For Reel

Like Someone in Love (2012)
November 22, 2015, 11:41 am
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Director: Abbas Kiarostami
3 Stars
Like Someone in LoveAbbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy suggested a certain transience in identities–by playing different versions of ourselves, we can actually become different selves. Similarly, Like Someone in Love explores that theme, albeit with somewhat different circumstances. While the games played in Certified Copy were obscure and seemingly mystical, Like Someone in Love involves mistaken identities of the drawing room comedy variety, where small lies become big ones and, before you know it, you need to fulfill a role to satisfy a social obligation. What is unique about this later film, however, is that the deceit involved in the narrative is tied directly to the problematized romance of the film, where there is a discomforting fluidity between jealous violence and love. This is a film where the drama plays out in cars and on phones, creating a palpable sense of alienation and claustrophobia. It is fitting, then, that the only solution to upending these boxed in lives is the sudden violent action that ends the film. Kiarostami’s latest feels like a companion piece to Certified Copy, suggesting flashes of brilliance but also paling in comparison to that masterpiece. Whereas that film seemed to expand and become more interesting as it went on, Like Someone in Love seems to collapse on itself, restricting the narrative and thematic possibilities, ultimately leading to an appropriately mystifying but frustrating conclusion.

What Maisie Knew (2012)
March 6, 2014, 3:43 am
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Director(s): Scott McGehee & David Siegel
4.5 Stars
What Maisie KnewA contemporary adaptation of Henry James’ scandalous 1897 novel about the divorce of two self-absorbed people and the effect it has on their daughter, What Maisie Knew is a sharp, understated melodrama that is seen entirely through the eyes of the titular child. As Maisie, the terrific Onata Aprile is either in frame or is understood to be the witness of all of the events that unfold. What comes as a surprise is how quiet and passive an observer she is–this isn’t the typical precocious, smart-mouthed child that one might expect of this kind of fare, rather Maisie is a bystander who is neither aloof nor divinely enlightened. She is eager, curious, and more than anything cautious–even she, in her innocence, seems fully aware of what a train wreck her mother (Julianne Moore) is. Alexander Skarsgård, who until now has been easy to overlook, is remarkable as the bartender that Moore marries in a pathetic attempt to get back at her remarried husband (Steve Coogan). He becomes the patriarch of the ideal family, a man clearly better suited to fatherhood than the pompous Coogan. In addition to being the moral center, he balances his natural warmth with a certain childish naiveté that makes him equally effective as a father figure and as a playmate. His chemistry with Aprile is a joy to behold–when Maisie confesses that she loves him, the spark in Aprile’s eyes would suggest that the young girl does, in fact, love her costar.

The Motel Life (2012)
November 16, 2013, 5:48 am
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Director(s): Alan & Gabe Polsky
3.5 Stars
The Motel LifeJust before she passed away, the mother of Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) Flannigan asked that her two boys promise that, no matter what happens, they will always stick together. Such is the context for this uncommonly intimate sibling drama, bolstered by the chemistry and fearlessness of its stars. Dorff, in particular, is touching as the ne’er-do-well–without him, one gets the sense that Frank might have gotten a little bit further in life. This is made quite literal when it is revealed that the boys tried to hop a train when they were kids, but Jerry Lee ended up losing a leg in the attempt. As impulsive and irresponsible as he can be, however, Dorff lends Jerry Lee a tremendous sensitivity to match his naivete. Although there are some narrative elements that don’t quite come together–a subplot involving Frank’s ex-girlfriend (Dakota Fanning) is unconvincing–the relationship between the two brothers is genuinely affecting.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
September 12, 2012, 4:10 pm
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Director: Benh Zeitlin

