Sean K. Cureton

Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page

The Contemporary Thriller as a Study in Silence

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on September 28, 2013 at 1:05 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Prisoners
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Prisoners is the most recent film to be released from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose previous films include 2010’s Incendies, a foreign language Oscar nominated drama set in the Middle East, and 2009’s Polytechnique, which was inspired by the events surrounding the Montreal Massacre of 1989. While Villeneuve’s new film is by no means a change in tone or subject matter, it is the first film of his to boast an all-star cast of top Hollywood players. Ranging from the formidable presence of Hugh Jackman, to Jake Gyllenhaal’s disarming charm, Prisoners solidifies itself as a major motion picture that is sure to turn the larger mainstream movie going audience onto the work of this singular director. Villeneuve’s new film is a shocking take on the contemporary thriller, telling a story about child abduction, which is both satisfyingly exciting as well as cinematically challenging. With Prisoners, Villeneuve has established himself as a director to watch more closely, and with mounting anticipation.

Unlike many contemporary Hollywood thrillers having to do with the case of child abduction, Prisoners is relieving in the honesty it takes with its subject and the sincerity it displays towards its characters. Instead of treating its volatile subject as fodder for an outright emotional manipulation of the viewer’s instincts and feelings, the film instead chooses to examine the feelings of the characters, thereby focusing on atmosphere and mood rather than plot and action centered theatrics. Such a choice in terms of focus lends the film much of its cinematic vibrancy and effectiveness, in turn allowing for some of the best career performances from its leading actors. Hugh Jackman is finally able to bear some of the feral menace which his recent turns as the Marvel comic book character Wolverine have only ever hinted at, Jake Gyllenhaal turns in one of his most mature and varied performances of his entire career, and Terrance Howard displays a sense of fragile humanity as the quietly grieving father not seen since his turn in the Oscar winning 2004 drama Crash. The performances given from the actors cast in Villeneuve’s film alone raise Prisoners above the level of the average child abduction thriller, but it is due to the intelligence and sentimentality of Villeneuve’s direction by which their performances are lead and inspired to such stunning heights.

In addition to the subtle directing choices of Villeneuve, and without which the film would not be nearly as gripping and terrifying, Prisoners is also shot to cinematic perfection by the inestimable cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins, already a household name attached to such contemporary film staples as The Shawshank Redemption as well as a large portion of the Coen Brothers’ films, takes in the subject and atmosphere of Villeneuve’s film, and interprets its said vision into a visual reality which is claustrophobic in its use of shadows and slate grey skies, and unrelenting in its consistent beauty and foreboding terror. In watching Deakins’ work, it feels almost as if the camera were another way inside the characters’ heads, visually representing their inner turmoil and despair in a way which is almost more accurate than the performances given by the actors themselves. When the more trying scenes of the film unfold, which depict such morally depraved or emotionally vacant occurrences as torture and mental instability, Deakins’ camera watches over with a persistent steadiness without ever sacrificing the film’s sentimental tone and human approach. Rather than continuing in the line of such hard-to-watch films as David Fincher’s Seven, with which Prisoners shares a lot in common with in terms of aesthetic approach, Deakins’ cinematography dispels any of the coldness of Fincher’s work, and distinguishes Prisoners as importantly and fundamentally different in its representation of the macabre and the depraved.

With the release of Prisoners, French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has delivered his first major motion picture sure to reach a wide audience. Where his previous films might not have had as wide an appeal to mainstream American audiences due to their being foreign language pictures, Prisoners is the first film in Villeneuve’s career to utilize recognizable Hollywood actors, thereby enhancing the accessibility of his work. What’s more, Prisoners is a breathtaking study in silence, examining the impotent rage and horror of its characters as they attempt to reclaim what has been lost. Villeneuve abandons the use of sudden jolts of adrenaline more commonly seen in other mainstream thrillers, and instead allows the plot, setting, and characters to be divulged over the course of a stunningly bold 2 1/2 hours. Every minute of Prisoners’ lengthy run time increases the viewers own anxiety and anticipation, ensuring their rapt and sympathetic attention to what might otherwise have been an obvious and clichéd resolution, making Villeneuve’s new feature a powerful film that begs to be seen.

