Sean K. Cureton

Archive for June, 2013|Monthly archive page

Recommendation of the Week: Dark Horse (2011)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on June 17, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Theatrical Poster

Dark Horse (2011)
Directed by Todd Solondz
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Dark Horse is a brilliant black comedy about a middle aged toy collector still living with his parents who decides to get married to an equally uninspired woman still living with her own parents. The film is directed by Todd Solondz, a New Jersey native best known for his dark, socially conscious satire of American life at its most grotesque. Dark Horse is certainly no respite from such a legacy, offering a glimpse into the character of the American male in a state of arrested development that is unflinchingly ugly in its realism. However, Dark Horse is also heart wrenchingly sad, taking its subject seriously and allowing him the kind of humanity and grace that would be denied in a lesser work examining the same subject. While Dark Horse is definitely not the most cheerful comedy out there, it’s certainly not the worst, and the laughs that Solondz offers his audience are hard earned and painfully felt, as Solondz’s film examines the shortcomings and dangers of a society that otherwise abides and enables the unemployed man-child, on both the silver screen and in real life.

Actor Jordan Gelber stars in Dark Horse as Solondz’s muse Abe, who spends his days in a state of listless apathy “working” for his father and demanding refunds from Toys R’ Us.  Abe lets life pass him by, while complaining that he doesn’t get enough respect from his father while his younger brother, a successful doctor, gets all of his father’s praise and attention. Selma Blair plays Miranda, Abe’s fiancé in the film, who is likewise pathetically useless, pretending to be an artist as she continues to subsist on her own parents’ unconditional patience. When Abe decides to marry Miranda, she is at first resistant and taken aback, but soon agrees as she acknowledges the failure of her life that Abe doesn’t quiet see in his own; if he did, he would see just how ridiculous and self-delusional his marriage proposal actually appears to his in-laws and his Mom and Dad.

As the film continues, Abe gains more self-awareness, becoming more aware of the ineffectiveness of his constant whining and expectations of being refunded for every shortcoming in his life. Unfortunately, such revelations come in the form of daydreams and near death fantasies, which interweave with the actual fabric of the film’s narrative to such an extent that the viewer begins to question scene concerning Abe and those characters with which he interacts. As the fantasies continue and become more complicated, so does Abe’s character, which proves to be utterly human and sympathetic even in its self-indulgent woe-as-me complaints and subsequent revelations. All of this begs the question of just what mainstream Hollywood is doing when it allows so much attention to be lauded on characters who refuse to progress beyond the level of the young adult in more popular comedies and dramas. If Solondz’s film is any indication, such a fascination with the willfully unemployed is a dangerous impulse, encouraging self-involvement while negating growth and forward momentum.

Dark Horse is a fantastic film. Where such popular films as Anchorman or Knocked Up only deal with arrested development as far as such a condition can lead to raunchy, comedic high jinks, Solondz addresses the topic as a whole, never shying away from the more distressing aspects of such a mind set. Abe is not a likable guy, yet Solondz’s fascination with such a character goes beyond his childishness, and addresses his underlying faults in a way that is both diagnostic of his problems while maintaining dramatic integrity to his character that is never entirely caustic or comfortably detached. Solondz’s film acts almost as an antidote to The 40 Year Old Virgin, taking its subject just as seriously, but with a much more realistic approach and much darker conclusion.

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

Review of the Week: Super (2010)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on June 17, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Theatrical Poster

Super (2010)
Directed by James Gunn
Netflix Rating: Didn’t Like It

Super is the second feature film written and directed by James Gunn, who has made a name for himself in Hollywood as a writer of schlocky genre entertainment features such as the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, both of the live action adaptations of Scooby Doo, and most notably the 2006 comedic horror film Slither, which he also directed. Super is undoubtedly in the same vein as Gunn’s larger body of work, playing on the conventions of the superhero blockbuster while subverting the existing genre to both comedic and darkly satiric effect. Super stars Rainn Wilson, of TV’s The Office and founder of SoulPancake, as the average schmuck Frank Darbo who decides to become a superhero after his drug addict wife (Liv Tyler) is taken in by local drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Eventually, Frank becomes the Crimson Bolt, and teams up with local comic book store denizen Libby (Ellen Page), who acts as the Bolt’s sidekick Boltie. The premise is interesting enough, but the film rather abruptly devolves into a self-deluded, ultra-violent fantasy that is hard to watch even when it is undeniably interesting and original in its vision and critical appraisal of a contemporary society raised on comic book superheroes.

Super works when its narrows in on the performances offered by its stellar cast, which features performances from Gunn regulars such as Nathan Fillion, making a hilarious turn as Christian superhero The Holy Avenger, and Michael Rooker, whose subtle humanity in the face of Jacques’ cruelty and malicious apathy provides a center for all of the mayhem that ensues. Additionally, Kevin Bacon is an excellent villain, whose nihilistic glee is perfectly suited to combat Frank’s selfish morality and unchecked sense of justice. Likewise, Ellen Page offers a stunning performance as Libby, who offers a glimpse into what comic books might be instilling in the psyche’s of an American youth who have grown up reading such superhero fare as Marvel’s The Punisher or even DC’s Batman. What Gunn envisions in Super is world inspired by the vigilantism of comic book lore, unchecked by reality or a sense of a wider understanding of the world’s problems; undoubtedly, the world Gunn has envisioned is meant to mirror our own, and it often does.

