Primal Scream

Gully

by George Wolf

Well, that escalated quickly.

Ron Burgundy may have played that line for laughs, but when the boys in Gully give in to their rage, things couldn’t be more serious.

Or devastating.

Jesse (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), Calvin (Jacob Lattimore) and Nicky (Charlie Plummer) are three teens in a rough L.A. neighborhood who don’t have much use for anything besides violent video games and partying, or anyone besides each other.

They skip school, do drugs, and only seem enthusiastic when they’re trashing a store or living vicariously through video violence.

In fact, through the film’s first act you’re tempted to label this as a hackneyed attempt by director Nabil Elderkin (a music video vet helming his first feature) and writer Marcus J. Guillory (a TV vet with his first screenplay credit) to blame video games for society’s ills.

But hang on and strap in, that’s far from what these filmmakers have in mind.

To say the three friends have had traumatic upbringings is being far too polite. Each has weathered a uniquely hellish situation, leaving them all on the precipice of manhood with little hope for the future.

As Nicky fights with both his mother (Amber Heard) and his pregnant girlfriend (Zoe Renee), Jesse dreams of life without his abusive father (John Corbett) and Calvin struggles with his mental health and the meds pushed on him by his mother (Robin Givens), the boys make a shattering discovery and the fuse is lit.

They begin a 48-hour rampage of wanton violence and calculated revenge, and it will not end well.

Elderkin makes sure the violence is in your face and packed with stylish grit, often blurring the line between reality and video game action. It’s an ambitious play that’s worthy even when it seems over the top, much like the contrasting tones brought by Greg (Jonathan Majors), an ex-con returning home determined to stay clean, and Mr. Christmas (Terence Howard), a homeless neighborhood philosopher.

This film is messy, angry, brutal and defiant, a primal scream that doesn’t much care if you think it’s nihilistic. Elderkin and Guillory have blazing guns of their own, and while they don’t hit every bullseye, there’s enough here to make you eager for their second act.

The world of Gully isn’t a pleasant place to be, and that’s no accident. But a confident vision and three terrific young actors leading a solid ensemble will make sure you’ll be thinking about what goes down here, even if you look away.

Fa La La Land

The High Note

by George Wolf

Since rising to fame on Black-ish, Tracee Ellis Ross has apparently been biding her time, patiently waiting for the right vehicle to showcase her talents as a singer. It isn’t hard to understand the apprehension.

Oh, look, another TV star trying to sing. And this one just wants to ride her mother’s (Diana, FYI) iconic coattails!

Ross chooses wisely with the endearing The High Note, absolutely killing it as Grace Davis, a modern brand of pop diva.

Davis still basks in the glow of worldwide fame, but it’s been a minute since she scored a big hit. Grace’s longtime manager Jack (Ice Cube, with more proof of his maturation as an actor) wants her to ink a long-term residency in Vegas, but Grace isn’t sure she’s ready to be pushed onto the “greatest hits” circuit. And there’s a small but potentially mighty voice in Grace’s corner.

It belongs to her personal assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson, flashing a winning mix of naïveté and ambition). She’s been lobbying for new Grace Davis music, which would carry some weight if everyone only knew how great a producer Maggie could be if they’d just give her the chance!

If this sounds like something for the Hallmark Channel, did I mention Maggie has stumbled across David (the impressive Kelvin Harrison, Jr., with his own vocal chops), a talented musician who could use an L.A. music producer and maybe even a girlfriend?

Sure, you can guess where most (but not all) of this goes, and in other hands it might have been a tone deaf stiff. But director Nisha Ganatra (the underseen gem Late Night) runs Flora Greeson’s debut screenplay through the filter of an endlessly charming cast to craft an extended mix of finger-snapping smiles.

Look beneath those layers of what may feel like fluff, and you’ll even find a sometimes awkward but still refreshing look at two women gracefully navigating the path to controlling their own destinies. Nice.

Don’t discount those finger snaps, either. In a music business movie the music should mean business, and the tunes in The High Note sound like something a producer might actually get excited about, especially when Ross lets it rip.

She makes Grace a determined diva that’s spoiled but still worth rooting for, infusing her big numbers with the expressive vocal power of an actor and a character who are both seizing their moment.

The first single from the soundtrack, Ross’s “Love Myself,” is already looking like a hit. The High Note sounds like one, too.

Pretty as a Picture

The Photograph

by Hope Madden

Tis the season, and as Valentine’s-aimed romantic dramedies go, the blandly titled The Photograph could be worse.

