For Reel

Macbeth (1971)
August 16, 2017, 3:31 pm
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Director: Roman Polanski
5 Stars
MacbethIn bringing Shakespeare to film, directors such as Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier have hyper-stylized the material in order to visually demonstrate the depths of conflict wracking the characters. In Welles’ highly expressionistic Macbeth, for example, the kingdom is rendered as rubble scattered throughout the hazy landscape. In Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation of the same play, on the other hand, he humanizes Shakespeare to the point that few directors have managed. When Macbeth (Jon Finch) and Mcduff (Terence Bayler) have their final duel, they clumsily struggle to maintain balance as they swing their weapons in bulky armor. Similarly, the violence in the film is rendered horrific through its bluntness—when Macduff’s family is slaughtered, the burning village with rape and murder in the streets is genuinely frightening. Beyond taking a grimly realistic approach to the violence, Polanski grounds the film significantly by having the soliloquies delivered in voice over rather than spoken aloud. In previous filmed Shakespeare adaptations, this had often been a problem—that is, the nature of soliloquies is counter-intuitive with what the audience expects of film language. When Macbeth is plagued by self-doubt prior to the murder of the king, however, Polanski allows Finch to convey the emotion of the scene simply through his facial expressions while the voiceover plays on the soundtrack. In bringing the audience further into the character’s heads and by filming violence in a realistic way, Polanski furthers one’s understanding of the gritty, raw heart at the center of the play, bringing greater horror to the story of Macbeth’s figurative descent into hell.

The Big Sick (2017)
August 14, 2017, 3:03 pm
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Director: Michael Showalter
4.5 Stars
The Big Sick.jpgPlaying as a modern variant of the comedy of remarriage, The Big Sick is a romantic comedy where the conflicts don’t feel so much like imposing conveniences but rather stem naturally from the character dynamics. Kumail Nanjiani’s efforts to win his ex-girlfriend back don’t come from grand romantic gestures or the resolution of a misunderstanding, but rather they play as an excruciating waiting game. Sure, he can win an uneasy alliance with his ex’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, both terrific), but both of them acknowledge their daughter’s relationship with him is not a certainty. For being a comedy about panic, neuroses, and fractured marriages, the film is surprisingly quiet and earnest in its best moments. Hunter’s explosion at a stand-up show is a fine scene in itself, but the circumstances that begin the night as well as her shame in the fallout is what makes the film really human. As Emily, the comatose ex-girlfriend, Zoe Kazan makes the most of her awake scenes, with her frustrations with Kumail being understandable and admirable despite the audience’s affection for his character. Her hold on the movie becomes clear when Kumail and her parents navigate her apartment while she’s in the hospital—it’s a lovely, affecting sequences, where the unlikely trio realizes that the one thing they have in common is their love for Emily.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
August 14, 2017, 3:00 pm
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Director: Jon Watts
4 Stars
Spider-Man HomecomingSpider-Man has always seemed to be the best example of a comic book fan’s superhero. Whereas Batman’s wealth or the Avengers’ larger-than-life personas put them firmly in the camp of otherworldly escapism, Peter Parker is relatable enough to bridge the gap between an awkward teenager’s reality with the universe of superhuman abilities. It is fitting, then, that Spider-Man: Homecoming feels more grounded than any other superhero film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The stakes are low by comparison to the grander efforts—Michael Keaton’s Vulture is not deadset on world domination, but rather on making a few bucks. But the real achievement of the film is that it foregrounds Parker’s own insecurities and contradictions as he explores a new side of himself. His lack of social confidence keeps him from speaking to his crush, but his overconfidence in his abilities could lead to his death. Jon Watts (and the myriad of screenwriters) imagines a high school setting populated with John Hughes’ social hierarchies, and the sense of growth and self-discovery is foregrounded in the same way as The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles. Homecoming‘s biggest problems tend to involve the fetishism of the new Spidey suit’s technological features, but even those montages suggest that Parker is in danger of becoming Tony Stark. To Stark, and to the audience watching the film, that is a fate that a humble kid like Parker best avoid.