Recommendation of the Week: Sleepwalk With Me (2012)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on September 28, 2013 at 12:58 pm

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Sleepwalk With Me (2012)
Directed by Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Sleepwalk With Me is a 2012 comedy starring, written, and directed by stand up comedian Mike Birbiglia. Based in part on his own life experiences, an off-Broadway one-man show of the same name, as well as various bits from his past stand up material, Birbiglia’s first foray into motion pictures is a pleasant surprise, which proves to be just as eccentrically charming as Birbiglia’s stand up comedy. Produced and co-written by NPR’s Ira Glass, Sleepwalk With Me is unsurprisingly about how we tell stories about our own lives, focusing on how we view ourselves in relation to our own actions, those affected by our actions, as well as any lasting after effects. For Birbiglia, his own story has to do with his attempts to escape a marriage which he feels impelled to undergo by his parents and extended family, seeking the release offered by stand up comedy to come clean about his own insecurities and personal failings. In the process, an oddball comedy ensues, filled to the brim with surreal dream sequences, repressed desires, and a dangerous bout of sleepwalking.

Following in the tradition of such comedian-turned-filmmakers as Louis C.K. and Larry David, Mike Birbiglia’s film is a rough approximation of his actual personality, fictionalized to a certain extent through the use of another name. In the film, Mike Birbiglia becomes Matt Pandamigilo, and such famous comics as Marc Maron are rechristened with names like Marc Mulheren, which serves to lessen the otherwise immediate truthfulness of the story, turning the film into more of a fantastic anecdote than heartfelt apologetic. However, in contrast to such television shows as C.K.’s Louie or David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sleepwalk With Me also maintains much of the structuring and rhetoric employed in the stand up material from which much of the film’s plot has been culled. Rather than acting as another form of artistic expression meant to express a viewpoint fundamentally different from what can be expressed through stand up comedy, Birbiglia’s film is structured in the same style as Birbiglia’s one-man shows. Thus, Sleepwalk With Me feels like a cinematic rendering of a stand up set, as opposed to the sitcom-level exaggerated oddball antics of David on Curb, or the existentially ridiculous wanderings of C.K. on Louie.

Nevertheless, the ways in which Birbiglia has transformed his stand up material almost directly, and at times verbatim, into the cinematic form often comes off as feeling redundant of what he has already said. Instead of offering some new insight into the events that transpire over the course of the film, Birbiglia rehashes old bits and gags without any of their previous luster and bite. While the performances from such comic greats as Carol Kane, playing Birbiglia’s mother, or the stunning turn from Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose as a former girlfriend reinvigorate Birbiglia’s story with a new vibrancy and set of voices, the underlying themes and points of argument remain the same. Instead of bringing new life to Birbiglia’s material, Sleepwalk With Me seems to bury much of Birbiglia’s better intentions under layers of overused theatrics and tired reminiscences. While the film is still a joy to watch and maintains a lot of the emotional honesty of Birbiglia’s original material, it often feels stillborn, lacking the sort of motivation and purpose that permeates Birbiglia’s stand up.

And yet, despite the inherent redundancy of Sleepwalk With Me’s subject matter and plot, Mike Birbiglia’s first feature film is still a solid comedy. The characters bump into each other in ways that are to be expected, they do silly, and often stupid, things to one another and themselves, and the ending is predictably uplifting, even if it doesn’t end in a marriage. Fans of Birbiglia’s stand up act will be sure to find a lot to enjoy, even if much of their enjoyment will rely chiefly in waiting for different one liners and plot points that they already know by heart. Sleepwalk With Me is a well made movie that examines the stand up comedian with a subtle intimacy, even if a more probing approach may have revealed a little more about the film’s subject. All in all, Birbiglia and co-writer Ira Glass have made an incredibly charming indie film, even if its charm outstays its welcome at times.

