Sean K. Cureton

Archive for July, 2013|Monthly archive page

A Saturday Morning Cartoon for Adults, Without the Guilt of Intellectual Pretention

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on July 27, 2013 at 5:37 pm

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Pacific Rim
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
3 out of 4 stars

Pacific Rim follows in the tradition of the Japanese Kaiju film genre, wherein a large creature of supernatural powers and origins decimates a highly populated city, or engages in battle with other monsters of proportionate size and fantastic grandiosity. The most well known Kaiju film series is undoubtedly the Godzilla franchise, which is also unquestionably one of the core inspirations for Pacific Rim’s creation, with the other being any giant robot Saturday Morning Cartoon you may or may not remember fondly from your own childhood. It is upon such comparably simple genre premises from which Guillermo del Toro’s film takes inspiration, and thankfully so. Pacific Rim is uncompromisingly indulgent in premise, with all of the focus of the film being placed on the sheer spectacle of giant monsters, organic and synthetic alike, taking part in the sorts of epic battles that are sure to leave any young child in a catatonic stupor of excitement and awe; such a stupor should, ideally, carry over into adulthood for the mature audience for which this film has been carefully crafted and designed, as del Toro’s new film finally offers the sort of giant monster movie that Michael Bay’s Transformers is only a poor attempt at being. Pacific Rim is like being able to watch those aforementioned Saturday Morning Cartoons once again as an adult, but without compromising one’s since acquired refined tastes and intellect, as del Toro’s monsters are delightfully self-aware and, dare it be said, smart.

One of the sources of contention for which several critics have already insulted the integrity of Pacific Rim is for the simplistic, yet simultaneously incoherent, nature of its plot. According to the screenplay co-written by del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham, much of the circumstantial narrative drive for Rim’s plot derives from a strange, portal-like connection between the world of the Kaiju creatures and earth, unleashing the Kaiju monsters upon mankind, and subsequently resulting in a years long battle intent on quelling the Kaiju onslaught. In order to subdue the Kaiju monsters, mankind has developed giant robot suits, called Jaeger’s, manned by two human pilots who operate the suit through a connection of the mind, body, and soul called “drifting.” Eventually, “drifting” is achieved between the Kaiju and a human scientist, which allows for the know-how to defeat the Kaiju in the final action driven climactic sequence of the film. While the specifics of such a plot are admittedly excessively unclear and unintelligent, the surrounding human versus monster story remains engaging and fantastically creative. The types of critics who find trouble finding any intelligent subtlety in the film’s plot suffer from an inability to take the leap from their own stuffy intellectualized pretentions to an understanding of the film’s actual intentions based on the unpretentious fascination that arises from sheer and unadulterated enjoyment; Pacific Rim doesn’t try to be intelligent or subversive, but achieves both accolades through its honesty and lack of pretention.

Pacific Rim is also one of the only films in recent memory to actually warrant the inclusion of the third dimension as a part of its filmic fabric. The grandiosity of the Kaiju/Jaeger battles are made only more fantastic through del Toro’s use of 3D filmmaking, which embellishes where it could just as easily distract. Seen in Imax, Pacific Rim’s impact is increased even further; with the addition of a larger screen, earth-shattering surround sound, and crisp high definition picture quality, supplemented by state of the art 3D, Pacific Rim is a spectacle that needs to be seen to be believed. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is thusly, in more ways than one, a direct response to James Cameron’s Avatar, except del Toro had the artistic mastery and insight to see beyond the use of simple sensory overload in order to placate his viewers. Pacific Rim palpably understands the importance of honesty in its narrative approach, while Avatar tries so hard to win over the affections of its viewers with borrowed dramatics without offering any acknowledgement of its admitted dependence upon special effects. Pacific Rim knows that its drawing power comes from its stunning technical achievements, and invites its viewers to revel in the afterglow without worrying too much about any imagined self-congratulating egotism.