Baby Driver (2017)
August 14, 2017, 2:56 pm
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Director: Edgar Wright
4 Stars
Baby Driver.jpgDirector Edgar Wright is often praised for his precision with blocking and editing—in the Cornetto trilogy, his use of off-screen space, clever juxtapositions, and world-setting montages established him as one the few visually competent comedy directors working today. What many have failed to note, however, is Wright’s work with actors. In Baby Driver, gesture and character movement is as instrumental to the tone of the film as the editing patterns—Ansel Elgort is used as a handsome prop whose physicality and reactive timing both jives with the music and helps set the rhythm all on its own. For this reason, the gimmick that Baby Driver is relentlessly set to music feels almost incidental. Wright’s films, in terms of performance and visual style, already do feel rhythmic. Whereas music has a transformative effect on the pacing and emotional content of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, for example, Baby Driver is not so much redefined by its soundtrack as it is a complement to something that is already present.

Hamlet (1948)
August 13, 2017, 1:14 pm
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Director: Laurence Olivier
3.5 Stars
HamletAlthough Laurence Olivier is often regarded as having brought Shakespeare’s works to the screen in a manner that does justice to the text, his Hamlet oddly sees him belligerently pitted against the bard’s most studied work. If it doesn’t discredit the material, it has its liberties with it. In casting himself as the eponymous heir, Olvier essentially rewrought the character before even muttering a line—at forty, he is twice the age of the character in the text. As a result, Olivier quiets down on Hamlet’s desperation and fear and instead seems merely dour. The “to be or not to be” soliloquy is not delivered out of a place of terror, but plays as a woebegone fit of public melodrama. Similarly, the Oedipal interpretation Olivier brings to the material is interesting in the moment but really seems to mute the drama. If Hamlet is a drama of paranoia, fear, and is enlivened through the excruciating dragging out of the inevitable, Olivier plays it oddly cool. There are some exceptions—the Yorick scene shows Olivier find the humor in the scene’s inherent nihilism—but one pines for some of the vulnerability brought to King Lear forty years later. Despite the questions one might have regarding performance, however, the film looks spectacular, and succeeds as a sort of Wellesian imitation. Ophelia’s downfall is wonderfully imagined, from her glassy-eyed wandering through the impossibly open, bare halls, to her floating down the river and seeming to vanish into thin air. The haunting, poetic dramatization of the scenes and Jean Simmons’ performance (she completely steals the film) increase one’s understanding and appreciation of the character as written.

King Lear (1983)
August 13, 2017, 1:11 pm
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Director: Michael Elliott
3 Stars
King LearLaurence Olivier won an Emmy for his portrayal of King Lear in this production, which should not be praised for its visual precision but rather for Olivier’s unique take on the character. Whereas Lear on the page can often read as threatening, brash, and occasionally frightening, Olivier gives Lear a childlike innocence, which suits his impulsive behavior patterns well. In the opening scene, Olivier teases Anna Calder-Marshall’s Cordelia as if she were a little girl rather than a princess participating in a royal ceremony—one might even argue that his behavior registers as flirtatious, giving the film an incestuous bent in much the same way that Olivier interpreted Hamlet as such. For its production constraints, the film does an adequate job in capturing the intensity of the storm scenes, with David Threlfall’s Edgar playing off of Olivier’s increasingly manic performance quite well. Lear’s figurative rebirth is overdone with a gauzy filter over Olivier’s white gown and shining, perfectly conditioned hair, but something could be said for the film’s unabashed forwardness in dealing with such emotions, whereas Olivier’s Hamlet is often obscured by the Wellesian insistence on artifice.

El Dorado (1967)
August 13, 2017, 1:09 pm
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Director: Howard Hawks
3.5 Stars
El DoradoThe second in a loose trilogy of late Howard Hawks films pitting a crusty sheriff against outlaws, El Dorado is a bizarrely languid western—according to TCM, when Robert Mitchum asked Hawks what the story would be, Hawks replied that the story is simply that he and John Wayne are cowboys. Indeed, that’s largely what the film amounts to, however the cast of characters is engaging enough that their interactions are consistently appealing. As is typical of Hawks, the film is about the professionalism and efficiency of its men, with James Caan’s shortcomings as a marksman being overcome with a sawed-off shotgun so as to not interfere with his heroism. Wayne’s dealings with Mitchum’s drunken behavior similarly rests on a sense of duty—the hangover concoction given to Mitchum is not so much a tool to ease his vice, but rather one to allow him to perform. The comedy is often too broad, including a shamefully outdated scene of Caan doing an impression of a Chinese man, but nonetheless the film reveals Hawks’ continued mastery of the “male bonding” genre.