Sean K. Cureton

Patti Cake$: Blue Collar Fever Dream

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on September 16, 2017 at 11:20 am
Patti Cake$

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Patti Cake$
Directed by Geremy Jasper
3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Patti Cake$ starts with a fever dream. Living a life of quiet desperation in Bayonne, New Jersey, Patricia Dombrowski – played by the fresh-faced Australian actor Danielle Macdonald – dreams of being an all-star MC. Christening herself Killa P, Dombrowski’s life is one filled with personal and economic toil and turmoil that tempers her otherworldly dreams against a stark reality. Forced to singlehandedly keep a roof over her own head – in addition to those of her boozing and promiscuous mother (Bridget Everett) and her terminally ill grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) – Patti dreams of being welcomed into an emerald paradise presided over by local hip hop legend O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah). Unfortunately for Patti, the local rap community is dominated by chauvinism, with her immediate contemporaries more than willing to denigrate her talents on the grounds of weight and gender.

Like many other independent features that takes place in New Jersey, Patti Cake$ is dominated by the pervasive shadow of New York. The local residents of Bayonne all might wish to trade in their blue collar despair for the bright lights of the Big Apple, and Patti is no different. Struggling to get by as a part-time party caterer, Patti spends the rest of her waking hours dreaming up new rap verses alongside her best friend and local pharmacist Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), listening to her favorite O-Z LP, and failing to impress anyone in the local rap scene. In its best moments, writer and director Geremy Jasper delivers a feature length debut that teems with the kind of optimism and ambition that feels more than perfectly suited to the likes of a character like Patti. In its lesser moments, Patti Cake$ stumbles over more than a few scenes and characters who blatantly serve to move the plot along an entirely predictable trajectory.

Early in the film, Patti takes a walk along the dilapidated streets of her economically impoverished Bayonne, NJ neighborhood. Thankfully, with her walkman in hand, O-Z playing on full blast through the headphones, and not a care in the world, she quickly ascends towards the emerald clouds of her favored fever dream, only to come hurtling back to earth when a car pulls up behind her and its driver breaks the spell of fantasy by spouting the noxious epithet “Dumbo.”It’s easy to see why Patti Cake$ was such a hit following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. After securing the attention of several prominent art house distributors – including Focus Features, Neon, The Orchard, and Annapurna Productions – Jasper’s mainstream debut found a home at Fox Searchlight Pictures. Joining the ranks of such indie blockbuster hits of yesteryear as Little Miss SunshineJuno, and the forthcoming awards season contender Battle of the Sexes, Patti Cake$ is on course to becoming another feel-good indie gem years after its initial theatrical run.

Jasper has really done something special in writing and directing Patti Cake$. Macdonald is a revelation as the young white MC from Bayonne, NJ, and with any luck Jasper’s film will soon join the ranks of such iconic New Jersey films as ClerksThe Station Agent, and Garden State. New York City looms large on the minds of many of the film’s characters, but the city’s shadow falls across the industrial sprawl of North Jersey in a way that serves to define the film’s specific regional tone. Setting out to track the cultural influence of hip hop, Patti Cake$ spits more than a few noteworthy verses. And Macdonald – who before the start of filming was entirely unfamiliar with how to rap – shines as the newly christened MC Patti Cake$ by film’s end, and in the film’s upbeat celebration of her talents it’s easy to become a fan of the fictional recording artist.

This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

 

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The Devil’s Candy: An Intersection of Genius, Madness & The Devil

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on September 2, 2017 at 10:37 am
The Devil's Candy

IFC Midnight

The Devil’s Candy (2017)
Directed by Sean Byrne
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

The Devil’s Candy sees Australian provocateur Sean Byrne fully coming into his own as a storyteller whose primary interests continue to aim towards the macabre. Evil forces pervade throughout Byrne’s latest film in ways that often veer towards the kind of morbidity made popular by Rob Zombie. The devil plays a central role in The Devil’s Candy, a satanic influence that can be keenly felt in the sheer terror that pervades throughout. But unlike House of 1000 Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects, Byrne spins a tale of demonic influences that never seeks to embrace its movie monster outright. Far from it, The Devil’s Candy builds its own scares in such a way that the viewer’s fascination with the evil contained therein proves self-reflective.

Crossing the intersection of genius and madness, Byrne seeks to find inspiration in the darkest parts of the human psyche, where a loss of control sometimes amounts to an artistic breakthrough. Unfortunately for central protagonist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), whose slavish devotion to an unseen force of primordial malevolence threatens to consume him and his family whole, that kind of fiendish obsession can prove all too alluring. Byrne directs scenes of terror with a visual aestheticism unmatched by most of his contemporaries, and in The Devil’s Candy, viewers are offered what is perhaps the most significant 21st century genre film since Zombie burst onto the scene in 2003. Like Zombie, Byrne‘s latest is unsettling on a subconscious level, wherein narrative logic gives way to viscerally shocking imagery and implied ideas that become fleshed out via the co-operation between the director and his audience.