Pacific Rim might just be the best summer blockbuster to come out this summer. Instead of aiming beyond the confines of its genre, Rim knows where it stands within the traditions and history of filmmaking, aiming to achieve what it sets out to do without making any concessions to attempt to appeal to viewers outside of its immediate demographic. Guillermo del Toro’s direction is epic in every clichéd sense of the word, offering the kinds of grand monster movie battle sequences sure to leave even the most mature adult in a state of child-like catatonic bliss. While Rim might not appeal to everyone, it knows where it stands, and is aware of its more indulgent nature and un-intellectual status as a monster movie picture. Nevertheless, del Toro’s film will take anyone willing to pay the price of admission on a wild ride, letting them get in touch with their inner child without sacrificing their more mature intellectual engagements. Pacific Rim is a film about giant monsters fighting giant robots, and a damn good one too.

Recommendation of the Week: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on July 27, 2013 at 11:31 am

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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Directed by George Clooney
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Based on the unauthorized autobiography of 1970’s Trash-TV icon Chuck Barris, and adapted for the screen by Charlie Kaufman, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a highly taut espionage/comedy thriller directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell. As is the case with any Kaufman script worth its salt, the film is riddled with non-conventional narrative decisions, such as interspersing the performed scenes of dramatic reinvention with actual interviews of the film’s intended subjects, thus blurring the line between the fiction on the screen and the reality of Barris’ personal identity. Much of this ambiguity comes from the fact that Barris’ autobiography may or may not have been true; more likely than not, Barris was never enlisted in the CIA, and most of the events that are depicted over the course of the film’s narrative are nothing more than absurd fantasies made real by the magic of story and some interesting choices in the saturation of the color of the filmic images displayed on the screen. Either way, Confessions is one of those oddball films that you almost can’t believe exist, and are subsequently overjoyed to find actually do exist, and are surprisingly entertaining and inventive. In what was his directorial debut, Clooney found a film that walked a fine line between the conservative and the liberal, the rational and the absurd, and came out on top with one of his most interesting and uncharacteristic films of his entire career.

Centered on the lively performance of Sam Rockwell as Barris, Clooney’s film follows the myriad travails and errors of Kaufman’s Barris as he tries to make it big on American television, chase women, and take part in top secret missions as an assassin for the CIA. The film’s plot unrolls at a breakneck, hazy speed, further distorting the realities of Barris’ tale from the actual circumstances of history. Rockwell as Barris embodies grotesqueness at its very finest, straddling the middle ground of likability with complete and total moral and sexual depravity, simultaneously begging for and rebuking the affections of his perspective audience. Kaufman’s script is uninterested in Barris as an actual historical being with a very real physical presence in the world, and instead opts to use his story and persona for a more broadly comic and satirical look at the romantic and sexual expectations of the American male. Such a focus in subject is by no means new territory for Kaufman, whose entire cinematic oeuvre has been preoccupied with this very subject, yet it is different for Clooney, and interestingly so.

In taking on such a script, Clooney brings a certain clinical or detached nature to the film’s hyper-sexualized, romantically subjective protagonist, examining his behavior and actions from a distance without merging his own directorial view with that of the subject’s. In such Kaufman masterpieces as Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s subject’s individual interiorities are much of what the viewer sees, all serving to get at the aforementioned and discussed examination of the cinematic perception of what is real and what is imagined. Clooney’s film certainly plays around in the same territory, yet his own sensibility is keenly felt in the film, blending the two distinctive personalities of Kaufman and Clooney into a film that becomes indistinguishably fascinating. Clooney revels in directing sequences of international espionage and back alley assassinations, while Kaufman’s script maintains a firm grounding on the interiority and realism of the characters. There are certainly some possible inadequacies of such a disparate pairing of cinematic voices in one film, and Confessions is no exception. Nevertheless, the finished film’s granted excesses and combined personal flourishes result in a film that is unlike anything else, and proves to be an unlikely pairing of cinematic minds that is surprisingly fruitful.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is one of the most perplexing George Clooney directed pictures, and one of the more unlikely Charlie Kaufman scripts. Chuck Barris as historically based protagonist and subject grants ground for both of these creative minds to work, leading to a pairing of tastes, proclivities, and vision that is utterly original, refreshing, and exciting. Confessions takes hold of the attention of the viewer from the very first line of voice-over narration, and continues to enthrall up to the very last shot of sober reflection. Clooney and Kaufman have collaboratively produced a film that is unrelentingly peculiar, challenging the viewer to make heads or tails of how the film is asking one to think of Barris by the film’s ultimate conclusion. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind might not be one of the seminal film’s of either Clooney’s or Kaufman’s respective careers, yet it is a fantastically creative work that should be seen by anyone interested in either of these two filmmakers’ complete bodies of work.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

