Sean K. Cureton

Archive for December, 2014|Monthly archive page

There and Back Never Again, Or A Joyless Journey

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on December 31, 2014 at 12:41 pm
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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
1 ½ out of 4 stars
Directed by Peter Jackson

Like the last film in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies makes an attempt at the grandeur of Jackson’s far superior Lord of the Rings trilogy, substituting adaptation for masturbatory, fan boy extrapolation, taking material culled from the appendices of J.R.R. Tolkien’s source narrative, and assembling the assorted odds and ends into an epic of sorts, albeit one that no one asked for, and one for which fans of the original, and comparatively humble, novel will not be thankful. Where 2003’s Return of the King was a triumphant, well earned, and moving piece of epic fantasy adventure, tying together its numerous sub-plots and character arcs in a way that was not only cinematically exciting, but emotionally compelling, Jackson’s supposedly final foray into the lands of Middle Earth is a toil to get through, the shortest film in his six Tolkien behemoths to date, and yet by far the most self-indulgent and thematically stagnant, its characters and plot put aside in order to feed Jackson’s insatiable need to remain in the world that made him a household name, and won him numerous Academy Awards, including the Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. And this isn’t to say that Jackson’s Middle Earth isn’t still teeming with the visual beauty and faithful indebtedness that has made his Tolkien adaptations such fantastic tributes to the beloved books upon which they are based, but rather to state that Jackson seems to have lost sight of the source material entirely, his innate gift for recapturing Middle Earth propelling him towards over representation, each and every facet of Tolkien’s text up for cinematic recreation, even if he strays away from what makes the basic stories so timeless. No doubt there are citable reference points in Tolkien’s original books and related writings for each and every twist, turn, and convolution of plot, but the fact remains that the average viewer will care little for these subsidiary elements, Jackson’s dogmatic reinterpretation of every facet of Tolkien’s world resulting in a film that is less than faithful to the very spirit of Bilbo’s unexpected journey. In attempting to bridge his Hobbit trilogy too closely to the far more allegorically nuanced and morally complicated Lord of the Rings, Jackson has delivered an adaptation that reaches too far, falling prey to an over zealous attentiveness to its source material that proves stifling, an entirely expected journey that proves joyless in its execution.

Perhaps the greatest error in Battle of the Five Armies comes in its overlong, self important, grandiosity, which is saying something given the entire franchise’s dependence on the continued relevance of said grandeur. Granted, there is not much material left to work with after the events already related in The Hobbit as seen so far on screen, which certainly serves to explain the tedium of the film’s over choreographed, computer generated warfare, but doesn’t excuse the tedium itself, each and every sequence an extension and elongation of what has already become a cinematic event that has long outstayed its welcome. In what might have been an exciting and climactic final sequence tacked onto the end of the last film in Jackson’s trilogy becomes a nebulous and ephemeral action flick, with a few dwarves, orcs, and goblins thrown in to appease the more learned fans of the source material, resulting in a film that is grand in overindulgence only, neither exciting or climactic, but redundant and boring. All sound and no fury, Jackson’s last film to take place in Middle Earth would be easily forgettable if it were not for that fact that it is meant to conclude the journey started in the thematically and tonally asymmetrical An Unexpected Journey, which aside from its own individual issues of plot and pacing served as a far better adaptation of Tolkien’s original story, lighthearted and centrifugally concerned with the titular hobbit himself, as opposed to the rogues gallery of boors and grotesques largely created for the propagation and continuation of the franchise into this the third installment. While the prior Desolation of Smaug serves to set up the war that takes place in Battle, bringing the tone around to that of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the narrative impetus that is present in Jackson’s first filmed Tolkien epic is absent, feeling not only out of place in the story of The Hobbit, but incongruous with its other elements and characters, Bilbo Baggins a poor man’s Frodo Baggins, his story drastically dissimilar from that of his nephew’s, no matter how it is thematically presented.

