For Reel

John Wick (2014)
September 4, 2016, 6:27 pm
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Director(s): Chad Stahelski & David Leitch
3.5 Stars
John WickThe eponymous John Wick is among the most competent of antiheroes—a seasoned hitman who finds himself compromised during a home invasion and never again. It is frequently absurd that action movies of this ilk ask audiences to identify with the heroes due to their supposed vulnerabilities when they spend the movie disposing of dozens upon dozens of henchman. There is never much doubt that John Wick will accomplish his goal, but that the film is spun in such a manner that the antihero is treated as the unstoppable killing machine is a neat twist—imagine a comic book movie where the villains spend every scene trying to evade the superhero because they know they will be thwarted. John Wick‘s twist on genre conventions, as well as its sly development of an intriguing universe (where hitmen have their own form of currency and hotels are constructed to cater to their needs), is sometimes upended by the film’s more frustrating choices—the irresistible soundtrack choice of Kaleida’s “Think” during an action sequence is the exception in a film that blares obnoxious nu-metal—but nonetheless it stands alongside Dredd and Mad Max: Fury Road as a rehabilitation of what was a dying genre in Hollywood.

Predestination (2014)
February 29, 2016, 3:52 pm
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Director(s): Peter & Michael Spierig
3.5 Stars
PredestinationAdapting a short story from Robert A. Heinlein, Predestination brings the conceit of time travel into a neo-noir setting, established by dingy bars where regrets have piled up as high as the ashes in the trays. The best of these sad characters has several names, but in print he goes by The Unmarried Mother (Sarah Snook), the successful author of cheap pulp stories. He, as all characters in a noir do, has a story to tell, beginning with the fact that he was born a woman. It’s radical for a film like this one to deal earnestly with gender identity–in some moments, the picture feels more empathetic and understanding of the plight of its characters than the Oscar-baiting The Danish Girl. The character’s complex history seems taken from a Pedro Almodóvar or even David Cronenberg film (involving the discovery that one has been betrayed by their body), and similarly he spends the picture crippled by resentments and a history that has been plagued by a lack of resolution. In many ways, the film’s great theme is this very absence of resolution–to plunge deeper into exploring oneself only leads to dead ends and (as this is a time travel film) temporal paradoxes. The film’s twists are predictable and revealed in an all too familiar way (using fast-paced music and flashbacks to key lines of dialogue), but the journey getting there involves an enlivening flashback structure that really works both as a narrative and as a demonstration of its themes.

Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)
November 22, 2015, 11:36 am
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Director: Maya Forbes
3.5 Stars
Infinitely Polar BearInfinitely Polar Bear comes close to being the worst kind of film about mental illness in its sunniness and optimism, turning bipolar disorder into just another offbeat character trait in a radically eccentric man. Although writer/director Maya Forbes (who based the film on her own childhood) does deal with the sheer horror of living with such a force of nature on occasion–early in the film, Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) has an episode as his family wait in fear in the car–it mostly plays as an extension of his playful exuberance and free-wheeling ideology. Given the autobiographical roots, it is understandable that Infinitely Polar Bear is ultimately so affectionate, and actually it works fairly well as a valentine to a deeply flawed, but loving man. Forbes’s technique involves 16mm home videos, and each of the film’s episodes seems so utterly specific that it conveys a convincing sense of nostalgia. If the film is not a particularly enlightening exposé about what it is to suffer from such a mental disorder, it works as a picture book of a unique childhood, favoring a sentimentality that feels earned and truthful. It would all fall apart without Ruffalo’s considerable charm and affability–this is as good as he’s ever been, stepping out of his sleepy demeanor for something bordering on the theatrical.

