Sean K. Cureton

Archive for February, 2015|Monthly archive page

21st Century X

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on February 28, 2015 at 12:46 pm
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Detachment (2011)
Directed by Tony Kaye
Netflix Rating: Loved It

Tony Kaye’s Detachment is like his feature film debut American History X in its bleak depiction of America’s youth, trapped within a bureaucracy of public education causing them to lash out in acts of cruelty and malice systemic of the failures of government sanctioned institutionalization, knowledge and empathy replaced by ignorance and competition. Indicative of Kaye’s characteristic dissatisfaction for the culturally degenerative firmament of America in the twenty-first century, Detachment examines the failures of our country’s high schools, depicting the role of the teacher as more of a warden and jailor than educator and counselor, Kaye’s chosen subjects down trodden civil servants held back by the anger of their students and the economic strictures of the nation’s poorest and most racially volatile residential districts. In Adrien Brody’s Henry Barthes, the viewer is afforded a veritable reincarnation of Kaye’s previous protagonist, Edward Norton’s Neo-Nazi turned social activist Derek Vinyard, Barthes’ internalized rage quelled by a poetic soul, erupting in fits of isolated panic when provoked by the very worst of society’s machinations of arbitrary law and order. Like American History X, Detachment is nearly suffocating in its dark, dramatic tone, the dour halls and classrooms of Kaye’s public high school lending an impenetrability to the characters within, the torch of enlightenment left unattended, leaving a whole generation of children scrabbling in the dark, capitalistic antagonism affording only the meager light of a single lit match. Where Kaye’s feature film debut found him investigating racial prejudice and violence in Southern California at the dawn of the twenty-first century, his fourth film finds him interrogating the survivors of his prior social apocalypse, his public educators tied down by the ego of discontentment engendered by the detachment of racism that has continued to course through the American subconscious in the proceeding ten years.

As a successor to what is possibly the greatest social drama of our time, Detachment is comparatively engaged in a discussion largely pre-determined, Kaye’s rhetorical flourishes on the importance of an ever diminishing liberal education heavy handed, but restrained by the subtleties afforded in Carl Lund’s script and via the deft performances of the film’s exceptional cast. If Kaye is a director’s director, than his oeuvre is perhaps most marked by its unrelenting authorial style, Kaye’s films less about interpretation than they are about elicited reaction, his films provocative in their engagement with topics already laden with a socially pre-conditioned response. And Detachment is no exception, decidedly brutal and effectively moving, Kaye’s dissatisfaction echoing our own resentment towards an ingrained cultural disengagement, America in the twenty-first century remarkably insincere and prone to satire, but without the knowledge of where that insincerity and ridicule stems from, causing further civil division and turmoil. While some might find Kaye’s stubborn cynicism exhausting, and American History X is nothing if not unmistakably critical, Detachment possesses an empathy for its characters that proves optimistic, even if the battles waged don’t always culminate in success. While the film’s conclusion leaves its characters in much the same quandary in which it finds them, Kaye’s direction imbues a familiarity that proves empathetic and diagnostic of the lack of concern in public education in America at large, any solution dependent on our response to the film’s comprehensively informed satire.

In Henry Barthes, Kaye has seemingly distilled the spirit of Derek Vinyard to his bare essentials, the anger of an upbringing found lacking in proper emotional support and economic stability fostering an adult lacking in social grace, the torments of his past informing his impersonally detached nature in the present. While Henry undoubtedly cares deeply for his fellow teachers and students, his status as a long-term substitute teacher enables him to leave before becoming too emotionally attached to any one school district, classroom, or student body, constant motion and change negating the effects of what is a meager and hard earned existence. Like his students, Henry feels the undercurrents of oppression surging forth as anger, a socially propagated affliction of a culture in a state of arrested development engendered by the very lack of education that Henry is actively engaged in instilling into a stagnant national intellect. When Henry says that he understands that his students are angry, or when he takes in a young prostitute off the streets out of sincere charity, his own intelligence is temporarily lent to an American youth emotionally and mentally abandoned, the public schools little more than police states, the children put under their care abused, neglected, and ignored. In Kaye’s film, all of his characters are dissimilarly detached, their very inability to connect with one another ironically communal, if only they could reach out and see one another’s shared pain in order to transcend the culturally regressive traits that have kept them deaf, dumb, and blind to organized civic action.

