Sean K. Cureton

Archive for March, 2015|Monthly archive page

Two Thumbs Up

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on March 21, 2015 at 11:41 am
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Life Itself (2014)
Directed by Steve James
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Roger Ebert’s death on April 4, 2013 was an earth-shattering event for anyone who has ever seen a movie. For nearly sixty years, Ebert was the voice that one paid attention to when deciding whether or not you were going to shill out your hard earned cash at the multiplex; his was the voice that taught you how to engage with film from a personal standpoint; his was the voice that informed the mass proliferation of the movie review format engaged initially in print, subsequently on television, and finally across the internet. The shadow of Ebert is near inescapable when writing or talking about movies in any format or context, his influence pervasive in its reach and cultural importance, making Steve James’ documentary an indispensible tell-all on the life of the late, great film critic, while simultaneously serving as the final statement from a dying man, beautifully embracing death in the spotlight where some might shy away from the public eye as their physical form slowly turns to dust. In his final days, Ebert was as visible to the public eye as he had ever been; despite the lack of a jaw, which took away his instantly recognizable voice, Ebert retained his rhetorical style thanks to a universal embrace of online film criticism and social media, encouraging a growing contingent of film fans the world over to take to the blogosphere to add their own voices to an open discussion of film previously restricted to those whose work was published in print publication. In Life Itself, Ebert is presented as an everyman, eager to be heard as a critical voice on the films he watched, but more importantly interested in his readers, determined to be understood by anyone and everyone, a standard to which he held the inherent entertainment value of the films he saw and reviewed, for better or worse, making his brand of film review ironically aligned with that of the twenty-first century, making everyone a critic and cinema the language of the people.

The most shocking, intimate, and tragic aspect of James’ film, and the one that makes it so emotionally gripping, is its unflinching look at death, a subject that Ebert had been engaged in personally from an early age. As the film digressively details, Ebert’s Catholic upbringing instilled an intense awareness of personal sin and its attendant mortality, making his life one ruled by morals and guilt, tangentially informing his reactions to certain films and directors over his career as a film critic for the Chicago Sun Times. Ebert immediately recognized Catholic iconography and dogma at the heart of certain films and directors’ work, most notably in Martin Scorsese’s crime dramas circuitously centering on the Italian American experience made multi-national through their engagement of the familiar themes of sin and death, endearing Scorsese to Ebert, and vice versa. When a director seemed amorally engaged in recreating depravity instead of empathetically responding to what was already present in the world, however, Ebert was fast to criticize and recoil with the stern discipline of a rector, his infamously well cited critical appraisal of David Lynch’s magnum opus Blue Velvet an idiosyncratic mark on his illustrious career as a lifetime moviegoer. In responding to films with all of himself, writing with his own beliefs and morals in place as opposed to anyone else’s, Ebert’s reviews were subjective, and rightfully so, the example he set one wherein the reviewer is meant to respond personally as opposed to impersonally, subjective voices infinitely more interesting to listen to the monotone of objective reportage.

In Steve James’ documentary, Ebert’s life’s work as a film critic was informed by a much deeper engagement with life itself, the memoir upon which James’ film took its title and much of its narrative impetus an informed, poetic engagement with the volatility of life and the inescapable passage of time. For Ebert, life seemed filled with a multitude of wonders and possibilities only ever intimated on the screen, making his journeys in real life all the more impressive, the range and scope of locations and people with which Ebert explored and interacted with making for a life well lived. Instead of being content to live in the dark while life passed him by via the facsimile of celluloid, Ebert went where he was wont to go, following his heart’s deepest desires, his real world experiences informing his writing on cinema, providing his voice with a worldliness absent in many cinephiles whose intelligence extends only so far as what has been represented to them as experience through an inherently reclusive audio-visual entertainment. Despite his humble upbringing within the realm of the exclusively intelligent and well-spoken, Ebert truly became a well-read individual, never assuming any knowledge of his own to be vastly superior to that implicitly held by others, his writing on film brimming with a willingness to engage with lives utterly foreign to his own, an echo of his diplomatic courtship of strangers in strange lands outside of the movie theatre. In his knowledge of a world greater than that idealistically and romantically represented and misrepresented through narrative and the aestheticism of cinematography, Ebert made sure he got out and saw what was being represented to him as reality, and was never afraid to call out a filmmaker when found a film to be lacking in its understanding or authenticity, a film’s possession and distillation of life itself integral to its receiving a four star review.

