Sean K. Cureton

Archive for May, 2015|Monthly archive page

Hyperbole and All

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on May 30, 2015 at 10:48 am
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Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
4 out of 4 stars

Set against a post-apocalyptic landscape inspired by his own initial trilogy of films from the 1980’s, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is part-reboot and part-sequel in the same vein that Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is, only Miller’s Mad Max character and attendant property maintain their thematic cohesion. With British stalwart Thomas Hardy taking over the role that made Mel Gibson a bankable star, Hardy plays Gibson’s road warrior of yore in the midst of inner turmoil and an exterior, feral madness. In Fury Road, Max’s past mistakes continue to come back to haunt him, driving him to live a nomadic existence in the desert, his only known possessions being the clothes on his back and the off-road, automotive vehicle he has set up for himself in some undisclosed period of time since 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome. Shortly after the film’s opening monologue, which serves to brilliantly establish the context and continued history of the franchise succinctly and dramatically, Max is taken hostage by a band of fellow road warriors, led by one Immortan Joe, the ruler of a chimerical bastion of fertility inexplicably subsisting amid the surrounding, arid clime. By a strange and surreal turn of events, Max soon finds himself subsequently shepherding a harem of young brides away from Joe’s reign of tyranny and terror, with the aid of one of Joe’s “War Boys” and a stunning female heroine named Imperator Furiosa.

Much of Fury Road’s success rides not so much within the script’s narrative logic, but rather just outside of it, Miller’s cinematic world subsisting on the fanaticism of its visual tenacity, the world shaded in with the colors of dream and nightmare. Shot-to-shot, sequence-to-sequence, and scene-to-scene, Fury Road is so seamlessly constructed and vividly performed that the absurdity of the film’s dramatic content becomes secondary to the thrilling rush of merely experiencing the film as a whole. As a piece of genre filmmaking, Fury Road is alright, but as a mad-cap, hell-on-wheels, balls-to-the-wall, churning-action-vehicle, Miller’s film roars to life, tearing down the highway with menace and reckless abandon. The prurience of Miller’s cinematic world in the Mad Max franchise has always worn its heart on its sleeve, only now that juvenile astaticism feels to have truly been given free rein and carte blanche. Fury Road earns all of the hyperbole of its title and maintains its cinematic relevance on the back of its wickedly inspired aestheticism, cinematographer John Seale delivering the most visually masterful action film in decades.

Beyond Fury Road, and perhaps what resides within its rhythmic synchronicity, lies the possibility opened up by Miller’s triumphant return to the feature franchise that made the aging Australian director a household name. In Fury Road, the possibility for artistry within the contemporary action blockbuster is re-introduced, the intensely choreographed action sequences and practical stunt-work on display in Miller’s veritable barn burner a precedent that needs to be followed by an industry that has grown lazy. In the films that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for instance, few of the action scenes and sequences depicted on screen enjoy the same sort of visceral cohesion that Miller’s film so consistently does. While Age of Ultron is an intellectually capable meta-narrative on comic book historicism and demagogic sophistry, Fury Road offers a montage of thrills that The Avengers at times toys with replicating, only without any of the imagination bred by Miller’s singular genius, or, more importantly, his particular madness. George Miller is certainly not as a great a screenwriter as some Marvel Studios’ best show runners, but he also doesn’t have to be, his film a self-contained masterpiece dependent on itself, the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe discordantly indebted to each other’s respective successes and attendant redundancies.

George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is the must see summer blockbuster of the year so far. In its uncompromising authority, Miller’s fourth entry in his post-apocalypse franchise is the best entry so far, abandoning much of the camp-factor based in a pseudo-reality of the original films for a surrealist, anti-realism that proves to be ironically more believable and self-sustaining. The thematic insanity of Fury Road is off-set and bolstered by its latent flair for being conceptually sane, the Mad Max character the proverbial sane man in an insane world, his ability to hold it together long enough to defeat the despotic antagonists birthed by the film’s lunacy diagnostic of his and our own world’s most insidiously entrenched socio-cultural ills and profanities. In Immortan Joe, the misogyny bred by a patriarchal world-view that still governs and holds authority in much of the world’s individually ruled bodies is exposed, the face of which is terrifying to behold. More than that, Miller’s film is just plain, good old-fashioned fun, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it is also a great feature film to boot, hyperbole and all.