Issa Rae (Insecure) leads the cross-generational love story as Mae, NYC museum curator trying to process her grief and an incredibly long letter, both hers now because of her estranged mother Christina’s recent death.

Christina (a solid Chanté Adams), mainly unveiled via flashback, broke from her own difficult mother as well as the love of her life back in Louisiana years ago to follow a career as a photographer in New York.

As Mae learns some painfully obvious truths by way of Christina’s letter, writer/director Stella Meghie (Everything, Everything) weaves two romances together across time to look at the wages of a woman’s ambition and the ways we relive our parents’ mistakes.

There’s plenty to like here, and Meghie’s film certainly looks like a dreamy romance waiting to happen. Scenes are beautifully lit, gorgeously filmed and romantically scored. You can’t fault the casting, either.

LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) has an easy chemistry with Rae as the journalist interested in Christina’s life, and Meghie surrounds her leads with vibrant supporting characters. Lil Rel Howery, Courtney B. Vance and an underused Kelvin Harrison Jr. all round out the ensemble, adding much needed life.

Rob Morgan (Mudbound, Last Black Man in San Francisco, Just Mercy), wonderful as always, steals his few scenes with a restrained, mournful presence that enriches an insubstantial story. There’s a ragged weariness to his character, one that’s all the more poignant when offset by the buoyancy of Y’lan Noel’s turn as the younger version of the same character.

Meghie has assembled a fine cast, she just doesn’t give them enough to do. Neither love story gets enough room to grow and Mae’s arc feels forced and rushed. Because Christina is gone before the cameras role, Meghie handles Mae’s conflict with her mother exclusively through clunky dialog, and the usually reliable Rae has trouble conveying any convincing inner turmoil.

For a low stakes romance, The Photograph is a very pretty picture.

Time and Tide

Waves

by Hope Madden

“Seize the day,” Tyler’s (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) literature teacher reminds each student as they leave her classroom.

In a constant loop during weight training, Tyler’s wrestling coach barks,
“There are no second chances and there is no fucking second place!”

Even at home, Tyler’s relaxing moment alone with his loving stepmother Catharine (Renee Elise Golsberry) is interrupted by a very stern father (Sterling K. Brown, remarkable as always) reminding him that if he expects to achieve all that has been set out for him – wrestling at state championship level, securing a scholarship – he’d better get back to work.

Trey Edward Schults’s Waves is quick to show us that Tyler has it all: a loving and financially comfortable family, grades, talent, friends, and a gorgeous girlfriend (Alexa Demie). If there is time to enjoy it, there’s certainly no time to live it, to give into it, or to give anything without the clear expectation that it is forwarding something for himself. High expectations, high demands, high rewards, everything focused on Tyler, everyone focused on Tyler, Tyler focused on Tyler.

Waves sometimes feels like a less contrived, more Floridian view of Julius Onah’s Luce, the scab-picking indie in which Harrison proved himself a blistering and commanding lead. Are the demands put upon the brightest and most talented African American high school males too high? Are those supporting these young men deriving too much from their success to actually offer clear-eyed guidance?

Says Dad to an increasingly desperate Tyler, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

While much of the drama leading to this moment could be generalized to most any adolescent male buckling under high expectations, this moment between father and son separates the narrative as one dealing specifically with the black American experience.

In 1968, George Romero famously cast Duane Jones as the lead in his groundbreaking zombie film Night of the Living Dead only, according to the filmmaker, because Jones was the best actor to audition for the part. The film’s enduring success has less to do with Jones’s talent (though that is evident in every frame) and more to do with the political power the film derives from seeing a black hero in this particular effort.

Schultz cast Harrison Jr. as the male lead in Waves because of his work with the remarkable talent in his previous effort, It Comes at Night. The white filmmaker’s script itself is semi-autobiographical, and there’s a superficial tidiness to Schultz’s cultural shift that Romero’s film didn’t suffer.

It’s not enough to topple the film by any means, but the shorthand and stylized moments that remark on the cultural shift from the story of a white adolescent male on a collision course with destiny and the story of a black young man on that same course feel specifically introduced and placed, while much of the rest of the film offers an uneasy authenticity that keeps your attention.

From Schults’s dizzying opening sequence, Tyler’s breathless youth in sunny south Florida is simultaneously exhilarating and reckless, a reality underscored throughout the film by Drew Daniels’s whirligig camera and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s furious score.

What separates Waves from other chronicles of the frenzied fall of an idealized adolescent is his follow-up act, one in which the fallout of Tyler’s destruction implicates everyone who loves him, including his quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell).

