In previous years, many of the Transformers films made my 10 worst list, deservedly so as they were noise movies, with little plot, no characters and lots of crashing metal transforming into cars. I was not a fan of the animation, nor was I young enough to appreciate the toys, so the films, without any reference point, left me cold wondering what all the fuss, and noise was about.
Michael Bay directed the previous films, and true to form, created visual effects feasts with no characters, no plot, nothing but chaos and destruction of the epic kind. Perhaps the best move the studio made was dumping Bay and hiring Travis Knight to direct the film; they have finally found the right formula to make a very good film out of the idea, and this, the sixth movie in the franchise, towers over the rest.
Perhaps it is helped by the fact Hailee Steinfeld is cast in the lead role and, as she has done with everything she has been in thus far, brings great heart and compassion to what could have been a throw away part, bowing to the effects. Debuting in True Grit (2010), Steinfeld has built a solid career and become one of the most interesting actresses of her generation. An Oscar nod SHOULD have come for The Edge of Seventeen (2016). Steinfeld has found box office success in the Pitch Perfect films, and acted for Tommy Lee Jones in the superb The Homesman (2014).
After a vicious battle with the evil Decepiticons, B-127 is sent to earth in order to set up an operations base for the rest of the Autobots. Arriving in 1987, he is severly damaged by one of the other robots before killing it, and to hide himself he transforms into a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. It is as this Beetle he is found by Charlie Watson (Steinfeld), a young teen grappling with the loss of her father. She is handy with tools, smart with fixing cars, which allows her an escape from her angst. Raging at her mother for remarrying, she is happiest fixing cars. When her friend Hank gives her the battered 1967 Bug for her birthday she activates something on the car and to her astonishment it transforms before her eyes into Bumblebee. However, when she brings the car back to life she accidentally flips a switch that acts as a homing device, allowing the villains to realize Bumblebee is alive and transforming. With no voice box, she teaches Bumblebee how to communicate through its radio, and the two become a formidable pair. With the villains on the way to earth, of course there will be much destruction and noise, but amidst it is a wonderful performance from Steinfeld, more than holding her own against the stunning visual effects. Against the background of the war between the Transformers, Charlie comes to terms with the pain of losing her father, forgives her mother and becomes a better person, obviously through her relationship as protector and protected of Bumblebee.
Though the action and effects are first rate, to be clear, the reason this film works is Steinfeld. Period. She gives the film heart, a heart the previous films never had, did not even approach. Imagine giving this performance against a green screen, imagining what the effects were going to look like when placed in during post-production. She demonstrates a startling confidence on screen, and as we watch Charlie grow up, evolve as a person we are with her every step of the way.
Bumblebee, dubbed by Charlie, is a wonderful creation, but so were all the Transformers, marvels of movie magic. Without a voice for a time, his movements telegraph his emotions, and he is a wonderful creation.
I cannot believe I liked a Transformers a movie, what is the world coming to?
Despite appearances in Batman vs. Superman (2016) and Justice League (2017), Aquaman is an original movie, telling the story of how the super hero from beneath the sea came to be. A big, overblown, overlong epic film, you can see where the $200 million budget was spent, and we understand why they have changed the look of Aquaman from the comic. On The Big Bang Theory, poor Raj is always stuck being Aquaman when the quartet dress up as the Justice League for parties at the comic book store. “Aquaman sucks,” he moans with disdain, pulling on the bright yellow wig and ridiculous tights, along with the sea horse around his waist. Indeed, that Aquaman does suck.
So they altered the look….obviously a smart move. But does it allow the movies to be good, or great?
As seen in the DC comic he wore a gold top that looked like it was made of scale, along with green gloves. Green shorts and tights completed the outfit and he was the only person in Atlantis to have blonde hair. Had Jason Momoa worn this, he would have resembled a Vegas dancer cast out of Showgirls (1996).
Jason Momoa, with rippling muscles, heavily tatooed, with long flowing hair, usually with his shirt off, tights or pants adorning his legs, brings an entirely different look to the character, something primal. I like Momoa as an actor, he was terrific as Kal Drogo in Game of Thrones, but let’s be clear, he is of limited ability. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne Johnson before him, he is great in action sequences and tosses off a sarcastic line with great aplomb, but his depth needs some work.
Being an origin story, we start right at the beginning.
