“Luce”

The film “Luce” highlights what a provocative tale and fine acting can do. Luce Edgars is the central mystery. He is a high school stand-out. The soon-to-be valedictorian is also cagey and at times too smart for his own good. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is marvelous in this role. Both like Lucifer and a lucent angel.

His white , adoptive parents ( Naomi Watts and Tim Roth ) have nurtured the seven-year-old former Eritrean child soldier to succeed ~U.S. middle-class-style. He partakes in athletics, debate, and leadership positions. He is the principal’s “poster child”. When an intuitive and stern teacher, Mrs. Harriet Wilson, ( beautifully rendered by Octavia Spencer) sees an alarmingly violent tone in one of Luce’s assignments, she calls Luce’s parents, but not before she has checked his locker. Illegal fireworks are found, not an AK-47. Still the musical score heightens the tension. Mrs. Wilson has previously found weed in Luce’s friend DeShaun’s locker and he has lost his scholarship. Confrontations ensue that suck the air out of every room your mind may enter.

The history and government teacher is savvy to Luce’s mind games and subtle threats. Spencer does not over act here. She is a marvel of restraint even if her language slips in passionate caring. She tells his parents: “He can’t fuck this up. Talk to him.”

Watts and Roth are superb, too, in their back and forth dance with their son’s guilt. Did he orchestrate the vandalizing of his teacher’s home? We know he set-up his Asian girlfriend to retract her previous statements. There are numbing scenes of manipulation by Luce around shared lockers; Wilson’s mentally ill sister, Rosemary; and a bouquet of flowers. When Spencer’s Harriet poured a stiff drink, I wanted one, too. She is this film’s tragic figure~so like our times.

Naomi Watts’ Amy is perfect as the liberal parent, who wanted to use her infertility to do something praiseworthy. Tim Roth’s Peter delivers his “ missed babyhood and diapers” speech to deepen the psychological fray. Amy does all the wrong things out of fear: “ I won’t risk the trust we built”, she intones. One of the most chill-producing events was to hear how Amy could not forget the pet goldfish that Luce threw across the room like deli-meat. This mom will lie for her child, and ironically his knowing this may save him. The fireworks have been both symbolically and literally hidden!

Kelvin Harrison,Jr. is impressive as Luce. We want him to be perfect, but he isn’t. Has America put him in a box where he can’t breathe? When he says, “ I haven’t been my best self”, we cringe at his understatement. Questions like “ Do you hurt people to prove a point?” surface. In his valedictory speech, Luce tells us that he was renamed because his adoptive mother could not pronounce his African name. In America, resilience is a virtue, too. As a “ war zone pull-out”, is Luce allowed to define himself ? When Luce asks his teacher “ What if you are what I need protected from?, we understand. Is reading and championing Frantz Fanon’s violence scary from a revolutionary stand point?

When Luce tells Mrs. Wilson , “ I’m sorry if I scare you, I just hope you know me better than that”, is he taunting or conforming? Are both equally bad? It will depend on who you think Luce is. What is behind the smile? What is behind the tears? Viewers only know that Luce gets a second chance, and that Mrs. Wilson may not. A stunner of a film.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”

The photography of ice bergs in Antarctica and Cate Blanchet may be the only reasons to see the Maria Semple novel put to screen. Likewise, the movie was enjoyable only in that it reminded me of the pleasure I had in reading ” Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Director Richard Linklater missed most of the social satire that I found “laugh out loud” funny in the book. Some of this may have been because much of the novel entails memos, e-mails, blog entries, and blue-tooth phone conversations. These are hard to incorporate with a narrator daughter and the use of flashbacks. Present and past get emotionally distorted.

Blanchet is a cooler batty than the Bernadette Fox of the novel. Yet, the subjects of women adrift in the pressures of family and workplace are touched, as is the need for creative endeavors. Her “genius grant” 20 mile house has been demolished for a parking lot. This event has kicked her to the curb.

