Luce Movie Review

The name Luce (sounds like loose) was given to its title character after being adopted from the war-torn nation of Eritrea at the age of ten. As he tells it, his adoptive mother Amy (Naomi Watts) couldn’t pronounce his birth name – unable to master the various syllables involved. Like Amy, we never do learn it. So Luce it is, which means light. In the context of the film Luce, this strikes me as a not insignificant detail. From the moment he comes to the United States, he’s accustomed to others defining him and believing what they see. In their eyes, there is no darkness. Only light.

Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high school senior, raised by upper class Amy and Peter (Tim Roth). He is looked at as the model student. An all-star athlete and debate club standout, Luce can apparently do no wrong. When history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) begins poking holes at his impenetrable facade, his status is challenged. As is her reputation.

What unfolds is a tale of race relations and, more significantly, racial expectations. No one in Luce is all that innocent. The picture often plays like a thriller where you expect a core player to snap. You’re just not sure who it will be. I’ll add that the tightly wound score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is a contributor to the feeling.

Harrison Jr. has a complicated character to portray and he succeeds in keeping the audience off-kilter. He’s charming, but there’s no doubt that another layer is bubbling not far under the surface. Spencer may have the trickiest role as Harriet navigates the repercussions of her discoveries about Luce. As always, she’s up to the challenge.

Julius Onah directed and co-wrote with JC Lee and Luce is an exercise clearly meant to spark discussion. The screenplay often allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions about who to root for and against or perhaps feel ambivalent about. There’s also the odd sensation of some themes being redundant. If you’re searching for a pat ending to fill in every blank, ambivalence may be your overarching reaction. The overall thesis to this story, like Luce’s original name, is unpronounced or at least left for speculation. I found Luce, for the most part, successful in creating a sense of tension before the conversations start after fade out.

*** (out of four)

Oscar Watch: Luce

After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, racial drama Luce has been doing decent limited release business over the past couple weeks. The film centers around a high school athletic prodigy (Kelvin Harrison Jr., in a performance drawing raves) and his adoptive parents played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. Octavia Spencer costars.

Luce drew its share of admirers on the festival circuit and it currently holds a 91% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Nigerian filmmaker Julius Onah directs with a screenplay he co-wrote along with JC Lee. It’s probably Original Screenplay where this holds a slight chance at being recognized. The likely scenario is this gets lost in the shuffle behind higher profile releases. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Hardcore Henry Box Office Prediction

When Hardcore Henry premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, it set off a wave of positive buzz to the tune of a current 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The sci-fi action thriller is touted as a “first person” experience in which the audience sees all the destruction and mayhem through the eyes of the title character. Sharlto Copley and Tim Roth are among the cast.

How will this experimental pic translate to box office dollars? I’m not overly optimistic. While certain fanboys have had this circled on their calendars for months now, I just don’t see this getting beyond a niche audience and I don’t believe it’ll reach double digits. So while Hardcore Henry could certainly become a cult hit, it may not necessarily become a real hit at the multiplexes.

Hardcore Henry opening weekend prediction: $7.8 million

For my The Boss prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2016/03/31/the-boss-box-office-prediction/

The Hateful Eight Movie Review

Quentin Tarantino’s “worst” picture is far better than most director’s best pictures and so it is with The Hateful Eight, his 8th effort (if you count the two Kill Bill’s as one). Incorporating aspects of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and a little Django Unchained and Kill Bill for good measure, Eight finally gave me a Quentin experience that I wouldn’t award four stars. That doesn’t mean it isn’t well worth the time – far from it. It just means it can’t quite measure up to what he’s given us for the last two decades plus.

The Hateful Eight could be a stage play and it wouldn’t surprise if it is someday. The pic takes place almost exclusively in a stagecoach and in a lodge known as Minnie’s Haberdashery sometime shortly after the Civil War. The stagecoach holds John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is transporting his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to her execution in nearby Red Rock, Wyoming. Along the way they pick up company: bounty hunter and possible war hero Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and former Confederate militia man Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Ruth is dubious of their separate appearances along the journey for two reasons: a nasty blizzard is approaching and there’s a $10,000 bounty on Daisy’s demented head. Nevertheless, they make it to the aforementioned Minnie’s where the owner is nowhere to be found. Instead, they find an old Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a Mexican (Demian Bichir) tasked with looking after the lodge, a mysterious cowboy (Michael Madsen) who claims he’s headed home for Christmas, and the man (Tim Roth) who just happens to the one that’s supposed to hang Daisy in a couple of days.

Inclement weather bounds these eight souls (and a couple more) together at Minnie’s and we soon learn that no one may be who they say they are. It sets up a nearly three hour mystery where the character’s motivations are constantly examined and reexamined. And in a true QT style, there are long monologues by the principles outlining their pasts and what they see going down in the future – with Jackson’s Warren often getting the juiciest and filthiest dialogue. Those of us (like me) who have truly loved the writer/director’s screenplays will relish so much here. We have an abundance of wicked humor mixed with menace. And those of us who cherish his stylized violence will find it in plentiful supply in spots. Heads explode as they should in this man’s oeuvre.

Tarantino knows better than most directors the importance of casting and he uses his company of regulars including Jackson, Roth, Madsen, and Russell (who gave one of the performances of his career in Quentin’s Death Proof) to fine effect. Yet it’s Goggins (who had a smaller role in Django Unchained) and Leigh who pretty much steal the proceedings. They are the characters among the eight whom you may find yourself thinking of the most when the lights come up.

