For Reel

Logan (2017)
April 24, 2017, 8:02 pm
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Director: James Mangold
3.5 Stars
LoganWhereas many superhero movies are advertised to showcase their new villains (the last film of the X-Men franchise took the villain’s name as part of its title), Logan is unusual for the genre in that it is decidedly fixed on its protagonist, eschewing the promise of new, bigger conflicts and instead marketing itself as a celebration of the myth of its lead. The villains in Logan are plentiful, to be sure, but they are limited to bureaucrats, scientists, and forgettable thugs—their only defining quality is that they are relentless and entirely self-interested, which furthers the understanding that Logan (Hugh Jackman) is a man on the run from a world that is catching up to him. Jackman’s portrayal over the years has been as limited as it has been enjoyable—this is no fault of Jackman’s, who consistently shows that Wolverine’s ferocity is an off-shoot of his own misery, but rather that the filmmakers have failed to give him a story that doesn’t involve recycling the same tragic tropes. Loss may again be the theme that permeates Logan, but here it is the sense of cumulative loss. Whereas Wolverine’s cynicism has much to do with knowing that those around him will die, in Logan he is confronted by the fact that his team is either long dead or presently dying. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is in such rough shape that his dementia has classified him as a weapon of mass destruction. While this slight difference seems even darker than previous incarnations on the surface (and, in moments, it certainly is), Logan is more interestingly a movie not simply about rage, but about coping. That is, whereas Wolverine has a history of handling loss with nothing but anger, his journey in Logan attempts to teach him that while life is indeed unfair, simple human decency is the remedy.

The Red Turtle (2016)
April 24, 2017, 7:56 pm
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Director: Michaël Dudok de Wit
5 Stars
The Red TurtleIn The Red Turtle, the creatures that inhabit the island that our nameless castaway lands upon are the lords of their domain. Some, like the white, skittering crabs, approach the survivor with some curiosity, while others navigate indifferently with their array of survival tools. If the protagonist is not often treated with a close-up, it is key that director Michaël Dudok de Wit indulges cutaways to images of spiders, bats, and the aforementioned crabs resourcefully finding their food. The language is clear: the castaway is a visitor, and the seemingly insurmountable task of survival is one that these creatures have long since adapted to mastering. But Dudok de Wit’s film is not just a bleak survivalist story, rather it is an elegant love story about growing old and the things that keep families together and tear them apart. As the film delves deeper into its magical realist interests, perhaps it would be a contradiction to suggest that the emotions Dudok de Wit engages with become all the more prescient and relatable. But like all of the films that Studio Ghibli leaves its mark upon, The Red Turtle understands that deeper truths can often be approached through mystical means. If life itself is a survival story about scraping by and rummaging for food, Dudok de Wit uses the magical as a means of articulating the longings of a soul. The sudden appearance of a magnificent turtle who campaigns the castaway to stay where he is demonstrates that a physical rescue isn’t the only path to the protagonist finding his peace.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
April 23, 2017, 3:23 pm
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Director: Raoul Peck
5 Stars
I Am Not Your NegroRaoul Peck’s staggering documentary I Am Not Your Negro often cuts to modern examples of racial intolerance (including the protests of police violence in Ferguson) as a means of demonstrating what little has changed since the film’s subject was observing a culture’s willful ignorance of its own misgivings forty years ago. These scenes, however, are scarcely needed—James Baldwin’s prophetic discussions of American race relations are as present and topical as they were then, and no aid is needed it making that explicitly clear. Late in the film, Robert Kennedy’s claim that in forty years time it is conceivable that a black man can become president is met by Baldwin’s scathing indictment that it is something that needs to be said in the first place: (he mocks) “In forty years (if you’re good), we may let you become president.” Many of Baldwin’s arguments come in the form of his film criticism—he suggests that stars such as Doris Day epitomize the infantilism of the public, one of many factors contributing to their failure to achieve true awareness. The cumulative effect of the film is undoubtedly unsettling, but it is also beautiful in the way it allows Baldwin a posthumous vehicle to speak directly to the viewer. That is, Peck doesn’t intend for the viewer to understand Baldwin through biography, but rather as if they were having a conversation with him.