Bernadette is not a people person. Having once been an esteemed, prize-winning architect, we now find her housed in an unkempt Victorian where she breaks stained-glass windows to rescue the family lab ( cutely, named Ice Cream) from a stuck closet. She cuts their carpet in star-shaped-flaps and staples them to see if the floor is wet from the constantly dripping ceiling. She is an eccentric insomniac. She pours all her depression meds. in a jar like jelly beans for the taking. “Colorful, but hard to remember what is what!” Her psychiatrist, hired by Bernadette’s husband ( Billy Crudup ), tries a psychological intervention once it appears that Bernadette has enabled a scammer in stealing her identity. ” We’d like to present you with the reality of your situation”, she announces. Bernadette’s former colleague, Paul, ( Laurence Fishburne ) does a much better job at quelling Bernadette’s ” irrational chain of anxiety”, he listens.

Blanchet is fun to watch in her marabis with turquoise toes and her Hermès scarves. She naturally absorbs Bernadette’s wit in berating her neighbor , Audrey, ( Kirsten Wiig ) for using the word ” connectitude”. ” Audrey went to a grad school that ” thinks outside the dictionary”.

Bernadette’s identity crisis may begin with a literal mud slide of instability, but her daughter Bee ( Emma Nelson ) does not drift, as her husband does in the book. Daughter and husband present Bernadette with the namesake locket of her visionary saint, and her world is no longer mad.

“Sword of Trust”

Fans of the British television series ” The Detectorists” ( 2014) will love Director Lynn Shelton’s comedy ” Sword of Trust”. Wry, understated humor meshes with life’s little veracities.

Marc Maron plays Mel, a Jewish pawnshop owner in small town Alabama. Along with his slow-to-move helpmate Nathanial ( Jon Bass ), Mel parlays a living our of silver-tongued guitars and worn cowboy boots. When a lesbian couple ( one a former Israeli soldier) presents a Civil War sword with ” prover” documentation that the Confederates won the War, Mel pipes up with ” What do you think this is an Antique Road Show for racists”!

Word travels fast while cash register trays are drying out: “a prover-item” is for sale. ” Delta Pawn” and this unlikely foursome are accosted by some crazy, dangerous sword seekers, one who believes that the state of New Mexico does not count because it ,well , has ” Mexico” in it. Strumming music is apt, as it was in “Deliverance”.

” Sword of Trust” is low-budget fun. We slowly learn of our cast’s dreams and histories. Cynthia ( Jillian Bell ) hopes to use her split of the take for an “Escape Room” enterprise, sort of like the locked, padded van they find themselves in, except people pay for the fun of trying to get out. Mary ( Michaela Watkins) enjoys negotiating for Cynthia as her warrior in kind. Conspiracy theorists join cult members, and flat-earthed theories are even broached by Nathaniel. Toby Huss as ” Hog Jacks” stills one’s heart.

“Muscle Shoals” tee-shirts, tablecloth arguments, puppet-dancer and pie-maker epithets add to the fun. One scene mimics the “who’s on first” routine of Abbott and Costello.

Mel’s old-drugged-out flame, Deidre, ( Lynn Shelton , also director ) sells her on-the-spot poems when Mel will not pawn her rings. The warm tussle of their exchange from a 15 year-free druggy to a never-quite-beat-it user is perfect. The film’s ending where Mel leaves a sack of groceries on her door step is warmer still.

“Once Upon A Time….In Hollywood”

Once upon a time, I had said that I wasn’t going to any more Tarantino movies. Quentin just likes horrendous violence too much. But a dearth of summer choices had me sitting in my usual theater seat watching Brad Pitt playing a stunt double for Leonardo DiCaprio.

Rick Dalton ( DiCaprio) is a has-been from the 1950’s, an old-Western villain, who understands his coming irrelevancy. Cliff ( Pitt) is Rick’s stuntman. He loves to cock his finger and point an imaginary gun at his friend: “ You are Rick Fucking Dalton, and don’t you forget it.” Nostalgia reigns in his cowboy smile. He bolsters his friend and his meal-ticket’s ego.

The usual booze, cars, and girls come with the “ High Noon” drama, but there are just goofy westerns and no high virtue here. With no core narrative, we get little snippets of shallow characters. There are good overhead camera shots, car revs, and who doesn’t admire Pitt’s sun-glistened six-pack !

