Movie Review: Boy Erased

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Jared (Lucas Hedges) is attracted to boys in Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directorial feat, Boy Erased. (Source: Variety)

In 2015, Joel Edgerton made his directorial debut with The Gift. A movie, that sounded like a generic thriller, defied all expectations. It was an unnerving Hitchockian psychological thriller about a young couple’s world turning upside down when someone from the husband’s past comes into their life. Not only did Edgerton deliver a harrowing performance as the creepy stalker, but it also showcases a good future in filmmaking for the Aussie star. Now–he returns to the director’s chair for Boy Erased, a film that has a chance to generate award buzz.

Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, the movie is set in Arkansas in the early 2000s. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the only child of Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman). He’s living a happy life. He goes to church every Sunday, works at his father’s car dealership, and dates one of the prettiest girls in his school.

One day, Jared tells his parents he is attracted to boys. Due to their dismay, they force him to attend Refuge (formerly Love in Action), a gay conversion therapy program run by chief therapist Victor Sykes (Edgerton). While Jared befriends some of the attendees, including Gary (Troye Sivan, the Aussie pop star who also contributes the film with his original song “Revelation”), he learns about the program’s secrets while on his journey to faith and redemption.

Boy Erased is one of those movies where it might go into soap-opera territory. What Edgerton does–thanks to his sublime direction and screenplay–is something raw, beguiling, and poignant. Like Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, and the more recent Love, Simon, the movie never exploits its message about self-discovery. The audience is with Jared every step of the way begging for his parents to accept him for what he truly is. Although conversion therapy seems to be a great opportunity for him, at first, it doesn’t turn out what it seems. “The truth cannot be converted,” helms the tagline.

Fresh from starring in two award-winning films Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird, Hedges gives his most mature performance. The audience sympathizes with him and his struggle of coming out, which is shown in subtle yet harrowing flashbacks where he hangs out with some boys while attending college. The supporting cast–mainly Crowe, Kidman, Edgerton, and Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame)–has their “big moment”, but Hedges is the one who makes this thoughtful and devastatingly powerful film shine bright. One of the year’s best!

4/4

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Movie Review: The Old Man and the Gun

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Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) aims for his target in David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun. (Source: Cinema Blend)

In 2003, best-selling author David Grann wrote an article in the New Yorker about Forrest Tucker, the most charming criminal who ever lived. He writes about how Tucker was a troublemaker all of his life; serving time in jail constantly. His first crime was stealing a car at the age of 15. He successfully escaped from prison more than a dozen times. What brought the attention to the public was his most famous escape from San Quentin in 1979. Heading into the 1980s, Tucker goes back to rob banks with sheer politeness.

Fast-forward to 2018. Writer-director David Lowery adapts the stranger-than-fiction story with the legendary Robert Redford as the titular “old man”. If The Old Man and the Gun is his last role before retirement, he’s going out with a bang!

The movie opens up in 1981, where Forrest Tucker (Redford) escapes from the authorities after robbing a bank. He sees a woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek) with her truck broken down on the side of the road. As he gives her a hand, we see the police cruisers speeding past them. This is not the only time he gets away with it.

After pulling off a series of heists with his partners–Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits)–throughout Texas, as well as Little Rock, St. Louis among other cities, the bank tellers, the authorities, and the general public are pleasantly surprised by Tucker’s manners. This sparks the attention from Detective John Hunt (a superb Casey Affleck), who is on his tail. As Tucker and Jewel develop a relationship, it won’t be long until Tucker is caught.

From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to The Sting to All the President’s Men to The Natural to All is Lost, Redford has had a memorable acting career. His performance as Forrest Tucker marks another remarkable performance in his long repertoire (he might earn his first Best Actor Oscar). It’s damn near impossible not to smile at our protagonist when he gets away with pulling off his bank heists or when he says “riding a horse” is on his bucket list. Tucker is so optimistic in his hobby, but he is aware it might lead him into jail and planning on his escape. His sense of humor is as sly as a fox. His chance encounter with Detective Hunt is simply priceless.

Spacek–who also had a long, memorable acting career, and is still going–provides as much charm as Redford’s as Jewel, the love interest who might not believe in what Tucker does for a living. Elisabeth Moss makes a brief yet effective appearance as Tucker’s daughter, Dorothy, who is interviewed by Hunt about her father, whom she has never met.

