ended up together.