An Inspiring and Substantial Anecdote of a Film

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on July 19, 2013 at 11:23 pm

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The Way, Way Back
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Academy Award winning writers of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, The Way, Way Back is a film that shares much of the eccentric warmth of Payne’s aforementioned film while choosing to focus on the kids instead of the parents this time around. Much of what made Payne’s The Descendants such a great film was its screenplay, written with as much emotional honesty and heartfelt integrity for its subjects without devolving into sentimental slush. Matt King in The Descendants was a widower who walked the edge of despair and crushing existential agony without ever admitting defeat, holding his head up high for the sake of his children. Likewise, in Faxon’s and Rash’s new film, their much younger subject Duncan (Liam James) is forced to cope with much of the same sort of anguish and heartbreak as his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) begins a relationship with a brutish new man named Trent (Steve Carell). Granted, The Way, Way Back is a different kind of film than The Descendants, but the dramatic looks offered in both films surrounding ordinary people coping with such perennial issues as mourning and coming of age are fundamentally the same in terms of approach and found comic value. Like The Descendants, The Way, Way Back is a film that earns its value through an honest portrayal of the human condition, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, and yet always communally reaffirming.

As was evidenced previously in their writing for The Descendants, Faxon and Rash know how to write a great comedy that doesn’t rely on superficial characters, sophomoric theatrics, or what’s worse, both. Instead, Faxon and Rash understand the complexities of a more affecting humor rooted in a distinctly human tedium and depression. When Duncan is struggling with his anger towards Trent, and is subsequently allowed to escape to the Never Never Land that is the Water Wizz water park inhabited by the effortlessly charming paternal stand-in Owen (Sam Rockwell), humor arises from an innate need to let go of those things that occupy so much of our time and energy, relieving stress if only for the moment. And yet the highs elicited by Rockwell’s inspired performance can only be allowed due to their distinct juxtaposition with the lows elicited by the tense and arduous scenes over breakfast and dinner held between Duncan, Pam, and Trent. A lot of human life is spent trying to coexist with people who are fundamentally incompatible with our own persons, which is why we seek out the Owens in our lives to reinvigorate and uplift us in our times of extreme duress and emotional upheaval. Faxon and Rash understand this, and use such a knowledge in order to tell a tale of adolescent angst that never feels dishonest, clichéd, or sentimentally convenient.

What’s more, The Way, Way Back is film populated by the sorts of multifaceted and fully realized characters that have become all too scarce in contemporary American cinema. Not only are Duncan, Pam, and Owen funny and unique protagonists within the film’s larger narrative, but the inclusion of such supporting characters as Jim Rash’s beleaguered Lewis as well as Allison Janney’s local lush and single mother of two Betty seem to boost the film’s overall impact astronomically. The Water Wizz theme park and surrounding East coast shore town is alive with its individual characters, each one of them unique, odd, and genuine in their own distinctive ways. Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry give a surprisingly affecting turn as the couple Kip and Joan, and Maya Rudolph is wonderful as Owen’s love interest Caitlin, who is simultaneously annoyed and endeared to Owen’s whimsy. There is never a false step in this film’s admitted sentimental decadence, as the individual characters are so well written that nothing ever feels too unbelievable or dramatically manipulative.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have out done themselves with their follow up to the Alexander Payne directed The Descendants. The Way, Way Back is a coming of age comedy that exudes warmth and honesty in a culture that has become overwhelmed with vapid and self-indulgent comic fare. Duncan’s story, while being familiar, succeeds through its allowed complexity and personable nature, reaching out and sympathizing with its viewers. In his own review of the film, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Rash and Mr. Faxon…approach Duncan’s story with gentle good humor, underplaying both comic moments and emotional explosions. While this restraint makes ‘The Way, Way Back’ pleasantly watchable, it also makes it feel small and anecdotal, a modest variation on something you’ve seen before.” Duncan’s story may be anecdotal, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, especially when the anecdote is so inspiring and substantial.

