“If You Don’t Conform To What She Wants Then Suddenly You’re The Enemy…”
Debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to an overwhelmingly positive critical reception, Luce is the latest from Nigerian-born filmmaker, Julius Onah, whose previous high profile release in the form of Netflix’s, The Cloverfield Paradox, immediately branded him as a cinematic fish out of water, with the big budget sequel undoubtedly one of the silliest and most misjudged so-called science fiction movies in recent memory. Moving away from nonsensical space stories for the time being and into the realm of Hitchcockian-esque drama, Onah’s latest is a deliciously directed and incredibly well crafted step in the right direction, an absorbing and beautifully looking low-key mystery which finely balances cutting familial tensions, a contemporary social commentary and a Twin Peaks style small-town uncertainty revolving around the film’s titular character, one brought to life thanks to a gripping central performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr. who continues to impress after his work on the underrated 2017 horror, It Comes at Night.
With it being difficult to explain the central plot of the film without moving into spoiler territory, Luce primarily follows Harrison Jr.’s model all-star student, years after he was adopted away from his war-torn homeland of Eritrea and into the white-picket fenced household of Amy and Peter Edgar, portrayed superbly by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth respectively who reunite after their work together on Michael Haneke’s English language shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games. After concerns regarding Luce’s beliefs are raised by Octavia Spencer’s (The Shape of Water) overbearing teacher, a battle of wills and words soon begins between both professor and student as certain mysteries surrounding Luce’s personal life and agenda soon materialise, much to the dismay of Watts’ Amy who begins to wonder whether her beloved adopted son is actually who she thinks he is. With the the film managing to expertly handle that fine line between exposition and intelligent storytelling, Luce works thanks to a narrative approach which begs the audience to make up its’ mind regarding what they are observing on screen, and in an era in which cinema annoyingly finds the need to spoon feed the plot to cater for everyone in the audience, Onah’s second high profile release is an absorbing redemptive piece which will make you contemplate events long after the closing credits.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Cities Are Gonna Keep Burning. Kids Are Gonna Keep Getting Shot. And Cops Are Gonna Keep Getting Off…”
With the Academy Award nominations now released into the steely glances of the general public, the success and critical admiration of Spike Lee’s excellent BlackKklansman seems to have resulted in succession of interesting, ideas based political dramas with a key central narrative regarding the impact of race relations across contemporary American society. Joined together at the hip by rising star, John David Washington, Monsters and Men, the big screen debut from American filmmaker, Reinaldo Marcus Green, follows a very familiar path to Lee’s 2018 drama by focusing on a increasingly topical discussion and confronting it upon the big screen. With a core central narrative which immediately brings to mind last year’s The Hate U Give, Green’s movie follows three different perspectives following the shooting of an unarmed black male on the streets of downtown New York. Loosely inspired by the death of Eric Garner back in 2014, a cigarette seller who resisted arrest and subsequently died within a police officer’s chokehold, all of which was filmed by an onlooker on his mobile phone, Monsters and Men is an interesting, very well made and thought-provoking drama with a trio of excellent and thoroughly convincing central performances.
Following a very similar narrative pathway to to Barry Jenkins’ outstanding 2017 drama, Moonlight, Monsters and Men follows three very different male characters who are each bound together by a crippling desire for change in a society which makes such drastic decisions either increasingly difficult or incredibly dangerous. Beginning with Anthony Ramos’ (A Star is Born) street savvy, Manny, the film benefits from taking the time to develop each leading character whilst the background noise of the underlying central message boils from underneath, and with an opening thirty minutes which ends with Manny’s role in the film’s key set piece, the transition from Ramos to Washington (BlackKklansman) is expertly done and exhibits a craft of filmmaking not many big screen debutants would be able to pull off. With the introduction of Washington as Dennis, a observant and dedicated local Police Officer, it is undoubtedly his portion of the film which manages to emit the highest degree of drama, with his conflicted nature as an officer of the law binding him to a make a final decision regarding his position as a black man in a predominantly white geographical area which is both difficult and understandable from the point of view of the audience. With two standout scenes from Washington’s own act including an emotional and iconic basketball scene and a dinner discussion regarding the politics of policing, it does comes as a slight shame that the final act involving Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s (It Comes at Night) Zee is rather quite plodding and at times, particularly dull, but with a dedication to the screenplay from each of the three leading actors and a well handled sense of preachiness which failed to annoy or disturb the drama, Monsters and Men is a ideas ridden cinematic debut from a filmmaker with obvious raw and exciting talent.