Aside from Battle’s anti-climactic, faux-action flick feel, perhaps conceived in response to the continued monetary success of The Hunger Games and its ilk, Jackson’s final Hobbit film is marred in the striking absence of its namesake creature of imaginative fantasy. What’s more, the band of dwarves who were so lovingly introduced in the first film in the series have become utter strangers, blending into the faceless denizen’s of Lake Town to the point of inscrutability and absence of character, demoted from the status of heroes to elements in establishing the film’s setting, plot, and narrative context. In introducing the aforementioned rogues gallery of assorted original heroes and villains into the trilogy in the last installment, Jackson has brought the momentum gained in the first two features to a grinding halt, the supplementary characters so tactlessly applied to the source narrative to the point of being indistinguishable, leaving little reason to care whether they live or die, taking all of the tension out of each and every scene and sequence of potentially awesome fantasy adventure. What’s more, many of these characters’ individual roles, be they of comic relief, romantic divergence, or noble daring do, are already provided in Bilbo and his company of dwarves, the beggar and his wayward outcasts more than fitting points of interest for audience engagement, participation, and enthrallment. In populating Tolkien’s original story with extraneous characters and plot lines, the point of entry into Jackson’s final Hobbit film becomes hard to find, leaving the viewer as bewildered and uninterested in the film as its characters are, to say nothing of the equally redundant five armies to which these characters supposedly belong or oppose.

Maybe the most poignant and dramatically relevant moment in Peter Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies comes in the final scene, in which a much older Bilbo Baggins, now played by Ian Holm as he appeared in 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, is seen closing the book on the narrative relating the particulars of his great unexpected journey, thus returning the viewer to The Lord of the Rings cycle, and putting an end to The Hobbit trilogy, once and for all. And yet, in ending his Hobbit films in direct connection to his far greater cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work of imaginative fiction, Jackson serves to establish his new trilogy as an entry point for future viewers, thereby lessening the potential impact of his far more cinematically compelling trilogy with the addendum of a lesser one. What’s more, certain fans will be sure to propagate the need to see all six of Jackson’s Middle Earth films in a certain “order,” some inevitably starting with An Unexpected Journey, thereby losing potential fans in the process, the effort of getting through Journey  in and of itself an arduous task even for the already initiated. It’s lamentable that if it weren’t for the fact that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was such a critical and financial success, The Hobbit trilogy wouldn’t exist, and if it did it would more likely than not have been achieved in one self-contained film, preferably clocking in at around two hours. However, given the success and applause that was rightfully lauded onto Jackson in 2003, viewers now have his Hobbit trilogy to contend and come to terms with, remarkable in its enfeebled indebtedness to a far greater series of films, The Battle of the Five Armies the final brushstroke in Jackson’s grand canvas depicting a cinematic fantasy that no longer appears as subtle and deftly accomplished as it did just over ten years ago.


Counterculture, and Other Failed Utopias

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on December 27, 2014 at 9:49 am
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Humboldt County (2008)
Directed by Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs
Netflix Rating: Liked It

The drive to excel and succeed is at the heart of Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs’ film Humboldt County, a movie about the very essence of counterculture that centers around the comparatively high strung and vicariously ambitious protagonist Peter Hadley, an aspiring doctor in danger of being expelled from his medical school program by his own father. After failing to properly diagnose a “patient’s” symptoms in an examination, Peter’s world begins to unravel, his narrow worldview, previously defined by his father’s dour professionalism and constrictive practicality, opened up to failure and an existential searching of the soul for meaning outside of the established social mores and expectations of the educated, employed, and bourgeois. When Peter strikes up a conversation with the “patient” whom he fails to diagnose, a free spirited actress whose playfully christens herself Bogart, Peter enters into another world, a Wonderland of sorts where normal societal rules and expectations cease to matter, and the pursuit of earthly and animal pleasures take on a newfound profundity and spiritual necessity, destabilizing the preconditioned rigidity of Peter’s very being. Upon discovering that he has been led into a world of lethargy and sensuality, Peter becomes unhinged, stranded in a world of marijuana farming and dorm room philosophizing, the very concept of a formal education followed by professional employment an abstract and existentially ridiculous idea. Then, when Bogart abruptly leaves him without notice, Peter is forced to grapple with the abstractions of his own sense of self-worth and worldly identity, his own station in society made as malleable and unstructured as the new way of being that he will soon find a way into not only accepting, but embracing as fundamentally necessary to his own sanity and well being, the counterculture the only tether connecting him in any way to the centralizing forces of conformity and structure.

