For Reel

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
July 30, 2016, 5:30 pm
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Director: J.J. Abrams
3.5 Stars
Star Trek Into DarknessIn John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), the mysterious traitor who commits a terrorist attack on Starfleet, it appears that Captain James T. Kirk (Christopher Pine) has met his match. On the surface, Harrison is his ideal—similarly driven by emotion and ego, Harrison nonetheless comes with both a supreme level of skill and a confidence in his actions that Kirk lacks. His very capability makes him a frightening proposition, but it is not impossible to imagine an alternate reality wherein Kirk has gone rogue, driven by his own reckless impulses and unimpeachable sense of personal morality. When Star Trek Into Darkness plays into this dynamic, the film matches its thrills with a certain amount of cerebral intelligence. Pine’s Kirk is the leading asset in the series, and unfortunately Zachary Quinto’s Spock still seems ill-served by the script. That Kirk and Spock are again pitted against each other in the battle between logic and ego seems again confused by the fact that Spock spends much of the film providing evidence why he does not necessarily adhere to his own code. But Kirk, who is faced with decisions that could result in abandoning his own code or even putting others at risk, carries the greatest emotional weight of the new series, and Harrison, if underwritten, provides a compelling contrast.

Coherence (2013)
February 29, 2016, 3:45 pm
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Director: James Ward Byrkit
3 Stars
CoherenceShot mostly in a living room over the course of five days and relying heavily on improvisation between the eight actors involved, Coherence sounds like it could have been a loosely-sketched, self-indulgent exercise that allows the actors to have free rein over the film. But, though writer-director James Ward Byrkit credits his actors with developing much of their own dialogue, it is clear in the delivery of his premise that the plot has been worked through exhaustively, its exploration of a complex game of theoretical physics making one question at every turn what, and who, is actually involved in the dramatics of the scene. It’s an ingenious idea–a concept that forgives inconsistencies at every turn because of its very nature. Unfortunately, if the mechanics of this premise are enough to keep the picture afloat, Byrkit’s handling of the actors leaves something to be desired. Early on (before the unusual things begin to occur), the power goes out and there’s a knock on the door, leaving the whole cast to wail in horror and grab a weapon to defend themselves. Disregarding the fact that the behavior is aggressively unnatural, the problem is that there is nowhere to go from here. Paranoia is something that escalates in the best examples of the genre–it often feels like a snowball rolling down a hill–but Coherence has no sense of this tonal control. But, as an episode of The Twilight Zone, it is consistently engaging, and the subplot involving an ex-ballerina’s (Emily Foxler) insurmountable regrets paying off in a way that reimagines Mike Cahill’s Another Earth with even higher stakes.

