Call Me by Your Name

(Italy / USA / France / Brazil 2017)

“Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.”

— Oliver

Very seldom does a film leaves me speechless, but that’s just what Call Me by Your Name did. For me, it’s one of this year’s most unexpected cinematic pleasures.

Set during the summer of 1983, precocious and solitary 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending another summer with his parents at their Italian villa. It looks like business as usual — reading, writing, and playing piano — until ruggedly handsome and tan American graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) shows up. Oliver, with his penchant for being overly casual (particularly with his use of “later” to bid farewell) and his love of the Psychedelic Furs, will be staying in Elio’s room for the summer while working as an intern for Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor who’s finishing up a book.

Wow. Director Luca Guadagnino hits the nail right on the head on so many things he gets at here: the perversity of male adolescence, the confusion of sexual awakening and lost innocence, the single-mindedness of desire, the thrill and frustration of seduction, and the agony of loss, all of it before a gorgeous and sunny Italian backdrop. He’s sensitive to the subject matter, which centers on sexuality, but he doesn’t cheapen the story or its characters. It’s a tricky feat.

The pace may be frustrating at times. However, being an act of seduction itself, Call Me by Your Name is nonetheless erotic, intimate, honest, and ultimately heartbreaking. That’s an awful lot to fit into one film, but Guadagnino does it, and he does it exceptionally well. It helps that he recruits excellent actors, particularly Chalamet, who brings a credible vulnerability to his character. The final scene is beautifully simple, effective, and hard to watch even while the credits roll.

I had a remarkably similar experience as Elio when I was barely 18 years old. Call Me by Your Name is more romantic, but seeing it play out reminded me of someone from my own past. I never go back and read a book after seeing its film adaptation, but I’m compelled to read André Aciman’s novel now.

With Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso, André Aciman, Peter Spears

Production: Frenesy Film Company, La Cinéfacture, RT Features, Water’s End Productions

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics

132 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) A-

http://sonyclassics.com/callmebyyourname/mobile/

The Florida Project

(USA 2017)

“Relax. Your daughter’s perfectly fine in my hands.”

— Moonee

Sean Baker’s Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/) impressed me. On the surface an offbeat odyssey of castoffs living on the fringe in West Hollywood, it’s one of those films that creeps up and hits you at the end. Comprised largely of small moments and vignettes strung together, its sum is much more — and completely different — than its parts: insightful, powerful, and quietly profound.

Come to think of it, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (https://moviebloke.com/2016/11/19/moonlight/) operates in a similar way even though it’s not the same story.

I was thrilled to hear that Baker has a new film, The Florida Project, out this fall. The comments I overheard from audience members while walking out of a prerelease screening were amusing but maddening: “That was realism, hard realism. Too hard.” “Well, that didn’t go anywhere.” “I had to force myself to stay awake.” “I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone.” Insert eyeroll here.

I disagree. The Florida Project switches gears, so it doesn’t end up where it seems to be going. The trailer makes it look like a childhood nostalgia movie, and it starts out like one. But it’s not. Often amusing but just as often difficult to watch, it paints a vivid picture that doesn’t criticize, demean, or sentimentalize its characters or their situation. I’ve heard Baker lauded for his humanism; his work definitely shows plenty of that if nothing else. His best attribute may be his willingness to let his characters develop into real people over the course of two hours or so.

To be clear, the impact of The Florida Project is not immediate. Baker’s pace isn’t quick, either. Written by Baker and Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project starts out as a sort of Little Rascals sitcom involving the misadventures of besties Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), two grade school kids growing up in a sketchy roadside motel, the Magic Castle, that sits along a tawdry strip just outside the Magic Kingdon — a.k.a. Disney World in Orlando. A gun shop, a convenience store, a market that sells oranges, and a boarded up clinic dot the strip, which incidentally intersects with Seven Dwarves Lane.

Moonee and Scooty spend their days running around, screaming, and stirring up mischief. They spit all over a motel guest’s car. They drop water balloons on people. They spy on an elderly topless sunbather (Sandy Kane). They scam change to buy ice cream. They set a fire. They recruit a third hellion, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives next door and easily goes along with their antics probably because there’s no one else to play with. Their favorite target is weary motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).