In order to perfect their very own iconic family portrait reminiscent of Grant Wood’s early 20th century American masterwork, Jesse (Embry) and Astrid Hellman (Shiri Appleby) decide to purchase a house in rural Texas. Enamored with their new abode’s rustic integrity and backwoods isolation, Jesse immediately begins to set up his art studio in a repurposed barn. The only thing that stands in his way is the history of the estate’s previous tenants – who were viciously slaughtered by their troubled son (Pruitt Taylor Vince) acting at the behest of the Devil himself. Soon enough, the voice of the Devil begins to torment Jesse, whose commissioned piece of domestic tranquility is quickly turned into a pictorial representation of demonic prophecy concerning the mortal soul of his young daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco). Meanwhile, the troubled Ray Similie (Vince) makes his presence known and begins to commit the acts of murder that Jesse’s painting foretold.

Instead of devolving into the same kind of fatalism that so often plagues Zombie at his most heightened states of cinematic vitality, Byrne walks up to the same edge of moral depravity only to shock his audience into fully realizing the gross reality of his film’s transgressions. Unlike Zombie, Byrne manages to find a way out of the hellish furnace that he literally and figuratively places his characters into. Spiritually reminiscent of the late Tobe Hooper‘s cult-classic masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw MassacreThe Devil’s Candy reexamines the same regional well of inspiration only to find another movie monster possessed of a grotesque appetite for the human flesh, spirit, and soul. Following his debut film The Loved Ones from 2009, it will be exciting to see where Byrne will turn his attention next. Offering much more than the sum of its parts, The Devil’s Candy tells an American horror story that is ethereally tinged with a subtlety that often lends to frightening visions of presumed domesticity.

The Devil’s Candy is currently available on Netflix, 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.

A Ghost Story: An Egocentric Purgatory

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on August 12, 2017 at 11:22 am
A Ghost Story

A24

A Ghost Story
Directed by David Lowery
2 out of 4 stars

You get to know the two central protagonists in A Ghost Story over the course of an evening, except they’re not the only ones that the viewer is introduced to. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara lounge in one another’s arms only to be startled in the middle of the night by a spectral disturbance. They get out of bed, sheets draped around their unclothed bodies, and fail to determine what caused an errant noise to ring out. In the scene, Affleck lingers for a particularly long time beside a piano, before half-consciously returning to his slumber. The next morning, Affleck is killed in a car crash, and becomes the ghost he unknowingly met in the dark the night before.

Serving as the latest feature length film from writer and director David Lowery, A Ghost Story plays a melancholy song in several movements. Like any contemporary post-rock outfit, Lowery seeks to explore the relationship between time and space on a cosmic scale. Themes oscillate and obfuscate simple plot points, and hum drum exchanges and occurrences become laced with intimated meaning and profundity. Thanks to the film’s sparse technical prowess and quaintly applied letterboxed aspect ratio, A Ghost Story is predesigned to provoke deep thoughts from its viewers. Except a lot of this careful attention to detail leads to a lot of tone deaf choices that stubbornly refuse to allow Lowery’s balladry to reach a fitting crescendo.

Ostensibly seeking to explore what happens after we die, A Ghost Story treads familiar territory while implementing admittedly original visuals. Following Affleck around with a bed sheet draped over his body – with two eye holes cut out in front of his face like a creepy appropriation of a children’s Halloween costume – is emotionally disarming. What’s even more upsetting is when Affleck continues to linger in his martial home, even long after Mara has moved on with another man. There are brief moments that jarringly would have fit better in the latest Poltergeist rip-off, but by and large the simplistic gimmick that serves to set the tone works in A Ghost Story to Lowery’s credit. When it doesn’t, the effect can run the gamut from embarrassing to inappropriately hilarious.

 Towards the end of the second act – before Affleck returns home via a rift in space and time to meet himself on the eve of his mortal demise – Lowery greets the viewer with the most straightforward explanation of the film’s rhetorical intentions. Expounding upon the necessity of art to ensure that some small piece of us remains long after we die, the viewer is allowed audience to a longwinded oratory delivered by American singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Fueled by booze and the bacchanalian revelry of a great party winding down into the early hours of the morning, Billy’s diatribe falls on deaf ears. Ringing with the same bravado and self-conscious pretension that pervades throughout the rest of Lowery’s script, A Ghost Story can’t quite save itself from itself. It’s mildly heartening to hear the familiar strains of the song written by Affleck for Mara hummed by a young girl hundreds of years in the past – thus echoing Billy’s lament – though it would be undoubtedly more interesting if it felt like the song were being heard outside of the egocentric purgatory that Lowery has created for himself.