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TIFF18: Boy Erased

Jared is a good guy. He goes to church with is parents, where his father is the pastor. He plays on the high school basketball team. He’s kind to his girlfriend. But when he gets to collage, the world isn’t quite so good to him in return. He makes fast friends with a fellow runner, but that leads to a surprise sexual tryst one night that the other guy can’t live with. So, he tries to destroy Jared’s life, forcibly outing him to his deeply religious parents.

Jared (Lucas Hedges) respects his parents (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe) so he goes to gay conversion camp as instructed, in the hopes that they can turn him straight.  Conversion therapy is nuts. I mean, it just is, on principle. What kind of whack jobs really believed this would work? And what kind of whack jobs wanted it to? It would almost MV5BMjQ4MDM0MjMxOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTkzNzY1NTM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1555,1000_AL_make a handy queer dating service, as it is probably the biggest concentration of homosexual folk any of these kids has seen before, if it wasn’t so nasty and abusive. That’s what it really boils down to. The head instructor, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), blames your “problem” on some member of your family who made you gay. He wants you to pick someone to focus your anger on. He wants you to learn to “act” “straight” (did you know that the triangle is the straightest shape?). He focuses on behaviour – if you stop playing football, you are no longer a football player. Problem solved.

I mean, this whole thesis feels strangely out of date. Why is Hollywood still trying to convince people that gay is okay? I think societally we’ve moved past this point, except all these scripts that have been languishing for years are only now getting produced, and they’re already obsolete. You have to check out indie cinema to see some truly of-the-moment lgbt themes. But okay, gay conversion therapy is a horror. Of course it is. But the thing that’s great about Boy Erased is that Jared is such a strong character. Everyone and everything in his life is trying to make him feel wrong and ashamed and dirty, but he doesn’t. When he confirms to his parents that he thinks about men, he knows it goes against everything they believe, but it doesn’t seem like he’s internalized that self-hatred. It can’t be easy, in that house particularly, to know that his very being is not only repugnant but blasphemous to the people he loves most. And yet when he consents to the therapy, it’s for them, not for him. We never get the sense that he believes he needs to change. And that’s kind of astonishing to see.

Eventually Jared need to come to terms with disappointing the people he loves. And maybe he’ll need to cut out the people who are adding toxicity to his life. Those are hard choices, but they’re the right ones. This movie is really more about his parents needing to learn that they’re the idiots, and they’re the ones in need of education and re-conditioning. But while Nicole Kidman, in all her church lady big-hair, bejeweled glory, sort of comes around, there’s not a lot of remorse on the part of Russell Crowe’s character. And that’s where the movie falls short. Jared is surprisingly at ease with himself but the movie doesn’t give him nearly enough credit. Director Joel Edgerton, perhaps unsurprisingly, spends more time on his own character, than he does on the ones with real influence in this story.

Boy Erased is a good, competent little movie that will fail to make a big impression.

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Gringo

Richard and Elaine are co-presidents of a pharmaceutical company that’s doing shady dealings. Harold is the guy they figure won’t ask any questions, so they routinely send him down to Mexico to unknowingly do their dirty work. But Mexico’s a dangerous place to navigate and when the worst happens and Harold places a panicked call from his kidnapper’s lair to his bosses, Richard and Elaine are forced to admit that they’ve let the kidnapping insurance lapse.

MV5BMjg0OWVkNDktOTg4NC00ZThmLWJmZDktZWVmOTEzMmE2YWJhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1498,1000_AL_Uh oh. “Luckily” Richard (Joel Edgerton) “knows a guy”, so they’re not going to pay the kidnappers so much as send in an “extractor” named Mitch (Sharlto Copley) who claims he’s out of the business, straight as an arrow. Right. But while Harold (David Oyelowo) is awaiting ransom or extraction or escape in Mexico, he gets into even more trouble in the form of drug cartels (notice the plural).

Between buzzing bullets and dark comedy, Gringo goes off-roading in Mexico in the worst way possible. It’s kind of a mess, and an egregious misuse of a serious talented cast, and director Nash Edgerton should know better – he’s Joel’s brother. And I’m not sure this depiction of Mexico wasn’t slightly racist, and politically incorrect. But it is fun to watch Theron and Edgerton play such contemptible baddies, and this is the most fun I’ve seen Oyelowo have on screen. The man has serious range, but to be honest, I think the cost of the rental was justified the moment I saw him rapping along to Will Smith. And while I’m naming the very few things that weren’t wrong with the movie, shout out to makeup artist Francesa Tolot for Charlize’s flawless red pout. Francesca, if you’re reading this, I NEED to know what product you used.

As for the rest of you, I can’t really recommend this hot mess, but as far as dumpster fires go, this one was kind of worth standing around to watch.

Red Sparrow

I read the book and didn’t really like it, and in true adaptation fashion, the movie sucks the book’s balls.