Slowly, a different picture emerges and The Florida Project becomes another film. Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), can’t get it together. Feral and clearly her own worst enemy, she lives hand to mouth with her young daughter. She’s constantly about to be evicted, and she takes free meals wherever she can get them. When selling stolen amusement park passes and wholesale perfume in the parking lot of a “nicer” motel up the street doesn’t work, she turns tricks in the room.

After Halley has a falling out with Scooty’s mom, Ashley (Mela Murder), Baker literally zooms in on Moonee.

The events here are purposely mundane, and it’s hard to say exactly where the climax is. It doesn’t matter: The Florida Project works because of the way Baker executes the story. He’s just as careful about choosing what he shows as what he doesn’t. The thrill here is watching the characters develop, anyway; that’s what makes The Florida Project soar. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is superb, particularly Vinaite, Prince (who at six years old is a natural — I almost cried when she did), and Dafoe, whom I haven’t seen this good since Mississippi Burning.

Alexis Zabe’s cinematography — alternating long shots and pans with almost uncomfortably close shots — works beautifully with the gorgeously effervescent color palette. The ending is unexpectedly touching and fun. The Florida Project just might be the first Oscar contender I’ve seen this year.

With Josie Olivo, Aiden Malik, Caleb Landry Jones, Shail Kamini Ramcharan, Sonya McCarter, Karren Karagulian, Kelly Fitzgerald, Lauren O’Quinn, Edward Pagan, Cecilia Quinan, Kit Sullivan, Andrew Romano

Production: Cre Film, Freestyle Picture Company, June Pictures, Sweet Tomato Films

Distribution: A24 (USA), Altitude Film Distribution (UK), Elevation Pictures (Canada), Filmcoopi Zürich (Switzerland), September Film (Netherlands), Front Row Filmed Entertainment (United Arab Emirates)

115 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) A-

Chicago International Film Festival

https://a24films.com/films/the-florida-project

Killer of Sheep

(USA 1977)

“Man, I ain’t poor. Look, I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can’t give away nothing to Salvation Army if you poor.”

— Stan

Killer of Sheep has an unusually twisted history that kept it out of daylight — and the spotlight — until recently. His Master’s thesis when he was a film student at UCLA, director Charles Burnett shot it part time over a year’s worth of weekends on 16mm scraps salvaged from production houses. He used equipment borrowed from the university film department. He never intended it to be shown publicly, which is why he didn’t bother to secure licenses for all the music in it (https://mobile.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/movies/25kehr.html?referer=https://www.google.com/).

Relegated to obscurity because of copyright issues surrounding the music, Killer of Sheep was impossible to see for decades — not that that stopped the Library of Congress from adding it to the National Film Registry in just its second year of existence. A grant and a donation led to a restoration that finally placed it into the stream of commerce about ten years ago.

Burnett paints a fluid portrait of the American urban ghetto through the daily life of Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a poor black working class grunt at a slaughterhouse in Watts. His days, monotonous and uneventful, are loaded with small events like fixing the pipes under the kitchen sink, eating dinner at the table with his family, cashing a check at a liquor store, buying a used motor for a car, and getting a flat tire on a “trip to the country” only to find no spare in the truck.

While this is happening, different temptations like a job offer and a part in a crime are presented to Stan. His wife (Kaycee Moore), a weary beauty who waits for him with fresh makeup and a record on the turntable each evening, seems to be the reason he resists. Maybe it’s not her — maybe it’s because Stan simply doesn’t see himself as capable of doing any better.

Not a whole lot happens in Killer of Sheep, but that’s not the point. Like the Italian neorealist films it calls to mind, Burnett’s execution is beautifully simple: he uses non-professional actors (and children who aren’t acting at all), mundane settings and situations, and black and white film to depict the rhythm of poverty. His execution is also really haunting, as if we’re eavesdropping. It’s incredibly effective. For such a quiet and contained film, Burnett’s ultimate statement is pretty jarring.

