Sleepwalk with Me (2012) – Mike Birbiglia, Seth Barrish

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Mike Birbiglia — stand-up comedian and This American Life-darling — looks unassuming enough.  A little scruffy, a little doughy, blue-eyed and sweatshirt-clad.  We’re first introduced to him in his car, where we wait for several seconds as he fumbles for change for an upcoming toll.  “I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s true,” he says, glancing at the camera.

The tale that follows is equal parts ordinary and unusual: Birbiglia plays himself, a budding comedian struggling with the pressure he feels to move his relationship towards marriage, while simultaneously dealing with a rare sleep disorder in which he physically acts out his dreams.  Domestic scenes with his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) are interspersed with rounds of hilariously cringe-worthy stand-up, and dream sequences from which Birbiglia awakens to find himself searching the refrigerator on his hands and knees, repeatedly kicking his hamper, or hurtling through a second story window.

Birbiglia may seem unobtrusive at first glance, but he quickly proves himself to be an apt and charismatic storyteller.  Framed by his frank, self-deprecating narration, Sleepwalk with Me is gracefully paced, wonderfully detailed, and at once funny and poignant.  The sleep disorder adds an absurd, delightfully random twist to a relationship-based story that is realistic and original.

The characters — his girlfriend, his parents (Carol Kane, James Rebhorn) — are lifelike and lovable, and the film has a knack for picking out the few details that will immediately bring them into focus. In his narration, Birbiglia describes how his mother “always wants to add one more thing, but it’s rarely something that deserves to be one more thing…”  In the montage that depicts his first falling in love with Abby, we see her cheering for his pathetic stand-up routine, kissing him on the mouth when he comes back to his seat and exclaiming, “That was amazing!!”

Ambrose gives a vibrant performance as Abby — warm, caring, spirited — and we as viewers grow to care deeply about her almost immediately.  Birbiglia himself is a sort of lovable, sad clown.  His humor is refreshingly self-effacing rather than mocking, and he endears himself to us through his sincerity, insight, and humility. And that’s really the ticket when it comes to this film.  The story depends on our caring about the characters, having an emotional stake in what happens to them, and through the clever writing and charming cast, this happens with ease.

Sleepwalk with Me is in many ways a slow heartbreak, the kind that makes you ache instead of cry.  On paper, the story is perhaps not a happy one.  But it is laugh-out-loud funny, and uplifting in the way that only something true, honest, and vulnerable can be.

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Django Unchained (2012) – Quentin Tarantino

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The nineteenth-century Deep South is perhaps not the first place one would expect to hear a traditional German legend — and yet, not an hour into Tarantino’s Django Unchained we find ourselves listening to Dr, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), dentist and bounty hunter, tell an attentive Django (Jamie Foxx) the legend of the princess Broomhilda.  According to Schultz, Broomhilda is imprisoned on a great mountain, guarded by a dragon and surrounded by hellfire, and there she will remain until her hero Siegfried comes to save her.

The parallels between the legend and Django’s own story are quickly made apparent.  Django — the namesake of a 1966 Western film — has been recently freed from slavery and introduced to the bounty hunting business by Schultz.  Now, he is determined to reunite himself with his wife, who happens to be named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  Schultz agrees to assist Django in freeing Broomhilda from slavery, patting Django’s shoulder genially and saying, “When a German meets a real-life Siegfried, that’s kind of a big deal.”

As he is wont to do, Tarantino has created a film that is a vibrant bricolage of styles and references.  Django Unchained is at once a German fairytale, a Spaghetti Western, and a story of slavery in America.  It is a wicked mix of action, dark humor, bitter realism, unflinching violence, and the self-aware comic-book campiness that has become part of Tarantino’s trademark style.  There is truth and terror to Django’s story, but there are also explosions, swooning women, splattering blood, miraculous escapes, and witty one-liners. The film is brilliantly conceived and impeccably crafted, and it is stimulating on both a visceral and an intellectual level without once flirting with didacticism.

It is no coincidence that Django’s story is framed by the white traditions of German legends and Spaghetti westerns.  In going on an adventure to rescue Broomhilda, Django reclaims those traditions for himself, forging his own legend in which he is the hero.  And the film’s characters fall into place the supporting elements of that legend.  Schultz serves as the mentor; Broomhilda is the love interest and the McGuffin; Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Broomhilda’s current owner, is the villain — the fire-breathing dragon guarding the mountain.  And Django is our hero: brave, clever, determined, devoted, and strong.  If the characters are archetypal, they are deliberately so, and the horrifying context of slavery in America gives their actions and emotions weight.

These archetypal characters are also vividly brought to life by the cast, with particularly compelling performances coming from the supporting characters.  Waltz is, unsurprisingly, flawless as the zany but death-dealing Schultz, maintaining a jolly politeness even while brandishing a shotgun.  There is a meticulousness to his performance, down to the way he straightens his waistcoat, or the pause he takes to sip his beer before speaking.

DiCaprio does not pale in comparison.  Candie is petulant and faux-sophisticated, preferring to be addressed as “Monsieur Candie” — although we soon find out that he speaks not a word of French.  Like Schultz, Candie is jovial and polite, but his friendliness towards his guests is unsettling and stands in stark contrast to his savage treatment of his slaves (for instance, when he engages in pleasantries as two Mandingo fighters beat each other to death in the middle of his parlor).  Schultz and Candie almost function as two sides of the same coin — one forward thinking and benevolent, the other backwards and cruel; one cultured and intelligent, the other merely playing at those qualities.

stephenPerhaps the most remarkable character, however, is not introduced until the film is more than half over.  Elderly and hobbling, at first glance Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) appears to be the most archetypal character of all, to the point of being stereotypical: the doting and devoted house slave, having raised Candie since childhood.  The true depth of Stephen’s character is not revealed until later, when he correctly guesses at Schultz and Django’s plan, and the remarkable power he possesses over Candie becomes apparent.  Stephen has worked the system to his advantage, and he is Candie’s puppeteer, rather than his puppet.  (There is even a moment at the very end of the film in which Stephen and Django are alone together, and Stephen drops his cane and steps calmly towards Django: has he been feigning his limp all this time??  It is never made clear.)  Oddly enough, in the end the fire-breathing dragon is actually Stephen.  The main obstacle between Django and Broomhilda is not a cruel white slaver, but a steadfast black slave.  This is a bitter twist to Django’s otherwise conventionally conceived adventure, and a nod to just how deep systems of racism are able to penetrate.

In his journey to rescue Broomhilda, Django aims to kill both her former and current owners — to avenge her suffering as well as rescue her.  In a broader sense, Django’s story is also a revenge fantasy for contemporary audiences, as he deals out justice in a way that never happened in real life.  That ending may be unrealistic and larger than life, but sometimes we need to turn to mythical, legendary figures to do the impossible for us.  And Django, our black Siegfried and “the fastest gun in the south,” is doing it in style.