Sean K. Cureton

La La Land: Daydream & Despair

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on January 7, 2017 at 1:18 pm
La La Land

Summit Entertainment

La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
3 out of 4 stars

Damien Chazelle is a clear frontrunner for the current awards season, and his sophomore feature length motion picture La La Land is an exceptionally effective Hollywood musical throwback. Brimming with bright lights, big dreams, and starring two of the greatest young talents working today, Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated drama Whiplash is a definitive crowd pleaser. Centering around the aspirations of two young artists in Los Angeles – one an aspiring starlet of the sliver screen, and the other a struggling jazz musician forced to play Christmas carols in a local tapas bar – La La Land blends childish daydream into a potpourri of waking despair offset by a number of willfully romantic musical compositions. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone manage to walk the high wire act of making a contemporary Hollywood musical that finds its way into the current pantheon of mainstream cinema. And despite its obvious self-indulgence, La La Land is a modest hit that might pave the way for even greater original musical movie productions in the near future.

Throughout Chazelle’s latest feature length endeavor, the director’s penchant for exploring the unwieldy capacities of jazz, both in terms of composition and performance, lends to a multitude of conflicting emotions and thematic idiosyncrasies that simultaneously vie for the viewer’s attention. As Sebastian Wilder, Gosling exudes a temperamental prickliness that erupts in spare moments of antagonism. Thankfully, Stone as Mia Dolan, aided by her character’s respective abundance of blind optimism, breaks through to the core of the movie’s overarching creative rebellion. Like the classic Hollywood drama Rebel Without a Cause that serves as an archetypal frame of reference for the two young lovers whirlwind affair, Sebastian and Mia seek artistic fulfillment in La La Land despite the odds, and emerge victorious by the grace of their respective talents alone. Los Angeles is a “City of Stars” in Sebastian and Mia’s eyes, even if the brightness of subjective ambition proves to bright for the dueling protagonists to see one another clearly and often enough.

Prior to La La Land, Whiplash saw Chazelle exploring the depths to which artists might lose themselves in the pursuit of technical mastery. In that film, Miles Teller plays the young jazz drummer Andrew Neiman as a monomaniacal sycophant to his own historical idols. Like Sebastian and Mia, Andrew shrugs off the affections of his father, extended family, and girlfriend for the cold embrace of his disciplinarian instructor. La La Land offers a few of the same bitter returns for its heroes, as Sebastian and Mia are forced to fall out of love with one another in order to reach the dazzling heights of celebrity and sub-cultural renown. Creativity is a double-edged sword in Chazelle’s hands, as its finely pointed aim consistently reaches its mark while obliterating all ancillary pleasures and desires in its single-minded pursuit.

La La Land may not offer the same kind of heartwarming narrative of the classic studio musical, but in our current day and age its cynical view of human nature feels more accurate in describing the guarded sympathies of 21st century Hollywood. Movies like Singin’ in the Rain and The Bandwagon from the 1950s allowed its heroes to fall and stay in love because they were made a by a culture that still strove to believe in the virtues of ethically binding monogamy. Over fifty years later, those same beliefs have become mere reminders of a retrospectively quaint philosophy, and monogamy a social stricture dictated by objective law alone. Sebastian and Mia are narcissistic performers dressed up like 1950s Hollywood musical players whose inability to find a happy ending together is the only logical conclusion that a movie like La La Land could reach in 2016. There is a lot of pain behind Gosling and Stone’s eyes in La La Land, but not much hope for a better future than the one they’ve blindly built in their own image.

Blue Jay: An Appeal to Anonymity

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on December 25, 2016 at 11:25 am
Blue Jay


Blue Jay (2016)
Directed by Alex Lehmann
VOD Rating: Liked It

Mark and Jay Duplass are among the more surprising Hollywood success stories of the past ten years. Following the release of their directorial debut The Puffy Chair in 2005, the Duplass brothers have managed to corner the market on the kind of twee, independent feature that was marketed throughout the early 2000s under the Mumblecore banner. But in the years since the likes of Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, and Greta Gerwig became bigger Hollywood names, the Duplass brothers have seemingly struck out even further from the call to becoming mainstream filmmakers. Swanberg and Shelton have experimented with bigger and bigger casts of late, and Gerwig has become a celebrity of un-diminishing notoriety. Meanwhile, Blue Jay sees the Duplass brothers making another movie for themselves that plays to their immediate audience at the risk of flying completely under the radar.

Directed by Alex Lehmann – a career camera operator best known for his work with Mark Duplass on the sports comedy series The League Blue Jay is the first feature film released under a multi-project deal between the Duplass brothers and Netflix. Following its theatrical premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, the new drama film quietly made its way online earlier this month. Co-starring Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson, Blue Jay is a meditative glance at two former high school sweethearts colliding into one another during a visit back home. Moving with the same slow-measured pace that has served to define the Duplass brothers’ work behind the camera for some ten years now, Lehmann’s directorial debut sees the Duplass brothers revisiting familiar territory with an abundance of sentimentality and emotion. It’s hard to go home, and in Blue Jay that particular nostalgic odyssey is evoked through two of the best film performances of the year.

