Sean K. Cureton

The Discovery: Pondering the Afterlife

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 11, 2018 at 11:26 am
The Discovery


The Discovery (2017)
Directed by Charlie McDowell
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

Two-time director Charlie McDowell initially turned heads with his 2014 Sundance science-fiction drama The One I Love. That film’s legacy resumes in The Discovery, a Sundance follow-up that continues an ongoing thematic investigation into a philosophy of human intimacy jointly established by McDowell and returning screenwriter Justin Lader. Set in a world where the discovery of life after death has resulted in a worldwide suicide phenomenon, leading man Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) finds himself at the center of unraveling the mysteries of a universe that bears a passing resemblance to our own. Co-starring Robert Redford as Will’s troubled father and leader of a pseudo-cult of followers dedicated to continuing his research into the meaning and reality of a presumed hereafter, The Discovery offers a meditation on a whole swath of profound ideas and heady postulations that circuitously run circles around one another and themselves. And in the process, the faintest sliver of an emotional catharsis is reached at the farthest edges of the human psyche and mortal experience.

Instead of offering an easy answer to what happens after we die, The Discovery is far more concerned with solving the problems presented to us in our immediate waking realities. Winding throughout the film’s plot and script, instead of a morbid fascination with death, is an embrace of life and the people with whom we share it. When Will meets Isla (Rooney Mara) on a ferry at the beginning of the film, The Discovery introduces the idea of a romantic sub-plot that subsists at a subterraneous level of intellectual engagement. The possibility of finding love with another person becomes just as much of hindrance to emotional contentment as it is a spiritual necessity to our survival. Independent torment is thusly lessened by codependent comfort, provided each of us can get out of our own way long enough to meet the other person on a level playing field.

Even as McDowell and Lader refuse to reach any conventional kind of dramatic climax, The Discovery demands the viewer’s full attention and retention. Instead of explicitly laying out the foundations for a grand philosophy on human intimacy, The Discovery introduces a science-fiction premise whose opaque quality gives rise to further questions and a few self-supplied answers. The meaning of life and death are beguiling enough in their own complexity, but in The Discovery, love comes close to providing the footnotes necessary to interpret the former texts. The specifics of the narrative remain frustrating in their complexity, and the rest of the film does little to alleviate said confusion. But provided with the right mind set going in to watch the film for the first time, The Discovery is a movie that works on the same sub-conscious level of narrative logic previously employed by such art house fare as Synecdoche, New York and The Master.

There is plenty to love and hate about The Discovery, which will endear as many viewers to its meandering qualities as it will repulse many more from even entering its labyrinthine environs. McDowell and Lader provoke the viewer with a measured dose of self-importance in The Discovery, which leads to more than a few moments of stilted genre set pieces that ring with a clamorous din of preposterousness. Thankfully, Segel, Redford, and Mara–in addition to a supporting performance of exceptional resonance from Jesse Plemons (Fargo) – provide the human core of sentimental connection to The Discovery that the script alone could never achieve. The question of finding some happily ever after is denied at the end of The Discovery, but the acceptance of that reality results in a far more nuanced idea of a hypothetical heaven. The Discovery never quite comes together to form a cohesive whole fit to please general audiences, but in its unapologetic interrogation of a manufactured set of postulates, it entertains a philosophy worth interrogating beyond an initial viewing.

The Discovery is currently available on Netflix, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review was originally published by Audiences Everywhere



Halloween: Evil At Rest

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on October 28, 2018 at 3:34 pm

Universal Pictures

Directed by David Gordon Green
2 out of 4 stars

There are spare moments throughout Halloween, the most recent reboot of the classic 1978 horror property written and directed by John Carpenter, that remind viewers of why the original film is still so adored. Watching the ominous serial killer Michael Myers return home to Haddonfield, Illinois to stalk another fresh batch of unsuspecting victims on Halloween night makes for the very best cinematic throwback of the year. Aided by the likes of the unpredictable director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) behind the camera – in addition to an original screenplay co-written by Danny McBride (Vice Principals) – Halloween is lent a brand new coat of paint that provides a fresh new sheen following the release of the Rob Zombie led affairs from 2007 and 2009. Trading in Zombie’s penchant for domestic abuse and backwoods socio-pathology for Carpenter’s more reserved flair for unease and paranoia – all of which is aided in no small part by an all-new original score composed by the horror movie music maestro himself – Green’s Halloween  is a welcome change of pace for longtime fans of the series. And considering the famously convoluted mythology and continuity that has plagued the franchise ever since the release of the original Halloween II in 1981, that’s a welcome blessing.

But for all of the nostalgic fondness that the new Halloween holds for a legacy that it largely upholds, Green has turned in a mixed bag of seasonal goodies and treats. The Shape looks effectively aged and leeringly ominous in his slightly altered garb and updated Captain Kirk death mask, but he also moves with an intent of purpose that detracts from the central argument that the characters in the film itself continue to make, namely that Michael Myers is a force of impassive evil. If that were true, then the death count of the film would have been enacted with the same breathless tact that original actor Nick Castle took with character starting in 1978. Instead, Green’s rendition of Myers appears to revel in the goriness of his kills, and makes a decided point of sometimes posing the dead in garish displays to elicit fear in a series of seemingly predetermined victims. And at the head of the pack is Jamie Lee Curtis, back to reprise her role as Laurie Strode and put an end to the evil that began on October 31, 1978 in a climactic showdown that is meant to feel intentional despite the script’s attempts to keep its interrogation of impassive evil intact.