As mentioned, the primarily claustrophobic proceedings are sometimes offset by glorious shots of the Western landscape courtesy of impeccable camerawork by Robert Richardson. There’s also a terrific Ennio Morricone score to boot (we also expect amazing music in QT’s pics and it’s here). The Hateful Eight is divided into chapters just as in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. There’s time shifting like we’ve seen in many of his works. And for the first time, every once in a while it feels like a Tarantino “greatest hits” instead of a singular great movie. Most of the time, it just feels great for fans like me that put him on a higher pedestal than his contemporaries. There’s a reason for it. He deserves it. It may have taken 22 years for me to downgrade one of his pictures from four stars to something slightly less, but Quentin Tarantino and his dialogue are still a bloody treat.

***1/2 (out of four)

The Hateful Eight Box Office Prediction

Quentin Tarantino is back behind the camera with Western whodunit The Hateful Eight, which unspools in cinemas on New Year’s Eve following a limited release on Christmas Day. The titled Eight are Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, and Michael Madsen. The three hour epic hopes to replicate the massive success of Tarantino’s last two efforts, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and 2012’s Django Unchained.

Both of those pics earned Best Picture nominations and made a killing at the box office. Basterds took in $38 million out of the gate, leading to an overall gross of $120 million. Django marked career highs, with a $63 million debut over a long Christmas week three years ago and an eventual take of $162 million.

The Hateful Eight does (for the most part) have critics on its side with a current rating of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, Quentin has a built-in audience of movie lovers who will rush out to see anything he stamps his name on. The pic’s wide release was pushed up by one week to capitalize on its solid buzz (and maybe to avoid direct competition with The Revenant). The release date change does make me wonder if it’s capable of reaching the heights of his two predecessors, partly because people have plans on New Year’s Eve and are often, um, relaxing on New Year’s Day. Also, while reviews are strong, this is not receiving the level of awards buzz that his two predecessors did.

Even with those potential demerits, The Hateful Eight should score an opening in the $25-$30M range for what will likely be a sturdy #2 posting behind the third frame of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

**Blogger’s note (12/28): with today’s announcement that the film will open on Wednesday (12/30) instead of Friday, my prediction has been altered to reflect that late breaking change.

The Hateful Eight opening weekend prediction: $27.2 million (Friday to Sunday), $36.1 million (Wednesday to Sunday)

Oscar Watch: The Hateful Eight

While its reviews are embargoed for another week and a half or so, Quentin Tarantino’s eagerly awaited The Hateful Eight has conducted industry and critics screenings over the past few days. The celebrated and controversial director’s ninth feature film has been a major question mark as to its Oscar chances ever since the project was announced. Quentin’s last two features, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and 2012’s Django Unchained, were both nominated for Best Picture so it stood to reason that Eight could follow suit.

The verdict based on word of mouth that’s seeped out? Well, it’s still a bit of a question mark. The Hateful Eight, based on its buzz, seems to be on the bubble of receiving a nod in the big race. Some screenings have indicated a mixed reaction and when it comes to ultra violent awards worthy fare, voters may only recognize Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant. Based on these factors, I find it unlikely that Mr. Tarantino will nab his third nomination for Director (after 1994’s Pulp Fiction and Basterds). Where he’s more likely to be honored is in Original Screenplay, for which he’s won twice.

Tarantino pics have a nice history of getting their actors nominated and this is likely to hold true for Jennifer Jason Leigh in Supporting Actress. She could a threat to win. As for the males – Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, and others may cancel themselves out.

The other category where a nomination seems probable is Cinematography, where Robert Richardson’s work shooting in 70 mm is assured to earn him attention.

As the weeks roll along, you can follow how The Hateful Eight tracks as, beginning this weekend, I’ll be doing weekly updates on my Oscar predictions. Stay tuned!

Selma Movie Review

Like Spielberg’s Lincoln that preceded it two years prior, Ana DuVernay’s Selma sidesteps the idea of a biopic and rather focuses on a short but integral passage of time in its subject’s life. The focus is on Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1965 Voting Rights marches in Selma, Alabama. The film provides a history lesson that takes strides to not portray its central figure purely as a saint – nor does its perspective shy away from criticism of President Lyndon B. Johnson, while also acknowledging his achievements.

The film opens with King (David Oyelowo) and wife Coretta (Carmen Ejojo) in Norway circa 1964 to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. They speak of an alternative lifestyle in the opening scene that doesn’t involve the constant threat of death and his constant search for equal rights and justice. The couple seems to know that this is only talk and it is not what he’s destined for. Back home, the recent signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) has done little in the South to allow African Americans the right to vote. And this sets off a decision by King to organize a march in Selma that is met with Johnson’s objections, though not near to the level of Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).

Director DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb do not shy away from showing us the brutality that took place in this era in the South. We also witness the goodness of people of many faiths and races who come to lend their support to Dr. King in his efforts. It is not one march on Selma – it’s three. The first ends in violent resistance from the police. The second time it’s halted is due to a more surprising manner of resistance. The third is history. The filmmakers also tackle the Kings marital status, including Dr. King’s infidelities.

His political skills are shown as well and they are often as powerful as his oratory abilities. The scenes with King and LBJ have been challenged by some for inaccuracy, but this is not a documentary and I won’t judge it as such. My only drawback to these sequences are Wilkinson, a fine actor that’s simply not the right choice for the 36th POTUS.

The flaws don’t stop there. The complex relationship between King and Malcolm X is touched upon so briefly that it begs for further fleshing out. Adding familiar faces like Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding Jr. for cameos threaten to take you out of the story than involve you more.

Where it delivers is its willingness to tell this important story as a real one. A human one. King is a great man, but is written as experiencing the doubts and insecurities that he must have had. Oyelowo nails the role and he excels at embodying MLK’s mannerisms and spirit.

Selma tells the story of imperfect men fighting for a more perfect union. The film is imperfect as well but it’s worthy of its important subject matter that might have occurred a half century ago, but still resonates on many levels today.

*** (out of four)