Sean K. Cureton

Archive for September, 2015|Monthly archive page

Yet Another Teenage Wasteland

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on September 26, 2015 at 12:06 pm
Fat Kid Rules the World

Theatrical Poster

Fat Kid Rules the World (2012)
Directed by Matthew Lillard
Netflix Rating: Liked It

It’s not easy to construct a succinct, tightly coherent coming-of-age film, regardless of sub-genre. In terms of both dramatic and comedic motion pictures, films like Zach Braff’s Garden State and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused come to mind. The former is buoyed by the wounded innocence of a young actor just coming into what proved to become a state of continued arrested underdevelopment, though the film itself still holds out promise for its featured innocents. The latter succeeds on the air of reckless abandon more appropriate to the biological age and moment that it depicts, in terms of both the historical time and the personal lives of the characters that are featured throughout. Enter Fat Kid Rules the World, the directorial debut from former SLC Punk! actor Matthew Lillard, an offbeat, tragicomedy, detailing the exploits of one young, morbidly obese teenager as he is enveloped into the world of punk rock music and hard drugs by a local high school drop-out and adolescent miscreant. Even as Lillard struggles to overcome the inane clichés that arise between a cast of largely untested dramatic actors, their collective efforts coalesce into something that resembles honesty and heart in what proves to be a compelling portraiture of yet another teenage wasteland.

Films like Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning motion picture Good Will Hunting often suggest an intimate understanding of the perils of youth in revolt, but never progress very far beyond mere caricature and stereotype. In Lillard’s attempt at some of the same easy archetypes, lead actor Jacob Wysocki imbues his suicidal protagonist with a certain subtle believability that borders on humanity, though his co-star Matt O’Leary largely undermines such efforts, and often chews the scenery around Wysocki more broadly. The film never outright lies about the pitfalls and follies of its chosen tragedians, but it also never fully addresses their inner lives in a way that reflects much of the turmoil that otherwise makes up for the film’s surrounding rhetorical drama. Granted, Lillard’s film is a comedy, and as such does not need to necessarily address drug addiction and clinical depression minutely, but in introducing such topics as mere props for its actors to lean on in the service of an entirely dissimilar type of performance, the underlying moral lessons that make up for much of the production fall short. It’s easy to feel sorry for Wysocki’s dejected, sheltered state, and comfortable to condemn O’Leary’s narcissistic behavior, but it’s equally impossible to understand either as a coherent state of being.

Thankfully, the surrounding factors which make up for the narrative context within which these protagonists’ actions are enacted make up for an immediate and livable fictive space for Lillard’s supporting characters to inhabit. Seeing Wysocki depicted as perpetually playing MMORPGs into the late night hours all alone in his room is simultaneously heartbreaking and subversive, the perspective of the film one of neither outright forgiveness for said lethargy, nor impassioned criticism of it. Likewise, O’Leary’s grungy, burnout demeanor and lifestyle is aesthetically repugnant and conspiratorially appealing, the character one that many viewers undoubtedly know or have been at one time or another in their own lives. Lillard evokes compassion for his two wayward souls throughout his debut feature film, though his own maturity belies a certain parental distance that comes with having outgrown such emotional despondency. A former movie punk himself, the director of Fat Kid Rules the World both believes in and gently satirizes his two rebels, their revolution one that is timelessly shared across generations perpetually, though its end is forever cut short by the sobering effects of age and the attendant responsibilities of adulthood.

In directing the film, Lillard offers a eulogy to youth, his own and the viewer’s, a time in which the world appeared infinite, despite all evidence to the contrary. Wysocki and O’Leary capably capture the desperation and passion of their characters’ respective immaturities, but bring their own professionalism to bear upon the task and offer up a certain diagnostic humor via individual depiction. None of the film’s relative bad behavior and excess is ever entirely condoned, though nor is it dismissed out of hand. Instead, Lillard, Wysocki, and O’Leary offer up their own insecurities through the power of the collaborative effort that is the finished film, a comedy with plenty of both cultural critique and social awareness in kind, which makes the movie so appealing to watch. The coming-of-age sub-genre within dramatic filmmaking always comes pre-loaded with certain idiosyncrasies that may become instances of hypocrisy and moral negligence when in the wrong hands, and as an antidote, Lillard exhibits neither ill in the telling of a story that is diametrically honest and ethically concerned with its otherwise unkempt and vulgar personalities, which makes his film an entirely satisfying comedy.

