REVIEW: “Loki” (2021)

The delightfully strange and occasionally perplexing “Loki” is the third foray into streaming television for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. First there was the homage heavy and magic filled “WandaVision”. It was followed by the scattershot yet stage-setting “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”. Then along came “Loki”, a six-episode mini-series that I can safely say has practically nothing in common with the previous two shows. It is completely it’s own thing which is part of what makes it work so well.

The enigmatic “Loki” was created by Michael Waldron who set out to make a time-hopping adventure that would constantly subvert audience expectations. Marvel Studios president and producer Kevin Feige brought in Kate Herron, a big fan of the Loki character, to direct all six episodes. Their creative efforts would result in a show that Feige said would have “more impact on the MCU than any show so far” and “lay the groundwork” for the MCU’s future.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

So was he right? Well, in a nutshell YES. It’s true that we don’t know for sure how things are going to play out, but “Loki” is a genuine game-changer and its events are certain to reverberate throughout the entire MCU. One thing’s for sure, “Loki” has a style all its own (both visually and narratively) that feels unique within the MCU catalog. It’s also brazenly bizarre at times which is one of its biggest strengths. As usual some episodes are better than others, but overall there’s more than enough fun and offbeat ambition to make this a must-watch for any Marvel fan.

To no one’s surprise, a key ingredient that makes the whole thing work is Tom Hiddleston reprising his role as the titular god of mischief. I feel like we say this a lot about the MCU’s stellar casting, but Hiddleston has been a perfect fit and he has truly made the character his own. Like many, I was surprised to hear that Marvel Studios was investing in a Loki series. I was even more surprised to see how fun and wildly original it turned out to be. And not just that, but it is the first Disney+ series that I would call essential viewing for anyone following the MCU. Both “WandaVision” and “TFATWS” set up some things for the future but nothing as far-reaching as what we get here.

The series begins with Loki being snatched up by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), an secret bureaucratic organization tasked with monitoring and protecting the “Sacred Timeline”. Loki threatened the timeline with his hijinks way back in the first Avengers movie. While in custody he is questioned by Agent Mobius (an absolutely delightful Owen Wilson) who reveals that Loki is what’s called a variant, a term that suddenly carries a lot of weight in the MCU. Essentially a variant is someone who branches off of the pre-ordained Sacred Timeline, disrupting its flow and creating an alternate path. The TVA then apprehends the “criminal” variant and restores the timeline.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

To no surprise Loki doesn’t buy it, but Mobius can be pretty persuasive especially when showing off just how powerful the TVA really are. Standard procedure would be to eradicate Loki. Instead Mobius recruits him to help catch a rogue variant who has been killing TVA agents and wrecking havoc across the timeline. Over time Mobius takes a liking to the cunning trickster. Hiddleston’s manic energy along with Wilson’s goofy charm brings a fun buddy time-cop vibe to some of the earlier episodes.

Not everyone at the TVA is as convinced as Mobius that Loki can be an asset. Namely Mobius’ friend and superior Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a high-ranking TVA judge overseeing the Loki investigation. She has a lot on her plate with running the TVA and reporting to the Timekeepers, three all-knowing ancient beings who basically write and preserve the Sacred Timeline. Loki wants an audience with the Timekeepers in exchange for his help catching the rogue variant. Renslayer doesn’t trust him and is only allowing him to help because of her friendship with Mobius. So there are several interesting dynamics at play.

But then a wild card is added to the mix – a pivotal character named Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) whose identity is best left for you to discover for yourself. She turns out to be a major piece of the story going forward and has discovered some damning revelations about the TVA that makes her a threat. Di Martino and Hiddleston have a sparkling chemistry that’s a nice mix of humor and dramatic tension. And the relationship between their characters has a surprising amount of depth and nuance.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

To say anymore about the story or character arcs would be a disservice. Just know you can expect all kinds of time-hopping shenanigans, fun character moments, and some wild unexpected flourishes that you never see coming. There is one stray episode that’s slower and less compelling than the others. But even it move things forward by focusing on and building up one of the story’s central relationships. And then you get to the end, a surprising and welcomed departure from the MCU’s usual action-fueled finales. Instead “Loki” finishes with an mesmerizing dialogue-rich showdown that’s sure to have MAJOR implications.

