Boy Erased (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The purpose of “Boy Erased” is straightforward: 1) To further expose the cruel and downright predatory practices of gay conversion programs, their pseudoscientific practices still legal, at the time of writing, across 36 states across the U.S.—all having the power to subject even minors through all sorts of humiliating and traumatizing situations, and 2) To inspire a change in us and also on a legislative level. Although it succeeds on this front, what I admired most about the film is that it is a specific story first and foremost. And so a topic that may sound or feel abstract to some is anchored to something concrete. A viewer need not know someone who has gone through such “therapy” to be able to empathize with the heartbreaking and maddening occurrences on screen.
Lucas Hedges shows once again why he is one of the best performers of his generation. He plays Jared Eamons, eighteen-year-old son of a preacher/car dealer (Russell Crowe) and hairdresser (Nicole Kidman), whose family is deeply religious. Standing toe-to-toe against veteran actors like Crowe and Kidman is not easy, but he makes it look effortless. For example, he makes the intelligent choice to adopt Crowe and Kidman’s approaches to their own characters, the former nearly inaccessible, quiet, his nose often buried in the Bible, and having the tendency to look down during moments of confrontations while the latter’s technique is almost the exact opposite.
Striking a balance between extreme characterizations, it helps on two fronts. First, it provides believability that Jared has in fact been raised in a particular household laden with many rules inspired by the word of God. Second, Hedges employs the opposite technique when facing either Crowe or Kidman, depending the scene, and so he does not get buried when an experienced performer sends wave after wave of powerful emotions, both subtle and dramatic.
The disadvantage, however, is most apparent when the three of them share a scene. Because Hedges is not as effective—yet—as his seasoned counterparts, there are times when he fades into the background just a little. And yet, thinking about it more thoroughly, perhaps this is the intent. Because Jared feels invisible when being around his parents, maybe the correct approach is to dial back, to blend into the surroundings. After all, the parents refuse, downright deny, a part of their son that is important.
Scenes at the Love in Action gay conversion therapy program, led by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton—who also writes and the directs the film), are most effective when shot in a matter-of-fact way. Interiors are so barren and impersonal, notice no one wears a hint of bright color—for bright shirt might as well have been a rainbow flag. Most of the staff appear robotic and cold. No one cracks a warm or friendly smile because doing so may come across as suggestive. Touching, other than quick handshakes (firm handshakes for males, soft for females), is not allowed. Conversations are encouraged to be brief. There are even strict rules when it comes to going to the restroom.
We observe the entire process, from the personal items that must be checked in, what is brought up and explored during the program, to the long-term psychological effects of brainwashing. I appreciated that the material bothers to make a point that every program’s “client”—I prefer the word “victim”—responds to “therapy” in different ways. Appropriately, these are meant to make the viewers angry. More importantly, it urges us to empathize, to see that, clearly, these programs are a sham and those who choose to run them are swindlers. There is no curing homosexuality because there is nothing to cure. It is not a disease or a choice. It just is.
There are numerous genuinely affecting moments in the picture, like the talk between a doctor (Cherry Jones) who is tasked to draw blood from her patient (Hedges), but one that elevates the film greatly is the final exchange between father and son. To reveal as little as possible is ideal, but what is at stake is how the Eamons family will move forward. There is so much to say and express, but Edgerton chooses to be concise and precise. Beautifully shot and the dialogue so well-written, somehow the confrontation comes across both grand and deeply personal. It is a terrific closer to a wonderful film that just so happens to be well-intentioned.
Great Gatsby, The (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Young and ambitious Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who studied in Yale University with hopes of becoming a writer, moves to New York in the 1922 and snags a job in Wall Street selling bonds. He lives in West Egg, right next to a mansion owned by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), known for throwing a lavish party every weekend—one that is open to the public, attended by who’s who of the city. And yet although people clamor to the estate by the end of the week, no one really knows Gatsby: his background, how he really looks like, why he hosts a party every weekend, not even where his money comes from.
“The Great Gatsby,” directed by Baz Luhrmann and based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is easy on the eyes and it offers real emotions on screen. Despite this, however, the movie is not a compelling watch, only superficially entertaining because there is always something to look at and the performers are good in their roles. One cannot help but feel like there is a disconnect between the source material and the way it is being translated on screen.