Sleepwalk With Me is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

Quiet Humanity and Private Intimacy in Contemporary Romantic Drama

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on September 6, 2013 at 4:50 pm

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The Spectacular Now
Directed by James Ponsoldt
3 ½ out of 4 stars

The Spectacular Now is the new feature film from (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and directed by James Ponsoldt. Based on the YA novel by Tim Tharp, Ponsoldt’s film is a tour de force drama about young love, won and lost, and the dysfunctional individuals who fall in love with one another. Rather than verging into the realm of witless adolescent rebellion, or the superficiality and shallowness of young lust, Ponsoldt’s young lovers are fantastically realized miniatures of all of the pain and heartbreak of love as it appears in its most romanticized form. After honing their talents with the now classic indie-drama (500) Days of Summer, screenwriters Neustadter and Weber have now proven themselves to be a creative force to be reckoned with this new film about the fragility of intimate, human relationships. What’s more, Ponsoldt was another perfect match for filming a Neustadter and Weber script, offering up a film that is supremely brilliant, matching the subtlety of the script with carefully filmed shots of understated humanity and appropriately dramatic tableaux.

Set around the relationship of and between life-of-the-party Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and honors student Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), Ponsoldt’s film goes about discovering its two lovers through quiet observation, rather than intrusive ogling or the use of a deus ex machina. As Sutter and Aimee reveal things about themselves to one another, the audience is also allowed access into the characters’ interior lives, becoming more involved with the film’s characters at the same pace that Sutter and Aimee begin to fall in love with each other more deeply. Where many films about the same subject would take a more direct approach at depicting young love as it starts to blossom, Ponsoldt holds back, allowing a sort of sanctity and privacy to Sutter and Aimee’s relationship, without outright abandoning his position as a cinematic voyeur. It’s hard to film a sex scene that doesn’t feel exploitative or pornographic, and yet the sex in The Sectacular Now doesn’t feel like either, retaining a kind of grace awarded to the privacy of a more natural physical intimacy. Ponsoldt’s young lovers appear to be actually in love, which is something of a rarity in contemporary films about such a subject, where explicitness is preferred over a more human somberness and conservative behavior.

Beyond the finely crafted script and thoughtful direction, The Spectacular Now is also bolstered by two of the best performances from two actors under the age of 30. Miles Teller is in top form as Sutter, balancing the act of being the class clown who deep down simply wants to love and be loved, in a performance that is reminiscent of a young Vince Vaughn in Swingers. Likewise, Shaileen Woodley, fresh off her successful turn as George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendants, plays the girl next door better than anyone, exuding kindness, honesty, and prettiness, all without the help of makeup or a ravishing wardrobe. Instead of coming off as well to do Hollywood stars pretending to be your average, troubled teenager, Teller and Woodley ooze a sincerity which is quiet simply too real to be an entirely fictive pretention. Teller and Woodley are stunning, and the film is exponentially aided by their inspired performances.

The Spectacular Now is one of the most accurate cinematic portrayals of young love, being neither too romanticized nor an outright dismissal of young love as a notion founded on lust rather than a mutual intimacy and human understanding. Neustadter and Weber have written yet another fantastic screenplay together, which has been made into another excellent film by the more than capable director James Ponsoldt. Instead of offering up another cookie-cutter, John Hughes-esque copy of the young adult film, Ponsoldt has gone against the mold, challenging his audience with a portrayal of teenagers which is just as fraught with jealousy and misunderstanding as any portrayal of two adults would be. The Spectacular Now is an expertly directed drama, filled with emotional vibrancy and a thrilling amount of dramatic tension, building up to some truly inspired cinematic moments. Romantic drama and comedy is a hard film genre to get quiet right, but screenwriters Neustadter and Weber have got the formula down pat, and their new film is further proof of that fact.

