For Reel

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.

Morgan (2016)
February 28, 2017, 4:01 pm
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Director: Luke Scott
1.5 Stars
morganMorgan largely involves the conflict between a group of scientists who have come to adore the artificial intelligence they have created and those who see the line between man/machine as being more black-and-white. Like last year’s Ex Machina, the film takes interest in the things that make us human—much is made, for example, of the idiosyncrasies in the ways that people speak, or how emotions are not often easily categorized. But the chief problem is that Morgan‘s interest in human sentience gives way into a rather standard actioner with characters whose motivations are nearly impossible to decipher. The film’s efficient opening sequence promises a sense of narrative control, however the questions it leaves the viewer with hardly get answered—most problematical is that the motivation behind creating a sentient being is never explored, nor is the reason why some of these characters have so taken a liking to the chilling Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). When the film devolves into a series of chases and fight scenes, the craft is nearly laughable—the incomprehensible speed of the edits was likely a necessary evil due to the fact that the brawls look like they’re happening at half-speed. The wealth of riches in the supporting cast is wasted, and Kate Mara, as a mysterious fixer, plays more lost and confused than steely.

Split (2016)
February 28, 2017, 3:57 pm
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Director: M. Night Shyamalan
3 Stars
splitMovie-goers and critics alike all but abandoned M. Night Shyamalan in 2006 with the release of Lady in the Water, which was the first clear sign that the Emperor had no clothes. That film, both self-serious and unabashedly goofy, was a mess of tones—it showed a filmmaker both aspiring for prestige and flirting with his proclivities towards camp. Split, on the otherhand, shows Shyamalan unapologetically submit into exploitation camp, complete with an abundance of ideas about sexuality and human psychology that would make Brian De Palma proud. The key to it all is James McAvoy’s performance as Kevin, a man with an elaborate array of personalities that range from a pedophile to a 9-year-old boy. Within mere seconds, McAvoy transitions from frightening to bizarrely hilarious—like the rest of the film, the primary concern of the performance is the variety of visceral thrills it can evoke. The actor’s best work comes when he plays personalities that are deliberately concealing something, giving just enough away with his mannerism that something is wrong (well, more than it already is). Shyamalan deals with questionable themes and much of the dialogue is laughably bad—as Kevin’s psychiatrist, Betty Buckley is the film’s heart, but she is saddled with both the most outlandish and tone-deaf lines. But Shyamalan once again shows that he can still be a satisfying provocateur when he wants to be—although he once seemed to aspire for critical approval, he now seems to embrace the fact that his heart might lie in this sort of satisfying off-season schlock.

A Monster Calls (2016)
February 28, 2017, 3:54 pm
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Director: J.A. Bayona
2 Stars
a-monster-callsLike many other dramas marketed for children, A Monster Calls follows a young protagonist (Lewis MacDougall) who responds to emotional trauma by existing within a fantasy world—here, a neighboring tree uproots itself and teaches him about moral complexity and the joys of destruction, among other things. The need to create a narrative out of a trauma as a way of understanding it is a compelling one, however where A Monster Calls goes wrong is just how thoroughly it balks from the real difficult moments. Conor’s (MacDougall) mother’s cancer eerily plays a subplot, allowed focus now and then but largely drifting somewhere in the background. She (Felicity Jones) is a thinly written metaphor for her own son’s dealings with grief and aging—a martyr for his story. In that way, the film feels remarkably self-centered and oddly lacking in empathy. Conor is the center of his own universe, and ultimately what he comes to understand is that most everyone around him will ultimately come through and help him through his struggles. But what does he learn about connecting with others? Horrific glances at his balding, skeletal mother and blankly staring at his father’s (Toby Kebbell) confessionals would suggest precious little.