‘The King’ is a Slog Through Shakespearean Henriad History

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CREDIT: Netflix

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, Tom Glynn-Carney

Director: David Michôd

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: R for Messy War Combat

Release Date: October 11, 2019 (Limited Theatrically)/November 1, 2019 (Streaming on Netflix)

Once more unto the breach, dear friends? It’s awfully muddy in that breach. That seems to be the big advantage of turning Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2!) and Henry V into a movie in 2019: you can make it as muddy as you need it to be! And director David Michôd sure wanted that breach to be muddy. And Falstaff (Joel Edgerton, who co-wrote the script with Michôd) won’t let us forget it. Not that we would have been able to miss it anyway.

I majored in English literature in my undergraduate days, so watching The King is like revisiting old friends for me, but excessively grim versions. I know right from the get-go that wary-of-the-crown Prince Hal will soon enough become King Henry V, Beloved War Hero. But even if I’d never read one verse of Shakespeare, I would have been able to figure that out easily enough. That’s how these narratives tend to play out after all, and also Timothée Chalamet is so hot right now. But that predictability is not necessarily a problem. Shakespeare did not establish his reputation on twisty plots, but rather on wonderfully poetic language. Alas, The King does not have the wit to match. I of course do not demand nor expect that every new Shakespeare adaptation feature iambic pentameter, but if there is going to be as much dialogue as there is in The King, it would be nice if it were at least somewhat exciting. But alas, it seems that war is not only hell, it’s also boring.

As we make our way through the muck into the Battle of Agincourt, The King eventually comes alive somewhat in the form of Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin, the French side’s secret weapon, at least in terms of charisma. He seems to have been warped by the warring status quo between France and England into some sort of almost inhuman, devious little sprite. He is less interested in victory or survival than he is into sucking out the life force of his rivals. I haven’t seen any of those Twilight movies, so for me, this feels like the first time Pattinson has ever played a vampire on screen. If only the other combatants had the verve to match.

The King is Recommended If You Like: Shakespeare minus the poetry

Grade: 2 out of 5 Chainmail Suits

This Is a Movie: Lucas Hedges Wades Through the Lies of Gay Conversion to Find Truth and Love in the Unsettling and Fulfilling ‘Boy Erased’

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan, Joe Alwyn, Flea

Director: Joel Edgerton

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: R for Intense, Sexuality-Focused Material

Release Date: November 2, 2018 (Limited)

Boy Erased demonstrates the dangers of putting the unqualified in charge, or pretending that it is possible to be qualified for something that nobody can possibly have experience with. With the suspensefully assured hand of director Joel Edgerton, it plays like a horror film in which the villain is the storm of forces that try to convince you of something that you know in your core not to be true. The setting is a gay conversion therapy program, which is basically the epitome of trauma born out of the most distorted of good intentions. Every story I have ever heard about gay conversion suggests that those involved with running them are either gay themselves or relatives of gay people. Boy Erased very much underscores how terrifying a curriculum designed upon internalized homophobia is.

The film is based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, with Lucas Hedges playing Jared Eamons, an adapted version of Conley. This isn’t the first gay conversion gay conversion-focused film this year, with The Miseducation of Cameron Post having arrived a few months earlier. Boy Erased manages to make a stronger impression thanks to heavier dramatic stakes. Whereas Cameron Post‘s protagonists were so strong-willed that they just ignored the program, Jared actually cares about satisfying the people who want him to go through with it. That especially includes his Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his fiercely protective mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman). But at a certain point, he realizes that the so-called adult experts do not know what they are talking about if what they are asking him to do is ripping apart his soul. That means he must push back against head therapist Victor (Edgerton), a man who is frighteningly skilled at hiding internal conflict, and instead listen to the people who only offer him unconditional, recognizable love. It all leads to reconciliation scenes that you hope never have to be necessary for anybody but are all the more fulfilling for how genuine they are.

