Sean K. Cureton

Zoom: A Fractured Comedy On Self-Identity

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on February 2, 2019 at 11:54 am

Screen Media Films

Zoom (2016)
Directed by Pedro Morelli
VOD Rating: Liked It

From up-and-coming director Pedro Morelli and first-time screenwriter Matt Hansen, Zoom is a fascinating fantasy about artistic identity. Tracking the lives of three central protagonists, Morelli miraculously creates a strange, circuitous world wherein everything is connected. Despite seemingly existing within the confines of each other’s imaginative works of fiction, comic book artist Emma Boyle (Alison Pill), movie director Edward Deacon (Gael García Bernal), and aspiring novelist Michelle (Mariana Ximenes) soon bleed into each other’s codependent realities. A self-professed admirer of the work of Charlie Kaufman, Morelli‘s film works on some of the same levels of subjective realism and solipsistic daydream. Like Adaptation or Synecdoche, New York, Zoom artfully depicts the interiority of the artistic mind in pursuit of an individually imagined human ideal.

At the beginning of Zoom, comic book artist Emma Boyle (Alison Pill) is introduced within the stifling environs of her day job as a sex doll manufacturer. Complimented by her earnest, albeit doughy and sophomoric, boyfriend Bob (Tyler Labine), Emma’s life is one of compromised artistic ambition and personal fulfillment. So begins Emma’s story, one that examines objective beauty set against subjective self-worth, as illustrated via several layers of artistic reinvention. After being frustrated by her own apparent beauty as seen by other people, Emma vents all of her anguish into her creation of Edward Deacon (Bernal), an adonis film director made in her own image of what she imagines to be the perfect man. But little does Emma know that within the panels of her latest graphic novel lies another layer of her fabricated self; enter Michelle (Ximenes), who simultaneously serves as the subject of Edward’s directorial vision and the architect of Emma’s own neurosis.

Keeping Morelli‘s aesthetic and narrative debts to the works of Charlie Kaufman in mind, Zoom might be seen as something of an offshoot from the latter filmmaker’s indelible impression on the landscape of independent filmmaking. Morelli obviously loves the ways in which Kaufman is able to examine artistic identity and self-consciousness through various meta-fictional conceits. Borrowing heavily from such a postmodern filmmaking standard, Zoom flirts with a lot of Kaufman-like feats of cinematic surrealism and existential ambiguity. Seen striving towards various romantic ideals of self, perpetuated by such socially propagated traps as body image and sexual anxiety, Morelli‘s characters set about recasting their own lives against that of one another’s throughout what proves to be a complicated and convoluted comedy. Finally, when the worlds of Emma (Pill), Edward (Bernal), and Michelle (Ximenes) collide, and each depiction of their respectively idealized selves is forced to look at one another, Morelli grants the viewer cataclysmic absolution.

Zoom concludes in a state of apparent indecision in keeping with much of the narrative’s incessant grapplings with self-identity dictated by social revisionism and personal insecurity. Emma, Edward, and Michelle can’t quite seem to reach an absolute conception of self on their own independent volitions, though in one final collaborative effort briefly intimated the three fractured selves might yet finally merge into one entirely realized idea of human imperfection. Human perfectionism is made imperfect in practice throughout Zoom, thanks in no small part to Morelli’s indelible comedic taste and compassion for his tumultuously conflicted protagonists. Even when Zoom falls a little short in terms of offering a conclusive ending to its overly complicated and interconnected narrative threads, Morelli and Hansen offer a filmed comedy about artistic representations of self-identity that offers emotional catharsis for its characters and viewers. There is no easy answer to how one goes about achieving satisfaction with one’s self and work in Morelli‘s film, but there is thankfully no shortage of uproariously heartfelt moments of acceptance in the face of human imperfection.

Zoom 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


Black Mirror: Bandersnatch: Agency & Illusion

In Movie Reviews: 2018 on December 29, 2018 at 12:14 pm
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch


Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Directed by David Slade
3 out of 4 stars

The latest iteration of Black Mirror – the now seminal Twilight Zone-esque update for the digital age of smart phones, tablets, and super computers –  comes in the form of a choose-your-own-adventure interactive feature. Directed by returning series collaborator David Slade (“Metalhead”) and written by program creator Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch takes fans of the show on a variegated journey of the mind. Centering around the chief exploits of young programmer Stefan Butler – played to great aplomb by breakthrough lead actor Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) – Bandersnatch attempts to explore the notion of whether any one of us are really in control of our own actions. While struggling to break-into the 1980s era video game industry with his own adaptation and interpretation of the fictional sci-fi epic Bandersnatch, Whitehead is quickly ensnared by his own demons within a maze of his own design and someone else’s. Worse yet, his own life begins to mirror that of his enigmatic muse Jerome F. Davies, while every choice he makes begins to feel as though it has been chosen for him by someone or something beyond his own control.

Grappling with how best to provide the illusion of agency in preprogrammed narrative pathways in adventure video games has become an ever more subtle art of the industry of late. Most notably, former developer Telltale Games made great strides with the formula via titles such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, wherein players’ choices minutely affected spare moments of moral and emotional intrigue within a story that had already been written. Likewise, Slade and Brooker have managed to mimic that illusion of agency for viewers with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, which allows Netflix users to stream their interactive feature film with multiple endings and numerous choices that effect the lives of the characters within it. Yet even Bandersnatch can’t quite overcome the trappings of its script in order to deliver an entirely autonomous viewer experience. But perhaps that’s the entire point.

Sitting smack dab at the center of Bandersnatch is Will Poulter (Detroit) as video game mastermind Colin Ritman, who surreptitiously narrates and dictates Whitehead’s professional and creative ambition, in addition to the choices that the viewer is prompted to make. Played off like a sly bohemian intellectual/conspiracy theorist, Poulter steals the show away from Whitehead in a play for the viewer’s attention and understanding of the implications of choice in games and life. Extrapolating on the illusion of agency in the real world in a second act speech that is immediately enthralling in its reminiscence of past sci-fi philosophizing features like the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix trilogy, Poulter urges viewers to be dubious of the agency that they hold at the tips of their fingers in altering the trajectory of the film that they are supposedly controlling. Every choice made over the course of Bandersnatch may lead to one end, but as extolled by Poulter, the choice to try again is always there as well. Ready player, or viewer, one.

Beyond the immediacy of the film’s narrative and experimental interactivity, Bandersnatch does present a perplexing dilemma for filmmaking as a whole. Depending on how well the new feature performs, Netflix and other major streaming services may begin to opt for interactive narratives over traditional movies when producing their own original content in the future. It would be doubly fascinating to see if the trend takes off outside of an online format, where it would seemingly be even more difficult to make the technology that stands behind Bandersnatch appear as familiar as traditional network and cable broadcasts. By and large,  Bandersnatch works well enough as a Netflix experiment, especially when the nature of the platform enters into the film’s narrative in a cheeky, fourth wall breaking moment in the midst of the film’s tumultuous third act. The competing notions of agency and illusion in video games is granted stunning clarity by Slade and Brooker in Bandersnatch, even if the production as a whole feels a little too outsized for its own ambition.

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