Sean K. Cureton

Archive for August, 2015|Monthly archive page

Finite Transcendentalism

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on August 29, 2015 at 10:44 am
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Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
Directed by Lorene Scafaria
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut was released at the height of the Mayan 2012 apocalyptic event that never was. The film, like the pop-cultural speculation and tacit paranoia built into the end-of-times prediction occurring in real time alongside the film’s release, is also concerned with another fictional end of the world, though it features no zombies. There are a few scattered raids and nights of Bacchanalian revel and orgies, but for the most part the characters of central concern in Scafaria’s script go on about their business and daily lives with little to no real change. In the film’s opening shot, Steve Carell and his wife are in a car listening to a news broadcast concerning the impending collision of earth with the asteroid Matilda that will end all life on earth. When the broadcast ends, all Carell can manage to articulate is to articulate the thought that he and his wife may have missed their exit while driving, after which his wife leaves the car. There are no grand, operatic set pieces of mayhem or overt bad behavior as there are in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s sophomoric take on the same subject in This Is the End that followed in 2013, which makes Scafaria’s comedy harder to take in on an emotional level, but is also all the funnier for it.

In Scafaria’s film, people confronted with the end of the world don’t take the tragedy as an excuse to throw aside all moral values and societal facets that serve to make up their very character and existential being. Instead of throwing large block parties or drinking and eating oneself into oblivion, Scafaria predicts a much more realistic reaction to the abrupt finality to not only life but the universe as we know it. Perhaps the most freightening aspect of an end of the world scenario would be the complete and total cessation and obliteration of all forms of human expression and art in books, on film, and canvas. The finite nature of our individual lives isn’t what’s so scary in a film such as Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, but rather the infinite end to all such short sparks of imaginative consciousnesses. A world without people is inevitable, but a world withwout emotion and self-aware, intelligent life to carry it is horrifying.

Some people find comfort in the fold of religious dogma and mythology when faced the finite nature of the end of human civilization. But what about the agnostics, atheists, and secularists who might wish to glean some purpose out of their fretful paces marched across the global stage? Is there much progression to be gleaned from our greatest works and achievements if they may all be blasted away by the fickle winds of time and geological events of physical devastation that collapse entire civilizations in their path? Scafaria puts her hopes on the shoulder of the other people around us, with Carell and his co-star Keira Knightley forming an unlikely bond with one another in love, compassion, and transcendental enlightenment. Upon the eve of self-obliteration, Knightley’s character in Scafaria’s film turns to Carell wondering why they couldn’t save one another from the end of the world, a question to which the finally contented and happy Carell replies, “I think we did,” an answer, however finite, to the perennial pang of existential despair and the ache of an entirely human longing for the saving embrace of another.

Which is not to say that Seeking a Friend for the End of the World doesn’t have its many moments of lighthearted self-abandon necessary to enjoy life regardless of its final conclusion. Throughout the film other lives and means of coping with the dread and most primal fear held by all mortal beings is upheld and examined under the microscope of parody, satire, and nervous mock-gesture. But none of Scafaria’s characters, however immodest and bad in their own nature, are ever held up to the light of ridicule as they might be in a film such as This Is the End. Every person is deserving of a friend to share their ultimately transient and insubstantial mortality with, regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, or culturally ingrained behaviors and traditions in regards to the meaning of life itself. Where God is the ultimate stand-in for the fears and hopes of many theistic believers around the world, art via human expression and interconnection is the only other option for everyone else, a fact that Scafaria’s film makes easier to swallow in its compassion and exuberance of and for the human spirit.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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Another Potential Four

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on August 22, 2015 at 11:45 am
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Fantastic Four (2015)
Directed by Josh Trank
2 out of 4 stars

There’s something within the second act of Josh Trank’s third theatrical adaptation of Marvel Comics’ First Family that gets at the source material’s sense of wonder and awe with the possibilities inherent to scientific invention. After the viewer has forced themselves through the thankless task of watching a first act wherein Miles Teller as Reed Richards and Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm grow up in a small, blue collar town just outside of the Big Apple, there is an extended dramatic movement wherein Richards and company pull together to establish a means by which inter-dimensional, deep space travel may be accomplished. Watching Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, and Toby Kebbell as Victor von Doom discover a means by which Teller’s childhood dreams might be accomplished is genuinely exciting and infectious in its spirited optimism that’s suggestive of a better film than the one that viewers will ultimately receive in the film’s third act. Unfortunately, once Richards, Grimm, Johnny Storm, and Doom make their trans-dimensional journey to a planet maddeningly ambiguous in its titular signifier of Zero, suggesting more than a mere lack of quantifiable objective matter, the film collapses in upon itself, with issues of plot and narrative consistency arising from the script’s illogical construction and rhetorical incoherence. The cast that make up the Fantastic Four team of the comics is capably handled by a cast of well seasoned young actors, but Trank’s film ultimately fails, for more than one reason and another, and the young Hollywood director in effect delivers one of the worst comic book films of the past decade, with the latest adaptation of Richards and company being more laughable than Rise of the Silver Surfer was in 2007.