Much of Grodsky and Jacobs’ film is disorienting, the early scenes of academic examination and cross examination coldly familiar, but never intimate, hinting at an underlying sadness held between Peter and his father, a distance of mind and character that mirrors the very alienating nature of mainstream society. The only cure, then, comes in the counterculture personified in Bogart and her California coast town of hippies and stoners, more a state of mind than an actual geographical location, as the mores and values of the locale’s countercultural ideology and illicit activities prove to hold the powers of reorientation and spiritual renewal, the mainstream more prone to fostering emotionally stagnant and hopeless characters. While a lot of the film feels a little too stereotypical and dramatically convenient, with a steady supply of burn out stoners and mainstream outliers and outcasts who prove to be more genuine than their conformist counterparts, the spirit of individualism and idealistic rebellion is viscerally felt, even if that feeling elicits only a contact high, stronger bud surely available elsewhere. As Peter delves more deeply into the counterculture of Bogart’s world, he becomes more dissatisfied with the emptiness of his father’s expectations, but is left with little means with which to address this fundamental crisis of the soul. While the ethos of Humboldt County is decidedly warm and inviting, it leaves little incentive to stay, growth found outside its environs, making it a failed utopia, its enlightened inhabitants as trapped by their tacitly accepted ideology as their straight-laced counterparts in their capitulations to the self-defeating system of capitalism and its associated enticements of upward mobility.

A lot of the failure of Grodsky and Jacobs’ film comes in its lackadaisical attitude towards a more rigid and structured narrative, its characters content to hint at things only tangentially represented in the film’s script and unfocused direction. While much of Humboldt County is gripping and emotionally appealing, its hapless heroes immediately lovable in their optimism and propensity for harmless rebellion, Grodsky and Jacobs can’t seem to take their script anywhere near the coherency of its individual protagonists, lending to the sense of temporal and geographical dislocation that becomes the film’s most glaring fault. While there is in point of fact an actual Humboldt County located on the coast of California, the region factors very little into the cast of characters that make up the film’s fiction, their own individual idiosyncrasies and features making up for what is otherwise a topographically formless cinematic world. Without the focus of a tangibly defined setting for its characters to inhabit and for the plot to unfold within, Humboldt County grows unwieldy, an initially satirical romp that meanders its way into a hazy political thriller, countercultural farce encroached upon by the conformity of dramatic progression. In this way, Grodsky and Jacobs lose sight of their initial engagement with the very forces that their film haphazardly attempts to reconcile, counterculture and the mainstream sitting side by side within a pantheon of other failed utopias, fictional or otherwise.

When the film concludes, with Peter and his father tacitly sharing the space between conformity and rebellion, Peter opts to return to hedonism, with no reaction or comprehension on the part of the film’s tyrannical patriarch, which is perhaps a perfect encapsulation of all of the film’s overriding faults, as well as its occasionally poetic brilliance. While Humboldt County is at times engaging in its send up of the very notion of counterculture as an ideology worth embracing, it’s also unable to leave the world of conformity far behind, returning to it in the film’s tense climax and penultimate tragedy, leaving a ruin for which Peter returns to at film’s end, the tonal incongruity of the film’s plot marring what is otherwise an alluringly ephemeral daydream of unstructured societal bliss. What’s more, the viewer never leaves the diner in which Peter’s father sits in self-assured contentment at film’s end, thus disallowing the satisfaction of Peter’s final refusal to conform acknowledged, suggesting the ideological impenetrability of the socially conservative, counterculture rebuffed via the unengaged apathy of the mainstream. And yet, there is still some narrative promise in Peter’s final departure, lending hope to the dream of anarchic individualism, the mainstream left alone and unresponsive in the existential desolation that is the American diner. There is plenty of room for improvement in the film’s unfocused script and perhaps intentionally unstructured direction, but then much of the film’s charm would be lost, the credential virtues of cultural rebellion irretrievably lost, its fictional paradise a fading utopia, a dream recounted one too many times.