Others might find the anachronistic music to be quite off-putting. I liked it. The contrast between the Roaring Twenties and modern hip-hop and R&B creates a sentiment that while the parties are grand and everybody appears to be having a wonderful time, the charade remains temporary and superficial. The images and music function as a mask just like how Gatsby feels that he must put on a front in order to be equal to what he thinks a respectable man is like.
I found the romantic angle to be forced and, for the most part, tedious and unconvincing. While the screenwriters, Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, can only divert so much from the novel, I felt as though the conflict involving married people having or thinking about having affairs is not modern enough to be intriguing. Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan play Tom and Daisy Buchanan, respectively, the latter being Gatsby’s former lover, and both deliver what is necessary for the role, but there is no spice or much flavor in the twists and turns in their romantic entanglements.
Things get back on track, however, when the picture turns its attention somewhat on Nick and Gatsby’s friendship. It is interesting because when I read Fitzgerald’s novel in high school, I was convinced that Nick was a closet homosexual. (But it is not really the kind of thing one brings up in class… at least at the time.) The little nuggets are found in the way he describes Gatsby, almost glorifying him at times, versus the manner in which he is almost apathetic toward women. Elements of one-sided admiration, possibly romantic in nature, are present but neither prolific nor defined enough to establish a theme.
The film might have been more intriguing if it had embraced extremes. The middle portion is a slog at times and the latter section quite dull despite the supposed dramatic events that transpire. In the end, I found myself detached from the emotions and circumstances that the characters are going through.
I think people who are likely to enjoy “The Great Gatsby” most are those who have an eye for exquisite clothing. Certainly I noticed how the characters’ attires are inspired by the 1920s but there is almost always a modern to twist to them, whether it be certain patterns on a man’s tie or the sorts of accessories a woman wears to a party. It is predominantly a visual film. It is not for those who hope to be moved emotionally or be inspired to think critically.
Red Sparrow (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A common complaint is the lack of sexual and romantic chemistry between Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, the former portraying a Russian ballerina who becomes an asset for the Russian intelligence after a career-ending injury and the latter a CIA contact who is protecting the identity of a mole within the Russian government. After all, their relationship, however it is defined, revolves around the idea of what sacrifices one is willing to make to do what is right toward a moral obligation. But to criticize the film from this point of view is informative in that the person does not understand what the movie is about.
It is not supposed to be sexy, alluring, or romantic. Rather, it is supposed to be the opposite: methodical, clinical, and cold. Their world of espionage, double-crosses, and violence is meant to horrify and intrigue. On this level, “Red Sparrow,” directed by Francis Lawrence and based on the novel by Jason Matthews, is a success. It is able to weave together complex strands with enough precision that by the end it all makes perfect sense. The material demands that the audience is capable of paying close enough attention through several twists and turns of plot, including motivations that undergo constant states of evolution. It is not for those simply wishing to sit back and be entertained by generic action sequences. There is no explosion to be had here.
Implosions occur within our heroine. They take their toll. We observe the many horrifying events that unfold in and around Dominika, wondering at some point whether her strength, intelligence, and resolve would finally dissolve. We are meant to wonder if we have the same capacity to endure and think on our feet. I admired that Justin Haythe’s screenplay does not shy away from the struggles Dominika must tolerate so she can play the long game. She is raped, humiliated, and tortured. Early in the film, our protagonist is given a choice between death or attending what she refers to as “whore school,” led by an older woman simply called Matron (Charlotte Rampling—perfect for the role), where potential Russian assets are trained to seduce and manipulate targets using their bodies. Yes, we even watch the character being humiliated—sometimes because it is a part of her job.
Although different types of violence occur, these are never gratuitous since each one is relevant to the plot. The story is not simply an exploitative exercise of what filmmakers can get away with. Emphasis is placed on the effects of trauma and what it requires to overcome. Credit to Lawrence for playing the character with unwavering pluck and grace. (I wished, however, that her voice is dubbed at times given her inability to maintain a consistent Russian accent.) It is critical that she portrays Dominika in such a way that even though nearly everything is looking grim, there is always hope, even though it is minuscule, that she might regain control of the situation eventually. I enjoyed that Dominika’s political loyalty is a challenge to read while her personal loyalty is clear as day.
“Red Sparrow” invites viewers into a stressful world of espionage from the perspective of a woman who just wants to be able to provide for her ailing mother. It tackles a handful of subjects like fighting for personal freedom in a country that considers there is no such thing, the power of a woman’s body and intuition, what strength means for people who hold certain job titles or positions, and the like. These elements are there to be recognized, but they are never so ostentatious to the point where they distract from the project’s elegant, tension-filled entertainment.
