A weekly feature from from ctvnews.ca! The Crouse Review is a quick, hot take on the weekend’s biggest movies! This week Richard looks at the historical betrayals of “Mary Queen of Scots,” the cortex boiling animation of “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” and the drug addiction drama of “Ben is Back.”
Richard sits in with CTV NewsChannel anchor Marcia MacMillan to have a look at the weekend’s big releases including the wild and webby “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse,” the political drama of “Mary Queen of Scots” and the Julia Roberts’s drug drama “Ben is Back.”
“Ben is Back,” starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges as mother and son, is a film about addiction, trust and love.
It’s Christmastime in a small bedroom New York community. The church Christmas concert is looming and Holly and Neal Burns (Roberts and Courtney B. Vance) and their kids teenager Ivy (Kathryn Newton), little ones Lacey and Liam (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser) are rehearsed and ready. They arrive home after church to a surprise, Holly’s oldest son Ben (Hedges), sitting on the front step, on leave from his Sober Living house in the city. “I thought there was no way my counsellor would go for this,” he says, “but he did. That’s how good I’m doing.” Despite having left a trail of scorched earth behind him he looks good. Sober for seventy-seven days—“I just want to get to 78.”—he’s up a few pounds, has colour in his face and talks about living his life with “rigorous honesty.”
Still, Holly hides all the medication and jewellery in the house. Neal is welcoming but reticent. Ben’s drug taking has ruined several Christmases and the last time he was home he was found strung out, overdosed on the stairs with a needle in his arm. “I’m confused,” Neal says. “Everyone knows it’s in your best interest not to be home yet. There are too many triggers here for you.”
The town certainly has a lot of ghosts for Ben. Hooked on painkillers after a routine accident as a kid, he became a small time drug dealer and user, a teen who may or may not have been responsible for the OD death of his school friend Maggie. But Ben insists all is well, he does a drug test for his mom and attends the Christmas Eve concert with the family.
The past catches up with Ben and the family when they come home to find the house trashed and their beloved dog stolen. “This can’t be happening,” Ivy says. “Not again.” Ben isn’t sure who is responsible—“There were so many people it could be,” he says.—but is determined to find out. “You’re all still scared of me,” he says. “That’s the last thing I want to make you feel.” With Holly he confronts his past, journeying into the dark underbelly of his former suburban town to find the dog and test the bond of mother and son.
“Ben is Back” works best as a family drama of how addiction impacts loved ones. Cute though the dog may be, it works less so when it introduces the hunt for the lost canine. The dramatic tension is kept alive and well by carefully calibrated performances from Roberts and Hedges.
As Holly, Roberts moves away from the persona she has spent a career crafting. On the surface Holly is precise, a suburban soccer mom who will only buy organic cranberries and who changes the Christmas ornaments because the old ones, Ivy says, “didn’t fit the current aesthetic.“ Underneath though is a woman teetering on the edge, someone who believes in Ben despite having been disappointed so many times in the past. “This time will be different,” she says. “You’ll see.” It’s co-dependency and a mother’s unconditional love wrapped up in one complicated package.
Hedges is a roiling mix of self loathing—“ If you really knew me you’d be done with me.”—and hope. He’s a dark soul, tormented by what he has done and still vulnerable to falling back into the life that haunts him. Ben is revealed slowly and perhaps his most telling statement, the line that makes us question everything that has happened, comes late in the movie. “You can’t trust addicts,” he says to Holly. “All they do is lie.”
“Ben is Back” paints a compelling picture of addiction but is almost undone by a silly plot twist that threatens to turn the movie into a thriller, diluting its effectiveness. Luckily strong work from Roberts, Hedges and Newton keep it grounded.
CHIPs: It’s a remake, a comedy and an action film and yet it doesn’t quite measure up to any of those descriptors. It’s a remake in the sense that writer-director-star Dax Shepard has lifted the title, character names and general situation from the classic TV show but they are simply pegs to hang his crude jokes on.
The Circle: While it is a pleasure to see Bill Paxton in his last big screen performance, “The Circle” often feels like an Exposition-A-Thon, a message in search of a story.
The Fate of the Furious: Preposterous is not a word most filmmakers would like to have applied to their work but in the case of the “Fast and Furious” franchise I think it is what they are going for. Somewhere along the way the down-‘n’-dirty car chase flicks veered from sublimely silly to simply silly. “The Fate of the Furious” is fast, furious but it’s not much fun. It’s an unholy mash-up of James Bond and the Marvel Universe, a movie bogged down by outrageous stunts and too many characters. Someone really should tell Vin Diesel and Company that more is not always more.