As stated, the United States Library of Congress deemed Killer of Sheep “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1990 (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Jack Drummond, Angela Burnett, Charles Bracy,  Eugene Cherry, Delores Farley, Dorothy Stengel , Tobar Mayo, Chris Terrill, Lawrence Pierott, Russell Miles, Homer Jai, Johnny Smoke

Production: Charles Burnett

Distribution: Milestone Films

80 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A-

http://www.killerofsheep.com

The Asphalt Jungle

(USA 1950)

I expected crime noir classic The Asphalt Jungle to be something of a cheesefest: stiffly acted, overly melodramatic, and maybe a bit hamfisted in its morality, like The Hardy Boys for adults of the Greatest Generation. Thankfully, John Huston’s film adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s 1949 novel is none of that.

No sooner is Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) out of the big house when he hatches a plan to do what he does best: steal. Like, a million bucks or more in jewels from a jewelry store (not Jared’s). Yes, a jewel heist. He pitches his plan to Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a two-bit gambling bookie, who puts him in touch with Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a rich but shady attorney. Emmerich buys in, not just providing financial backing but also agreeing to handle disposing the booty for cash.

Doc assembles a crew of petty thieves consisting of a “box man,” or a safecracker (Anthony Caruso), a driver (James Whitmore), and an all-important “hooligan” (Sterling Hayden) to execute the plan. The heist goes off without a hitch, mission accomplished. It’s smooth; uneventful, even. That is, until a stray bullet accidentally hits one of the crew members.

This is where the plot gets really interesting, as human nature and a slew of bad decisions rear their ugly heads. It doesn’t help that at the same time, sundry troubles that have been brewing alongside all the planning are coming to a boil. Soon, it’s every man for himself in a sticky web of deception, doublecrossing, and death.

The Asphalt Jungle is an exquisitely layered and calibrated drama that’s tough to turn away from — and tough not to appreciate. Written by Huston with Ben Maddow, the screenplay is tight. The characters — a collection of urban lowlife thieves, thugs, private detectives, crooked cops, and good looking dames — all have dimension. Interestingly, what would probably be the most intense scene in most movies — the break-in — isn’t; the intensity and the drama come from what happens after that. A manhunt that ends in Cleveland and an attempted swindle serve as the ticking clock here. This is the perfect thriller for a hot summer night in the city. Bonus: The Asphalt Jungle features a young but unmistakable Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles.

In 2008, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Asphalt Jungle “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Jean Hagen, John McIntire, Barry Kelley, Teresa Celli, William “Wee Willie” Davis, Dorothy Tree, Brad Dexter, Helene Stanley, John Maxwell, Strother Martin, Jack Warden, Tim Ryan

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

112 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A-

Noir City

https://www.warnerbros.com/asphalt-jungle

An Autumn Afternoon [Sanma no aji] [The Taste of Mackerel Pike]

(Japan 1962)

“We are alone in life. Always alone.”

— Sakuma

If one film perfectly captures what solitude, melancholia, and acceptance of things for what they are feels like, it has to be Yasujirō Ozu’s gorgeous and quietly contemplative An Autumn Afternoon [秋刀魚の味]. Framing death and loneliness in such metaphors as war, alcohol, marriage, aging, and the global impact of postwar America, this one packs a punch that hits like a feather but still leaves a mark.

Shūhei Hirayama (Chishū Ryū) is a middle aged man who emits an air of defeat, as if life has disappointed him. A widower with three adult kids, only one of them, elder son Kōichi (Keiji Sada), is married — and he and his wife (Mariko Okada) have some messed up priorities, especially when it comes to money. No one seems interested in daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita). Who knows what the deal is with younger son Kazuo (Shin’ichirō Mikami)? Hirayama bides his time between home, work, and dining with former classmates Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura), Horie (Ryūji Kita), Sugai (Tsūzai Sugawara), and Watanabe (Masao Oda) at Sugai’s restaurant. They mostly drink sake, reminisce, and make fun of each other. Horie’s new wife, who’s much younger than he, provides ample material for discussion.

A former professor, Sakuma (Eijirō Tōno), comes to dinner one night. He has way too much to drink. Hirayama and Kawai drive him home, where they meet his spinster daughter Tomoko (Haruko Sugimura). They learn he’s not doing well, operating a jank noodle joint in a low rent neighborhood to make ends meet. This gets Hirayama thinking about his own family and his obligations there.

An Autumn Afternoon is a film you see to experience its mood — not to be entertained. The narrative is engaging and plotted nicely, but it’s only half the story. Ozu uses composition to convey his points as much he uses words and characters. Long shots. Hallways, stairs, and windows. Army green and brown hues, a very ’60s sitcom look. Colors, solids, patterns, and textures. All of this is just as important as the narrative. More important, actually.

