For Reel

A Quiet Passion (2016)
August 18, 2017, 2:57 pm
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Director: Terence Davies
5 Stars
A Quiet PassionDirector Terence Davies has carved a career out of his haunting, nostalgic portraits of British pastimes. In the semi-autobiographical The Long Day Closes, a a young boy is raised by the beauty and escapism of the cinema screen. Similarly, A Quiet Passion finds Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) as a woman who comes to understand and expand her world through Brontë novels. Although Dickinson has steadfast convictions and a strong opinion regarding marriage’s deadening potential on women, the film is far from a celebration of Dickinson as a figure of social justice—she is instead seen as a woman who rigidly defines the world through strict moral parameters, showing a concern for truth and decorum while neglecting the falsity of piousness. Her contradictions are clearly a fascination for Davies. As much as she neglects a suitor and denies the possibility, an ethereal dream sequence imagines her dark suitor arriving up the stairs. If she is not concerned with fame, she nonetheless clings to the approval of a married reverend. The film humanizes Dickinson through these comparisons, characterizing her as a vulnerable, undoubtedly clinically depressed genius whose idea of what the world should be was never met by the world that was.

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
July 17, 2017, 11:16 pm
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Director: Colm McCarthy
3 Stars
The Girl With All the Gifts.jpgAttempting to put a “spin” on the post-apocalyptic outbreak genre seems like a futile task. If The Girl with All the Gifts doesn’t attempt to reinvent the genre, then, it does bring it some life by going backwards—more than this is inspired by any zombie movie of the past few decades, it reads as a direct homage to writer Richard Matheson. On those terms, it has its pleasures in the way it concerns itself with evolution and nature. Here, nature is not something harmonious, but rather horrifying—the disease spreading through the world is literally a fungus, and man’s ultimate fate is left to the spread of a plantlife that seeks only to reproduce. But, what keeps the film from dwelling in the misery that plagues many efforts within the genre is the genuine sense of love and hope that defines the characters of Melanie (Sennia Nanua) and Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who both recognize that man hasn’t been defeated, but rather must adapt. This adaptation is more-or-less faithful to the novel, and director Colm McCarthy deals quite well with the exterior scenes—in the film’s tensest setpiece, the protagonists must wind their way through streets that are occupied by hundreds of paralytic zombies who risk awakening at any moment. The way McCarthy uses the scale of the labyrinthine streets and towering buildings is just as frightening as the creatures themselves, making the players seem like small pawns in a world they simply will never understand again.

Your Name. (2016)
June 27, 2017, 4:02 pm
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Director: Makoto Shinkai
4 Stars
Your NameThe body switch that occurs early in Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. produces many of the tropes that one might expect. That is, the empathy that comes when these characters inhabit other people, as well as what they learn from that experience, will undoubtedly provide life lessons by the climax. But Shinkai has more on his mind, and by the midway point it is clear that he has been laying the groundwork for something more decidedly cosmic. That is, if this is a comedy about personal identity in its early-goings, Shinkai later turns the film into one more concerned with a crisis of national and historical identity, bridging the gap between disparate worlds as a way of understanding time, place, and ultimately the effects of tragedy. As a narrative, then, Your Name. sometimes seems overambitious, but regardless the unpredictability feels true to the emotional reality of confused teenagers. No matter how great the stakes become, this is ultimately a film about two people trying to find each other because, in its familiar, bittersweet way, they’ve helped each other find themselves.

Colossal (2016)
June 27, 2017, 4:00 pm
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Director: Nacho Vigalondo
3 Stars
Colossal.jpgOne can imagine that writer/director Nacho Vigalondo witnessed children stomping their way through the woodchips on a playground when he developed the idea for Colossal. These playground games—where the mundane becomes improbably massive in scale and children are rewritten as both heroes and monsters—are reimagined by Vigalando as the stage for brewed resentment and anger, the wrestling ring in which two personalities who are finally done exchanging harsh words will put up their fists and duke it out. It is the stage where two incredibly self-destructive people will become literally destructive to each other… as well as, as this is a Vigalando movie, the country of South Korea. Despite its instantly lovable premise, Colossal is surprisingly earnest and even sad in its delivery—the kaiju which appear over the city are personal demons literally manifested, and the damage they cause is given some semblance of weight (that being said, Anne Hathaway’s detached guilt—she knows her avatar has killed many, but can hardly fathom it—plays as incredibly timely). Hathaway has played depressives in indies before, but Jason Sudeikis’ turn is genuinely surprising, inviting the comparison between his typical persona’s smarm with sheer, embittered entitlement.

