Sean K. Cureton

Archive for April, 2015|Monthly archive page

The Qaudragenarian Milieu

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on April 25, 2015 at 11:45 am
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While We’re Young
Directed Noah Baumbach
3 out of 4 stars

Ever since his 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach has been a writer and director of the independent film scene who has become seemingly indebted to the spirit of his early, adolescent exuberance, equal parts somber melodrama and precocious ennui. Baumbach’s adolescence is thoroughly American in films like Kicking and Screaming, where a troupe of post-college liberal arts majors bemoan the dawn of adulthood, whining despite belonging to the indisputably luxuriant echelon of the white, upper-middle class, and in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale’s gentrified depiction of 1980’s Brooklyn, where the white intelligentsia reigns supreme yet again amid the cold drafts of higher education and the metropolitan life style. Remarkably, Baumbach has not so much left the pedestal of the cultural illuminati in his most recent film, While We’re Young, but he has seemingly reached a point where his respective privilege has been more fully acknowledged. While his new feature is still as self-reflective as ever, its characters are more willing to accept the inherent immaturity of self-obsession, Greenberg’s central dilemma of narcissism finally overcome. Baumbach has long been a main stay of sad, rich, white people, but with While We’re Young the director seems willing to engage with his detractors in a manner that proves reflective of the parody he has always engaged in, only this time around his characteristic infantilism is appropriately engaged from the vantage point of adulthood, well earned or not.

In what is only Baumbach’s second partnership with comic actor and director Ben Stiller, While We’re Young offers a dramatic glimpse of its central protagonist that’s more generous and revealing than what was offered in Greenberg. Where Greenberg was regressively involved in its thematic pretentions at recapturing the innocence of youth, Baumbach is a little wiser in While We’re Young, appearing to have emerged from his partnership with Frances Ha’s Greta Gerwig in 2012 in search of a narrative more befitting to his middle age. While Gerwig may have been the break out star of Greenberg, catapulting her onto the landscape of Baumbach’s Frances Ha as his muse and life partner, her lithe ingenuity and peculiar gaze are of a generation a decade and a half divorced from Baumbach’s adult maturity. Frances Ha is a light hearted, art house treat, but due to its subject’s temporal distance from her voyeur, it is a film that holds more weight in Gerwig’s central performance; the film’s success has little to do with Baumbach’s direction, save in its vampiric desire to recapture the vitality of youth vicariously. Gerwig may be the apple of Baumbach’s eye, but it is among his peers that he truly shines as a storyteller, Ben Stiller the perfect stand in for Baumbach’s autobiographical, middle aged intellectual still gripped by the passions of an idealism thoroughly sophomoric.

Which is largely why While We’re Young is such a breath of fresh air after Frances Ha. If Baumbach’s single-minded obsession with his romantic paramour is sycophantic, then While We’re Young is comparatively self-reflective and open-minded in its self-deprecation and lacerating wit. Stiller’s earned maturity as a comic performer bleeds into the very fabric of the film, his character’s self-defeating ambition as a documentary filmmaker locked in a decade long loop of post-production on his second feature is tragically humble and endearing, Stiller’s everyman shtick the perfect prop for Baumbach’s precocious melodrama. In Greenberg, we saw Baumbach through Stiller raging against the machine that is middle aged sober contentment. In While We’re Young, the director seems more willing to entertain the notion that he is no longer of an age with the post-college milieu that has so long sustained his creative energies, even if Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried’s millennial hipsters appear to hold the secret to eternal youth at a glance.

In 1995, countercultural rebellion and adolescent angst fueled Baumbach’s cinematic output, his debut feature Kicking and Screaming born of the twenty-something stagnation of the mid 1990’s, the decade wherein Baumbach came of age. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Baumbach struggled to find a voice for his thirty-something years, Mr. Jealousy and Highball largely forgettable and held in disdain by their director, their attempts at recapturing the innocence of Kicking and Screaming cheap and imitative. In 2005, a full decade after Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale saw Baumbach reminiscing on his adolescence yet again; Jesse Eisenberg’s confrontation with Jeff Daniels’ bigoted patriarch a further autobiographical diversion that still feels perfectly distilled, its fictitious depiction of Baumbach’s upbringing informative of a creative talent still in the midst of coming towards an appreciative understanding of his own father’s withheld affection and praise. Then came 2007’s Margot at the Wedding depicting its characters approaching middle age with anger, denial, and remorse, the film’s intensity via hyperrealism a little too cold, paving the way for the intimacy that came in Greenberg in 2010, and that which finally evolved into While We’re Young, a film that is just as concerned with a shared, cultural adolescence as ever, only this time around Baumbach has finally admitted that he is no longer a club member. Stiller’s climactic admission of being an old man is therapeutically effective, as it reveals a Noah Baumbach finally capable of moving beyond himself creatively in what is his most cohesive work yet, the film a post-modern take on the coming of age comedy as enacted by characters in a state of well known rebellion that they are finally capable of setting aside in order to age gracefully, Baumbach finally coming to terms with middle age in his stereotypical, adolescent fashion.