There’s even more to like about “Loki” including Natalie Holt’s beguiling score, the terrific production design (highlighted by the eye-popping TVA headquarters with its ominous blend of Soviet brutalism and neo-futurism), and the truly zany turns it takes in the later episodes (episode 5 introduces a certain scaly caiman variant that more-or-less steals the show). It all adds up to the strongest MCU series to date. Not a perfect one, but a show that feels important, is full of surprises, and adds a spark that the MCU roadmap needed. All six episodes of “Loki” are now streaming on Disney+.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Lansky” (2021)

There have been a couple of periods in movie history when gangster movies were a dime a dozen. They were all the rage and for a time big studios were quick to get behind them. They aren’t quite as plentiful these days, but as someone long fascinated with the rise and decline of the Mafia in the United States, I’m always up for a good gangster flick. “Lansky” is certainly a good one, but your reaction to it may depend on how much you already know about the notorious Jewish mobster.

Meyer Lansky was a major player in organized crime for sixty years and was instrumental in putting together the National Crime Syndicate with Italian mob boss and long-time friend Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Yet despite decades of underworld activity in New York, Las Vegas, even Cuba, Lansky evaded serious prison time much to the chagrin of a dogged FBI. Lansky was brilliant and knew how to run his business and manage money. He was also loyal to the gangland code which earned him respect with both the Jewish and Italian gangs.

With “Lansky” writer-director Eytan Rockaway sets out to do two things – give a biographical sketch of Lansky’s rise to power within the Mafia and tell the story of a struggling writer offered the opportunity of a lifetime but forced to be a pawn for the FBI. The film is based on actual interviews conducted with Lansky by the director’s father Robert Rockaway. This adds an undeniable authenticity to the mobster’s story that (along with two really strong performances) drives the film. In fact the Lansky bio is done so well that the writer’s story can only pale in comparison.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

In 1981 David Stone (Sam Worthington), a talented yet down-on-his-luck writer, is in Miami for what could be a career defining opportunity. He tells his frustrated wife he’s in Miami to do some book signings. In reality he’s been summoned there to meet the infamous Meyer Lansky. After 60 years in the mob business Lansky has finally mustered the courage to quit only to find out he is terminally ill. So he offers David the chance to tell his real story which is only to be published after he dies. And lest we forget that he’s still a man of the old ways, Lansky offers David a rather blunt warning, “Betray me and there will be consequences.”

Lansky’s story is told through a series of meetings in a Miami diner. Over cups of coffee and with a disarming gentleness, the aged gangster (played by an intensely convincing Harvey Keitel) begins unpacking his complex life. Rockaway covers a lot of ground including a scene from Lansky’s childhood in New York City where as a kid he was already working numbers at back alley dice games. But the vast majority of the flashbacks focus on his gang days where he’s played by John Magaro. The impeccably cast Magaro is just the right fit in terms of demeanor and stature. And if you close your eyes, at times you’ll swear you’re hearing Joe Pesci.

Rockaway gives us a vivid picture of just how powerful and influential Lansky became. We see both his smarts and ruthlessness in his early days running gambling rooms with close friend Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (David Cade). We witness him putting together a group of wise guys to beat down Nazi sympathizers in the early days of World War 2. We watch as he forms the brutal Murder Inc., a team of cold-blooded killers responsible for the murder of hundreds at the behest of the Syndicate. And we get a look at his days operating post-war casinos for the Cuban government. This is just some of the ground covered, all of it connected by Keitel’s pitch-perfect storytelling. We occasionally see small glimmers of remorse in the gangster’s eyes. But then we get telling scenes such as when he coldly recounts the execution of a father of three while casually eating a piece of pie.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Rockaway emphasizes what made Lansky such a complex man by sometimes stepping away from the world of speakeasies and mob hits. The director tries to capture his human side by showing personal moments such as his relationship with his son who has cerebral palsy. Or his sympathies for Israel and the Jews who suffered during the Holocaust. We also get a taste of the deep feelings of betrayal when Israel refused to grant him citizenship. And we gets glimpses into his marriage which starts happy but slowly crumbles under the weight of Lansky’s mob priorities.

