For Reel

It Comes at Night (2017)
August 13, 2017, 12:38 am
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Director: Trey Edward Shults
3 Stars
It Comes At Night.jpgIt Comes at Night uses its runtime to navigate a well-trod genre trope—in the post-apocalyptic world, strangers are inherently untrustworthy. After the bulk of humanity has been wiped out by what seems to be a bacterial infection, the last survivors scrape by where they can and contend for food and land. Joel Edgerton’s patriarch, stoic and stubborn, justifies all of his actions by pronouncing that he is doing it all to protect the family. At some point, the sentiment becomes so repeated that it begins to seem ridiculous, particularly in the brutal finale. Director Trey Edward Shults nicely establishes the nightmarish mood through a slowly-gliding camera down a corridor, suggesting not only death’s inevitability but its somewhat enticing draw. He’s an efficient filmmaker on both aesthetic and narrative grounds, however one questions if the material is under-conceived—the violent actions of desperate people is a tired cliche by now, and Shults doesn’t do much to make the audience consider the theme in a new way. The ending dwells even deeper into the miserablism, which doesn’t seem so much radical as it does inevitable in a world in which The Walking Dead maintains its popularity through merciless slaughter. If the film is tense and the mood is nicely set, it leaves the audience depressed and—worse—bored by the familiarity of the material.


Alien: Covenant (2017)
August 13, 2017, 12:35 am
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Director: Ridley Scott
3 Stars
Alien - Covenant.jpgThose who doubt the continued brilliance of Ridley Scott need look no further than the opening scene of Alien: Covenant, which masterfully manipulates space in such a way that the audience gathers information and becomes acclimated to the world at the same time as Walter, an artificially intelligent character played by Michael Fassbender. Similarly, the much parodied flute scene in which dual Fassbenders discuss “fingering” is a show-stopping bit of suspense, rife with intended erotic tension and the ever-present threat of violence. Unfortunately, much of what happens in between is a mess, and that is largely due to its failings as a narrative. As the Alien series has become more philosophically interested in its religious implications, it has abandoned its roots in the genre—the further that Scott has delved into the theme of creation, the more the films have moved away from the sheer terror of man’s lack of agency in the universe. To put it simply, the xenomorphs just aren’t as scary when their origins are so explicitly discussed. Although Fassbender’s David makes some argument for a different sort of villain for the Alien series, the fact that both he and Walter remain static characters throughout the film is to its detriment. David’s life-creating drive plays as a retread of the most basic expectations regarding artificial intelligence (that that one day they’ll consider human beings obsolete) rather than an innovative idea for the series.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
August 13, 2017, 12:28 am
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Director: Rupert Sanders
3 Stars
Ghost in the ShellMamoru Oshii’s anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is among the crucial turning points of science fiction in the past few decades. In considering what it means to be a sentient in a world in which the line between human and machine is blurred, the film anticipated the genre’s posthuman philosophical considerations of the new millennium, as well as the cool, detached cyberpunk aesthetic often credited to The Matrix. This new adaptation largely abandons considerations of sentience in favor of a typical corporate conspiracy plot, but it just might find itself similarly studied in the near future. Scarlet Johansson’s casting was a significant point of controversy, but it’s actually the basis of the film’s most interesting idea—a late plot twist reveals that her body is a host for a Japanese woman’s consciousness, provoking considerations into globalization and the implications of the actresses’ fetishized porcelain skin. On aesthetic grounds, the film’s 3D billboards, inventive cybernetic enhancements, and the strikingly symmetrical framings set a new visual benchmark for the genre. If the film is largely a mess—the performances are all over the map and the corporate plot feels outdated in comparison to the more immediate considerations of national identity—its most interesting elements just might be worth revisiting years down the line.

Wonder Woman (2017)
August 10, 2017, 3:33 pm
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Director: Patty Jenkins
4 Stars
Wonder Woman.jpgAlthough Wonder Woman‘s final act spectacle is a familiar hodgepodge of comic book movie pitfalls (lame villains, unintelligible action sequences, and distancing CGI), the film is otherwise pleasantly resistant to blockbuster trends. Screenwriter Allan Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins don’t so much stretch to reinvent Wonder Woman for the modern age, but rather explore just what it is that makes the material unique. When the film places Diana (Gal Gadot) in 1918 London, the film both services the weight of human suffering and engages in genuinely satisfying screwball comedy moments. That is, unlike the dour Batman films, Jenkins treats the material with a heavy sincerity while simultaneously recognizing the value of levity in character interactions. Diana and pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) both come alive as characters during their sexy banter and the confrontation of their opposing ideologies. If Diana’s personality is wrought as rigid, the contrast between her optimism in human goodness and Trevor’s recognition of wartime reality is what leads to the film’s most interesting bits of characterization—their love comes from not only their sexual interest in each other, but the fact that they’ve literally influenced the other to see the world through new eyes. Had Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) remained the primary antagonist, the film would have better explored the impersonal violence of the modern age, but for what it is, the film is a pleasing romance that intelligently considers the implacability of evil.