It’s obvious from scene one that Trank wanted to make a different film than the one that distributor 20th Century Fox ultimately put together via professional coercion of their creative talent otherwise at the helm of the project. The issues that took place behind the scenes are well documented by now, with some of them seemingly more crucial than others, though based on the evidence at hand it becomes impossible to easily blame anyone or, for that matter, award anyone the title of sole creative director of a project such as this one. Watching the film becomes an exercise in self-laceration of the human psyche, as each and every line of dialogue is overburdened with the dead articulation of ideas and character archetypes that come with all of their narrative clichés in tact and utterly undisguised. Fantastic Four (2015) is boring without effort, largely because there was no seeming effort put into the writing and re-writing of the film’s impotent script that serves time and time again to strangle the better visual concepts and set pieces conceived by Trank initially and at times engaged earnestly by the film’s accomplished performers. The film’s shortcomings come across bluntly and without any seeming attempt being paid to aesthetic invention on the level of visual storytelling in marriage to the film’s script, resulting in a flaccid finished product that is an unfortunately made follow-up to Trank’s well liked superhero drama debut Chronicle, Fantastic Four (2015) a sad imitation of the director’s debut glory all around.

Like Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Trank’s new Marvel Comics caper for the big screen will be lethargically maligned for years to come, with a larger audience of moviegoers otherwise disengaged with a franchise that very well could have been. Without the meddling that occured from studio executives at 20th Century Fox, Trank’s First Family might have become something more in keeping with his super-kids in Chronicle, a film that married the visual majesty of special effects laden set pieces, observable in some of the more inspired scenes in Fantastic Four (2015), with a compelling narrative driven by intimate character studies. During the second act of Trank’s finished film, there is a cliche ridden but sustainably held scene between Mara and Teller in which the two future vigilantes flirt coyly via dialogue delivered with emotional tenderness and conviction only to be deflated by the sheer obviousness of what is an otherwise consistently mediocre script; and there are many more near hit scenes like it, including several held between Jordan and his movie father Dr. Franklin Storm, played by veteran character actor Reg E. Cathey. Despite such moments of melodramatic intention. the film always come off as laughably sophomoric and more in keeping with a meta-textual deconstruction of the familial and fraternal tropes being brought up again and again throughout the film’s runtime. Such scenes would be seemingly more at home on an episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! than they are within a more overtly sentimental coming-of-age piece, leaving Trank’s film unsuccessful in fully coming into its own on the merits of a net worth of any summation of its incongruous parts.

With a follow-up already in the works from 20th Century Fox, including a planned cross-over with the studio’s other Marvel Comics independent property X-Men, there is no sign that there will be any cessation of feature films featuring Reed Richards and his team of space traveling cosmonauts anytime soon. Yet such a turn of events isn’t necessarily bad, per se, as even Trank’s latest effort to bring the Fantastic Four to life is more interesting and self-sustained than any one of the efforts to be most recently included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Marvel Studios. Fantastic Four (2015) is a leaden, tone deaf adaptation of its source material, but in its brief moments of insight and narrative invention a greater film shines through the lesser production’s portentous shell. Certain moments and images are viscerally awe inspiring and existentially resonant throughout, though they never lead anywhere interesting due to the film’s underwritten dialogue and plodding progression of plot. When the Fantastic Four come back to the big screen in June 2017, it will be interesting to see whether or not another director might be able to salvage something from the promise upheld in Trank’s film’s second act without devolving into the messy cliché-ridden third, as Fantastic Four (2015) isn’t a bad film; it’s conceptually sterile, which is far more egregiously disappointing.