Heaven Knows What (2014)
November 17, 2015, 8:16 pm
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Director(s): Benny & Josh Safdie
4 Stars
Heaven Knows WhatWhereas the Safdie brothers’ Daddy Longlegs was a brilliant piece of minimalism that came as close as any modern indie at capturing John Cassavetes’ sense of immediacy and realism, their latest film is after something a little more obscure. The opening moments find a pair of junkies writhing in coitus, their identities partially hidden by the closeness of the camera–his face is barely seen, but the grime and dirt on his hands is observed with careful detail. Accompanying the images in a deafening electronic score, suggesting a sort of science fiction thriller in its assaultive repetitiveness. Heaven Knows What, however, isn’t so much interested in capturing a specific point-of-view subjectivity through these techniques–drug use is not rendered for the audience in hallucinatory bits of aesthetic recreation–but in order to suggest a certain relationship with the world, a sense of being utterly absorbed by the present. The film is brutal in the way that it portrays these relationships–after all, it is before the opening credits even roll that an abusive boyfriend (Caleb Landry Jones) goads his girlfriend (Arielle Holmes) into slitting her wrists–but the commitment to authenticity outweighs one’s feeling that it revels in developing a single-minded cynical worldview. The way that one drug dealer (Buddy Duress) engages in circular arguments and spends the duration of the picture in a sort of irritable, confused daze is very specific to a certain type of living. The Safdie brothers don’t treat this material as a cautionary tale, but as it simply is.

99 Homes (2014)
October 25, 2015, 11:49 am
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Director: Ramin Bahrani
3.5 Stars
99 Homes99 Homes plays as a sort of gangster saga, with the familiar story of a young, ambitious kid getting in with a charismatic but ruthless boss. In the spirit of gangster films, much of the drama also plays out on the streets–Dennis (Andrew Garfield) starts his career being tasked with odd jobs such as cleaning filthy homes or stealing outdoor AC units, with his small crime eventually giving way to a willingness to participate in more white-collar brands of illegality. It is the focus on the victims that makes 99 Homes unique among similar capitalism-gone-amuck films like Wall Street. Whereas Rick Carver’s (Michael Shannon) philosophy involves him looking at homes as just “boxes” (and the more he owns, the better), director Ramin Bahrani is concerned with what exactly makes a home, what kinds of families occupy them, and what the sentimental attachment to said “boxes” actually is. The film feels a bit too much like a simplistic thesis statement at times, and the melodramatics of the third act actually undermine the film’s ultimate purpose, but 99 Homes is nonetheless a powerfully scathing indictment of Darwinian economics.

Pawn Sacrifice (2014)
October 5, 2015, 2:23 pm
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Director: Edward Zwick
3 Stars
Pawn SacrificeIn films like Ride with the Devil and as Peter Parker, Tobey Maguire has specialized in playing apprehensive, sheepish characters who rarely get the opportunity to really voice their grievances. It is exciting, then, to see him take on the challenge of playing the thoroughly contemptible Bobby Fischer, whose paranoid, anti-Semitic rants are hard to ignore despite his amazing prowess at chess. Pawn Sacrifice finds an inherent link between chess mastery and madness–characters wax about the number of possibilities a single game of chess involves, and late in the film Fischer suggests the anxiety of making the “right move”, despite having a conceptual awareness of the logic behind the game. One gets the sense that he is calibrating his life in the same strategic way, trying to make sense of the whole of his surroundings and absolutely suffocated by the possibilities. Fischer’s specific relationship to Cold War paranoia exists only at a surface level–the film doesn’t make many new observations about the conflict, rather uses the setting as a means of demonstrating the stakes (if Fischer wins the chess game, capitalism has arrived at a small victory over communism). Director Edward Zwick makes good use of archival materials (as well as imitation archival materials), but the inescapable soundtrack and the insistence on slow-mo as chess pieces are pushed across the board gets a little laborious by the end.

Creep (2014)
September 18, 2015, 7:53 pm
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Director: Patrick Brice
2.5 Stars
CreepIn front of the camera, Mark Duplass has constructed an image of a “roll with the punches” kind of chum, whose penchant for sharing his vulnerabilities makes him both likable and almost eerily enlightened–the sort of guy who’s so responsive and affectionate that one wonders if there’s a tinge of condescension behind it or worse. Creep utilizes that persona to great effect by having Duplass play a mentally unhinged, potential psychopath without adjusting his image too severely. In fact, early on the line between male bonding film and horror film is blurred–while audiences undoubtedly have some awareness that things could get bad, the friendly, improvisational feel and Duplass’ charms make one doubt just how bad it can get. The found footage aesthetic is more of a hindrance than a necessary means of telling this story, but director Patrick Brice takes some pleasure in acknowledging the genre he’s working with by having Duplass play a man who very much knows he’s the villain of a horror movie. Early on, he indulges an obsession of popping out behind corners, joyously invoking the “jump scares” of films of this genre. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of those distinct quirks to make this villain particularly memorable, and Duplass is more frightening in the suspicious early-goings than when the film begins to lay its cards all out on the table.