There will never be a movie like The Old Man and the Gun. Compared to Lowery’s two previous indie films, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story, the movie might not move at the fastest pace. However, it’s never boring. Thanks to Lowery’s confident direction and witty screenplay, it takes its time wisely to move along to root for our protagonist. Joe Anderson’s stunning cinematography and the wonderful music–from Daniel Hart’s score to the songs by The Kinks and Jackson C. Frank–give the movie that warm, vintage feel while throwing in some subtle nods to Redford’s early work. This is something that will stick with you for the rest of your life!

4/4

Movie Review: First Man

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Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) takes one step closer to enter the Apollo program in Damien Chazelle’s biopic First Man. (Source: Time Magazine)

In 1961, JFK announced before Congress a goal. A goal to send American astronauts to the moon before the end of the decade. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent satellites into orbit before everyone else, not to mention Sputnik becoming the first ever satellite going around the Earth. They sent their first man to the moon that same year. Years after numerous failed missions, Neil Armstrong stepped into make history in 1969 with Apollo 11.

Almost 50 years after the historic landing on the moon, it’s brought to the big screen. Director Damien Chazelle has directed two of the best films so far this decade with Whiplash and La La Land. He showcases his talents as a filmmaker with both films about the protagonist’s anxieties of going to new heights. His latest film, First Man, with a screenplay written by Josh Singer (the Oscar-winning Spotlight), continues this streak.

Based on James R. Hansen’s biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the movie opens in 1961, with the NASA test pilot (Ryan Gosling) flying an X-15 into space. We get a beautiful, quiet moment in space, with Justin Hurwitz’s amazing score playing the background, until Armstrong heads back into the atmosphere with nerve-wracking, shaky camerawork making the audience feeling as if we are in the cockpit with Armstrong (same when he’s in the spacecraft).

Set from 1961 to 1969, Armstrong is depicted as a devoted father and husband to the loving Janet (Claire Foy). Along with their children, they move to Houston as Neil is offered to be in space programs, such as Gemini 8 and Apollo 1, after impressing everyone at NASA including Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). It’s not until the historic day in 1969, where Neil joins Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) to be a part of the Apollo 11 program.

First Man has received controversy for its political stance and, more importantly, a scene where the American flag being planted on the moon not included in the film. Chazelle wanted the movie to focus on the emotional journey of Neil Armstrong. It might throw people off, but I don’t think it’s fair to miss out on an excellent, visceral biopic of an American hero for that particular reason (because of this, it only earned $16 million in the box office over the weekend). It’s a character study about entering into the unknown and the hardships of going the extra mile.

From Half Nelson to Drive to La La Land, Gosling proves he can portray nuanced performances. Leading a terrific cast, his performance as Neil Armstrong is the best performance of his entire career. He and his family make the ultimate sacrifice when he is offered to go into space. He loves his job so much that he wants to prove the Soviets their rival can bring a man safely on the moon. Look at his face during the scene where he watches a recording of JFK’s speech about sending a person to the moon. Foy is a tour-de-force as Janet, the housewife who roots for her husband every step of the way. She gets just as enough screen-time as Neil. Their scenes together will make you weep.

It’s refreshing to see a movie where the scenes in space are filmed with practical effects as opposed to CGI. It adds more to the film’s realism. The climactic moon landing sequence is like a dance, kudos to the cinematography by Linus Sandgren, who also collaborated with Chazelle in La La Land. It’s a moment that will be with me for the rest of my life.

There is never a dull moment in First Man. Gosling and Foy deserve attention this awards season. While it might have a tough run this past weekend, I hope more people will see it with an open mind and not worry about the controversy. It’s one of those movies where it should be seen on the biggest screen possible!

4/4

Movie Review: Apostle

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Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) attempts to rescue his sister from the evil Malcolm (Michael Sheen) in Apostle, Gareth Evans’ first English-language film since 2006. (Source: IMDb)

Welsh director Gareth Evans made a big name for himself when he moved to Indonesia to direct The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2. Starring Iko Uwais among other native actors, these martial arts films both opened to critical acclaim (except for Ebert, who panned the first film describing it as “a visualized video game that spares the audience the inconvenience of playing it”) and have gained a cult following. Now– he makes his first attempt into Victorian horror with Netflix original Apostle, which influence The Wicker Man, The Witch, Silence, and The Village. It’s just as unnerving as one would expect.

