Sean K. Cureton

Logan: A Bittersweet Ode

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on March 18, 2017 at 11:07 am
Logan

20th Century Fox

Logan
Directed by James Mangold
3 out of 4 stars

Hugh Jackman is among the most notable screen actors of the past twenty years, and a lot of that appeal has to do with his starring role in the X-Men feature franchise. After teaming up with Bryan Singer at the dawn of the 21st century in the making of the first installment in the series, Jackman has become iconoclastically equated with the bulking, bruising, side burn sporting superhero, Wolverine. Over the course of eight theatrical releases, the infamous Canadian anti-hero has leaped from the comic book panels that gave him birth only to find a whole new life as the marketing centerpiece of a wildly lucrative action blockbuster property. Aided by supporting performances from Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, Jackman has taken what his character derisively calls, “Ice cream for bedwetters,” and turned it into a bastion of hope and integrity for millions of superhero fans and devoted moviegoers. And with Logan – which is primed to feature the final onscreen performance from Jackman as the titular protagonist – that legacy sees itself eulogizing its own cultural significance.

Focusing on an aging James “Logan” Howlett eking out a meager existence in hermitic isolation while caring for a severely disabled Professor Charles Xavier, director James Mangold makes good on a lot of the promise previously entertained in his The Wolverine from 2013. Granted, a lot of the onscreen action, mayhem, and R-rated carnage depicted in Logan is beholden to a lot of the same frenetic incoherence that has plagued big budget superhero movies in general. Thankfully, the rest of the movie is rooted in a whole set of understated lead performances from Jackman, Stewart, and newcomer Stephen Merchant – in addition to the scene stealing supporting turn from child actor Dafne Keen as the young mutant-on-the-run, Laura. Living in a world where mutants have largely become an extinct sub-species whose vitality has been scrubbed out by an anti-mutant, genocidal temperament beholden to the world at large, Wolverine is forced to grapple with the idea that maybe mutants were, “God’s mistake,” and not the next stage in human evolution. This kind of grandiose melancholy persists throughout Jackman’s final big screen turn as Wolverine, and turns Logan into the bittersweet ode to the character’s undying popularity that fans are sure to adore.

Yet a lot of the fan service to the franchise begins to ring a little hollow after the first two acts of the film are over. Once Stewart is killed – in an unceremonious and callously brutal manner, at that – Jackman and Keen are left to their own devices to rebuild their world out of the very same wild flights of fantasy that have propelled the X-Men movies thus far. Except in Logan the comic books upon which the prior movies in the series have been based are revealed to be the very same kinds of romantic fictions that moviegoers have always known them to be. Thematically dissonant and irreverent towards any sense of continuity with what has come before in movies past starring Jackman as Wolverine, Logan uncomfortably seeks to establish new territory for itself at the very fringes of the likes of last summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse. If you want to go along for the ride, you’ll undoubtedly have a good time, but it’s hard to come away from Logan without admitting to yourself that perhaps the underlying drama might have been better served by a PG-13 rating.

Jackman is a Hollywood icon, and his tenure as Wolverine in the X-Men feature franchise will likely continue to influence subsequent films in the series. As a tentative final chapter to the story of Weapon X on the big screen, Logan manages to wed sentimentalism to an action blockbuster that largely succeeds as far as pleasing its immediate audience is concerned. There have been better movie in the series, and likely more will follow – good and bad – but Logan will undoubtedly remain a high water mark for subsequent productions to look up to for some time to come. But for all of its bluster and mature themes shuffling towards annihilation and death, Logan is another predictable chapter in the larger superhero phenomenon that shows no signs of stopping or taking itself less seriously. That approach works well enough for Jackman in Logan, but it will be disappointing when more filmmakers inevitably begin to further grossly misappropriate the same tone in even more movies starring super-powered men and women in tights.

David Brent: Life on the Road: He’s Back

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on February 25, 2017 at 12:55 pm
David Brent: Life on the Road

Entertainment One

David Brent: Life on the Road (2017)
Directed by Ricky Gervais
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

Based in part on the cult-classic mockumentary comedy series The Office – as originally cast, produced, and broadcast on BBC Two from 2001 to 2003 – David Brent has become something of an icon to many a disaffected white collar worker. Prior to NBC adapting the series to a fit a softer, more romantically idealistic demographic in the United States, lead performer and prolific series creator Ricky Gervais personified the worst boss on television. Stereotypically buffoonish, Brent’s antics could range anywhere from the banal to the offensive, leaving a wake of justifiably miffed-to-outraged employees in his tyrannical wake. On The Office, poor middle management resulted in a deluge of painfully rendered moments of unmitigated human callousness, and the joke was often placed on the head of the comically oblivious Brent. When the show made its way to American audiences, some of that harsh realism was surrendered over to a cast of performers possessed with an innate sense of empathetic camaraderie, though Brent’s obtrusive shadow continued to cast an influential shadow on the franchise.

Ten and a half years later, David Brent: Life on the Road seeks to revisit Gervais as Brent to see where life has taken the social malcontent since his starring turn on the original The Office. Picking up where the original BBC sitcom left off, viewers find Brent demoted to a position of a local sales representative for yet another mid-size, non-descript corporation. The moments that find Brent being alternatively abused and coddled by his co-workers make for some of the best moments of the film, and ultimately serve as a launching pad for one of the funniest road movies since This Is Spinal Tap. Disillusioned by a waking life dominated by the demeaning nature of his job, Brent pools all of his money into a last ditch effort to become the rock and roll icon that he has always dreamed of being. Predictably, his self-funded tour is a bust, his hired session musicians don’t want to have anything to do with him, and his only friend and reluctant confidant is constantly overshadowed by Brent’s narcissistic ego.

