Sean K. Cureton

Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

Recommendation of the Week: Blue Valentine (2010)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on May 29, 2013 at 5:59 pm

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Blue Valentine (2010)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 Oscar nominated motion picture Blue Valentine is one of those it’s-so-good-and-it-has-Oscar-buzz-so-I-dare-you-not-to-like-it movies. This is not to say, however, that Blue Valentine is an overrated or an over praised film. On the contrary, Cianfrance’s tale of modern love, filled to the brim with erotic narcissism and caustic dialogue, tinged with over tones of impending doom and inevitable despair, is quiet good in terms of cinematography, writing, and the first-rate performances from the film’s two leading actors, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Blue Valentine is ambitious in terms of its thematic and cinematic scope, but never outgrows the boundaries of its narrative or its audience’s attention. Nevertheless, it feels as though it is a story that can only hope to maintain its audience’s attention for one viewing, keeping it from becoming a timeless classic meant to be returned to for multiple viewings wherein more is revealed about Cianfrance’s artistic intentions. Blue Valentine is a story of love won and lost, and a film seen but probably not pursued beyond an initial viewing.

Regardless of the film’s static scope of artistic ambition, Cianfrance’s film should undoubtedly by seen at least once by anyone interested in masterful cinematic storytelling. The true beauty of the film comes in Cianfrance’s raw and realistic portraiture of love between its two heroes, the stubbornly dashing Dean (Gosling) and the mysteriously seductive Cindy (Williams). The sprawling and impressive intimacy portrayed on the screen through Cianfrance’s subtle script, coupled with the dramatic intensity of Gosling’s and Williams’ performances, follows the relationship between Dean and Cindy over the years, charting each high while simultaneously predicting its climactic dissolution with each close up and terse scrap of dialogue. The viewer is never at ease during the course of the film, never able to enjoy the brief glimpses of love offered in the scenes of the couple’s initial courtship. Due to the established tone from the start of the film, wherein Dean and Cindy seem to be stepping on each other’s toes and testing each other’s patience to the point of outright vindictiveness, divorce is expected, anticipated, and a relief when it finally comes with the film’s final shot.

What’s more, the impact and impression that Blue Valentine leaves embedded deep within the viewer’s psyche after seeing the film is all the more impressive and troubling in that the film does not place blame on either one of its two heroes. Dean may be stubborn and unyielding to Cindy’s appeals for ambition in his own character, and Cindy may at times come off as cold and domineering in the face of her husband’s romantic charm, but neither one of these characters comes off as a villain in Cianfrance’s eyes. Instead, Blue Valentine shifts the blame to the recklessness of love itself, destructive and irrational in all of its deceptive beauty and idealistic promises. Cianfrance doesn’t offer a solution for the couple beyond separation and a forfeiture on the part of his two heroes, suggesting an inherent inadequacy in our own anticipations of love and intimacy, which might be why it is so hard to contemplate viewing the film a second time. Yet, like love, the aesthetic perfection of our own ideals, which mirror those of the heroes in the film, haunt us still, regardless of whether we choose to watch the film again.

Blue Valentine is a stunning achievement, and worthy of all the praise it has already been lauded since it was released in 2010. Gosling and Williams shine in the awful reality of their characters, performed with the highest sense of realism and emotional honesty and vulnerability. Derek Cianfrance is likewise a true auteur, whose future projects should be watched and anticipated with eagerness and awe. Cianfrance has proved his abilities on a small scale with Blue Valentine, promising an even greater impact to be felt from any thematically broader films he may release in the future.

Blue Valentine is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

A Fun Piece of Star Trek Fan Fiction from a Non-Trekkie

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on May 28, 2013 at 11:57 am

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Star Trek Into Darkness
Directed by J.J. Abrams
3 out of 4 stars

Star Trek Into Darkness is the second installment in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek Universe, which doesn’t count for much if you consider yourself a fan of the existential sci-fi found in the original television series of the 1960’s. Abrams, who made his first entrance into the canon of Trek with 2009’s Star Trek, is not a “Trekkie.” Abrams has always been more of a Star Wars fan, and as such prefers explosions and over the top CGI to character development and psychological realism. It is therefore unthinkable as to why Abrams would have taken on the task of revamping Star Trek for a new generation of viewers in the first place. Nevertheless, 2009’s Star Trek does exist in all of its simplified glory and hyper-sexualized veneer, masking the underlying fact that Abrams’ Star Trek is not really Trek at all.

