For Reel

Crosscurrent (2016)
October 26, 2016, 11:33 pm
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Director: Yang Chao
4 Stars
crosscurrentYang Chao’s Crosscurrent inspired little but contempt when it premiered at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, with many critics pointing to the languid pacing and its supposed philosophical incomprehensibility. The stunning technical achievement of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bang (In the Mood for Love and The Assassin) works as a serviceable enough refutation, but the film also has remarkable merits as a tone piece. Like many of this year’s excellent films about poetry (Paterson, Neruda, and A Quiet Passion), Crosscurrent similarly shares lofty ambitions in tying verse to the image as a means of articulating the ways that we relate to the world around us. Chao’s envisioning of a journey up the Yangtze—from the financial hub of Shanghai to the flooded, desolate towns along the way to the Yichang mountains—advances a haunting story of erosion, with a climactic sequence at the Three Gorges Dam serving as an echo of the protagonist’s spiritual displacement.

Things to Come (2016)
October 26, 2016, 11:31 pm
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Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
4.5 Stars
things-to-comeAll of Mia Hansen-Løve’s films revolve around destabilizing moments in a person’s life—whether those be tragedies (Father of My Children) or heartbreaks (Goodbye, First Love). Things to Come is perhaps her most complex story of a life crisis in that it is not a story of discovery, but rather of accepting and surviving. That Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie is a philosophy instructor doesn’t provide a sense of escape or at least a rationalization for the things that happen to her—in fact, the film’s treatment of philosophy is hugely ambiguous, serving both as the basis for a genuinely thoughtful community (the relationship between Huppert and her students is touching) and as the catalyst for many conversations about how philosophy needs to adapt the modern world (Nathalie is pitched modernist, tacky covers for her seminal philosophy texts by her publishers). When Nathalie tells an old student (Roman Kolinka) that, “I’m lucky to be fulfilled intellectually,” the sentiment is undeniably genuine but certainly more complicated than that given the levels of grief she undergoes. Whether philosophy can actually be the key to helping her accept her recent string of tragedies, however, is actually less important than her fitting the role of instructor— Hansen-Løve seems to argue that performance and self-acceptance go hand-in-hand, a point that becomes particularly lucid when Nathalie finds herself at a screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy.

Finals (2016)
October 26, 2016, 11:27 pm
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Director: Adel Yaraghi
4 Stars
finalsThe premise of director Adel Yaraghi’s latest film was conceived of by the late Abbas Kiarostami, who took Yaraghi under his wing in his last years and assisted him in writing the screenplay. Much of the visual strategy found in Finals is reminiscent of Kiarostami’s work (especially his recent films)—including lengthy conversations in cars and on motorcycles—however the film is more in line with many of the European realist dramas of recent years. The plot, which involves a well-meaning man encouraging a student to cheat in order to pass their exams, is hugely similar to Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, with which the film shares many similarities. Although Finals is certainly not apolitical, however, it is a more focused generational drama in which two teens become so disillusioned that they all but intend to throw their future away. That the boys’ math teacher (Shahab Hosseini) is the boyfriend of one of their mom’s (Leila Zare) complicates matters—the kid’s resistance to the exams is an extension of his refusal to allow a new man into his life, fighting vindictively to yield the masculine authority in the house himself. Finals unfolds with a great patience and Hosseini’s sympathetic performance isn’t too virtuous to ignore the man’s essential frustrations. The final act—in which the boys plot an ambiguous but certainly violent action against their teacher—unfolds with excruciating suspense thanks to Yaraghi’s careful development of the space in which the action takes place.

King of Jazz (1930)
October 26, 2016, 11:18 pm
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Director: John Murray Anderson
3.5 Stars
king-of-jazzAnxious to capitalize on the success of early musicals but failing to have the right name stars under contract for such a major production, Universal collaborated with iconic bandleader Paul Whiteman for this ill-fated musical revue. If musicals were all the rage at the time King of Jazz went into production, by the time it was completed a year later audiences were already over them. The film was a significant flop for the studio (thankfully the studio was in the clear after the success of All Quiet on the Western Front), and only now has the musical’s reputation been reconsidered as an unusual curiosity of early sound, 1930s Jazz, and two-strip technicolor. As with many revues, King of Jazz has little plot to speak of, instead evoking a vaudeville show through a series of acts that radically disturb the tone at a moment’s notice. An elegant bridal procession can flow seamlessly into the lowbrow antics of subpar wordplay. Some of the vignettes are either bad or too slight to register, but King of Jazz does allow glimpses at a handful of little-photographed performers, the highlight of which being a hugely sexual contortionist dance number performed by Marion Stattler and Don Rose.