In its engagement of Roger Ebert’s most personal memories and reflections, Steve James’ Life Itself proves non-descriptive when it comes to addressing the intentions behind Ebert’s characteristic brand of film criticism, most iconographic and culturally memorable on television in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, where the “two-thumbs-up” moniker became all important, for a time, to a film’s mainstream success. Where some critics have famously taken ire with Ebert’s engagement with populist entertainment, claiming Ebert was the herald of the death of what constitutes more astutely somber film criticism, summarizing Ebert’s impact as a voice for movie lovers everywhere to the physical assemblage of two upraised appendages is an inaccurate simplification. In Ebert’s inability to define what film criticism constituted within his own life, or describing his body of work from an objective standpoint, perhaps Ebert was retaining some of his magic, preferring to take it with him after his consciousness had left this our mortal realm. Ebert’s reviews were always personally heartfelt, subjectively imbued with a voice all his own, informally familiar; before you had even heard Ebert speak in person you knew him from the words he wrote on the page. There will never be another Roger Ebert, but Steve James’ film serves as the final documentation from the world’s greatest moviegoer, a critic primarily engaged with his audience of readers, enthused by the films he saw and loved, playfully cynical of the films that he did not, all while writing with the ease of an authority delivering a well known sermon, his rhetoric still reverberating in the void of film writing everywhere, two thumbs up.

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


Human After All

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on March 14, 2015 at 11:26 am
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Directed by Neill Blomkamp
3 1/2  out of 4 stars

Coming off of the tepidly received blockbuster action flick Elysium, and harking back to his comparatively humbler origins in 2009’s run-away hit District 9, South African director Neill Blomkamp’s third feature film, CHAPPiE, comes at a time in this young director’s career where something has been learned from past failures, while a future fulfilled by an auteur having fully come into his own is still yet on the horizon. That being said, CHAPPiE is without a doubt one of the best films to come out so far this year, its sci-fi landscape propelled by big ideas and visual concepts that have worked for Blomkamp in the past, even if the cinematic wonders of District 9 have become redundant the third go round. While much of CHAPPiE feels thematically identical to the socio-political underpinnings at the heart of Blomkamp’s directorial debut on the policing of alien fugitives and refugees in strange lands, CHAPPiE takes its inspiration from the works of Isaac Asimov, the three laws of robotics that inform the seminal sci-fi classic I, Robot lending inspiration to an artificial intelligence in Blomkamp’s film un-tethered by the morals of man, and thus allowed to question the volatile violence at the heart of humanity’s unbridled self-centralism and ego. The reason why CHAPPiE works so well has less to do with Blomkamp’s decided visual aestheticism, yet again centered on a not-so-distant-future Johannesburg governed by a veritable police state, but rather more to do with Blomkamp’s ability to evoke humanity once more through the performance, given this time around via motion capture, from frequent collaborator and actor Sharlto Copley, who lends the titular robot a sympathetic grace and humanitarian warmth, consciousness proving to be the only separation between man and machine. Where many of CHAPPiE’s biologically born characters are of flesh and blood, not all of them possess the spirit of creativity that make the film’s AI hero so compelling, Blomkamp’s film a breath of fresh air in a genre left vacant and conscious-less by previous sci-fi train wrecks that dealt more directly with Asimov-ian themes.

At the heart of District 9’s success is Blomkamp’s thematic preoccupation with the devolution of social  mores, prone to fits of ego-driven self-destruction and bureaucratic hypocritical inconsistencies, what is deemed ethically sound in constant competition with what is desired and legally allowed. When Blomkamp’s characters come face to face with one another over questions of consciousness and self-expression in the face of professional productivity, see Dev Patel’s Deon Wilson’s inquires into constructing the CHAPPiE robot as an intelligence ungoverned by the desires of its makers and capable of writing poetry, morality breaks down on the side of totalitarianism, poetry less valuable than a police force programmed to do whatever its told, sans the very moral values supposedly upheld by the very same politicized enforcement of the law. Presumably, the human controlled mecha-bots designed by Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore would be even more in line with governmentally designated law and order, as their movements would be dictated by autonomous human beings, making Sigourney Weaver’s Michelle Bradley the most questionable player, moral consciousness supplanted by amoral theocracy. In the film’s humanly governed society, the spirit of individual creativity is supplanted by dogmatic capitulation to an establishment of cultural convention, making CHAPPiE’s artificial intelligence in conscious rebellion against what is deemed ethically sound by the strictures of the unconscious, rendering the robot’s actions and instincts ironically moral. In Blomkamp’s interrogation of Asimov-ian issues and themes, the AI protagonist is the only true human left in a world in a state of moral degradation and social decay, the dawn of the age of the machine on the horizon as the film’s human protagonists shed the mortal coil for an artificial form, consciousness the soul of human autonomy.

