Sean K. Cureton

Archive for October, 2014|Monthly archive page

To Subscribe, Or Unsubcribe

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on October 19, 2014 at 11:01 am
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Please Subscribe (2012)
Directed by Dan Dobi
Netflix Rating: Hated It

Please Subscribe is a documentary that attempts to validate and legitimize a whole generation of entertainers that have sprung up within the last half decade, with very little to no real world experience in the entertainment industry, their only claim to fame, or at least a very poor assimilation of it, being the innate charisma of their respective personalities, which they have been able to project at such an amplified volume that their individually created content is passed around the web like a virus, hence the term “viral video.” These content creators, in case you hadn’t already guessed by now, are the more successful YouTube personalities, whose individual “channels” generate them upwards of 100,000 subscribers at the very least, and sometimes, in the case of your Jenna Marbles or Shay Carl, over one million subscribers, and counting. Directed by Dan Dobi, the documentary features interviews from a total of nine YouTube stars, each with their own respective modicum of success and talent, some with a little more or less of each. While Dobi’s intentions are good, and his subject is one that should indeed be examined more closely, and with a greater amount of accolade awarded to those few who are able to make genuinely interesting and creative content for the ever expanding digital realm of instantly accessible entertainment, the film fails to approach subjects who are even mildly able to defend what it is that they’re doing, betraying themselves for the lost generation that they are so consistently labeled as being by their elders and the larger conglomerates within the entertainment and news industries. While a few of the featured stars are genuinely entertaining, technically skilled, and intelligent, the vast majority of Dobi’s individually selected subjects appear immature and without genuine talent, sheltered by a medium that is regressively self-isolating, allowing for any accolade given them online to be translated by the recipient as validation of an innately self-serving and solipsistic vocation, perpetuating and sustaining the Generation Me mythos to the detriment of themselves, their fans, and their entire generation. While the significant monetary success, earned via direct sponsored partnerships with YouTube itself, has enabled and validated these internet celebrities to a certain extent, allowing them to continue to create content for the fastest growing entertainment site on the web world wide, with both financial and professional stability, the social status of these new cultural stars begs to be questioned, without the self-aggrandizing, agro-apologetics on display in Dobi’s film, which only serves to underline some of the worst and most mediocre aspects of this still very young artistic medium.

The most egregious error Dobi makes in his approach towards instilling the YouTube community with some much needed professionalism and artistic credibility is his assumption, and rhetorical premise, that subscription statistics equate to genuine talent, monetary and professional success a mere side effect of what must first and foremost be an already necessary and vital source of creative content. However, as is the case with over half of his subjects, who will not be specifically named in order to negate what would otherwise come off as a personal attack on the individuals in question, many YouTube stars are, in point of fact, unemployable young adults, early to late 20 something’s who were lucky enough to catch on when YouTube was still young and in need of bankable stars, the sponsorships they have since maintained with the company the only “job” they’ve ever held, belying their respective immaturities and lack of professional, not to mention artistic, decorum. Many of these content creators started out making videos for themselves and a few friends, with little to no technical mastery over filmmaking or editing, their videos shot and distributed in a time when the now mass proliferation of web-based content from amateur documentarians and filmmakers was still relatively new, their continued success dependent upon the newness of the medium at the time when they started, allowing them to become corporatized establishments in the dissemination of cheap entertainment for the ever expanding digital generation, the molds from which future YouTube stars may now be measured, and hopefully improved upon. In taking his assumed hypothesis too far and too fast, Dobi’s film suffers from the very same adolescent exuberance that marks his subjects’ own shortcomings, rendering his film into a mere love letter to the form, instead of a well reasoned or thoughtful examination and defense of what is currently the most ephemeral, and therefore questionable, means of artistic expression currently being indulged in on a world wide scale. While the kinds of people who are making the very best content on the internet, with a few of them being rightfully featured in this documentary, have proven themselves valuable and talented in their efforts to find a voice amid a morass of pre-teen vloggers and cat videos, Dobi’s film does nothing to uplift them beyond easy stereotyping, bringing attention to the cultural currency of subscription statistics without unpacking what that currency means in our brave new world of digital media and entertainment.

