I’ll review the four films in the order in which I saw them.
Luce, directed by Julius Onah from a screenplay he co-adapted from a play with its author, J.C. Lee, is a challenging and provocative story concerning the black experience in America today. But it is a highly specialized experience. The title character is a 17-year old black high school student who was raised by his adoptive white parents. He was rescued from Eritrea as a seven year old, where he had been exposed to violence on a massive scale.
As superbly played by newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce is a smart, clear-eyed kid with a thousand-watt smile. The film opens with him giving a high school speech, to thunderous approval, especially from his parents, Amy, played by Naomi Watts and Peter, played by Tim Roth. Afterwards, he introduces them to his history teacher, Ms. Wilson, played by Octavia Spencer. Spencer is, as always, a powerful screen presence. We soon see that all is not well. Wilson calls Amy to meet her after school one day. She was disturbed by a paper Luce wrote, admiringly, about pro-violence activist Franz Fanon. Alarmed, she secretly searches Luce’s gym locker, where she finds illegal fireworks. She gives the term paper and the fireworks to Amy, who is shaken, and strongly advises her to confront her son about them.
The complex and convoluted plot makes for a film that is often suspenseful and gripping, but which is done in by clumsy plotting and often implausible melodrama. The film wheels out a Freudian cartload of issues, enough even for several films: do white parents put a cruel burden on an adopted black child, who fears he can never meet their expectations?; can an overly demanding black teacher (Spencer) be seen as an enemy to black kids who resent her using them for her personal goals; can a girl who may have been abused at a party, but was drunk and is not sure, fall in love with the boy who abused her?
But one issue clearly dominates the others. Amy’s fiercely protective attitude towards Luce extends to denying all of his accusers, no matter how unbelievable his defenses, in spite of the fact that everyone else – including her husband – has stopped believing him. Some of the film’s most dramatic moments, in fact, are when Luce is forced to confront her, face-to-face, and lie to her again, knowing that her built-in liberal guilt will always bring her around.
The fact is, as written, Amy’s behavior doesn’t make any sense. There’s more going on here than just “liberal guilt”, and the screenplay fails to fill us in. Her refusal to see that the boy she raised is capable of deceit and manipulation defies all credibility. Other plot strands, such as why Luce risks his future to save a teammate accused of using drugs, also strain credibility. The film fails, ultimately, because of such muddled dramaturgy.
But not because of the performances. Harrison stands out, of course, superbly masking the inner confusions of the character with a fresh, open-hearted conviviality that becomes chilling as his true intentions are revealed. Watts, Roth and Spencer are wonderfully expressive of their characters’ struggles, as might be expected, but newcomer Asian-American Andrea Bang is impressive for almost pulling off an uncertainly written character; her willingness to lie for Luce is never convincing.
As director, it was an achievement for Onah to obtain such performances, and the naturalness extends to the actors’ movements, the settings and editing rhythms. But, as writer, he couldn’t make the material unfold comfortably as a film. The story’s origins as a play is painfully evident throughout. Unfortunately, real life rarely presents such an articulate, verbally effusive collection of people, especially in their moments of rage and betrayal. I counted at least four confrontations when they had tears streaming down their cheeks.
Plus One, written and directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer, was my rom-com selection this year. It has zip and raunchy talk from a lot of pretty, young, upbeat, smart people who sure know how to have fun. And the mood is infectious, for the most part, in spite of the fact that so many of the pitfalls of life – bringdowners – are scrubbed clean: things like drug abuse, unwanted pregnancy, STDs and, most glaringly, concerns about money.
Starting off, we know we’ll be staying with privileged people, and, along with that, we accept whatever the genre defines as the “problems” that drive the story. In this case, the problem is attending weddings as a single, unmarried person, and the strain of having everyone confront you with why you’re still not married and not happy like them. It starts with Ben, played by Jack Quaid, and Alice, played by Maya Erskine, best friends who met in college, preparing for the wedding of Ben’s best friend. Ben tries out his best man’s speech on Alice, who makes caustic comments. Ben is tall, nice looking and a little subdued socially. Alice is short, Chinese-American, very cute and prone to being a little “outrageous” to get people’s attention. But, friends or not, it’s pretty clear that she’s got her sights on Ben, especially since her long-time boyfriend, Nate, recently broke up with her. But Ben is, well, not quite sure what he feels about Alice, except that he likes hanging out with her. But also, Ben is not sure whether he wants a close romantic relationship at all, and the question of marriage really unsettles him.
