Boy Erased

Written and directed by Golden Globe-nominated Australian actor Joel Edgerton who is best known for 2015’s The Gift and 2016’s Loving, Boy Erased is a powerfully-acted drama that explores gay conversion therapy and its negative impact on the LGBT participants. The story follows the emotionally fragile Jared Eamons, played by the terrific young Oscar-nominated actor Lucas Hedges, who is sent to a religious-oriented gay conversion therapy program by his deeply religious parents living in small town America. His father Marshall, played by Oscar winner Russell Crowe, is a local car dealer and a Baptist preacher who is horrified to learn that his son is homosexual, while his mother Nancy, played by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, is equally shocked but slightly more sympathetic. In a series of flashbacks, the audience witnesses Jared’s struggles with his sexual orientation in which he tries to deny it as a result of his religious and conservative upbringing. Eventually, he comes to terms with who he is after a particularly traumatic experience in college and decides to come out to his indignant parents who believe that he can be cured at a gay conversion therapy center. While undergoing so-called treatment under the guidance of the leader Victor Sykes, played by Golden Globe nominee Joel Edgerton, the predominantly young men undergo verbal and emotional abuse supposedly designed to help them overcome their homosexuality. Jared becomes friends with the other participants and comes to resent Victor and the other employees who lack the sympathy to understand what they are going through in a society that tells them that they are morally wrong and deficient. Through his subtle yet emotionally provocative performance, Lucas Hedges brings a level of realism that allows the audience to truly understand how damaging and ineffective gay conversion therapy is on the LGBT participants who are sometimes forced to remain at the facility against their will. The fact that the movie is based on a true story and countless other experiences makes it even more heartbreaking to see the level of torment many of the victims go through during and after what is described as helping homosexuals become straight. Overall, I found it to be a truly extraordinary and harrowing account of the inner workings of gay conversion therapy and how it does nothing besides scarring those who undergo this so-called therapy; the stellar acting performances from the extremely talented cast helps to humanize the LGBT participants or victims as well as their well-intentioned but flawed family members.

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

The tenth overall installment in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World movie franchise beginning with the first Harry Potter released in 2001 and the sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a surprisingly complicated mess of a movie that tries to recapture the magic of the hugely successful Harry Potter universe, and the only real merits are to appeal to Harry Potter fans and the use of fantastical CGI. Set a few years after the original Fantastic Beasts and many decades before the appearance of Harry Potter, the plot follows the exploits of the lowly wizard Newt Scamander, played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, who must track down and disrupt the malevolent desires of the recently imprisoned dark wizard Grindelwald, played by the always creepy-looking Oscar nominee Johnny Depp. Suspicious of his connections to Grindelwald, the British Ministry of Magic also tries to find the villain of the first movie Credence, played by Ezra Miller, who they believe may be working with and for Grindelwald. Newt is surprised to run into his non-magic Muggle friend Jacob, played by Dan Fogler, and Jacob’s magical girlfriend Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, who join the investigation into Grindelwald and the manipulated Credence. In a nostalgic nod to Harry Potter fans, Newt eventually meets up with a young Dumbledore, played by Oscar nominee Jude Law, at Hogwarts School made famous in Harry Potter because it is believed that only the powerful Dumbledore can defeat the equally powerful Grindelwald. As they continue to pursue Grindelwald, Newt along with Jacob and Queenie as well as his love interest Tina, played by Katherine Waterston, find themselves in Paris and trying to find information at the French Ministry of Magic. From there, the characters are taken to the climax of the movie where Grindelwald has gathered all pureblood wizards to join his plot to take over the Muggle world. He uses his dark magic skills to practically force wizards to take up his cause, and Newt along with his allies engage in a battle with Grindelwald in a fantastical CGI sequence. Overall, I found it to have an overly complex storyline that was often hard to follow for the average moviegoer not well versed in the Wizarding World, and strangely there were not many scenes with the titular character Grindelwald or much about his so-called crimes. Unfortunately, I felt that the franchise is reaching a point where it is overextending itself in order to simply make money at the box office and appease the rabid fans of anything related to Harry Potter.