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

Selling Baymax

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on December 13, 2014 at 10:29 am
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Big Hero 6
Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams
1 ½ out of 4 stars

Coming off of the run-away success of last year’s Frozen, Disney Animation Studios’ new animated feature film, Big Hero 6, is the first foray into the superhero film genre that Disney has attempted since their partnership with Pixar back in 2004 in the creation of Brad Bird’s still underutilized original film property The Incredibles. Taking inspiration from a discontinued and largely forgotten Marvel Comics series, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have taken a big idea concept not all that dissimilar from 2012’s highly original Wreck-It Ralph, tackling the superhero comic book story tradition and transposing it into the context of a family friendly animated feature film, starring a lovable cast of characters in a colorful and brightly lit world, designed to please young and old moviegoers alike. At the center of Disney’s new animated feature franchise is Baymax, a cuddly robot programmed to provide medical support and assistance, who is reformatted and appropriated by the boy prodigy Hiro Hamada as a Transformer of sorts, capable of flight, martial arts, and stunning feats of acrobatic, crime fighting ability. While the film was initially advertised as a clever satire of the super hero genre, with the emphasis in the initial teaser trailers from a year ago centering around the action hero aspects of the film’s story, the actual movie is less about the super hero team that lends its title to the film’s poster than a centrifugal family drama, cringingly sweet and sickeningly clichéd at every turn, manipulating the audience’s sympathies to the extent of inauthentic dullness. About an hour into the film, it becomes clear that Hall and Williams have no clear idea as to where to take their potentially creative property, and instead fall back on the same old superhero tropes and children’s cartoon cutesiness of lesser animated features, Baymax an easily lovable star that they have decided to ride all the way to the bank.

Like Dreamworks’ Despicable Me, Disney’s Big Hero 6 appears to be another unimaginative foray into the easily marketable, animated feature film property, Hall and Williams providing their parent company with characters that are immediately appealing to children, while remaining inoffensive enough to compel parents to take their children to see the film and buy the officially licensed toys and movie tie-in merchandise. As is the case with the now ubiquitous Minions from Despicable Me, Baymax is a character whose innate cuteness makes up for a lack of cinematic content, Hall and Williams’ film merely a delivery system for said character, their movie more or less a commercial for a property with a built-in adaptability to star in feature films, syndicated television programming, as well as being the frontrunner for a potentially endless line of toys and action figures. Where Steve Carell’s potentially intriguing, European mastermind Gru was more often than not outshined by the cloyingly obnoxious buffoonery of his Minions in Dreamworks’ aforementioned feature film property, Baymax looms larger than the entire cast of Big Hero 6, which might be why so many moviegoers have been able to overlook the vapidity of what is otherwise an uninspired movie, Baymax’s likability alone worth the price of admission. Instead of becoming immediately disenchanted with the film’s sappy tragedy and cheaply fictionalized setting, San Fransokyo a poorly dyed and distressingly American take on the aesthetic traditions of Japanese culture, viewers of the film seem to be pleasantly satisfied, confusing the cuddliness of Baymax for authenticity of narrative. Where Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph is comparatively genuine due to its originality and depth of characters inhabiting a fully realized and citable world, its moral lessons couched in well researched allusions to video game history and culture, its universe vibrant, lively, and clever in its utilization of easily recognizable real world counterparts, Big Hero 6 seems ignorant of what makes superhero movies cool or redundant, a disappointingly bad film, not necessarily because it should be any better than it is, but because it doesn’t even possess the ambition or wherewithal to even begin to navigate the highly meta-fictional world that it attempts to inhabit.

