Sean K. Cureton

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.

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Juliet, Naked: Audiophiles In Love

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on September 9, 2018 at 9:50 am
Juliet, Naked

Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

Juliet, Naked
Directed by Jesse Peretz
3 out of 4 stars

Nick Hornby is no stranger to the obsessive pursuit of art for art’s sake, and Juliet, Naked serves as perhaps his greatest novel on the monomaniacal fervor involved in said chase. Perhaps most well known for penning the seminal 1995 everyman opus High Fidelity – which was famously adapted into the classic 2000 feature film starring John Cusack – the English author revels in the often one-sided love sustained by a fan for their artist. And their is the operative word, as is especially the case with Juliet, Naked, the new feature film adaptation from director Jesse Peretz (Girls). Centering around one man’s (Chris O’Dowd) infatuation with a reclusive alt-rock singer-songwriter (Ethan Hawke), and his neglected wife’s (Rose Byrne) surprising romantic tryst with said songsmith, Juliet, Naked  offers a more sober-eyed view of love than the weedy womanizer of High Fidelity could hope to entertain. When it comes to loving music, Hornby is the best, especially when his stories are as poetically insightful as this one.

Stranded in a coastal English town that holds little promise for her both personally and professionally, Byrne pines for a way out of her humdrum life and slavish devotion to a husband (O’Dowd) who is emotionally engaged to another man (Hawke). In the book and the film, Byrne’s character is exquisitely drawn, as is her husband’s music blog circa 2009. Delving into the early days of the internet when the possibilities for connection still seemed limitless and without the potential of becoming societally detrimental, Juliet, Naked recasts the record store clerk mentality of High Fidelity against a far more porous dividing line between the fan and the artist. The kind of obsession that drives the protagonist of High Fidelity towards isolated narcissism in the 1990s dissimilarly casts the love triangle in Juliet, Naked adrift in communal desperation. As a result, Juliet, Naked serves as a semi-sequel to the former film serendipitously separated by barely a decade.

The speed with which the internet held a megaphone to the mouths of the same kinds of malcontented dude bros like John Cusack in High Fidelity is vaguely discomfiting in Juliet, Naked. And O’Dowd nails the nebbish film and TV professor who would take to the blogosphere in the late 2000s to broadcast his feverish mania with cringe-worthy aplomb. Rather than being immediately seen as someone who genuinely loves the album, Juliet, Naked artfully gets at the nagging selfishness that online forums have since given rise to in the intervening decade since the novel’s initial publication. Hornby has always been one who leans heavily towards self-deprecation, and in Peretz’s hands that kind of self-conscious humor is tactfully turned into another winning cinematic comedy. Despite some roughness around the edges, Hawke, O’Dowd, and Byrne all play their respective roles to a tee, and Peretz has successfully adapted another Hornby novel about audiophiles in love.

Towards the half-way mark of Juliet, Naked, the three main characters share a tense dinner alone with one another. Over the course of the emotionally fraught meal, O’Dowd espouses various apocryphal theories and beliefs about his idol, and Hawke responds with a demure grimace that shortly turns into a sour scowl. But after being scolded for propagating the kind of invasive celebrity gossip that the internet is contemporaneously synonymous with, O’Dowd makes the assertion that art is for the beholder, and thanks Hawke for making something that he has enjoyed so very much. In a similar vein, Hornby holds some sway over anyone who read both Juliet, Naked and High Fidelity over the years, and continue to hold them in high personal regard. Perhaps a great record, or a good book, is left to the consumer alone to herald and celebrate, and the artist is merely meant to provoke enthusiasm as is the case in Juliet, Naked.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story: The Cult of Celebrity

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on August 25, 2018 at 9:24 am
Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Amazon Studios

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

First published in 2000 under the pseudonymn JT LeRoy by author Laura Albert, “Sarah” became a transgressive fiction literary sensation. After holding court with such seminal writers of the sub-genre such as Bruce Benderson and Dennis Cooper, the rising writer of American letters seemed destined for superstardom. Whisked away on the coattails of celebrities impressed with her abilities on the page, Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy become the queer it lit boy of a generation, despite himself being another work of fiction conjured up by Albert. Enter documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, whose impressive pedigree as a New Journalism auteur on such works as The Devil and Daniel Johnston from 2005, makes him the perfect candidate to tell Albert’s tumultuous tale of creative identities. In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Feuerzeig presents a convoluted story that’s stranger than fiction, as it occurred according to Albert, about a highly contentious and controversial spin on the intersection of celebrity, art, and genius.

Historically speaking, the entire legacy of JT LeRoy seemed destined to unravel. What began as an exercise in personal therapy undertaken over the phone by Albert with Dr. Terrence Owens had become an unprecedented literary sensation. LeRoy was an “avatar” that allowed Albert to express things that she wasn’t ready to own up to as herself, so instead she cast her androgynous sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to play the part for her in real life. And despite the legally questionable extent to which Albert operated under the public fiction that LeRoy was a person separate from herself, Feuerzeig manages to make her into an unsung hero throughout his film. Yet the entire film is dependent on Albert’s word over anyone else’s.

Citing several formative moments of emotional and physical abuse from her own childhood, Albert indirectly apologizes to anyone she might have hurt. As a director of her story, Feuerzeig leans back from dictating the nature in which Albert justifies and explains her own actions, however misguided and damaging they may be perceived.  In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Feuerzeig and Albert appear to believe that the work should stand on its own outside of the controversy surrounding the name JT LeRoy, however complicated the surrounding social and cultural context has become in retrospect. For them, the novel Sarah and the book of short stories The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things are permanent reminders of Albert’s prowess as a writer.

Thanks in no small part to Feuerzeig‘s impassive role as a spectator to Albert’s genius, sanity gives way to subtle madness, tragedy, and a very public humiliation, years after the initial controversy. Like his 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston did for its own titular singer-songwriter misfit of the 1980s, Author: The JT LeRoy Story manages to present its own pop cultural phenomenon according to his/her own terms. How much of the story anyone might believe is entirely up to the individual viewer’s discretion, as Laura Albert makes the case for the defense of JT LeRoy under the auspices of her own assumed genius and madness. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and nothing is more peculiar than the legacy of JT LeRoy ten years later. Regardless of how you feel coming away from Feuerzeig‘s controversial film, you’ll be hard pressed to forget Albert’s impressively articulated story anytime soon.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story 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.