Phoenix (2014)
September 7, 2015, 12:32 pm
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Director: Christian Petzold
5 Stars
PhoenixThe pivotal location of Christian Petzold’s new masterpiece is the Phoenix night club that gives the film its title. A bright, intense red glow on a street that has been otherwise reduced to rubble, the entrance seems like a door into another world, an image straight from a fantasy novel. Its unreality is matched by Petzold’s own embrace of coincidence and other devices associated with melodrama. If the plot–involving a newly transformed woman (Nina Hoss) pretending to be herself at the behest of her oblivious husband (Ronald Zehrfeld)–seems rooted in pulpiness, it is. But Petzold pays such great care to the emotional stakes at hand that one is left only admiring the confidence and precision of the storytelling. There’s a simple devastation in watching Hoss fail at her own self-mimicry–when her husband tells her that her “performance” isn’t authentic, one wonders if he is simply delusional or if she literally cannot be the woman that she was before the war. In the brilliant final act, there’s an unforgettable play of authorship, where the husband describes with accurate detail what the unveiling of his wife will be like before he is challenged by her own imposed will. It’s a striking, low-key finale, forgoing the hysterics that one might have expected. She is reborn from the ashes, indignantly disregarding the fire that caused them.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)
September 7, 2015, 12:29 pm
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Director: Roy Andersson
4 Stars
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence“I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine,” is a mantra repeated throughout the entirety of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, mostly occurring when two characters are speaking on the phone and can’t make out what the other person is saying. Contrasting the dourness of Roy Andersson’s unusual world with such a blanket empty sentiment is key to what makes his films so tonally memorable. Challenging a playful score and a certain anything-goes sensibility, Andersson’s world is lit like a hospital waiting room, his actors painted shades of grey and green so that they most resemble corpses, and movement is rare and, when it occurs, eerily deliberate. As with the previous installments of his “Living” trilogy, the world is utterly purgatorial. Structured as a series of vignettes, some of Andersson’s episodes play as small sketch comedies (a man is all-too-eager to claim the beverage of a recently deceased diner patron), others are so black that they barely register as comical at all. Regardless of the offerings, there is a certain excitement to watching his films unfold. His relentless aesthetic–long shots, deep focus, lengthy takes–makes each scene feel like a postcard, with the sum of the parts giving the impression of flipping through Andersson’s scrapbook of increasingly bizarre, drolly hilarious ruminations about life in the face of death.

Testament of Youth (2014)
September 1, 2015, 1:45 pm
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Director: James Kent
4 Stars
Testament of YouthTestament of Youth is a devastating rumination about a generation lost, its pacifism reminiscent of the death march of the young soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front. Adapted from the memoirs of Vera Brittain–which discusses her countless losses during the war and her resistance against being held to feminine expectations–director James Kent treats the material as both a hazy memory and as a cry from the past. Often throughout the picture, Alicia Vikander looks directly at the camera, removed from place and time, a reminder that there is much that a modern viewer can learn from these ghosts of the past. Vikander is spectacular in the role, giving a nuanced performance that evolves gradually. As we meet her, she is a pigheaded young woman who demands to be taken seriously, insisting that she will go to Oxford and never marry. The film and Vikander allows her such immature outbursts without a level of condescension, and in her growth these rages aren’t “tamed”, rather developed and refined by experiences. Cinematography Rob Hardy bathes much of the picture in light–consider, for example, those carefree pre-war scenes–and his camera is always searching for something. Even small conversations are given a sense of immediacy due to the exploratory aesthetic, one that uses movement so that the moments of stillness are rendered almost uncanny.