Boy Erased is Recommended If You Like: Heart-wrenching true stories, Familial reconciliation, Dramas that are secretly horror movies

Grade: 4 out of 5 White Dress Shirts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Gringo’ Finds Humor and Redemption in a World Gone Mad

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CREDIT: Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton, Amanda Seyfried, Thandie Newton, Sharlto Copley, Yul Vazquez, Harry Treadaway, Alan Ruck

Director: Nash Edgerton

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Corporate Profanity, Office Sex and Euphemistic Propositioning, and a Few Gunshots and Amputations

Release Date: March 9, 2018

Gringo exists mainly to stoke the ire of anyone who believes that the insurance industry is the greatest scam in the history of humanity. I am sure that there are some agents putting in decent work, and there certainly have been times when a smart policy have bailed folks out of emergencies. But why do have to put money aside (or pay folks off, in cynical parlance) to ensure all that? Why can’t we as a species just agree to have each other’s backs as part of the human contract? I suppose that the insurance industry is meant to be that agreement, but as Gringo proves, there are plenty of opportunities for abuse in its current form.

A less humanistic film than Gringo would have Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) seeking his revenge on the world for being constantly taken advantage of or falling into a pit of despair over how nice guys finish last. But instead, it is about how he realizes how he is rich in what truly counts in life through a chaotically dangerous, screwball journey. He is a mid-level businessman at the drug company Cannabix who is just a little too trusting of everyone around him. He catches wind that a lot of jobs are going to get cut very soon in unscrupulous fashion, and he is shocked that his boss Richard (Joel Edgerton) would ever do such a thing. But that bit of news should not be surprising to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with this most weaselly of alpha males. Furthermore, Harold and his wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) are tens of thousands of dollars in debt, mostly due to her highly irresponsible financial habits. Plus, she’s cheating on him (take a wild guess with who), and she’s kind of taking pity on how much he’s been letting this all happen right under his nose.

As Harold begins to learn the truth, Richard and his other boss, the more openly terrible Elaine (the scary when she’s funny Charlize Theron), bring him down to Mexico for a little business trip, making it the perfect time for Harold to win back a little of his dignity. So he fakes his own kidnapping in a scheme to make off with a ransom of $5 million. Such a kidnapping is believable, as the company has recently developed a very valuable product (medical marijuana in pill form), and they do business with a cartel. At first Richard and Elaine are willing to play ball (sort of) to get Harold home safe. But when it turns out that Cannabix’s insurance policies make it more valuable when an employee dies, things really go topsy-turvy.

Not that they ever weren’t pear-shaped in the first place. Harold may be faking his kidnapping, but he actually has been targeted for capture by the cartel, who mistake him for the boss. Adding to the fun are his run-ins with Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), a sweet and naive guitar shop employee who does not realize the extent of her boyfriend’s (Harry Treadaway) drug dealings, as well as Richard’s brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley), a sort of private special ops extractor who weirdly but effectively has some of the most integrity of any of the characters.

There is a lot of explosive coincidence in Gringo, but it is justified in that it is what ensures the hilarity. The humor is morally satisfying, as the worst actors are forced to reckon with what they deserve, while the lessons imparted are not overly didactic. Kindness is rewarded, as epiphanies emerge to show that life’s cruelty can be laughed upon. This is quite the loony bin of a cast, but ultimately this is The Manic High-Wire David Oyelowo Show, and he sells it with a supremely cool final shot.

Gringo is Recommended If You Like: Coen Brothers Crime Comedies, The Kind of Movie Wherein Gunfire Leads to Hilarious Screaming, Satisfying Morality

Grade: 3 out of 5 Gorilla

This Is a Movie Review: Jennifer Lawrence Goes Deep in the Graphic Spy Thriller ‘Red Sparrow’

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CREDIT: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Bill Camp, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey, Mary-Louise Parker

Director: Francis Lawrence

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Rating: R for Nudity as Power, Pleasure, and Disgrace; Spycraft Violence; and Slice-and-Dice, Pounding Torture

