Russell Crowe

Boy Erased

20/01/21

Netflix

An eighteen year old boy thinks he might be gay.

When his father, a baptist minister, learns of it, he has his son unceremoniously deposited in a ‘school’ for conversion therapy. Here, the boy is subjected to a daily diet of verbal abuse, bullying and indoctrination. This may sound like the plot of some sinister dystopian novel, but Boy Erased is based upon the real life experiences of Garrard Conley, who underwent just such an ordeal in the early 2000s. The film bears comparison with The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, which related a similarly distressing tale.

In this version of Conley’s story, Garrard is Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), hiding his sexuality from his domineering father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), and his protective mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman). But Marshall begins to have suspicions about his son when the boy’s relationship with a local girl fizzles out and, when Jared returns unexpectedly from college after being raped by one of his classmates, the truth soon emerges.

Jared finds his day-to-day life handed over to the harsh ministrations of Chief Therapist at ‘Love in Action,’ Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also directed the film, based on Conley’s memoir). Jared doesn’t protest his harsh treatment – on the contrary, he tries his best to fit in at the school, where he’s surrounded by a whole collection of other characters receiving ‘therapy’. Some of the inmates accept the religious hogwash they are being fed and do their best to change their ways – and then there are those, like Anders (Devin Michael), who have learned to play the system and convince their teachers that they are actually ‘making progress.’

To give the film its due, it’s nicely nuanced. Crowe’s character, for instance, isn’t the stereotyped tub-thumper he could so easily have been, but is shown to be a loving father, struggling with the tenets of a religion in which he truly believes, and one that he has devoted most of his life to teaching. And Kidman’s Nancy – another in a whole series of chameleonic screen characters – is perhaps the film’s strongest suit, the scenes between mother and son having particular resonance. When Nancy finally decides to stand up for Jared’s rights, it’s a moment to be celebrated.

While it may seem incredible that such institutions can be allowed to exist in the modern age, the truth is that they can and do – I have recently heard testimony to the existence of just such a place in the UK – and Boy Erased makes a compelling argument for their total eradication.

A harrowing tale, but one worth telling.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

True History of the Kelly Gang

28/02/20

True confession. When I was a much younger man, I was obsessed with the story of Ned Kelly. I read several accounts of his exploits, which gripped my imagination and, in 1970, saw Tony Richardson’s underrated biopic, which – once I got used to Mick Jagger’s alarming ‘Oirish’ accent – had me fully onboard. I even watched Heath Ledger’s fairly forgettable attempt to embody Australia’s best known folk hero in 2003. What is it about the infamous outlaw that continues to exert such a powerful hold?

In True History of the Kelly Gang (loosely based on Peter Carey’s Booker-winning novel, which I’ve also read), director Justin Kurzel doesn’t so much reinvent Kelly’s history as place a bomb under all that we know about the man and blow it to smithereens.

To give him his due, the resulting film, which is neatly divided into three chapters, is for the most part gripping. We open in the 1860s, where a young Ned (Orlando Schwert) is living in the outback in absolute squalor. He’s in thrall to his manipulative mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), who is turning tricks for the local constabulary in the shape of Sgt O’ Neil (Charlie Hunnam) in order to put food into the mouths of her children. Ned soon finds himself apprenticed to the outwardly charming bush ranger, Harry Power (an excellent Russell Crowe), and is schooled in the ways of the outlaw and the doctrines of toxic masculinity.

In the second section, the adult Ned (George Mckay) returns from a long spell in prison to find his mother still ruling the roost and living with a Californian horse thief, who has enlisted Ned’s brother into his trade. During a visit to the local brothel, Ned meets up with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) and with Mary Hearn (an underused Thomasin McKenzie), with whom he promptly falls in love. This second section is already starting to feel rather strange. Ned appears to be dressed in suspiciously contemporary style: he sports a dodgy mullet and has a predilection for writhing around half naked, like an embryonic Iggy Pop. Kurzel seems to be invoking parallels with the British punk rock movement here and images of Kelly looking suitably aggressive in front of a Union Jack reinforce this notion. Still, so far, the conceit works brilliantly.

It’s in the third section where everything becomes spectacularly unhinged. Kelly’s sudden descent into apparent madness overwhelms the material. The Kelly gang run around in dresses – seemingly a reference to groups of Irish agrarian rebels, known as The Sons of Sieve. They blacken their faces, enlist followers and launch an ill conceived attempt to attack a train full of police officers. The famous suits of armour (always, I think, the most fascinating aspect of Kelly’s story) barely get a look in. Mayhem descends but, unfortunately, so does bewilderment.

In the end, it all feels too self-consciously weird – and apparent luminosity of the ranks of police officers, appearing in the climactic gun battle, is just too opaque for comfort. While I applaud Kurzel for having the guts to take on such a revered Australian institution in so fearless a manner, I have to conclude that this feels like a bold experiment that doesn’t quite work.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney 

The Mummy

10/05/17

When I heard this was looming on the cinematic horizon, my first thought was, ‘What, again?’