The Great Beauty (2013)
November 23, 2015, 8:50 pm
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Director: Paolo Sorrentino
3 Stars
The Great BeautyAs if to imply that his predecessor wasn’t gaudy enough, Paolo Sorrentino takes Federico Fellini as a starting point and ups the ante in The Great Beauty. While La Dolce Vita portrayed a modern chic lifestyle as one that was full of surface pleasures but ultimately artificial, Sorrentino’s portrait of Rome is more jaded in that it doesn’t portray modernity in a particularly enticing way to begin with. Sorrentino is more intoxicated by ugly, distorted images that beautiful ones–see the extended takes on the death mask of a 104-year-old Mother Teresa stand-in. Furthermore, at every turn he suggests a certain fraudulence in not only the opulent lifestyle, but a hypocrisy in those that aspire to comment on it. In The Great Beauty, artists are frauds (it is unclear whether the film’s celebrity journalist (Toni Servillo) is immune to such a categorization) and narcissists. The film works as a sort of artsploitation picture–many of its pleasures existing at a sexual, surface level, to be gawked at but nothing more–but it’s philosophy is, if not empty-headed, tediously derivative.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
April 2, 2015, 8:34 pm
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Director(s): Joel & Ethan Coen
5 Stars
Inside Llewyn DavisUnlike Larry Gopnik of A Serious Man and many Coen brothers protagonists before him, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is very much the master of his fate. He’s overly-proud and resentful, a man with a limited number of couches to sleep on having burnt many bridges. If he’s imperious, at least he earns some of the viewer’s respect by the virtue of his talents and ingenuity. Inside Llewyn Davis considers the relationship between art and commerce on mostly superficial terms (culminating with a powerful scene at the Gate of Horn in Chicago), but it’s also interested in the toll that narcissism takes on many great artists, even if that very narcissism often goes hand-in-hand brilliance. The circular narrative of the film is the deeply sardonic joke the Coen brothers are telling this time around, but the tone is distinctly more sorrowful than many of their films. With the wintery palette, an array of somber folk standards played in full on the soundtrack, and a melancholic performance from Issac, it feels like the brothers’ most earnest and mature effort.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
February 28, 2015, 9:55 pm
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Director: Isao Takahata
5 Stars
The Tale of the Princess KaguyaWhile Hayao Miyazaki’s artistic vision is defined by his brilliance in dealing with the fantastical and his ecstatic celebration of nature, colleague Isao Takahata grounds his stories in a reality that confronts themes of maturation, sorrow, and loss. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a beautifully expressionistic fairytale rendered with extraordinary watercolor images, ranks alongside his very best. In moments, the pastel frames–which often melt away before reaching the sides of the image–are elegant and calm, but the brilliance of the visual style is apparent when the very lines that comprise the characters take up a ferocious, turbulent quality in the most emotionally distressing moments. For an aesthetic that is characterized by its simplicity, it is exploited for an incredibly dynamic range of feeling. Besides the brilliance of the images, it’s the ending, in which an ecstatic celebration becomes a symbol of repression, that makes The Tale of the Princess Kaguya truly soar. Although the Princess is confronted with the possibility of a lifetime of bliss, it is clear that in her heart she chooses the messiness of home–it’s the heartbreak, the sorrow, and the dissatisfaction that make life’s joys so transcendental. To rob one’s life of its complexities is to steal one’s spirit.

Locke (2013)
December 8, 2014, 8:15 pm
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Director: Steven Knight
4.5 Stars
LockeTom Hardy’s rise to fame came with a series of gripping, intense performances in films like Bronson, Warrior, and The Dark Knight Rises. He’s a thespian in a bodybuilder’s skin. Locke is a complete transformation from what he’s done previous. It’s a role defined by his gentility–although the film is about a man’s life coming unhinged, Hardy almost completely ignores his talent for exploding into a fury, save for a handful of key moments. Taking place entirely within the confines of a car, Hardy plays a man who is driving to a hospital to take care of a personal responsibility and on the way is bombarded with a series of phone calls that threaten his job security and his marriage. It’s a self-imposed sabotage, but to Ivan Locke (Hardy) its a necessary moral step. Director Steven Knight keeps the material visually dynamic with a number of cross-fades and blurred traffic lights. It’s both a stylish presentation of the challenging single-location setting and a nice evocation of the numbing, even hallucinatory practice of a lengthy late-night drive.

Blue Ruin (2013)
December 8, 2014, 8:03 pm
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Director: Jeremy Saulnier
4 Stars
Blue RuinOften in Blue Ruin, the solitary bum turned avenger (Macon Blair) deliberates how to resolve the chain of events that he’s become wrapped up in. He’s desperate for an escape, only it seems impossible–every new death leads to more widows, children, and relatives out seeking vengeance. It’s a remarkable revenge thriller in that way. Violence is committed by fairly unremarkable men, clumsily and without any sense of heroism. The eye-for-an-eye mentality provokes the chaos that results–vengeance is a poisonous a cycle that can never be broken. When Blair confesses a murder to his sister, she tells him, “I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not. You’re weak.” Director Jeremy Saulnier finds some of this amusing in the way that the Coen brothers would. Traditional action movie elements, like cleaning up a wound without professional medical help, are shown with pathetic realism. Occasionally, the presumed threats are merely examples of the ordinary, like a lamp running on a timer. Blair is perfectly cast as the protagonist. Although he looks potentially harmful with a long, straggly beard and unwashed clothes, for most of the picture he’s clean-shaven. He’s a baby-faced man with nervous, childlike eyes. His panic is palpable, and Saulnier masterfully capitalizes on the actor’s strengths with his patient, attentive camerawork.