Tim and Eric Comedy Apparitions, Great Job?

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on April 11, 2015 at 9:49 am
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The Comedy (2012)
Directed by Rick Alverson
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are perhaps the preeminent hipsters of the alt-comedy scene. Their original sketch comedy series, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, is well known among the late night comedy crowd, its five season run on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block the haven of weird, adult, and perverse humor and satire. While the style of their writing has always been well known, the content of their programming has been simultaneously alienating, the ability to understand and digest what they provide as funny inclusive of only a very small and precocious group of comedy nerds and weirdoes. Heidecker and Wareheim themselves have likewise always appeared as comedy apparitions, their personalities so far outside that of the Hollywood mainstream that their material shines with the translucence of insincere mockery and hipster cache, their show sustained by the underground forces of cultural elitism and hipster tomfoolery. To many, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’s appeal is largely chimerical, its pervasive influence and social commentary present only within and beyond the ugliness of its surface level veneer of in-authentic snark, its unemotional stance a hard barrier to surpass if you’re not already on board with Heidecker and Wareheim’s peculiar brand of irreverence.

Enter Rick Alverson’s 2012 drama The Comedy, starring the infamous comedy duo among a host of other hipster douche bags and wannabes, all vying for attention within a prototypically affectless sub-culture, life apathetically engaged amid irony and casual acts of cruelty. Much of the narrative impetus in Alverson’s drama comes in the director’s unwavering gaze at the self-defeatism of the type of lifestyle and listless nihilism inherent to the comic sensibility of Heidecker and Wareheim, their post-modern detachment masking an ever-encroaching disease and dissatisfaction with a socially engendered apathy. In Heidecker, Alverson takes the iconography associated with the modern hipster and lets it run amok, his film unfocused yet contemplative, the emptiness of Heidecker’s moneyed post-college existence self-sustained by a fundamental lack of engagement. Throughout the course of Alverson’s film, Heidecker moves from one scene to another, interiority of any kind into his character denied by a lack thereof, his interactions with other individuals and characters lacking in motivation and intrigue due to Heidecker’s larger disengagement with the social community to which they might otherwise belong. If Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is a comedy, than The Comedy is its dramatic inverse, the narrative beats and movements funny within the former context prove tragic in the latter, Alverson’s film an interesting critique of Heidecker, his fans, and the culture to which they ironically belong, sincerely or not.

Heidecker and Wareheim owe a lot to the countercultural image of themselves promoted through their comedy, even if that image is as personally confining and socially isolating as it seems to be in Alverson’s film. Heidecker’s character in the The Comedy is, for all intents and purposes, a facsimile of Heidecker as he appears on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, his near constant improvised riffing a poor substitute for dialogue within the context of a drama, the characters he creates on the spot in order to get a rise out of his audience incongruous when applied within the context of cinematic realism. Whether Heidecker is casually wooing a co-worker nearly a decade his junior, or pretending to hold conversations and meetings of great import with frequent comic collaborator Gregg Turkington, The Comedy revels in Heidecker’s comic persona as a buffoonery that is thankfully an act. Heidecker plays at being a man in his mid to late thirties who still hasn’t graduated beyond playing at being an adult, snark demarcating his own immaturity more befitting to a twenty year old frat boy whose attendant personal disinterest and dissatisfaction results in an apocalyptic devastation of cultural literacy. The Comedy is thus an indictment as much as it is a celebration of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, the iconography of hipster satire and snark culturally pervasive while being aware of its own latent tendency towards social antagonism, Heidecker and Wareheim perhaps more in tune with their audience than their audience is with themselves.

Which goes a long way towards explaining why Rick Alverson’s drama ends up feeling  so unpolished, as The Comedy‘s recursive convolutions of Alverson’s engagement with a subject similarly prone to the art of comic deconstruction proves to be a structural redundancy summarily un-compelling. Like Alverson’s script, Heidecker’s character within the film is engaged in a multi-faceted understanding of himself and his place within the world around him. The Comedy is thus in a constant state of battle with itself and its protagonist, Alverson’s script’s analysis of Heidecker’s persona as averse to being discovered and engaged with as Heidecker’s character is of being analyzed in a likewise, straightforward manner. The sheer impossibility of studying Heidecker’s character becomes problematic, as Alverson’s dramatic engagement becomes hideously malformed by Heidecker’s performance as farce, his inner state of being hidden behind bright blue ray ban sunglasses, reflecting back a cultural cache self-righteously reticent. In Alverson’s engagement with the Tim Heidecker comic persona, The Comedy becomes a study in procrastination, any insights gleaned through Alverson’s script intangibly held just out of reach by his subject’s tendency towards the opaque, Heidecker engaging in self-reference to a self in absentia, nihilism ruling the day in a case study frustratingly inconclusive, albeit appropriately so.

