For Reel

Hoop Dreams (1994)
December 11, 2016, 8:11 pm
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Director: Steve James
5 Stars
hoop-dreamsThere are many injustices that play out over the course of the five years that make up Hoop Dreams, but wisely director Steve James does little to underline them. Should the film have been conceived of as a critique of the meat market of high school talent scouts, the scope might have limited. As it is presented, however, Hoop Dreams is a sprawling epic, engrossing not only for its uncommonly personal relationship it has with its subjects, but for how it simultaneously allows for a detached, objective perspective on the systems at play. That it concerns itself with two subjects who are marginalized and afforded empty promises makes the act of filming them occasionally troubling—for a film very much about the use and discarding of people as objects of capital, the film does little to remark on what its own relationship with the subjects is. James, however, is clearly well-intentioned in the approach, neither sentimentalizing the material nor attempting to impose any specific moral philosophy. In Hoop Dreams, each free throw carries the weight of the future of both a young man and his family. James and his editors, however, let the images play in real time, neglecting to comment on what the missed or made shots mean for the kids. With stakes this high, a missed shot is a moment of excruciating uncertainty, and James lets the immediacy of that drama speak for itself.

Before the Rain (1994)
July 30, 2016, 5:27 pm
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Director: Milcho Manchevski
2.5 Stars
Before the RainBefore the Rain was a great success upon its release in 1994, winning the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival and earning an Academy Award nomination. It is undoubtedly a stylish, clever triptych of stories concerning the cycle of violence, but its contemporary importance at the time of release was likely what bloated its reputation. Director Milcho Manchevski is a man of images first and a humanist second—in this chilling film about ethnic conflict and war, one is prompted to gawk at the impeccable landscapes and exceedingly handsome, sexualized cast. Rather than creating connections between the stories through the specific struggles of the characters involved, the film relies on the superficial things that bring them together, such as the presence of a repeated song. Ian Christie provides a compelling argument suggesting the influence of westerns on the film—when Rade Serbedzija is framed through a doorway, with the sun and a lone tree cast as silhouettes in the background, the image looks like a mythic shot from a Sam Peckinpah or John Ford film—but the way Manchevski sensationalizes the violence (including a cat bouncing through the air in a stream of bullets) seems inappropriate for the material. None of this is to say that aesthetic ambition and political messages are mutually exclusive, but Manchevski over-stylizes nearly every element of the film, drowning the timeliness of his message in a heavy-handed, emotionally disengaging aesthetic.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
February 22, 2016, 1:08 am
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Director(s): Joel & Ethan Coen
2.5 Stars
The Hudsucker ProxyThe Coen brothers’ fifth movie was among their most maligned and became a certified flop, a small setback sandwiched between two masterpieces: Barton Fink, which brought them to new levels of critical appreciation, and Fargo, still among their most successful mainstream endeavors. As time has gone by, The Hudsucker Proxy has developed a cult following in certain circles, undoubtedly due to its extraordinary visual ambition and as a messy homage to classic Hollywood. Unfortunately, time has not resolved all of the picture’s problems, starting with the insistence on filmic references from the 30s and 40s in a film set in the late 50s, which both reads as self-serving and indulges a needlessly convoluted sense of the period. Moreover, the Coen brothers are simply too ironic in their sensibilities to make a Frank Capra picture. While the final act descends into very old-fashioned sentimentality, it has to battle the film’s approach to satire, which is distinguished very much by its outlandishness and sense of mockery. Worst of all is that Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh are both terribly cast and give genuinely bad performances–Robbins has none of the “common man” appeal of even a Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, and Leigh’s Mid-Atlantic accent is a handicap she never overcomes. Regardless, something should be said for the sheer scale and ambition. This is still the “biggest” Coen brothers film to date, and had their storytelling been refined enough to meet the stunning production design, the film would have taken on a very different legacy.