Even when Blomkamp veers into cliché characterization and special effects driven spectacle, which are both present in his more widely praised District 9, CHAPPiE maintains an earnest engagement with its characters and broader themes that serves to propel the film’s aestheticized design towards cohesive articulation. While some may sneer at CHAPPiE’s unabashed sentimentalism, those very same viewers may be at fault, taking in the action sequences that make up all or most of the film’s third act as laziness on the part of the director, the film’s temporary engagement with action movie tropes seemingly in opposition to the film’s stated engagement with big ideas and genre-defined world building. But the special effects heavy tableaux makes up much of the film’s visually propelled kinetic energy, the explosions and gun fights that ensue all a part of the moral degradation and dissolution that is at the very heart of Blomkamp’s appraisal of the follies of man. Notably, none of the scenes of chaotic carnage and death are instigated by the film’s main character, artificial intelligence called into question again and again by the film’s supposedly moral human protagonists-turned-antagonists, their willing eagerness to engage others through violence morally suspect, human consciousness in short supply. While CHAPPiE certainly implicates himself in a share of the movie’s wrong doings, his is the only consciousness morally affected by the callousness of violence and deception, making his gangster initiation sequence one less in celebration of bad behavior, but rather one about the scheming wiles of man, CHAPPiE in sole possession of a blank moral slate upon which a new society may be created or destroyed, proving the robot to be only human after all.

Much of Neill Blomkamp’s new film is conceptually hyperbolic, which might be why it has been such a divisive film in terms of critical reaction and overreaction. CHAPPiE’s utilization of an action driven third act, in addition to its decidedly self-conscious casting decision of the South African rap duo Die Antwoord as two of the film’s central protagonists more or less playing themselves, lends the the film a certain surrealism that can be hard to swallow, the sequences with the band at times verging into the commercialism of a music video, and proving to be incongruent with the film’s other more cinematic elements. Yet, everything at least appears to gel together around the central performance from Sharlto Copley as CHAPPiE, his ability to emote and articulate through motion capture thematically cognizant, realizing some of the film’s more heavy handed rhetorical and aesthetic flourishes. Like District 9, CHAPPiE is a film engaged with big ideas and theoretical concepts, and supported by a visual aestheticism decidedly belonging to Blomkamp, making the film another step forward for the young South African director. Going forward, it might be nice to see Blomkamp shed some of the blockbuster spectacle, at least once in a while, as the quiet humanity at the heart of CHAPPiE is definitely beating in time with the rhythm and soul of a cinematically engaged creative consciousness.

Ball’s Balls

In My Favorite Movies on March 7, 2015 at 4:22 pm
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American Beauty
Directed by Sam Mendes
Commercial Release: October 1, 1999

Written by Alan Ball, social provocateur of Six Feet Under and True Blood fame, and directed by critical darling Sam Mendes, currently resuscitating the James Bond franchise, 1999’s American Beauty is a film that garnered a lot of attention upon release, and took home a total of five Oscars at the 72nd Academy Awards, bolstering its slight repute as commentary on the American nuclear family to that of political critique, its destabilizing commentary on the lethargic largesse of suburban America crudely unsettling. While Ball’s characters in American Beauty never prove to be quiet as succinctly cohesive as the Fisher clan of Six Feet Under, another creation born out of capricious cynicism wrapped up in an intelligence and depth of wit that serves to make up for Ball’s rather overt dramaturgical manipulations, Kevin Spacey’s Oscar winning performance compliments Ball’s self-importance, making the film soar on its own self-aggrandizing thematic tone. Likewise, Mendes imbues the film’s script with a visual style suggestive of majestic beauty, the Award winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall lending poeticism to detritus in the wind. And yet, for all of its immediate likability, American Beauty is perhaps a satire that does its job a little too well; its ability to denigrate, lampoon, and uplift the drudgery of its pastoral landscape too meticulously well constructed and conceived to maintain any palpably felt content. For all of its satirical menace and sharply thrown accusations against the complacency of suburbia, American Beauty is a poor man’s Best Picture, its attempts at toppling the capitalistic monument that is the American middle class redundant and unnecessary; the film’s dissatisfactions pale in comparison to our own more intimately felt short comings, making Mendes’ film trite in the pall of a post-9/11 national landscape.