As for the other story, Worthington gives us a solid performance playing a man with his own crumbling home life and out-of-whack priorities. In one sense he feels he’s doing the right thing and that this book will get him back on track. But at what cost to his marriage? There’s some good groundwork there, but ultimately his story needs more heft. It drags a bit with a flat romantic angle with a mysterious woman at his motel (Minka Kelly), but then picks up when the FBI approach him. Despite a failed decades-long investigation, the feds are convinced the impenetrable Lansky has $300 million stashed away somewhere. Desperate and out of options, they attempt to bully Dave into becoming their informant.

I doubt “Lansky” will ever find itself mentioned among the very best from the gangster movie genre. But that doesn’t mean Rockaway hasn’t put together something well worth watching. Keitel and Magaro team up to give a captivating portrayal of Meyer Lansky that is firmly rooted in the real account. I still wonder how it will play for those with no knowledge of his gangland history or the context surrounding many key events in his life. And I doubt the secondary story will be enough to make up the difference. But I was enthralled with Lansky’s story and Keitel’s re-enforces his status as one of the overlooked acting greats. “Lansky” releases June 25th in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Land” (2021)

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Robin Wright both stars in and steps behind the camera to make her directorial debut with “Land”. This solemn and subdued drama, written by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Wright describes her film as being about “resilience in the face of adversity“. It’s also a delicate study on the crushing effects of unchecked grief and an examination of both physical and emotional isolation.

Wright plays Edee Mathis, a middle-aged woman crumbling under the weight of sadness. The reasons are mostly left for later, but we do get hints in some brief scenes with her sister that someone incredibly close to her has recently died. “It’s really difficult to be around people“, she confesses to her therapist. When asked about her withdrawal from those closest to her Edee responds “Why would I want to share that with anyone“. In an almost prophetic warning the therapist replies, “But that means you’re alone with your pain.”

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

It’s this crushing sorrow that drives Edee to leave the city, leave her friends, and leave every trace of her old life behind. In an elegant opening credits sequence we see Edee driving through the gorgeous Northwest, probably Wyoming or Montana. She’s purchased a rundown yet charmingly rustic cabin on the side of a mountain. Against the previous owner’s advice, she pays him to return her rental car and U-Haul trailer, leaving her isolated and disconnected from everything other than her pain.

It’s here that Wright shows a remarkable amount of restraint. With a striking simplicity both in front and behind the camera, Wright shows us Edee’s attempt to adapt to living in the wilderness. Wright’s camera sits quietly watching Edee clean up the cabin, tow water from a nearby stream, try her hand at fishing. From one angle it all looks like an attempt to run away and start over solely on her own. In a darker way it feels like she has sentenced herself to live out her remaining days in solitude. And content to let nature have its way even to the point of taking her life. It’s a means to end her pain while in a roundabout way keeping a promise she made to her concerned sister. “Don’t hurt yourself. For me.”

She nearly gets her wish when the harsh winter months hit. Out of food, with no fire, and no connection to the outside world, Edee  is about to succumb to the elements when she’s discovered by a passer-by named Miguel (Demián Bichir) who nurses her back to health. Soon he’s teaching her the proper way to fish, hunt, and trap. His visits are seasonal at first, intent on respecting her wishes to be left alone. But then they become more frequent and the two develop a quietly distinct bond. One built around mutual feelings of loneliness, loss, and a special shared affection for 1980’s music.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Watching the trailer my first instinct was to see Miguel as a ghost; a figment of Edee’s imagination to keep her company and to help her find her way. Or maybe he was an invention by the filmmakers to add more layers to her character. But Miguel’s presence is far more nuanced. He symbolizes the very thing Edee loses when isolated – kindness, compassion, and companionship. Miguel echoes the better side of humanity. And when we learn he’s a widower carrying the effects of a personal tragedy all his own, he evolves into a symbol of hope.