Tarantino is good at meshing fast curves and swerves out of baby-blue Karmann Ghias. His set props of Wheaties cereal boxes, Wolf dog food, and Kraft Mac and Cheese are evocative of a time. As are kidney-shaped pools, T.V. Guides, and the Playboy Mansion and Aqua Net hair spray. 1969 tans and all the Robert Goulet in the sound track are seen by me as more “ Making fun of” than homage. But then again,this is how I read Tarantino. Tarantino’s big inside joke is “ It’s the actor’s job to be in pursuit of excellence.”

Poking fun at fame and taking an “easy, breezy, attitude” with historical events and with violence, sets the tone. Our narrator helps tie the fragments of discussions of the actor‘s craft and the actor’s fears with the Charles Manson murders. The cult is here with the drug-addled Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Sleazy turns into horrific. A timeline is flashed on the screen ingeniously: 11:00 joints & reading, 12:00 dog walk and acid cig. The violence that some came to see in being readied. We are being readied. And viewers are left with the grim, devilish tale of “ Once upon a time in Hollywood…”.

“The Art of Self-Defense”

“The Art Of Self-Defense” opens with Jesse Eisenberg sitting on his hands. As Casey, a thirty-five-year-old auditor, Eisenberg does his outlander-thing in a one-seater coffee booth. He listens to a couple talking about sex in French-which just happens to be his new language of choice. He returns to work to hear his colleagues talking about sex, and he photocopies images of female breasts from his boss’ porno magazine, and staples the pack for later use in the privacy of his home.

His dachshund greets him from a gramma-crocheted throw on the couch. Director Riley Stearns knows how to contrast Casey’s pet choice with an article of a man with a wolf as his companion.

The set-up has Casey walking alone at night to get dog food. A motorcycle gang of three stop and ask if he has a gun. When he says “no”, he is kicked to a pulp. We next see Casey in a hospital bed with one week of paid leave. The critical care ward means that he will have to use all his vacation time to recuperate. We have a loser in our midst. Eisenberg is good at playing wimps. As in “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004), Eisenberg has a plan to toughen up. Casey purchases a hand gun and enrolls in karate class.

Alessandro Nivola may be the reason to see this dark and violent comedy. Nivola is terrific as Sensei, the suave psycho who tells Casey that “macho” is the way. He is to become what he fears. It is here that the script turns very dark. One earns a red stripe for taking a life.

Animals and humans are killed, a disenfranchised blue-belt takes his own life, and henchmen still roam the streets to slaughter undercover policemen and unsuspecting bicyclists. A German Shepherd is trained to attack the face. Bodies are secretly cremated. Nivola is cult-like, yet dead-pan funny. He would rather be a black-mailer and a killer than a guy named Leslie, his given name. My favorite part may be the end, where we see the dachshund’s picture framed next to the grand master’s. A bow to the bow-wow if ever there was one.

This may become a cult-classic, but not for my age group. We know what it means to be a man. Men can eat quiche and cry, and still be manly.

“Wild Rose”

Julie Waters is who shines in this mother/daughter film, “Wild Rose”. Waters is Marion, the mother of a dreamer. Our dreamer, Rose-Lynn finds herself with two children at 24 and with a deep yearning to make it big as a country singer. Rose-Lynn is also hard to immediately like. As an ex-con from Glasgow, this Scottish lassie is both mistake-laden and selfishly driven. Her children suffer emotionally, but gramma saves them from abject neglect.

Jesse Buckley as our wild Rose sings with a raspy truth that deserves the stage and the recording studio. Her lyrics make us forget the ankle bracelet hidden by her cowboy boots. Her perennial headset and forays of shagging in the park leave her mother aghast. Honing her craft means gramma takes over, and Rose-Lynn has no compunction about asking others to help with her responsibilities.

Buckley, 27, is an accomplished Irish musician and actress. Her arc in “Wild Rose” goes from delinquent to “star” easily. Her stomping and screaming do not pay off, nor does her anger management sessions and her nine to five job. We root for her. And her employer Susannah, the lovely Sophie Okonedo, roots for her and networks, too. Susannah’s smiling eyes let Rose-Lynn know that the BBC expert on country music has agreed to hear her. A surprise denouement keeps the film interesting. Rose-Lynn’s tatoo of “three chords and the truth” takes on symbolic intent. Director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor are to be lauded for giving this comedy/drama a moral turn. For it is the redemptive power of Marion’s love that causes her daughter’s most enduring rise.