The Desperate Hours (1955)
October 26, 2016, 11:08 pm
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Director: William Wyler
4 Stars
the-desperate-hoursHumphrey Bogart’s screen career is nicely bookended by his first great success as a gangster in The Petrified Forest and as a similar villain in his penultimate film The Desperate Hours. His casting in the latter project was an intriguing choice—a thirty-year-old Paul Newman had played the role on Broadway, but the significantly older Bogart served as a more fitting adversary to the man of the house played by Fredric March. The drama unfolds as Bogart and two cronies invade a family’s suburban home and take them hostage. March, as the patriarch, does what he can to give the maximum resistance without serious consequences—it would be too easy to say that Bogart’s Glenn Griffin develops an admiration for him, but rather March’s moments of defiance develop a begrudging respect between the two. In many ways, this is March’s film, and therefore a film about the anxieties of a man losing control in his home—his authority challenged, March spends the film doing what he can to protect his wife and children and control the space to the best of his ability, but finds himself regularly foiled. Director William Wyler’s favoring of long takes in deep focus does well to capitalize on the ordinariness of the setting—Bogart’s arrival in the film, in particular, is not befit of a star of his type, rather a sudden, unspectacular shot in which Wyler makes an admirable choice by not capitalizing on Bogart’s stardom through close-ups, rather preserving the immediacy of the action.

The Sea Wolf (1941)
October 26, 2016, 10:57 pm
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Director: Michael Curtiz
4 Stars
the-sea-wolfWolf Larsen might be the most savage character ever brought to screen by Edward G. Robinson, who made a name for himself by playing heavies. Robinson’s terrific gift as an actor was that he could balance a character’s savagery with an understood level of character complexity—his heavy in Little Caesar was an ambitious brute, but tragic in his own ways. The Sea Wolf doesn’t ignore Robinson’s thoughtful, intellectual side, but rather exploits it to create a Nietzchean sociopath who proudly declares that it is, “Better to reign in hell then serve in heaven!” Director Michael Curtiz was no stranger to an open sea setting, but here he doesn’t show the heroics of a swashbuckler actioner. Instead, as Larsen slowly descends into madness, the protagonists don’t intend to overthrow him but rather to escape—heroism is ignored in favor of self-interest, with criminals played by John Garfield and Ida Lupino trying to find a way out rather than try to create social change upon the vessel. Memorable as Robinson’s performance is, the cinematography by Sol Polito and art direction by Anton Grot just about steals the show from him. Filmed on a sound stage absolutely bathed in fog, the film’s high-contrast black-and-white imagery recalls the back alley streets of a typical period noir, with the setting of the ship adding to the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia.

Shin Godzilla (2016)
October 23, 2016, 11:25 am
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Director(s): Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi
3 Stars
shin-godzillaToho’s resurrection of its most beloved creation comes with an appropriate level of reinvention. Although it is essentially a remake of 1954’s Gojira, directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi ground the film in the convoluted bureaucracy and the half-assed international involvement—while Godzilla as a creature has been read as a metaphor since its inception, this version comments less on destruction itself and just how hopeless a society feels in the throes of destruction. After Godzilla first returns to the water, one of Japan’s leaders remarks that he is relieved the monster was gone in just two hours. Another retorts that it was a travesty that they let a monstrous creature wreck havoc unanswered for all that time. The film plays in lulls and climaxes—each Godzilla encounter is book-ended by lengthy sequences in boardrooms, giving the film a structure where both the audience and the characters within the film concern themselves with the suspense of the next attack. It can be a frustrating viewing—the climax has a hard-time following Godzilla’s penultimate rampage through the darkened streets—but the film shows an admirable interest in the sociological realism of a hypothetical disaster on this level.