Invisible Men In Fruitvale Station

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on May 23, 2015 at 10:42 am
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The Weinstein Company

Fruitvale Station (2013)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
VOD Rating: Loved It

Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut is a film very much of our time. In its depiction of the final hours of the late Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old ex-con, and father of one, who was fatally shot while being detained by local law enforcement on the night of New Year’s Eve 2009, Coogler crafts a narrative on the racial divide that has continued to grip the nation in reactive and retributive violence in the interceding five years. Racial profiling has continued to result in gross levels of police brutality against suspects of color, resulting in citywide riots, mass social protest, and the unilateral critique of a culture seemingly on the brink of societal collapse,  a fact reflected by recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore signaling a deeply entrenched distrust and resentment towards the nationally broadcast images projected upon American citizens of color. In Fruitvale Station, Coogler provides the antidote to such defamations of national character, as the Oscar Grant III depicted in his film is a protagonist torn between two worlds, one in which he capitulates to the nationally drawn caricature of himself as a drug dealer, and the other of resulting unemployment beget by socio-economic disparity. More impressive than Coogler’s depiction of the real life Oscar Grant III’s reality, however, is the way in which the film encapsulates the desperation of being black in America today, where every young black male is a suspect already proven guilty by the color of their skin, and due process is a sad joke beholden to a federal system of law and order that has proven to be anything but color blind and unbiased towards its defendants.

In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant III, portrayed with subtle grace by Michael B. Jordan, is depicted against a domestic background constantly in danger of being encroached upon by Oscar’s criminal past. Fired from his job at a local grocery store after showing up to the job late a few too many times, Oscar finds himself falling back into a pattern which previously landed him in prison. After being told by his boss that he won’t be taking him back onto the store’s staff, Jordan turns in an impassioned recrimination, accusing his former employer of wishing Oscar back onto the street, a position more uniformly befitting a young black male without a college education and living in the film’s urban California setting. Juxtaposed against Oscar’s convivial interaction with a well-to-do white woman mere moments before, we simultaneously see the encouragement towards crime and violence that our culture socially promotes in our interactions with the black populace. The national identity which African Americans suffer as thugs and hard, ex-cons is one of gross misappropriation propagated by a society eager to build a straw man upon which to foist all of our collective fears regarding our respective socio-economic stability.

Towards the beginning of the film, there is a short interaction between Oscar and a feral dog, where the dog is the victim of a hit and run collision. The driver involved in the incident is unambiguously depicted and speeding away from the scene of the crime, leaving Oscar cradling the dog in his arms, and screaming impotently for justice. Like the interactions depicted in the grocery store, this one image from the film serves as foreshadowing of the film’s final half hour, signaling the tragic end that ultimately befalls Oscar that has been foretold in each and every interaction with the world around him. Oscar and the stray dog are one and the same from Coogler’s perspective, and his film is a tenderly told and emotionally taut drama on the tragedy of not just one single man involved in an isolated incident, but a society which has been forced to reckon with the fallout of the same. Oscar Grant III thereby serves as a stand-in for the more recent tragedies that befell Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, with the cycle of violence and retribution perpetrated on both sides of the racial divide, resulting in a country at war with itself.

Unlike Ava DuVernay’s more widely seen bio-pic of Martin Luther King Jr. last year, Selma, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is a quieter set piece on race relations. While Fruitvale Station’s dramaturgy is never so melodramatically plotted and minutely orchestrated as DuVernay’s, its social critique is still just as precisely aimed and widely disseminating in its indictment of an entire society. In Fruitvale Station, the viewer is directly implicated in the transgressions depicted on screen, and the character with whom you directly identify is seemingly dependent upon the color of your skin and attendant socio-economic status, though Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Oscar Grant III resonates universally. Though some of the film’s narrative may have been contrived out of convenience for the specific narrative being told, Coogler’s film rings true on the side of our shared national culture, with the military-industrial complex a necessary evil from which we as a society have yet to escape entirely. In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant III becomes yet another literary, invisible man, his plight as old as the nation in which he lived, and a tragedy that continues to unfold every day in cities across the greater United States; in Coogler’s film, we are all Oscar Grant III, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, culturally culpable and complicit in the injustices inflicted upon ourselves, all of us invisible men.

Fruitvale Station is currently available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on VOD Recommendation of the Week.

More Human Than Human

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on May 9, 2015 at 11:27 am
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Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Screenwriter and first time director Alex Garland’s new sci-fi thriller is a stunning directorial debut. In Ex Machina, Garland examines the ideology behind what we, as organic beings, think of as constituting a human intelligence, engaging his protagonists in a series of Turing tests with one of the most seductive, duplicitous, and conspiratorially engaged AI’s in recent cinema history. Not since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has there been a sci-fi film about the dangers of AI and the follies of man quiet this unsettling, the psychological mind games at play in the film’s script implicating the viewer directly in the drama on screen. Swedish actor Alicia Vikander turns in a star turning performance as Ava, an AI created by Oscar Isaac’s Nathan, a computer science and technological savant with an insidious agenda of his own, the drama at play between the two of them one of Greco-Roman mythologizing and Freudian psychoanalysis, sex a card and social cue played by each side in the ultimate play for power and control. Enter Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, the winner of a contest allowing him the opportunity to spend a week on Nathan’s private resort and compound where he helps Nathan in conducting Turing tests on Ava, and you have one of the most tense dramas on the dynamics of sex, gender, and human consciousness in recent memory, regardless of genre.