Paulson turned heads earlier this year with her work on the original drama series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and has been attracting plenty of late career attention for her performances on multiple seasons of American Horror Story. But in Blue Jay she and Mark Duplass present what is perhaps the most compelling two-person drama of their respective careers. Blue Jay acts in the same way that Swanberg’s Netflix original series Easy did earlier this year in that it came completely out of left field in a media landscape otherwise dominated by Marvel Studios original series premieres and 1980s throwbacks like Stranger Things. But unlike Luke Cage, Blue Jay was released entirely without fanfare or a ubiquitous marketing campaign. Like Easy, Blue Jay exists and operates in a universe unto itself.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which saw initial theatrical release during the summer of 2012, is the biggest Duplass brothers production to date. If the two Mumblecore veterans were going to make it big with general audiences, a studio comedy starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon would be it. Yet general audiences continued to remain largely nonplussed-to-unaware of the Duplass brothers’ specific blend of quirky comedy and tragedy. In response, Blue Jay marks the first feature length effort from the filmmaking duo since the abrupt cancellation of their HBO series Togetherness, and like the latter Blue Jay sees the two filmmakers continuing to march to the beat of their own drums, popular appeal be damned. Blue Jay offers one of the most compelling tragicomedies of the past few years, and part of its appeal may very well reside in its own unobtrusive anonymity.  

Bue Jay is currently available on Netflix, and is my Movies on VOD: Review of the Week.

Moonlight: The Rhetoric of Empathy

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on December 3, 2016 at 1:01 pm


Directed by Barry Jenkins
3 out of 4 stars

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that challenges your preconceptions about the way you view the world; Moonlight is one of those films. Directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is one of the most memorable representations of American gender and racial division in recent years. Depicting the life of two sensitive, young Miami, Florida natives growing up in moderate poverty, Jenkins’ latest motion picture offers a sliver of hope for a country in a state of seemingly irreparable division and economic disparity. Over the course of three acts, the life story of one Chrion “Little” is told from the perspective of three generations of lead actors, all of whom provide the means for exploring identity in a state of transition. At the heart of Jenkins’ new film is a crisis of sexual identity and the forces of masculine anxiety that threaten to topple one man’s sense of self-worth as a black man.

Writing from the perspective of a white heterosexual male of moderate financial means makes coming to Moonlight an especially tricky endeavor. As a critic, it begins to feel like a means of cultural appropriation to even begin to exchange one’s own social experience for that of Chiron’s in Moonlight. Thankfully, Jenkins doesn’t ever demand that one experience the acts depicted in Moonlight as a strictly dramatic exercise. Instead, Moonlight offers an elegiac meditation on the passions of his lead protagonists that provides the opening rhetorical flourishes for empathy instead of a conclusive argument. In the theater that I saw the film, I was left stunned by the film’s moving third act that sees a much older Chiron – played by Trevante Rhodes – embrace his childhood friend and confidante – played by André Holland – in a state of cathartic reunion and self-realization; meanwhile, a whole row of old white woman in the back of the theater didn’t know how to react or whether the experiences depicted on screen were true to real life.

There has been a rising trend in recent years that has called for the inclusion of more directorial voices in American filmmaking in terms of both gender and racial ethnicity. As a rallying cry, diversity on the big screen is a worthy one that demands to be heard now more than ever. Based on an original story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins’ Moonlight gives voice to two distinct minority voices by way of a singular narrative experience. The story of Chiron “Little” – from his time spent as a picked upon young boy, to his years as a brutally bullied teenager, and finally as a hardened street thug adult – is shockingly different from most other mainstream movie success stories. Not only is Moonlight an enveloping interrogation of queer love, but also simultaneously gives voice and representation to an entire American community otherwise invisible to the very same row of old white women left questioning the veracity of the lives represented on screen at the end of the screening I attended.

It has become apparent over the course of the past few months that we as Americans no longer know our neighbors. We wave hello to the kindly old lady across the street, and respond cordially to the requests of our co-workers and friends, but we never stop to discuss our own lives, fears, and hopes for the future. Moonlight, among many other things, accomplishes the feat of representing this form of personal dishonesty to one another and our-selves with moving compassion, empathy, and understanding. The pejorative other in society has become the scapegoat for avoiding true community, but films like Jenkins’ light the way towards a potential path out of the darkness of narcissism. We can only hope that more directors of color and differing sexual identities will be allowed to come forward and encouraged to tell their own story of an all-inclusive American dream.