Perhaps the most pervasive aspect of Detachment comes in its ability to articulate the incoherence of teenage angst as a symptom of an ever ephemeral maturity, proffered as a possibility, but with no clear social avenues by which to reach it. If Henry Barthes serves as any indication, adulthood carries the baggage of adolescence around with it, our formative years spent in the American public education system alternatively deleterious or transformative to our own intellectual and emotional growth, our nation’s teachers the first line of defense against the violence of racism and social prejudice, so long as we give them the freedom of authority to educate. Without the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, pure and corrupt, Kaye’s film serves as evidence to make it unmistakably clear that the civil turmoil depicted in his American History X will continue, anger the physical manifestation of psychological neglect. It’s impossible to come away from any film directed by Tony Kaye in an apathetic manner, his film’s provocations immediately familiar in their sources of criticism and indictment, his resentment echoing our own subconsciously felt grievances, and informing our consciously espoused complaints. As a social activist, there is no director currently making films quiet as effective in eliciting a volatile response from the tacitly disengaged masses, and Detachment, the spiritual successor to his masterful American History X, is perhaps his greatest achievement yet, diagnostic of the social ills that stem from a lack of a proper public education system, else we remain in a culture divided by the color of our skin and the size of our respective bank accounts.

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

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Wachowskis Pervading

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on February 21, 2015 at 10:38 am
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Jupiter Ascending
Directed by The Wachowskis
2 out of 4 stars

The new film from the duo that made a name for themselves in 1999, with the seminal, sci-fi dystopia The Matrix, is comparatively self-involved, enamored of its cognizant world-building and replete with a mythology well neigh incomprehensible in its intricate assimilation of disparate legends, while struggling to populate its universe with believable characters. Jupiter Ascending is the first film written and directed solely by the Wachowskis since 2008’s phenomenal flop Speed Racer, a film that shares in Jupiter Ascending‘s affinity for genre filmmaking that fails to reach beyond a love of the form, the Wachowskis locked into the attempt at building ever higher structures from which to view their own imaginatively generated fictions, regardless of whether anyone else wishes to idulge them. Originally slated for theatrical release during the summer of 2014, the Wachowskis’ latest was pushed back due to unspecified technical issues and the devlopment of a more targeted marketing campaign, leaving it in the lurch that is the time of year when all of the major movie studio’s dump their least hyped and potentially problematic projects, Jupiter Ascending sharing theatre space with the equally unimpressive fantasy epic Seventh Son, which had its own share of post-production issues, changing hands several times before finally seeing release at the beginning of this past month. With its potential returns from the box office uncertain, the Wachowskis have seemingly set themselves up for failure, Jupiter Ascending an overwrought cinematic spectacle with production values through the roof, but with no one to inhabit its lush set designs and computer generated tapestries, a resplendent sci-fi playground deemed unfit for children. In their stubborn determination to construct cinematic experiences according to an imagination taking inspiration from the disparate and discordant elements of various schools of philosophy and psychology, and married to visually impaired conceptual designs lifted from the format of the graphic novel, it’s easy to mistake the Wachowskis’ visceral propulsion for genius, Jupiter Ascending about as much fun as your typical Michael Bay movie, a little more self-aware and intellectually possessed perhaps, but making just as little sense thematically.