The disappointments that can be found so abundantly in Abrams’ first installment in his new Star Trek series are still present in Into Darkness, but this time around there is also a lot to love for even the most fanatic “Trekkie,” still waiting for a call from Starfleet to take him away from the confines of his mother’s basement. Star Trek Into Darkness is still as exciting and action packed as Star Wars, but is allowed more time and space to develop the established characters from the original series in a way that feels more truthful to Gene Roddenberry’s philosophical intentions. In this installment in the Abrams ‘Verse, Spock’s duality as both the robotic Vulcan and the emotional Human is given more time to grow, creating space for a discussion of pain and the logic and reasoning behind such an emotion’s repression or expression. Additionally, characters such as Scottie (Simon Pegg), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Bones (Karl Urban) are able to more fully embody their roles, with the actors really breathing life into their characters in a way that was only hinted at in the 2009 film. Where Abrams’ first film felt like a self-indulgent entrance into the Star Trek canon, Into Darkness feels like a true starting point for this new series that is both respectful of the original series while expanding upon it with the added flourishes of an individual director’s sensibilities.

Unfortunately, not all is well with Star Trek Into Darkness, as might be expected with any film written and produced by the likes of Damon Lindelof. The film’s main villain, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, suffers from the fact that he has been severely underwritten. Instead of being a multi-faceted individual with logically sound arguments and ideals of his own, Cumberbatch’s Khan is reduced to the familiar territory of the revenge plot, wherein everything he does is sufficiently sinister only to the point of an established personal vendetta. Abrams’ Khan thus follows in the steps of Nero (Eric Bana) from 2009’s Star Trek, who was likewise played with a villainous relish that was unfortunately lacking in any underlying substance aside from pure and unadulterated evil. To make matters worse, the rationale of much of the film’s plot is passed over rather quickly, leaving the viewer with only a bare bones understanding of each character’s motivations and the far-reaching implications of their actions. Such an inattention to pacing and narrative clarity is par for course with Abrams and his collaborator Lindelof, but it is unfortunate to see said issue persist in what is otherwise a great film.

Nevertheless, flimsy villains and narrative pacing aside, Star Trek Into Darkness is well worth your time, and stands up to the established Star Trek canon in a way that even Abrams himself could never have anticipated to achieve as a “Non-Trekkie.” Into Darkness is great fun, and offers the kind of depth and insight into its iconic characters that 2009’s Star Trek glossed over, with all of its sleek special effects and youthful vibrancy on display as a poor substitute. While there is still plenty of room for improvement in the Abrams ‘Verse, there is also, thankfully, plenty to enjoy that is not clouded over by Abrams’ penchant for CGI action sequences or Lindelof’s tendency for faux-intellectualized inscrutability. Star Trek Into Darkness is a really fun installment in the Star Trek canon, leaving the viewer in a state of eager anticipation for the next installment in the series.

Review of the Week: Bully (2011)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on May 17, 2013 at 11:10 am

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Bully (2011)
Directed by Lee Hirsch
Netflix Rating: Didn’t Like It

Bully is a documentary directed by Lee Hirsch meant to raise awareness about the state of bullied children in American schools. While trying to get the film released to a wide audience, Hirsch encountered significant difficulties in acquiring a PG-13 rating, leading to an allegiance with Harvey Weinstein who decided to release the film unrated in protest of the MPAA’s decision to give the film an R rating. Ultimately, Hirsch had hoped that his film would reach a wide audience, including young students in middle and high schools, in order to instigate a much larger change in how American school administrators address the problem of bullying in their schools. All of this is fine, and a more than worthy task for any documentary filmmaker hoping to expose an ugly truth hidden in plain sight. It’s just too bad that Hirsch’s film lacks any true solution to the problem he exposes so masterfully; instead of being a pointed criticism and address of how to solve the bullying problem, Bully becomes unbearable to watch due to the graphic nature of its content as well as a lack of catharsis in the film’s narrative.

Over the course of Hirsch’s film, Hirsch follows the lives of five specific bullied children. Of those five, two are dead, one is the poster child of all bullied children (glasses and an odd physical appearance), one is a lesbian living in a backwoods, Bible thumping town, and the other is a young African American girl who has been put in a juvenile detention center after lashing out against her aggressors with a gun. While the viewer is obviously meant to feel sympathy and pain for the troubles inflicted on these young kids, there is also the distinct sense that their case can’t and won’t be helped, even by Hirsch’s film. For the three children examined who are alive, their cases can only be solved by leaving their hometowns in search of an new school or town that is more accepting of their personalities. Indeed, the young lesbian, named Kelby Johnson, decides with her family by the film’s end to move somewhere else, and by doing so is the only subject in Hirsch’s film granted any hope of a solution to her problem. In leaving the confines of Hirsch’s documented environments of ignorant oppression and inescapable torment, Kelby offers the only viable option, as far as the fabric of the film is concerned, of ending the bullying she has been the victim of.

