For Reel

A Quiet Passion (2016)
August 18, 2017, 2:57 pm
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Director: Terence Davies
5 Stars
A Quiet PassionDirector Terence Davies has carved a career out of his haunting, nostalgic portraits of British pastimes. In the semi-autobiographical The Long Day Closes, a a young boy is raised by the beauty and escapism of the cinema screen. Similarly, A Quiet Passion finds Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) as a woman who comes to understand and expand her world through Brontë novels. Although Dickinson has steadfast convictions and a strong opinion regarding marriage’s deadening potential on women, the film is far from a celebration of Dickinson as a figure of social justice—she is instead seen as a woman who rigidly defines the world through strict moral parameters, showing a concern for truth and decorum while neglecting the falsity of piousness. Her contradictions are clearly a fascination for Davies. As much as she neglects a suitor and denies the possibility, an ethereal dream sequence imagines her dark suitor arriving up the stairs. If she is not concerned with fame, she nonetheless clings to the approval of a married reverend. The film humanizes Dickinson through these comparisons, characterizing her as a vulnerable, undoubtedly clinically depressed genius whose idea of what the world should be was never met by the world that was.

Dunkirk (2017)
August 18, 2017, 2:53 pm
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Director: Christopher Nolan
3 Stars
DunkirkChristopher Nolan is an unabashed formalist whose persistent focus on time is the uniting theme in all of his works. If Interstellar took the temporal to a cosmic level, Dunkirk shows Nolan’s fixation on the specificity of a singular time and place. The chaos of battle is articulated through Nolan’s puzzle-like narrative structure, with apparently disparate story threads collapsing on each other about midway through the film. If it does suggest the disorientation that one might feel on a battlefield, the effect doesn’t transcend the gimmick under any scrutiny. Nolan’s formalism and precision is not the issue, but rather his take on Griffithian montage cheapens the emotional effect by instead encouraging the audience to focus on structure more than feeling. When Nolan’s intercutting is motivated merely by emotion, on the other hand, his weaknesses as a storyteller become apparent. When a sequence of soldiers trapped in a boat is cut with a pilot drowning, the literalness of the connection belabors the point. Despite the fact that Nolan’s experiments with editing haven’t fully reached their promise, however, he’s only gotten better at detailing a singular time and place. The opening sequence, which follows two terrified soldiers (Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard) attempting to make their way to a rescue boat, is as suspenseful as any in the film—this is not only due to the inherent moral complexities of the scenario, but the clever interactions between the characters and the space.

A Ghost Story (2017)
August 17, 2017, 3:11 pm
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Director: David Lowery
4.5 Stars
A Ghost Story.jpgFor a film about the fragility and swiftness of existence, A Ghost Story often moves with a self-conscious malaise—it is a story of stillness and watching, and in the case of the ghost of a musician (Casey Affleck), this practice is seemingly played out over doomed centuries. The pacing nicely contrasts the fact that people often speak of the rapidity of life, and yet even a minor bout of depression feels absolutely endless. Director David Lowery’s long takes are the film’s biggest point of controversy—Rooney Mara grief-eating of a pie plays as more of a stunt than convincing character building—and yet the audience’s uneasy awareness of the film’s temporal qualities are key to establishing the film’s pulse. Similarly, if Will Oldham’s monologue regarding the futility of maintaining a legacy feels a little on-the-nose, it is not so much what he is saying that is the point, but the fact that he is saying it in the first place. The human awareness of time and its inevitable stopping are the chief concerns of the filmmakers, and Affleck’s ghost spends his time in the film not only reckoning with that fact, but watching others deal with it in the wake of his passing. Lowery’s aestheticism sometimes feels too rigorously objective to satisfy his sentimental tendencies, but nonetheless the final twenty minutes of the film are its most touching and quietly beautiful.

