“Boy Erased”

What a wonderful boy these Baptist fundamentalists raised was my first thought after viewing Joe Edgerton’s film, “Boy Erased”. Lucas Hedges plays a much different teen than he did in “Manchester By The Sea” ( reviewed here Dec.3rd, 2016 ). His Patrick was abrasive, spoiled, self-obsessed, but here Hedges, as Jared Eamons, is earnest, honest, and compassionate. Hedges can bring teen angst, suffering, and exploration to the screen so that this true-life story makes us what to reach in and rescue Jared from these same loving parents, who put him through expensive “conversion therapy” to change his sexual orientation. Jared survives the harrowing ordeal and tells us in flashback style that “sometimes I wish none of this happened, but I thank God that it did.”

Joel Edgerton’s screenplay lets Jared’s preacher father have his say in the pulpit and arround a table of faith-filled elders. Russell Crowe is phenomenal as Marshall Eamons, a car dealership owner, salesman, and Southern preacher. You do not recognize him fifty pounds heavier and intent on steering his family toward his concept of the Lord.
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For anyone who doesn’t think that our US Constitution is a living, breathing document, this film is a must. For those of us who do believe, Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” reminds us of why it should remain seen as one.

This is a slow, quiet film. Words are not so important. What is key is family and the rural and urban divide, and, of course, love. The true story of Richard Perry  and Mildred  Delores Loving is as soft and unassuming as they are. The film begins with Mildred (Ruth Negga)  in profile. Negga plays shy and thoughtful with her eyes and the set of her mouth. Her surprise when her white boyfriend acknowledges her  pregnancy news with his simple “good” is as understated and  as emotional as a performance can be. This Ethiopian-Irish actress is perfect in her role : grounded, perceptive, patient, and truly loving.

The Welsh Joel Edgerton is the second half of what will  become the first interracial marriage of Caroline County, Virginia. He is dyed blond and buzzed and perfectly cast. As Richard Loving, he is a mason who, because of  Mildred, will ultimately lay the foundation for the national eradication of all anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. It is hard to believe that I was in college when this landmark Civil Rights case was won. Nichols’ film gives viewers the backstory of the ruling “Loving vs. Virginia” (1967).

The 1950 rural South has teenagers who love rock and roll, racing  car engines and kissing. This setting still leads the responsible Rich to purchase an acre of land and dream of protecting and providing for his family. Dee and Rich drive up to Washington, DC to be married. Dee’s father, Mr. Jeter,  accompanies. Sequences of a sewing pattern being selected , a  bassinet being lined, and hens roaming about follow. Dinners at the Jeter house are portrayed as  warm and familial.

It does not take long for a night of terror to disrupt the Loving couple. The sheriff and three deputies break into the Lovings’ dark  bedroom. Flashlights glare as the pregnant Mildred and her husband  are arrested and placed in separate  jail cells. Their marriage is seen as unlawful in Caroline County.

Rich bails himself out, but is not allowed to free his wife. ” A sparrow is a sparrow and a robin is a robin. Get one of her own people to bail her out.” , Loving is told. There is no communication between husband and wife. Dee waits patiently in her chenille bathrobe for two days as Rich sits outside the jail, taciturn in his promises. Mr. Jeter posts his daughter’s bail, and Rich hires a lawyer.

Frank Beasley ( Bill Camp ) is the lawyer, who tells the Lovings to plead guilty and the judge will suspend jail time; otherwise, they will be forced to leave the state and stay away for twenty-five years. This banishment sentence states that their interracial marriage is ” against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth. Likewise, when Dee’s sister cries and berates Rich for taking Dee from the Jeter family, her : ” You had no right. You knew what you were doing,” is turned in the viewers’ mind as an indictment against the racism of the Virginia legislators.

The film’s pacing may be its only flaw. Methodically slow and uneven, the Loving’s move to the city where they share a house with a relative and deal with noise, danger and lack of green space. Stoically unhappy, they sneak back home to have their baby delivered by Rich’s midwife- mother. Even in her love, grandma states: “You never should have married that girl~you knew better.” Director Nichol’s makes it clear that change agents this family is not. Love is what moves them: principle is the after- fact.