The point of her narrative is the redemptive nature of forgiveness. Here Schults uses the same camera movement and score to note again the hand-in-hand nature of freedom and danger in adolescence. But here, we sense things may not end up as dire.

Like Schults’s first film Krisha, Waves is embroiled in family issues as well as addiction, though this time the issues and the sociological context concern American blackness—questionable territory for a white filmmaker, even one as irrefutably talented as Schults. Perhaps thanks mainly to remarkable performances by Brown, Russell and especially Harrison, Waves rings mainly true.

Identity Theft

Luce

by Hope Madden

It’s appropriate that so much of the film Luce follows the titular character’s preparation for a debate. The film itself seems to beg for audience argument.

Luce is a bit of an American miracle. A boy soldier rescued from Eritrea at 7 by a wealthy white couple, he’s reinvented himself by the beginning of his senior year in high school, becoming the golden child: debate team captain, cross country captain, speech team captain and eventual valedictorian.

A sternly supportive history teacher (Octavia Spencer) raises questions, her goal to help ensure Luce understands that he “cannot fuck up.” It becomes the catalyst for a tense, borderline terrifying exploration of identity, preconceptions, race, refined society and who gets to take credit for what.

Kelvin Harrison Jr., so wounded and wonderful in It Comes at Night, holds all these puzzle pieces together as the enigma at the center of a mystery. His turn as the charismatic central figure in this highly polite and scholarly debate is fascinating, haunting and, in rare flashes, painfully vulnerable.

His manufactured persona, his carefully studied sincerity, emphasize an image that’s too good to be true. But Harrison Jr. brings so many additional layers—manifestations of survival techniques, an ability to read his environment and predict everyone’s behavior—that give his character needed complexity. Luce is not just a black student everyone can be proud of, or some wonderful example of how our system can work.

And that’s what makes him scary. So when he executes a history assignment too well—writing from the perspective of a historical figure who suggested violence as a moral response to colonialism—he freaks out a teacher (Spencer, wonderfully righteousness) who’d rather he embrace his favored status so she can bask in the glow.

Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Luce’s socially conscious parents, and the pairing makes it tough to keep your mind from recalling Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s grim picture of affluent familial catastrophe. Whether intentional or not, the casting adds an underlying sense of urgent dread—as does Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s discordant score.

Watts is particularly strong, and the who-knows-what dance she does with Roth as their son plays one off the other adds a queasying rhythm to the mystery.

Julius Onah’s direction sometimes betrays the stagebound nature of the source material. (J.C. Lee adapts his own much lauded play.) Too much is revealed through lengthy monologues and there’s little smooth flow from scene to scene.

But his film teems with provocation and his cast more than meets that challenge. Harrison Jr. in particular is a revelation, an image of a thing that doesn’t exist but is so true you’ll never know if anything else is really there.

Fear Itself

It Comes at Night

by George Wolf

Two years ago, Krisha served as a stunning feature debut for writer/director Trey Edward Shults. Gripping in the intimate nature of its truths, it heralded Shults as a new filmmaker with tremendous potential.

That potential is realized with It Comes at Night.

He may have bigger stars and a larger budget this time out, but Shults shows storytelling instincts that are already well-seasoned. Resisting any pressures to mainstream his scope and “go bigger,” Shults get even more intimate. While Krisha showed a very tangible threat infecting a family, It Comes at Night is more abstract, an intensely personal take on fear and paranoia.

Deep in the woods, Paul (Joel Edgerton, solid as always), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have established a cautious existence in the face of a worldwide plague. They have boarded their windows, secured their doors, and enacted a very strict set of rules for survival.

At the top of that list: do not go out at night.

This rigid domestic order is tested when the desperate Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks in. He has a wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and toddler to protect, and is offering all they have in exchange for refuge.

It Comes at Night has been on horror fans’ radar for some time, but it will test the patience of those satisfied with cheap jump scares or spoon-fed explanations. As with Krisha, Shults builds the film around his own experiences, using Travis to often mirror how Shults himself dealt with a death in the family. Through Travis’s nightmares, we are kept off balance, questioning just what is real and who can be trusted.

Shults explores the confines of the house with a fluid camera and lush cinematography, slyly creating an effective sense of separation between the occupants and the dangers outside.

But what are those dangers, and how much of the soul might one offer up to placate fear itself?

In asking those unsettling questions, It Comes at Night becomes a truly chilling exploration of human frailty.

Verdict-4-0-Stars