|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "Ben is back," "Hospitality," "Mary Queen of Scots," "The Mortal Engines" and "Shoplifters."
For those of you who made it through ''Beautiful Boy'' and ''Boy Erased'' and still have a hankering for emotionally fraught sagas involving troubled teens and their parents, ''Ben is Back'' is here to fill the void and it even has Christmas theming to boot. The film opens on Christmas Eve as well-to-do suburban mom Holly returns home and finds her first-born son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), unexpectedly waiting in the driveway to spend the holidays with her, her second husband (Courtney B. Vance) and their blended family. However, this is not entirely a welcome reunion as Ben is a recovering drug addict who has taken off from his sober-living program and his stepfather and sister, who have seen him at his worst, do not trust him and do not want him around. Holly makes a deal with him--he can stay for 24 hours through Christmas and he is not to leave her sight for an instant. While Ben continues to struggle with his demons, word gets out around town of his return and someone who he hurt in his past breaks into the house while the family is at church and steals their dog. Ben and Holly go off into the night to look for it and as their journey into the dark side progresses, Holly is forced to confront just how far her son sank during his problems and just how tenuous his recovery is.
In essence, ''Ben is Back'' offers viewers two films for the price of one and trust me, one is definitely better than the other. The first one, consisting of roughly the first half of the proceedings, is the good one as we watch Holly lovingly but warily trying to reconnect with her struggling son features good and incisive writing from Peter Hedges (who also directs) and effective performances from Roberts and Hedges, who create a convincingly fraught but loving relationship that has somehow managed to survive all the events of the past. The second half, however, becomes increasingly foolish as it transforms from a quiet relationship drama to a near-thriller in which mother and son penetrate the surprisingly elaborate criminal underside of their seemingly picture-perfect town. It is to the credit of Roberts and Hedges (who is the director's son) that they almost manage to make this section work based on the quality of their performances but not even their work can quite justify their increasingly tedious and unbelievable surroundings.
''Hospitality'' is a film that clearly hopes to invoke memories of the Coen Brothers, especially their gory neo-noir debut ''Blood Simple,'' but other than the fact that it two was written and directed by a duo--Nick Chakwin & David Guglielmo--the comparisons are few and far between. Former prostitute Donna (Emmanuelle Chriqui) runs a remote bed & breakfast with her mentally challenged son (Conner McVicker) while suffering under the thumb of a loutish local cop (JR Bourne). Things perk up a bit when hunky ex-con Cam (Sam Trammell), whom Donna worked with back in the day, turns up for a stay, much to her eventual delight and the cop's consternation. It turns out that Cam is ostensibly there because he hid a lot of cash in his room during his previous stay and has come to reclaim but finds himself contemplating settling down with Donna. Alas, a ghost from Cam's past (Jim Beaver) turns up to complicate those plans considerably and it turns out that Donna’s past is a lot more checkered than originally assumed, leading the way to usual array of freshly dug graves, double crosses and grisly killings. The story is certainly complicated enough but never in ways that are especially interesting and as the twists develop and the blood spills, most viewers will find it increasingly difficult to care much about any of it. It moves quickly enough and it does give the ordinarily underused Chriqui more to do than usual but this is the kind of film that you will find yourself forgetting even as you are watching it.
''Mary Queen of Scots'' is a film with two aims in mind--to help rehabilitate the reputation of Mary Stuart with a version of her tumultuous life and infamous death that has been recast in overtly feminist terms and, perhaps more importantly, to score a bunch of awards in this year's Oscar derby as the prestige costume drama of note. Saoirse Ronan plays Mary, who, as the film opens after the death of her husband, returns home to Scotland to take her rightful place on the Scottish throne. Alas, this puts her in direct conflict with John Knox (David Tennant), the Protestant leader of the Church of Scotland who is offended by the very idea of being ruled by a woman and a Catholic and does his best to poison both the people of Scotland and Mary's cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England (Margot Robbie) against her. Although there is a certain kinship between the two admittedly distant relatives, especially in the ways in which they try to seek peace amongst their countries in the face of male-dominated courts trying to usurp their power via treason, dubious marriages and murder, Elizabeth's refusal to name Mary the heir to the English throne sets up a series of double-crosses that find Mary being betrayed by practically everyone in her confidence before her eventual date with the chopping block.
