Boy Erased (2018)

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I wish this had never happened but I thank God that it did. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the only son of a car dealer and small-town Baptist pastor Marshall (Russell Crowe), must overcome the fallout after being outed as gay to his parents following a violent sexual encounter at college, the truth of which he doesn’t wish to reveal. His father and mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) struggle to reconcile their love for their son with their beliefs and Marshall approaches fellow pastors for advice. Fearing a loss of family, friends and community as Marshall is attempting to becoming a full-time preacher at his church, Jared is pressured into attending a conversion therapy programme called The Source. He comes into conflict with its leader Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) and begins his journey to finding his own voice and accepting his true self but not before a session of abject bullying perpetrated against fellow inmate Cameron (Britton Sear) has a devastating outcome …  Our family is so normal. The note of dreariness inbuilt from the first shot in actor Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directing outing after the superb home invasion horror The Gift is misleading and thankfully almost immediately dispatched.  Earnestness swiftly and happily becomes a victim of a suspenseful writing and directing style, Garrard Conley’s tangled memoir of evangelism and gay conversion camps transformed into something like a psychological thriller.  The performances, the hot-button topic and the treatment conspire to elevate this into a work pervaded by fear – from the militaristic therapy style (by Flea!); the horrible gay rape by student Henry (Joe Alwyn) immediately followed by its perpetrator’s desire to confess; and the prospect of a life under the guidance of a subliterate evangelical programme leader who replaces great literature like Lolita and teens’ diaries with misspelled handbooks (Almighty Dog) and gene-o-grams that seek to out family members (A for Alcohol, Ab for Abortion … etc) in an atmosphere where the word ‘intellectual’ is rhymed with ‘sexual’.  And it becomes a battle of the sexes with an angry mother finally strong enough to put a halt to the misguided form of masculinity threatened by difference. Enough said. But it’s never often enough, in this depiction of a perverted  and sinister take on Christianity which has its coda in the end credits with tension dissipated and history overtaking the story. Edgerton is proving a highly interesting filmmaker, isn’t he? I’m gay, and I’m your son. And neither of those things are going to change. Okay? So let’s deal with that!

The 15.17 to Paris (2018)

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You Americans can’t take credit every time evil is defeated. In the early evening of August 21, 2015, a terrorist attack on Thalys train #9364 bound for Paris is thwarted by three young Americans on holiday in Europe. Their lives are followed from childhood at school together in Sacramento through finding their footing in life, to the series of unlikely events leading up to the attack when Anthony Sadler suggests they go backpacking together after military training in Portugal.  Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos wants to visit his penpal in Berlin and U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone joins them from the US and they are confronted by a gunman with 300 rounds of ammunition intending to carry out an atrocity on the 500 passengers … My God is bigger than your statistics. A unique project from Clint Eastwood, who has form in extolling the heroism of American servicemen (pace American Sniper, Flags of Our Fathers).  Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay is based on the book by Sadler, Skarlatos, Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern. What’s extraordinary is that it stars the very men who saved lives on the Amsterdam-Paris Express. Structurally, this posed problems because the incident to which everything leads only took a couple of minutes in real time. So, interspersed with a few scenes on the train as the attack unfolds, the bulk of the story is flashbacks and backstory – Anthony (Paul-Mikél Williams) and Alek (Bryce Gheisar) grow up with single moms in California until Alek is sent to live with his father in Oregon on the advice of the head teacher (Thomas Lennon) who believes the kids should be medicated for attention deficit disorder. Teamed up with misfit black kid Spencer (William Jennings) they love nothing better than playing war games and checking out WW2 battle plans. The teachers at their school (apparently with the exception of their history teacher) are male bullies which leads to unanswered questions about how these boys derived their special brand of bravery later on:  Anthony ends up working at Jamba Juice and enters his beloved military the hard way;  Alek joins the National Guard;  Spencer is in the Air Force. Spencer tells us with a smile when the boys first becomes friends, Black people don’t hunt. Their communication through their different paths is primarily via Skype. Anthony’s training is tough – he doesn’t get into his preferred area of service due to depth perception issues;  he has headphones clamped to him when the attack begins.  This is one of the ironic issues in the narrative, none highlighted because no theme beyond heroism is explored.  Since the real action is not until the film’s final sequences, the men’s friendship through adulthood is traced against their differing choices, with Alek winding up in Afghanistan, bored out of his brains doing the equivalent of mall security because as he relates, It’s all about ISIS now and they’re not here. The big irony of course is that it’s in their downtime that these soldiers encounter an Arab terrorist, on their European trip;  the moment of grace occurs when his machine gun jams as Anthony rugby tackles the assailant- a one in a million chance, Alek says.  There is only one serious casualty, Frenchman Mark Moogalian, while the terrorist has a concealed knife which he uses to slice Anthony’s neck, thankfully not fatally. Englishman Chris Norman was not hurt. The story concludes at the Elysée Palace, with real coverage of President François Hollande commending the men for their bravery. How amazing is that? The most exciting thing to happen to me on that train was meeting the son of a famous German writer who was reading the handwritten manuscript of a friend’s first novel. Who knows what anyone would do if something serious were to happen? This tells us and in precise detail. There is another issue at stake:  since he was a young boy Sadler was clearly preparing himself for greatness. That it occurred on a civilian trans-European train in the tourist season is immaterial. Islamic violence is now an everyday occurrence in the real world outside of battlegrounds;  it’s preparedness that matters. This is practically an experimental film and it walks a very difficult line between authenticity and dramatic tension but it is probably far too real to succeed as an entertainment.  These guys may not be actors and the narrative may cleave to actuality (even the scenic shots of Rome, Venice and Berlin) and the banality of real life (including poor line delivery) but when you think about it, they rock. Since you asked, the shooter, Ayoub El Khazzani, did not play himself.  There is a message in this film and if you didn’t get it, Hollande quotes Sadler: In a moment of crisis I would like people to understand that you need to do something