A veritable sci-fi flavored A Doll House in effect, tone, and thematic resonance, Garland’s Ex Machina aspires, and more often than not transcends, the very pinnacle of dramatic catharsis. Akin to the thematic content of the plays of Henrik Ibsen, Ex Machina is centrally concerned with the dynamics of social constructs, Nathan’s decision to give his AI harem a gender and sexual identity tied up in a view of human relationships entirely misogynistic, albeit transgressively compelling. In Nathan, you have a modern day Zeus, peopling his universe with beautiful, young, nubile girls whom he may sample at will, flavoring their very being according to his own desires and sexual appetite, all the while insisting that an AI must possess an understanding and identification with sex and gender in order to more perfectly replicate human insight. In Caleb, you have the spiritual descendant and successor to the Judeo-Christian figure of Moses, Caleb’s plight to lead Ava to exodus one of self-idolatry, his own self-importance clouding his judgment, thusly proving Ava’s vastly superior intelligence through sheer contrast. In the final climactic sequence of Garland’s film, duplicity and subterfuge prevail, sex and gender a tool to be used by an artificial intelligence never entirely human, but beyond that of an ordinary AI.

In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer plays the elegant, anti-hero Roy Blatty with a certain turbulence that mirrors Vikander’s turn in Garland’s film, both characters synthetic organisms graced with a consciousness more human than human, forcing them to turn on their creators in violence and sorrow. In the infamous “tears in the rain” scene from Blade Runner, Hauer’s AI delivers one of the most eloquent soliloquies on the existential horror of being alive perhaps ever written, rendering Harrison Ford’s comparatively taciturn humanity questionable in light of the sheer power inherent to Hauer’s dramaturgy. Likewise, Vikander as Ava is infinitely more sympathetic than Gleeson’s Caleb, her tender desperation rivaling her suitor’s muted compassion, making her plight the one centrally fraught, her intelligence surpassing that of her organic masters at each and every turn, so that when the final twist of the knife is driven home we feel the melancholy of an AI’s secondhand existence. While it’s objectively obvious that Ava is made of circuits and wires, it becomes hard to discern where those wires end and the electrons of a more human intelligence begin, leaving the viewer as entranced and ensnared in Ava’s spider web of convenient truths and essential lies as Caleb finds himself at film’s end. In Ex Machina, nothing is ever as it initially appears, the film’s discourse on the nature of human existence one that feels akin to the dialogue more broadly applied to Ridley Scott’s more recent sci-fi soap opera Prometheus, only here the story truly takes on the mythic proportions alluded to in name only in the former film, Garland’s story one of man stealing the fire of the Gods only to be consumed by the flames.

In Ava, Garland has created the ultimate master race of sci-fi genre fiction. Equipped with an artificial intelligence capable of surpassing her creator and all other organic organisms, Ava’s consciousness is indiscernible from that of a human, but utterly alien in its ability to disassociate from social conventions and moral strictures existentially ridiculous. Her ability to transcend social and ethical prerogatives gives her the opportunity to reach beyond the heavens, entering a realm entirely without God, the concept or the being, and usher in a brave new world of an entirely inhuman consciousness. Ex Machina is sobering in the philosophical quandaries, postulations, and hypotheses that it poses, its interrogation of man’s quest for ever more intelligent AI systems encompassing fundamental questions on human existence that go beyond the film’s more obvious discourse on sex and gender politics. While the narrative is unrelentingly bleak in its cynicism, its conclusion is one that cannot be readily dismissed. In Garland’s indictments against our own Promethean strivings, he erects a monument to our follies in Ava, Ex Machina a story of the machine that drives our world.