Overall Score: 7/10
“This Is The Story Of How My Town, Salem, Lost It’s Mind. Let’s Start At The Beginning…”
Written and directed by Sam Levinson, son of Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man director, Barry Levinson, Assassination Nation acts as the American’s third feature after trading in acting for directing but the first to venture onto the big screen with a significantly wider general release. Slapped with a beautifully rare 18 certificate and released within a period of the cinematic year in which Halloween, Overlord and Suspiria have all shown a resurgence in the BBFC classifying movies with the highest rating possible, Levinson’s latest is a particularly odd beast, a hybrid of varying subjects with an underlying topical social commentary which sees Odessa Young as the free spirited Lily Colson who along with her group of freely spoken youthful friends become embroiled in a town-wide internet hack which sees every single resident’s personal online history leak into the gaze of the public eye, resulting in extraordinarily extravagant and particularly violent consequences. Beginning with a familiar stylish and slightly bizarre aesthetic feel to Harmony Korine’s woefully unsatisfactory Spring Breakers in 2013, Levinson’s movie traverses through a minefield of themes and genres for two hours worth of storytelling which at times is undoubtedly problematic and troublesome, but crucially, never boring, resulting in audiences guaranteed to leave the auditorium thinking to themselves; “what on earth was that all about?”
With the film using the first half an hour to introduce the primary quartet of femme fatales at the heart of the action, each with their own distinguishable individuality and vices, the coming of age style narrative allows the evolving opening scandals to be seen from the point of view of the youth of the aptly named town of Salem as an unknown hacker forces out both the secrets of both a local politician and teacher. With Levinson’s screenplay clearly following on from the likes of Ingrid Goes West and Searching by conveying an on-the-nose comment on the nature and impact of social media, whatever point Levinson chooses to focus on becomes completely lost in an out of control second act in which the audience bears witness to a startling combination of Winding Refn and Dario Argento eye-gouging neon style with elements of The Purge, resulting in an abundance of violence and particularly tough scenes of torture, murder and near attempted rape which for some audiences may be too explicit to cope with. Personally however, the sense of silliness and emphatically ripe shock tactics which unveil themselves heading towards the film’s climax never became dull or uninteresting, due in part to some wonderful camera work and blissfully bright cinematography, and whilst there never was a single character in which I cared whether they lived or died due to pretty much every single one being fundamentally unlikeable, Assassination Nation moved along nicely as it offended audiences left, right and centre and concluded in a way which simply made me giggle. Bring on more gory grunge movies!
Overall Score: 6/10
“There Are Three Of Us And We’re Armed. What Are You Afraid Of…?”
With rape revenge movies holding precedent with the likes of infamous video nasties including Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, two 1970’s era releases which both ended up on the Director of Public Prosecution’s list for decade-long bans and subsequently ended up being re-made for a twentieth century audience for reasons still unknown to this day, French big-screen debutante, Coralie Fargeat, cuts her teeth with Revenge, a ridiculously hyper-violent but uproariously entertaining B-movie which sees Matilda Lutz (Rings) as Jennifer, an eye-catching and knowingly beautiful socialite who travels with Kevin Janssens’ millionaire playboy-type, Richard, to a rural, secluded property in the middle of golden sanded desert and is swiftly left for dead after being raped by one of Richard’s associates. Whilst the cliches and the straightforward nature of the central narrative is one not exactly harbouring on originality, Revenge succeeds in a wide range of fields elsewhere, with its’ ripe and tantalising stylish sensibility in particular an astonishingly brave and bold cinematic treat, and with strong performances and a staggering amount of seemingly endless levels of bloodshed, Fargeat’s big-screen debut is a joyous, if tough, cinematic debut.