And yet, in the construction of their very own space opera, the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending possesses a certain vitality, its individual acts and sequential movements collectively immersive, rendering the film’s incoherence temporarily, or at the very least tangentially, coherent. While the individual plot points never truly make sense, and the inner workings of intergalactic diplomacy, law, and ethics are beauracratically inscrutable, the tonal construction of familiar themes and narrative tropes from past sci-fi and fantasy epics is suggestive of theoretical articulation, however manipulative such narrative redundancies may be. While Mila Kunis’ Jupiter Jones, a character centrifugally concerned with the basic tenets of astrological determinacy, never mind what that entails, never truly ascends, her journey is one that is lyrically propulsive, her movements between worlds, space stations, and galaxies grandly melodious. While the film’s rhetorical arguments against personal indulgence and commercial consumption are ironically self-defeating, the Wachowskis’ own inability to not become aesthetically consumed by their own cinematic indulgences negating whatever philosophical arguments they might wish to deliver, the film’s more entertaining elements serve to tame the script’s bloated ego, Jupiter Ascending’s pompous theatricality providing a direct counterbalance to the self-importance of the script’s intellectual orchestrations, the images on screen pretty enough to offset the individual characters’ insipidites. Like most of The MatrixJupiter Ascending is a whole lot of fun despite itself, a decidedly original creation from the minds that helped turn David Mitchell’s post-modern novel Cloud Atlas into cinematic dramaturgy, impressive if only for the Wachowskis’ conceptual ambition.

Jupiter Ascending, like the films that precede it, is a genre film unashamed of its indebtedness to what’s come before, equal parts self-deprecation and self-elevation, its own ability to be content with itself reprimanding our own unwillingness to accept the film for what it is. As filmmakers, the Wachowskis are refreshingly independent whatever their own inabilities as storytellers may be, their ability to conceive and follow through with their own creative visions and impulses commendable, effectively ensuring that no two films of theirs will ever be entirely alike, each one individually crafted and personally distinct in an authorial willingness to indulge in communally creative fantasies. In Jupiter Ascending’s capitulations to its more fantastic elements, via the Wachowskis’ characteristically theoretical posturing, the film doesn’t so much ascend as pervade over a creative space to which it is already acclimated, fans of The Matrix sure to follow the Wachowskis into whatever territory their ineffable imagination may take them. While some may scoff and smirk at the film’s ludicrously made up characters and outlandishly fabricated sequences, others will be swept up in the film’s lush operatics, consumption temporarily permitted via implementation of various narrative conceits. With a carefree willingness to be irreverently unoriginal, Jupiter Ascending is a refreshing respite from the drudgery of the mundane that is Hollywood’s dump month, the Wachowskis’ feature fantastically uninspired, but self-righteously so.

With the release of this their seventh feature film, the Wachowskis find themselves at the pinnacle of their career, their masterwork already behind them, but with enough creative steam and personal volition to propel them forward into ever more creatively imaginative cinematic realms. Discontent to sit on their laurels, the Wachowskis have proven with Jupiter Ascending that the very same freedom of spirit that compelled them to make the conceptually complicated The Matrix at the dawn of the 21st century is still pulsating within them, their own inclinations towards philosophically mind bending feature films becoming a decided staple in their professional catalog, divorcing them from such genre filmmaking giants as George Lucas and James Cameron, two talents of similar creative volition lacking the Wachowskis’ personal ambition, The Phantom Menace and Terminator 2: Judgment Day exhaustively coherent in their futility to evolve. Never entirely original, Jupiter Ascending asks more from its audience than most genre films, lacking in distressingly clichéd tropes that would otherwise mar its more viscerally felt character. In direct contrast, the worlds of Divergent and The Maze Runner appear seemingly identical to one another save for the sex of their individual protagonists, each film in turn big budget clones of the increasingly pervasive Hunger Games franchise, itself easy entertainment that’s become laborious in the retelling. Contrastingly, Jupiter Ascending is like a manic retread of every sci-fi and fanatasy trope you’ve ever been told, seen, or reiterated yourself, but in the Wachowskis’ hands its enthusiasm is contagious, fun for about two hours, stupid, but pretty to look at.

Deep Cut, Or Likable Hit?