 

 

Fletch (1985)

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Are you putting a whole fist up there Doc? Irwin Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is an undercover reporter doing a drugs story while disguised as a homeless junkie on the beach when he’s approached by businessman Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) to kill him for $50,000 because he’s got bone cancer. Fletch identifies himself as Ted Nugent. He then investigates this fascinating proposition, donning a myriad of disguises and identities (we particularly like the 49c teeth), getting mired in Stanwyk’s marital disarray, property deals, police corruption involving Chief of Police Karlin (Joe Don Baker) – and murder. And he gets to know Alan’s LA wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in a mutually satisfying fashion. Win! Gregory Mcdonald’s novel gets a fast-moving adaptation from Andrew Bergman, a director in his own right (there was some additional uncredited work by fellow writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)  Chase gives the performance (or performances) that you’d expect – droll and deadpan, always amiable (yet plucky!) and the running joke about his bizarre expense claims is well done. Fine, funny lighthearted fare handled with his customary aplomb by director Michael Ritchie, energised by a typically zippy plinkety-plonk score from Harold Faltermeyer, the go-to composer for zeitgeisty mid-Eighties entertainment. Chase even dons an Afro to play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s a wonderful supporting cast including Geena Davis in the newsroom, David Harper (of The Waltons!) as ‘teenager’ and Kenneth Mars:  we are thrice blessed!

Drive, He Said (1971)

