DVD/Stream of the Week: LOVING – the love story that made history

LOVING Credit: Ben Rothstein/Focus Features
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in LOVING. Credit: Ben Rothstein/Focus Features

The landmark 1967 US Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia overturned state laws that banned interracial marriage. Loving is the story of the real couple behind that ruling, and it’s a satisfying love story of two modest people who would rather not have been forced to make history.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton convincingly bring the lead characters to life. As the more vibrant character, Negga is especially winning. Edgerton is just as good as he plays the stolid and far less demonstrative husband.

Marton Csokas, with his pitiless, piercing eyes, is remarkably effective as the Virginia sheriff dead set on enforcing Virginia’s racist statute in the most personally intrusive way. Too often, actors seem to be impersonating Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night when they play racist Southern sheriffs, but Csokas brings some originality to his performance.

Loving is directed by one of my favorites, Jeff Nichols of Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud (which he calls his “Arkansas Trilogy”). Nichols specializes in leisurely paced dramas that evoke their settings in the rural South. Nichols’ languid style works well in telling stories that have moments of shock and violence. However, there is no dramatic courtroom face off or thrilling high point as we watch these people live their workaday lives, so Loving drags a bit in places. Nevertheless, Nichols does an excellent job of depicting the ongoing dread of racist terror that these people lived under.

Michael Shannon, who owes his career breakthrough to Nichols’ Shotgun Stories and stars in his Take Shelter and Mud, shows up in a sparkling cameo as a LIFE magazine photographer. If you perform a Google image search for “Richard Mildred Loving”, you’ll find the real LIFE photos, which make it clear that Nichols went to great lengths to make the characters and the settings look very, very much like the Lovings and their environment. I don’t need “lookalikes” in a historical movie, but the makeup and wardrobe on Edgerton and Negga (and especially Richard Loving’s mother) are remarkably close to the real people. And the scenes at the drag race and on the Loving’s sofa are recreated in almost chilling accuracy.

I studied Loving v. Virginia, along with other major civil rights and individual rights cases, in law school in the mid-1970s . Then, the idea that a government could outlaw a marriage between people of different races (and even the word “anti-miscegenation”) already seemed ridiculously obsolete and perversely quaint. But I hadn’t realized that the ruling in Loving v Virginia was only 8 years old at the time I studied it. California had such a law, too, which wasn’t repealed until 1948, and I have a friend whose Filipino and Mexican-American parents were kept from marrying by that statute.

History is made by real people. Loving is both good history and a watchable personal story. You can watch on DVD from Netflix and Redbox or stream it from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

LOVING: the love story that made history

LOVING Credit: Ben Rothstein/Focus Features
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in LOVING.  Credit: Ben Rothstein/Focus Features

The landmark 1967 US Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia overturned state laws that banned interracial marriage.  Loving is the story of the real couple behind that ruling, and it’s a satisfying love story of two modest people who would rather not have been forced to make history.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton convincingly bring the lead characters to life.  As the more vibrant character, Negga is especially winning.  Edgerton is just as good as he plays the stolid and far less demonstrative husband.

Marton Csokas, with his pitiless, piercing eyes, is remarkably effective as the Virginia sheriff dead set on enforcing Virginia’s racist statute in the most personally intrusive way.  Too often, actors seem to be impersonating Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night when they play racist Southern sheriffs, but Csokas brings some originality to his performance.

Loving is directed by one of my favorites, Jeff Nichols of Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud (which he calls his “Arkansas Trilogy”).  Nichols specializes in leisurely paced dramas that evoke their settings in the rural South.  Nichols’ languid style works well in telling stories that have moments of shock and violence.  However, there is no dramatic courtroom face off or thrilling high point as we watch these people live their workaday lives, so Loving drags a bit in places.  Nevertheless, Nichols does an excellent job of depicting the ongoing dread of racist terror that these people lived under.