In a fit of epically bad timing, ''Mary Queen of Scots'' finds itself hitting theaters only a couple of weeks after the arrival of ''The Favourite,'' a film that gleefully and viciously mocks the kind of overly reverential costume drama that this movie represents to a T. To be fair, it is unlikely that it would have come across as much better if ''The Favourite'' never existed. This is one of those plodding period pieces that is as handsomely mounted as one could possibly hope but which is utterly lacking in the kind of spark that would have elevated it beyond being a showcase for the costume and art direction departments. The screenplay by Beau Willimon never quite comes alive and his attempts to recontextualize the story in more contemporary terms feel more like they have been hastily tacked on in the wake of the #MeToo movement than a deeply felt approach to the material. Both Ronan and Robbie are good (with the edge maybe going to the latter) but both have done much better work in the past and the climactic scene in which they share the screen for the first and only time (an event invented for the film as the two supposedly never met in real life) is a bit of a letdown thanks to the writing. Those who actually have a taste for old-school Oscar bait may find some worth in it but others are advised to give it a pass and stick with ''The Favourite'' instead--it may not be quite as scrupulous from a historical perspective but it is infinitely more entertaining and fun to watch.
It makes perfect sense that many of the characters in ''The Mortal Engines'' find themselves sifting through the detritus of a previous era for elements that they can scavenge and put to work once again since the film itself pretty much does that for the entirety of its running time. Based on the first of a series of YA novels by Philip Reeves), the film presents another one of those dystopian futures where the ruling class of this ravaged new world is threatened by an uprising led by a spunky young woman with mad fighting skills. Here, centuries after a world war destroyed most of the surface of the planet, those who have survived live in giant movable cities that roam the blasted lands looking for relics they can repurpose and smaller towns that they can take over in the name of what they call ''Municipal Darwinism.'' Through circumstances too dull to get into here, callow young history buff Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) and vengeance-minded rebel Hester Shaw (Hera Hilman) run afoul of key London authority figure Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) and are thrown off the ship and into the dangerous badlands. While they attempt to survive in the wilds and make their way back to London after hooking up with a band of super-rebels known as the Anti-Traction League, Thaddeus's daughter, Katherine (Leila George), and humble peon Bevis Pod (Ronan Raferty) get wind of Thaddeus's plans to construct some kind of super-weapon (the same kind that blew up civilization in the first place) as part of his plan to conquer the resource-rich land of Shan Guo and try to stop him.
With its wild visual style, a design motif based upon the jerry-rigged repurposing of familiar elements and dashes of social satire throughout, ''The Mortal Engines'' is a film that all but cries out to be directed by Terry Gilliam--the opening sequence, featuring a chase scene involving two mobile cities, in particular feels like a belated sequel to his famous short film ''The Crimson Permanent Exchange'' and is perhaps the film's sole highlight. Unfortunately, while Peter Jackson, who co-produced and co-wrote the film, has been getting all the credit for this in the advertising, it was actually directed by Christian Rivers, a former visual effects supervisor and storyboard designer making his directorial debut, and he shows none of the cinematic flair of either Gilliam or his mentor. Granted, it is hard to imagine an expert director managing to make something out of this hodgepodge of elements yanked wholesale from other and usually better sources (including ''The Hunger Games,'' ''Mad Max,'' ''Howl's Moving Castle,'' ''Star Wars'' and, inexplicably, ''Lost Horizon'' to name just a few) and populated by one-note characters brought barely to life by actors who struggle to hit even those single notes--the most memorable thing about ostensible heroes Thaddeus and Hester is the fact that they look like slightly off-brand versions of Eddie Redmayne and Elle Fanning. (The only actor who puts any energy into their performance is Weaving but his over-the-top turn is pure ham from beginning to end.) As for the big action beats that dominate and eventually overwhelm the proceedings, they are noisy and cluttered as all get out but there is not a single memorable image to be had amidst all of the chaos. About the only good thing to be said about this mega-budget misfire, a botch more concerned with creating a would-be franchise than in making a movie entertaining enough to make audiences want to see more, is that it is so lousy that there is virtually no chance that we will have to sit through future installments anytime soon.
As the Japanese import ''Shoplifters,'' which won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival, opens, we are introduced to the members of a multigenerational family eking out a meager existence while all living together in what appears to be a single small room--the grandmother gets the center of the room, her som Osamu (Lily Franky) and his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) are off to the side and son Shota is in a closet. Unable to get by solely on Osamu’s meager earnings as a day worker and Grandma's pension, the family helps make ends meet by shoplifting, an activity that is illegal, of course, but which gives them a sense of unity and purpose. One day, they come across a young girl, Juri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been abandoned on the streets by her abusive parents and decide to take her in and teach her how to help take part in their various scams. This may sound like the basis for an especially indigestible bit of treacle but the great filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda has more on his mind than that--even as he is doling out passages of quietly exquisite beauty observing the interactions of the family and their new additions, he does not avoid the dark underbelly to this particular story and begins to turn the screws in heartbreaking fashion in the last quarter as he begins to expose the true colors of the family and the lies that they tell themselves and each other as a way of making it through an increasingly cold and fractured world. The end result is a smart and moving film that is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to your area.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4153
originally posted: 12/14/18 13:09:10
last updated: 12/15/18 03:31:13