Verbinski’s Lone Ranger, or Tonto’s Revenge?

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on July 14, 2013 at 10:35 am

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The Lone Ranger
Directed by Gore Verbinski
2 ½ out of 4 stars

Gore Verbinski’s current reiteration of the Lone Ranger character is not entirely original, not entirely contrived, and not entirely entertaining. Granted, Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger may suffer from having based on an early 20th century American radio program in the same vein as the Green Hornet character, who was in point of fact a spinoff from the Lone Ranger character, which as far as source material goes tends to be fairly dated in terms of appealing to a contemporary audience. Verbinski’s Ranger is certainly interesting in its approach, beginning with the bold yet expected choice of casting Pirates of the Caribbean actor Johnny Depp as the Ranger’s trusty Native American companion Tonto, to the breakneck speed of Verbinski’s action sequences which are a true spectacle to watch when compared to the numerous mindless explosion-porn sequences that have become so common in lesser action movie fare. And yet it becomes difficult to come away from The Lone Ranger without feeling a bit cheated of something truly grandiose or epic, which is the sort of all encompassing adjective that one might wish to attribute to a big budget summer action movie blockbuster. Verbinski’s film is flawed for sure, yet it holds within it the seeds for a much better film eager to emerge from Ranger’s muddled confusion.

Possibly one of the bigger problems with Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger is the fact that the film’s titular character is not granted nearly enough time to earn the film’s title. Armie Hammer takes on the role of the infamous Texas Ranger in the film, donning a ridiculously large white cowboy hat, mask, and western desperado ethos. It would follow from such a description that Hammer’s character would then begin to hunt out crime in the American west, with Tonto, as his trusty companion, at his side, standing up for what is righteous in a world of sin and corruption. Not so. Instead, Verbinski places much of the film’s forward momentum in Johnny Depp’s depiction of Tonto, who more or less pushes Hammer’s Ranger into action and all sorts of derring-do. What’s more, the entire film is supported by a frame narrative in which a much older Tonto relates the story of the Lone Ranger to a young boy in costume as his favorite Ranger, negating the authority and power of Hammer’s character as central to the story at all. Verbinski’s film thus becomes primarily focused on Depp’s Tonto, which while being a fun film to watch is certainly not the film that the title would suggest, and feels like a cheat when one considers the storied history of the Lone Ranger character on radio, television, and film.

Yet, at the same time, one must consider what larger trends by which Verbinski’s Lone Ranger may be working with and against in its focus on Tonto instead of its titular hero. Perhaps Verbinski is more interested in Tonto because of his identity as a Native American, seeing the inherent racism of diminishing such a character to the role of a sidekick in subservience to the white man. Tonto’s narrative arc would certainly support such a reading, as much of Tonto’s heroics in the film are chiefly concerned with regaining his honor among his own people after betraying them to the white man. Yet, if such a noble cause were at the heart of the film’s narrative structure, why cast a white man as Tonto? Granted, Johnny Depp may or may not have some Native American blood within him, but the fact remains that he is predominantly seen as being Caucasian, rendering his portrayal as a significant Native American character in poor, possibly even offensive, taste. More likely than not though, Depp was offered the role because of how great an actor he is, as well as his previous working relationship with Verbinski on the set of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, and nothing more, making the choice to focus on Tonto in the film’s narrative purely aesthetic.

Gore Verbinski’s adaptation of the Lone Ranger character is definitely the sort of odd and unexpected sort of film that one has come to anticipate from this talented American director. With such eccentric fare as Rango, The Weather Man, and most notably Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End under his belt, it’s hard to be completely surprised at the way in which Verbinski chose to tell his version of the Lone Ranger story. The grotesqueness of Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger abounds, from Depp’s portrayal of Tonto as hero instead of side-kick, to the surreal rebirth of Hammer’s Ranger in the desert, Verbinski’s aesthetic vision can be seen in every shot of the film, and thankfully so. The Lone Ranger is by no means Verbinski’s greatest work to date, but it is certainly just as much fun as any one of the better Pirates films, and will be sure to please those in search of a fun summer action movie. Unfortunately, The Lone Ranger does little more than entertain, and when it does so it is only for a short time, leaving the viewer’s senses untouched by the film’s end, not invigorated, not bored, but simply unsure of whether or not they had a good time at all.       