In the 1900s, ex-priest Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) travels to Erisden, a remote island off the Welsh coast, to save his sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys) from an evil religious cult, led by the prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen). During his investigation, he learns about the island’s dark secrets from its residents, including Malcolm’s daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton, Sing Street). Thomas must rescue his daughter before Malcolm puts him under his wing.

What fascinates me about this movie is the complex nature of the island and its residents. It questions the existence of God and whether He is poisoning the minds of its followers. In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes, Thomas discussed about a painful memory of getting a cross burnt into his back. “The promise of the divine is but an illusion,” he says. “Nothing in the world is pure. God is pain. God is suffering. God is betrayal.” Stevens’ performance as the charismatic Thomas with a violent side is one to cherish.

Evans gives his movie enough time to develop its characters; giving them a sense of dread. Sheen’s Malcolm will stop at nothing to execute his people who disrespect his religion, especially if someone fails to memorize his verses. They are punished by grisly torture devices. Those with a strong stomach will be on the edge of their seat during the brutal second act, accompanied by a suspenseful score by Fajar Yusekemal and Aria Prayogi. Matt Flannery’s cinematography captures the beauty and insanity of the island to perfection.

Apostle might be too complex at times, but it still manages to shock and captivate its viewers. While not for the faint-of-heart, this is a refreshing return to the English-language for Evans. It might be fair to watch it more than once.

3/4

Movie Review: A Star is Born (2018)

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Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Ally (Lady GaGa) hit the high notes in the third remake of A Star is Born. (Source: Philly.com) 

Once the talkies have come into play, there have been three different versions of A Star is Born. The 1937 version, starring Janet Gaynor; the famous 1954 version, which it received six Oscar nominations including Best Actress for Judy Garland and Best Music; and the 1976 version, starring Barbara Streisand, which didn’t receive a positive reception.

A fourth one was in production hell since 2011. Clint Eastwood was originally going to direct with Beyoncé as its star. Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tom Cruise were among the actors in talks to play the tortured musician. Eventually, Bradley Cooper not only took the role, but he also made this as his directorial debut. The new version can’t come out at a better time.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a popular musician with a big problem with drugs and alcohol, who offers support from his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). One day, at a bar, he meets Ally (a barely recognizable Lady GaGa), an aspiring singer/songwriter who quits her job as a waitress. As they develop a relationship and start writing songs together, problems begin to get in the way.

A Star is Born is the most impressive directorial debut by an actor since Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age story Lady Bird. It’s a film about the hardships of making it big in the music industry while facing personal demons. There has never been a more dynamic duo than Cooper and Lady GaGa. Jack is drinking himself to death until sparks fly when he meets Ally, who is hesitant to perform her own songs. They begin performing together–all the songs are all originals; no covers of songs from the previous films. However, they slowly face the consequences of their relationship. Its portrayal of Jack’s drug addiction and alcoholism is not easy to watch. It’s still captivating, poignant, and never once drags. I’ll lose my faith in the Academy if Lady GaGa doesn’t earn her long-awaited Oscar (either for Best Actress or Best Original Song). One of 2018’s best films!

4/4

Movie Review: Venom

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Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) prepares for a joy ride in Venom, the standalone featuring the iconic antihero. (Source: IMDb)

Remember Topher Grace’s rendition of Venom, the black-gooed villain, in Spider-Man 3? Remember how disappointed comic-book fans were on how limited his screen-time was? Is it hard to believe it would take this long for a standalone film featuring Marvel’s most iconic villain? Maybe so.

However–neither Sam Raimi nor Marc Webb took it into account. Ruben Fleischer (Gangster Squad, Zombieland) and three screenwriters decided it would be a good time to bring him back into the spotlight, with Tom Hardy playing the titular role while leading an excellent cast in a film so derivative, dull, and preposterous that an R-rating wouldn’t have made any difference.