The Front Runner

Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Jason Reitman who is best known for 2007’s Juno and 2009’s Up in the Air, The Front Runner is a fascinating political drama about the Democratic rising star politician Gary Hart whose aspirations for the presidency came crashing down after the revelation of a scandal during the election of 1988; the film is marked by a terrific ensemble cast led by Hugh Jackman. We first meet the charismatic and Kennedy-esque Colorado Senator Gary Hart, played by the terrific Academy Award nominee Hugh Jackman, after his failed bid for the Democratic nomination in the 1984 presidential election. Buoyed by support from the youth and the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Gary Hart decides to run again in 1988 and quickly emerges as the front runner for the nomination and even the presidency. Alongside his strong wife Lee, played by Academy Award nominee Vera Farmiga, he embarks on a refreshing political campaign in which he has a deep understanding of the issues and is able to convey it to enthusiastic voters. His highly energetic campaign is run by his officious and highly skilled campaign manager Bill Dixon, played by Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons, whose job becomes increasingly difficult once a story in the Miami Herald goes public revealing that he is having an extramarital affair with a young woman he meets on a chartered yacht out of Miami. The story is discovered by ambitious journalist Tom Fielder working for the Miami Herald who is eventually given the go-ahead to publish the story by the editor played by Kevin Pollak. Fielder along with another journalist played by comedian Bill Burr travel to DC to confront Senator Hart in the alley outside his townhome to ask him questions about the alleged affair. At the time, the personal lives of politicians were largely kept out of the media, and the publication of the story set the precedent for investigating the private lives of politicians, especially if it involves a scandal. Becoming more of a movie about journalism, the film also explores the initial hesitancy of the Washington Post and its famed editor Ben Bradlee, played by Alfred Molina, to follow up on the Miami Herald article that was at first deemed tabloid material and beneath the national press. Gary Hart’s campaign with the help of his hard-working manager goes into crisis mode and tries to figure out how to revive the flailing aspirations of Senator Hart. The movie does a good job of portraying his mistress Donna Rice, played by Sara Paxton, in a sympathetic light and shows how she had to go into hiding in order to avoid the media who continually harasses her for information about her affair. It also explores the intense relationship between Gary Hart and his strong-willed wife who expresses her anger at his indiscretions but tries to stay at his side as his campaign goes off the rails. Although the script sometimes veers off-course and could have explored the important issues in greater depth, the film itself becomes a good starting point for discussing the issues at hand that are even more relevant in today’s society with the prevalence of cable news and social media affecting modern politics. In addition, Hugh Jackman brings his greatest performance to the screen by embodying a flawed yet talented politician who appears remorseful for cheating on his wife and actually caring about the direction of the United States even after his presidential hopes are dramatically and publicly dashed. Overall, I found it to be a intriguing political and journalism movie that kept me engaged as a result of its true life aspects about such a transformative scandal that still has repercussions to this day, and I felt it was made even better by the truly top-notch acting performances, especially from Hugh Jackman.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Based on the 2015 book of the same name written by David Lagercrantz as part of the Millennium novel series begun by the late Swedish author Steig Larsson beginning in 2005 with the posthumous publication of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is an average reboot of the 2011 American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which itself is a remake of the 2009 Swedish feature film, that relies too heavily on its action sequences and not enough on the fascinating main character who has now been played by three different actresses. The story follows the exploits of a punk hacker with a complex background named Lisbeth Salander, played by Golden Globe-winner Claire Foy in a truly mold-breaking performance, who finds herself caught in the web of an international criminal conspiracy to steal a software program that gives the user complete control of the world’s nuclear arsenal. With the help of her longtime partner and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, played by Icelandic actor Sverrir Gudnason, she discovers that the developer of the potentially catastrophic program who previously worked for the American National Security Agency named Frans Balder, played by British actor Stephen Merchant, and his brilliant young son are in danger and must be protected against Lisbeth’s enemies. At the same time, a special agent with the NSA named Edwin Needham, played by LaKeith Stanfield, travels to Sweden to search for the missing program known as Firefall before it falls into the wrong hands. Eventually, Edwin and Lisbeth team up to find out who is really behind the theft of the powerful software tool, and she discovers that her estranged sister who was abused by their father may have been involved as the head of a criminal organization. The film scratches the surface of the personal life of the enigmatic Lisbeth who is able to elude authorities for many years despite her striking appearance, and it also explores her vigilante feminism in which she targets male abusers caused by her past sexual abuse and bisexual tendencies. However, unlike the original Swedish books and movies, the audience does not fully grasp who she really is, outside of being a righteous hacker and action heroine. A majority of the film is comprised of elaborate action sequences in which Lisbeth is chased by authorities and criminals through the streets of Stockholm on her motorcycle. Overall, I came away with the feeling that this most recent adaptation does not add much to the already rich literary and cinematic canon about the deeply compelling and complicated character of Lisbeth Salander; unfortunately, the film devolves into a rather typical action flick that tries too hard to reboot such a famous character.