Buffy Meets the Bard

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on July 13, 2013 at 6:31 pm

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Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by Joss Whedon
4 out of 4 stars

Last summer, Joss Whedon garnered a lot of attention with the release of his blockbuster feature film The Avengers, the first feature film from Marvel Studios to successfully bridge the gap between the disparate superhero characters and universes that currently make up the Marvel Film Canon.  At the same time, he also co-wrote and produced the uniquely subversive horror film Cabin in the Woods with former Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel collaborator Drew Goddard. Both films may and should be ranked among the better films of last year, and you’d be hard pressed to imagine anyone having been involved as heavily with even just one of these two major film productions to have the time or the energy to be able to go home at the end of the day to stage and film a gorgeously shot modern day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing in their own backyard. Luckily for moviegoers, Joss Whedon is no ordinary human being, and found the relief offered by the Bard’s words to be the perfect way to unwind at the end of a busy day of directing Tony Stark, placating the demands of a major motion picture studio, and collaborating on an epic horror film in the vein of The Evil Dead. Whedon’s take on Shakespeare is effortlessly brilliant, shot in beautiful black and white, and only serves to solidify Whedon’s place among the very best of American film makers.

Not only is Whedon’s Much Ado good, but it rings with a true love for the original medium of the theatre. Whedon’s shots effortlessly capture his actor’s performances with little to no cinematic intrusion, which would otherwise break the magic of the kind of live performance inherent to Shakespeare’s work. Whedon’s film allows a suspension of the viewer’s imagination to the point where the theatre becomes mere artifice, allowing the viewer to feel as though they were in fact watching a live performance of the play whilst sitting on Whedon’s picaresque veranda. After seeing the film, you’d be hard pressed to imagine the play being produced by anyone else, as Whedon proves to be just as capable and proficient with Shakespeare’s texts as any and all of the great Shakespearean actors of yesteryear. Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier may have had the added insight of having performed as well as directed, but Whedon’s innate taste for dialogue, character, and story aid him in his Shakespearean adaptation, allowing his film to hold its own against the very best Olivier or Branagh production, theatrical or cinematic.

Whedon’s production is also supported by one of the most unlikely, yet brilliant, casts of any cinematic adaptation of the Bard to date. Composed mainly of former collaborators and close friends, Whedon’s Much Ado comes alive with the performances, voices, and physical presences of some of the best Whedon regulars, including Alexis Denisof (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Buffy), Nathan Fillion (Firefly), and Amy Acker (Angel and Dollhouse). In addition, Whedon cast newcomer and Avengers extra Jillian Morgese as Hero, a gamble that paid back in spades, and ads a certain dimension of spontaneity and independent spirit to Whedon’s labor of love. Denisof and Acker play an enchanting couple as Benedick and Beatrice, comically skirting around each other’s underlying affections for one another. Additionally, Morgese plays a perfectly demure and innocent Hero, while Fillion steals the show and chews the scenery as the comic character Dogberry, and everyone else holds their own and enriches the performances just mentioned, creating a modern day adaptation of Shakespeare that is teeming with life, character, and an ingenuity that is sorely lacking in more popular contemporary Shakespearean fare, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

Joss Whedon has created something very special in his cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Not only has he clearly had a fantastic time reciting Shakespeare with close friends in his California home, but he has probably made one of the first films of his career that will be sure to raise the interest of even the most snooty of film critics. Where Whedon’s television career has certainly garnered some academic and critical attention, his work in feature films has been held back largely due to its attachment to fantasy and sci-fi film genre-types as well as the “Fanboy” collective, causing many of today’s better film critics to turn up their noses at his otherwise superior superhero film The Avengers. It is unclear whether Whedon will make anything else this far reaching in its appeal outside of the “Fanboy” subculture, but Whedon has certainly proved himself up to the task with this release. Either way, this critic will be sure to watch whatever Whedon has up his sleeve next, high or low art.