What you need to know: Russia is selecting beautiful women and turning them into spies who fuck. Like, they literally get secrets by giving blow jobs. And there might be something to that. Jennifer Lawrence plays a ballerina who can’t dance anymore, so her uncle sells her into this program, and she becomes a Red Sparrow, the spy who shags everyone. In this particular case, she’s going to shag Joel Edgerton because he’s an American spy who’s hiding a Russian mole but maybe he’ll turn intoMV5BNWRjN2E5NWYtNzNjNy00ZmI3LTgzOGEtMzBlZDdjMjkxZjI4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzk5NjEzOA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1498,1000_AL_ a source himself or maybe he’ll turn her into a double agent, or better yet, a triple agent, or a quadruple agent, or just a woman who’s about to be assassinated by her own government, but not without blowing her way across the country first.

Does it sound sloppy? It is.

And the casting is confusing. I mean, first of all, Jennifer Lawrence couldn’t sell me a bottle of wine if I’d just found out Sean was my half-brother. Girl cannot carry a Russian accent. And in a movie where sex is everything, the sex was nothing. I mean, there was an abundance of sex scenes, and J-Law got straight down to bare hooch, but she and Joel have about as much chemistry as a couple of bologna sandwiches about to get in my grandpa’s belly. And then: the Russian characters are played by American, British, Belgian, Dutch, German, Ukrainian and Polish actors. The American guy is played by an Australian. This flaccid casting doesn’t exactly prop up a convoluted plot.

Like any good spy movie, the end is supposed to come as a surprise, but with such weak characterization, it’s hard to invest, and Red Sparrow attempts to write cheques it can’t cash. But for me the worst crime, you know, aside from the treason and murder and such, is the fake female empowerment. Just because she’s not getting paid doesn’t mean she’s not a prostitute.

Bright

What’s worse than being flat, derivative and uninspired? Being all those things, showing a tiny bit of promise in spite of them, and then throwing the interesting parts away in search of a flashy climax and tidy resolution. That’s Bright.

The concept is sound – what if there were Elves and Orcs and magic in our world? It’s not a new idea and that’s fine. The hodgepodge of fantasy elements forming the basis of this world are standard fare as webright_unit_06597_r_wide-67b1f15cb792c81ccc1359a7e8a2e6c0bce7b718-s900-c85ll, straight out of Tolkien or World of Warcraft. Orcs are brutes with sharp teeth, Elves are beautiful and rich, magic wands are super powerful but not everyone can use them. The script, complete with minority and 1% allegories, practically writes itself.

The problem is, it feels like no extra effort was put in to creating Bright. Like, at all.  Like, I’m pretty sure Will Smith was quoting himself from Men in Black every time he let a sarcastic quip fly. Not incidentally, well over 90% of his lines in Bright are sarcastic quips. Either stop phoning it in or stop being in movies, please.

Joel Edgerton doesn’t phone it in like Smith but he is totally unrecognizable and totally wasted here as the sensitive Orc sidekick. He had no chance of saving this mess. Full disclosure: this is a recurring exchange between Jay and me:

Jay: We should go see [small indie movie]. Joel Edgerton is in it.

Me: Who’s Joel Edgerton again?

Jay: The guy from [slightly older small indie movie that we saw a few months prior].

Me: That was Joel Edgerton?

Jay: We literally just had this conversation when you made me watch the Star Wars prequels.

Me: JOEL EDGERTON IS IN STAR WARS?

Jay: I hate you.

It happened again in Bright only I swear, this time it was not my fault. It was David Ayer’s, and Bright is proof that we should have cut Ayer off long before Suicide Squad. Thanks for writing Training Day, really, but that goodwill was used up long ago.  A glimmer of promise and then an avalanche of mediocrity and disappointment – just like Bright.

TIFF: Loving

Director Jeff Nichols quietly tackles the subject of racism by holding up one Loving couple. Richard and Mildred Loving (their real last name) went to jail in Virginia in 1958 just for being married. Well, for being married to each other. For being married to a person of a different race than their own.

loving-movie-posterThe movie’s success lies in what a small, personal story this is. We never feel like the whole south is against them – but it feels worse that it must be one of their neighbours who keeps ratting them out. The police come, guns drawn, to break down their door in the middle of the night in order to catch them in a crime – that of sleeping next to itch other in marital bliss.

Richard Loving is the world’s quietest man, and Joel Edgerton has quite an uphill battle to portray him and not come off as unemotional. Ruth Negga exudes talent beside him as his wife, Mildred, who is also shy and meek but the talkier of the two out of necessity. Neither wants any trouble. You get the sense they’d be happy not to challenge anything if only they could be left alone. But in order to avoid prison they get exiled from the entire state of Virginia for 25 years. 25 years of raising their babies with no parents, siblings, or friends around to watch. Their love of family is what encourages them to push back, with the help of a nervy lawyer from the ACLU (Nick Kroll). He wants to present the case to the Supreme Court. He’s ready to fight against discrimination and prejudice. Richard and Mildred just want to be married.

Jeff Nichols embraces their humble nature and keeps his movie similarly loving-movie-trailer-focus-features-ftrreserved. There’s not a lot of grandstanding. In fact, he turns his back (and his camera) away from the big, sweeping court scene in order to keep it once again in the heart of the family. Easily eliciting a flood of emotions, it’s actually a relief to see them played out so superbly on Negga’s face, and in Edgerton’s shoulders, rather than some melodramatic speech. The restraint here is a credit to Nichols’ directing, but also to this wonderful casting.