Viper Club

Directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz best known for the critically acclaimed 2011 film Circumstance, Viper Club is a surprisingly unsatisfying dramatic film about a mother coming to grips with her son being taken hostage as a freelance war correspondent, and the only bright spot of the movie is the acting given by Susan Sarandon. The story follows a longtime emergency room nurse named Helen, played by Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon in definitely not her best role, desperate to free her son who has been captured by a terrorist group while on assignment in the war-torn Middle East. It follows her quest to plead with American government officials, especially the FBI, to assist with her son’s case by either paying the ransom or authorizing military action to rescue him. Since it is illegal for the government or any American citizen to pay ransom to terrorists, Helen eventually gets in touch with a secret group of fellow journalists and wealthy benefactors who offer to help her meet the demands of her son’s hostage takers. Known as the Viper Club, the organization’s de facto leader is a wealthy woman whose son was also held for ransom named Charlotte, played by Emmy Award-winning actress Edie Falco best known for her role in the HBO TV series The Sopranos, and the logistics are run by the formidable Sam, played by Golden Globe-nominated actor Matt Bomer. Throughout much of the film, Helen struggles with keeping her son’s dire situation secret even from her closest coworkers and family members and figuring out a way to go around the government to finally free her only child from captivity. Although the Viper Club is able to raise a significant amount of money given by sympathetic wealthy donors towards paying the ransom, Helen eventually realizes that her son may never return home and that she may have to live with the knowledge that her son could be murdered as a result of his extremely dangerous passion to pursue a career in war journalism. Overall, I was somewhat disappointed by the high expectations that I had for the movie, with its unique and fascinating plot and well-known cast, and came away from the movie wanting more action and drama that I assumed would be part of the storytelling; the obviously talented Susan Sarandon gave her best, but ultimately her performance was not enough to pull off a compelling film.