Obviously, Hirsch meant for his film to open up doors of escape that were not confined simply to leaving the site of torment. Furthermore, Hirsch shows through the various towns and schools that he visits that the state of bullying in the US is the same everywhere (or at least in the Midwest), with school officials smiling through their teeth at harried parents of bullied children, remaining determined to not do a thing about the problem beyond “talking” to a few of the troubled children. Even after the deaths of the two dead subjects in Hirsch’s film, the stagnancy of public discussion facilitated by school boards continues, as well as a grassroots campaign which, while nice in theory, rarely accomplishes anything beyond raising a few heads within one close knit group of like minded individuals. Hirsch’s documentation of such efforts is ultimately as futile and redundant as the amount of times that such efforts have been attempted before he and his film crew arrived at his chosen sites of torment.

It’s obvious that Hirsch was trying to examine a very real problem in American schools, and the finished film shows a deep and informed understanding of the various facets of said problem. Unfortunately, Hirsch, like many of the parents interviewed over the course of the film, doesn’t have any answers or solutions for his subjects or his audience; he’s just angry and wants the viewer to know why. Bully might be as truthful a documentary as you can find, but the fact that it never leaves its position of self-righteous indignation and wallowing self pity poses a problem in terms of creating a fully realized film, with a beginning, middle, and end. Hirsch’s film remains an admirable effort at trying to combat bullying in American schools, but falls flat in terms of execution and an identifiable and coherent conclusion.

Bully is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week

Recommendation of the Week: The Vicious Kind (2009)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on May 16, 2013 at 2:21 pm

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The Vicious Kind (2009)
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

The Vicious Kind is one of those diamond in the rough indie gems that was premiered at Sundance Film Festival, went on to win a few awards within the independent film circuit, but never reached a wider audience. Such a fact is unfortunate, as Lee Toland Krieger’s 2009 feature film is one of the most powerful and realistically drawn portraitures of modern patriarchal misogyny in 21st century cinema. Krieger’s film is expertly written, offering a glimpse into the tortured soul of its protagonist Caleb Sinclaire (Adam Scott), a man whose claim from the very start of the film is that all women are whores. What separates Krieger’s film from over indulgence and heady intellectualism is Scott’s performance, which is so emotionally raw and vulnerable that the film’s themes never feel too overtly pretentious or false. The Vicious Kind is honest in its portrayal of Caleb, damning his abusive behavior towards his brother’s new girlfriend Emma Gainsborough (Brittany Snow) while retaining sympathy for his underlying humanity.

From the very first shot of Krieger’s film, the viewer is allowed a glimpse into the mind of a character that should be completely despicable and ugly, and yet retains some shred of nobility through his own sense of existential anguish. In this first shot, we are allowed a close up of Caleb’s face as he waits in a diner for the arrival of his younger brother Peter Sinclaire (Alex Frost). In this shot, we see tears begin to surface in the eyes of Caleb, which is about as close as we ever get to seeing Caleb with his guard down over the course of the entire film; the tears open Caleb’s hard exterior up to an expressiveness of all the pain and heartbreak that is subsequently divulged through flashback sequences and conversations between the film’s four main characters (Caleb’s father is played by J.K. Simmons). Such an openness of feeling is immediately shut down, however, as soon as Peter enters the diner, at which point Caleb clams up, refers to women collectively as whores, and tries to dissuade the young love that is blooming within Peter for Emma.

Because of the inclusion and focus allotted to this first shot, the rest of Krieger’s film is made more bearable. Even in the moments where Caleb is at his very worst, be it through the various incidences of verbal and physical abuse of Emma, or telling his sycophantically loyal friend to consider suicide, Caleb comes off as a protagonist rather than antagonist because the viewer is never truly against Caleb at any point in the film; you never necessarily root for Caleb, but you do want to see him get better, which he does by the film’s end. What’s more, in the aforementioned first shot wherein the underlying humanity of Caleb is exposed to the viewer by looking into Caleb’s eyes, an intimacy and connection is established between the viewer and Caleb, and the viewer becomes implicated into the very misogynistic behavior that one would otherwise condemn and admonish from a distance. Through the implication into misogyny established by Caleb’s tears, Krieg disallows any distancing between the viewer and Krieg’s subject, which is why The Vicious Kind rings so true.