Found injured by a kindly lighthouse worker, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) is taken in and cared for by Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). During their time together, they fall in love and have a child, a boy possessing great powers within the ocean. When she must leave, she goes, leaving the child in the care of her husband, though he will be sent to train with warriors from the deep.
When his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) attempts to bring together the armies of the deep to wage war against unsuspecting humans, Aquaman gets busy fighting back. Using all his substantial powers against his brother, war is waged between the two, disrupting the peace that has existed for centuries below the sea.
It takes a long time to get to this point. Called Arthur when not Aquaman, as a boy and teen he is taught how to communicate with the ocean life, swim at a furious pace, and do everything a superhero beneath the sea might need to do. Riding a great white shark provoked a huge guffaw from me, but I will give it this, it was interesting to watch.
His brother, a nasty bit played by Patrick Wilson, has decided to attack the land lovers for polluting the sea, and quite frankly, I get his point. But eliminating the human race? Well, that I take exception with. Lucky for us so does Aquaman, who uses everything he has been taught to fight back against Orm.
Now the screenplay is beyond stupid, with Orm having to say most of the terrible lines. Momoa escapes relatively unscathed, partly because of his charisma, mostly because he has the humour to pull off the character. It is like he knows how stupid all of this is and plays to that. Remember Jon Voight in Anaconda (1997), knowing how bad the film was and overdoing his performance to stay above the garbage? Same thing here, Momoa seems to know how silly this whole mess is, and goes in his own direction to make it through.
James Wan directed the film, and beyond the terrible screenplay it is simply way too long. You could easily chop 30 to 40 minutes out and not miss a thing. While watching, I found it easy to see what could be cut, but was having a much more difficult time deciding what to keep? That is a bad sign, that means you have a potentially terrible film on your hands. I did not find it terrible as much as I did unnecessary. Why make an origins film when we have already seen the character in two previous films, and everyone knows the character! These films are made for fans of the comic books, so tell me that anyone going in does not know who Aquaman is?
In fairness, Mamoa makes the film watchable with a strong presence and smart ass attitude. But the others, some very fine actors are wasted. Willem Dafoe, so good this year as Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, is Vulko, friend at Atlannta, who trains the young Victor to become a leader in the ocean. You can almost see the shame in Dafoe’s face, “yes, this is what I will do for money.” Nicole Kidman is always interesting, but in the year she gives the gutsiest performance of her career in Destroyer, she also is wasted here as the big guys mom.
Patrick Wilson, so good in Angels in America (2004) has the promise to be a great actor and he can sing to boot. But here as the bad guy Orm, he is spitting out silly dialogue and spends most of the movie looking, well, like a dumb ass.
Wan does a nice job capturing life below the sea, the screen shimmers but for what?
As Raj says, “Aquaman sucks.”
When Warner Brothers announced Clint Eastwood’s new film The Mule was getting a year end release, the rumour mill began talking Oscar. And why not? In 2004, the frontrunner for Best Picture and Best Director was Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004. In late November it looked like Scorsese would finally get his Oscar, but there was suddenly a little explosion in early December entitled Million Dollar Baby (2004), directed by Warner Brothers’ favourite son, Clint Eastwood. You could feel the tide turn suddenly on Scorsese and come Oscar night, Million Dollar was crowned Best Picture, with Eastwood winning his second Oscar for Best Director.
Two years later the two filmmakers were nominated against one another again, though this time Scorsese prevailed. Among the first to stand cheering Scorsese was none other than Eastwood.
Eastwood has amassed an extraordinary 63-year career as actor, director, producer and movie star. No one in the 60s or 70s would have predicted he would go onto to become one of the greatest American film directors. Twice he won Oscars and DGA Awards for Best Director, twice more he was nominated for Best Director, along with two nominations for Best Actor, and five times his film was nominated for Best Picture, most recently, American Sniper (2014). His western Unforgiven (1992) is arguably the greatest American western, standing alongside The Searchers (1956) for that coveted number one spot.
So when Warner’s has the confidence of an awards season release, I think most of us expect an Oscar-crashing film that might, just might get Eastwood that long overdue Oscar for Best Actor. As good as The Mule is, and it is very good, don’t expect much Oscar attention, if any. For the first time in his career, 88-year old Eastwood looks frail, moves slower and cannot hide the ravages of old age. That powerful build he held is gone, and for the first time onscreen Eastwood looks like a battered, very old man pushing 90.