Every Man is an Island in Touchy Feely

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on August 15, 2015 at 11:25 am
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Touchy Feely (2013)
Directed by Lynn Shelton
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Lynn Shelton, whose closest compatriot and thematic composite within the realm of independent cinema would be director Joe Swanberg, makes films about people in varying states of intense mental-emotional flux. In films like Hump Day and Your Sister’s Sister, Shelton tackles the fragility of our shared human-nature as a malleable mold by which the emotions of love, loss, remorse, regret, happiness, sadness, and depression may be evoked via the individual spirits of her own imagining. Last year, Shelton was graced with her first chance to work with a big name cast in Laggies, which starred Keira Knightley and Sam Rockwell as two wayward adults acting up as children, their own emotional maturities lacking despite their otherwise advanced biological ages. But it is in her sixth directorial feature, Touchy Feely, where such an emotional longing and state of arrested development is articulated the most personally and cohesively. In Touchy Feely, Shelton’s chief protagonists are trapped in a state of co-dependent despondency towards and through one another, a state of self-inflicted, delusional compassion that proves an ironic tendency necessitated by our better natures, however defeating and isolating such a form of misguided tenderness can become; a feeling, moreover, in keeping with Shelton’s peculiar, homeopathic brand of storytelling that proves to be communally healing in the process.

Touchy Feely is primarily concerned with the inner lives of a small, alternative-blend of the nuclear family unit. In Shelton’s film, brother and sister Abby and Paul, who are played by Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais respectively, are closed off from themselves and other people in their own idiosyncratic ways. Abby is a massage therapist whose desire to heal through the immediacy of physical touch is thematically dissimilar in nature and feeling from her brother Paul, who acts as the counterbalance to Abby’s off-kilter, hipsterism. Paul is a straight-laced family dentist whose monosyllabic existence belies an intensely closed off and shut-down personality perhaps never allowed the space to truly come into its own. In essence, Touchy Feely is the narrative equivalent of the Yin and the Yang, Abby and Paul representative of the need in the world for opposite forces to clash with one another, yet ultimately coalesce and thrive with each the other’s opposite, working in harmony and peaceful coexistence.

When Abby becomes emotionally troubled and Paul becomes more intrigued by a strange, new-found ability to perform Reiki, another form of alternative healing administered through direct person-to-person contact through touch, their worlds are thrown out of orbit. Shelton’s film then becomes an off-balance examination of the personal histories and learned philosophies that come to define ourselves and the worlds that we largely establish around ourselves that cohere to personal idealisms, and how the solipsism of independent thought can be altered to include other people and worldviews into our lives. Abby and Paul are both tortured human souls eager to find belonging, and both characters are held back by assumptions made on the behalf of ego play-acting as co-operative attitudes. Yet there is hope in Shelton’s film for reconciliation, as the film’s climactic third act proves to be true within the singular story of the film’s script, and in our own lives. As Touchy Feely teaches viewers, in its evocation of emotionalism retooled as a collective ability for societal compassion, every man, woman, and child is an island, but that doesn’t mean we can’t build bridges between them, us, and ourselves in order to feel more whole and inter-connected.

Shelton’s characters, especially in a film such as Touchy Feely, may appear unfeeling, towards themselves and one another, at first. In the opening scene to Shelton’s sixth film, the family dinner tableaux so evocatively established is familiar in its visceral sense of disconnection and miscommunication held between its congregants. Paul and his daughter Jenny, played with an undeniable tenderness of human compassion by Ellen Page, couldn’t be further from understanding one another, their terse, clipped exchanges with one another relaying only the most supplementary of information about themselves and how they feel about their lives lived beholden to each other. Likewise, Abby and her boyfriend Jesse, played with a disjointed lightheartedness by Scoot McNairy, disguise their own misunderstanding of one another’s intentions through gratuitously ironic physical intimacy. Each one of these characters has so much love and feeling that they want to put out into the world and share with the other people in their lives; but it is in their shared inability to do so that is so fascinating in a film such as this one, and it is in this very articulation of familial miscommunication that is Shelton’s core strength as a writer, a director, and an invaluable filmmaker of the contemporary independent film industry.

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

Search for Meaninglessness

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on August 8, 2015 at 10:44 am
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Irrational Man
Directed by Woody Allen
1 ½ out of 4 stars

Irrational Man is about a philosopher named Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who, through a series of convoluted events that make about as much sense as the narrative whole to which they are a part, becomes a calculated murderer driven by existential postulations and an abstract sense of moral justification. At the beginning of Woody Allen’s latest film, Phoenix is depicted making his way to yet another college campus where he has recently taken a highly sought after position within the philosophy department. By all appearances, Phoenix is out of sorts, drinking heavily from a flask that seemingly never ceases to be at hand, and is possessed of a devil-may-care attitude that has given birth to a substantial abdominal paunch belying personal despondency and defeat. Just how Irrational Man transitions from being an impotent comedy of errors and verbal masturbation to a take off on Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train is about as haphazard and illogical as the movie itself. The film is never surprisingly awful, but it is exceptionally ill made, its basic conception of plot and dramatic catharsis so tired and clichéd that any comedy it evokes arises purely from the viewer’s ability to see the seams coming undone around the edges of Allen’s latest failure in novel screenwriting.

