Loving (2016)

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threehalfstar

With his two feature film entries in 2016, Jeff Nichols has established a very clear (although probably unintentional) genre pattern in his career. The director seems to be strictly alternating between realistic familial drama & high concept sci-fi in his work (with a little of the former category seeping in to inform the latter). The sequence so far looks like this: Shotgun Stories (drama), Take Shelter (sci-fi), Mud (drama), Midnight Special (sci-fi), and now Loving (drama). Although Shotgun Stories is contrarily my favorite title from the director, I typically find myself more enamored with the sci-fi end of this divide. Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.

Loving, which really does have a conveniently apt title thanks to history, is an exercise in directorial patience & discipline. A decades-spanning dramatization of a young Virginian couple as they raise children & defy a federal law banning interracial marriage in a historical Supreme Court decision, this film could have easily been an over-the-top melodrama about hard-fought courtroom battles & explosively violent racism in the South, especially in the hands of an Oscar-minded director like a Ron Howard or a Spielberg. In Nichols’s version of the story, however, the seething anger over the Loving couple’s interracial romance is just as quiet & deeply seated as their love for one another. The score can be a little imposing in its own tenderly sad way, but for the most part Nichols avoids cliché and mostly just makes room to allow his actors to quietly do their thing. Portraying a couple who were more interested in being left alone than (literally) making a federal case out of the “crime” of being married, Edgerton & Negga brilliantly use the negative space of non-reaction to convey the emotional swell of a scene. Negga is especially skilled at this maneuver, making the mute reaction to a phonecall or a shared physical intimacy with Mildred’s sister hit like a ton of bricks without ever calling attention to herself. The distracting presence of actors Nick Kroll & frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon detracts from that disciplined subtlety, but they’re also playing characters who bring publicity & legal attention to the Lovings’ case, so their sore thumb effect might’ve been deliberately intended. Either way, all of the romance, suffering, and compassion in Loving rests in Edgerton’s & Negga’s steady, capable hands and Nichols’s best moments in this traditionalist drama is in the way he harnesses their quiet energy for a subtly devastating effect.

If you wanted to be especially morbid in your reading of the film, you could say that Loving has an alarming amount of significance in a modern context, given many Western countries’ sudden far right return to horrifying ideology like “God’s law” & “racial purity.” This isn’t the metaphorical, history-minded political statement of titles like the Hitler-themed black comedy Look Who’s Back, though. If anything, Loving reminds me of the quietly measured drama of last year’s Brooklyn (sans the pretty dresses for the most part, unfortunately). It doesn’t force attention-grabbing moments of high stakes drama, but instead details a fragile romance in a perilous era that threatens to shatter it under immense social & legal pressure. Loving is less about racism than it is about, well, loving and the movie only really stumbles when outside personalities disrupt the believable romantic ideal Edgerton & Negga establish in their scenes (Nick Kroll’s presence is especially egregious on that note). Nichols finds interesting detail to signify the era: the early stirrings of rock & roll in exciting hot rod races; playful abandon in Mason jars full of moonshine; the horror movie atmosphere of small town law enforcement creeping through the night. His best impulse here, though, is in the way he backs up to allow space for Negga & Edgerton to work their magic. It’d be tempting say that any director could’ve made Loving, because of that absence of stylistic imposition, but I don’t think many directors would’ve displayed the same level of restraint in a drama about such an important Supreme Court case. Nichols puts a relatable, knowable face to history here (with his talented cast’s help, of course). Although this is far from my favorite work he’s put in so far as a director or as a stylist (Midnight Special makes sure it’s not even his most winning success this year), it’s this exact kind of discipline & restraint that sells his higher-concept work so believably & effectively.

-Brandon Ledet

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

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fivestar

A body of a rich man is found on the main street of a small Mississippi town.  Bumbling local authorities luckily mistake Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) — a quick witted, sharp-dressed homicide detective from Philadelphia — for a suspect. After being taken in, he is dragged into the investigation and small town politics, butting heads with the police chief, minor rednecks, and rich good ole boys. Virgil makes his way surrounded at all times by potentially violent white supremacists, who resent him for not only being black but also for being successful, with only facts and quick reflexes as he plunges headfirst into town drama.