Michael Shannon, who owes his career breakthrough to Nichols’ Shotgun Stories and stars in his Take Shelter and Mud, shows up in a sparkling cameo as a LIFE magazine photographer.  If you perform a Google image search for “Richard Mildred Loving”, you’ll find the real LIFE photos, which make it clear that Nichols went to great lengths to make the characters and the settings look very, very much like the Lovings and their environment.  I don’t need “lookalikes” in a historical movie, but the makeup and wardrobe on Edgerton and Negga (and especially Richard Loving’s mother) are remarkably close to the real people.  And the scenes at the drag race and on the Loving’s sofa are recreated in almost chilling accuracy.

I studied Loving v. Virginia, along with other major civil rights and individual rights cases, in law school in the mid-1970s .  Then, the idea that a government could outlaw a marriage between people of different races (and even the word “anti-miscegenation”) already seemed ridiculously obsolete and perversely quaint.  But I hadn’t realized that the ruling in Loving v Virginia was only 8 years old at the time I studied it. California had such a law, too, which wasn’t repealed until 1948, and I have a friend whose Filipino and Mexican-American parents were kept from  marrying by that statute.

History is made by real people.  Loving is both good history and a watchable personal story.

DVD/Stream of the Week: THE GIFT – three people revealed

Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in THE GIFT
Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in THE GIFT

The character-driven The Gift is more than a satisfying suspense thriller – it’s a well-made and surprisingly thoughtful film that I keep mulling over. It’s a filmmaking triumph for writer-director-producer-actor Joel Edgerton, the hunky Australian action star (the Navy Seal leader in Zero Dark Thirty).

Simon (Jason Batemen), a take-no-prisoners corporate riser, has moved back to Southern California with his sweetly meek and anxiety-riddled wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall). In a chance encounter, they meet Gordo (Edgerton), who knew Simon in high school. Gordo is an odd duck, but the couple feels obligated to meet him socially when he keeps dropping by with welcome gifts. At first, The Gift seems like a comedy of manners, as Jason and Robyn try to figure out a socially appropriate escape from this awkward entanglement. But then, the audience senses that Gordo may be dangerously unhinged, and it turns out that Simon and Gordo have more of a past than first apparent. Things get scary.

Edgerton uses – and even toys with – all the conventions of the suspense thriller – the woman alone, the suspicious noise in the darkened house, the feeling of being watched. And there’s a cathartic Big Reveal at the end.

But The Gift isn’t a plot-driven shocker – although it works on that level. Instead it’s a study of the three characters. Just who is Gordo? And who is Simon? And who is Robyn? None of these characters are what we think at the movie’s start. Each turns out to be capable of much more than we could imagine. I particularly liked Bateman’s performance as a guy who is masking his true character through the first half of the movie, but dropping hints along the way. Hall is as good as she is always, and Edgerton really nails Gordo’s off-putting affect.

And, after you’ve watched The Gift, consider this – just what is the gift in the title?

The Gift is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and to stream from Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and a host of cable/satellite PPV platforms.

BLACK MASS: psychopathy and ambition is a nasty combination

Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS
Joel Edgerton and Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS

The excellent crime drama Black Mass tells the true life story of how gangster James “Whitey” Bulger built his Boston Irish gang into a major crime empire under the protection of the FBI.  As if we needed an illustrative example, Bulger is proof that psychopathy and ambition is a really nasty combination.  And, as Black Mass points out with the FBI characters, even ambition alone can prove to be a vulnerability.

Here’s what really happened:  Bulger (Johnny Depp), the ruthless leader of the Winter Hill Gang in South Boston was approached by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) for help in eradicating Boston’s Italian Mafia.   Connolly was as ambitious as Bulger, and the two men shared Southie  roots.  It was in Bulger’s interest to rid himself of the competition, and he parlayed Connolly’s career-climbing grasping into a de facto amnesty that allowed Bulger to expand his murderous enterprises throughout Boston and beyond – even to Florida jai alai and gun running to Northern Ireland.