Roger Ebert offered the best description of Ozu I’ve seen to date: “He is a man with a profound understanding of human nature, about which he makes no dramatic statements. We are here, we hope to be happy, we want to do well, we are locked within our aloneness, life goes on.” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-an-autumn-afternoon-1962). Amen. This is the essence of An Autumn Afternoon, and it’s beautiful.

With Teruo Yoshida, Noriko Maki, Kuniko Miyake, Kyōko Kishida, Michiyo Kan, Daisuke Katō, Shinobu Asaji

Production: Shochiku

Distribution: Shochiku, Shochiku Films of America (USA), Criterion Collection (USA), Janus Films (USA)

113 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) A-

https://www.criterion.com/films/784-an-autumn-afternoon

The 400 Blows [Les Quatre-cents coups]

(France 1959)

Childhood is fertile ground for storytelling. Usually, the stories that sell are heavily nostalgic and sweet, but the more interesting ones tend to come from a darker past. French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut’s autobiographical film The 400 Blows is the latter.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a prepubescent boy experiencing an existential crisis. At home, something is bubbling between his parents, mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). At school, a contemptible teacher known as “Sourpuss” (Guy Decomble) has him pegged as a troublemaker.

Antoine cuts class one day with his friend René (Patrick Auffay). They walk around, catch a movie, and enjoy a carnival ride—the Rotor, a cylindrical room that spins and the floor drops out, causing the riders to “stick” to the walls due to centrifugal force. While they’re running around, Antoine sees his mother kissing some man on the street. She sees Antoine, but it’s too late.

The next day, Antoine makes up an excuse for his absence: he says his mother died. It doesn’t work. After a few incidents involving Balzac, a fire, running away from home, and a stolen typewriter, Antoine winds up at a reform school.

Some New Wave films are hard to follow or quite simply just boring to watch. Not so with The 400 Blows, and this is because of quite a few factors.

The narrative is definitely loose. Like all New Wave films, what happens isn’t as important as what the director is showing us. Here, though, the plot is straightforward and sticks to a more traditional structure even if it doesn’t have a true “climax” or a single moment of reckoning. Truffaut gives us some really great scenes in this movie, not the least of which is this one:

400 Blows paddywagon.jpg

The 400 Blows is realistic and personal; it unfolds like something literally happening right before us. The acting, which doesn’t come off as scripted at all, is probably the biggest boon for this; the acting style is totally naturalistic. That said, Henri Decaë’s camerawork is a major contribution as well. He shoots on the streets of Paris using hand-held equipment, which allows him to get right up in front of the action. That’s likely a product of an independent low-budget film, but intentional or not The 400 Blows is so much better as a result; this film would not work the same way without Decaë.

Truffaut makes us empathize with Antoine. He’s not a bad kid; his behavior is no worse than his classmates or the adults around him. He’s made out to be one, though. The sad part is that he believes it. He clearly sees that there’s more to life than the little spot he occupies, but he’s not better off after he tries to be. At the end of the film, I want to be on the beach with him to tell him he’ll be okay.

As for the nonsensical title, I didn’t realize that it’s a literal English translation of the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means “to raise hell.” Now that I know that, the title totally makes sense.

Nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1960), The 400 Blows is a movie that consistently ends up on many “must see” lists. There’s a reason it’s considered a landmark film. It’s hard to believe this is Truffaut’s first film.

With Georges Flamant, Pierre Repp, Daniel Couturier, Luc Andrieux, Robert Beauvais, Yvonne Claudie, Marius Laurey, Claude Mansard, Jacques Monod, Henri Virlojeux, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, François Nocher, Richard Kanayan, Renaud Fontanarosa, Michel Girard, Henry Moati, Bernard Abbou, Jean-François Bergouignan, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Philippe De Broca, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Lesignor

Production: Les Films du Carrosse

Distribution: Cocinor, MK2 Films, Janus Films (USA), Criterion (USA)

93 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) A-

Anchors Aweigh

(USA 1945)

“What a time we had tonight, mmm!” In his 1945 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther called Anchors Aweigh a “Gay Musical Film” (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F0DE3DC103BEE3BBC4851DFB166838E659EDE). Well, duh!