We soon realize that we’re going to be seeing a lot of Ben being unsettled because he is invited to more weddings in a single year than I’ve been asked to in my entire life. Most seem to be with his college friends, but there’s also one coming up that’s for his father’s third marriage, and he is way, way distraught over it. At any rate, Alice suggests that the two of them go to all of their upcoming wedding invites together – be their “plus ones” – and Ben agrees.
That’s about as much of the story as you’ll need to figure out where it’s going. It has some wit, some bounce and contains every scene from all the wedding movies you ever saw, sometimes with surprising freshness. And sometimes not. In fact, the first half piles on so much singing, awkward dancing and slurred speeches that I kind of tuned out. The real story starts when Ben and Alice jump fully-clothed into a swimming pool, both wedding-drunk, and start to face the fact that they’re in love. And, yes, there are some bumps along the way, but nothing even remotely suggests a real threat to the happy ending its intended audience wants to see. But since I wasn’t invited, I didn’t much care.
Richie and Hunter are newlyweds. Richie has just been made top management in his father’s company. The couple were given a magnificent house overlooking the river, and Richie’s father, played by David Rasch, demands top performance from both of them; from Richie, in the form of business excellence, and from Hunter, by the continuance of the dynasty. Richie’s mother, played by Elizabeth Marvell, shows somewhat more warmth than her husband, but is clearly in lock-step with his agenda.
Swallow, written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, is like a finely-honed weapon. The dominant mood is set early on. Hunter, played by Hayley Bennet, is a timid working class girl who is more than a little overwhelmed by her good fortune. She expresses her discomfort to Richie, played by Austin Stowell, who tries to reassure her of his love. But, in small ways, Hunter senses harsh judgment from the entire family. Her anxiety becomes manifest in an alarming way after she becomes pregnant. One day, at first out of curiosity, she swallows a playing marble. After excretion, she washes it and starts to collect other small, sometimes sharp objects that she swallows in secret. When the pain becomes unbearable, she is brought to hospital emergency. Upon learning the cause, the family is at first furious, but decide to offer grudging support, while taking total control of Hunter’s life in order to save the baby.
Gorgeously photographed by Katelin Arizmendi, with a throbbing score by Nathan Helpern, the film confidently takes us to familiar scare-fest terrain. In every way, the film promises, and delivers, the kind of experience mastered by Cronenberg and Polanski. But Davis has another purpose in mind, one that forces the audience to a moral reckoning rarely attempted in this genre. And he pulls it off. The story develops in familiar horror-story fashion, until it leaps into a totally divergent framework, but one we have been prepared for brilliantly.
Hayley Bennett, who just won the Tribeca best actress award for her performance, is an astonishing talent. The physical demands of the role are enough to impress us, but her absolute command of the character is amazing. Hunter’s journey of self-discovery is complex. She seems to be drawn to self-injury with no underlying goal except to feel pain. For unknown reasons. And yet, her final act seems rational and anything but impulsive. The other main performers, including Elizabeth Marvell, Austin Stowell and the always solid David Rasch, are up to her standard. Most memorable of all, even though late in the film, is Denis O’Hare, who is uncannily perfect.
Two minor quibbles. The editing was confusing at one point. It looked like the male nurse might have helped her to escape, which makes no sense. Also, I didn’t feel that Hunter would have told the therapist the story about her mother.