“Land” could have easily fallen into any number of narrative traps or taken one of many well-worn and more conventional routes. I admit there is a hint of familiarity to the movie’s premise. But Wright’s performance and direction pulls us into her character’s journey through a tight and intimate focus and a subtly affecting minimalism. And she never passing up a chance to show the majesty of nature. We end up with a story about finding peace and solace, not in isolation but in communion. And during time of so much division, it turns out to be an especially timely message. “Land”

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “La Llorona” (2020)

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Whatever you do don’t confuse Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona” with 2019’s promising but ultimately disappointing “The Curse of La Llorona”. The two couldn’t be more different, their only real connection being the ubiquitous Latin American folk tale of “The Weeping Woman”. Bustamante has a much more sobering ambition, using the ghostly legend as a means of reckoning with the recent history of violence and injustice in his native Guatemala.

The film opens in the home of Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a sickly former General of the Guatemalan national army. He’s nearing the end of a highly publicized trial for war crimes, namely the genocide of the indigenous Mayan-Ixil people. The prosecution says that under his command the army killed an average of 3,000 people a month, equal to one-third of the Mayan-Ixil population. The General claims they were all insurgents. But evidence reveal that Mayan-Ixil people had been categorized as “State Enemies”. Even worse, 38% of all victims were children under 12-years-old. This earned him the tag “one of the bloodiest dictators of Latin American history” by local media.

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Image Courtesy of Shudder

He’s found guilty but the regime’s residual powers in government overturn his conviction sparking widespread public outrage. In response the people, specifically those deeply impacted by the atrocities, set up massive demonstrations outside of the General’s mansion. This is where the bulk of Bustamante’s film unfolds as the frail and feeble General holes up with his family, crippled by the affects of dementia and haunted by the sounds of protest echoing in the background. The steady chants are shrewd and ever-present reminders of the sins he refuses to own up to.

While it’s the General and his crimes that set up the story, the main focus is on the women of the house who are forced to navigate the consequences of the patriarch’s actions. They are his solemn yet faithful-to-a-fault wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), his conflicted daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and his inquisitive granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado). Also in the house is Letona (Juan Pablo Olyslager), the General’s loyal soldier and family guard.

So where does the “La Llorona” story come in? When all but one member of his house staff quit, the family find themselves desperate for help. In walks the quiet and reserved Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), a young local with an air of mystery around her. Once she’s hired strange things begin happening in the home, from water faucets coming on by themselves to the faint luring sounds of a woman weeping in the night. You get the sense something otherworldly is going on, but Bustamante maintains a savvy ambiguity and never loses sight of his deeper aim – to lay bare his home country’s bloody and oppressive past.

Cinematically, it all makes for a fascinating genre blend – a crafty and textured mix of supernatural suspense and political drama. The script, co-written by Bustamante and Lisandro Sanchez, doesn’t go for big scares although you can feel the eeriness and unease whenever the General roams the halls of his home in the dark of night following the soft chilling wails. At the same time, the story of a family cracking apart as they face an ugly reality is handled with an emotionally sensitive attention to the characters. And the performances are terrific throughout, with each well-constructed role representing different perspectives that cut to the themes at the film’s center.

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Image Courtesy of Shudder

Another star of “La Llorona” is cinematographer Nicolás Wong who highlights the film’s haunting stillness while creating a real sense of confinement and claustrophobia. There is also a lot of craft in his work. In one of my favorite shots from last year, Wong’s camera puts us inside of the ambulance with the General and his family as they arrive home from his hospital stay. As they approach the mansion the fists of angry protesters bang on the side of the vehicle but Wong’s camera stays inside. What follows is an intense tracking shot as the family and paramedics usher the General’s gurney through a sea of incensed citizens. It’s powerful and harrowing in large part due to Wong’s incredible technique.