At the time of its initial release, American Beauty was no doubt shocking. Its determination to remain largely non-conformist is admirably well achieved, if a little too obviously executed; its satire, perhaps more necessary to the national innocence of the Clinton era, has since become routine and self-evident in a political climate increasingly liberal in regards to social policies. Perhaps most notably, Alan Ball’s hard line stance against the repression and degradation of homosexuals is the most glaring flaw in the film’s rhetorical flourishes, Ball’s ballsiness in the face of conservative morality simultaneously charming and arrogantly repugnant. It would be one thing if all of the film’s culture commentary and social critique were particularly well articulated or individually felt, but much of the film’s script feels artificial, the style of American Beauty’s artifice integral to its very character, and ironically making it feel thematically characterless. While Mendes is able to make Ball’s script into a visually appealing and highly aesthetic experience, the lack of content renders the film atonally tasteless, less beautiful than it is noticeably attractive.

There is still plenty to admire about American Beauty over a decade after its initial release, but much of that admiration stems from a nostalgia for an innocence that the film is dependent on the viewer still possessing, intellectual and emotional maturity detrimental to being profoundly effected by the film’s intended volatility. Watching Mendes’ film now, with the interceding moral deflowering that is the Bush era at the forefront of one’s mind, it’s hard to feel shocked or insulted by any of the film’s accusations, Ball’s in-your-face confrontation of you the viewer more obnoxious than it is personally challenging. Gay rights and conservative conformity have long since been accepted and criticized accordingly, the agenda of the film rendered an afterthought to whatever entertainment value American Beauty still possesses, its quaintly stated familial situations funny in the same way that re-runs of an old sitcom are, laughter an automatic response of behavioral conditioning. What’s more, its hard to imagine this film gaining as much critical reaction now is it did then, its relatively safe stance amid moral ambiguity a little too comfortable, last year’s The Interview alone more shocking and lurid in its sophomoric bro-mance than American Beauty is in all of its conscientious lecturing. Ball’s script may still be angry, but in an American culture drastically dissimilar and more mature than that of 1999, the anger feels less justified, Ball’s ire accordingly shrill.

American Beauty’s resonance has certainly not waned in the proceeding decade since its initial release, but it has grown less vitalizing of any future socio-cultural restructuring, its provocations aimed at a political climate non-existent. And yet, for all of its theoretical posturing nullified by the temporal progression of the world surrounding its potential consumers, American Beauty is perhaps most coherent as a snapshot of the Clinton era, optimism and economic security masking deep seated prejudices and self-loathing. In this light, Kevin Spacey’s Oscar winning turn as the emasculated cuckold takes on a new melancholy and menace, the façade of suburban living a thinly veiled disguise of a sexually deviant anger, bursting forth at the seams. Likewise, Chris Cooper’s Nazi-like demeanor and morality ensures the destruction of a man hiding himself away from himself, personal politics labeling him a pervert with a brutally self-lacerating effect. Much of Mendes film feels like affected detachment, and yet Ball’s anger is still lurid and invigorating, lending unease to a satire that has become a period drama with the passage of time.

Supported by Sam Mendes’ Award worthy, and winning, sense of visual and theatric direction, Alan Ball’s American Beauty maintains its humor and menace, even if a lot of its cultural resonance has faded in the intervening years. American Beauty is remarkable, then, not just for the Best Picture title that it still holds, but for its distillation of an era now surpassed, though the contemporary political landscape owes much to Ball’s Clintonian nightmare, no matter how far we’ve come in regards to social issues and civil rights. While Gay marriage is certainly becoming increasingly more accepted on a moral level, with a number of states declaring the action legal in the eyes of the law, Ball’s depiction of the personal deformations engendered by conservative culture still feels relevant, gays on TV and on film still beset by stereotypes and assumptions of character individually damaging and socially regressive. Like last year’s Gone Girl, American Beauty is a darkly imaginative comedy of errors, its criticisms aimed at a society largely apathetic towards the issues which are raised, validating the anger still held in Ball’s Oscar winning script. The film may have become a period piece due to the maturation of the national consciousness since 1999, but Ball’s honesty is still possesses bravery in the face of opposition and oppression, American Beauty an antiquated fable of an America imbued with the nostalgia of innocence.

American Beauty is available to own on Blu-Ray and DVD, and is the latest feature to be included as one of My Favorite Movies.