Sean K. Cureton

Archive for 2017|Yearly archive page

Goon: Last of the Enforcers: An Inside Hockey Sports Comedy

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on December 16, 2017 at 12:40 pm
Goon: Last of the Enforcers

Entertainment One

Goon: Last of the Enforcers (2017)
Directed by Jay Baruchel
VOD Rating: Liked It

Goon: Last of the Enforcers sees director, writer, and actor Jay Baruchel applying a second chapter to his 2011 hit sports comedy Goon. Starring Seann William Scott once again as the dimwitted minor league ice hockey enforcer Doug “The Thug” Glatt, Baruchel pulls from a roster of surprisingly well-rounded cast of characters in the making of a second act that sees Doug facing a brutal end to a short career. After sustaining severe injuries during a fight with competing enforcer Anders Cain (Wyatt Russell), Doug leaves his position as the newly appointed captain of the Halifax Highlanders at the behest of his pregnant wife Eva (Alison Pill). But despite all of its scurrilous bluster, bloody knuckles, and sophomoric humor, Goon: Last of the Enforcers is a less worthwhile successor to its predecessor. Without the help of co-writer Evan Goldberg, Baruchel and Jesse Chabot have done a minor disservice to what made the original movie an unexpected cult hit and lose sight of their audience in recreating some of the deeper cuts from sports history.

Taking direct inspiration from real life exhibition events, Goon: Last of the Enforcers grapples with the continuing controversy surrounding violence in professional hockey. Specifically, the film examines the very real ramifications of the kind of fisticuffs most frequently engaged in by enforcers hired by minor and senior league teams. Like Doug Smith – whose autobiography and career helped inform the character portrayed in the film by Seann William Scott – enforcers have long been brought into the hockey industry for their ability to take a beating. Oftentimes lacking in any overt grace on the ice, enforcers were expected to beat themselves to death in gladiatorial combat. In Goon, a lot of the physiological damage that goes into the making of an enforcer is glossed over in service of a feel-good sports comedy; in Goon: Last of the Enforcers, the very real toll that fighting for sport takes on Doug “The Thug” Glatt (Scott) shows its true colors.

Director Michael Dowse brought a healthy dose of subtlety to the proceedings behind the scenes in the making of Goon. Beyond the film’s lurid subject, viewers were graced with the rare sports comedy that was about people who just so happened to be involved in athletic competition. In Goon: Last of the Enforcers, Baruchel turns in a directorial debut that teems with untapped potential. Far too often, Baruchel indulges in fanboy adulation, resulting in a movie that feels like it was made for hockey super-fans only. The references that it makes to the contemporary concern over violence in hockey – and the precarious position that certain censorious voices have put the industry under – serves as an inside hockey reference that only the most well-versed sports historians will catch onto without having to seek out a whole host primary sources.

Despite a few new faces that briefly enliven the mood – namely Elisha Cuthbert, Trent Pardy, Jason Jones, and Wyatt Russell – Goon: Last of the Enforcers loses sight of the characters that made the first movie so engaging. Played out like the minor league hockey parable that Baruchel was ironically going for, it’s hard to imagine the film leaving as serious an imprint in the minds of general moviegoers that Goon continues to conjure in its breathless dynamism. Picking up from where the first film left off in 2011, Goon: Last of the Enforcers still revels in the playful camaraderie sustained between returning rival and mentor Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber) and Doug “The Thug” Glatt (Scott), but simultaneously manages to underserve Alison Pill as the once psychologically complicated Eva. Beyond paying minor lip service to the emotional resonance of the many returning characters from Goon, Baruchel is far more concerned with the immediacy of hockey in round two. Serving as another ode to ice hockey, Goon: Last of the Enforcers loses sight of its audience in recreating some of the deeper cuts from sports history.

Goon: Last of the Enforcers is currently available on iTunes, and is My Movies On VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry. 

