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VIFF 2018 Review: Ben Is Back

Ben Is Back

Ben Is Back is about a son (played by Lucas Hedges) returning home from rehab for Christmas, but under the watchful eyes of his mother (played by Julia Roberts).

Another movie from the VIFF anticipated for bigger release later on is Ben Is Back. The film consists of a lot of dark subject matter, but does feature a lot of elements that make it worth seeing.

It’s Christmas Eve in a New England home. The Burns family is rehearsing at church for the Christmas play. Unbeknownst is that their son Ben has returned from rehab to spend Christmas with them. He sees that the house has an alarm system since he was sent there. Smart parents. When the family arrives, they are shocked to see him there. Ben has fun with his two younger half-siblings at first, but mother Holly, stepfather Neale and sister Ivy are nervous. Holly decides 24 hours and Ben must be in her supervision. Ben agrees.

On Christmas Eve, she tries to take his mind off things by going to the mall. The first person they see is the doctor: the one who prescribe painkillers he claimed weren’t addictive, but were. Holly gives the doctor a piece of her mind. To take Ben away from the frustration, she takes him to a store. Ben notices Clayton, the town pusher, going down an elevator. As Ben appears changing in a store,  Holly notices Ben is taking too long and suspects the worst. Holly shouts to get Ben out.

After that, they go to a church hall that’s holding an AA meeting. In the hall are two or three teens Ben deals drugs to, including one that wants to meet up with Ben later and get ‘done.’ Ben agrees, but that infuriates Holly to the point she takes him to a cemetery and tells him to pick his grave.

The family with hope the Christmas play will take their mind off things, until they see the mother of one of Ben’s ‘customers.’ The daughter died and the mother is looking distraught. Ben is moved to tears during the show. Coming home, they find the house broken into and the dog is stolen. The father pins the blame on Ben. Ben feels he has to help the family out and get the dog back. Ben learns the dog is with Clayton who’s holding it hostage for money Ben owes him. Ben and Holly go out together to get it solved. However there are people who want Ben dead.

Ben soon leaves Holly on his own pursuit to get things done. Holly takes the other car and searches like mad to find Ben. Holly finds herself in the home of the mother of the deceased daughter. Holly tries to be friendly with her. The mother gives her something in case Ben overdoses. Ben meets with Clayton to get the dog back, but Clayton expects a favor involving drug trafficking. While Holly feels lost, Ivy calls and says she’s able to track Holly and Ban through her iPad. As Ben does the ‘favor’ for Clayton, Clayton ‘pays’ him with a special pill. Meanwhile Holly senses Ben in a solitary location, thinking he’s dead. The story ends with a hugely climactic moment.

I’m sure when a lot of you first heard the premise of the film, some of you probably thought “I know where this is going.” The film I’ll bet you were thinking about is Rachel Getting Married. It does seem like it’s starting in similar fashion as Rachel Getting Married where a child who’s in rehab returns home for a special occasion. One thing to say is that a child returning from rehab during a holiday or a festivity is a common occurrence in real life and something a lot of families experience on a day-to-day level. It’s a story that can be played out in real life hundreds of different ways. Some may be redeeming and some may even be tragic.

Ben Is Back is a different story from Rachel Getting Married. Kym goes through her struggles at home, but returns back to rehab as a stronger person. Those who saw Rachel know that’s the main theme is about healing and the struggle to achieve it. Ben Is Back is a different story. Ben Burns is home for 24 hours in a town that’s full of memories of his drugged past. On top of it, Ben is a former dealer who is responsible for leading other teens of his town to their own drug addiction, including one fatal. You hope that Ben stays as strong through the fight the way Kym was, but you see that Ben succumbs to a lot of the pressures along the way. The film ended with a different ending from the message of hope Rachel appeared to have. True, Ben’s ending was more dramatic and almost ended up making for a tragedy, but it made for its own story.