Pom Poko (1994)
August 8, 2012, 11:33 pm
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Director: Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko is rooted deep within Japanese folklore, portraying lazy, fun-loving raccoon dogs (known as tanuki) with shape-shifting abilities. In the film, they are uprooted out of their natural leisureliness and are forced to defend their forest from mankind’s devastation. When several of the tanuki kill human construction workers in the beginning of the picture, it becomes clear that Takahata is not taking his themes lightly – appropriately, he stresses the tremendous urgency of the increasing problem of deforestation (a theme which also serves to explore how Japan is losing its ancient, more wholesome roots in the industrial age). Regardless of the picture’s achievements, audiences outside of Japan will likely have one take away from it – the prominent testicles of the raccoons. While the English dub refers to them as “pouches”, they are quite unmistakably genitalia, which, in the film’s most bizarre set piece, are used as weapons of assault in a surprise attack. Over-sized testicles are one of the defining features of the tanuki in Japanese folklore, one of many such cultural references that make the picture slightly less accessible than any other Ghibli effort. Regardless, many of its pleasures remain universal – the early narrated moments are frequently hilarious, including some particularly inspired gags in which the raccoons try to assimilate into human culture, and the environmental message is delivered with a brutal grittiness that ups the ante over Miyazaki’s comparatively innocent nature fables.

Crumb (1994)
April 20, 2012, 1:30 am
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Director: Terry Zwigoff

“How perfectly goddamn delightful it all is, to be sure”, quotes Robert Crumb, reflecting on a favorite quote of his disturbed brother, Charles. The sarcasm that veils the pain in that simple line is beautifully emblematic of Crumb itself, Terry Zwigoff’s harrowing documentary about the underground comic artist behind Fritz the Cat. At one point in the picture, Charles admits to his brother that he often had to fight the urge to bash his skull in while they were growing up. They both share a laugh. As much as Crumb is a great documentary about art criticism – and, indeed, it takes a step back at several moments to allow a critical discourse to occur between scholars of Robert’s work – it is, more significantly, a film about family, and neuroses, and terrible repression. Ofttimes one has to wonder whether they’re getting too close to the characters – Charles and Maxon seem particularly unbalanced, and the film almost provokes the audience to fancy themselves as amateur psychiatrists as they observe the two – but such is the dilemma within all great personal documentaries. Moreover, as much as the film dwells in their despair, it is also important to note the beautiful humanity that is captured in other scenes, such as Robert helping his son develop his artistic talents. The empathy with which Zwigoff treats his characters is noble, and as such Crumb never feels condescending, but instead remains an incomparably tragic portrait of an unusually gifted family.

Natural Born Killers (1994)
May 20, 2011, 9:40 pm
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Director: Oliver Stone

The problem with Natural Born Killers isn’t merely that it joins those which it demonizes by turning gun play in to sex, but that the subject matter is hardly probed in a provocative way to begin with. A thoroughly detestable, vacant exercise in style, it is little surprise that the film has become a cult classic in itself. Somehow managing to be vague while simultaneously preachy, the film is a numbing assault to the senses. This is exactly Stone’s intention – to fashion a film about the way in which violent images in the media have desensitized our culture – but, ironically, the film’s murderous spectacles are so handsomely crafted that it appears as though little thought was put anywhere else in the production.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
May 16, 2011, 6:00 pm
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Director: Quentin Tarantino

I recognize that there is little that I can add to the Pulp Fiction conversation. Reflecting on my own personal reservations, however, it is the middle section, The Gold Watch, that limits my capacity to fully embrace the film (though, to not be understood, I do like it). I find it perversely violent in a way that isn’t justifiable even when considering the genre and tone of the piece – it promotes a mindless vigilantism that simply makes me uncomfortable. While one could argue that it reflects the larger issue of a violent culture (and specifically a film culture) at large, I feel that Tarantino revels too much in the sadistic torture of each character. The suggested comeuppance afforded to the perpetrators is meant to feel like justice, but, even within the context of Tarantino’s oeuvre, I find that particular segment to be sophomoric, morally reprehensible and, perhaps to state it more palatably, not terribly interesting.