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on February 14, 2015 at 11:42 am
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Frank (2014)
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Frank is the semi-autobiographical narrative of true events as told by Jon Ronson, the Welsh journalist whose gonzo journalistic exploits were previously adapted into the 2004 film The Men Who Stare at Goats, and whose script provides the details for Frank’s correspondingly bizarre happenings. Directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, Frank tells the story of The Soronprfbs, an experimental, alternative rock band led by the enigmatic titular figure, a singer-songwriter whose singular insanity is often occluded by the large papier-mache head that he has indefinitely affixed over his own, a fictional character based on Frank Sidebottom, the comic creation of the late stand up performer Chris Sievey. With a premise that could have easily devolved into gimmick based theatrics is handled by Abrahamson with a deft subtlety, Frank’s initial humor and off-color satire evolving into a dark reflection on the otherwise unremarkable who aspire towards the entirely unearned acclaim of the social celebrity. In the film’s script, Jon Burroughs, Ronson’s fictional counterpart, is a young, twenty something socialite intent on becoming a trending social media topic online who opportunistically takes to leeching off of the questionable talents of Frank, a man whose on grasp of reality is as tenuous as that of Burroughs’ own. As the young upstart ingratiates himself into the creative world of the band, his false pretenses of celebrity are given the semblance of tangibility from a tepid pool of followers on Twitter, and Burroughs’ selfish ambition begins to shape the course of the band, suffocating Frank in a bubble of hype and notoriety in the process, leaving little room for what little conception of self he still possesses, his art dependent in large part on the enablement of a madness inherently selfless and ironically disinterested in celebrity altogether.

If art is dependent on the selflessly possessed, then fame is the realm of the selfishly dispossessed, the former instilled with the ability to create, the latter with the willingness to exploit, each as dependent on the other when it comes to producing commercially viable art whose byproduct is the celebrity that the former abhors and the latter is consumed in pursuing. For all intents and purposes, within the world of popular music there can’t be one without the other, a musical outfit’s vitality equally dependent on the artistically destabilizing as it is on entrepreneurial conformity. Where Burroughs’ is the film’s unofficial manager, pushing the Soronprfbs towards the mainstream music scene personified in Ronson’s script by the SXSW music festival, Frank is the beating heart, willing to keep pace with an internal rhythm entirely uninterested in the complacency of the three and a half minute pop song. Frank and Burroughs are thus in diametric opposition to one another in Abrahamson’s film, the incongruity of their individual characters forced to confront one another within the industry of the music business, yin and yang vying for autonomous control over the other, while being simultaneously dependent on the other’s more desirable character traits for the sake of personal wholeness. Burroughs can’t write a song that holds any aural resonance, and Frank can’t compose anything that isn’t conceptually dissonant, a truly likable hit forever out of reach for a band whose very name excludes the use of any vowels, rendering themselves an entity that is as verbally unpronounceable as they are commercially unviable.

Ronson’s willingness to lampoon his own experiences with the real life Frank Sidebottom as an act of self-aggrandizing charlatanism is telling, lending the film much of its moral impetus, Abrahamson’s directorial gaze accordingly focused on the pitfalls of celebrity and fame within artistic cultural discussion. Abrahamson’s Frank is empathetically drawn, his pain and emotional instability unsettling at first glance, only to become more and more familiar with each passing frame, his isolationism in dire contrast to Burroughs’, the one alone due to personal necessity and the other due to a lack of personal character, Frank enigmatically tangible, Burroughs coherently insubstantial. Where Frank’s artistic voice is incomprehensibly ambitious, Burroughs’ is familiar to the point of being redundant, Ronson’s script getting at the adolescent fantasy of those who aspire to an individualism that they lack the very understanding of, their attempted assimilation into creative expression dulled by a lack of imagination indicative of the ethos of the generation born into the age of the internet celebrity, raised on disposable images permanently posted and broadcast online indefinitely, however irrelevantly inconspicuous they may be. Burroughs’ attempt to inhabit the voice of Frank through artificial assimilation via the creation of various social media accounts for the band previously non-existent is akin to the annexation of indigenously inhabited lands, utterly without precedent and meaning to the parties most affected, while benefitting those with no claim to a reward of any kind. While the film never attempts an outright indictment of the social media generation, its disease and dissatisfaction with the same lends Frank much of its humor and rhetorical resonance, Ronson’s ability to self-diagnose his own neuroses one of the film’s greatest strengths, the other being Abrahamson’s ability to navigate the complications of portraying characters as potentially broad and unappealing as those presented in the script, the Frank who lends his name to the film’s title respectfully engaged with by both parties.