Seeing him onscreen here was akin to seeing a cancer-ridden John Wayne amble out at the Oscars in 1979, just a few months before he died. In 2011, I shook Eastwood’s hand, meeting him at TIFF after the book I wrote about his films was released. He looked like he had stepped out of Mount Rushmore, tall, rugged, bright eyed, easy going. Yes, his appearance in The Mule shocked me. But all of his gifts as actor, director, producer and composer are absolutely intact.
As Earl, Eastwood is a world weary old buy who has failed his family in every way, earning their dislike, mistrust and in some cases, wrath. Now having lost everything, he takes a job driving to El Paso, acting as a drug mule for a huge, very rich, equally dangerous cartel. All he has to do is drive, and old Earl can do that. Soon he has more cash than he knows what to do with, with makes his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Weist) suspicious about where this new-found wealth is coming from. Mary has little time to fret over the money as she becomes terribly ill, allowing Earl to do some good. His daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) will not even look at him, so how can he support her when she needs him most?
The law closes in on Walt, a hot shot new DEA officer portrayed by Bradley Cooper, taking a particular interest. But the head of the cartel, portrayed with confident menace by Andy Garcia, likes Earl too, but does he like him enough to protect him or is it easier to make the old fellow disappear?
There are many questions asked and answered about family, about the obligation to those you love, about failing them and the profound burden one feels. Earl knows he destroyed his marriage, and wants very much to make amends. He realizes there is no chance Mary will ever give him another chance to fail her, but maybe he can show he can be relied upon. You can see the desperation in Earl at wanting to do something good before he dies, realizing his new money provides that chance. But will Mary and Iris let him get close enough to help them, before the cops nail him, or the cartels bury him in the desert?
Eastwood is terrific as the cranky old Earl, but he is far more agreeable and less hateful than his Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino (2008). In a year filled with outstanding male performances, Eastwood too offers one, but not good enough to be among the best five. Vintage Clint.
I have always adored the work of two-time Academy Award winner Dianne Weist, who gave a remarkable performance in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and her extraordinary turn in Bullets Over Broadway (1994). Weist, as always is brilliant but really does not have a great deal to do. Now a film focusing on just she and Earl? Wow, that might be brilliant. Bradley Cooper is terrific, the man can do no wrong, and Alison Eastwood is fine, but nothing more as Iris.
Even at nearly 90, Eastwood knows the story revolves around his character. And though slower, weaker, and more frail than ever, he does not let us down.
MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS
This story is by now very familiar, having been told in the film Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) by Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, in Elizabeth I (2009) with Helen Mirren, and in Elizabeth, The Golden Age (2007) with Cate Blanchett. What I am saying I suppose, is enough already! Surely there are other stories that pit two great women against each other?
Everyone knows the history: cousins, each with a claim to the British throne, divided by their religions, quietly endure one another. Mary (Saoirse Ronan) is set up as Queen in Scotland, rumours of promiscuity following her from France. Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) is plagued with small pox, which leaves her horribly disfigured.
We all know where this goes. Spain wants Elizabeth out because she champions the Protestant faith, they are willing to have her killed and install the Catholic Mary on the throne. Elizabeth, aware of being a target, does not wish to kill her cousin, a woman with a legal claim to her throne. Yet what else is she to do when push comes to shove?
The most interesting aspect of the film is the bringing together two of last year’s Best Actress nominees – Ronan and Robbie, two of the most gifted actresses of their generation.
Ronan has dazzled since Atonement (2007, and The Lovely Bones (2010). She was extraordinary in Hanna (2012), but came into her own in Brooklyn (2015), for which she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress and won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. Last year she was the critic’s darling in the outstanding coming of age, female angst Lady Bird (2017), which again nabbed her a nod for Best Actress.
Here, as Mary, she is a spitfire, her hair blazing as red as her spirit, a courageous woman seeking what she believes is her birthright. In previous films, Mary has often been an imprisoned woman under guard, living well, but a prisoner nonetheless. Messages were brought to her and sent through a network of spies connected to Spain, who would eventually attack England, losing their great navy to the shallow waters off the English Channel. Ronan is a very convincing Mary, but because we have seen so many recent versions of the story, much is lost in impact due to familiarity.
