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Dunkirk (2017)
August 18, 2017, 2:53 pm
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Director: Christopher Nolan
3 Stars
DunkirkChristopher Nolan is an unabashed formalist whose persistent focus on time is the uniting theme in all of his works. If Interstellar took the temporal to a cosmic level, Dunkirk shows Nolan’s fixation on the specificity of a singular time and place. The chaos of battle is articulated through Nolan’s puzzle-like narrative structure, with apparently disparate story threads collapsing on each other about midway through the film. If it does suggest the disorientation that one might feel on a battlefield, the effect doesn’t transcend the gimmick under any scrutiny. Nolan’s formalism and precision is not the issue, but rather his take on Griffithian montage cheapens the emotional effect by instead encouraging the audience to focus on structure more than feeling. When Nolan’s intercutting is motivated merely by emotion, on the other hand, his weaknesses as a storyteller become apparent. When a sequence of soldiers trapped in a boat is cut with a pilot drowning, the literalness of the connection belabors the point. Despite the fact that Nolan’s experiments with editing haven’t fully reached their promise, however, he’s only gotten better at detailing a singular time and place. The opening sequence, which follows two terrified soldiers (Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard) attempting to make their way to a rescue boat, is as suspenseful as any in the film—this is not only due to the inherent moral complexities of the scenario, but the clever interactions between the characters and the space.



A Ghost Story (2017)
August 17, 2017, 3:11 pm
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Director: David Lowery
4.5 Stars
A Ghost Story.jpgFor a film about the fragility and swiftness of existence, A Ghost Story often moves with a self-conscious malaise—it is a story of stillness and watching, and in the case of the ghost of a musician (Casey Affleck), this practice is seemingly played out over doomed centuries. The pacing nicely contrasts the fact that people often speak of the rapidity of life, and yet even a minor bout of depression feels absolutely endless. Director David Lowery’s long takes are the film’s biggest point of controversy—Rooney Mara grief-eating of a pie plays as more of a stunt than convincing character building—and yet the audience’s uneasy awareness of the film’s temporal qualities are key to establishing the film’s pulse. Similarly, if Will Oldham’s monologue regarding the futility of maintaining a legacy feels a little on-the-nose, it is not so much what he is saying that is the point, but the fact that he is saying it in the first place. The human awareness of time and its inevitable stopping are the chief concerns of the filmmakers, and Affleck’s ghost spends his time in the film not only reckoning with that fact, but watching others deal with it in the wake of his passing. Lowery’s aestheticism sometimes feels too rigorously objective to satisfy his sentimental tendencies, but nonetheless the final twenty minutes of the film are its most touching and quietly beautiful.



The Little Hours (2017)
August 17, 2017, 3:04 pm
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Director: Jeff Baena
4.5 Stars
The Little Hours.jpgIn The Little Hours, the deadpan 21st century comic sensibilities of performers like Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, and Fred Armisen meet Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century folktale The Decameron. Modern comedy has navigated these grounds before—David Gordon Green’s Your Highness and Harold Ramis’ Year One played with period conventions and ultimately ranked as colossal misfires—but writer/director Jeff Baena wisely uses the anachronism to poke fun at the antiquated philosophies and hypocrisies of the Catholic church. Moreover, Baena understands the material’s potential as modern sex farce (Aubrey Plaza seducing a man with a knife to his throat is a perfect encapsulation of the studio system’s dual casting of her as seductress and nihilist), and in doing so deals with women as having a sexual hunger not often acknowledged in contemporary films. If the film rests on the appeal of a single joke (the contrast between modern actors and 14th-century sensibilities), it is one that always lands—The Little Hours is a revitalization of the Mel Brooks comedy, and it is a delight to see comedians as talented as these work for a director who clearly has a real, precise vision.



