Julius Onah has a lot to say. He stepped onstage just before Luce, his third feature as director, screened as the Opening Night film at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston. Typically a pre-movie appearance from an auteur amounts to a wave, a bow, a “thanks for coming out!” or, at worst, a visible hostage situation at the hands of a ruthless moderator. Onah, in the span of what seemed like less than a minute, reflected on Luce‘s premiere at Sundance and his hopes for the conversations the film will continue to spur; he referred to the movie theater as “his church”; he drew parallels from the film to his own life experience, having emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria when he was ten; and he even snuck in a playful dig at IFFBoston, noting that he’d submitted several short films for consideration years ago, all of which were rejected.
His film is similarly assertive of numerous ideas without ever being overly verbose. Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star high school student in Arlington, Virginia who spent the first seven years of his life surrounded by the violence of war-torn Eritrea. His adoption by a white upper-class American couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) meant a new start, though it also meant a long period of adjustment and self-reconciliation. When his stern (some would say “bitchy”) teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) reads an unsettling essay by Luce and finds illegal fireworks in his locker, the question arises as to whether that period of self-reconciliation is actually still underway. Is Luce the model young American everyone makes him out to be? Or is there a darker side within him, manifesting itself as a sociopathic danger to others?
I never much expected Yorgos Lanthimos to become a great filmmaker. He was always a very good filmmaker, and it must be noted that we’re reserving the term great here for someone truly deserving of the moniker, as in one of the all-time greats. Nowadays great gets bandied about a lot. Is Ridley Scott great? From time to time, sure. Maybe we weigh the greatness of Blade Runner against the decidedly-not-so-greatness of Alien: Covenant? Is Francis Ford Coppola great? He definitely was. Does he get a lifetime pass for Godfather and Apocalypse Now? Is Wes Anderson great? No, he’s not. Stylish, yes. Symmetrical, very. But a mere few living filmmakers are transcendently, naturally, consistently great. Surely it’s a malleable and transient label, fit to be removed, re-earned, reconsidered. And surely — as The Dude would say in that movie by the great Coen Brothers — it’s just, like, your opinion, man.
Lanthimos isn’t yet one of the all-time greats, but watching The Favourite I did think, for the first time, that he might just have it in him someday. Such a consideration might have been questionable after his previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an overly melancholy tale featuring a creepy turn from Barry Keoghan, one cool shot of a descending escalator, a Funny Games-esque climax and a whole bunch of monotone dialogue. It wasn’t a bad movie, and it might even be a pretty good movie. But the cold design of Sacred Deer made it impactful but never resonant. Maybe it was just so different than The Lobster, the previous effort from Lanthimos, which was a darkly funny and much more inventive film.
It would have been a bummer if a woman with a large hat had been seated in front of me at the IFFBoston screening of Disorder. I regrettably do not speak French (working on it!) and so Disorder‘s English subtitles are pretty vital to the enjoyment of the film. If a lady with a large hat, perhaps inspired to wear such a thing by The Great Train Robbery or that episode of Sesame Street, were to get comfy in the seat in front of me, there’s a chance that those subtitles might have been obscured. I’ve yet to develop social courage or an extendable giraffelike neck (working on it!) and so, yeah, that would have been a bummer.
But, actually, no: Disorder would have been every bit as powerful without the words. Plot-wise there’s nothing too out-of-the-ordinary, and in fact the synopsis runs the risk of sounding heavily clichéd when it’s written down on paper. Vincent, a French soldier fresh back from Afghanistan, has taken a job at a private security company and been tasked with protecting the beautiful wife of the shady rich magnate. His PTSD interferes with this, but when the beautiful wife becomes a target it’s up to Vincent to save her. This admittedly sounds uninspired, but thankfully Disorder is crafted with care and creativity such that synopsis takes a backseat to style.
Having just finished and thoroughly enjoyed The Night Manager, I thought I’d know more or less what to expect from High-Rise. This is due largely in part to the sexy sexualization of Tom “Sexy” Hiddleston, who stars in both and is also sexy. I assumed his character in High-Rise to be the sterling yuppie with the isn’t-it-perfect life structured in service of the concealment of darker, truer impulses. In Night Manager Hiddleston’s attractiveness is essentially made into a plot point; so too, probably, would High-Rise note the perfection of the specimen before delving into a personality far less desirable. A six-pack and a violent extreme, per American Psycho, per marketing stills like this:
But High-Rise isn’t sexy for very long. The prologue is a glimpse of the messy future, wherein Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing seemingly resorts to making food out of the dog, making paper airplanes out of the electricity bill, and making a ramshackle life in the husklike ruins of the tower block. It is suspiciously unsexy. Then again, though, resorts isn’t the right word: Laing has very definitely chosen this. He’s in a sort of hell and is more or less enjoying it.
Starred Up played this week at the tail end of the Fall Focus presented by Independent Film Festival Boston. Though technically a 2013 release, the British prison drama has yet to really come out stateside and remains very much a movie of interest. Part of this is due to the recent emergence of Jack O’Connell on the international stage – he carried the little-seen ’71 and will carry the likely-to-be-widely-seen Unbroken, and he’s even in the Oscar conversation for the latter. O’Connell’s been in a bunch of stuff prior to the last few years, and his young role in the comparatively weak Michael Fassbender film Eden Lake probably foreshadows what’s to come most effectively. But if you want top-notch O’Connell in a nearly-top-notch film, Starred Up is the one to check out.
The prison genre is a storied one in film. Starred Up is a very different movie than Bronson – one of the most brilliant entries in the genre in recent memory – but it still recalls the 2008 Tom Hardy flick a little too heavily at times. This might be an inescapable element of the genre – it’s a prison movie, what did you expect? – but it might also be because O’Connell’s Eric Love simply seems to want the incredible amount of violence swirling around his little stone cell. Bronson and Love seem to share that from the outset – there is a scene in both films in which guards pile up outside the cell door in full riot gear as the gleeful prisoner, be it the hulking Bronson or the roguish Love, douses himself in oil and and prepares for the fight. The fight seems ritualistic, and for Bronson it certainly is. It’s sport. But this is where Starred Up and Eric Love diverge, and while it’s not necessarily a better film it’s certainly a more grounded, realistic genre entry.