Robbie is a revelation as Elizabeth, though hers is very much a supporting role. Initially stunning in her beauty, she is terrible scarred by the pox, loses her hair and takes to heavy, white lead-based make up, becoming the Virgin Queen. Very aware of her power, yet more aware of what she must do to her cousin, hers is a powerful, regal performance with tinges of guilt and regret.
Robbie came known to audiences and critics in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), as Harley Quinn, the most exciting character in Suicide Squad (2016), and last year was nominated alongside Ronan for Best Actress as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya (2017).
Each of these formidable young women have it in their arsenal to command the screen, yet are not given enough to do here, and have too few scenes together. The biggest problem with the film is it’s familiar, too much so, from being told too often recently. Yes, we have two great actresses, but they are doing what Cate Blanchett or Helen Mirren or Samantha Morton did before them. The art direction and especially the costumes are highlights, in particular those of Mary against dour Scotland. Interesting for the actresses, Robbie might land a supporting actress nomination, the costumes are likely to be nominated but the film will be quickly forgotten.
Top 10 Worst Films of 2018
Of the 292 films I saw this year, most of them were weak to outright dreadful. Making a great film is hard, so many aspects need to fall into place. 2018 was a strong year for movies, as my 10 best attests, but oddly it was a good year for stinkers too, and there were lots to choose from.
When big, expensive blockbusters fail, the impact on the industry is staggering because that failure will prevent other films from being even made. My question remains unanswered – can these people that green light these disasters not read?
One little victory. This is the first time a Transformers movie did not make the list. Every year there has been one, but this year Bumblebee proved what I thought impossible, a good film can be made of Transformers movies.
The Ten Worst Films Of the year are…
- (Tie) ON THE BASIS OF SEX: Ruth Bader Ginsberg deserves so much better than this. A feisty pioneer for human rights and female equality, this ferocious woman, who in her 80s still sits on the highest court in the land, deserved a movie that explored her accomplishments but also that asked, and answered, what drove her? What made her such a tireless fighter? Instead we get the Gandhi-sequence biopic, Ginsberg’s greatest hits. Felicity Jones, a fine actress, is woefully miscast as Ginsberg. Her accent wanders throughout and she lacks that fire in her belly. Armie Hammer does fine work as her loyal husband, but we need Ginsberg to be at least interesting. The documentary RBG is a far better experience. A huge disappointment…HUGE!
- PROUD MARY: At a time when a new Black cinema is sweeping America, bringing honest, powerful films about life being black comes this nightmare. Threatening to set the advances backwards 40 years, the movie wants to be blaxploitation, it feels like a 70s film, and it seems wildly out of touch. Taraji P. Henson, a likeable actress, is wasted in the Pam Grier-like role, taking on the black mob for whom she had previously worked. Danny Glover plays his role as a villain with telegraphed menace, we cannot wait for his next dastardly deed because it so delights him! Maybe he knew how bad the film was and overacted for fun. Well, Danny, my man, no, it is no fun. It was torture.
- MAMMA MIA 2: Here we go again, torture, oh where do I begin! Sing that to the title tune or this mess and it pretty much sums it up. Without Meryl Streep in until a heavenly cameo at the end, the film flashes back to explore how Donna came to the island. Only once was I interested by a single scene and that was pop icon Cher singing the ABBA hit “Fernando.” The lady can sell a song, even if it has nothing to do with the film. For the most part unwatchable.
- PEPPERMINT: I love that Jennifer Garner is branching out with her range, good for her. She is hysterically funny on Camping, brilliant as a control freak keener, by far the best thing in the HBO show. Here she is a vigilante killer, after her family is massacred, she wakes to devastation, and then begins to train turning herself into a beautiful Rambo, kick ass killer who thinks she is Liam Neeson. I mean, seriously? I get, believe me, that Garner is an actress, but do you cast Thumper the rabbit as King Kong? The whole movie feels like a terrible joke.