Many fans of The Office will undoubtedly remember Brent’s penchant for reminiscing about his halcyon days spent as the front man of a band. Recursively recalling that solipsistic fantasy, David Brent: Life on the Road establishes itself as a spin-off to the former series while capitalizing predominantly on Brent’s appeal to a wider audience. It’s always fun to watch an idiot behave stupidly, and Brent has always been a comic character capable of that feat in spades. Accordingly, Brent’s invasive personality constantly finds its way to the center of numerous moments of tension alleviated by the inspired nuances of Gervais’ performance and writing. Instead of merely catering to the most devoted fans of the character, David Brent: Life on the Road operates on its own terms and may be seen as a piece of narrative entirely separate from The Office.

There is plenty of interpersonal confrontation to go around throughout David Brent: Life on the Road, and if you were a fan of the antagonistic aesthetic of the original The Office, there’s plenty more of that sort of comedy to be found in Gervais’ latest theatrical outing. But what many might be surprised by is how emotionally cutting a lot of the comedy insists on being. Brent has always been an ass, but in David Brent: Life on the Road Gervais brings all of the empathy that he miraculously conjured up in his underrated mockumentary series Derek to a bear on a character study that reveals more about Brent than even the most devoted fan could have possibly imagined. Going into the movie, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone expecting to sympathize with Brent’s plight, but by the end of the movie it’s hard not to get a little emotional about the titular misanthrope’s unexpected emotional longings. Like Christopher Guest, Gervais has come a long way in regards to how he approaches the mockumentary sub-genre, and David Brent: Life on the Road might be his most sympathetic comedy yet.

David Brent: Life on the Road is currently available on Netflix, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Paterson: Rhyme, Meter, & Verse

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on February 4, 2017 at 11:39 am
Paterson

Amazon Studios

Paterson
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
3 out of 4 stars

Jim Jarmusch has always been a filmmaker who has made movies on his own terms. Heralded for his early work in black and white, including his directorial debut Permanent Vacation, it’s immediate follow-up Stranger Than Paradise, and Down by Law, Jarmusch is a filmmaker who revels in the mundane and the eccentric. His filmography is peppered with big name Hollywood talent and countercultural icons alike, with turns from the likes of Bill Murray and several key members of the Wu-Tang Clan frequently occupying the same narrative space. In later works like Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch has toyed with broader ideas and conceits, but it will be for his smaller works populated by stranger characters like Night on Earth and Coffee and Cigarettes that most cinephiles will continue to refer to him. Continuing in that tradition, Paterson sees Jarmsuch at his most laid back, self-reflective, and concerned with the tedium of day-to-day life.

On first glance, Paterson is a far more intellectual exercise than many viewers might have been anticipating. Despite running behind a theatrical trailer that made Paterson out to be a feel good romantic comedy, the actual film is devoid of much in the way of volatile activity or inactivity. As a NJ Transit bus driver and aspiring poet named Paterson, living in Paterson, NJ, who habitually reads Paterson as written by the late resident poet William Carlos Williams, the circuitous nature of the film’s thematic tone can be a little inaccessible. And the means by which Jarmusch constructs drama out of the banal can be frustrating. For the greater part of the movie’s 120 minute runtime, nothing really happens and the viewer is left in a state of peace, calm, and tranquility that is a true rarity in a day and age where big budget blockbusters rein a schizophrenic assault on the senses of the contemporary moviegoer.

But within Paterson there is a visual attention given to detailing every minute facet and vagary that is a welcome respite for those looking for something more mindful of humanitarian interests. If you’re willing to indulge Jarmusch and the rest of his cast and crew in the telling of an essentially anti-dramatic tone poem, than chances are you’ll find yourself loving Paterson despite yourself. The movie proceeds with a languid pace that feels too slow in certain moments, and not slow enough in others, and before you know it lead actor Adam Driver has become the conduit of human emotion and poetry. It’s easy to begin losing yourself in the hyper-reality of Jarmusch’s carefully articulated romanticism, and you begin to feel at home in Paterson to an extent that is unusual for most films. Paterson sets out to evoke the structure of poetry in terms of content, theme, and structure, and succeeds on all three counts.

At the heart of Paterson, beyond its lackadaisical pace and absence of any real source of tension, anxiety, or conflict, Driver delivers one of the most heartwarming lead roles from the past year. It’s unlikely that many will be willing to go along for what is an undoubtedly inconsequential ride through the dilapidated urban sprawl of Jarmusch’s imagination, but for those that do there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Instead of offering a true dramatic climax, towards the final quarter of the film a string of small moments between the many characters that make up the world of Paterson occur that provide a minor sense of catharsis. A jilted Romeo questions the point of the universe without love, Paterson’s girlfriend finds success at a local farmer’s market, and another poet makes a brief appearance signifying the spiritual renewal to be found through creativity in the face of even the most devastating of personal setbacks. Paterson, in its unassuming non-demands on the viewer’s attention, casts a spell on those willing to give in to its idiosyncratic spirit and be swept up in its communally minded rhyme scheme, meter, and verse.