Release Date: March 2, 2018

Red Sparrow is the latest spy story that hinges on a final act revelation of a mole. the logic (or lack thereof) of such a twist is something I often can’t make heads or tails out of. The narrative-consuming part of my brain just is not that wired that way. But as far as I can tell, this particular mole’s exposure does pass the plausibility test, though it is not especially impactful. But Red Sparrow’s intrigue thankfully goes beyond any straightforward conception of traitors and double agents. In fact, it questions and pokes at (without quite fully deconstructing) the entire concept of double agency when it involves someone who seems to be an ideal fit for the job but does not want anything to do with professional deception.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury and then faces the crisis of how she will be able to continue to take care of her widowed mother. So her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits her to become a spy at the Red Sparrow School, which essentially requires its trainees to sacrifice their entire identities to the Russian government. Meanwhile, CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton) gets mixed up with Dominika as he hunts down high-level Russian spies. (He is temporarily suspended after making a huge mistake out in the field, but that does not affect matters as it much as it seems like it is supposed to.) Nash and Dominika’s motivations appear to match up, but of course there is that age-old question: can opposing sides truly trust each other when working together? In this case, the answer actually does appear to be yes, and a more pressing question is: is it possible for individuals to get what they want when insidious bureaucratic forces are pulling the strings everywhere?

Fundamentally driving Red Sparrow and several of its characters is the idea that the Cold War never really ended (it just broke into many pieces, as one of them puts it). That may sound a little over-the-top for a film aiming for some degree of verisimilitude, but then you see what former KGB agent Vladimir Putin is up to, and all the alleged Russian hacking in foreign elections, and on second thought, maybe this does not sound so farfetched at all. Even if it did, it would be perfectly legitimate to put something insanely conspiratorial on film. The problem is that we have seen this sort of cinematic Russian subterfuge plenty of times before.

That familiarity is overcome a decent amount by Charlotte Rampling, whose performance sets the tone for the state of modern Russian spycraft. She is the headmistress of the Sparrow School, and she insists that you call her “Matron.” We have seen this sort of officious, beat-you-down-and-re-mold-you character in plenty of other iterations, but Rampling brings a level of camp and matter-of-factness hitherto unseen. Not only, in her parlance, is every person “a puzzle of need,” but also so many people today are “drunk on shopping and social media,” which would normally sound irritatingly reductive but comes off as venomously delicious when she says it.

Red Sparrow’s most lasting impact is derived less from espionage and more from its examination of human behavior and interpersonal power dynamics. There are several scenes featuring graphic torture and nudity (including rape and attempted rape), and they do not come off as simply exploitative, because they are there to elucidate the effects they have on individuals. It is heavily implied that Sparrows are really groomed from birth to give themselves over entirely to the government. They are indoctrinated that their bodies are not their own, that they must give themselves up to give their marks exactly what they want in service of a greater power. Dominika, while in many ways an ideal recruit, never fully gives in. She decides that she is willing to make her body available, but she maintains a level of resistance. When naked, she asserts her power, which is resonant in the Me Too era (and eternally so) and metatextually, it works as a statement from Lawrence, herself a victim of a nude photo hack, that she will work this intimately only on her own terms. Thanks to her steely performance, Red Sparrow works as a defense of the dignity of every individual human being.

Red Sparrow is Recommended If You Like: The Americans, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Oppressed women taking control, Oppressed citizens taking control, Frightening headmistresses, Torture scenes with a purpose

Grade: 3 out of 5 Floppy Disks

This Is a Movie Review: It Comes at Night

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This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Rating: R for Frequent Bouts of Vomiting Blood

Release Date: June 9, 2017

A common rule of thumb in horror is that which remains unseen makes for the scariest monsters. What if this guideline were stretched to its furthest limit? Could a total lack of evidence – the unseen itself as a concept – be the ultimate horror? The paranoia-fueled It Comes at Night makes a strong case for just that.

While the titular “It” remains beyond anyone’s perception, its effects are clear and visible right from the get-go. The film opens in a cabin in the woods, that staple of horror film settings, stripped down to its bare essentials. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) live with their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in a most desolate location. Their first order of business is disposing of Sarah’s father Bud (David Pendleton), who has succumbed to some sort of deadly contagion that appears to be looming as a threat over the entire world. How far from society has this family removed itself? Or has civilization broken down entirely such that there is no society to detach from? How far into the future does this take place, or is this present day? Does time even matter?