It Comes at Night (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Viewers not experienced with the kind of horror that “It Comes at Night” offers are likely to paint the picture as an exercise in pointlessness. There is no jump scare, no last-minute “I should have seen it coming!” twist, and certainly no convenient explanation about a mysterious disease that has infected the world’s population. Instead, the focus is on a family (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr.) living in isolation in the woods and their decision to help another family (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner) during their time of need.
The type of horror it offers is of a psychological breed. The approach is interesting in that in order to amplify tension, the tone is consistently flat, supported by pervasive grays and dark colors, how shadows remain just so in order to for us wonder what’s hidden in a particular corner of a room or whether the person confessing is telling the entire truth. Through its calculated slow pacing, the audience is given plenty of time and opportunity to doubt nearly everything, including whether our protagonists really are the protagonists.
While part of the point of the story is facing doubt and mistrust during a time of survival, the execution of an otherwise initially fascinating material is far from exciting. About halfway through, I found myself checking to see whether the film is nearly over because I felt as though the screenplay was struggling to maintain its level of intrigue. For instance, as someone who had lived in a household of two families, I felt the material had missed the opportunity to explore complex dynamics, the challenges of having to compromise to the point where one’s lifestyle, or at least an aspect of it, is altered until breaking point.
I admired its decision to have a bleak ending because it is loyal to the universe it has created. However, its attempt to deliver the final irony lacks a certain energy or sense of urgency. Thus, I found it largely unsatisfactory, a missed opportunity to remind the people watching why this particular story is worth telling. Viewers who have struggled to keep their eyes open throughout are likely to miss the punchline because it is so subtle, it is less of a punch than it is a delicate nudge.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, “It Comes at Night” is a slow burn atmospheric horror that frustrates because it fails to capitalize upon its brimming potential. Those looking for entertainment are strongly advised to look elsewhere.
Midnight Special (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Midnight Special,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, shares one important similarity with great science-fiction feature films of the past: treating its characters as people with specific motivations—eschewing the black-and-white concept of good versus evil altogether—and allowing the conflict to churn and rise from decisions made by flawed but determined men and women. Such is one of the main anchors of this most mysterious and curious picture, carefully modulated in feeling, thought, and action every step of the way.
The government is convinced an eight-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher—excellent here as he was in Bob Nelson’s effective comedy-drama “The Confirmation”) is a dangerous weapon while a religious group, possibly a cult, believes he is their savior. Both groups are in pursuit of the boy while his father (Michael Shannon) and a state trooper (Joel Edgerton) do whatever is necessary—even murder whomever gets in the way—to get him to a specific location and time so that he can be safe. Meanwhile, an NSA agent named Sevier (Adam Driver) starts to piece together information that points to where Alton is heading.
The picture practices restraint in execution and performance. We discover Alton’s abilities in small doses. Initially, we start to wonder what he is. Over time, however, we consider what he is ultimately capable of. Because Nichols’ screenplay avoids demonizing government officials, there is a small part of us that wonders perhaps their fears are not mere trivialities. It plays upon the idea that we tend to default fearing what we don’t know.
In addition, as we learn about the boy’s powers, special and visual effects never become the point. When they are utilized, they usually inspire horror or a sense of wonder. It is often unpredictable which side of the coin we might encounter next. Oftentimes it is a mix of both—which is exciting.
Shannon plays the father as a man who is afraid to lose his son but at the same time one who must exude a type of strength, a constant awareness what must be done ultimately in order to spare the boy from harm. Roy is a man of few words and Shannon has a great talent of communicating plenty with silence by using only his eyes and the tightness of his jaw and mouth. One of the most touching scenes involves Alton assuring his father that there is no need to worry about him any longer. It emits special resonance because it is the son’s way of recognizing his father’s sacrifice without relying on an obvious or expected exchange.
To reveal more about the film is to perform a disservice. “Midnight Special” is a chase picture but one that feels personal despite the magic we encounter in its universe. Too many movies tend to want the audience to sit back and enjoy the ride. This film is quite proud to do the opposite: it dares us to lean in, to question, to consider motivations of the characters depending on which party they represent, and to wonder how we might respond if our ordinary lives crossed paths with magnificence. Would we wish to keep it for ourselves, share it, or set it free?