Fifty Shades Darker: Depending on your point of view “Fifty Shades of Grey” either made you want to gag or want to wear a gag. It’s a softcore look at hardcore BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) that spanked the competition on its opening weekend in 2015. Question is, will audiences still care about Grey’s proclivities and Ana’s misgivings or is it time to use our collective safeword? “Fifty Shades Darker” is a cold shower of a movie. “It’s all wrong,” Ana says at one point. “All of this is wrong.” Truer words have never been spoken.
The Mountain Between Us: Mountain survival movies usually end up with someone eating someone else to stay alive. “The Mountain Between Us” features the usual mountain survival tropes—there’s a plane crash, a showdown with a cougar and broken bones—but luckily for fans of stars Idris Elba and Kate Winslet cannibalism is not on the menu. Days pass and then weeks pass and soon they begin their trek to safety. “Where are we going?” she asks. “We’re alive,” he says. “That’s where were going.” There will be no spoilers here but I will say the crash and story of survival changes them in ways that couldn’t imagine… but ways the audience will see coming 100 miles away. It’s all a bit silly—three weeks in and unwashed they still are a fetching couple—but at least there’s no cannibalism and no, they don’t eat the dog.
The Mummy: As a horror film it’s a meh action film. As an action film it’s little more than a formulaic excuse to trot out some brand names in the kind of film Hollywood mistakenly thinks is a crowd pleaser.
The Shack: Bad things in life may be God’s will but I lay the blame for this bad movie directly on the shoulders of director Stuart Hazeldine who infuses this story with all the depth and insight of a “Davey and Goliath” cartoon.
The Snowman: We’ve seen this Nordic Noir before and better. Mix a curious lack of Oslo accents—the real mystery here is why these Norwegians speak as though they just graduated RADA—Val Kilmer in a Razzie worthy performance and you’re left with a movie that left me as cold as the snowman‘s grin.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Movies like the high gloss crime thriller “La Femme Nikita,” the assassin mentor flick “Léon: The Professional” and outré sci fi opera “The Fifth Element” have come to define director Luc Besson’s outrageous style. Kinetic blasts of energy, his films are turbo charged fantasies that make eyeballs dance even if they don’t always engage the brain. His latest, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” not only has one of the longest titles of the year but is also one of the most over-the-top, retina-frying movies of the year. Your eyes will beg for mercy.
Wonder Wheel: At the beginning of the film Mickey (Justin Timberlake) warns us that what we are about to see will be filtered through his playwright’s point of view. Keeping that promise, writer, director Woody Allen uses every amount of artifice at his disposal—including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s admittedly sumptuous photography—to create a film that is not only unreal but also unpleasant. “Oh God,” Ginny (Kate Winslet) cries out at one point. “Spare me the bad drama.” Amen to that.
Song to Song: I think it’s time Terrence Malick and I called it quits. I used to look forward to his infrequent visits. Sure, sometimes he was a little obtuse and over stayed his welcome, but more often than not he was alluringly enigmatic. Then he started coming around more often and, well, maybe the old saying about familiarity breeding contempt is true. In “Song to Song” there’s a quick shot of a tattoo that sums up my feelings toward my relationship with Malick. Written in flowery script, the words “Empty Promises” fill the screen, reminding us of the promise of the director’s early work and amplifying the disappointment we feel today. This is the straw that broke the camel’s back, the Terrence Malick movie that put me off Terrence Malick movies. I’ll be nice though and say, it’s not him, it’s me.
EXTRA! EXTRRA! MOST COUNFOUNDING
mother!: Your interest in seeing “mother!,” the psychological thriller from “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky, may be judged on your keenness to watch American sweetheart Jenifer Lawrence flush a beating heart down a toilet. Aronofsky’s story of uninvited guests disrupting the serene lives of a poet and his wife refuses to cater to audience expectations. “mother!” is an uncomfortable watch, an off-kilter experience that revels in its own madness. As the weight of the weirdness and religious symbolism begins to feel crushing, you may wonder what the hell is going on. Are these people guilty of being the worst houseguests ever or is there something bigger, something biblical going on?
Aronofsky is generous with the biblical allusions—the house is a paradise, the stranger’s sons are clearly echoes of Cain and Abel, and there is a long sequence that can only be described as the Home-style Revelation—and builds toward a crescendo of wild action that has to be seen to be believed, but his characters are ciphers. Charismatic and appealing to a member, they feel like puppets in the director’s apocalyptic roadshow rather than characters we care about. Visually and thematically he doesn’t push button so much as he pokes the audience daring them to take the trip with him, it’s just too bad we didn’t have better company for the journey.
“mother!” is a deliberately opaque movie. Like looking into a self-reflective mirror you will take away whatever you put into it. The only thing sure about it is that it is most confounding studio movie of the year.