- CHRISTOPHER ROBIN: In my version of hell, I am strapped to a chair while this idiotic film plays on a loop for eternity. If I had to hear Ewan McGregor’s wide-eyed idiot say “Pooooooo” one more time I think I would have rammed screwdrivers in my ears. Just a horribly wrong mess of a film, using CGI to create the animated characters, but the performance of McGregor, all earnest and trying to be filled with wonder, was excruciating, it is an absolute travesty. The story is stooooopid, the characters uninteresting and it takes some getting used to seeing the cartoon characters as computer generated. One of those films and performances I can never unsee. Ugh. Remember the toilet McGregor climbed out of in Scotland in the brilliant Trainspotting (1996)? I bet he pulled this script out of that filthy toilet. Pure torture.
- THE SISTERS BROTHERS: I so loved the book, but I so hated the film, which had none of the book’s dark humour. Instead it was a grungy, nasty depiction of the old west. Why would a hunted gunfighter announce to the room “We’re the Sisters Brothers” placing a target on each of them before they are one minute in the room? Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are the brothers, Jake Gyllenhall is a well-spoken young man they encounter in their strange quest for gold, along with inventor Riz Ahmed. Greed is their undoing, lousy writing and direction kills the film. Ahmed gives a lovely performance, as does Gyllenhall, but the two leads are embarrassing. And that spider that crawls into Reilly’s mouth and poisons him? Why? What narrative point was made? My biggest disappointment of the year.
- VENOM: Even before the film opened, rumours of trouble had made their way out. Reshoots always spell trouble, and there was no shortage of them on this. But my question after suffering through it, was why? Why make a film about a villain who was a supporting character portrayed by Topher Grace in Spider-Man 3 (2000)? Did we need this movie? Good God no! Does it leave me questioning Tom Hardy? Yes, why would a great actor, and he is great, find himself mired in this dreck? It is said there are hours of better footage that ended up on the floor. Better go garbage picking, guys.
- SOLO: Understand that the worst five are inter-changeable, they could move from 4th to first depending on the day. The idea to make an origin story for Han Solo was not a bad one; what killed this film was casting, and a terrible story. You want a cocky, smart ass, younger Han Solo with the same charisma as Harrison Ford? Cast Chris Pratt. Period, end of story. He could have played this part in his sleep. Should they ever do a younger Indiana Jones movie (and they will), just cast Pratt. Do it right. The boring actor cast as Han Solo does not even deserve to have his name mentioned but suffice to say he lacked anything remotely considered charisma, he brought no sarcastic humour to the film, and worst of all, was dull, dull, dull. Now, in fairness, the script did not help him, and Donald Glover blew him off the screen as a young Lando. Ron Howard obviously lost control of the film, and it controlled him. Howard has never been a great director, but is usually a very good one. Apollo 13 (1995) and Frost/ Nixon (2001) were brilliant films, both Best Picture nominees! He won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind (2001) but shouldn’t have. And he absolutely should not direct another Star Wars film…like, ever. Proof a Star Wars film could sink lower than The Phantom Menace (1999).
- MORTAL ENGINES: Stupidity runs rampant through this dumb, dirty looking post-apocalyptic nightmare of a movie that just never takes off. After the last Great War, the major cities of the world are now on wheels. Yep, wheels, meaning they move from place to place waging war on other cities. No one learned. Watching this ugly, grim looking film was an exercise in torture. At post time it is believed to be losing in excess of $100 million dollars. That is 100 low budget films that will not be made because of this monstrosity.
- A WRINKLE IN TIME: When oh when will Oprah Winfrey realize she cannot act? It was not enough that she ruined Beloved (1998), one of the greatest books of the 20th century by demanding as producer she play the lead? If only her acting talents were as massive as her ego? Here she has her dream role, a kind of God who gets to say such memorable lines as “be a warrior” in between costume changes. Again, based on a much loved book, Oprah and Reese Witherspoon are just awful, but the narrative is the big problem. That and the acid trippy look and feel give the film a Puftnstuf feel. Oprah is Witchie Poo….
- GOTTI: Truth be told, I would watch this again rather than the other four, but only because it would be fun to point out the oh-so-obvious flaws in this train wreck of a film. Directed by Kevin Connolly, best known as ambitious E, in Entourage, the terrific HBO comedy, I question how he landed this gig? Does he have a powerful relative in the business? Is the Irish mob behind him? Connolly was completely the wrong director to make this film, his choices are wrong, and within 10 minutes of viewing time, you just know it is going to be a rough road. John Travolta seems like inspired casting as the nasty John Gotti, who openly defied the New York police as the “Teflon Don,” called such because nothing would stick to him. The legal system knew he was a killer, knew he ran the mob, but they could never get him on anything. Travolta plays him with an edge, but rather with a streak of smugness and entitlement that does not begin to touch upon his savagery or penchant for cruelty. Gotti was a vicious man, and Travolta can portray fearsome (Get Shorty) but his work here seems to be to posture, to wear the beautiful suits Gotti was famous for, but to do little else. A fascinating life made bunk, garbage, and infamous as a film deemed unreleasable and unwatchable. Both true.