Instead of listlessly dismissing its heroes to deridingly composed visual gags or contentiously conceived dramatics constructed to ridicule, the humor in Frank arises from a deeply felt love for its chosen subject, Lenny Abrahamson decidedly engaged in celebrating the very un-celebrity of the Frank character. Abrahamson’s ability to take an outlandish character from real life and transpose him into a film with an equally outlandish premise and consequentially craft one of the most moving studies on the intersection of art and celebrity is Frank’s greatest feat of accomplishment, however disorienting and distracting its concept might be to a mainstream audience. In watching Ronson’s Burroughs onscreen interact with a fictional interpretation of the historically based Chris Sievey persona, the viewer is allowed entry into a world of wildly distorted artistry, the creation of personally expressive content opened up to the satire of culturally conscious critique, the script’s fictive embellishments dressing on a very rich and decadent cake of broad social indictment. Frank is summarily humorous, yet abounds in small moments of melancholic tragedy, clarifying some of the more surrealistic gags with a profound resonance viscerally felt, the film’s tortured artist tactfully treated with the utmost respect and genuine sympathy. An oddball comedy of sorts, Frank is a film about art that never shies away from the personal, simultaneously sounding like a deep cut as well as the likable hit off of your very favorite LP.

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

Reluctant War Machines

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on February 7, 2015 at 10:46 am
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American Sniper
Directed by Clint Eastwood
3 out of 4 stars

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is the progeny of Kathryn Bigelow’s decidedly greater Iraq War dramas, both directors summarily concerned with the moral ambiguity tied up in the War on Terror, albeit via varying cinematic avenues, styles, and genres. In The Hurt Locker, Bigelow examined the turmoil of war as it affected an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team, soldiers tasked with disarming bombs in the midst of civil strife according to commands originating from America’s Commander in Chief, each individual’s willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty within the ranks of a military occupation instigated by religious zealotry begetting incomprehensible aggression and fear paving the way for unorthodox methods and questionable goals, the terror at the heart of international engagement as nebulous as the incentives for remaining overseas, save to forget the horrors of one’s actions through repetition, personal moral reflection negated via authoritatively capitulated action. As its spiritual successor, Zero Dark Thirty feels less personal and more reluctantly patriotic, the clandestine assassination of infamous Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden played off as an action-espionage thriller, the means by which American forces secured the information and whereabouts of the world’s most notorious international terrorist left open for question, Bigelow content to let the issue lie while garnering further critical acclaim, free from political indictment via artistic recognition. Given the tenuous territory in which Hollywood has tread before when attempting to represent America’s military engagement in the Middle East, it comes as a surprise that American Sniper is so bold in its complicity in propagating Right-wing propaganda, Eastwood’s representation of American Navy Seal Chris Kyle taking a non-condemnatory stance on Kyle’s public image as a war hero. Neither, for that matter, is Sniper’s Kyle character allowed any thematic engagement beyond the standard spy-versus-spy plot device that makes up the core of the film’s script, the numerous stand off sequences between Kyle and an opposing sniper standard Eastwood fare, the Western film genre superimposed over one of the most ethically complicated wars in American history, setting the film up for stern looks of disapproval from the politically correct Left-wing, even if the film itself is as amorally apolitical as Sergio Leone.