A Private War

Directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman best known for 2017’s City of Ghosts and 2015’s Cartel Land, A Private War is one of the most powerful films depicting the horrors of war brilliantly told through the eyes of a real-life war correspondent and is elevated by the extraordinary acting performances. The story tells the true story of famed American journalist Marie Colvin, played by Oscar-nominated British actress Rosamund Pike in a career-best performance, who works for the London-based Sunday Times covering foreign wars throughout the world over the course of several decades. The film itself chronicles her riveting story from the year 2000 and through the climax of the movie in 2012 as Colvin perilously journeys to the war-ravaged city of Homs during the brutal Syrian Civil War that is still ongoing today. The talented filmmaker whose documentaries explored violent conflicts in Syria and Mexico expertly crafts what feels like extremely realistic portrayals of the hellish nature of war. Although she was not as recognized in her native country the United States, Marie Colvin was considered one of the greatest war correspondents who courageously went into extremely dangerous combat situations in order to report back to the world of the atrocities perpetrated during wartime. One of the first battle sequences shows her working in Sri Lanka in 2001 when she throws caution to the wind by being in the middle of a gunfight in which a grenade explodes resulting in her losing her left eye. Eventually, over the course of other conflicts, including the war in Iraq, she meets the famed war photographer Paul Conroy, played by Jamie Dornan, and enlists him as her partner and photographer. The true impact of the film involves the personal struggles that Colvin experiences on her trips back home to London and while on assignment as a result of her immersion in horrific conflicts. She most likely has PTSD which manifests itself in her inability to maintain romantic relationships and her propensity to drink too much alcohol. Pike’s remarkable performance shows just how fearless and complicated a figure that Marie Colvin was: she often wore a eyepatch and designer bras and could easily blend in in the high society parties of London as well as conversing with brutal dictators such as the Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. Similar to her lifestyle, the audience is taken on an emotional roller coaster between action-packed traumatic war sequences and her somewhat more normal life back in London even though she experiences nightmares and self-medicates with alcohol. Her romantic relationships are equally as complicated as she sporadically continues a sexual relationship with her ex-husband and begins a new love affair with the wealthy Tony Shaw, played by Stanley Tucci. Showing her bravado, she often ignores the safety concerns of her editor Sean Ryan, played by the terrific British actor Tom Hollander, and ventures into increasingly life-threatening situations. In one of the most affecting war sequences in cinematic history, the heart-wrenching movie concludes with the intensely violent and catastrophic siege of the Syrian city Homs, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians caused by the Assad regime. Tragically, Marie Colvin becomes the subject of what could have been one of her many stories about the personal effects that war has on its victims. Overall, I found it to be a top-notch movie about journalism, in particular the thankless job of war correspondents who put their lives at risk on a daily basis, that is brought to life by the magnificent acting from Rosamund Pike who gives an Oscar-worthy performance. The film’s subject matter is particularly significant at a time when journalists are criticized during today’s highly divisive political climate, and it shows the importance of journalists who often risk everything in order to get a story.

Wildlife

Directed by first-time filmmaker Paul Dano who is best known as a critically acclaimed actor in such films as 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine and 2007’s There Will Be Blood, Wildlife is a slow burn emotionally subdued independent drama revolving around a dysfunctional marriage and is marked by terrific acting performances from the leads. Beautifully set in the 1960s in the small town of Great Falls, Montana, the film follows a young married couple Jeannette, played by the Oscar-nominated British actress Carey Mulligan, and Jerry Brinson, played by the Oscar-nominated American actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who are undergoing extreme marital difficulties after Jerry gets fired from his job as a golf pro. Much of the film is from the eyes of their fourteen-year-old son Joe, played by newcomer Ed Oxenbould, who is witnessing the disintegration of his parents’ marriage as he is coming of age himself in a new community trying to make his own friends. Metaphorically representing the slowly faltering marriage, a large looming wildfire is encroaching on the town, which forces Jerry to haphazardly decide to become a firefighter fighting the large fire in the open wilderness of Montana. As he is away from the family during an extended time, the increasingly restless Jeannette rebelliously decides to have her own life even at the peril of neglecting her son. Consequently, she begins a romantic relationship with a wealthy and much older car dealer named Warren Miller, played by Emmy Award-nominated actor Bill Camp, and rather brazenly reveals her extramarital affair to the confused Joe. To a rather remarkable degree, the first-time director deftly crafts an intimate glimpse into a disintegrating marriage that has profound effects on the child, all set against the backdrop of the open spaces of Montana in which wildlife and wildfires are as destructive as the flawed relationships depicted in the film. The movie takes a careful route that details what it must feel like to be in a slowly dying marriage in which the separation evolves over time and does not occur in drastic fashion, similar to what it must be like be in real life. Overall, I found it to be the ultimate actors’ film that allows the extremely talented actors to shine in a well-crafted drama that is neither over-the-top or sensational; the top-notch performances allow the filmmaker to portray the tragic and unavoidable consequences of being in a hopelessly irreparable romantic relationship.