Movie Review ~ Luce


The Facts
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Synopsis: A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz, Astro, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Julius Onah

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If there’s one thing that’s been plaguing many recent theatrical releases, it’s an infestation of predictability.  Used to be that curse was relegated to the big budget franchise blockbusters that operated on formula as part of their plan on delivering exactly what an audience expects but I’ve noticed a lack of creativity creeping into the smaller films arriving as well.  Blame it on an industry more averse to risk than ever before, hardly willing to gamble on not quite a sure thing.  Yet it’s these roll of the dice titles that do make their way into theaters that remind you how fun it can be to not know what’s going to happen next, to not arrive at the conclusion a half hour before the characters do.  Films like Booksmart, The Farewell, The Kid Who Would Be King, and, yes, Crawl are all part of the 2019 unpredictable list.  All from different genres, but all are going after something off the beaten path.  You can go ahead and add Luce to that roster now.

Based on JC Lee’s play that had been well received in its 2013 NYC premiere at Lincoln Center, it’s been adapted for the screen by Lee and director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  I was unfamiliar with the play and had managed to screen the film without seeing the preview and I’d encourage you to do so as well.  Besides, there’s something pleasant about going into a movie with no expectation because you’re letting the film set its own bar it has to jump over.  It’s clear from the start that Lee and Onah know they’ve set their stakes high and are confident enough to traverse the increasingly barbed terrain introduced over the next two hours.  What they have is a tense, at times terrifying, look into the dark recesses behind privilege and the expectation of excellence.

When Amy and Peter Edgar adopted their son Luce as a young boy from Eritrea, one of Africa’s poorest countries, they wanted to give him a better life and over the last ten years they think they’ve done a good job.  Luce is a star athlete and an honors student, a polite and sensitive young man with a bright future and, after years of therapy to help resolve the trauma he suffered before he was adopted, reasonably well adjusted.  As the film begins, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., The Birth of a Nation) is giving a speech at a school function after which his parents are introduced to Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water), Luce’s world cultures teacher.  The tension is evident and when pressed by Peter (Tim Roth, The Hateful Eight) later about Miss Wilson, Luce dismisses her to his parents as a “bitch”, much to the dismay of Amy (Naomi Watts, Allegiant) who knows her son has more respect than that.

This is the first crack in the relationship not only between mother and son but between husband and wife. While Peter initially sides with Luce over his caustic relationship with an overly difficult teacher, when Miss Wilson makes a further claim about a concern she has observed and Luce’s behavior toward her, the loyalties switch and suddenly Amy is the one defending her son while Peter takes the opposing view.  Turns out the minor concern Miss Wilson has is only the tip of an iceberg of secrets involving the school that provide some surprising twists and turns for all involved.  At the center of all of it is Luce, and though his past positions him to be someone we want to root for and believe in, could he harbor the dark side Miss Wilson observes or is he the golden child being misunderstood by a teacher holding him to a different standard?  Or perhaps he’s neither and no one, not even his involved parents, knows the real Luce.

These questions are posed with skill by Lee and Onah, creating shifting allegiances not just with the characters on screen but with audiences trying to decipher it for themselves.  One moment you think you’ve figured things out and the next Lee has thrown a curve ball and perhaps you’ve jumped to a conclusion that’s too easy and also…why was it so easy for you to jump to that conclusion in the first place?  Questions of nature vs. nurture are explored as well as racism not just between blacks and whites but within the same rice.  Films adapted from a play can often have the feel of being too talky and stage-y and Luce does have its fair share of scenes that I’m sure were lifted verbatim from the original text but it never feels stage bound.  Lee and Onah have opened up this world to include all.

The performances across the board are outstanding and it reinforces the already strong material with an extra layer of steel.  It’s a long standing joke that Watts often gets the roles that her best friend Nicole Kidman passes on because they look so similar and Watts can seem like Kidman-lite but I can’t imagine anyone tackling this role and displaying the nuanced layers brought forth as well as Watts does.  I’m often very on the fence with Roth but he’s paired believably with Watts and handles a late breaking personal revelation with the appropriate amount of inward turmoil.  As Luce, Harrison has a tricky line to walk because he can’t ever show his cards too much or else the audience will finalize their conclusion about him.  By keeping us off-balance with his charm one minute and his Bad Seed-iness the next, we know not to get too close to Luce…but also not to take our eyes off of him.

