For Reel

Krampus (2015)
January 29, 2017, 3:16 pm
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Director: Michael Dougherty
2.5 Stars
krampusThe opening credits of Krampus depict violent shoppers struggling to get their hands on a good holiday deal. If the image is not inspired, it foregrounds the film’s major attitude towards the holiday—namely, that the ugliness of consumerism (in addition to dysfunctional familial relationships) has impeded the spirit. Krampus seems subversive on the surface in the way that it upends Christmas movie conventions by adding a horror component, but actually its ethos is as conservative as it gets. That is, its characters are not punished for any wrong-doings, but because they aren’t meeting the expectations of what is deemed sentimentally appropriate for the holiday. The film might have been more interesting had the reactions to the eponymous creature and its minions been more diverse—there is no sense of the characters dealing with the situation in any way other than violent rebuttals—however the film’s barebones script feels like an afterthought with its sole purpose being to get creatures on camera. The horrifically slack-jawed Krampus is a memorable design, but the snake-like Jack-in-the-Box minion is the film’s most inspired creation. Whereas many of the creatures simply jump at the screen in order to serve up an easy scare, the film’s most haunting image comes when the aforementioned minion claps with glee while anticipating the arrival of more evil henchman.

Demon (2015)
January 3, 2017, 3:22 pm
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Director: Marcin Wrona
3.5 Stars
demonDemon is an unsettling film about denial and avoidance, with its characters ignoring both immediate and long-festering problems for the sake of saving face. The centerpiece of the picture finds Piotr (Itay Tiran), a laborer who has newly returned to his native Poland, becoming possessed by a dybbuk at his wedding ceremony. As his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and he begins to convulse and strip down in what appears to be an epileptic fit, his future in-laws try desperately to keep the guests happy (and drunk) while lamenting the man that they brought into the family. While Demon is rooted in the psychological horror genre, it is the satirical elements that resonate most deeply—as the wedding hosts procure more bottles of vodka and ask the wedding band to play louder in order to cover up the noises of the possessed groom, director Marcin Wrona both teases the desperation of a forced social gathering (where the objective is to have fun at all costs) and remarks on the hypocrisy and perhaps impossibility of celebrating when the sins of the past are far from buried. When the bride’s father bemoans that, “The whole country’s built on corpses”, Wrona maintains a mutual interest in the personal demons that haunt the story while broadening his scope to encompass the political, arguing that all a country can do in the aftermath of atrocities is to beg the band to stay for another song.

Our Little Sister (2015)
October 8, 2016, 12:26 pm
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Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
2.5 Stars
our-little-sisterAfter the death of their father, three sisters (Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, and Kaho) invite their half-sister (Suzu Hirose) to live with them in their family home in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest family drama. If their history is fraught with emotional turmoil (their father left with another woman and as a result their mother became complacent), the day-to-day conflicts of the sisters at this stage in their life is of the episodic sitcom variety—whether or not to take a new job, or how to bridge the gap between wild living and maturity. Kore-eda is not a director who favors overblown dramatic conflicts (his best films, like Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son, concern themselves with tense dynamics that don’t often bubble to the surface), but Our Little Sister is slight and breezy to the point that it all but drifts away. There is never a concern that the sisters will fail to exist in harmony or that the newly adopted step-sister will struggle to adjust—despite the difficulties that they have faced, the film all-too-often revels in their empathetic, loving glances across a dinner table while the melodramatic orchestral score holds the viewer’s hand. The loveliness of it all is fully convincing when the sisters bond over food, plum wine, and fireworks, but it’s hard to feel something for a family’s bond when there is never any sense of a fragility to it.

Eye in the Sky (2015)
July 19, 2016, 3:32 pm
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Director: Gavin Hood
4 Stars
Eye in the SkyThis unique take on the ethical dilemma that is drone warfare gleefully flaunts its contrivances—it is the sort of suspense tale that feels so manufactured that, at times, it is comical. When an innocent young girl (Aisha Takow) reenters the line of fire in order to sell her bread, the film begins a second heaping of melodrama, complete with the bleary eyes of the man tasked with firing the warhead (Aaron Paul). But Eye in the Sky never once mistakes itself for a gritty, realistic thriller—the screenplay by Guy Hibbert is wrought as a morality play, where a situation is calibrated only to see what happens to those who hover around it. And, in the various rooms where the action takes place, Hibbert and director Gavin Hood are willing to take on an aggressively satirical tone, as with the blowhard American characters who mostly seemed bothered that they were consulted in the first place. Drone warfare is certainly the prime interest in Hibbert’s telling, but it is actually a film about the ineptitude of bureaucracy in this context, where decisions are constantly referred up by people who would rather not take on the ethical consequences of the situation themselves. In focusing on the endless complexities of this human element, Eye in the Sky wisely doesn’t play sides—at best, it will play as a Rorschach test for those most committed to their position.