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Jack Nicholson had been busy in one of the leading roles for Bob Rafaelson in Five Easy Pieces so it was 1970 before he could begin shooting on his directing debut. He had already written a number of screenplays but he was over-committed at the time he wanted to make this. He was starring in Carnal Knowledge for director Mike Nichols so he began Drive… without a complete script.  Jeremy Larner adapted his own book but Nicholson wasn’t happy with it and had begun writing a second draft himself.  He brought in Robert Towne to complete his vision on set, with the added bonus of an acting role for his screenwriter friend – that of a cuckolded, broad-minded professor. Reclusive screenwriter and director Terrence Malick also did a rewrite – prior to making Badlands (1973). The film was completed on time for Nicholson to report to the East Coast for Mike Nichols.  He edited Drive… on weekends and downtime from shooting Carnal KnowledgeDrive… is an exposé of Sixties left-liberal attitudes, set on a campus infected with radicals  and replete with ready-made mythological references which must have appealed to Robert Towne:  a leading character called Hector  (who of course  as the eldest son of the king, led the Trojans in their war against the Greeks,  fought in single combat with Achilles and stormed the wall of the camp and set it alight). And, as if we don’t ‘get it,’ Hector’s major is Greek. The radical elements were complete with the casting in the lead role of William Tepper – a dead ringer for producer Bert Schneider, whose famously radical approach to production would lead Hollywood out of the old-style studio system but would embalm him in the mid-Seventies forever. There is a romantic element that interferes with male friendship: Gabriel is the guerrilla, played by Michael Margotta. Hector is besotted with Karen Black, married to Towne’s professor in the film. Her name, Olive, signifies her role as peace-maker in the narrative.  Gabriel runs away to escape the draft.  Hector is the warrior in love – he is in touch with nature (his surname, is, after all, Bloom.) He communes with the trees in the forest, stays in a log cabin and is generally at one with everything that is not ‘the Man.’ The film was entered in Cannes and Nicholson’s efforts were the subject of scorn.  It opened in New York on 13 June 1971 where it got mixed reviews.  BBS apparently offered more money to promote it but were deflected by Nicholson himself, who was depressed at the critical reception. But its lyricism, message and sub-Godardian construction have held up considerably better than Nicholson himself believed and its countercultural theme still produces a striking effect.The film is structured around Hector’s basketball games – the opening titles are underlined in a stunning sequence by the use of cult musician Moondog’s music – later paid homage by the Coen Brothers in The Big Leboswki (1998). The filming style in slow motion corresponds with much of Visions of Eight (1973), which would itself be an influence on Towne’s own film style in his directing debut, Personal Best. For more on Nicholson’s work with Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490221804&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon

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Superstar (1999)

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I realise that not all SNL knockoffs are passable but this one makes me laugh like a drain. Molly Shannon is orphaned Irish-American Catholic high schooler Mary Katherine Gallagher, a bespectacled geek in love with Sky Corrigan (Will Ferrell), the dreamboat – wow! – and dreaming of, yup, superstardom. Mary’s the rewind girl in the video store and she’s obsessed with TV movies which provide a lot of her best lines – maybe the most apposite coming from Portrait of a Teenage Centerfold! (starring Lori Singer).[If this in fact exists…]  She’s relegated to the class for retards and befriends fellow loser Helen (Emmy Laybourne). She attracts the attention of Slater (Harland Williams) the mute rebel biker newcomer to the school which provides more backstory and permits her Id’s vision of Jesus to pay him a visit at this movie’s version of a crossroads. She tries to achieve her ambitions by competing in a talent show for VD (‘with an opportunity to appear as an extra in a Hollywood movie with Positive Moral Values’). Sky’s cheerleader girlfriend – the most beautiful, the most popular, the most bulimic – Evian Graham (Elaine Hendrix) is her main rival but wheelchair-bound Grandma (Glynis Johns) doesn’t want Mary to take part. The scene where she tells Mary the truth behind her parents’ death is screamingly funny – they weren’t eaten by sharks but stomped to death Riverdance-style. Reader, I howled. She and Sky both think The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is the 19th-best TVM and when he and Evian split she spots an opening…This high school movie parody is for that special person in your life – your irrepressible inner gummy child! The perfect comedic holiday comedown. Written by Steve Koren and directed by Bruce McCulloch. Shannon is great. In fact, she’s a Superstar!

Delivery Man (2013)

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The redeeming and recuperating potential of paternity is the root of this very contemporary comedy about sperm donation and its many consequences. Useless meat truck delivery driver Vince Vaughn is immature, owes money and his policewoman girlfriend has just announced she’s pregnant when he discovers that his moneymaking activities in a clinic when he was in his twenties have yielded 533 children of whom 142 want him unmasked. This potentially lurid story manages to be both candid and sweet, principally through a well-managed screenplay by director Ken Scott (adapted from Starbuck by himself and Martin Petit for the earlier French-Canadian version) which places notions of family at the centre of everything. Vaughn decides against the advice of BFF Chris Pratt, stay at home dad of four chaotic children and on-off lawyer, and plays guardian angel to some of the hundreds of children he has unwittingly fathered when the clinic gave his donation to way too many recipients. We meet a few of them:  an aspiring actor wasting his life as a barista;  a basketball star;  a drug addict; a disabled man. He follows them and does them favours until his creditors beat up his dad who runs the family meat business and he has to follows the clinic into court to retain his anonymity. Meanwhile, his girlfriend is approaching her due date … A film about a very modern problem which asks questions about identity, family and fatherhood and doesn’t blame anyone for this social chaos – at all!