The most lethal sniper in American military history is the byline that Chris Kyle self-appointed in writing his tell-all memoir about his service overseas, an act of self-promotion as euphemistically defined as the war in which Kyle served, the accolades he has received for his service tied up in systematically killing his enemies unseen, itself an act of deception and subterfuge, two qualities not so closely aligned with a more classically defined heroism rooted in bravery and honor in the face of dire peril. In constructing his own narrative on his American Sniper, Eastwood chooses to depict the dubious heroism of Kyle through hyperrealism, the film less of a drama depicting the super heroics of an idealized mensch than it is a study on the reluctant arbiters of military engagement, Kyle and his fellow Seals entirely unfamiliar and consistently misinformed regarding the implications of their orders and actions as cogs in the machinations of war. Like Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club, Eastwood’s film engages in a visual style that feels less like that of an auteur taking the viewer on an immediately recognizable and personal journey than it does an incredibly capable film technician hiding behind the camera in order to lend the narrative a decidedly impersonal gaze, simultaneously visceral in its documentation of dramatic performances without the individual character of a cinematographer. However, where Vallee’s film is bolstered by a distinct engagement with a clearly articulated rhetoric on social rights activism arising from the personality present in the film’s script, American Sniper is comparatively clichéd, less of an examination of an individual sniper than it is a novelization of Kyle’s professional resume, each scene and sequence another bullet point under applicable job skills and experience. Instead of engaging the Chris Kyle character from the perspective of a director, Eastwood maintains a producer’s lack of vision that has come to define his entire career, his films less of a succession of personal statements via artistic expression than they are a slew of well made vehicles designed to appease an audience of conservative movie goers, American Sniper a compelling action film without the guts of a more spirited and independent filmmaker.

In choosing to not make a definitive statement on the objectively questionable aspects of Kyle’s military history, Eastwood ensures the more thrilling aspects of his film outweigh the potential unease surrounding the rather large public shadow that his subject has cast, American Sniper decidedly making a hero out of the man that Chris Kyle called into being through the power of his own story more personally told. A story, moreover, which Eastwood feels less than comfortable in telling himself, similar to the way in which Bigelow’s preceding dramas were largely sterile in their grandiose provocations of psychological instability in her post-war survivors, her films coming off less as dramatic vehicles for open political discussion on the ethics of international diplomacy than they were deftly crafted mythologies, manipulating the emotional impact of highly personal stories for purely aesthetic ends. Unfortunately for Eastwood, his film has no aesthetic lens through which to view the Chris Kyle character, resulting in a film which wishes to glorify its war machine without understanding the cogs that make it turn, the film unable to move beyond tacit patriotism, the script utterly devoid of the rhetoric by which to articulate a political statement of any kind. The fact that so many moviegoers and cultural commentators have reacted to the film so vehemently as being a pro-war propaganda piece, on both the political Right and Left, only serves to show how delicate the entire subject is when opened up to narrative reinterpretation, our own historical proximity to the events depicted as fiction on screen still too close to our every day reality, imbuing the film with more political power than it ever purports to hold. Chris Kyle may have been an ethically questionable character in real life, but the image presented on screen is only ever a reflection of the man, and a fictitious one at that, as accurate as the viewer holds the film accountable to being, our own reaction towards a semblance of Kyle’s life on screen as telling as anything presented in the film as sheer entertainment.

When Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle returns home for brief periods of time in between the four tours of duty which his living counterpart took part in, American Sniper begins to hint at an interiority denied by the memoir to which the film owes its name and surrounding cultural controversy. In life, Kyle appeared on numerous television programs, a guest to day time news anchors, political pundits, and late night talk show hosts, engaging in the construction of his own personal martyrdom, trading stories with Bill O’Reilly and Conan O’Brien in due turn, all without letting on that any of his purported actions have personally bothered him an iota. Instead of revealing anything about himself which might lend clarity to what makes the most lethal sniper in American military history tick, Kyle always appeared calm, cool, collected, and utterly without character. Presumably, much of this emotionless demeanor may have been born out of a trauma which he undoubtedly experienced, as evidenced in Eastwood’s film, but the fact remains that the individual who eventually became Eastwood’s American Sniper might not have been an entirely accurate depiction, the Chris Kyle we think we know the result of politically shaped, capitalistic propaganda, the conservative xenophobia of which the film has been accused the byproduct of a larger entity, the military-industrial complex personified. The fact that Eastwood’s film has been so heavily criticized for being immoral in its treatment of the Middle East is predictable, its own value as Hollywood entertainment secondary to its status as yet another reluctant war machine, signifying less than you might think.