Eddie Brock (Hardy) is San Francisco’s most successful journalist. He has his own show called The Eddie Brock Report, where he attempts to tackle the city’s most corrupt corporations, and a beautiful fiancee named Annie (Michelle Williams). Everything seems to be heading in the right direction. Right?

After an interview with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the CEO of the Life Foundation, goes horribly wrong, Brock loses his job and the love of his life. He later learns from Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) about Drake’s experiments with symbiotes, a form of black alien goo taken from a crashed spaceship, to bond with humans. When Brock becomes infected with the symbiote, he gains super-strength and healing powers, as well biting people’s heads off (of course, they occur off-screen).

Hardy is one of Hollywood’s toughest actors. Whether he’s a con-man entering the subconscious in Inception, fighting against Joel Edgerton in the ring in Warrior, a survivor saving six women after the apocalypse in Mad Max: Fury Road, or fighting off German bombers in Dunkirk, he can do it all! He is–without a doubt–familiar with the superhero genre, not to mention playing the villain Bane in Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to The Dark Knight trilogy. He has barely starred in a bad movie. In Venom, he does his best with his American accent. But–he’s trying too hard. When Brock keeps hearing voices in his head once the symbiotes take over his body, it goes into Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mode; resulting in some unintentional hilarity.

Marvel has had a fair share of bland villains over the years. Few of them have been effective. Ahmed’s Drake is nothing but the same stereotypical villain whose discovery of the symbiotes might destroy humanity. It doesn’t do any good by the end when he and Venom have their climactic fight by the bay. Williams, Slate, and the rest of the cast feel absolutely wasted.

Speaking of action sequences, the movie contains one of the most thrilling chases through the streets of San Francisco early on. Afterwards, everything begins to fall apart. The tone goes all over the place, the humor–either intentional or not–feels contrived, and there are enough plot holes to drive a cable car through.

It’s a shame since Marvel has been on a roll this year–from Black Panther to Deadpool 2. Venom is easily the worst of its kind since the infamous Fant4stic. It’s worse than Batman vs. Superman, Suicide Squad, and even Spider-Man 3 (to be fair, this makes the Venom in the latter look intimidating). With it ending on a cliffhanger, we might get more from the antihero after all. Woo-hoo.

1/4

Movie Review: Searching

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Widower David (John Cho) surfs the Web to find his missing daughter in the clever, white-knuckling thriller Searching. (Source: The Atlantic)

Having a movie set entirely from the point-of-view of a computer screen is nothing new. 2015’s Unfriended was what started it all off. The technique might sound like a gimmick, but it hasn’t been used more effectively than in Searching. The sleeper hit from Sundance (taking home the Alfred P. Sloan Award), and directorial debut from Aneesh Chagnaty, contains no supernatural beings or jump scares. Just the right amount of pure thrills and a heart at its core whether it’s from a computer screen, smartphone screen, or surveillance footage. It’s something Alfred Hitchcock would be impressed with.

David Kim (John Cho) is a widower, whose wife (Sarah Sohn, in video footage) passed away from lymphoma, loves spending time looking through old home videos and photos of her and his daughter Margot (Michelle La). Raising her into her teenage years has been difficult for David, since she is spending too much time either with her friends, taking piano lessons, or on social media. One day, David hasn’t been receiving any messages from her. He goes onto her laptop in search for clues on where Margot might have went. Along with San Jose Police Detective Rosemary Vice (Debra Messing), he becomes shocked to learn the truth of Margot’s disappearance.

According to a recent study, 95% of teenagers–aged 13 to 17–own a smartphone and more than half use Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. It’s hard to imagine what life would be like without smartphones. It’s no surprise today’s young generation is spending more time on the Internet than interacting face-to-face. Shot in 13 days and edited in two years, Chagnaty and his crew have done a marvelous job using modern technology to build up suspense. Filled with so many twists and turns, it keeps audiences guessing until the very end.

Cho is brilliant as David desperately looking for answers. It’s hard not to feel bad for him trying to communicate with the only living person he loves. Along with every character, his actions say so much even on the webcam. Messing has never been better!

Searching is an instant cult classic that everyone will be discussing for years. Such a shame it didn’t receive a lot of attention. If you missed it in theaters, it’s definitely worth checking out on Redbox.

3.5/4