After violating their parole, the couple is saved by their attorney, who takes the blame by lying that he told the Lovings that they could return for their child’s birth. Frank warns them that this venturing back can not happen again. And it doesn’t until their third child is hit by a car, and the city becomes a cage.

The forward motion picks up with Mildred ‘s letter written to Bobby Kennedy. After watching tv news with Aunt Laura, Dee takes auntie’s outburst of “you need to get you some civil rights” to heart. With Kennedy’s response, ACLU attorneys eager and ambitious in their want to have a Supreme Court case heard, step in. It has been five years and three children since Dee and Rich’s conviction. Now, the litigators want them to return home and get arrested a third time.

The differences between Mildred Delores’ impulses  and Richard Perty’s are subtlely evoked. Slow as soup simmering, Nichol’s keeps stirring-up their love for each other. It is a beautiful thing. Altering the Constitution of the United States is a beautiful thing, too. Balk at the eighteen century Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s interpretation of racial mixing with his pronouncement:  ” Almighty God created the races white, black, and yellow, Malay and red and placed them in separate continents. This shows that God did not intend the races to mix. ” or I presume to travel !

One of the joys of this film is the children. Jeff Nichol knows children. He has written their tiny parts with such knowledge that we connect with family life over and over again. This appeal centers us, and we become invested emotionally over and over again. The childish chanting repetition of ” that’s a story alright” , brought tears to my eyes. This around the kitchen table scene was one of my favorites.

Actor Michael Shannon with his  city assuredness as a Life magazine photographer adds another layer of comparison to the film. We see the actual photos before the credits roll. Mildred’s sweet, ” We may lose the mall battles, but win the big war” has much to say about the good our Federal System can do. As Shannon photographs the Lovings laughing at tv’s Barney Fife, we get it.

Finally, it is hopeful to know that, “We may have some enemies, but we have some friends, too.” When Richard tells the attorney to relay to the nine Supreme  Court judges that, ” I love my wife,” it encapsulates the truth of the film. The final scene where they put their children to bed and close their bedroom door is perfect.









“Midnight Special”

Jeff Nichols’ fourth film, “Midnight Special”  is not as good as “Mud”, though it may be muddier. We are dropped into a dark scene almost “in medias res”. We hear before we see, like in so many 2016 films. The radio is coughing up insurance ads in Central Texas when we are given “breaking news”. An Amber alert is out. An eight-year-old  boy has been abducted from a religious sect. We see a hulking man and his companion with the boy. We fear the worse until the boy wraps his arms lovingly around the neck of his captor, now possibly his savior. Dibs and dabs of background are slowly revealed throughout this drama-sci-fi, leaving more questions than answers. How did this special boy get among us? We are told only that “they” have been watching for a long time.

Sam Shepherd plays Calvin Meyer, the boys adopted father and patriarch of “The Ranch”. Somehow his sermons to his congregation have decrypted U.S. Government security codes, and now the FBI is more than concerned. Writer and director ( often not a good thing) Nichols bandies the action back and forth between the car rides and safe houses of the birth father ( Michael Shannon) and the  FBI interrogations  of  the sect. The boy, Alton, ( Jaeden Lieberher ) has powers: satellites fall from the sky, electronic grids are blown, and generators fail as the earth shakes. The Ranch members believe if he is with them that they will be saved. The Apocalypse even has a date.

Unlike more profound sci-fi writing like that of Mary Russell Doria, Nichols does not give much to the plot. His theme that there may be a better world  with ever-loving light reminds me of the folk song, named after a train ” The Midnight Special” with its chorus ” shine your ever-loving light on me.” The glowing eyes of Alton must give images of this world for removing his goggles seems to be a temptation one compatriot can not resist.