Kong: Skull Island (2016)
April 26, 2017, 4:45 pm
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Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
3 Stars
Kong - Skull IslandThe King Kong franchise resurfaces every so often to showcase the height of contemporary special effects. Most recently, the Peter Jackson adaptation was treated as a curio in the way that it continued the use of the new motion capture techniques that were innovated in the Lord of the Rings films. It diminishes some of the series’ sense of spectacle, then, that Kong: Skull Island has nothing more spectacularly imagined than what is seen in the average blockbuster these days—even bloating the beast up to a heretofore unseen scale barely makes one’s eyes widen. Forgoing the burden of “prestige”, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts wisely uses Kong mythology merely for the purposes of developing an unashamed light adventure film that dishes out a new monster every twenty minutes or so of screen time. If it feels rather ordinary among the crop of Hollywood adventure stories, it is never suffocated by the same weight that hampered Jackson’s vision. Vogt-Roberts demonstrates some personality in the filmmaking—the 1970s period detail provides for both an engaging classic rock soundtrack and the occasionally inspired period-specific touch of wit (including the frequent cutaways to a Nixon bobblehead during an impressive early set piece)—but other sequences, such as Tom Hiddleston slashing through monsters with a samurai sword, are total misfires.

The Red Turtle (2016)
April 24, 2017, 7:56 pm
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Director: Michaël Dudok de Wit
5 Stars
The Red TurtleIn The Red Turtle, the creatures that inhabit the island that our nameless castaway lands upon are the lords of their domain. Some, like the white, skittering crabs, approach the survivor with some curiosity, while others navigate indifferently with their array of survival tools. If the protagonist is not often treated with a close-up, it is key that director Michaël Dudok de Wit indulges cutaways to images of spiders, bats, and the aforementioned crabs resourcefully finding their food. The language is clear: the castaway is a visitor, and the seemingly insurmountable task of survival is one that these creatures have long since adapted to mastering. But Dudok de Wit’s film is not just a bleak survivalist story, rather it is an elegant love story about growing old and the things that keep families together and tear them apart. As the film delves deeper into its magical realist interests, perhaps it would be a contradiction to suggest that the emotions Dudok de Wit engages with become all the more prescient and relatable. But like all of the films that Studio Ghibli leaves its mark upon, The Red Turtle understands that deeper truths can often be approached through mystical means. If life itself is a survival story about scraping by and rummaging for food, Dudok de Wit uses the magical as a means of articulating the longings of a soul. The sudden appearance of a magnificent turtle who campaigns the castaway to stay where he is demonstrates that a physical rescue isn’t the only path to the protagonist finding his peace.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
April 23, 2017, 3:23 pm
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Director: Raoul Peck
5 Stars
I Am Not Your NegroRaoul Peck’s staggering documentary I Am Not Your Negro often cuts to modern examples of racial intolerance (including the protests of police violence in Ferguson) as a means of demonstrating what little has changed since the film’s subject was observing a culture’s willful ignorance of its own misgivings forty years ago. These scenes, however, are scarcely needed—James Baldwin’s prophetic discussions of American race relations are as present and topical as they were then, and no aid is needed it making that explicitly clear. Late in the film, Robert Kennedy’s claim that in forty years time it is conceivable that a black man can become president is met by Baldwin’s scathing indictment that it is something that needs to be said in the first place: (he mocks) “In forty years (if you’re good), we may let you become president.” Many of Baldwin’s arguments come in the form of his film criticism—he suggests that stars such as Doris Day epitomize the infantilism of the public, one of many factors contributing to their failure to achieve true awareness. The cumulative effect of the film is undoubtedly unsettling, but it is also beautiful in the way it allows Baldwin a posthumous vehicle to speak directly to the viewer. That is, Peck doesn’t intend for the viewer to understand Baldwin through biography, but rather as if they were having a conversation with him.