The Family Fang (2015)
July 19, 2016, 3:28 pm
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Director: Jason Bateman
3 Stars
The Family FangThat Jason Bateman was reintroduced to audiences as the star of a sitcom about a dysfunctional family makes The Family Fang appropriate material for his sophomore directorial effort. In the film, he and Nicole Kidman play the children of parents who made a name for themselves in the avant garde world through their performance art pieces. The catch is that the children themselves were often key to the artwork—in one of the earliest examples, the family stages a fake bank robbery, complete with false blood as onlookers watch in amazement. There’s a suggestion that the children were not born out of love, but as an extension the parents’ egos—they were born to be canvases, and living with the burdens of their parents needs and the resulting emotional neglect has left both of them complete neurotic messes. Despite the quirks of the material, it serves a thoughtful metaphor about child-parent relationships, and Bateman and Kidman have good chemistry as the siblings. Even by the end of the film, however, there is little understanding about how these characters precisely relate to each other—the weight of the relationships is too often limited to characters speaking their thoughts directly to each other. As such, the storytelling feels clipped and incomplete, with the last half’s turn into a mystery adding a much needed quickened pulse but feeling similarly distracting to the emotional core of the relationships. Regardless, The Family Fang plays as an interesting extension on Bateman’s screen persona in that it is not exactly a comedy, nor is it a tragedy—like the actor, its great appeal is that it feels pulled in many directions, utterly defying categorization.

Born to Be Blue (2015)
July 15, 2016, 12:45 pm
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Director: Robert Budreau
3.5 Stars
Born to Be BlueWhat immediately differentiates Born to Be Blue from other musical biopics is its subject. Unlike Johnny Cash or Ray Charles, Chet Baker doesn’t carry quite the baggage of heroism—he’s as famous for his downfall as the specific vulnerability of his music, a figure whose struggles with addiction  kept him from reaching greater heights. Writer/director Robert Budreau positions the film as a sort of redemption story that focuses on his comeback, but it is hardly a story where wrongs are righted and the characters involved live happily ever after. The film pits addiction against love and, by the end, it becomes increasingly clear that they cannot coexist, and losing one or the other is probably going to be equally devastating. Born to Be Blue is elevated by the specific tragedy of Baker (he’s wrought as a terribly insecure man who is desperate for the approval of the jazz legends of his day) and Hawke’s delicate performance, but Budreau also employs a self-reflexive gimmick early on that works so well it becomes frustrating when it is dropped. And yet, it proves to be an ambitious feat of storytelling that successfully lays the groundwork for what follows—Budreau lets audiences feel comfortable in the fact that they’re watching a typical musical biopic before upending the genre altogether. With the baggage out of the way, the narrative rebuilds itself, and even if it checks off some of the expected genre trademarks, Budreau is insistent that the audience focuses on why Baker’s story is a different beast altogether.

Miles Ahead (2015)
July 15, 2016, 12:42 pm
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Director: Don Cheadle
2 Stars
Miles AheadOften in Miles Ahead, the fictionalized version of Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) laments the public’s fixation on his old material, arguing instead that his fans should constantly be looking forward. It plays as the mantra for this strange quasi-biopic in which Davis’ story is told with only a care for a certain mythical truth—that much of it plays as a Blaxploitation picture, including drug deals, drawn guns, and car chases upsets the standard of its genre, reveling in unapologetic sensationalism. It’s a fitting, experimental twist for the subject involved, but ultimately Miles Ahead still falls into some of the same trappings as its kin—that Davis’ most haunted period is linked to a previous heartbreak plays as a simplification at best. Cheadle brings the raspy voice and a surprisingly imposing physical presence (his Davis is very much an intimidating, no-nonsense agitator), but as a writer/director gets bogged down in his own ambition. Much of the film simply fails to connect (including another bland performance from Ewan McGregor), and moreover it falls in an uneasy territory between deadly serious drama and unadulterated pulp. It, like Davis’ music, aspires to be guided by feeling more than logic, only in the end it mostly registers as emotionally incomprehensible.