One of the key themes of the film is that of family relations. Without a doubt, the biggest relation of focus is a mother for her son. Holly has seen the hardest of the issue. She has to lay down rules for Ben during these 24 hours. She is also very suspicious Ben will back to his old ways during that time. One key scene is when Ben is talking about drugs to a teen he saw during an AA meeting. Infuriated, she takes Ben to a cemetery and tells him to pick his grave. Of course that was very impulsive and very wrong of Holly, but it represents the frustration of dealing with a child of drugs Holly is supposed to have a ‘tough love’ attitude about it, but doesn’t go about it best. The whole film is a case where Holly wants to keep Ben sober during that period of time, but the events become a case where it’s down to where she just wants him to be alive.

Other family relations play a part in the film. There’s the sister Ivy who’s very nervous about Ben coming home feeling he’ll be a wreck again. In the end, she becomes the one who is best in helping Holly find Ben. Then there’s the stepfather Neal Burns. He feels a load of contempt for Ben and his addiction. When the dog is stolen, Neal touts the whole blame on Ben. Even while Holly is searching, Neal doesn’t bother helping, even referring to Ben as ‘that drug addict’ instead of his own stepson. It’s only until the end that he’s willing to help.

One weak thing about the film is the ending. I know that it ends right at the very moment of the drama, but it does seem like it ends the film abruptly and way too soon. I know directors have two or three alternate endings for a film, but it makes you wonder if this was the right choice for ending?

This is a good film for writer/director Peter Hedges. It may not be his best film as he has had bigger accomplishments in the past, but this is a film Peter can be proud of. Peter’s son Lucas has become one of the biz’s rising stars right now. It started happening with Manchester By The Sea and he’s been on a role. This film is one of two films he plays a lead role in. I have not seen Boy Erased, so I can’t compare. He does a very good very intense performance here. His career can only get better. However the film belongs to Julia Roberts. Even though Lucas plays the titular character, Julia stole the show as the mother. Her emotions and feelings shown in the film are like so many mothers in that situation. She played the part excellently and stole the show. There were other minor performances that were very good like Courtney B. Vance as the stepfather with an axe to grind, Kathryn Newton as the nervous sister and Michael Esper as the heartless drug supplier.

Despite the abrupt ending, Ben Is Back is an excellent movie about the struggles of drug addiction. You might first think it’s a rehash of Rachel Getting Married, but it tells its own story.

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Movie Review: We’re The Millers

Jason Sudeikis (right) and Jennifer Aniston (left) lead an unorthodox trip in We're The Millers.

Jason Sudeikis (right) and Jennifer Aniston (left) lead an unorthodox trip in We’re The Millers.

At first I wasn’t too interested in seeing We’re The Millers back around when it opened across theatres August 7th. Well guess what? Its eighth weekend has passed and it’s still in the box office Top 10 so I figured I had to see why this is such a hit.

Before I review, I want to give the box office details that sparked my interest. When We’re The Millers first debuted at the box office, they were pitted that weekend against debuts from Elysium, Planes and the latest Percy Jackson movie that weekend. The big-budget Elysium was the winner that weekend with $29.8 million while We’re The Millers was second with $26.4 million. Actually Millers opened the Wednesday that week which gave them a healthy extra $9.5 million. That helped a lot in making back their $37 million budget that Sunday. The following weekend saw The Butler, which I will review at a later date, at the top with $24.6 million. As for last weekend’s debuters, the other three movies started to move down in terms of their weekend grosses while Millers remained in second with a healthy $18 million as compared to the humble $13.7 million Elysium racked up. Yeah, very humbling since Elysium came at a $115 million budget. The following week saw a repeat of the Top 2 with the Labor Day weekend only seeing the One Direction concert movie superseding the two. Even over the weekends in September, We’re The Millers still did consistently well and now sits at #9 in its eighth weekend with its total gross just recently passed the $140 million mark.

