Movie Review: ‘Luce’ Walks a Unique Tightrope of Cinematic Manipulation

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CREDIT: NEON

Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Brian Bradley, Andrea Bang

Director: Julius Onah

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for Profanity When the Passive-Aggressiveness Becomes Too Unbearable and Some Sex and Nudity When It’s Too Pressure-Filled to Keep It In

Release Date: August 2, 2019 (Limited)

Sometimes I will come around on a film a few days or weeks (or even years) after an initial watch. But now I have discovered that it is possible for that dramatic transformation to complete itself over the course of the film itself. I thought I had Luce pegged about fifteen minutes in as a bunch of stiff, confounding nonsense, and the next sixty minutes or so didn’t do much to change my perception. But then the conclusion came along, and the puppetmasters revealed themselves. This film wanted me, all of us in the audience really, to be highly skeptical, only to declare: that’s how we gotcha.

The title character (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a prized high school student: a model student, athlete, and debater. He’s got loving adopted parents (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) and a concerned mentor in the form of his history teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer). But not all is as hunky-dory as it seems. Ms. Wilson is worried that something dangerous might be lurking under the surface when she discovers some fireworks in Luce’s locker. The hubbub that ensues has me constantly thinking, “All this over fireworks?” But of course there’s more to it than that. Ms. Wilson has given her students an essay assignment in which they must assume the perspective of a historical figure. Luce chooses a war criminal, which is unnerving to some because he was trained as a child soldier in Eritrea before he was adopted.

This setup is ripe to touch upon the pressure of expectations (either good or ill) based on stereotypes. But most of Luce feels ill-equipped to handle that, opting instead for melodrama and overwrought hand-wringing. I frequently wanted to yell, “Is anyone in this movie an actual person?!” Throughout it all, though, my attention is held, if for a while only because of the baroque score courtesy of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (hot off their indelible work on Annihilation). The secrets are exposed, with multiple layers needing to be ripped away, and the game is complete. By the end, it is still a weird mix of high and low stakes, but it manages to be a masterclass in filmmaking manipulation.

Luce is Recommended If You Like: Having your expectations upended

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Fireworks

This Is a Movie Review: The Book of Henry

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The Book of Henry has been hailed by some as the next so-bad-it’s-good classic and by others as just one of the worst movies ever. But as I finished watching it, my reaction was, “What’s the big deal?” As I thought it over, though, I realized that some pretty crazy things did happen – Naomi Watts plays video games and buys a gun, Sarah Silverman kisses an 11-year-old on the mouth, Bobby Moynihan doesn’t debut a new catchphrase – but that lunacy does not really take this film to the realm of The Inexplicable. That is because when it comes to the strangest examples of cinema that truly need to be treasured, it is about tone more than plot – the how, not the what. And Book of Henry’s tone just isn’t that singular. It’s maudlin, bland, middle-of-the-road. All the actors are too traditionally competent and/or understated for the weirdness to really land.

Jacob Tremblay is still adorable, though.

I give The Book of Henry 400 “They Did That’s” out of 1000 “Whatever’s.”

This Is a Movie Review: 3 Generations

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts, Susan Sarandon, Tate Donovan

Director: Gaby Dellal

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Facts of Life

Release Date: May 5, 2017 (Limited)

It is great when the stories of minority and discriminated groups are portrayed on the big screen, as they are granted greater visibility via the transportive power of cinema. But it is not so great when those stories are boring, because then the experience is less transportive. Teenage Ray (Elle Fanning) is a transgender male hoping to quickly start his gender reassignment treatment, and the reason this film is entitled “3 Generations” as opposed to something like “Ray’s Story” is because it is really about his relationship with his single mother Maggie (Naomi Watts) and grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon), whom he lives with together inManhattan. These are three talented ladies, and none of them phone it in, but ultimately 3 Generations feels like little more than spending a couple of hours with a family other than your own.

Teenage transgender transition stories offer the reliable dramatic hook of attempting to secure parental permission. Ray’s decision must be approved by both his mother and long-absentee father Craig (Tate Donovan). And therein lies the rub, as Maggie and Craig are not exactly on good terms, to put it mildly. It is enough to make you scream. Ray certainly does. Donovan is a captivating screen presence, and he has the necessary anti-chemistry with Watts, but again this mostly boils down to: families of transgender people can be just as dysfunctional as everyone else’s.

A constant source of tension for Ray is his grandmother’s difficulty accepting his identity. Dolly is far from conservative. She is a lesbian, but just because your sexuality is not mainstream does not mean you cannot also be closed-minded. There is an edge to Ray and Dolly’s interactions that is unavoidable, but also fascinating. A version of 3 Generations pared down to grandmother/grandson buddy comedy could be a winning formula. The obligations of familial love can be in a constant battle with the plague of misunderstanding/ I think that is the valiant thesis of this film, but it struggles to put its own spin on that age-old conundrum.

3 Generations is Recommended If You Like: The Kids Are All Right, Being an Elle Fanning Completist

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Fire Escapes