“Yesterday”

The “what-ifs” star in the film “Yesterday”. What if the Beatles, Coke-a-Cola, and cigarettes and Harry Potter never existed ? With this premise Director Danny Boyle takes off on a romantic and somewhat silly paean to the music and the lyrics of The Beatles.

We begin with an other-worldly three-second blackout that erases the above cultural items. Himesh Patel takes over as Jack Malik and co-opts the Beatles’ songs. Fame and guilt sideline his romance with Ellie, the Cinderella-like Lily James.

Internet searches for “Sergeant Pepper” render “ sweet peppers” and “Hey, Jude” is changed to “ Hey, Dude”. When “Beatles” is typed into the search box, Google sends images of insects. John Lennon gives Jack advice over tea: “ all you need is love”, and sends him back to keep Ellie from slipping away. Writer Richard Curtis of “Notting Hill” (1999) fame serves up a slow brewing romance, and it gets tedious seeing Jack holding Ellie at bay.

Kate McKinnon plays the role of ruthless agent and the ending serves up energy and sweetness. The balance is held together by song lyrics “ with a little help from my friends” , “let it be”, “here comes the sun”, and “ all the lovely people, where do they all come from” used in all the appropriate places. “Help me if you can” and “ the yellow submarine” strike there chords, too. I would have liked to have seen more of Ed Sheeran and more lines like McKinnon’s “ in the name of money, stop”, but “Yesterday’ is good summer fare.

“The Last Black Man In San Francisco”

A sense of place is romanticized in this dreamy art film about the Harlem of the West, San Francisco. There is much to like, and much to question. The first fifteen minutes of  “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” is confusing with voices lost in the music. I kept thinking what August Wilson could have done with this story. It takes too long to identify Jimmie ( Jimmie Fails ) and Mont ( Jonathan Majors ), and their love relationship never feels like a physical one. It is only hinted at by their friends’ teasing jeers.

The cinematography is innovative, though “ Moonlight”  ( reviewed Nov. 18th, 2016 ) comes to mind. I loved the close-up pauses on faces and figures as our two main characters share a skateboard down San Fran’s hilly streets. The camera lens often picks up a glare, and the prism effect distracts and reminds us that this is a film with a camera man. This is off-putting for filmgoers because it takes us away from the story.

The story deals with memory, self-worth, loss, dignity, and love. First time director, Joe Talbot, keeps the real story of his friend, Jimmie Fails, close to his heart. Urban displacement and gentrification are subjects at the root of the film. The house in question is a turreted Victorian in the Fillmore District. Four million is its commercial worth, but to Jimmie, who still does touch-up painting on its sills, the emotional worth is priceless. The friends ultimately become squatters and refurbish the house with all the antiques and memorabilia that Jimmie’s aunt has stored.

Below the house’s many fish scales and curlicues, a segue-way tour gives the home’s architectural history. Jimmie corrects the guide from a top window. He believes that his grandfather built the house in the 1940’s as the Japanese were placed in internment camps. Montgomery listens and worries that his friend may be obsessed with the property. He has tied his self-worth to the structure.

A group of homies lends an operatic chorus to the moving saga. Scenes of a cable car party, a shot gun death, a sidewalk memorial, and a naked, but hatted and shod bus rider fill in the panorama of a changing city. The loosely constructed script comes together with a memorable denouement. Montgomery has finished his play, ” The Last Black Man In San Francisco” and he performs it as a one man show in the house’s attic.

His costumes are made and the play bills are given out to the selected guests. The score of Emile Mosseri meshes real pain with a gentle sweetness that underscores San Francisco’s loss as Jimmie rows his woodie toward the Golden Gate Bridge. ” Be Sure To War A Flower In Your Hair” becomes hauntingly sad.

“ The Biggest Little Farm”

The crowd-pleasing farm documentary, “ The Biggest Little Farm” is perfectly executed! It begins with our farmer, Molly, telling her husband, John, that she is not okay with staying on the farm while six major wild fires swirl around her and their small son. “There is so much to lose” are her words. The remainder of the film shows us just how much.