At its heart “La Llorona” is a different kind of horror film. While it touches lightly on them, the movie isn’t interested in the genre’s normal ideas of terror and dread. It’s horror comes from a more personal place. “La Llorona” is just as much a revenge thriller, a family reckoning, a political exposé. Ultimately it’s an allegorical call to reflection and a very potent one. It’s meticulous and patient in uncoiling its story and it doesn’t really try to mask its deeper meaning. Instead Bustamante let’s things play out through his characters while ensuring his audience is aware of the more consequential themes he’s dealing with. “La Llorona” is now streaming on Shudder and VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Little Things” (2021)

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On paper the new psychological crime thriller “The Little Things” has all the ingredients for something special. It has Denzel Washington playing a deputy sheriff who arrives in Los Angeles to help hunt down a cunning serial killer. A supporting cast topped with fellow Academy Award winners Rami Malek and Jared Leto. A dark and moody David Fincher “Manhunter” vibe. And music by fifteen-time Oscar nominated composer James Horner. But having the best ingredients doesn’t guarantee a tasty dish.

“The Little Things” reunites director John Lee Hancock with Newman, cinematographer John Schwartzman and editor Robert Frazen. The four previously worked together on 2019’s underrated period crime drama “The Highwayman”. The two movies are similar in that both are character-centered slow burns. But “The Little Things” proudly embraces its gritty neo-noir flavor while leaving the impression that the film could have been plucked right out of the early 1990’s, back when crime thrillers were all the rave.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Speaking of the early 90’s, the story (written by Hancock) is set in 1990 and begins with an effective mood-setting prologue. A young woman drives down a rural highway late at night singing along with the B-52’s blaring on her radio. Suddenly another car quickly approaches, terrorizing her for the next four minutes and giving us a good sense of what to expect in terms of look and tone. Schwartzman’s use of darkness and light along with Newman’s slyly menacing score creates at atmosphere soaked in dread. It’s a good way to kick things off.

We’re then introduced to Washington’s Joe “Deke” Deacon. He’s a Kern County Deputy Sheriff who comes from a long line of tortured big screen law enforcement officers. His particular sins of the past still haunt him, lingering in his mind but out of our sight for most of film. They trace back to his days as a Los Angeles homicide detective and slowly comes into focus after he’s sent to LA by his Captain to retrieve evidence from his old department. There Deke is greeted with cold shoulders, some not-so-subtle jabs, and a general sense of ‘you’re not welcome here’. There’s clearly some history and hard feelings.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Before returning home Deke meets Sergeant Jimmy Baxter (Malek), a young but capable detective heading the homicide department. Baxter is described by others as “a good cop” and a family man from The Valley. He’s also the lead investigator on a stalled serial killer case. With four bodies and no suspects he’s facing mounting pressure from both the press and the public. When Baxter is called to a new crime scene that could be linked to the serial killings he invites Deke to come along. “Maybe you can even give me a few pointers.”

Hancock wastes no time steering away from the territorial chest-pounding and ‘my way vs. your way‘ storyline. You know, the one where the outsider from another jurisdiction comes in and clashes with the officer in charge only to win his or her trust and friendship over time. It’s been done countless times before. Here there is some early distrust (and for good reason) but not a lot of wrangling. Instead we get two cops who can actually work together despite one’s stress and the other’s baggage. For Baxter the pressure is weighing on him as is the fear of losing the case to the Feds. For Deke, it doesn’t take a lot of sniffing around to see it’s much more personal for him. He knows the routine, understands the obsession, and is well acquainted with the pitfalls.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

All of this falls in line with one of Hancock’s biggest interests – exploring the minds of the cops more than getting into the mind of the killer. The film uses a lot of the genre’s dressing to explore how homicide investigation can consume an officer, grind them down, put them on edge, and even lead to a darker side of policing. It’s something Deke understands all too well. And it only intensifies when Leto shows up playing an eccentric loner and neighborhood repairman; a game-playing true-crime enthusiast who quickly becomes the prime suspect.