Octavia Spencer was working long before she won her Oscar for The Help and has continued to show up in an impressive amount of movies every year.  They aren’t all winners but she has a way of rising to the top of any project she’s working on…even serving as producer of last years’s Best Picture Oscar Winner Green Book.  Sometimes her performances get a little campy but, if marketed and promoted right, her role in Luce could get her another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  I’d argue Lee has made Miss Wilson the most multifaceted of all his characters in the film because not only do we see her dealing with the Luce situation, we observe her trying to take in her mentally disabled sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who has her own set of devastating challenges.  That Spencer gets the absolute best moments in the movie doesn’t hurt her chances of staying in the Oscar conversation.  No actress working right now can convey so much with just a shift in her eyes.

The summer days are dwindling down and the “big” movies are largely behind us.  While the kids go back to school and we all have a little more free time on our hands and breathing room in the theaters, here’s hoping theaters find space to include Luce and you seek it out.  It’s well worth your time and provides edge of your seat entertainment that even the best of the 2019 supposed summer thrill machines couldn’t muster.

The Silver Bullet ~ Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Synopsis: A faded TV actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Release Date: July 26, 2019

Thoughts: To be honest, this first look at the 9th film from Quentin Tarantino is not what I expected.  Though this movie apparently has some connection to the infamous Manson murders that occurred a half century ago, you’d never know it by watching this teaser trailer which mostly focuses on A-listers Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) and Brad Pitt (World War Z) as a has-been star and his wise-cracking stunt double making one last go in La La Land.  You barely see Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Sharon Tate and the Manson family members pass by quickly if you aren’t paying attention.  What is there smacks of a lot of “acting” going on, especially from DiCaprio (yikes, that last shot!) and a little of that can go an awfully long way.  It’s clearly a teaser trailer for something more to come but usually Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained) offers up something a tad more enticing as an appetizer.  Still, from the looks of it he’s recreated 1969 California as only a truly fanatic film nerd could so I’m absolutely interested in the main course.

Movie Review ~ The Hateful Eight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?

Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Walton Goggins, Channing Tatum

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 187 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s hard to believe that as prolific as Quentin Tarantino has become, The Hateful Eight is only the eighth feature film released by the man with the manic energy and mad love for all things cinema.  Starting off strong with Reservoir Dogs in 1992 before hitting the mega big time with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has developed a definite style that he can reign in when he wants or let loose in most outrageous ways.

Last represented in 2013 with Django Unchained (which netted him his second Oscar for Best Screenplay), The Hateful Eight almost never saw the light of day as early script leaks frustrated the director.  Thankfully, Tarantino’s got good friends and they encouraged him not to be deterred by internet trolls and make the film as he intended.  Tweaking his script and gathering a most impressive line-up of stars, Tarantino has another winner on his hands and one that shows both sides of his cinematic calling card.

In a bloody mash-up of Agatha Christie mysteries and the snowy sci-fi classic The Thing, The Hateful Eight takes place primarily on one set, a haberdashery where strangers gather to wait out a blistering blizzard…but one (or more) of them aren’t who they claim to be.  Tarantino has crafted another memorable set of characters from bounty hunters John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Furious 7) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, RoboCop) to retired General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern, Nebraska) to newly minted sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, American Ultra).  Ruth has chained himself to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Spectacular Now), a wanted woman that faces the hangman’s noose once they arrive in Red Rock, Wyoming.  Also factoring into the mix is aloof gunsman Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, Die Another Day), Bob (Demian Bichir, A Better Life), and Oswaldo (Tim Roth, Selma).

How these people end up in the haberdashery are told through a framing device that divides the film into a half dozen or so sections.  Each section arrives via a title card that announces the chapter and gives the audience a clue as to what’s coming up.  This being Tarantino, he’s not afraid to go a little out of order so he can keep the mystery hidden a little longer.

For a film taking place in largely one location, it never feels stagey or cagey.  Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson (an Oscar winner for Hugo) make the small outpost look massive, the perfect place for a killer to hide out.  The performances are typically larger than life, with Russell going full John Wayne on his line readings and Jackson being…well…Jackson.  Goggins is an actor I can usually take or leave (mostly leave) but his goofy look and delivery mesh nicely with Madsen’s cool gunslinger and Bichir’s man of few words Mexican.  There’s a lot of buzz around Leigh’s performance and with good reason, the actress has several dynamite scenes that you’ll have to wait some time for…but when they arrive they’re the stuff Oscar nominations are made of.