Life, Animated (2016)
April 23, 2017, 3:14 pm
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Director: Roger Ross Williams
3 Stars
Life, AnimatedWhen he was three, the subject of Life, Animated began to lose motor skills and his power of speech. His parents, Ron and Cornelia, felt abandoned, and when they learned that Owen’s symptoms were the result of autism (which, at the time, was significantly more stigmatized than it is today), they were told the son that they knew would never be retrieved. A year after the diagnosis, Owen began reciting lines from Disney films that seemed to speak towards his situation—that is, the boy began to use Disney films as both a language tool and as a way of understanding the world. In Life, Animated, the now 25-year-old Owen is able with surprising elegance to discuss what draws him to these films and how they inform the way he relates to his disease and to the people in his life. It’s an amazing, rousing story, and the people involved are all admirably patient and empathetic—even at its darkest, there isn’t an ugly thought to be found in the telling. As enjoyable as the film is, however, Life, Animated brings up a series of questions that it doesn’t intend to answer, and as a result its limited perspective becomes a source of frustration. Late in the film, Owen’s brother Walter deals with the difficulty of explaining french kissing and sex to someone whose entire world is children’s films, and then openly confesses his anxieties about being a caretaker for his brother in the future. Walter’s infrequent appearances engage lines of questioning that provide the film’s most thought-provoking moments, and in the way that they recontextualize the narrative, it becomes increasingly difficult to continue to be seduced by the surface-level, hesitant telling.

Hidden Figures (2016)
April 23, 2017, 3:12 pm
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Director: Theodore Melfi
2.5 Stars
Hidden Figures.jpgHidden Figures‘ one great attribute is that it doesn’t make an explicit villain out of any of its generally unpleasant characters. That is, whatever one can read into Paul Stafford’s (Jim Parsons) face, little of what he says is outwardly hostile, and his problems with Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) might just as well be attributed to misogyny or his feeling threatened regarding his challenged work performance. But in depicting these characters as not raving, hate-spewing racists, Hidden Figures makes it clear that racism isn’t a problem limited to a few unstable people, but rather a systemic issue that manifests in many different ways. For this reason, the sense of oppression in the workplace is palpable in every moment because of what isn’t explicitly said. Director Theodore Melfi brings only the visual sophistication of a sitcom, but in the production design and costuming the film’s world comes alive—when Johnson unloads her stresses at the office, the identically dressed white faces look on with vacant expressions, bringing attention to Johnson’s otherness and the incredible vulnerability that comes with it. Unfortunately, the moment rings false, partly due to its mistiming in the narrative, and partly due to the fact that Melfi treats each of Johnson’s humiliating trips to the bathroom as a gag about bodily functions. The film, however, despite its failings as a drama, does well in its establishing of a white world and therefore developing just how radical these incredible women were.

Loving (2016)
April 23, 2017, 3:09 pm
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Director: Jeff Nichols
3.5 Stars
Loving.jpgJeff Nichols is a great American poet of landscapes. Each of his films is first and foremost about the open road and rural communities—even Midnight Special, the director’s sci-fi film about a young boy with special powers, detailed the freeways and the motels that dot them as much as the supernatural elements. Loving, though having all the makings of a rabble-rousing historical drama, is similarly seduced by the ground level details. When Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) promises his wife that he will build her a house, the sentiment is one we’ve seen in dozens of films. Nichols, though, takes special care in detailing Loving (a bricklayer) at work—his romantic dream is visualized in a trade that is draining, exhausting, and seemingly excruciatingly slow. Regardless, whereas a lesser filmmaker might have left it at the promise, Nichols goes as far as to let the audiences in on the texture of the brick, and the effort and dedication it truly takes to build something. Similarly, just as in his previous films, the setting surrounding the characters is not only essential, but it creates most of the drama. When Richard and his wife Mildred (Ruth Negga) settle down, Richard becomes a guard dog—here, “home” is something that can be threatened, invaded, or taken away, and the permanence of his relationship is bound up entirely in their continued cohabitation in the home.