It’s an amazing tale, and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) tells it very well, letting Depp and Edgerton drive the story by inhabiting a pair of characters that become a toxic mixture.  With an erect swagger and some of the coldest eyes in cinema history, Johnny Depp is superb as the feral Bulger.  The trailer below includes his life lesson to a small boy around the family breakfast table that shows his world view.  When the eyes go cold, Depp’s Bulger can terrorize with a touch, a word or even just a glance.

Joel Edgerton is equally effective as the corrupted FBI agent Connolly, who uses Southie bombast and bluster to escape the snares of office politics.  Alas,  it all finally catches up to him when a new prosecutor directs fresh eyes on Boston’s crime scene.  Until recently, I’ve known Edgerton as an Australian action star (he was the the Navy Seal team leader in Zero Dark Thirty and one of the thugs in Animal Kingdom). Edgerton recently wrote, directed and stared in the excellent psychological thriller The Gift, and his performance in Black mass reinforces that he’s a very talented and versatile filmmaker.

The cast is very deep and uniformly excellent, including Julianne Nicolson, Juno Temple, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris and House of Cards) and Dakota Johnson.  Besides Depp and Edgerton, three other actors popped off the screen for me:

  • Rory Cochrane plays Bulger’s partner Steve Flemmi.  Cochrane is a veteran actor whose most memorable role is probably as the pothead Slater in Dazed and Confused.  Now filled out in middle age, he plays a guy who is about half of Depp’s scenes, but says very, very little.  As they say, the best acting is reacting, and Cochrane just chews gum and observes, letting his eyes tell us what he is thinking and feeling.
  • David Harbour plays Connolly’s FBI partner, a guy who becomes entangled in a web not of his own doing.  One of the most riveting scenes in Black Mass, he becomes terrorized about, of all things, a recipe for a steak marinade.  Harbour is a reliable veteran, but this is among his very best work.
  • Peter Sarsgaard is always brilliant, and here he gets to become a tweaked out lowlife who involuntarily giggles when he thinks that getting handed a valise full of cash is a good thing when it’s not.

Black Mass is a top rate crime story very well-told.  No more and no less.

One more thing:  there is a string of up-close-and-personal murders depicted here, including two by strangulation and a host of gunshot executions.  It’s not particularly gruesome by the standards of modern crime movies, but DON’T TAKE YOUR 4-YEAR-OLD.  A couple at my screening did just that.  What are people thinking?

THE GIFT: three people revealed

Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in THE GIFT
Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in THE GIFT

The character-driven The Gift is more than a satisfying suspense thriller – it’s a well-made and surprisingly thoughtful film that I keep mulling over.  It’s a filmmaking triumph for writer-director-producer-actor Joel Edgerton, the hunky Australian action star (the Navy Seal leader in Zero Dark Thirty).

Simon (Jason Batemen), a take-no-prisoners corporate riser, has moved back to Southern California with his sweetly meek and anxiety-riddled wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall).  In a chance encounter, they meet Gordo (Edgerton), who knew Simon in high school.  Gordo is an odd duck, but the couple feels obligated to meet him socially when he keeps dropping by with welcome gifts.  At first, The Gift seems like a comedy of manners, as Jason and Robyn try to figure out a socially appropriate escape from this awkward entanglement.  But then, the audience senses that Gordo may be dangerously unhinged, and it turns out that Simon and Gordo have more of a past than first apparent.  Things get scary.

Edgerton uses – and even toys with – all the conventions of the suspense thriller – the woman alone, the suspicious noise in the darkened house, the feeling of being watched.  And there’s a cathartic Big Reveal at the end.

But The Gift isn’t a plot-driven shocker – although it works on that level.  Instead it’s a study of the three characters.  Just who is Gordo?  And who is Simon?  And who is Robyn?  None of these characters are what we think at the movie’s start.  Each turns out to be capable of much more than we could imagine.  I particularly liked Bateman’s performance as a guy who is masking his true character through the first half of the movie, but dropping hints along the way.  Hall is as good as she is always, and Edgerton really nails Gordo’s off-putting affect.

And, after you’ve watched The Gift, consider this – just what is the gift in the title?