It is a mistake to politicize Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin’s extraordinary first feature and an award winner at Sundance and Cannes this past year. While the Katrina-like iconography is inescapable, it is nonetheless a picture which more firmly associates itself with the works of Pixar or Studio Ghibli – a resourceful young girl with a broken home embarks on an epic adventure that alternates between the mystical and the familiar. The critics who suggest the inappropriateness of privileged filmmakers making a social realist fable about a poor, isolated section of New Orleans are not inherently wrong in having their concerns, but where they are mistaken is in assuming that the picture is about class above all else. This is Spirited Away, not Trouble the Water. While, admittedly, the cutesy charm of the bayou can come a little too close to The Princess and the Frog, the picture is a sensational work of feeling, with Zeitlin hitting every emotional note that he can with great aggression and economy. If it is not an important film, it is irresistibly manipulative – the most joyous and uncynical treat that the year has had to offer thus far. Quvenzhane Wallis’ Hushpuppy is the standout in the year of feminist heroines – unlike Katniss she is not at the mercy of a love triangle, and whereas Princess Merida is defined by compromise, Hushpuppy is inflexible and absolute.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
August 22, 2012, 5:01 am
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Director: Christopher Nolan

If The Dark Knight had one massive misjudgment in a ferry boat sequence that pitted Gotham’s citizens against its criminals, the conclusion to director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy contains half of a dozen or so, which slide the picture too often into the out-and-out silly. A desert prison becomes the setting of an ineptly literal ascendance that would make Rocky Balboa blush, and a detour in the climax sees Joseph Gordon-Levitt responsible for *gasp* a bus-load of orphans. As technically proficient and suitably scaled as one would expect the most anticipated blockbuster of the summer to be, one can’t shake the feeling that it all feels messy, confused, and significantly less personal than any film that Nolan has made thus far. That is not to say that he has ever been a heartfelt director – there is a cold detachment present in even his most intimate movies, such as Memento and Insomnia – but in consciously aspiring for bombast, he seems to lose sight of his characters amongst the chaos of Gotham at large. Only Michael Caine’s loyal Alfred, who is given the burden of the whole of the film’s emotional content, remains unscathed from Nolan’s ultra-calculated, measured product, rife with political allegories that too-often feel contradictory and without clear perspective. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is a welcome addition to the cast, livening up Bale’s bland performance and the unrelenting sense of dread, but Marion Cotillard is wasted as a clean-energy philanthropist whose relationship with Bale is perhaps the most sloppily-handled subplot of the series. If there’s one thing that Nolan mostly exceeds at, it is his action sequences – though, as expected, a car chase sequence is visually incoherent (despite all of his practice with this type of scene, he has never got them right), a confrontation between Batman and Tom Hardy’s Bane in a Gotham sewer is delightfully gritty, made all the more memorable by the fact that Hans Zimmer’s percussive score has finally been silenced.

To Rome With Love (2012)
August 16, 2012, 4:48 am
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Director: Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s latest postcard is the least satisfying of his recent disappointments. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Whatever Works, for all of their flaws, weren’t without their charms, if only for their committed casts and the comparative reliability of their laughs. To Rome With Love, on the other hand, becomes a slog in its early-goings, with few of the jokes landing unless they’re delivered by Allen himself. Structured around four subplots (as well as a pair of terribly unconvincing bookends), Allen toys with his familiar obsessions of celebrity, sex, and regret with the tone of an agreeable sitcom. What is different from his previous, better efforts is an unforgivable sloppiness in the execution, best illustrated by a late night trespassing sequence that is shockingly clumsy in its staging and dialogue (suddenly, one feels as if they were watching a filmed stageplay). Though there are pleasures in the way that Allen incorporates his familiar magical realism, his comedic premises too often overstay their welcome – during an extended opera performance in the the third act, for example, Allen prods the audience for laughter and only earns it from those who begrudgingly respect his endurance. At least exciting young actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig, and Alison Pill got a vacation in Rome out of the whole ordeal. It’s too bad that the picture brings all of the excitement of a weekend spent in a hotel in Cleveland.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
July 24, 2012, 1:00 am
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Director: Colin Trevorrow

Former Saturday Night Live interns Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly took inspiration from an infamous classified ad in which a man sought a partner to travel back in time with in the screenplay for Safety Not Guranteed, a shaggy-dog comedy starring Parks & Recreation star Aubrey Plaza in her first leading role. While she carries over the snark that audiences have become accustomed to, she gradually (in a welcome turn) becomes emotionally accessible as the lovable loser played by Mark Duplass breaks down her defenses. Writing a fairly straight-forward love story out of the material is perhaps misguided – Duplass’ character, no matter his intentions or presumed brilliance, reads as particularly unstable, and as such it becomes a disappointment that his psychological issues ultimately play out as little more than personality quirks. Duplass, who has been busy this year both behind and on camera, is perhaps too handsome and naturally personable to pull off such an outcast. He isn’t entirely convincing in the early-goings, in which he is wrought to be an over-confident buffoon in the vein of Napoleon Dynamite or Dwight Schrute. Trevvorow and Connolly, however, are on to something with their theme of characters desperate to relive their pasts and, in the process, finding little happiness in the future. Jake M. Johnson, of TV’s The New Girl, is a surprising delight as crude journalist who hasn’t emotionally developed since graduating high school.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
July 24, 2012, 12:48 am
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Director: Marc Webb