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The Florida Project: Just Outside the Greatest Place On Earth

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on November 25, 2017 at 11:59 am
The Florida Project

A24

The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker
3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Florida Project offers as unique a glimpse into the life of low-income Americans in the 21st century as only writer-director Sean Baker could deliver. Coming off of the breakthrough success lauded onto his 2015 indie drama Tangerine, Baker has turned his attention from one maligned subculture to another. After following the winding lives of several transgender sex workers traversing the urban environs of Tinseltown on Christmas Eve, The Florida Project offers a vibrantly colored parable on the plights of those living in the shadow of commercial largesse in Orlando, Florida. Focusing in on an unconventional assemblage of residents living out of an economy motel, The Florida Project offers a unique point of view from which to watch its characters, namely that of child actor and star Brooklynn Prince. Rather than seeing all the ways in which her purple colored abode are lacking, Brooklynn frolics in a paradise of her own imagining that rivals the real world splendor of Walt Disney World.

Playing the role of her mother is untrained actor Bria Vinaite, a spritely youth whose impoverished lifestyle is worn more like a badge of honor than an albatross. Rounding out the nuclear unit is celebrated Hollywood star Willem Dafoe, who plays the part of the put-upon motel manager who single-handedly protects his residents from further destitution, often to his own professional and personal detriment. The ways in which Brooklynn Prince discovers small delights and wonders scattered across the landscape of the larger Orlando, Florida area offers a unique representation of the various landmarks and tourist traps that might otherwise beleaguer the spirits of its older residents. Instead of seeing the gross gap of income inequality that is perversely laid bare in the difference between the residents of Dafoe‘s garish purple castle and the moneyed tourists who determinedly turn a blind eye to its suffering indigenous population, Brooklynn finds Neverland within the same environment. Much like Beasts of the Southern Wild did for the Louisiana Bayou, The Florida Project recasts the legacy of another American territory against the realm of myth and fantasy.

Paying special attention to the many grotesqueries of Florida’s commercial real estate, Baker toys with how viewers might otherwise approach a cinematic world that is marked by tragedy, turmoil, and violence. Lacking any formal education, Bria Vinaite is a creature shaped entirely by circumstance in Baker‘s film. But rather than wallow in what many might see as a sorry existence, Vinaite thrives on the fringe of prim propriety. Yet whenever she does so, it’s hard to come away from any of her encounters with the film’s other characters with an even an ounce of malice towards her uncouth behavior. Except the dream that Vinaite has established for herself and her young child frequently bleeds into the realm of nightmare.

During a particularly volatile arc of the film’s script, Neverland is lost to the surrounding harsh reality of 21st century American poverty. In the midst of a confrontation with her best friend and neighbor, Vinaite lashes out in violence against a facile domestic ideal that irrevocably begins to crumble soon thereafter. During the film’s climactic final sequence that sees Brooklynn seeking out the cold comfort of Walt Disney World just as the surreality of childhood begins to lose its hold on her imagination, there is a tenderness to the kind of tragedy that is being depicted. The visual and ethical tenacity with which Baker represents the world of The Florida Project is astounding, and newcomers Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite shine right alongside Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe in one of the greatest films of the year. The paradise that is lost over the course of the film’s trim 110 minute runtime is one that many of us may remember fondly from childhood; only in The Florida Project, the wild flights of fantasy feel even more precious and irreplaceable considering the real world that their creator will soon inherit.

This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

Donald Cried: The Adolescent Sisyphus

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 18, 2017 at 12:41 pm
Donald Cried

The Orchard

Donald Cried (2017)
Directed by Kris Avedisian
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

Following its premiere at South by Southwest in 2016, Donald Cried saw theatrical release earlier this year. Serving as the directorial debut of lead actor and screenwriter Kris Avedisian, Donald Cried is an unsettling dark comedy about fraternal friendship. Centering around the story of a frazzled man returning to his childhood home when his grandmother dies only to find himself beset upon by a troubled acquaintance that he soon becomes indebted to, Donald Cried boldly walks the fine line between comedy and tragedy. When Peter LaTang (Jesse Wakeman) returns to his old stomping grounds to take care of his deceased grandmother’s affairs, he soon discovers that he left his wallet at the train station. Lacking any other resources by which he might get around town before heading back to his adult life as a big city banker, he begrudgingly surrenders to the myopic whim of Donald (Avedisian).

Over the course of the film’s trim 85-minute runtime, Donald Cried tactfully manages to navigate the tumultuous waters of trying to rekindle a friendship forged by one’s own former naïve self. And as anyone who has ever considered becoming friends again with someone that they went to high school with but haven’t seen or spoken to in several years can attest to, the scenario proves to offer a more than familiar narrative bolstered by the specificity of Avedisian’s nostalgic nightmare. Sometimes the friends we make when we’re teenagers are nothing more than the most convenient options available when we’re still not cognizant of our respective selves. During a time in which one is expected to grow up and mature, high school camaraderie can quickly fade if it’s built upon little more than pop culture propagated as a shared personality. And in Donald Treebeck, Avedisian has crafted one of the most accurate portrayals of the surreal nature beholden to what is an inherently juvenile intimacy.

Unfortunately for the titular character in Donald Cried, heavy metal quickly comes to stand for a regressive signifier of a relationship built upon subversive enmity. On the flip side, Donald Cried is also a touching tribute to the people who never really left the confines of home after graduating from secondary – or higher – education. For those who never really found a place for themselves in the adult world, childhood becomes an ever-present state of being that sees some lost forever in a Sisyphean prison of codependent sycophancy. Avedisian as Donald thus acts as both a protagonist and an antagonist. His simpering demands upon the attention and affection of Peter (Wakeman) are both a repugnant deterrent and familiar plea to and for the viewer’s sympathies.

It’s easy to come away feeling a little unsure of what to think after watching Donald Cried for the first time. But upon repeated viewings, Avedisian’s first feature really shines a light on one of the more peculiar aspects of childhood and growing up. Who we were in high school continues to affect how we strive to present ourselves to others as an adult, the latter state of being a past that is often a painful reminder of formative experiences. Avedisian has merely pulled back the curtain on a secret shame that many of us know all too well, but are less than willing to welcome back into our lives. By giving that existential foreboding corporeal form, Donald Cried delivers one of the most unforgettable independent features this year, and it would be a real shame if nobody noticed.

Donald Cried is currently available on Netflix, and is My Movies On VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an expanded version of an article that was originally published by Audiences Everywhere.

Patti Cake$: Blue Collar Fever Dream

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on September 16, 2017 at 11:20 am
Patti Cake$

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Patti Cake$
Directed by Geremy Jasper
3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Patti Cake$ starts with a fever dream. Living a life of quiet desperation in Bayonne, New Jersey, Patricia Dombrowski – played by the fresh-faced Australian actor Danielle Macdonald – dreams of being an all-star MC. Christening herself Killa P, Dombrowski’s life is one filled with personal and economic toil and turmoil that tempers her otherworldly dreams against a stark reality. Forced to singlehandedly keep a roof over her own head – in addition to those of her boozing and promiscuous mother (Bridget Everett) and her terminally ill grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) – Patti dreams of being welcomed into an emerald paradise presided over by local hip hop legend O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah). Unfortunately for Patti, the local rap community is dominated by chauvinism, with her immediate contemporaries more than willing to denigrate her talents on the grounds of weight and gender.

Like many other independent features that takes place in New Jersey, Patti Cake$ is dominated by the pervasive shadow of New York. The local residents of Bayonne all might wish to trade in their blue collar despair for the bright lights of the Big Apple, and Patti is no different. Struggling to get by as a part-time party caterer, Patti spends the rest of her waking hours dreaming up new rap verses alongside her best friend and local pharmacist Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), listening to her favorite O-Z LP, and failing to impress anyone in the local rap scene. In its best moments, writer and director Geremy Jasper delivers a feature length debut that teems with the kind of optimism and ambition that feels more than perfectly suited to the likes of a character like Patti. In its lesser moments, Patti Cake$ stumbles over more than a few scenes and characters who blatantly serve to move the plot along an entirely predictable trajectory.

Early in the film, Patti takes a walk along the dilapidated streets of her economically impoverished Bayonne, NJ neighborhood. Thankfully, with her walkman in hand, O-Z playing on full blast through the headphones, and not a care in the world, she quickly ascends towards the emerald clouds of her favored fever dream, only to come hurtling back to earth when a car pulls up behind her and its driver breaks the spell of fantasy by spouting the noxious epithet “Dumbo.”It’s easy to see why Patti Cake$ was such a hit following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. After securing the attention of several prominent art house distributors – including Focus Features, Neon, The Orchard, and Annapurna Productions – Jasper’s mainstream debut found a home at Fox Searchlight Pictures. Joining the ranks of such indie blockbuster hits of yesteryear as Little Miss SunshineJuno, and the forthcoming awards season contender Battle of the Sexes, Patti Cake$ is on course to becoming another feel-good indie gem years after its initial theatrical run.

Jasper has really done something special in writing and directing Patti Cake$. Macdonald is a revelation as the young white MC from Bayonne, NJ, and with any luck Jasper’s film will soon join the ranks of such iconic New Jersey films as ClerksThe Station Agent, and Garden State. New York City looms large on the minds of many of the film’s characters, but the city’s shadow falls across the industrial sprawl of North Jersey in a way that serves to define the film’s specific regional tone. Setting out to track the cultural influence of hip hop, Patti Cake$ spits more than a few noteworthy verses. And Macdonald – who before the start of filming was entirely unfamiliar with how to rap – shines as the newly christened MC Patti Cake$ by film’s end, and in the film’s upbeat celebration of her talents it’s easy to become a fan of the fictional recording artist.

This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

 

The Devil’s Candy: An Intersection of Genius, Madness & The Devil

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on September 2, 2017 at 10:37 am
The Devil's Candy

IFC Midnight

The Devil’s Candy (2017)
Directed by Sean Byrne
VOD Rating: Really Liked It

The Devil’s Candy sees Australian provocateur Sean Byrne fully coming into his own as a storyteller whose primary interests continue to aim towards the macabre. Evil forces pervade throughout Byrne’s latest film in ways that often veer towards the kind of morbidity made popular by Rob Zombie. The devil plays a central role in The Devil’s Candy, a satanic influence that can be keenly felt in the sheer terror that pervades throughout. But unlike House of 1000 Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects, Byrne spins a tale of demonic influences that never seeks to embrace its movie monster outright. Far from it, The Devil’s Candy builds its own scares in such a way that the viewer’s fascination with the evil contained therein proves self-reflective.

Crossing the intersection of genius and madness, Byrne seeks to find inspiration in the darkest parts of the human psyche, where a loss of control sometimes amounts to an artistic breakthrough. Unfortunately for central protagonist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), whose slavish devotion to an unseen force of primordial malevolence threatens to consume him and his family whole, that kind of fiendish obsession can prove all too alluring. Byrne directs scenes of terror with a visual aestheticism unmatched by most of his contemporaries, and in The Devil’s Candy, viewers are offered what is perhaps the most significant 21st century genre film since Zombie burst onto the scene in 2003. Like Zombie, Byrne‘s latest is unsettling on a subconscious level, wherein narrative logic gives way to viscerally shocking imagery and implied ideas that become fleshed out via the co-operation between the director and his audience.

In order to perfect their very own iconic family portrait reminiscent of Grant Wood’s early 20th century American masterwork, Jesse (Embry) and Astrid Hellman (Shiri Appleby) decide to purchase a house in rural Texas. Enamored with their new abode’s rustic integrity and backwoods isolation, Jesse immediately begins to set up his art studio in a repurposed barn. The only thing that stands in his way is the history of the estate’s previous tenants – who were viciously slaughtered by their troubled son (Pruitt Taylor Vince) acting at the behest of the Devil himself. Soon enough, the voice of the Devil begins to torment Jesse, whose commissioned piece of domestic tranquility is quickly turned into a pictorial representation of demonic prophecy concerning the mortal soul of his young daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco). Meanwhile, the troubled Ray Similie (Vince) makes his presence known and begins to commit the acts of murder that Jesse’s painting foretold.

Instead of devolving into the same kind of fatalism that so often plagues Zombie at his most heightened states of cinematic vitality, Byrne walks up to the same edge of moral depravity only to shock his audience into fully realizing the gross reality of his film’s transgressions. Unlike Zombie, Byrne manages to find a way out of the hellish furnace that he literally and figuratively places his characters into. Spiritually reminiscent of the late Tobe Hooper‘s cult-classic masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw MassacreThe Devil’s Candy reexamines the same regional well of inspiration only to find another movie monster possessed of a grotesque appetite for the human flesh, spirit, and soul. Following his debut film The Loved Ones from 2009, it will be exciting to see where Byrne will turn his attention next. Offering much more than the sum of its parts, The Devil’s Candy tells an American horror story that is ethereally tinged with a subtlety that often lends to frightening visions of presumed domesticity.

The Devil’s Candy is currently available on Netflix, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

A Ghost Story: An Egocentric Purgatory

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on August 12, 2017 at 11:22 am
A Ghost Story

A24

A Ghost Story
Directed by David Lowery
2 out of 4 stars

You get to know the two central protagonists in A Ghost Story over the course of an evening, except they’re not the only ones that the viewer is introduced to. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara lounge in one another’s arms only to be startled in the middle of the night by a spectral disturbance. They get out of bed, sheets draped around their unclothed bodies, and fail to determine what caused an errant noise to ring out. In the scene, Affleck lingers for a particularly long time beside a piano, before half-consciously returning to his slumber. The next morning, Affleck is killed in a car crash, and becomes the ghost he unknowingly met in the dark the night before.

Serving as the latest feature length film from writer and director David Lowery, A Ghost Story plays a melancholy song in several movements. Like any contemporary post-rock outfit, Lowery seeks to explore the relationship between time and space on a cosmic scale. Themes oscillate and obfuscate simple plot points, and hum drum exchanges and occurrences become laced with intimated meaning and profundity. Thanks to the film’s sparse technical prowess and quaintly applied letterboxed aspect ratio, A Ghost Story is predesigned to provoke deep thoughts from its viewers. Except a lot of this careful attention to detail leads to a lot of tone deaf choices that stubbornly refuse to allow Lowery’s balladry to reach a fitting crescendo.

Ostensibly seeking to explore what happens after we die, A Ghost Story treads familiar territory while implementing admittedly original visuals. Following Affleck around with a bed sheet draped over his body – with two eye holes cut out in front of his face like a creepy appropriation of a children’s Halloween costume – is emotionally disarming. What’s even more upsetting is when Affleck continues to linger in his martial home, even long after Mara has moved on with another man. There are brief moments that jarringly would have fit better in the latest Poltergeist rip-off, but by and large the simplistic gimmick that serves to set the tone works in A Ghost Story to Lowery’s credit. When it doesn’t, the effect can run the gamut from embarrassing to inappropriately hilarious.

 Towards the end of the second act – before Affleck returns home via a rift in space and time to meet himself on the eve of his mortal demise – Lowery greets the viewer with the most straightforward explanation of the film’s rhetorical intentions. Expounding upon the necessity of art to ensure that some small piece of us remains long after we die, the viewer is allowed audience to a longwinded oratory delivered by American singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Fueled by booze and the bacchanalian revelry of a great party winding down into the early hours of the morning, Billy’s diatribe falls on deaf ears. Ringing with the same bravado and self-conscious pretension that pervades throughout the rest of Lowery’s script, A Ghost Story can’t quite save itself from itself. It’s mildly heartening to hear the familiar strains of the song written by Affleck for Mara hummed by a young girl hundreds of years in the past – thus echoing Billy’s lament – though it would be undoubtedly more interesting if it felt like the song were being heard outside of the egocentric purgatory that Lowery has created for himself.

Youth in Oregon: The Problem of Pain

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on June 17, 2017 at 11:42 am
Youth in Oregon

Orion Pictures

Youth in Oregon (2017)
Directed by Joel David Moore
VOD Rating: Liked It

The task of articulating and presenting the case for the right to die is tricky to say the least. The legal quandaries that inevitably arise when the issue is raised in public or private has continued to be a spot of political and moral contention, resulting in a stalemate for those who wish to turn in a life of prolonged anguish for the final relief of death. Enter Youth in Oregon – the latest directorial outing from actor-turned-director Joel David Moore – as a cinematic apology for those on both sides of the continuing argument. Starring Frank Langella as the terminally ill octogenarian Raymond Engersol determined to make his way back to his estate in Oregon in order to secure legal euthanasia, Youth in Oregon is an inherently taut drama. Billy Crudup and Christina Applegate co-star as Raymond’s dissapproving son-in-law and daughter respectively, and through their emotional admonishment of assisted suicide the viewer is able to hear both sides of the issue.

By and large, Youth in Oregon goes a significant way towards advocating euthanasia to the mainstream. In a film that opens on the Engersol family in a state of mild disrepair, with Raymond having long since moved into his daughter’s family household following his initial diagnosis, Langella leads a life of emasculated indignity. With death knocking at his door, and current treatment methods quickly becoming more and more ineffective against his illness, Raymond ceremoniously announces to his immediate nuclear unit that he has decided to make the trip back to Oregon to secure the right to die. The road trip that shortly ensues is filled with humor, warmth, and passion, and the final destination – even as its details have been explicitly described and ascertained throughout – still manages to shock and awe in its implied ethereal significance. Avoiding any easy spiritual bypass towards alleviating the problem of pain, Youth in Oregon struggles with the meaning of life by way of the importance of the people that make up the only world that is quantifiably self-evident to the senses.

For some, Raymond’s disillusionment with continuing to live could be seen as a form of nihilism. For others, his bravery in the face of suffering may ring with the clarity of logic. It’s impossible to summon the pain of another human being as our own, and in Youth in Oregon that task is approached with sincerity and deference to the ones facing that problem head on. At the end of the third act, Youth in Oregon allows the viewer into an incredibly intimate sequence that sees Raymond visiting a dying friend on his death bed who has secured the right to assisted suicide. Moore thusly takes the viewer to death’s door, opens the lock, and lets the viewer decide how much further they themselves are willing to go, thus barring any arbitrary conclusion from being reached – albeit with the hinted certitude that Raymond will cross said threshold of his own volition.

Moore offers his viewers a lot of dense material to chew over in Youth in Oregon, and for the most part his latest film acts as a marvelous talking point for a complicated issue of civil rights. As an argument for the right to die, Youth in Oregon manages to present the issue as it might actually be faced in real life, resulting in a dramatic representation of how one might approach the issue as an active participant. It’s easy to make pronouncements regarding the legal and moral implications of taking one’s own life regardless of the personal circumstances, which is why a movie like Youth in Oregon is so refreshing in its ability to force the viewer to contend with the ethical quandary with respectful restraint. Moore might not state how he explicitly feels about euthanasia and the people who pursue the legal right to it, but Langella goes a long way in his performance towards making the realities of such a decision more immediately approachable. The idea of ending one’s own life is a harsh reality to contend with, but having a cinematic expression like Youth in Oregon with which to approach its thorny edges is a small blessing in a life filled with pockets of such intense human pain.

Youth in Oregon is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week. This review is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Film Inquiry.

It Comes at Night: A Midnight Odyssey

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on June 10, 2017 at 9:54 am
It Comes at Night

A24

It Comes at Night
Directed by Trey Edward Shults
3 ½ out of 4 stars

It Comes at Night – the sophomore outing from American writer-director Trey Edward Shults – is a thoroughly satisfying art house genre feature. Shults’ latest motion picture production ensconces itself in the shroud of horror, only to pull the rug out from under the feet of an unsuspecting audience to reveal a more psychologically tuned drama. Ostensibly about a viral outbreak that has killed an unknown percentage of the human population, It Comes at Night builds upon the tension of its title while offering little in the way of explicit terror. Holed up in a house in the middle of the woods is a family of three, who soon find themselves playing reluctant hosts to another close-knit nuclear unit. What follows from this premise is a whole host of paranoid apparitions that operate in a surreal realm of tangible distrust and unease.

In the opening shot, Shults greets his audience with the face of a dying man named Bud – played by David Pendleton – who is soon revealed to be the grandfather to Carmen Ejogo’s Sarah, herself the wife and mother of Joel Edgerton’s Paul and Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Travis. Pallid and covered in dark spots, it’s quickly made apparent that Bud has become infected with a virulent virus of an untold contagion, and is swiftly taken out to the woods to be shot in the head before burial. Hinting towards the very best works of the zombie sub-genre, It Comes at Night borrows from some of the core narrative tropes of horror master classes like Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later, yet manages to surpass them in its unwillingness to exploit the walking dead. Instead of falling back on a host of shambling deadites to illicit an immediate sense of danger, Shults feels far more at home with the imagined horrors of the living. Forced to undergo varying states of cabin fever brought about by instinctual self-preservation turned hermitic isolation, It Comes at Night exhibits the hollowness of people living in the wake of the apocalypse.

Borrowing heavily from the themes and imagery of 16th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch – whose canvases of grotesque and decripit landscapes feature prominently during the film’s first act – It Comes at Night is a dark and twisted fantasy. Scrabbling for a hold in a world that doesn’t really seem to exist beyond an established set of routines and the bonds of one’s immediate family, belief in the good of mankind becomes an antiquated philosophy. When Christopher Abbot’s Will shows up at their door one night, Paul, Sarah, and Travis are reluctant to take in an unwanted visitor. And later, when Will and Paul go out to retrieve Will’s wife and son, Kim and Andrew – played in the film by Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner, respectively – the two fathers are attacked by another roving pair that bear an unsettling resemblance to themselves. Ostensibly having killed two people whose situation may not have been all that different from their own, Shults makes it apparent that Paul and Will live a disassociated existence.

In the film’s climactic third act, It Comes at Night retains a parabolic ambiguity. Refusing to offer any easy answers – or explain Travis’ strange nightmares and midnight odysseys – Shults spins an unforgettable yarn. The movie leaves viewers with an oddly compelling series of half-remembered shots and stolen glances that serve to give shape to its discomfiting form. Edgerton turns in another stirring performance that serves to ground the film in a world where assumptions inform a reality ruled by solipsism and mania. Fact and fiction are blurred in It Comes at Night in a way that serves to mirror the disorientation of its characters – and the viewer by proxy.

The Big Ask: Lost in the Desert

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on May 6, 2017 at 11:44 am
The Big Ask

Tribeca Film

The Big Ask (2013)
Directed by Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman
VOD Rating: Liked It

Centering on the relationship between three friends and their girlfriends, The Big Ask is a sensitive drama about grief and the means by which we cope with it. Starring David Krumholtz as Andrew – a reserved young man struggling to get over the tragic death of his mother – alongside Jason Ritter and Zachary Knighton as his closest confidants Owen and Dave respectively, the film’s desert landscape soon becomes riddled with the unasked questions and underlying anxieties that define the three best friends. After Andrew makes an indecent proposal of his two friends – namely the desire to sleep with their girlfriends Emily and Zoe, as played by Gillian Jacobs and Ahna O’Reilly – the film takes a turn into unfamiliar territory. To make matters worse, Owen quickly makes it apparent that he has eyes for Andrew’s girlfriend Hannah – as played by Melanie Lynskey. The way out of The Big Ask is thusly paved with intense emotional introspection that results in a psychological reconditioning of all six of the main characters’ basic understandings of themselves and each other, a task that the film is more than capable of tackling.

Co-directed by first-time writer-director duo Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman, The Big Ask takes a familiar premise and turns it on its side in the service of an emotionally fueled romantic drama. As Andrew, Krumholtz plays the role of the improbable suitor sans swagger, exuding excessive amounts of discomfort with himself and those around him. In response, the rest of the cast reacts to Andrew’s presumed mental breakdown contrastingly according to temparment and personal history. In short order, Lynskey as Hannah rages against the prison of Andrew’s fragility, Ritter as Owen makes passes at Hannah, Knighton as Dave and O’Reilly as Zoe begin to understand their respective intentions towards monogamy together, and Jacobs as Emily finds herself drawn to Andrew’s selfless transparency. None of the characters are ever right or wrong, but by following each one’s path individually they all arrive at the same devastating destination.

Andrew may be the instigator of all the drama in The Big Ask, but as the film progresses it becomes quickly apparent that each character has their own part to play in the dissatisfaction of their own lives. Krumholtz may be the most wayward among them, but in Ritter and Knighton there are commensurate traces of listlessness and indecision. Andrew may be the one trying to sleep with his best friends’ girlfriends, but Owen and Dave are equally responsible for pushing themselves further from loving arms. Without explicitly formulating any kind of profound question or a making grand statement, The Big Ask provokes the kind of deep thinking on the part of the viewer that can be most closely associated with a stream-of-consciousness narrative. There are no sign posts or designated in paths out of the desert in The Big Ask, reminding the viewer that not all those who wander are lost.

Watching Krumholtz stumble through grief and personal torment throughout The Big Ask feels almost like trespassing on someone else’s most deeply held emotional secrets. Akin to the kinds of feelings stirred by a solitary walk, The Big Ask is a thoroughly subjective viewing experience. It’s hard to imagine each and every viewer coming away with the same rhetorical response to its dramatic intent, as it is doubly hard to imagine each and every viewer feeling the same way about its characters. Some may find themselves relating wholeheartedly to Andrew’s uncomfortable plight, while others may run towards the conventional perspectives offered by his companions. Either way, The Big Ask is an exceptionally original drama that shouldn’t be missed among the shuffle of other higher profile options vying for your attention.

The Big Ask is currently available on Amazon Prime, and is My Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week.

Logan: A Bittersweet Ode

In Movie Reviews: 2017 on March 18, 2017 at 11:07 am
Logan

20th Century Fox

Logan
Directed by James Mangold
3 out of 4 stars

Hugh Jackman is among the most notable screen actors of the past twenty years, and a lot of that appeal has to do with his starring role in the X-Men feature franchise. After teaming up with Bryan Singer at the dawn of the 21st century in the making of the first installment in the series, Jackman has become iconoclastically equated with the bulking, bruising, side burn sporting superhero, Wolverine. Over the course of eight theatrical releases, the infamous Canadian anti-hero has leaped from the comic book panels that gave him birth only to find a whole new life as the marketing centerpiece of a wildly lucrative action blockbuster property. Aided by supporting performances from Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, Jackman has taken what his character derisively calls, “Ice cream for bedwetters,” and turned it into a bastion of hope and integrity for millions of superhero fans and devoted moviegoers. And with Logan – which is primed to feature the final onscreen performance from Jackman as the titular protagonist – that legacy sees itself eulogizing its own cultural significance.

Focusing on an aging James “Logan” Howlett eking out a meager existence in hermitic isolation while caring for a severely disabled Professor Charles Xavier, director James Mangold makes good on a lot of the promise previously entertained in his The Wolverine from 2013. Granted, a lot of the onscreen action, mayhem, and R-rated carnage depicted in Logan is beholden to a lot of the same frenetic incoherence that has plagued big budget superhero movies in general. Thankfully, the rest of the movie is rooted in a whole set of understated lead performances from Jackman, Stewart, and newcomer Stephen Merchant – in addition to the scene stealing supporting turn from child actor Dafne Keen as the young mutant-on-the-run, Laura. Living in a world where mutants have largely become an extinct sub-species whose vitality has been scrubbed out by an anti-mutant, genocidal temperament beholden to the world at large, Wolverine is forced to grapple with the idea that maybe mutants were, “God’s mistake,” and not the next stage in human evolution. This kind of grandiose melancholy persists throughout Jackman’s final big screen turn as Wolverine, and turns Logan into the bittersweet ode to the character’s undying popularity that fans are sure to adore.

Yet a lot of the fan service to the franchise begins to ring a little hollow after the first two acts of the film are over. Once Stewart is killed – in an unceremonious and callously brutal manner, at that – Jackman and Keen are left to their own devices to rebuild their world out of the very same wild flights of fantasy that have propelled the X-Men movies thus far. Except in Logan the comic books upon which the prior movies in the series have been based are revealed to be the very same kinds of romantic fictions that moviegoers have always known them to be. Thematically dissonant and irreverent towards any sense of continuity with what has come before in movies past starring Jackman as Wolverine, Logan uncomfortably seeks to establish new territory for itself at the very fringes of the likes of last summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse. If you want to go along for the ride, you’ll undoubtedly have a good time, but it’s hard to come away from Logan without admitting to yourself that perhaps the underlying drama might have been better served by a PG-13 rating.

Jackman is a Hollywood icon, and his tenure as Wolverine in the X-Men feature franchise will likely continue to influence subsequent films in the series. As a tentative final chapter to the story of Weapon X on the big screen, Logan manages to wed sentimentalism to an action blockbuster that largely succeeds as far as pleasing its immediate audience is concerned. There have been better movie in the series, and likely more will follow – good and bad – but Logan will undoubtedly remain a high water mark for subsequent productions to look up to for some time to come. But for all of its bluster and mature themes shuffling towards annihilation and death, Logan is another predictable chapter in the larger superhero phenomenon that shows no signs of stopping or taking itself less seriously. That approach works well enough for Jackman in Logan, but it will be disappointing when more filmmakers inevitably begin to further grossly misappropriate the same tone in even more movies starring super-powered men and women in tights.