The setting of the South itself is as much a character as Virgil. The hot weather permeates every scene of In the Heat of the Night with its humidity. There’s squeaking air conditioners and sweat rolling off of everyone. Every backroad is dusty and treacherous. There’s fields of cotton with hunched over weather beaten pickers right before a scenic driveway to a plantation. The broken down desperation is constant. In the Heat of the Night could have simply been a crime movie (at some point I thought to myself that this movie vaguely has the same feel as a really good Columbo episode) but the setting is everything. Virgil is a successful black man in a town run by poor, angry white men. The heat is as oppressive as the prejudice and bigotry.

The setting is hostile. The people are racist. But it’s pretty satisfying to watch Sidney Poitier play a no nonsense successful detective constantly proving everyone wrong and blatantly disobeying people who order him around like a dog, calling him “boy.” One of the best moments of the movie is when a rich racist man slaps him and without hesitation he slaps back. Being from 1967, this feels like such a rallying point: that finally on film a black man can slap back.

During the opening credits, one thing I found kind of surprising is that Hal Ashby edited this film. I wasn’t aware of his editing work, so I was kind of eager to find out what the guy who directed Harold and Maude and Being There could bring to the editing table. It turns out a lot. His quick cuts and the cinematography of Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) result in a movie that’s just as moving technically as it is acting and story-wise.

In the Heat of the Night is a well paced, beautifully shot thriller. Just watching it, you can feel the humid Southern air. Poitier playing a stubborn and heroic bigotry-defying Tibbs is definitely iconic. And even if it weren’t for all of that, it would still be a good crime movie.

-Alli Hobbs

Blacksnake (1973)

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halfstar

I was quick to defend Russ Meyer’s first supposed foray into territory outside the “sex film”, The Seven Minutes, but I’m afraid the good vibes died a horrific death as soon as the director’s next picture. Hollywood success may have clouded Meyer’s already inflated hubris when he struck it big with his camp masterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, (mis)leading the director to believe he had the capability within him to command complexly nuanced, important films about issues like slavery & institutional racism. He was miserably mistaken. Black Snake cost Russ Meyer hundreds of thousands of dollars, a lot of it his own money now that he was back operating outside the studio system, and stands as his worst picture since at least the wildly misogynistic Motorpsycho!. Meyer should’ve known better than to tackle a period piece about slavery and, yet, Blacksnake somehow exists, adding nothing of value to the world but unwatchably dull stretches of wretched dialogue and as yet undiscovered, fresh ways to create corrosively racist art in the guise of enlightened progressivism.

Ever since the pointlessly racist rants in Vixen!, Meyer’s films had gradually escalated the respectability of their black characters. Starting with adding the first black actress to Meyer’s bevy of babes in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! (a small step, that), the director went on to cast feature roles for black actors in both Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & The Seven Minutes, a huge improvement on the lack of diversity in his back catalog. All of that goodwill goes out the window as soon as Blacksnake‘s opening credits, which features slaves on a plantation being beaten to the sound of playfully swanky music, racial slurs, and cracking whip sound effects (the film’s title itself refers to the shape of a whip) in an assault of unwelcome irreverence. It isn’t very often that I hate a film before its first proper scene, but Blacksnake is instantly recognizable as vile garbage.

It doesn’t get much better from there. Sexual relations between slaves & their owners are played as comical instead of rape. There’s a perverse amount of whippings & racial epitaphs to the point where it feels like they’re supposed to be a source of entertainment, which is pretty much a worst-case scenario. The worst part is that the slave revolt that concludes the film is excessive in its violence to the point that it plays as if you’re supposed to feel bad for the slave-owners being hung & whipped to death (for a change). While making the film, Meyer was quoted as saying, “Sex is out, violence is in. This film will have every conceivable death you can think of – death by hanging, by double-barreled shotgun, by whipping, by machete, by crucifixion and by shark.” The problem is that the violence in the film plays as nihilistic at best, and deeply, subliminally racist at worst.