With Julia Ducournau showing the world last year what can be achieved if given free reigns to commit to a particular first-time project, her own personal debut in the form of the excellent Raw does bear many similarities to Revenge, particularly in regards to its’ use of tone, style and B-movie violence, and whilst its’ hard to envisage any movie which contains the notion of sexual violence in any form as blackly comic, Fargeat’s direction of the events which unfold on-screen can’t help but be chuckled at in a completely over-the-top kind of fashion, particularly as the movie morphs from its’ strongly sadistic opening act to a second half which almost falls into the realm of absurdity and incomprehensibility. With bucket loads of blood, Tarantino-esque gun shot wounds and toe-curling personal first aid skills, Revenge doesn’t hold back on its’ well deserved 18 rating and whilst many may find the contradictory tone between the opening first act and the remaining hour or so slightly alienating, the sheer ripeness of the style in which the action plays out is staggeringly entertaining and jaw-dropping at times to behold. With a lurid, neon-dipped colour palette set against the backdrop of a searing golden-plain desert, the movie feels like a hybrid of Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon and Mad Max: Fury Road, and with a penchant for the latter’s unchained craziness riding through it like a hot poker, Fargeat’s debut is a wild, ultra-violent ride which will undoubtedly make even the most well-versed horror movie fan wriggle in their seat.
Overall Score: 8/10
“I Was Loved For A Minute, Then I Was Hated. Then I Was Just A Punch Line…”
Based upon the controversial and compelling career of professional ice skater, Tonya Harding, Craig Gillespie’s (The Finest Hours) Oscar nominated biographical drama, I, Tonya, featuring Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) in arguably her most fleshed-out leading performance yet, takes an impressive shot at attempting to gel together a mix of Scorsese inspired storytelling with a Rocky-esque tale of sporting success, and with the aid of a rockabilly jukebox soundtrack and eye-catching performances all around, Gillespie’s latest is a rousing, crowd-pleasing success. Utilising the form of retrospective interviews with each of the key players to unravel the exposition as the narrative evolves, I, Tonya benefits from a lightning quick editing pace straight from the outset, beginning with a young Harding as she is nurtured and raised by the steely-eyed harshness of Allison Janney’s (The Girl on the Train) LaVona Fay Golden as she begins her love affair with the ice and swiftly moving to the fruition of the relationship between herself and Sebastian Stan’s (Captain America: Civil War) Jeff Gillooly, one which proves central to Harding’s journey through both successes and life-changing failures.
Whilst the interview format does make it easy for Gillespie to cross over every avenue possible in terms of storytelling gaps, the constant switch from past to present does ultimately jar the pace of the movie come the second half, one which is too not exactly helped by the decision to include the breaking of the fourth wall at times which personally never really seemed to work to the film’s advantage, yet where the movie does succeed is in Robbie’s wildly comical and full blooded performance, one which utilises the scripts attempts to balance her love for the sport with the shocking depiction of domestic issues from both Janney’s chain-smoking mother figure and Stan’s abusive and deluded on/off love, and one which through the aid of digital effects and stunt doubles means that the physicality of the skating scenes are brilliantly orchestrated. Of course, with Harding’s biggest association being that of a rather violent moment of utmost craziness, the concluding act of the movie ruffles together elements of jaw-dropping stupidity, laugh out loud comedy and heartbreaking finality, and whilst Gillespie’s movie doesn’t exactly hit the heights of Scorsese-inflicted film-making it so obviously attempts to emulate, I, Tonya is a highly satisfactory and ludicrous tale of a fundamentally interesting public figure.