For Reel

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.

Julieta (2016)
April 23, 2017, 3:05 pm
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Director: Pedro Almodóvar
4 Stars
JulietaOn the surface, Pedro Almodóvar and Alice Munro seem to have little in common other than the prevalence of strong female characters in their body of work. It is true that, while Munro focuses on more subtle longings and is generally a more unassuming storyteller, Almodóvar’s flamboyance is relevant to both his dealings with emotions and the production design—if his characters are not immune to restraint, he takes a particular delight in their grandiose expressions. Each artist, however, is determined by the sense of empathy that they have for their characters and that the characters have for each other, as well as how that empathy can be discovered as a result of changing circumstances over time—see, for example, a scene in which a young Julieta regrets abandoning a train passenger she feels threatened by due to the way his story later unfolds. Almodóvar is seduced by the mystery of the encounter and the way it causes a mania in Julieta, just as Munro has a tendency to dramatize certain moments that reverberate throughout our lives. The most touching moment in Julieta occurs near the end of the film in which one character finds a new understanding for someone they previously resented, and it is in those moments where the film is at its most beautiful—that is, empathy grows over time, and as we accumulate knowledge and life experience, it becomes easier to forgive.