We Are the Best! (2013)
December 2, 2014, 8:18 pm
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Director: Lukas Moodysson
4 Stars
We Are the Best!Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson has delved into bleak subject matter in his recent efforts (Lilya 4-Ever concerns a teenage sex slave, Mammoth is an Iñárritu-like meditation on globalization), but with his latest film he returns to an endearing coming of age story with tonal similarities to his debut feature, Show Me Love. We Are the Best! follows a new punk band formed by a trio of teenage girls–only one of them knows anything about music, but they all share the same desire to start making noise. What’s terrific about the way that the film handles the girls’ relationship with their band is that it doesn’t matter if they ever become any good. A more predictable effort would see them going on to win their school’s battle of the bands and the respect of their peers along with it, but how punk would that be? These girls play music as an outlet. It doesn’t define them, they channel themselves through it. Moodysson shoots much of the film with a handheld camera, giving it a messy, documentary feel. It’s fitting for a film that is loose in structure but interested in the details. Love triangles and contentious parents may crop up here and there, but Moodysson is aware that a young life isn’t defined by a single obstacle or struggle, it’s an amalgam of them.

The Empty Hours (2013)
September 23, 2014, 4:04 pm
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Director: Aarón Fernández Lesur
3.5 Stars
The Empty HoursThere’s little that The Empty Hours says other than, “sometimes bored, lonely people have sex”, but maybe that’s enough. That’s not to say that the characters don’t benefit emotionally from their consummation–clearly, the unlikely lovers are both at a crossroads and in some ways needed the type of connection that they find–but the film is a vacation, a brief episode in what seems like a much longer journey of self-discovery. Director Aarón Fernández Lesur leisures in the languid pacing, focusing on the types of details that one only becomes aware of when all other distractions are removed. A bottle cap moving across the floor seems almost magical, even if we know that it’s motorized by the beetle that’s pushing it. Surprisingly, when Sebastian and Miranda inevitably share a bed together, it isn’t particularly sexy. They’re attractive, yes, but romantic or sexual passion isn’t the point–it is about a feeling, a moment. They clearly enjoy each other’s company and have shared something unique, but are they making love or simply passing the time?

Snowpiercer (2013)
April 3, 2014, 12:37 am
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Director: Bong Joon-ho
4 Stars
SnowpiercerThe latest genre picture from virtuoso South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is a high-concept science fiction actioner that arrives as a ready-made cult classic. In order to battle global warming, governments across the world distribute a substance known as CW7 into the atmosphere, which plunges Earth into another ice age and renders humanity nearly extinct. The survivors live aboard a fast-moving vessel called the Snowpiercer, which maintains order through a rigid class system that keeps the lower class civilians in the over-crowded back of the train while the rich live in luxury. In its early-goings, the picture shows potential but seems all-too familiar–the monochrome, grungy visuals recycle a dystopian ghetto aesthetic that has become increasingly stale in recent years. Once a revolt against the upper class is staged, however, and Joon-ho follows his protagonists as they move their way through the train car-by-bar, the film bursts to life with vividly drawn settings and unforgettable set pieces, including a brutal action sequence that takes place in almost complete darkness and a memorable visit to a car where a psychotic teacher (Alison Pill) lectures young schoolchildren about the wonders of their vehicle’s creator, the evasive, God-like Wilford. There are some hiccups here-and-there–some of the dialogue is clunky, and near the end a few monologues overstate their point–but the film’s questions of fate and free will, the necessity of an economic hierarchy, and ultimately whether humanity is worth saving give the picture a fascinating theoretical backdrop.