Fat Kid Rules the World is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.

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Sheep Out of Water

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on September 5, 2015 at 11:42 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Shaun the Sheep Movie
Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak
3 out of 4 stars

Shaun the Sheep Movie is something of an anomaly as a late summer release. Where other major motion pictures available to screen amid the dog days of summer typically feature more readily recognizable and persistent genres and sub-genres for viewers to subconsciously engage with, the latest feature length, stop-motion animated adventure comedy from the studio that brought the world such iconic characters as Wallace and Gromit in the 1990s is gleefully self-contained. Without playing into the contemporary craze for masked vigilantes or teen-dystopia, science-fiction adaptations, Aardman Animations has taken a cult-classic independent property and repackaged what was already appealing to many in a completely new and at times revelatory manner. Like Universal Pictures’ Minions, Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep is an already recognizable character pulled from an original Wallace and Gromit short film that was produced and directed by Nick Park in 1995, and has since become an established character on his own television series and an entity unto himself. Unlike the Despicable Me spin-off phenomenon, Shaun the Sheep substantiates a feature length narrative through innovative character invention and the meticulous construction of individual set pieces behind the scenes at Aardman, with Gru’s henchman meanwhile doomed to repeat a litany of one-liners, stale sight gags, and a cacophony of immature sound effects.

Pulling from an entirely cinematic tradition of visual and physical comedy on the big screen, directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak cast their anthropomorphic characters onto a canvas as big as any seen before in past stop-motion marvels from the studio. Like Aardman’s Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Shaun the Sheep Movie builds action out of what at first appears to be a limited canvas before the actions undertaken within fill the landscape with color and multi-faceted personalities that are by turns heartwarming, empathetic, and hilarious. The artistry and technical design that goes into each and every scene is truly marvelous to watch, and makes for one of the most impressive animated spectacles in years. Pixar might have the upper hand when it comes to master storytelling, but Aardman takes an alternative path that reveals novelty through an understated and mundane outlook on life as the viewer knows it. Films like Inside Out are brilliantly staggering on an intellectual level, but it is only in smaller concept films like Shaun the Sheep Movie where some of the more immediate familiarities between people come out more evocatively by being so simply put.

At the heart of Burton and Starzak’s new film is the universal notion of growing up and wanting more out of life than what you already have. In the hands of a more American sensibility, such an enthusiasm for personal reinvention might be granted more economically through commercial capitalism via consumerism. In Shaun the Sheep Movie, the same dilemma is addressed in the same way to a certain extent, but what is of central importance to this film’s story is not cultural homogenization in an attempt to fit into a preexisting social mold, but the sustained and upheld family values shared at home and in one’s individual heart and soul. Several sequences in Burton and Starzak’s film have to do with advertising and celebrity, but they are never celebratory of such values. Instead, their film is one where the cult of bourgeois ephemera is largely lampooned and exposed for the self-destructing vice that it usually is, with a quiet, private life back home more conducive to values and ethics that are morally sound and existentially fulfilling.

Like the original short films made by Nick Park that helped launch the studio to worldwide acclaim and recognition, Aardman’s latest is a marvel on a small scale with plenty of heart to supplement its overt comedy theatrics. Like Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep is a character who is immediately compelling to watch not because of what he does or due to the world and narrative which he inhabits, but because he lives simply and sympathetically. Where the Minions of Minions are only ever funny in an entirely fantastic and commercially distracting way, the barnyard animals of Shaun the Sheep Movie exude warmth and compassion. Burton and Starzak appear to care deeply for their viewers, and in so doing have crafted a film that strives to speak to how we all feel, first as children and later on as adults, their family entertainment one that anyone and everyone can watch and enjoy without irony, self-deprecation, or post-modern deconstruction of individual narrative beats or comic punches. Minions may have ruled the global box office this summer, but Aardman’s animated fare is far more fulfilling, and more worthy of your attention as a viewer than most of the mainstream films being released in theaters right now.