Tag Archives: Tim Roth

Luce (2019)

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?

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Little Odessa (1995)

There are probably a great many directors who could claim to be “New York directors” or directors of “New York movies”. Plenty of auteurs film in the Big Apple, sure, but true New York movies have more than just the location and the accent. They have the feel, dumb as it sounds. Martin Scorsese is the name most likely to crop up in the present conversation, and in fact the case with Scorsese is such that the relationship might occasionally become reversed: Scorsese made his name depicting “New York things”, and he got so good at it that certain “Scorsese things” are now taken lock, stock and barrel as “New York things”. Take this simple, unadorned, stage-setting shot from James Gray’s debut feature Little Odessa:

Little Odessa (1994)
Little Odessa (1994)

Doesn’t something about that just scream Scorsese? The obvious comparisons are there in the smokiness, the coloring, the detail in the clothing and the food on the tables. The neon sign in the window. But the staging and perspective, too, seem to recall Scorsese’s camera. This is one of the more straightforward examples of such influence on the young James Gray, but the point isn’t to highlight how Gray made Little Odessa on the foundations laid by guys like Scorsese – he didn’t, and it’s clear even in this debut feature (made when Gray was just twenty-five) that his style is a distinct one largely free of ties to any cinematic giants of note. And the point isn’t even to prove that James Gray is deserving of a prominent rank amongst New York directors like Scorsese, although he is. The point, for now, is that Gray crafted Little Odessa as a New York movie, crafted it with that New York feel, and he did so for a very specific reason.

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Youth Without Youth (2007)

Imagine Christopher Nolan or Baz Luhrmann or Roland Emmerich or any other director unwilling to retreat from the staid comfort of big-budget blockbuster filmmaking, and imagine they break their mold for a moment and make a tiny, heartfelt, indie-feel flick with no explosions or battles or tidal waves. Good. Now imagine they do that a second time, and a third, and imagine they do it so many more times that that becomes their new thing, and a return to blockbusters would seem odd. Basically, that’s what Francis Ford Coppola did.

This is by no means a bad thing! Interesting, though, that the guy behind The Godfather and Apocalypse Now would eventually be making movies so subtle that you missed their release entirely. Youth Without Youth is one of those, or at least it was for me, despite an interesting premise and noticeable names beside the Starring and Directed By credits. The film came and went without much hubbub.

Tim Roth plays Dominic, an aging Romanian linguist who has spent his entire life pursuing the origin of all language and “the origin of human consciousness”, denoted at one point in the film as the all-enviable “inarticulate moment”. Despairing at the inevitable failure of his quest, Dominic means to commit suicide when he is suddenly struck by lightning. As his wounds heal Dominic finds that he has grown inexplicably younger, and as World War II dawns it seems Dominic has an opportunity to relive his life and complete his goal.

Sounds ambitious, no? But didn’t we just get through establishing this as a small, blip-like effort from an otherwise giant of Hollywood? Is it big or is it small? We must decide quickly.

We really mustn’t though, or we can’t, or couldn’t if we wanted to. Youth Without Youth is a highly strange movie, not one that entirely makes sense, not one that’s even entirely likable on first pass. It is, however, uniquely both a grand-scale global epic and an intimate and thought-provoking character study. On the one hand Youth Without Youth spans a century and captures much of the fear and frustration holding Europe hostage before and during and after the war; it’s been reported that Coppola filmed over 170 hours of footage for the film, ultimately distilled into a mere 2. For those absent mathematical inclinations, that’s 168 hours of film gone straight to the landfill. That’s massive.

On the other hand, the entire film really is just one guy. There are other characters, yes, but Tim Roth carries Youth Without Youth on his back. I wasn’t paying attention to whether he appeared in every single frame of the film, by my recollection is that he very nearly did. Regardless, through the frequent use of mirrors and actual walking talking doppelgängers, there are plenty of frames in which Tim Roth appears twice or three times. The film should more than satisfy any obsessive Tim Roth stalkers, at least until Coppola gets around to Youth Without Youth 2: The Other 168 Hours.

Thankfully Roth really is a great actor, and not one who gets as many starring roles as he should. Enigmatic doesn’t begin to describe his Dominic, and in the end he’s the only thing that makes Youth Without Youth work. You could easily write this film off as pretentious crap, but that kind of thing doesn’t really concern me. It’s interesting enough to watch Coppola craft something in this way on a decidedly smaller stage than anything he made in his Godfather heyday, and ruminations on “what it all meant” are like a bonus round. If a glimpse into a what a truly honest filmmaker looks like is what makes you sit down to Youth Without Youth, then I’d say that’s good enough for now. At least until Youth Without 2th.