It’s fun enough to see a return to form for a series that has undergone so many reincarnations and reboots to comprehensively contemplate in short form. Furthermore, its doubly exciting to see a horror series as old and conventionally put together as Halloween continue to pack theaters and make a killing at the domestic box office over the course of its opening weekend some forty years after it first stalked its way into theaters. Fans of Michael Myers will likely be pleased with what could very well be another unofficial final chapter to the storied saga of The Shape, and the film itself closes with an emotional crescendo and poetic final shot that can’t be beat. The Shape and Laurie Strode continue to duel in a manic manner that thrills and titillates, while playfully paying homage to all of the duels that the two have engaged in in past films before. Carpenter’s seminal horror property has been given the facelift that it deserves, and the health of the franchise couldn’t be better for it.

But in leaving its evil at rest, Green also drags a lot of the good will that his film has going for it through the mud in a few too many moments of morbidity that appear to have bled over from the Rob Zombie directed films. The kills in the new Halloween are grisly and ultra violent, and are obviously meant to elicit excitement in the viewer instead of horror. Comparatively, Carpenter never took much enjoyment from the onscreen violence perpetrated by his movie monster. Instead, his film is marked for its eery atmosphere and haunting presence that continues to linger with viewers, leaving many of us looking over our shoulder on a nippy autumn afternoon stroll after mistaking some rustle of the grass for the presence of The Shape staring with cold intent after us. On that note, here’s to Michael Myers and the past, present, and future of the Halloween franchise.

Brad’s Status: On Lives Lived Online

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on September 15, 2018 at 10:15 am
Brad's Status

Amazon Studios/Annapurna Pictures

Brad’s Status (2017)
Directed by Mike White
VOD Rating: Liked It

Written and directed by Mike White – whose past screen credits include his work in writing the screenplay for School of Rock and developing the original HBO drama series Enlightened – Brad’s Status plays out with a lot of the same downtrodden melancholy that has become White‘s thematic staple. Ostensibly aiming to critique and satirize the acceleration of competitive impulses held between old friends as they are hyper-realized on social media, White has reached a level of accessibility that few of his other films have ever achieved. From tackling sticky subjects like hermaphrodites in Freaks and Geeks, to extrapolating on severe alienation and depression in Year of the Dog, White is never one to shy away from topics and people who might repel some viewers, which is exactly why Brad’s Status comes as something of a surprise. Serving as perhaps White‘s most optimistic film yet, Brad’s Status sees Ben Stiller cast in a lead role that feels slightly less misanthropic than viewers have come to expect. Coming off of the despairing turn from Laura Dern in Enlightened, Stiller plays a surrogate White with a striking affability that simultaneously buoys the film’s effect and detracts from the script’s dour defeatism.

Slowly over the course of the past ten years or so, social media hubs like Facebook and Twitter have reoriented the means by which we engage and interact with our peers, friends, and family. Friends now constitute anyone we might have met only briefly in casual and disposable settings, but are now vying for our attention and sympathy online or via text message. But worse than anything else, social media has given rise to a growing sadness, in general perpetuated by the pictures we paint of ourselves online. Brad’s Status gets at a lot of these fairly routine anxieties of the digital age in the late 2010s with some humor and a healthy dose of cynicism. While embarking on a college tour with his young son, Stiller‘s thoughts begin to turn sour when he thinks about the monetary largesse and notorious success of his old college pals, and the lack of forward momentum he sees reflected comparatively in his own life.

Compared to Michael Sheen– who plays a former White House insider and best-selling novelist – Stiller is made to feel less than in Brad’s Status. Worried that he took a wrong turn and might have done better if he had gone into banking in order to procure the funds sorely needed of his philanthropic aspirations, Stiller approaches Facebook like a troublesome spiritual tormentor. Yet his son is miraculously free of any familial anxieties. Determined to study music in college, Austin Abrams (Paper Towns) shines as the post-ironic Millennial to Stiller‘s modern Baby Boomer. Passing through the halls of Harvard University and Tufts with a self-assured swagger and competent demeanor, Stiller is forced to reassess all of his insecurities in order to reach the film’s oddly touching third act.

Regrettably, Brad’s Status is far too often broached with broad brush strokes that lack the kind of definition that made past Mike White films like Year of the Dog unforgettable exercises in heavy-heartedness. Oscillating between mild humor and navel-gazing pretension, Brad’s Status is a road movie about fathers and sons that sporadically lands when it stops taking everything so seriously. But by and large, White has done a laudable job in bringing Brad’s Status to the big screen, and casting Stiller in the lead role helps make the movie more approachable for general audiences. The script’s subject matter has been broached with far more subtlety and nuance elsewhere – see Ingrid Goes West  from the same year for just one recent example – thereby lessening the reward of actually watching the finished production. Yet there is something to be said for any movie that allows Stiller room to breathe uneasy, and as was the case with his starring role in Greenberg from 2010, Brad’s Status benefits from his everyman presence.

Brad’s Status is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.