I doubt Crowther meant “gay” in the current sense of the word, but he certainly wasn’t wrong either way: between all the singing, dancing, handsome sailors in tight pants, and a very young and wide-eyed Frank Sinatra acting out a creepy attachment to Gene Kelly, the only thing that could make Anchors Aweigh any gayer would be an appearance by Judy Garland. Or a raunchy sex scene with all those sailors and the admiral who, in one number (“We Hate to Leave”), said he would beat them with a whip. I half expected and kinda wanted it to happen, but of course it didn’t. Oh well.

As a reward for their bravery, Navy seamen Joe Brady (Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Sinatra) are given a four-day leave in Hollywood. Joe plans to hook up with his dame, Lola. After stalking him on the streets of Los Angeles, sweet and naive ex choir boy Clarence asks the apparently more experienced Joe to teach him how to meet girls.

Enter Donald (Dean Stockwell, whom most of us know as a middle-aged man from his many ’80s and ’90s movies), a little tyke who’s running away from home to join the navy. Our boys take him home, where Donald lives with his Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson), a nice girl trying to get into the movie industry—if only she could catch a break. Clarence immediately falls head over heels and enlists Joe’s assistance in wooing her, which provides the story here.

Even though (and probably because) the characters, plot, and dialogue are totally corny, Anchors Aweigh is truly a frothy blast—it’s exactly the kind of film that comes to mind when I think of classic Hollywood. A vivacious affair, director George Sidney keeps everything about it big: the sets, the songs, the dance numbers. I was particularly taken by one sequence involving Kelly and various animated figures—it culminates in an awesome song-and-dance with none other than Jerry Mouse of Tom and Jerry cartoons. Flawless!

The whole spectacle is tied up in an amazing Technicolor bow; Charles Boyle and Robert Planck’s color palette is gorgeous, and seeing it on a nitrate print literally left me breathless. From a sensory perspective, Anchors Aweigh was hands down my favorite film at this year’s Nitrate Picture Show.

As a side note, I must confess that one thing threw me for a loop: Kelly and Sinatra (and Grayson, for that matter) are young and beautiful here—not the old timers I’m accustomed to seeing having grown up when I did. They’re actually hot, even by today’s standards. Kelly upstages Sinatra throughout the entire film, which I found bizarre and quite amusing.

With José Iturbi, Pamela Britton, Grady Sutton, Rags Ragland, Billy Gilbert, William Forrest

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

143 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) A-

Nitrate Picture Show

Mulholland Dr.

(USA/France 2001)

“No hay banda, il n’est pas d’orchestra. It is all an illusion.”

—The Magician at Club Silencio

The perfect opener for a retrospective on its director, Mulholland Dr. is an inimitable film that’s really hard to write about. You can look for answers online all you want, but even after seeing it multiple times you still don’t know what happens in it.

Not unless you’re David Lynch. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, though.

I’ve seen Mulholland Dr. maybe three times, and I’m not sure. I have my theories. Maybe they’re right, maybe not. Who cares? As with any of Lynch’s best films, the draw to Mulholland Dr. is that it’s a puzzle. He makes you work to solve it, or at least try to. He gives you just enough to go on but leaves the whole thing open to interpretation. At points, he gets you so frustrated, you lose patience and you hate him. But you don’t want him to stop. It’s artistic sadomasochism.

What began as a project for television is a mystery mindfuck tailored to the big screen. Dreamlike, hypnotic, and erotic, Mulholland Dr. is visually demanding and aesthetically worth every minute. The premise is deceptively simple: perky and wide-eyed blond actress Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood and bumps into beautiful young brunette Rita (Laura Harring), who can’t remember who she is after a car accident on Mulholland Drive.

As the two set out looking for clues to Rita’s identity, Lynch throws in a bunch of random characters, muddled subplots, and perplexing events. The narrative arc he puts us on comes to an abrupt halt with a small blue box the girls acquire at a night club. This is where Lynch pulls the rug out from under us.

Mulholland Dr. is definitely a love story—one fraught with competition, petty jealousies, one-upmanship, and ultimately murder. Lynch’s trademark sense of humor flickers here and there, but this is still dark stuff. I see Mulholland Dr. as a denouncement of Hollywood and all its ruthless superficiality. It’s a town that eats you up and spits you out.