The Lovers (2017)
August 10, 2017, 3:27 pm
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Director: Azazel Jacobs
3.5 Stars
The LoversThe Lovers is a story that might have attracted Ernst Lubitsch nearly a century ago—it is a comedy of remarriage in which two cheating lovers (Tracy Letts and Debra Winger) rekindle their passions for one another. Whereas the trope was familiar in old Hollywood, dead-end relationships and the subsequent break-up is now often a starting problem for an idealist protagonist to overcome. Azazel Jacobs’ satirical screenplay wisely observes what really drove the couple apart in the first place—a ceaseless longing for something better, which it turns out is only a reflection of each partner’s individual unhappiness. Letts’ Michael is the more abrasive of the personalities (a late appearance by the couple’s son (Tyler Ross) reveals that the child thinks of his father as a tormenting monster), but they are both grounded as sad people looking for something more. Although Jacobs gives the drama a heft through the staging, editing, and musical score, the key developments happen through glances and body gestures. When Letts and Winger wake up face-to-face, the scene doesn’t play as a rekindling of their sexual romance, but rather the couples’ mutual understanding that they are being cheated on. Unfortunately, the overly-theatrical third act abandons these quiet revelations in favor of shouting matches, but the way the relationships resolve themselves feels just right.

There Goes My Heart (1938)
July 17, 2017, 11:22 pm
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Director: Norman Z. McLeod
3.5 Stars
There Goes My Heart.jpgAlthough screwball comedies had only been hugely successful for four years at the time There Goes My Heart was made in 1938, the simplicity that they were first loved for had come to be seen as largely derivative in the later years of the genre. Much like It Happened One Night, There Goes My Heart concerns a runaway heiress who learns what it is to live below her class and is shown the ropes by a roguish newspaperman who is torn between love and work. And yet, screwball comedies of this ilk come alive in the details, and not only does the film has a number of memorable setpieces given its short running time, but it boasts a hugely talented supporting cast. As game as Fredrich March and Virginia Bruce are as the leads, the film is stolen by the brash Patsy Kelly, who plays a shopgirl with the streetwise to sneak a free meal or swindle customers into buying a clearly faulty product. Nearly everything Kelly says is delivered with a heavy dose of snark, and yet there’s a touching sincerity in her hilarious relationship with her longtime boyfriend played by Alan Mowbray (delightfully named Pennypepper E. Pennypepper). Although they only see each other in the hallway as they are coming from/leaving to work, that sort of efficiency suits Kelly’s practicality well. The courtship between March and Bruce is likable (they are involved in a humorous scene involving musical chairs), but Kelly’s sheer energy as a performer is what elevates the material above its derivative imagining.

Trouble for Two (1936)
July 17, 2017, 11:18 pm
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Director: J. Walter Ruben
3.5 Stars
Trouble for Two.jpgThis adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s series of “Suicide Club” short stories casts Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell as the soon-to-be-married heirs to the thrones of fictitious countries. Montgomery’s Prince Florizel, having not seen Russell’s Princess Brenda in fifteen years, does not recognize the woman when he takes a liking to her at a local club. If the material seems familiar of similar royal comedies of the era, the film takes a turn at the introduction of the suicide club where the future lovers meet. Occupied by upper class socialites hell-bent on their own destruction, the group gathers regularly and distributes cards—if one is lucky, they’ll receive the card that promises them the relief of death. There is a biting satirical edge in the fact that the wealthy are so bored, ashamed, and complacent that they seek out such activities, but more than that, this sense of danger is played as improbably erotic. The courtship between the leads happens when Brenda is assigned to murder Florizel—in handling these conflicting tones, Montgomery plays the scenes with an excited sense of curiosity, treating it as a kinky game. Russell, playing things much straighter for much of the picture, makes Brenda largely enigmatic, with her final wedding-day wink at her husband finally suggesting that the time of secrets is behind them.