Archive | July, 2018

Call Me by your Name (2017)

14 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I could try and analyze the meaning of the flies. There are flies buzzing around visibly on-screen throughout Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by your Name,” and I thought it was just a coincidence…until one came back in the final shot. That’s when I thought there might have been something more to them in this film. Like, maybe Guadagnino is trying to say that a fly’s life is short and not appreciated until it’s too late, or something like that. But if even Guadagnino is declining to explain the meaning behind them, why should I bother trying to figure it out myself?

Thankfully, there is more to “Call Me by your Name” than…flies. (The moment I started typing that, I immediately realized it could be the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written. Hence, the ellipsis.) Nearly every other review of this film brought up the flies. I’m not returning back to this film for the damn flies; I’m returning because it’s a beautifully made, emotionally atmospheric film that works brilliantly as a study in mood and passion.

The film is a lovely equivalent of a lazy, breezy summer day. When it shows our main character alone in his room, with nothing but his thoughts and the diegetic sounds of the world outside, it’s difficult not to feel like I’m there with him or not to feel like I’ve been there before. When he’s swimming with family and friends or going on a nature hike with someone, the atmosphere of the surroundings is felt all throughout. The outside world is a character in itself; Guadagnino and his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom are inviting us to become part of this powerful atmosphere, and it really works.

Now, this I can analyze! “Call Me by your Name” is a film about finding hidden passions within one’s self, and nature can allow those things we keep deep within ourselves to shine through. Think about it—have you ever gone away somewhere like the woods or the boonies or an isolated country home and felt like you were inspired to pursue something special that you weren’t entirely sure about before? Well, in “Call Me by your Name,” the countryside of summer-1983 Northern Italy and the boredom surrounding it pushes the characters on their journey of self-discovery.

It’s even paced like a slow, worry-free summer day. Guadagnino is patient about showing us what the characters are going through while letting us take in the beautiful scenery & environment. There’s nothing to do in this location anyway (except to discuss philosophy, music, art, and such), so there’s nothing to hurry about either.

Oh, right. I should explain who these people are. They are 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio is a precocious artistic teen who joins his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) to the family summer home in Northern Italy (or, as the opening caption states, “*Somewhere* in Northern Italy”). What’s there to do here? “Wait for summer to end,” he bluntly tells Oliver, a hunky American doctoral student staying with the family for a summer internment. (Elio’s father is a professor of Greco-Roman culture who takes in a new student every summer.) Oliver is everything Elio isn’t. Elio is shy and awkward and gangly and unsure of himself, while Oliver is ultra sure of himself and built like Michelangelo’s David sculpture.

These two young men start off trying to one-up each other, but before long, Elio takes notice of Oliver’s bravado and physique. Eventually, it becomes revealed that Oliver has strong feelings for him. When they succumb to the mutual lust they’ve developed, that’s when a complicated relationship begins that will change Elio forever.

There are no worries or any concerns that would be addressed or dealt with if the film was set anywhere else at this time. Setting it in the early ‘80s in a carefree summer surrounding allows a same-sex relationship such as this to properly develop, whereas if it were set someplace else, with it being outside the norm, narrow-mindedness would have gotten in the way.

However, it is a bit disconcerting that this relationship is happening to a teenager and a 20something, especially when Oliver seems to be leading Elio on half of the time. (Though, apparently, the age of consent in Italy is 14. Take from that trivia what you will.) But, for the sake of character development, let’s look past that and see it as a true coming of age for the Elio character. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is, and thanks to this fling with the older, more mature and sophisticated Oliver, he’s able to deal with something as drastic as heartbreak (you know this isn’t going to end well once the summer ends) and possibly learn from it later in life. (By the way, the final shot that shows us an unforgettable development in Elio is so well-done, it will haunt me for years to come.)

And speaking of “later in life,” Guadagnino has confirmed that he is indeed planning a sequel to this film that will catch up on these characters years later. As someone who admires the concept of revisiting people in films (the “Before…” trilogy, the “Up” series), I’d like to see it. If the same mood and atmosphere is brought to that film as it was to this film, I think something special will come of it.

That’s not to say the film is without flaws. As I mentioned, it feels slowly placed, intentionally. And because of that, it includes scenes that could either be trimmed down or cut out entirely. I get what the intentions were, to make us feel more and more what this particular summertime feels like. But at two hours and 10 minutes, I think we already get the point here or there. (That’s why the rating for this review is three-and-a-half stars rather than four stars, despite what seems like over-praise.)

But back to the praising. Timothee Chalamet was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and deservedly so (again, that ending shot…wow), but I’m a bit disappointed by the snubbing of Armie Hammer for his equally impressive work. I’ve seen Hammer do well in films like “The Social Network,” but here, he shows a great deal of complexity and range that could lead to more roles similar to this in the future. And then there’s Michael Stuhlbarg, who doesn’t have much to do in the father role (and as a professor, we hardly even see him do any “professor” duties). He makes up for that in a scene near the end, in which he’s allowed to give a brilliant speech to his son about how he shouldn’t forget the experience he’s had.