As always, Phoenix is a fascinating performer to watch, his powers for immediacy and humanism via his very presence on screen consistently entertaining, even in a film as bad as Irrational Man. Emma Stone on the other hand, who plays Phoenix’s infatuated pupil, suffers in a performance so exceptionally trite that the viewer begins to long for the kind of improvisation and passion so recently enjoyed from her in last year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s almost unbelievable that Stone, who has proven herself alongside the likes of such powerful leading men as Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, should appear in this film where her powers for performance are overcast by a character that is insulting to women in general, and Stone in particular. Stone’s character swoons over Phoenix’s boozy professor to an extent that is unbelievable, her presence meant to stroke the ego of a character obviously meant to stand in for Allen himself, and nothing more. Phoenix exudes something like genuine existential torment, but in his relationship with Stone the film verges into the realm of solipsistic self-involvement, negating viewer engagement of any kind.

But Phoenix, who is the undoubted star and shining light at the end of the dark tunnel that is this film, is not the only interesting facet to pay attention to for the hour and a half that you can choose to waste watching Irrational Man. Parker Posey, who plays a wayward chemistry professor and more age-appropriate lover to Phoenix’s turbid thinker, is yet another innately fascinating screen actor whose inherent charisma makes up for the lack of interest presented in Allen’s script. Posey, like Phoenix, is such a strange character herself that the cliché present on the page is superseded by the effusiveness of her own manner and bearing, her individualism as a performer something to watch in and of itself. In a better film, Posey would be the central protagonist, a la Cate Blanchett in Allen’s far superior tragedy Blue Jasmine of 2013, and Irrational Man’s insipid search for meaning would be rendered a moot point, as per Allen’s presupposition going into each and every one of his films that life has no meaning to begin with. In Phoenix’s woeful typecasting as the Woody Allen character in search of some sort of spiritual fulfillment Posey stands as the clear contrast and answer to Phoenix’s aimless wandering, her character already content to wallow in the ethereal meaninglessness of life itself.

At the beginning of Irrational Man, with Phoenix depicted driving towards the college campus that will serve to bring him to philosophical fruition and peace with what is presented in the film as being a chaotic universe, an answer to life’s search for meaning appears to be at the heart of the film’s rhetorical structure. Indeed, the film’s climactic scene serves as an answer to that very question, with Phoenix scrabbling for purchase in the soil of a world that apparently has no concrete use for him. While Abe Lucas may be the most pompous and ponderous malcontented Woody Allen character yet, Phoenix makes his plight temporarily amusing. In exuding his characteristic deep soulfulness and wounded humanity, Phoenix is allowed to sing however softly, his voice registering lightly with an audience only ever tacitly engaged with a film that takes badness to subterraneous lengths and levels. Through Phoenix, Irrational Man becomes ever so slightly logical and dramatically cathartic, even if his relationship with the far more intriguing character portrayed by Parker Posey is immediately more interesting than the one sustained with Emma Stone, which might be the key failing with Allen’s prowess as a screenwriter in this particular film, Irrational Man concerned with the strivings of the more patently obvious and redundant sex.

Lost Soul & The Imagined Genius

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on August 1, 2015 at 11:06 am
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Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014)
Directed by David Gregory
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

More interesting than a Hollywood documentary about the greatest film of all time is a Hollywood documentary about the worst film of all time. 2013’s American-French picture on Frank Herbert’s Dune, and one of its planned feature film adaptations by Chilean avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, titled simply Jodorowsky’s Dune, details the strange, surreal adventure that it took Jodorowsky over the course of pre-production to plan the grand space epic that he intended to make; a space opera to rival the likes of Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Terminator, and the like, all of which supposedly have their roots in Jodorowsk’s masterpiece that never was. Whether or not any such shaggy dog stories hold water in regards to how things actually occurred at the time of these proposed features pre-production stages, the zealotry inherent to the talking heads who act as unholy disciples of their chosen idols and attendant Gods are perversely compelling; the films that they imagine in their minds are obviously greater than any that might have actually been made, in the past or future. Such is the case with David Gregory’s feature film expose on John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, which was initially pitched, conceived, and set to be directed by South African genre-guru Richard Stanley, of Hardware and Dust Devil infamy. Like Jodorowsky’s Dune, Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is a fever dream of unbridled passion and ambition; the film that it purports to be submerged beneath the depths of Frankenheimer’s critical disaster of 1996 one that appears seemingly inspired, with Stanley portrayed as the misunderstood, eccentric genius behind it all.

