Sean K. Cureton

Archive for December, 2013|Monthly archive page

The Odyssey of a Cat

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on December 29, 2013 at 1:02 pm
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Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
4 out of 4 stars

Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from the Coen Brothers, explores some familiar territory while simultaneously expanding upon and enriching a cinematic worldview that has become so familiar to anyone acquainted with the Coens’ iconic body of work. Like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Llewyn is equal parts historical and mythological, documenting the emergence of rock and roll music from the Americana folk tradition, as sung by another nomadic wanderer reminiscent of the Homeric Odyssey. In Inside, Llewyn is a struggling folk singer in 1960’s Greenwich Village, scraping by on the skin of his teeth, taking the odd job here and there, all without the acclaim and success lauded onto some of his contemporaries for whom he feels a growing sense of self-loathing resentment. Like any other notable film from the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis is full to the brim with a certain nihilistic cynicism that threatens to boil over and spoil even its more redeeming characters and narrative devices. However, like the majority of the Coens’ body of work, the film never loses sight of its hero, and aims to save him from complete existential annihilation, even if such a rescue is sustained only through the underlying desire to survive and exist despite the overwhelming odds of life itself.

One of the many aspects of the Coens’ film that makes it as vibrant and heart-wrenchingly beautiful as it is comes with the Coens’ thoughtful and microscopically detailed rendering of New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960’s. Where other films that have attempted to transport a narrative into the past, whether it be 50 or even just 10 years ago, often feel overtly fabricated and cringingly nostalgic, Inside Llewyn Davis’ Greenwich Village feels contemporary, as if you might be able to walk out of the very theatre in which you are viewing the film and end up on the very same streets that Llewyn woefully traverses on screen. From the cars on the street, down to the lonely little coffee shops and diners that Llewyn temporarily occupies to escape from the cold of the dead of winter, the Coens’ Greenwich Village feels antiquated, but not to an exaggerated extent. In establishing the film’s historied setting in such detail and authenticity, the Coens’ examination of the folk music scene of the era is allowed room to breathe and grow out from its established environment. Where a Wes Anderson type might have imbued 1960’s Manhattan with whimsy and a subdued saturation of color in the cinematic image, the Coens present the same setting as it would have looked at the time, and in effect what it still looks like in the ever tenuous now.

With such an expertly realized setting in place, the performances and music fall right into place, serving to populate the Coens’ Greenwich Village, making it a believably livable space. Oscar Isaac turns in a career defining performance, breathing a troubled and wounded humanity into that character of Llewyn Davis, caustic, hostile, sentimental, and redeemably sympathetic. Playing off of Isaac’s energy, the performances from such notable stars as Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, and F. Murray Abraham purr with the electricity and power of the film’s star. Even Garrett Hedlund, an otherwise unremarkable American actor, fits right in with his more experienced co-stars, lending the film a surprising layer of subtlety and nuance. On top of all that, T-Bone Burnett’s musical direction is sublime, crafting musical productions that feel utterly authentic and just plain nice to listen to, with the help of such notable singers and performers as Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, and Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford.

The Coen Brothers most recent film just might be the best film of the year, as it exemplifies a subtlety and maturity that has been earned and perfected over the course of the Coens’ near 30 years of filmmaking. Inside Llewyn Davis is remarkable, not for any departure from an established form, but for its consistency within a larger body of work that has come to be defined by an inherent genius. A genius, moreover, that has shown itself to be malleable, well suited to comedy, crime, drama, neo-noir, history, western, and musical film genres, without ever compromising its remarkably unique cinematic perspective. The Coens are two of the greatest auteurs in the relatively short history of film, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of their best films to date. Harking after the tradition established in Homer’s epic poem, Inside Llewyn Davis is an Odyssey all its own, playfully lending the title of Ulysses to a wayward cat.                           

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Recommendation of the Week: Nobody Walks (2012)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on December 25, 2013 at 1:01 pm
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Nobody Walks (2012)
Directed by Ry Russo-Young
Netflix Rating: Loved It

Nobody Walks is directed by Ry Russo-Young, a member of the Mumblecore film movement, and is co-written by the award winning actress and writer of HBO’s Girls, Lena Dunham. It stars Olivia Thirlby as a young artist who employs the help of a well renowned sound engineer, played by John Krasinski, to complete an art film meant to be included in an upcoming exhibition. As the two become more involved with one another over the course of working on the film, they begin to share a certain intimacy that begins to encroach on their private lives. In this way, Russo-Young’s new film is about art and intimacy, crafting a tale that delves into the inexpressible and tenuous nature of the emotions involved in creating a work of art. Art, as it is defined and depicted in the film, is volatile, thrilling, and dangerous, effecting the geography of interpersonal relationships, and leaving its mark on anyone who sees it, making Russo-Young’s film an unforgettable and indispensable piece of artistic creation and interpretation.

