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The great Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has been nominated for four
Academy Awards since 1988 and won once with “All About My Mother” as Best Foreign Language Picture. His latest production—his 20th feature film-- could place him in the category again. After misfiring with the lurid farce, “I’m So Excited” (2013), Almodóvar has returned to drama and, surprisingly, has taken as his source three short stories of Canadian writer Alice Munro published in her collection “Runaway”.

“Julieta” stars Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, playing the older and younger
versions of the film's titular character. The film opens in Madrid with the older Julieta (Suárez) learning, after many years, of the whereabouts of her long estranged daughter Antia from the daughter’s old school friend, Beatriz (Michelle Jenner). With this news, Julieta sits down to write a journal about her life, and the film flashes back to the days when Julieta (now played by Ugarte) encounters a young married fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao) on a train, has a romantic episode with him, and eventually comes to live with him on the coast after he wife dies.

The couple have a daughter but ultimately contend over Julieta’s suspicion of
Xoan’s interest in a long-time friend Ava (Inma Cuesta), and she storms out of the relationship, only to later learn that Xoan has perished in a gale at sea. The film then shifts in time—in a wonderful two-shot—to later in Madrid with Julieta (now again Suárez), living with her daughter and her inseparable best friend Beatriz. Then suddenly, after attending a spiritual retreat, the 18-year-old Antia abandons her mother leaving behind only a cold note denouncing her. For some years she tries to learn why her daughter has rejected her, even having a breakdown that sends her to the hospital. Ultimately, a letter from Antia arrives which opens up the possibility of Julieta reconciling
with her.

As it turns out, Almodóvar radically transforms the understatedness of Munro’s
broth-like prose into his own pungent gazpacho cinema. He does this using some of his signature elements: striking shot selection (with a concentration on his female faces), a rich color palette, dashes of melodrama (here moderated somewhat) within intricate plotting, and intense, credible performances from his actresses. Suárez and Ugarte may not look very much like one another (the blonde hair is consistent), but their performances still mesh splendidly through a similar sensibility and tone. “Julieta” is a relatively muted Almodóvar but a fertile one.

(The film is rated “R” for mature themes and runs 99 mins.)
(January 2017)

Photo Credit: Adriana Ugarte as the young Julieta. @ El Deseo. Photo by Manolo Pavón, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


August Wilson was one of America’s most prominent playwrights, producing his
cycle of ten plays, all depicting working class African-Americans in his home town of Pittsburgh, each play taking place during a different decade. Perhaps because the plays were seen as too talky, too full of monologues rather than action, they have not been adapted into films. But Wilson himself did write one screenplay for his most successful work, the 1983 drama “Fences,” which won him the Pulitzer Prize for drama. After Wilson’s death in 2005, “Fences” got a worthy reprise in a 2010 Broadway production wherein the leads, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, both earned Tony awards. The two actors now star in the long-awaited film version of “Fences,” and let it be known that they wholly inhabit their roles.

Denzel Washington not only plays Troy Maxson, the protagonist of “Fences,” but
he also directs and displays a fine hand for the material. It’s the 1950’s in Pittsburgh’s black enclave where Troy is a one-time Negro League baseball star whose career ended before the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. He is now employed as a trash man with his buddy from a prison stay, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). Pugnacious and ambitious but embittered, he is a voluble force, ever demanding of other people, especially his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), and frustrated by a pedestrian life where once he was a star. Though aiming to appear righteous and principled, Troy eventually reveals a secret that crushes his wife Rose (Davis) and undercuts his personal and parental authority.

Washington—who must by now feel this role in his bones--shines as Maxson, a
man claiming to be upright but who cannot conceal his flaws. It is a searing portrait of a black man at mid-century, a figure who had a touch of glory but who could never extend that renown into later life; a thwarted man who thinks he can exert his sense of manhood through sheer will. The role is richer than much of Washington’s more conventional work and maybe his most complex performance since he portrayed “Malcolm X” (1992).

Davis, though a more modest character in the drama, rises to match Washington, especially in a heart-breaking scene when she confronts Troy about an affair. Her tearful, uncomprehending challenge to her husband bares her emotions to their core— and ours. Also good is Adepo, a young British actor, as Cory, a skeptical adolescent trying to fend off his tough father’s demands. Also very moving is Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Troy’s childlike brother, mentally damaged from the WWII and barely able to comprehend the life around him. His scenes are poignancy made flesh.

“Fences” is, of course, a filmed play, with most shots in and around the Maxson
house, especially the modest backyard where Troy is fitfully building a longed-for fence. Wilson, however, used his screenplay to open up his story, and director Washington adds verisimilitude with scenes shot in Pittsburgh locations, most convincingly coated in a 1950’s sheen. But the reason to see “Fences” is the acting, performers at their peak in a landmark American drama.

(This film is rated “PG-13” and runs 138 mins.)
(December 2016)

Photo Credit: Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose in "Fences." Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.