Recommendation of the Week: Red State (2011)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on September 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm

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Red State (2011)
Directed by Kevin Smith
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Red State is an independent action-horror film written and directed by New Jersey native Kevin Smith, which had its premier at the Sundance Film Festival and was subsequently self-distributed by Smith, with a commercial release date of October 19, 2011. At the center of what might be Smith’s greatest film so far, the gregarious auteur found creative inspiration in the activities and ideology of the Kansas based Westboro Baptist Church, the cult-like, hate group most well known for its “God Hates Fags” sloganeering. By heightening the activities of this already volatile and rage fueled sect to the level of outright violence and terror cell activity in his film, Smith’s fictitious Five Points Trinity Church attempts to reveal the very real potential for offensive violence in the relatively dormant Westboro Church of reality. At times a comedy, a thriller, and a bondage-based horror film, Smith’s Red State has all the menace and sheer terror of the average multiplex slasher feature, while backing a relatively well thought-out political agenda. While Red State is certainly no indication of greater things to come from Smith as a creative entity, it is one of the better films within the View Askew oeuvre, and proof of Smith’s often dismissed intelligence and humanity.

At the center of Smith’s first foray into the realm of horror is the captivating performance from American actor Michael Parks, as the malevolent Pastor Abin Cooper. Played with sadistic relish and affected sincerity, Parks’ performance is nothing short of brilliant, and is the break away success of the entire film. Played off as a well seeming dodderer, Pastor Cooper very quickly becomes the instigator of much of the film’s violence and horror, using his status as a religious leader to sway the minds and actions of those under the spell of his mellifluous rhetoric. As the film’s plot progresses, and the Pastor’s teachings begin to be put into action, there is no escaping the frightening aura of Parks’ performance, as it begins to take over the fabric of the film’s reality. Where actual hate group leader Fred Phelps, of the Westboro Baptist Church, is simply annoying, as John Goodman’s character says in passing during the film’s third act, Pastor Abin Cooper is deadly, and knows how to fire a semi-automatic rifle.

Beyond the obvious thrills of the film’s religious cult plot, there is also the much broader criticisms aimed at the United States Federal Government, and the ways in which it deals with crises of domestic terrorism, for better or worse. At the beginning of the third act, the audience is introduced to ATF Agent Joseph Keenan, played by John Goodman, who is called in to handle what in the course of the film becomes a hostage situation at Cooper’s church. Inevitably, due to the volatility of the church’s members, coupled with their ready access to a bunker’s worth of weapons and ammunition, an all out “holy war” breaks out, with heavy casualties on both sides. When the film ends, Agent Keenan is put on trial, Cooper and a small number of his remaining followers are behind bars, and the entire Five Points Trinity Church has been taken by force by government agents. It’s hard to lay blame on anyone at the film’s conclusion, though there are faults on both sides, which is how Smith prefers to address questions of religious fanaticism, as can be seen in his Catholic comedy Dogma. As in Dogma, Smith attributes all of Red State’s violence to a secularized understanding of simple beliefs which lead people to savagery, which is coherent, while being sufficiently vague enough to keep Smith’s film from the realm of a more serious critical consideration of the religious and political issues at hand.

All things considered, both effective horror movie tropes and critical shortcomings in mind, Kevin Smith’s Red State is still one of the best films of the director’s career. In deciding to tackle religious zealotry once again, but this time within the horror genre, Smith is able to address some of the ideological shortcomings of his prior religious film Dogma, while offering something that fans of his work have never seen from him before. Not since Chasing Amy has Smith been this honest, forthright, and impassioned about the story he is trying to tell, and the finished film is a shining example of his dedication to the project. Red State is frightening, action packed, and surprisingly insightful about contemporary political and religious issues which have become more and more prevalent in a modern age where homosexuality is becoming more accepted as normal human behavior, and the actions of the U.S. government is held to an ever higher degree of public scrutiny and dissatisfaction. While Smith’s film may not have all the answers to the rather ambitious questions it poses, it at least addresses the issues in a way that is entertaining and honest, which is something that Kevin Smith has always been able to do well, love him or hate him.

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