While some of the performances work better than others, they get the job done. From the subdued yet effortlessly convincing Washington to the stiff and mumbly Malek to the genuinely creepy and cryptic Leto. The patient slow rhythms of the storytelling may disappoint the action-starved, but they’re well-suited for this type of absorbing character study masked as a throwback crime flick from the 90’s. And instead of ending with the predictable iconic pop of something like “Se7en” or “Silence of the Lambs”, Hancock goes the subversive morally thorny route, looking at his character’s humanity through a lens of grace and critique. It’s a smart and satisfying choice. “The Little Things” opens January 29th in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Lovers Rock” (2020)

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About midway through Steve McQueen’s compact “Lovers Rock” is a scene sure to be written about in nearly every review you’ll read. Let’s just call it the “Silly Games” scene, a long ten-minute slow dance that encapsulates the entire movie. A room full of young West Indian men and women intimately dance to Janet Kay’s reggae hit “Silly Games”. The camera takes a seductively observational role, slowly weaving between dancers, capturing the euphoria that keeps them singing and dancing well after the song ends. Clearly the characters and the filmmaker are lost in the freedom of the moment and the music. I wish I had been.

If the “Silly Games” scene works for you then I can almost guarantee “Lovers Rock” will too. The film, part two of McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology series for Amazon’s Prime, is all about observing and immersing. Its aim is to lose its audience in the sumptuous experience of the people we see. Not in a story or even the characters for that matter, but in the experience itself. It’s pretty audacious and at times intensely romantic. But if you aren’t fully in-tune with what McQueen is doing “Lovers Rock” may lose your attention despite only clocking in at a lean 68 minutes.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

In its most basic form the story is about a group of friends who throw a house party. That’s it. But McQueen is a crafty filmmaker and he fills in the margins with meaningful subtext and a 1980 London setting that’s ripe for social commentary. Still the movie leaves most of that outside, instead focusing on the party as a place of freedom and release. It’s almost experimental in its disregard for plot or structure. Instead its focus is on simply moving from room to room, soaking in the atmosphere and swaying to the steady reggae beats from the DJ. At times McQueen’s camera creates such an intimacy that you can feel the heat on the dance floor and smell the pot of boiling curry goat in the kitchen.

The camera familiarizes us with several faces and checks in on them from time to time. A young woman named Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) is about as close as we come to a lead character. Early in the film we see her sneaking out of her parents’ house and meeting up with her bestie Patti (Shaniqua Okwok). The two hit the house party where Martha meets a charmer named Franklyn (Micheal Ward). Several other thinly-sketched but intriguing partygoers come in and out of the roaming camera’s view, revealing just enough personality to leave you wishing you knew them better.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

But fleshing out characters isn’t what McQueen is after. It’s not that he isn’t interested in them. Quite the opposite. But he’s content with implying certain things about them, both individually and communally, and leaving the rest to us. It’s a welcome trust of a filmmaker with his audience, but considering how little we’re given it’s a case where filling in the blanks isn’t as satisfying as it should be.

“Lovers Rock” is an easy movie for me to admire but a tough one for me to love. Sometimes it’s sweet and sumptuous. Other times it plays like a music video. The intense closeups and slow pans, the dance floor vignettes, the almost sultry love for hemp and harmony – it all helps create a realistic setting that’s almost tangible to the senses. And you have to appreciate the film as an exploration of cultural identity during a very distinct time in London’s history. But it reached a point where the “experience” began to wear off and the lack of plot grew more and more noticeable. It ended up being like the “Silly Games” scene, bold and heartfelt but stretched well beyond its limits. “Lovers Rock” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars