Sean K. Cureton

Archive for November, 2015|Monthly archive page

James Bond in Abstentia

In Movie Reviews: 2015, Uncategorized on November 28, 2015 at 5:44 pm
Spectre

MGM/Columbia Pictures

Spectre
Directed by Sam Mendes
2 ½ out of 4 stars

Following on the heels of what was perhaps the best 007 film since Sean Connery’s heyday turn as the characters over the course of the 1960s, director Sam Mendes’ Spectre is a lukewarm, leftover serving of what made his Skyfall such a thrilling, resuscitation of its storied, supporting property. Where his last film made Bond into something of a lame duck, alcoholic has-been, forced to mourn for the loss of a certain naïve innocence that might just constitute the very joie vu vivre of life itself, Mendes finds his take on the Ian Felming original character in his new film in a state of emotional and philosophical despondency. M is dead, the future of MI6 is uncertain, and all of the ghosts from Bond’s past have come back to haunt in a series of confounding, ethereal ways. As Daniel Craig finds himself contending with the fallout of his four feature tenure as Bond within the boundaries of the film’s narrative context, it becomes easy to see the film as a much larger confrontation of the necessity of the Bond character in general, a hero archetype in dire need of recasting and moral reevaluation. It would be easy to merely ask the question of whether or not we need 007 anymore, but Spectre appears ready with the follow-up expose after the fact of the former line of inquiry, delivering a surreal, supremely bizarre moratorium on the character.

Bond is not a character of the current cultural climate, to put it bluntly. His archaic, patronizing tone, overriding misogyny, and outright disregard for the individual agency of the women in his life since the character’s inception has become inseparable from the character proper. Where actors like Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan have been able to bring perhaps a little more light to the character over the years, Bond has remained a relic of a pre-feminist age, and utterly unrepentant in his inability to cope or adapt to an increasingly liberal, socio-political landscape since. Enter Daniel Craig in the 2006, Martin Campbell directed reboot of the character in Casino Royale, and everything previously established in regards to the character’s outward demeanor is tossed out the window. For the most part, Craig has come to symbolize a personally compromised Bond, a 007 who has given into a certain feminine leniency and post-feminist rebuttal of the extant patriarchy of his service.

On several separate occasions over the course of three prior films, Craig has come to promote a James Bond more in line with the politically correct, left-ward leaning times of the contemporary cultural climate, for whatever fault viewers may find with such a sentiment notwithstanding. Craig is a wounded, brooding, and self-sufficient agent of her majesty’s secret service, only said enlistment is now subject to an entirely different set of historical parameters. The late M, played by Judi Dench, takes up more space in the film’s establishment of command throughout Craig’s tenure as Bond, resulting in an opaquely applied facsimile of the latter character overall. Craig plays Bond like an old dog, entirely capable of trotting out old tricks for the amusement of an amassed audience of easily placated viewers, though his agency acts as a mere parlor show for an assembled coterie of similarly staid ex-patriots. Enter Spectre, and you have the timid culmination of the fallout from Skyfall, a seeming memorial to the franchise’s past successes without any of the vibrancy and ingenuity to ever truly come across as anything but a swan song to Craig as 007.

There’s a lot of style that makes up for a lack of narrative content in Medes’ latest outing as the successor to Fleming, though much of the film itself is sorely missing anything to make itself stand out on its own. Mendes borrows entire set pieces and plot points from past films in the series, and at times entire character arcs feel poorly misappropriated within the context of Craig’s post-modern take on the role. Christoph Waltz is a welcome enough presence when his character final enters the picture, though the pall he casts over the entire production thereafter often feels more intrusive than effectively articulated or dramatically cathartic. At many points throughout the film’s overlong, self-important, and pre-ponderous 148 minute runtime, Craig appears lost in a wasteland of Bonds past, his own tenure as the iconic character on the verge of running up, the film a seeming purgatory to his necessary and thoroughly original performance within the surrounding series. Spectre may be among the most atypical entries in the storied history of Fleming’s secret agent; its bizarre narrative structure rings hollow where it should resound with all of the clear-eyed focus of its immediate predecessor, with Mendes leaving the property for now with a resounding echo of what it once was, with James Bond in absentia.

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Southern Fried Satire

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 21, 2015 at 12:45 pm
Sling Blade Theatrical Poster

Miramax Films

Sling Blade (1996)
Directed by Billy Bob Thronton
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Billy Bob Thronton’s 1996 directorial debut, Sling Blade, didn’t garner much attention, critical or otherwise, upon its initial release, though it slowly built up praise for its Southern-twanged, social satire and powerful performances from an impeccably well cast crew of seasoned performers, and ultimately won the Academy award for Best Adpated Screenplay, with Thornton additionally nominated for Best Actor. Before the film was released, Thornton was hardly a household name, though the titular character for which he became known was a performance that he had been perfecting for years prior since moving to Hollywood from rural Arkansas, casting aside the milieu of William Faulkner for F. Scott Fitzgerald by proxy. In the time that has elapsed since Thornton’s emergence as a preeminent performer, both on film and on the stage as a recording artist, his particular presence has become indispensable, having offered such iconic misanthropes as Ed Crane in the Coen Brothers The Man Who Wasn’t There and Willie T. Stokes in Terry Zwigoff’s offbeat holiday studio comedy Bad Santa. But it is probably for Sling Blade that Thornton will be remembered the most fondly, as the homicidal simpleton Karl Childers still proves resonant nearly fifteen years on. Like Faulker, Thronton’s first major motion picture as a writer, actor, and director provides a unique perspective on regional living, however accentuated for the sake narrative convenience its plot may be as a whole.

At the beginning of Thornton’s contemporary Southern folk tale, Childers explains the reasons for killing his mother and her presumed lover with an atypical lack of emotional affect, his actions related with the matter of fact, expressionless tone and demeanor that makes up for his entire character, or perhaps a lack thereof. The contortions and physical transformation that Thornton undergoes to achieve the outward appearance of his regional avatar is remarkable, albeit slight and mawkish, though it rings with all of the sincerity of the very best of Mark Twain’s narrative inventions. Childers’ motivations and ability to emote are expectedly limited and archaic, and the plot progresses with an admittedly plodding predictability that at times threatens to overtake the expose the entire production for certain sort of Hollywood brand exploitation. But Thornton rides high as the master and commander of the film, and imbues much of its more tiresome beats and climactic sequences and scenes with the realism of someone who intimately knows the people he has constructed for a form of manufactured entertainment at times masquerading as anthropological recitation. Sling Blade will never reach the heights established by such contemporary authors of Southern life and morals as a Cormac McCarthy, though it might just be the closest thing on film to what can be more vividly articulated in prose.

Starring alongside Thornton as Childers, the late John Ritter, as the tenderhearted, homosexual pariah, Vaughan Cunningham, and fellow musician Dwight Yoakam, as the tormented, malevolent, patriarchal usurper, Doyle Hargraves, round out a central love triangle of sorts that drives much of the action forward with plenty of atmospheric menace and unspoken moralizing that is so particular to the American South. Southern stories from American voices are often the hardest to articulate, which might be why authors as hallowed as Faulkner and Twain are still two of the most well known and highly regarded voices of their particular social caste. At times, the sort of regional satire that the film portrays with a visual tenacity that is not only coherent, but genuinely heartwarming and funny, can be hard to translate to those unfamiliar with its specific sounds, feelings, and deep undercurrent of unspeakable tension and seemingly unresolved historical turmoil. Thornton may only be able to offer bits and pieces of such a kind of cinematic narrative, though certain shots and lines of sparse, intermittent dialogue get at a lot of what makes his good-old-boy archetypes not only peculiar, but familiar as well. There is plenty to find fault with in the film’s at times stunted length, though it is shot with a slow, steadied focus and unrelenting gaze that at times appears to look at its subjects as people, instead of the homogenized stereotypes more typical of major studio releases, comedic or otherwise.

Sling Blade, for all of its Southern fried satire, is an intimate portraiture of true American hospitality rooted in a true-born native of its geographically based, socio-cultural traditionalisms. Thornton might be on the few Hollywood all-stars who could deliver a story as regionally inflected as this one, however obvious and stumbling the film sometimes gets in its awkward gait and faltering progression towards a conclusion that, while cathartic on its own terms, appears unrealized from the point-of-view of more discerning and demanding viewers of cinematic storytelling. At the heart of the movie, the performance delivered from Lucas Black as the young innocent that Childers might have been at one point in time draws all of the viewer’s attention, and makes up for some of the less-nuanced aspects of the film’s bare bones narrative structure and predictable final act. And it’s not only easy to get wrapped up in the war between the three men for the favor of Black’s widowed mother, but necessary and compelling in its appropriateness as a part of much of the regional mythology that the film is itself a part. Where a Mid-Western sensibility such as Fitzgerald’s may have become disillusioned by the excesses of the West, Thornton is decidedly more in keeping with the loyal tenacity of his contemporary Southerner McCarthy, and delivers a story that seeks to address much of his most intimately held beliefs, secrets, and wounds sustained as a native son of the American South.