In the film, Thirlby’s Martine is already a dangerous entity herself, flirting and engaging with the men that she comes into contact with aggressively, while maintaining a certain distance that is required by the work she does. Krasinski’s Peter is vulnerable to Martine’s lurid genius, and falls for her almost immediately. Watching these two characters work together on Martine’s art film is intense, loaded with the eroticism of foreplay, shot for shot, and culminating with a coupling that feels real at the time, but turns into artistic posing later. Martine and Peter make for a fascinating cinematic couple, tiptoeing around each other’s emotions and sensitivities, and crashing into one another when the pretension of their art allows them a glimpse into a forbidden and unspoken intimacy. Art thus serves as a shortcut to love for the film’s protagonists, but proves to be only a picture, or a sketch, of the actual thing, creating an intimacy that exists only within the piece itself, transcending the selfish physicality of copulation.

As Martine and Peter’s composed intimacy flourishes, its energy begins to influence those around them, like a work of art reacting within its participants. Peter’s wife begins to engage in a flirtation with a client, breaking the assumed boundaries of the doctor patient relationship, and exposing them for the tenets of social artifice that they really are. Meanwhile, Peter’s wife’s daughter, from her first marriage, creates an aura of coy, flirtation with a tutor, speaking Italian as a language of love and betrayal, and inciting a barely disguised outrage and misogyny to break forth, unfettered by the pretention of polite conversation and etiquette. As the art of societal norms begin to unravel, the true emotions behind them burst forth, threatening to overtake and destroy the lives of those involved. Thus, the film ends with the completion of Martine’s film, and the re-encapsulation of naked intimacy, comfortably disguised in its more familiar solipsistic subjectivity.

Ry Russo-Young and Lena Dunham have artfully captured something quiet illusive in their examination of art and intimacy in Nobody Walks. Without bluntly stating the obvious, the film presents art in all of its many forms, both as the abstract idea as well as the societal norm, and tears way its clothing to reveal the terrifying body of intimacy itself. Love, as it is defined in the film, is an untamable energy, beautiful, hideous, and divine all at once. The characters that come into contact with it, through the means of artistic contrivance and intervention, are left battered and bruised, but all the more human because of it. The film’s subtleties are numerous, as are its subjects, which makes it all the more interesting and rewarding to watch, perhaps more than once. Nobody Walks may be a film posing as art posing as life, but if you can move beyond the pretentions of its subject matter and form, you’ll find one of the most deeply affecting and moving films to come out of late from within the independent film circuit.

Nobody Walks is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

An Unnecessary Remake that Surpasses the Original

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on December 9, 2013 at 3:38 pm

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Oldboy
Directed by Spike Lee
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Oldboy, the new Spike Lee Joint, is film that has been grossly disparaged and derided before it was even seen by a mass audience. Inspired by the 2003 cult-classic South Korean film of the same name directed by Chan-wook Park, and based on the original Japanese Manga written by Garon Tsuchiya, Lee’s Oldboy is the most recent re-make of a still contemporaneous cinema classic that Hollywood has produced of late. The original 2003 film is a new-classic revenge thriller, as startling in its liberal use of violence as it is inspiring in its singularly expert level craft in cinematography and editing. Park’s Oldboy is one of the best films of the past ten years, which is why there has been such an uproar over Lee’s new adaptation of the same story, made only ten years after the original was released. However, Lee’s Oldboy is not Park’s; Lee’s remake serves to clarify and expound certain points and over-arching themes of the story for an American audience that might have been unclear in the South Korean version, and in the process makes a film that might just be capable of surpassing the original.

Where the original film engaged in a certain surreal-mysticism that lent the film much of its originality and humor, Lee’s remake is much more hard-boiled, offering scenes that are far more gritty and immediately violent than anything offered up in the original. While many of the film’s shots and sequences are lifted directly from Park’s adaptation, Lee’s reinterpretations of these scenes feel more horrifying and intense than viewers might expect. Where Park’s film was more human, concerned with the film’s protagonist from a perspective of empathetic identification, Lee’s film creates a certain distance between the viewer and the film’s hero, allowing for the scenes of torture and violence to occur more forcefully and without restraint. However, the scenes of violence in Lee’s Oldboy never feel gratuitous or exploitative, as they might under the hands of a less capable director. Where the film might have been grossly sadistic had it been directed by, say, Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino, Lee is able to strike a balance between the narrative and the on-screen violence, never filming a scene that falls into unwarranted excess.

Lee’s Oldboy is also headed by one of the most well conceived casts imaginable for this particular film, starring Josh Brolin as the hero, and Elizabeth Olsen as sidekick. While Min-sik Choi’s stirring portrayal of Dae-su Oh in Park’s film will never be overshadowed by any other performer’s interpretation of the same character, Josh Brolin brings a certain gruff manor and apathetic amorality to the role. Instead of playing his Joe Doucett as a mere drunken buffoon, Brolin’s Wall Street executive is much more aware of his short comings, which makes his initial imprisonment and penultimate punishment all the more justified and deserved. Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen is sublime in her role as Marie Sebastian, distancing herself from Hye-jeong Kang’s performance in the original film, with a character that is effectively unique to Lee’s film, a little wiser and more cunning than Park’s Mi-do. Other notables include Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Imperioli, playing the hotel manager and the old friend respectively, and whose performances turn out to be even better than the ones offered up the first time around.