Motifs of filmmaking, commerce, ego, vision, and of course the color blue stand out. Rebekah Del Rio’s performance of “Llorando” is beautifully forlorn and eerie. I would be remiss not to mention Peter Deming’s cinematography, which makes Mulholland Dr. shine.

Sadly, Lynch hasn’t done a proper film since 2006. He’s the one living filmmaker whose work I miss the most. Mulholland Dr. is a testament to why: like the street where it takes its name, this film is twisting, treacherous, and ultimately breathtaking.

With Jeanne Bates, Robert Forster, Brent Briscoe, Patrick Fischler, Michael Cooke, Bonnie Aarons, Michael J. Anderson, Ann Miller, Angelo Badalamenti, Dan Hedaya, Daniel Rey, Justin Theroux, David Schroeder, Robert Katims, Marcus Graham, Tom Morris, Melissa George, Mark Pellegrino, Vincent Castellanos, Rena Riffel, Michael Des Barres, Lori Heuring, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tad Horino, Missy Crider, Melissa Crider, Tony Longo, Geno Silva, Katharine Towne, Lee Grant, Lafayette Montgomery, Kate Forster, James Karen, Chad Everett, Wayne Grace, Rita Taggart, Michele Hicks, Michael Weatherred, Michael Fairman, Johanna Stein, Richard Green, Conti Condoli, Lyssie Powell, Scott Coffey

Production: Les Films Alain Sarde, Asymmetrical Productions, Babbo Inc., Canal+, The Picture Factory

Distribution: Universal Pictures

147 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A-

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.lynchnet.com/mdrive/

Django Unchained

(USA 2012)

“The ‘D’ is silent, hillbilly!”

—Django

If anyone would take a stab at something that sounds as ridiculous and cringeworthy as tackling American slavery in a spaghetti Western, it’s Quentin Tarantino. “I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff, but do them like spaghetti Westerns, not like big issue movies,” he said, clearly referring to Django Unchained in a 2007 interview—five years before it came out. “I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/starsandstories/3664742/Quentin-Tarantino-Im-proud-of-my-flop.html).

The title here references Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film Django, an actual spaghetti Western in which the titular hero, a cowboy, is thrust into a row between Southern Klansmen and Mexican revolutionaries. In Django Unchained, the story starts in 1858—just a few years before the American Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave separated from his wife, the curiously named Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), after they were caught trying to escape a plantation. He’s shackled to a group of slaves that the Speck brothers (James Remar and James Russo) are driving on foot to be sold.

Enter traveling dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a genteel German driving a wagon with a big wooden tooth on top of it. Schultz is actually a bounty hunter looking for the Brittle brothers—Big John (M.C. Gainey), Lil Raj (Cooper Huckabee), and Ellis (Doc Duhame)—who happen to be Django and Broomhilda’s former masters. He makes Django an offer he can’t refuse: help him find and kill the brothers, and Schultz will pay him, set him free, and help him find Broomhilda.

Django Unchained is structured in essentially three “episodes.” The first takes place in a one-horse town near El Paso, where Schultz provokes the ire of the townfolk, the sheriff (Don Stroud), and a U.S. Marshall (Tom Wopat). The second takes place on a plantation owned and operated by Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett (Don Johnson—um, wow!). The last, longest, and most twisted takes place on another plantation in Mississippi, the bountiful Candie-Land, owned by charming but sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and operated by his shifty Uncle Tom house-slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Tarantino actually pulls off what he said he wanted to, and he does it quite well. Django Unchained could have been a really dark film like its immediate successor, The Hateful Eight. The two films have a lot in common. The tension—and there’s lots of it—built into the story is deliberately and profoundly slow in reaching a boil. Django Unchained certainly has Tarantino’s trademark violence, revenge theme, and liberal use of the ‘n’ word—116 times, a record for a film according to IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1853728/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv). A few scenes are difficult to watch, the “Mandingo fight scene” being the worst for me. Unlike The Hateful Eight, though, the violence here is Tarantino’s typical flagrantly graphic cartoonish gore. He also shows a more conspicuous sense of humor—for example, Django and Broomhilda are ancestors of John Shaft of the Shaft franchise (https://www.google.com/amp/deadline.com/2012/07/django-unchained-a-shaft-prequel-so-says-quentin-tarantino-comic-con-301010/amp/).