Richard sits in with CTV NewsChannel anchor Marcia MacMillan to have a look at the big weekend movies, including “The Mummy” starring Tom “Show me the Mummy” Cruise, Kate Mara in the woman-and-her-dog story “Megan Leavey” and the D-Day drama “Churchill.”
No longer content to simply offer up an endless string of remakes, reboots and reimaginings Hollywood is now in the business of creating universes. Marvel and DC lead the pack, generating big box office with movies that mix-and-match their flagship characters in ongoing and connected stories. Now others are looking to get a piece of that action.
This weekend’s “The Mummy,” a self-described “action-adventure tentpole with horror elements,” is the foundation of Universal Pictures’ Dark Universe. The studio aims to create a cross-pollinated world were their brand name monsters, like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, are mixed and matched to infinity or at least as long as audiences will pay to see them.
The Mummy reinvents the story of ancient malevolence, presenting a new, female title character and adding Russell Crowe as Henry Jekyll, a doctor with a serum that unleashes his inner demons.
The idea of pairing up monsters is nothing new. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein saw The Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster cross paths with The Invisible Man and Freddy Krueger battled fellow horror icon Jason Voorhees in a Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street combo pack but another monster movie mash up beats everything that came before it.
The Monster Squad, a fun 1987 teenage horror comedy sees Count Dracula recruit a posse of monsters — Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon — to retrieve and destroy an ancient amulet that holds the key to controlling the balance of good and evil in the world. Trouble is, he didn’t count on a band of fifth graders (and one chain-smoking eighth grade greaser) who call themselves the Monster Squad, driving a stake through his plans.
The boys are a geeky group who wear “Stephen King Rules” T-shirts and debating important topics like, ‘Who is the coolest monster?’ and ‘Does The Wolf Man have the biggest nards?’
The Monster Squad, despite the salty language (the boys swear, no doubt courtesy of screenwriter Shane Black who also wrote more adult fare like Lethal Weapon), the refreshing lack of political correctness, the violence and the presence of nightmare-inducing monsters this is, above all, a kid’s film. The youngsters are the heroes and battle the monsters in ways that only kids can. A garlic pizza proves to be Dracula’s undoing, and in one classic scene The Wolf Man is felled by a well-placed kick to “the nards.”
Director Fred Dekker says he set out to make an exciting teen adventure movie, but may have been a bit ahead of his time. In the post–Buffy the Vampire Slayer world we live in the mix of kids, humor and horror seems normal, but in 1987 it didn’t click with audiences.
“I like to think that Monster Squad, in its own small way, says something about what it is to be a kid and to be afraid in the world,” says Dekker, “and discovering the need for heroism.”
“It took several years before the combination of young people in jeopardy in genre-horror situations like Buffy and Goosebumps and Harry Potter really became acceptable. The audience wasn’t ready for it in the ’80s. Sure there was The Lost Boys and The Goonies, but specifically the kind of monster-slayer approach wouldn’t be popular for another ten or fifteen years. So I like to think that we were a little ahead of the curve.”
It is no longer enough for Hollywood to offer up a constant diet of remakes, reboots and reimaginings. These days the studios are franchise building, creating interconnected universes for their characters to live in. Joining Marvel, DC, Star Wars and X-Men is Universal Pictures’ Dark Universe, a new series aiming to bring classic monsters like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man back to big screen life.
The universe’s foundation is “The Mummy,” a self described “action-adventure tentpole with horror elements.” The plan is to revive the eighty-five-year-old “Mummy” franchise, insert another classic character, Dr. Henry Jekyll, thus creating a cross-pollinated world were brand name monsters are mixed and matched to infinity.
The title may signify a character unearthed from the annals of antiquity but the star of the show is ageless action man Tom Cruise. He is Nick Morton a mercenary who specializes in plundering conflict areas for priceless artefacts. Under attack in the Iraq, he uncovers his greatest find yet, the five-thousand-year-old resting place of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess in line to be queen. When her insatiable lust for power led her down a dark and dangerous path she was deposed, buried alive far from home in Mesopotamia now Iraq, in an ornate sarcophagus.
“That’s not a tomb,” says Egyptologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), of the unearthed find, “it’s a prison.” Awake and angry Ahmanet, a.k.a. the big screen’s first female Mummy, brings Nick under her spell as she tries to regain her lost power and, of course, enslave all of humanity.
It’s not hard to sense the cynicism in “The Mummy.” Bundling Cruise and legendary monsters in the movie with a few laughs, some typical blockbuster action and a CGI climax it wouldn’t be out of place in an Avengers movie, it feels like a carefully constructed exercise in marketing first and a movie second.
There is plenty of atmosphere—the screen is often so dark it’s hard to see exactly what is going on. I see why it is called the Dark Universe—and the odd spooky scene—Ahmanet’s stretching out the kinks after her 5000 year nap is suitably weird—but it never dials up the horror too high.