All of this leaves Hall and Williams’ film within the realm of incredibly lucrative feature film properties with legacies that have nothing to do with the films themselves, and everything to do with the marketability of their animated stars. In the case of Hall and Williams’ property, and at the heart of the film’s marketing campaign, Big Hero 6 has been sold to its audience on the image of Baymax, with initial trailers that suggest a larger satire of the proliferation of the superhero film genre in general, but ultimately sell the film based on the humor derived from Baymax’s lovability, his inane cutesiness a stand in for thematic resonance and a creative drive. Instead of establishing a clear narrative in its build up to their film’s release, or even introducing any of the other supporting cast of heroes and villains, Hall and Williams opted to push Baymax as the incentive and siren song for the entire project, lulling potential viewers into a trance, their own imaginations and pre-conceptions of the film’s stated genre supplying as much nuance and originality to the film’s sparseness as needed. As a result, Baymax has been invited wholeheartedly into the hearts and minds of Big Hero 6’s substantial audience, the film a commercial success poised to continue to rake in money, all thanks to the successful and unilateral sale of Baymax, the film itself an afterthought, more marketing strategy than film franchise. Instead of building upon the promise of its initial premise and admittedly impressive marketing scheme, Hall and Williams’ film does little more than sell more potential film properties, each of its supporting characters and theatric settings ready made action figures and play sets, meant to support and provide definition to Baymax’s already substantial net worth.

And yet, none of this is all that surprising. Taking Dreamworks as an example and precursor for the success of Big Hero 6, why should it be all that surprising that the likability of an animated character should be the impetus for a film’s success? Despicable Me spawned a sequel based entirely off of the appeal of its supporting characters, as opposed to the merits of the film itself, with a third sequel slated for release this holiday season sans the original feature’s protagonist altogether, the Minions having run amok and taken rein of the controls altogether, a blatant and bold statement on behalf of a film studio perfectly comfortable with selling a product in the guise of a feature film. In addition, Dreamworks is also releasing a fourth Madagascar sequel in tandem with the Minions production, giving the supporting trio of devious penguins their own film, further situating the studio as pushers of an already in demand and lucrative product, the studio itself morally and creatively bankrupt. While it would be too soon to say the same of Disney, Baymax belies a certain willingness on behalf of the filmmakers to sell a product instead of producing a film, Big Hero 6 a dull exercise in the marketability of feature film properties that ultimately proved successful for the studio, which is troubling to say the least. If nothing else, moviegoers have bought Baymax, and Hall and Williams’ Big Hero 6 will be considered a monumental success by Disney Animation Studios, but at the end of the day the film is little more than a commercial, its product proven cheap and disposable after only a single viewing.

Image as Artist as Image

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on December 10, 2014 at 3:55 pm
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Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
Directed by Banksy
Netflix Rating: Loved It

At the heart of the enigmatic graphic and street artist Banksy’s feature length documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is the aura of artistic identity, the question of what constitutes art, and the economics and commerce of images, both literal and figurative. Though Banksy never shows his face, identifies himself explicitly, or defends as fact any of the events and persons that are presented indisputably on film as occurring and existing within the real world, there is a culpability on the part of the viewer in watching the film that serves to validate and identify the art and artists presented in the film as such, implicating both artist and spectator in the act of establishing the cult of celebrity conjured up by the images put on display, our reaction towards a given object more important than the identification of the object itself. In this way, the cult of celebrity is examined with a minuteness that proves to be disturbingly prescient, as the status of the celebrity in the public eye is as much a validation of ourselves as spectators as it is a an act of sublimating another individual, their image a reflection of our own image of the world and our place within it in relation to them. The character of Thierry Guetta, or “Mr. Brainwash,” is a singular one, as he casts a shadow over the entire production, his transition from spectator to object one that is meant to mirror the viewer’s, his validation as veritable street artist and point of focus as tenuous as anybody else’s in the same position, entirely dependent upon how he chooses to project his own image in relation to those around him. Banksy’s Oscar nominated feature film is thusly one of the most fascinating indictments of the cult of celebrity and the artist, as Banksy peels away at the very things that make us commend one object as art while simultaneously denigrating another individual’s ambition as trash, questioning the validity of an aesthetic institution of personal identification with a seemingly cosmic significance, revealing the entire world for the stage of ego-centric theatre that we all secretly know it to be, one man’s trash another man’s treasure.