Sling Blade is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.

Gothic Romance as Macabre Farce

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on November 7, 2015 at 2:12 pm
Crimson Peak Theatrical Poster

Universal Pictures

Crimson Peak
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
2 out of 4 stars

Crimson Peak comes on heavy from the start, with its supplementary ghost story an element of the film’s fabric that becomes all pervasive, drowning out many of director Guillermo del Toro’s more subtle and rhetorical flourishes. The film itself is an incredibly atmospheric, gothic romance, as the director so vehemently made a point of stating in the promotion of his new film over the course of the last month, though its tender tragedy comes at the very center of a fairly convoluted, meager, and mediocre, melodramatic period piece. While the film’s stars Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain form a compelling lover’s triangle that is constantly on the verge of the cross-strangulation of all three aphrodisiacs, their story is largely put on hold in the service of a fairly route, haunted house ride. Implementing perhaps more CGI than would have been advisable, the monsters in del Toro’s latest all appear hyper accentuated to a fault, though perhaps this particular un-reality has more to do with the ludicrous plot, setting, and climactic clash over hallowed grounds that have been reddened through a plot contrivance exhaustingly convenient. The film itself never coheres into anything close to resembling an independent production, but instead peters out into several incongruent and seemingly discontinuous parts, with del Toro’s impeccable eye for detail and literary allusion his apparent undoing this time around.

Wasikowska is sympathetic enough in the role of Edith Cushing, an educated young woman living in what passes for America within the film’s disparate landscapes, on her father’s moneyed estate. Bearing a passing resemblance to such Victorian characters as Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the film makes blunt associations to the two former literary characters of the period of time that del Toro attempts to portray visually, even as his script plods along with overbearing dialogue and brashly cliché, narrative beats. When the film moves across the pond to Hiddleston and Chastain’s estate amid a cinematically secluded English country side, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe prove not only dislikable antagonists, but villains without any heart or bearing of their own outside of the heavily redundant world against which they are cast. The film becomes an exercise in indulgence spurred on by del Toro’s decided love for all things creepy, though his attempts at recasting the haunted hills of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is well neigh suffocating in his persistent courtship of intellectual pretention. As the entire affair comes to a bloody head at the film’s conclusion, and Wasikowska’s Cushing character closes the book of her own writing on the events contained within the film proper, viewers may at least come away with the relief afforded by never having to glance at the flowery and pompous prose intimated by the film’s self-aggrandizing majesty.

Which is all not to say that the film doesn’t still have its moments, or that del Toro has completely lost his touch as an inherently hyperbolic filmmaker. Like Pacific Rim, the director’s latest builds upon pre-established and well known storytelling traditions while incorporating his own unimpeachable aesthetic vision. The Sharpe estate in his new film is gloriously macabre, with his dilapidated structure, groaning, mechanized structural bearings, and oozing floors threatening to be over taken by the red clay that becomes visually associated with the crimson ghouls that haunt the ancestral abode with menace and woe. Edith is an appropriate avatar by which to navigate the films labyrinthine, maze-like structure so well known to fans of del Toro’s larger oeuvre, and the very construction of his latest cinematic set piece is reminiscent of the many winding gears and widgets of his directorial debut Cronos, only to be recast and seen again later on in Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s always a pleasure to get to know the inner workings of behind the tapestries that adorn del Toro’s films, even if the fabric quickly gives way to a skeletal frame in dire need of expositional support.

The film’s cast at times appear aware of the del Toro’s many excesses and illusory sparks of innovation that ultimately give way to a barren cellar of discarded and recycled tropes and images from greater works on the page and screen from the past. At times Hiddleston’s limber frame and hints towards a predatory menace necessitated by a wounded humanity resulting from his own loss of innocence, though in extrapolation on the Thomas Sharpe character it is in his sister Lucille where much of the film’s horror arises, and to lesser reward. In moving so quickly between too many literary and cinematic allusions to count, del Toro makes a mockery of his own sycophantic appreciation of his own artistry, his gothic romance a macabre farce in disguise. The estate from which the film derives its name is an effectively eerie setting that becomes undone by the film’s many surrounding elements, all jockeying for their time in front of a camera that moves far too frenetically between its many points of reference. On that note, it becomes possible to leave the would-be Victorian novelist, Ms. Edith Cushing, to ponder over her own shallow pool of narrative recursion between the covers of a book that may be closed by the film’s viewers indefinitely.