War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
August 17, 2017, 3:02 pm
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Director: Matt Reeves
4 Stars
War for the Planet of the Apes.jpgThe first film of the new Planet of the Apes series imagined itself as a prison drama, with Andy Serkis’ Caesar attempting to navigate the cruelties of his fellow inmates and guards while trying to rally the group together for a united cause. This final installment of the trilogy similarly casts the apes back into a prison—this time, more suggestive of a harsh gulag than an animal containment facility. It is a fitting setting to reflect on how far Caesar has grown from his roots, and the filmmakers perceive said growth as being biblical in proportion. Caesar, like many of the great Western heroes, is also terribly flawed, increasingly finding himself driven by his own stubbornness, violence, and personal vendettas. Just as in the great westerns, Caesar finds his equal in Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who has the same capacity for evil in the name of his species’ survival. As the film progresses, it becomes not so much about how Caesar will redeem himself and therefore his people, but about how all apes will unify and overcome—being a leader, afterall, only goes so far if those who are being led do not have the same capacity for heroic deeds. If this trilogy has its problems, it is one of the few modern trilogies one can name that so fixes itself on the development of a key protagonist, who feels the consequences of each previous film and carries the weight of the series’ brutality on his shoulders.



The Big Sick (2017)
August 14, 2017, 3:03 pm
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Director: Michael Showalter
4.5 Stars
The Big Sick.jpgPlaying as a modern variant of the comedy of remarriage, The Big Sick is a romantic comedy where the conflicts don’t feel so much like imposing conveniences but rather stem naturally from the character dynamics. Kumail Nanjiani’s efforts to win his ex-girlfriend back don’t come from grand romantic gestures or the resolution of a misunderstanding, but rather they play as an excruciating waiting game. Sure, he can win an uneasy alliance with his ex’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, both terrific), but both of them acknowledge their daughter’s relationship with him is not a certainty. For being a comedy about panic, neuroses, and fractured marriages, the film is surprisingly quiet and earnest in its best moments. Hunter’s explosion at a stand-up show is a fine scene in itself, but the circumstances that begin the night as well as her shame in the fallout is what makes the film really human. As Emily, the comatose ex-girlfriend, Zoe Kazan makes the most of her awake scenes, with her frustrations with Kumail being understandable and admirable despite the audience’s affection for his character. Her hold on the movie becomes clear when Kumail and her parents navigate her apartment while she’s in the hospital—it’s a lovely, affecting sequences, where the unlikely trio realizes that the one thing they have in common is their love for Emily.



Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
August 14, 2017, 3:00 pm
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Director: Jon Watts
4 Stars
Spider-Man HomecomingSpider-Man has always seemed to be the best example of a comic book fan’s superhero. Whereas Batman’s wealth or the Avengers’ larger-than-life personas put them firmly in the camp of otherworldly escapism, Peter Parker is relatable enough to bridge the gap between an awkward teenager’s reality with the universe of superhuman abilities. It is fitting, then, that Spider-Man: Homecoming feels more grounded than any other superhero film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The stakes are low by comparison to the grander efforts—Michael Keaton’s Vulture is not deadset on world domination, but rather on making a few bucks. But the real achievement of the film is that it foregrounds Parker’s own insecurities and contradictions as he explores a new side of himself. His lack of social confidence keeps him from speaking to his crush, but his overconfidence in his abilities could lead to his death. Jon Watts (and the myriad of screenwriters) imagines a high school setting populated with John Hughes’ social hierarchies, and the sense of growth and self-discovery is foregrounded in the same way as The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles. Homecoming‘s biggest problems tend to involve the fetishism of the new Spidey suit’s technological features, but even those montages suggest that Parker is in danger of becoming Tony Stark. To Stark, and to the audience watching the film, that is a fate that a humble kid like Parker best avoid.



Baby Driver (2017)
August 14, 2017, 2:56 pm
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Director: Edgar Wright
4 Stars
Baby Driver.jpgDirector Edgar Wright is often praised for his precision with blocking and editing—in the Cornetto trilogy, his use of off-screen space, clever juxtapositions, and world-setting montages established him as one the few visually competent comedy directors working today. What many have failed to note, however, is Wright’s work with actors. In Baby Driver, gesture and character movement is as instrumental to the tone of the film as the editing patterns—Ansel Elgort is used as a handsome prop whose physicality and reactive timing both jives with the music and helps set the rhythm all on its own. For this reason, the gimmick that Baby Driver is relentlessly set to music feels almost incidental. Wright’s films, in terms of performance and visual style, already do feel rhythmic. Whereas music has a transformative effect on the pacing and emotional content of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, for example, Baby Driver is not so much redefined by its soundtrack as it is a complement to something that is already present.