It is unclear why The Vicious Kind never got any attention from the mainstream media when other indie films, such as Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, are lauded over by critics and force fed to the otherwise cinematically disengaged masses. True, Krieg’s film is much darker in tone and might be classified as a “hard to watch” film, but it’s certainly no less important or brilliant than either of the other two films mentioned.

The Vicious Kind is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

Shane Black and the Probably Inevitable Shortcomings of Iron Man 3

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on May 16, 2013 at 9:34 am

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Iron Man 3
Directed by Shane Black
2 ½ out of 4 stars

Iron Man 3 is the first feature film follow-up to last summer’s Joss Whedon directed, Marvel Studios produced The Avengers, and is also the first Iron Man film since 2010’s widely panned Iron Man 2. That being said, Iron Man 3 had a lot to live up to, both in terms of matching the standards which were achieved in Whedon’s Avengers, as well as making up for the failures of Iron Man 2. The initial trailers for this third installment in the Iron Man film franchise were promising, hinting at Stark’s troubles with alcoholism as well as his own inherent self-destructive narcissism. The poster for Iron Man 3 seemed equally promising, depicting a falling Iron Man with pieces of the metallic suit falling off of Stark’s body, suggesting both a literal and figurative fall from grace; and while the inclusion of the Mandarin voice-over in the trailers (Ben Kingsley) was admittedly an overt attempt at the grandiosity of Nolan’s Joker in The Dark Knight Trilogy, the inclusion of such a major villain from the Marvel canon could only be looked forward to with eager anticipation.

Iron Man 3 is the second feature film written and directed by Shane Black, a fairly prolific and undoubtedly successful screenwriter who has worked in Hollywood since the late 1980’s. Most notably, Black wrote all four of the Lethal Weapon films, as well as the John McTiernan directed Last Action Hero starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. With such a storied history in writing successful action movies for mainstream Hollywood, Black was a fine choice to take the director’s chair for the third Iron Man film, even if the exclusion of Jon Favreau as director was unfortunate and misguided on Marvel Studios’ part. Black is obviously a competent and talented writer, yet Iron Man 3 feels too ambitious at times, and falls flat in terms of story and character.

The plot behind Iron Man 3 has to do with a terrorist called “The Mandarin” who begins using weaponized technology designed to fundamentally alter the biological make-up of human beings, turning them into fire breathing, lava based creatures of destruction (unfortunately, that is a completely accurate and literal description of these villains). There is also a side-plot that deals with one Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the scientist who creates the aforementioned technology used in the creation of the Extremis soldiers (the fire breathing monsters), and who is seeking revenge on Tony Stark for ignoring him in 1999. The film is thus centered around fights between Iron Man and the Extremis villains, and contains plenty of action and over the top special effects to delight fans of action films with little to no substance; for those of us who come to superhero films looking for nuanced characters, interpersonal connections to our own lives, and existentialist extrapolations about God-like men, Iron Man 3 is not your movie, even if it tries to be.

For a film that attempts to address Tony Stark’s egotistic capitalism and unchecked narcissism, there is plenty left to be desired. One of the major ideas running throughout Black’s film is the idea that something in science can begin pure and become corrupted as American capitalism and consumer culture works on the ego of the creator, as can be seen in Aldrich Killian’s corrupted state at the end of the film. In this sense, Stark’s journey throughout the film is an internal one, focused on a significant change in personality and selfish obsessions in order to allow for an emergence of selfless philanthropy and heroism; or at least it should be. In terms of what’s offered more predominantly in Black’s film, Stark’s journey throughout the film is largely one of feigned sensitivity and heroism, with enough explosions and elaborate action sequences in order to placate the masses into a state of overstimulation and intellectual stagnancy. It is unlikely that Black intended for such an effect to occur, and it may be an overly critical and pretentious analysis of the film, yet it is an analysis which feels accurate in working out what didn’t work in the film that goes beyond making fun of the cartoonish aspects of the film’s antagonists.

This is, however, not to say that Iron Man 3 is a bad film. On the contrary, it can be quite fun at times, and plenty of reviewers have already sung its praises, claiming that it is better than Iron Man 2 and a worthy successor to the first film in the series. Yet, at the same time, there just isn’t enough replication of the same kind of interiority of character that was allowed in Whedon’s superior Avengers. Nor is there the same sense of careful pacing and smart plotting on display, as there was in both of the prior films in the series directed by Jon Favreau. Black has done a fine job of directing another Iron Man movie, and it is easy to see why he was chosen for the task. Nevertheless, Iron Man 3 is a good superhero movie that unfortunately leaves little room for fan excitement and enthusiasm, which is what is required for such a film to hold any cultural currency or relevance in a society which has become so super inundated with big budget comic book movies.