With Blacksnake, Meyer had tried to make a Big Issue film & failed miserably. Even his wild rants about the wicked nature of women & heterosexual romance in past works were more nuanced & insightful than his supposedly anti-racist sentiments in Blacksnake. If anything good at all came out of this dumpster fire, it’s that the film’s failure & resulting financial ruin drove Meyer back into the open arms & comforting bosoms of the nudie pic. Meyer may have been done with the sex film, but the sex film was far from done with him, He had no other available recourse but to return to sexploitation in his next picture, Supervixens, having fallen from grace in his two sole self-serious dramas.

-Brandon Ledet

Vixen! (1968)

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twohalfstar

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“Is she woman or animal? TOO MUCH for one man!”

While Russ Meyer was cranking out a string of vitriolic “soap operas” about couples on the verge of murdering each other – Common Law Cabin, Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!, and Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! – his career was somewhat compromised by a sudden change in the cinematic landscape. Suddenly, in the freewheeling sexual revolution of the late 1960s, films bordering on hardcore pornography were beginning to play in somewhat respectable venues instead of underground porn theaters. In order to keep his career alive & relevant, Meyer had to adapt. It was difficult to sell a picture that teased, but never delivered onscreen sex if the public could get the goods elsewhere, so Meyer’s next couple of pictures– Vixen! & Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! – took a much harder turn to match the competition. Meyer’s first “hard sex” film, Vixen!, was the first American-made release to receive the “X” rating from censorship boards, an honor Meyer initially wore like a badge. Unfortunately, the director dulled down a lot of his more outlandish eccentricities, including his vitriolic dialogue & rapidfire montage edits in order to appeal to a larger audience, so the resulting film, however financially successful, plays a little dull after the darker, more bizarre territory of its direct predecessors.

As always with Meyer’s pictures, Vixen!‘s plot is razor thin. The titular hellcat, played by Erica Gavin, is an adulteress archetype we’ve seen before in Meyer films like Lorna & Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!, but while her cuckold husband may be shamed for paying more attention to his work than his wife’s sexual needs, Vixen herself suffers no consequences from her cheating ways. The lack of punishment with Vixen’s adultery isn’t necessarily a problem for the film. It’s kind of a cool idea that she’s a sexual healer who leaves a positively-changed trail of lovers behind her. First she seduces a visiting, married stranger. Then she seduces his wife (in Meyer’s first homosexual scene, which is very much against his film’s typical, no-frills, all-American sex). And then she seduces her own brother, who’s somewhat of a biker & a reprobate (in a depiction of incest that has got to be the closest thing to kink that Meyer had filmed outside the chest-shaving scene in Finders Keepers). Nothing of consequence comes of these encounters & they’re presented more or less for pure titillation. The problem with this formula is that instead of having hateful, knockdown arguments with her unsuspecting husband, Vixen directs her vitriol into racist attacks against a young draft-dodger named Niles. In her racist rants against Niles, Vixen drops words like “boy”, “watermelon”, “spade”, “chocolate drop”, and “Sambo” with hurtfully nasty abandon. For instance, when her brother asks her, “Is there anyone you wouldn’t make it with?” she replies “Only spades & cripples.” Fuck, that’s fucked. The thing is that Vixen is mostly portrayed as a positive character & the film’s concluding conflict involves an airplane hijacking that just skips right over the central couple’s adultery issues & just barely touches on the fact that the star of the show is a raging bigot, so then what’s the point of that character trait at all? At least when Meyer was depicting romantic monogamy as a hate-filled cesspool of bruised egos, I could tell what he was getting at, even if he was off-base. Here, I’m a little more confused & uneasy.

Still, it’s impossible to brush of Vixen!‘s significance as a Russ Meyer classic altogether. Meyer’s plan to make “hard sex” films (it’s not actually that “hard”, y’all; it’s barely even softcore porn) marketable to large audiences in Vixen! payed off nicely. The film cost very little to make, but made more than $7 million in its first year alone. As Meyer himself explains it, making a porn-leaning film palatable for couples instead of lone-masturbators “was the basis for Vixen!‘s huge success. Once you have that happen your gross doubles, even triples. It’s not just the raincoat brigade.” Unfortunately a lot of the old Meyer charm was lost in the translation as he reached for a more mainstream crowd, leaving the film with a distinct made-for-TV feel that would’ve left it to fit right in with the Skinemax market that followed decades later . . . if it weren’t for the not-sexy-at-all racist rants. Still, a great deal of Meyer’s weirdness shines through. If nothing else, Erica Gaven is a knockout as the titular Vixen. She’s more rabid animal than human sexpot & it’s great to see a woman take so much command of her own sex life in a skin flick from this era. It also helps that Gavin is a gorgeous actress with particularly striking eyebrows . . . and Meyer-approved breasts.