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
★ / ★★★★
“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by Ridley Scott, is nothing but an exercise of special and visual effects. It does not bother to tell an engaging arc; it assumes that all audiences are familiar with the story of Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) so it relies on the template to burn off one hundred fifty minutes. Furthermore, it does not provide any surprising detail about the brothers and their relationship. What results is a limp epic consisting of solemn whispers and hyperbolic yelling—a bore down to its marrow.
Telling this kind of story with a forceful fist is an incredible miscalculation. Thus, it feels like an action film rather than one that inspires us to think a little bit about different aspects of spirituality. It should have been told with a certain delicateness in order to highlight the characters’ choices, recurring themes, and the emotions that they go through that drive them to make life or death decisions. Instead, the picture adopts a lethargic pattern: tragedy, close-ups expressing horror, and then more tragedy.
Even the ten plagues that come to haunt Memphis, Egypt do not command much impact. The only one that stood out to me was the death of all firstborn children. Notice how the scene takes its time as it shows darkness creeping across the city. There is fear in the wind as it blows candles from both poor and rich households. The camera slithers as souls are taken away from their host. I wished that the rest of the material functioned on such a high level. I could not look away.
And then we are back to the plot involving Moses attempting to persuade Ramses to free the Hebrews from slavery. Part of the problem is Bale and Edgerton being miscast—for two very different reasons. Bale is not very expressive here. Although his interpretation of Moses is one that is easily provoked, there are not enough moments in the script where we are made to sympathize with his predicament. Edgerton, on the other hand, is given more chances to express a range of emotions than Bale but the makeup plastered on his face prevents us from appreciating his increasingly desperate position. It might have worked better if a quieter, more thoughtful actor were cast as Moses and an actor who could carry a lot of makeup were cast as Ramses.
Scenes between Moses and Malak (Isaac Andrews), serving as a representation of God, are laughable initially and like pulling teeth later on. Their interactions are so forced that every time they are around one another, the scene comes across very rehearsed: the actors know the lines but the subtleties of emotions are simply not there. There should have been fewer of these scenes and the ones that are necessary ought to have been reshot.
Disappointing almost every step of the way, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a colossal waste of time, an excuse to use money in order to create a project that is pretty at times but one that has no soul. Every minute is felt trickling by.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic nearing his one thousandth day of being sober, found his younger son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), sitting on his porch. They hadn’t seen each other in fourteen years. But the reunion couldn’t be colder. Tommy, an ex-Marine, despised his father and claimed that the only reason why he showed up was because he needed a trainer for Sparta, a middleweight championship for mixed martial arts, where the winner would receive five million dollars. Meanwhile, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Paddy’s eldest son, felt extreme financial pressure. As a physics teacher, he and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) didn’t make enough to pay for their mortgage. They were given a couple of weeks until their house was to be taken by the bank. So, Brendan joined the tournament, completely unaware that his younger brother, who he also hadn’t seen in more than a decade, was participating. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, “Warrior” was equally spellbinding when the characters were inside and outside of the ring. The brothers hated their father for the way he treated them and their mother when they were still growing up. The writers made a smart decision in showing us Paddy as a man on the way to recovery but never as an abusive parent. It became easier to sympathize with him. It was unnecessary to show us the latter because the psychological and emotional damages were painfully apparent in the adult Tommy and Brendan. Tommy became a pill-popping, reticent, angry figure while Brendan strived to be everything his father was not to his own wife and children. Interestingly, they shared only one scene before the tournament. It was beautifully executed and completely heartbreaking. As one inched closer to one another, their animosity and frustration became palpable and suffocating which served as a great contrast against the open space that surrounded them. I was at the edge of my seat because I almost expected them to resolve their problems by throwing punches long time coming, outside of the competition with no referee to force them to stop. However, the most powerful scene was between Tommy and Paddy. While sitting in front of a slot machine, Paddy approached his son to express that he was proud of him. Tommy responded bitterly, comparing his father to a beggar who was desperate for his sons’ affections, blind to the fact that the only thing his two sons had in common was they no longer needed him, and his decision to become a good father was years too late. The camera was nicely placed very closely in front the actors’ faces as to savor every negative emotion. In addition, it was easy to see how much their characters restrained certain words, especially the father, out of fear in regretting it later. It was like watching someone attempting to tiptoe around broken glass accompanied by a force that propelled him forward in rate he wasn’t comfortable with. “Warrior,” based on the screenplay by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman, went beyond the pain experienced in body slams, direct punches to the face, and heavy kicks to the stomach. We rooted for both Brendan and Tommy because we understood what winning meant for them personally–something worth more than half a million dollars.