One of the largest objects of fascination in Banksy’s film is obviously the director, or directors, himself, or their selves, and how we as spectators are meant to identify them in relation to the art that they present for our visual consumption. The name Banksy comes preloaded with a plethora of preconceptions about art and the artist, for better or worse, and the fact that Banksy implements the very opaqueness of his own self-image into the film is part of what makes the film so fascinating, as he more or less admits to the fallacies of the very aura that surrounds and legitimizes his work as art, as opposed to mere tomfoolery, or anarchistic playacting. The fact that Banksy becomes the object of focus for Thierry “Mr. Brainwash” Guetta as the film unfolds is suitably fitting, as the reversal of roles that Banksy and Thierry engage in gets at the sort of deconstruction of self-image that Banksy’s film so beautifully encapsulates, working towards a definition of the mentality behind a celebrity driven culture that has more to do with the fabrication of art as self that defines the ego-centrism of our image polluted, socially conscious culture, one in which how we look and present ourselves being more important than the content of our thoughts, or the implications of our actions. As Thierry meanders his way through the world of street artists throughout the film, flirting with the idea of becoming a filmmaker, and ultimately succumbing to the allure of the images that he finds so fascinating, veritably becoming an image himself, the film takes on a stance of artificiality that gets at the very spectral quality of art, indefinable but palpably real and present in the eye of the beholder. The fact that Thierry is able to manipulate his way into the art scene by the film’s end is as astounding as it is destabilizing, as it reveals the in-authenticity of what we take to be authentic, the artist as much a part of the image as the image itself, each a reflection of the spectator’s own assumptions and self-image, an amplification of our shared, culturally selfish isolationism.

Which brings the entire discussion on art and the artist back to the centralizing discussion surrounding the object and the spectator, each entirely dependent on the other in terms of validation and identification. In the case of Banksy, his aura as artist is entirely dependent on the image that he presents to the world, and how that world in turn chooses to see that image in relation to themselves. Through the act of projecting back an image of them self looking at the image of Banksy, the spectator negotiates an agreement on what constitutes art and the artist, the object of fascination being as tenuous and malleable as the needs and desires of the voyeur, purveyor, and cultural tastemaker, our collective judgments on the respective merits of Banksy’s work final in terms of how his image may then be represented to the world. Therefore, the fact that Banksy has been labeled as the director of the film is itself an exercise in voyeuristic idealism and objective projection of culturally established labels, Thierry “Mr. Brainwash” Guetta becoming more fascinating to the point of fabrication and objectification, Banksy becoming spectator to an image more alluring and malleable than his own. If Thierry is in fact an artist at the conclusion of the film, then what does that make Banksy, and more importantly, where does it leave the viewer, spectator or object in the fabrication of celebrity that is “Mr. Brainwash?”

Ultimately, the logic behind Exit Through the Gift Shop’s engagement with the cult of celebrity is cyclical, simultaneously demystifying the art and the artist, while shrouding the distinction between the object and its spectator, thereby re-establishing the ethereal mysticism attributed to both, begging the initial question again and again. Whether there is a clear definition of what constitutes art is irrelevant, as the artist must first be present, and in order for an artist to be present his work must be labeled as the work of an artist by an audience made up of spectators as dependent upon the label of artist themselves, the eye of the cult of celebrity forever staring back it itself in a mirror of aesthetic self-interpretation and cultural ambiguity. By the end of Banksy’s film, the image of the artist is just as opaque and indescribable as ever, with Thierry a self-established celebrity and cultural icon in his own right, the cultural label that he self-applies to himself as object proven to be as alluring as anything else that we might constitute as being art, as we as spectators validate any object as such through the power attributed to the attention of our gaze. In viewing the film as a documentary, we collectively assert the truth inherent in such a label through providing said descriptive definition, imbuing Banksy’s film with the authority of fact, and validating his argument as worthy of our critical and voyeuristic attention, sublimating his work as art once again. In other words, we are all complicit members in the cult of celebrity, granting definition where there is none, establishing a sense of self that is as existentially ridiculous as the aura of artistic identity.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies On Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.