Jeff Beal’s music and the beautiful cinematography of wildlife photographer John Chester supports the idealistic tale of John’s and his wife Molly’s venture into old school farming. The first person narration works well as they tell the story of their rescue dog, Todd, and how his incessant, daily eight hours of barking gets the couple evicted from their Santa Monica apartment in 2010.

Molly, a chef, dreams of farming all the food she needs. With the aid of investor friends and family, the couple purchases 240 acres one hour north of Los Angeles. The clod-like soil is dead from mono-culture farming and drought. They enlist a farm guru, Alan York, as a consultant. Alan champions the highest level of biodiversity possible. First, they must burn and rip out everything that never should have been planted, set up an irrigation system, and use worm poop and cover crops to aerate and build up soil nutrients. Their first year budget is blown in six months and no crops are planted. Money is not mentioned again.

An orchard is started with seventy-five varieties of stone fruit trees. Every farm animal is acquired from bull to pig to lamb to hen. A staff is hired and expanded. Young people come to learn farming techniques along side them. Year two has the Apricot Lane Farm successfully selling fifty dozen eggs in an hour.

Interspersed with hard work we see beautiful close-ups of hummingbirds, playful animated graphics, and overhead views of nature perfectly sculpted. When problems begin, nature provides a solution. Coyotes killing 200 chickens mean they need to be moved to the orchard to eradicate the root-chewing gophers. Crows decimating tree fruit means bringing in owls. Snails in the citrus mean bringing in the ducks. Flies overwhelm the farm with maggots until the chickens eat them up. Co-existence is delicate, not forced. Year three and four have the harmonious dance partners always changing. Owls eat gophers, too.

Rare and unique varieties give the Chesters an edge in the marketplace. Tours are given. Sustainable farming tips shared.

Year five brings 18 inches of rain. The Chester’s topsoil does not float out to sea because of the cover crop and the aquifers. Year six and seven have one of the guard dogs killing hens, but the complex and diverse web of life seems to be in equilibrium.

Molly and John have a son and micro-organisms teem in the soil. The raging wildfires send smoke, but the farm survives. The Chesters become comfortable with a certain level of disharmony. A lone lamb frolics and a coyote eyes an easy meal. The guard dog barks and a lamb is returned to the fold.

Many filmgoers brought their elementary school children. Families clapped as the credits rolled. I noticed poets Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver were listed as inspiration.

“ Late Night”

Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling team up for a comedic drama about women coexisting in the field of late night tv hosting, a field dominated by men. Thompson, as Katharine Newbury, has been hosting her own show for twenty-eight years. Her gig is getting stale, and the head of the network, Caroline Moran ( Amy Ryan) is ready to dump her. Too many interviews with Doris Kearns Goodwin brings on the line that Goodwin could be an Avenger if she tried! Moran also scoffs at a ” folded fitted sheet race” segment. All the criticism leads Katharine to mock a viral video of dog butt sniffing which itself goes horribly viral.

Most of the screen time is showing us who Newbury is. A rather snobbish, direct and tough woman, who eschews social media and protégées. ” I will not allow you to destroy the show I built.” sounds much tougher than the easy compromising she exhibits. She takes no time in calling her surprising three year affair ” reprehensible”. We never learn what becomes of “Charlie”. John Lithgow plays Katharine’s forgiving husband.

Mindy Kaling, the first Indian-American to have her own show, plays Molly. Molly works at a chemical plant , but is obsessed with comedy. Molly is hired to prove that Katharine does not hate women and to diversify the all thirtyish- something male fifedom. One of the funniest lines is Molly saying that she is not worried about the masculinity in the room. Many of the writers are obviously gay.

Many of the jokes are based on appearances. Katharine’s spikey hair is challenged by her black publicist. ” How do you feel about extensions?” Molly attends a party with the tags still on her dress. The monologues could be funnier, and viewers are dragged through Molly watching old stand-ups and gazing at the accolade room full of Golden Globes and Emmies. Katharine tells Molly that her earnestness is hard to be around. The suspiciousness of the famous is well documented. Slut shaming is addressed, as is selfishness. While Katharine is often unusually cruel, her complacency is what has driven her ratings down. Caroline tells Katharine to “give a damn” and the two strike a deal. The jokes, the growth, the women karma did not seem that fresh to me.