All this uncertainty ensures that no happy ending can come out of someone breaking into Paul and Sarah’s thoroughly boarded-up home. Will (Christopher Abbott), the intruder, somehow manages to get an invitation out of Paul to join them in the house, along with his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), but it is an uneasy peace. The two families divvy up their supplies evenly, but the issue here is not fairness, it is trust, which is impossible to establish. The specter of death in these woods is ever-present but also unknowable – anyone could be its agent, even without intending to be. A simple changing of one’s mind is cause for confrontation.

At the risk of giving too much away, I think it is important to note that It Comes at Night might not exactly be the film that its advertising makes it out to be. This is a major issue at a time when horror hounds expect visceral thrills out of something low-key like It Follows or they anticipate comprehensibility out of something inscrutable like The Witch. It Comes’ trailers give the sense that there is some monster lurking in the woods that is the source of the disease. That might be true, but that is also beside the point. It could also be a government experiment gone wrong, or it could be a nameless, faceless apocalypse-level pandemic. But the prime monster in this slice of the world is paranoia. When the structure of one’s reality breaks apart irreversibly, there is no such thing as security or sanity.

It Comes at Night is Recommended If You Like: The Thing, The Others, The Blair Witch Project

Grade: 4 out of 5 Infections

This Is a Movie Review: Loving

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loving-movie-ruth-negga-joel-edgerton

This post was originally published on News Cult in November 2016.

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll

Director: Jeff Nichols

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Prejudice and the Paranoia That Goes with It

Release Date: November 4, 2016 (Limited)

Director Jeff Nichols is known for including a tinge of the supernatural in his films, especially the apocalyptic Take Shelter and the little-kid-with-mysterious-powers thriller Midnight Special. But even in his ostensibly more realistic pics, like the Southern McConaissance drama Mud, there is a spiritually arousing sense of magic in the air. His latest, Loving, which tells the true-life story behind the 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down the last of this country’s anti-miscegenation laws, achieves that same miraculous sense of wonder by keeping the focus on the day-to-day realities of committed romance under siege.

As Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving’s case makes it way from the local county court to the Virginia Supreme Court all the way to the highest court in the land, there are surprisingly few scenes that actually take place inside a courtroom. The message effectively becomes: love speaks for itself. The film does not see the need for showstopping dramatic speeches, because who needs to be convinced about the rightness of what those speeches would say? Instead, the story mostly sticks with the Lovings’ domestic life, which is constantly under siege, but resolutely tender.

Despite Loving’s lack of interest in legal jargon or courtroom clichés, it does make time for a mini-arc for the titular couple’s main lawyer. When we meet him, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll) has little experience with civil rights cases, but he is ambitious enough, or foolhardy enough, to plow right ahead to a potential meeting with the Supreme Court. The casting of Kroll, as much of a novice to high-profile drama as Cohen is to precedent-setting litigation, proves surprisingly apt.

As essential as Kroll’s performance is, it is (like the rest of the movie, and as it should be) all in service to the Lovings. The key line comes when Cohen asks Richard, who has declined to appear during the Supreme Court hearing, if he would like him to tell the justices anything. “Tell the judge I love my wife,” he declares softly but demonstrably.

Edgerton plays Richard as a man who just wants to get on with making a good life for his wife and children. He is uncomfortable with the media attention his marriage receives and flummoxed by the prejudice it engenders. This is in sharp contrast to Negga, who plays Mildred with fragile expressions that belie her steely emotions. Their complementary approaches to overcoming the ordeal of their life are inspiring. It feels like they were destined to be the couple to break down barriers. The poetic perfection of their last name also contributes to that sense. If they were not already called the Lovings, supernaturally inclined Jeff Nichols would have had to christen them thus.

Loving is Recommended If You Like: To Kill a Mockingbird, That feeling you got when the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage constitutional, Actors who look just like the real people they’re portraying

Grade: 4 out of 5 Loves That Conquer All