In Gregory’s film, Stanley is something of a chimera of the popular imagination of the early 20th century, with his debut directorial effort, Hardware, released in 1990, being a schlocky, sci-fi horror piece that continues to enjoy significant cult appeal to this day. Following his first film, Stanley was entrusted with a significantly more substantial budget on Dust Devil, which was subsequently distributed in the U.S. by Miramax, and enjoyed notable domestic distribution, but only after the American studio had edited the film down to a trimmer 87 minutes from Stanley’s more substantially envisioned original 120-minute runtime, a trend that was reflected in both the U.K. and overseas. Stanley’s original vision for Dust Devil was only to be realized years later in a 105-minute final cut overseen solely by the film’s director, but by that time Dust Devil had already become a unilateral flop at the box office, making Stanley into something of a pariah in Hollywood, where he might have otherwise next set his sights. By some stroke of what might be considered luck by a few, New Line Cinema, which at the time was much maligned as a genre-film powerhouse in Hollywood, offered Stanley an exclusive contract to make a film based on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, a story, moreover, that Stanley had already been puzzling over for some time, and had substantial visual ideas for that might very well have made for a visually thrilling cinematic experience. However, as Gregory’s documentary makes exceedingly clear, Stanley’s erratic behavior and inability to cope with the demands of a major motion picture studio in Hollywood proved too much for the stresses demanded by a project of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau’s size, and Stanley was ultimately replaced by John Frankenheimer who proceeded to produce one of the worst movies of all time.

Based on the talking head testimonies provided by Gregory’s collected panel of actors, filmmakers, and Stanley himself, The Island of Dr. Moreau, which starred Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, might have been something far greater than what it actually turned out to be. Based on the concept art that Stanley is able to produce from the pre-production process in Lost Soul, the movie that Stanley had intended to make might have been an interesting one in the same way that Jodorowsky’s Dune appeared to be, and Stanley obviously had significant experience with both the novel upon which his script was based and the prior feature films made from the source text. Unlike Jodorowsky, Stanley is presented in Gregory’s film as an artist able to articulate his vision to those around him, even as his planned production ultimately got away from him due to its grandiose scheme and visual super-profundity. The Island of Dr. Moreau as Stanley wanted to tell it is a film that begs to be seen, but alas, like Jodorowsky’s failed genre experiment, one that becomes so excessive in its conception that the reality of bringing it to life proves too ungainly a task to be accomplished by anyone, including the artist himself. If Jodorowsky failed because his was a genius that bordered on near schizophrenic insanity and inarticulate majesty, then Stanley failed due to a more sympathetic innocence and naïveté regarding the realities of a Hollywood production and his own more personal brand of creative impropriety.

In Gregory’s Lost Soul, the genre-guru behind the cult-classic Hardware and its successor Dust Devil comes off as an appropriately charming and warm artistic savant; Stanley’s vision is immediately recognizable though lost in the translation of a language which neither the director nor his audience is entirely able to understand, parse, or distinguish. In the story of the making of The Island of Dr. Moreau Gregory presents his imagined reality that almost was as the fantasy that it still remains, and with good reason which Gregory fully excepts and realizes. Where Jodorowsky’s Dune never fully acknowledges the unreasonable nature of its claims upon the legacy of its featured legend, Lost Soul presents what happened only, whatever film Stanley might have been able to make lost to the irreconcilable nature of the past, and gracefully so. In Lost Soul, Stanley never appears as maniacally solipsistic as Jodorowsky so often does, instead taking the tone of a tempered, calm being reflecting on the past with the wisdom granted by loss and regret, two feelings which Dune’s would-be director apparently has no conception of or intention towards feeling in kind. Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau is an odd fish, and Gregory’s Lost Soul explains why in minutely documented detail via fawning fan-service of its exiled primary director Richard Stanley, a character in the film who is sympathetic and lovable, making Gregory’s film a well made apology for a fantasy appreciated on its own terms.

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netlix: Recommendation of the Week.