Whatever you think of Swallow, you should appreciate that Davis has made exactly the film he wanted to make, down to his choice to hold that last shot in a women’s public bathroom under the end credits, a choice that summarizes perfectly the moral compass of the entire film. Swallow is not the kind of film that is easy to love. I certainly don’t. There are other memorable films – Bertolucci’s The Conformist is summoned to mind – that are similarly manipulative, tendentious and thematically misleading but so brilliantly conceived and executed that they still have a tremendous impact. This one joins them. Pauline Kael famously said that Sam Peckinpaugh’s Straw Dogs was the “first fascist masterpiece”, which is not as admiring as it sounds. By that standard, you might say that Swallow is a masterpiece as well. But I can’t tell you of what kind – that would be a spoiler.
This is surely going to be one of the most controversial films of the year. And I can see that there will be a lot of people who will hate it, passionately. But of course, for me, that amounts to an enthusiastic recommendation.
This Is Not Berlin
The last film I saw was This Is Not Berlin, directed by Hari Sama, from a script he wrote with Rodrigo Ordonez and Max Zunino. Set in 1986, it is a very personal, rigidly particularized revisit to Sama’s youth in Mexico City. It is interesting to compare it with Roma, which took place in Mexico in the same period. But the youth experience here is altogether different. Roma‘s Cleo, from a country peasant background, would never have been exposed to the temptations that these young people joyfully indulge in. Although technically fiction, its very detailed presentation of the sexual and political awakening of Mexican youth at that time, with the threat of AIDS hanging over them like a cloud of doom, is undoubtedly based on Sama’s own experience.
Carlos, the protagonist, played by Xabiana Ponce de Leon, is clearly based on the director. Carlos wants to stand out among his peers, but chooses strange ways to do it. He goes along with other students to street fistfights with rival high schools, but he won’t fight. He just stands in the middle of the fray, ducking and blocking. He says the fights are useless. He wears his hair long, even though the other boys think it’s “faggy”. He lives, shabbily, with his struggling mother and younger brother. The adult male in his life is his uncle Esteban, played by the director as a counter-culture fantasy with a motorcycle, who teaches Carlos electronics repair. His best friend, Gera, played by Jose Antonio Toledo, lets the more self-assured Carlos dominate. They are inseparable, and Gera gladly invites Carlos over to his home, which is solidly middle-class, so they can secretly check out his father’s porn collection. Carlos is also attracted to Gera’s older sister, Rita, who writes protest songs which she screams out in a rock band.
Rita, winningly played by Ximena Romo, seems to epitomize the conflicted feelings of her generation. Her songs are anthems of rage, rejection of middle-class values and hypocrisy. But she is reluctant to take the boys to the Aztec, the club she sings in, because they are minors. The threat of a police raid is constant, especially since the club staff is unable to curb the alcohol and drug abuse and the sexual acting out. Finally, she agrees, although her boyfriend, lead guitar in her band, is aware that Carlos adores her.
The most exciting parts of the film take place in the club, with a pulsating, irresistible score. The promise of sex was everywhere, from both genders. The boys respond with curiosity to the attentions of the young gay men who are attracted to them, especially the charismatic Nico, a performance artist, played by Mauro Sanchez Navarro. Curiously, the film ignores the subject of sex between women entirely.
The structure of the film is fairly linear. The boys discover their sexual identity, and what they learn about themselves drives them apart. Yet it concludes, satisfactorily, with them reaching a greater appreciation of what they mean to each other. Even so, the ending seems abrupt and inconclusive. The film was always more than the story of a friendship, it told of a cultural revolution. The final demonstration by the youths was at a rally for the World Cup, which Mexico hosted that year. Their defiance at that event was intended to show how alienated they were from the traditional values of their country.
To his credit, Sama does not glorify them. Their protest seems without a defined purpose, confused and reactive only. The young rebels are aware of this too. The film’s title comes from an angry gay activist who denounces the artist Nico for trivializing what is really, in the age of AIDS, a matter of survival. But also, in a way, the film feels vaguely nostalgic for that time, when youth were so passionately motivated to define their own cultural identity. They were so confident that the real answers were to be found in sex, music and drugs. This was how they were going to change the world!
Is it just me, but does it seem improbable that the youth of today will face their own future with the same excitement and unbridled sensuality that swept through Carlos’ generation?