Thing, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
In John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” the opening shot featured two men in a helicopter shooting at a dog in order to prevent it from reaching an American research facility. “The Thing,” written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., consisted of the events that led up to aforementioned curious scene. When a group of Norwegian researchers, led by Edvard Wolver (Trond Espen Seim), stumbled upon an alien space craft in the Antarctic ice, Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) was immediately alerted. But before the scientist and his assistant, Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), could get there, Dr. Halvorson recruited an American paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), for her expertise. Upon their arrival, they learned that not only was there a craft, there was also an alien trapped in ice a couple of meters from the wreckage. What I enjoyed most about the film was it successfully emulated Carpenter’s paranoid tone. Although I knew what the alien was capable of, there was a sense of excitement in the way Kate and the Norwegian crew opened up the alien’s body and explored the grim and disgusting details inside. When the camera showed the guts and the organs, I felt like I was in that room and I wanted to participate in touching the viscera and the accompanying slime. If anything, the picture proved that even though most of the audience knew what was about to transpire, as long as the journey that led up to the characters’ discoveries was interesting, the project could still stand strong. The prequel shared the same main weakness as Carpenter’s movie. There more than ten characters but we only somewhat got to know Kate. There were at least two other characters worth knowing more about. For instance, how well did Adam and Kate know each other prior to their mission? It seemed like they had some history. If their relationship was more defined, the latter scenes in which Kate suspected that Adam was possibly infected by the alien virus would have had more impact. After all, if you think that someone you’ve known all your life is no longer that person you’ve grown to love and care about, that he or she is simply a replica of an extraterrestrial, and it is necessary to kill that certain someone, wouldn’t you feel rotten before and after deciding to eliminate that person/being? To some extent, I would. Even though, in truth, that friend is an alien, it has the face, the voice, the mannerisms of a human being. I also wanted to know more about Sam (Joel Edgerton), the helicopter pilot. There were a few scenes which suggested that there was an attraction between Sam and Kate. Again, another possible human connection that could have been milked more with the regards to the bizarre happenings. “The Thing,” based on the short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr., while suspenseful most of the time, it was ultimately let down by having too much CGI. I didn’t need to see the craft being activated when it didn’t even get to fly for even a few inches. What I wanted to see more was the creature, hiding inside a human, just biding its time till its prey inevitably lets his guard down.
Square, The (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Ray (David Roberts) was having an affair with a much younger woman named Carla (Claire van der Boom). One day, Carla found a bag full of cash in the attic which she knew belonged to her husband (Anthony Hayes) and his crooked friends. Ray and Carla planned to get the money, burn the house to the ground, and run away together with the help of a hot-tempered third party (Joel Edgerton). Naturally, the plan didn’t go the way the cheating couple expected. “The Square” took a lot of risks with its tone and various twists in the plot. It reminded me of the Ethan and Joel Coens’ masterful “Blood Simple.” but far less realized as a whole because it stumbled on its way to the finish line. Rising action was abound. Ray became increasingly desperate as the body count started to rise around him. It didn’t help that someone kept sending him cryptic letters involving blackmail. Unable to confide in anyone, he needed an outlet to his frustrations. It was like watching someone playing Tetris. It’s a very practical game (as practical a simple stealing can be) but one mistake can lead to another especially when panic sets in. Carla was frustrated as well because Ray was reluctant to leave his increasingly suspecting wife. She also had to mollify her guilt due to an accidental murder in which she was directly related. But a great rising action is only as great as its payoff. Toward the end, I began to feel confused with the way Nash Edgerton, the director, tried to steer the characters away from their respective predicaments. The strand about the blackmailer was immediately dismissed when it should have been tackled head-on because the picture spent a solid amount of time luring our curiosity to the person sending the letters. In a way, I felt slightly cheated. I felt as though the filmmakers didn’t know how to sufficiently end their story so the project eventually imploded. The characters failed to think critically and act practically. There was not one person I wanted to see succeed. I wasn’t necessarily looking for an archetypal good guy but I wish I didn’t feel so detached during the final few scenes and apathetic when it ended. “The Square” was a modern noir with a somber tone that started off with a roar but ended with a barely audible whimper. It needed to work on its themes regarding tragedy, guilt, and betrayal. It dealt with such themes separately but the more important exploration was how the three were interconnected and the pressures our characters went through that could explain why they played the final hands they’ve been given the way they did.