Ultimately, those with the loudest voices will be heard, drowning out the smaller and more nuanced orators in a cacophony of bravado and unbridled exuberance, their personalities larger than life itself, but insubstantial and unmemorable in their emptiness of content, which might be the point, and is most definitely the instigator and source of their success and appeal. As is the case with a number of Dobi’s selected talents, many of YouTube’s biggest stars have earned their place among the ranks of professional amateurs via broad personalities and gimmick based sketches, at times profoundly funny, but always at a level of instant gratification, pandering to an audience raised on disposable entertainment, a quick chuckle more valuable and amenable to subscriptions and likes than a nervous titter that might give way to further thought and reflection, but ultimately lower subscription numbers and a couple of dislikes. Since YouTube is so tailor made for instant gratification and instinctual reaction, the most popular videos will always be those made to provoke and excite, with thumbnails that are eye-catching and purposefully misleading, generating video hits which are then translated to cultural currency and professional success, at least according to Dobi’s argument. All of this, however, is an example of why content creators who have taken to the internet to establish themselves within the past decade are so vehemently derided and held in contempt by a previous generation of writers, artists, and cultural critics who were raised on print and objectively quantifiable artistic output as a measure of one’s artistic identity and vitality. In a world where anyone can create anything and put it online for mass consumption, it becomes hard to distinguish what is truly great and what is actually mediocre, which is why YouTube is both a boon and a bane of the artistic community, providing a place to hone one’s craft, but hard to defend as a viable measure of individual merit and relevance, subscription statistics a distracting irrelevance when it comes to defining self-worth and establishing an aesthetic style.

The founding principles behind Dan Dobi’s Please Subscribe are noble and worthy of critical attention, from both the YouTube stars he chooses to focus on, as well as the viewers who continue to insure and compel said stars’ livelihood and creative output, uplifting their efforts to the realm of aesthetic expression and intrinsic beauty. Dobi’s assertion that what vloggers on YouTube, as well as any other content creators on the Internet, be they entertainers, artists, or critics, are doing is inherently valuable and holds artistic merit is an assertion that should be conceded to a certain degree, depending on a case to case basis, with various factors applied depending on the inherent value on display. What becomes clear from Dobi’s blindness, or at least an unwillingness to examine the factor more closely for the sake of an easier argument, to the tenuous nature of subscription statistics, which ultimately come down to the mood of the viewer in the heat of the moment, is that the ultimate authority in determining the quality of creative content on the Internet is up to the consumers themselves, our collective ability to subscribe or unsubscribe, like or dislike, share or ignore, favorite and retweet, the final determining factor for what will be seen and who will be heard. Before content creators on YouTube can even ask for their viewers to please subscribe, they need to explain why their viewers should subscribe, and hopefully in doing so find a voice for themselves that can transcend the form of the viral video itself, and reach the heights of self expression that Dobi feels that the digital medium is innately capable of doing. Please Subscribe has the right idea regarding the emergence of new voices in entertainment and culture online, but fails to produce an argument to make the still young artistic medium viable, leaving it up to the artists and YouTube stars themselves to make that argument for themselves through the output of their creative efforts, which is ultimately as it should be, the defining evidence of content being the content itself, and not the number of subscribers or the commercial corporatization of bankable, star personalities. So next time you watch a video on YouTube, or read an article on a self-published blog site, think about the worth of the content, the intent of the creator, and the cultural currency inherent in deciding to subscribe, or unsubscribe. Then click like.

Please Subscribe is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.

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The New American Pastoral

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on October 12, 2014 at 11:30 am
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Gone Girl
Directed by David Fincher
4 out of 4 stars

Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, and adapted for the screen by its author, David Fincher’s Gone Girl is one of the most thrilling rides you will go on in a movie theatre this year. Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as Nick and Amy Dunne, two too-cute-for-their-own-good Manhattanite writers living the dream in the Big Apple, or at least until their entire world begins to crumble around them amid the economic collapse at the turn of the 21st century, that is, Fincher’s new film is about the sorts of fabrications that we create for and about ourselves, and how flimsy those sorts of subjective fictions can turn out to be, especially when they begin to collide with the opposing planets of those who are the most near and dear to us, signaling a complete and total cosmic collapse of the self. Without giving away too much of the plot, Gone Girl, at its core, is about the charade of marriage, the sanctity of the private life in a world encroached upon by the 24 hour news cycle, and how both of these forces can combine to create a self-imprisoning fiction that proves to be all too easy to begin to believe in, even trust. The film starts out as a simple murder mystery, with Affleck’s Nick in the hot seat, suspected of murdering his seemingly perfect wife, case closed, no questions asked. As the film progresses, however, the story becomes more confused and opaque, leaving the viewer reveling in the various lies and deceptions employed on all sides of the case, until the final reveal at the film’s end, giving you exactly what you wanted, only this time the portraiture of domestic bliss is all too true, without even a veneer of romantic playacting, the players revealed for who and what they really are.

