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Indie Focus: Love and revenge in ‘The Nightingale’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is still really getting people talking. Jen Yamato wrote a piece specifically on its scene featuring actor Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, and audiences’ conflicted reactions to it.

As Jen wrote, “In a film about myth-making whose ambiguities have sparked heated debate (including but not limited to: its arm’s-length treatment of actress Sharon Tate, the depiction of violence toward women, why the film mostly steers clear of Charles Manson and what, exactly, it all even means), Lee’s portrayal is a complicated one to unpack.”

Mary McNamara examined about the film’s viewpoint of the past. “Nostalgia is fun, and fine when used recreationally; but it’s time to face the dangers of our national addiction to reveling in visions of the past that are, at best, emotionally curated by a select few and, at worst, complete nonsense.”

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This weekend, the UCLA Film and Television Archive puts on an exciting tribute to filmmaker Mary Lambert. Her 1989 adaptation of “Pet Sematary” and 1992’s “Pet Sematary II” will both play, as will a selection of her groundbreaking music videos for artists such as Janet Jackson and Madonna. The weekend’s highlight will be a rare 35 mm screening of Lambert’s 1987 film “Siesta,” along with a scheduled appearance by Lambert herself, actors Jodie Foster and Ellen Barkin, editor Glenn Morgan and executive producer Julio Caro.

We’ll have some more screening events to announce soon. For info and updates on future events, go to events.latimes.com.

Baykali Ganambarr and Aisling Franciosi in Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale.”
Baykali Ganambarr and Aisling Franciosi in Jennifer Kent's "The Nightingale."
(Matt Nettheim/IFC Film)

‘The Nightingale’

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent made a stunning debut with “The Babadook,” and her second feature, “The Nightingale,” is likewise intense, emotional and surprising. Set in Tasmania in 1825, the story centers on a young Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who after suffering unspeakably at the hands of Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin) pursues him into the forest, reluctantly aided by Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Though the film is at times violent, harrowing and unsettling — the press notes feature specific trigger warnings — it is also deeply moving and empathetic, weaving a complex story of revenge and love.

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In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote that the film has “tremendous urgency and blunt, searing power.” He added, “The conventions of the revenge thriller are somehow both cannily fulfilled and skillfully subverted, but ‘The Nightingale’ has more on its mind than an exercise in genre. This is a profound and difficult film, an attempt to grapple with the existence and mindless perpetuation of evil, and to suggest both the fleeting satisfaction and the eternal futility of vengeance. Nothing about it is easy, and everything it shows us matters.”

I spoke with Kent for an interview that will be publishing soon. She spoke about how, for as difficult as some aspects of the film are, she wants people to approach it as something besides an ordeal.

“I see it as a film about love. I see revenge as a part of that,” she said. “For me, a revenge film is a film that is like ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ or ‘The Last House on the Left,’ and those are films that deal with revenge and only revenge. That part of the story plays out in a way that I feel is more true to what I wanted to say within the piece, and sort of burns itself out halfway through the film. And then what’s underneath that is what really interests me. What’s underneath that enormous rage, and justifiable rage. And how does a person come back from that? How do they remain a human being? How can I look another human being in the eyes with love?”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Though ‘The Nightingale’ is an effective history lesson, it is even more powerful as an ethical inquiry into the consequences of violence and the nature of justice… This is a difficult movie because the questions it raises are not easy. There are sentimental and reassuring movies about vengeance, and comforting stories about the resistance to historical oppression. This isn’t one of those. You might say it’s too angry. Or too honest.”

Writing for Slate, Inkoo Kang noted that it “appears, at first glance, to be a standard rape-revenge movie, though it becomes most interesting when it subverts the conventions of that male-director–dominated genre by exploring what it would actually feel like, emotionally and even bodily, to confront someone who did such monstrous things to you. However, as Clare and Billy begin to understand each other, ‘The Nightingale’ eventually reveals itself to be, as Kent has described it, a colonial revenge film.”

Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in a scene from “Luce.”
Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in a scene from "Luce."
(Jon Pack/Neon)

‘Luce’

Directed and co-written by Julius Onah, “Luce” is a provocative contemporary morality tale about race, class, identity and privilege. In the film, Kelvin Harrison Jr. gives a searing performance as a high schooler named Luce, by all outward appearances a model student and son. When a teacher (Octavia Spencer) begins to suspect something is off and alerts his adoptive parents (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth), a startling series of events unfolds.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “As Luce insists, he doesn’t want to be reduced to either a stereotype or an exception to the stereotype… But as admirably complicated and contradictory a figure as he may be, he cannot easily shrug off the heavy symbolic weight that the movie ends up saddling him with. Until the climactic moment when the earnest, defiant smile-mask finally slips, he often seems less a person than a puzzle — an emblem of ambiguity, a devil’s advocate for every occasion, a problem that cannot be solved.”

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When the film premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festivall, Jen Yamato spoke to Onah and Harrison. As Onah said, “There are a number of movies out right now or that have been out recently that explore political and social dynamics in a way that seeks to reassure the audience, or hold their hand a little bit more and uplift you. I’m not saying there’s not room for those kinds of stories … but I do strongly believe that if you’re trying to create culture and create work that helps us change culture, you have to have stories that aren’t just pacifying us.”

For the Chicago Tribune, Katie Walsh wrote that “‘Luce’ pushes us to figure the truth out for ourselves, but never makes it easy, in fact confounding what we thought to be true along the way. Onah crafts a film where we never know who or what to believe. And though we crave the truth, much like the real world, it’s never freely given.”

For The Wrap, Tomris Laffly wrote that the film “often asks you to question your own perceptions, beliefs, values and prejudices, however morally upright or well intentioned you think you might be. The central character is African American teenager Luce Edgar, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.; as with his breakout turn in ‘It Comes at Night,’ this is another double-edged, disquieting performance that requires a close watch to fully appreciate.”

A photograph of Anton Yelchin in a scene from “Love, Antosha.”
A photograph of Anton Yelchin in a scene from "Love, Antosha."
(mTuckman media / Lurker Films)

‘Love, Antosha’

The documentary “Love, Antosha,” directed by Garret Price, is a heartfelt tribute to the actor Anton Yelchin, who died in an accident in 2016 at age 27. It also contains revelations about Yelchin’s personal life and health that weren’t previously publicly known. From studio projects like the “Star Trek” series to independent features such as “Like Crazy” and “Green Room,” Yelchin left a deep impression and an impressive body of work in a short span of time.

Reviewing for The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “You feel the love in ‘Love, Antosha,’ that’s for sure. But you also feel something else, a sadness that is close to overwhelming. How could it be otherwise?”

Susan King spoke to some of his colleagues and collaborators — including Drake Doremus, J.J. Abrams, Jodie Foster, Chris Pine, Simon Pegg, Joe Dante, Zachary Quinto and Bryce Dallas Howard — about some of their favorite performances by Yelchin.

As Quinto said: “One of the greatest tragedies of losing Anton so young is all the incredible work which we’ll never get to see. He was just stepping into his prime as a creative force, which was reflected in his boundless creativity and voracious appetite for storytelling… He continues to inspire even in his absence. I miss him madly.”

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Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter: @IndieFocus.


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