When she’s not screwing unsuspecting couple or ranting about the inferiority of other races, Vixen also is afforded some of Meyer’s strangest details to date, including a shot of her having sex framed from under a seemingly invisible bed as she bounces on the bare springs & an all-too-memorable scene in which she flirts by sticking a dead fish between her breasts & then mocking fellatio on its little, lifeless fish head. Even when Meyer was trying to tone himself down to appeal to larger audiences, he had a hard time concealing the fact that he was a total madman. This is also evident in a scene where Vixen is making love to her husband (for a change) that’s intercut with a separate pair of characters discussing the merits of Communism as a political system & in the lesbian seduction centerpiece where Meyer obsessively focuses on the image of boobs touching boobs as if he’s working out a new fetish for himself on camera (without bothering at all to discover how two women would actually have sex in the process). In a quicker paced, less-racist film with a true narrative conflict in any sense, these strange details could’ve amounted to something special, perhaps one of Meyer’s greatest films. As is, though, Vixen! is more important because it made Meyer a shit ton of money, money that afforded him more personal projects down the road. Some of his best work was just ahead of him.

-Brandon Ledet

Dear White People (2014)

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threehalfstar

Even in its title the recent campus comedy Dear White People promises to be a sort of intellectual provocation, one that conjures up conversations about contemporary black culture, the ways systemic racism is masked in modern social exchanges, and the current state of identity politics in three simple words. By addressing white people as a social group in a playfully aggressive tone from a black perspective, the movie elicits an intentionally uncomfortable, satiric hyperbole. This is backed up as soon as the “Prologue” segment promises a full-on “race riot” at their film’s conclusion and continues through the disembodied, Warriors-style radio voice of actress Tessa Thompson making blanket statements like “Dear white people, dating a black person to piss off your parents is still an act of racism,” and “Dear white people, stop dancing.” The film even smartly, preemptively responds to the question “How would you feel if I made a Dear Black People?” directly, because it was more than apparent that someone was going to be dumb enough to ask it.

Still, Dear White People subverts what you’d expect from a satiric comedy about modern racial identity & culture clash. It never settles for knee-slapping, go-for-the-jugular jokes at characters’ expenses, but instead strives to achieve a surprising amount of empathy across a wide range of diverse featured personalities, each stretched so thin by social & academic pressure that they seem to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adopting the format of a university campus comedy (one that improbably splits the aesthetic difference between Spike Lee & Wes Anderson), the film allows itself a lot of breathing room for representing an extensive collection of young characters struggling with questions of self-identity. Personal crises of finding a social group where they “belong”, desperately searching for online celebrity, navigating expressions of sexuality, suffering the tightrope of insecurities in code-switching, and sometimes generally provoking chaos due to a youthful, anarchic spirit all weigh heavily on the minds of the film’s collection of stressed out college students. In a lot of ways it’s these acts of soul-searching are more memorable than any of the film’s provocative, laugh out loud humor.

Due to its nature as a provocation, Dear White People really does paint an uncomfortable picture of modern race relations, one that ranges from representations of more subtle transgressions as touching strangers’ hair without consent & comedy writers hiding racist/sexist sentiments under the guise of satire to the more outright horrifying example of blackface being used as a theme for campus parties. And just in case you’re skeptical that things really are as bad as that last example, the film includes several actual, real-life headlines about those parties in its end credits. Provocative or not, Dear White People is playful & nuanced in its humor in a way that I’m sure must’ve inspired some great post-screening lobby talk during its theater run. Still, I suspect what will stick with me most about the movie is the emotional stress of its overachieving college student protagonists straining to find their place in the world & peace within themselves.

Side Note: Snuck in there among other members of the excellent cast is a small-scale Veronica Mars reunion in Tessa Thompson (who played Jackie Cook) & Kyle Gallner (who played Cassidy “Beaver” Cassablancas). Probably far from the most important thing about this movie, but it caught my attention at least.

-Brandon Ledet