As Spike Lee’s Oldboy has been released for the first time over the past few weeks to a nationwide audience of viewers, the question that has plagued Spike Lee ever since he announced his plans for remaking Chan-Wook Park’s classic has reemerged with even greater force: why remake the film at all? For many fans of the original cult classic, that question will create a bias within them, predetermining a negative reaction to Lee’s film before they even see it, if they even allow Lee’s film that much attention. The advance critical reaction to the film has proven this bias to be abundantly present, with critics tearing Lee’s work apart, seemingly for no purpose other than to complain that it was made at all. Commercially, the film is already a failure, and probably won’t rake in much more money than it already has. Such a fact is unfortunate, as Spike Lee’s Oldboy is one of the most invigorating and exciting films to come out this year, even if it was an unnecessary exercise in re-adaptation.   

Review of the Week: Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 (2013)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on December 7, 2013 at 3:31 pm

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Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 (2013)
Directed by Sebastian Silva
Netflix Rating: Didn’t Like It

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 is a drug film starring Michael Cera that centers around a trip taken into the Chilean desert by two Americans and three Chilean brothers in search of a fabled cactus plant, supposedly capable of rendering a psychedelic experience in anyone brave enough to ingest its hide. Independent filmmaker Sebastian Silva, whose work on the 2009 film The Maid earned him much critical acclaim after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, directs the film with the idiosyncratic eye of someone entirely detached from the Hollywood system. In fact, since premiering Crystal Fairy at Sundance earlier this year, Silva has come out with the information that much of the film was improvised over the course of two weeks of filming, its actors equipped with only an eleven page outline to serve as direction. While parts of the film feel spontaneous due to this naturalistic method of storytelling, most of the picture suffers from a lack of focus and direction, causing the plot to sputter and stall at more than one point over the course of the film’s mercifully brief 98 minutes. While Silva’s ambitions are admirable, and his distinctive vision is refreshing in its peculiarities, Crystal Fairy is a confused mess that’s unable to move beyond its initial charms.

When the film starts, the viewer is introduced to Jamie (Michael Cera), a restless and dopey American in Chile, obsessed with psychedelic drugs and Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Eventually, we meet Crystal, played by former child-actor Gaby Hoffman, who is an equally neurotic and wide-eyed American with her own attachments to the psychedelic lifestyle. By chance, these two end up on the same journey into the Chilean desert with three Chilean brothers, and together they experience a drug fueled “trip” that serves as a source of therapeutic catharsis, for both the characters and the film as a whole. Throughout much of the film, Jamie is self-involved and antagonistic, and Crystal is aloof and enigmatically self-defining. By the film’s end, these two protagonists gain a sense of self-coherency, granting them the ability to transcend their self-centered hedonism, and bring the viewer into closer understanding with them and their personal journey.

Unfortunately, most of the film is centered on the events that lead up to this catharsis, making the film’s central narrative arc rather stunted and nihilistic in tone. Jamie is unlikable from the very first scenes of the film, and his behavior and temperament doesn’t improve as the film goes on. Likewise, Crystal is the stereotypical hippie-beatnik, overly concerned with her own life style and spiritual-mysticism to the point of an inadvertent exclusion of those around her, including the viewer. It’s hard to make another person’s experience on drugs entertaining to someone else, and Silva’s film is no exception to this difficulty. The act of voyeurism, of which film takes part, is dependent on the viewing of something potentially interesting to ogle; watching someone take a drug and experience its psychedelic effects is tantamount to filming paint drying on a wall, leaving the viewer’s senses as dull and un-stimulating as the object of observation.

And yet, for all of its self-indulgent preoccupations, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 is, visually and dramatically, one of the boldest and most creative films of the past year. Sebastian Silva’s sense for hyper-realistic dialogue and action, based on his use of improvisation instead of writing, is bold and refreshing, capturing the viewer’s attention immediately, and never letting go. Additionally, Michael Cera’s involvement with such an inventive project is a fantastic move forward for the still very young actor, serving to sever whatever associations viewers might still hold of Cera as the young and awkward dweeb, frequently cast in popular American comedies as the straight man to co-stars with a broader range. It’s also striking to see Gaby Hoffman in such a mature and dynamic role that serves to separate her from the chastity intimated in such films as Uncle Buck and Sleepless in Seattle, both literally and figuratively. Silva’s Crystal Fairy is not one of the best films of the year, nor is it a great film, but it is a film that prods and tests the boundaries of its performers, and needs to be seen by anyone interested in experimentation within popular narrative filmmaking.

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.