That speech lets you know what the film has been about this whole time. Life contains a lot of pain, and it’s important to embrace it rather than try to forget it. Pain is essential to growing in life, because we carry things with us that make us who we are today. It’s how we deal with it that truly matters. What happened between Elio and Oliver did happen, it came and went, and it’s a memory and a secret that Elio will keep forever. And on that level, “Call Me by your Name” works wonders.

I get that more than I ever will get…the flies.

NOTE: Something else I want to praise is the music, particularly two songs by musical artist Sufjan Stevens: “Mystery of Love” (which was nominated for an Oscar) and “Visions of Gideon.” There are many times when song placements in movies just seem desperate to me. And while these songs are certainly used to make us feel what the characters are feeling, even though the acting is already doing that job well, there’s something about the ways they’re used here that makes it all work like magic.

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Lean on Pete (2018)

13 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve seen gritty, realistic indie films about the issues faced by young people. I’ve seen movies about a boy growing a special bond with an animal, namely a horse. I haven’t seen a film quite like “Lean on Pete,” which is a unique hybrid of both. I could try and describe this film to peers/colleagues, and I wouldn’t come close to being accurate. Yes, “Lean on Pete” features a boy and his horse, trying to get through a world that doesn’t understand them. But there’s far more on this film’s mind than what you might expect.

What “Lean on Pete” ends up being is a sometimes-sweet, sometimes-harrowing, always-emotionally-gripping drama about a good boy trying to find a place to call “home.” In the process of a teenage boy trying to locate the American Dream, we’re obliged to view something that could best be described as “The Grapes of Wrath” mixed with “The 400 Blows.” (As much as I hate to compare one particular film to two other particular films, that’s the best method I could use to try and describe “Lean on Pete” to people. But this is a review, so let’s try and move on.)

The thing that makes writer-director Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete” even more special is that it’s not afraid to have it both ways with the audience—it wants to punch them in the gut with gritty realism and harsh truths, but it also wants to touch their hearts and make them feel hopeful and positive too. To do both is always tricky but also very welcome. When the film delves into scenes of deep, dark truth, it makes the lighter moments all the more appreciated.

Our hero is a 15-year-old boy named Charley, played excellently by Charlie Plummer (“King Jack”), who has recently moved to Portland, Oregon from Spokane, Washington, after his ne’er-do-well father (Travis Fimmel) got a new job opportunity. All his friends & football teammates are far away, he has a lot of time all to himself, and his dad spends more time with loose women than his own son, but Charley does his best to deal with it. (One of the most refreshing things about this film is that this kid tries to look at the bright side of things instead of mope and complain all the time about his plight.)

Things look up when he comes across a racetrack, where he’s offered a job from a horse trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi) to become a stablehand and help care for the horses, one of which is an aging quarter-horse named Lean on Pete. Charley enjoys the pay, but he enjoys the company of the horses more. (And of course, Del becomes a father figure to Charley; as crotchety as he may be, he does occasionally show signs of warmth. Not that Charley’s actual father is a bad dad; it’s just that he has a hard enough time taking care of himself, let alone a teenager.) Charley likes Lean on Pete more and more, but as Del and a vet jockey named Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) warn him, “Horses aren’t pets.” They see these horses as little more than assets that need to be used as long as possible. When Charley learns what happens to horses when they get too old and used up, he becomes more concerned about Lean on Pete’s wellbeing.

Through unexpected circumstances, which I won’t explain here, Charley runs away, taking Lean on Pete with him on an unpredictable journey. Together, they make their way across the American Desert to see Charley’s loving Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott), whom Charley hasn’t seen since childhood. Along the way, Charley meets many interesting characters who deserve films of their own. Some are willing to help him; others, not so much. But the most intriguing thing about these encounters is they all seem to represent different ideals of the American Dream, particularly the tragic types of those who have tried and failed. What’s even more tragic is that even Charley has to do some of these things in order to survive.

There’s a particularly telling scene in which Charley talks to Lean on Pete about one of the memories he often likes to look back on. It’s a simple time but it meant a whole lot to him. Back in Spokane, one of his football teammates invited him over to his house for breakfast one morning. In a nice house with a nice family and good food and pleasant conversation with good company, Charley felt like he was home. The way he describes the importance of this fond memory makes you realize what it truly is this poor kid truly wants, even if it’s just one more day like that. My heart went out to Charley, and I hoped against hope that he would find what he was looking for. And I can imagine other people who see “Lean on Pete” will have the same wish.

In the end, “Lean on Pete” isn’t about a boy and his horse so much as it is about a boy looking for home. With great acting, excellent cinematography, and a weight to the story that feels “real,” “Lean on Pete” is a very special film that I will call one of the best films of 2018.