Arguably the year’s finest documentary, this film is a warm, affectionate look into the career of the great Hal Ashby, one of the 70s finest filmmakers; yet sadly, among the least known to today’s audiences. Unlike Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma and Lucas, Hal Ashby did not move into the 80s and continue making great films, as his rebellious spirit was his undoing, brought down by the studio executives he so despised.
Looking like a hippy guru, with long hair, an even longer beard, an ever present joint, often barefoot, and often homeless, living in the dens of friends, Ashby was obsessed with cinema. He truly loved movies and worked often all through the night on his work. He routinely made enemies of the studio heads, whom he called “the suits” because he felt they were the enemy, concerned only with money (true) and not with his art at all. And art was everything to Ashby; he believed in it so passionately it could have been called his religion.
Using clips, interviews, still photos, recordings he made and his letters, narrated by actor Ben Foster, Miss Scott creates a compelling life story for Ashby.
After winning an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night (1967), his friend Norman Jewison helped Ashby secure a job directing and he never looked back, directing seven films in the 70s, four of them genuine masterpieces. Actors revered him because he was often willing to throw away the script on the spot and trust them to improvise in character, often creating pure magic in their work. For Ashby, being a former editor, he was cutting the film together as he was shooting it, he saw what others did not. Yet perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the manner in which he created an atmosphere on the set which promoted creativity among the actors. He trusted them and they him, and they were free to try anything, nothing was off limits.
Bruce Dern recalls Ashby coming to him with the end of Coming Home (1978) and what was going to happen, the exact cuts, the dialogue, and though Dern was bothered he had nothing to say, he trusted his friend, and the result is one of the most heartbreaking endings to a film.
Jon Voight recalls another moment from the film when he had a huge monologue and Ashby asked him not to speak, just listen, react to what was being said by the real veterans hired for the film as they spoke about their experiences there. The result was a pensive shot of Voight we never forget, our introduction to him. Brilliant.
Ashby’s first film was The Landlord (1970), way ahead of its time in terms of dealing with inter-racial relationships but well written and beautifully acted. Critics took note if audiences did not, which led Ashby to his second film, the cult classic Harold and Maude (1972). A lovely comedy about a gutsy 80-year old free spirit who falls in love with a 20-year old man who keeps trying to kill himself, the film was unlike anything released that year. Ashby railed against the ad campaign, believing the studio was dropping the ball, and in hindsight he would be right, but audiences found the film, delighted in Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort’s lovely performances, and Ashby was on his way to greatness.
It came with The Last Detail (1973), which contained one of Jack Nicholson’s most beloved and critically acclaimed performances as Badass Buddusky, a navy lifer railing against the men running the military. It came with Shampoo (1975) a biting critical commentary with Warren Beatty well cast as an oversexed hairdresser, in tight with some political bigwigs and their adoring wives. And it came with Bound for Glory (1976), his powerful biography of folk singer Woody Guthrie, portrayed by David Carradine in a strange bout of casting that was pure Ashby.
His masterpiece remains Coming Home (1978), the only film that brought to him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, which frankly he should have won. Working closely with Jane Fonda, they created a penetrating, honest film about the vets after the war, when they came home, not a battle scene to be seen. We didn’t need it; the haunted looks on the men’s faces told us all we needed to know about that terrible war.
With music of the time playing throughout the film, Ashby did a marvelous job of plunging the audience back in time to when the war was raging and the youth of America were showing their displeasure about it. The cast was incredible, all of them, not only Oscar winners Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, but Bruce Dern who should have won Best Supporting Actor, Penelope Milford, Bobby Carradine, and the many real vets who appeared in the film as background performers, lending their experiences to Fonda for realism. It was as though Ashby understood them in every way.
Coming Home was nominated for eight Academy Awards, losing to The Deer Hunter (1978).
