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

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Movie Review: Teenagers Who Just Want to Have Fun Get Caught Up in a Generation-Spanning Revenge Plot in ‘Ma,’ a Tonally Wild and Ambitious Horror Mash-Up

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Luke Evans, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney, Kyanna Simone Simpson

Director: Tate Taylor

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: R for A Multitude of Torturous Weapons, Sloppy Teen Partying, and Deeply Disturbing Secrets

Release Date: May 31, 2019

In terms of how closely its advertising matches the actual product, Ma fits in one of the most satisfying of cinematic molds. It is very much the movie that the trailers have promised you, but it is also oh so much more. I am reluctant to go into any more detail because of how satisfied I was to discover everything as it was revealed to me. Even my “Recommended If You Like” section below is a bit of a land mine, as the mere mention of predecessors that Ma resembles could constitute a spoiler. But suffice it to say that in this stew of theoretically clashing flavors, Octavia Spencer is more than able to handle all the tones and motivations she is required to convey.

It should go without saying that if you’re a high school student, it’s probably not the best idea to party in the basement of a random woman who you know only because she buys you alcohol. But teenagers are known for making boneheaded decisions, and Sue Ann’s (aka Ma’s) house seems a lot safer than the alternative of drinking in the woods. Also, these kids don’t realize that they are characters in a horror movie and thus being lured into a trap. Furthermore, Sue Ann is remarkably savvy about understanding the way young people communicate, both in person and through social media. Just when you think she is going to go in for the kill right away, you realize that she is actually playing the tangled, multifarious long game. Ultimately, she becomes reckless in ways that threaten her upper hand but that keep the audience satisfyingly stunned and entertained. This is a wild, risk-taking movie that takes inspiration from plenty of classics that have come before it but that also stands on its own as a truly unique and deadly specimen.

Ma is Recommended If You Like: Carrie, Misery, Saw, Sharp Objects

Grade: 4 out of 5 Cases of Booze

This Is a Movie Review: Instant Family

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CREDIT Paramount Pictures

One of the great qualities of movies is their ability to open your eyes to possibilities in your own life that you had never considered or thought possible. I have always known that I want kids someday, and now that I am 30 years old, I am within my ideal age range for starting to raise a family, and I am often conscious of making sure I do not let that opportunity pass me by. Adoption and fostering potentially make that window open for longer than it would be otherwise. Those options have crossed my mind, but I’ve never really dug into them. But after watching Instant Family, I am now almost certain that I want to take that parenting avenue.

There is an early scene in which Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg browse the kids’ profiles on a fostering agency website, and they instantly fall in love with all of them, and I felt pretty much exactly the same. So much of this film is filled with moments like that. It has the look of a broad studio comedy that has loud, dangerous set pieces (director Sean Anders definitely has experience with that genre), but in moments when it could go over-the-top, it inevitably opts for the more grounded, and more rewarding, approach, dealing seriously with both the emotional and practical consequences of the situation. If you’re planning on becoming a foster parent, or think you might, or you just love supportive families, then you need to watch this movie.

I give Instant Family 4 Million Hugs out of 5 Million Heartaches.

This Is a Movie Review: The Shape of Water

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

I give The Shape of Water 4 out of 5 Slices of Key Lime Pie: http://newscult.com/movie-review-shape-water-guillermo-del-toro-re-molds-classic-creature-feature-according-vision/

SNL Review March 4, 2017: Octavia Spencer/Father John Misty

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SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Octavia Spencer" Episode 1719 -- Pictured: (l-r) Mikey Day, Aidy Bryant, Octavia Spencer, and Kenan Thompson during the "Spencer's Gifts" sketch on March 4, 2017 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC)

My letter grades for each sketch and segment is below. My in-depth review is on NewsCult: http://newscult.com/snl-love-itkeep-itleave-it-octavia-spencerfather-john-misty/

Jeff Sessions Gump (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – B

Octavia Spencer’s Monologue – B-

Courage, Compassion, Country: The TBD Story – B

Merck Hearing – B

Girl at a Bar – B-

Zoo-opolis – C

Youngblood – B-

Father John Misty – “Total Entertainment Forever” – B+

Weekend Update
Michael and Colin – B
Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. – C
Laura Parsons, Newscaster of Tomorrow – B

Sticky Bun – B-

Bar Centrale – C-

Father John Misty – “Pure Comedy” – B

The Chocolate Man – C

Spencer’s – B-

This Is a Movie Review: Hidden Figures

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hidden-figures-janelle-monae-taraji-p-henson-octavia-spencer

This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst

Director: Theodore Melfi

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG for the Everyday Realities of Racism

Release Date: December 25, 2016 (Limited), Expands Nationwide January 6, 2017

Hidden Figures tells the true stories of African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were essential employees to NASA during the Space Race. Let me reiterate: this is a TRUE story, but somehow these ladies are not an iconic part of the fabric of American history. Surely, there is institutional sexism and racism at play here, but less insidiously, there is also the fact that most workers at NASA who remained on the ground are not household names. But also, come on! – Katherine Johnson was John Glenn’s trusty confidant, relying on her for accurate calculations during his time in the stars.

As Hidden Figures kicks off, we know we are in good hands. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe (Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, respectively) are stuck on the side of the road due to a broken-down car while on their way to work. I think I speak for most of humanity when I say I would happily watch these ladies just hang out and do anything. The white Virginia traffic cop who pulls up to inspect their situation apparently feels the same way. This scene looks like it is about to play out like a typical example of civil rights-era Southern racism, but instead the officer is impressed that these ladies know their science and offers them an escort service.

This is how much of the film plays out. The racism and sexism these “hidden figures” experience are institutional and not personal except insofar as any instance of discrimination is personal. Everyone in this story wants to see America succeed above the clouds, and these women meet resistance only when their efforts get in the way of standard practice. For Henson, that means a hilarious/heartbreaking routine of racing 20 minutes each way across the NASA campus to the nearest colored restroom. Indignities like these are eventually beaten into submission, and the crowd-pleasing meter is constantly at its highest level.

I would be remiss not to mention the wholesome and sweet love story between Katherine, a single mother widower, and her second husband Jim. I don’t know if the real-life Johnsons are as gorgeous as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali, but I am convinced that they must have been. Otherwise, Henson and Ali are miracle workers.

Hidden Figures is the sort of movie that you take your mother to see because you know she is going to love it. It is also the type of movie whose relatively unambitious filmmaking techniques you might criticize, or at least excuse. But in the case of a story as inspiring as this one, that feels unnecessarily petty. Hidden Figures does not gussy itself up, because it will be inspiring even without all the frills. Besides, putting on such airs would be anathema to its humble origins.

Hidden Figures is Recommended If You LikeApollo 13A League of Their OwnThe Help

Grade: 3.75 out 5 Hammers to Racism