Get Out (2017)
April 23, 2017, 3:19 pm
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Director: Jordan Peele
4.5 Stars
Get OutThe success of Get Out is not that it simultaneously balances the contradictory genres that are the social farce and the horror film, but rather that it develops a horror film organically from the social farce. When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) meets his girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) parents for the first time, he is patient with them while recognizing their discomfort. As upper class liberals, they (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) seek to prove that they are post-racial because they insist that they would have voted Obama for a third term. Similarly, when more family arrives, Chris is told about one man’s experiences with Tiger Woods and later is teased about the size of his genitals. As open as he is in discussing the awkward interactions with his girlfriend, Chris hangs in there until the passive prejudices get to be too much. Before long, the forced manners become the thing of suspicion and horror. Director Jordon Peele isn’t cleverly linking genres—he is arguing that, in this context, they are one in the same. That both the horror elements and the social comedy elements create the same discomfort in the viewer is a convincing argument (a black man walking through a presumably all-white neighborhood similarly works as both a comedic subversion of expectations and as a horror setpiece). Beyond Peele’s clever method of turning social discomfort into the thing of suspicion and dread, the fact that his horror has much to do with methods of mind control complicates further—in addition to the horror of “otherness” in Get Out is the horror of losing control of one’s identity, provoking the idea that control can be exerted beyond merely physical means.

Life, Animated (2016)
April 23, 2017, 3:14 pm
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Director: Roger Ross Williams
3 Stars
Life, AnimatedWhen he was three, the subject of Life, Animated began to lose motor skills and his power of speech. His parents, Ron and Cornelia, felt abandoned, and when they learned that Owen’s symptoms were the result of autism (which, at the time, was significantly more stigmatized than it is today), they were told the son that they knew would never be retrieved. A year after the diagnosis, Owen began reciting lines from Disney films that seemed to speak towards his situation—that is, the boy began to use Disney films as both a language tool and as a way of understanding the world. In Life, Animated, the now 25-year-old Owen is able with surprising elegance to discuss what draws him to these films and how they inform the way he relates to his disease and to the people in his life. It’s an amazing, rousing story, and the people involved are all admirably patient and empathetic—even at its darkest, there isn’t an ugly thought to be found in the telling. As enjoyable as the film is, however, Life, Animated brings up a series of questions that it doesn’t intend to answer, and as a result its limited perspective becomes a source of frustration. Late in the film, Owen’s brother Walter deals with the difficulty of explaining french kissing and sex to someone whose entire world is children’s films, and then openly confesses his anxieties about being a caretaker for his brother in the future. Walter’s infrequent appearances engage lines of questioning that provide the film’s most thought-provoking moments, and in the way that they recontextualize the narrative, it becomes increasingly difficult to continue to be seduced by the surface-level, hesitant telling.

Hidden Figures (2016)
April 23, 2017, 3:12 pm
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Director: Theodore Melfi
2.5 Stars
Hidden Figures.jpgHidden Figures‘ one great attribute is that it doesn’t make an explicit villain out of any of its generally unpleasant characters. That is, whatever one can read into Paul Stafford’s (Jim Parsons) face, little of what he says is outwardly hostile, and his problems with Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) might just as well be attributed to misogyny or his feeling threatened regarding his challenged work performance. But in depicting these characters as not raving, hate-spewing racists, Hidden Figures makes it clear that racism isn’t a problem limited to a few unstable people, but rather a systemic issue that manifests in many different ways. For this reason, the sense of oppression in the workplace is palpable in every moment because of what isn’t explicitly said. Director Theodore Melfi brings only the visual sophistication of a sitcom, but in the production design and costuming the film’s world comes alive—when Johnson unloads her stresses at the office, the identically dressed white faces look on with vacant expressions, bringing attention to Johnson’s otherness and the incredible vulnerability that comes with it. Unfortunately, the moment rings false, partly due to its mistiming in the narrative, and partly due to the fact that Melfi treats each of Johnson’s humiliating trips to the bathroom as a gag about bodily functions. The film, however, despite its failings as a drama, does well in its establishing of a white world and therefore developing just how radical these incredible women were.

Loving (2016)
April 23, 2017, 3:09 pm
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Director: Jeff Nichols
3.5 Stars
Loving.jpgJeff Nichols is a great American poet of landscapes. Each of his films is first and foremost about the open road and rural communities—even Midnight Special, the director’s sci-fi film about a young boy with special powers, detailed the freeways and the motels that dot them as much as the supernatural elements. Loving, though having all the makings of a rabble-rousing historical drama, is similarly seduced by the ground level details. When Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) promises his wife that he will build her a house, the sentiment is one we’ve seen in dozens of films. Nichols, though, takes special care in detailing Loving (a bricklayer) at work—his romantic dream is visualized in a trade that is draining, exhausting, and seemingly excruciatingly slow. Regardless, whereas a lesser filmmaker might have left it at the promise, Nichols goes as far as to let the audiences in on the texture of the brick, and the effort and dedication it truly takes to build something. Similarly, just as in his previous films, the setting surrounding the characters is not only essential, but it creates most of the drama. When Richard and his wife Mildred (Ruth Negga) settle down, Richard becomes a guard dog—here, “home” is something that can be threatened, invaded, or taken away, and the permanence of his relationship is bound up entirely in their continued cohabitation in the home.