Like the novel, Flynn’s screenplay for Fincher’s film employs the deceptive narrative device of the unreliable narrator in order to create the aura of mystery and intrigue that is so central to the novel’s character and form, presenting two protagonists who are in a near constant state of re-invention and outright fabrication, each lie disguised as truth, and each truth seemingly a lie. Remarkably, the malleable nature of the novel’s plot is adapted impeccably well to the screen, with each lie made all the more terrifying when aided by Fincher’s cunning point of view, compelling the viewer to sit back and watch as Fincher’s characters lie, contort, and fabricate each and every step of the way in full view, making their deceptions all the more disturbing and cinematically compelling, akin to live theatre in the immediate nature of each character’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to each twist and turn of the film’s plot. At first glance, Amy is the perfect little Stepford Wife, willing to play the “Cool Girl” to Nick’s gallivanting brohemian life style, aiming to let her “dancing monkey” off the leash, in order to appear to seem less controlling and shrewish. As the film continues to unravel such orchestrations of character, however, Amy trades places with Nick, and begins to create her very own Stepford Husband, belying the inherent misogyny in the very conception of the “Cool Girl” aesthetic as it plays out across various male character types, an individually tailored Manic Pixie Dream Girl for every boy. Throughout Fincher’s film, Nick and Amy Dunne are constantly out of reach, impalpable to our touch, cold and distant, ephemeral in character, allowing for the reality of the film to become all the more willing to bend on cue into either dark nightmare or domestic pastoral, depending on the needs of the current fiction being entertained by the film’s characters.

Depending on their moods, Nick and Amy are in love, or not, rendering their marriage a darkly satirical farce, the players made into world class thespians, adaptable to the vicious nature of the private life within a very public world. The public world in Fincher’s film is personified in the 24 hours news cycle, populated by Fox News predators, CNN story spinners, and TV personality lawyers, all eager to devour their very own convenient truths, true or not, so long as it makes for a good story. Thus, Nick and Amy Dunne are outright encouraged by those around them to trade off their roles multiple times over the course of the film’s impeccably paced and remarkably punchy 149 minute run time, the abuser and the abused one minute, the mouse and the cat the next. As their roles go under their many stages of metamorphosis over the course of the film’s construction of the perfect domestic fable, the world of the film grows colder and harsher, Nick and Amy becoming victims to the very falsehoods they once held up only for themselves now held up to the eye of a public eager to project their own desires into the mix. Instead of playing the Stepford Couple only for themselves, by the end of Fincher’s film Nick and Amy Dunne are playing for the entire world, performing a dirge of a marriage that once was, within a prison of the self that no longer feels so familiar.

Gillian Flynn has done the near impossible in her adaptation of what was a particularly remarkable novel for the screen, and David Fincher has proven the ideal co-creator in Flynn’s prosaic narrative on love and marriage in modern times, delivering a film that is shocking in its dark satire, and disturbingly comforting in its capitulations to the form of marriage as an ideal. With all of the various indictments and irregularities that Fincher’s film raises about marriage between two people living on their own subjective planets of selfhood, the universe that surrounds these two planets of self-image proves to be the true menace, encroaching upon the privacy of the soul with wanton abandon and an insatiable appetite to be entertained by our own projected fantasies. What’s more, in engaging with the film as a viewer, the act of our own voyeurism must be reckoned with in order to watch the film as entertainment, implicating the viewer in the larger evils of Fincher’s cinematic dialogue, making CNN news anchors and Bill O’Reilly’s of us all. Possibly the most frightening thing about Gone Girl is its insistence on the need for the types of orchestrated realities that we see on the news everyday, as they serve to placate a sub-conscious desire to be informed, outraged, and complacent to let things run their course, for the sake of the most convenient of truths. We don’t really want to upset the convenient idealism inherent in our various constructions of our private and public selves, willing ourselves to be entertained by the drama inherent to our everyday lives, true or not, so long as it’s entertaining, and we each get to go home to our very own Stepford Husbands and Wives at the end of the day, a new American Pastoral for everyone, domestic bliss be damned.

Drama, the Comic Actor, and Adam Sandler

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on October 4, 2014 at 10:28 am
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Reign Over Me (2007)
Directed by Mike Binder
Netflix Rating: Didn’t Like It

Released in 2007, Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me is a post-9/11 drama centered around one of the better performances of Adam Sandler’s career, pulling on Sandler’s ability to play his characteristic brand of the now ubiquitous man-child, only here his childlike playfulness is played off as tragedy on a grand scale. As the alienated and emotionally disconnected widower Charlie Fineman, whose wife and children were killed in the tragedy that serves as the film’s thematic centerpiece, Sandler is brooding and troubled, socially awkward in a way that is reminiscent of his earlier dramatic turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, only here a lot of that awkwardness is made more maudlin, with Sandler’s Fineman constantly trying to reach out to his old college roommate, played off as respectably as the film will allow by Don Cheadle, through a peculiar brand of sophomoric, fraternal humor that veers towards complete immaturity and regression of character. All of this rather overt sentimental sappiness is forgivable within the framework of the film’s plot, however, as Binder’s film is a study on post traumatic stress disorder, filled with all sorts of alienated and emotionally disconnected people whose shortcomings and temperamental inconsistencies are brought to light only through their sheer proximity to Sandler’s clownish caricature of psychological instability, making post-traumatic casualties of us all. Sandler’s performance is the real pull of the film, exhibiting his ability to emote and perform within a character who, for all his manipulative reductionism, is immediately sympathetic and worthy of our time and attention, even if the film as a whole is not. Reign Over Me is by no means a great film, at times veering into ethical irresponsibility and immoral opportunism, but its melodramatic use of Sandler’s dramatic ability is notable, making it one of the rare films to use Adam Sandler as an actor as opposed to an entity.