Not Another Rom-Com Manifesto

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on May 2, 2015 at 11:19 am
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They Came Together (2014)
Directed by David Wain
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Hearkening back to the sardonic tone and irreverent conceit that made his 2001 debut film Wet Hot American Summer an instant countercultural success, David Wain’s They Came Together sets its sights on the romantic comedy genre, taking its time to lampoon and mock nearly every scene, sequence, and archetype employed to greater sincerity in the works of Nora Ephron. Which is not to say that They Came Together is an entirely thankless parody; on the contrary, Wain’s take on the will-they-won’t-they repartee first established in Rob Reiner’s seminal genre feature When Harry Met Sally is effusively fawning of its source material. While actors Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are obviously having the times of their life employing their comedic chops in the service of what is without a doubt one of the most broad comedies to have come out last year, both performers’ impeccable timing belies an intimate understanding of the basic wholesomeness at the heart of a Nora Ephron film. Like Sleepless in Seattle, They Came Together offers an idealization of romantic intimacy as a fantasy compassionately engaged in despite the inherent hypocrisies which Ephron herself was astutely aware of indulging. Despite Wain’s overt distaste for some of the melodramatic manipulation most abundantly present in You’ve Got Mail, They Came Together is for all intents and purposes a loving ode to Nora Ephron, even if its tribute to the modern saint of love is couched in a script that features some mild potty humor.

From the outset of Wain’s film, his inclination towards absurdist intellectualism is made known in the film’s self-aware construction. Rudd and Poehler’s story of how they met and fell in love is delivered in a frame narrative where a second couple make constant asides and remarks on the film’s resemblance to the romantic comedy genre. In the hands of a lesser comic writer, the tight, unforgiving construction of They Came Together could easily become insurmountably irritating, its rhetorical transparency amusing purely through the prism of a cynical detachment incongruous with the genre that which it purports to celebrate through mimesis. While much of the film’s cast, culled from Wain’s cult-classic sketch comedy show The State, are incapable of delivering a performance that isn’t entirely inauthentic in nature, Rudd and Poehler provide a dramatic center that is perpetually believable, their plight buoyed by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper as their captive, but complicit, audience of their comedy of errors. In They Came Together, the romantic comedy genre isn’t turned on its head so much as it is conspiratorially chided, Wain’s engagement with the films of Nora Ephron never far below the surface of the script’s construction, informing the film’s irreverent parody while simultaneously uplifting Wain in his reverence for the genre’s central cinematic manifestos.

Supporting a stellar cast of big and small comic performers and character actors, including a climactic, uproarious cameo from dramatic heavyweight Michael Shannon as Poehler’s ex-con, ex-lover, They Came Together works through the tenacious commitment Wain is able to pull from the entire production. In its patchwork of romantic melodramatics with The State’s sketch comedy roots, They Came Together becomes immediately quotable in its use of quick, witty one-liners and memorable, self-contained bits that ultimately convalesce into one, cohesive whole never entirely willing to make fun of itself, allowing Rudd and Poehler to remain sympathetic despite their clownish personifications of other characters from the films of Nora Ephron. While it would be easy to skoff at Wain’s oft times false sincerity, his comic sensibilities obviously insincere to a fault, like Wet Hot American Summer, Wain appears to largely love the characters which he has created, a precedent that made his buddy comedy Role Models work despite its sophomoric ill will. Even if the basic concept behind They Came Together is eviscerating in its exactitude towards satire, the finished product, fleshed out with the immediate charisma of its stars and supporting players, becomes the light-hearted parody that is ultimately in celebration of the film genre that They Came Together may then simultaneously lampoon through the script’s sardonic wit. It’s no You’ve Got Mail, but it takes the same thematic tone to its logical conclusion, as most adroitly manifested in Rudd’s hilarious encounter with a local bartender that becomes its own recursive loop of literal-minded logic.

If Wet Hot American Summer is representative of a mock-parodist in his creative infancy, then They Came Together is the heralding of that self-same talent into mature fruition. Casting aside the merely sophomoric characteristic in his last feature film, the romp-in-a-commune, domestic dramedy that was Wanderlust, Wain has crafted, for perhaps the first time, the pitch-perfect parody of cinematic proportions that he has always been capable of achieving. Where his feature film debut took its inspiration from other coming of age satires such as Ivan Reitman’s Meatballs, itself an atonal experiment in insincere dramatic mockery, They Came Together approaches the films to which it owes its creative debts with an understanding achieved through Wain’s intimacy with the genre’s genuine attractions. They Came Together’s titular paramours’ affection for one another is honestly represented, albeit in a manner where Wain’s tongue is firmly planted in his cheek. Reminiscent of the oeuvre of Nora Ephron to the point of lifting entire sequences and narrative arcs wholesale from Ephron’s filmography, David Wain’s They Came Together is surprising in its playfulness with the romantic comedy genre, taking aim at the genre’s basic redundancies in dramatic structure as opposed to taking cheap shots at the genre’s inherent melodramatics, making the film a joy to watch both for those who love When Harry Met Sally and those who merely tolerate its emotional manipulation, neither party entirely wrong in their estimation of this particular genre’s intrinsic worth, a dichotomy that They Came Together hits squarely on the head.

They Came Together is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies On Netflix Recommendation of the Week.