High-Rise (2015)
June 26, 2016, 12:11 pm
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Director: Ben Wheatley
1.5 Stars
High-RiseFor High-Rise to work, the character that is the eponymous building itself has to be understood—afterall, it is the key allegory, and ultimately the catalyst for the mayhem to come. Not only does the film lack a sense of verticality (for lack of a better term), it eschews any insight into how the society functions. For director Ben Wheatley, there is little difference in the way he approaches characters having a conversation in a room and two men beating each other senselessly. The camera roams, the editing fragments the action mercilessly, and every element of the mise en scene has a sense of over-directed plasticity. One could argue that this applies directly to the purposefully cold, detached perspective of the chaos, but Wheatley is more interested in surface for the sake of it—watch, for example, the clumsy attempt of a music video when Wheatley constructs a montage to a Portishead cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.” The ugliness that befalls the high-rise is problematized by the fact that Wheatley demonstrates little but an eroticized, bemused perspective of it. He can’t help but to sensationalize everything. When Laing (Tom Hiddleston) peels the face off of a cadaver, a competent storyteller would suggest it parallels with the ugly underbelly lurking beneath the pristine surface of the tower. To Wheatley, the moment is played from every possible angle, pausing on the brutality to consider the depth of the blade and the sound that accompanies the tearing of flesh. The anarchy of the image predicts the manic action to come, but it also comes at the expense of all thought and ideas in favor of a gross out gag.

Maggie’s Plan (2015)
June 26, 2016, 12:03 pm
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Director: Rebecca Miller
4 Stars
Maggie's PlanIf Maggie’s Plan has the sheen of a contemporary indie comedy—set in New York and starring Greta Gerwig, one could be forgiven for assuming it’s a Noah Baumbach film on first glance—its real roots are in the 1940s comedies of remarriage. While directors like Baumbach and Woody Allen often look to the past in their own films, they rarely indulge the transparent gull to strand their characters on a winter hike as a means of reconciliation. Writer/director Rebecca Miller revels in such contrivances, and her cards are laid flat on the table when a married writer played by Ethan Hawke continuously talks about the screwball fiction novel he’s writing. Hawke—playing an intellectual who is both endlessly charming and probably too smart for his own good—is not so different from his character in the Before trilogy, albeit his lack of romantic finesse often makes him seem more of a buffoon. And, if he’s an easy target to blame in the narrative, his positioning in that role is crucial to what makes the film work, particularly as it moderates the balance between the love interests played by Julianne Moore and Greta Gerwig. Miller struggles to keep up with her performers—the ensemble contribute such engrossing performances that it becomes very noticeable when the screenplay tosses one or more of them aside for a significant amount of time—but she has the great sense to obey their talents as naturalistic performers, never missing the important subtle change of expression or telling gesture.

The Invitation (2015)
June 11, 2016, 2:24 pm
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Director: Karyn Kusama
4.5 Stars
The InvitationThis slow-burn thriller casts a spell of doubt on its audience from the very beginning. Perhaps the most problematic obstacle for the viewer to feel comfortably immersed in the environment is that the protagonist, played with wonderful ambiguity by Logan Marshall-Green, might not be the most reliable narrator. He’s emotionally detached and quiet—more skeptical of his hosts than grateful, which becomes a trait the viewer only eventually comes to applaud as the events of the dinner party get more off-putting. For much of its running time, The Invitation does a great job of setting a tone of unease without doing anything particularly shocking. The red flags are so subtle that one would likely dismiss them in the context of a dinner party, where often things go unmentioned in the name of manners and civility. It’s the perfect setting to tell a story about grief and loss—Green’s very inability to participate in the rouse of dinner party behavior makes him an outcast, even if he might be the truest to his own emotions than anyone in the house (which, in a way, makes him the least dangerous). The Invitation‘s third act is serviceable if not exceptional, but things continue to spiral logically enough so as not to break the spell of immersion. But the first hour—awkward niceties offset by the occasional chord of unease—is a brilliant stretch of suspense and paranoia, recalling Jimmy Stewart’s growing suspicions in Rope.