When guns are used in this film, no one dies. Does that give a new meaning to “Saturday night special”?  I’d like to think so. Even when protecting a territory police can only shoot when fired upon. This is a film about fathers, sons, mothers ,friends  and sacrifice and loss at its heart. The dialogue is sparse, but the faces of  the actors register familiar emotions. Kristen Dunst as Alton’s birth-mother, Sarah, does an exceptional job of showing hope for tomorrow. Much like in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Berneice Bobs Her Hair”, Dunst finds glee in cutting her corded braid. Is her son in a better place ?  His bruised eyes , bleeding ears ,  shortness of breath, and kryptonite questions lead us to an imaginative “yes”.

Joel Edgerton plays a likeable friend and  sheriff, Lucas. We all need trusting and true loyalty like he displays. Adam Driver, likewise,  plays a believer’s part to the hilt. As a savvy scientist, he asks if he can come with the boy, too.

See this film to learn about heat wounds, debris fields and panicking parents. Smirk at  childhood development counsellors  and multi-paged questionnaires, but bask in the light of  Alton’s ,” I am not a weapon; I am not a savior.” But, what is he ?

Nichols doles out a little bit of candy, one piece at a time. Some throwbacks to E.T. in the angelic demeanor of our otherworldly boy. Sky prisms and boy speaking in tongues not as interesting as the tension of the chase. Michael Shannon registers fatherly and protective emotions as Roy Tomlin. We just don’t get any insight to how muddy and burdensome those sect contracts are. I had trouble identifying with the characters~ but then letting  go does not come easily for me.

Favorite lines. ” Stick to the plan”. ” I am an electrician. What do I know of these things.” ” You would have made a nice family.” ” Back on the road, asshole.” ” He needs to know what is real.”

“Black Mass”

Any film that begins with a tape recorder sputtering out  ” I am not a rat” and goes on to tell the story of the biggest informant -FBI -scandal in U.S. history lets you presume that codes of honor can be tricky. Based on the Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill’s NYT’s best seller, ” Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI, and  A Devil’s Deal”, Director Scott Cooper does his best with a great cast and a weak,understated screenplay.

Shot in South Boston, this film is full of dark bars, grimy alleyways and industrial river sites. “There is trouble outside” becomes visceral. “Throw the first two punches” the street mantra. The music is heavy-handed and evocative of other crime-ridden films. See “Black Mass” for the acting not  for the cinematography. Though there are two exceptional camera shots: one an overhead pan of Jimmy reclining with his hands behind his head. We long to get into that psyche; yet, we really never do. The other memorable  photo still captures Joel Edgerton as Jimmie’s FBI friend, John Connolly. His headshot photographed against six-inch -flowered, kitchen wallpaper highlights his personal allegiances. His wife loses. And as that wife, Juliette Nicolson is amazing. Her Marianne is full of depth. I wish the screenplay gave her more time. When Jimmie knocks on her locked bedroom door and creepily puts his hands around her neck. We can feel that touch. We can understand her wish to scream. Her control is lost only in her brimming eyes. Depp, Nicolson, and Edgerton all give Oscar-worthy performances. It is in this threatening scene where “Whitey’s” evil is best portrayed. Marianne knows Jimmie has changed her husband. That “southie -kid” loyalty never leaves John Connolly. He goes to prison for forty years without testifying against his psychopathic childhood friend.

Johnny Depp’s transformation as James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of The Winter Hill Gang is make-up-award worthy,too. The honed nose,the blue eyes and the balding-scalp-overlay give a mesmerizing effect. Only in one scene did I catch a glimpse of a rubber-neckline give away. Depp’s acting is a stunner,yet the viewers get no real insight into this crime boss who kills with bare-handed abandon in broad daylight,once in front of a full recess playground. Depp’s voice is raspy,deep, and cool. When he instructs his five -year -old son, it is to say,” It is not what you do, but where and when. If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

This is the man who becomes a top echelon FBI informant,code named “Charlie”. Jimmie,with friend Connolly’s aid, is in alliance with the Feds to bring down the Angiulo Brothers,a Mafia family. This is the “Devil’s Deal”: the FBI allows Whitey Bulger ,small time gangster, to become a crime kingpin to “bring down the Italians”. With two sympathetic notes shown after his son’s Reye Syndrome death and in his gin rummy card game with his mother, Bulger goes on to become the crime lord of Boston and Miami rackets. His admonition to “never hand me a bag full of money in public. I’ll whack anyone, anywhere” is proven true in ghastly car -window -blood splatter over and over again. Bulger uses some of his filthy lucre to buy weapons for the IRA. Our FBI’s “professional criminal consultant” lives by getting and giving loyalty to his friends until they do something he considers stupid.