Tarantino and The Weinstein Company are taking a unique approach to its release of The Hateful Eight.  Tarantino filmed the movie in “glorious 70MM” and several cities are playing host to a Road Show version of the film, complete with an overture and intermission.  If you can find this version, make sure to catch it because it gives you a full movie-going experience, recapturing the way movies were released back in the heyday of moviemaking that Tarantino pines so longingly for.  It’s also an opportunity to hear the great Ennio Morricone’s haunting score during the overture.  It’s crazy Morricone has never won an Oscar and his work here might finally right that wrong (though he’ll have stiff competition from John Williams with Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

At 187 minutes the movie is a commitment and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get a little snoozy during the first half.  It feels as long as it is…but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When it does let loose, it becomes a graphic cornucopia of blood and brain matter and one character ends the film covered head to toe in gore.  The wait for this is most certainly worth it, especially when the strings are being pulled by so many talented contributors.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hateful Eight

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Synopsis: In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?

Release Date:  December 25, 2015

Thoughts: It’s still hard to believe that Quentin Tarantino has only directed eight feature films (I not counting the outings where he did additional filming or directed as part of an anthology)…but it’s impressive that each one has been a not-so minor classic.  Anyone that has an appreciation for film should also have an appreciation for what Tarantino (Django Unchained) does, cinematically, with each of his films.  From the cast to the score to the script to the production design to the cinematography, Tarantino shows time and time again in each and every frame that he celebrates film through and through.  True, his proclivity for extreme subjects doesn’t leave him open to be fully embraced by audiences with quieter tastes, but his fans (myself included) always look forward to his next endeavor.

The Hateful Eight is one to get excited about.  Filled with a stable of Tarantino favorites (and a few that you can’t believe have never worked with him before) and made in “glorious 70MM” this western drama takes place primarily on one set over one night…a bold move to make from an already bold director.  This first teaser is a sight to behold, it gets the juices flowing and gives me faith that I can make it through another busy holiday schedule if this is going to be my reward.  Can’t wait.

The Silver Bullet ~ Selma

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Synopsis: Chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition.

Release Date: December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Last year, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tried and failed to chronicle the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of a fictionalized historical figure. Self-serving dialogue and a cast roster more interesting than effective sunk what could have been a film of importance. Slipping in at the end of the year just in time to qualify for the busy awards season is the drama Selma and it looks like a more focused work, brimming with the passion of a call to action Lee Daniels’ The Butler was so sorely lacking. I’ve watched the trailer a few times now and found my interest quite energized by the spark director Ava DuVernay has ignited and that stars David Oyelowo (Interstellar, Jack Reacher) and Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle, The Purge: Anarchy) look goose-bumpy good as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Corretta Scott King. Quickly moving to the top of my anticipated list, I’m ready to take the trip to Selma.

The Silver Bullet ~ Grace of Monaco

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFYmYWa348c

Synopsis: The story of former Hollywood star Grace Kelly’s crisis of marriage and identity, during a political dispute between Monaco’s Prince Rainier III and France’s Charles De Gaulle, and a looming French invasion of Monaco in the early 1960s

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: One of several high profile films that were originally scheduled for the busy final months of 2013 but bumped into a TBA status for 2014, Grace of Monaco was seemingly dealt a worse blow when its studio (The Weinstein Company) moved it off their schedule entirely.  Barely a day later we found out why…the film was set to open the prestigious 2014 Cannes Film Festival which could significantly alter where and when it will see a final release date.  Even so, the film sounds like it could be in trouble with director Oliver Dahan and studio head Harvey Weinstein battling over the final cut of the film.  Weinstein has long known to demand major trims to films under his umbrella and 22 minutes of Grace of Monaco are apparently on his chopping block.  Star Nicole Kidman (Stoker, Far & Away) looks radiant as Princess Grace but at this point the film looks to be headed to a similar fate as her best friend Naomi Watts’ biopic Diana which was pretty much tossed to the sharks by its studio.