But then I realised it was actually as far back as 1999 and 2001 respectively that Steven Sommers enjoyed box-office hits with his two instalments of sarcophagus-bothering and, as it transpires, this is something rather different: the opening salvo in a series of ‘Dark Universe’ films. Inspired, no doubt, by what Marvel and DC are currently doing with their back catalogue, the bigwigs at Universal have clearly decided to raid their vaults and resurrect some of their most celebrated monster-themed hits. This initial offering has Tom Cruise attached, which is probably as close as you can get, in these troubled times, to a guarantee of bums-on-seats.

Here, Cruise plays Nick Morton, a not altogether honourable guy, who spends his time in war zones, ‘liberating’ antiquities (i.e. nicking them and flogging them on the black market). In war torn Iraq, with his sidekick, Chris (Jake Johnson), he stumbles upon a tomb – an Egyptian tomb, which is around a thousand miles away from where it ought to be. The audience has already been tipped off in a pre-credits sequence as to the provenance of said tomb (there’s a lengthy preamble about crusaders and murdered pharaohs), but what Nick doesn’t know is that this place is actually a repository for the undead soul of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutell), who has been waiting five thousand years to be reborn. What’s more, one glance at Nick and she’s smitten by him – probably because, just like her, Cruise is somewhat older than he looks and incredibly well-preserved.

At any rate, Nick quickly finds himself possessed by Ahmanet and suffering from confusing visions of shifting sands and a mysterious jewel-handled dagger. Antiquities expert (and convenient love interest) Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) promptly whisks him over to London for a meeting with Dr Jekyll – yes, that Dr Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and many supernatural shenanigans ensue, replete with all the usual suspects – rats, spiders and scarab beetles.

This is actually a bit of a romp and, though there are some fairly grisly sequences, scattered throughout the proceedings, the accent is mostly on humour. Director Alex Kurtzman keeps the pot bubbling and never lets things get too bogged down in detail. The film occasionally borrows quite shamelessly from other hit movies– a repeated trope with Nick talking to an undead companion could have been lifted directly from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London – but there is at least a decent script that actually displays a modicum of knowledge about Egyptian mythology. The more eagle-eyed viewers may spot items on display in Dr Jekyll’s laboratory that hint at other Universal products waiting in the wings for their chance to step back into the spotlight. Is that a vampire’s skull in a glass jar? I wonder, who can that belong to? And that scaly hand… The Creature From the Black Lagoon? At any rate, next for this treatment is The Bride of Frankenstein, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Horror movie purists will undoubtedly find themselves disappointed by The Mummy – it never really conjures up enough menace to totally creep you out – but those who, like me, go along with very low expectations, could actually wind up pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer. Give it a chance. It might be just your cup of mercury.

4 Stars

Philip Caveney

The Nice Guys

2629

12/06/16

Shane Black is an interesting fellow. A former screenwriter who’s status went meteoric after the runaway success of the Lethal Weapon franchise, his career went into the doldrums after later multi-million dollar scripts failed to put bums on seats in enough numbers to earn back the huge advances. But in 2005, his first film as  director, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang earned his some much-needed brownie points (at least from the critics, even if it didn’t pull in huge crowds)  and his subsequent helming of Iron Man 3 made him, once again, a bankable name, a big hitter.

So, he has the chance to start over and here’s The Nice Guys, which has all the classic Shane Black tropes: essentially a buddie movie, it features two mismatched characters bumbling their way through a complicated plot, milking some genuine big laughs along the way and pausing every so often for a insanely high-powered, ultra violent action sequence. Throw in the evocative 70s setting and this is everything that Inherent Vice could have been if it had bothered to incorporate a decent plot.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a former cop, now fallen on hard times and reduced to beating up people for a living, something he does to the very best of his ability. One such person is Holland Marsh (Ryan Gosling) possibly the world’s most inept Private Detective, but when it transpires that both men are involved in looking for the same missing person, a young runaway who has recently been linked to the tragic death of infamous porn star, Misty Mountains, it seems expedient to join forces and pool their ‘expertise.’ Sadly, this is something that’s in rather short supply, but luckily Marsh’s precocious teenage daughter Holly (an appealing performance by Angourie Rice) has enough chutzpah to help them through. As the plot unfolds it transpires that there’s a conspiracy at the heart of the story that goes all the way to the top of the slippery pole.

Crowe and Gosling make an appealing double act. Gosling is particularly good, wringing every last drop out of his assured comic performance, (this is a man who can’t break a window without severing a major vein) while Crowe is, for once, actually rather likeable as a bluff, hard-hitting guy with anger management issues. While you could argue that the film is essentially a big piece of fluff, what fabulously accomplished fluff it is! It breezes effortlessly through its 116 minutes running time and actually leaves you wanting more. A coda suggests that there could be a second adventure for these two and on the form of this one, I’d say that’s a decent suggestion.

You’ll come out relishing some of Marsh’s more idiotic lines. A particular favourite? ‘Yeah, well you know who else was ‘just following orders?’ Hitler!’

Priceless.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney