Sean K. Cureton

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Declaration of Inertia

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on January 31, 2015 at 3:21 pm
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The Interview (2014)
Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are the powerhouse filmmaking team to contend with in the world of big budget studio comedies at the present moment, their continued dominance having a lot to do with a characteristic willingness to indulge in crass fraternal humor, often hinging on homoerotic, bonhomie innuendo, a little to do with their innate charisma and lovability, bolstered by a close-knit working relationship with James Franco, whose own insatiable demand for attention and notice seems disproportionately wrapped up in an ambitious ennui, and something to do with their having been pre-approved for mass comedy consumption by the likes of Judd Apatow, the unofficial Godfather of everything funny in Hollywood. Their most recent film, The Interview, is partially autobiographical, a la their last project, the end of the world romp This is the End, only this time around Rogen and Franco, the film’s two lead actors, are playing versions of versions of themselves, their characters given fictive personas and professional identities to inhabit, but for all intents and purposes appearing to speak directly on behalf of Rogen, Goldberg, and Franco, making witty banter and pop cultural references in a manner too informal to be entirely disingenuous. Franco plays Dave Skylark, a journalist with the credentials and business acumen of your typical Access Hollywood anchor, his own tabloid generating talk show less about the news, and more about generating controversy and blowing up the blogosphere, the first twenty minutes of the film involving segments in which Skylark reveals that actor Rob Lowe is bald and rapper Eminem has been playing “gay-peek-a-boo” for years through the euphemistic nature of his lyrics, formally coming out to the public on air. In terms of prior scripts and comic antics on both the big and the small screen, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking territory, The Interview as farcically impotent and socially stabilizing as anything else that Rogen and Goldberg have done before, the presence of culturally destabilizing commentary that makes for a great comedy no where to be found, save in the premise, which has to do with the assassination of Kim Jong-un, eliciting outrage from North Korea, and unleashing a slew of cyber-hacks of Sony Pictures internal databases, in tandem with vague threats of international terrorism presumably originating from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The question of whether or not nation wide terror amid calls for freedom of speech were all a part of an insidiously organized and deftly orchestrated public relations campaign on the part of the film’s distributors remains in the wake of The Interview’s release, its individual merits as a studio comedy secondary to its otherwise unearned status as politically mindful satire, Rogen and Goldberg coming out on top either way, the controversy surrounding the film ironically satirical.

Whether or not The Interview is any good is irrelevant given the surrounding controversy, with Sony Pictures initially pulling the film from distribution entirely, and American theatre chains across the country stating that they would not be screening the film in any of their locations, prompting an outcry for a film that, more likely than not, would have gone largely unseen by an audience otherwise uninterested in dick and fart jokes. In essence, The Interview has made a trend out of political satire, divorcing the genre from destabilizing social commentary, and marrying it to the sort of pop cultural cache more commonly associated with Che Guevara t-shirts, Disaster Relief Campaigns, and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, ethically relevant natural sources of selfless political activism selfishly appropriated by the Facebook generation. Through the act of watching the film, viewers can now feel as though they are actively fighting against a repressive regime, their own individual understanding of North Korean diplomacy as culturally irreverent as the film itself, the fairly stereotypical caricatures of North Korean officials more fun than an engaged understanding of Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian dictatorship. Undoubtedly, Rogen and Goldberg have no misconceptions regarding the frivolous nature of their film, and the finished project aims no higher than being obviously absurd, the film content to reach its target audience of high school and college age kids of a middle to upper class economic background, educated just enough to understand the political nature of the film that they are tacitly engaged in watching, their own interests having more to do with the sophmoric humor on display front and center, the political farce mere backdrop for your run of the mill Apatow production. The idea that anyone would think to make anything more of their film than Rogen and Goldberg have is fundamentally absurd, which might be why the outrage which the film has garnered has elevated the mundane nature of the film’s conceptual leanings towards more bona fide political activism, North Korea’s hyperbolic response to the film proof of the grotesque levels of fascist political censorship which the film only ever hints at satirizing, the politicized response to the film more culturally relevant than the film itself.

In responding to the film as a declaration of war, North Korea has ensured the public visibility of a studio comedy domestically that they might otherwise wish to censor internationally, calling attention to what much of the American movie going public was likely to ignore, a slight piece of cinematic provocation with little to no cultural resonance. What’s more, by taking notice of Rogen and Goldberg’s farce, the North Korean government has broadcast their distaste internationally, thusly proving the accuracy of the film’s critique of the country’s grasp of international diplomacy, and boosting the political cache of an otherwise harmless romp, ensuring the film’s visibility worldwide, and making a bigger fool of their head of state than Rogen and Goldberg could ever have hoped of doing. The fictional Kim Jong-un depicted in The Interview is a ludicrous caricature to be sure, obsessed with Western culture, vaguely effeminate, and a Katy Perry fan to boot, the character’s real life counterpart presumably dissimilar in all but outward appearance, making his projected dissatisfaction with the film’s characterization of himself evidence of yet another layer of irony, the two Kim’s assimilated into one amorphous entity, the satiric image of Jong-un presented in the film as believable as any politically constructed image projected in reality. If nothing else, Rogen and Goldberg have hit upon a source of naturally occurring comic drama, the actual conditions to be found within North Korea more politically absurd and horrendous than anything cooked up in their film, Kim Jong-un already proven to be an unbelievably cruel and surreal tyrant, his actions against his own people evidence of a level of disorientation with the larger world indicative of a highly unstable and dysfunctional nation. If The Interview is truly as dangerous to and potentially destructive of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, then their film is a success, its ability to destabilize existing social conditions and ideologies within at least one nation proof of its viability as a comedy, even if it doesn’t feel nearly as vital domestically.

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s latest is predictable at best, more often than not settling for the comfortably sophomoric, yet bolstered by the insane chemistry of its two stars, their camaraderie having evolved into something uniquely their own since 2008’s Pineapple Express, much of the humor arising from an intimacy between two friends. While the satirization of the political climate of North Korea is effectively cinematic in its grandiose pomposity, its comic overtones are often suffocating, going for broad indictments of a nation already known to be absurd, rather than offering any novel avenues into understanding the presumptions of character of a nation largely unknown, any facets of familiarity constructed by the film as wildly hypothetical as what we actually know of the reality of living under the rule of Kim Jong-un. The reaction towards the film, however, serves to set the film apart from Rogen and Goldberg’s larger cinematic oeuvre, the ire its depictions of fascism have raised from its subject of scorn proving the film’s fiction to be largely prescient, even if the script lacks the intelligence to presume any outright declarations of war, North Korea’s condemnation of the production the most satirically biting aspect of the entire picture. The film’s target audience will likely enjoy the film’s low-brow, stoner comedy, the politically outraged wishing to voice their own and others’ rights to free speech as Americans will be  left predictably bemused and bored by the listlessness of the plot, and the government, and more importantly the people, of North Korea presumably hasn’t seen the film at all, making the outcry surrounding the entire affair the funniest joke of all. Thankfully, no acts of international terrorism have been enacted, the film was released for the viewers who wanted to see it, and we can all go back to largely ignoring The Interview as an unmemorable, if admirably produced, studio comedy, a declaration of inertia, not World War Three.

The Interview is available to stream on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.

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Incoherent Innocence

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on January 24, 2015 at 4:05 pm
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Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
4 out of 4 stars

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is characteristically idiosyncratic, set in 1970 California, and hosting a cast of characters who seem to float in and out of the proverbial hippie daydream only just beginning to turn into a nightmare, Richard Nixon’s presidential inauguration ushering in an era of political unrest and police-state paranoia, the peace and love beatniks of the 1960’s rendered impotent in their quaint attachment to non-violent expressionism and excessive Dionysian recreation. Based on the neo-noir by the great American post-modern novelist Thomas Pynchon, Anderson’s Inherent Vice is like a few too many acid trips gone bad, its protagonist, Larry “Doc” Sportello, taking on the role of private investigator lifted straight from the pages of Raymond Chandler, dazed and confused in a California filled to the brim with red herring characters, clues, and plot devices, missing persons seeming to turn up or disappear entirely, as the case may be, amid a fog of marijuana smoke and a collapsing bohemia. As Sportello wends his way across a dilapidated tapestry of typically Pynchonian misdirection, the world around “Doc” fills with a contrastingly vibrant levity unseen in an Anderson picture since Boogie Nights, its characters spouting deliriously literary lines of dialogue delightfully lifted directly from Pynchon’s novel, and the central mystery of the film’s plot becomes secondary. Under Anderson’s precociously mischievous gaze, each and every exchange, situation, and comic moment appears to be imbued with a relevance all its own, the characters allowed to eat up the scenery in the process, literally as well as figuratively, evolving from mere caricature to a three dimensionality that lends the film a humanity to offset its latent cynicism, leading to a conclusion that proves satisfying, bringing a close to not only the film, but the ethos of the hippie movement. In this way, Inherent Vice acts as an ode to an entire decade of American history, summarizing the unfulfilled promise of an era that still feels possible if not probable, a daydream still wishing to be fulfilled, the film itself another entry into a cinematic oeuvre that has come to be defined by a proverbial loss of innocence, our own or Anderson’s left open for interpretation.

In adapting one of the lesser works of one of the great American novelists, Anderson’s film feels suggestive at times of being taken in as a comprehensive masterpiece of contemporary American fiction, and yet is tonally disinterested with becoming overtly coherent. Through the distorting and transformative power of Pynchon’s prose, the film becomes cinematic, with Anderson’s direction simultaneously distancing the film from the text’s more post-modern construction, while imbuing its meticulous plotting with a more characteristic penchant for tragic-comic theatrics, turning the near incoherence of the script on its head, the film’s central detective narrative less about the solution to any individual case, and more about the characters whose lives become interwoven with one another’s, the Altman-esque pastiche of Magnolia revisited. Like Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice is possessed by whimsy and a devil-may-care attitude, its listless ease making for one of Anderson’s funniest films in years, harking back to the creative energy of Boogie Nights, while maintaining the more focused gaze of both There Will Be Blood and The Master. With his sights set so keenly on the crashing wave of 1960’s Americana, Anderson builds upon his pre-established love for period playacting, his film less of an historical set piece than it is a kaleidoscopic look into the past, familiar in its evocation of a time well remembered, while being distorted through the lens of subjective nostalgia, lending all of the Pynchonian unease arising with the dawn of an era remembered less fondly. Sportello, like Dirk Diggler, is an innocent traipsing his way across a dreamscape of hopeful possibility very quickly turning into a landscape of cold reality, paving the way for characters such as Daniel Plainview to take up residence in a brave new world of more clearly defined ambition, making Inherent Vice the most complex and comprehensive film, stylistically speaking, of Anderson’s entire career, seeming to encapsulate the creative aspirations of an entire oeuvre in the span of two and a half hours, an ambitious goal that is more often than not admirably achieved, ironically making Inherent Vice his most cohesive achievement to date.

And yet, for all of Inherent Vice’s narrative invention, gleefully opaque in its mimicry of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, alluding to Anderson’s stylistic debts while paving an authorial path all its own, the film wends its way through neo-noir pastiche with a gleefulness that borders on the chaotic, its convoluted plot structure as charming as it is impenetrable. It might be enough to simply say that understanding all of the various facets of the film’s meticulously constructed script is besides the point, its incoherence in and of itself an aesthetic coherence found in the film’s spot on evocation of time, place, and character, but such an analysis fails to accurately distill the exactitude of the essence of the film’s unmistakably beautiful and melancholic tone. The reason why “Doc” Sportello is such a fantastically rendered protagonist comes in Anderson’s cinematic recreation of Pynchon’s language through the visual medium of film, the marriage of literature and celluloid through adaptation providing for one of the most moving evocations of Anderson’s deeply felt empathy for archetypically innocent characters inhabiting ever more corrosive and corrupted worlds. Like Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice is fundamentally a coming of age story, Sportello’s identification as a part of the hippie counterculture of the 1960’s at the dawn of the 1970’s marking his character for imminent cosmic upheaval, the malaise of peace and love giving way to the turbulence of pervasive aggression and conservative policies. When Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen finally kicks in Sportello’s door at film’s end, it’s almost as if “Doc’s” hippie daydream has been invaded by the dour consciousness of the Nixon era, the bummer that is “Bigfoot” signaling the return of Republican politics, liberalism accordingly associated with our shared and ever ephemeral innocence.

In more ways than one the spiritual predecessor to the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski, that other thoroughly post-modern take on Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled literary tradition, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest directorial effort is perhaps his best film since Magnolia, possessing all of its warmth, humor, and intelligence, without getting bogged down in the over indulgence of some of his more recent cinematic work. Thomas Pynchon’s writing has never been quite this snappy and lightly handled, the ponderousness of his prose coming to life in Anderson’s film, thanks in part to one of the greatest ensemble casts of any of Anderson’s films yet, the exactitude of the literary construction of the dialogue seemingly made fluid in its delivery, lacking the self-consciousness more typically experienced when reading Pynchon. In Anderson’s continued evocation of the style and cinematic oeuvre of Robert Altman, Inherent Vice is thoroughly familiar, lending the film’s plot much of its light-hearted panache, the weariness that might otherwise come with its ambition and headiness tempered by a learned aestheticism and form, lending a certain constructiveness to the script’s more free-flowing and improvisatory invention. In more ways than one, Larry “Doc” Sportello might be the most thoroughly Andersonian character yet, his innate innocence seemingly incorruptible, the seeming incoherence of his rambling gait and unfocused attentions lending shape and definition to a world that is vibrantly alive, its vitality an undiluted distillation of the essence of Anderson’s directorial wonder and whimsy. And thus, the question of whether or not Anderson has lost his own porverbial innocence in the process of making his way to the creative high that he finds himself operating from with the release of this, his seventh feature film, becomes irrelevant, his ability to capture the loss of such innocence through fictive characters who are consistently and sympathetically drawn proving to be more important, an incoherent innocence more satisfying than a coherent maturity.

A Clockwork Oregon

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on January 17, 2015 at 10:30 am
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Mean Creek (2004)
Directed by Jacob Aaron Estes
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Jacob Aaron Estes’ feature length directorial debut is a stunning contribution to independent film in its encapsulation of the emotional fragility of youth, the feeling, moreover, of being misunderstood, passed over, and abused a near constant state, lending Mean Creek all of its coercive menace and turbulent bluster. At the heart of Estes’ film is the concept of crime and punishment, the judge and jury irrelevant when confronted with a wrong that is culturally pervasive, infecting the film’s protagonists with equal parts plaintiff and defendant, their individual contributions to the narrative’s great offense marking each of them as culpable to an extent, their willful or silent acquiescence to the film’s vileness an acceptance of the communal sense of guilt and remorse that generates the film’s high moral tone and legalistic sense of right and wrong. From the very first shot of Estes’ film, in which a young, bulky Josh Peck is seen mercilessly beating up on a comparatively scrawny Rory Culkin, the concept of bullying is handled with a hyper-realism that borders on an unrelenting vulgarity reined in by Estes’ aforementioned morality, lending the film its poetic sense of timelessness, the beating on screen intimately inclusive of the viewer regardless of whether they were at one time the oppressor, the oppressed, or both. The way in which the film then unfolds is singularly tragic and grandly encompassing, each event in the film’s plot evolving out of an initial wrong, revealing the degenerative nature of emotional and physical violence on the individual as it begins to infect the larger group to which they belong, becoming a part of the very ecosystem of social interaction, a running body of water that flows through even the most demure and otherwise tenderhearted soul with a malice that proves impossible to suppress entirely, trickling off into its own isolated pockets of immoral wrongdoing. Like Anthony Burgess’ timeless parable on the meanness inherent to youth, Mean Creek is an utterly original story about violence among children, examining the brutal nature of adolescence as its begins to blossom into the moral trepidations of young adulthood, where maturity reigns in our baser impulses and urges, A Clockwork Orange meets small town Oregon.

Once the film starts to gain momentum after the initial instance of school yard bullying, the streak of cruelty evoked by the film’s title very quickly wends its way through its protagonists, infecting the film with a menace that is near ethereal, never a tangible facet of the script’s reality, but spiritually instilled in the very aura of the film’s thematic tone and locale. The creek within which the titular aggression takes place, or perhaps more accurately inevitably escapes, encroaching upon the relative tranquility of the Oregonian geography, becomes the point of no return, the brutalism unleashed in one act of aggressive retribution proves inescapable, shrouding its perpetrators, or faux jurors, with all of the guilt of the accused and summarily punished agitator. In essentially taking the law into their own hands, the film’s heroes are saddled with the morality of a world made of and unto themselves, their actions ringing with the authority of an emotional maturity as of yet out of their reach, leaving them in a precarious underworld of their own guilt and emotional immaturity. When the film’s legal sense of right and wrong is brought into question, its protagonists become delirious, their individual vendetta brought into question by the surrounding world of adult maturity and the governmental strictures of the law, their children’s court dissolved under the harsh light of police interrogation and the fallout attributed to being convicted and accused of premeditated homicide. In taking on a troupe of precocious children instead of regressive teenagers, Estes’ Burgess-esque script takes on a certain moral subtlety that Alex and his Droogs never reach, Mean Creek being centrally concerned with the morals of violence when perpetrated by those who lack the maturity to wield it, their actions against each other and themselves made more painful and damaging in their tacit acceptance of all of the guilt that goes along with the dawn of behavioral responsibility expected in young adulthood.

By the time the film’s poignantly tender conclusion rolls around, in which Rory Culkin’s character is left alone in a police interrogation cell to contemplate the repercussions of his and his brother’s actions in the killing that is the film’s narrative and thematic center piece, the viewer is in much the same place as Josh Peck’s now deceased victim. Unable to give voice to an inner turmoil originating in his own respective emotional immaturity, Peck’s character becomes socially isolated, forcing him into a silence that erupts in the incomprehensibility of violence, bringing on an Armageddon of his own maturity and a mutually assured self-destruction. Whether or not Estes’ surviving characters are able to reach the other side of the film’s estuary of adolescent violence is thusly beside the point, as the film is more obviously fascinated with the one character whose emotional progression towards maturity is cut short, both by his own transgressions as well as those made towards himself, ending his life in a cycle of vengeance masquerading as justice, the moral ambiguity of childhood giving rise to a skewed view of the legal system, crime and punishment rendered simplistically binary. Where Burgess was content to label his crew of adolescent miscreants as being merely young and foolish, their possibly more egregious acts of mugging and rape labeled as a mere phase that everyone grows out of once they reach adulthood, Estes takes a more nuanced and deftly articulated stance, arguing for the moral capabilities inherent in children, their respective emotional immaturity rendering them temporarily unable to wield it, resulting in school yard acts of crime and punishment that eventually sort themselves out in young adulthood’s emotionally mature capitulations to a legalistic sense of right and wrong. Thus, the utter incomprehensibility that arises from violence begets morality, and not the other way around, else the film’s creek would become a river, its currents stronger and more far reaching, infecting adulthood with the irresponsibility of childhood, Burgess’ adolescents run amok.

Jacob Aaron Estes’ film is an intriguing piece of contemporary American cinema, distinctively of the independent film circuit, allowing it the space to explore the young adult genre with tact and finesse. Mean Creek’s attentions to the subtleties of emotional immaturity are thus rendered with broad-brush strokes and a minute attention to detail, never surrendering to simplistic caricature or melodramatic manipulation, allowing the dissection of adolescent violence all of its menace and socially aware commentary and far reaching critique. While the film offers no solution for eradicating the violence of youth that it indicts, and perhaps, as Burgess previously prescribed, there is in fact no cure, Estes’ warmth and compassion for the children he illustrates is tastefully done, forgiving them their violent transgressions where Burgess might indirectly celebrate the very same. Like A Clockwork Orange, Mean Creek is a film that looks at violence among the young from the stance of social commentary, addressing an ailment with the eye of a physician diagnosing an ill with far reaching and potentially dangerous consequences. However, unlike Burgess’s parable, which ends before it even begins to get at the moral ambiguity that it only ever begins to describe, Estes’ film is primarily fascinated with the surrounding causes of an objective violence, his subjects the perpetrator’s themselves, their inner lives opened up to the turmoil of young adulthood, where crime and punishment becomes more readily comprehensible, the violence it often begets weighted with the morals of an emotional maturity that Estes’ characters earn by film’s end, Alex and his Droogs contrastingly falling into it by chance, Burgess’s novel comparatively amoral, Estes’ script serving as a fitting resolution to Clockwork’s ambiguity.

Mean Creek is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.