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

Detroit Follows

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on April 4, 2015 at 12:02 pm
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It Follows
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
4 out of 4 stars

Set against the backdrop of urban decay, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is a punishing horror film debut from an American director possessed of an impeccable eye for detail, the film’s Detroit teeming with a history better left unexamined, though its reverberations of unspoken economic desperation physically manifest in the film’s supernatural terror. While the premise of the film’s teen drama is more obviously couched in a genre conceit metaphorically concerned with the promotion of safe sex, the film’s titular pronoun associated with the loss of virginity and its attendant STDs, Mitchell is decidedly engaged with something far more sinister than the dispersal of venereal disease. When the presence that proceeds to stalk Maika Monroe’s Jay Height and her coterie of friends and paramours emerges, the very fabric of Mitchell’s film becomes imbued with a familial sense of guilt that goes beyond mere sexual innocence. In It Follows, the ethereal menace that pervades is never entirely quantifiable, its quality changing to best suit its environment, until it goes in for the kill, becoming the manifestation of the most intimately familiar of carnal knowledge. It’s impossible to come away from Mitchell’s feature film debut without feeling existentially violated, the film’s invasive extrapolations on teen sex and adolescent innocence pointedly incisive, peeling away layers of personal irony and self-deprecation in its determination to capture its victim, a personal intimacy as persistent as Mitchell’s grip on the investment of the viewer, ensuring that It Follows will linger with you long after you’ve left the theatre, leaving you looking over your shoulder for weeks to come.

In Mitchell’s film, sex is as physically invasive as it is psychologically deconstructive. In first time actor Maika Monroe’s stunning, starring role as the film’s central female victim, virginity is imbued with a certain complicity in its ultimate dissolution. When Monroe’s Jay becomes physically intimate with the boy who will pass on the film’s terrific presence, there is a brief moment of post coital tenderness that is evocative of the sort of romantic connection and independent triumph associated with teen sex from the perspective of those inclusively involved in the immediacy of the act. The film very quickly affirms the presence of something sinister attached to pre-marital physical intimacy, however, and this scene hyper accelerates into a tableau of presumed abduction, rape, and torture, the means and context by which police and concerned parents deconstruct and misconstrue the privacy of the initial action. In It Follows, sex comes laden with the trappings of an emotional maturity ill defined, its pursuit communally felt and desired by the film’s protagonists who are simultaneously stimulated and repulsed by its attendant socio-cultural fallout. There’s a sense of social responsibility that comes with physical intimacy in Mitchell’s film that echoes the film’s supernatural element’s association with an immaturity fundamentally irresponsible, turning the act of copulation into something that is personally defining of those who casually engage in its implied social contract.

The very indefinable nature of this communal shame, regret, and remorse thus becomes the film’s key source of shadowy menace and terror, the horror genre conceit that the film engages in as intimate as the act of pre-marital sex that is the film’s central thematic motif. In Mitchell’s film, the ambiguous pronoun that follows is as all pervasive as the film’s interrogation into sex and gender politics in suburban America, the loss of innocence physically manifested in the relative domesticity of the suburbs being encroached upon by the decay of larger metropolitan Detroit. The economic incongruity between urban Detroit and the suburban pastoral of Maika Monroe’s home becomes another source of social menace, that of the city in socio-economic decay, abandoned by a surrounding community of sequestered innocents living in relative economic stability and social safety. At the film’s climax, when Maika and her friends enter into the city proper, the menacing ethereal presence takes on its final form, Detroit the true site of horror and source of cultural unease, Mitchell’s film just as much a horror genre feature as its is a drama set against the American urban landscape in a state of rapid decline. In this way, the dissolution of Detroit as a thriving center of commercial commerce becomes the film’s central focus, sexual innocence a metaphor by which the film may go about aesthetically examining and redefining a bureaucratically opaque concept within the context of private social discourse.

Urban economic disparity aside, however, Robert David Mitchell’s It Follows is first and foremost one of the very best American genre features of the past ten plus years, reminiscent in tone, style, and musical accompaniment to the very best works of John Carpenter in the 1980’s. The film’s implementation of suspense and delayed gratification keep you one the edge of your seat, in awe of the various genre clichés and tools by which Mitchell is able to masterfully manipulate your emotions into a state of sheer terror and paranoia. Like England’s masterful genre director Edgar Wright, Mitchell is able to pull off some genuinely compelling horror genre scares and tableau through self-conscious repetition of what has come before, It Follows imbued with a self-assured concentration and focus that make it work so well despite the audience’s awareness of all of its various cinematic influences and creative debts. It’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing another American genre feature quite so brilliantly conceived and executed again anytime soon, given the fact that this year’s slate of horror films include such potential disappointments and redundant retreads as Insidious: Chapter Three and the Poltergeist remake. Regardless, It Follows is the best film to come out in 2015 so far, its originality and intense focus helmed by Mitchell’s inestimable sense of direction, making him a debut writer and director to watch in the years to come.