One telling scene has Jimmie parading his power as “cock of the walk”.He asks for the recipe of a particularly pleasing steak marinade; and though it is described as a secret family recipe, it  is given to him anyway. Bulger chides that “just saying can get you buried real fucking quick”.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Jimmie’s brother and U.S. Senator, and former Chancellor of The University of Massachusetts. Kevin Bacon is John Connolly’s (Joel Edgerton) FBI boss. Again,the cast of “Black Mass” could not have been better. The movie should have been. It seems incongruous that a man known for extortion,racketeering and murder, a man who utters dictates of “pull out his fucking teeth and bury him next to the whore” would be last filmed in a candlelit church with no more insight into his mind.

“The Gift”

Wishing for a domestic thriller akin to last summer’s “Gone Girl” ?  Try the well-filmed and well-written and well-acted Joel Edgerton movie,”The Gift”. The 41-year-old Aussie wrote, starred and ,for the first time, directed a slow-burning psychological thriller that is “Pacific Heights” scary and “Fatal Attraction” obsessive. Plus,the ambition ethic of getting ahead at all costs is knocked a good punch.

The camera rolls in slow motion as we are introduced to Simon and Robyn (Justin Bateman and Rebecca Hall) electing to buy a mid-century-modern, glass home. Lots of light and Windex won’t give this couple clear views or intimacy as long as they keep up their respective lies. The music is ominous like the genre demands. The motif of transparency is nicely sprinkled throughout the film with steamy shower -surface -wipes and hearts drawn on glass after hot breaths. Attention to detail is this movie’s strength, while “there is more to what you see” is made clear.

While our couple is purchasing a throw rug, we see through wine glass displays that a man is staring. Even the clerk notices. The man advances and queries Simon with “don’t I know you?” Simon looks flummoxed and our writer-director-actor, Joel Edgerton, introduces himself as Gordon Mosley,or Gordo, a high school classmate of Simon’s. With all the principles on-screen, the secrets and deceptions keep the audience guessing. Gift giving turns into perversion. Surprise after surprise!

One of the ploys of scary movies is how normal,familiar activities like brushing your teeth or opening a box or attending a baby shower can lull you into identification. The way that Simon and Rebecca share their concerns about “Weirdo Gordo” with neighbors and work friends has all of them brain-storming how the couple should handle the intrusive Gordo. Simon says they should “rip off the band-aid” and cut all ties. Bateman plays the masterful husband well. We are more used to his 1980 sitcoms and his “Bad Words” persona. Here, as Simon, former high school class president, he is uncovered as a class bully,too. A horrifying abuse twenty years ago is clarified, a revenge plot is partially unhatched,and a pill-popping wife loses all trust in her husband’s fabrications. But the gifts keep coming! There are cars chases and hospital races and an abruptly closed curtain in the glass enclosed nursery.

Gordo uses Simon’s own top-dog vocabulary and tone in his revenge plot. “I’m going to power through this, or should I” is particularly satisfying. Edgerton’s acting,his use of blue-light night photography, and Wagnerian opera music is noteworthy.

Rebecca Hall plays submissive well, but her unlocking secrets in the most ordinary way and then magically deciding on key life moves is strong,resourceful and brave. Last seen and reviewed in the sci-fi drama “Transcendence” (4.29.15) as Evelyn Caster, Hall is a British actress who is subtle with emotion, yet forthright in action. I loved the gift-boxed pregnancy test stick and her offer to give up the monkey wind-up so spontaneously. Remember the saw that “good people deserve good things” and see this well-crafted tale.