The world wasn’t exactly clamoring for Spider-Man’s reboot only ten years after the launching of Sam Raimi’s original trilogy, but then again Sony wasn’t going to let one of their biggest cash-earning franchises the opportunity to sit on the shelf. If audiences are expected to indulge in leftovers (judging from box office receipts, they were more than willing to), one can at least be thankful that director Marc Webb assembled a cast that far exceeds the original trilogy – so good, in fact, that one wonders why enormously gifted performers like Irrfan Khan and Sally Field were attached to such minor roles. Andrew Garfield, he of The Social Network and an over-looked British gem called Boy A, plays an edgier Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire’s, occasionally even baring an off-putting over-confidence. For what is essentially a remake in its early half, it is surprising that Webb failed to include the most memorable moments of the first Raimi film, which involved Parker overcoming his fears and training with his powers. Here, after several lousy gags related to his adhesive hands, Garfield swings on a few chains before making the city his playground. The edgier reinterpretation of Spider-Man is most welcome, but it comes at the expense of his sense of vulnerability – this hero never seems particularly threatened. He is so self-assured, in fact, that the picture loses sight of one of the character’s chief traits, that he is handicapped by all of the uncertainty and emotional carelessness that comes along with being a teenager.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
July 21, 2012, 6:40 am
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Director: Rupert Sanders

It comes as a surprise that, of the two “Snow White” adaptations that were released to multiplexes in the past three months, Tarsem Singh directed the kitschy family adventure Mirror, Mirror. Snow White and the Huntsman contains the remarkable visual pleasures that one would associate with his work, featuring stunningly costumed actors traversing through a bizarre dreamscape. However, as is also expected of Singh, it fails as a narrative in almost every sense (but oh, how pretty!) First-time feature filmmaker Rupert Sanders – arriving with a history in commercials – knows how to create an arresting image or twenty, but bringing any charm to his characters is a different matter entirely. While the backlash against Kristen Stewart’s acting talents is unjustified (she is perfectly suited in contemporary roles in both Into the Wild and Adventureland), as Snow White by way of Joan of Arc she is hardly inspiring, with a late-game rousing war speech landing with a thud. The other half of the titular duo is ably played by Chris Hemsworth (who is in danger of being typecast as a charismatic meathead for the rest of his career), though the script does so little to service a clumsy love-triangle that somehow even the climactic kiss of the fairy tale doesn’t register as particularly satisfying. As a cut-and-paste job of its contemporary fantasy predecessors, it is at least more visually exciting than Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, but drudging through two hours plus of otherwise humorless mediocrity is laborious.

Brave (2012)
July 19, 2012, 9:32 pm
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Director(s): Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell

Scripted by four credited writers and hindered by a directorial change over creative differences, it is of little surprise that Pixar’s latest feels both derivative and half-realized, failing to recreate the limitless imagination of the studio’s previous efforts. Had Brave been a standard Disney production, one might have been more forgiving of its downfalls, but considering that in recent years Pixar has told their stories with a radical defiance against expectations, they undoubtedly let down. Princess Merida is a tomboy who isn’t particularly enthralled with the life that has been set out for her – her talents with the bow-and-arrow peg her for a warrior, not the betrothed damsel. Her mother, Elinor, is at odds with Merida’s stubbornness, fearing that her path will not only disgrace the family but put her life in danger. Merida and Elinor inevitably reconcile, but it hardly feels earned after all that precluded it was little more than a slapstick game of salmon-fishing. With a strong female for a lead, one might have hoped that Pixar would have fully committed to a feminist family picture, but disappointingly Merida is forced into compromise after being punished for her reluctance to adhere to gender norms.