His last great film was Being There (1979), which could have been ridiculous, but in the gentle assured hands of Ashby became a stunning comic satire about an imbecile headed towards the U.S. presidency. Chance the Gardner, beautifully portrayed by Peter Sellers, must leave his home where he had been the gardner. Everything he knows he knows from television, and he can neither read nor write. By a comedy of errors he ends up in the company of the President, who asks him a question about the economy. Chance answers talking about plants, which the President and his people believe to be a metaphor for their troubled economy. Hailed a genius, suddenly Chance is in the halls of power, being courted to be the next President. How frightening in its accuracy this is, given what we have in the White House.
The bold final scene shows Chance walking on water, and was judged going too far by the studio, but Ashby fought and left it in. It is perfect.
This lovely film, directed and edited by Amy Scott, this is the best doc of the year and a fitting tribute to a truly great American filmmaker.
BEN IS BACK
From the moment I saw her in Mystic Pizza (1988) and Steel Magnolias (1989), there was no doubt Julia Roberts was going to be a major star. Not actor, not yet, as she had not learned enough at the early juncture of her career, but one could not deny the camera loved her unique face and that dazzling, almost too big for her face smile. Nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her work as the doomed young mom in Steel Magnolias (1989), no one could have predicted what happened next. Seemingly overnight, Julia Roberts, courtesy of a modern day Cinderella story, was a household name. Pretty Woman (1990), a paint by numbers romance, caused America to fall in love with her as Richard Gere did on screen. This time she was nominated for Best Actress and had directors lining up to work with her. Among them, Steven Spielberg, who cast her in his woeful Hook (1991), just one misfire after misfire Roberts signed on for.
Dying Young (1991), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) – the first a bomb, the second made money but was crucified by the critics. Suddenly she was in trouble, and it seemed she stayed that way for most of the 90s, only to bounce back with a vengeance in 1998. She finally found a hit in the silly film, My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), which brought her back. In quick succession she gave us Stepmom (1998), and the altogether lovely Notting Hill (1998).
Then came her Academy Award-winning performance as Erin Brokovich (2000). Her work since has usually been very good: Closer (2004), a foray into the goofy Ocean’s 11 (2002) series, The Normal Heart (2014) for HBO, and another Oscar nomination in the ensemble piece August: Osage County (2014).
And now Ben is Back.
Portraying Holly, a middle aged mother and wife, she arrives home from town, shocked to find her oldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges) in her driveway. As he has been away in a recovery hospital for drug addicts, she is surprised though delighted to see him. Given his history of lies, deceit, manipulation, theft and so much more, she agrees to let him stay one night, to wake up Christmas morning in his house with his family. She does this over the intense objections of her husband, Courtney Vance, and her oldest daughter, who remembers all too well life with Ben.
Holly issues one rule for him staying: “You are never to be out of my sight.”
A visit to the local mall makes clear that Ben is home, and to some very nasty drug dealers that is music to their ears. Ben owes some truly bad people money, and they come collecting in the most personal ways.
Returning from church, the family finds their home broken into, nothing taken but their dog, who means the world to them all. Ben and Holly venture out into the night to retrieve the dog, Ben believing he knows where the animal is. Throughout the night, Holly will begin understand just how terrible her son’s addiction was, and what vile things he did for drugs or money.
Roberts does some great work in the final third of the film as she becomes increasingly aware of how badly addicted he truly was. She really had no idea, and as mothers do, takes it upon her shoulders, takes the blame, even though Ben is telling her no one could have stopped him. Hers is a powerful piece of acting, but Best Actress worthy? No.
Lucas Hedges made himself known to us in the superb drama Manchester By the Sea (2016), for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Earlier this year he gave a powerful performance as a young man having the gay beaten out of him by a church organization in Boy Erased. As Ben, he is, again, sublime, capturing the profound regrets for bringing his family into such peril, for exposing what he is to his mother, and coming face to face with who he is in his journey through the night, into his own heart of darkness.
Directed and written by Peter Hedges, a rather minor film director, Ben is Back feels like an HBO film, and I do not mean that as a negative. Noble storyline focusing its attention on a worthy cause, great performances, just not quite the stuff of the big screen. Still, tough to shake some of the searing scenes of mother and son. Grimly realistic.