Firstly we have to admit that the situation of the comedy is humorously unusual. A veteran pot dealer has to make back money he lost by being a drug mule in Mexico for his boss. However being single makes him a dead giveaway to the police while families are often overlooked by the cops. So you have to admit creating a fake family with a runaway girl, a stripper neighbor who can’t stand him and a shy neglected boy in his block would make for an unusual premise and leave the audience wondering what will happen next. Having a bizarre drug-trading situation also adds to the story as well as another travelling family who’s uberfriendly and whose daughter captures the attention of Kenny adds too. Scenes like the strip-show getaway and the fake baby named Lebron add to the humor as well. The uberfriendly family having the father being a former FBI agent adds to the suspense in wondering what will happen next.  Many of the dramatic moments are somewhat predictable as you mostly know what will happen in the end but it’s still fun to see them played out. Also there are some surprise moments.

The actors themselves also added to the humor of the story. Jennifer Aniston is the one with the biggest resume in the movie. She has starred in hit after hit for so many years. Also adding to this is funny guy Jason Sudeikis. Many Saturday Night Live regulars in the past have gone on to bigger and better things once leaving, but it hasn’t happened to all of them. Very often the first few years after they leave determine whether their post-SNL success will be sink or swim. We’re The Millers is actually a very good boost for Jason Sudeikis. There’s no telling how far his next movies will go but Millers is already a good boost. Also good was the addition of Ed Helms. Funny thing that when I was watching this movie, I wondered if it was written by those involved with The Hangover because I saw a lot of similar humor elements. It wasn’t but including Ed as this off-the-wall cartoonish drug lord added to the humor. Makes you wonder how a yutz like Gurdlinger can be a successful kingpin. The young actors of Emma Roberts, Molly Quinn and Bill Poulter also added to the story as they appeared to be the ones closest to normal, even Casey the street girl. Actually I was surprised Poulter because I didn’t think he’d be the type for sexual slapstick or slapstick of any kind.

Another factor to the movie’s success could be as well is the timing of the movie. This comedy came as big-budget action flick after big-budget action flick were doing less than expected. It almost appeared the summer hype was fizzling out. I will admit that charmingly offensive humor doesn’t have the same heyday that it had back in the late 90’s-early 2000’s. You remember how gross out comedies like There’s Something About Mary, American Pie and Scary Movie surprised everyone by getting loads of people laughing with their low-brow humor and became bigger hits than expected. Since then there hasn’t been as mammoth of hits in the charmingly offensive comedy genre. Nevertheless it’s fair to say there was a steady diet of such thanks to the ‘Frat Pack’ or ‘Slacker Pack’ made up of Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell and Owen Wilson. They churned out comedies that kept everyone entertained continuously up until 2008 when people started to tire of them. Since then it hasn’t been as consistent but there have been some hits along the way. The first one being The Hangover. Its hit success proved that obnoxious and even lewd comedy could still draw good-sized crowds. Grown Ups soon followed. Last year was Ted. This year showed that the Hangover formula and the Grown Ups formula were fading. Fortunately We’re The Millers was able to take the place of both and became the surprise hit of the summer this year.

Actually from my own point of view, I found a lot of moment so We’re The Millers funny but also a lot of unfunny moments. Yes, there was the bag of dope disguised as a baby named Lebron. Yes, there was the stripper dance getaway. Yes, there was the idiot Gurdlinger. But all too often it seemed like they were resorting to sex humor or sexual languages for the sake of cheap laughs. It may be because I’ve aged but I’m okay with sex humor as long as it justifies itself in the movie or the script. All too often I can tell the sex humor or sex language is used for the sake of a shock effect or a cheap instant laugh. And that’s what it seemed to be doing all too often in Millers. I know I should be expecting this especially since the writers have The Wedding Crashers, She’s Out Of Your League and episodes of Married With Children to their writing credits. Even the director has Dodgeball to his directing credits. Nevertheless I felt it tried too hard to deliver shock-laughs at times. Hey, I know comedy is the hardest thing in the world to do but still…

We’re The Millers is a surprise hit of the summer and for a lot of good reasons. I often feel it’s National Lampoon’s Vacation meets The Hangover.  However it’s not to say that its over-the-top humor can come across as desperate for shock laughs at times. It’s all a matter for the audient to decide whether it’s funny or not.