Django Unchained is an unlikely and uncomfortable pairing of an ugly part of our collective past with absurdity, but it’s entertaining while still getting its point across: we’re still living with the aftermath. It’s the kind of film you mull over for a long time after you see it.

With Laura Cayouette, Jonah Hill, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, Dana Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, Miriam F. Glover, Quentin Tarantino, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Misty Upham, Danièle Watts, Robert Carradine

Produced by The Weinstein Company, Columbia Pictures

Distributed by The Weinstein Company (North America), Sony Pictures Releasing (International)

165 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) A-

http://www.unchainedmovie.com

Fences

(USA 2016)

The quintessential American dream home is usually depicted with a white picket fence surrounding it, the fence symbolizing a certain idyllic middle class coziness. That’s not what trash collector Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who doubles as director) sees when he imagines the fence he’s building in his backyard in 1950s Pittsburgh; his fence is more practical and nefarious, intended to keep his family in and his demons out.

August Wilson’s Fences starts out on a bright note: like Johnny Kemp, Troy just got paid and it’s Friday night. He’s walking home from work with his bestie, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), for a drink in the backyard. Troy is jovial, recounting a confrontation with a superior (Christopher Mele) about his job assignment and singing the praises of his wife, Rose (Viola Davis). She takes a break from making dinner and steps outside, and he’s playful. All appears to be well.

The mood doesn’t stay bright for long: Troy gets mean when he drinks. The presence of his sons—Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a late-thirties jazz musician, and Cory (Jovan Adepo), a high school student—seems to worsen his mood. This is the Troy who occupies the rest of the story; he grows increasingly officious toward Cory after Rose tells him a college recruiter is wooing Cory with a football scholarship.

Troy is bitter, petty, and conflicted. He’s protective yet jealous of Cory; he loves Rose with all his heart, yet he betrays her in the worst way. Clearly a victim of circumstance, he exhibits the effects of a cycle of defeat: drinking, adultery, and resentment. Although Fences is not the same story, Troy has a lot in common with Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Despite their societal differences, both characters failed to achieve the American dream and carry a weighty rancor because of it—the worst of it coming from within. Where Loman faces obsolescence, Troy faces never having reached a position in which he was valued in the first place. His big moment was playing baseball in the Negro league for a few years when he was young; he never had an opportunity to move onto the majors because, he says, the nation just wasn’t ready for it (don’t even bring up Jackie Robinson).

Fences is very much about the drama inside the characters rather than around them. Washington, who with Davis performed the play on Broadway in 2010, takes a straightforward approach. Aside from some period sets and costumes, he foregoes frills in favor of character and dialogue. As a result, Fences is like watching a play; the slow pace and relative lack of action will not appeal to everyone, but the intensity of the performances—every one of them rock solid and (ugh, I really hate this word, but it’s accurate) electrifying—is all I need.

Race is inextricable from Troy’s story, but Fences digs deeper than that. An awful lot is going on here—themes of family, duty, respect, and forgiveness resonate with me (and probably most people). Wilson once commented in an interview with The Paris Review that  “[b]y looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’s life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.” (https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/839/august-wilson-the-art-of-theater-no-14-august-wilson). Whether the timing was planned or incidental, Fences is timely: despite the many advances that people of color have made since Troy’s world—including but certainly not limited to the first black president—things in the States today seem to be regressing. It’s disheartening to watch.

I never read any of his work, but I’ve known about Wilson for a long time not just from college literature and drama classes that mentioned him but also from productions of a few of his plays at the Goodman over the last decade. I’m embarrassed to say that Washington’s film adaptation of Fences is my first and only experience with the playwright. I loved it. Fences is one of ten plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, depicting the black experience in America during each decade of the 20th Century (http://www.august-wilson-theatre.com/plays.php). Washington signed on to the rather ambitious project of producing nine of them (http://www.npr.org/2016/12/25/506617435/denzel-washington-and-viola-davis-on-adapting-fences-and-honoring-august-wilson). I guess I’ll have a chance to see more.

139 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) A-

http://www.fencesmovie.com