With two more dramatic roles on the way this fall, it becomes all the more intriguing to look back at this film, as Sandler’s capacity for portraying three dimensional characters has always been present, merely waiting to be prodded into sharper focus and attention by the right director or script. In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, released five years earlier in 2002, Anderson was able to see an innate ability in Sandler for a dramatic realism that no other director had previously given the SNL alum to even make an attempt at trying to bring out or capture. In Anderson’s film, Sandler gave his fans a first glimpse into a depth of lyrical humanism within his very psyche that was intensely introspective and conflicted, to the point of outright violence, with Sandler portraying a character so asocial and mentally unstable that the jarring attraction and sympathy the viewer began to feel for the character was made all the more intimate and cinematically compelling. This particular appeal of Sandler’s dramatic ability can be seen in other subsequent films of his as well, ranging from James L. Brooks’ earnest, but emotionally flat, Spanglish in 2004, to Judd Apatow’s most personal and mature 2009 film, Funny People, with Sandler playing a darkly satirized version of himself, to great tragicomic effect. It’s no secret, then, why Binder went to Sandler to play his tortured widower, living a fractured life in the wake of a great tragedy, as Sandler’s comic sensibilities pair incredibly, near inseparably, well with inner turmoil and psychological realism.

And yet, for all of the surface level beauty and melodramatic subtlety that Sandler is able to pull off, he is never able to carry Binder’s film any farther than the script will allow, owing to the fact that Sandler, as a comic actor, is in constant need of either good direction or a particularly well scripted narrative to follow if any of his performances are going to ever truly land dramatically. Without any real sense of cinematic direction in this film, Sandler’s Fineman falters into insincere parody as the film progresses, his character made trite and two dimensional as the weakness of the film’s script begins to work at unraveling Sandler’s innate ability to emote, providing no clear target or object for Sandler to project towards. Individual shots of Sandler taken out of context from within the film are, however, contrastingly affecting, as they suggest a depth of character provided by the larger dramatic tableaux of the film’s backdrop, and it is this highly visual aspect of Sandler’s persona within the film that seems to fill in, at times, for the lack of character and story in Binder’s writing and direction. Binder’s film is not tone deaf, however, as it makes the viewer feel the isolation at the heart of Sandler’s character, but due to its lack of dramatic structure, beyond soap opera melodrama, it never feels as truly cinematic as some of its individual shots and sequences might appear at first glance. Unlike Punch-Drunk Love or Funny People, Binder never really crafts a character in Charlie Fineman for Sandler to play, in so much as he personifies a thematic mood, which, while being affecting to look at, is not cinematically interesting to watch over the course of an entire film.

If nothing else, Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me is a strong example of how not to direct a comic actor within a more dramatic piece. Adam Sandler does perfectly well at eliciting an immediate emotional response from viewers, which is why he did so well on SNL in the 1990’s, and why the low-brow, frat-boy, comedies that he produces and stars in are such cash cows within the mainstream movie going audience, their success riding on Sandler’s brash charisma and childish charm. However, when a truly talented director, with a well-written script in tow, is able to work with Sandler, his brashness can be tempered to a cool glow, allowing for his charm to come through as subtlety, imbuing his better starring turns with the sort of drama and tragedy that Binder’s film tries so hard to capture. What’s more, as is the case with Sandler, the same general argument can be made on a larger scale for many other comic actors of a similar charm and range of dramatic ability. Case in point, Jim Carrey was able to turn in the best performance of his career under the direction of Michel Gondry in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was written by the inimitable talent Charlie Kaufmann, while on the other hand giving one of his most atonally stunted and blasé performances in 2001’s The Majestic, forgettable in its direction by Frank Darabont, and deplorably written by Michael Sloane. While some comic actors seem to make the transition to dramatic roles seemingly with little effort or need for much direction, see Bill Murray, others seem to flounder and come up short when their innate talent to gain the viewer’s sympathy is never given structure by a good director or a superior script, see Chevy Chase, making the case for Adam Sandler into a timeless question: the comic performer, actor or entity?

Reign Over Me is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.