Nevertheless, Super suffers from a script which is at times too self-indulgent in excessive violence, which comes off as vulgar and offensive at times, rather than satirically critical of the violence depicted in the contemporary superhero films which Super owes much of its influence to. When the Crimson Bolt bashes a young couple’s faces in with his trusty wrench after the boyfriend “butts” in line, it’s hard to come away still wanting to finish viewing the film. What’s more, Super more often than not feels vastly inferior, even amateur, when compared to the fine tuned satire that abounds in Gunn’s creature feature Slither. Much of the plot feels half-baked at times, and when the climactic final battle ensues at the end of the film, the viewer watches with a cold sense of detachment that might have to do with the very super inundation of movie violence that the film is literally and intellectually satirizing, but probably has more to do with the fact that the characters have not been developed quiet enough for such an ending to warrant so much violence.

Super can be a lot of fun if you go into it with the right state of mind, ready for over the top satire and ridiculous levels of violence. In theory, the film should be quiet good, as Gunn has more than proved himself to be a director of really original cinematic satire that works through and against the conventions of genre entertainment to great success. Unfortunately, Super falls short in terms of a satisfying story and sufficient character development, which is why it is so largely unsatisfying as a whole. Regardless, Super is definitely one of the better films to come out over the past few years, and is worth a viewing if you have the time and can stomach grotesque movie violence.

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

Man of Steel and the Relevant Superman

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on June 17, 2013 at 4:34 pm
Man of Steel Review

Warner Bros. Pictures

Man of Steel
Directed by Zach Snyder
1 1/2 out of 4 stars

Man of Steel is the sixth major motion picture adaptation of the seminal and iconic DC Comics character Superman, and the third iteration of that superhero within film franchise history. Superman first graced the silver screen in 1978, with Christopher Reeve donning the red cape and blue suit, and Gene Hackman taking on the role of Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor. The 1978 Superman was the first in a series of four franchise films, which include the 1980 seminal classic Superman 2, 1983’s abysmal Superman 3, co-starring an astoundingly miscast Richard Pryor, and 1987’s ridiculous and oft-forgotten Superman 4: The Quest for Peace. Where the first two Superman films were lighthearted, romantic adventures with a wide appeal and strong grounding in the Superman mythology established by DC, the second two films in this first motion picture franchise lost sight of the mythology and adventure inherent to the Superman story, becoming lost in a mire of attempted pop-cultural relevancy and pretended socio-political consciousness. And yet Bryan Singer’s second iteration of Superman in 2006’s Superman Returns didn’t fare that much better, possibly suffering from too much of a penchant for mythology and romantic derring-do. With such a history of Superman as he has appeared in film in mind, Zach Snyder’s third attempt at translating the great visitor from Krypton in Man of Steel becomes all the more interesting in terms of any hopes for reinvigorating the character with a sense of contemporary relevance and staying power.

Unfortunately, Man of Steel is not quiet the breath of fresh air that Superman so direly needs for his current image in the minds of cinephiles. Snyder’s Man of Steel is, unfortunately, yet another tired, beleaguered, action romp, filled with an over abundance of explosions and dizzying fight sequences, sure to send even the most exuberant fan into a state of despondency and motion sickness. While certain performances, such as those offered by Russell Crowe as Superman’s father Jor-El, and Amy Adams as the infamous reporter and love interest Lois Lane, are lively, often carrying entire scenes on the weight of their dramatic presence, the film that surrounds them is sub-par and frenzied to the point of near-incoherency. Snyder is more likely than not to blame for this, as his track record betrays him to be a director of big budget comic book adaptations that divorce their source material of any underlying story, opting for the sheer thrill of orchestrating elaborate special effects sequences which are more often than not nauseating rather than thrilling. Regardless of such an opinion, Snyder’s relative success with such films as 2009’s Watchmen, as well as the run-away, 2006 blockbuster smash 300, point to the continuing career and relevancy of Snyder in mainstream Hollywood films, Man of Steel more likely than not included.

With such a view of Man of Steel in mind, as well as the current state of affairs in terms of adapting Superman to the silver screen accounted for, one question comes to mind: why is Superman, an iconic figure in his own medium, so incompatible with the cinematic one? Is Superman, like Marvel’s Captain America, simply too idealistic and archaic for the contemporary consciousness to fully swallow? Or is his story too innocent and chaste for an audience that longs for the morally ambiguous and sexy comic book superheroes, such as Batman and Iron Man, both of which are superhero characters who have recently made the leap to contemporary cinematic narrative effortlessly, and to great critical success. Superman is no doubt the ideal man and hero, but is he the same kind of hero that we want or even care for any longer? As popular American morals and ethics have changed since Superman’s initial creation and appearance in 1938, perhaps our interest in him has changed as well, creating a gap between his story and the one that contemporary audiences want to see him take part in; a story, moreover, that he can never hope to fit into, no matter how much Snyder’s new film attempts to mold Superman’s character to the new American consciousness.

Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel can thusly be seen as being in dialogue with Christopher Nolan’s vastly superior Dark Knight Trilogy. Nolan, in fact, wrote the original story for Man of Steel before backing down from the project and letting Snyder take control of the new franchise in his stead. Snyder is obviously inspired by Nolan’s dark modern fairy tale that is the Dark Knight Trilogy, and at times Man of Steel comes close to achieving some of what makes that trilogy so effective. Unfortunately, Snyder’s debt to Nolan doesn’t progress beyond aesthetic admiration, leaving the film philosophically stagnant and emotionally vacant, where Nolan’s trilogy was intellectually charged, filled with character and plot driven tension. It’s hard to say why Man of Steel should be seen, probably because Snyder had trouble crafting a story for the Superman character that matched the tone and dramatic urgency that flows through Nolan’s interpretation of the Batman character. It’s also hard to put the blame entirely on Snyder’s shoulders, as it might just be the case that the patriotic flair and moral righteousness of the Superman character is just not current enough to match the tastes of a contemporary movie going audience eager to grapple with a world that is fraught with the same kind of moral ambiguity and ethical ambivalence that plagues our own. Maybe we just don’t need Superman anymore.