The Little Hours (2017)
August 17, 2017, 3:04 pm
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Director: Jeff Baena
4.5 Stars
The Little Hours.jpgIn The Little Hours, the deadpan 21st century comic sensibilities of performers like Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, and Fred Armisen meet Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century folktale The Decameron. Modern comedy has navigated these grounds before—David Gordon Green’s Your Highness and Harold Ramis’ Year One played with period conventions and ultimately ranked as colossal misfires—but writer/director Jeff Baena wisely uses the anachronism to poke fun at the antiquated philosophies and hypocrisies of the Catholic church. Moreover, Baena understands the material’s potential as modern sex farce (Aubrey Plaza seducing a man with a knife to his throat is a perfect encapsulation of the studio system’s dual casting of her as seductress and nihilist), and in doing so deals with women as having a sexual hunger not often acknowledged in contemporary films. If the film rests on the appeal of a single joke (the contrast between modern actors and 14th-century sensibilities), it is one that always lands—The Little Hours is a revitalization of the Mel Brooks comedy, and it is a delight to see comedians as talented as these work for a director who clearly has a real, precise vision.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
August 17, 2017, 3:02 pm
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Director: Matt Reeves
4 Stars
War for the Planet of the Apes.jpgThe first film of the new Planet of the Apes series imagined itself as a prison drama, with Andy Serkis’ Caesar attempting to navigate the cruelties of his fellow inmates and guards while trying to rally the group together for a united cause. This final installment of the trilogy similarly casts the apes back into a prison—this time, more suggestive of a harsh gulag than an animal containment facility. It is a fitting setting to reflect on how far Caesar has grown from his roots, and the filmmakers perceive said growth as being biblical in proportion. Caesar, like many of the great Western heroes, is also terribly flawed, increasingly finding himself driven by his own stubbornness, violence, and personal vendettas. Just as in the great westerns, Caesar finds his equal in Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who has the same capacity for evil in the name of his species’ survival. As the film progresses, it becomes not so much about how Caesar will redeem himself and therefore his people, but about how all apes will unify and overcome—being a leader, afterall, only goes so far if those who are being led do not have the same capacity for heroic deeds. If this trilogy has its problems, it is one of the few modern trilogies one can name that so fixes itself on the development of a key protagonist, who feels the consequences of each previous film and carries the weight of the series’ brutality on his shoulders.

Shadows in Paradise (1986)
August 16, 2017, 3:38 pm
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Director: Aki Kaurismäki
4 Stars
Shadows in Paradise.jpgAki Kaurismäki’s third film plays with the tropes one might expect of an American romantic comedy—a man and a woman, who are both at a dead end in their lives and have seemingly abandoned all hope, find solidarity in each other that quickly becomes romantic. Nikander’s (Matti Pellonpää) affection seems clear from the beginning, if only because Ilona (Kati Outinen) holds his blank stare for half a second longer than most anything else, but she is flummoxed by him when he doesn’t make a move on her as soon as he takes her home. Like the films of Jim Jarmusch, Shadows in Paradise both dwells in working-class existentialism and savors itself in nostalgia—dingy bars, jukeboxes, and cigarettes evoke a noir atmosphere by way of Nordic deadpan tragi-comedy. Amusingly, the film deals with two people who seem to develop a genuine connection, and yet their romantic highpoints are entirely absent from the film. Instead of pleasant first dates, Kaurismäki shows the couple expressionlessly struggling to communicate. The film ends with a cruise sailing off in the distance—in a Hollywood comedy, this would be a romantic image, but in this world, both the cruise and the horizon seem impossibly grey and depressing.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
August 16, 2017, 3:34 pm
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Director: Kenneth Branagh
4 Stars
Much Ado About NothingKenneth Branagh’s adaptation of this Shakespeare comedy ranks as one of the most clever adaptations of the bard’s plays, wisely condensing and rearranging much of the material in order to suit it better to the medium. It is also the most inconsistently cast—little good can be said about Keanu Reeves’ performance, which finds no motivation for Don John’s actions throughout the story, and even Michael Keaton’s admittedly amusing turn as Dogberry is so outlandish and distracting that one is shocked that Branagh fails to rein in him. Despite these pitfalls, however, Branagh’s delightful indulgence of the idyllic vistas and eroticism injects the adaptation with a sense of urgency and excitement that the play deserves. Branagh also uses the medium to add insight into certain character motivations—Don Pedro’s (Denzel Washington) flirtation with Beatrice (Emma Thompson), for example, is given an intimacy and sincerity that distinguishes the man as the play’s most quietly tragic figure (in the play, on the other hand, one might interpret Pedro’s flirtation as being a simple jest). Similarly, the scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick (Branagh) are fooled into loving one another intelligently focus on the vulnerabilities of the key figures as much as they do the inherent comedy of the scene.