The decision in their case, Loving v. Virginia, was not unanimous, but they did declare Virginia’s “Racial Integrity” law to be unconstitutional, which voided similar laws in other states as well. Actually, it’s the Loving v. Virginia case that was cited in the 2015 decision to allow same-sex marriage as well. Richard and Mildred, two humble people who just wanted to be a family, allowed the same for countless others.

It’s the kind of movie you’ll want to applaud.

Jane Got A Gun

Despite what you may think a glaringly obvious move, there is nary an Aerosmith tune in this whole dang movie. Sure it’s a western set in the 1800s, but that wouldn’t have stopped Baz Luhrmann, I’ll tell you that much, pard’ner.

When Jane’s husband comes home all shot up with bad guys on his tail, she’s got no choice but to hustle up the services of the nearest hired gun…who just happens to be her ex-lover.

maxresdefaultI’ve never been in an old-timey gun fight (knock wood!) but I imagine the only thing worse than being laid up in bed full of bullet holes, gangrene mere moments away, is to watch your wife fall into the sexy arms of her much-handsomer ex-boyfriend as he protects the both of you and you’re too weak to even protest. How embarrassing!

Although I’d say it’s way more embarrassing to have made such a generic film with absolutely no personality despite passable performances by Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton (full disclosure: Ewan McGregor is purportedly also in this film but I totally failed to notice him…if the story checks out, you may remember that these three appeared together in the Star Wars prequels, so they do have a history of making bad choices).

It’s not exactly a surprise that this film failed to make a saloon-worthy splash, it was syphilitic with trouble since day one. Actually, since the day before day one, which is when the original director, Lynne Ramsay, walked off the project after a 3-day stand-off with untitledproducers who refused to give her final cut. Cinematographer Darius Khondji followed in solidarity, as did Jude Law. Bradley Cooper was brought on to replace him, with Gavin O’Connor in the director’s seat, totally unprepared. Michael Fassbender had already left over clashes with Ramsey so when Cooper left, Joel Edgerton was shuffled over from bad guy to good and Ewan McGregor took up the baddie role. It’s kind of a miracle this movie got made at all, and maybe they should have just left well enough alone.

Not that it’s despicable, it’s just not very entertaining. It looks really good in spots but it’s got the plot of every western you’ve ever seen, interspersed with confusing flash-backs. And I must say: huge missed opportunity. This could have been a table-turning, gun-slinging feminist western but instead Portman dispassionately pinballs from one man to the next and is very much a damsel in distress and that made me one disinterested dame.

 

Midnight Special

“Michael Shannon” they said, and I was in. That’s all it took to get my butt in the seat for Midnight Special; I didn’t know any more than that,and didn’t feel I needed to.

I’m not sure I could tell you more than that, even if I wanted to. And I’m not sure you’d believe me anyway.

The plot to Midnight Special unfolds itself slowly. You get dumped into the action fairly quickly, but you don’t know why. Where are we going? What’s happening? You’re in a car with Roy (Shannon), a little boy named Alton, and a man we’re not sure about named Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Everyone’s edgy. It’s clear we’re trying to get away, and in a hurry. Are we being pursued?

There’s a weird church, a culty church, where the parishioners, especially the women in their long out-of-date dresses and braided hairstyles, remind you of a polygamist mormom compound. They call it The Ranch. They worship at night, reciting words you don’t remember from any bible. The Ranch is looking for Alton. Alton has been kidnapped.

Meanwhile, back in that frantic car, Alton is beginning to struggle. Lucas doesn’t know midnight-special-jaeden-lieberherwhat the hell is going on, but Roy seems more familiar. Is he Alton’s father? But do relationships even matter when the boy in question seems to be…displaying certain super powers?

The minute Adam Driver appears on screen in crooked glasses, it’s no longer just a matter of a missing boy. The FBI and NSA are chasing him too, and not to return him to his home. The Ranch believe Alton to be their saviour. The government thinks he’s a weapon. Roy just thinks he’s his son.

Some of your questions will be answered, and some will not. There are a lot of mysteries revealing themselves along the way, and they add to the tension and the sense of urgency. ht_midnight_special_film_still_mm_160401_16x9_992I enjoyed the lack of clarity although I admit I wished some of it got wrapped up a little better. There’s a lot of information that gets thrown at us and not all of it has a “purpose.” But it’s so crazy well-acted that this feels like nit-picking. Michael Shannon seems determined, perhaps with divine meaning. Joel Edgerton’s character is more nuanced, and therefore more relatable. He’s clearly invested, but his motives are less certain. The kid, played by Jaeden Lieberher, is already familiar to audiences from the likes of Aloha and St. Vincent. He plays an intriguing mixture of vulnerable and other-wordly that keeps us guessing. This is one kid who’s not a weak link.

Director Jeff Nichols’ vision  is ambitious and complex. It doesn’t end quite as satisfyingly as it begins, but it’s an adventure worth embarking upon and I hope that you will.